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In My Daughter's Eyes

Chapter Text

Claire’s nerves were positively shot. The past ten or so hours had been hell for her poor daughter, and, subsequently, for her as well. The first incident had arisen from the fact that four-year-old Faith had never been in such a crowded setting before. Immediately upon stepping through the doors of the airport and seeing the bustling hoards of people, she had begun yanking on her mother’s hand, digging her stubborn heels into the tile, and screaming her head off. Claire had come prepared; she had her noise-canceling headphones for the flight, but she hadn’t anticipated needing them for the airport itself. In actuality, it wasn’t really that loud, and so this tantrum had her absolutely dreading the upcoming flight.

Claire was used to the stares, the disapproval, the tuts of sympathy. She’d even heard her fair share of blatant, verbal criticism of her parenting. So, she let that roll off her back. What she wasn’t used to was Airport Police coming up to her and questioning what her intentions were with her own child. She’d had to stammer to them while her face and neck flushed red, tears of embarrassment stinging her eyes.

“Yes, I am her mother—You don’t understand; she has autism. She’s never been somewhere so crowded before. She’s just overwhelmed.”

Have you never bloody seen a child throw a tantrum before?

Well, perhaps they had, but they certainly hadn’t been privy to a Faith tantrum.

Panic began clenching her gut, remembering the time she’d been asked to leave a grocery store because Faith had wet herself, then proceeded to roll around on the floor, inconsolable. That had been the worst one to date.

This one was quickly rivaling it, however.

They asked her to provide proof that Faith was her child; proof that she was not kidnapping her .

“I can’t let go of her hand—please, she’ll run outside and right into traffic.”

“I’ll hold onto her, ma’am.”

No —”

It was too late. The man put a hand on Faith’s shoulder, and all hell broke loose. Claire had to tighten her grip on her hand to the point of her knuckles whitening. If Faith was screaming before, now she was howling . The Airport Police were in a frenzy; they had no idea what to do.

“Faith! Darling, please, it’s alright.”

Claire let their suitcases go, dropped her purse and fell to her knees to wrap her arms around Faith’s middle from behind. It wasn’t long before a little fist collided with her lip. At some point in the proceedings, Claire had managed to say: “Look for our passports your fucking self if you really must have proof that she’s mine.”

They did.

“Faith! Faith Julia Randall, if you don’t stop this right now, there will be no dessert tonight.”

Another loud wail.

“Do you hear me? I’m going to count to ten, Faith. By ten, if you are not quiet, no dessert .”

Another cry.

“One. Two.”

Claire tasted blood in her mouth. Seemed that her daughter had given her another fat lip.

“Three. Four.”

By some bloody miracle, her thrashing was finally starting to calm.

“Five. Six.”

The screaming stopped.

“Seven. Eight.”

Faith’s full bodyweight collapsed into Claire, and Claire let out a sigh of relief. “Okay. There you go. Good girl…good girl.”

She rocked her gently, kissed her head. “Good girl, Faith. It’s alright now.”

The Airport Police were still standing there, stunned into silence.

“Uh…ma’am…your lip is bleeding.”

“I’m aware, thank you,” Claire snapped before returning her attention to Faith. “Shh…it’s alright…”

“I’m, uh…sorry for making it worse, ma’am,” the other officer said softly. “Would, uh…this help?”

He held something down to her, pointedly reaching for Claire and not Faith. Claire looked up to see him holding out a set of little plastic wings, clearly some “junior assistant pilot” badge they occasionally gave out to children.

“It might. Thank you.”

“I’m Officer Hansen, ma’am. Is there anything else we can do for you?”

“Just…just watch my bags until I’ve gotten her calm. Thank you.”

He nodded.

“Hey…Faithie…” Claire crooned, stroking her tear soaked cheek. “Look what Mummy has.” She held the little wings in her palm in front of Faith’s eyes. “Do you want to be a pilot, Faith? What about that?”

Hiccuping and coughing through her tears, she reached out for the wings and held them in her hands, examining them closely.

“Do you like it?”

Faith nodded ever-so-slightly.

“Shall we put it on?” She gently turned Faith around and took the pin in her hand, fastening it to a belt loop. Faith did not wear pins or wristbands in a conventional manner. The feeling of something poking her skin through her shirt or something rubbing her wrist caused her sensory overload, so the belt loop is where such things ended up.

“Good girl.”

Claire took her hand and made to stand up, but Faith uttered an indignant noise that froze her in her spot. She sighed in surrender.

“I’m afraid she’s going to make me carry her, or else we’ll all be privy to another tantrum…” Claire said, scooping her up and settling her on her hip. “Could you…would it be terribly inconvenient if you were to help with our luggage?”

“We’re police, ma’am, not busboys — ”

“I’d be happy to help, ma’am.” Officer Hansen cut the other officer off. 

“Thank you, thank you so much.” Claire practically burst into tears, overwhelmed with gratefulness.

She’d underestimated how difficult it would be to travel with a child as special as Faith alone.

Claire shook her head. She didn’t want to think about Frank right now.

Keeping Faith calm by making criss-cross patterns on her back with her fingertips and making a rushing “shh” noise in her ear for white noise, Claire and the officer made their way to the check-in counter. He handled her purse,credit card, and ID as well, and Claire could have gotten on her knees and kissed his feet. She could tell he was genuinely sorry for what had happened as a result of his and his partner’s ignorance, and he was determined to see that they got on their flight in one piece.

He also got them through pre-check, using his privileges to escort them through the faster line. Once they were through, he handed her back her purse and Faith’s carry-on Frozen backpack.

“I’ve put the boarding passes at the top so you can get to them easier. In case you never get to put her down.” He smiled apologetically. “I really am sorry — ”

“Please, it’s alright,” Claire said. “I really, really appreciate all you’ve done for us. You have no idea how hard it is to do this…”

“Alone,” he finished for her.

“Yeah.” Claire nodded.

“If there’s anything else you need, you can ask anybody with a walkie-talkie to page Officer Hansen. Alright?”

She smiled warmly. “Thank you. Truly.”

He nodded curtly and then went off.

The second incident had arisen when they’d come across a kiosk selling mini cereal boxes, and Faith’s eye had been caught by a box of Fruit-Loops that had Elsa on it. Claire had been loath to buy more cereal, being that she already had plain cheerios in Faith’s carry-on that had been much cheaper than the robbery for which the Fruit Loops were selling. She tried to resist, but fearing prompting another tantrum, she yielded. She bought the box and stealthily managed to switch the bag of Fruit Loops inside the box with the bag of Cheerios, knowing full well that the sugar content of the Fruit Loops would make the upcoming flight unbearable. 

So there they sat, waiting at the terminal, Faith kicking her legs and bouncing while clutching her tablet, watching Frozen with her noise-cancelling headphones on with Claire occasionally popping a Cheerio into her open mouth.

The third incident had arisen when it was time to board and Claire tried to put Faith’s pink sequined sleep-mask over her eyes to prevent her from seeing how close-quarters the aircraft was. She’d immediately moaned in protest, unwilling to tear her eyes away from the movie. Claire knew she was taking a leap of faith (and she laughed to herself  at the pun), but with bated breath she allowed Faith to simply walk onto the boarding bridge with her nose stuck in her tablet.

Before long, she was seated and buckled, tablet in her lap, her eyes never having left the screen.

It bloody worked.

Claire could have cried with relief.

Claire had to plead with the stewardess to convince her that Faith’s tablet was not a “large electronic device,” and the stewardess had conceded; as long as it stayed in her lap and the tray remained in the upright position, Faith could keep watching her movie.

The fourth incident, of course, occurred when the plane started to take off. Even with noise-cancelling headphones, the rushing mechanical noise and the feeling of the vibration everywhere was too much for her. She clamped her hands over her headphones, and she immediately began squirming, trying to unbuckle her seatbelt. Then, of course, the sensation of the take-off itself did not help at all. Claire had given herself a pep-talk every morning leading up to this flight for weeks: “It’s not your fault. The people judging you have no idea what you deal with every day. You can’t help her sensory overload. Ignore them.”

But she still couldn’t help the rush of embarrassed heat on her neck as the familiar side-eyes and conspicuous whispers began.

After literally clamping her hands down on Faith’s shoulders to keep her seated for about an hour, Faith finally became engrossed in the movie again. Claire had also prepared in that she knew getting Faith to use the bathroom on the aircraft would be a disaster. Since being potty-trained was still relatively new--even though she was four, potty-training an autistic child was a whole different animal--Claire had put a fresh pull-up on her right before they boarded to prevent as many trips as possible.

Finally, ten or so hours since the initial meltdown, Claire was standing at baggage claim, holding her sleeping daughter. She’d fallen asleep with about two hours left in the flight and slept straight through the descent and the landing, thank God. Claire had never been particularly religious, but she’d had the urge to cross herself upon realizing she’d be avoiding a fifth incident.

When the blaring alarm sounded, signaling that the baggage claim carousel was beginning, Faith jolted awake in her arms.

Fuck .

She began wailing again, clamping her hands over the headphones.

Do those bloody things cancel any noise?

Admittedly, it could have been worse. It seemed that she was just alarmed to be woken so suddenly, because, after about twenty seconds, she was calm again. Claire had to put her down to collect their baggage, and she struggled greatly to get the suitcase off the moving carousel with one hand. Letting go of Faith’s hand was simply not an option.

She was eternally grateful, then, to the stranger who helped her with both bags.

Bloody ironic that you’ve met two strange men today that have done more for you and your daughter than her own father.

Pushing that dark thought aside once more, Claire made her way to the taxi pick up area and strapped Faith into the rental car seat. Their 11:20 departure from Heathrow International had landed them at MacArthur Airport at 2:07 on the dot. After a seven hour and forty-five minute flight, there was only a twenty-two minute taxi drive and then they’d finally be in their new home: an apartment complex only a few miles away from Stony Brook University Hospital, where Claire would be doing her residency.

She’d never particularly imagined herself living in (or on , as they say here) Long Island of all places. After her unconventional and rather rugged upbringing, thinking of herself living in suburbia, only about an hour from those Hamptons she’d heard so much about, was enough to make her chuckle to herself. Gillian had assured her that the entire island wasn’t like the stereotype she’d imagined, which had slightly put her mind at ease. That wasn’t what had drawn her there, of course.

She’d been drawn to the area by a great many things. She wanted to be away from the cluttered, cramped feeling of Europe; away from Frank, quite honestly, as far as possible. She didn’t want to be in a city; she knew the noise would be far too much for Faith. The quiet suburbs of Long Island seemed to fit, and she’d heard excellent things about Stony Brook. Lastly, and most importantly were the amazing things she’d heard about equine therapy for special needs children. There were such places in England, but none had as many glowing reviews as the one that was only an eighteen minute drive from their new home: Harmony Stables.

Faith had always had an affinity for animals, and Claire felt guilty that she couldn’t commit to taking care of a dog so that she could have a service dog. It wasn’t the finances, per se, just the thought of having two lives to look after on her own was an overwhelming thought. Perhaps someday when they were settled. Faith’s psychiatrist in Oxfordshire had suggested some sort of animal therapy, and she spoke of the wonders equine therapy had done for a previous patient. At this point, Claire would try anything. Anything to calm the horrible anxiety that she knew plagued her daughter every second of any given day. The Risperdal was not doing much on its own. As much as the meltdowns fried Claire’s nerves and caused her much embarrassment, she was certain they fried Faith’s nerves about ten times as much. If learning to ride and forming a connection with a horse could take away even a fraction of that crippling anxiety, Claire would pay any amount of money to make that happen.

She’d also, of course, done research regarding her education. She was aware of the specific needs of her non-verbal autistic daughter; knew she needed to learn to communicate, either find someone to coax words out of her or learn sign language, knew she needed to learn how to read and how to behave in a public setting. She’d already made arrangements for a private tutor to come to the house like she’d done in Oxfordshire. She’d been in contact with a Mrs. Lickett, a lovely woman. Together, they would decide if Faith would be ready for a special needs kindergarten class come next fall, or if they should wait another year. Mrs. Lickett had assured her that it was common for children like Faith to continue with private instruction and wait to start real school until six or seven.

Claire’s reverie was broken when she felt the taxi stop and she looked up with wide eyes at the building before her. The buildings in the complex were only two stories high, the grass was neatly trimmed, and the doors were all stark white with shimmering gold numbers.

Well, it’s not a cul-de-sac housing development, but it sure still feels like suburbia.

Number eleven was theirs, on the second floor. The cab driver helped with the luggage as Claire tugged Faith up the stairs, eyes still glued to her tablet, which was now playing Sesame Street. Claire’s fingers shook as she pushed the key into the lock, and she exhaled sharply when she took in the sight of the living room. She’d had most of the things she didn’t want to replace sent over about a week and a half ago, along with ordering new essentials like furniture and mattresses. But the movers and delivery men hadn’t bothered to keep anything separated by room like she’d requested, except for the furniture itself. Sighing deeply, she sat Faith on the couch beside a stack of boxes and paid the taxi driver, thanking him profusely.

God…where do I even begin?

Claire supposed she should start with finding and unpacking bedroom items, preferring to have both of their beds made before they crashed tonight. Kitchen stuff could wait; they’d most definitely be getting takeout tonight…and probably every night for the foreseeable future.

She started to rifle through boxes and then she smiled and turned to Faith, intending to let her know how very exciting it was to be in their new home, but she bit her tongue. It would perhaps be better to leave her, for now, completely engrossed in the tablet. If Claire interrupted her now, who knows when she’d be able to get anything done? Sadness tugged at her heart briefly as she watched her daughter, a vague, absent smile on her face. She wondered if she had any idea at all what was going on, if she’d be anxious in a new environment, if it wouldn’t phase her at all, if she was excited. She had no way of communicating her thoughts and emotions, even to her own mother, and it was times like this where that thought pained Claire the most. 

She wanted nothing more than to blast her Disney playlist and christen the new living room with their dancing, to revel in this new beginning with her daughter. But for the sake of productivity, that would have to wait.

With a heavy sigh, Claire returned to her boxes, intent on finding bedsheets and blankets. She wanted to turn on music, knowing that she worked better that way, but she didn’t want anything to distract Faith from her, well, distraction. She settled on humming “Let it Go,” of all things, to herself while she worked to find what they’d need to carry out the rest of the day with some semblance of normalcy.

Chapter Text

By the time Claire found all the bedding and made the beds, she was practically faint with hunger. The fact that they’d left England at eleven in the morning and arrived here at two in the afternoon had made her forget that it had, in reality, been almost five hours since they’d been served food on the plane; and that had been no real meal. Claire had also managed to unpack some of Faith’s toys and arrange them lovingly on her bed before she decided to look up somewhere to get food. She’d heard quite a fuss over the pizza on Long Island; it was apparently the only place in the entire world that had “real” pizza. She would like to be the judge of that, eventually. There were so many different Italian places it was making her head swim. She decided to let Faith decide what they would eat since Claire couldn’t seem to make up her mind.

Claire knelt on the floor in front of the couch, which was haphazardly placed in the middle of the room at a very inconvenient diagonal. Bloody movers. Faith was humming in contentment, rocking back and forth.

“Faith?” Claire tapped her knee, but she did not look up from the tablet. “Faith.” Claire gently removed the headphones, causing her to groan in protest. “Faith! Listen to Mummy before you get upset.” Faith grabbed the headphones again, but Claire firmly kept her hands on her wrists. “Are you hungry, baby? Do you want food?”

Faith’s tune immediately changed, relenting her grip on the headphones and nodding enthusiastically, humming increasing in pitch and volume.

Claire smiled, chuckling. “I thought so. Here.” She held up the screenshots of menu samplings that she’d collected. “Do you want pizza? Or…” She swiped to the next image. “Spaghetti? Or Chinese food? Or a hamburger?”

Claire allowed Faith to take her phone into her little hands, watching in amusement as Faith scrolled between the four images, eventually handing the phone back to her mother.

“Spaghetti?”

Her humming heightened again, her hands and fingers twitching and twisting with excitement; stimming , the doctors called it. To Claire, it was just Faith being Faith.

“Ask and ye shall receive, little girl.”

Claire sat back on her heels and searched for the restaurant she’d gotten the spaghetti screenshot from. Christ, there were about forty restaurants called “Uncle Joe’s” in a four mile radius. She eventually settled on the closest one that was on DoorDash and ordered spaghetti and meatballs for Faith, her standard when it came to Italian food, and decided on penne alla vodka for herself. Gillian had insisted the Italian food here was better than in England, so she was quite excited to see for herself.

When the order was placed, she looked up at Faith, expecting her to be engrossed in the tablet again, but she was instead staring at her mother quite intently. She slapped a little hand over Claire’s screen and gave a little grunt.

Claire smiled knowingly. “Spaghetti won’t be here for another thirty minutes, darling. You have to be patient.”

She grunted in defiance, slapping the screen again.

“Hey. Be gentle.” Claire grabbed Faith’s wrist and looked her firmly in the eye. “Do not hit.” Claire unconsciously ran her tongue over the cut on her lip she’d been gifted with this morning.

Claire suddenly had a perfect idea to pass the time; that dance party she’d thought about a few hours ago. Claire smiled to herself and clicked onto Spotify, hitting shuffle on the Disney playlist. Faith’s stubborn demeanor immediately changed when the opening notes of “Under the Sea” began to play. Her face melted into that absent half-smile that Claire had grown accustomed to, and she began swaying back and forth on the couch.

Claire giggled and took Faith’s hands, pushing them back and forth, side-to-side in time with the music. Her grin widened, and she began humming with excitement again. It wasn’t long before the tablet and the headphones were forgotten on the couch, and the two of them were jumping and dancing around the living room, haphazardly avoiding the piles of boxes. Claire couldn’t explain it: Faith’s Disney obsession. She became a different kid when she watched a Disney movie, or listened to the music. Her entire countenance changed. If Claire could throw away every responsibility and every pound she owned to take up permanent residence in Disney World, just so that her daughter would always be this happy and carefree, she would do it in a heartbeat.

In the middle of Claire’s intense performance of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” Faith giggling madly and jumping up and down to encourage her mother, the doorbell rang. Claire almost jumped out of her skin and then she laughed, pausing the music.

“Spaghetti is here, lovie!”

Faith clapped her hands and hummed again as Claire shuffled around boxes to the door. She gratefully accepted the hot bag of food, mouth watering at the smell of it. She hadn’t realized how damned hungry she’d been. She inwardly panicked for a moment, realizing she hadn't at all bothered to unpack any silverware, but was relieved to find there was plastic cutlery in the bag. She made a mental note to put them in the sink when they were done instead of throwing them out in case they needed them before she found the motivation to unpack the kitchen boxes.

“Alright, Faithie! First meal in our new home! How’s that?” She, of course, didn’t answer, just kept on with her humming and hand twitching while Claire unpacked their meals. “This is so exciting, darling. Mummy is so happy to be here with you.” She kissed Faith’s forehead as she tucked a napkin into her shirt.

Claire had often caught Frank rolling her eyes at her when she spoke to Faith like this.

“She can’t bloody understand you. Why do you bother?”

Claire’s face turned beet-red with rage. “Just because she can’t talk doesn’t mean she can’t understand.”

To Frank, their daughter was dumb, as well as mute. He could not comprehend that she was a little person, despite her quirks.

No. Not our daughter. Not his.

So, Claire talked to her, despite knowing she’d never talk back, despite not knowing if she ever fully understood what she was saying. Claire knew well enough that the sound of her voice was soothing to her daughter, and that was enough of a reason to talk. And as far as she could tell, she understood quite a bit. Not as much as Claire wished, but enough.

The steaming tins of pasta were opened and Faith dug right in, moaning in pain and dropping her fork into the tin.

“Be careful! It’s hot, darling. You have to blow, remember?” Claire took a forkful of penne and blew on it lightly before putting it in her mouth. “See?”

Faith took a new forkful and heaved an enormous breath before blowing with all her strength, sending a veritable spray of tomato sauce all over the table. Perhaps Claire should have admonished her, told her to be more gentle, but she could not think over how loud she’d burst out laughing. Quite pleased with herself, Faith stuffed the entire forkful of spaghetti into her mouth, humming and bouncing as she did. If Claire was seeing correctly, it looked like she was smirking .

Doesn’t understand, indeed!

Christ…how could anyone not see how special she was?

Eventually, Claire had to inform her daughter that she was, in fact, blowing too hard, and so the rest of the meal proceeded in a slightly less messy manner. When Faith had apparently had enough, she unceremoniously ripped her napkin off and slid out of the chair, disappearing from the kitchen.

“Faith! Come back, please.”

She, of course, did not.

Claire sighed, setting down her fork despite not being quite full yet. She got up to see what she was up to, but paused upon hearing the music start up again. Faith quickly scampered back into the kitchen, Donny Osmond’s voice getting more clear with every step. Claire laughed again.

“Ah, missing the music were we?”

Faith began swaying back and forth again.

“Would you mind if I finished eating, then?” Claire sat back down, and Faith continued bobbing. “Why don’t you dance for me while I eat, hm?”

She didn’t need to tell her twice.

Faith had the choreography from the film memorized, of course, and it was the same for every song thereafter. Claire paused her eating to give hearty applause and many a “Brava!” after each song. If Claire listened closely enough, she could hear Faith’s buzzing hum morph into something that almost resembled the melody of the song that was playing, and it made her heart soar. She’d read online dozens of stories of children with autism that were completely nonverbal, but then all of a sudden they would sing entire songs word for word flawlessly. She prayed the same would hold true for her little princess someday.

Perhaps music therapy would get that out of her.

Jesus H. Christ, one thing at a time, Beauchamp.

After dinner was ended and the leftovers were sufficiently tucked away in the fridge (and the plastic cutlery was put in the sink), Claire followed Faith into the living room and was overwhelmed by the pile of boxes. She exhaled through puffed cheeks, anxiety crawling its way into the pit of her stomach.

“Faith,” Claire said, suddenly having an idea. “Would you like to sleep with Mummy tonight?”

She hummed, bounced and clapped.

“Lovely.” Claire smiled. “Let’s go look at your room first, hm? Because sleeping with Mummy will not be a permanent arrangement.”

She took Faith’s hand and led her into the room, where Faith promptly flung herself onto the bed and scooped all of the stuffed animals into her little arms. Claire broke into an enormous grin.

“I’ll bet you missed them very much,” she said. “And they missed you, too.”

Her very favorite, a very worn out Sorcerer Mickey, had, of course, remained with them and gone in her carry on. But the others--the Minnie’s, the other Mickey’s, the teddy bears, the plush baby dolls--had been packed away and shipped here a few weeks ago.

“This is your room now, lovie. You’ll sleep here tomorrow, and every night after that. But tonight is a special night. Yes?”

Claire outstretched her hand, gesturing for them to head across the hall into her own room, and Faith responded by scooping every stuffed animal into her arms and waddling out past Claire. Claire chuckled breathily through her nose and followed her into her own bedroom. She breathed a sigh of relief. Yes, this room, sparse as it was for now, was at least empty of all boxes. Faith plopped her little friends onto the bed and scrambled up.

“Ah-ah, PJ’s first, little girl.” Claire scooped her off the bed. “We’ll not be spending our first night in this bed in dirty airport clothes.” Claire dug through one of the suitcases for a fresh pair of pajamas for herself and Faith. If Claire really wanted them to be clean, she would have insisted on a shower for both of them (ever since Frank had left, Claire had always taken Faith into the shower with her; she didn’t want to leave her alone for that long). But she was far too exhausted, even if it was only six o’clock on the Eastern Seaboard. She was in no mood to fight with Faith to get clean after the day they’d had.

When they were both properly accoutered for bed, Claire scooped her up again and deposited her in bed. She retrieved the tablet from the couch, trying her best to narrow her vision to avoid seeing the Box Everest in her living room. She wondered when the hell she’d feel like tackling all that…

For now, she settled next to Faith in bed, laying on about four stuffed animals in the process, much to her daughters dismay given the loud moan Faith uttered.

“Well, I’m sorry! They’re quite the bed hogs, darling.” Claire pulled the toys out from underneath her and pushed them closer to Faith. “Now, what shall we watch tonight?”

Their collection of DVDs was far grander than the few movies that they had on digital download on the tablet, but the thought of finding them, then the DVD player, and then sitting in that room with the rest of the boxes made Claire nauseous. So their pickings would be slim tonight. Not that Faith minded in the least.

Claire half expected her to put Frozen on for the third time today, but she instead settled on The Little Mermaid . Claire smiled warmly.

“This was my favorite when I was your age, baby. I remember seeing it in theaters. Ariel was my Elsa back then.”

She allowed Faith to hold the tablet, of course, and she snuggled into her, gathering her tiny body into her arms as the movie’s opening chords began. Despite how rowdy their dinner had been, Claire had a feeling that she would not at all be fighting sleep tonight. They’d been awake a hell of a lot longer than it seemed they were, and the meltdowns of the day were enough to wear even Faith out.

Not shockingly, she was out like a light before they even got to “Part of Your World,” which disappointed Claire just a bit; she’d been looking forward to hearing Faith hum along.

Gently and oh-so-carefully, Claire pried the tablet from her sleeping hands and shut it off, setting it on the nightstand to her left. She adjusted Faith’s little body so she was properly lying down before getting up to turn the light off. Claire smoothed her unruly curls before bending down to press a kiss to her temple as she settled under the covers beside her. Again, she laid atop of several stuffed animals. Chuckling to herself, she picked them up and gingerly put them on the nightstand with the tablet.

As Claire’s head hit the pillow, she began running down the mental list of things she had to do tomorrow. Breakfast, then call an Uber to get to the dealership — shit, what the hell were they going to have for breakfast? Leftover pasta?

Scratch that. Call the Uber right away, get to a diner or somewhere else for breakfast. Faith will be quite excited to have chocolate chip pancakes. That thought made Claire smile. Then get a second Uber to take them from the diner to the dealership. Put that new Instacart to use and order some groceries so that they didn’t have to go to the diner every morning for the rest of their lives. Claire had shopped online for a car to lease when they arrived, and if everything went smoothly at the dealership, she’d be driving home in it tomorrow.

She also made a note to stop somewhere for a new SIM card and to cancel her international phone plan and start up a local plan. The thought of having an American phone number seemed strange, but also comforting. Not only did it seem to be the last step in finalizing her new permanent residence in the States, but it was also a comfort to know that Frank would never be able to contact her again.

Shit. 

She didn’t plug in her phone.

Groaning in annoyance, Claire peeled herself from her daughter’s side and out of bed to rifle through her purse for her charger. When did I get so damned scatterbrained…?

Well, that was a dumb question.

The world had come crashing down on her the day Frank told her he was through. Everything seemed to spiral out of control in that moment, and every single thing she had done since then had been an attempt to regain that control. It worked, for the most part, but she still felt like she was losing brain cells by the second since he’d dropped the bomb on her.

Faith was having a meltdown. It wasn’t necessarily one of her worst ones, but it wasn’t a walk in the park, either. Needless to say, things could have been better. Nothing in particular had set her off as far as Claire could tell, and Claire was beside herself trying to get it out of her.

“What’s wrong, baby? I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong…are you hurt? Hungry?” She felt her head for a fever, but came up negative. “Faith, darling, what’s wrong?”

“For fuck’s sake, Claire! She isn’t going to answer!” Frank slammed a hand on the kitchen table.

Faith shrieked and clamped her hands over her ears, her eyes wide with terror.

“Frank! Don’t do that!” Claire’s voice hitched. “Shh…it’s alright baby, Mummy is here…” She cupped Faith’s face in her hands as her daughter carried on, hands still firmly pressed into her ears.

“You know she can’t handle loud noises, Frank.” Claire tried to keep her voice level and quiet, not wanting to upset her further.

“She can’t handle anything Claire! That’s precisely the issue!”

“Do not raise your voice.” Claire was losing patience. “You’re making it worse.”

“Everything makes it worse! And what is it ? What did it this time?”

“It is autism , Frank. You bloody well know that.”

“Christ, I know! I hear the word hundreds of times a day!”

“Oh, for God’s sake…” Claire’s face became hot with anger. “You have been nothing but difficult since her diagnosis, Frank. I feel like I’m doing this all alone! Why can’t you set aside your personal feelings for her? She’s your flesh and blood! How can you talk about her like this?”

Frank shook his head. “No flesh and blood of mine would turn out like that.”

Claire felt like she’d been kicked in the stomach. “What are you saying…?”

“I don’t…want this, Claire. I can’t do it anymore.”

“You can’t… You can’t do it? You haven’t done a bloody thing!” Her voice was near to shouting now, and Faith looked like her head was about to explode from the sheer force with which she was squeezing her ears.

“If you want to be burdened with someone like her for the rest of your life, be my guest. I’m through.”

“So that’s it then? You’re walking out on five years of marriage?” Claire stood up, leaving Faith in the kitchen and following him to the front door. “On your four-year-old daughter?”

He turned and gave her a grave, disgusting look as he opened the door. “That is not my daughter.”

Claire found her eyes welling up with tears again, as they had nearly every night since. And for perhaps the thousandth time she asked herself: How could she have been so wrong about somebody? How could she have married someone that would be so despicable towards his own child?

And for perhaps the millionth time, she silently vowed that she would do anything and everything for her daughter. God, she would walk through fire for her. She practically did. She vowed to be everything Faith needed, to fill the empty position of father, to devote every breath and every beat of her heart to raising her with love and patience. Every time she was harsh with her, and simultaneously every time she relented to her to avoid a meltdown, she felt like she was doing it all wrong. She could’ve been more patient, she could have reasoned with her instead of giving in…

But the truth was, every day was unpredictable, and no two situations were the same.

I’m doing the best I bloody can. And I always will, baby.

Luckily, her residence didn't start for another two weeks, so she and Faith could get settled, and Faith could get to know Mrs. Lickett before she had to watch her full time. The thought left knots in her stomach and a hard lump in her throat. Finding a sitter in Oxfordshire with the right qualifications had been a nightmare, and Claire had almost up and quit medical school because of it. Thank God she didn’t. Mrs. Lickett seemed more than qualified, however; it was just a matter of whether or not Faith would allow her to…well…exist in this apartment at all.

Claire absently rolled over to check the time on her phone, and she groaned audibly. 9:02. She’d been lying awake, mind racing, for nearly three hours. That was another thing she hadn’t managed to recover: a quiet enough mind to allow her to sleep. Sighing deeply, she gathered Faith’s sleeping little body into her arms, burying her face in her curls, breathing her in.

We’ve got another long day ahead of us, lovie. If you wouldn’t mind sharing some of that strength of yours, I’d quite appreciate it.

The truth is plain to see, Faith. You were sent to rescue me.

Chapter Text

One week later

Claire’s heart was racing, her hands tightly gripping the steering wheel. She had no idea why she was so nervous; Faith was in a perfectly good mood, breakfast had gone off without a hitch, and she’d kept herself occupied while Claire unpacked a few more boxes. Things had been going well with Mrs. Lickett so far; she came by two days ago to meet Faith, and she hadn’t objected at all. So Claire had every reason to believe that she would respond just as well to her assigned therapist: Jamie.

When the receptionist, Toni, had said the name, Claire’s heart immediately warmed for some reason. She pictured a bubbly, blonde haired young woman that would say all the right things to her little Faith. Claire had seen her fair share of over-ambitious, boisterous young women working with special needs children, and they were quite hit or miss. They were either absolutely perfect, or they were just…too much.

The glowing reviews of this place had Claire believing that this Jamie would be the former. For maybe the millionth time, Claire threw a glance back at Faith through the rear view mirror, quietly humming and bouncing, shaking around the little plush horse Claire had gotten her. In order to prepare her, Claire had bought the toy and a ten pack of postcards with horses on them to put on the wall next to her bed. Usually, Sorcerer Mickey was the one she insisted on taking everywhere, but today, she seemed to connect the dots between the horse-related purchases her mother had bestowed upon her and Claire’s constant jabbering about the horses they were seeing today.

So, all in all, Claire had no reason to believe that anything would be amiss. Faith was well-prepared, and seemingly quite excited. But rationality could never erase the knots in her stomach when it came to introducing Faith to something and someone new. The receptionist had assured her that if Jamie didn’t work out for whatever reason, there were dozens of other qualified therapists eager and ready to step in.

God, she wanted this to work so badly.

Claire glanced through the rear view mirror again, smiling. “I have faith in you, darling.”

The fact that her daughter’s name had proven to be so fitting and applicable was something that frequently stunned Claire into silence. The very second the word autism had fallen on her ears at the specialist’s office, the panic had set in, but she’d never stopped believing in her. Frank obviously had. So many brainless people in the world had no faith in disabled children. But Claire had seen her daughter in her quiet moments, and in her more animated moments. There was something there, underneath the anxiety, underneath the ticks. Something she hoped the equine therapy could coax out of her. Hell, moving to the states in and of itself was an enormous leap of faith. But Claire’s faith did not seem to be misplaced, in either her daughter or her own decisions.

Faith uttered a rather loud hum and made a silly face at her reflection in the mirror, twisting her hands.

“You have faith in yourself, too.”

An eighteen minute drive under their belts, Claire pulled into the dirt and gravel parking lot, her heart already feeling lighter as she caught sight of horses grazing in fields past the cluster of buildings.

“Faithie, look,” Claire crooned as she unbuckled the car seat. She pulled her out and settled her on her hip. “See the horses?”

Faith hummed loudly in excitement, and Claire beamed.

“Are you excited to ride a horse, darling?” Claire let her slide off her hip and onto the ground, taking her hand. “Let’s go meet Miss Toni and Miss Jamie.”

One thing was for certain: Faith most definitely understood what was happening, and she was excited .

Her humming had reached its peak in pitch and volume; she was jumping practically a foot into the air, skipping through the parking lot. Claire had to hold tighter for fear she’d slip loose and bolt right up to the horses. Claire checked the time on her phone: 1:45 on the dot, fifteen minutes early for their scheduled time, as Toni had requested. They walked through the doors into the reception building, and Faith immediately started pulling back, reaching outside toward the horses.

“We’ll see the horses soon, lovie. We need to meet Miss Toni first. Come on.” She tugged firmly on Faith’s arm and walked toward the desk, passing two other mothers and their sons, one who was chattering endlessly, and the other, a boy with Down Syndrome who was quite docile, smiling contentedly. Claire made a point to smile and wave at both mothers and the kids.

“Well, hello! You must be Miss Beauchamp,” the woman Claire assumed to be Toni greeted warmly. She had a sweet, mousy face, and eyes the same shade of brown as her bobbed hair. Claire had informed the woman that legally, their names were still Randall, but she’d prefer if off-paper she be addressed by her maiden name.

“Oh, and this must be little Faith.” Toni stood up from her chair and peered over the desk. “Hello, Faith. I’m Miss Toni. I’ve heard so much about you.” Faith’s humming and bouncing momentarily stopped, anxious, no doubt, at the sight of a new face. “I love your little horse, Faith! Your big horse will love it, too. Does he have a name?” Her eyes briefly flicked up to Claire, knowing that Faith wouldn’t answer.

“No, I’ve just been calling it ‘horsie’,” Claire chuckled softly.

“Awesome, Horsie it is then.” Toni smiled warmly, retrieving a clipboard with a pen attached. “This is Faith’s file based on what we discussed over the phone, there’s just a few things you need to elaborate on, and then I’ll call Jamie in. Alright?”

“Right, thank you.” Claire deposited Faith into the chair next to her, silently praying she’d stay put and not run off the second she let go of her.

“Are you from England?”

Claire glanced up from the paperwork to see one of the mothers she’d sat near was looking at her. “Oh, um, yes, actually. Just moved here.”

“That’s great,” she said, smiling. Claire hadn’t realized before she started speaking how very young this woman must have been. She was so tiny and her voice was almost a squeak. She couldn’t have been older than twenty-three. “My parents are English. You can tell I have the accent if you listen closely.”

Claire chuckled. “Where in England?”

“Cambridge. My father taught at the university and we moved to the states so he could teach at Harvard. My husband and I moved to the Island because of the program. This is my Thomas.” The girl gestured to the babbling little boy, seemingly repeating the same couple of phrases over and over.

“Nice to meet you both. I’m Claire, and this is my little Faith.”

“Oh, sorry, I’m Mary. Should have said that, I suppose.” She smiled sheepishly. “Your daughter looks just like you.”

Claire smiled fondly. “Thank you.”

“Did you come all the way here from England for the program?”

“Sort of. It was definitely one of the reasons.” Claire flipped to the final page of paperwork. “I wanted--needed, really--to get out of England, and I’d just finished medical school and was looking for a hospital to start my residence. I’d heard great things about Stony Brook and this program, and Long Island seemed like a quiet enough place for us.”

“You’re a doctor?”

“Not entirely yet, but that’s the goal.”

“Wow,” Mary breathed. “How do you manage? I can’t imagine pursuing a career with Thomas. I admire you so much.”

“Well, thank you.”

“Does your husband work, too?”

Claire felt her throat tighten slightly, and the pen froze on the page for just a moment. “We’re divorced, actually. He’s still in England.”

“Oh. Oh, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed. Really, Claire, I’m — ”

“It’s alright, Mary,” Claire assured her. The poor thing was stammering almost as incoherently as her son.

“I didn't mean to imply that mothers can’t have careers, or that single mothers couldn’t raise children, especially children like ours — ”

“Really, Mary. Relax. It’s okay.” Claire finished up the paperwork. “I’m not offended, I promise. It’s something I’m going to have to get used to discussing, I suppose.”

“Right.”

“Well, I’m off to hand this in. It was really nice meeting you, Mary. Bye, Thomas.” Claire waved at him.

“Thomas,” Mary chided. “Say goodbye.”

“BYE!”

Faith dropped her horse and clamped her hands over her ears, and Mary began stammering apologies again, and Claire waved her off.

“Inside voice, Thomas!” Mary scolded, but he simply cackled and returned to his contented babbling.

After coaxing Faith’s hands off her ears, they returned to the desk and handed Toni the clipboard.

“Perfect timing,” Toni said. “Jamie just came back in from his one o’clock.”

“Wonderful,” Claire beamed. Wait…his?

“Don’t be alarmed when you see him. He’s a gentle giant, I promise.” Toni winked.

“He…?”

And then there he was, a veritable giant indeed, entering from the door behind the reception desk. He had to be well over six feet tall, and his shoulders were the broadest she’d ever seen. Almost immediately after taking in the size of him, the first thing she noticed was the wild mop of red hair that he sported. It had to be the brightest red hair she’d ever seen in her life.

Jamie. Nickname for James. Not the feminine name.

“Hallo there, Miss. James Fraser. Great to meet ye.”

Claire had to blink back her shock at the sound of his voice, the roll of his “r”s, the peculiar lilt. Was that a Scottish accent?

He stretched out his hand and Claire took it. “Claire Beauchamp.”

He gave her hand a quick, firm shake before looking down and taking in the sight of Claire’s daughter. “Ah, this bonny wee lass must be Faith, then?”

“Uh…yes, here she is,” Claire stammered.

The apparently Scottish Giant walked around the counter and immediately stooped to his knees about four feet away from Faith.

“Hello there, Faith. I’m Jamie. I’m gonna teach ye to ride a horse.” Faith blinked at him silently, the hand that was not holding the horse jiggling. “And what’s this, then? Got yer own wee horsie, is it?” Faith clutched the horse a bit tighter, pressing it into her chest. “He’s braw. I think Pippi will quite like him. That’s yer horse’s name, Pippi.”

Something strange was happening to Claire’s heart as she watched him talk to her daughter. She surmised it was because no man had ever been so good with Faith in her entire life, the girl’s own father having miserably failed in that category. The good Samaritans at the airport had been kind and helpful, but none of them dared address Faith directly. Seeing this man, a total stranger, know exactly how to address her, exactly how far away to be, exactly how softly to speak; it was almost overwhelming.

“Would ye like to meet Pippi, Faith?” Jamie said gently.

Faith didn’t hum or move at all, just kept on jiggling her hand. Claire stooped down as well, kneeling next to Faith, whispering in her ear. “Hey, it’s alright, lovie. It’s time to see the horses now. Isn’t that exciting?” She hummed a little, eliciting a smile from Claire. “Ah see, I knew it. Let’s go then, hm?”

Claire stood up again, holding her hand, and nodded at Jamie. “I suppose we’re ready.”

Jamie stood to full height, once again catching her off guard at the sheer size of him. “Alright lasses, follow me.”

“Jamie!” came an excited voice from behind them.

They paused and turned around to see that the formerly quiet boy with Down Syndrome had called out to him.

“Connor! My man!” Jamie immediately approached him in long strides, crouching down and putting a hand up for a high-five, which the boy gave, prompting Jamie to recoil in contrived pain, shaking his hand.

“Ye get stronger every day, laddie! Ye’re gonna break my hand clean off someday!”

Connor giggled uncontrollably. If it was at all possible, Claire’s fondness for the man grew exponentially. Seeing how expertly he transitioned from gentle and cautious with Faith to playful and boisterous with Connor was amazing. It seemed he truly took the time to learn the intricacies of each of these kids’ needs.

“I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve got a new friend to ride wi’ today.”

“We will ride horses next Tuesday,” Connor said, nodding his head curtly. “I ride with Miss Jessica today.”

“Aye, that’s right.” Jamie winked. “See ye next Tuesday, then. Good to see ye, Pam.”

The mother addressed him fondly as Jamie stood up and returned to Claire and Faith.

“Sorry ’bout that. Connor never lets me live it down if I dinna say hello when he sees me.” He flashed an endearing, crooked grin, deep blue eyes twinkling.

“No, it’s quite alright. I hope you’d pay the same mind to my child. And every child for that matter.”

“Aye. I do,” he assured her. Jamie took Faith’s file from Toni without even needing to look at her, walking backwards to lead them out the back door. “Now, Connor over there is quite the social butterfly. He likes to rotate therapists, ye ken. His mam thinks it’s good fer him, and we all agree. But wee Faith over here is a bit more shy, aye?”

“Yes,” Claire said, rubbing a soothing thumb over Faith’s knuckles. “Strangers are a bit of a struggle.”

Jamie pushed open the door with his shoulder. “Aye, well that’s alright. We have plenty of time to get to know each other. She won’t be rotating therapists, unless fer some reason we dinna get along. Which, of course, I willna take personally,” he assured Claire, seeing as she’d already opened her mouth to apologize for something that hadn’t even happened yet.

Claire smiled as she felt Faith’s buzzing excitement returning at being back outside. She must know the horses were not far off.

“I read through her file last night. Disney fan, is she?”

“Oh yes, enormously so.”

As usual, Faith’s head cocked upward at the sound of the word ‘ Disney .’ 

“Well, then ye’ll quite like Pippi, I should think,” Jamie said to Faith, still walking backwards. “She’s a royal horse, ye ken. Only princes and princesses get to ride her.”

“Hear that, lovie?” Claire swung Faith’s hand. “A special princess-horse for Princess Faith.”

Faith hummed loudly and gave a little skip, her wrist twisting inward, still holding tightly to the stuffed horse. Claire chuckled softly, her soul alight to see her daughter’s excitement bursting at the seams. Claire lifted her gaze from Faith to smile at Jamie, grateful for his cleverness. She was taken aback, however, to see that Jamie was, to put it bluntly, staring at her. She blanched, heat creeping up her neck. It was only a split second before his senses returned and he shook his head, returning his attention to Faith.

She’d certainly caught it…but she pointedly chose to ignore it.

“Alright, lass. This is the stables.” Jamie gestured grandly to the closed barn doors behind him. “Now,” he said, crouching down, once more at eye-level with Faith. “Ye must be very, very calm inside, Faith. The stable is where the horses live, eat and sleep; it’s their home. Like your home with yer mam. Dinna let go of her hand, and be patient. Pippi is waiting fer ye.” Jamie smiled. “Will ye be calm, Faith? Thumbs up if ye’ll be calm and patient.” Jamie held a thumb up and waited patiently before Faith responded with her own thumbs up.

Bloody hell…why didn’t I think of that one?

“Very good. Alright then, here we go.” Jamie stood to full height again and unlatched the barn doors. They creaked open, and the already potent smell of hay and manure thickened around them. Still walking backwards ( Bloody impressive ), Jamie led them inside and, after only a few steps, Faith was simply beside herself with excitement. Her humming reached peak pitch, and she was bouncing, jumping and tugging.

“Calm, Faith,” Claire reminded gently. “Patient. Calm.”

It was not very effective.

The horses didn’t seem to mind, however, and neither did Jamie. Claire was almost certain he’d seen his fair share of hyperactive kids in this stable that did cause quite a ruckus, and Faith’s reaction paled in comparison. They stopped about halfway down the line of horses, right in front of a bright sorrel mare with a white strip down her nose and a beautiful white mane.

“This is Pippi,” Jamie said, putting a gentle hand on her muzzle.

Faith grunted, dropped her stuffed horse, and eagerly reached up with her now free hand, desperately trying to wrench her other hand free of Claire’s grip.

“Faith. Be patient,” Claire said again.

“Faith,” Jamie said gently, crouching down to her again. “Pippi willna say hello unless ye’re calm and patient, like we said.”

His words fell on deaf ears as Faith continued to reach up and tug. The little whines came next, and dread settled into Claire’s stomach. She was on the verge of a meltdown, here of all places, the place that was supposed to help. Claire’s mind began spiraling: she’d made the wrong decision again, she’d made everything worse…

“Faith, please — ”

“It’s alright,” Jamie cut her off and reached into one of the pockets of the vest that was draped lazily over his flannel, retrieving what appeared to be a yellow ball. He gingerly pressed it into Faith’s outstretched palm and closed her fingers around it, immediately retreating his hand after she was holding it. She carried on for a few more seconds before becoming engrossed in the ball, squishing it in her little hand until her knuckles went white.

A stress ball.

“There’s a good lass, now,” Jamie said softly. “Get all yer troubles out of that wee head and put them into the ball.”

Claire watched in awe as the groaning ceased and the humming returned. Faith pressed the ball into her cheek, her forehead, her chest, her stomach.

“See? All calm now,” Jamie said.

“Good girl, Faithie.” Claire gave her hand a light squeeze, her voice breathy with disbelief.

He is so good with her.

Jamie reached a hand up to take hold of Pippi’s bridle then clicked his tongue. Pippi’s head lowered.

“She’s ready to say hello now, Faith, because ye calmed down.”

The stress ball immediately fell out of her hand and she reached for Pippi again.

“Gentle. Watch me, Faith.” Jamie firmly grasped the bridle with one hand, but his other hand was stroking the white strip on Pippi’s head with the greatest tenderness Claire had ever seen a man muster. “Try it, Faith. Gentle.”

To Claire’s utter bewilderment, Faith did not slap her clumsy hand onto the horses head as she’d expected. She, in fact, did exactly as Jamie had shown her: stroking the horse’s forehead and muzzle with all the careful reverence of a mother with her newborn. Claire didn’t know that she was even capable of such restraint.

“That’s beautiful, Faith. Wonderful job, lass.” Jamie gradually drew his own hand away, allowing Faith to pet her by herself. “I think she likes ye, Faith. I think ye’ll be very good friends.”

Tears misted in Claire’s eyes. She didn’t know what she’d expected for today, but it hadn’t been this .

“Ye alright, Ma?”

It took Claire a moment to realize that Jamie was addressing her, and she quickly nodded, brushing away tears in embarrassment. “Yes, of course. I’m just…”

“Aye.” He nodded knowingly. “I ken. Ye wouldna be the first.”

She sniffed and offered a tiny smile.

Jamie spent the rest of their time together pointing to the parts of the horse, the bridle, and the saddle and telling Faith the different names. She was not expected to remember, of course, but with enough repetition some of it would stick eventually. He also went on to talk about all the things Pippi liked and didn’t like, certain rubs or touches, apples and sugar cubes. He also managed to, quite convincingly, reveal that Pippi’s favorite movie was Frozen , which, upon hearing, Claire had had to bite her tongue to stop a fit of giggles. Jamie expertly wove Faith’s own interests into his information about the horse, and it left her speechless. By the time he finished, Faith was hanging on his every word, her hand still absently trailing up and down Pippi’s snout.

Today was not a riding day; today was a “get to know the horse and the therapist” day. Which, as far as Claire could tell, had gone off quite swimmingly. Claire had been dreading having to leave the horse, fearing a meltdown following removing Faith from her horse. But Jamie took his time with it, made sure she felt like she had properly said goodbye.

“I’ll teach ye how Pippi likes to say goodbye.” He reached into his other vest pocket and retrieved a sugar cube. He held it under her mouth and her  floppy lips snatched it up, eliciting a squeal from Faith. She immediately attempted to plunge her hand into Jamie’s pocket to get a sugar cube to feed her herself. Jamie was faster, though, dipping his hand in and retrieving a cube on his own. While her wee attempt at pick-pocketing was no serious offense, he still had to maintain that it was his pocket to retrieve things from.

Faith held the cube under Pippi’s mouth like Jamie had, and she shrieked as the lips protruded again, snatching it from her little palm. Claire laughed; she knew the difference between a good shriek and a bad shriek.

“Alright. After she’s had her sugar cube, ye pat her on the muzzle, like so.” Jamie demonstrated, and Faith immediately repeated. “Then,” Jamie released his grip on the bridle and clicked his tongue again, causing Pippi to return her head to its upright position. “We say ‘bye-bye, Pippi’.”

Jamie waved his hand up at Pippi, and Claire once again had to bite her tongue. There was something so endearing about seeing this giant, painfully masculine man say something as silly as “bye-bye, Pippi.”

Faith gave her own little wave, and Claire did as well, saying, “Bye-bye, Pippi,” on both of their behalf.

Jamie reached for the ground to retrieve the stuffed horse, which Claire made a mental note to vacuum and spray with Lysol when they got home.

“Dinna want to forget yer own wee horsie,” he said, holding it out to Faith, who took it in her hand and pressed it to her chest. Jamie picked up something else and then stood up and stretched his hand out to Claire. “Put this in yer pocket. Might come in handy.”

The stress ball.

“Oh, are you sure? Don’t you need it?”

“We each give out a dozen a week.” He shrugged. “They’re meant to be kept. Go ahead.”

Claire gratefully took the little ball into her hand, their fingertips brushing for the briefest of moments.

“Thank you.”

Jamie nodded curtly and then started to walk past them. As Claire tugged on Faith’s hand, she braced herself for a protest, for her to dig her heels in and reach back toward Pippi, but no such things happened. Faith simply followed, humming and skipping. She wasn’t upset to be leaving, wasn’t insisting on staying. She was simply… happy . Happy that she’d gotten to be there at all in the first place.

Claire almost started crying again.

They arrived back into the small welcome center, Jamie leading the way, of course, walking backwards, so he could freely converse with both Claire and Faith as he led them back.

“Princess Faith is back!” Toni said warmly as the three of them came through the back door. “Did you like Pippi, Faith?” Faith gave a little bounce, humming increasing in volume. “I take that as a yes.” Toni looked up at Claire.

“Yes, she was quite taken with her,” Claire confirmed.

“That’s great.” Toni wrote something down. “So Pippi is a good fit. How about Jamie? Did they seem to be a good fit?”

Claire glanced down at Faith, the sight of her smile taking her breath away. Then her eyes trailed back up to Jamie, and she was puzzled by what she saw. He looked almost…nervous. Was he really so worried after how well things had gone?

“What do you think, Faith?” Claire said, crouching down to her eye-level. “I know you like Pippi, right? Thumbs-up for Pippi?” Claire put a thumb up, and Faith smiled and repeated after her. “What about Mister Jamie? Does he get a thumbs up too? Mister Jamie?” Claire deliberately did not demonstrate this time, wanting to see if Faith would organically give the gesture herself. After a moment, Faith raised her right thumb again, and Claire’s grin became impossibly wide.

“Well, there ya have it!” Toni beamed. “You’re all gonna make a great team, that’s for sure.”

Claire stood up again and flashed her smile at Jamie, unable to contain herself. He had Faith’s approval now, something that was not given lightly, and this fact made her feel impossibly more connected to him than she should have felt. He, too, was beaming. His eyes seemed even brighter than they had before.

“Okay, so we’ll see you next week then? Same day and time?”

“Yes, that’s perfect. Though the week after it’ll have to be later since I start working.”

“That’s fine, we’ll talk about it next week.” Toni scribbled down the information and then smiled up at her. “Alright! You’re all set!”

“Oh, wait,” Jamie said quickly. “Almost forgot. Wait here.” 

Claire watched, bewildered, as Jamie scrambled out the back door again. It didn’t take long for him to return, however, holding a little black riding helmet.

“Sorry to hold ye up. Just figured ye should take this wi’ ye, to get her used to it.” Jamie held out the helmet to Claire.

She took it, her brows furrowed in confused wonderment.

“Chin strap, ye ken. Gonna bother her. And she canna ride wi’out it. Stable rules.”

Claire looked back up at him, something unnamable bubbling in her chest. “I didn’t even think…How did you know…?”

“Saw the wee bracelet on her belt loop,” Jamie said bashfully, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his vest.

Claire looked down and chuckled softly. It was a rubbery-plastic princess bracelet with snaps that she’d given Faith with the intention of getting her used to having things on her wrist, which had, of course, not gone over well. Immediately upon trying to get it on her, Faith had ripped it out of her hands and threaded it around a belt loop, then waited expectantly for her mother to snap it shut. Evidently, Claire had left it fastened and washed the pants that way without noticing.

“Well…thank you,” Claire said warmly. “I really appreciate this. You very well may have just saved us from the meltdown of the century next week.”

He chuckled and shrugged his enormous shoulders. “Think nothin’ of it, Sassenach.”

Claire blinked back her shock. “What?”

“Sassenach. It’s...ah, well, just means that ye’re English,” he said sheepishly.

“I know what it means,” Claire said. “Just a rather archaic term, isn’t it?”

He shrugged again. “No’ fer a Scot.”

Slightly frazzled for reasons she could not explain, Claire took hold of Faith’s hand and smiled warmly. “Well, we should be off, then. Good day, Mister Fraser, Toni. We’ll see you next week.”

“See ya, Miss Beauchamp! Bye-bye, Faith!” Toni waved.

“Wave goodbye, darling,” Claire said gently, and Faith waved her stuffed-horse-holding-hand.

“So long, wee Faith,” Jamie said, waving.

“Say goodbye to Mister Jamie.”

Faith waved the horse again as Claire pulled her toward the door. Pausing before opening it, Claire instead turned and offered her own little wave to Jamie before tugging on the door and leading a skipping Faith through the parking lot.

——

Holy Mother of God.

“What was that all about?” Toni said abruptly, yanking him from his thoughts.

“What’s that?”

“The helmet! We’re not supposed to give out equipment to take home like that. It’s not my place to undermine you in front of clients, but still.”

“Oh, I dinna think anyone will miss one wee helmet fer one week, Toni.” Jamie leaned his elbow on the counter, keeping his hands in his pockets. The waiting area was empty now. All the kids were riding, and Jamie’s three o’clock had yet to arrive.

“What’s next? We give trial equipment out to every kid with sensory issues? There’d be no helmets left if we did that! What makes her the exception?” Toni cocked an eyebrow at him.

“She’s special, is all.”

“They’re all special, Jamie. That’s why we do this.” Toni wasn’t buying it. “Is the kid special…? Or…her mom?”

Jamie’s every muscle tightened up. “What? The bairn, Faith, o’ course.”

“Oh. My. God!” Tony exclaimed, swatting his arm. “You have a thing for a kid’s mom!”

“Would ye keep yer voice down? D’ye want me fired?”

“So I’m wrong, then?”

“Aye. Very wrong.”

“So you don’t think she’s hot?”

Christ , Toni, would ye shut yer gab?” He slammed a hand on the counter in panic. “Evan and his mam could walk in here any damn minute — ”

“Well do you?”

“What?”

“Think she’s hot?”

“Oh, fer — ” He sighed, exasperated, and ran a hand down his face. “She’s bonny, alright? She’s just fine.”

“Bonny… fine he says…” Toni rolled her eyes and began shuffling through papers on the desk.

“Sounds to me like ye’re the one that should be after her.”

I have a girlfriend, James ,” Toni quipped, pointedly using his full name. “You’re the one that hasn’t touched a woman in a million years.”

It was Jamie’s turn to roll his eyes, though he couldn’t suppress his smile at the woman’s cheekiness. “That’s verra kind, diggin’ at a man like that.”

“You’re just too romantic for your own good, Scotty.” She stapled a few papers together. “‘Waiting for the right one’ you always say… what exactly are you waiting for?”

For her.

Jamie shook his head. “I dinna ken, Toni. And I certainly dinna need to discuss it wi’ you .”

She threw up her hands in surrender. “Fine. Just trying to warn you. First helmet-leasing, then chasing after moms?” Toni clicked her tongue. “Best be careful, James.”

He rolled his eyes and drummed his fingers on the counter before standing up straight again. “Come get me when Evan arrives, would ye? I’ll be in the stable.”

“Sounds good.”

Hands back in his pockets, Jamie shouldered the door open and was grateful to inhale the fresh air, to clear his head.

Jesus…I’m in trouble.

It hadn’t hit him right away; it wasn’t like in the fairy tales, like some bolt of lightning that struck him from the heavens. She was bonny; anyone with eyes could see that, including himself upon first noticing her, but that wasn’t it. It wasn’t even that first touch, the standard, introductory handshake he gave every parent that came through. There were no sparks of electricity upon first contact--a thoroughly ridiculous notion.

No…it was seeing the way she swung that little girl’s hand, the way she smiled at her like she was the earth, the moon, and the stars. He could tell in one glance how much Faith meant to Claire, and even how much Claire meant to Faith.

That was when something had tightened in his chest, when he’d watched mother and daughter exchange that look . And, like a damned fool, he’d been caught staring at her.

But, he could easily brush that off. Sometimes there were just kids that were extra special for some reason, or a parent-child connection that was particularly touching. It was not at all uncommon in this chosen profession to get attached to kids.

But then… Christ …the sight of those tears in her eyes tore his guts out.

He hadn’t lied to her when he’d told her she was not the first parent to cry upon seeing their child with their horse. What he’d failed to mention was that most parents didn’t get that overcome until the child was actually on the horse.

There was something so deep and visceral about those tears. It was like watching relief spilling out after years of pent up fear and doubt. But there was something else, something darker. Something that made him feel the impulse to drop the reins and gather her in his arms and comfort her. Her, this complete stranger whose pain touched him so deeply.

But why…?

He’d seen Faith’s file, of course, the surname “Randall” all over it. Then Toni had told him in a hushed tone that they were to refer to the mom, this Claire, as Beauchamp, and not Randall. It had puzzled him, but it didn’t take long for him to surmise that perhaps there was a messy divorce. Toni had also mentioned that she was new to the area, but she hadn’t mentioned how new and from England, of all places. How messy had the assumed divorce been that she’d crossed an entire ocean with an autistic child, starting over in a completely new world?

Christ, she’s a brave wee thing.

And then his pity, his painfully-felt sympathy for her at the sight of those tears, melted into something akin to deep admiration. Indeed, she hurt, but she was strong for Faith despite that hurt. She sought out therapies, she smiled, called her “princess.” He knew all too well the level of strength that was needed to keep a child like Faith afloat, and he knew how difficult it could be to muster that strength in the face of other hardship.

Yes…he admired her. Claire.

And it didn’t at all help matters that she was beautiful . Breathtakingly so. Those wisps of hair curled around her face and those eyes, like whisky and honey and amber all at once, both features mirrored in the little carbon-copy that was her daughter…and Christ, that smile, her bonny laugh, and then that wee wave she gave him right before she left…

Lord ha’ mercy…I am in deep, deep shite.

Chapter Text

Claire peeked at the rear view mirror again, and smiled again at the sight of her happy daughter. Faith's favorite "reward meal" was McDonald's. Claire had pinky-promised that if she was a good girl with the horses today, they would get McDonald's for dinner on the way home. She was contentedly waving around the Minion toy that had come in the happy meal, humming and kicking her little legs. Claire had both of their meals on the passenger seat, knowing full well that her daughter would make quite the mess if she let her eat in the car. So would Claire, to be frank.

Claire had made it abundantly clear how proud she was of Faith, had reminded her several times already how she'd been such a good girl. Whether this made Faith happy to hear, or she was simply still in the afterglow of petting a horse, was anyone's guess. Claire hoped Faith could see, could truly understand how happy her mother was. She supposed if she said it enough it might sink in, if it hadn't already.

Back at home, the moment Claire unbuckled Faith from her carseat, she insisted on carrying her meal in herself, to which Claire was more than happy to oblige. She watched, amused, as Faith scampered up the steps to their front door, waiting rather impatiently for her mother to catch up. This was something that Faith had done whenever they'd arrived at their home in Oxfordshire: squirm out of Claire's grip and bolt to the porch, rocking on her heels or bouncing while she waited for the door to open. As Claire pushed the key into the lock, her heart felt a little lighter.

She already feels like this is her home.

Faith immediately scampered inside and right to the kitchen, and by the time Claire got the door shut, stuffed horse onto the couch, and shoes off, Faith was already halfway through her chicken nuggets, sitting up on her knees at the kitchen table. Claire shook her head, laughing.

"You are certainly in a good mood, aren't you, darling?" She ruffled her curly hair and sat down across from her, opening her own paper bag, pulling out her burger and french fries . The teenager at the drive-thru had been quite bewildered when she'd asked for chips . Such strange lingo these Americans used.

Faith was finished eating before Claire was even halfway through her burger, and she slid off her chair and reached for the chocolate shake that Claire put on the counter to be out of her reach until she finished. Claire sprung out of her seat to grab it herself before Faith could cause it to topple and make a mess.

"Let Mummy help, Faith," Claire said, frantically. "You have to ask for help..." Claire sighed in defeat, handing over the milkshake. She sat back down as Faith settled in again, knowing better than to leave the kitchen with food of any kind. Claire watched her little cheeks hollow out as she guzzled down the liquid, her honey eyes light with joy.

Faith's being nonverbal was not as much of an issue as it could have been, but it was an issue nonetheless. The worst of it was when she was clearly distraught and could not communicate the source of her distress. Had she made a mess of her chocolate shake due to her inability to ask for help, it would have been quite the inconvenience, but Claire supposed mealtime could have gone much worse. Claire knew her daughter by now, better than Claire even knew herself. She'd become accustomed to the various grunts and whines, associating meaning to each different sound over the years. She supposed, however, that this would not be a sufficient way to communicate to a teacher someday, or Mrs. Lickett when Claire was no longer able to stay home with them.

Claire's anxiety lessened a bit at the thought of the woman; Mrs. Lickett was certified to teach American Sign Language to nonverbal autistic children, and she promised Claire she'd have Faith doing basic signs by the time she was ready to start school, whenever that may be.

Then she remembered how close they'd come to a meltdown in the stable, and how easily Jamie had calmed her, how proud he'd been to introduce the horse to her as a reward, how happy it had made Faith. Claire's heart swelled for perhaps the hundredth time since they'd left. The sound of slurping filled the room as Faith reached the end of her milkshake.

"All done, lovie?" Faith took her mouth off the straw and smiled contentedly at her mother. "Clean up now, Faith. Garbage in the bin, please."

Faith did as she was told, and then Claire beckoned her into her lap.

"Come here, darling," she crooned, enveloping her in her arms. "Mummy is so very proud of you, baby. I'll never stop saying it." She kissed her cheek, and Faith giggled. "Are you happy, Faith? Hm?" She rocked her gently, but Faith just hummed and traced patterns on Claire's arms with her fingertips.

"Happy, Faith?" Claire said again, remembering the thumbs-up maneuver from earlier, and employing it now. "Are you happy, love?"

Faith giggled again and grabbed Claire's thumb in her little hand.

"Faith, no..." Claire couldn't help but chuckle, as well. "See? Thumbs-up if you're happy, Faith. Happy?" She tried again with her free thumb.

Faith giggled yet again, but this time, she returned the gesture. Claire laughed out loud and brought the little fist, still holding her thumb, to her lips to cover with kisses.

"I'm happy, too, baby girl," Claire said. "Very happy."

She gave another little giggle before squirming out of Claire's arms and pattering out of the kitchen. Claire cleaned up after herself and returned to the table to continue nursing her own milkshake. Faith bounded back in with a DVD box in hand and held it expectantly up to Claire. Claire smiled and took it in her hands.

"Ah, all about animals today, hm?" She cocked an eyebrow at Faith. Tonight's choice was The Lion King . This was typical, even back in Oxfordshire. Faith would toddle up to either Claire or Frank with a DVD after dinner and expect help to get it ready, so she could watch her movie before bed. More often than not, Frank would wordlessly hand the box over to Claire instead, and after a while Faith learned to only bring it to Claire.

Claire put the DVD in as Faith went into her room, returning with her baby Simba stuffed animal to watch with. She settled onto the couch, now righted to its position in the middle of the room, centered and straightened. There were still boxes and messes, but things were slowly coming together. Claire took this opportunity while Faith was glued to the telly to get to some more boxes. She peeled the tape off a particularly heavy box, and smiled to herself at the sight of the picture frames inside, covered in bubble wrap. She moved behind the couch to the long table pushed against it, exactly where she'd planned to put said pictures. She unwrapped them all lovingly and arranged them on the table: an infant Faith fast asleep like a little angel on Claire's shoulder; Faith in the photo studio with a large, plastic number "1" for her first birthday; Claire holding Faith on a carousel, smiling like a fool at her toddler aged daughter; Faith, two-and-a-half, grabbing at Frank's cheeks and laughing her head off.

Christ.

Claire froze, a hard lump forming in her throat as the opening chords to "Circle of Life" filled her ears. What was she supposed to do with this? Why had she even packed it? Well, that was easy enough: Faith looked simply darling. But...

She ran trembling fingers over both of their faces behind the glass, sighing with a shudder. 

Oh, Frank...How happy we once were.

Indecisive, Claire put the frame back in the box, reaching for another to unwrap: Faith mid-bite of a chocolate-chip pancake at the breakfast table. The older she got, the less complacent she'd been for photo opportunities, so Claire had to content herself with capturing candid, silly moments like this, and she honestly would not have had it any other way. She stood it up next to the carousel shot and reached for another.

God damn it.

Claire holding Faith at the church the day of her christening, Frank's arm wrapped around Claire's shoulders, smiling proudly.

Fuck you.

Claire pressed the frame face-down into the table, biting her bottom lip to stifle a sob. How dare he stand there, looking so proud of the family that he would so quickly discard? How dare he let that little girl touch his face like that, how dare he smile at her so brightly, lead her to believe he'd always be there?

Her fingers trembled as they hovered over the keypad of numbers. Was it worth it? Couldn't she just put Faith on the plane and change her number, disappear forever?

She supposed that might not exactly be legal, no matter the terms on which Frank had left the house two weeks ago.

She somehow found the nerve to finish dialing the number and bring the phone to her ear.

"Hello?"

She gulped. "Hello, Frank."

"Hello, Claire."

She cleared her throat. "I'm...I'm taking Faith to the states. And I don't think you have any right to try and stop me."

"I shouldn't think I do."

She shuddered with hatred at his indifference; though she'd expected as much, it didn't sting any less. "Alright. Good. I don't want anything from you, Frank. I am perfectly capable of taking care of her basic needs on my residency salary."

"Alright."

"But there's one thing. It's the least you can do. For the love you once bore me."

"I did not stop loving you, Claire."

"Oh, yes, you did," Claire spat. 

“Claire — ”

“No, that’s enough,” she said, firmly. “Listen. I want nothing from you but the exact amount a certain therapy will cost. It’s expensive, but the doctor thinks it can really help Faith. I’m asking nothing else of you, Frank. Just around six thousand a year, broken up monthly, to pay for the therapy.”

Claire knew she likely could afford the therapy, but things would be tight. Rent on Long Island was not cheap by any means; neither was the general cost of living there, and neither was the kind of babysitter with the qualifications necessary for taking care of someone with Faith’s needs. Not to mention she wanted to start setting money aside for a service dog, which would be an enormous investment in and of itself, but one that would certainly be worth it if it would make it easier for them to be in public places. The extra money from Frank would be worth it, no matter how sick to her stomach it made her to ask it of him.

“What sort of therapy costs that much?”

“Equine therapy.”

He scoffed. “You really believe — ”

“Yes. I do.” She had to clench her teeth and take a very deep breath through her nose to stop herself from attacking again. “Will you pay for it or not? As the man who sired her, who owes her something ? Will you?”

A slight pause, then he sighed. “Fine. I don’t care how much it is, I just don’t want to deal with it.”

Claire almost choked on the expletives she swallowed. “I understand. I’ve already set aside a separate bank account for you to make deposits.” She read him the account number and the routing number, along with exact amounts needed each month.

“All you need to do is make the deposits every month. And you’ll never hear from us again.”

He sighed again. “Claire…If I could change things…”

Claire almost fell for it…but she knew what he meant.

He did not mean: “If I could change my behavior, the things I said.” He meant: “If I could change what our daughter is.”

And it made her sick.

“Goodbye, Frank.”

Faith’s humming and rocking brought Claire back to Earth. She looked up from the box to see Faith holding her stuffed Simba in the air, mirroring Rafiki on the screen doing just that. Claire chuckled to herself and swallowed any remaining urge to cry. Claire put the christening picture back in the box, deciding that she’d make a decision on what to do with it later. Perhaps she could try her hand at scissors, combine the two pictures in one frame. It would certainly be satisfying to literally cut him out of those moments in Faith’s life.

But on the other hand…was that cruel? Would Faith someday learn to verbally or otherwise communicate the question: Where did Daddy go? Should she keep these pictures intact for that purpose? What Claire would want to say in response to such a question would be that Faith did not have a Daddy and that she didn’t need one. But perhaps that was doing her an injustice.

Claire reached for another picture.

Yes…that was something that could wait to be decided on.

Claire had made a considerable dent in her unpacking venture by the time Faith’s movie finished, and she was altogether quite satisfied with her work.

“What do you think of that, Faith?” Claire sighed contentedly as she removed the DVD from the player and put it back in the box. “Your disorganized-as-all-get-out Mummy is actually getting somewhere with her organizing.” Faith slid off the couch to take the box from her so she could put it back where she found it. “Isn’t that a marvel?”

Claire watched with piqued interest as Faith sat on her knees in front of the little entertainment center, the cupboard beneath the telly opened for her inspection. Faith had a system, some sort of arrangement of her movies that she always abided by. Not a single movie was ever out of place. Claire could not for the life of her decipherer what the system was; it was something created and used only by Faith. Claire had unpacked all their movies and put them inside, only for Faith to gut the entire thing and arrange them herself. It had greatly amused Claire at the time. She’d been at it for hours.

It didn’t take long for her to return The Lion King to its apparent correct position, and then Faith shut the cupboard.

“Alright, lovie. Time to brush your teeth.”

Claire stood and led Faith into the bathroom. Claire lifted her up onto the counter to sit and Claire got to work brushing her own teeth first. Faith had not yet mastered the coordination of tooth-brushing, and Claire still did it for her every night. But her psychiatrist had said that if Faith watched her mother do it enough times, something might strike a chord one day, and she’d suddenly be an expert at dental hygiene. Apparently, Doctor Garner had seen this happen plenty of times before.

So Claire brushed, tilting her head slightly toward Faith as usual, and then moving on to brush Faith’s teeth. When she finished, Claire handed her one of the little paper cups they kept in the bathroom.

"Rinse and spit," she crooned, as she did every night.

Routine was everything to Faith, and Claire had even begun clinging to the lifeline that was knowing every next move for every day. It soothed Faith's ever present anxiety and gave her expectations for every day, and it kept Claire grounded in the reality of their lives. This was why she'd been so scared to move. Moving to the house next door to them in Oxfordshire would have been a big enough change to merit Faith's discomfort, let alone moving across an ocean to a completely different style of living. There'd certainly been an adjustment period for her routine-conditioned little girl, but it hadn't been nearly as long or as difficult as Claire had anticipated.

Doctor Garner had suggested that no matter how disorienting things were when they'd arrived at the new apartment, the sooner Claire could reestablish that same routine that Faith had been accustomed to in Oxfordshire, the better. It was the reason she'd had furniture sent to the apartment before they'd even arrived. The sooner Faith could associate the new home with the commonplace furniture, the sooner she'd begin to realize this was home now. And all that, combined with maintaining their old routines in a new place was actually working quite well.

Teeth brushed and pajamas on, Claire tucked Faith into her bed. Faith's brand new princess comforter had arrived on Wednesday, and Faith was over the moon. Claire hadn't yet had a problem getting her to sleep since they'd put it on the bed. Claire filled the medicine dropper from the liquid Risperdal bottle, and Faith dutifully opened her mouth to let Claire drop it in, her face screwing up in the usual disgust to taste the bitter liquid.

"Swallow, please," Claire said, cocking an eyebrow. Faith grimaced, but obeyed. "Good girl."

Claire knew full well that Faith hated the taste of her medicine; it had been an utter nightmare to get her to take it every night at first. She'd had to bribe her with a Smartie every time she took it. Claire had a little stash of M&Ms (apparently the American equivalent) just in case Faith was ever particularly stubborn.

Claire set the medicine aside on the nightstand and tucked Horsie (who had been properly cleaned and disinfected after being dropped in the dirt in the stable) under her arm.

"There's Horsie, darling. So you can dream of all the horses you saw today, like Pippi." She leaned down and kissed her forehead. "Goodnight, love. Today was a very, very good day."

Faith smiled a toothy grin as Claire rose to turn on the nightlight. She stopped at the door to flicker off the main light and take one last look at her daughter, savoring the contentment settling in her chest and warming her from the inside out before shutting the door.

——

 

The next few days were not as smooth sailing.

Jamie had been quite right when he’d predicted the riding helmet would bother Faith. Since Mrs. Lickett only came by on weekdays, Claire decided it was as good a time as ever to give the helmet a try. After breakfast, Claire sat Faith on the couch and retrieved the helmet and Horsie.

“Alright, little girl.” She sat down, horse and helmet in hand. “Mister Jamie gave us this helmet. See?” She held it up to Faith. “Mister Jamie said you can’t ride Pippi unless you learn to wear the helmet.” She held both the horse and the helmet in front of Faith. “See? Horsie and helmet have to go together. Yes?”

Faith hummed happily and reached for Horsie. 

“Alright…let’s see…” Claire carefully attempted to lower the helmet onto Faith’s head, but her face immediately darkened and she groaned in annoyance, averting her head.

“It’s okay, baby, it’s just a little hat. Come on, now…”

She groaned again, louder, shoving the helmet away with both of her hands.

“Wait,” Claire said quickly. “Wait here, Faith.”

Claire scrambled into her bedroom and into her closet, tearing through its contents, throwing things behind her until she found what she was looking for. A plain blue visor that she hadn’t worn in years, but kept around just in case.

“Here, Faith, look.” Claire returned to the couch and sat down. She put the visor on her own head. “See? A hat.” Faith stared at her blankly. Claire smiled and took off the visor, plopping it onto Faith’s curly head. “See?”

Faith giggled, and Claire felt a renewed sense of hope. She took the helmet back in her hands and placed it precariously atop her head. “See? It’s just a hat. It doesn’t fit Mummy’s big head, though. It was made just for you.”

Claire playfully swiped the visor off Faith's head and replaced it with the helmet, and she did not squirm away.

Claire gasped with contrived shock. "Look at you!" she gushed. Faith was beaming. "What a lovely hat, Faith!"

She hummed and bounced, and Claire laughed.

Victory!

And that was when she made her fatal mistake. She got cocky.

"Now let's just fasten it, and then you're properly wearing your new hat, yes?" Claire reached for the chin strap and fastened it. "There! All ready to ride!"

Faith's entire demeanor changed, her little brow furrowing. She reached for the chinstrap and tucked her fingers underneath, starting to tug.

"It's okay, darling."

Faith began groaning.

"Hey, it's okay, Faith." Claire, having prepared for exactly this, reached for the yellow stress ball from the stables on the coffee table. "Faith, here, love. It's okay." She put the ball in one of her hands, but Faith did not latch on. She let it fall to the ground, not removing her fingers from beneath the chin strap. Dread settled into the pit of her stomach.

“Faith…” Claire stooped down to retrieve the ball, then realized it had rolled halfway across the room. She got up from the couch to pick it up, and when she turned around, Faith was tugging forcefully on the helmet, the chin strap digging into her throat.

Faith !” Claire dropped the ball again and practically leapt back onto the couch. “Stop!”

Fingers trembling, Claire frantically fumbled with the clasp of the chin strap, desperately trying to stop her daughter from choking herself. The second she was free, Faith gave a loud wail and hurled the helmet across the room, causing Claire to jump back in shock.

Claire was too stunned to scold her right away, her medical degree kicking into full gear as she examined her neck and throat for any marks, listened to see if her breathing was normal. Once she was certain everything was alright, Claire firmly seized one of her wrists.

“We do not throw things, Faith.” Faith began squirming, pawing at her mother’s hand. “Faith, look at me, please. I need you to look at my eyes, Faith.”

She gave a loud wail and a particularly hard yank.

“We do not throw things. Do you hear me, young lady?”

A sharp pain suddenly stuck itself into Claire’s hand, and she cried out. She immediately released Faith’s wrist and recoiled her hand into herself.

She bloody bit me.

Faith wriggled off the couch and bolted for the front door. She started tugging on the handle, determined to open the door and get as far away as her little legs would carry. Claire knew she’d really do it, too, if the door wasn’t locked.

Claire briefly sucked at the blood that started slowly trickling from her hand and then strode to the front door.

“You’re not going anywhere, little girl.” She scooped Faith around the torso with one arm and carried her, kicking and screaming into her bedroom to deposit her on the bed.

“Listen to me, Faith. If you do not calm down this instant you’ll not have any dessert tonight. Do you hear me?”

Faith shrieked. She’d certainly heard.

“I’m going to count to ten! If I get to ten and you’ve not stopped crying, no dessert.”

Claire hadn’t even gotten to three when Faith started throwing her stuffed animals in her direction. Claire continued counting calmly, knowing full well that the cotton toys would not hurt her. It was only when she reached for the lamp on her nightstand that she stopped at seven, lurching forward to stop her.

No !” Claire shouted. Faith immediately released the lamp and clamped her hands over her ears, and a horrible, searing guilt burned her gut. 

“Faith, baby, I’m sorry…I’m sorry, darling…” Claire sat down on the bed beside her and made to wrap her arms around her daughter, but she hesitated. Would she bite again, or punch, or kick?

Claire felt shameful tears stinging her eyes. Was she no better than Frank, raising her voice at her audio-sensitive daughter when she was being slightly difficult?

She shouldn’t have fastened the chin strap. She should have just let her get used to the helmet itself first. She maybe should have even waited for Mrs. Lickett to try the chinstrap. And now, because of her carelessness, she’d triggered her daughter’s biggest anxiety, and the poor girl was screaming her little head off, red in the face, because of her own mother.

Claire noticed, almost too late, that her hand was about to bleed on Faith’s brand new comforter. She hissed a frustrated “ fuck ” under her breath and quickly made her way to the bathroom to tend to it. She hastily wrapped some gauze around it and made her way back into Faith’s room to find her in the exact same position, hands on her ears, screaming. Claire sighed in defeat and quickly wiped her eyes clear of the tears that threatened to spill over. Perhaps it would be best if she just left her for now. There was no telling if she’d do something violent again if Claire tried to comfort her, and there was no consoling her otherwise. Claire decided to remove the lamp and anything else heavy that she could throw before leaving the room and shutting the door behind her.

Only when the door was shut did Claire finally allow herself to cry.

She didn’t care that Faith could have broken a lamp and shattered a lightbulb on the new wood floors; she didn’t even care that her own daughter had drawn blood from her with her teeth. What hurt worse than that was knowing that her little girl was in turmoil because of triggers that her own mother couldn’t understand, couldn’t make better, things that Faith was not able to communicate to her or to anyone. And to make matters worse, she couldn’t even comfort her. When she was a baby, before she was symptomatic, all Claire had to do was scoop her out of her crib and rock her, bounce her, sing to her, and all her anxieties would cease, her crying would stop. But now, the older Faith got, it felt like Claire was less and less capable of providing that comfort, that sense of security.

I’m her mother. That’s my job.

And I’m failing.

Claire dumped the contents of Faith’s room that she’d emptied onto the couch and collapsed next to them, letting her tears fall freely. Somewhere in her fevered brain, she had the sense to pick up her phone from the coffee table and text Gillian. She typed: “Hey, could I call you right now?” then quickly backspaced and tried again: “Hey, are you busy right now?” She hit send, and then frantically added in a second message: “No emergency. Just miss you and want to hear your voice.”

After she hit send the second time, she let her phone rest in her lap and rested her head back on the couch cushion. Leaving Gillian had been the hardest part of leaving England. She’d been Claire’s best friend all throughout college and medical school. They’d decided to be roommates sophomore year after meeting in the pre-med program, and they’d never lived separately again until Claire’s wedding, at which, of course, Gillian had been the maid of honor. They were two peas in a pod, though one wouldn’t think so to see them separately. Gillian was brash and loud, and delightfully inappropriate more often than not. Gillian liked to say that Claire was the odd one out, that she was much too proper.

Gillian had been there for Claire after Faith’s diagnosis when Frank had not. He’d muttered something about needing some air the minute they got home from the doctor, and Claire had immediately phoned Gillian, sobbing into the phone for hours.

“He’s going to leave me, he’s going to leave us…I can’t do this alone…”

Gillian scoffed. “Wi’ the way he’s acting now, I bloody hope he does leave. Feckin’ louse.”

Well, she’d gotten what she wanted.

“I never bloody liked the bastard. I knew I should ha’ said something when he proposed. God dammit.”

Gillian had been the one to assure her that she was a good mother, that Faith’s triggers were not her fault, that she was doing the best she could.

Claire just needed to hear that right now.

As expected, Claire’s phone buzzed shortly after. She picked it up, expecting it to be a text in response, but Gillian was already calling her. Claire smiled to herself and sniffled.

“Hello?” she said, already embarrassed at how snuffly she sounded.

Gillian was quiet for a moment, then said: “Oh, is that wee Faith?”

Apparently, her shrieks were loud enough to be heard across the ocean. Claire sighed. “Yup.”

“She’s having one of her meltdowns, and ye’re all upset and feelin’ like you failed her, aye? That ye made the wrong decisions?”

Claire’s eyes quickly welled up again. “Yes,” she croaked.

“Oh, Claire. Ye ken that lass thinks ye’re a bloody queen, don’t ye? She worships ye.”

“When she’s not biting me. Or throwing things at me.”

“Och, biting again, aye? Well…ye ken that’s the autism. That’s no’ yer wee Faith. She canna help it when it takes over.”

“I know. I just…”

“She loves ye, Claire. I’ve seen it wi’ my own eyes. And I ken that she knows how fiercely ye love her. The autism just makes it hard fer her to see sometimes, aye?”

Claire breathed shakily. “I know you’re right. I mean…I know all this already. It just…”

“I ken. Ye need the reassurance. ’Specially since the Sperm Donor hasnae given ye any such thing his whole miserable life.”

Despite the pain that that fact caused, Claire could not help but smirk at Gillian’s newest term of endearment for the man who sired Faith. “Right.”

“Must be hard over there, all alone.” Claire could hear the twinge of sadness in her voice.

“I miss you, too, Gi.”

“I’m counting down the days ’till Christmas. Canna wait to see my two favorite lasses.”

Claire smiled. “And I can’t wait to see my best friend, and my daughter’s Godmother.”

“I’ve got to run, I had to sneak into a supply closet to call ye. I’m in the middle of a shift — ”

“Gillian,” Claire admonished. “You shouldn’t be doing that — ”

“Nothing more important than making sure my girls are okay. Aye?”

Claire sighed and rolled her eyes, but her smile widened.

“I hear she’s still carrying on, but just let her get it out of her wee system. She’ll be back to her humming and her movies soon enough. Just wait it out. Ye ken.”

“Yeah…I know.”

“I love ye, Claire. And I miss ye. Hang in there. I’ll call ye again sometime this week when I’m no’ in the middle of a shift. I wanna hear all about this Long Island of yers.”

Claire chuckled. “Alright. I eagerly await.”

“G’bye.”

“Bye, Gi. Thank you. Love you.”

“Quite welcome.”

She hung up, and Claire dropped her phone in her lap again. Faith was going to be inconsolable for at least another half hour, and Claire didn’t think she could bear just sitting there and listening. She didn’t turn on the telly or any music, lest she miss a suspicious noise or not hear that she stopped crying, but she did get to work sorting through a few more boxes. On her way over to a particular stack, she tripped over something. She looked down to see the riding helmet. Claire grimaced and gave it a strong kick, sending it rolling under the coffee table. She almost laughed: she’d only just admonished her daughter for doing almost the exact same thing.

“Bloody fucking helmet bastard piece of shit…”

She dissolved into an incoherent string of expletives, grateful that Faith, nor anyone else, could hear her.

Chapter Text

Jamie followed after Nolan and his mother, chatting amiably with her while Nolan hummed happily to himself. He was a shy lad, nonverbal, anxious. Much like his next client that was likely due to show up any minute. Her and her mother, with their twin eyes and nearly identical hair. The bairn would hum and bounce, and her mother would hold the little hand with her own delicate fingers, smiling dazzlingly and laughing, the corners of her eyes crinkling just a bit.

“Don’t you think?”

“Hm? Och , aye.”

Jamie had not heard a single word the poor woman had said.

“That’s what I said!” she exclaimed, laughing.

Jamie forced himself to laugh, and Toni flashed him a knowing look.

The wicked besom had been teasing him about the Beauchamp lasses all week.

Toni scheduled Nolan for the same day and time for next week, and Jamie smiled at seeing the lad fiddling with a loose string on the bottom of his mother’s shirt. He twirled it around the base of his pointer finger like he always did with the hairs of his horse’s mane. Quite the tactile lad.

When it was time for them to go, Jamie crouched down to Nolan for the customary high-five. It had taken him a while to get used to Jamie enough to allow the physical contact, but it was part of the routine now.

Perhaps someday it’ll be the same fer wee Faith.

As if on cue, exactly at two o’clock, the front door burst open, and in came the woman in question, completely breathless. Her hair was tied up sloppily with stray tendrils framing her face, she was wearing glasses, her face was all red and flushed with panic.

She’s even bonnier than I remember.

“I’m so sorry we’re late, I really tried to get us here fifteen minutes early,” she stammered.

“Dinna fash, Sassenach.” He waved her off, then waved to Nolan. “S’long, Nolan, Mrs. Weiss.” He turned back to Claire. “Catch yer breath a bit, lass. No need to panic.”

“Christ, I left the helmet in the car…”

She didn’t even give him a chance to say that it was alright, there were plenty other helmets in Faith’s size, she could bring it back in later, before she had dashed outside again, tugging an ever complacent Faith with her.

“Happy now, Fraser?” Toni smirked.

“Hm?”

Toni sighed, rolling her eyes. “First, you ignore Mrs. Weiss, then me…someone’s in la-la-land.”

“Enough, dammit.”

Thankfully, before Toni could sink her claws any deeper, the door burst open again.

“Alright,” Claire panted. “Think we’re ready now.”

“Fine, fine,” Jamie said, hands in his pockets. “Did the helmet work out alright?”

“Not at all, at first,” she admitted. “I got one of these for trying.”

Claire held up her hand, smiling sheepishly. Jamie’s eyes widened to see a couple of fading scars suspiciously in the shape of little teeth.

“Ah, I see.” Jamie nodded, brow furrowed. “Will she be alright?”

“Should be. I was able to get her to leave it on by Wednesday with Mrs. Lickett’s help.” She smiled. “Oh, that’s her tutor, home aid, eventual-babysitter. She wears many hats.” She chuckled softly.

“Aye, I’d imagine she needs to.” He then crouched down, eye-level with the wee lass, far enough away for her comfort. “Hallo there, Faith. It’s great to see ye again. I see ye’ve got Horsie wi’ ye?” Faith hummed and shook the stuffed horse in her hand. “Aye, that’s braw.” Jamie’s stomach was doing tumbles. He just knew that the child loved being here, and he knew what he was about to say would send her over the moon with joy.

“D’ye ken what today is, Faith?” he said. “Today’s the day ye get to ride Pippi. Isn’t that exciting?”

Her horse-holding-hand shook again, and Jamie’s heart warmed.

“Hear that, lovie?” Claire crouched down, still holding her hand. “You get to ride the horse today!”

Faith hummed and gave a little bounce, and Claire let out that beautiful, bell-like laughter, her eyes crinkling just like he knew they would.

“I think she understands,” Claire said, beaming up at Jamie.

“Aye.” He nodded, his heart seemingly growing three sizes. “I’d say she does.”

With that, Jamie stood up again and led them out the back door, not missing the smug look on Toni’s face.

Christ…if she wasna a lass…

Instead of imagining pummeling his coworker, he turned around to chat with the Beauchamp’s, walking backwards toward the stables as he was wont to do. With every step they took, Faith’s excitement grew exponentially. It seemed she remembered the way to the stables quite clearly, as she kept tugging on Claire’s hand.

“Lucky ye’ve got a good grip there,” Jamie commented, cocking his head down toward the squirming child.

“Lucky, indeed. Though, I can’t say she’s never managed to slip away.” Claire averted her gaze shamefully. “I hope she outgrows that soon before she gets too big for me to hold back. I really don’t care to invest in a child-leash.”

Jamie laughed at that. “Nae, I dinna think she’d very much care fer that.”

Faith uttered quite a loud hum as they reached the stable, reaching up for the handles of the doors.

“Alright, lass, remember what we said last week.” Jamie crouched. “Calm. Yes? Big breaths. Alright?” He gave her the thumbs up, and she repeated immediately.

“I’ve started using that one, too,” Claire said with a closed-mouth smile, her lips curving delicately under her nose.

“That’s good,” he said enthusiastically, standing up and reaching for the doors. “The more she gets used to it the better.” He heaved open the doors, and he could swear Faith started vibrating with excitement.

“She doesn’t get this excited over anything unrelated to Disney,” Claire said, shaking her head in astonishment. “See that? She didn’t even hear me when I said the ‘D’ name.”

Jamie uttered a chuckle, rumbling in his chest. “I’m glad to hear it. That she’s excited, I mean. That’s the idea, ye ken, get them excited fer something other than what they’re used to. Broaden their horizons.”

“Right,” Claire said, amber eyes shimmering as her smile widened, revealing just a small flash of her teeth.

“Alright, wean, here she is,” Jamie said as they reached Pippi. “Remember now…calm, Faith. Calm. Yes?”

They exchanged a thumbs up, and, contrary to last week, Faith did not squirm or whine. She waited for Jamie to release Pippi from her stall. Claire took Horsie from Faith to avoid a repeat of last week and having to clean it again.

“She gets to get out of bed today,” Jamie said playfully. He knelt down and clicked his tongue, and Pippi obediently lowered her head. “Say hello, Faith.”

As if it were muscle memory, Faith gently placed her wee hand on the horse’s snout.

“That’s a good lass,” Jamie said gently. “Nice and gentle, good girl, Faith.”

Jamie could see that Faith was tugging on Claire’s hand, trying to release herself.

“It’s alright, Sassenach. Ye can let her go.”

Claire looked down at him, biting her lip in uncertainty.

“Ye have to trust her a bit, aye?”

Claire nodded hesitantly.

“Besides, she canna go anywhere far. Erica willna allow it.” He cocked his head toward one of the teenage volunteers in another stall, who picked her head up and waved sweetly at the mention of her name. “And neither will I.”

Finally, peeling her fingers off of Faith’s hand one by one, Claire released her daughter. She braced herself, seemingly waiting for her to dash away, but Faith simply joined her hands together, petting Pippi with both her hands now, her wides wide with wonder.

“See?” Jamie looked up at her with a crooked grin.

Claire breathed in astonishment. Jamie couldn’t take his eyes off of her for a moment, the amber in her eyes melting into liquid honey at the sight of her daughter free of anxiety.

Christ, he’d do anything to put her mind that much at ease every second of every day.

“Alright,” he said, tearing his eyes away from her, clicking his tongue. “How’d ye like to lead her to the riding hall, Faith?”

Faith simply looked dreamily up as Pippi’s head returned to its normal height again. Claire instinctively went to take hold of Faith’s hand again.

“It’s alright, Miss Beauchamp,” Jamie said quickly. “She’s no’ going anywhere. Look at her.”

Faith was simply entranced, staring up at Pippi with her mouth gaping open.

“Erica,” Jamie called, and the bright-eyed blonde strode over to them. “This is Miss Beauchamp and her wee Faith. Erica is one of our volunteers.”

“Hi, great to meet you,” Erica firmly shook Claire’s hand, and then she looked down at Faith. “Hi, sweetie!”

“Erica’s gonnae stay close by while we teach Faith how to lead the horse. Alright?”

Claire nodded. “Okay.”

“You can stand back, Miss Beauchamp, it’s ok. We've got her,” Erica assured her.

Jamie did not miss how incessantly Claire was chewing on her lip, how her fingers fiddled with the edge of her shirt as she stepped away a bit.

“Alright, lass,” Jamie said, crouching down again to meet Faith’s eye. “I’d like ye to hold onto this, the reins, remember? Hold on very tight. Ye’re gonnae lead yer royal horse to the riding hall all by yerself. How’s that sound?”

He held out the reins to her and watched her gape in awe as they rested in her little palm. Jamie hesitated before reaching out to touch her, as he always did with new kids, but she’d allowed him to close her hands around the stress ball last week, so it would stand to reason that she’d allow the same for the reins.

Carefully, gently, he closed her fingers around the reins, and she actually giggled. He broke out into a wide grin.

“Great job, Faith,” he said. “Hold tight. See?” He made a tight fist with one of his hands, and she mimicked him with the reins. “Ah! Lovely.”

He craned his neck to see how mom was doing, and his heart constricted in his chest to see that she looked like she would burst into tears again. His eyes unconsciously flicked to her hand, where he remembered the wee bite marks. Evidently, it had not been an easy week for the Beauchamp’s, and Claire’s relief at seeing it all come to fruition was heartwarming to say the least.

“Right,” Jamie stood to full height once more. “Off we go, then.”

——

Claire watched from a few feet away as Faith, her Faith, led an entire horse with her own two, little hands. Erica kept her hand tightly on the bit, standing behind Faith, and Jamie led the way, walking backwards, of course. Faith was entirely at ease, something Claire had never seen. She was calm, and quiet, aside from the occasional hum of contentment.

Please, God, don’t let that fucking helmet ruin it.

She blushed inwardly; surely God wouldn’t appreciate such language.

Jamie spoke very proudly of Erica as they walked; apparently she’d been in the program as a child and had ascended the ranks to volunteer.

“When I was a kid, I was impossible,” Erica admitted. “I’m on the spectrum, too. Equine therapy was my parents’ last hope.”

“Aye, and look at ye now.” Jamie beamed. “Helping wee lasses just like ye.”

Erica’s smile widened. “It’s still therapeutic in a way, I guess. I really wouldn’t be anything I am today without this place.”

Claire smiled fondly. There she was: a success story of equine therapy, right in front of her. Of course, the girl was obviously higher functioning than Faith; Erica would likely graduate high school on time, go to college, get married, things that Claire could only dream of for Faith. Perhaps those were all things that hadn’t been possible for Erica at some point in her life and the horses, and people like Jamie, had brought it out of her.

Claire was hopeful that, even though Faith’s starting point was a little--or maybe a lot --different than Erica’s, they could make similar strides together. She, Faith, and Jamie.

They reached the riding hall, an enormous covered area. Claire could see Thomas, the boy she met last week, on a horse with a female therapist, someone Jamie addressed as Kate, and Mary standing behind the fence.

Fear gripped Claire’s gut. Was she going to have to stay outside the fence?

“Alright, here it is, lass.” Jamie gestured grandly. “Time to get inside and get on Pippi’s back.”

Faith was buzzing with excitement at seeing another child riding a horse; the connection was made in her little head, and now she was very ready to get on her own horse.

“Before we get in there, is there any established routine? Wi’ the helmet?” Jamie asked.

“Oh, uh, right.” Claire scrambled into her purse for the little custom-made, laminated picture-book of flashcards that Mrs. Lickett had made to get Faith to understand why she had to wear the helmet.

“Her aid came up with this,” Claire said, handing him the book.

He quickly thumbed through it and nodded curtly. “Very similar to most others I see. Jest fine.”

Claire was only momentarily baffled at the idea of there being multiple children with booklets just like it, before realizing that Faith’s particular needs were really not so uncommon. Especially not in a place like this that had seen children up and down the spectrum.

Claire practically had the bloody thing memorized by now: the first page showed horse jockeys in helmets, the second page showed a cartoon little girl with curly brown hair standing with a horse, the next one with the girl in her own helmet, then on the horse, a thumbs up after that, then the McDonald’s emblem with a happy meal, and a happy little girl on the last page. The McDonald’s as a reward had been Claire’s idea, and Mrs. Lickett had been quite pleased. It was all about establishing a routine.

Only little girls that wear their helmets get to ride their horse and, when they’re done, they get their favorite food. Plain and simple.

Claire just hoped it was that simple here, with all the adrenaline likely pulsing through her little body.

Faith, Pippi, Jamie, and Erica entered the hall through the fence, Erica shutting it behind them. Claire watched with bated breath as they stopped and Jamie crouched to Faith again, reading the little booklet out loud, just out of her ear shot. She literally held her breath as Erica slowly lowered the helmet onto Faith’s head, and she thought she might faint when she clasped it shut under her chin.

Faith didn’t make a sound. Not a single peep.

“Yay!” Erica said, clapping her hands very softly. “Great job, princess! Look at you!”

“Ah, what a braw lass, indeed!” Jamie beamed, giving her a thumbs up again, which she enthusiastically returned. Erica put down a block with three steps so that Faith could climb up onto Pippi. She climbed the steps and allowed Jamie to help her settle into the saddle, and once she did, Erica broke out into another little celebration to encourage her, as did Jamie.

“She’s doing so well.”

Claire jumped, turning to her right.

“I’m sorry,” Mary said in a mousy voice. “Didn’t mean to sneak up on you. I’m terribly quiet.”

Claire sighed with a chuckle. “Quite alright.”

“She is, though,” Mary reiterated. “It took Thomas a bit longer to calm him down enough for them to let him on.”

Claire smiled. “He’s doing fine, now.”

“Oh, yes, he’s gotten so much better,” Mary said, smiling. “I’m very impressed about the helmet. Lots of children with her sensory issues would be rolling in the dirt about now.”

“We had time to practice.” Claire watched as Erica removed the step-stool, and Jamie began to guide the horse to start moving, having already shown Faith how to hold on.

“How’s that?” Mary asked.

“Oh, we took home a helmet last week,” Claire said flippantly, never taking her eyes off of Faith.

“What?” Mary sounded shocked. “You were allowed to do that?”

“Yes, of course. Jamie just gave it to me before we left.”

“Oh.”

“What?” Claire finally tore her eyes off of her daughter, looking at Mary, concerned by Mary’s confusion.

“Well, nothing…it’s just…I don’t think they’ve ever done that before,” she said shyly. “I mean, surely they’d have done the same for the other children that needed it, don’t you think?”

Claire’s eyes narrowed, her brow furrowing. “Oh.” She turned her attention back to Faith, watching the horse go oh-so-slowly, as Jamie instructed her how to turn, how to stop, how to go.

“Have I said something wrong?” Mary said, her voice hitched with panic.

“No, no, it’s okay,” Claire assured her. “I’m just…puzzled, I suppose.”

“Right.” Mary paused for a moment before clearing her throat, a very tiny, squeaky sound. “Will you, um, be here this time next week?”

“I don’t think so, actually. I start work at the hospital on Monday and I may have to come later next week to accommodate my schedule.”

Christ, the thought of starting work already made Claire nauseous.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Mary said. “I do enjoy talking to you, and Faith is just adorable.”

“Oh, thank you,” Claire smiled warmly, watching her daughter’s smile grow wider and wider. “I like talking to you, too.”

“There’s um, a Facebook group, for us moms,” Mary said, her voice small again. “You don’t have to join, of course, but I just thought I’d let you know. Especially since you’re new to the area. Figured it’d be nice for you to have some friends. Or something like that.”

Claire turned to her again. “I appreciate that, Mary. Thank you.”

“Sometimes we organize get-togethers outside of the stables, bowling, pizza night, arcades. It’s great for the kids and good for us, too.”

Claire bit her lip. “That sounds really great, but I’m not sure if Faith is ready for anything like that.”

“You don’t have to go, of course!” Mary said quickly. “There’s no pressure at all. In fact, most of the moms in the group just see the posts and chat online. Lots of kids can’t handle the get-togethers. Not at first, anyway. If nothing else, you might gain someone to, uh, hang out with yourself.”

“Hm. That sounds nice.” The prospect of having somewhat of a social life was indeed very intriguing. Getting married and pregnant right before medical school had been poor judgement on Claire’s part, though she didn’t regret anything that brought Faith into her life. She’d had less and less time to see Gillian and their other friends and then, of course, Faith’s diagnosis really meant goodbye to a social life. Perhaps other women who’d had to bid farewell to any adult interaction would be a comfort to have as friends.

“Claire Beauchamp? Is that you?” Mary said, holding up her phone, revealing Claire’s Facebook page on her screen.

“The very same,” Claire said. She briefly wondered if the girl would find it strange to see how suspiciously empty her Facebook was. Any pictures of Frank, any posts about their engagement or wedding had been erased permanently, leaving behind pictures from college, and the precious few pictures of Faith she’d felt comfortable sharing.

“Great. I’ll add you to the group.” Mary smiled. Thomas suddenly shouted quite loudly, and Mary frantically looked over to Faith, still concerned about the last time her son had triggered Claire’s daughter.

“I’m sorry…” Mary said. “He’s very, well, vocal.”

Claire chuckled, briefly glancing over at the happy little boy. “That’s alright. Between the helmet and her focus I don’t think she noticed.”

Claire looked at her own child again, heart warm as Erica gave another little celebration, clapping her hands and shaking her fists in the air. Jamie was simply beaming, his blue eyes swimming with affection for her little girl. How could a man have such a heart that he possessed enough love to care so deeply about every one of his clients? Claire knew full well that one could not fake that look in Jamie’s eyes. He genuinely and truly cared about her child, celebrated her joys and triumphs like they were his own.

It was making her dizzy.

Then there was the bloody helmet…What on Earth possessed Jamie to give her that helmet if it was not something they usually did? Was he even allowed to do that? Did he break the rules for Faith? Why would he do that?

Claire leaned on the fence, pensive. Jamie Fraser. What an enigma.

The rest of the hour seemed to fly by, and Claire actually felt sad at seeing Faith dismount the horse. They weren’t completely through, however, and Claire watched in awe as Jamie taught Faith how to brush Pippi. He showed her with his own brush how to give “short wee flicks,” as he called it, and before long, Faith was doing it all on her own, eliciting another mini-celebration from Erica.

Claire was in utter awe of her daughter’s control, her gentleness. She was a completely different kid here and now than the kid that threw a helmet and bit her mother. It was astonishing. And Jamie, he looked so proud. He stood back and watched Faith brush Pippi, giving little instructions every so often. He was simply glowing. But he was not merely proud at his work, at being the one to teach Faith. He was proud of her.  

Claire didn’t even realize she was crying until she felt Mary’s hand on her shoulder.

“No shame in crying,” she said timidly. “I did, too. A lot harder than you, I might add.”

Claire sniffled. “It’s just…”

“I know. It’s amazing.”

Claire had thankfully managed to calm herself down by the time they were ready to bring Pippi back to the stable. As they traversed the grounds, Faith dutifully leading her horse, Jamie leading the way, Claire could feel his eyes on her. She was looking down at Faith, but she could tell he was looking at her, could feel that he knew she’d been crying again. She’d never exactly been good at hiding her emotions, and Jamie seemed to be able to read her even more clearly than most people.

Jamie walked Faith through the same farewell as last week, a sugar cube, a pat on the muzzle, and a “bye-bye, Pippi.” Claire waved at the horse as well as she took Faith’s hand. Faith kept looking back and waving, even as Claire tugged her further and further away.

Claire broke into a wide grin when she noticed, staring dreamily down at her daughter. “I think somebody’s in love.”

“What?”

Jamie’s response was so abrupt it caused Claire to jump.

Och , aye, I’d say so,” he stammered, looking very much like he was being choked. Then he cleared his throat. “Pippi certainly reciprocates. I can tell when the horse really likes their kid, ye ken.”

Claire smiled warmly, but she couldn’t help narrowing her eyes at him. Was he… blushing ?

There was no time to contemplate this, however, as they soon reentered the little welcome center. Toni was already scheduling Thomas and taking payment from Mary. Claire stood behind them in line, holding onto Faith, who’d begun bouncing again. She was likely growing quite excited for her promised meal now that the helmet endeavor had proven successful.

Mary took Thomas’s hand and turned to leave, and Mary flashed Claire a broad smile.

“Talk to you later?” Mary said.

“Yeah, I’ll talk to you later.” Claire could not deny the warmth that settled in her chest at the thought of having a friend that wasn’t an entire ocean away.

She approached Toni at the counter.

“Alright, so you need a different time for next week?” Toni said, flipping through the schedule.

“Yes. I don’t get out of the hospital until four on Fridays. I had to beg for at least that.” She smiled sheepishly. “Your last sessions are five to six, right?”

“Right. Let me see now…” Toni’s eyes narrowed. “It looks like Jamie isn’t available next Friday at five. How about Thursday?”

“I’m at the hospital until eight the rest of the week. I’m not kidding when I say I had to literally beg them to let me get out early enough on Fridays to get me here.”

“Well, I wouldn’t recommend this for someone with Faith’s needs, but you could try a different therapist next week — ”

“No,” Jamie cut in. Claire hadn’t even realized he’d still been leaning on the counter. “That willna be necessary. Can ye no’ switch Faith wi’ Izzy?”

Toni looked completely flabbergasted for a few seconds before jerkily turning back to her papers. “Alright…I can call Izzy’s mom and see if she’d be alright switching times.”

“Please, I don’t want to be a bother,” Claire said hastily. “If it’s too much trouble, we can — ”

“No trouble at all, lass,” Jamie said. “We do this sort o’ thing all the time. Like doctors.” He flashed a grin at her, and something strange happened in her chest.

“Uh-huh,” Toni muttered as she wrote a few things down. “Alrighty, then!” Her normal, chipper attitude returned. “You’re all set for five next Friday, and I’ll call you if something doesn’t work with the switch.

“Great,” Claire breathed, relieved. “Thank you, I really appreciate that.”

“No problem. Now, remind me again, what insurance do you have?”

“Oh, it doesn’t cover this. I’m paying out of pocket,” Claire said. “But it’s, well…” She could feel her face getting hot, and she lowered her voice a bit. “I won’t be getting the money until the end of the month. From my ex-husband.”

From the corner of her eye, she could see Jamie divert his attention to something behind him, trying not to listen to this obviously private moment.

“Oh, okay, I gotcha,” Toni said quietly. “Don’t worry about it. You can pay for everything you’ve missed whenever you can. No big deal.”

Claire felt the knot in her stomach loosen. “Wonderful. Thank you so much.”

“Of course. So, until next week, then?”

“Until next week!” Claire said. “Say bye-bye now, Faith.”

Faith waved enthusiastically at Toni, and then at Jamie.

“G’bye, wee princess,” Jamie said, that bright blue shimmering again. “Miss Beauchamp.”

Claire stopped briefly. “There’s no need to be so formal. You can call me Claire,” she insisted. “Even ‘Sassenach’ is better than Miss Beauchamp .” She smirked at him.

There it was again, that look, like someone was choking him.

“Aye, alright.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets. “G’bye, Claire.”

She felt her cheeks redden at the intensity with which he held her gaze. Frankly, she’d expected him to just say “Sassenach.” She hadn’t been prepared to hear her name roll off his tongue like that, so effortlessly and, well…beautifully.

Never one to relinquish the last word, nor one to ever admit embarrassment, Claire saluted with her free hand, and piped: “Toodle-oo, Mister Jamie.”

Without waiting for a reaction, she turned around and pushed the door open, sighing contentedly to hear Faith’s happy humming.

Jamie Fraser. An enigma, indeed.

Chapter Text

Claire was supposed to be looking at charts on the computer in front of her, and she would, of course, right after she finished checking her phone for any messages from Mrs. Lickett.

“Beauchamp!”

Fuck.

“That’s the third time I’ve caught you on your phone. You trying to get fired on your first day?” 

Her supervisor, Doctor Moore, was the most Nurse Ratched type Claire had ever seen in real life: tyrannical and unforgiving. The only difference was the grating nasality of her thick Long Island accent. Claire opened her mouth to defend herself, for the third time, but Ratched cut her off.

“Plenty of other doctors have kids at home, Doctor Beauchamp. Do you see any of the rest of them with their heads buried in their phones like teenagers?”

Claire could feel the tips of her ears growing hot with rage, but she swallowed it down and answered as levelly as possible: “No, Doctor Moore.”

“Get going. Your team is waiting for you.”

Claire exhaled heavily as soon as the tight-faced woman bustled out of the room, clenching her teeth to avoid outwardly groaning.

“The Ratched already on your nerves?”

Claire practically jumped out of her skin. She turned in the swiveling chair to see a kind-faced black man about her age, perhaps a bit older, smiling at her. He was sitting at a computer as well, craning his neck around to look at her. His eyes were dark, but soft.

“Did you read my bloody mind?” Claire stammered, still slightly alarmed.

He gave a short, barking laugh. “Seems I did. Everyone calls her that. Not to her face, mind you.”

“Wasn’t planning on it.” Claire’s eyes widened at the thought of doing so.

“I’m Joe, Joe Abernathy.” He stood and crossed the room to shake her hand.

“Claire Beauchamp,” Claire returned, taking his hand.

He chuckled as he returned his hand to his side.

“What?” Claire said, face scrunching in suspicion.

“Just thinking about you asking if I read your bloody mind,” he said, flashing his teeth in a wide grin. “I heard you were English, but to hear it is another thing.”

Claire rolled her eyes, though she couldn't suppress her own smile as she turned back to the computer to complete her given task.

“Kids at home, huh?” His tone was sympathetic, having heard Doctor Moore’s reaming out of Claire.

“Just one,” Claire said. “I’m quite aware there are other parents here,” she continued hotly, though her anger was not directed at the man standing before her. “But I’d like to know how many of them are single parents of a daughter with special needs.”

Joe nodded in quiet understanding. “That must be tough, leaving her all day.”

Claire nodded, fighting the urge to check her phone again. “I’ve never left her alone with a babysitter this long. When I was in school I was still married, so she wasn’t ever alone for too long even though her father was a professor. After the move and the new schedules…I’m just worried.” All the while, Claire kept her eyes on the screen, scanning over charts and making mental notes. “The woman’s a marvel; I wouldn’t have hired her if she wasn’t. I just can’t help it. She’s nonverbal, my daughter. Autism.”

“Ah.” Joe nodded. “Gotcha.”

“So I just keep waiting for a call that she’s having a meltdown and that even the all-knowing, licensed professional can’t calm her down because she can’t tell her what’s wrong.” Claire shook her head, sighing. “It’s silly, I know.”

“Nah, not at all.” Joe shrugged, keeping his tone casual, but his eyes still shone with sympathy.

“Christ, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to unload my whole life story on you.”

“Don’t worry about it. I get it. I’ve never personally known anyone with autism, but you see it come in and out of the hospital often enough. It’s scary as hell when there’s something wrong and they can’t tell you, even the verbal ones sometimes.”

“Right.”

“I didn’t mean to make you worry more,” he said quickly. “I’m sure everything is just fine. All I’m saying is I get why you’re worried. And Ratched sure as hell doesn’t. I’d like to tell her to kiss my ass.”

Claire chuckled through her nose, taking note of one more thing on the computer before turning to smile up at him.

“Thanks, Doctor Abernathy.”

“Please, none of that in private.” He waved her off. “Just Joe when there are no patients.”

“Alright, then.” Claire logged off the computer and gathered her things. “Thanks, Joe.”

“No problem. Good luck out there, Lady Jane.”

She paused in the doorway. “What was that?”

He grinned. “One of the other residents called you that. Said your accent sounds like you just had tea with the queen.” He held up his hands, pantomiming holding a teacup and saucer, sticking his pinky out.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.” Claire laughed, rolling her eyes as she wrenched the door open.

“Toodle-pip, my lady!” She heard him call behind her.

Christ, was she doomed to have nicknames thrown at her reminding her of her Englishness for all eternity?

Her heart warmed at the thought of that soft Scottish burr saying Sassenach , and more laughter bubbled in her chest at the thought of her newest title.

She supposed she didn’t mind.

——

Claire was dead on her feet by the time eight o’clock rolled around. She briefly glanced back at the hospital in her rear-view mirror as she pulled away, and despite how her head and feet throbbed, she was thrilled at the prospect of every day being like this one.

When she’d done her research on specialities back in the days before med school, she’d read of the unpredictability of Emergency Medicine, of never knowing what kinds of emergencies would burst through the doors at any given moment. The prospect had thrilled her then, and experiencing it first-hand now was even more thrilling. Today alone, she’d saved a man’s finger after a cooking knife incident, put a shoulder back in place, stopped a head wound from bleeding long enough to see the patient into a successful surgery, and saved a pregnant woman and the baby after trauma-induced labor from a car accident.

It was quite a heady feeling.

Despite the thrill, however, there was nothing Claire craved more than the sight of her little girl’s face, the sound of her happy humming to see that Mummy was home.

The whole day had gone by without a hitch, unless Mrs. Lickett was hiding something from her. The only updates she’d gotten were positive ones, prompted by Claire’s frantic “is everything ok??” texts.

Claire had washed up and changed out of her scrubs at the hospital so that she could spend whatever little time was left before Faith’s bedtime with her on the couch, and then she could fully shower and decompress once Faith was asleep.

Claire turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door, but before she could take a single step into the living room, a little body was plastered against her legs, wrapping itself tightly around her.

“Hello, baby!” Claire cried out joyously as a buzz of humming filled her ears. “Oh, Mummy missed you so much!” She pried her daughter off her legs and scooped her into her arms, dropping her bag on the porch. Claire held her close, kissing her cheek.

Faith nuzzled her face into Claire’s, rubbing her mother’s cheeks as their foreheads rested together.

“Hello love,” Claire whispered, rocking her gently in the doorway. “I missed you, too, baby. Yes, hello.”

Claire gradually moved them into the apartment, kicking her bag inside and nudging the door shut with her knee.

“Hello, Mrs. Lickett,” Claire said, struggling to meet her eye around Faith’s pawing of her face.

The older woman was smiling warmly. “Hello, Miss Beauchamp.”

“Everything was alright today, then?”

“Sure was,” Mrs. Lickett said. “Faith was a very good girl, right Faith?”

“Is that right, lovie? Were you a good girl for Mrs. Lickett?” Claire shifted her onto one hip and bounced her, eliciting a few giggles. A glance at the telly told her that Finding Nemo was nearing its end; Mrs. Lickett had paused it upon Claire’s arrival.

“How was the first day at the hospital?” Mrs. Lickett said, gathering her things.

“It was…a lot. But good, very good.” Claire crashed on the couch with Faith, trying to settle her and failing. Faith very firmly insisted on remaining in Claire’s lap. “I did miss her very much, though. It’s been a while since I’ve been away from her for so long.” She wrapped her arms around her and pressed a tender kiss to the crown of her head.

“I understand. I could tell she missed you, too, but I kept her pretty busy.”

“I appreciate that.”

“We started some basic signs today,” Mrs. Lickett beamed. “Might be a while before it registers, but at least she knows now. The more you start using them around her, the better.”

“Right.” Claire nodded. “I’ve been watching those videos you sent me every night.”

“That’s good.”

Faith made a rather indignant noise, pointing toward the telly.

“Somebody wants to get back to her movie,” Mrs. Lickett said.

“Right.” Claire forced a smile. She wanted to stop her from leaving, to sit down at the table and spend the entire night talking about every minute of the entire day, every little accomplishment, everything Faith was learning. But she supposed if she wanted that much involvement, she’d be home with them herself instead of pursuing a career as a full-time physician.

Jesus, Beauchamp. You sound like Frank.

Shuddering at the thought, Claire adjusted Faith so she could watch Mrs. Lickett go. “I’d see you out, but I’m a bit pinned down at the moment.” She gestured with her head to Faith, sitting in her lap and locking her grip on Claire’s arms around her.

“No problem. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Say goodnight, Faith,” Claire said, releasing an arm so she could wave to the woman. Faith mimicked her, waving emphatically as Mrs. Lickett shut the door behind her. The second she was gone, Faith groaned again at the telly, and Claire smiled.

“Alright, be patient.” Claire reached for the remote on the coffee table. “I’m quite eager to see if Nemo escapes to the ocean, as well.”

Claire, of course, had the movie memorized, along with the rest of the DVDs in their vast collection. Perhaps it was Faith rubbing off on her, but she didn’t think she’d ever tire of watching them over and over again, especially not if it meant she would always get to spend this time cradling her little girl.

When the movie ended about fifteen minutes later, Faith slipped out of Claire’s lap and waited expectantly by the DVD player. Normally, Faith liked to listen to the music during the ending credits, so Claire didn’t make any moves to take the disc out yet. Only when Faith grunted and started tugging on Claire’s hand did she get the message.

“No music tonight, darling?” she said, puzzled, as she removed the disc and handed the box to Faith to file away. She was buzzing with excitement. Something was up, and Claire was none the wiser. The very second the DVD was away, Faith bolted into her bedroom, leaving Claire bewildered. She’d only just started to get up when Faith returned, holding a pile of colorful paper in her hands.

“What’s this, now?” Claire’s face lit up at the sight of Faith’s toothy grin, holding up the construction paper. Claire could see they were cut into the shape of little fish, and they were plastered with glitter, pompoms, google-eyes, and marker.

“Did you make these, Faith? Did you make these little fishies?” Faith hummed loudly and jumped up and down. “Oh, they’re marvelous, darling! You’re quite the little artist!”

Claire perused every single colorful fish, and she made a note to thank Mrs. Lickett. Arts and crafts were something Claire had never been into as a child herself, and something she didn’t have the time or the creative mind to think of. It was obvious now that Faith adored creating, and Claire wanted to smack herself upside the head for not thinking of it sooner. God bless that Mrs. Lickett.

“No wonder we watched Nemo tonight, hm? Are these Nemo’s little friends, then?” Claire held up a bright pink paper fish and swam it around in the air, much to Faith’s delight. Faith joined in the little game, and though Claire knew that bedtime was rapidly approaching — for both of them — she couldn’t bring herself to stop.

After a few minutes, Claire led Faith into the kitchen so they could use magnets to put the fish on the fridge. Claire let her arrange them to her heart’s content, only leading her into the bathroom when she was satisfied.

Teeth brushed, pajamas donned, Faith tucked in, and nightlight on, Claire finally allowed herself to fully feel the exhaustion of her day. The adrenaline of seeing Faith had kept her wide awake on the drive home, and then actually being with her had chased away any thoughts of sleepiness. Now, she barely had the energy to prepare a shower, and she very well almost crashed into bed, fully dressed. It was sheer willpower that finally got her back into the bathroom. This reminded her that tomorrow was bath night for Faith, and she sent up a brief prayer that she would cooperate for Mrs. Lickett. She’d considered waiting until she got home and just taking her into the shower with her, but that would have interrupted the movie, and God forbid that should happen. But if she’d waited until the movie was over, it would have been too late, and the routine would be disrupted. No, it had to be Mrs. Lickett.

Washed and dressed for bed, Claire was wide awake, despite how weariness was etched into every muscle and bone in her body. She could not stop thinking about all of the silly little things that could go wrong while she was occupied at the hospital, of all the possible triggers for a meltdown that she would not be able to stop. No matter how well today had gone, no matter how wonderful Mrs. Lickett was, she’d never stop worrying. Maybe not never , but it would certainly be a long time. At some point in her fevered, internal ramblings, Claire teetered into oblivion, grateful for whatever sleep she was lucky enough to get before her alarm screamed again.

——

Claire drove home the following Friday, her knuckles white on the steering wheel and her vision blurred with tears. She’d been so damn grateful to clock out at four o’clock, and she’d barely made it out of the locker room without falling apart in front of Joe.

She lost a patient for the first time today. Paul Castano, forty-seven, much too young for the heart attack that killed him.

Claire had been beside herself, and Joe had soothed her, told her there was nothing she could have done.

“Go home and hug your daughter, Lady Jane,” he’d said. “Enjoy the horses. You need it as much as she does right now.”

And, Christ, did she.

Claire hugged Faith just a little too hard for the slightest bit too long when she got home after nearly bursting into tears at Faith’s joy to see her. Faith did not tolerate being held as such for very long, and she squirmed out of Claire’s grasp. Today, not only was Faith happy to see her mother, she was excited: she knew it was horse therapy day.

Seeing Faith so happy to see her and so excited to get to the stables was a welcome distraction from the anguish Claire was feeling. The drive over to the stables was calming as well, though Claire was now paranoid about the change in appointment times. Toni hadn’t called her at all, so she had no reason to believe that the switch hadn’t gone over well. She supposed after the day she’d had, she’d be prone to overthinking just about anything.

Upon arrival, she calmed considerably at seeing Faith’s exuberance, and even laughed when she began tugging on her hand, willing them to get inside faster.

Leave it to you to get me laughing on the worst of days, Faith.

The door to the visitor’s center opened, and Faith began humming loudly.

“There they are, the Beauchamp girls!” Toni greeted warmly.

“Hello, Toni. Say hello to Miss Toni, Faith.”

“Hello, Faith!” Toni called as Faith waved timidly.

Erica was standing by the counter, and she crouched down to greet Faith. “Hello, Princess. I’m so happy to see you again!”

Faith smiled shyly and hid half of her little body behind her mother’s legs.

“I’m gonna take you guys out to the stable today, get her started with the hellos and leading her to the riding hall.” Erica stood up to address Claire. “Jamie will join us when we get there.”

“Alright,” Claire said, exhaling deeply. “Shall we?”

——

Joe had been right. Claire needed that hour at the stables just as much as Faith had. As they were driving home, Claire felt something resembling peace settle in her heart. Faith was humming happily, kicking her legs, waving the newest Minion Happy Meal toy in the air.

She did very well again today. She was gentle with Pippi, she didn’t protest about the helmet, she was attentive to both Erica and Jamie. Claire kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something to go terribly wrong, but it just never did. Not at the stables, at least.

They arrived home, Faith zipping up the stairs to the front door as usual. Claire was grateful to get to watch an entire movie with Faith tonight, to decompress, to hold her little girl and be soothed by her oblivious, youthful happiness. When they passed through the front door, Claire dumped the contents of her arms onto the couch as usual and started toward the kitchen, but Faith did not follow. 

“Faithie, come on! Don’t you want your chicken?”

Faith didn’t seem to hear her. She lifted Claire’s purse and looked underneath, and then let out a groan.

“What’s the matter darling?”

Faith made a beeline for the front door, and Claire sprinted to lock it, having forgotten to do so upon arriving home.

“No, no, no,” she quickly blocked Faith’s exit. “What are you doing, Faith? What’s wrong?”

Faith began whining and pawing at Claire, hitting her thighs.

“Do not hit, Faith.” Claire crouched down and grabbed her wrists. “What is wrong? Hm? Hungry? Tired? Pain?” She did the signs that she’d learned from the videos Mrs. Lickett had sent. “Can you sign for Mummy? What’s wrong?”

Of course, she couldn’t. It was much too soon for Faith to be carrying out conversation; she’d only just learned any signs at all.

Faith suddenly began wailing.

“Faith, baby, it’s alright, I’m here…” She wrapped her in her arms, but it only lasted for a moment. Faith clawed her way out and began pounding on the door. 

What could possibly be wrong? What was she looking for on the couch…?

Then it dawned on her.

Horsie.

She hadn’t checked to see if Faith was holding the stuffed horse before they left the stables.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck.

“Oh, darling, it’s alright!” She stroked her head and tried cupping her cheeks. “Can you look at my eyes, Faith? Faith…it’s alright. We’ll get Horsie back next week. He’ll be alright.”

She was inconsolable.

Claire exhaled heavily and stood up to retrieve the Happy Meal from the coffee table.

“Aren’t you hungry, darling? McDonald’s! Your favorite!” She held the box in front of Faith’s eyes. “Come on, lovie, let’s go eat.”

She reached to grab her hand, but Faith shrieked and pulled back, apparently having no intention of eating a thing until Horsie was returned. She’d be quite hungry by next Friday.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ…” Claire threw the Happy Meal back on the coffee table and ran a hand through her hair.

She needs to eat dinner. I have to make this stop. There has to be something…

“Do you want to watch a movie, lovie? How about Frozen ?”

Claire scrambled to get the DVD in, holding her breath until the movie started, praying that she’d be drawn to the screen and sit down to watch quietly, and then she could gradually coax her to eat on the couch.

But she just continued wailing.

Claire knew full well once a meltdown was in motion it had to run its course. And this particular meltdown would not run its course until the missing object in question was found.

But she can’t not eat, she can’t not sleep…

Claire didn’t realize she started crying until it was too late.

It was just too much. She’d held a man’s hand today while he died before her eyes, and then hugged his inconsolable wife while she came to terms with having to tell her children their father wasn’t coming home. And then Claire had come home and sought comfort in her own child, and she’d gotten a bit, but of course it didn’t last long.

She knew by the time she drove back, the stable would be closed, so she could not go and pick it up. She tried calling the stable, but no one answered. Apparently, everyone had already gone home.

Faith gave a particularly loud shriek, and Claire felt all her nerves go shot one by one. Hands trembling she scrolled through her phone for something, anything.

Jamie.

Toni had provided her the stable number, her own number, and Jamie’s number in case the main phone was busy. He’d mentioned that he and the other therapists took turns staying after closing to see to the horses. She threw up a quick prayer before clicking on his contact to start a phone call. Even if he wasn’t the one that had stayed today, perhaps he could tell her who had and give her their number?

As the line rang, she felt surges of panic go through her. Was this even appropriate? To be contacting his personal cell number for something that wasn’t really an emergency?

Faith started pounding on the front door again, screaming her head off all the while.

Claire suddenly didn’t given a fuck about what was appropriate.

——

Jamie was sitting at his kitchen table, enjoying the stir fry he’d made for himself and his usual glass of whisky. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he made a note to check his texts later, but then it kept buzzing. Somebody was calling him.

Curious, he pulled out his phone and saw a number he didn’t recognize.

“Bloody telemarketers,” was his first thought, but the area code was local. Eyes narrowing in curiosity, he swiped up to accept the call, setting his fork down.

"Hallo? Who's this?"

"Uh...hi, Jamie. It's Claire. Claire Beauchamp. From the stables.”

Jamie felt like he’d had the wind knocked out of him.

"Oh...Oh! Uh, hello, Claire. What's uh...what's going on?"

Someone on the other end shrieked, and his stomach lurched.

"Is that Faith? Is she alright?"

"Yes, she's perfectly fine. Physically, at least. She left her horse at the stable, the stuffed one. She's absolutely beside herself and she won't stop crying. Nothing is calming her down, none of her other toys, not putting on a movie or music, not even food.”

Jamie felt his chest tighten. Her voice sounded strained, and she seemed completely frazzled. The second he’d laid eyes on her at the stable today he could tell that something was wrong. It wasn’t the usual sadness he saw in her eyes, it was something different, something visceral. Whatever was happening now was certainly not helping.

“She won't eat, and I know she won't sleep either. I called you because no one was picking up at the stable and I was hoping you'd still be there but just not near the phone?"

"Yeah, I'm still here. Just in the stable. Canna hear the phone," he answered without thinking. What the damned hell are ye doing, lad?

"Oh, thank Christ. I'll be there in twenty minutes."

"No," he said quickly. "I'll, uh, I'll bring it to ye."

"What...?"

"Wouldna do fer ye to be drivin' wi' Faith as she is now." Though Jamie was making things up to cover the fact that he was already home, he wasn't entirely wrong. Even if he was at the stable, he wouldn't feel comfortable with Claire driving twenty minutes with a screaming bairn. "Wouldna be safe.”

"But...it's...are you sure...? You wouldn't get in trouble?"

"Nah. I'm sure other therapists have done the same fer some o' their kids." 

Keep digging, James.

"But you haven't done it before?"

"No."

"But others have?"

"Aye." Liar .

"Alright...as long as you're sure it's not inappropriate."

"Only inappropriate if we make it so, Sassenach."

Why the bloody fuck did I say that?

Claire cleared her throat. “Right. So…you’ve got my address from Faith’s file?”

“Aye.”

“So...twenty minutes? Half hour?"

"Aye. Just about."

Idiot. Bloody feckin’ idiot.

"Alright. See you soon."

"Bye, then."

Jamie hung up, threw his phone on the table and slapped an exasperated hand over his face.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph! What is wrong wi’ ye?”

Chapter Text

Jamie was sitting in front of her apartment building, fingers incessantly tapping the steering wheel. He’d been sitting there for a solid minute now, though he couldn’t exactly put a name to the feeling that was paralyzing him.

He finally got himself to move by remembering that Faith had likely not stopped screaming since their phone call, and keeping them waiting any longer because he was something akin to nervous would be rather selfish of him. He swiped the wee horse off the passenger seat and departed his car, his pulse quickening with every step up to her second-story apartment. He could hear the screaming before he even reached the top step, and he clenched his jaw, his heart going out to Claire.

He took a deep breath before knocking on the door. Before he could even take his hand away from the door, it swung open, revealing a red-faced, swollen-eyed Claire. Watching the relief wash over her was like watching a devastating fire be put out, and Jamie finally released the breath he’d been holding.

“Come in, come in,” Claire said, waving him inside and shutting the door. “Faith, darling, look who it is. It’s Mister Jamie, lovie. And look who he’s brought.”

Jamie crouched down beside the wailing little girl and held up the stuffed horse. “Hallo, Faith. It’s alright now, Horsie is home. See?”

Faith’s wailing abruptly ceased, quieting to little sobs and snuffles as she reached for the horse. She hiccuped and sniffled as she rubbed the toy on each of her cheeks over and over, and then squeezed it to her chest.

“See? It’s alright, now. D’ye remember our big breaths, Faith?” Jamie said gently, taking a big heaving breath. “In and out. Remember? Can ye do that fer me? In,” he breathed in again, and Faith breathed in as well. “And out. Good lass. That’s it. One more time. In…and out. Good girl, Faith. There we go.”

With a few more deep breaths, Faith was no longer shuddering or gasping for air, and aside from the tear tracks on her face, one would never know she’d been crying.

“Faith…?” Claire’s voice sounded behind him, and Jamie felt his heart leap into his throat all over again. In calming Faith, he’d nearly forgotten that her mother was standing right behind him.

“Are you alright now, baby?” Claire stepped around Jamie and knelt beside her. “All better now that Horsie is home?” Faith gave a tiny nod. “Good girl. Can you give Mummy a hug?”

Faith melted into her mother’s arms, and Claire exhaled shakily, wrapping her arms tightly around her. She stroked the back of her head and kissed her temple, whispering to her as she rocked her back and forth.

Jamie felt like he was intruding on a very private moment, but at the same time, he knew if he stood up and moved away, he’d be interrupting. So, he remained crouched on the floor of Claire Beauchamp’s apartment, watching her cling to her daughter for dear life. She was hanging on by a thread, he could tell, fighting the urge to burst into tears.

He was overwhelmed by that feeling, that need . To stop her pain, to ease her mind, protect her from the hardships that life kept throwing her. Christ, had today really only been the third week since he’d first met her? How was that possible? It felt like those sad, longing eyes had been haunting him for years, keeping him awake at night with ways to make her sadness go away.

After a few minutes, Claire pulled away and smiled warmly at Faith, stroking her wee cheeks. “Go put Horsie to bed and then we’ll have our dinner. Okay?”

Faith obediently slipped away to her room and Claire looked startled, apparently having forgotten Jamie was there, just as he’d forgotten she was there earlier.

“I really can’t thank you enough,” she said, standing up.

“No trouble at all.” Jamie stood up as well.

“Really, you didn’t have to do this…I feel ridiculous for having called you in the first place.” She crossed her arms over her stomach, making herself smaller. “Eventually she’d have to fall asleep and she’d wake up completely fine, albeit a little hungry…but I just couldn’t see that before…I was…”

“It’s hard to think straight when they’re carrying on. Ye dinna have to explain yerself to me, Sassenach.” Jamie’s heart skipped a beat to see the corners of her mouth twitch up at the sound of the nickname she’d been unwillingly bestowed with.

“Are ye…are ye alright, then?” Jamie began hesitantly, stuffing his hands in his pockets. He did not want to overstep, but he could not shake that immediate uneasiness in his gut when he first saw her earlier today. “Other than all this, I mean?”

She blinked at him for a few seconds, in what he could only perceive as shock. Was it really that surprising to her for someone to ask if she was alright?

“Um…yes, I’m…I’m fine,” she said softly, not meeting his eye. “Just a long day.”

Jamie didn't say anything; he could tell there was more she wanted to say, but she was stopping herself. He gave her the time she needed to work up the nerve to say it.

“I lost a patient today.” It spilled out of her like a leak in a dam, and he got the sense that she wanted to clamp her hand over her mouth to stop the break from growing any wider. “For the first time. He was too young. A father, a husband. It was…hard. That’s all.”

Jamie’s jaw hardened, and his chest tightened. He was slammed with a wave of pity for her. To have a heart so big that one could be so greatly affected by hardships and losses that were not their own must be a great burden to carry.

“I’m sorry, lass,” he said gently. “I’m sure ye did everything ye could.”

She folded her arms tighter over herself, nodding silently.

“Claire,” he said pointedly, forcing her to look him in the eye. “Ye canna beat yerself up over it. The patient…or yer daughter either.”

For the smallest moment, she held his gaze, and he could see all the way through her in those eyes. He could see her fear . Fear of what? Of him? Of herself, her shortcomings?

Christ, Sassenach. If ye only knew how worthy ye are.

Faith burst from her room just then, more than ready for the dinner that had been delayed almost an hour. She swiped the happy meal off the coffee table and skipped off to the kitchen. The moment was gone, and that ghost of a smile returned to Claire’s face, as did the ache in Jamie’s chest.

“Do you want anything?” she said briskly. “Tea? Coffee?”

“No, no, I’m fine. Thank ye.”

“Well, uh, thank you again. Really, you saved my life tonight.”

“ ’Twas nothing.”

“No, it really wasn’t nothing,” she insisted. “You saw how she was before you got here.”

“Aye, I did.” He nodded, allowing a tight-lipped smile.

“Listen.” She wet her lips and inhaled deeply. “I swear I won’t use your number ever again,” she said, fidgeting with a hangnail on her thumb. “It really was inappropriate of me to use your personal phone number like that.”

“Sassenach, I told ye, I was happy to help.”

“Still. It won’t happen again.”

He allowed his grin to grow wider, unable to suppress a chuckle at how serious she was being. “Alright, lass. Whatever ye say.” He made his way to the front door, shaking his head.

“Well, goodnight then,” she said, smiling sheepishly as she opened the front door.

“Goodnight. Tell Faith I said goodbye.”

Her smile widened. “I will.”

Jamie gave a curt nod before turning around and departing down the stairs to his car. As he settled into the seat and started the car, he caught sight of a warm light coming through the windshield, and he looked up to discover its source. He nearly jumped clean out of his skin upon realizing that Claire still hadn’t closed her front door. She was standing in the doorway, and he caught her eye, only for her to jump and quickly close the door.

Jamie gawked for a moment through the windshield before shaking his head and driving away, his head spinning.

——

He arrived at the stables at nine-thirty that following Monday, a half-hour before they opened. Toni was already at her desk, starting up the computer and sorting through some papers.

“Morning, Jamie,” she sighed.

“Morning, Toni.” He brandished one of the two coffee cups in his hand, and Toni practically moaned.

“Oh my God, I love you.” She took the cup in her hands and took a careful sip. “How did you know I needed this today?”

Jamie shrugged. “Ye’re always hungover on Monday mornings.”

“Ha-ha,” Toni said wryly, but she had no argument to make. He wasn’t wrong. “Oh,” she said, setting the coffee down. “Do you know what happened to the little horse in the lost and found bin?”

Jamie blanched.

“I think it’s Faith’s, right? It was there when I left on Friday but now it’s gone, and I’m worried it went home with the wrong kid.”

“Ah, well, that’s a funny story actually.”

Toni’s face screwed up as she picked up the coffee again. “Um…okay?”

“Well, uh, she called me. Claire, that is.”

“You mean Miss Beauchamp ?” Toni said pointedly, but he could already see the smug grin spreading across her face.

Och , aye, the verra same.” Jamie rolled his eyes. “She called me and told me Faith was beside herself wi’out the wee horse. Wouldna stop crying or eat her dinner.”

Toni stared at him incredulously. “So you drove back to let her in to get it?”

“Ah, no.” Jamie felt his face get hot, and he rubbed the back of his neck. “I, uh, drove it to her.”

“You went to her apartment ?” she was practically shouting now.

“Will ye hold yer wheesht?” Jamie hissed.

Toni suddenly burst out laughing.

“Fer Christ’s sake…” Jamie grumbled, running a hand through his curls.

“I’m sorry! You’re just killing me this morning! I can’t handle it when you go all Scottish on me…” She wiped away tears of laughter before continuing. “Jesus Christ, Jamie! You actually went to her home ? You sly dog!”

“Fer the love of God, Toni, I didna do it fer any reason other than to help her.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that.” She took another sip of her coffee. “You’re too damn soft for your own good. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a sly move, James.”

He sighed in frustration. “I’m never bringing ye coffee again.”

“No, no, no, no, I take it back,” she said quickly, giggling through her panic. “Come on, I was teasing! Jamie!”

Jamie muttered something rather crude in Gaelic as he strode out the back door and toward the stables.

That was the last time he told her anything.

——

Claire couldn’t help but notice something was off the next time she brought Faith to the stables.

Not in a bad or foreboding sense by any means, just…strange. Toni was grinning smugly at Jamie when she arrived, and he looked like he was torn between reaming her out and fainting. Jamie was hovering over them as they checked in, something that even Erica seemed to find a bit odd.

“Alright,” Claire said the moment they were outside. “Now what was all that about?”

“What’s that?” Jamie said.

“All that side-eye with Toni,” Claire chuckled.

“Ah.” He flushed red a bit. “She found out about…Horsie,” he said carefully, purposely not being direct in front of Erica.

Claire blanched. “Oh! Christ, did you get in trouble? Jamie, I’m so — ”

“Dinna fash, Sassenach,” Jamie chuckled heartily. “I’m no’ in any trouble. Toni is just…”

“Nosy,” Erica finished for him.

“Aye, that she is. She likes teasing me, is all. No’ to worry.”

“Oh…alright.” Claire relaxed. As they reached the stables, all conversation was dropped as Faith’s excited humming reached maximum volume.

She likes teasing him…what was there to tease about…? 

There was no time to contemplate, however, as Claire became lost in watching Faith enjoy herself, as she always did. Jamie let Erica take the reins on getting Faith set up and leading her to the riding hall, and Jamie hung back with Claire.

She knew he was amiable, and kind, and had a big heart, but it struck her just how easy it was to talk to him. Perhaps some wall she didn’t know existed had been knocked down when he’d entered her home, or perhaps she was just getting used to him. He’d proven over and over that he would make leaps and bounds to help Faith, and even to help Claire. She was really beginning to see him as somewhat of a friend, despite how inappropriate it may seem to refer to her daughter’s hippotherapist as such.

She watched all of Faith’s little victories from behind the fence, her cheeks sore from smiling, clapping along with Erica and Jamie when they did so. This one hour a week of peace, joy, and accomplishment was something that Claire cherished above anything else in her life right now. And she could just tell that Faith felt exactly the same.

Claire’s mind wandered back to something Erica had said the first day she met her:

“I really wouldn’t be anything I am today without this place.”

Claire could see now what she meant, and she could see in a few years, or even months, that she and Faith would be in a completely different place than they were right now.

As usual, the hour was over much too soon, and Claire was reluctant to drag Faith away from her beloved Pippi. They arrived back at the welcome center, and as Claire was making payments and checking next week’s schedule, her phone started buzzing. She looked down and saw that it was the hospital.

“Shoot, I’m sorry, I have to take this, it’s work.”

Faith chose that exact moment to start bouncing in that all too familiar way. She had to use the bathroom. She began groaning and pulling on Claire’s arm.

“I can’t take you right now, baby, please hold it…”

Panicking slightly, Claire accepted the call. “Hello, Doctor Beauchamp, one moment, please.” She muted herself on the phone and desperately looked at Toni. “Could you please take her to the bathroom? Just hold the stall closed and make sure she washes her hands…”

“Oh, of course. No problem at all.” Toni quickly maneuvered around her desk and took Faith’s hand. “Come on, sweetheart, let’s go potty.”

Claire fumbled to unmute herself and brought the phone back to her ear. “Hello, Doctor Beauchamp.” It was Doctor Moore, unfortunately, briefly confirming a switch in hours for the following week, and the call was over in under a minute.

“Insufferable woman,” Claire groaned to herself, returning her phone to her purse.

“Everything alright, Doctor Beauchamp?”

Claire looked up to see Jamie leaning against the counter, giving her a lopsided grin.

“Yes, just fine.” She smiled back, leaning against the counter as well.

“Doctor, aye? Stony Brook, I assume.”

“Right. Just a residency, though. I only just finished medical school.”

“Ah, I see.” He nodded. “Came all the way from England fer a residency?”

“I suppose. But also for this program. And to get away.”

Claire hoped he wouldn’t press any further on that last bit, and he didn’t.

“What about you? What’s a Highlander doing all the way out here in the Long Island suburbs?” Claire continued.

“Same as you, really. Not doctoring, I mean, but the program. They have them in Europe, but no’ as many, and they’re overcrowded. Besides, none as good as this one. I did my research after I graduated, ye ken.” He smirked.

Claire chuckled. “What made you want to pursue this? Something so specific, child psychology and horses?”

“Well, I always had a way wi’ the horses, ye ken,” he said fondly. “I wanted to be a jockey as a lad. I, ah, grew to be much too tall as ye can see.”

He chuckled, and Claire giggled.

“But, I also always wanted to work wi’ special needs children, early on as I can remember. This line of work seemed to just fall into my lap, I suppose.”

Claire smiled warmly. “That’s wonderful. How did you know that’s what you wanted to do from such a young age?”

He briefly averted her eyes and bit his bottom lip. “My brother had special needs, so I grew up seeing him in his programs, helping at birthday parties, meeting kids wi’ all sorts of disabilities. My mam always said I was very natural wi’ ’em.”

“You are,” Claire confirmed, smiling. “You say he had special needs? Was he…well, I don’t know how to phrase this any better…did he have something…curable?”

“Ah, no.” His gaze dropped again. “He died when I was eight.”

Claire immediately blanched, her tongue feeling like sandpaper. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” she stammered. “That was so incredibly insensitive and ignorant of me — ”

“It’s alright, Claire,” Jamie said gently, though he still avoided looking at her.

“No, it really isn’t. I’ve no right to…”

“It’s alright.” He said again, finally looking her in the eye again. She did not miss how his eyes had misted over. “He had cerebral palsy. Had those wee crutches to help him walk, was developmentally behind fer his age. But he was a good lad. He was my best friend.”

Claire felt her own throat constricting, her heart positively breaking for him. She gently touched his forearm in sympathy. She said nothing; he did not have to go on if he didn’t want to.

“His uh…immune system was weak from the CP. Even the common cold was dangerous fer him. But he always came out of it just fine as long as we got him to the hospital.” He blinked rapidly, no doubt trying not to cry. “When he was eleven, he got strep throat. His body couldna fight it off no matter what the doctors did and the fever carried him away in three days.”

“Jamie…” Claire squeezed his arm. “I’m so sorry.”

“ ’S’alright.” He shrugged, sniffling. “It’s been a long time.”

“A loss that great never leaves you.”

He looked up at her then, a silent question in his eyes. No, she would not unburden her own losses onto him, not after she’d practically forced this story out of him.

“What’s his name?” Claire asked softly instead.

A little smile tugged at the corners of his lips. “William. Willie.”

Claire smiled back. “Good name.”

“Aye. ’Tis.” He nodded slightly, and she could see him swallow, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down.

“I’m sure he’s very proud of the man you’ve become,” Claire said carefully. She did not want to overstep, but he had to know: “It’s…it’s beautiful that you’ve chosen to honor him this way. By helping children like him.”

He exhaled with a shaky laugh. “Aye…I like to think he’s proud.”

Claire blinked back her own tears. “He is.”

Jamie suddenly moved the arm that she’d been absently touching so that he could slip his hand under hers.

“Thank ye, Claire.” He gently squeezed her hand.

“Thank you for sharing that with me.” She squeezed back.

For a moment, they stood there silently, each reveling in the gentle assurance of the other’s touch. Jamie’s thumb moved slowly, back and forth, over her knuckles, such a simple, innocent gesture, and yet neither of those things at all. Claire looked up from their hands to see that he was giving her that look again, that stare . She wanted to look away, to make some stupid joke to break whatever this was…but she found herself unable to stop staring back at him.

And then a door opened, and his hand immediately darted away and stuffed into his pocket.

“Alright! All good to go! Hands washed and everything!” Toni emerged from the back room holding Faith’s hands.

Claire forced a smile that might have looked rather frantic. Her face felt hot, and she could only imagine how red it was. Why did she feel this way? Like she’d been… caught

Caught doing what…?

“Alright, Faith,” Claire said, taking her hand. “Say goodbye, now.”

“Bye-bye, wean,” Jamie said warmly, but subdued. He looked sadder than Claire had ever thought possible.

“Bye, Beauchamp gals! See ya!”

Faith waved jovially, and Claire triple-checked that she was holding Horsie in the hand that wasn’t holding onto Faith. When Faith was fastened in her carseat, Horsie in her lap, and Claire settled into the driver’s seat, she was surprised at the tears that lingered on her cheeks. She hurriedly wiped them away and sniffled.

Christ, why did that conversation just break her heart?

She was as pained as she’d been when Paul Castano had died before her eyes, as she’d been when the elderly Henrietta Nolan hadn’t survived her stroke this week. She’d never met little Willie, didn’t even know what he looked like. All she knew was that he was someone that Jamie loved. And someone that Jamie lost.

Why does that thought hurt so badly? 

She chalked it up to her bleeding-heart and her doctor-brain, and started the car. She drove away from the stables, shaking Jamie Fraser, his pained face, his tight voice, and his tears, out of her mind.

Chapter Text

A few sessions at the stables passed since Claire and Jamie’s discussion about his brother. Claire had felt uneasy that first week, seeing him after he’d shared something so private with her, but he seemed to be none the wiser to her discomfort, nor did he have any of his own. He was chipper as ever and didn’t treat her or Faith any differently. It was strange knowing something so viscerally painful about this man’s life and going on with him as usual, like it was normal for them to have shared something like that. Claire supposed she should have been uncomfortable, but as more and more weeks passed by since that day, she felt nothing but at ease in his presence.

Additionally, as time went on, Claire was becoming more comfortable in her new role at the hospital. Joe was becoming a true friend. They could often be found hiding in the same corners, drinking coffee together, or taking lunch together. He’d shown her pictures of his family and she of hers, having to confess then that Faith’s father was not in the picture. Upon revealing the whole story, Joe had looked at her calmly from across the table they were sharing and said, very simply:

“Fuck Frank.”

They kept making plans for Faith and Claire to come to his house for dinner, which, of course, kept getting thwarted by conflicting schedules. It was a running joke between the two that they were actually only pretending to like one another, and making excuses to avoid going to each other’s homes.

God, she was grateful to have him.

For that matter, she was quite grateful for Mary Hawkins as well. While Claire didn’t see her in person anymore since Faith had switched appointment times, the sweet girl was always checking in with her over Facebook Messenger, asking her how Faith was adjusting. They, too, kept making plans to get lunch that were always put on hold, aside from the one time they’d managed to meet at a Starbucks for five minutes before Faith started panicking about the noise. Mary had been beside herself with apologies over Messenger, and Claire spent several minutes calming her down as well as Faith.

It would appear that a social life was always just out of reach for Claire. Oh well. Maybe someday. She was trying, after all.

The Facebook group of other moms was comforting as well, and even though Claire was hardly active in it, the sense of camaraderie she felt reading stories and seeing events planned for their children was uplifting to say the least. She often found herself wishing that Faith was able to enjoy these events, and that she had the time in her schedule with the hospital to even attempt them.

Maybe someday.

The equine therapy did seem to be helping, and so did Faith’s time with Mrs. Lickett. Claire had confirmed with her to make sure it wasn’t hopeful-mummy-blinders making her think so, and she’d agreed. There was improvement, however small, from the time Mrs. Lickett had met Faith. She did not have meltdowns with any less frequency, but they were the slightest bit easier to be talked down from. Not all of them, of course. It would be a while, or perhaps never, until Faith was entirely capable of stopping a meltdown once it started. But Mrs. Lickett seemed pleased with her progress nonetheless.

Claire was coming home to different crafts and drawings every day, and these past few weeks, they were all Halloween themed. Colored plates with google-eyes and construction paper glued together to look like pumpkins, bats, and Frankensteins, little ghosts on string made out of cotton balls glued to white paper, and even (with Claire’s permission) lollipops covered in tissue to look like ghosts. Claire was enjoying copying the faces that Faith and Mrs. Lickett had drawn on them to make Faith laugh before unwrapping them to eat.

Claire even considered picking up some pumpkins at a grocery store on her way home from work so she could try her hand at carving them with Faith. Claire’s unconventional upbringing had not left room for such frivolities, and Frank had never been interested in the mess it would make in the house, so Claire had never actually done it before. But the thought of trying something new with her daughter in their new life was thrilling to her.

Toni had informed them yesterday at the stables that for Halloween week, the kids could wear a costume, as long as they were able to ride safely in it. Claire was thrilled; she knew she couldn't actually spend Halloween with Faith or take her trick-or-treating, so to get to see her in costume, even not on the actual holiday, would be a comfort. She and Mrs. Lickett had discussed perhaps allowing her to take Faith trick-or-treating herself before Claire got home from work, but nothing had been solidified yet. 

On Saturday morning after breakfast, Claire led Faith into her bedroom. Faith had a purple trunk in her room that she and Claire had adorned with countless princess stickers over the years, containing all of her dress-up costumes.

“Alright, Faith. Who will it be this year?” They sat down in front of the trunk together, Claire lifting the lid. “Which princess do you want to be when you ride Pippi this week?”

Faith often put the costumes on and wore them around the house, and now the apartment. This was only her fourth Halloween, so she hadn’t used them all for the holiday, but they had all certainly been used. Her first Halloween, Claire had put her in an adorable Dumbo costume. Her second, she was a precious little Minnie Mouse, and her third, she was Elsa, of course.

As she watched Faith dig through the trunk, her eyes fiery with excitement, Claire was sure she’d go for Anna this year. She was certain that if it were possible to wear two costumes at once, she would have been both Anna and Elsa last year.

So Claire was surprised when Faith pulled out a blue-green dress with Celtic trim.

“Merida?” Claire said, smiling through her furrowed brows. “That’s who you want to be this year?”

Claire certainly had no objection, but Brave had never particularly been one of Faith’s favorites.

Faith took the lid of the trunk from Claire and began repeatedly poking her finger into one of the stickers. Claire looked closer, and an enormous grin spread over her face as it dawned on her.

It was a sticker of Merida, riding her horse, bow and arrow aimed.

“Yes, darling!” Claire laughed, hugging Faith from behind and pulling her into her lap, sitting cross-legged. “You’re going to be just like Merida and Angus when you ride Pippi! Is that right?” She kissed her cheek repeatedly and tickled her. “Is that right?”

Faith giggled incessantly and squirmed to get out of her mother’s grip, but not before Claire planted one last kiss to her cheek. Dizzy with giddiness, Claire began cleaning up the mess that Faith had made of her costumes, and it wasn’t long before she heard the beginning of Brave coming from the tellie. Apparently, Faith had been getting the hang of the DVD player by herself. The Scottish burr of the protagonist caught Claire’s ear, and she paused, lingering on the Cinderella dress she’d just picked up.

Jamie is Scottish.

Her mind was suddenly treated to the image of Jamie’s face lighting up upon recognizing the Celtic patterns on the costume, and upon Claire telling him that Faith was dressed as a Scottish princess. Perhaps he would know without needing to be told. Was Brave popular in Scotland, or was that a sweeping generalization?

Either way, she couldn't shake the thought of those blue eyes, impossibly bright, his smile ridiculously wide (and crooked), his deep, chesty laugh. Yes, he would certainly get a kick out of Faith’s costume of choice. Faith certainly didn’t know that Merida and Mister Jamie shared heritage, unless she had some uncanny ability to place accents that Claire was unaware of. She’d chosen Merida this year because of her newfound love of riding horses, and it just so happened that the best rider out of the whole line-up of princesses in her chest was also the only Scottish one.

Claire shook her head, laughing as she closed up the trunk again.

Bloody funny coincidence.

——

Friday came, and Claire found herself almost as giddy as her four-year-old daughter. She was over the moon at Faith's excitement as she pulled the costume over her head. 

"Now where did my little Faith go?" Claire said absurdly. "She was here just a moment ago, but she's been replaced with a Scottish princess!"

Faith gave a shrieking giggle and bounced up and down, jiggling her hands. Claire laughed out loud.

"Do a twirl for me, Princess, let me see."

Faith began spinning, the skirts of the dress poofing out. This was somewhat of a tradition for them. Whenever Faith wore a dress, costume or not, Faith loved to twirl and see the skirt flutter as she did.

"Look at you!" Claire said, clapping her hands. "Miss Toni is going to be so excited, and Pippi, and all the kids, and Erica." Faith dashed to her bed to retrieve Horsie. "And Mister Jamie, too. Mister Jamie will be very excited." Claire felt a rush of excitement herself, thinking of his face when he laid eyes on Faith.

"Alright, Princess. Off we go." Claire stood up and took Faith's hand, leading her out of her room. "Go get your pumpkin." Faith grasped the trick-or-treat pumpkin that was sitting on the coffee table. Claire knew it wasn't going to be filled at the stables as it would be on the actual holiday, but since she couldn't be there while Faith actually trick-or-treated, she wanted to be able to see her holding it in her costume for today.

"Can Mummy get a picture, lovie? Please?" Claire stood back with her phone. "Can you smile, Princess? Please?" Faith was holding the plastic pumpkin in front of her face, shaking her head.

"For Auntie Gillian, Faith," Claire pleaded. "You know she loves to see you in your costume, and Merida is her favorite! Please, darling."

At the mention of her beloved godmother, Faith changed her tune. She moved the pumpkin away and had an excited look on her face, and Claire immediately snapped the picture. She got a few more of Faith in various stages of excitement.

"Thank you, baby. You're a very good girl." Claire kissed her head and quickly sent the photos to Gillian, typing:

We went Full-Scot this year! How proud are you??

Her heart light, Claire led Faith down the stairs and to the car. Once Claire settled into the driver's seat after Faith was all buckled, her phone buzzed and she opened it to see a slew of messages from Gillian:

Gillian [4:32]: OMG!! LOOK AT HER!!

Gillian [4:32]: What a doll!! Tell her Auntie G says she looks beautiful!!

Gillian [4:33]: SCOTLAND! SCOTLAND! SCOTLAND!

Claire chuckled to herself, shaking her head as she put her phone in her purse.

"Auntie G says you look beautiful, darling." Claire flashed a smile into the rear view mirror, and Faith hummed contentedly. Claire had deliberately left Faith’s curls untamed today in an attempt to mimic Merida's hair the best she could without the wild red color. She was damn proud of how adorable her daughter looked.

When they arrived at the stable, Claire was certain Faith could have rocketed into the sky given how high she was jumping with excitement. When they entered the welcome center, there was a wide assortment of princesses, superheroes and Star Wars characters. Claire's smile widened to see Toni wearing tiny pigtail braids and a blue checkered dress.

"Not in Kansas anymore, are you?" Claire said. Toni looked up from her computer and her face lit up.

"Oh my goodness! Look at you !" Toni squealed with delight, standing up from behind the counter and stretching her body over it. "Princess Faith lives up to her title! You look amazing Faith!"

Faith hummed and twirled back and forth, swishing the skirts.

"Hello, Faith," Erica said sweetly, donning plaid, pigtails, and a cowgirl hat with matching boots. "I love your costume. Mister Jamie is going to love it."

"Oh wait until you see him!" Toni squealed.

"What do you mean — ?"

At that moment, the back door opened, revealing a little Captain America and his mother, followed by the most astonishing thing Claire had seen all day.

Mister Jamie was wearing a kilt. And a shoulder sash that matched, and tall boots, and a brooch, and a sporran.

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.

"He does this every year," Toni said, laughing. "A Highlander for Halloween, every day of the week!"

Claire couldn't stop staring long enough to respond.

"Alright Captain America, sir!" Jamie boomed, reaching behind the counter and producing a fistful of candy. "Here's yer bounty, lad. 'Twas a pleasure riding wi' America's finest." Little Nolan was beaming, and his mother was too. "Have a great Halloween, Mrs. Weiss. See ye next week."

As the two of them departed toward the front door, Toni looked like she was going to explode.

"Jamie! Jamie, look!" She was incessantly swatting at his shoulder.

He finally obliged her, looking down at Faith, and every mental image Claire had conjured over the course of the week didn't even come close to the real thing.

She didn't think his eyes had ever been bluer, or his smile more crooked, or his cheeks more pink.

"Well, what do we have here?" He crouched down in front of Faith, and the fabric of his kilt slid up to reveal his knees. "Is this a real Scottish princess right before my eyes?"

Faith gave another squealing giggle, bouncing up and down. What happened next was nothing short of astonishing. Faith, Claire's daughter that did not -- under any circumstances -- allow anyone but her mother to lay a hand on her, all of a sudden thrust her hands onto the plaid of his shoulder sash. 

Claire's stomach lurched, about to launch into a speech about boundaries and personal space, but Jamie put up a hand to stop her, his eyes never leaving Faith.

"D'ye like my tartan, Miss Merida?" He was entranced by Faith, who was equally as mesmerized. She must have recognized the clothing from the film; all the men in Brave dressed nearly identical to how Jamie looked.

Her little fingers began circling his silver brooch, and Jamie’s chest expanded with pride. “That’s the Fraser brooch, has our motto on it as well. D’ye like it?” Faith just hummed and bounced again. “I’m glad to hear that. I like yer dress verra much. Ye look bonny.”

Claire sucked in a sharp breath upon realizing that her mouth had been hanging open since Jamie had appeared, and she snapped her lips together.

“This is just too perfect,” Toni gushed, coming out from behind the camera. “I have to get a picture of this for the wall. If you don’t mind?”

“No, of course, go ahead.” Claire threw a quick glance at the wall to her right, containing hundreds of photos of children on horses, getting high-fives from therapists, group photos at holiday gatherings, and so many more. To think of her daughter stuck up there among the throng made her heart swell.

She truly does belong here.

She watched in awe as Faith cooperated without question for the photo, not even attempting to cover her face. She was smiling the most cheesy smile Claire had ever seen on her daughter’s face, and Jamie’s was almost just as wide. Claire quickly shuffled beside Toni to get a picture for her phone as well. She sent it to Gillian before putting her phone away:

You won’t believe this. Faith’s therapist is an honest-to-God Highlander, and he wore this.

Pictures taken, Toni took Faith’s candy pumpkin and put it behind the counter for safekeeping.

“Are ye ready then, Princess Merida? To ride yer noble steed?” Jamie stood up and started walking toward the back door, and Claire had to scramble to grab her hand before she was out the door and a mile ahead of them.

“And where’s yer costume, Sassenach?” Jamie smirked, walking backwards as usual.

“The memo I got said the children were to dress up, not the parents,” she said, playfully defensive. “Besides, I haven’t worn a Halloween costume since I was still a teenager.”

Och , ye’re no fun then, are ye?” he said with an emphatic wave of his hand. “How did ye celebrate the holiday all these years?”

“I didn’t go to those wild parties in college, or med school for that matter.” She shrugged indifferently. “Just watched a movie with my roommate, if we even had time for that.”

“And after that? Ye never dressed up with yer wean?”

Something dark clouded Claire’s mind for the smallest moment.

“You can’t be serious.”

“It’s her first Halloween! I think it would be sweet if — ”

“It’s a sweet idea. But you are a grown woman, darling.”

She shook her head. “No.”

Jamie didn’t miss how her face had fallen, how clipped her response had been. His brows crinkled together in concern. If he wanted to say something, he didn’t, and they passed the rest of the way to the stable in silence, save Faith’s incessant giggling.

Erica and Jamie got Faith settled with holding the reins, and then Jamie hung back, as usual, while Erica led Faith to the riding hall.

“Is it real?” Claire said abruptly, and he looked at her with confusion. “What I mean is…is the material authentic?”

“Oh.” He grinned, nodding in understanding. “Aye, ’tis. This is real Fraser tartan, in my family fer generations.”

“It’s lovely,” Claire said. “You only ever wear it on Halloween?”

“Mostly, but not only. Wore it to my sister’s wedding a few years back, our Ma’s funeral before that.” He said it so casually, but her heart strained to hear it. How much had this man suffered…?

“Special occasions, tradition, ye ken,” he said. “I just like to show it off on the days I’m allowed to stand out a bit.”

He winked, and Claire felt her cheeks get hot.

“What is it?” she said, eyeing the brooch. “The Fraser motto?”

He made a noise in the back of his throat and removed it from the plaid, handing it over to her. She held it close and ran her fingers over the letters.

Je suis prest ,” she read. “I am ready.”

He seemed taken aback at first by her perfect pronunciation and her translation, but then he smiled widely. “Aye.”

“Ready for what?” she teased, handing him back the delicate silver.

He smirked as he put it back in its place, then peered up at her through his lashes. “Anything.”

——

Claire watched contentedly as Faith rode, once again in awe at the sheer insanity of the coincidence that her daughter and her therapist had both chosen Highlander apparel for Halloween. It was like watching a deleted scene from Brave : the princess’s father teaching little Merida to ride.

And then she shook her head clear of that thought, admonishing herself for allowing such an inappropriate thought.

“Did you plan that?” A voice filled her ears, and she jumped.

“Hm?” She turned to see a mom looking at her, someone she’d come to know as Mrs. Beardsley in the weeks that she and Faith had been coming to the stables at this time.

“Did you plan that, you and Mister Jamie?”

“No, not at all,” Claire said, laughing. “She picked it because Merida rides a horse. I had no idea he was going to wear that.”

Mrs. Beardsley chuckled. “That’s pretty funny.”

“Isn’t it?” Claire glanced over at Kezzie, Mrs. Beardsley’s son. He was dressed like Superman, and his therapist was praising him in sign language. “He looks adorable, too.”

Mrs. Beardsley thanked her, and they continued watching their children in amiable silence. Claire had snapped about a million pictures of Faith on her horse, with and without Jamie in the frame. When they were back in the stable, Pippi brushed and helmet removed, Claire requested just one more picture.

“Could I get one of her with Pippi before you put her away? Without the helmet?” she asked Jamie shyly.

“Aye, of course.” He smiled warmly.

Claire snapped as many as she could, and though Faith was staring at Pippi rather than ever looking at the camera, she didn’t mind at all.

“Alright, got it.”

Jamie grinned and went to take the reins to put Pippi away, but Faith would not move at first. She was nuzzling her face into Pippi’s snout, and Jamie apparently couldn't bring himself to move either of them just yet. Unbeknownst to either Faith or Jamie, Claire snapped a final picture:

Faith mesmerized by her horse, and Jamie mesmerized by Faith.

She would not be sending that one to Gillian.

They returned to the welcome center, and Toni put some candy in Faith’s pumpkin, causing her to squeal with excitement again. Jamie lathered his hands in hand sanitizer before plunging his hand into a bowl full of little yellow, orange, and white triangles.

“What on Earth is that?” Claire scrunched up her nose.

“Ye’ve never heard of candy corn, Sassenach?” Jamie said playfully. “It’s quite American, I suppose.”

She chuckled. “Should I try it, then? Since I’m American now?”

“Aye, suppose ye should.”

Claire cleaned her hands as well before taking one of the little triangles into her fingers and popping it into her mouth. As she bit into it, her taste buds were immediately assaulted by the most sickening sweetness she’d ever tasted. Her face screwed up in disgust, and Jamie burst into laughter.

“That bad, is it?” he said, his laughter rumbling in his chest. She didn’t think she’d ever seen him laugh so hard.

“It’s revolting,” Claire said, not even wanting to swallow it. “I practically want to spit it out.”

He laughed harder at that, tears leaking from his eyes. “I’m sorry, Sassenach. I didna think ye’d be so appalled.”

“You either love it or you hate it, at least in my experience,” Toni said. “I could’ve told you she’d hate it.”

Claire did not miss the look he gave her in response, but she didn't have time to contemplate its intention.

She reluctantly swallowed the grainy sweetness, and she shuddered in disgust. “Christ. Remind me to never try anything you give me again.”

“Will do,” he said, laughter finally subsiding. “What sort of sweets d’ye like, then, if this was too much fer ye?”

“Richer things, for sure. Chocolate.”

“Ghirardelli or Lindt?” Toni chimed in. “The Lindt truffles are my favorite.”

“Oh, I couldn’t choose, I love both,” Claire said. Jamie popped another handful of candy corn into his mouth, and Claire upturned her nose. “I can’t imagine eating handfuls of that when such a thing as Lindt truffles exist.”

“Dinna yuck someone else’s yum, Sassenach. Must I talk to ye like ye’re one of the kids?” He gave her a mocking look of warning, and she rolled her eyes.

“Oh, I love sour candy too,” Claire said. “If there are any sour patch kids in that bucket I may have to steal them.” She gestured to Faith’s little pumpkin.

“Here’s an extra one, just for mom,” Toni said, plucking a little bag of the sour candy from the bowl behind the counter and handing it to Claire.

“Thanks.” Claire smiled warmly, putting it in her purse. “Well, I guess we should be off, then.” Claire took Faith’s hand. “Say goodbye to the Scottish warrior, Faith.”

Claire gave Jamie a smirk, and he grinned back at her.

“S’long Merida,” Jamie said. “It’s been a pleasure.” He gave a ridiculously low bow, and Faith giggled. It took a moment for Claire to realize that she was giggling herself.

“Bye-bye, Princess!” Toni said, and Erica echoed.

Faith waved gleefully, yanking Claire toward the door, never one to delay her McDonald’s.

“Happy Halloween, Sassenach,” Jamie said warmly, hands resting on the belt holding his kilt up.

She flashed a final grin at him before Faith’s tugging won out, and they were out the door and walking toward the car.

Claire buckled in her squirming little girl, and she absently thought that it might be a struggle to get her to sleep tonight. Today was so wonderful, however, that she didn’t care at all.

Once Claire was settled in the driver’s seat, she reached into her purse to check her phone, having heard it go off several times while she was otherwise occupied. She chuckled softly to see five messages from Gillian, and then opened them:

Gillian [4:54]: holy hell Claire

Gillian [4:54]: ye’ve got to be JOKING

Gillian [4:54]: THAT is her therapist???

Gillian [4:54]: he is the hottest bloody man I’ve ever seen in my life

Gillian [4:54]: and he’s in a feckin KILT

Gillian [4:55]: if you don’t get on that i’m booking a flight and getting on it myself

Claire sucked in a sharp breath and threw her phone into the passenger seat, every muscle in her body stiffening.

As if the damn woman could sense from an ocean away that Claire was ignoring her texts, her phone buzzed again.

Gillian [6:12]: well? am I booking a flight? ;)

Claire [6:12]: Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, G.

Chapter Text

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November 25

Claire took a shaky breath, still gripping the steering wheel despite the fact that her car had been in park for about five minutes. She was parked in the Abernathy driveway, a store-bought apple pie (something she’d discovered that Americans eat on Thanksgiving) sitting in the passenger seat.

Thanksgiving had been this past Thursday, but both Claire and Joe had been working. Upon realizing that Claire had never celebrated Thanksgiving and had no intention of really doing so, he insisted that Claire come over on Sunday when he was off for her and Faith’s first Thanksgiving Dinner.

Claire had no idea why she felt so panicked; it was just Joe, after all. He had seen her at her absolute worst at the hospital, repeatedly. He knew the ins and outs of Faith’s condition because Faith seemed to be the only thing Claire could talk about other than actual hospital business. He had promised that his wife would be aware, that he would make his kids as well aware as possible. He’d texted her several times that he and Gail were so excited to have her, that their little Delia was dying to meet Faith.

Still, the devil on her shoulder was screaming that Faith wasn’t ready for this, that if she showed the slightest bit of discomfort, Joe would never welcome them into his home again, and he’d look down on her as an incompetent parent for the rest of her life.

“Do you have any idea how embarrassing that was?”

Faith’s sensory overload had been triggered at an Oxford event, a full-blown meltdown had ensued, and they’d had to leave twenty minutes after arriving.

“She can’t help it, Frank. It was too much for her. I should have known that she couldn’t handle such a big crowd.”

“You’re right,” he snarled, roughly loosening his tie and throwing it on the dresser. “You should have known.”

Claire shook her head to clear her mind, repeating the familiar mantra:

Joe is not Frank. His family is not the Oxford faculty.

Taking advantage of a sudden boost of confidence before it disappeared, Claire got out of the car and unbuckled Faith. She got halfway up the driveway before she realized she left the pie on the passenger seat, then ran back to get it. She stood on the porch and crouched down to straighten Faith’s brown and green dress and flatten a few wild curls, then stood up and straightened her own sweater, pulling it further down over her jeans.

“Ready, baby?” Claire said. “We can do it, yes?”

Faith gave Claire a thumbs up, and that was all she needed to ring the doorbell.

“Lady Jane!” Joe exclaimed as he opened the door. “You look lovely, my friend.”

“Thanks, Joe.” Claire smiled warmly.

“And this little cutie must be Faith.” He crouched down, eye level with her, as Claire had mentioned made her least anxious when meeting strangers. “Hi there, sweetie. I’m Joe, your mom’s friend. It’s great to meet you.” Faith shyly pressed Horsie into her face. “I like your horse, Faith. I’m glad you brought him. There’s plenty of food to go around.”

Claire chuckled as Joe stood to full height once more. “She okay?”

“Yes, I think she’s fine.”

“Great, come on in. Let me take that pie.” As they crossed the threshold, a beautiful black woman swooped in from the end of the hall, her purple sweater making her eyes glimmer.

“Oh, look at you!” she exclaimed. “It is so good to finally put a face to the name.” She gave Claire her hand. “Gail.”

“Claire. And this is Faith.”

She hid behind Horsie again as Gail crouched down. “Hello, little lady. It’s great to meet you. Your dress is very pretty.”

“Say thank you, baby. You know the sign.” Claire crouched down next to Faith and signed thank you . “Miss Gail said your dress is pretty. Say thank you?” She signed again, and Faith copied the best she could with one hand clutching Horsie. “Good girl, Faith. Very good.”

“You’re welcome,” Gail said warmly. “What’s the sign?” Claire’s smile got even wider, showing Gail the sign, and she repeated it to Faith. “You’re welcome, Faith.”

Faith hid her smile in Horsie, but Claire could see it.

“She likes you,” Claire said, standing up along with Gail.

“Well I like her, too.” Gail winked down at Faith. “Here, give me your coats, come in, have a drink, relax.”

A loud shriek suddenly rang through the house, and Faith dropped Horsie to cover her ears.

“Easy, little man,” Claire heard Joe’s voice, followed by:

“Gotta be quiet, Lenny,” a little girl said. “Mama said.”

Claire picked up Horsie and Faith and rocked her. “It’s alright, darling. It was just a little baby. It’s okay.”

“I’m so sorry,” Gail said as they entered the living room. “I swear he doesn’t usually do that.”

“It’s okay, she’s fine,” Claire assured her, despite the fact that Faith’s hands were still glued to her ears.

Joe was standing by the fireplace holding a toddler, three-year-old Lenny, and standing next to him was an adorable little girl in a blue dress.

“Hi, Miss Beauchamp,” the girl said politely. “I’m Dee-Dee.”

“Well hello, there,” Claire said, smiling again. “Your Dad has told me all about you, Dee-Dee. Please, call me Claire.”

Delia looked skeptically to each parent, waiting for their approval to address her informally.

“Okay. Hi, Claire.”

“Faith, lovie,” Claire coaxed, whispering into her temple. “There’s a little girl who’d like to meet you. Can you please move your hands now? It isn’t loud anymore, I promise.” Faith looked down at Delia. “I’m going to put you down now, okay?” Claire slowly lowered Faith to the floor, and she didn’t object.

“Hi, Faith,” Delia said. “My Daddy told me you’re real special. Wanna play?” Faith stared back at her. “I brought lots of dollies from my room that you can play with. Wanna see?”

“Can you show her the dolls, Dee-Dee?” Claire said gently, taking Faith’s hand.

“Uh-huh, follow me.” She led them to the corner of the living room, where the girl had obviously created a little arrangement of all her favorite dolls, surrounding a little dollhouse. “See? They’re pretty.”

“They’re very pretty,” Claire agreed. “Here darling.” Claire picked up one of the dolls and handed it to Faith. “See? Dee-Dee is going to share her dolls.” Faith took the doll in the hand that wasn’t holding Horsie. “Can you be a good girl with Dee-Dee, Faith?” Claire held up her thumb, and Faith copied. “There you go. Good girl.”

“Don’t worry, Claire. Daddy told me we gotta play quiet games,” Delia said seriously. “All my dollies are quiet, and I’m really quiet, too.”

“That’s very good, sweetheart. Thank you so much.”

Delia nodded, then sat down on the floor. “C’mon, Faith. Sit down and play.”

Claire slowly backed away from them, waiting for Faith to start whining for her to come back. She breathed a sigh of relief when she made it to the couch without Faith protesting. Gail was already waiting with a drink, and a plate of appetizers had been put on the coffee table.

“She’s so sweet,” Claire said as she accepted the drink from Gail. “Very thoughtful and sensitive. And she’s only six?”

“Yeah, she’s a good one,” Gail said, sitting down next to her. “Not like that one.” She gestured to Lenny, who Joe had to scoop up again to prevent from launching himself at the girls. “Troublemaker.”

Claire chuckled. “Drives her crazy, I bet.”

“Sure does. Doesn’t help that she bosses him around.” Gail took a pig-in-a-blanket into her fingers.

“Big sisters do that,” Joe piped in, sitting in an armchair with Lenny in his lap.

“So, Claire, tell me all about jolly-old-England. I’ve never been out of the States,” Gail said eagerly, popping the mini hotdog into her mouth.

Claire chuckled and took a sip of her drink. “Well, what do you want to know?”

——

The afternoon progressed without a hitch; Joe and Gail were always careful to remove Lenny from the room if it seemed like he was about to be loud, and they took turns keeping him occupied so he didn’t bombard Faith. Claire was overwhelmed. Never before had anyone taken such measures to be sure that her daughter was comfortable. Back in England, if Claire had merely suggested that they bring awareness to Faith’s special needs to anybody who invited them over, Frank immediately shut it down. He had truly made her feel like she was crazy, like there was really no need for her to worry at all. And then when things inevitably went wrong, it was her fault for not having the foresight to leave her home.

Delia was especially a marvel. She must have been the calmest six year old Claire had ever met. She was so gentle with Faith, and spoke so calmly. She didn’t seem bothered at all that Faith didn’t answer when she talked to her; she seemed more than happy to take the lead on whatever game they were playing. She just chattered away to her, and Faith seemed quite content.

She’s never had a friend.

Claire almost cried into her turkey to think about it.

The meal was quite delicious, a wide assortment of things that Joe assured her were “Thanksgiving foods.” Faith refused to eat the turkey no matter what Claire tried so, in the end, to avoid a meltdown, Claire removed the poultry from her plate and gave her extra carrots instead. Faith’s favorite, by far, was the sweet potatoes with marshmallows, something that Claire had reflexively wrinkled her nose at. Joe, however, insisted she try it at least once, and she had been proven wrong immediately.

The Abernathy Thanksgiving tradition was a board game in between dinner and dessert, and Delia decided on Candy Land. Faith sat in Claire’s lap while she played, letting her pick the cards and move the piece where Claire told her to. Lenny had free range of the living room while Faith was otherwise occupied. Claire found herself dizzy with glee for the entire game, thoroughly enjoying Joe and Gail’s competitive banter, as well as Delia’s constant insistence that she would win.

But it was Faith’s joy that took the cake.

She wasn’t just comfortable, she was happy . She was enjoying herself. She was humming, and stimming, and bouncing in Claire’s lap. How many years had Claire been terrified to take her out of the house, and now here she was, happy as ever…?

Joe had nearly won the game, but he purposely kept making silly mistakes so that Delia would win. Winner, of course, had to clean up the game, while Gail and Joe set out dessert in the dining room. Claire blushed with embarrassment to see that the pie she’d brought was the only store-bought item on the table.

“I almost put it in my own container and pretended I made it myself,” she said jokingly.

Joe laughed. “Doesn’t matter where it came from, Lady Jane. What matters is that you brought it.”

Claire almost burst into tears again.

Dessert was just as delicious and fun as dinner. Evidently, Claire’s apple pie paired quite nicely with Gail’s homemade pumpkin and chocolate pie. Everyone made sure to have at least one piece of each, Joe going in for a second of each. By the end of the night, Claire’s stomach hurt from laughter, and her cheeks were sore from smiling. Faith fell asleep on Claire’s lap, face nuzzled into her breast, and Lenny was down for the night upstairs. Delia was more than content to sit at the table and listen to grown-up conversation, though she was quite close to falling asleep on her hands.

Claire had mentioned Faith’s therapy at the hospital, but Joe was eager to hear more, and Gail was excited to hear about it at all. She regaled the story of Faith’s first interaction with the horse, and the first time she got on the horse. She told them all about Jamie, how he had this magic touch that settled Faith immediately, how he went above and beyond to make Faith happy.

The more Claire went on, the more Joe was getting this look on his face that Claire couldn’t put a name to. Then, as she continued, she realized that the look appeared every time she mentioned Jamie…which was actually quite often. She said his name again, and Joe looked at her again , cocking an eyebrow. She opened her mouth to say something in response, something snarky, but she lost her nerve the longer she thought about it.

Which was strange, because she was never one to lose her nerve.

She quickly turned the conversation back on Joe, and before long, Mister Jamie and his blue eyes were out of sight and out of mind.

“You know,” Claire said, everyone coming down from laughter over an anecdote of a particularly spirited patient they’d had this week. “I’m really, really grateful that you had us today. Your home is beautiful, the food was great, and you’re all just…wonderful.”

“Please, Claire, it was our pleasure,” Gail said. “You’re great company. Ever since Joe’s family moved we’ve missed having people over for Thanksgiving. And Dee-Dee loved playing with Faith.”

Delia shook herself awake enough to nod in response.

“Faith liked playing with her too.” Claire rubbed her back. “She was really great with her. You’ve both done a lovely job with her.”

“Well thanks,” Joe said. “You’ve done a great job with yours, Lady Jane.”

Claire smiled and leaned her cheek on the top of Faith’s head.

“Speaking of…” Gail said. “Looks like it’s past somebody’s bedtime.”

“Not tired, Mama.”

“Oh, yes you are. Come on, young lady.”

“I should get going, too,” Claire said reluctantly, standing up with Faith.

“Oh, are you sure?” Gail said. “You can put Faith down in the guest room and we can have some more drinks.”

“I appreciate that, truly. But I do have a six o’clock shift.”

“Ah, that’s right. Claire takes all the crappy shifts,” Joe said.

“Just so I can have weekends off,” Claire said. “I’d do anything they asked if it means I don’t have to work Saturday or Sunday, or Fridays past four for that matter.”

“Of course, of course,” Joe said.

“Well hold on, now, you’re not going anywhere without leftovers.” Gail shuffled into the kitchen. “Come on Dee, you wanna stay up, you’re gonna help Mama.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“It’s your food,” Claire objected, following her into the kitchen and shifting Faith’s weight around. “I don’t want to take it, please, we don’t need — ”

“Oh, stop being so damn polite.” Gail waved her off, shoveling potatoes into a Tupperware container. “No way we’d eat all this before it goes bad. This’ll feed you both for a week.”

Claire couldn’t help but smile. “I guess all those microwave dinners will have to sit in the freezer for another week.”

They all laughed at that.

Leftovers packed in containers and a paper bag, everyone shifted from the kitchen into the main hallway.

“Listen, Claire, let’s not wait for another holiday to do this again, alright?” Joe put a hand on the shoulder that Faith’s head was not laying on. “It was really great to have you. Both of you.”

Claire’s heart felt fit to burst, and she couldn’t stop the tears that rushed to her eyes.

“Thank you, Joe. Really. This means…a lot to us.”

“Us, too,” Gail said, Delia wrapped around her waist, half asleep.

“Goodnight, Lady Jane.”

“Goodnight Joe. Gail, Delia.”

“Goodnight, honey.”

Claire had to keep pausing in her buckling of Faith’s car seat to wipe tears from her eyes.

“I’m so proud of you,” she whispered, brushing frizzled little curls off of Faith’s forehead. “We’re doing it, lovie.”

This fresh start was truly the best thing that ever happened to them.

——

December 18

Claire was bouncing in her seat, almost exactly like she’d seen her daughter do countless times. She’d rearranged her entire schedule this week so that she could meet Gillian’s plane. She’d come straight here from work, with Faith still at home with Mrs. Lickett. As much as she’d love to have Faith greet her Auntie right away, she figured that would not be wise considering how things had gone the last time they were in an airport together.

She kept checking her phone, as if planes could actually adhere to their exact schedules. The plane was supposed to arrive in five minutes. Claire remembered quite vividly the day she’d said goodbye to Gillian back in Oxfordshire, the bone crushing hug and the tears they shed on each other. They hadn’t been apart more than a few days since the day they met, and no one else had been there for her as steadfastly when Frank left. That day, she wasn’t sure she could go on without her. Which was more than she could say for going on without her husband. She was quite sure she could do that.

So to see her in more or less five minutes after three months had her as giddy as Faith anticipating the opening notes to Frozen .

After an eternity of about fifteen minutes, the announcement that her flight landed sounded and Claire jumped out of her seat. Obviously it would be another ten minutes at least before the plane was lined up at the gate, but she just couldn't sit still anymore.

When people finally started pouring out of the bridge, and Claire caught sight of that strawberry-blonde head, she suddenly felt like a freshman in college again, waving like an idiot to get her attention across campus.

Her elfin face lit up immediately upon seeing her, and she shoved past about six people and started sprinting toward Claire. With a girlish squeal, the two women collided with a force that knocked the wind out of Claire.

“Oh my God !” Gillian exclaimed, squeezing the life out of Claire. “Jesus! Let me look at you!” She held Claire at arms length, and she squealed again. “My God, Claire, ye’ve gotten even hotter!”

Claire gave quite an unattractive guffaw and swatted her arm. “You look great too, Gi.”

Gillian promptly squealed again and pulled her in for another air-compressing hug.

After about five more minutes of fawning over one another, they proceeded arm-in-arm to baggage claim, then outside to Claire’s car.

“Hope ye didn’t pay too much fer parking,” Gillian said as she slung her suitcase into the trunk.

“Oh, you know, America,” Claire said, rolling her eyes. “It was robbery, of course.”

Gillian snorted before getting into the passenger seat. “It’s a lovely set o’ wheels. How long did it take ye to no’ drive on the wrong side o’ the road?”

Claire chuckled as she put the car in reverse to pull out of her spot. “Not as long as I thought. I do still have to consciously think about it.”

“I hope it isna too long to yer place, I’m starving . That shite on a platter they give ye on the plane just doesna cut it. No’ to mention I’m dying to see my wee niece.”

Claire beamed. “She is so excited to see you. I’ve been telling her every day for a week how many days until Auntie Gi. She was practically vibrating this morning when I told her today was the day.” They both shared a laugh at that. “And as for being hungry, I already placed a delivery order to arrive shortly after we get home.”

Gillian leaned her head back into the seat, sighing. “I could kiss ye.”

Claire scoffed affectionately, giving Gillian’s thigh a pat before turning her attention back to the road.

——

When they arrived at the apartment, Gillian was in awe at the sheer suburban-ness of the place. Together, they lugged the suitcase up the stairs, and Claire couldn't help but smile already before she even turned the lock.

As she’d expected, Faith was already right by the front door, having heard the car arrive, and promptly threw herself on Gillian’s legs.

“There she is!” Gillian cried, bending down to lift her and settle her on her hip. She gave an exaggerated grunt as she did. “Jesus, Faith, ye’ve gotten so big I can hardly lift ye anymore!”

Faith was squealing with giggles, stimming without restraint, humming loudly. She threw her arms around Gillian’s neck and squeezed tightly, causing everyone, including Mrs. Lickett, to laugh affectionately.

Och , I missed ye so much, wee girl,” Gillian crooned as she stepped into the apartment, Claire following behind with the suitcase. “She really has gotten so big, how has it only been three months?”

“I know, I can’t believe how fast she’s growing.” Claire leaned against the couch, her heart full. “Oh, Gillian, this is Faith’s caretaker, Mrs. Lickett.” The older woman smiled warmly from the other side of the coffee table.

“Great to meet ye, I’ve heard so much,” Gillian said.

“So have I, about you,” Mrs. Lickett returned.

The woman gathered her things and left, Gillian coaxing the little girl in her arms to wave goodbye.

“Fifteen minutes until Italian food,” Claire sighed, plopping herself on the couch.

“Ah, New York Italian food,” Gillian said, sitting down beside her and putting Faith in her lap. “A delicacy.”

“Indeed. You were right about that.” Claire watched gleefully as Faith hummed and ran her fingers through Gillians straight, silky hair. It was quite a different texture from her mother’s untamable curls, so she was likely enjoying the sensation quite a bit.

Dinner arrived and was eaten with much celebration, including a bottle of wine that Claire had been saving for the occasion. Faith had vehemently insisted on being given some, which Claire had anticipated, and cleverly served her a little cup of grape juice. They clinked their glasses and cups together, making Faith smile wide as ever.

A comedy of manners ensued when they tried to get the air mattress blown up in the living room, especially with the obtrusive Christmas tree in the way. Several failed attempts later, it was blown up and fully made, just before Faith’s patience ran out in waiting for her movie. They sat cuddled under a blanket on the couch watching Beauty and the Beast , Faith laughing her head off at Gillian’s extremely poor attempts at singing along.

After Faith was in bed, Gillian and Claire spent hours cuddled under the blanket, passing the wine bottle back and forth, updating each other on anything and everything. They were up much later than Claire should have been, being that she had a shift at eight in the morning, but she couldn't bring herself to care. Sitting there, tipsy, with her best friend, whispering and giggling into the wee hours of the morning was the most uninhibited she’d felt in years.

Chapter Text

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December 22

Claire, Gillian, and Faith were on their way to the stables. Gillian had insisted on coming, wanting to “see Faith in action,” as she put it. She’d been spending quite a lot of time with her over the past week. Mrs. Lickett would come in the morning to give Faith her lessons and educational playtime, but then she’d leave around noon, so crafts, movies, and the like were all up to Gillian. Claire had left Faith in Gillian’s care all the time back in England, so she was quite confident they’d be just fine, and things had been going swimmingly all week. Faith was quite enjoying her time with her Auntie, and Claire dreaded the day she had to leave, and the meltdown that would probably follow.

But that was a problem for another day.

When they arrived at the stable, Faith insisted on holding both of their hands in the parking lot, giving Gillian the honor of holding Horsie.

“Don’t you let that thing out of your sight,” Claire warned. “If anything happens to it there’ll be hell to pay. And I don’t mean from me.” She eyed Faith, and Gillian nodded in understanding.

“He’s been left before, has he?”

“Indeed. Never making that mistake again.”

They shared a laugh, which intensified as Faith gave a strong yank on both of their hands to make them get inside faster.

“Eager, isn’t she?” Gillian said, smirking.

“She loves it here, you have no idea,” Claire said, her chest warming. “Just wait until you see her with the horse. It’ll make you cry.”

When they got inside, Faith was bouncing as usual, humming loudly.

“Really, I dinna think I’ve ever seen her this excited fer anything that isna Disney,” Gillian said.

“That’s exactly what I said,” Claire laughed.

“Beauchamp gals!” Toni called as they approached the desk. “And who’s this?”

“This is Faith’s godmother, my best friend from back home. Gillian Edgars.”

“Hi, I’m Toni. It’s great to meet you.” She gave Gillian her hand, then a firm shake. She was wearing an obscenely ugly Christmas sweater and a Santa hat. Erica was donning a Santa hat as well, but if she was wearing a sweater, it wasn’t visible under her coat.

“This is Erica,” Claire said. “One of the volunteers that helps Jamie with Faith.”

“Jamie’s the — ”

“Her main therapist, yes,” Claire interjected before Gillian could say anything bawdy. “Shall we?”

Erica nodded and led them outside, Faith holding dutifully onto both hands again.

“That one likes the lasses,” Gillian whispered to Claire once they were outside.

Claire gave her a confused look. “Erica?” she stammered, in shock that Gillian was speculating about a fifteen year old girl.

“No, ye numpty! Toni!”

“How on Earth can you tell?” Claire said.

“I’ve always had an eye fer those things, ye ken.” She winked. “Does this place only employ hot people?”

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ…” Claire rolled her eyes and swatted her arm.

When they arrived at the stable, Faith’s excitement went through the roof, as always, and Gillian started laughing.

“She’s just the cutest damn thing I’ve ever seen,” she chuckled as Erica opened the doors.

Waiting inside with Pippi was the six foot Scot, wearing an equally ridiculous Christmas sweater as Toni’s, also donning a Santa hat.

“Ah, there she is! The wee princess!” Jamie exclaimed. Faith giggled at being addressed as such, and she tugged ever harder on their hands.

“And who’s this, then?” Jamie looked to Gillian.

“This is my best friend from across the Atlantic, Gillian Edgars.”

“A fellow Scot,” Gillian said, shaking his hand.

“Ah! That’s braw!” Jamie beamed, then turned to Claire. “This is the godmother then?”

“Yes, this is Auntie Gi.”

“It’s very fine to finally meet ye, lass. Jamie Fraser.” He finally released her hand. “Claire goes on and on about ye.”

“Didna realize ye talked so much,” Gillian said, throwing Claire side-eye. “About me,” she added quickly.

Had Jamie not been standing right there, Claire would have swatted at her arm again.

“Aye. Well, Faith, d’ye want to show yer Auntie yer horse?” He crouched down to her, and she nodded, letting go of their hands. Faith’s muscle memory took over, and she tended to the creature just the way she’d been taught. “This is Pippi,” Jamie said. “Princess Faith’s noble steed.”

“Princess Faith, he says,” Gillian whispered dreamily, and Claire inconspicuously pinched her thigh.

“Are ye excited to show Auntie Gi how ye ride, lass?” Jamie said, and Faith nodded enthusiastically. “Right then, off we go.”

Jamie hung back with Claire and Gillian while Erica led Faith and Pippi. He and Gillian conversed rapidly in Gaelic, leaving Claire feeling rather stupid as she looked in awe between the two of them.

When they arrived at the riding hall, Gillian and Claire leaned against the fence, Gillian amazed how Faith handled the helmet.

“Oh, that was quite a struggle,” Claire said. “Got bit for that one, remember?”

“Right, ye called me that day,” Gillian said, nodding. “She’s so gentle wi’ the horse. Back there in the stable, ye were right, I almost cried like a bairn.”

“Wait until she gets on,” Claire said warmly. “It’s just incredible.”

“And he …is so good wi’ her,” Gillian said in disbelief. “Could God have created a more perfect specimen?”

That earned her another swat on the arm.

“Hi, Claire,” Mrs. Beardsley’s voice had Claire turning around.

“Oh, hello,” Claire said. “Gi, this is Fanny Beardsley.”

They reached over Claire to shake hands.

“This is your wife?” Fanny said, smiling sweetly.

This immediately had them both sputtering, struggling to not disturb the therapy by howling with laughter.

“She wishes!” Gillian exclaimed, earning yet another swat.

“No, no,” Claire said, wiping tears of laughter away. “This is Faith’s godmother. She’s just visiting for Christmas. We’ve been best friends since college.”

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry.” Fanny’s face was bright red.

“No, it’s alright, really,” Claire said, though she was still wheezing.

“It actually happens a lot,” Gillian said. “Lots of rumors back in college. Sadly, this one is straight as a pin.” Gillian patted her shoulder, and Claire rolled her eyes.

They passed the rest of the time watching Faith, Gillian whispering in awe and squealing in delight, clapping along with Claire and Erica when Faith earned celebration.

“She’s braw, Claire,” Gillian said, teary-eyed as Faith dismounted. “I’m really proud of her.”

They embraced each other around the shoulders, Claire resting her head on Gillian.

“Watch this,” Claire whispered. “She doesn’t do high-fives like a lot of the other kids, so Jamie does this with her instead.”

They watched the weekly ritual of Jamie giving his enthusiastic thumbs-up, his lopsided grin warming the chill in the air. Faith returned the thumbs up, bouncing and grinning.

“That is the cutest feckin’ thing.” Gillian shook her head in awe, eyes watering again.

They returned to the welcome center, three of them hand in hand, and Jamie leading the way walking backwards. Toni was ready with three candy canes to hand them when they arrived.

“Merry Christmas Beauchamps, and Auntie Gi.” Toni winked.

“Ah, before ye go,” Jamie said, reaching around the counter and producing a little gift bag. “Merry Christmas, Sassenach.” He handed Claire the bag, his cheeks flushing red. “From the stables,” he added quickly.

Claire’s brow furrowed, but she couldn’t help the tiny smile that graced her face. “Thank you. Merry Christmas, Jamie.”

She peered up at him through her lashes, and her smile disappeared at the sight of the look he was giving her. It was that same look that she’d caught him sporting time and time again, yet she still hadn’t gotten used to it.

What is it?

And why does it take my breath away…?

“Ready to go?” Gillian snapped Claire out of her reverie.

“Yes, yes let’s go,” Claire stammered, smiling perhaps a bit too brightly. “Merry Christmas Toni, Erica.”

“Merry Christmas!” they called in unison.

“Say bye-bye, Faith! Say Merry Christmas!” Faith smiled and waved, then pulled on her hand.

“Onto McDonald’s,” Claire said to Gillian.

“Aye, another delicacy,” she teased.

As they sat in the drive-thru, Gillian’s phone went off, and a sly grin spread across her face.

“What?” Claire asked.

“She texted me already,” Gillian said.

“Who did?”

Gillian turned around the phone to show Claire the screen:

Hi there! It’s Toni!

Claire’s jaw dropped, scandalized. “When did you give her your number?”

“When ye were busy making heart eyes at the Scot,” Gillian smirked and then quickly composed a response.

“I was not making heart eyes,” Claire said vehemently, inching the car forward and rolling down the window.

“Keep telling yerself that.”

——

McDonald’s eaten and milkshakes empty, the three of them were sitting under a blanket again watching Lilo and Stitch . They all brushed their teeth together, and Faith insisted on being tucked in by Gillian. Once that was all settled, Claire and Gillian sat on the couch again together, knowing they could stay up a bit later since Claire didn’t work tomorrow.

“Well? Ye havena opened it yet.” Gillian nudged her head toward the coffee table, where the little bag that Jamie had given Claire was still sitting.

“Oh. I’d forgotten about it,” Claire said, which was a blatant lie. She hadn’t stopped thinking about it since the moment he held it out to her. Truth be told, she was scared to open it. She hesitantly took it in her hands and opened the bag, removing layers of tissue paper.

She couldn’t help the stupid grin that spread wide across her entire face as she pulled out the contents. A bag of Lindt truffles, and a large back of sour patch kids. There was a festive post-it-note stuck to the truffles that said:

To make up for the candy corn. Merry Christmas, Sassenach.

Claire felt her entire face flush red, and her pulse began to race.

“Candy corn? What does that mean?” Gillian prodded.

“He, uh…he made me try candy corn, Halloween week,” Claire stammered. “I hated it, and he asked what kind of candy I do like.”

“Oh my God .” Gillian shoved her shoulder roughly. “Oh my God , Claire! Holy shite!”

“What…? What? Stop it!” Claire shoved her back and put the candy on the coffee table. “It’s just a joke. Relax.”

Gillian gaped at her in disbelief, then shook her head. “I was joking — well, half-joking — when I texted ye back in October, but God!”

“What?”

“How’s the sex?”

Claire’s eyes widened, and she leaned back in shock. “What sex?”

“With Fraser!”

“Jesus bloody Christ! There is no sex!” Claire’s face was hot as hell again, her mouth dry. “There’s no anything ! He’s Faith’s therapist!”

“He’s givin’ ye sweets and gifts and ye’re no’ even putting out?” Gillian leaned back into the couch, crossing her arms. “Christ, he must really like you.”

“For fuck’s sake…” Claire scoffed, rolling her eyes. “You’re mad.” 

Claire threw the bag on the coffee table, but it landed a little faster than an empty bag should have.

“Is there something still in there?” Gillian said, snatching it at once and plunging her hand inside.

“Gi, stop, stop it! Let me have it!”

Gillian pulled out a hair bow, and her eyes narrowed. “What the Devil?”

“Let me see.” Claire took it from her, and her jaw went slack with realization.

“What?”

“It’s tartan,” Claire said. “The tartan from the clan in Brave .”

“What would ye want wi’ that?” Gillian scoffed.

“It’s not for me…” Claire said, her voice breathy. “It’s for Faith.”

Realization hit Gillian like a bolt of lightning. “Halloween. He wore tartan, and she dressed up from…”

“From Brave ,” Claire finished with her.

“Bloody hell…” Gillian said. “He really, really likes ye.”

Claire swallowed thickly against the dryness in her throat, vainly attempting to wet her lips. Her head was spinning, and she could hardly breathe.

“Claire?”

“Well,” Claire said, her voice sounding more strained than she would have liked it to. “As much as I love the Disney movies, how about you and I watch a big-girl movie, hm?” Claire smiled, getting off the couch and retrieving a bottle of wine from the kitchen. “With some big-girl juice?”

Gillian giggled, apparently deciding to not push the subject any further. “Alright. But I’m picking the movie.”

——

Their first Christmas in their new home was nothing short of perfect. Claire had only requested two specific days off for the entire year: Christmas Day, and Faith’s birthday.

Gillian’s present to Claire had already been opened the night before, after Claire had showered from her long shift at the hospital. It was a matching set of Christmas pajamas, with a card that said:

Take this as a promise that we’ll always be together for the holiday.

They cried on each other for a few minutes before donning the pajamas, taking several pictures together in Claire’s full length mirror in her bedroom.

They slept in them and kept them on for presents, just as festive as Faith in her Disney Christmas nightgown. Claire’s present to Gillian was a Long Island t-shirt. Gillian had made a hobby of collecting stupid tourist t-shirts wherever she visited, and Claire had spent plenty of time finding the most touristy Long Island shirt she could.

Faith was beyond thrilled with every single Christmas present she received: her first dollhouse (from Santa), little sets of furniture and little dolls for the dollhouse (from Mummy), and a Merida Barbie doll from Auntie Gi. Claire also decided to give Faith the tartan bow on Christmas morning, handing it to her, saying:

“Look, lovie, another Merida present. This one is from Mister Jamie.”

Never one to be patient, Faith demanded that Claire put the bow in her hair at once, as Auntie Gi was struggling to free the dollhouse from its packaging.

Once Faith was satisfied that every present had been opened and arranged to her heart’s content, they moved into the kitchen to devour the edible arrangement of fruit that Gillian had insisted on getting for Christmas breakfast. Back in the day, Frank made festive pancakes for Christmas morning, and Gillian was determined to start traditions of their own.

Fruit eaten, it was time to start on the Christmas cookies. Claire had purchased several Christmas themed cookie-cutters a few weeks ago, so the three of them made a wide assortment of characters across a wide spectrum of colors. Claire had also bought food dye to use in vanilla icing, so Faith was free to let her creativity run wild, as if she were making edible crafts. All the while, Christmas music played from Claire’s phone, and Faith was humming along and bouncing all day.

Gillian was a slightly better cook than Claire was, so they tag teamed getting the small ham cooked all the way through, along with the green bean casserole (which Faith would not touch with a ten foot pole; she was fine with just ham and applesauce, thank you very much).

Mrs. Lickett had the rest of the holiday week off until the day after New Year’s, and Faith was more than happy to spend the extra time with Gillian. Mary Hawkins had sent Claire a Facebook invitation for a New Year’s party a few weeks ago, and she’d only recently responded that she’d be going. She was uncertain of taking Faith somewhere so crowded, but Mary made it very clear in the description of the event that it would be sensory-friendly. Joe had asked her one day at work if she had any plans for the New Year, surely meaning to invite her over if she didn’t, and Claire felt a strange sense of teenage-like pride in informing him that she did.

Claire’s shift ended at eight, which was exactly when Mary’s party started, so they were only about thirty minutes late. Mary was delighted to have Gillian as well. Despite Mary’s emphasis on a sensory-friendly party, Claire brought Faith’s noise cancelling headphones just in case. Despite the lack of noisemakers, music, or loud television, the constant hum of several voices was making Faith a bit distraught, so Claire put the headphones on her, and after a few minutes of getting used to her silence, she was content again.

Claire was pleased to see a lot of moms she recognized, including Fanny, Kezzie and Josiah running about with Thomas. She was introduced to Mary’s husband, Alex, almost as young as she was. Apparently, Thomas had been a happy accident when they were both still teenagers, and they got married right then. They were quite a sweet couple. 

When midnight came, hats and silent paper party-blowers were passed around. The tellie was kept low, and the countdown was done in hushed whispers. The only sound to be heard as the ball dropped was the crinkling of the party-blowers, a few scattered “Yay!”s, and jovial “Happy New Year!”s all around. Faith was quite content watching the paper curl in and out as she blew, giggling every time.

It wasn’t long after that when Faith started falling asleep, along with most of the other kids, all except Thomas. He was still bouncing off the walls somehow. Mary had given Claire a heartfelt thank you for coming, as did Alex. Claire felt as giddy and fulfilled as she had when they’d left the Abernathy home after Thanksgiving.

“That’s a great bunch,” Gillian said as they buckled themselves in.

“Yes…it really is.”

——

The following day while Claire was at work, Gillian had started to pack, being that her flight was on January second, but she didn’t get very far. Evidently, Faith immediately registered that packing meant that Auntie Gi would be leaving soon, and she was quite irritable and weepy for most of the day. She was inconsolable for the most part, only content when she was hanging onto Gillian or sitting in front of the tellie for a few moments of respite with a movie. She hardly touched her food that night, and when Claire had tried to get her to eat, she’d roughly shoved her plate across the table. Claire had permitted Gillian to be the one to give her a stern talking to; eventually she ate enough to satisfy Claire, and Gillian sat with her until she fell asleep.

Gillian returned to the living room to find Claire trying to rearrange her suitcase so it would actually close. She spent a few minutes trying to help, before they both ended up sitting on it in order to zipper it shut.

Gillian sighed. "Puir wee thing thinks she's miserable. I dinna want to leave either."

Claire draped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her in until their heads were resting together, not wanting to speak how she felt, lest she burst into tears.

“Can I ask ye something, Claire? And can ye promise me ye’ll be honest?”

“Of course,” Claire said, releasing her so they could look at each other. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing wrong, or maybe there is. I don’t know.” She sighed. “Ye ken I’ve been seeing Toni, aye?”

Claire shook her head jerkily, blinking in shock. “Um, no, I don’t ken ! When have you been doing that?”

“After you and Faith are asleep.” She shrugged, as if it were the most casual thing in the world. “I got an Uber and met her somewhere the first time, now she just picks me up and takes me right to her place. She’s actually quite — ”

“Please, spare me,” Claire interjected quickly. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for you, of course, but I have to see her interact with my child once a week for the rest of forever.”

“Alright, alright.” Gillian put her hands up in surrender, giggling. “That wasna the point anyway. We dinna just have sex, we talk as well.”

“Well, I should hope,” Claire said wryly. “Be rather awkward otherwise.”

Och , enough, ye wee prude.” Gillian shoved her arm. “What I’m trying to get at is that you have come up in conversation.”

“Me? In what context?”

“In ‘the Scot has the hots’ context.”

“Oh, Christ, Gi, not this again…”

“I’m serious, Claire,” Gillian said, her eyes widening, no joking in her tone at all. “I brought it up as a joke, ye know me. But then she just rattled off all these things…I’m no’ the only one who sees it. That’s all.”

“Sees what ?”

“Are ye daft, woman?” Gillian blinked in disbelief, and then sighed exasperatedly.

“You haven’t asked me a question yet, you know,” Claire said defensively, crossing her arms. “That’s how you opened this conversation.”

“Alright. Fine. Why did ye no’ tell me he was at yer bloody apartment?” Gillian said flatly.

Claire stammered for a moment. “It didn’t seem at all important! Toni told you about that as well?”

“Aye, she did. Didna mean anything by it, just came up in conversation.”

“Right, in conversation about me .”

“Dinna get all fiery on me, Claire. It wasna all about you. She talked as much about Jamie.”

Claire was about to fire back again, but she quickly realized that Gillian was right; she was getting overly defensive and angry, something Gillian was never shy about calling her out on.

“Really. Why didn’t ye tell me?” Gillian asked again, softly.

“It wasn’t conscious…it just didn’t come up.” Claire started picking at a cuticle, focusing her vision there instead of on Gillian.

“Because ye didna want it to come up. Right?”

“It seemed…private. I don’t know. It wasn’t…like you think. Or like she thinks.” Claire hissed in pain at what she was doing to her finger, and Gillian swatted at her hand to make her stop.

“Toni says he makes all these exceptions fer Faith, bendin’ over backwards to make her happy.”

Claire’s head started spinning. “He’s just…being kind.”

“Aye, Claire,” Gillian chuckled. “Because he likes you. A lot more than I even thought.”

“That’s…that’s ridiculous.” Claire shook her head. “My child is his client.”

“Toni says it’s no’ the same as a regular therapist — ”

“Gillian, please…” Claire interrupted, a bit more forcefully than she meant to. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. Really, I do. You’re my best friend, I get it. And I love you for it. But this…” She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her thighs. “I don’t need this. I don’t need you to play matchmaker like we did in college.”

“Claire…”

“It’s alright, Gi. I’m not angry, I promise. I just…” She sighed. “I don’t need…I don’t need to be rescued anymore. Do you know what I mean? These past few months, just me and Faith…god, I’ve never felt so good about myself. I mean, hell, I’ve had doubt upon doubt creep into my mind, and not every day is good. But she is thriving here, and so am I. I don’t have to explain myself or my parenting to anyone anymore. And…fuck, Gi, I love it. I finally feel like…like I’m doing right by her.” She was surprised to feel the tears in her eyes, and she swallowed to keep them at bay. “For four years of her life, I was this…shell of myself. And god damn it, I pulled myself out of that. I know I had your help, always, and now I have Mrs. Lickett, and the Abernathy’s, and the whole community at the stables…but I did this . For her…and now I realize it was for me, too.”

Gillian put a hand on Claire’s knee. “I understand, hen.”

Claire nodded. “Jamie is incredibly kind, and thoughtful, and he’s done a lot for us. But it’s not what you think, and I don’t need…what you think it is. Faith doesn’t need that. She needs me . I need me. Am I…making any sense?”

“Ye are. Ye dinna have to explain yerself to me, Claire. I’m sorry,” Gillian said sheepishly. “Ye know me. Canna keep my neb out of anyone’s business. Least of all yers.”

Claire offered a tiny smile, then laid her head onto her shoulder. “Will you be seeing your American lover for one final tryst before you depart?”

Gillian snorted. “Nae, we’ve already said our goodbyes. Keeping it casual, ye ken. She’s just out of a relationship and all that.”

“Right. Well I’m glad you had that, however brief. Been a while since you’ve been with a woman, hasn’t it?”

“Aye, ye’re right! I was feeling starved for female affection after years of male disappointment!”

Claire guffawed loudly, and they both dissolved into a fit of giggles that carried into the wee hours of the morning.

Chapter Text

January 5

Jamie was leaning against Toni’s counter tapping a nervous rhythm on his thigh. It was 4:45 on a Friday. They’d walk through the door any minute.

It had been two weeks since he’d last seen her, since he’d held his breath as he handed the little gift bag to her. Even in the moment, he’d been asking himself what the devil he was thinking, and he’d asked it again and again every minute since then.

He hadn’t really meant for it to happen. He was grocery shopping and a bag of the Lindt truffles just jumped out at him, and they would not leave his fevered brain alone until he picked them up. And then he’d remembered the sour candies she’d said she liked as well, and then he told himself he couldn’t give her something without something for the bairn…

And then there he was, feeling like a bloody idiot, giving this woman who barely knew him a Christmas gift. Not much, but still a gift.

What must she have thought? Did she see it as this grand gesture? He didn’t want her to, not at all. It really was nothing. He’d just wanted to put a smile on her face.

And why did ye want to do that, ye numpty?

His brain involuntarily wandered to the conversation that had been foisted upon him against his will back at Lallybroch on Christmas Eve. According to his family, he’d had his head in the clouds since the moment he’d arrived, and something was different about him. According to them. So after the bairns were asleep, his family thought it wise to corner him about it.

——

“I ken that look, laddie, because it’s the same as I had on my stupid face before yer sister declared we’d be getting married,” Ian said, chuckling. “Puir man is in love.”

Och , dinna be daft.” Jamie shook his head. “Who on Earth would I be in love with?”

“We wouldna ken, seeing as ye havena told us a damn thing about her!” Jenny said, shoving him. “Spit it out, brother! How long have ye been seeing a lass wi’out telling us?”

“I’ve no’ been seeing anyone, fer Christ’s sake,” he grumbled, lightly shoving her back. “Ye think ye wouldna ken about it already?”

“Ah, so he’s pining, then,” Ian interjected, making a grating “tsk” noise.

“Is it true?” Jenny shoved him again. “Ye’ve got eyes fer her and ye havena told her?”

“Janet — ”

“Jamie!” Jenny exclaimed. “Ye canna be such a coward! Why have ye no’ told her?”

“Jenny,” Brian’s voice finally interrupted, a light warning in his tone. “If the lad doesna wish to speak of it, then we ought to respect that.”

Jenny deflated, and Jamie was reminded of childhood bouts that their father had had to break up, resulting in a very similar pout from his hothead sister.

“It’s no’ that dinna wish to speak of her…there’s just…nothing to speak of, is all.” Jamie shrugged. “She’s still marrit.”

Jamie — !” Jenny crossed herself.

“Will ye hold yer wheesht?” Jamie whirled on her. “She’s getting a bloody divorce, alright? No need to break out the holy water.”

Jenny crossed herself again, this time in relief.

“Is that why ye’ve no’ said anything?” Ian said, no teasing in his tone at all anymore.

“Aye, I suppose.” Jamie stuffed his hands in his pockets, sitting on the arm of the couch. “She hardly knows me, ye ken? It’s ridiculous to even be having this conversation. We hardly know each other.”

“Ian’s right, son,” Brian said. “Ye’ve got it bad, we can all see it. No use pretending ye shouldna talk about it.”

Jamie sighed.

“Tell us about her,” Jenny said excitedly. “She’s American, aye?”

“No, actually.” He grinned. “She’s English.”

“A Sassenach?” Jenny exclaimed, scandalized. “Leave it to Jamie to pick up a bloody Sassenach even after he’s moved across the pond.”

“I havena picked her up , Janet,” Jamie said firmly. “She’s a friend. An acquaintance. A bonny one at that.”

“Where’d ye meet her?” Ian asked.

Jamie chuckled nervously, rubbing the back of his neck. “Aye, there’s the rub…” His three listeners furrowed their brows at him in confusion. “Ye see she’s…she has a daughter…”

Jenny gasped. “She’s one of yer kids, isn’t she?” She put her glass down on the coffee table. “The one ye keep bringing up, the Disney lover!”

Jamie felt his face flush red. He had indeed mentioned Faith several times, reminded of her by every movie young Jamie put on, by the wee princess onesies that Maggie was wearing.

“Aye…bonny work, detective.” Jamie meant to sound snarky, but it only came out as rather sheepish.

“Getting involved wi’ a woman that has a bairn is tricky business, brother,” Jenny warned. “The father will never be out of the picture, ye ken.”

“There is no involved , will ye cut it out?” Jamie ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “Like I said. I hardly ken her.”

“But she’s bonny?” Ian said, raising a brow.

“Aye…she is.”

“And ye’re fond of her bairn?” Brian asked.

Jamie couldn't suppress his smile. “Aye…I am.”

And I’ve given them both a wee Christmas present, and my heart has been sitting in my throat since, thinking of what she’ll say about it when I see her again. And the thought of the bairn proudly wearing that tartan bow is making my damned head spin.

“Yup,” Ian and Brian said simultaneously, raising their glasses and then taking a sip.

What ?” Jamie said.

“Ye’re a goner, son,” Brian chuckled.

——

Jamie exhaled heavily into the stale air of the welcome center, shaking his head clear, preparing himself for their arrival. His father was probably right. Everywhere he went, he saw them. He saw their eyes in his whisky, he saw Faith’s little smile at the store everywhere there was something Disney, he heard Claire’s laugh in the ringing of Christmas bells and church bells.

Perhaps he had a wee crush.

It was nothing he couldn't get a handle on.

Jenny was right: getting involved with a divorcee with a child would be complicated. That didn’t scare him away, of course, not at all. But he considered that it would perhaps be more complicated for her than it would be for him. It had occurred to him that the divorce may have not even been finalized yet. And then there was Claire’s adamance that Faith be addressed as Beauchamp , the fact that she’d flown across an ocean to “get away” as she’d put it…

Something about it all made him shudder.

But the bottom line was that it was a messy divorce. And he had no business swooping in and intruding on their recovery from something like that. Especially not him . They needed him to be Mister Jamie, the miracle-worker horse therapist that made Faith the best she could possibly be. Nothing could get in the way of that, jeopardize it when they needed it so desperately.

And, damn it, he would be exactly that, no matter what.

The door opened at that moment, and his stupid heart leapt into his throat. Faith was bouncing exceptionally high today; she must have really missed it for the two week break. 

“Hello!” Toni called, waving excitedly. “Did you have a good Christmas, Princess Faith?” she crooned. “Was Santa good to you?”

“Was Santa very nice, lovie?” She crouched down next to her, watching as Claire coaxed the sign for “good” out of her. “Christmas was…good, yes, good girl.” 

“Yay!” Toni said, signing her applause. “I’m so glad to hear it. And your signing is so good, sweetheart. Good job.” She signed it while saying it.

Claire was radiant.

She was flushed with joy, her bonny curls flowing freely, glasses perched precariously on her nose. He wondered why she didn't wear them more often.

“And what about you, Mister Jamie?” Claire said playfully. “Was Santa good to you this year?”

His reverie was broken, and he laughed. “Aye, he was. Brought me a bonny wee niece this year.”

“No kidding!” Claire said, her eyes warming.

“Aye, well, she was born back in November, but I got to be there for her two month celebration. Best gift fer me.”

“She’s so cute. Jamie, you have to show her the pictures you showed me,” Toni said, swatting at his arm.

Jamie felt his face flush red, and he prayed that Claire didn’t notice.

The wicked besom knows exactly what she’s doing.

“Nae, we ought to get going.”

“We still have a few minutes before five! I want to see!” Claire said excitedly.

He was powerless to deny her anything.

He chuckled softly as he pulled out his phone. “Alright…there she is just born. Margaret Ellen Murray.”

“Jamie…” Claire breathed. “She’s beautiful…”

He let out a breathy laugh, pride swelling up in his chest. He swiped to the next picture. “That’s her brother, wee Jamie, holding her fer the first time.”

“Named after you?” Her eyes flicked up to him briefly, and the pride spread further throughout his body, making his back straighten.

“Aye, he is.”

“They’re adorable , Jamie.”

He swiped to the next one, and he felt his cheeks get hot. “ Och , that’s just me wi’ her — ”

“Wait, don’t — I want to see.” She stopped him from moving to the next one, and his stomach did something funny. He thought for a moment he’d gotten so warm that she could feel the heat radiating off him from how close they were standing. He looked up briefly to see Toni waggling her eyebrows at him, and he shot her a dangerous look.

“She looks tiny in your arms,” Claire said, laughing. “Well, of course, but I mean, you’re…”

“He’s huge,” Toni butted in.

Claire laughed out loud, nodding. She gave an adorable little snort before forcing herself to calm down, looking at the picture again. “You look really happy holding her.”

Jamie chuckled before skipping ahead a bit to Christmas, showing Maggie in all her nearly-two-month-old glory.

“That’s your sister?” Claire said, pointing to a picture of Jenny holding wee Maggie in front of the Christmas tree.

“Aye, that’s Jenny,” he said.

“She’s lovely,” Claire said. “Your family is beautiful, Jamie.”

“Thank ye, Sassenach.” His heart felt three sizes too big as he finally put his phone away again.

“Do you miss them? Being all the way over here?”

“Aye, especially the bairns. Didna realize wee Jamie would be sae big when I got there.”

They were interrupted by Faith giving a loud, impatient moan, tugging on her mother’s hand.

“Kept her waiting long enough, haven’t we?” Jamie said, moving toward the back door. “Off we go, then!”

——

Jamie was relaying stories to Claire about his rowdy holiday, walking backwards as always. Claire listened to him go on and on, thinking about those photos of his beautiful family, her head spinning.

She still hadn’t addressed the elephant in the room.

The photos were a welcome distraction, but she had to say something sooner or later.

She stood watching Jamie get Erica and Faith settled to walk over to the riding hall, and then he lingered back with her, as usual.

“What about you, Sassenach? Good holiday? Wi’ yer friend?”

She smiled. “Yes, it was really great.” She took a deep breath as Jamie shut the stable doors behind them. “I, um…thank you. For the candy. And the bow. Faith really likes it. You didn’t have to do that.”

Och , ’twas nae bother.” He shrugged. “Just wanted to share the Christmas spirit, is all.”

She took another breath, praying that her face wasn’t betraying her as it was wont to do. “Well, it was very kind. Especially since I didn’t have anything for you.”

“Not at all.” He waved her off. “Had to do something to make up fer murdering yer taste buds that day.”

Claire laughed. “Right. You’d better watch your back. Next holiday, I may give you something downright poisonous.”

They continued their banter back and forth, laughing until they reached the riding hall. Claire leaned against the fence as always, watching Faith enjoy herself, her heart light. So maybe the poor man had a little crush on her. Surely he knew it couldn’t get any further than that, and it certainly seemed like he didn’t expect it to go any further. He was never anything but respectful, and incredibly kind. He just wanted a good rapport with her while they worked together to improve her daughter’s life. It was heartwarming and comforting.

Claire was finally able to shut up those voices in her head, voices belonging to Gillian and Toni. Whatever this was, between her and Jamie, it wasn’t that .

——

January carried on, bitter cold bringing on the first snow of the year. Claire sat outside, bundled up with tea watching Faith catch snowflakes on her tongue. Claire drew the alphabet and some numbers in the snow, and they made a sad little snowman that Faith insisted on giving Mickey ears. She fell asleep very quickly that night, and Claire had a slew of pictures to send Gillian, and a mental note to get some of them printed and framed to fill the empty frames that once held photos of Frank.

As empty frames filled, so too did pieces of Claire’s life fall into place around her. Faith’s signing was progressing better than Claire ever would have hoped. She was able to tell her when she had to use the bathroom, which was something that had been a problem for years. She still had problems wetting herself, and Claire still had her sleep in pull-ups more often than not. But come February, her little trooper was pull-up-free for three weeks.

She was also able to say “hungry,” “movie,” “music,” and “horse,” which was interchangeable for Horsie. The alphabet was still a work in progress, so names like Pippi or Mickey would have to wait.

She was very good at “Mummy,” though.

Well, Mrs. Lickett called it “mom,” but to Claire, and to Faith as well she supposed, it was “Mummy”.

A newly filled picture frame was home to a photo of Faith holding her chin to her thumb, hands splayed proudly in front of a grinning face, knowing full well that she was saying “Mummy” for the camera.

If it were even possible for the once a week that Claire saw him, Jamie was also becoming even more of a constant in their lives. When Claire entered the stables to see his smiling face holding Pippi’s bridle, she always got this feeling that no time at all had passed since she’d last seen him, like the six other days of the week had all blended together. During those six days, every new milestone from Faith was catalogued into her brain to tell Jamie. Every marker doodle, crayon portrait, or glitter explosion on paper was snapped into her camera roll to show him on the walk to the riding hall.

She loved seeing his eyes light up to hear about Faith eating an entire plate of cucumber despite her aversion to green things, or to see the photo of something resembling a horse made with purple crayon. Hearing that chesty laugh, and that honey voice saying, “Clever lass,” was music to Claire’s ears.

Claire, in turn, would occasionally bug him for updated pictures of his niece and nephew, especially the baby. She adored listening to him going on and on about them, hearing the funny things that wee Jamie said to him over FaceTime, or stories that his sister would regale him with. He was truly a family man; he enjoyed bragging about them as much as Claire did about her own daughter.

And Christ, how he made her laugh.

She hadn’t really thought about it at all until one day she got in the car, Faith buckled and Horsie double checked, and she realized her cheeks were hurting. Upon further inspection in the rear view mirror, she could see that she was still smiling over the last joke he’d left her with, her face was still flushed red.

On the first of March, Claire made a step that she’d been terrified to do. After months of research and inquiries, starting even before they moved to the States, she finally made a down payment on a service dog. It would be a few more months before she could raise the full funds, or before the dog would be fully ready to join them, but all the ducks were in a row.

The people that she’d been in email correspondence were quite confident that a dog would be able to soothe Faith’s anxieties with crowds to enough of an extent where Claire needn’t be terrified to bring her to public places. Claire hadn’t actually done her own grocery shopping in two years due to Faith’s anxiety, nor had she ever taken her to a movie theatre, a bowling alley, a restaurant, or anything like that. Claire watched videos of children whose lives had been changed by their autism service animal, and her heart raced to think of all of those things for Faith.

She may even be able to handle school if she felt safe enough with the dog.

It was almost too much for one heart.

——

Claire’s feet were aching at a time nowhere near the end of her shift, and she’d just been granted her fifteen minute break by the oh-so-gracious Doctor Moore. She collapsed in the break room, and not even four minutes after sitting down, there was a coffee cup floating in front of her eyes.

“Oh, God bless you,” she practically moaned.

“Looked like you needed it,” Joe said. “It’s almost fresh.”

“I think I’d drink it a week old at this point.”

Joe chuckled as he returned to his locker to finish gathering his things. He was no longer in his scrubs, ready to go home for the day.

Claire absently checked her phone, having had it on silent to avoid The Wrath, as she’d gotten accustomed to doing. Her brow furrowed to see six missed calls and ten text messages from Gillian, starting from almost an hour ago.

She opened the text messages, and her stomach turned to lead.

Gillian [4:37]: Claire.

Gillian [4:37]: Claire Beauchamp.

Gillian [4:37]: Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp.

Gillian [4:38]: Claire.

Gillian [4:38]: Answer yer phone.

Gillian [4:39]: CLAIRE

Gillian [4:39]: I’m not bloody kidding. Ye need to pick up.

Gillian [4:39]: Claire!

Gillian [4:39]: Jesus feckin Christ!!

Gillian [4:39]: EMERGENCY

“You good over there, Lady Jane?” Joe’s voice brought her back to Earth, her head still spinning.

“Something is wrong…” Claire said, her pulse thrumming in her throat. “My friend Gillian has been trying to call me for an hour and she says it’s an emergency…”

“Do you need to go home?”

“I…I don’t know…” She rapidly texted her back:

What happened?

Before Claire could say another word to Joe, her phone started ringing, and she immediately picked up.

“Claire?”

“Gillian? What’s wrong?”

“Claire, I’m so sorry, I tried to tell him to fuck off, but he wasna having it.”

“Who, Gi? What is going on?”

“Frank, Claire! The feckin louse calls me out of nowhere while I’m in bed and demands that I tell him yer new number! Yer address too!”

Claire’s throat went dry, her vision became blurry, all of her muscles seemed to shrivel.

“W…what…?”

“I’m so sorry, hen…I tried, but he said he could take legal action because ye’re keeping his child in an unknown location, so I had to tell him, Claire…”

Claire inhaled tremulously. Her hands began convulsing. She’d kept that information from him on purpose. The only information he had was bank information for money transfers. She didn’t want contact from him ever again, and he knew that. Why was he doing this?

“What does he want?”

“I don’t know. He wouldna say. Before I could press him further he just hung up. I think he means to call ye. Tonight. Soon.”

Claire tried to form words, but her throat closed up, and her mouth flapped uselessly.

“Claire? Ye there? Ye alright?”

She shook her head, and then felt like an idiot, because she was on a bloody phone call.

“Claire. Answer me.”

“I can’t breathe,” she suddenly squeaked out against her will. “I can’t fucking breathe…”

“Alright, hen, it’s alright…come on, take some breaths fer me.”

Claire tried to do as she said, she really did try.

“Fucking hell, Claire. I wish I could come to ye right now. I’m so sorry. Please breathe. Get some water. Ye canna go into shock right now.”

Claire swallowed thickly and began breathing heavily. “I…I have to go…”

“Alright…please tell me what happens. I’m sick wi’ worry.”

“Okay…”

“I’m sorry, Claire…”

“It’s not your fault,” Claire said. “Please, it’s alright. I’ll…I’ll call you later.”

“Okay. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

Claire’s vision was blurry, the contents of her nearly empty stomach were churning.

“Claire?” Joe put a steady hand on her shoulder.

“I have to go. I have to go right now,” she sputtered, immediately dashing to her locker to get her things together. She could hardly get the bloody lock open from how fiercely her fingers were shaking.

“I’ll get Doctor Moore.”

Joe was out of the room in a flash, and Claire let out a pathetic little whimper.

Keep it together, Beauchamp. You cannot lose it yet.

Doctor Moore returned just as she slammed her locker shut, purse over her shoulder, coat in hand, scrubs still on.

“What’s the problem?” Doctor Moore droned.

“I have to go, Doctor. There’s an emergency.”

“Your shift doesn’t end for another two and a half hours, Doctor Beauchamp. I can’t allow — ”

“Please, you don’t understand, I really — ”

“I’ll cover her,” Joe interrupted. Doctor Moore was still registering the angry shock of having been cut off by Claire, and was now staring blankly at Joe. “I can do that, right? If I stay until her shift is supposed to end, she can go?”

“I guess so…”

“Thank you.” Claire leaned over and squeezed his hand, looking into his eyes, almost positive she looked manic. “ Thank you .”

Without another word, Claire scrambled out of the EMD wing, down the elevator and through the parking lot. When she was seated behind the wheel, she pulled her phone out to text Mrs. Lickett:

Coming home early. Family emergency.

Feeling like she was about to pass out at any moment, Claire put the car in drive and pulled out of her parking spot, racing home as fast as she dared. She did not want to be in public when he inevitably decided to call her.

When she got home, Mrs. Lickett was all concern. Faith abandoned the coloring book they’d been working on to attach herself to Claire’s legs, even as Mrs. Lickett tried to get out of her what was wrong.

“Faith’s father…” was all Claire could manage to sputter. “Contacting me…”

“Should I stay? Keep her busy, while you — ”

“No, this isn’t your problem. Really, it’s okay,” Claire said. “I’ll still pay you for the whole day, of course. Don’t worry about it.”

“Alright…if you’re sure…”

Claire nodded wordlessly and ushered her outside. She quickly got Faith settled with her coloring again.

After Mrs. Lickett was taken care of, after Faith was occupied again…that was when the trembling started again.

She paced the living room like a madwoman, staring at her phone, just waiting. She felt her insides churning; she could have thrown up at any second.

Fuck, Gillian. I wish you could be here.

She thought of who else to call: not Joe; he literally was doing her job for her right now. Not Mary, the poor thing was too anxious to handle normal inconveniences, let alone something like this. Her phone buzzed, and she literally felt bile rise into her throat.

It was just a Facebook notification.

She shoved a fist in her mouth to stifle the terrified sob that came, and her legs gave out beneath her, collapsing her into the coffee table.

I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I’m going to fucking pass out. I can’t do this.

The world was spinning, she felt like she was vibrating, and Faith was humming contentedly in the kitchen.

Then it dawned on her, and for the briefest moment her stomach settled, like she was in the eye of a storm: her body surrendered to temporary comfort, full well knowing she’d have to brace herself for another onslaught soon enough. She opened up her phone, pulling up that number she swore she’d never use again.

——

Claire [6:17]: I'm so sorry I know I promised you I wouldn't use this number ever again but something's happened and I'm freaking out I don’t know what to do

Jamie [6:17]: what's wrong?? is Faith ok?? do ye need me to take ye to the hospital??

Claire [6:17]: Faith is fine. I'm fine. 

Claire [6:17]: But

Claire [6:17]: Gillian just called me. She said Frank got my address and phone number from her. It's not her fault. He threatened legal measures if she didn't tell because of paternity bullshit.

Claire [6:17]: Frank is my ex-husband

Claire [6:17]: Sorry for the language

Jamie [6:17]: no apology necessary sassenach. i'm sorry about all this. ye must be scared. did she say what he wanted?

Claire [6:18]: No he wouldn't tell her. And I'm panicking because I'm terrified he'll try and take her away from me or God knows what else.

Claire [6:18]: I don't know what to do

Jamie [6:18]: are you alright?? do ye need me to come over??

Jamie [6:23]: Claire??

Jamie [6:25]: you're making me very worried lass. i'm coming over

Claire [6:25]: no no please don’t

Claire [6:25] Jamie it's really alright it wouldn't be appropriate

Claire [6:27] Hello???

Jamie [6:27]: sorry, was getting my shoes on. are you really sure ye don't need me?

Jamie [6:27]: i willna tell Toni that i went to yer apartment this time. promise. our secret.

Jamie [6:28]: if ye want me to of course. i won't come if ye don't want me to.

Jamie [6:28]: i'm just worried.

...

Jamie [6:31]: Claire?

Claire [6:31]: I’m sorry, there's a lot going on

Claire [6:32]: Our secret?

Jamie [6:32]: i'm on my way.

Chapter Text

Jamie’s pulse was thrumming in his temples when he pulled up in front of Claire’s apartment. He was almost positive he hadn’t blinked the entire drive — or breathed for that matter. Unlike the last time he was here, he wasted no time in throwing himself out of the driver's seat and jogging up the stairs.

He could hear her before he even opened the door.

“No, Frank! That is not what I said! You’re twisting my words! I — ”

Jamie’s blood boiled to realize that he’d cut her off before she finished speaking. He swallowed thickly, took a steadying breath, and turned the handle. She’d texted him that she was leaving it open.

She had her back to him, phone to her ear, pacing back and forth. She was still in her scrubs, wild hair loosely flowing to her shoulders. He could hear, just barely, the tinny sound of a man on the other line. He was speaking much too loudly.

“Don’t you dare . Don’t even try to — ”

Jamie saw red. The man cut her off again.

The red quickly snapped away, a little giggle bringing him back to reality.

Faith was standing in the doorway that he deduced led to the kitchen.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Frank! If you would just — ”

Without thinking, Jamie crossed the room in quick strides.

“Hallo, Faith,” he whispered, crouching down. “How about ye show me some of yer wee toys, hm? In yer room?”

Get her away from the yelling, away from the cussing mam. She doesna need to hear.

“Come on, lass. Off we go.” He reached out his hand, extremely hesitant to take it as he’d seen her mother do countless times. Faith, however, didn’t miss a beat, and gave him her hand as naturally as if she were giving it to Claire.

He didn’t have time to process what that did to his heart before Claire started in again:

“You conniving piece of shit!”

He smiled weakly at Faith and stood up, leading her across the living room to where he assumed the bedrooms were. She pulled him to the left, into a room of pinks and purples, of princesses and plushies.

“Frank, for God’s sake…how could you do that to her…? Do you have any idea how much she needs — ”

Cut her off again.

Jamie shut the bedroom door behind them.

“Ye’ve got a bonny wee bedroom, Faith,” he said warmly. She began a procession of toys, retrieving them, marching them over, and handing them to him. Before long, the pile was much too big, so he sank to the floor and sat cross-legged, doing his best to keep them all congregated in his lap. He made sure to comment something on every toy, like saying them by name if it were a particular character, remarking on color, on size, or how sweet-looking they were.

All the while, he could hear Claire’s voice close to breaking in the next room.

Faith stopped at some point, standing before him with her hands clasped behind her back, rocking back and forth, beaming.

“Is that all yer wee friends, then?” he said, chuckling despite the ache in his chest. It was impossible to not smile when she was standing right in front of him, happy as a clam. “I’m verra pleased to meet them all.” She giggled loudly, jiggling her hands in front of her face and bouncing a bit. “Anything else ye’d like to show me?”

She bounded off to a wee table in the corner, returning with a pile of colorful paper. She handed them to him, and he flipped through each little craft, each drawing, each page from a coloring book, remarking like an Olympic-sports-commentator on the excellence of her work, causing her to giggle like he’d never heard before.

“Don’t you dare hang up on me! This is not finished!”

“This is verra bonny, Faith,” he said, holding up a paper mask she’d handed him, peeking at her through the eye holes. “The glitter especially.”

“No, you listen! You have said a great deal, and now it’s my turn!”

“Faith, a leannan , where is yer tablet?” he asked gently. “Yer tablet?”

She bounded to her nightstand and retrieved it from the drawer.

“You were dragging your feet on purpose, weren’t you?”

“Alright, lass. What shall we put on? Can ye show me yer favorites, Faith?”

She tapped and scrolled until she came upon an episode of Sesame Street , and Jamie let out a soft chuckle. “Aye, a verra fine choice, indeed. I’m a Big Bird fan myself.”

“You purposely took your fucking time with the papers so you could wait until you could secure some new bride before the divorce was final!”

Jamie inconspicuously swiped the headphones that were in his reach on her bed.

“D’ye mind if we put these on, lass? So ye can hear better, aye?” She didn’t take her eyes off the screen, and he gingerly put the headphones on her, and she didn’t even flinch. He released the breath he’d been holding.

“So you could rid yourself of these payments before you got married! That’s it, isn’t it?”

One by one, Jamie removed the little stuffed toys from his lap, arranging them around Faith like little guardians as her eyes remained transfixed by the puppets on her screen.

“You can’t do this. You won’t get away with it, Frank. I swear to God.”

He stood and listened with bated breath for Claire to speak again. He’d noticed by now that this Frank character spoke a great deal more than she did, so he waited to make sure she’d actually hung up. He heard something else, though, a sound entirely different.

She was crying. He could hear her shuddering little gasps for air.

Jamie carefully opened Faith's door, took one final glance back to see that she was still distracted, then silently shut it behind him. He crept slowly into the living room, the break in his heart cracking wider with every step, her sobs becoming clearer and clearer. He reached the couch and gingerly sat down, leaving about a foot of space between them. Feeling the shift of weight in the cushions, Claire removed her face from her hands and looked at him, and Jamie thought he might just die. It was one thing to hear her soft, muffled cries, her little sniffles. But the sight of her, red in the face, eyes puffed and swollen, muscles contorted in pain...

He felt as if he couldn't breathe.

Jamie didn't say anything; he waited patiently for her to go first, to explain when she felt ready. But, Lord, was he boiling. He could feel the veins in his neck protruding, he was painfully aware of how tightly his jaw was clenched, how white his knuckles were in the fists he held them in, fists that were ready to pummel the life out of anyone who made Claire weep so. The urge to reach out and comfort her was stronger than anything he'd ever felt in his life. Keeping himself rooted in place was almost painful.

"That was Frank," Claire finally said, her voice cracked and small. "In case you couldn't tell." She rolled her eyes at herself, sniffled, and wiped her face clean of tears. "He's uh...it's been him paying for Faith's therapy. Insurance doesn't cover equine therapy. When we agreed on divorce he agreed to pay for it. His exact words were that I could have as much of his money as I wanted as long as he didn't have to deal with anything. Meaning Faith, of course." She swallowed thickly at that, and Jamie momentarily went blind with rage. He'd heard of fathers or mothers who left after a diagnosis, or those who didn't leave but couldn't handle it and took out their anger on the innocent child or their spouse. But to do that to Claire ? To a woman so remarkable and a child so special? How dare he...

"But now, all of a sudden, he's found some new fool to take for a bride and doesn't want to be saddled with payments anymore." She laughed bitterly. "He thinks that just because he remarries and has the perfect family he's always wanted it can erase the fact that he sired a disabled child. Like it's a stain he has to get out." Her face got redder when she said that.

"Ye ken that's no' true," he was unable to hold his tongue any longer.

"I know," she said quickly. " I know. But he..." She sighed shakily.

"Does he no' have to...to pay child support? Of some kind?" Jamie leaned forward, brow furrowed, desperate to understand how this could happen.

"Apparently not. The divorce isn't technically final yet and he's trying to arrange the settlement agreement so that he doesn't have to pay anything. Some lawyer of his told him that because I was the one to initiate his break in contact with Faith that it's proof enough that I don't want his help."

"That's..." Jamie shook his head, swallowing back expletives that he was sure would be inappropriate. 

"Bullshit," Claire finished for him. "It's complete fucking horse shit."

Jamie cleared his throat and nodded emphatically. "Aye. That i’tis."

"Why the fuck should I want him to be able to contact her? The way he spoke to her and about her and the way he just walked out..." She grunted in frustration and swiped at fresh tears. "I'm sorry...I didn't mean to drag you into this, and now I'm crying like a baby..."

"Dinna be sorry, Claire," Jamie said softly. "Ye have the weight of the world on yer shoulders right now. Makes sense that ye cry, that ye need someone wi' ye. Someone that isna a four year old." He offered a tiny smile.

Claire smiled, though even more tears spilled down her cheeks. She shook her head. "You're being so kind, Jamie, really...but I shouldn't have asked you to come. This isn't something you should have to worry about...a client's father dropping child support..."

"This isna just about Faith being my client, Claire," Jamie said, surprised by his own serious tone. "This is about being there fer a friend."

The floodgates opened again, and Claire covered her mouth to stifle her sobs. She wordlessly shook her head and collapsed into herself, and Jamie could hold back no longer. He scooted closer to her and touched her near shoulder, intending to leave it there, give a gentle squeeze. Instead, she completely melted against him, forcing his hand off her as her head rested on his shoulder. His displaced hand hovered over her for a moment, completely unsure what to do. He thought for certain that she'd come to her senses and move away, but she didn't. She shook and trembled with the weight of her sobs, now hugging herself around the middle. He slowly and carefully draped his arm around her small frame, resting his hand on her far shoulder now.

Christ, she was small. He hadn't realized until just now. He'd looked at her, observed her, and seen nothing but her strength. She was twelve feet tall in his eyes, despite the logical fact that he towered over her. But now, her head tucked into the crook of his shoulder, her shuddering frame pressed against him, his arm could have circled around her twice. He was overwhelmed at the feeling of just holding her. He breathed deeply to calm his rage at the man who'd broken her heart, and he caught the strongest whiff of her herbal shampoo — lemongrass — nearly going blind with how dizzy it made him.

Christ, man. Get it together.

He started rubbing her upper arm, soothing her, his free hand gingerly resting on her knee. She did not touch him; she kept her arms woven tightly around herself. But neither did she pull away. When was the last time, he wondered, that someone had held her like this, that she'd found comfort in someone other than her daughter, who could not possibly understand the burdens she carried?

Based on how long she stayed like that, he surmised it had been far too long.

After quite some time, the sobbing subsided, but she still trembled and sniffled.

"What am I going to do…?" she croaked, her voice hoarse. "She needs the stables. It's so good for her. I've seen such a change in her since she started, and Mrs. Lickett even thinks that if her progress continues she'll actually be able to start school on time. Do you have any idea how..." Her voice got caught in her throat, and he could feel her swallow.

"I didn't think she'd ever be totally okay in a public place, let alone without me. But seeing her with you on that horse..." She swallowed again. "I believe in her so much, Jamie."

"I ken ye do. So do I."

"But the stables have been an essential stepping stone for her. She can't lose that or...or everything I've dreamed of for her will be gone." Her voice crackled. “I just spent thousands of dollars in savings for the service dog, I can’t do this alone…”

"I ken." He squeezed her knee and her shoulder. "There has to be some legal steps ye can take to fight this."

"I don't know. The last time I spoke to Frank I...I did tell him I wanted nothing from him. Nothing for food or clothing or anything except the exact amount I need for the equine therapy."

"Well, that's it then. The agreement was he pay fer the therapy."

"But it wasn't a legal agreement. I think he just agreed because he felt guilty." She freed her hands so she could wipe her face clean of tears. She struggled to lift her head off of Jamie's shoulder, awkwardly trapped under his arm. He immediately released her from his embrace, painfully aware of how very long he'd spent holding Claire Beauchamp in his arms.

He jumped off the couch to get her a tissue, using that as his excuse for having let her go so abruptly. She thanked him sheepishly when he returned with the entire box in the bathroom.

"Your shirt..." Claire said, her face turning red for a completely different reason as her eyed fixated on his shoulder. "I've completely soaked it with my blubbering. I'm so sorry..."

" Och , nothing I havena seen before." He shrugged. "Ye forget I work wi' drippy-nosed children." She attempted a smile, but he could tell she was still embarrassed.

"So it wasna legal before. Can ye no' make it legal now?" Jamie asked as she blew her nose.

"I don't know. He doesn't seem to think I have a leg to stand on."

"He's intimidating ye, that's all. He's dealing in absolutes because he wants ye to think ye canna challenge it."

Claire threw her used tissue onto the coffee table and smiled, a bit more genuine now. "Since when are you a law expert?"

"I'm not," he said, shrugging. "Just ken how slimy people work to get what they want.”

She rubbed her eyes with one hand, then pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Ye know,” Jamie piped up, a rush of exhilaration flooding through him. “I’ve a friend in Scotland who’s a lawyer. A family friend. A great lawyer.”

“I can’t afford a lawyer right now — ”

“D’ye think ole Ned is gonnae charge me just fer asking a few questions?” Jamie pulled his phone out of his back pocket. “He’s asleep just now, I’m sure, but I’ll send him an email right now, call him tomorrow. Let ye know what he says.”

She blinked at him, astonished. “You’d…do that? For me?”

“Aye,” he answered instantly. “It’s no hassle, Sassenach. I’m sure he’ll say that we’re right, that he canna just change a settlement wi’out yer consent, paternal rights or no’. Ned Gowan can sniff out intimidation tactics from a mile away.”

Jamie quickly composed the email and sent it. When he looked up, Claire had tears in her eyes again, staring at him.

“Have I done something wrong?” he stammered. “Should I no’ have sent the email?”

“No, no,” she said quickly, shaking her head and wiping her eyes. “No, you’ve…you’ve done all the right things. I’m just…” She inhaled shakily. “Grateful.”

Jamie bit his tongue to stop himself from saying what was on his mind:

I’d do anything fer you, Claire.

“It’s truly nae bother. I’m happy to do it.” He nodded curtly, putting his phone away. He looked at her carefully for a moment, her complete and utter shock at the thought of somebody helping her without an ulterior motive. Then he remembered back to when he’d last been here, when he’d simply asked if she was alright; the shock on her face was staggering. The little things came to mind as well, the small moments when she seemed to leave this plane of existence for a few seconds after he’d asked her a question about her recent past.

“Claire…can I…can I ask ye something?” he said carefully, leaning his elbows on his knees. “Ye can…tell me to shut my gab at any point, o’ course.”

She nodded hesitantly, fiddling with her fingers in her lap.

“This man…Frank.” She immediately tensed, and his stomach clenched, his suspicions proving correct. “Did he…did he hurt ye, Claire?”

Her response was unexpected. She laughed, a short, bitter sound.

“God…sometimes I wish he did…” She wiped her eyes again. “It would be easier to explain.”

“What do ye mean…?” His brow furrowed.

“He didn’t…beat me. Or Faith either,” she added quickly. “He was…the perfect gentleman, really. But the things he said…just…little digs, you know?” She looked up at him, her face bunched together like she was struggling. “Even before her diagnosis…Just…all the time. He had something to say about every decision I made about myself, about Faith, about my career…looking back, I never realized how often he tried to subtly tell me that he didn’t like that I was going to be a doctor. Or that I had a career at all.” She began picking at one of her cuticles, and Jamie had to clench his fist to stop himself from reaching for the hand, soothing her, stopping the fidgeting.

“My clothes, my hair, Faith’s clothes, what I fed her, the movies she watched, the music I played for her…he had something to say about all of it.” She drew blood on her finger, and she squeezed her hand shut over it, presumably to hide it from him. “I thought it was normal. He wasn’t leaving bruises or scars, so how could he be hurting me?”

Every one of his muscles screamed to take her in his arms again, but he remained rooted in place. She wasn’t done.

“And the diagnosis…it was my fault, of course.” She laughed bitterly. “Obviously that’s not true, and I can’t believe I actually let myself believe it for as long as I did. He was…quite convincing.” Jamie felt sick to his stomach as Claire fought to keep her composure. “‘You should know that there are repercussions if a woman works too hard while pregnant.’ I let him say that to me, and I let myself believe it. And the worst part is…I let myself believe that I should be ashamed.” Her chin was trembling. “He acted like autistic was the worst thing our daughter could be…and I believed him. And I hate myself for that.” Her voice was rough and tight. 

Jamie’s chest ached worse than it ever had. “Claire…”

“I know now. I do.” She nodded, as if to convince herself more than him. “I know that he was wrong, and I know that he was only making me believe what he wanted me to so it would fit his narrative. The blinders are gone, and I can see it all quite differently. I see now that his leaving is the best thing that ever happened to me. To us.” She laughed bitterly again, swiping at a new thick stream of tears. “She’s different here…you know? For a while I thought it was just the stables, just Mrs. Lickett, and it is both of those things, of course, but…it’s also that he’s gone. She’s…she’s thriving without him to hold her back.”

Jamie felt tears stinging his eyes, unable to imagine a world where Faith did not feel free to be herself.

“It’s such a small thing, something I never gave much thought until very recently.” She swallowed thickly again and wiped her face, which was very red. “She used to…to bring him movies to put on after dinner. Routine, you know. And he’d just reach over the table and give it to me. And she…she learned. To not ask him for things.” Her voice broke, and Jamie felt himself shatter. “She…she learned…to not rely on him…”

“Oh, Claire…” He reached out with a hesitant hand as she fell apart again, sputtering incoherently. “I’m…so sorry, Claire…” He rested his hand tentatively on her knee as she buried her face in her hands. “Ye ken he canna hurt ye anymore. You or Faith.”

She nodded, breathing in short gasps. “I know…but he’s…he’s still taking…taking from her…he’s still…”

“I ken, mo chridhe , I ken.”

He hadn’t been thinking.

The Gaelic had just slipped out, a knee-jerk reaction.

Thank God it went right over her head.

“It’s alright…” He rubbed her knee gently, not daring to get any closer unless she initiated it. “If it’s any consolation…yer wee girl is none the wiser at the moment. She’s happy as ever.”

She only cried harder at that.

It wasn’t long before her head was on his shoulder, and his hand abandoned her knee so he could hold her close again. This time, she did not keep her arms wrapped around herself. She held onto fistfuls of his shirt and buried her face in his chest, clinging to him like he was her lifeline.

“Ye’re a good mother, Claire. Ye give her everything she needs and more. Ye’ve made her life as rich as ye can.” He was whispering into her hair. “She’s happy here, like ye said. I’ve seen the change in her since I met her. She is thriving. Because of you.” Claire only wept, unable to respond. “Ye ken that’s the truth, don’t you?”

He felt her nod against his chest. “It’s just…hard…”

“I know. I know it well.” He rubbed soothing circles on her back, and without thinking, he pressed a fervent kiss to the crown of her head. He immediately regretted it, feeling sick to his stomach with panic, but she didn’t flinch. In fact, if he wasn’t hallucinating, it almost seemed like she nuzzled into him after.

It would seem it was his instinct to comfort her, and it was her instinct to accept it.

A door suddenly opened, and Claire immediately changed. She jolted away from him, wiped her face, briefly sucked away the blood that was still trickling from her finger, and plastered a smile on.

Christ…how does she do that…?

“Hello baby,” Claire crooned, getting up from the couch and meeting her in the middle of the room. She stooped down and picked her up with a grunt, settling her on her hip with a contented sigh. “Are you hungry, lovie? Is it dinner time?” She kissed her cheek, and Faith hummed happily, nodding.

Jamie got up from the couch and put his hands in his pockets. “I should — ”

“Do you want to stay for dinner?” she said abruptly, rocking Faith gently.

Jamie’s pulse jumped to what was surely an alarming rate.

“Ah…I…well…”

“What do you think, Faithie?” she crooned into her temple. “Do you think Mister Jamie likes lasagna?” She kept her lips on Faith’s head, but she was peering over her curls, boring those honey eyes right into him, smiling crookedly.

He felt his breath leave his chest. Two sets of bright amber were staring right into his soul, one crinkled and giggly, the other wide and smoldering.

“I’ve never been one to turn down a good lasagna.”

Her eyes ignited, her smile dazzling. She whispered “Yay!” into Faith’s head, bouncing her gently as the little girl clapped her hands. “Mister Jamie is staying for dinner, lovie. Isn’t that grand?”

Faith hummed loudly, jiggling her hands with glee.

How could I say no to…that?

Chapter Text

Jamie watched in amusement, leaning against the entryway, as Claire rifled through her freezer. She'd hastily changed out of her scrubs into gray leggings and a large cable knit sweater that fell to her mid-thigh, throwing her hair up and switching her contacts for her glasses. Suddenly, there was music playing behind him, and then something brushed against his legs. Faith shuffled past him into the kitchen holding Claire’s phone, something that he thought was Moana coming from the speaker. He chuckled to himself as the little girl pulled herself into her chair and put the phone in the middle of the table, and then began swaying back and forth, her lips pursed. If he could have heard better over Claire’s rustling, he would swear Faith was humming along.

“Hope you don’t mind.” Claire’s head popped out of the freezer, and she shut it. “She likes to play music while I make dinner.”

“No’ at all,” Jamie said.

“You can sit, you know.” She crossed to the microwave, ripping the cardboard box open as she went. “You didn’t need to wait for an invitation.”

“Aye, well, I thank ye fer the invitation.” He smirked at her, and she rolled her eyes.

“Oh, a dish would be helpful.” She put the partially opened box on the counter and crouched down into a lower cabinet. Jamie got up again and crossed to the counter, examining the frostbitten cardboard.

Claire gave a little jump when she turned around to see him so close, nearly dropping the ceramic dish she’d just fished out.

“This is the lasagna, Sassenach?” He wrinkled his nose playfully, scraping some ice off the box. “This is a sin!” he exclaimed dramatically.

“And you’re what, the Scottish expert on Italian cuisine?” She swatted his hand away from the box and finished removing it, plopping it into the dish.

Och , didna say I was. But I ken lasagna when I see it.” She rolled her eyes again, carefully sliding the dish into the microwave and shutting the door. “I’ll have to show ye real lasagna someday.”

He blanched, worried for a moment that he’d finally overstepped and that she’d politely ask him to leave. He was prepared to stammer his way out the door, condemned to awkward conversation with her at the stables for the rest of his life.

Instead, she broke out into a wide, teasing grin.

“So you’re a cook too, then?” She pressed the buttons on the microwave, setting it whirring.

“Aye, a bit.” He shrugged, shoving his hands in his pockets and leaning on the counter.

“I’m sure you’ve deduced by now that I’m not.” She grinned sheepishly, crossing her arms.

“Well, I’m no’ a doctor. I think ye’re allowed a few leniencies on cooking.”

“How gracious of you.” She made her way to the table and sat down across from Faith. “The only time we don’t have frozen meals here is when we get takeout.” She said as Jamie followed her to the table and sat down. “Oh, and I make pasta on weekends, actually put the noodles on the stove myself. Mac and cheese sometimes. Maybe chicken cutlets if I’m feeling adventurous. Except I always undercook them and then have to throw them in the microwave anyway.”

She rested her chin in her hand, elbow leaning on the table, sighing exasperatedly. For some reason, Jamie thought she’d never looked bonnier.

“I may have to take you up on that ‘real lasagna’ offer, just to have something homemade that isn’t total crap.” She rolled her eyes upward in admonishment of herself, and Jamie’s stomach flipped.

Take me up on the offer…?

The song on the phone switched, a Frozen song coming on next. Faith adjusted her swaying to match the new tempo, and he heard her humming just a bit more clearly now.

“She sings along?” Jamie said quietly, not wanting to draw Faith’s attention to him.

“Yeah.” She smiled, letting her chin off her palm, bringing her hand to rest on the opposite elbow on the surface of the table. “It’s the closest to verbal she’s ever gotten. No words ever, just humming.”

“That’s good, ye ken,” Jamie said, leaning forward onto his elbows. “She’s able to process sound like that and replicate. Even if it never turns into words, it’s good for her.”

“Yeah, I’ve read about that.” Claire looked dreamily at her little girl, and Jamie felt his heart drawn to that look in her eyes that she always got when she looked at Faith. “She actually matches pitch, too.”

“Does she?”

“You can’t tell?” She looked at him from the corner of her eye.

“You can?” Jamie said, fascinated.

“Bloody hell,” she laughed out loud. “I think I found the one thing that Jamie Fraser can’t do!”

“Oh, come on, now,” he said defensively. “Just because I’m no’ singing at the Met doesna mean I canna sing!”

“If you can’t tell that she’s matching pitch then you certainly can’t sing,” she fired back rather petulantly, crossing her arms and leaning into the back of her chair. “That makes you the definition of tone-deaf, sir.”

Och , ye wound me, lass,” he said, mirroring her by crossing his arms and leaning back as well. “Ye’re right, o’ course. Canna sing to save my life, always kent that.”

She laughed out loud again, her eyes gradually settling back on Faith. “You know…Frank never let her sing around him.”

Jamie was caught off guard; he’d forgotten what had brought him here in the first place, what she’d shared with him just fifteen minutes ago. The bloody band-aid she’d hastily put on her finger before fluttering into the kitchen should have been reminder enough.

“He always told me to take her out of the room if she was ‘going to make such a racket.’” Her gaze was far off again, something he was sadly rather used to by now. “Imagine…your daughter will never say a word, but the one noise she can make, and loves making…imagine not wanting to hear it.”

Her jaw hardened, and Jamie felt rage boiling behind his eyelids.

“He’s a damned fool, Claire,” Jamie said resolutely, effectively snapping her out of her reverie. “He didna deserve to hear it.”

He didna deserve her at all.

He didna deserve you .

The microwave suddenly beeped, likely a welcome distraction from whatever memory she was trapped in.

“Alright,” she said lightly, pulling potholders out of a drawer. “Just have to let it sit for five more minutes.” He noticed that the tip of her tongue stuck out just the littlest bit as she slowly removed the hot ceramic and placed it on the stove top. She exhaled with relief when it was down, tossing the potholders aside and shutting the microwave.

“Say what you want about real lasagna, but it isn’t ready to eat in ten minutes,” she teased, sitting back down. It was his turn to playfully roll his eyes at her, and she gave a sweet little chuckle, leaning her chin on both hands. The song changed again, and her eyes lit up, creating sparkling ripples of whisky as she stared at her daughter.

Faith’s swaying slowed down to the lilting piano introduction, her soft humming starting right in with the words.

“I used to lift her over my head to this one,” she said, voice tinged with melancholic nostalgia. “She’s too big for me to do it now. But we loved to pretend she was flying. Right, lovie?”

Faith allowed a tight-lipped smile, not interrupting her humming or swaying.

A whole new world …”

Jamie’s world stopped turning as one of the most beautiful sounds he’d ever heard drifted through the air.

Claire was singing along, mirroring Faith’s swaying. The sound of the sweet little high pitched humming combined with the lower, more sultry, velvety tones of Claire’s voice almost made him lose consciousness.

He was completely entranced for the entire rest of the song, Claire’s words occasionally disrupted by unbridled laughter. By the end, mother and daughter were holding hands across the table, twin eyes locked, and Jamie felt like an intruder, unworthy of witnessing something so utterly perfect.

The final notes faded out, and Claire got up to kiss the top of Faith’s head, before a deep crimson blush found its way to her cheeks. Jamie wasn’t sure, but he was willing to bet that no living soul had ever seen Claire sing, except maybe Gillian.

“Well, dinner should be ready,” she said brusquely, swiping her phone off the table and turning off the music just as another song was about to play. “Sorry, Mister Jamie. No phones or tablets at the table,” she teased, squashing a spatula into the lasagna to break it up.

Faith was now releasing the energy she’d pent up in order to not disrupt her musicality, and she was bouncing in her seat, humming nonstop, jiggling her hands.

“She always this excited fer dinner?” Jamie said, winking at Faith.

“Depends what we’re eating.” Claire placed a plate in front of Jamie. “I think she’s excited we have a guest.”

She returned to the counter to make a plate for Faith, and Jamie felt his insides turn to liquid, heat rushing to his own cheeks now.

Faith abruptly rose up onto her knees in her chair, throwing her arms in the air and unhinging her jaw absurdly in a silent scream.

“Faith Julia,” Claire’s voice sounded behind Jamie in a warning, and he had to hide his grin. “Sit down the right way please, or I will not put your dinner down.”

The little wild thing gave a shrieking giggle, covering her face with her hands and shaking her head rapidly.

“Do you want dessert, Faith?” She peeked at her mother through her fingers, still humming. “If you want dessert you will sit on your bum like a good girl. Do I need to count?”

That seemed to do the trick; Faith plopped onto her wee bottom, smacking her hands on the table expectantly.

“Quiet hands, please.”

She hummed again, this time in mild annoyance, keeping her hands still and kicking her feet under the table.

“Thank you, baby. Good girl.” Claire finally put the plate down and handed Faith a fork, and she started digging in right away.

“Have I made her too excited, now?” Jamie asked, swiveling in his chair to look at Claire as she served herself.

“Perhaps,” Claire said, and Jamie could see that she was trying to suppress the grin that spread across her face.

“But,” she said, floating back to the table with her own plate and sitting down. “It isn’t every day her favorite person comes over for dinner.”

Jamie had to physically restrain himself, clenching every one of his muscles to stop the most ridiculous smile from taking over every inch of his consciousness. He swallowed thickly, clearing his throat before saying, as casually as he could muster:

“Her favorite person, aye?” 

“Oh, indeed,” Claire said. “She gets more excited to see you every Friday than she does to see me any day.”

“Sure it’s no’ the horse?”

“Possibly.” She shrugged, smirking at him. “But definitely you, too.”

His heart was bruising his ribcage, his head was spinning.

“Though Auntie Gi might have you beat.” She stuck her fork into the lasagna with a chuckle. “You may be her favorite person on Long Island, but she is her favorite person in the world .”

“Second place is fine wi’ me,” he joked, taking his own stab at the food. “Though I’m no’ so sure that’s too accurate. Ye must know you are her favorite person in the world.”

Claire laughed with her mouth full, swallowing before responding. “Oh, I’m just Mummy.”

“Ye must no’ properly see the way she looks at ye then. Like ye’ve hung the stars. Suppose it’s easier to see from the outside.” He let the fork hover over his mouth, lips quirking up. “But it’s true.”

She held his gaze for a moment, her stare burning through his eyes and straight into the back of his skull, and he swore he was breaking into a sweat.

They went on digging into their lasagna, and Jamie regaled her with detailed descriptions of each flavor, the arrangement of the layers, and its texture as if he were judging a dish on Master Chef. Every bite, he had something more absurd to say about her microwave meal, and before Claire was even halfway through, she had to put her fork down and cover her mouth to stop herself from sputtering chewed food all over the table.

“You’re a ridiculous human being,” she choked out through her laughter, and Jamie felt the strangest sense of pride at being referred to as such.

Claire sheepishly apologized for the fact that she couldn’t offer him seconds, being that the frozen meals she purchased were typically only meant for Faith and Mrs. Lickett, with a bit leftover for Claire when her shift ended. She offered him snacks, but he politely refused.

Faith’s dessert of choice tonight was Oreos, and Claire looked up at Jamie.

“You sure you don't want any?”

He couldn’t suppress his grin. “Aye, jest a few.”

She handed down two to Faith, three for herself, and four for Jamie. Jamie watched in amusement as Faith unfolded three paper napkins on the table before settling in her chair again and placing her Oreos precisely in the center of her napkin. She peeled one of them open, and got to work scraping the cream off with her teeth.

“She always eats ’em that way?” Jamie asked.

“Yeah,” Claire chuckled. “Never any other way. I like them traditional.” She took a bite of a cookie. “How about you?”

“Well, ye need variety, of course,” he said pragmatically. “Ye eat the first one classic.” He popped it into his mouth whole, causing Claire to giggle. “Sometimes ye have the second one wi’ milk, otherwise, ye do this.” He opened it up and pried the cream off with his fingers, then he waggled the flimsy little disk, causing Claire to laugh out loud. “It’s braw on its own, ye ken.” He popped the cream into his mouth, then slowly ate the two spare cookies.

“Now this is an invention of my own.” He opened a third one, setting the top aside on the napkin. He picked up the fourth and smushed it on top of the open one.

Claire swallowed the last bite of her third cookie. “A double decker!” she said in awe.

“Aye. Eat this first, get it out of the way.” He popped the spare cookie into his mouth, then made a show of fitting the tall sandwich into his mouth, eliciting giggles from both lasses.

"I can't believe I never thought of that," Claire said, shaking her head. "I'm too boring I suppose."

"Not boring, Sassenach," he said, teeth stained with chocolate crumbs. "Lacking imagination perhaps, but no' boring."

Faith was long finished with her own cookies before Jamie was done making a fool of himself, and she dutifully crumpled up her napkin and disposed of it before shuffling out of the kitchen. Claire made her way to the fridge and pulled out the milk, presumably to offer him some, but then Faith bounded back in, barreling into Claire's legs, holding a DVD box in her hands.

"Ah, yes, the post-dinner movie." She closed the fridge, looking at Jamie and taking the movie from Faith.

Jamie smiled, standing up from the table crumpling his cookie napkin. "Thank ye fer dinner, Claire. Despite the mockery I gave ye, it was verra fine."

"What, you're not leaving already?" She put her hands on her hips, pressing the DVD into her sweater.

"I dinna wish to impose on yer movie time, Sassenach," Jamie said, a blush creeping up his neck, alarms blaring in his fevered brain.

She wants you to stay. She wants you to stay.

"Not imposing at all," she insisted, and Faith began tugging on her mother's sweater. "Please, stay. These movies are never all that long." Claire bent down to take Faith's hand to stop her from pulling the sweater.

Jamie's throat felt dry.

I shouldn't.

Put yer foot down, man. Get in yer car and go home.

"Faith wants you to stay," she said suddenly, crouching down next to Faith and burying those pink lips into her daughter's temple again. "Isn't that right, darling? Do you want Mister Jamie to stay for your movie?"

Faith tugged harder on Claire's hand, humming loudly.

"See?" She peered up at him through her lashes, and Jamie felt his bones turn to liquid.

Blessed Michael, defend us.

"Alright, then. Since Faith wants me to."

Claire stood up, and he didn't miss the flush in her cheeks.

Does she have any idea what she's doing...?

Claire finally allowed Faith to tug her into the living room, and Jamie followed, his heart threatening to burst.

Faith climbed onto the couch, settling herself between the two cushions of the loveseat. Claire crouched beside the tellie, popping the box open and putting the disc in.

"What has Princess Faith chosen fer us tonight?" Jamie said, exhaling as he said down on the couch as close to the arm as possible to give Faith space. His mind was conjuring all sorts of images of Faith humming and swaying to any of the princesses that she admired so ardently.

"Pixar night, apparently," Claire said, standing up and turning the box toward him as she plopped down on the couch. " Toy Story ."

Jamie's mouth went dry, and his heart ceased its fluttering, dropping like dead weight into his stomach.

"Jamie?" Claire said. "You've gone pale. What's wrong?"

He opened his mouth to explain himself, but no sound came out, so he just licked his lips.

"Jamie, you're scaring me."

He tried to turn his head, to hide the watering in his eyes, but it was too late. She'd seen.

"What's wrong...?" She got up and knelt in front of him. "Talk to me. Please."

He sighed shakily, blinking rapidly. "It's foolish," he finally found his voice, and his embarrassment only grew to hear how strangled it sounded.

"It clearly isn't," she insisted.

"It's jest that..." He sighed again, forcing himself to look at her. "I havena watched this one since I last watched it wi' Willie."

Realization washed over Claire's glass face like a tidal force, and her eyes swam with sympathy.

"It was his favorite, ye ken," Jamie continued, sniffling. "We had all the toys, and we used to say the same old jokes over and over. After we lost him, I...I didna want to watch it anymore, no' wi'out him. Didna play wi' the toys anymore, either. I threw them in the back of my closet."

"Jamie..." Claire's voice was tight, and she instinctively took his hands in hers. "We don't have to watch this one. I'll tell her to pick a different movie — ”

“No, Sassenach,” he said quickly. “You and I both know how that would go. Canna disrupt the system in her wee head.”

She sighed and gave him an apologetic smile. “I won’t be offended if you want to leave, Jamie. I understand.”

“No…” He adjusted his hands so he could squeeze them back. “I dinna wish to leave.”

Faith gave an indignant grunt, pointing at the neglected remote on the coffee table. Claire looked up at the tellie to see that the movie was ready to be played. She looked back at Jamie apprehensively.

“I’ll be alright.” He gave her hand another reassuring squeeze. “Truly.”

He watched her swallow and then release his hands. She returned to her seat on the other side of Faith and hit “play,” and Faith bounced excitedly on the cushions.

The Pixar logo appeared, the wee lamp bouncing about, and he could feel Claire’s eyes boring into the side of his head. He was tapping a rhythm on his thigh with his left hand, as he was wont to do when he was anxious. He tried his damn best to not turn his head, but when she still wouldn’t stop looking at him, he couldn't help it.

Their eyes met behind Faith, who was sitting on the edge of the cushions, as forward as she could be without levitating in front of the couch. Claire leaned over behind her to take his hand, and despite the ice cold dread in the pit of his stomach, he felt warmth spreading up the entire length of his arm. The opening notes of the film began: “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”

Images flashed in Jamie’s mind of Willie next to him on the couch at Lallybroch, Woody and Buzz wedged between them. Willie’s garbled voice singing along filled his ears, looking right at his brother, declaring that he had a friend in him.

Christ, he really hadn’t heard this song since the last time Willie had sung it to him.

A squeeze to his hand brought him back to the present, and he was suddenly aware that Claire had laced their fingers together, and she was rubbing her thumb back and forth over his.

Normally, Faith’s sweet little humming along to the music would have lightened his heart, but right now, it only twisted the knife of memory deeper into his core. It was just so familiar, painfully so. He had no idea what was stopping him from breaking down completely.

Then as the movie played on, something just short of miraculous happened.

Each time some silly joke landed, it sent Faith into shrieking giggles. At first, Claire watched him with apprehension, and even he himself was still unsure how to feel. Then Woody opened Buzz’s helmet, triggering his facetious choking episode, and Faith was doubled over laughing. Claire bit her lip, obviously trying not to laugh herself. Jamie gave her a tiny smile, and it was enough.

Those beautiful bells rang in his ears to accompany Faith’s little squeals, and much to his own surprise, Jamie started sputtering with laughter, too.

Willie always laughed his head off at this part, too.

Before long, the three of them were openly laughing together over and over, triggered by whatever little thing Faith deemed humorous enough to warrant laughter. Jamie’s eyes danced back and forth from the screen to the lasses, something changing within him. Hearing their laughter dispelled the darkness from his heart, like the sun coming out on a cloudy day. He wouldn’t ever replace those memories with Willie; he couldn’t. But now, perhaps, he could associate them with something happier, something divorced from loss and pain.

And Claire’s hand remained entwined with his for every second of the eighty-one minute movie, resting lazily on the cushion behind Faith’s little body.

——

She didn’t think about it for the entire duration of the movie. Not because she didn't realize; she was quite aware. It just felt…right.

It felt right to watch a movie holding Jamie Fraser’s hand.

The way he squeezed a little tighter when he laughed felt right, the way he adjusted their fingers without ever breaking contact felt right, the way he brushed his thumb over her knuckles without thinking about it felt right.

And the way they’d gradually drifted closer and closer together on the couch felt right.

By the end of the movie, Claire had her arm draped around Faith, her chin resting atop her head, fingers still entwined with Jamie’s, their hands dangling next to Faith’s shoulder. And Jamie was almost right next to Faith. It didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest.

It was…comfortable.

Then, when Faith got up from the couch to dance to the ending credits music, there was nothing between them anymore. That was when she started to think about it.

Jesus bloody Christ, Beauchamp. Let go of his hand. Drop it right now.

She tried to, really, she did. 

But she could feel his breath on her cheek, and when she looked up, he was giving her that look .

What the bloody hell is this?

There were sirens wailing in her head — look away, let him go — but then the corners of his lips quirked into a questioning smile, and her breath escaped through trembling lips like a sputtering gasp.

Get out of this. Look away. Let him go.

Faith suddenly hummed loudly with excitement, and Claire seized the opportunity to look at her, slipping her hand out of Jamie’s grasp and departing the couch to join Faith in front of the tellie. The credits were done, the DVD was ready to be removed.

What the bloody hell just happened…?

Claire forced a small humming laugh, and then wanted to die from embarrassment at how desperate it sounded. She removed the disc from the player and popped it into the box.

“Alright, lovie, put it away.” She handed Faith the box, and tried to focus her attention on Faith’s little fingers trailing over the plastic ridges of her perfectly organized little library of movies.

“Wee librarian, is she?”

Claire almost jumped out of her skin as if she’d forgotten he was still in the room.

She forced another stupid fucking laugh and looked up at him. “Yes, quite meticulous.”

Claire felt her mouth go dry. Jamie’s face was flushed completely red. Even the tips of his ears. Beet red.

What the fuck is happening?

It was his turn to force a laugh, apparently, because the sound that he made sounded hilariously strained. She might have laughed at him if she wasn’t three seconds away from throwing up.

Faith turned to Claire, giving her a thumbs up when the cabinet was closed.

“Very good, darling,” Claire said, signing as she did. “Pajamas now, please. Go into your room. I’ll be right there.”

The two adults watched the little girl scamper into her room, and they both stood up, from the floor and the couch.

“Well, it’s — ”

“I should — ”

They both stopped, Jamie clearing his throat and stuffing his hands in his pockets, and Claire folding her arms over her middle.

“Uh…you first,” Claire offered sheepishly.

“I was jest gonna say I should get going,” he said, nodding curtly. 

“Right…” Claire said, feeling her cheeks get hot. “Shall I, uh…show you to the door?” She gestured weakly to the front door, only three steps away from where Jamie was currently standing.

“Aye.” His white teeth stood out strikingly against the redness of his face. Claire took a few quick strides to meet him at the door, resting her hand on the handle.

“Will you…uh…” She swallowed and took a breath, then forced herself to look up at him. “Will you be alright? The…movie, and everything?”

He made an indecipherable noise in the back of his throat, shrugging his enormous shoulders and burying his hands impossibly deeper into his pockets. “Dinna fash about me, Sassenach. Are you alright?”

She swallowed again, her blush deepening. “Yeah…I’ll…I’ll be fine. I was just…a bit shaken up. But I’m fine.”

He somehow managed to un-burrow one of his hands, and he reached for the door handle to rest his hand on hers. “If he bothers ye again, lass, tell me.” His eyes bore intensely into hers, his tone deadly serious. “I’m…I’m here. If ye need. Alright?”

She could not find words, so she nodded.

“Let me know what Ned says, aye?”

She nodded again. “I will.”

Jamie opened his mouth to say something else, but suddenly an ear-drum-shattering shriek erupted from Faith’s room. Claire jumped cleaned out of her skin, her eyes widening as she darted past Jamie and right into Faith’s room. She opened the door to see Faith tangled in her t-shirt, clearly having tried to undress herself and gotten stuck.

“No no no, baby…” Claire scrambled to her knees in front of Faith and quickly freed her from her self-induced trap. “It’s okay. You’re alright. There we go.”

She carefully finished undressing her, shaking her head. Claire had asked for it, really. She’d told Faith to wait in her room for pajamas, and then she’d taken far too long at the door with Jamie, so naturally, Faith, in all her glorious impatience, would try to take matters into her own hands.

Claire sighed and pulled a nightgown out of a drawer and quickly pulled it over Faith’s head, laughing when she pushed her arms through with a grand flourish. She took Faith’s hand and slowly crept back into the living room, worried for a moment that Jamie would have disappeared.

He was there, however, waiting patiently by the door.

“Alright, now you can say goodnight, silly girl,” Claire said, looking sheepishly at Jamie. “Sorry about that.”

Och , that’s fine.” He waved it off.

“Well…goodnight, Mister Jamie,” Claire said, smiling sweetly.

“Goodnight, lasses,” he said. “I thank ye fer a lovely meal,” he nodded to Claire. “And I thank you fer a bonny film.” He bowed absurdly at Faith, and she giggled, jiggling her free hand.

Dizzy with glee, Claire opened the door, and he stepped through. Unexpectedly, he whirled around, his jaw tight, a small vein below his eye popping out. He looked like he was burning to say something, the tips of his ears bright red again. Instead, he exhaled heavily, his eyes darting to Faith, then back up to Claire.

“Goodnight,” he said quickly, then disappeared down the stairs.

Claire shut the door behind him, and her heart leapt into her throat.

Bloody hell.

Faith tugged on her hand, and Claire forced her cheery tone to return: “Yes, yes, it’s teeth-time, I’m coming…”

——

Claire finally got to her room after Faith was medicated and asleep, and she went to her dresser to pull out fresh pajamas. When she removed her sweater, she paused when it was halfway over her head, inhaling deeply, and her head began spinning.

It smelled like Jamie.

She was slow and careful taking off the rest of it, and then, like a teenager with her boyfriend's jersey, she pressed her nose into it.

What the fuck, Beauchamp?

In a panic, she rapidly removed her leggings, and buried the clothing at the bottom of her hamper. Her pulse was going wild.

Pajamas on, she went to set an alarm on her phone, then realized she hadn’t seen her phone in hours. It must still be in the kitchen. When she swiped it off the counter, she saw she had several missed calls from Gillian, and several texts asking what was going on in various stages of vulgarity.

Right. She told her she would call her after Frank hung up.

Claire opened Gillian’s most recent text: ( D’ye ken what time it is over here??? And I’m still up??? ) and sent back:

Sorry love, long story. Call you tomorrow.

Claire sighed heavily as she collapsed into her bed, smelling nothing but her own detergent, thank God. She turned on her alarm for work, but stopped herself before plugging the phone in and putting it on her nightstand. She pulled up her conversation with Jamie, then realized she still hadn't saved his number as a contact. She did so, and then her fingers hovered over the keyboard. After about five minutes of staring, the screen becoming blurry, she composed something.

Claire [9:23]: Hey. Thank you for distracting me tonight, thank you for being there for me. It means a lot to me, and to Faith.

She had to turn the phone off to stop herself from adding:

You’re a wonderful man, Jamie. And my head spins when I hear you laugh with my daughter, and I can’t stop thinking about how you’ve offered to cook for me, and your silly Oreo habits, and my heart breaks to think how much you still love your brother, and I secretly love how my clothes have absorbed your scent…

Her phone buzzed, snapping her back to Earth, and she felt completely breathless, and uncomfortably warm in places she hadn’t thought about in a long time.

She turned her phone back over to see:

Jamie [9:26]: of course sassenach. i hope ye sleep well.

Claire smiled against her will, her heart thrumming faster as her eyes danced across the words over and over.

Warm. Why am I so fucking warm.

She exhaled in frustration, turning off the sounds and buzzing of her phone.

Go to sleep, Beauchamp. You’ll feel better in the morning.

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry, ye did what now?”

“I think you heard me, Gi.” Claire sighed, running a hand over her face. She was sitting on her bed, a full twenty-four hours having passed since Jamie had exited through her front door.

“Alright, alright. Let me get this straight. Ye ask the man to come over, he waltzes in while ye’re screaming at yer ex-husband, he literally gives ye a shoulder to cry on, then ye ask him to stay fer dinner? Wi’ yer wee daughter?”

“…Yes.”

“But he didn’t peg ye.”

“Fucking hell…” Claire sighed, this time with exasperation, nearly throwing her phone across the room. “Even if I wanted him to, did you forget the bit about the wee daughter? What do you take me for? Or him for that matter?”

“Alright, alright, sorry…”

“He wouldn’t dream of taking advantage of me in the state I was in,” Claire went on without acknowledging the apology. “He was just…there for me. In a way I didn’t know I needed.”

“Alright. So really, nothing happened?”

“No. Nothing.”

And then her hand started tingling, as if it remembered on its own.

“Well…we…held hands.”

Gillian gave quite the unflattering guffaw.

“What?”

“Sorry, forgot we were in middle school, and I’m supposed to squeal over ye holding hands wi’ a lad!” She laughed again.

“I didn’t mean it like that …” Claire shook her head, rubbing her temple.

Well…how did ye mean it, then?

“He was…upset about something. The movie Faith put on — ”

“He stayed fer Faith’s movie?”

“Yes, I hadn’t gotten there yet.”

Radio silence.

“You don’t have anything to say to that?”

“I was behaving myself. I can say it if ye’d like.”

“No, thank you.” Claire allowed a small chuckle. “Anyway…the movie reminded him of someone he lost as a child. And you know Faith, I couldn’t change it. And after all he did for me that night, letting me use him as a human tissue…holding his hand was the least I could do. Give him some sort of comfort.”

“Give her the feckin’ Nobel Peace Prize. We’ve got Mother Teresa reincarnated.”

“Stop it! What is wrong with you?” Claire felt her cheeks flush, but it was a toss up between annoyance and embarrassment.

“I’d just like ye to admit that ye took some sort of pleasure out of holding the lad’s hand, Claire. It’s no’ like ye climbed on top of him and — ”

“Point taken,” Claire cut her off. “Alright, fine. It was…comfortable. Once I was sure he wasn’t overtly upset anymore, it was…quite nice, actually.”

Gillian gave one of her signature little giggles.

“What?”

“You know what, Beauchamp.”

Claire felt her throat go a bit dry. “I don’t — it’s not — ”

“Tell me, Claire. Have ye not even considered that the man might be attracted to ye?”

“I — well, it’s…” she sputtered, and then huffed a bit indignantly. “Well, of course I have. And I…well, I think he is.”

“Praise the Mother, she’s admitted it.”

“Well, it’s not like it isn’t obvious. Just last night I thought he was going to — ”

She stopped herself.

She hadn’t really thought about it until just now. The moment on the couch, then at the front door.

He was going to kiss me.

“Do go on.”

“It doesn’t matter. The point is that he…he likes me. I can tell.”

“Alright. Bonny. Now have ye considered that ye might be attracted to him?”

Yes.

“I don’t know,” she answered quickly.

“Well, Little Miss Schoolgirl, ye jest told me how ‘nice’ it was to hold his hand.”

“Right…” Claire chewed relentlessly on her bottom lip. “Well…that was…inappropriate.”

“Because of Faith.”

“Yeah…” Her voice sounded more deflated than she’d meant it to.

“It does complicate things a bit.”

“I know he’d never…intentionally do anything to hurt me. But I just can’t help but look further down the road and seeing it jeopardizing what Faith has with him.” A large chunk of skin ripped off her lip, and the coppery, bitter taste of blood flooded her mouth.

“I understand. I do.”

“Perhaps I…I do…feel…something,” she stammered. “But it’s…Faith’s future is more important than that. Her happiness will always come above mine.”

“Claire…”

“I know what you’re about to say. That I have to be selfish sometimes. And I know that’s true. But it’s different when you’re a mother, Gi. I can’t possibly explain it to you in any other way, except that I would give up anything, anything for her.”

She felt her heart sink into her stomach, her bloody lip trembling just slightly.

“Anything,” she reiterated weakly.

“Alright, hen. I get it.”

“He’s…he’s a good friend to me, Gi. I’d risk losing that, too. Not as important as him being Faith’s therapist, but still. I can live with it. Being his friend.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I mean, I don’t have a choice. I have to live with it. But it’s…it’s not so terrible. Being his friend.”

“I’m sure it’s not.” Claire could hear the sly grin in her voice, but she decided not to call her on it.

“Anyway, these things…pass. Don’t they?”

“Aye…or they don’t.”

Claire exhaled breathily. “Not helpful.”

“Dinna ken what ye want me to say, Claire. I called yer bluff on this back in January. Clearly hasna gone away.”

“But now I’m speaking it into the universe. I’m telling myself that it will go away. I can make it so. Can’t I?”

“Alright, hen. Whatever you say.”

“Stop that.”

“What? I’m agreeing with you?”

“No you’re not. I can tell.”

“Damned if ye do, damned if ye don’t, I suppose…”

Claire rolled her eyes. “Well, do you want to know what his lawyer friend said? I called him before my shift this morning. That’s a bit more important than my not-feelings for Jamie isn’t it?”

“If ye say so. What did he say?”

Claire proceeded to explain that Ned Gowan had been quite confident that Claire was on the winning side of any argument she decided to bring to court. It was clear to him as a third party observer that Frank was an unfit parent to an autistic child, and that Gillian could even be called forth to testify to that. All of this piled on top of the fact that courts typically sympathized with the mother already had Ned almost laughing at Frank’s feeble attempts to undermine the system.

He was a jovial sounding man with a kind voice, and Claire could tell she liked him, even just from hearing his voice. He’d been quite amused to hear from her, being a “friend of Jamie’s,” and Claire had briefly wondered if he’d picked up on the undertones of their “friendship.”

Since Frank’s lawyer had drawn up a settlement, Ned had suggested that Claire counter with a settlement of her own. After she’d explained that Frank was most worried about saving face with his new marriage, and that was the reason he didn't want to make payments for the rest of Faith’s childhood, Ned said that their best move would be to not ask Frank for regular payments permanently, but rather for a large lump sum to put into Faith’s savings.

After she’d told Ned that Frank was an Oxford professor, he got even more confident that it would work. He was quite sure that if Frank decided to fight back on the new settlement, the courts wouldn’t let him get away with it; he had the means to provide the money and no desire to actually parent. Along that vein, Ned advised her to allow Frank to sign away his parental rights in this new settlement, giving her peace of mind not only with the large sum of money, but with knowing that he would never have the right to interfere in their lives again.

“That’s great, Claire. Isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess. Just a bit…nerve-fraying.”

“Aye, of course.”

“Ned was great, though. He’s going to draw up the settlement and send it to my divorce lawyer without charging me anything. As a favor to a friend of Jamie’s. It’s very kind of him.”

“That’s bonny.”

“He also offered to represent me if Frank declines and I need to actually fight him in court. Said he could talk circles around any regular divorce lawyer.”

“It’s good to have someone else in yer corner. Someone qualified.”

“Yes, it is. I do hope it doesn’t come to that, though. I really can’t afford a whole trial. Not to mention I could never leave the hospital for that long.”

“Well, let’s hope the bastard is as lazy as we think he is. Personally, I think he’ll do anything ye say to avoid his little bitch being in the know. So I dinna think he’ll put up a fight.”

“We can only hope.”

——

Claire had been sick to her stomach every day since Ned had drawn up the new settlement. They’d agreed to mail it to Frank without Claire calling him at all, already signed by her. It should be self-explanatory enough.

Nine days later, she received an email from her divorce lawyer that Frank had agreed to the new conditions, and that they could finally start moving forward with finalizing the divorce. She cried over the coffee pot in the break room – tears of joy, of course.

The first thing she did, through her bleary vision, was text Jamie.

Claire [9:16]: That Ned Gowan really is a miracle worker. We’re going to get the money, and we’ll be free of Frank forever.

Claire sniffled and wiped her eyes, pouring herself a shaky cup of coffee. Before she could even raise it to her lips, her phone buzzed, and she put it down, picking up her phone instead.

It was a silly GIF of a few of those damned Minions yelling with joy. She laughed softly, shaking her head. The phone buzzed lightly again as a second message came in.

Jamie [9:17]: congratulations sassenach. i’m very happy that everything worked out. you deserve it.

Jamie [9:17]: you both do.

Claire had to wipe away a few tears before answering:

Thank you for everything. Wouldn’t have happened without you.

“What are you smiling at over there?” Joe’s voice snapped her back to reality, and she looked up at him like she’d been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. “You look like a dope, Lady Jane.”

“Heard back from the lawyers. No more Frank, except for his money.”

“Ah, cheers to that.” Joe raised his coffee cup in solidarity, and Claire joined him. Her phone buzzed again, and she felt herself blush, but she didn’t check it just yet.

“So, do you always get that pink in the cheeks when your lawyer texts you?” Joe cocked an eyebrow, smiling smugly into his cup.

Claire stammered incoherently for a few seconds. “Well it’s…none of your business,” she finally settled on, nodding curtly.

“Uh-huh,” Joe said.

“It’s not my lawyer. It’s…somebody I told about the lawyer. And we’re both happy.”

Joe tossed his head back and laughed out loud.

What ?” Claire fired, planting her free hand on her hip.

“Gee, Lady Jane, I sure wonder who could possibly be so happy about your newfound single status.”

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, Joe!” She hastily crossed the room to smack him on the shoulder. “Do you take me for some sort of…hussy?”

He snorted again. “Of course I don’t. I take you for someone that deserves to be happy.”

“Well you’ve got it all wrong.” Claire sat down across from him. “I’m talking to a friend at the moment.”

“A friend who makes you blush.”

Claire huffed indignantly and rolled her eyes. “I don’t have to listen to this, you know.”

“I’d like to see you try to ignore me.”

She rolled her eyes again, then pulled her phone out of her pocket to look at the message she’d received a few minutes ago.

Jamie [9:17]: anything for you lass

——

At the end of March, Faith’s dog was ready to come home.

He was a two-year-old golden retriever who was already housebroken and trained with tethering, tracking, and deep pressure for meltdown-prevention. And at Claire’s request, he was now responding to her name of choice: Angus.

She’d decided on the name because it was the name of Merida’s horse. Claire had received an email with a picture of him about a week after she’d made the deposit, and she immediately sat Faith down and showed her.

“This is your doggie, Faith! And he has the same name as Merida’s horse! Look, he’s all yours.”

She had squealed and immediately seized Claire’s phone, refusing to put it down for several minutes. She tugged on Claire’s hands, her arms, her legs, her clothes, moaning, and Claire knew what she was asking.

Where is he, Mummy? Where is he?

They’d spent the next month making small adjustments to their routine. Faith was to be responsible for filling his food and water bowls, with supervision. She was to learn how to brush him, which should be simple enough, given how much time she’d already spent brushing Pippi. Faith would be responsible for opening the door when he needed to do his business, and Claire would clean up any solid deposits left on the lawn that the apartment complex shared.

Claire adjusted her work schedule for the next few weeks so that she would have a day off during the week so she could take Faith and Angus to once a week training sessions, so the agency that had provided him could help him adjust to Faith’s specific needs, and help Faith adjust to getting what she needed from him.

Mrs. Lickett told Claire that she knew of several kids who took their service animals to school, and that they had helped them focus and remain calm during the day. They had decided together that Angus’s main goal was keeping Faith calm in social settings, with and without Mummy holding the leash, in order to prepare her for kindergarten in September.

The day they went to pick Angus up doubled as their first official training session. He sat at attention, not moving an inch even as Faith threw herself at him, petting every inch of him, rubbing her face against his fur.

“He’s in service-mode right now,” his trainer explained. “Vest on, service-mode on.”

Claire nodded. She’d read about that.

“Vest off…” The trainer smiled, gesturing for Faith to stand back, and Claire took her hand. The trainer removed the autism service dog vest, and his tail immediately set to wagging. “Playtime on.”

Angus trotted right back up to Faith and started licking her face, and she squealed.

“Looks like a match made in Heaven to me,” the trainer said.

Claire’s face shone with joy as she nodded, patting the dog’s head lovingly.

The trainer allowed Faith and Angus to just play for a bit; they showed her how to play fetch with his ball, tug-of-war with his rope, showed her how to rub his belly. Faith was having the time of her life, and Claire was overwhelmed to know that she could soon have this joy whenever she pleased. The excitement and peace that the stables brought her could soon be in her grasp every day at home.

After playtime was done, the vest was put back on, and they began showing Claire how to give commands, how to reward him, how to properly tether him to Faith, and other such things.

“You’re gonna make a great team,” the trainer said right before sending them home.

Yes, we are.

Angus kept his head in Faith’s lap the whole ride home, and Faith was bouncing with excitement when they got home. As soon as the door was open, Faith was gathering all the toys Claire had bought for Angus and showing them to him like she sometimes did with her own stuffed animals to Claire or Mrs. Lickett. Claire quickly removed his vest so that he could properly relax with Faith, and before long, she was giggling her head off with one of his squeaky toys.

He was a marvel with her. He was patient, withstanding all of her tugging and rubbing and squeezing, and he was affectionate. He even seemed to take a liking to Claire. Faith did superbly with filling the scooper in his bag of food and depositing it into his food bowl. For water, Claire would fill a measuring cup from the sink and hand it down to her to avoid any spills, and she carefully poured it right into the bowl.

“Yay! Good girl, Faith! Now that Angus had dinner, we can have dinner. Yes?”

Faith hummed and clapped her hands, then patted Angus’s bottom as he shimmied between them to get to his food bowl.

Claire’s heart was full that night, eating mac and cheese with Faith, the sounds of Angus’s squeaking toy filling her ears. 

“We are a great team, aren’t we, lovie?” Claire said softly when her bowl was empty, and Faith gave her a cheesy -- literally and figuratively -- smile. “Just you and me, baby.”

Free.

Free of shitty ex-husbands, free of unfit fathers, free of debt. 

She felt reborn.

Chapter Text

April 12

Claire felt her heart hammering with excitement as she got Faith out of her carseat.

“Angus, come,” she called, and the dutiful, happy dog perked up from his spot beside Faith and hopped into the dirt beside her, standing patiently as Claire tethered him to Faith.

Today was their first outing with Angus.

Granted, it was in the safest place she could possibly ask for. It was the annual Easter-egg hunt at the stables. Faith was very excited to be going to her favorite place on a not-Friday, a Saturday to be exact, the Saturday a week and a day before Easter. It was the perfect place to see how Angus could help Faith function in a real public setting. The last party event they’d been to was the sensory-friendly New Year’s party at the Hawkins home, and while it had gone well enough, Faith had been awfully clingy and quite dependent on her headphones to cancel the noise so she would stay calm.

Today, Claire hoped, Faith could rely solely on Angus to keep her calm, and she could focus completely on enjoying herself in public for the first time in her life.

They arrived in the open field, and Claire couldn’t help but smile at the adorable arrangement of picnic tables: purple tablecloths and centerpieces of either rabbits, chicks, or eggs. She heard several moms quietly tell their children: “No, you can’t pet the dog. He’s working, see?”

Claire smiled down at her hard-worker and his companion, who was bouncing like a spring with excitement.

“Hiya, Faith!” Toni said excitedly. “I see you’ve got your new friend with you. Is Angus gonna help you find eggs?” Faith nodded excitedly, shaking her hand with abandon. “Yay!” 

Claire looked around as Toni continued talking to Faith, her brow furrowing slightly.

He told her he’d be there, he’d mentioned it just yesterday. He’d said he couldn’t wait to see Angus in action.

“Mister Jamie is just inside getting some more chairs,” Toni suddenly piped up, and Claire jumped. “In case you were wondering,” she added brusquely before shuffling off to greet another kid.

Claire felt herself turning pink. Was she really that transparent…?

She mingled for a bit, holding onto Angus’s leash while Faith swung her white and purple basket around, her excited humming ever-present. Suddenly, Claire felt a tug on the leash, and she looked down to confirm that it was, of course, Faith, and not Angus. He was rooted firmly in place, keeping Faith stuck where he stood.

Claire looked up, and her heart warmed when she realized that Faith was reaching for Jamie. He wasn’t looking at them; he had his head in his phone as he headed toward a group of therapists and volunteers. Something seemed…off about him.

Toni interrupted her thoughts by announcing that the Easter Bunny was all done hiding his eggs, and that, at the count of three, everyone could start looking all over the field for eggs. 

Claire, Faith, and Angus set off, and she genuinely thought Faith was going to rocket into the sky when she found her first egg. Claire clapped softly and applauded in sign language. Her eyes danced with mirth as she tossed her head back and laughed gleefully, her heart positively full at her daughter’s joy. This repeated several times as Faith found more and more, their laughter together growing in absurdity.

Claire could suddenly feel someone’s eyes on her, and it immediately turned her breath shaky, breaking her laughter. She looked over her shoulder to see exactly who she expected, a soft smile gracing his lips.

He was trailing behind Connor, the boy with down syndrome that Claire had seen him interact with once before. Claire almost didn’t feel Faith tugging on Angus, her mind lost in thought.

Jamie was being kind, of course, and encouraging, and all-around amazing with the boy, like he always was. But he seemed distracted. Sure enough, after a few seconds, he excused himself from Connor’s mom, jogged away, and pulled out his phone. Claire shook her head and followed Faith’s lead, and they ran into Erica.

Faith thrusted her full basket upwards to show Erica, who beamed down at her.

“Wow, Faith! You’re doing such a good job, princess!” Faith squealed and danced about. She crouched down and whispered secretively, “Do you want me to show you some really good hiding spots?” Faith nodded.

“What have we here?”

A familiar voice had Claire whirling around, already smiling before her eyes settled on him.

“Is this smart wee lass finding all the eggs fer herself?” Jamie crouched down to Faith and peered in her basket. “Would ye look at that! Bonny job, wean!” He gave her a thumbs up, which Faith gleefully returned.

“Faith and I are gonna keep looking, right sweetie?” Erica said.

“Here, you can hold onto Angus,” Claire said, transferring the leash to Erica.” She’s attached, so as long as you’ve got the leash, you’re good.”

Erica led the way, talking animatedly to Faith, and Claire trailed behind with Jamie. She noticed immediately that as they walked, he was tapping a nervous rhythm on his thigh, just like he’d done at her apartment a few weeks ago. And he wasn’t starting conversation, or going above and beyond to make her laugh. They just walked in companionable silence, listening to Erica and Faith giggling.

Claire looked up at him, into his eyes, and was taken aback by the genuine sadness she saw there.

“Are you alright?” Claire said, gently touching his forearm. “You don’t seem all there today, that’s not like you.”

“Ah, I’m fine.” He shrugged, and Claire could tell he was fighting the urge to stuff his hands into his pockets like he always did, but he seemingly didn’t want to break contact with her. Claire raised an eyebrow and cocked her head, not buying it.

“It’s no’ a big deal, Sassenach. I just worry,” he said, finally giving into his urge and stuffing his free hand into his pocket.

“About what?”

He took a great, heaving breath before answering. “My sister,” he admitted. “She’s young fer it, but she, ehm, has to get mammograms every six months, ye ken. Our mam had breast cancer, and Jenny’s got the gene. She’s no’ high risk or anything, so dinna fash. I just always get antsy when she gets looked at. She went yesterday and the results come back Monday the latest. But she’ll be fine.”

Claire’s chest tightened, her heart straining. She lowered her hand to squeeze his fingers, giving him a reassuring smile. “She’ll be okay.”

Jamie nodded silently, a tight smile on his face.

“I’m sorry…about your mother,” Claire said quietly.

“Thank ye, Sassenach.” He looked up from the ground and met her eye, those smoldering diamonds breaking her heart.

“That’s, ehm, what got my uncle, too. Cancer. Prostate.” She averted his gaze. “He was my guardian. It’s…not easy to watch.”

“No…it’s not.” He squeezed her hand in return. “Poor Jenny tried to rush her wedding so that Ma would be there to see it. In the end, she wasna strong enough to leave the hospital anyway. They had a private ceremony at her bedside fer her sake. The big church wedding and reception came a year or so after she died. It was hard. Cannae imagine what it was like fer Jenny.”

Claire’s brow was wrinkled together, her eyes watering. “God…I can’t imagine Uncle Lamb not being at my wedding…I got lucky, I suppose. It all started shortly after I got married. I used to pray that he’d make it long enough to meet the baby.”

“Did he?”

“Yeah, he did.” Claire sniffled. “He held her, just once, before he took a turn for the worse.”

Claire’s mind darkened, her stomach turning to think of that time, where grief and postpartum depression had mated and created a beast of a demon that she’d had to grapple with…almost completely alone.

“I’m sorry it couldna be more than once,” Jamie said softly.

“Thanks…It makes me all the more grateful for it, you know?”

“Aye, I ken what ye mean.”

They held each other's gaze for a moment, and Claire suddenly became painfully aware of how long she’d been holding his hand.

Far too long.

But I don’t want to let go.

A tiny force suddenly collided with Claire’s leg, causing her to jump and release his hand in a panic. She looked down to see Faith peeking up at her, arms wrapped around her knees, Angus sitting dutifully beside her, Erica standing by sheepishly with the leash. Jamie took the leash from Erica, and she jogged off to catch up with another little girl.

“Hello, darling!” Claire exclaimed, kneeling down beside Faith. “How many eggs have you gotten?” She counted out loud slowly for Faith’s benefit, all the way up to eleven eggs. “Great job! Yay!” Claire signed her applause, shaking her splayed hands. Faith hummed and copied her with the hand that was not holding onto her basket. “Such a clever girl.” Claire dramatically kissed her forehead with a large smacking sound, and Faith giggled.

Claire heard a rumbling chuckle from behind her, and she looked up at Jamie, smiling. “Do you suppose there are any more eggs?” she asked.

“Certainly,” Jamie said, nodding officially. “Especially when there’s a lass sae clever lookin’ for ’em.” He winked at Faith, and she swayed back and forth, her eyes crinkling with a wide grin.

“Do you want more eggs, lovie?” Faith nodded vigorously and gave a little skip. Claire took her hand and looked at Jamie from the corner of her eye. “Shall we?”

Faith found five more eggs, Jamie and Claire signing applause with each find. After the third egg, Jamie got called over by one of the other kids, so he handed the leash over to Claire and jogged away. After the egg hunt was completed, everyone sat at the purple tablecloth picnic tables, listening as Toni announced how many eggs each child had found, with applause – both clapped and  and signed – at each child’s accomplishment. Pizza was served and, just as Claire was bending over to cut Faith’s slice into smaller bites, a large hand appeared on the small of her back.

Jumping a little, plastic knife and fork in hand, Claire turned around to see Jamie holding a plate of pizza.

“I grabbed ye a slice that they didna cut in half,” Jamie said. “Figured ye could handle more than that.” He gestured to the skinny little piece that Thomas was currently lifting off his plate.

Claire chuckled, a bright smile finding its way to her face. “Thank you.” She took it from him, then realized she had to put it back down to finish cutting Faith’s pizza. Claire comically tried to find space on the picnic table to put it down, and Faith began squirming and trying to grab the uncut pizza. Angus put his head in her lap to calm her, and she stopped squirming to weave her fingers into his fur.

“Dinna fash, Sassenach. Eat, I’ll do this.” Without another word, he snagged the knife and fork from Claire and began finishing the job of cutting Faith’s pizza. Claire blinked wordlessly for a second before shaking her head free of its fogginess.

“Uh, make sure she sanitizes again before she eats. She’s touching Angus.” Claire tried to reach into her purse with one hand, nearly losing her pizza in the process.

“Careful, Sassenach!” Jamie exclaimed, chuckling. “Let me. Which of these wee compartments is it in?”

“The main one, in a little pouch.”

“Ah, there it is.” He quickly bent down to Faith and asked her to open her hands, where he deposited a small dollop of hand sanitizer. “Angus, down.” The dog obeyed, removing his head from Faith’s lap and laying in the grass underneath the table at her feet. “Alright, now ye’re all clean again, and ye can eat verra soon.”

Claire could not get the smile off her face no matter how hard she tried, even with her mouth full of pizza. There was something so goddamn endearing about watching this enormous man mother-hen her daughter. He finished his cutting and handed Faith the fork, then turned to Claire to deposit the hand sanitizer back in its proper position.

“Thank you,” Claire managed, mouth full. Jamie chuckled at her, his eyes sparkling, before disappearing, likely to find himself an uncut slice.

Claire wandered over to a circle of moms with their own plates, sidling up between Mary and Fanny. They made pleasant conversation, chatting and laughing. Claire threw the occasional glance back at Faith’s table, smiling to see Erica, Toni, Miss Jessica, or Jamie occasionally popping in to check on them, making rotations at all the tables. She did not miss how Jamie lingered at Faith’s side, signing expertly as she nodded and smiled.

“He’s just so good with them, isn’t he?” a mom chimed, and Claire whipped around.

“Gosh, yeah,” Fanny said. “He’s such a dream. If I wasn’t married…”

The moms giggled, scandalized, and Claire gave a small chuckle.

“Claire’s not married,” Mary said, nudging her.

“Right, soon to be officially no longer married,” she said, raising her can of soda in a silent cheers.

The moms quietly cheered and raised their own cans.

“Cheers to that, honey,” Fanny said. “Who needs a damn man?”

“Not Claire!” Mary said proudly, nudging her again.

Claire laughed out loud, nudging her back. “Not Claire, indeed.”

They raised their cans again in a quiet cheer.

Pizza eaten, cupcakes were served, one to each kid, and Claire watched in amusement as Faith made a mess of her face with her cupcake. The hand on her back returned and her heart fluttered, knowing immediately who it was this time.

“Fer you, lass,” Jamie ceremoniously held a pink-frosting cupcake in front of her face, and she took it gratefully.

“Nothing for us?” Fanny teased.

“Ah, I woulda forget a single one of ye if I was conked on the head! Here ye are, lasses.” He held out the plastic container in the center of their circle, each mom taking a cupcake and thanking him.

His hand never left the small of her back.

“Dinna leave wi’out stopping by me first, Sassenach,” Jamie said quickly before disappearing to serve more cupcakes.

“Why does he call you that?” Fanny said curiously.

“Because I’m English,” Claire said, her lips involuntarily curving into a smile.

“I thought it wasn’t a very nice word,” Mary said. “My parents always said so growing up.”

“It only means English person, or Outlander at worst,” Claire said off-handedly. “He doesn’t mean anything by it.”

“Oh, he doesn’t now?” Mrs. Weiss raised an eyebrow.

Claire laughed shortly, flustered. “No, no, it’s just because we’re both from the British Isles.”

The moms shared a laugh, but Claire wasn’t quite sure of what the joke was.

Claire found Faith when it was time to leave, rubbing her face into Angus’s neck, no doubt spreading sticky pink icing all over the poor thing. Claire laughed, shaking her head, and did her best to wipe Faith’s face clean, making a mental note to brush the stickiness out of Angus’s fur when they got home.

Before Claire could seek out Jamie before leaving, he found her first, startling her for perhaps the fourth time that day as she turned around to see him standing there.

“I wanted to give ye this,” Jamie whispered, handing her something wrapped in a napkin. “Dinna let the wean see.”

“What is it?” Claire peered inside the napkin.

“Just a wee thing, I saw it in the store and I thought of her.”

It was a pez dispenser, an Olaf pez dispenser.

He smiled sheepishly and put his hands in his pockets. “We used to get pez dispensers in our Easter baskets every year as bairns. Seeing it, knowing Frozen is her favorite, and that Easter is coming up…I dunno. Just thought of her, is all.”

Claire looked up at him, her eyes swimming with emotion. “Jamie…you really didn’t have to do this…”

“Like I said, I just saw it and had to buy it. Didna trouble myself or anything.” He shrugged. 

“But it…it means something to you,” Claire said. “From your childhood.”

“Aye,” he said casually, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. “That’s why I thought of it.”

Claire tried to say something else, but she found that her throat had closed around the words, and she just gave a slight shake of her head.

“Hope she likes the flavors that came wi’ it,” he said, laughing. “Willie was quite picky about flavors. Always had to trade wi’ him.”

Claire gave a breathy laugh. “Thank you, Jamie.”

He flashed her a smile, turning around. “I’ll see ye next Friday, Sassenach.”

“Wait! Jamie!” Claire called after he took a few steps. “I want to know…about Jenny. Tell me when you find out?”

He paused for a moment, unblinking, before his tongue darted out to lick his lips. “Aye, I will.”

Claire smiled, giving him a small nod before she took Faith’s hand and started toward the parking lot.

——

Easter Sunday was the first time Claire hosted company.

Well, besides Gillian, which of course didn’t count.

And besides Jamie. But that was…different.

For this holiday, Claire insisted that the Abernathy’s come to her place rather than her going to theirs. Claire had somehow managed to cook an entire ham, diligently following Google’s advice, sweating from both the heat and fear of ruining it all day. She also made hard-boiled eggs, which she and Faith snacked on all day. Faith ate hard-boiled eggs like they were candy.

That morning, Faith was over-the-moon at the sight of her Easter basket, arranged quite handsomely, if Claire did say so herself. Chocolate bunnies, marshmallow eggs, and silly little trinkets lined the plaid purple fabric, among them, the Pez dispenser from Jamie. She was in awe of it, gasping absurdly when Claire demonstrated how to pop the candy out of the head. 

Claire thought to text him, tell him how much Faith loved it, that she did in fact like the flavors that came with it. She fought against the urge for hours, knowing that she had no business texting him on a holiday, or at all for that matter. Faith was giggling with Angus in the living room, squeaking one of his own little Easter gifts (the other one being edible and long since devoured). Claire checked the ham again, sighing in relief to see that all was well, and her eyes lingered on her phone again.

He had texted her in the middle of the week. So why shouldn’t she text him now?

Well, she’d asked him to text her. Her stomach had flipped to see that he had, and then it had dropped into her stomach when she’d remembered why .

Jamie [Monday,1:42]: Jen’s got a clean bill of health :)

She’d sighed with relief, a wide grin finding its way to her face.

Claire [Monday, 2:36]: Told you. I’m very glad to hear it. Thanks for letting me know.

She leaned on her counter, breathing in the sweet-smelling meat she was cooking, picking up her phone, re-reading the messages.

No, it wasn’t appropriate.

They’d texted over his concern for his sister’s health. He hadn’t answered her response. He was keeping it professional. She left her phone on the counter, timer counting down, to join Faith and Angus in the living room.

When the Abernathy family arrived, Faith was dressed in a darling little purple dress, topped with a big white bow in her hair to match her white tights and shoes. Gail and Delia were wearing the same shade of yellow, pairing beautifully with their dark skin. Gail was carrying Lenny, and Joe would be arriving after seven, when his shift ended at the hospital.

Gail brought Easter bread and her pudding pie that they’d all had on Thanksgiving. They drank, and laughed, and played games, and Faith and Delia even settled in to watch a movie together, The Little Mermaid , to be exact. Faith had apparently remembered how Delia had shared all her dolls with her, because she did not allow Claire to start the movie until she had brought a sufficient amount of stuffed animals to join her and Delia on the couch. It was, quite frankly, one of the most adorable things Claire had ever seen, and she and Gail laughed their heads off trying to get a picture without disrupting or calling any attention to themselves.

Claire saved some of the hard-boiled eggs for decorating and all of them painted a few, even Lenny, but Delia and Faith took the cake with how many they each did. It was a perfectly wonderful afternoon and evening. Claire was pleasantly tipsy as she bid the family farewell, a family that she truly had come to see as her own family, and she knew they reciprocated. She’d thrust containers of leftovers at them as Gail had done on Thanksgiving, and Faith stood in the doorway waving wildly at Delia until she disappeared into their van.

Claire had been so occupied with the day that it had been hours since she’d checked her phone. She didn’t pick it up again until Faith was in bed, and she realized she’d completely missed a message.

Jamie [5:47]: happy easter, sassenach

——

April 30

Jamie finished helping Toni lock up, bid her goodnight, and headed to his car. He gave the lass one final wave from his window, and then started the car.

Drives were a sort of catharsis for Jamie. He often found himself heading to his car for a long drive if he needed to clear his head. It was a lot like riding a horse in that way. Riding had always grounded him as a lad, and it still did. The beast could listen and offer his own comfort without interrupting, and without needing to understand. A car didn’t provide that same comfort, to be sure, but there was something about being alone in a small space, the hum of the engine and the tires. It was therapeutic.

Or at least it used to be.

Jamie’s drives to and from work these days were plagued — or perhaps blessed would be a better word — by thoughts of her.

The past week or so, the main event of his fevered thoughts had been how she looked in that bonny sundress she’d worn to the Easter event: yellow, covered in tiny pink flowers, a shade of pink that matched the little checkered dress that Faith was wearing.

And then there was the sad depths of her eyes as she spoke of her uncle’s demise, when she said she’d prayed for him to stay long enough to meet her daughter. A pain that he hadn’t even known she’d been carrying. A pain that – now that he knew well enough the type of man to whom she’d been married – she’d carried alone. And what of her parents? They were both gone early enough for this uncle to have raised her.

The main event transformed into admiration for her strength, her bravery.

Then he thought of how she’d asked him to tell her about Jenny. He saw his own fear reflected in those amber caverns and, in that moment, and in the moments of waiting, knowing that someone else was waiting to know as well, he hadn’t felt so alone.

Then he thought of how he was stupid enough to text her on Easter, how she’d read it hours later and not answered. He should have known that he was crossing a line. Wanting to know about Jen’s health was not permission to be contacted on holidays.

Boundary set, boundary accepted.

Jamie had heard his phone buzz three times on the drive home, and he’d assumed it was just Jenny; he was quite used to her double-texting in the first place, then triple, quadruple, and onward if he didn’t answer within five minutes. He didn’t bother reaching into his pocket to see until he was settled at the kitchen table with a dram.

His heart leapt into his throat and his stomach turned inside out to see the name on the screen.

Claire.

He abruptly set down his glass and straightened in his chair as if she were looking at him. His gut reaction was to be angry and protective, wondering what that bastard did to her this time, but bubbling underneath was a steady fluttering of his pulse, a warmth in his chest that it was he she trusted enough to talk to.

Upon sliding the messages open, it was abundantly clear that nothing was amiss. Quite the opposite, in fact. Smiling at him through the screen was a picture of wee Faith, eyes crinkling, holding up her pinky, pointer finger, and thumb. His heart soared at the sight of it without even needing the context. But read on he did:

Claire [8:24]: Look what she said to me! For the first time ever!

Claire [8:24]: It means I love you!

Jamie chuckled softly at the screen, his cheeks sore from smiling. He scrolled back up to the picture, and his smile grew impossibly wider. Jamie knew that Faith was now signing “horse,” “mummy,” “potty,” “hungry,” little things like that, things she needed or names for things, or even the occasional “thank you”. But the concept of expressing love was brand new for the lass, and he knew it well. This was as monumental to Claire as her first steps.

Jamie [8:42]: aye, I ken what it means. that’s beautiful, sassenach. i’m happy for ye.

Jamie’s fingers trembled as he formulated the words. That moment, the first time Claire’s daughter told her she loved her, was precious. Precious to her as a mother. And she’d shared it. With him.

He suddenly felt as if he couldn’t breathe.

Before he could process anything in his spinning head, his phone buzzed again. He opened it without hesitation to see a video. The thumbnail was of Claire kneeling and Faith standing in front of their coffee table, Claire looking at the camera with her eyes bright and wide, her mouth open mid-conversation. Breath shuddering, Jamie hit play.

“Is it going? It’s going? Okay, Faith! Look, look, baby. I love you.”

Claire faced Faith and held up the sign, Faith bounced and giggled before holding up the sign as well. Claire laughed that beautiful laugh, and threw her arms around the little girl.

“That’s my girl…oh, my baby…”

Mrs. Lickett chuckled from behind the camera before stopping the video.

Jamie laughed out loud, his chest tight. He wiped away the tears that were blurring his vision before playing the video again.

“Is it going? It’s going? Okay, Faith! Look, look, baby. I love you.”

“That’s my girl…oh, my baby…”

He wiped his eyes again before mustering the nerve to answer. What could he possibly say in response to something so beautiful?

Jamie [8:43]: she’s a marvel, Claire.

The very second the message was sent, Jamie reopened the video and played it again. His whisky became long forgotten as he cupped his phone in both hands, replaying the video over and over.

That joy on her face, on both of their faces, was more intoxicating than the strongest liquor the Earth had to offer. These beautiful lasses.

My lasses.

Their laughter reverberated in his mind, making him dizzy.

“Is it going? It’s going? Okay, Faith! Look, look, baby. I love you.”

“That’s my girl…oh, my baby…”

“Look, look, baby. I love you.”

“I love you.”

Christ, I love you.

And it hit him. It hit him like a truck, like a stampede of wild horses, like a ton of concrete.

He was in love with them. Both of them.

He was drowning in the thought of cradling them both in his arms, of kissing both of their curly heads, of Faith giving him that very same sign, of throwing her in the air and catching her again, of waking up beside Claire every morning, of tasting those sweet lips…

Jesus Bloody Christ.

He abruptly shut his phone off and pushed it across the table, far away from him. He exhaled deeply and pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut to stop the tears that threatened to spill over.

Get it together, man.

But he couldn’t.

The words had invaded his mind, and now they hung there like a menace, waiting to be said aloud. They were in every beat of his heart, in every breath he took.

She’s not even bloody divorced yet, ye clotheid.

He ran a hand down the length of his face before taking the whisky back into his possession.

Ye say that as if ye could have her even if she was.

He tossed back the remainder of his drink in one gulp, and quickly poured another.

No, he could not have her, would not have her. It didn’t matter that the divorce would be finalized soon, didn’t matter that it was now almost a whole year since she’d even seen the scum she called her husband, didn’t matter that Jamie had been her friend for almost a year. Claire was remarkable, plain and simple. He could not risk losing her, that light — mo sorcha — because he was too selfish to be content with her friendship. Claire’s heart wouldn’t, couldn’t be ready after the damage that had been done. Faith was her world now, she’d as much said it to him straight out. Her days and nights revolved around her daughter. Even Jamie himself was an extension of that. He only existed in their lives because Faith needed what he had to offer.

And that should be enough for him.

To be able to make their lives just that little bit easier should be enough for him to die a happy man.

But, Christ, he could not see himself waking up next to any other woman for the rest of his life.

I’m in love. God help me, I’m in love wi’ a beautiful, caring, tender-hearted woman and her remarkable wee daughter.

And I dinna think I shall ever feel this way again.

If I canna have her...then I’ll have nobody.

Chapter Text

Claire had only formally requested two days off from the hospital for the entire year: Christmas, and Faith’s birthday.

A month before her birthday, Claire had presented Faith with some options for how they would spend the day. She showed her a picture of the aquarium, a local children’s theatre giving a sensory friendly showing, and the zoo. She’d been over the moon at the picture of the zoo, and the choice was quite clear.

Claire had started her preparations that day, purchasing tickets to the Bronx Zoo online, and starting to explain to Faith what was expected of her for the day. Every day, Claire would announce how many days until the zoo, and then remind Faith of the itinerary for the day and how she must behave at the zoo.

She wanted the day to be perfect.

The last birthday Claire had given Faith a genuine celebration was when she turned two. They’d thrown a party at the house for her first and second birthday consisting of all of Frank’s family and work friends and a few of Claire’s friends from med-school and any children they had.

Everything had changed after her diagnosis. Her third birthday, Faith had stayed cooped up in the house as she was quickly growing accustomed to doing every day. Claire couldn’t even blame Frank for it; it had ultimately been her decision to not throw a party for the next two years. Claire had been terrified of setting her off, of causing her daughter terror and grief on her own birthday. They’d watched movies and sang together all day, snacking on Faith’s favorite things.

Frank hadn’t come home for cake that year, or the following one.

Claire vowed, after depriving her daughter for years, after allowing herself to be plagued by fear and doubt rather than trying to work with her, that her fifth birthday would be the best one she’d ever had.

At seven o’clock on the twelfth of May, Claire’s alarm went off, and she was smiling before she even opened her eyes.

She had a daughter that was five years old . It was inconceivable. 

She got herself dressed and double checked the snacks and other supplies she’d prepared last night before finally heading into Faith’s room. Her smile grew all the wider to see her laying there peacefully, her five-year-old girl.

“Faith,” she crooned, smoothing back some hair as she gently shook her shoulder. “Open your eyes, big girl.”

Faith’s eyes opened faster than Claire had ever seen, and she sat straight up. Her sudden movement roused Angus, who picked his head up and began wagging his tail.

“Do you know what today is, lovie?” Claire said, nearly bubbling over with excitement.

Faith hummed loudly, jiggling her left hand wildly as her right middle finger rapidly touched her chin and chest over and over.

Birthday! Birthday! Birthday!

“Yes! Yes, darling, it’s your birthday!” Claire repeated the sign as she said it. “Can I give you a big birthday hug?”

Faith giggled and sat up on her knees before launching herself onto Claire, throwing her arms around her neck. Claire gave a melodramatic grunt upon impact.

“Goodness, Faith! You’re such a big girl, you almost knocked Mummy over!” She hugged her back tightly, kissing her over and over, until Faith was pushing against her, begging to be released.

“Alright, alright,” Claire laughed. “Where are we going today, Faith? Where is the birthday girl going today?”

Faith hummed again, using her pointer finger to draw rapid zigzag patterns in the air. The sign was incomplete — only the “Z” part of zoo , but she was correct, nonetheless.

“Yes! The zoo! Yay!” Claire signed applause, and Faith climbed over Angus to get off her bed, zipping over to her dresser and pointing impatiently. “Yes, I know, get dressed first. Good girl.”

Get dressed was step number one on Mummy’s big Birthday-Zoo-Trip list, a mantra she’d been repeating to Faith every day for weeks now. As she helped her out of her pajamas and into her favorite princess t-shirt and shorts, Claire went on and on about all the lovely animals they were going to see today, and the carousel they were going to ride. Claire had splurged on a few extra dollars so that Faith could feed some goats, ride the carousel, and stroll the butterfly gardens.

Claire had fond, but vague memories of the zoo with her parents; she remembered seeing all sorts of exotic creatures in the wild with Uncle Lamb far more clearly. She’d even ridden an elephant once, and it was one of the greatest thrills of her life to this day. The thought of giving Faith that joy and thrill made her heart soar. It was something she was sure that other parents took for granted, seeing their children make those memories. Her daughter had been unable to have such an experience yet, and by God, this first time giving it to her was going to be perfect.

Today would be a lot for Angus as well, but his trainers had assured her that he would do fine. They’d managed supermarkets together in addition to the Easter egg hunt at the stables.

After breakfast, it was time for item three on the list: sunscreen .

“We are not going to scream and shout while Mummy does your lotion, yes? Look at my eyes, Faith.” Claire repeated herself once Faith was finally making eye contact, and they exchanged a thumbs-up before she began.

Faith was not a fan of sunscreen, the texture, the way Claire had to rub it into her hyper-sensitive skin quite vigorously, the smell. They’d tried the spray once, but a breeze had blown it into Faith’s face, and a meltdown of massive proportions ensued. They did not try that one again.

Today, Faith begrudgingly allowed the sunscreen, having been reminded it was coming for a while now, and knowing what the reward for allowing it would be. Claire made little happy faces with the white cream on Faith’s hands and knees before rubbing it in, which helped ease her a bit.

After Claire covered herself quite thoroughly as well, she double-checked her backpack for the third time and told Faith to get her tablet and her headphones. Normally, Claire did not allow the tablet in the car, but it would take them over an hour to get to the zoo, so Claire was allowing movie-time in the car for her birthday.

Claire listened to Frozen — shockingly — from the driver’s seat the whole way there. Normally, Faith did not interrupt her movie for anything, but when they arrived, she couldn’t care less about Anna’s freezing heart or Arendelle’s eternal winter. She was more excited today than even the first time they went to the stables.

And the day was as perfect as Claire could ever have dreamed.

Faith was enthralled every second of the day. Headphones on and Angus at her side, she remained calm and focused on her goal: fun. Every new animal they encountered, Claire caught her touching her chin and her chest excitedly.

It’s my birthday!

She wanted every mammal, reptile, and bird to know that today was her special day. And who was Claire to tell her otherwise?

Faith’s favorite animal was decidedly the giraffes, although she truly did love them all. Claire’s favorite part of the day was the butterfly gardens. The amount of pictures she got was truly obscene, but every moment that passed was more beautiful than the next. At one point, Faith had a veritable crown of butterflies on her head. Claire had worried that perhaps she would be squirmy about it, but Faith seemed to love it. In fact, she was even holding her hand underneath them, catching them and holding them. Even Angus looked simply darling; the little colorful things littered his entire coat, and he didn’t once try to shake them off.

The closest Faith came to a meltdown was when the tigers would not come out to be seen. She was whining and moaning, tugging on her tether and hitting Claire on the thighs. Angus intervened just in time, applying deep pressure and calming her before she could burst into tears. She remained irritable for the next few exhibits, and wouldn't perk up until lunchtime. Chicken fingers and fries could cheer Faith up during the apocalypse. So could the FaceTime call from Auntie Gi during the meal, and the enormous chocolate ice cream cone that they shared for dessert.

The rest of the day went off without a hitch, and by closing time, Faith was almost completely wiped out. The carousel was the last stop before the gift shop, and they sat on a stationary seat with Angus, laughing their heads off for the whole ride. 

Faith was allowed to pick one plushie from the shop, and as she walked around, taking in every possible species of animal in plushie form, it was almost like walking the whole zoo again. It was much quieter in the shop than outside, so Claire was holding onto her headphones while she perused. Faith was most entranced by the wall of giraffes of various sizes and patterns. She stretched up toward the big ones on the top, and Claire chuckled, rolling her eyes. She should have known her daughter would pick the expensive toy, and it was quite her fault for not specifying size. An employee stepped onto a ladder to get one and hand it down to Faith. She hummed loudly as it was placed into her eager arms, and Claire laughed out loud. It was larger than her torso.

“Alright, baby. All ready?”

Claire started to lead them toward the register, but Faith remained rooted in place, surveying the lower shelves containing smaller giraffes.

“Second guessing, are we?” Claire said, arching an eyebrow. She couldn’t imagine why a five year old would ever voluntarily choose the smaller option when it came to plushies, but she let Faith look nonetheless.

Faith picked up one of the smaller ones, struggling to hold both that and the larger one. Only then did she turn to Claire, a content smile on her sleepy face.

“I said only one, Faith,” Claire said softly, but firmly. “What would you want with two of the same animal anyway? Pick one so that we can get going.”

This only made Faith dig her heels in further, shaking her head. 

“Faith. What did we talk about?”

Faith shook her head again and then crouched to put the plushies on the ground at her feet. She patted the head of the big giraffe, smiling lazily, and then looked up at Claire. She signed: Mummy .

Claire’s brow furrowed. Faith then patted the head of the little giraffe and looked up, signing: Baby .

Claire couldn’t stop her grin as realization hit her.

“Oh, lovie…” Claire crooned, kneeling down in front of her. “Do you want a mummy and a baby giraffe?”

Faith nodded, scooping mother and baby back into her arms with a curt little nod.

Claire, pushover and sap that she was, had to wipe her eyes and sniffle a bit before standing up.

“Alright, darling. Mummy and baby can come home with us for your birthday.”

After Claire made the purchase, Faith would not stand for seeing them put in a plastic bag, so she waddled through the exit and parking lot with her little arms squeezing her newest friends for dear life.

Faith fell asleep almost immediately after Claire got onto the highway, and stayed asleep until they arrived home. Claire ordered pizza and showered with Faith before it got delivered, and then they snuggled on the couch for dinner and a movie, which was reserved for very special occasions. Aladdin was her birthday movie of choice. Halfway through, Claire paused it to sing “happy birthday” before Faith blew out the single candle stuck into a little cupcake, which they shared on the couch for the rest of the movie. The big cake was coming for her party on Saturday.

As a birthday treat and a reward for being such a good girl at the zoo, Faith got to sleep in Mummy’s bed. So Claire drifted off with the beautiful, warm weight of her precious girl tucked under her chin, pushed all the way to the right, being that two sizable giraffes were occupying most of the left side.

It was perfect.

——

The party was planned for the Saturday following Faith’s actual birthday. It was a Princess Tea Party, with costumes encouraged, but not required. Claire had purchased a set of non-breakable teacups to give the children and two gallons of sweet iced tea — despite the idea of sweetening iced tea gravely offending her English sensibilities — to fill the teapot with. She’d also stocked up on coloring pages, plain sugar cookies, sprinkles of various assortments, marshmallows of different shapes and colors, and several tubs of vanilla icing and food dye. Claire and Faith spent the night before the party making an entire rainbow of colored icing to decorate the cookies with.

Joe came over with Delia two hours before the party started — Joe so he could help Claire set everything, and Delia to keep Faith occupied so that she didn’t launch herself at every new decoration they put up.Faith and Delia were sitting on the balcony in the back of the apartment, holding dolls and petting Angus intermittently. Joe and Claire occasionally glanced up at them as they unfolded the tables and chairs that Joe had brought over.

The table set-up was complete in about a half-hour, tablecloth topped with four princess honeycomb centerpieces, coloring pages, and crayons spread evenly about, and every folding chair decorated with a giant bow of various colors. Claire ducked back inside to retrieve the plastic tea sets that she’d purchased, and her and Joe had a hoot teasing one another as they set up the tiny little cups.

“Dee-Dee is gonna be in heaven with this shit,” Joe said, shaking his head with a laugh. “This was a great idea, Lady Jane. Perfect for your little princess.”

Claire couldn’t stop the swell of pride in her chest as she put down the last teacup.

“It’s gonna be great. Isn’t it?” She looked up hopefully at Joe, biting her lip nervously.

“Yeah, it’s gonna be great.”

Claire and Joe moved inside to the kitchen, where Claire started dumping bags of Faith’s favorite snacks into bowls. Delia and Faith both gave up on their game in order to coax Claire into letting them pick from the bowls and, despite Joe’s intervention, Claire was unable to say no to them.

Neither little girl was in their costume yet, Claire knowing full well that expecting Faith to keep it clean for even longer than the length of the party was quite a big ask. Claire wasn’t dressed either; she’d worn a t-shirt and shorts to set up, but she had a blue dress planned to wear and a plastic magic wand to carry around all day. She flitted out of her bedroom after having changed into it, wand in hand.

“I’m the Fairy Godmother, of course,” Claire said in response to Joe’s raised eyebrow. “I am the orchestrator of this ball, am I not?”

Joe shook his head with another laugh. “You’re too damn cute for your own good, Lady Jane.”

After her Fairy Godmother transformation was complete – which truly just involved putting the dress on, applying some make-up, and pinning her hair out of her face – it was time to get the girls ready. Joe left to go pick up the balloons while Claire got the girls dressed and all done up. Delia wanted the full treatment: eyeshadow, blush, and lipstick, and Claire was more than happy to oblige her. Faith wasn’t a fan of anything touching her eyes, nor did she like the way lipstick felt, but she was very soothed by the softness of the bristles on the blush brush. Claire was quite generous with the blush, and then she wiped it off and brushed it over Faith’s whole face, pretending that she was putting all sorts of make-up all over.

Claire had purchased some hair glitter for the day, similar to what she’d seen used on little girls in Disney World. Delia’s hair was already done by Gail, so Claire worked a careful braid into Faith’s hair before spraying both of their heads with hairspray and dumping the glitter on top of them on the balcony.

“One…two…three…Fairy Dust!” Claire cried, and both little girls squealed as their coveted magic dust rained down on them. Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — Claire ended up getting a generous amount of glitter all over the plants in her hanging balcony garden. Oh well. She was nearly positive it was harmless, and now her plants would be blessed with magic.

Claire brought them back inside so they could look in the mirror in the bathroom, and Delia gasped with exaggeration, her jaw dropping.

“I look beautiful !”

Claire threw her head back, laughing out loud. “Yes, darling, you do!”

“Thank you, Aunt Claire! I love it!” She threw her arms around her waist, and Faith copied, hugging her from the other side.

“You’re welcome sweetheart.” Claire caressed both of their heads. “Do you like it, Faith? Don’t you look beautiful?”

“Yeah, Faith. You look real pretty, too!” Delia confirmed, and Faith buried her face into Claire’s dress.

“Alright, little princesses. Time to get dressed before Uncle Joe gets back with the balloons!”

Faith and Delia were dressed as Elsa and Anna respectively, and it was quite honestly the cutest damn thing Claire had ever seen. Claire very nearly burst into tears at the sight of them looking at themselves in Faith’s mirror together. She never thought another child would connect with Faith so deeply, and it didn't seem like Delia played with Faith out of sympathy. They truly were friends.

Claire never thought she would see that.

After placing Faith’s sparkling pink tiara on her head and adorning her with the “birthday princess” sash, Claire led the girls outside, not before grabbing Faith’s noise-cancelling headphones, just in case. She also decided to let Angus outside to bound around before he had to be vested for the party.

“Do not touch any of the cups unless it is your own,” Claire said to both of them, sensing they both felt the urge to touch every single thing Claire had laid out on the table. Faith was practically running in circles around the table, humming, jiggling her hands with abandon, running her fingers over the chairs and the bows as she zipped past.

Joe arrived with Gail, Lenny, and the balloons at a quarter to two, having picked up the rest of the family after getting the balloons. Lenny was wearing the sweetest little Mickey Mouse costume, black shirt and little red shorts with the big white buttons, bright yellow shoes, and a hat with ears to top it off.

Faith started humming loudly as soon as the balloons came into view, and then she was pawing at Joe’s legs and jumping to try and reach the floating pinks and purples.

“Wanna hold them, Princess Faith?” Joe said jovially. “Here ya go. They’re weighted down, don’t worry,” Joe added, seeing Claire’s imminent panic.

The rest of the party was due to arrive in fifteen minutes, and the only thing left to do was arrange the balloons around the table, which would be quite difficult the way Faith had them in a death grip. She did, however, separate the two separately weighted bunches to allow Delia to carry some as well. Joe, Gail, and Claire spent the next fifteen taking as many pictures as the little girls would allow, with and without Lenny. Claire intermittently double checked everything, even calling the pizzeria to make sure the order would be ready to go at the right time.

“Claire?” Gail raised an eyebrow at her when Claire hung up with the pizzeria, and she looked up from her phone, likely looking crazed.

“Relax, baby. Everything’s great. You got it, mama.”

Claire sighed and allowed a smile. “Thanks, Gail.”

The Hawkins family arrived promptly at exactly two o’clock, and Claire chuckled to see that Thomas was dressed as Darth Vader, clearly a direct rebellion against the pretty-pink-princess nature of this party. Claire introduced the couple to Gail and Joe, leaving them to chat while Claire started the Disney playlist that she’d set up for the party.

Mrs. Lickett was next to arrive, followed shortly by Fanny and her sons. To Claire’s utter delight, Kezzie was wearing a blue puffy dress, obviously a Cinderella costume, topped with a small tiara, the look completed with bright red superhero sneakers.

“Oh my goodness!” Claire exclaimed, crouching down in front of Kezzie. “You look amazing ,” she said, signing as well. “I absolutely love your dress, Kezzie. Such a wonderful princess you make!”

Kezzie hummed and shook his hands a bit, grinning from ear to ear.

“I tried telling him he didn't literally have to dress like a princess to go to a princess tea party,” Fanny said. “But he wouldn’t have it any other way. And he looks pretty damn cute if I do say so myself.”

“Yes, he does,” Claire said, beaming up at her. “And you! How are the waters today, Captain?” Claire addressed Josiah, dressed as Jack Sparrow.

“Great!” he said excitedly. “Thank you for inviting me, Wench!”

Fanny gasped raggedly, covering her mouth, and Claire sputtered with hysterical laughter. Everyone in the vicinity burst out laughing as well, and Fanny started apologizing profusely.

“What? I said thank you!” Josiah said defensively. “That’s nice! And I used pirate talk!

“Some pirate talk is not nice…” Fanny scolded.

“It’s alright…” Claire wheezed, wiping away tears of laughter. “Kezzie, what do you say to some Fairy Dust? Like the other princesses?”

Kezzie nodded enthusiastically, signing Fairy Dust as Claire retrieved her little stash from the gift table. She sprayed his brown curls and then dumped the fairy dust on him, causing him to hum loudly and jump up and down, jiggling his hands.

Claire beamed down at him, signing Princess Kezzie , and he repeated it back, his grin wider than ever. She then ushered him to the table where the other children were coloring (except Thomas, who was walking in circles around the table and chattering to himself), and poured him his cup of tea. Josiah joined them shortly and began helping his brother color.

Claire was just refilling Delia and Faith’s teacups when she heard two sets of footprints approaching from the front, and her stomach flipped. Jamie and Toni were approaching together, Jamie carrying a gift bag. Toni waved energetically, and Claire waved back with her wand. Jamie waved as well, and Claire couldn’t help but notice he was slightly stiffer than usual.

Faith looked up at seeing Claire wave the wand, and she let out a loud, happy hum and slid out of her chair. Claire gasped in surprise and ran to catch up as Faith sprinted across the yard to get to Jamie.

“Ah, there she is!” Jamie exclaimed, crouching down before Faith got to him. “Our wee birthday princess!”

Faith slapped her clumsy little hands onto his knee, rubbing incessantly and smiling widely.

“Happy birthday, a leannan ,” Jamie said gently, placing his enormous hand over both of hers. She swayed back and forth, her eyes locked with Jamie’s, and when Claire caught up, she found herself not wanting to interrupt.

I wonder what that Gaelic means…

He looked up at her, however, when her approaching shadow cast over them, and he stood up.

“Hi,” Claire said breathlessly as Toni crouched down to greet Faith as well.

“Hallo,” Jamie said, stuffing his one hand into his pocket. “Uh, here.”

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” Claire said, taking the gift bag that he handed to her.

Jamie shrugged and stuffed the other hand into a pocket as well.

Why is he acting like that?

Before Claire could open her mouth to say something else, Faith was yanking Jamie’s hand out of his pocket and pulling. He looked down and then back up at Claire, sporting a crooked grin.

“I shall follow where ye lead, yer Highness,” he said, allowing Faith to pull him toward the table.

It didn’t hit Claire until just then.

She’s holding his hand. She’s touching him, letting him touch her. Voluntarily.

Those were honors bestowed by Faith to very few people.

“Claire, this is so cute,” Toni snapped her out of her thoughts. “Faith must be over the moon.”

“Oh, thank you, she is,” Claire said, watching as Faith pushed Jamie into a chair in front of a teacup. “Is this from both of you?” Claire held up the bag as they wandered toward the gift table.

“Oh, yeah. But Jamie picked it. I helped, but it was his idea.”

Claire smiled warmly as she put it down among the other gifts, and then jumped a bit to feel Faith slam into her legs. She started pulling on her hand, and Claire laughed.

“I think someone wants to serve Mister Jamie some tea,” Toni said, giggling.

Claire allowed Faith to drag her to the table, and she blushed fiercely as she retrieved the teapot and poured some into the teacup that was much smaller than the palm of Jamie’s hand.

“You know, I can get you an actual cup that will hold a substantial amount of liquid,” Claire said.

“Nah,” Jamie said, flicking his eyes toward Faith. “I’ll bide wi’ this.” He raised the cup in gratitude. “I thank ye, Miss Godmother,” Jamie said lightly, nodding toward the wand.

Claire’s blush deepened as her smile widened.

“You’re quite welcome,” she said, emphasizing the “quite” with a light bop on his nose with the tip of her wand. He flinched slightly, blinking rapidly into a silly grin, and Claire giggled. She made her way back to the other parents to introduce Toni, but Toni was occupied coloring with Thomas, and Claire didn’t want to interrupt, seeing as no one else had been able to get the boy to sit still yet.

Instead, she scooped Lenny up off the ground after he took a tumble, and settled him on her hip as she walked over to Gail.

“You okay, little man?” Gail said, taking him and straightening his Mickey ears.

“Okay, Mama,” he mumbled.

Gail smiled and kissed his temple, and her gaze landed on Faith, sipping tea with Jamie, who was insisting that she stick her pinky out. Delia was getting a kick out of him.

“I think it’s great that you guys are okay being around each other for Faith,” Gail said.

Claire’s mind raced with confusion, her heart skipping a beat. “What do you mean?”

“Her father,” Gail said.

Claire’s blood ran cold. “Oh, God, no, that’s…he’s not…”

“Oh hell, did I just put my foot in my mouth?” Gail’s eyes widened.

“Her father isn’t…” Claire’s mouth felt dry. “Joe never told you…?”

“I never told you what?” Joe piped up, having been chatting animatedly with Alex Hawkins.

“I thought that was Faith’s dad,” Gail whispered, her face flushed with embarrassment.

Joe almost laughed. “ Here ? Shit no, Gail. Haven’t I told you he’s a scumbag?”

“No, you never mentioned it,” Gail hissed.

“It’s alright, really,” Claire said, finally regaining her senses.

“She’s just so…touchy with him. And she’s not usually like that,” Gail said. “So I thought…”

“You’re right…she’s not usually like that,” Claire said thoughtfully, her gaze falling on the pair of them again. Faith was giggling her head off as Jamie dramatically poured her more tea.

“That’s ehm, Mister Jamie. From the stables,” Claire explained.

“Oh, okay. Joe has mentioned him .” Gail raised a brow.

Before Claire could reply, Lenny was demanding to be released, and Gail put him down and allowed him to lead her to the table to color with him.

“Sorry, Lady Jane. Guess I should've said something about all that,” Joe said. “You okay?”

“Yeah! Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, perhaps a bit too quickly, fiddling with her wand.

“She…is very comfortable around him,” Joe said after a brief silence. “Jamie, I mean.”

Claire looked at them again, this time her heart melted at the sight of them calmly coloring together on the same coloring page.

“Yeah…she is.”

The coloring, running, dancing, and tea drinking continued until the pizza was delivered. Every child and parent sat down at the table, all the children at one side, and the adults at the other. Faith sat at the head of the table, surveying her guests like a queen on her throne as Claire and Mrs. Lickett tag-teamed serving the pizza. Claire flitted about for a long while, making sure everyone had enough slices, making sure everyone had a drink and a plate and a napkin, until Gail yanked her down into a chair and forced her to eat.

Jamie sat closer to the children, being that nearly every single one of them worshipped him. He joked around with them, made them snort cheese and sauce, and Claire found herself ignoring the adult conversation on her end to tune into Jamie’s nonsense, laughing across the table.

Except something seemed wrong.

It didn’t hit her until perhaps about the third time that Jamie made the children laugh.

Normally, every time Claire laughed, Jamie would catch her eye, no matter how far apart they were.

He did not look at her. Not even once.

She tried to shake it off. This isn’t about you, Beauchamp. It’s Faith’s party. It’s for the children. He’s giving them his attention for Faith’s sake.

But he always looks at me. Why won’t he look at me…?

Mary pulled her out of her thoughts with a question, and Claire pushed any lingering doubts to the back of her mind in order to keep her guests entertained.

The Disney playlist played on, and when Hakuna Matata came on, Faith, having finished her pizza, got up from her chair and started dancing. Delia got up and took Faith’s hands, crying, “Dance with me , Faith! Dance with me!”

Kezzie and Jo were not far behind, getting up to join the little dance party, Kezzie keeping his hand on the speaker to feel the beat. Even Thomas joined in, bouncing his knees in one spot, his chattering ever constant.

Though Claire’s shining eyes were fixed on Faith enjoying herself, her peripheral vision immediately caught when Jamie stood up, and she looked at him, her heart stuttering. Instead of coming to sit next to her, as she’d expected he would, he shifted over a few empty seats to plant himself next to Toni, talking quietly into her ear and pointing at the kids. They shared a few laughs in their quiet conversation.

“Earth to Lady Jane.”

Claire jolted, realizing far too late that she’d been staring .

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“I said , I told you so,” he beamed. “She’s having the time of her life over there.”

Claire chuckled, the smile returning to her face. “Yeah, she is. You were right…it’s great.”

After a few songs, the little dance party puttered out and the boys started running around; their ruckus caused Faith to seek comfort in Angus, who had kept a watchful eye on his little mistress for the whole party. Before anything could get too out of hand and Faith got too upset, Claire and Mrs. Lickett ventured inside and retrieved the wooden birdhouses and the paint. 

Jamie crouched in the grass between Faith and Kezzie, complimenting their every brush stroke verbally and in sign language, and Faith was beaming the entire time. Claire flitted about, checking on everyone’s progress, dealing out a few light taps with her wand on several heads and noses, Jamie’s included.

After birdhouse painting was cookie decorating time. Claire had gotten more than enough supplies for even the adults to decorate and eat several cookies, and a grand time was had by all. Before cake, Claire FaceTimed with Gillian so that she could say a quick hello to the birthday girl. Mrs. Lickett held the phone where Gillian could see while they sang and Faith blew out the candles on her princess sheet cake.

While everyone ate cake at the main table, Claire started bringing Faith’s presents off the gift table and into the apartment, piling them around the coffee table to be opened later. When the gift table was empty, Claire ripped off the tablecloth and stuffed it in the trash bag she’d brought outside, then started to tip the folding table to close it.

“Let me help wi’ that.”

Claire almost dropped the table in shock, whirling around to see Jamie.

Why on Earth are you so spooked, you little fool?

“Oh, thank you,” Claire stammered as he took the table into his hands.

That was the first time he’d approached her from behind without a gentle hand somewhere; her shoulder, her back, her arm.

Why is that bothering you?

He wordlessly folded it up, smiling when he finished. Claire directed him to lean it against the building until they had the other tables ready to put in Joe’s car. They continued to clean up a bit in awkward silence as the verbal children chattered and the adults conversed, until once again Gail was demanding Claire sit down and have a piece of cake.

Shortly after cake, the Beardsley’s and the Hawkins’s started heading out, and Claire was granted a hug by Kezzie and Jo, and was allowed a fist bump from Thomas. Mary and Alex both gave Claire a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and her heart felt full watching them go. She was truly grateful for those two little families brought to her through the stables, for the lights that they were in her life.

Half the crowd disappearing was a good enough reason to take Angus’s vest off, so he played with the girls and Lenny while the adults finished cleaning up. Even Jamie and Toni stayed to help, despite Claire’s insistence that they needn’t do so.

After the furniture was gone and all the trash was stuffed away, the adults wandered back into the back garden. Gail told Delia to say goodbye to Faith, and Claire nearly burst into tears when Faith allowed Delia to hug her. Claire could count on one hand the amount of people that Faith allowed to hug her.

Comically, Faith completely ignored Lenny when Gail coaxed him to wave goodbye, and Claire had to stifle her laughter. Too loud for her taste, Claire supposed. She did, however, wave quite sweetly to her Aunt Gail and Uncle Joe and, on her way out, Delia looked up at Claire with those sparkling dark eyes.

“Thanks for inviting me, Aunt Claire. And thanks for the Fairy Dust.”

Claire’s smile made her eyes crinkle. “You are so welcome, sweetheart. Thank you for coming.” She knelt down in front of her and gave her a hug. “And thank you for being such a good friend to Faith.”

“You’re welcome,” she said flippantly, flashing her another cheesy smile before darting off to follow her parents to their car.

Jamie and Toni were collecting themselves as well, and Toni knelt down for one final “happy birthday” and a loving thumbs-up exchange.

“I had a great time at your tea party, Princess Faith. I’ll see you next Friday.”

Faith bashfully rubbed her face into Angus’s fur, squeezing at the loose skin on his neck.

“Happy birthday, a leannan ,” Jamie said softly. “I had the loveliest of times in yer royal court.”

Claire chuckled softly, watching silently from afar, wondering again what his little Gaelic endearment translated to, and then wondering when on Earth he’d started using it.

Jamie gave Faith a thumbs up, and to Claire’s shock — and Jamie’s as well by the look of it — Faith wrapped her hand around his thumb with a little giggle. She held him in place with the one hand, then used her free hand to stroke the back of his enormous hands, trace the patterns of his veins, twirl the thin hairs between her fingers.

Claire didn’t realize she had a lump in her throat until she tried to swallow.

And she didn’t realize that Jamie was tearing up until she heard him sniffle, and she felt her heart drop into her stomach.

Jamie closed his free hand over hers, gave a light squeeze, and said, “G’bye, wee lass,” before standing up and addressing Claire. She walked over to them and put her hand atop Faith’s head.

“Thank you for coming, both of you. It means a lot to her.”

“Of course. It was so great, Claire. You did a great job,” Toni said warmly, squeezing her shoulder, and Claire beamed.

“Aye, it was bonny.” Jamie stuffed his hands in his pockets and stared somewhere over her shoulder rather than looking her in the eye, and Claire felt a needle prick in the center of her chest again.

What is wrong with him?

“Thank you both, so much.”

Faith waved enthusiastically as Jamie and Toni disappeared around the front into Jamie’s car. Claire sighed blissfully, sinking into the grass next to Faith and attacking her with messy kisses. Faith squealed and pawed at Claire until she finally stopped, and they both dissolved into giggles.

“Did you enjoy your party, Princess Faith?” Claire crooned, squeezing her little body into her and rocking gently. “Was it a fun party, lovie? Fun?”

Claire signed fun , and Faith nodded, clumsily repeated the sign, squirming to get out of Claire’s grip.

“Alright, alright. Are you ready to open your presents, lovie?”

Faith squealed and began tugging on both of Claire’s hands, dragging her to the front of the building and up the stairs into the apartment. She squealed again at seeing the pile in the center of the living room, then clambered onto the couch and bounced in her seat, waiting not-so-patiently for Claire to start handing her presents to open.

Claire handed her box after box and bag after bag, including a present from Auntie Gi that had been shipped over. They spanned from princess barbies she didn't have yet, to new Disney t-shirts, new DVDs, several low-piece-count puzzles from Mrs. Lickett, and even a few plushies. Faith was in absolute heaven, arranging her stash in a perfectly organized, only-understood-by-Faith pile on the coffee table. She clapped and swayed, jiggling her hands wildly.

“Just one more, lovie,” Claire said. “This one is from Mister Jamie and Miss Toni!”

Claire pulled out the card first, as she’d done with the others, opening the envelope to reveal yet another princess card with a large number five on it.

“Dear Princess Faith,” Claire read dramatically, enhancing her posh British accent. “A girl with your imagination, smarts and point of view has all the courage in the world to make her dreams come true!” Claire beamed, looking up at Faith’s jovial face. Most of the cards had very similar generic messages inside, but everyone had also written their own little note at the bottom.

“So have a fun day, five year old, knowing you are you,” she finished the message that came with the card, her heart warming her whole body from the inside out. “They picked a perfect card for you, baby,” Claire said softly, more to herself than to Faith. She flicked her eyes down to the careful handwriting beneath the purple ink. “I hear you, lass. Loud and clear,” Claire read, her brow furrowing. “Love, Mister Jamie and Miss Toni.”

Claire looked over the handwriting again, realizing at once that the delicate swoops belonged to Jamie, and not Toni, based on the word choice.

“Alright, here you go. Open it up.” Claire handed her the bag and watched her tear out the tissue paper, finally getting to a purple cotton t-shirt.

“Is it another shirt, darling? Let Mummy see,” Claire crooned, and Faith turned it around, smiling lazily.

Claire’s heart leapt into her throat, and her mouth went dry as her eyes ran over the white lettering on the front of the shirt:

Just because I don’t speak, doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to say.

Woven through the letters was the rainbow puzzle piece ribbon.

I hear you, lass. Loud and clear.

Claire swallowed thickly against a rush of tears.

Jamie picked it. I helped, but it was his idea.

“He hears you, baby…” Claire murmured, a single tear trickling down her cheek as she ran her fingers over the lettering. “Just like I do.”

Chapter Text

Much to Claire’s frustration, June continued in the same manner as Faith’s party had, as far as Jamie was concerned.

At the stables, Jamie was perfect with Faith, as he always was. He gave her all of his attention every second.

All of it.

Even those moments that Claire had come to cherish — moments that happened while Erica held the reins with Faith and Jamie hung back to stroll with Claire — were gone. He always seemed to have something to talk to Erica about, something to correct or praise Faith with.

And Claire drifted behind like a useless fool.

You’re mad, Beauchamp. He’s doing his job. He doesn’t take leisurely strolls with the other moms.

She glanced down at Faith, wearing the purple t-shirt that he had given her, staring up at Mister Jamie like he was a god among men.

I’m not like the other moms.

The month dragged on; Faith was making progress with Pippi, with Angus, and with Mrs. Lickett. She and Claire were now regularly exchanging I love you’s, which Claire didn’t think would ever cease to make her tear up. Every morning, before Claire left for work, they would give each other the sign, touching each of the raised fingers together like their own little handshake.

Every single one was precious to her.

The Saturday before the Fourth of July, the stables were having another holiday event like they had at Easter, a barbecue with water activities. Claire had given Faith the rundown to prepare her, as she always did, but Faith seemed more excited than anything else.

That place is her home, and she knows it.

When the day of the barbecue rolled around, Claire was almost as excited as her daughter. The Abernathy’s had invited them to a barbecue in their own backyard on the actual holiday, but Claire was scheduled to work that day and had had to turn them down. This day at the stables was to be Claire’s first taste of the most American holiday she had experienced yet. It was silly, really, how excited she was. She’d even purchased some red, white, and blue garb from Target, and then second-guessed herself, wondering if she’d just be making it painfully obvious that she wasn’t really American by wearing such things.

Apparently, she would fit right in.

Everyone at the stables was fully decked out for the occasion, and it delighted Claire to the marrow of her bones that she had predicted exactly how American the entire affair would be. She received no shortage of teasing for being English on Independence Day, one dad even emptying his cup of iced-tea in front of her in some attempt at a joke. His wife was mortified, but Claire was tickled pink.

Faith hummed, bounced, and stimmed without restraint. There was an oscillating sprinkler running in the middle of the open field, and kids were running through the wall of water in their clothes. Faith seemed eager to do just that and, though Claire wasn’t too keen on letting her wet her clothes, she couldn’t say no when she was so excited. Luckily for Angus, Claire untethered him, pretty sure that he would not appreciate being dragged through running water repeatedly. Claire watched her play, holding tightly to Erica’s hand, and she was in Heaven.

Well, aside from the fact that Jamie’s only greeting had been a curt wave from across the field.

You’re not bloody special, Beauchamp. He’s working right now.

There were a few organized games, including a water balloon toss. Thomas ended up “losing” fairly quickly because, instead of tossing the balloon, he smashed it on his father’s head with a savage roar that sent Faith’s hands flying to her ears. Claire couldn’t stop the sputtering laugh that erupted from her.

Additionally, there was a dunk tank that the therapists and volunteers took turns sitting in. After the water balloon toss concluded, the rotation of dunk-ees continued, and Claire watched with amusement as Jo and Kezzie worked tirelessly to dunk Miss Jessica.

Then, the smell of barbecue filled Claire’s nose, and her mouth began watering.

“Smells good, doesn’t it?” Mary said.

“It really does,” Claire said, astonished. “If you’d have told me a year ago I’d be drooling over American barbecue on the Fourth of July, I’d never have believed you.”

Mary giggled. “Well, they do it really well here. You’ll love it. So will your little foodie.”

Claire smiled down at Faith, and then snapped her head up at the sound of the dunk tank seat collapsing and dumping Miss Jessica into the water. Claire was glad she’d put Faith’s headphones on after the incident with Thomas’s yelling, because the dunk tank and the subsequent victory cheers were quite loud.

“Oo, Claire!” Mary squealed, shoving her shoulder. “Look who’s getting in!”

Claire watched as Toni and a now-soaking-wet Jessica yanked Jamie toward the dunk tank. She felt a surge of what she could only describe as a shameful thrill.

“You have to do it,” Mary said, shoving her again.

“Me?” Claire exclaimed. “I couldn’t.”

Mary giggled. “Oh, you could.”

Claire, Faith, and Angus shuffled closer to the dunk tank in response to Mary’s shoving and suddenly a ball was thrust into her hand. Claire looked up to see it was Toni who had put it there. She handed a second ball to Faith and began showing her how to throw, moving her headphones aside so she could hear.

“Watch Mommy try!” Toni said, and Claire blanched. She looked up through the clear plastic to see Jamie smirking at her, sitting in the little seat with his hands folded in his lap like a giant child. She blinked in shock a bit, unaccustomed to seeing that playfulness that had been missing between them for over a month.

She felt a rush of heat, blamed it on the July weather, and gave him a wicked grin.

“Watch Mummy, Faith,” Claire said, and after Toni put the headphones back in place, Claire hurled the ball at the target, missing by a long shot. Claire looked up to see Jamie looking far too amused for her liking, and she crouched down to encourage Faith to go. She very clumsily threw the ball directly into the ground, but Toni and Claire signed applause for her anyway, and she giggled and smiled, blissfully unaware.

Mother and daughter went back and forth for a few more turns, and just when Claire was about to give up and hand the balls off to someone else, she gave one final hurl, directly into the target.

She watched with wicked delight as the seat deposited Jamie into the tank. He could easily have avoided going under, being that he was far taller than the tank, but he hadn’t seemed to be expecting that Claire would actually get him.

Serves him right , she thought haughtily.

He dragged himself out of the tank, and Faith was laughing her little head off. Like mother, like daughter, Claire supposed. Jamie shook his head, releasing a spray of water from his ruddy curls, not unlike Angus after a bath. He was laughing heartily, and he ran fingers through the soaking red mop, then he turned around to find the guilty party.

Claire’s temperature instantly rose about five degrees.

The previously loose, grey t-shirt with an American flag on the chest was now clinging to him, leaving nothing to the imagination. His eyes were smiling, and his mouth was quirked in that ridiculous crooked grin.

“Well done, Sassenach!” he called, shaking his hands off and laughing again.

“Well done, indeed,” Fanny whispered in her ear conspiratorially, nudging Claire’s back.

Claire felt herself flush red from head to toe, her tongue darting out to lick her lips, ogling at him like he was on display at a wet t-shirt competition.

“Are you alive, Claire?” Mary teased, snapping her out of it.

Just when she thought she was going to die of shame, she heard a loud thud, which pulled her attention away from Mary. Her eyes widened to see that Jamie had slipped in the grass and fallen on his face. Panic seized her heart, and she frantically handed Angus’s leash over to Mary, who stood by, bewildered.

You stupid fool. The man’s gone and hurt himself because you had to go and get him wet so you could feast your shameful eyes.

“Jamie?” Claire said, kneeling beside him. “Are you alright?”

He was still laughing, the bloody man.

“I’m fine, Sassenach,” he said, waving her off.

“Your chin, it’s bleeding,” Claire said.

“Ah, would ye look at that,” he said sheepishly, sitting up on his knees.

His chin is literally bleeding, Beauchamp. Eyes off the wet shirt. Eyes off the wet shirt…

Before she could get a hold of herself, Toni was holding a napkin out to Jamie that she’d retrieved from the snack table, and he pressed it into the cut on his chin.

“Is there a first aid kit in the welcome center?” Claire asked, standing up to address Toni.

“Yeah, behind the counter.”

“I’ll take care of it. I’m a doctor, after all. And besides,” She bent down to help him up. “This is my fault.”

“Dinna fash yerself, lass. It’ll stop soon enough. I dinna need — ”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You were just face-down in the dirt. It needs to be properly cleaned.”

“I think I can — ”

“No objections, thank you,” she interjected, making her way toward the building, expecting him to follow. “Mary, is she alright with you?” Claire turned, and Mary nodded. Before continuing, she shot Jamie a dangerous look and watched as his resolve crumbled right before her eyes. Victorious, she continued her march to the welcome center, knowing full well that he was following her this time.

When they arrived, Jamie crouched down behind the counter, emerging with a small first aid kit. “Here we are.”

Claire snatched it from him and began digging inside. “Are you dizzy at all? Do you taste blood?”

“I’m fine, Sassenach. It’s just a wee scratch.”

“That napkin is soaked with blood, Jamie. Fine isn’t the word I’d use.” She pulled gloves on and ripped open an alcohol wipe. “Pull the bin over.”

She realized she was being awfully demanding over a small cut, but her pent up anger was pouring out of her before she could stop it. He had some damn nerve to avoid her for over a month and then act like it hadn’t happened at all. Stiffening a bit, he obeyed, pulling the bin beneath them, and Claire discarded the wrapper.

“Throw out that napkin, I’m going to clean the wound.”

Wound, she says.” Jamie rolled his eyes with a crooked smirk.

Claire didn’t entertain that, keeping her lips shut tight as she swiped the alcohol wipe over the cut. “Something like this could need stitches, or could easily get infected.” Satisfied that it was properly disinfected, she stuffed clean gauze onto his chin.

“Go into the bathroom, clean your face, wash your hands. Take more gauze with you.” She thrusted the gauze at him, and he laughed.

He bloody laughed at me.

She watched him go, shaking his head and still chuckling, and it made her bloody furious .

And she couldn’t put her finger on why .

When he emerged from the bathroom, he was clean of blood, and without any gauze.

“Where’s the gauze?” she fired.

“The bin. It already stopped bleeding.” He shrugged, putting his hands in those damn pockets.

“Are you sure?” She strode right up to him, tilting his chin up with a gloved hand, examining the cut.

“Aye, I’m sure! Christ, Sassenach, what’s gotten into ye?”

“Nothing’s gotten into me . I think I’m allowed to be concerned for your well being.” She removed her gloves and threw them in the bin. “Especially when you’re not taking it seriously.”

“My well being is quite intact. No need to get yerself worked up.”

“I’m not…” She took a deep breath, crossing her arms. “I’m not worked up.” Her voice softened considerably, and she had to physically force her eyes to remain on his face and not on the muscles that were painfully visible through his soaked shirt.

Not worked up, indeed, Beauchamp.

“Are ye sure ye’re alright?” Jamie said, softening his voice as she did. “Ye seem out of sorts today.”

“Me?” Claire said, immediately forgetting her previous claims, becoming defensive right away. “You’ve been out of sorts for a whole month now!”

“Have I, now?” he said cautiously, eyes narrowing. “How d’ye mean?”

“Well, you…” She felt her face flushing red. She couldn’t very well say that she noticed that he hadn’t been touching her as often as he used to. She wasn’t supposed to notice he was touching her in the first place.

“Faith’s birthday party,” she said quickly. “You hardly looked at me. I don’t think you looked me in the eye once.”

“Should I be keeping tallies of our eye-contact, then?” he said with the slightest glimmer of a familiar lopsided grin.

“Stop that!”

“What?”

“Deflecting with humor!”

“Deflecting…” He shook his head, seemingly in disbelief. “I dinna wish to continue this conversation,” Jamie said, his voice tight, but still light-hearted.

“Why? There is obviously something wrong, and you refuse to talk about it!” He stopped immediately, halfway turned to the door, apparently frozen by her words. “Jamie, talk to me.” She took several deliberate steps toward him. “We’ve told each other…just about everything, haven’t we?” Her voice and her gaze softened, and she let her hands drop from her hips. “I can’t help but feel like there’s something bothering you that you’re not telling me.”

He sighed heavily, and it was like watching a giant balloon slowly deflate. 

“Is it Jenny?” Panic suddenly seized her heart, and she admonished herself for being so selfish. “Is something wrong?”

“No, Sassenach. Jen’s alright. So are the bairns, Ian, Da. Everything is fine.” He still remained halfway turned away from her.

She sighed with relief, self-consciously crossing her arms over her chest. “Okay. So it’s something else?”

He finally turned to fully face her again, though he still wouldn't look her in the eye. “I…I canna tell ye, Claire.”

Claire rapidly blinked back her shock, recoiling slightly. “Can’t tell me? Me? Jamie, I’ve told you things that I never said out loud before. Not even to Gillian, not the details at least. How can you think there’s anything you can’t tell me?”

He shook his head, and he looked very much like he wanted to run away, but he remained rooted in place. “I’m sorry, Claire.”

His muscles seemed to be trembling beneath the clinging, soaking material. Claire had never been so flustered and so close to tears in her life.

“Christ, Jamie…you’re the closest friend I have right now. It’s…it’s bothering the hell out of me that you don’t feel like you can talk — ”

“Friend?” He cut her off, his eyes flicking around as if watching a fly on the counter, but he still would not look at her. Her pulse quickened for reasons unknown to her, and she involuntarily dug her nails into her arms.

“Yes, Jamie! My friend!” she stated flatly, nodding her head for emphasis.

He finally looked at her, holding her gaze, his eyes a shade of blue she’d never seen before. She’d previously thought of them as oceans, as reflections of the sky, but at this moment, they looked like the center of a flame, like burning electricity. She dug her nails further into her skin, and her breath hitched in her throat.

He abruptly turned, striding immediately toward the door.

“Jamie!” She took wide strides to keep up with him, grabbing him by his cold, wet shoulder. “Jamie, stop! You can’t just — ”

Before she could blink, there was a blur of motion and colors, there were hands on either side of her face, and something hot and wet on her mouth.

Lips. His lips .

Her eyes popped wide open, every muscle in her body contracting, turning to solid rock as his forward motion thrust her back into the counter.

What was he doing? What was he doing ?

He’s kissing you, you bloody idiot.

What are you doing?

Her hand was still resting uselessly on his shoulder. She squeezed experimentally, letting her eyes slip closed, letting her body relax as much as she could.

He moved his mouth, presumably in response to her grip on his shoulder, devouring her lips like a man starved, his grip on her face feeling bruising.

Holy fucking shit.

Without even thinking, she responded, moving with him as if in a choreographed dance. She felt herself go flush against him, felt his muscles solidifying against every inch of her body, felt his clothing making her own clothing just as wet as his. It was cold, and hot, and soft, and sturdy all at once.

Her body was on fire, inside and out. She couldn’t think straight. The world was tipping on its side, and she was sliding off the edge, with nothing but Jamie to cling to for balance. Against her own will, and against every ounce of better judgement, she pulled his bottom lip into her mouth, suckling and stroking it with her tongue. He gasped against her mouth and his teeth grazed her upper lip. Claire felt the beginnings of a wanton moan bubbling in the back of her throat —

And then it stopped as abruptly as it had begun. She suddenly stopped feeling his lips, stopped feeling his body against her. He’d pushed her away a few inches, still maintaining his grip on her face. When she opened her eyes, he was just staring at her, in shock, in horror. His eyes were wide, his entire face and neck were burning bright red, his enormous hands trembling like mad.

“Christ. I’m sorry.” Jamie jumped a foot away as if scalded. “I’m so sorry. That was…I’m sorry.”

Oh my God.

Claire’s mind was working overtime, and it was especially difficult to think because she couldn’t fucking breathe .

All this time… all this time .

She’d known; of course she’d known. But he never asked anything of her, never implied that he wanted anything like this . She thought when he’d started keeping his distance it had gone away, the little crush that he’d had on her…

Little crush .

The passion he just poured into her was anything but little.

And God, she’d drunk it in like a greedy beast.

All this time .

He’d been keeping her at arm’s length, keeping his mouth shut. Because if he got any closer, if he broke the seal, he’d explode.

Like that .

He’d kept a lid on it all this time, and just now, Claire had thoughtlessly tossed the lid aside, forcing him to confront something that he’d tried to keep locked away.

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ…I’ve been so fucking blind .

Whatever… this was…it was far more intense than Claire had ever anticipated.

And she’d kissed him back.

"Claire?" His brow furrowed as he stepped forward to grasp her shoulders. "Ye're trembling, lass…”

She could only manage to open her lips and emit sputtering breaths, unable to tear her eyes off of his panicked face.

“I’m…I’m sorry, Claire…” He immediately removed his hands from her, running fingers through his wet hair and averting his gaze. “I shouldnae done that. I’m so sorry…can ye forgive me?”

Forgive you…?

The only thing Claire could think of was how her body ached at the loss of contact.

Exhaling heavily to embolden herself, she closed the small distance he’d made, grabbed his face, and pressed her lips to his.

She could feel his shock, feel every muscle tense, his lips frozen solid beneath hers, until his mind caught up to his body. He simply melted beneath her, pulling her lower lip between both of his with the gentlest care. She whimpered involuntarily as his hands snaked around her waist, and rested on her back, pulling her impossibly closer. It was as if they were carved from the same stone, by the same hands, two halves of sculpted perfection, finally joining together and fitting sublimely.

She hadn’t realized they weren’t moving at all, both still frozen in shock and unsure how to proceed, until she felt him give a small tug on her lip, and she whimpered again.

God in Heaven…

She released his lips only to breathe for the briefest of moments, and then sealed her mouth to his again, this time deepening the kiss, threading fingers through his hair, moving her lips over his, and over, and over…

His hands were everywhere; every inch of her back, her hair, her shoulders, her arse, God, when he touched her arse…

She felt an unmistakable hardness pressing into her hip bone, and it sent liquid heat shooting to every inch of her body. Her tongue demanded entrance into his mouth, and he groaned loudly, causing her to whimper again. He tasted musky, simply fucking delicious as she lapped at every inch of the inside of his mouth.

She didn’t notice the wetness on her cheeks until his hands were there, gently prying her face away from his.

He looked into her eyes, with all the smoldering tenderness in the world, concern written over every feature. They were both panting, heaving, and Claire was trembling head to toe. He softly swiped at the tears on her cheeks with his thumbs, and the tenderness of it sent fresh ones trickling down.

Her heart was beating so hard she thought it might leave bruises inside her chest. She thought she might faint from lack of oxygen.

“Are ye alright, mo ghraidh ?”

Despite the cold wetness on her clothes from where they had pressed against his body, she was still glowing with heat from head to toe. She never broke eye contact with him as she nodded slowly.

“Could ye…maybe say something…?” he panted, one corner of his mouth quirking up sheepishly. “Ye’re uh, scarin’ me a bit.” He chuckled breathily, his thumbs making small circles on the apple of her cheeks.

“I…” Her voice was hoarse and cracked. She cleared her throat, averting her gaze only for a moment before realizing that he was not about to let her out of this one; she was going to need to speak. She could feel his burning stare no matter where she looked; she’d feel it even a hundred yards away.

“I’m just…” She forced herself to look back into his eyes, and she felt herself melting, wanting to forgo words and swallow him whole again. “Shocked…I think.”

His eyes twinkled, his mouth breaking into a grin. “Ye didna…ye didn’t know, Sassenach…?”

She tried to laugh, but it only came out as a shuddery gasp. “I think I must have…but I…I didn’t…”

Words were lost as their lips met again, and Claire could not say if it was she who initiated or Jamie. It was much less urgent, but no less passionate. Something colorful bloomed in her heart, and its vines wrapped themselves around each of her ribs, taking root.

Impossible to get rid of.

His hands stayed cupping her cheeks, like he was holding rose petals that would dissolve if he held them too tightly, and her hands stayed planted on his chest. They parted again, and despite this kiss lacking in fervor, they were both equally as breathless as they were from the last one.

Still caressing, their foreheads rested together, and they were breathing each other’s air.

“When…?” Claire whispered, his face blurring in her vision from how close he was.

She didn’t elaborate; she didn’t need to.

When did you know you cared for me?

He chuckled through his nose, and the warm air spread over her face like a summer breeze.

“The first time I heard ye laugh, I heard angels ringing bells.” He moved his hands to her shoulders, nuzzling her face with his nose until his lips were on the tip of hers, and he left a gentle kiss. “I should have known then, I suppose, and maybe I did. But the moment I was really knocked over wi’ it was when ye sent me that video of you and Faith.”

“Look, baby. I love you.”

Claire was hit with a second bombshell that day, this one perhaps leaving more in its wake than the first. He hadn’t actually answered her question, not really. The question he’d answered went more like:

When did you know you loved me…?

When did you know you loved us ?

“Claire…ye must know…everything I’ve ever done fer Faith…it wasna just to get in yer good graces. I swear it.” He tightened his grip on her shoulders. “She’s…she’s precious to me, Claire. She is…a gift. A light in my life that I cherish, so dearly.”

Claire let out a tiny sob, more tears trickling down as she pressed her lips to his again, unable to express any other way what he was doing to her. It was another sweet, brief kiss, but Claire poured every ounce of affection into it that she was capable of.

“I know, Jamie,” she said finally, looking into his eyes. “I know.”

He sighed with what seemed like relief, the smile that followed dazzling her more than the sun itself ever had. He inhaled sharply as he kissed her again, only slightly more urgent than the two before.

“Christ, Claire…to hold ye like this…” He trailed his fingers up her neck, threading them into her hair, stroking the wild curls, twirling them gently. “It’s more than I ever dreamed…”

She laughed nervously, her fingers trembling on his chest.

So he’s dreamed of this…?

Jamie was devoted to her, and more than devoted to her child. He was all in. 

But was she?

Could she thaw the walls of ice that she’d sculpted around her fragile heart after Frank? Could she make room for someone else besides Faith? Could she let someone into the life that she had been perfecting for months, for herself and her daughter alone…?

Looking into those eyes, her knee-jerk reaction was: God, yes .

But the more she allowed herself to really think

Christ, she wanted to vomit.

“What happens now…?” she said instead, desperately willing her trembling fingers to calm themselves.

He hesitated. “Well…nothing, if that’s what ye wish.” Her stomach lurched at that, and she involuntarily fisted his shirt in her hands. “I’m no’ asking anything of ye that ye’re no’ ready for, Claire. Please know that.”

“How can we ever be the same…now?”

“Suppose we canna. But I’ll…I’ll do my best. If that’s what ye want.” He nodded then, a solemn vow to honor her decision.

No ultimatums, no demands, no guilt.

She could still walk away.

The word nothing echoed in her head on an endless loop, making her more and more sick to her stomach.

Could she thaw? Could she make room? Could she let someone in…?

She raked her eyes over his face, his dear, sweet face.

And it hit her.

Yes, she’d been carving this new life for her and her daughter all these months, forging a new path. But she’d been making room for Jamie beside them all along.

He was part of the perfection she’d been creating all this time.

For the first time in months, her heart felt weightless.

“I don’t want…nothing,” she said nervously, looking into his eyes.

She watched the tension melt from his face, watched as his pupils dilated again, as the straining muscles beneath her palms softened once more. Once again in relief, he kissed her soundly, and Claire felt something that she was loath to describe as butterflies , but there was no other word for it.

“So ye’ll…” Now he was trembling. “Ye’ll allow me to court ye then, Sassenach?”

Laughter bubbled up from her chest and escaped in clumsy spurts. “What century are you living in, Sir Jamie?”

He chuckled, averting his gaze shyly. “What would ye have me call it then, My Lady?”

Her face broke out into a grin. “Dating should suffice, I think.”

“Ah,” he said lightly, grinning crookedly. He allowed them to separate a bit, and he gracefully took one of his hands in both of hers. “Will the lady allow me the pleasure of dating her, then?”

She almost wished she hadn’t teased him; the new word sounded so unfitting in his classically tinged lilt. He reverently pressed his lips to her knuckles, never breaking eye contact.

Claire prepared herself for panic, terror, the urge to run, perhaps vomit rushing up her esophagus.

But the only thing she felt when she calmly held his gaze, allowing a tiny smile, was an overwhelming sense of relief.

“Indeed she will.”

Chapter Text

Claire was sitting on the counter in the office, her legs spread around Jamie's wide torso, her face buried in his curls as his cheek was pressed in the crook of her neck. She was gently caressing his head, her fingers twirling around the wet strands, and he reverently breathed her in, holding her around the middle as if his life depended on it.

I kissed her. And she didna run.

Not only did she not run, she kissed him back . And touched him, and pressed her beautiful body against his, wept in his arms with joy...

Christ, how did he get so lucky...?

She exhaled heavily, the breath tickling the crown of his head, warming him from head to toe.

"I don't want to go back out there,” she whispered.

“Neither do I.” He wound his arms more tightly around her waist, placing a gentle kiss on the nape of her neck, and he felt her shiver against him. “No’ ready to share ye again jest yet.”

She chuckled softly. “As gallant as that is…that isn’t what I meant. Not entirely anyway.”

“What, then?” He absently traced his fingers across her collarbones, beautiful, delicate ridges that they were. Ever since he first laid eyes on them, when the weather turned and she wore something that revealed them, he thought they belonged on a canvas.

“They’re relentless .”

Jamie’s brow furrowed for a moment, and then he bit his lip to stifle a laugh.

“Toni.”

Claire’s laugh brushed his curls. “Yes, but it’s not just her.”

“No?”

“Mary practically shoved me in front of the dunk tank just now,” she said, her voice sounding embarrassed. “And Fanny’s been pulling my leg to no end. I’m pretty sure they all…know.”

“Know what?”

Claire unthreaded her fingers from his hair to cup his cheeks, pushing him away so they were eye to eye. She raised a brow at him, and gave him a look that was just asking for her to be kissed, which he was more than happy to oblige.

“I think the entire stable community has been trying to make this happen for months . And if you didn’t notice you may be just as blind as I’ve been,” Claire said, and Jamie chuckled into a second kiss that he could not resist.

“Aye,” he said finally. “I’ve noticed.”

“Should we do one of those high school things where you go first, and then I wait five minutes before following?”

She smirked at him, but Jamie felt panic tear through his chest. He had misunderstood her, then. She wasn’t ready after all. He had overstepped, he —

“Jamie,” she interrupted with her lilting voice and gentle fingertips on his temple. “I can see the gears turning. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Ye dinna wish tae…keep it secret, then?”

“No.” She shook her head and kissed him soundly. “I don’t think I could if I tried.”

He sighed with relief, clasping his hands at the small of her back.

“I don’t think I could hide an entire boyfriend from my daughter for very long. She’s quite perceptive.”

Christ, she said it.

His body could not catch up to his brain just yet, and he could not formulate a response quickly enough.

“That…is what this is…isn’t it?” He felt her tense beneath his hands as she spoke. “You’re my…and I’m your…?”

“Aye, Sassenach,” he confirmed, capturing her lips between his again. “Ye’re my lass.”

She sighed with contentment against his mouth, a heavenly, strangely erotic sound, as she squeezed his face between her small hands.

“That doesn't terrify me the way I thought it would,” she whispered, resting her forehead against his.

“Glad to hear it.”

He nuzzled his nose against hers, and all at once, he knew Da was right.

When he’d met the right woman, he would know.

He’d doubted him all these months, but Christ, he was a fool to doubt it even a second.

“What does it mean for Faith?” she said, pulling him out of his thoughts. “I mean, I know how much you care about her, and I know she loves you...”

Those words made his vision go momentarily black.

“But you’re…well, her therapist. Not a real therapist, but it’s…well…” She sighed, frustrated with herself, and he found it incredibly endearing. “It’s like if I started dating Mrs. Lickett.”

He burst out laughing at that, and she joined him, both of them tossing their heads back before being pulled back to one another like the gravitational pull of celestial bodies.

“That sounded sillier than I thought it would,” Claire said, rolling her eyes at herself.

“Nah, I ken what ye mean,” he said, still breathing through laughter. “I’m like her teacher.”

“I can’t replace Mrs. Lickett, not now that she trusts her so much, and they’ve made such progress,” Claire said. “And I can’t replace you. She needs you, and if she suddenly had a different therapist she’d be confused, and hurt. It’s…one of the reasons I…I fought against this so hard.”

“Aye.” He nodded. “Me too.”

“So it’s…I don’t know. If you’re going to…be part of our lives like this, I don’t want to confuse her, but I don’t want her to be hurt if we draw professional boundaries, if that’s even the right thing to do…”

“Ye’re spiraling, mo ghraidh ,” Jamie interrupted, brushing some frazzled curls off of her forehead. “These are all things we need tae discuss. I ken that. But dinna let it ruin…this. Let yourself relax fer now. It’s alright.”

She sighed, rolling her eyes again. “I’m a worrier. You know that by now.”

“Aye, I do.”

She looked into his eyes for a moment as if carefully studying him.

“What does it mean?” she asked. “The…Gaelic?”

Jamie felt his heart leap into his throat, and he swallowed thickly as his breath stuttered in his chest.

“It’s…it’s nothing, really,” he lied. “Just something ye’d say to a girlfriend.”

He knew she wasn’t ready for the L word yet. And there was no need to scare her.

“I want to know.”

Christ .

“I’ll tell ye someday. How’s that?”

She eyed him skeptically, so he kissed her to distract her.

“Alright.”

“Think of it this way,” Jamie said, smirking. “Toni’s been waiting fer this fer months, as ye said. I’m sure she’s already thought of how to handle the horse therapy situation, stewed over it, in fact.”

She giggled. “You’re probably right. We can talk to her…eventually.”

“Aye, eventually.”

Then she groaned, letting her head drop like a rock onto his shoulder.

“We do still have to go out there sometime today. Or else they’ll think that something is really happening in here.”

Jamie nearly lost his damned head at the mere insinuation of that .

“What’ll we tell ’em, then?” He lifted her by the waist and deposited her on the floor in front of him.

“I don’t think I’ll need to say much with my entire front as soaked as you.” She blushed fiercely, and he was nearly overcome with the desire to kiss every inch of her skin as it bloomed red like a rose.

“We’ll just…tell the truth. If asked.”

“Right.” Claire nodded, her effort to quell her embarrassment visible. “We…spoke. And have decided to date.”

“Aye. Right.”

“Okay.” She nodded her head as if determined to set off, but remained rooted in place.

“It’ll be alright. I’ve got ye.” He pressed his lips into her knuckles and laced their fingers together. “No’ that we should march out like this, mind, but…I’ve got ye. Ye ken?”

She nodded, her eyes brewing with unspoken emotion.

He held firmly onto her hand until the crowd on the field came into view again, and he gave her one final squeeze before releasing her. Toni was leading a hula-hoop dance party, only a small handful of kids actually managing to keep them going the traditional way. Faith, to her credit, was holding it around both herself and Angus, walking them both in circles. Jamie’s face broke into an even wider grin, if it were possible. He heard the sweet ringing of bells beside him, and turned to see Claire tossing her head back with laughter.

Beautiful.

Faith looked up from her task to see them coming and immediately began tugging on the tether. Erica was holding onto the leash; apparently Mary had handed her off since they’d been gone so long.

Jamie held back as Claire ran the rest of the way to Faith, babbling excitedly about how marvelous she was doing with the hula-hoop. Faith hummed loudly and thrust the hoop up at her mother, and she blushed fiercely.

“Oh, God, I’m no good at this sort of thing,” she said bashfully. “Here.”

Instead, she lowered it down around Faith and Angus and began running circles around them. Erica released the leash and stood a safe distance away. Faith threw her hands in the air and giggled like mad, and Jamie laughed out loud.

“What a braw hula-hooper we’ve got on our hands!”

Erica was holding onto the headphones, Faith having apparently decided she did not want them at the moment. Faith roughly seized the hoop while Claire was still running, causing Claire to yank back and stop short, nearly toppling over. Faith gave another tug to free it from Claire’s grip, and then she was thrusting the hoop up toward Jamie.

Jamie’s stomach flipped, and his grin became all the more lopsided. He flicked his eyes up to Claire, who was positively beaming at him. His eyes asked permission, and hers granted it tenfold.

He closed the space left between them and took the hoop from the wee lass, then began repeating Claire’s circles around her. It was making him dizzy as all get-out, but Christ, he didn’t give a damn. Faith was standing there, grinning ear to ear, making identically beautiful sounds of joy as her mother, and he’d never been happier in all his life.

It wasn’t long before Jamie and Claire were holding opposite ends of the hoop, Jamie’s hands closed over hers, tag-teaming their ridiculous tornado around Faith.

Scratch that… now I’ve never been happier in all my life.

He could feel the eyes on him, on them , as plainly as he felt the growing nausea from the spinning.

Let them look. Let them see how god damned lucky I am.

They ran madly on until Jamie was dangerously close to losing the contents of his stomach, and he slowed them to a stop before dramatically throwing himself into the grass on his back.

“Ye’ve tuckered me out, lass,” he sighed, feeling Claire plop down on her bottom beside him, leash in hand.

“Just in time. I do believe the food is ready.”

Jamie groaned in protest. “I think I need to settle my wame a bit longer, if ye ken my meaning.”

She chuckled softly. “I don’t blame you. We all have our weaknesses, even enormous Highland warriors.”

She was smirking down at him, and he had to physically restrain himself from craning his neck and kissing her in front of the entire damn party.

“Go on,” he said after a moment. “Get the bairn some food, spend some time wi’ yer friends.”

“You’re sure?”

“Aye. I’ll find ye again later.” He made some attempt at a wink that must not have been completely successful given the small giggle she let out.

Claire took Faith over to eat while Jamie recovered in the grass. He made to rejoin civilization again after most everyone was seated, but did not get by without Toni swooping in to help him up and hound him with questions.

“She’s damp , James. Like she was pressed against — ”

“If ye’d like tae say ‘I told ye so,’ skip the build-up, if ye dinna mind.”

She had to cover her mouth to stifle the ridiculous noises she started making.

As Jamie made his way over to the picnic tables, he saw little Mary Hawkins saddled right up next to Claire, whispering conspiratorially into her ear as Claire dropped hand sanitizer onto Faith’s hands, and then her own. The lass was red in the face again as she whispered something back to Mary, and the mousy wee thing covered her mouth with both hands, not at all unlike what Toni had just done.

He saw, and heard, Claire shh her before turning her attention to her food, but he noticed that she couldn’t stop herself from smiling.

Beautiful.

Jamie sat with the Beardsley twins and Connor at a different table, unable to stop himself from stealing glances at his lass across the way. Mary caught them a few times and nudged Claire, prompting a rather violent shove back from his fiery sassenach.

Jamie managed to keep his distance for the hour and a half before dessert, occupying himself with helping a few kids with throwing at the dunk tank (successfully submerging Toni in the process), and assisting with a few more wee games and activities. He didn’t want to crowd Claire in this setting, didn’t want her to be forced to provide explanations for his behavior.

But he didn’t bother stopping himself from staring anymore.

He let them sit alone with friends again for dessert, and then had to disappear to set up for the “noiseless fireworks.”

One of the families owned a giant projector screen that they allowed the stables to use every year to project vibrant, high-definition, and most importantly, silent fireworks onto. It was a highlight of the yearly event. These parents avoided gatherings of this sort like the plague, knowing that their children hated the sound. This granted them a semblance of normalcy to the holiday, while keeping the children safe and happy.

He couldn’t wait to see Faith’s reaction.

Set-up complete, he’d planned on keeping his distance again, on letting Claire settle in with her group, not planning on bothering her until he could get her alone again. He was surprised, then, to feel a hand on his shoulder as he and Toni fiddled with the projector. He whirled around, and he felt his entire body melt to take in the sight of her, Faith and Angus at her side.

“Hi,” she said sheepishly.

Christ, as much as he admired her sharp wit and her fiery temper, it was setting him aflame to see her so bashful.

“Hi,” he returned, feeling his lips quirk up and his pupils dilate as they settled on her.

“Are you…well, do you…want to watch the fireworks with us?”

She peered up at him through her lashes, chewing on her bottom lip. He once again battled with his baser instincts to take that lip between his and soothe it.

“Nothing would give me greater pleasure, Sassenach.”

She sighed, almost in relief, her teeth flashing in a smile rather than with a nervous habit.

“Just let me — ”

“I got it,” Toni said quickly, waving him away. “Go find a spot. It’s almost done anyway.”

“Are ye sure?”

“Yeah, yeah, get out of here ya crazy kids.” Toni winked at them, then made a silly face down at Faith.

Jamie cleared his throat. “Shall we?”

They wandered closer to the giant screen, zig-zagging their way between families that had already settled in.

“Here okay?” Claire said, stopping.

“Aye. Jest fine.”

“Okay, baby, time to sit.” Claire plopped down into the grass and pulled Faith into her lap. She commanded Angus to lie down, and the poor, tired boy was more than happy to oblige. “We’re going to see a very pretty firework show, lovie. How’s that sound?”

Jamie felt dizzy all over again as he settled in beside them, watching Claire whisper into Faith’s temple and rock her gently.

“And,” Claire went on, looking into Jamie’s eyes across the top of Faith’s head. “Jamie is going to sit with us. Isn’t that nice?”

Jamie. Not Mister Jamie. Just Jamie.

Faith hummed and jiggled her hands.

“Do you like it that he’s sitting with us?” she crooned, continuing to rock her. “Do you like it? Yes?” Claire chuckled and kissed the top of Faith’s head.

“She does like having you around,” she said.

“Nothing could make me happier than knowing that to be true.”

And he meant it with all his heart.

The sun finally finished setting, and darkness quickly fell over the field.

“Can I…” Jamie cleared his throat and swallowed. “May I touch ye, Claire?”

She picked her head up, having been resting her chin on Faith’s head. She looked into his eyes and nodded, and Jamie scooted closer. He draped his arm around her shoulders and she leaned into him. After a bit of awkward scooting and a few giggles, they settled into a position: Jamie with his feet planted in the grass, knees pointing upward, Claire between his legs leaning against his broad chest like it was a lawn chair, Faith snuggled in Claire’s lap, and Angus stretched out in front of them.

Jamie pressed a kiss to the top of her head, inhaling lemongrass and sweat and sprinkler water.

Mo nighean donn ,” he murmured, nuzzling her curls with his nose.

“Will you tell me what that means?”

He chuckled, chest rumbling against her back. “My brown-haired lass.”

He heard her exhale shakily, and she snuggled closer into him, humming with contentment.

The projector turned on, and a few quiet gasps rang out. Faith immediately sat straight up as the first firework exploded silently on the screen. Claire chuckled softly, bouncing against his chest.

“Don’t rocket into the sky like a firework, lovie,” she crooned, making soothing criss-crosses on Faith’s back.

Faith was humming and stimming like mad, occasionally throwing her hands up at the screen as if she could touch the colorful bursts. There were quiet sounds of general amazement coming from all over, humming, chattering, gasping. But Jamie only saw and heard the lasses in front of him. He wasn’t even looking at the screen. What could he see that would compare to the beauty in his arms? Faith’s wonder and Claire’s utter joy at seeing her child so blissfully happy were things that Jamie would never forget. As Claire stroked Faith’s back and ran fingers through her hair, Jamie gently rubbed her upper arms, occasionally kissing her head.

He thought perhaps that she might shrug him off, politely request that he stop smothering her. But she leaned into his every touch, every brush of his lips.

It was causing bursts of color and light behind his eyes without even having to look up.

As Jamie became lost in her, in them , he felt his heart slipping away, felt as it no longer belonged to him alone. The colors on the screen exploded and danced in the reflective pools of their twin-eyes, wide with amazement and adoration. He dipped his head to fervently kiss Claire’s cheek, breathing reverently into her temple:

Beautiful .”

Chapter Text

By the end of the fireworks, Faith was sitting up on her knees, only stopped from shooting to her feet by Claire’s hands on her shoulders. The colorful display had been most enthralling to her, and her excitement was contagious.

Claire, for one, was more blissfully happy than perhaps she’d ever been. The last time she’d felt such unconfined joy was perhaps when she herself was a child. Sitting there in Jamie’s arms, no longer fighting those voices in her head, finally allowing herself to untangle the knots he’d wound in her stomach over the past ten months or so, she was almost intoxicated with how giddy she felt.

Like a bloody schoolgirl.

And she’d been wrong about it all, completely.

She’d told herself that allowing herself to date anyone — even Jamie — would be weakness. She’d spent years begging Frank to give her something , whether she realized that was what was happening at the time or not. She’d spent years praying that he would once again look at his daughter with love and affection, that his cold contempt would melt away, and somehow, his approval would make her feel whole again.

And then she’d spent months undoing it all, recalibrating her brain to assure herself that she didn’t need him . She was not the dependent little chit he’d have her believe she was, she was not a bad mother. She acould provide for Faith without his precious Oxford paycheck. She could go above and beyond for her, give her more than she ever thought she could, all on her own.

But as she felt Jamie breathing into the crown of her head, burying his lips there for yet another kiss, as if she were the most precious thing in the world to him, she felt anything but weak.

She didn’t feel the codependence she’d once felt toward Frank, what she thought she’d feel toward any man she let into her life. She didn’t feel the obligation she’d once felt. She didn’t feel the need to prove herself, as a person or a mother. He already believed in her, he had since day one. She could tell.

She could do it on her own, had been for months.

Pat yourself on the back for that, Beauchamp.

You can do it on your own. But you don’t have to.

The projector shut down, and the crowd erupted into sporadic clapping and quiet cheers, several hands flying up for a signed applause.

“All done, lovie!” Claire crooned, signing applause high in the air. “Yay!”

Faith turned around and copied her mother, and Jamie’s hands left Claire’s arms, presumably to applaud as well.

“Did you love it?” Claire asked. “Was it a pretty show, Faithie?”

She hummed loudly and flapped her hands, and Claire laughed softly, leaning her head back against Jamie’s chest.

“Ye did a fine job, Faith, sitting still the whole time. Good girl.” She felt Jamie’s hands signing “good girl” behind him, and Faith covered her face bashfully with a little squeal. Jamie’s laughter rumbled in his chest, tickling her back, causing a small shiver.

“Are ye cold, Sassenach?”

“No, I’m alright.”

He started rubbing her upper arms anyway, even as families started getting up from the grass and bidding each other goodnight. After lingering for several moments that were not long enough, Claire sighed and pushed herself off the ground, commanding Angus back up. Jamie stood up as well, and they stood facing each other for the moment, Faith laughing to herself about nothing in particular, rubbing her cheek on Angus’s head.

“I should, ehm, say goodnight. I suppose.”

“Before ye go, I — ”

“To everyone else,” Claire clarified, interrupting before he stammered through the rest of his sentence. Even in the dark, she could tell he started blushing. “I’ll come find you before we go. Okay?”

He nodded. “I’ll be…around. Cleaning up, and such.”

With one final lingering glance, Claire turned around and started saying goodnight to her friends, and the other therapists and volunteers. Faith gave and received her fair share of thumbs-ups, even going so far as gently taking Erica’s hand for all of two seconds. Claire deliberately lingered longer than she should have, wanting to wait until most of the families had left before approaching Jamie again.

“Claire!”

She gasped and spun around to see Mary had snuck up behind her, mousy little thing that she was.

“Sorry, I know we already said goodnight, but I didn’t want to make a scene in front of Nancy.” She flashed Claire a knowing look, both of them all too aware of Nosy Nancy’s antics. “You looked so sweet sitting there with him. For the fireworks.” She sighed dreamily, like they were a pair of girls at their lockers. “Has he asked you on a date yet?”

“Well, no…”

“Tell me when he does. Oh, Claire!” Unexpectedly, Mary threw her arms around her, and Claire laughed uncomfortably into returning the embrace. “I’m so happy for you. He’s just…perfect.”

Claire chuckled again as Mary released her. “Thank you, Mary.”

“Okay. I’ll say goodnight again. Alex and Thomas are probably already at the car.” She started shuffling off, turning around after only a few steps to say, “Text me!”

Claire shook her head with another laugh. “I will.”

After taking a moment to clear her head, Claire surveyed the open field, mostly emptied out, and found all employees and volunteers folding chairs and stacking them on the cart to take them back to storage. She hesitantly approached them, and Toni smacked Jamie on the shoulder, causing his head to whip around. She swore that even from the distance she could see his pupils dilate.

“I’ll be right back,” he promised everyone, but they all laughed and shook their heads.

“Hi,” he said, breathless despite the rather short distance he’d crossed to reach her.

“Hi,” she returned, blushing with a tiny smile.

“Can I, ehm…walk ye to yer car?”

“Yeah, I’d like that. Faith,” Claire said. “Say goodnight to everyone. Wave bye-bye, Faith.”

Faith waved erratically -- with far more energy than a five-year-old should have at this time of night, and Claire thought dreadfully that her daughter was not at all as tired out as she should be.

“Goodnight, Princess Faith! See you Friday!” Toni said, other such statements following from the others.

With that, Jamie placed his hand on the small of her back, allowing her to lead the way off the field.

“Is it alright…? Where they can see?” He asked, his hand feeling stiff on her back.

To answer him, she leaned into his side, forcing his hand to snake around her waist. She sighed blissfully into his shoulder, her heartbeat fluttering in her throat.

“Ye were right,” he said after a few moments of amiable silence, save Faith’s humming and unprompted giggles. “About Toni. Relentless is the perfect word.”

She chuckled through her nose. “That bad, is it?”

“Ye shoulda heard her, goading me the way she was before you and the wee lass strolled by.”

Claire rolled her eyes, though her smile betrayed her.

The car came into view, and Jamie released Claire so she could get out her keys. He helped her untether Faith and then watched as Claire strapped her in.

“Mummy is going to start the car,” Claire said, checking the seatbelt. “Can you sit in here with Angus while I talk to Jamie? Yes? Be patient? Good girl.” Claire gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before shutting the back door, opening the driver’s door, and starting the car.

Car running with music playing, Claire shut the door and took a few steps toward the back of the car where Jamie had been standing as she got Faith settled.

She cleared her throat. “So, do you — ”

He cut her off abruptly with his lips, threading his fingers into her hair. She whimpered in shock, but then melted against him and kissed him back, wrapping her arms around his middle.

“Sorry,” he breathed sheepishly into her mouth. “Been waiting to do that fer hours.”

She laughed softly. “Me too.”

“I, ehm, wanted to ask if ye were free sometime this week. Fer a…a date. Proper date.”

Claire beamed up at him. “I was afraid I’d have to be the one to ask.”

He smirked. “I appreciate a forward woman.”

She bit her lip, but he separated her teeth from her lip with his tongue, locking their lips together briefly.

“I am. Free, I mean.” She felt herself beginning to sweat, despite the heat of the day having passed hours ago. “How is Saturday night?”

“Aye. Saturday night. That’s…that’s braw. Saturday night.”

Somehow, their hands ended up threaded together, hanging loosely between them

“Sassenach?” He asked, brow furrowed. “Ye seem…confused about something.”

Damn me and my stupid face.

Claire sighed with embarrassment, averting her eyes for only a second.

“Well…it’s just…What…what will we do ?”

“What d’ye mean?”

“I haven’t…been on a first date since I was nineteen.”

He smirked again, chuckling softly. “Dinna fash about that. I’ll take care of the details.”

“Are you sure? Shouldn’t I — ”

He cut her off again with a sound kiss, catching her off guard and causing a surprised squeak at the back of her throat.

“Sure enough,” he whispered lowly against her lips.

Claire chuckled nervously. “You’ll have to start letting me finish my sentences, you know.”

He responded by kissing her again, and she couldn’t say she minded at all.

“Goodnight, my Sassenach.”

His.

“Goodnight,” she said breathlessly.

“I’ll see ye Saturday.”

“See you Friday ,” she corrected. “Then Saturday.”

“Aye, Friday. Right.” His face flushed with embarrassment and she smiled.

Her brain told her body to open her door and sit down, but her body didn’t want to move. She found she couldn’t stop staring into his eyes, and her lips seemed to be drawn back to his like a magnet. It felt different, being the one to kiss him, rather than being kissed by him. She snaked her hands over his pectorals and shoulders, crossing her arms behind his neck.

How many months had she imagined how it would feel to wrap herself around him, how he would taste, what her heart would do when she felt his tongue against her lips…

Every fantasy was not worthy of comparison to the real thing.

He held her tighter as well, circling his arms around her waist. Colors danced against her eyelids as their tongues met again, with a sweeter tenderness than they had a few hours ago. The fire of desperation had been put out, and was replaced with smoldering embers of exploration, of enthralling newness.

Her body was awakening after a long slumber, and she was entering dangerous territory.

When she felt him hard against her hip again she knew she had to pull away.

They looked into each other’s eyes, panting, and Jamie flushed red.

“I’m…sorry, Sassenach,” he said sheepishly.

“I suppose it’s rather my fault,” she answered, eyes flicking downward for only a second.

He chuckled nervously. “Ye canna help how bonny ye are, lass.”

It was her turn to blush, rolling her eyes at him.

“Goodnight, Jamie. For real this time.”

“Aye. Goodnight.” He gave her a quick peck, and that alone was enough to ignite her again. “Fer real.”

He got to the door before she could, opening it for her like a prince opening a royal carriage, and she giggled as she settled into the seat.

“Text me when ye get home, aye?”

“I will.”

He nodded a final time, and shut the door. He stayed there, watching her as she pulled out of her spot and onto the road.

If it wasn’t for the reminder of the little girl in the backseat, Claire may have been unable to ignore her dizziness and driven right into a tree.

——

The first thing Claire did when she got home (after texting Jamie that they got home safe) was take a shower; well, she and Faith both. They were both sticky with sweat and sunscreen, and had been covered in whatever water they used for the dunk tank, the sprinkler, and the water balloons. Faith was bouncing off the walls even after the shower, so even though it was well past bedtime, Claire allowed her to put on a movie. Jamie had texted her back while she was bathing with Faith, and her stomach did a small flip as she pulled open the message on the couch.

Jamie [9:24]: thanks for letting me know. i’ll let ye rest now. sleep well my bonny lass.

Her lips unconsciously turned up in a giddy smile.

Claire [9:45]: Goodnight, Jamie. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

She sent the message, and then almost kicked herself at how bloody formal it sounded. Before she could chicken out, she sent a red heart emoji to immediately follow her message. About a minute later, she received the same heart in return.

She felt like a silly teenager, but she couldn’t say she minded at all.

As Claire predicted, her little wild thing was quite more tired than she’d let on, and she fell asleep halfway through Mulan , Angus’s head planted firmly in her lap. Claire sighed, knowing there was no getting her teeth brushed tonight. Instead, she retrieved the Risperdal from the medicine cabinet and poked at Faith’s cheek until she opened her mouth to accept the dropper.

Claire scooped her up and carried her to bed, Angus following dutifully at her heels, and she watched as the good boy settled in beside Faith. Her sleepy arms unconsciously  wound around his soft, fluffy body, and Claire smiled. She bent down and kissed her head, smoothing a few stray curls, and then moved to Angus, kissing the top of his head and ruffling his fur.

“Goodnight loves,” she said softly as she left the room.

When she finally plopped down in her bed, her eyes immediately closed, and she was about three seconds from unconsciousness.

And then she remembered.

She remembered how it felt to peel herself off of Jamie, both of their bodies soaking wet. She remembered how it felt when he grabbed handfuls of her arse, how her lips vibrated when he groaned into her mouth. She remembered her own wanton keening, how she’d become hot and wanting in places that she’d thought were permanently frosted over. She remembered how he tasted, how he’d been so gentle, and yet so delightfully rough all at once…

She remembered how damp her underwear was when she’d taken it off to shower.

Fuck .

The clean pair she’d practically just put on would already need to be changed.

What is wrong with you, Beauchamp?

She sighed deeply and opened her eyes, praying that the vividness of remembering would vanish if she stared at the ceiling long enough.

You’re horny, you fool.

She swallowed thickly and wet her lips, but she found her tongue impossibly dry. Was it even possible to get so riled up by a man after kissing him a few times?

Well, he wasn’t just any man. He was Jamie. Her Jamie.

My boyfriend.

The thought terrified her as much as it thrilled her.

God, the memory of his hands on her body was driving her insane. It was a good thing there had been children around all day, or she might have lost it all together and had him on the counter of the welcome center. Or perhaps in the parking lot, when he was being so god damn tender, and whispering into her mouth…

“Fuck,” she hissed out loud, running both hands down the length of her face. She was sweating.

She realized just then that she hadn’t been aroused in almost two years, maybe even three. Her passion with Frank had died shortly after Faith’s diagnosis, and it wasn’t long at all after that when he stopped touching her altogether.

There was a time when Claire thought she would die without sex. She thought she couldn’t get through the day without knowing that there was a warm body waiting to claim her, or to be claimed by her. Her body was her language; she expressed and felt everything through touch, and it was all heightened in those moments of intimacy.

But the longer she spent looking at Frank, seeing nothing but emptiness in those cold eyes, seeing nothing but a grimace made with lips that used to sear her with their touch…the longer she never wanted to be touched again.

In the beginning, her body still awoke, still ached and needed, and with nothing to reach for and no one to reach for her, she tried taking matters into her own hands. She’d done it of course before she lost her virginity, surely she could do it again.

But it had always left her feeling worse than she had before. She felt constantly torn between two devils: Which was worse, burning with a need never met, or filling that need and still feeling empty and depressed after doing so?

It wasn’t very long before she had no desire to touch or be touched by anyone, including herself. And so the woman who thought she’d die without sex learned to live without it, the soul that showed itself through her body was silenced and tucked away.

But God, that part of her had somehow crawled its way out of the hole she'd buried it in.

Her breath had become unsteady, trembling with every exhale.

She squeezed her legs together, desperate to relieve the pressure building between them.

Don’t do it, Beauchamp. It hasn’t even been a bloody day.

She turned over to the lamp, flicked it off, curled into her pillow, and closed her eyes. To go to sleep.

But the only thing she saw when she closed her eyes was Jamie, soaking wet clothing clinging to every rippling muscle on his body. It had also made one thing in particular quite visible. Something that was quite tangible as well.

Fuck it.

Sighing deeply, Claire rolled onto her back again, slowly letting her legs fall apart.

Is this moral? Ethical?

Well, surely he was taking care of a rather similar matter after the state she’d left him in in the parking lot. Unless he was some kind of saint that could just will such things away.

Shit, what if he’s some sort of saint?

This is not moral. Or ethical.

Her tongue darted out to lick her lips again, and it reminded her of where her tongue had been a mere few hours ago.

In Jamie’s mouth.

She involuntarily gasped at the thought of it, and she could hold back no longer. She brought trembling hands to her breasts, sighing softly as she felt her hands filled by them. She closed her eyes and saw him, electric blue and black pupils blown wide as he stared at his own hands, kneading her.

Oh, Jamie…

Her nipples quickly hardened into little peaks, and she let her fingers roll over them, pinching and tugging. She remembered the way his mouth felt, rough and hot on her lips, and imagined what it would feel like on her nipples. She pulled her pajama shirt over her head, sighing with relief at the feeling of the cool air all over her, and delighting in the skin-on-skin contact.

God, what would his hands feel like — rough and calloused and huge — palming her breasts, running down her stomach, tugging at the elastic of her shorts, gently, so very gently, and yet urgently, as if he needed to have her or he’d die.

Yes, Jamie.Yes, I’ll have you.

She touched herself over her shorts, biting her lip to stifle a moan. God, how had she gone so long without this? How had she forgotten what it can be like?

Her patience with her shorts ran out rather quickly, and it wasn’t long before she was completely naked. She once again pictured his eyes, looking her naked body up and down, imagined his lips covering every inch of her, imagined threading her fingers through his hair as he devoured her.

“Jamie…”

It took several seconds to register that she’d said it out loud this time. She brought her fingers to herself again, now completely bare, and she could not stifle the moan this time. It was quiet but insistent, desperate even. She gathered her own moisture, shivering as she teased her entrance. Her fingers were slick and ready by the time she returned them to that aching bundle of nerves, and the sensation was overwhelming. She arched her back and keened softly again, alternating speeds and patterns until her hips began thrusting into her hand with desperation. All of this coupled with the image of Jamie’s hand in her place, or even his mouth…God, she almost lost it.

But she wasn’t done. She wasn’t ready to be done. Not after depriving herself for so long.

So she pulled her hand away, nearly breathless with need. She sat up, feeling dizzy as she did, and took the spare pillow from the other side of the bed. She straddled it hungrily, groaning at the new sensation. She sat up, tall and proud, firmly squeezing her breasts again. She imagined Jamie reaching up to take purchase of her soft flesh as she rode him into oblivion, grinding the neediest part of her into his pubic bone. His muscles had felt heavenly under his shirt, but to imagine what they would feel like, bare and burning against her hands as she took him, completely under her power…

She ground down harder, grasping her headboard for support, throwing her head back in ecstasy.

Jamie, Jamie, Jamie

She freed a hand from the headboard to travel down her side until she could roughly seize her own arse, the feeling of his hands there still more than fresh in her mind.

Ride faster, squeeze harder…

Jamie, Jamie, Jamie…

Her hand frantically left her backside to return to her clit at a merciless pace as colors danced behind her eyes.

“Jamie!” His name fell from her lips like an unholy prayer, a rasped, desperate whisper as pleasure seized her from head to toe. She gripped the headboard with both hands, overcome and about to collapse, more ragged cries tearing through her. She rode out her orgasm, her knuckles white on the headboard as she slowed to a languid, liquid pace on the pillow, her thighs twitching, her walls clenching.

She slowly came to a stop, resting her sweaty forehead on the headboard between her hands.

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.

She stayed there for longer than she cared to keep track of, relishing every twitch of her body; her rapid pulse, her chest rising and falling with heaving breath, the spinning of her head.

God forgive me, I am in deep shit.

——

Claire returned to her bed from the bathroom, wearing fresh underwear and, embarrassingly, fresh shorts. She changed the pillowcase and pillow cover of the spare pillow, tossing the soiled ones into the hamper with her clothes.

Now that she’d come down from the high she’d created for herself, now that she was no longer dizzy with arousal…the panic set in.

She lay staring at the ceiling for almost an hour, unable to comprehend what she’d just done, what she and Jamie had done today, what she had agreed to for a week from today. Unable to think of anything else, she picked up her phone and fired a text to Gillian. Thank God it didn’t take long for her to answer.

Claire [11:47]: You up?

Gillian [11:51]: Unfortunately. I’ve got a nasty early morning shift at the hospital. You ok hen?

Claire [11:51]: Yeah, I’m fine. I have to tell you something. Call me?

It only took twenty seconds for her to call.

“Hey, Gi.”

She immediately gasped. “Claire!”

“What?” Claire said, nearly jumping at her sudden enthusiasm.

“Ye sound like ye just got laid! Fer the love of all that is holy, please tell me it was a red-headed Scot.”

Claire felt herself burning bright red from head to toe. “Well…yes, but…not exactly.”

Chapter Text

“Go on, baby. Tell Aunt Claire she looks smokin’.”

“Yup. You’re real pretty, Aunt Claire.”

Claire fussed with her hair and pulled up the top of her dress for perhaps the millionth time since the Abernathy’s had arrived. They were standing in front of Claire’s full length mirror as Faith jumped on the bed in the background, completely nonplussed about her mother’s impending date. Gail brought over Lenny and Delia to watch Faith for the night so that her nighttime routine would not be disrupted if she fell asleep at the Abernathy’s. 

Claire had agonized over what to wear for hours, having Facetimed Gillian for help after the woman threatened to kill her if she didn’t. She’d had a veritable screaming fit after Claire had told her the events of the Fourth of July party, demanding every single detail or else . Gillian had suggested all of Claire’s sluttiest outfits for tonight, which Claire had shot down immediately.

“I don’t want him to think I’m putting out!”

“Ye don’t?”

“No! It’s the first date!”

“Well, ye already used him to — ”

“No need to go any further.”

“Is it…modest enough?” Claire asked Gail, fussing with the neckline again.

It really was a pretty dress, her first post-Frank splurge purchase. At the time, it had felt silly, since the only occasion she’d had to dress that nice was for Oxford events, and that was something she no longer had to endure. But once it had arrived in the mail, she’d felt pretty putting it on, and she figured it did no harm to indulge herself in her newly divorced depression.

It was white and covered in large arrangements of sky-blue flowers, with desaturated leaves to accent the blue. It fell just below the knee in the front and mid-calf in the back. She’d been drawn to it for tonight immediately because the blue reminded her of Jamie’s eyes.

“Is that silly? Is he going to look at it and think I’m a nutter?”

“Ye are a nutter if ye think that’s what he’ll be thinking about when he sees ye.”

The V of the neckline went just down to her sternum, low enough to shut Gillian up about looking like a prude, but high enough that Claire didn’t feel like she was spilling out of the dress. The sleeves came halfway over the shoulder, just long enough to not be considered sleeveless.

“It’s perfect . Would you relax?” Gail squeezed her shoulders and gave her a little shake. “He’s gonna be in Heaven when he sees you.”

“The make up isn’t too much?”

This was perhaps the first time Claire had worn more than concealer under her eyes and mascara in almost two years, and even that much was only for special occasions. Tonight she donned eyeshadow, blush, and a neutral lip with the tiniest hint of pink.

“Not at all. You’re a regular angel. And besides.” Gail smirked. “I think you could show up in a trash bag and he’d still faint at the sight of you.”

Claire snorted. “I don’t know about that.”

“You’re leaving your hair, right?”

“Hmm? Oh, I was going to — ”

“Well don’t. It looks great the way it is.”

“It’s…a mess!” Claire ran her fingers through the poodle fur that was her hair.

“It’s you . He likes your hair.”

“And how do you know that?” Claire crossed her arms over her chest.

“You had it down at Faith’s party and he was all over it. With his eyes.”

Claire rolled her eyes, but couldn’t suppress a silly grin. A knock came from the front door, and Claire very suddenly felt like she would throw up. Before anyone could blink, Faith catapulted herself off the bed with a great leap and dashed to the door.

“Don’t forget your shoes , Aunt Claire.” Delia tugged on her arm before she could follow after Faith.

“Oh, thank you, darling.” Claire turned around and sat on the bed to tug on the white wedges she’d picked out.

“Can’t I just wear flats?”

“No! If ye refuse to go sexy wi’ the dress, ye have tae go somewhat sexy wi’ the shoes. I dinna make the rules.”

Gillian had better be right.

By the time Claire got to the front door, Faith was tugging on the locked door and moaning with impatient annoyance.

“Alright, alright. Take it easy, lovie.” Claire pried Faith’s hands off the door handle and held tightly to her wrist as she moved to open the front door.

He was right on time, five o’clock sharp.

Why was she so nervous? The man had seen her in all states of informality at the stables, messy hair, glasses, whatever clothes she had time to throw on after a shift. He’d seen her sweat through her scrubs as she blubbered like a baby. There was no reputation left for her to protect, no reason to need to impress him. He’d fallen for the blubbering mess in her scrubs, so why did one date make a difference?

Because now it’s real.

After months of pretending that she didn’t want to take his face in her hands and kiss him, pretending that she didn’t imagine what it would feel like in his arms, ignoring the fantasy she’d had of this exact moment , of getting dressed up and opening the door for him …it was real.

She opened the door and there he was, and she almost laughed.

He was wearing a shirt nearly the exact same color as the flowers on her dress, a shirt that paled in comparison to the blue of his eyes. It was tucked into perfectly pressed khakis, complete with a tan leather belt that matched his shoes.

“Hi,” Claire said, breathless, almost not even hearing Faith’s loud excited humming as she tugged against her mother’s grip to get to Jamie. He was smiling in that endearing, lopsided way of his, his pupils dilating further the longer he looked at her. “Uh, come in. Please.”

As soon as Jamie crossed the threshold, Faith began patting his thigh with her free hand. When Claire released her after Jamie shut the door, she began rubbing the material of his pants and swaying absently.

“The texture,” Claire said sheepishly. “It feels nice to her.”

“Glad to hear it,” he said, beaming down at her. “Spent long enough ironing them.”

“Hi,” Delia said abruptly, and Gail hushed her.

“Hallo.” Jamie waved at Gail and Delia. “Nice to see ye again.” Gail greeted him similarly, and then Jamie produced a bouquet of flowers that Claire hadn’t even noticed he’d been holding behind his back. White roses with forget-me-nots stuck in throughout, arranged perfectly.

“These are for you.”

Claire felt her blush deepen and her smile widen. “They’re beautiful, Jamie…” She took the arrangement in her arms and beamed up at him. “That’s why you wanted to know my favorite flower.”

He grinned and rubbed the back of his neck. “Thought that’d be pretty obvious.”

“I didn’t even think…” Perhaps it was because Frank had never bothered with such frivolities — insisting that his wife was far too practical for such things, but Claire hadn’t thought twice about Jamie’s out-of-the-blue text over the week. He’d sent her good morning and good night texts every day since last Saturday, and they even briefly chatted on the phone when Claire wasn’t dead on her feet after a shift.

Seeing each other at the stables had been awkward and not without lots of ribbing from every adult present, but they’d managed to keep it professional, save for Jamie’s suggestive, “See ye tomorrow, Sassenach.”

“They look bonny in yer arms, mo nighean donn .” Jamie’s eyes twinkled, and Claire nearly melted into the floor. “Ah, here.” Jamie plucked a rose out of the arrangement and gently pried Faith’s hands off of him. “Here ye are, lass.” He knelt down and presented her the rose, and Faith took it eagerly in her hands. “Jest fer you, since ye’re letting me borrow yer mam all night.”

Faith gave an excited little hop, and then skipped off with a hum into her room.

“She’s going to file that away somewhere,” Claire said as Jamie stood up. “I’ll, uh, put these in a vase…”

“Let me take care of that,” Gail said, taking the flowers from her. “Go get your purse and get going.” She winked.

Claire looked at Jamie sheepishly. “Right. One moment.”

After retrieving her purse, she called Faith back into the living room to say goodbye.

“Remember what we talked about. You will have quiet hands and quiet feet for Aunt Gail. And you will use your ears to listen, like you do for Mrs. Lickett when Mummy is at work. Yes?” Claire repeated the mantra, this time gripping her hands, touching her feet, and giving her ears a little pinch. “You’ll be a good girl. Won’t you, Faith?” Claire gave a thumbs up, which Faith returned. “That’s my girl. Okay, hugs.” They shared a brief hug, and Claire gave a squeeze with a dramatic little oomf sound effect.

Claire’s eyes flicked up to the bouquet in Gail’s arms, and then to Jamie.

“Just one more thing.” Claire crossed to Gail and plucked a forget-me-not out of the arrangement. She returned to Jamie and tucked it into his shirt pocket, keeping her eyes locked with his the whole time.

“There,” she said, slightly breathless. “Now we’re ready.”

Jamie ushered Claire out the front door with his hand at the small of her back, as Gail encouraged Faith to “say bye-bye!” until the door was shut. The second the door clicked, Jamie’s hands were on her face, his lips claiming hers hungrily. She eagerly kissed him back, one hand playing with the flower in his shirt, and the other squeezing his shoulder.

“Christ,” Jamie breathed when he pulled away. “Ye look…beautiful, Claire.”

She laughed softly, peering up at him through her lashes. “You’re as dashing as ever.”

He gave her another soft peck and then swept his eyes over her face, as if drinking her in.

“And what was this for?” His fingers laced with hers atop the flowers in his shirt, and Claire felt herself blush.

“I wanted to be able to look at them while they were still perfectly fresh,” she said, biting her lip as she smiled up at him. “And your eyes are forget-me-not blue, after all.”

He raised a brow in a devilishly handsome way. “Are they now?”

“Mhmm.” She leaned in to kiss him again, and then broke away with a giggle. “We said goodbye five minutes ago and we’re still standing on the porch.”

He chuckled softly, then took her hand in his. “Shall we, then?”

They descended the steps together and made their way to Jamie’s car, parked on the street since Gail’s was in the spot behind Claire’s. Before Claire could even think about opening her own door, Jamie was in front of her, doing it for her. She blushed deeply as she got in, feeling his eyes on her all the while. He slid into the driver’s seat beside her and he paused, eyes settling on her as she looked up from buckling her seatbelt.

“What?”

He shook his head. “Nothin’. Just…seein’ ye there, sitting in my car, waiting for me to take ye on a date…” He bit his lip, and it sent Claire’s mind spinning. “It’s incredible, is all.”

Claire self-consciously pushed some hair out of her face, blush deepening. “Are you trying to make me melt into the seat before we even pull away?”

He chuckled as he put the car in drive. “Wouldna be very intuitive, but I wouldna mind all the same.”

She rolled her eyes, and then became lost in the way the late-afternoon summer sunset danced in his auburn hair. Not wanting to be caught staring, she took a breath and then broke the small silence.

“What did Jessica say? About yesterday?”

“Ah,” Jamie said, smiling. “She said she’s more than happy to take over for such a ‘cutie-pie,’ I believe was the term she used.” Claire beamed with pride, knowing full well that her daughter was indeed an adorable child.

“Does she think that Faith will be okay? With the switch?”

“Oh, aye. She has full confidence in the lass.” He moved one of his hands off the steering wheel to take hold of Claire’s hand. “As do I.”

Claire watched as he brought their joined hands to his lips to kiss her knuckles, never once taking his eyes off the road.

Jamie and Toni had been coming up with a plan to transition Faith to a new main therapist over the course of the week, and Jamie had been keeping Claire updated over the phone or over text. Miss Jessica was available during Faith’s scheduled hour, and she was always at the events the stables hosted, so Faith was at least familiar and comfortable with her.

It was to be a slow, gradual process. The switch could not be too fast or jarring. Faith could not feel that Jamie was abandoning her at the stables, but she also could not get too comfortable with him. The longer she perceived him as part of the family, the more of a risk they were taking with her behavior at the stables. Children always behave better for non-family members, and autistic children — and especially Faith — were no exception.

And the truth was, Jamie had been family for far longer than either of them cared to admit.

The goal was to eventually have Jessica be Faith’s full-time therapist, with Erica staying on as the volunteer for stability and consistency. Jamie would be there, of course, but the endgame goal was for him to stand outside the fence with Claire and watch. They'd agreed, along with Toni, that even having him working with another child in the riding hall at the same time would not be fair to her; Faith should feel like Jamie was still completely invested in her time with Pippi, even if he could not be the one holding the reins.

They passed the rest of the drive in relative silence, their hands linked, Jamie occasionally brushing his thumb across her knuckles. Occasionally, Jamie would remark on some local place they passed that he wanted to take her to eventually — “if ye’d allow it,” he would add nervously. They passed a lively carnival in a mall parking lot, and Claire smiled wistfully.

“Have you ever been there?” she asked.

“Nah, no’ that one in particular. Been to traveling carnivals as a bairn in Scotland, but I never went once I moved here. I always wanted to take Jenny’s bairns, but the timing never worked out.”

“I only have once. Faith was still a baby, only two. You might have seen the picture on the carousel in the living room.”

“Aye, I remember it.”

Claire smiled warmly at the thought of Jamie not only noticing, but remembering the photographs on display in her home.

“I might have also gone with my parents but that would have been too long ago to remember. And I’ve been too afraid to take Faith anywhere like that since her diagnosis.”

Jamie was silent, the carnival disappearing from view.

Damnit, Beauchamp. Dead parents are not very good first-date talk.

“Ye were young, then? When ye lost them?”

His voice was gentle, yet trying to stay casual.

“Yes, only five.” She forced a tight-lipped smile. “Car crash.”

Jamie exhaled heavily and squeezed her hand. “I’m…so sorry, Claire.”

“Thanks…it’s…it’s okay. I had a good childhood with my uncle. I hardly remember what it was like to lose them. Which…could be sad depending how you look at it.”

He brought her knuckles to his lips again, kissing there fervently.

“I’m glad ye had love from yer uncle, mo nighean donn . Dinna ken if I could bear to know ye lost them only to be raised in loneliness.”

Their hands returned to rest in the space between the seats.

“Sorry,” Claire said.

“Fer what, Sassenach?”

“Bringing the mood down.” She looked down at her lap sheepishly.

“Hey.”

His voice and the squeeze of her hand brought her gaze back up, and he was staring at her, stopped at a light.

“Ye’ve nothing to be sorry for. At all.”

She offered a tiny smile, then brought their hands to her own lips so she could kiss his hand. “Thank you.”

The rest of the drive was not long at all, and soon they were pulling up to a building Claire hadn’t seen before, lined with trees strung up with lights. After they were parked, Claire unbuckled and almost opened her door as a reflex, but she stopped, not wanting to deflate Jamie’s chivalrousness. She grinned at him as he opened the door and took her hand.

“Such a gentleman,” she teased, leaning into him and linking their arms together.

“Well, I try,” he said, pressing a kiss to her temple.

Giggling slightly, Claire allowed Jamie to lead her inside; of course, he released her to open the door for her. It was dark inside, save the dim chandeliers dangling from the cathedral ceiling. Claire gawked at their elegant surroundings as Jamie checked in with the reservation for “James.” She ran a self-conscious hand through her wild hair that had been tossed about by just a few seconds outside. She observed the other women sitting down with their dates or small groups, hair elegantly pinned up in its entirety or at least halfway, and Claire suddenly felt like a slob with her wild mane frizzing freely.

The hostess led them to a candlelit table in a beautiful dining room, and her first thought was that she was not worth all this. Her second thought was that she hadn’t been somewhere remotely like this since the last Oxford event Frank had dragged her to, and she’d felt like she was under a microscope at every single one of those. Every other professor’s wife always looked like they had a thing or two to say about her appearance, and she always felt like fresh meat to Frank’s male friends.

She forced herself to focus on now , however, and reminded herself that she was here with a man that thought she was beautiful, a man that did think she was worth all this. A man who would not ask her every five minutes to pull up her dress and cover herself up, dammit.

He didn’t choose this place so you could start thinking about your shitty ex-husband, Beauchamp. He couldn’t possibly know.

Jamie held out her chair for her, and her heart calmed itself as she allowed herself to find peace in his eyes.

“Jamie…this place is just beautiful.” She giggled again as he pushed in the chair for her. “I feel like royalty.”

“Good.” He said, grinning as he sat down across from her. 

A waiter came and took their drink orders, and Claire felt her pulse increase. She didn’t have a clue what to get. She knew she wanted wine, but the list was far too extensive. She felt like she was eighteen again, freshly legal and clueless on how to order a drink. Jamie confidently ordered “two fingers of Lagavulin, neat,” and Claire stammered for several seconds before blurting something out that she didn’t even remember after she said it.

The waiter left, and Claire smiled sheepishly at Jamie, feeling quite silly for nearly causing a scene over the drink menu. She took the dinner menu in her hands to start perusing. It was an enormous menu, and an expensive menu. She had to fight the urge to tell Jamie that he didn’t need to be so extravagant for her sake. It was endlessly endearing to her, but she also couldn’t help the pangs of guilt knowing the size of the bill he was going to be met with at the end of the night.

As she continued to become overwhelmed by the menu, Jamie’s hand was suddenly touching her elbow on the table, and she peered up at him. She could tell he was smiling just from his eyes, and she returned it. His hand crept up her arm until he was grasping her hand, pulling it off the menu and settling their joined hands in the center of the table, beside the candle.

In the past, Claire was one to gag at those stereotypical couples playing footsie, holding hands, and getting lost in each other’s eyes. In fact, she and Frank used to openly mock couples like that. They’d taken some sort of pride as a couple that they never looked like that in public. 

Yet, here she was, clasping hands with a man at the dinner table, occasionally brushing her leg — crossed over the other — against his, and unable to stop staring, the menu going largely ignored by both parties.

And not only did she not give a damn how she looked, she was enjoying it .

The waiter came back to take their appetizer orders, and neither of them had read more than two words of the menu. They sent him away, laughing at themselves as he went.

“How will this ever work if I can’t get anything done with you around?” Claire teased, smirking at him.

“I think I could survive on the sight of you alone, Sassenach.”

A chill ran down Claire’s spine.

They decided to get a shared appetizer of fried artichoke hearts, something Claire hadn’t been able to get her hands on in ages.

“Are they good here, do you know?” Claire asked after they placed the order.

“No’ sure. Never been here.”

“Really?”

“It came highly recommended,” Jamie assured her, nervousness flashing over his face temporarily. “Just never had a lass worthy of such attentions before.”

Claire rolled her eyes. “I’m not sure I’m worthy of all…this. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten somewhere so exquisite in my life.”

“D’ye like it, then?”

“Of course, Jamie.” Claire squeezed his hand. “Like I said, it’s…more than I even deserve.”

“Ye deserve the world, mo ghraidh .” He kissed her hand, and she blushed deeply.

Her eyes darted over his face and around the table, unsure how to respond to his reverent proclamation.

“What sort of music do you like?” she said abruptly, and then immediately wanted to kick herself.

“Playing twenty questions, are we?” he teased, resting their hands on the table again.

“I suppose.” She rolled her eyes upward, in admonishment of herself. “Had to come up with something to say. I’m not a walking poetry collection like you are.”

Jamie exhaled a breathy laugh and then rolled his eyes upward as well, shaking his head with a smirk.

“Well, I’m a fan of country music, actually.”

“So you really are a cowboy,” Claire said, grinning widely.

Och .” Jamie waved her off as if in annoyance, but she could see the glimmer in his eye. “Aye, I suppose ye could say that. Always loved John Denver, he was my Ma’s favorite. Mine too. Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, all those, ye ken.”

Claire hummed in fascination, then cocked a teasing eyebrow. “Not a fan of female country singers, then?”

“Ye cut me to the quick, lass! Ye think I didna grow up wi’ Reba, wi’ a woman like my mother running the house?” Claire laughed out loud, picturing a little redheaded boy dancing in the kitchen to Reba with his mother, as Claire did with Faith to Disney music. “Aye, she’s a right legend. But then there’s Miranda Lambert, Faith Hill, Martina McBride…”

“Alright, I approve,” Claire said smugly. “Anything besides country?”

“Billy Joel fer one. And Manilow. Both Long Island natives.”

“If memory serves, I believe Barry Manilow is from Brooklyn.”

Och , close enough,” he said.

“Hardly,” she teased right back. “How about Elton John?”

“Well, of course.”

“He was always one of my favorites,” Claire said. “I do like country, too. Just not my favorite.”

“And what would that be, then?”

“I adore Ed Sheeran and Michael Bublé. And that style in general. Smooth like old jazz, but has a contemporary twist.”

“What, Sassenach, no female singers?” He cocked an eyebrow at her, his eyes glistening with mirth.

“Oh, you…” She playfully swatted his forearm, but couldn’t suppress her grin. She then blushed, looking over her shoulder self-consciously, wondering if she should be hitting her date in a place like this. “If you must know…as a teenager, I…well…I was known to listen to Brittney on occasion.”

“Aha! Ye were a nineties pop-band lass.” He grinned triumphantly. “And ye still are, I’d wager.”

Claire rolled her eyes and bit her lip, chuckling through her nose.

“Ye are! Ye’re no’ denying it!”

“Alright, alright, don’t rouse the entire fancy restaurant,” Claire swatted at him and flitted her eyes around them again, and Jamie began visibly trying to restrain his laughter.

“I’m sorry, it’s really no’ that funny, but jest…you, yer proper English-doctor-self, listening to Brittney in the car…” He wiped away tears of laughter with one hand, pinching the bridge of his nose. “It tickles me, is all.” 

“I can see that,” she said through her own laughter, looking around yet again. She felt like a child that was far too young to be taken somewhere like this but didn’t have any say in the matter, and had no idea how to behave. There was something about this man that made her want to throw her head back and laugh at the moon, and something else about him that made it impossible to stop herself despite their surroundings.

They finally ceased howling at themselves, and Jamie spoke again. “I’m surprised Disney music wasna the first thing ye said.”

Claire chuckled. “Right. Well, I suppose I thought that went without saying. I do love it, more so now than I even did as a child. Faith really…brings out that side of you. The child in you. I’m not sure if it’s like that with every child, or because she’s, well…her.”

“Aye, I suppose any bairn has that effect on ye. But ye’re right. Faith is…special in that way.” He ran his thumb over her knuckles, back and forth, his eyes twinkling as he spoke so fondly of Faith.

Claire almost burst into tears.

“You know, it…” She cleared her throat to keep herself together, leaning closer to him. “It really means more than I can ever say that you…that she…”

“I ken, Sassenach.” He squeezed her hand again.

“I just…I couldn’t be with someone who didn’t.…know her. So deeply. I really couldn’t,” she went on. “I couldn’t just…meet a man and tell him I’m a single mom and wait on pins and needles for the day I introduce him to my kid, and then he doesn’t understand what he’s really in for no matter how much I tried to explain…” She sighed, trying to calm herself.

No need to get worked up over an imaginary scenario. Her reality was infinitely more wonderful than all that.

“I couldn’t just…see someone. With us, you’re really seeing…both of us. And I couldn’t have it any other way. I don’t even know where I’m going with this. I’m just…grateful, I suppose.” She looked into his eyes, her own eyes watering. “Really, really grateful.”

“Aye. Me too, Sassenach.”

She leaned across the table to kiss him gently, onlookers be damned. In that kiss, and in the lingering gaze afterward, Claire gave him every word and phrase that she would just stumble through if she tried to say them aloud. Looking into his eyes, without speaking, she said:

Thank you.

The fried artichoke hearts arrived shortly after, and Claire dug in greedily. They were very good; she honestly could have eaten the entire platter herself and then some. Jamie seemed entirely too amused by her enjoyment of the food, but she was too delighted herself to care.

When they were gone — much too quickly for Claire’s liking, Jamie once again took up the menu, and Claire followed suit.

“Have any ideas what ye want?”

Claire flicked her eyes to him and she exhaled with a soft laugh. “I…have no idea, actually. There’s too much on this bloody menu.”

He chuckled. “Aye, I’d have tae agree wi’ ye there.”

“I mean…even the number of categories …it’s almost overwhelming.” She punctuated her sentence with a laugh, not wanting him to think she was complaining or ungrateful.

But she was overwhelmed.

“And it’s…” She bit her lip before she could continue, but of course he noticed.

“What, Sassenach?” Jamie put down his menu and met her eye.

“Nothing, really.”

He cocked an eyebrow, and Claire wanted to kick herself again.

“It’s…very expensive.” Her face felt hot as the words tumbled from her lips.

“Ye dinna think ye’re paying, do ye?” Jamie said incredulously.

“Well, I was going to offer, of course…but either way…I can’t ask you to pay this much for me to eat . It’s completely unfair.” She put her menu down as well and looked at him sheepishly.

“Claire, I wouldna take ye somewhere I canna afford.”

“I know! That’s not what I mean,” she said quickly. “Christ, can my foot get any deeper in my mouth?” She buried her face in her hands, but only briefly, as Jamie was prying them away before she could even lean on them.

“Claire.”

The way he said her name forced her to meet his eye, and she almost melted at the way he was looking at her.

“D’ye want tae leave?”

She blinked dumbly before vehemently shaking her head. “No! Jamie — ”

“I meant d’ye ye want tae leave with me,” he clarified, his lips twitching upward. She blinked at him again, and he leaned forward. “Ye dinna seem comfortable here, mo nighean donn . I can see ye looking over yer shoulder like ye’re about to be scolded by a schoolteacher. I thought to impress ye wi’ finery and such…but it seems foolish now.”

“No, Jamie, really…” Claire sighed, her heart almost breaking for him. “This place is beautiful . And those honest to god were the best fried artichoke hearts I’ve ever had. And the wine is delicious.”

“But look at us, aye? Hanging on each other and guffawing like bairns.” His smile widened, and Claire couldn’t help but grin as well. “I think we’d fit in better elsewhere.”

Claire’s brow furrowed. “Like where?”

Jamie’s grin broke as wide as possible, his teeth flashing brilliantly at her. “A carnival.”

Claire’s teeth broke free of her tight-lipped smile as well, and she laughed out loud. “Are you serious?”

“Serious as the plague.”

She laughed again, shaking her head. “So we just…leave?”

“Well, I was thinking we’d pay first.”

Claire rolled her eyes, but her smile widened. “That’s not what I meant…”

“Finish yer wine, lass. I’ll get the check and then we can go.”

She blinked at him in disbelief, her heart fluttering. Frank had never, ever picked up on her discomfort at those uppity events in the eight years they’d been together, and Jamie had done so on their first date. Frank had never offered any sort of reprieve from the onslaught of formality. Claire had always been good at pretending for appearance’s sake; but how difficult was it really to play the professor’s pretty wife, eye candy and arm decoration? After Faith was born, Claire used to rush home from said events and play with her and babble senselessly to her until the poor little thing could no longer keep her eyes open just to feel some semblance of herself again.

She could not imagine Frank ever even thinking of taking her somewhere considered so juvenile and silly as a carnival. Somewhere she could laugh her head off, even scream , and not have anyone eye her like she didn’t belong there. She realized at once that Faith was not the only person that made her connect with her inner child. Jamie had been doing it all night, poking fun at her, pushing all the right buttons to make her walls come down, struggling to keep his voice to a reasonable volume in a fancy restaurant, snickering at her across the table.

Like bairns, indeed.

And she loved it.

Claire did as he said, releasing his hands so she could take a few long drags of her wine.

“You’re alright to drive?” she said, watching as he took a final sip of his whisky.

“One drink isna enough to inebriate me, Sassenach. I’m no lightweight.” He winked.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were calling me a lightweight,” she challenged.

Jamie just shrugged, smirked at her, and then called over a passing waiter to ask for the check.

Blood rushed to Claire’s ears, and she felt her head swimming as Jamie turned away from the waiter and settled his smoldering gaze on her again.

Well, I’m either a lightweight…or this man has me under some sort of spell.

Chapter Text

Jamie’s palms were sweating when they arrived at the carnival. He felt like a damned fool bringing her to that restaurant, making her so uncomfortable. He should have known better, should have asked her what she would have preferred they do. He prayed to be able to make it up to her.

The first thing she insisted on was the kiddie rollercoaster, and he was convinced it was just for the sheer pleasure of watching him try to squeeze in, of goading him on how he looked positively ridiculous in the seat. The ride itself was far from thrilling; it was meant for bairns. But Claire’s unbridled joy was worth it.

“How about those?” She pointed up at the swings, and Jamie’s stomach flipped. “There are double seats.” She winked up at him.

“Aye, let’s do it, then. Though we’ll have to avoid anything else that spins afterward.”

“Why? Do you get sick? Should we not go at all?”

“No, Sassenach, I’ll be fine. Things like that arena so bad. Though I willna survive a tilt-a-whirl or any other such monsters.”

She laughed and squeezed his hand. “Are you sure?”

“Aye. Can think of nothing better than flying through the air wi’ my lass.”

Her eyes lit up, and she bit her lip with excitement as she pulled him toward the queue. Once they were on and up in the air, Jamie was glad that she’d plucked the forget-me-not from his pocket and dropped it into the cupholder in his car for safekeeping.

“Can’t have you losing it on me, Fraser.”

Her hair was wild, attacking him from all angles as they flew around and around, but it was strangely comforting to him to be enveloped by her in this way.

Jamie managed to only sway a little bit when they got off, but he found his legs again as Claire firmly grasped his hand, grounding him. They strolled around a bit, taking in the obscene rides that neither of them had any interest in trying, watching the adorable kiddie rides that actually had a height limit, otherwise he knew she’d try and force him on just for a laugh.

He heard Claire sigh and turned to follow her gaze.

“The teacups,” she said. “I wish I could take Faith on those. She watches videos of the ones in Disney World. Those would make her so happy.”

They stopped walking to watch the teacups whirl around the giant teapot, and Claire leaned into him.

“Ye ever thought of taking her?”

“It would be a pretty big step. As adorable as those kiddie rides are, I’m not sure she’d be okay riding anything without me.”

“I meant Disney World, Sassenach.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well…of course I’ve thought about it. Especially after moving here. I think…I know she’d love it. But that’s an even bigger step than just taking her to a fair. I think about it…a lot, actually. I’d give just about anything to be able to make it work for her.”

He rubbed her upper arm and kissed the top of her head. “I believe ye can. Make it work fer her, I mean. Someday. When ye’re both ready.”

She hummed thoughtfully. “It would be the most stressful experience of my life, to be sure, but probably the most rewarding, too.”

“Aye. I understand.”

She nodded. “Someday.”

They moved on from the teacups, and Jamie was grateful that Claire did not want to actually ride, because he may have not been able to refuse her, and then ended up vomiting his guts up. They strolled onward, and a building with a ride-track outside caught Jamie’s eye.

“Ah! A haunted house,” he said with a thrill. “I could use a good laugh. C’mon, Sassenach.” He tugged on her hand, but was met with resistance. He turned around and gave her a quizzical look, only to find that she’d practically shrunken.

“Dinna tell me ye’re scared , Sassenach,” Jamie said, raising both eyebrows.

“Of course not!” she fired back, but she still would not move when he tugged on her hand. He smirked at her, and he watched as she became visibly flustered. “I’m not . The dark doesn’t scare me at all. I just…don’t like jump-scares.”

“Ah,” he conceded, closing the space he’d left by tugging on her. “Dinna fash, a nighean , I’ll protect ye.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t need protection ,” she insisted, but then she bit her lip into a reluctant smile.

“C’mon. Look at the size of those bairns about to get on.”

“Don’t you shame me!” She swatted at his arm. “I’ll have you know I do watch horror films.”

“Oh, d’ye watch gore and criticize how fake it all is with that doctor brain of yers?”

She blinked up at him, astonished. “That’s exactly what I do.”

He tossed his head back with a barking laugh.

“Gi and I did that all the time in college. We drove our other friends nuts around Halloween time when they just wanted to watch the movie.” She laughed as well.

“Somehow I can picture it all too clearly,” Jamie said, pushing down the urge to keep laughing. “How’s this: come on the wee ride wi’ me, and I’ll let ye force me to criticize fake blood and guts wi’ ye some other time.”

She glowered up at him, giving him the most ridiculous fake pout. “Don’t call it a wee ride like that,” she muttered.

“Alright, then. Would ye do me the honor of getting on the big, scary, terrible, horrible — ”

“Oh, enough !” Claire blurted. “If I have a heart attack in there, I’ll haunt you for the rest of my life.”

Jamie pulled her in closer, releasing her hand so he could drape his arm around her shoulders. “It would be an honor to be haunted by such a lovely spectre.”

The closer they got to the entrance, the more heavily she leaned into him, and Jamie would be lying if he said he wasn’t enjoying it thoroughly. He really hadn’t pegged her as someone to be afraid of a chintzy carnival haunted house; truthfully, he’d anticipated mocking it with her. But somehow, the knowledge that she’d be clinging to him for dear life, and he’d be holding her close to “protect her” — like a young couple in every stereotypical romance he could think of — was making him dizzy with glee.

After breezing through the queue, Jamie had to tug on her again to get her into the ride vehicle.

“I have never wanted to kill you more than right now,” she said through gritted teeth as the operator lowered the lap bar on them. Jamie was tempted to make some remark about how that must mean she’d thought about killing him before now, but he just laughed and draped his arm around her, tucking her into him where she fit so well.

The vehicle jolted forward, and like a knee-jerk reaction, Claire hissed an adamant “Oh fuck ,” loud enough for the operator to hear.

Such profanities continued throughout the entire ride. She never screamed; she just yelped in surprise and then cursed out whatever piece of plywood had the nerve to scare her. She slurred strings of words that would make a sailor blush and then buried her face in Jamie’s chest, and he laughed his head off the entire time. She even smacked him in the chest, stomach, or knee to accompany her profanity, quite harder than he’d have thought her capable of. By the time the vehicle approached the doors opening to the outside, Jamie was wiping away tears of laughter.

“Glad you’re so bloody amused,” she said, stiff as a board against him even in the light of day.

“I’m sorry, Sassenach,” Jamie wheezed. “Ye’re just…you were obscene .”

They exited the ride, and she suddenly relaxed, melting against him and bursting into laughter. “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ…I was , wasn’t I?”

He started laughing again, and then they were stumbling through the carnival, leaning against one another and laughing their heads off.

“I’m impressed , to be frank,” Jamie said. “I kent ye had spirit, but Christ , Sassenach, ye’re vulgar!”

She tossed her head back again. “I had hoped you wouldn’t see that until at least the second date…”

Jamie very briefly became unreasonably light-headed, swaying unsteadily again for a different reason.

It was clear enough that things were going well, and that they weren’t really on the same level as a couple taking things on a date-by-date basis, but just to hear her say second date made his heart feel lighter.

“Dinna fash, mo nighean donn ,” he said through his laughter. “Think of it this way, if that didna scare me away, nothing ye do or say can.”

She opened her mouth to reply, and then gasped. “Oh, Jamie, I’m starving .” He looked up to see she was looking at a food stand. “I think you owe me something tasty after that.”

“Swearing yer mouth off works up an appetite, to be sure.”

She swatted at his arm, but he saw the glimmer in her eye.

Christ…as if I couldna love her any more.

When he ordered two corndogs, she wrinkled her nose at him. “Remember what we said, Sassenach, about yucking someone else’s yum.”

“Please, the candy corn was intolerable,” she said, grimacing as she gingerly took the stick into her hand. “If this is anything like that — ”

“It’s fried goodness, lass. Ye’ll like it. Go on.” He took a bite and then waited expectantly. She made to take a bite of the crispy outside, but he stopped her. “Ye have to bite the whole thing, Sassenach. Or ye dinna get the full affect. Dinna be shy about it.”

She eyed him skeptically, then a bit wickedly , before opening her mouth wider and taking the corndog inside.

Ye’re about to regret those words, man .

She took a generous bite, lips closing around it, and he willed his body to not respond the way he felt it soon would. Her face lit up in surprise as she began chewing, and he smiled.

“See?”

“This is vulgarly delicious,” she sputtered, mouth still full of her first bite.

They finished them quickly, and then Claire was begging him to get her another one. They each had another, and then Claire flitted over to a candy floss stand.

“For dessert,” she said practically, smiling coyly at him. She paid for it herself and asked if he wanted one, which he politely declined. As they wandered around, she ended up feeding him some anyway, ripping the sweet fluff with her hand and bringing it to his lips. Even the slightest brush of his tongue over her fingertips was driving him mad.

Before he could act on his desire to drag her behind a game booth and kiss her senseless, she squealed with excitement and tugged on his hand.

Bumper cars.

“I haven’t done this in years . I think I didn’t even have a driver’s license the last time I did.”

They watched in amusement as the current riders relentlessly slammed into one another, and then they were being corralled inside. Claire sat down and Jamie started climbing in beside her, but she looked up at him incredulously.

“What are you doing?”

“Uh…getting into the ride?”

“Are you serious ?” she said. “Get in your own . I’m going to kick your arse.”

That did nothing to quell his quickly growing cockstand, but the whiplash that she so mercilessly granted him when her car repeatedly slammed into his did the trick.

When the ride was over she skipped right over to him, laughing her head off. “How’s that for payback?”

“Aye, ye got me good.” He rubbed the back of his neck as he stepped out of the wee car.

“Oh, was I too rough on you?” She batted her lashes at him innocently, and he had to suppress a groan.

Christ…she has to bloody know what she’s doing

“Ye’ll pay fer it someday, lass,” he growled into her ear, and the small gasp she made in response was brain-rattling.

“That one kid is lucky he’s a child,” she went on.

“The one who didna look older than nine years old?” Jamie said, raising a brow.

“I don’t care how old he was, he was a brat . He knew I wouldn’t go back after him with full force because of his age, so he was especially obnoxious.”

Jamie shook his head, laughing at her hot-headed ravings about a literal child, and took her hand again to lead her out the exit.

As Jamie took large gulps of air to try and calm his body, he noticed that she was lagging behind as she held onto his hand, walking slower than usual. He looked back to see that she was wincing with every step, and any arousal evaporated as guilt took over in the forefront of his mind. How could he take her somewhere like this in those shoes? He could only imagine her discomfort.

“It’s yer feet, isn’t it?”

“Yes, they’re killing me in these shoes. I knew I should’ve packed trainers in my purse,” she said teasingly, but he could tell she was still hurting.

“D’ye want to go?”

“No,” she said quickly, and his heart soared. “Not…just yet.”

“Alright then.” He stopped walking, released her hand, then stood in front of her. “Get on.”

He looked over his shoulder to see the most adorably incredulous look on her face. “You can’t be serious.”

“I am. Get on. I can hold ye.”

She blushed furiously but took a few steps forward. “Are you sure…?”

“Aye, come on.”

She made a noise, somewhere between a laugh and clearing her throat, and then her arms were around his neck. He crouched and then counted down from three so she could hop on. He’d made sure that her dress was long enough for her to be decent, and he was grateful for the fact that it was even longer in the back than it was in the front. Once she was up, he bounced her a bit to hoist her up further and hold under her thighs, and she squeaked in surprise, tightening her arms around his neck.

“How’s that?” He craned his neck to look at her, being that her head was hanging over his right shoulder.

“Ehm, good. Thanks,” she said sheepishly. He craned his neck further to peck her cheek, warm and pink.

“Where to, lass?”

“Uh…” He felt her head pick up, surveying the carnival from this new height. “Oh! The ferris wheel. That’s romantic, isn’t it?” There was a hint of teasing to her voice that made him dizzy.

“Whatever ye wish, mo chridhe .”

Saying such things, knowing that she could not understand, felt as thrilling as it did dishonest. It felt wrong to say such passionate words to her without her knowing the depth of their meaning, but it also felt even more intimate somehow, that he could call her whatever he felt in his heart without revealing his true self to her just yet.

As he made his way toward the ferris wheel, he felt her relax against him with a sigh, and she kissed his cheek before burrowing her cheek into his neck. He could only imagine what she looked like, perched on his back, her eyes turned upward in wonder of the colors painted in the sunset-sky, the way the colors danced on her skin, the way her eyes caught the orange glow…

She breathed steadily into his cheek, and he truly could have died, then and there, a happy man.

They reached the ferris wheel queue, and he could feel her trying to slide down, but he tightened his grip.

“No need. We’re no’ there yet.”

She scoffed lightly, but he felt her smile against his head, and she kissed him there, warming him from top to bottom.

“D’ye ken how beautiful ye are, Sassenach?” He craned his neck and she leaned down so that their cheeks were touching.

“You can’t even see me,” she insisted, and he could hear the eye-roll in her voice.

“Dinna have to,” he said lightly, nuzzling her cheek with his nose. He felt rather than saw her blush, feeling her getting warmer the longer he lingered on her cheek. He could feel eyes on them, groups of young teenagers, families with children, other couples. He didn’t give a damn what anyone else had to say, because nobody had a clue was it was like to call Claire Beauchamp theirs.

The ride attendant gestured for them to enter, and Jamie finally let Claire slide off his back. They settled into the seat, Claire nuzzled into his side as usual. The ascent was slow, of course, to allow for more boarding, but they could not have timed everything more perfectly. The sky was in all its golden-hour glory now, and the higher they climbed, the more breathtaking it became.

Not as breathtaking, of course, as the woman in his arms. The natural wonders before them were dull and lifeless compared to the dancing colors in her gold-flecked eyes.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Claire breathed, her eyes locked on the canvas of sky before them.

“Aye,” Jamie answered, his eyes locked on her glowing face. “Beautiful.”

She turned her head to look up at him, and she gave the sweetest gasp when she met the intensity of his gaze. She laughed breathily, pink lips parting, and her eyes hooded. Jamie flicked his tongue over his lips before closing the minuscule distance between them to capture her mouth with his. She sighed into his mouth, and he was fueled further, adjusting their bodies so his arm was no longer draped around her. He threaded his fingers in her hair and rested his thumbs on the apple of her cheeks, and her dainty, lithe fingers wrapped around his wrists, thumbs pressing into his pulse.

They were finally alone, like he’d been burning for them to be for hours; he’d been practically dying to devour her like a starved prisoner. But now that they were here, the slow, languid, sweet kisses she gave him were all he needed. She still tasted like candy floss, sticky sweet sugar. Her tongue was still dyed from it, and he could feel it transferring to his lips as she swiped it across them. Her thumbs pressed deeper into his pressure points, and he could feel his pulse escalating against her finger pads. In response, his grip on her hair tightened, and he tilted her head back for greater access to her mouth. She whimpered as he did, their lips parting briefly to adjust. His eyes opened for a split second to see her brow furrowed beautifully, her eyes fluttering beneath closed lids, and her parted lips gasping for air, swollen from his mouth.

He suckled her lower lip again and teased her with his tongue before leaving a trail of kisses down her jaw, letting his hands fall from her hair onto her shoulders. She gasped, leaned into him, and threaded her fingers into his hair. She started breathing heavily as he kissed right where her neck began, just below her ear. He started pulling away, only to ask her if this was alright, but her grip tightened on his hair, pressing his face further into her neck. He chuckled against her skin and left another kiss there.

Seems like permission enough.

He trailed his lips down her neck and throat, and a low, throaty sound escaped her lips, a delicious “mmm,” almost a purr.

Jamie …”

He almost didn’t even hear her, lost as he was in the taste of her beautifully smooth skin. He could have trailed lower, kissed all the way down to her sternum, dangerously close to the soft pillows that had all-too-recently been pressed against his back. He didn’t, though, to be safe, and he trailed back up the other side of her neck, to her other cheek, the sound of his name on her lips making his hair stand on end.

He kissed his way back to her mouth, but he stopped. She opened her eyes after her expectation was not met.

“Ye alright?”

She gave a short, beautiful chuckle and nodded, grabbing his face in her hands and kissing him soundly. Their lips parted from one another and she gazed into his eyes, and Jamie could hardly hear anything over the blood rushing in his ears. They'd already rolled over the apex of the ferris wheel and were halfway down.

“You…” Claire said breathlessly, trailing her knuckles over his stubble. “You take my breath away, James Fraser.”

He thought he would lose consciousness for a moment.

The wheel started moving again, this time without any stops. Everyone was now boarded, and they were free to go around a few times until they’d have to start disembarking again. They settled side by side again, and Claire threaded their dangling ankles together as she nuzzled into his chest. He steadily rubbed her upper arm, and she stroked his other hand in his lap with both of hers. Thank God he’d managed to keep control of himself by some remarkable miracle while kissing her neck.

They wheeled around as the sun finished setting, and the lights all over the carnival started twinkling on, one ride and booth at at a time. Claire’s mouth was agape in wonder, her eyes darting over every new source of light. Though Jamie would never tire of staring at her, he had to admit that the world around them was indeed a sight.

“I’m glad we came here,” Claire said softly. “How could I ever have gotten you alone in that restaurant?”

He chuckled and kissed the top of her head. “Aye, I agree. Dinna think management would have appreciated my face in yer neck.”

She laughed, and he felt her face get hotter against him. Blushing again. She was a right wee temptress, to be sure, but in the same breath she was as bashful as a schoolgirl. He found it endlessly endearing.

“Well…I certainly appreciated it.” Her voice lowered to a whisper, and he felt her crane her neck to press a kiss to his jawline.

“So did I, Sassenach.”

The ride continued much in the same manner, occasional kisses to heads or cheeks, or even chastely to each other’s lips, soft chuckles and the occasional swat to Jamie’s thigh.

Jamie slid out of the seat and turned around, offering her his back again. He ignored the eye-roll from the ride operator and focused instead on Claire’s bashful laugh as she climbed on. 

“Where to next, a nighean ?”

“Hmm…” She hummed into his hair. “Surprise me.”

“Alright.”

He rattled his brain to think of where they hadn’t been yet. Something popped into his head, and he felt foolish and corny even thinking of it. But the more he did think of it…the more perfect it seemed.

He wandered through the crowds and the winding paths, holding tightly to his lass, until they were standing right in front of the carousel.

“Is this alright?” Claire said. “It won’t make you sick?”

“Nah, this’ll be fine,” he assured. “Besides, I’ve had plenty of time to digest the corndogs.”

He tried to keep her on his back while they stood in line, but she insisted on being put down so she could actually talk to him. They had to wait two more rides before their turn, and Jamie delighted in the way her eyes crinkled when she turned around to pull him into the entrance.

They settled on two horses beside each other, Jamie going on and on about her “fine choice” for her “noble steed.”

“After all this,” she said with a laugh. “We somehow ended up on horses of all things.”

Jamie smiled crookedly. “I thought that was funny, too.”

“I like it,” she said softly, reaching across the space between them for his hand. “It’s…us.”

Given that her horse was frozen in its lifted position, she was higher up than he was, and he was briefly memorized by looking at her from this angle. The lights from the carousel caught in her curls, tinting them auburn and filtering through like sunlight through treetops.

“Aye,” he agreed, kissing her hand. “It’s us.”

He was right to have taken her here, painful shoes or no. The restaurant was a fine gesture, but any sap could take a pretty lass for overpriced food. Carrying Claire around a carnival, listening to her screech profanities in his ear, watching her try a corndog, and looking up at her on a carved horse like she was a work of art was special. She was special. She deserved special.

“Ye know,” he said after a moment. “I can take ye riding proper someday. If ye’d like.”

Her smile widened. “I would like that.”

“Good. I keep Donas at the stables. My apartment and its shared courtyard doesn't exactly leave room for a stallion.”

“You have your own horse?”

“Aye. I’m no’ the only one who keeps one at the stables. But between you and me, he is the most magnificent creature there.”

“I’d love to see him,” she said earnestly.

“He’s a bit of a brute, but he’ll get used to ye. Ye’ll need a smaller horse yerself,” he reasoned. “No’ as small as Pippi. Perhaps Thomas’s horse would do.”

Claire opened her mouth to reply, but the carousel music started blaring, and they started moving forward. She gave his hand a little squeeze, her eyes alight with excitement. They held each other’s gaze for a moment, the world blurring around them as they bobbed up and down. After a moment, she craned her neck up and stared above her, and Jamie narrowed his eyes to see what she was looking at. Upon looking above him, he noticed that she was likely watching the rods and cranks working to make the horse go up and down.

“I used to spend the whole ride watching those when I was little,” she shouted over the music. “It fascinated me for some reason.”

“Ye like seeing how things work?” he called back, swinging their joined hands. “Why ye’re a doctor, perhaps?”

“Maybe!”

She was radiant like this, neck craned back with the arch of her throat exposed, hair loose and dangling, eyes wide with fascination, twinkling lights dancing on her skin. It hit him suddenly that he didn’t think he’d ever seen her so carefree. Every time they’d been alone together before this, she was either completely distraught or at least a little bit worried about something. Even at the restaurant, she’d been overwhelmed. And though she was always full of joy around her daughter, he could tell when she was forcing it for the bairn’s benefit, when something else was plaguing her. Jamie’s heart swelled nearly three sizes to think that this might be the first time he had ever seen Claire , unapologetically happy and herself.

Christ, he loved it.

When the carousel came to a stop, Claire dismounted without a hitch, but much to Jamie’s chagrin, he stumbled a bit, nearly toppling her over. She caught him with a little squeak of surprise.

“Alright there, soldier?” she teased, gripping him by the shoulders and looking up at him. “You promised you wouldn't be ill.”

“I’m not,” he assured. “Just…need tae find my legs again.

“If only I could carry you ,” she said. “Suppose we can settle for this.” She pulled his arm over her shoulders and led the way off the carousel.

After taking a few steps away from the ride, Jamie was no longer leaning on her, and was insisting she get on his back again. They were making for the exit now, given that Claire had told Gail they’d be back before ten, and it was already after nine. They were just about there when something caught Jamie’s eye. He diverted his path, and he felt Claire move her head so she could talk in his ear.

“Where are we going?”

“Right here.” He put her down and pulled her by the hand toward his destination: the high striker.

“You don’t mean to start playing games? You know these are all rigged, don’t you?”

“Maybe some, but not all.” He surveyed the assortment of prizes hanging beyond. “Which d’ye want?”

She looked up at him incredulously, then back at the stuffed animals. “Are you serious?”

“Of course. Canna take a lass to carnival wi’out winning her a prize.”

She bit her lip, suppressing a wider grin.

“Dinna pick based on size. I’ll get whichever ye want, I swear it.”

“Alright…ehm…the penguin, then.”

She pointed at a squishy-faced penguin, about the size of her torso and head. Jamie nodded and then stepped up to the game operator.

“What do I need fer the penguin?”

“All the way to the top.”

Jamie stood back, hands on hips, surveying the game. Trickier than he’d initially planned for, but not at all impossible. He nodded curtly and fished out some singles from his wallet to pay the man. He undid the top two buttons on his shirt and rolled up his sleeves a bit higher. He took the mallet in his hands and turned around to give Claire a wink before wailing on the target. As predicted, he scored what was needed to please his lass, and he smirked smugly at the operator.

“The penguin, if ye please.”

He turned around to see Claire with her mouth hanging open, her eyes having significantly darkened, and her skin flushed red all the way to where the fabric of her dress began. He sinfully thought that she looked exactly like he’d felt a little over an hour ago, and then he blushed fiercely to think of himself having that kind of affect on her.

The game operator handed the penguin to Claire, and she took it in her arms with a delighted laugh. It looked even bigger when she held it. Before she could say anything, Jamie took out his wallet again to pay for another round, which proved as successful as the first.

“What was that for?” Claire said.

He looked back at her and said, as if it were the plainest thing in the world: “Had to get one fer the wean.”

Her face immediately changed, seemingly melting right in front of his eyes.

“I could have just given her this one,” she tried reasoning. “She’d probably have snatched it and added it to her collection anyway.”

“That may be so. But there must be one fer each of ye. So that both of my lasses ken how important they are to me.”

He watched her pupils dilate and a soft, liquid smile stretch over her face.

“So which would she want?” Jamie said, looking up at the prizes.

Claire sniffled and then laughed wetly. “One of the bears, I think. She doesn’t like green, and she has a purple bear…how about yellow?”

“Yellow bear it is, then.”

The giant bear, big even in Jamie’s arms, was given to him, and the pair of them sputtered out laughter as they took in the absurdity of the moment.

“Looks like I’ve been replaced,” Claire teased. “Can’t carry two lasses. Three if you count this one.”

“Sorry, Sassenach. I’d offer to prove ye wrong, but I’d be distraught if one of ye were to fall. Especially wi’ this beautiful yellow coat.” He waved one of the giant arms at her, and she tossed her head back with a barking laugh.

“I’d hit you for that if my hands were free.”

“Aye, I ken.”

He managed to hold the bear in one arm and drape his other arm around Claire’s shoulders as they slowly made their way through the parking lot. When they got to Jamie’s car, Claire started laughing as they put the stuffed animals into the back seat.

“I almost buckled it in as a reflex,” she said, and Jamie laughed with her.

They got into their respective seats in the front, not without Jamie opening the door for her. When he opened the driver’s door, his mouth gaped a bit to see her knees up on her seat, leaning over the cupholders and bracing her hands on the driver’s seat.

“What d’ye think ye’re doing, lass?” He slowly slid into his seat, feeling her breath on his face as he shut the door.

“Waiting for a kiss,” she said sweetly, batting her lashes at him.

“Well, when ye ask sae nicely…” He didn’t even have to move; she was the one that leaned in further and planted her lips on his. Jamie's keys slipped from his hands as he took in the taste of her again, trailing his hands up her smooth, bare arms, all the way up to her face.

It was another slow and languid kiss, wet and sloppy, yet somehow calculated and perfect. Their tongues danced gracefully together, and he was rewarded with the most heavenly sigh from her throat, breathing it into him like lifeblood.

Christ, he might crash the bloody car if he let his balls get any bluer.

“As much as I…” he panted between kisses. “Wish fer this to never end…”

She nibbled right below his ear, and he shivered violently.

“I dinna wish tae have a cop knocking on the window and interrupting us like a pair of teenagers.”

She chuckled against his neck, then darted her tongue out briefly, then pulled away to look him in the eye.

“No…we wouldn’t want that,” she said, low and husky.

Jamie gulped and exhaled with a stutter.

“Ehm…keys…”

“On the floor, I believe,” she said, smirking at him as she retreated back to her own seat. “Clumsy you.”

He forced a laugh, sounding more like a fool than he’d have liked, then stooped to retrieve the keys.

“Aye. Clumsy. That’s what we’ll call it.”

Even from the corner of his eye he could see her blush from head to toe as he started the car. They drove home in amicable — or perhaps stiflingly warm — silence, hands linked in the space between the seats, Jamie occasionally bringing her fingers to his lips. The carnival was closer to Claire’s apartment than the restaurant, so they were home relatively quickly.

He parked in the street again, and Claire unbuckled herself as they both glanced up at the porch light Gail had left on. While Jamie was still looking, he heard a second click, then felt his own belt slide across his chest and catch on his shoulder. He turned to look at Claire, only to be met with a blindly stunning, devious grin on her face, hands resting on his seat again.

“What are ye doing?”

“No one will knock on the window here,” she whispered, closing the distance and kissing his jaw. “I promise.”

He couldn’t stop himself. He growled hungrily and took her face in his hands, devouring her mouth. After a few maddening kisses in this position, he fumbled with the seat and it abruptly slid all the way back with a thud, causing Claire to fall right into his lap with an undignified yelp.

“Sorry!” he stammered, scrambling up from the position the seat had thrust him into and helping her into a decent position. “I’m sorry, Sassenach.”

She was laughing hysterically. Jamie soon fell into his own hysterical laughter.

“Christ…” Claire wheezed, wiping her eyes. “We really are a couple of stupid teenagers, aren’t we?”

Jamie leaned back again, pulling her to him as he settled into the seat. “So be it.”

Claire groaned into another eager kiss, straddling his thighs and kneeling on his seat. Her tongue plunged into his mouth and he groaned as well, running his hands down her back and stopping to take purchase in that arse that he’d been admiring from afar for much too long. She pulled her mouth away from him and tossed her head back, then none-too-gently pressed his face into her neck. Jamie chuckled against her skin, his head spinning. He thought his cock would rip the seam of his pants from how hard it became.

She kens what she wants and isna afraid to ask fer it .

And who was he to deny her?

He suckled on her sensitive flesh, harder this time than he had on the ferris wheel; they were alone now. She, too, seemed liberated by their being alone, because she did not hold back. She panted heavily, moaning loudly each time he latched on to new skin. Christ, she was warm. Her skin under his lips, her arse under his hands…

And the part of her that pressed directly into his erection.

He felt her press harder, more deliberate, and he squeezed the pliable flesh in his hands harder, grazing his teeth on her throat. Then she slid down the length of him, groaning in ecstasy, and Jamie’s lips fell off of her neck to gasp raggedly.

Lord, give me strength…

She dragged her hips back up, then down again, and the only thing Jamie could think to do was to latch his lips on the swell of her breast, nuzzling away some fabric of her dress with his nose. She cried out again, tightening her grip on his hair and pressing him in closer. Somewhere behind the haze, he thought she may very well suffocate him, but what a way to go.

He hadn’t meant for anything more than a few more kisses to happen, he really hadn’t. He hadn't even meant for her to be pressed against him so closely, hadn’t meant to nearly bruise her hips to feel her heat more closely on his hardness, hadn’t meant to find heaven on his tongue when he tasted her breast. But happened it had, and ride him she did, so it was only a matter of time before he was spilling his seed in his pants like a bloody fool, muffling his cry between her breasts, crushing his nose into her sternum.

She gasped when it happened, hearing his cry and then feeling him go soft beneath her. She froze her hips, and he felt her breath stutter in her chest. They both sat there, unmoving, hardly breathing for several seconds.

“Claire…” His voice cracked, and he wanted to bury himself alive. “I’m…I’m so sorry…I’m…”

“It’s okay,” she said quickly, scooting back a little and finally releasing her grip on him.

“I…I feel ridiculous…I didna mean…”

“Jamie.” She gently cupped his cheeks, and he saw nothing but tenderness in her gaze. “It’s okay.”

“I feel like I’ve…dishonored ye like this. I didna want this to happen.”

He felt the heat of shame burning at his temples, and rage at himself coursing in his stomach. How could he have gotten so carried away? She deserved better than this, she —

“Jamie,” she said again. She shook her head with a small smile, then tilted his head down so she could kiss his forehead. “It’s okay.”

She must have felt the tenseness in every muscle on his face, because she kissed both of his cheeks, his nose, his chin, then his lips again, sweetly and chastely. Against his own will, he melted in her hands and let himself seek comfort in her touch.

“Are you alright?” she said softly, looking into his eyes.

He struggled to meet her gaze, struggled to look her in the eye.

“Aye, I’m fine.”

“Please don’t be embarrassed,” she said fervently. “I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I know you’re upset.”

Her eyes held such sincerity as she said it that it almost broke his heart. He almost became filled with rage again; not only had he dishonored her, but he was going to keep her up all night worrying about him . It felt despicable.

“I…I’ll be alright, Sassenach. Please dinna fash yerself.”

“No, really, I feel terrible. I didn’t…I didn’t know how far we were meant to go, and you clearly took me home and not to your place so I should have just laid off.”

She looked outright distraught, and Jamie wanted to fold her in his arms and tell her that  it wasn’t her fault. This had been the last thing on his mind when planning the night; he hadn’t even thought that bringing her back to his place would be an option. Had she been dropping hints all night that he was stupid enough to not see?

“I’ve ruined it, haven’t I?” she said suddenly.

“No! God, Sassenach, ye’ve no’ ruined a thing.” He did press her into his chest, then, holding her tightly. “Tonight was…incredible, mo nighean donn . Every minute. I had so much fun wi’ ye. I’d live it over and over if I could.”

She sighed shakily and nuzzled into him a bit tighter, kissing the center of his chest.

“I had a lot of fun, too,” she murmured, and he brushed some hair back from her face. “It was all so wonderful. You are wonderful. I’m just…”

“What, Sassenach?”

“I’m so terrified of ruining it. This is the best thing that’s happened to me in a while and I feel this…pressure to be perfect so that I don’t ruin it.”

“Claire,” Jamie said, his voice soft but his tone firm. He took her chin between his fingers and tilted her head up, forcing her to look him in the eye. “Ye dinna have to feel that pressure. I’m no’ going to run away from ye over something trivial. Surely ye ken that?”

She wet her lips and blinked a bit. “Logically, yes. But I just…I can’t help but feel…because I just…I think about…”

“About Frank,” Jamie finished, a growl of a different kind in his voice.

She nodded. “And I know you’re not him. You couldn’t be farther from it. I just…” She sighed, and Jamie felt rage at the tears in her eyes, tears he knew that Frank was putting there. “I spent a lot of time thinking I’d done something to push him away. And then I spent a lot of time thinking that he ruined me .”

“No,” he said quickly, perhaps too quickly. “No, Claire. Christ, I wish ye could see yerself the way I do.”

Her tears spilled over onto her cheeks, and he brushed them away gently. “I dinna think I shall ever forgive the man who caused ye such pain. But I’ll be damned if it doesna prove how strong ye are, mo ghraidh . Ye’ve remained this…remarkable woman through it all.” He kissed her forehead, and then met her eyes with something akin to desperation. “He’s ruined nothing . Nothing but himself. You are whole, mo nighean donn .”

She kissed him then, her lips salty and wet.

“Thank you,” she said against his lips, foreheads pressed together.

“Nothing to thank me for.”

She shook her head, rubbing their noses and foreheads together. Then she stiffened and gasped.

“Christ, what time is it?” She reached across the cupholders for her purse, pulling out her phone. “It’s only just after ten.” She sighed with relief, then looked back at Jamie bashfully. She shared an awkward laugh before she crawled off his lap, over the cupholders, and back into the passenger seat.

“Canna have ye missing yer curfew, lass,” Jamie said with a smirk.

She rolled her eyes at him and opened her own door, and he followed suit.

“Don’t forget to get the kids out of the car,” she called over the roof of the car, and he laughed.

They both fished out their prizes, and Claire moved around the car to walk beside him. They made their way up the driveway and up the stairs, and Claire stopped before opening the door.

“You know I…I really mean it. I had the best time tonight.” She shifted her penguin to one arm and cupped his cheek with her free hand. “And you…really are the best thing that’s happened to me in a while.”

Jamie exhaled with a smile that made his cheeks sore. “Aye, mo chridhe . You are to me, as well.”

She leaned up and kissed him sweetly. “Thank you for everything.”

“Thank you .”

“You’re alright? Really?” Her brow furrowed again, and he kissed away the wrinkles it made in the middle of her forehead.

“Aye. Worst part is the spot-cleaning I have to do now.”

She rolled her eyes, not satisfied.

“I mean it, Sassenach. I’m alright.”

She nodded. “Okay. I’m trusting you, here.”

“You can trust me.”

She put her key in the lock and turned it, glancing at him before pushing the door open. “I know.”

When the door opened, flickers from the tellie caught his eye. Gail and Delia looked up from the couch, and Delia gasped dramatically.

“That is the biggest teddy bear I ever saw!”

Claire and Jamie both chuckled.

“Faith went down okay?” Claire said.

“Yup. She was a bit overexcited about Delia being here but the M&M’s did the trick.”

Jamie smiled fondly.

“Thank ye fer watching her,” he said earnestly. “It means a lot knowing that Claire could enjoy herself tonight because Faith was wi’ someone she trusts.”

“Any time, seriously.”

“Mommy, when can I have a bear that big?” Gail gave Delia a knowing look. “I promise I’ll share with Lenny!” She gestured to the stroller that Lenny was fast asleep in next to the coffee table.

“Tell you what, Dee-Dee. You can play with Faith’s bear whenever you come over. How is that?” Claire said.

“Thanks, Aunt Claire. I’m still gonna ask Santa for one this year, too.”

Gail rolled her eyes.

“Come on, I want to put this in her room.” Claire tugged on Jamie’s sleeve and they silently entered Faith’s room together. Despite the intrusion, Angus did not move, knowing that he was not to stir enough to awaken his little mistress. Jamie smiled fondly at the familiarity of this room, the soft pink glow from the nightlight making everything look all the more sweet. Claire directed Jamie to put the bear down right next to the bed, and he did so with great pleasure, thinking of her little face exploding with excitement the second she opened her eyes, thinking of the way she would jiggle her hands and make those little squealing noises.

Jamie watched her little chest rise and fall, resisting the urge to reach out and stroke her curly head. Claire stooped down to kiss Faith’s temple and brush some hair back, and his heart felt fit to burst.

When they emerged from her room, Jamie bade Gail and Delia goodnight before they made their way to the front door. He kissed Claire one more time before crossing the threshold, and the last thing he saw was a smile in her golden eyes as the door shut.

He paused for a moment outside the door, very suddenly feeling the wet discomfort in his briefs, and he shook his head in absolute disbelief of himself. He made his way down the stairs and to his car. Before he started the engine, something caught his eye in the cupholder. A smile unconsciously crawled onto his face as he fished inside to retrieve it.

“You eyes are forget-me-not blue, after all.”

Cheeks sore from smiling, Jamie proudly dropped the wee flower into his breast pocket, his gaze lingering on her front door.

Forget you, I could not, my Sassenach .

Chapter Text

Jamie pulled up in front of the Beauchamp apartment, his heart hammering. For some reason, he was even more nervous than their first date. And for some reason, even though he’d eaten dinner with both Claire and Faith in that very kitchen once before, it still felt brand new and very frightening.

Claire had texted him on Monday afternoon that her shift ended at five on Wednesday, followed by:

So how’d you like to make good on that promise of homemade lasagna?

He got out of the car and wiped his sweaty palms on his cargo shorts, then opened the back seat to retrieve the prepped ingredients that he’d taken care of last night. He’d already browned the beef and onions and portioned out all the cheeses so all they had to do was layer the ingredients and pop it in the oven.

By the time he’d finished with his last client at the stables, got home, and showered the smell of horses off of him, it was already almost six. He jogged up the driveway, bags in hand, and his heart immediately felt lighter to see Faith in the front window, nose pressed against the glass, flapping her hands. Claire pushed aside the curtain and firmly grasped one of her daughter’s hands before opening the front door before Jamie even reached the top step.

“Hallo there, Princess Faith,” Jamie said fondly, his cheeks already sore from smiling. She was humming loudly, on the verge of even yelling.

“Hey, hey…” Claire bent down and hoisted Faith up despite her protestations, holding her close and rubbing her back. “Yes, I know…we are very excited to cook with Jamie…”

They shuffled out of the doorway and Jamie closed the front door, locking it again behind him.

“Shh…easy, baby…”  Claire bounced her gently and stroked her back. “I know, I know…”

She tried launching herself forward toward Jamie, nearly toppling headfirst out of Claire’s arms, and Jamie leapt forward to catch her.

“I got her,” Claire assured. “Hey, hey, it’s okay…I know…”

Her shouting quieted to a constant buzz of hums, and she rocked forward and back in Claire’s arms. “There you go. Good girl.”

“Aye, there ya go, lass. Good job.” Jamie offered a thumbs up, which Faith returned, still rocking.

“Okay, time to wash up. Can’t cook with dirty doggie hands.” Claire scrunched her nose up and leaned close to Faith’s face, and Faith giggled, shaking her curly head.

“Say hello to Angus and then wash your hands as well,” Claire said, putting Faith down. “No dirty doggie hands for you either.”

Jamie chuckled. “Aye, aye, captain.”

He put the bags down in the kitchen then knelt down to scruff up Angus’s neck. He heard Claire’s lilting voice from the bathroom, saying some sing-song little rhyme to help Faith wash her hands, and he sighed with contentment. What a gift it was to be privy to hear something so intimately beautiful that mother and daughter shared.

Claire and Faith emerged from the hallway, Claire holding both of Faith’s hands and waddling awkwardly, and then Jamie noticed that Faith was standing on her feet.

“Can’t have her touching anything,” Claire explained.

“Ye keep her sterile like a surgeon before dinner?”

Claire gave him a look, rolling her eyes. “Go on, Fraser. Sanitize.”

He saluted her before making his way to the bathroom to follow orders. As the water ran over his hands, he heard music coming from the kitchen, followed by little hands clapping. He smiled again, drying his hands, then made his way back to the kitchen. Claire had taken everything out of the bags and created a spread on the table for them to work with, and Faith was sitting dutifully in her chair, rocking back and forth to “Heigh-Ho,” that sweet, absent smile on her face. She was wearing a little yellow apron with bumblebees on it.

“Almost forgot,” Jamie said. “Cooking time is music time.”

“That’s right,” Claire said, taking the phone off the table. Faith moaned, reaching up to take it back. “I’m not turning it off, I’m just moving it. Look. See?” She put the phone on the counter and raised the volume a bit. “See? We need room to cook on the table. Yes?”

Faith leaned heavily on the table to hoist herself onto her knees in her chair.

“Alright. Are we ready?” Claire sat down, and Jamie sat down across from her so that Faith was in between them. Faith slapped the table excitedly. “Quiet hands, Faith. Thank you.”

“Alright,” Jamie said. “Let me show ye, now — oh! Did ye heat the oven?”

“Started when you were washing your hands.”

He nodded curtly. “Bonny.”

He spread a thin layer of sauce in the pan, then dumped the beef and the remaining sauce into a large stirring bowl. He gave Faith the wooden spoon and instructed her to stir.

“Watch, a leannan .” He made big stirring motions with his hands, and Faith began copying him with two hands, causing the bowl to spin.

“Woah!” Claire cried, seizing the bowl before it could spin out of control and create a disaster. Faith squealed at the commotion, but she resumed her task, clumsily trudging the spoon through the bowl.

“Good job, lass. Fine stirring,” Jamie encouraged her. “Let me finish it off, now, so it’s all ready. May I have the spoon?”

Faith yanked the spoon out of the bowl, splashing sauce and beef onto the table and Jamie’s shirt, which was thankfully black, him having anticipated a possible mess. Claire, to her credit, was wearing black shorts, but a lavender t-shirt. The adults laughed off the little mess, and Jamie took over stirring, getting it evenly mixed.

Next, they began layering. Jamie would put in the liquid ingredients while Claire counted out loud with Faith, one through five lasagna noodles, and then they placed them inside. They repeated this until the ingredients were depleted and the dish was full.

“And look at that! All ready fer the oven!” Jamie said.

“Yay!” Claire said, waving her hands in applause. “Good job, little chef.”

Faith jiggled her hands as well, and then looked back at Jamie to be sure he was applauding her as well, and he was, of course.

“Alright, lovie, sit with Mummy while Jamie opens the oven.” Claire pulled Faith into her lap and held on tight, nodding to Jamie when she was secure. He popped the dish in and set the microwave timer for an hour. Claire tried to take Faith’s apron off, but she groaned in annoyance, and pawed Claire’s hands away.

“Suppose she’s no’ done being a chef until it’s cooked, aye?” Jamie smirked, crossing his arms and leaning against the counter.

“I suppose not,” Claire said, releasing Faith to scramble off her lap. She pattered over to the counter where Claire had put her phone down and picked it up again, wanting to hear the music more clearly. The song changed and Faith hummed excitedly. From the French in the opening lines, Jamie deduced that “Be Our Guest” was about to play.

“Ah! They're making dinner in this song, aye? Like you, wee Faith,” he said.

Faith put the phone back on the table and threw her hands up, then proceeded to skip around the kitchen in time with the music, flapping her hands all the while.

“Sings and dances?” Jamie said, sidestepping her path to make his way back to the table.

“Hm. Yeah.”

Jamie sat down in Faith’s seat, closer to Claire, and he gingerly reached out for her hand. She looked up at him, and then they both leaned in for a brief, sweet kiss.

“Hi,” Claire said, stroking his stubbled chin.

“Hi,” he returned, tucking a curl back that had slipped loose from her ponytail.

Claire opened her mouth to say something else, but before she could, two little hands slapped one of each of their knees. Faith looked up at Claire expectantly, and then Claire turned to look sheepishly at Jamie.

“She wants me to dance with her.”

Jamie’s grin widened. “Then who am I to stop ye?”

Claire blushed and got out of her chair, taking Faith’s hands in hers. The grand finale of the song was nearing, and Faith kept insisting on being twirled. Jamie noticed that she was entranced by the way her apron swished about when she twirled. The song ended, and Jamie applauded from his seat.

“Bonny dancers, both of ye,” he said. Faith gave a dramatic, silly little curtsy, holding the edges of her apron.

A familiar drum riff came from the phone, and Faith began jumping up and down.

“Oh no…” Claire said, blushing at Jamie again.

“What?”

“I only have myself to blame for always getting so into it…but she expects a full performance of this one whenever it comes on. Every time.”

Jamie tossed his head back in a barking laugh, and Faith continued tugging on Claire’s hands. Claire did not look ready to give a full performance; she looked like she wanted to melt into the floor.

Well, James, looks like there’s only one choice.

He jumped to his feet with a flourish, and jumped in with the singer:

“Let’s get down to business to defeat the Huns!”

He watched as Claire’s jaw fell slack and Faith whipped around, abandoning all hope for Claire’s performance and focusing on Jamie’s instead. They’d discussed Jamie’s lack of pitch before, so it was no surprise to him that Claire was soon doubled over in her chair, tears of laughter leaking out of her eyes. It sounded just fine to him , and to Faith as well, he supposed. Though he wasn’t sure if Faith laughed her head off when Claire sang.

By the end of the song, Faith was tugging on his hands, insisting he dance with her. And Claire was still howling with laughter.

Those three-and-a-half minutes would burn themselves into Jamie’s permanent memory, never to be forgotten or replaced.

“Alright, alright,” Jamie said at the end, trying to stop Claire from fully falling over. “I’ll stop before ye die of secondhand embarrassment.”

“I’m sorry! It’s just…” she wheezed, wiping her eyes again. “I had no idea you knew all the words…”

“Jen’s favorite movie. Warrior woman and all that,” he explained. “Plus Mam was a big Donny fan.”

She shook her head, finally calming herself down. “Well, you did splendidly.”

“Aye, sure I did.”

But he was apparently not done yet.

The entire rest of the hour the lasagna was baking, Faith did not let Jamie sit down. He didn’t know the words to every song, especially not the newer ones, but he didn’t do too poorly if he said so himself. The bairn seemed happy enough.

At some point in the proceedings, Faith took the phone in her hands and scrolled through the songs on the playlist, the corner of her tongue sticking out between pursed lips. Jamie waited patiently to see what she wanted to play next. She usually let the music play in whatever order shuffle chose, but sometimes she wanted to repeat a particular favorite. A gentle, lilting intro began, and Faith gave Claire the phone instead of putting it on the counter. Jamie was able to place the song when the lyrics began discussing the hundred-acre wood , and Faith approached him with eager hands.

“D’ye want to dance?”

Before he could even begin swaying her arms, she started yanking on his hands, pulling him out of the kitchen. Jamie looked up to Claire for an explanation, and she was already standing up, a knowing smile on her face.

“She wants to show you something.”

Jamie allowed her to lead them both through the living room and into Faith’s room. She let go of his hands when she opened the door, and she scampered right over to the giant yellow bear that was exactly where Jamie had left it on Saturday night, right next to her bed. She giggled as she threw her arms around it’s neck, barely having to crouch in order to do so.

Something had changed, though: it was now wearing a red shirt.

Jamie felt a lopsided grin melt into his features, and he turned around to see Claire holding up the phone as the Winnie the Pooh theme song continued.

“It was the first thing she did when she woke up to see it there,” she said. “I took a picture to send you, but I figured she’d want to show you, and you’d rather be surprised.”

“Would ye look at that,” Jamie said, walking over to Faith and her bear and crouching down beside them. “It would appear I didna bring home any ordinary bear from the carnival. It was Pooh Bear all along, aye?” Jamie poked his squishy tummy, and Faith giggled.

“I didn’t even think of that when I told you to ask for the yellow one,” Claire said, joining them by sitting on Faith’s bed. “She woke up, freaked out to see it, and then ran right to her dresser to pull out one of her red shirts. She turned it inside out so you can’t see the print, because then it wouldn’t be plain red like Pooh’s. She made me cut the tag off the back, too.”

“Ye’re a clever lass, a leannan .” He signed smart . “Smart girl, Faith.”

Faith swayed with her giant Pooh Bear, and then took Claire’s phone back from her again to restart the song.

“What does that mean?” Claire asked.

Leannan ?” Jamie said, sitting back on the floor and leaning on the bed. “Means my darling, sweetheart. That sort of thing.”

He felt fingers thread through his hair, and eagerly leaned into her touch.

“That’s…very sweet, Jamie.”

He took one of her hands and kissed it, holding it against his cheek as she continued to play with his hair.

“You said it at her birthday,” Claire said thoughtfully. “And a little before that, too.”

“Aye, well…she was my little darling long before I had the guts to tell ye.”

He heard her shifting behind him, and then she was on the ground beside him, nuzzling into him and kissing his cheek.

“I am one lucky lass,” she said softly. “And so is Faith.”

For the rest of the baking time, Faith gradually lost interest in dancing, and she began puttering around her room. She pulled out toys to hand to Jamie and Claire, she sat at her little table and colored, she sat cross-legged on the floor with one of her little toys that lit up and made sounds, this one in the shape of a guitar, playing the same sound over and over before switching to the next. When the timer went off, she was out of her room like a shot, leaving Jamie and Claire to scramble after her lest she try and open the oven, Claire crying “wait for Mummy!” after her.

By the time they got there, the timer had stopped, and Jamie had to hide his grin to see that Faith had dragged over a chair to reach the microwave to stop the timer herself.

“No climbing, Faith!” Claire scolded. “Get down at once, and put the chair back.”

Faith obeyed with clomping feet.

“If you want to push the buttons, you ask Mummy or Jamie for help. Do you understand?”

Claire put on a timer for a few seconds just so it would go off again. “Come here,” she said, picking up Faith and holding her up to the microwave. “See? Mummy can lift you, no climbing. Press the button. There. Good girl.” She walked a safe distance away from the oven. “Jamie is going to take the lasagna out of the oven now. Almost time for dinner, lovie.”

Jamie set it to cool on a hot plate, and then enlisted Faith’s help to set the table while Claire prepared the scooper and water for Angus’s dinner. By the time all of that was settled, and Faith fed Angus, Claire was cutting up the lasagna.

“I can already tell you it smells better than the microwave one,” she said over her shoulder.

“Aye. That it does, Sassenach.”

“You’re going to have her spoiled,” Claire said, putting Faith’s plate in front of her. “She’ll never eat my microwave cooking again.”

“Och, would be a shame if I’d have to come over just to cook fer the lass every night.” Claire paused to raise a brow at him, and he smirked and winked. She rolled her eyes with a giggle as she returned to the counter to serve Jamie, and then herself.

The meal was quite delicious, if Jamie did say so himself. He’d always been a moderately good cook; at least he was always satisfied with what he made, living alone and all. But to see Claire enjoying it so thoroughly, and Faith devouring it without a thought, was satisfying beyond words.

Faith’s dessert of choice hadn’t been Oreos as Jamie had thought it would be. The last time he was here had been during the winter, so it would only make sense that now Faith would request ice cream regularly.

“I hope you like chocolate,” Claire said, retrieving the tub from the freezer. “It’s the only flavor she’ll touch.”

“Of course I like chocolate,” Jamie said with feigned offense that she would even need to ask such a question.

“Just making sure! Here lovie, sit down.” Faith took the bowl and spoon handed to her and got back into her chair. Claire sat down with her own bowl and handed Jamie his. Claire took the longest to eat, being that she constantly had to stop to wipe Faith’s mouth or the table from her dripping. Claire had to raise her voice to stop Faith from digging through her movies without washing her hands clean of sticky ice cream, and then eventually had to hold her hands still under the running water in the kitchen while the lass squirmed and moaned in protest.

Claire sighed as Faith finally escaped the kitchen, clean as she was going to get. Jamie chuckled as he stood to help her clean up. Claire bent to retrieve a container to give Jamie some lasagna to take home, but he waved her off.

“Keep it all, Sassenach. Save ye some trouble later.”

She tried to protest, but Jamie wasn’t having it. She relented and put the entire covered dish in the fridge.

“Did you mean it? You’d come over to cook again? Not every night, I mean,” she added quickly. “I just mean…well…I’m a terrible cook. And Faith had fun tonight.”

“Ye can say it, Sassenach. Ye like my cooking.” He crossed his arms, leaning against the counter with a smirk.

“Well! Yes! It was very good!”

“And ye can say that ye enjoy a home cooked meal. Since ye never get to have such a thing.”

“Well…yes…I suppose.”

“And I can say that I enjoy cooking for ye, lass.” He pushed himself off the counter and crossed to the fridge to take her in his arms. “Does my heart good to give ye something nice after a long day. I ken ye dinna get that much.”

Claire hummed sweetly, then kissed him lightly. “You’re too good to me.”

“Ye deserve it, mo nighean donn .”

Before Jamie could kiss her back, the pitter-patter of Faith’s bare feet reentered the kitchen. They separated just a bit, but remained in each other’s embrace. Faith patted Claire’s thigh and reached up with a DVD box in hand.

“Ah! Tangled , tonight!” Claire held the box up to show Jamie. “Have you seen this one?”

“I havena actually,” Jamie said. “It came out before Jenny had any of her bairns, and I dinna exactly know any other wee lasses or laddies.”

“Ah, I see,” Claire said. “Well, you’ll love it. I know I do; it’s very funny. It came out the year Faith was born. Right, darling?”

In response, Faith tugged on her hands, and the adults followed her into the living room. It was familiar for Jamie, sitting in this living room in the fading light with the tellie flashing. Faith was wedged between he and Claire, just like last time; Claire held onto his hand the whole movie, just like last time; they laughed and swayed together, and Faith hummed the melody of the songs, just like last time. The scene in the tavern had Jamie wiping his eyes from tears of laughter, and the rousing love duet in the boat had his heart swelling and his hand squeezing Claire’s, bringing it to his lips and kissing it behind Faith’s head.

Christ, am I glad we see the light.

The ending had him tearing up again, even though he knew Eugene couldn't really be dead. He still cried every time he watched Beauty and the Beast , even knowing that the Beast would be fine soon, so of course this movie couldn't be any different. He could feel Claire’s eyes on him, inwardly chuckling at him in this emotional state. When the movie ended, Faith jumped up to dance to the ending-credits-music, and Claire scooted into Jamie, sitting on her hip with her legs curled next to her.

“Alright there, Soldier?” she asked, kissing his cheek. “Relieved that everything turned out alright?”

“Och, leave me be.” He lightly swatted her arse, but then tenderly kissed the top of her head. “Ye were right, I enjoyed it. Dare I say I like it better than Frozen .”

Claire pushed herself off of him and looked at him, gravely serious. “That is a heavy statement in this home.”

He laughed. “Oh, aye, dinna tell Faith I said so.”

Upon hearing her name, Faith momentarily paused her dancing to look at them. Jamie laughed sheepishly and waved at her, and she waved back, blissfully unaware, before resuming her dancing. Jamie and Claire shared another loud laugh that ended with their lips together.

After the music ended, Faith ejected the DVD and put it away. She scrambled onto the couch to plant herself in Claire’s lap, wedging her little body between the adults. They both chuckled, and Claire squeezed her daughter, kissing her head.

“You like watching movies with Jamie, don’t you?” she said. “Was that fun? Yes?”

Faith was smiling absently as Claire rocked her, playing with Jamie’s fingers in her small hands.

“You…don’t have to leave, you know,” Claire said hesitantly. “You can hang around while we get through bedtime routine, and then I can join you right back on the couch for another movie. I’ve got drinks, too. If you want.”

Faith began rhythmically patting the back of Jamie’s hand, and he felt warmth spreading from head to toe.

“Aye. That sounds great, Sassenach.”

Her nervousness melted away, and she broke into a wide grin. “Okay. Just wait here while I get her settled. Should only be twenty minutes.” Jamie nodded. “Faithie, say goodnight to Jamie. It’s time for bed. Say goodnight.”

Faith patted his cheek and then slid off of Claire’s lap, tugging on her hand.

“Goodnight, Faith. Sweet dreams,” Jamie said, and the lass waved over her shoulder as she pulled Claire into the bathroom.

He stretched out on the couch, contentment filling him to the brim as he listened to Claire coax Faith into swallowing her medicine, then talk through their teeth brushing routine.

“Open wide, Faith. Let me get the back— I said open…”

“Now rinse and spit, lovie. Rinse and spit. Good girl.”

It was so domestic, so normal . And yet it was music to his ears.

He heard them shuffle from the bathroom to Faith’s bedroom, and Claire called Angus. He shot up off the floor where Jamie had been occasionally reaching down to pet him, and he trotted into Faith’s room. A few minutes later, Claire returned to the living room and leaned over the back of the couch.

“Alright. She’s not asleep just yet, but she will be soon. She sleeps much better now that we have Angus.”

“Glad to hear it,” Jamie said. “What’s this about drinks, then?”

“Come on.” She grabbed his hands and he hoisted off the couch, following her into the kitchen. “Faith can’t reach this, not even with a chair,” she said, indicating the cabinet above the microwave. Claire reached up on her toes to stretch into the cabinet, sighing triumphantly when she emerged with the bottle.

“This is what we call big-girl-juice,” she said, smiling crookedly, waving the bottle around. “Though you don’t seem like a red-wine kind of lad.”

“I’ll drink whatever ye give me, Sassenach.”

“Good. Because I also have…” She stretched back up, and the bottom of her shirt inched up, exposing the smooth expanse of her back. He could focus on nothing else until he heard her sigh, and the shirt slid back into place. His eyes flicked back to her beaming face, slightly flushed with exertion.

“This!” she finished, holding up a bottle of whisky.

“Ye didna trouble yerself to get that fer me,” he said, though he couldn’t help but smile.

“No trouble at all. I just had a feeling when I was out buying the wine, so I grabbed this, too. Mostly for you, but I drink it too.”

He chuckled, closing the space between them and kissing her softly, cupping her waist with one hand. He laughed again, breathing it into her mouth.

“What?” she said coyly, peering up at him through her lashes.

“Jest imagining what ye’ll taste like after a drink,” he mused, snaking both arms around her waist. “Fruity, sweet, tangy, the crisp alcohol taste, of course.” He gave her a small peck. “Sticky, perhaps?” He flicked his tongue briefly over her bottom lip, and she squealed, swatting at his shoulder.

“Oh, enough,” she giggled, squirming out of his grasp. “I need to get us some glasses, unless you prefer to drink out of the bottle.”

“D’ye take me fer a heathen?” he said, aghast.

“What? I’ve had plenty a wine-night with Gi where we just pass the bottle back and forth. Glasses can be overrated.”

“Good whisky should be savored, treated wi’ respect.”

She shot him a look from the cabinet as she pulled out the glasses. “You’re serious?”

“Aye, I am.” He nodded.

She sputtered with laughter again as she put the glasses on the counter. “You really are a Scot.”

“Ye doubted me, then?” He arched an eyebrow, coming up behind her as she uncorked the wine bottle, snaking his arms under hers and clasping his hands over her stomach, bending to rest his chin on her shoulder.

“Of course not,” she said with a laugh. “You’d have to be one hell of an actor to fake a dialect that authentic.”

“Ye say that as if I couldna be a hell of an actor.” He pressed a kiss to her jawline, and she gave him the most attractive side-eye he’d ever seen.

“I’m sorry, darling, but I’d have to say you couldn’t.” She turned her head and closed her eyes, pursing her lips adorably, waiting for him to kiss her. And who was he to deny her? He obliged, kissing her slowly and sweetly, his heart straining as he felt her smile against his lips.

“I can always see right through you,” she finished, a devilish glint in her eye. He went to kiss her again, but she turned her head, and his lips landed on her temple instead. She giggled, and the sound made his stomach flip. She took the uncorked wine bottle in one hand and her glass in the other, and Jamie grinned. He unwound his arms from around her waist, circling around her shoulders instead, then closed his hands around hers.

“Allow me, Milady.” She slid her hands away, resting them on the countertop as he poured the deep red liquid, keeping his lips buried in her curls all the while. Wine glass full, he moved to the whisky bottle, opening it and pouring his own glass, keeping her pressed against him. She innocently wiggled against him, just a bit, and his hands jerked, causing a small splash of whisky to land on the counter.

He didn’t think she realized, not at first anyway. But now, there was no way she didn’t.

He was hard as rock with her bonny round arse wedged right against him.

——

Claire immediately felt liquid heat rushing to her stomach as soon as she felt it. She felt paralyzed, completely unaware of what she should do .

Her mind immediately went to the incident in the car, how she’d almost ruined the entire evening. She could tell easily enough that he was not the type of guy to put out on the first date, and she’d been painfully ashamed when she’d pushed that boundary too far and crossed a line.

Did this even count as a second date? They’d just finished watching a princess movie with her five year old daughter, who was now asleep right off the living room.

His whisky was poured, and he managed to close the bottle with surprising ease given the state she knew he was in. She knew she should just ignore it, not embarrass him further…but God, the urge to rub her arse up and down over it, just to hear him groan, maybe even grab her hips…

Thank God she didn’t have any more time to contemplate that, as he left her side to grab a paper towel to clean the little spill.

“Sorry ’bout that,” he said, quickly swiping at the counter.

“Oh, it’s fine. You’ve no idea how many spills these counters have seen.” She forced a small laugh, and he chuckled as well. After tossing the paper towel in the bin, he returned to pick up his glass, and he smirked down at her.

Slaínte ,” he said, clinking his glass into hers.

“Cheers.”

They took a small sip, and then Claire snatched her wine bottle off the counter and made her way out of the kitchen. She looked over her shoulder to catch him staring at her arse, and she blushed from head to toe. He cleared his throat before grabbing the rest of the whisky and following after her.

Claire put her glass and the bottle on the coffee table before plopping down on the couch with a contented sigh. “So, what’ll it be tonight, then?”

“I figured I’d let you choose,” Jamie said, sitting down beside her. “Since it’s your home and all. If ye’re ever at my place, we’ll pick my favorite princess.”

Claire guffawed and swatted at his arm. “We are not watching another princess movie, thank you very much.”

“A right shame,” Jamie said, smirking behind his glass.

Claire rolled her eyes, flicking on the tellie with the remote. “I’m terrible at making decisions. What are you in the mood for?”

She couldn’t stop herself from flicking her eyes downward to his lap.

Well…I know what he’s in the mood for.

“Ye have Hulu?” Jamie said excitedly. “I’ve only got Netflix and I’ve seen just about everything on there. Though I wouldna mind watching something again if ye havena seen it.”

“No, that’s okay. Peruse Hulu all you want.” She opened the application and handed him the remote, taking another sip of her wine.

Jamie scrolled for a while through various titles that either one or both of them had seen. He stopped, though, tensing with excitement.

“Ah! I haven’t seen this one in ages,” he laughed. He was stopped on The Godfather . “A classic.”

Claire cringed a bit. “How many brownie points do I lose if I tell you I’ve never seen it…?”

“Never seen The Godfather ?” Jamie was aghast. “It’s a cinematic masterpiece, Sassenach!”

“Well, I’m sorry! If I’d known you were such a serious film critic I’d have brushed up on the classics!”

“Ye ken we have to watch it now, don’t ye?” He raised a brow at her, remote poised to hit play.

“Go ahead! I’d love to finally know what all the fuss is about.”

“Fuss!” he said haughtily, hitting play and putting the remote on the coffee table. “It’s certainly worth the high praise. The first one at least. The rest leave much to be desired.”

“How many are there?”

“Three. I willna subject ye to the rest.”

“Well, what if I want to be subjected to it?” She scooted a bit closer to him, leaning against his shoulder. “Needing to watch sequels is an excellent excuse to see somebody again.”

“Ye need excuses, then?” He was feigning shock and offense, but Claire could hear the soft, endearing undertones as the trumpet theme began, the lone chair occupying the screen.

“Hm. Perhaps.” She snuggled in tighter, and he draped his arm around her, then she placed a kiss on his pectoral.

He made one of those Scottish noises of his, but he kissed the top of her head and rubbed his hand up and down her arm.

“Much easier to cuddle without a child sitting between us,” Claire remarked with a smile, and Jamie chuckled softly.

“Aye, that it is. Though having the bairn between us is special for its own reason.”

That warmed Claire from head to toe.

The wedding sequence began, and the both of them began steadily intaking their respective drinks. Claire remarked that she’d love to go to an Italian wedding, and then Jamie held her at arms length to quirk his brow at her.

“No’ one filled wi’ mobsters, I should hope?”

“Not all Italians are mobsters, you bloody Scot!” She swatted at him again, but was laughing heartily. “I know quite a few Italians — ”

“Aye, we’re on Long Island — ”

“And none of them are in the Mafia.”

“Never seen a Scottish wedding, then?”

“No, I actually haven’t.”

“I think it could rival this. And no mobsters necessary.”

“Oh, stop that!”

They fell into more laughter and more drink, and they were both already refilling their glasses before Marlon Brando even stepped on the scene. When the scene inside began, Jamie leaned forward excitedly, and Claire almost teased that he looked like Faith watching Frozen . When the Godfather himself said his iconic line, Jamie felt compelled to repeat it:

I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse, ” he garbled, and Claire immediately doubled over in howling hysterics.

“That’s horrible !” Claire wheezed.

“Och, come on, now!” he said, his face bright red. “Da always said I got it spot on!”

That sent her howling again, and before long she was laying with her head in his lap, tears of laughter leaking out of her eyes.

“Your father has never lived outside of Scotland has he?”

“Well…no…”

“Oh, God…” She wiped her eyes, and then looked up at him from his lap. “Do it again! Please?”

“After the brutal treatment I just received? No chance.” He pointedly looked away from her, staring at the tellie. “You’re missing important stuff, ye ken.”

“Oh, come on…” Claire sat up, getting on her knees on the cushion. “I’m sorry, darling…I take it all back.”

He took a sip of his whisky, his face remaining stoic aside from a small twitch of his brow.

“Jamie…” Claire whined, putting her chin on his shoulder and pouting her lips right against his jaw. “I’m sorry for teasing…You make a smolderingly handsome mobster.”

She kissed his cheek, and he looked at her from the corner of his eye. “Do I?”

“Mhm.” She kissed his cheek again and threaded her arms around his neck. “With a silly voice.”

Before she could even blink, Jamie ducked his head and seized her around the waist, pulling her off of him and pinning her into the cushions. She squealed loudly, and he put a finger over her lips.

“Dinna wake the bairn, lass.”

She glowered up at him, feeling a blush creep all the way down her chest, more heat gathering in the pit of her stomach. Before she could do anything about it, he was leaning down himself to press their lips together, and Claire sighed contentedly, enjoying the feeling of being pressed into the couch cushion far too much. He pulled away by dragging his teeth against her bottom lip, causing another squeak. He then sat straight up and turned his attention back to the screen, taking another sip of whisky.

“You bloody tease…” Claire sat up, shaking her head and downing the rest of her wine.

“You started it.”

She snorted. “Who’s the bairn now, hm?”

“Mm…I like hearing ye say Scots words.”

“Do you?” She batted her lashes at him as she poured more wine.

“Aye…in yer silly Sassenach voice.” He flashed her a wicked side eye, and despite herself, her stomach flipped.

“What other Scot words do you want to hear, hm?” She inched closer on her knees.

“I’m trying to watch the movie.”

As usual, she could see right through him; could see how he was flushed red down to his chest, how his brow was sweating, and how the bulge in his pants had gotten all the larger.

“Mm…” She put her wine glass down, and then plucked his whisky out of his hands as well. “I’m…enjoying it so far.”

He quirked a brow at her. “The movie?”

She licked her lips and moved in closer. “Sure.”

She had no idea what was prompting her to be so bold — probably the wine. Had she not just finished telling herself that she’d crossed a boundary on their last date, and that it would be wrong to even come close to doing so again?

But then Jamie exhaled loudly, and she could swear it was a growl .

And she completely lost her senses.

She resumed her former position, arms around his neck and face buried in his shoulder, and began kissing his neck and jaw, humming softly as she did. He growled again, much more obvious this time, then captured her face with his hands and kissed her, hard. She groaned immediately at the contact, plunging her tongue between his lips right away.

Christ …” Jamie breathed out, before plunging his tongue in her mouth as well. They remained in this position for a while, Claire on her knees and Jamie awkwardly twisting his torso to reach her properly, until Jamie’s hands wandered lower and lower to try and find that arse that she knew he was admiring earlier.

Well, she knew of one position for him to hold it easier.

She pushed his shoulders back and straddled him on her knees, and Jamie groaned again when he could finally properly squeeze that soft flesh that he so desperately needed in his hands.

“You like that, don’t you?” Claire teased, running her own hands up and down the rippling muscles of his chest.

“Christ, Sassenach…” he gasped against her mouth. “Ye’ve the roundest arse I’ve ever seen.”

Just those words had her moaning again, and she sealed her lips to his once more as he squeezed and pressed and released. He occasionally ran his hands up her back, grasped her shoulders from behind, even tugged on her hair, but they always found their way back to her arse. The more he pressed on it, the more he was pressing her heat into his rock solid erection.

She didn’t mean to start rocking against him. She really didn’t. But then his lips latched onto that spot on her neck, just as his cock pressed right where she needed it . And she couldn’t help it.

She cried out and started moving, and he sighed with what she could only perceive as relief.

It’s different this time. We’re not in the car, it’s not the first date.

“Fuck…” she groaned, gritting her teeth as his hands moved from her soft flesh to the sides of her hips so he could help control the pace.

He wants this.

She ground down harder, undulating her hips erratically, their mouths clashing messily. Jamie muttered something unintelligible, perhaps in Gaelic, and he arched up into her, pushing and pulling her hips at a faster pace.

His hands suddenly left her hips and she cried out as they gripped both of her breasts just as firmly as they’d been gripping her arse. She braced her hands on the back of the couch behind his head, throwing her own head back as Jamie pushed her breasts together and apart, buried his face in them, dipped his tongue between them.

“God, Jamie…I’m going to come like this…”

The question was…did she want to?

His hands moved back to her hips, and she threw her arms around his neck, locking their lips together again.

It would be so easy…just a little faster, a few small circles of her hips…

But she could have him . He seemed eager enough. And God…did she want him.

It’s different. We’re not in the car. My bedroom is right there.

“Will you…” Claire panted, unable to stop herself from kissing him again before finishing her sentence. “Do you want to…”

She cut herself off again, inhaling sharply through her nose as their tongues clashed, her teeth sinking into his bottom lip.

“Claire…” he groaned out, and the sound of her name coming out of him like that was enough to send her hips pumping harder. His grip on her hips tightened almost painfully, and she moaned loudly into his mouth.

“Claire,” he said again, and she suddenly couldn’t move her hips anymore. He was holding her…stopping her.

Oh.

Breathless, Claire stopped fighting against his grip and tried to focus her bleary vision on his face. Her hands slid from his neck to rest on his shoulders, and she wet her swollen lips nervously.

“I’m sorry,” Jamie stammered, his face red and hot. “I should've stopped ye sooner…I’m…It’s no’ that I dinna want to. Please dinna think that.”

Her word processing was admittedly quite slow at the moment — arousal and now confusion closing her mind — so it took her a while to actually register what he was saying.

“It’s jest that…” He went on before her fevered brain could catch up, and she could feel her heartbeat in her throat.

“You don’t have to explain yourself, Jamie,” Claire said quickly, feeling his discomfort, and wanting to bury herself alive yet again. She chuckled uncomfortably, then awkwardly slid off his lap, sitting beside him. She could not help but feel some sort of loss at no longer having him pressed against her.

“It’s…been a while. Since I’ve felt…this way,” Claire continued, avoiding his eyes. “I just got…excited.”

“Dinna be sorry fer it,” Jamie said, taking her chin in his fingers and forcing her to look at him. “Please. Don’t.” As if to prove to her that he was alright, he closed the small distance to kiss her sweetly. “Have I upset ye, Sassenach?”

“No, no, Jamie.” She took his hands in hers. “It’s alright.”

They spent a few seconds in uncomfortable silence, shoulder to shoulder, fingers laced together, both of their eyes fixed on the colorful images on the television that were largely going ignored.

“I, uh. Haven’t. Since Frank,” Claire said, finally breaking the silence. “So it’s been a while for me.”

She cringed even as she said it, feeling like a teenager and an old maid all at once. A divorcee at twenty-seven, randy as a sixteen year old and yet starved for attention as an old widow. The man beside her was a young bachelor, handsome as all hell, and childless to boot. She cringed even harder to think of all the women he’d had while she was crying herself to sleep after cutting her ex-husband out of yet another photograph, an ex-husband that hadn’t even touched her for years before they finally cut the cord.

She heard Jamie swallow, and she tensed, anticipating hearing that he’d gotten some just last month.

“I…haven’t.”

Her brow furrowed. It had been a while for him, too? Had he really not seen anyone in the time they’d met? Were his feelings that strong all along?

“Ever.”

Claire felt like she’d been smacked in the face.

“You…you’re…” She looked up at him for the first time in several minutes.

“A virgin. Aye.” He was redder in the face than he’d been when she was straddling him.

Claire must have looked as gobsmacked as she felt, because he actually laughed.

“Does that surprise ye, Sassenach?”

“Well…it’s not that there’s anything wrong with it…” she stammered, studying the lines of his face, feeling his arm muscle against her, only one word echoing in her mind:

How?

“You’re just…” She exhaled, flustered. “You’re…you’re a young man…” She had to give a conscious effort to not say out loud that he was a fucking Adonis.

“And quite…attractive.”

He laughed again, blushing deeply.

“Think so?” He smirked at her.

She chuckled nervously. “Well, of course, but I don’t think I’m biased…what I mean is…it can't just be me.” She ran her thumb back and forth over his knuckles, almost subconsciously.

“I ken yer meaning, Sassenach,” he said sheepishly. “There were lasses with…interest, I suppose. But I ne’er felt right doing it unless she was my girlfriend. Didna matter what the lass thought, I jest couldna get past thinking I’d be dishonoring her. Jest the way I am.”

His face was impossibly more red than it had been before, and it made Claire’s heart feel strained. She could tell that he was embarrassed, that he felt like he should have some sort of explanation for why he was the way that he was.

“I think that’s very sweet, Jamie,” Claire assured him, threading her fingers in his curls and caressing his head.

“Ye dinna find me any less manly?” He was teasing, but she heard the underlying insecurity, his need to be reassured.

“Of course not,” Claire said, kissing him gently, massaging his scalp. “It’s part of what makes you you. And I quite like you. Very much.”

“And thank Heaven fer that,” he chuckled, giving her another light peck.

“So you…” Claire thought perhaps she should put a cork in it, but she was too curious, too eager to know what made him tick. “You didn't want to outside of a relationship. So you’ve never…”

“I’ve had girlfriends, Sassenach, if that’s what ye’re getting at,” he said casually. “I would wait until it felt right, and either we didn’t last that long, or it never felt right. That’s all.”

Claire nodded in understanding. “Thank you for telling me.”

“Dinna thank me. I’m only telling ye to spare my pride,” he joked. “Had to let ye know there was a reason, lest ye think I was some sort of prude.”

“Well, I do know that isn’t true, at least,” she teased, tracing her finger down the length of his arm and onto his hip bone. “But even if you were, I wouldn’t judge you at all. Though I can’t say I’m not glad.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her, a glint of something she couldn’t name in his eye. “Couldna keep chaste around me, Sassenach?”

“I could, if you really felt strongly about it. It would just be…” She bit her lip, feeling herself blushing again. “Very difficult.”

“Aye, I ken what ye mean.” He tightened his grip on her, pulling her into his side. She nuzzled her face into the crook of his neck, then rested her head on his shoulder. “Ye’re irresistible, mo ghraidh .”

That sent an electric shiver through Claire from head to toe.

“So, ye see, it’s no’ that I dinna want ye, Claire. Because I do. I verra…” She felt his throat muscles swallowing against the crown of her head. “I verra much do. And it’s no’ even that it doesna feel right. You… this feels more right than anything ever has.”

It was Claire’s turn to swallow thickly, anxiety clawing at her throat as he pressed a fervent kiss to the crown of her head.

He is so sure.

“I jest…I want it to be right, is all. I want tae honor ye the way ye deserve."

"Suppose my frantic clawing at you on the couch doesn't exactly create the perfect moment."

"It's alright, Claire," he insisted again, squeezing her shoulder. "I did...enjoy that."

She smirked against his neck, pressing a dangerous kiss there. "I could tell."

He made one of his Scottish noises, decidedly an amused one.

"I agree," Claire said. "That we should wait, I mean. I didn't realize...about you. And I think I need to, as well. For different reasons."

She'd been so wanton, so desperate to be physically closer to him, so frantic to forgo words and use her mouth to claim him rather than to open up to him, that she'd nearly ruined their first time. His first time, ever.

"I tend to..." Claire began, feeling the need to explain herself. "Avoid words, sometimes...a lot. I'm not as eloquent as you are. My body knows what to do when my brain doesn't. And that's not always a good thing.”

He gave her shoulder another squeeze, then began soothingly rubbing her upper arm. “Thank ye fer telling me that, Sassenach.”

Claire supposed that her body was ready for his, but her mind could not fully process how deeply everything ran, while Jamie had his mind more than made up about her, but he was not yet ready to give her that final piece of him.

They’d have to meet in the middle somehow.

“I trust you, Jamie.” Claire peered up at him and stroked his stubbled jawline. “It’s myself that I don’t trust quite yet. I’m trying.”

“I ken, mo ghraidh .” He kissed her head again. “It’s alright.”

“Can you…be patient with me?” She lifted her head off his shoulder so she could look into his eyes, keeping her one hand on his chin and the other on his shoulder.

Jamie smiled warmly, tenderly pushing some hair away from her face. “Of course.”

They shared a lingering, passionate kiss, and by the end, Jamie had pulled her into his lap, both legs draped over him, feet tucked between the cushion and the arm of the couch. They shimmied around a bit so they were both comfortable, Jamie nestled into the cushion and the arm, Claire’s legs curled up, and her arms draped around his neck. Heads resting together, they actually turned their attention to the television and restarted the movie they’d been ignoring.

“Is this alright?” Claire whispered, afraid of stirring something up again by sitting — however innocently — in his lap.

His massive hand moved soothingly up and down the expanse of her back.

“Aye, Sassenach. I like ye in my lap jest fine.”

Chapter Text

The rest of the week following Claire and Jamie’s second date passed rather hectically  (they had decided to refer to it as such, even though Faith was there for half of it). Jamie had left on Wednesday night around one o’clock in the morning, Claire having fallen asleep close to the end of the movie. She’d garbled something unintelligible when Michael killed Fredo, something that she’d translated for him later to have meant: “Fucking traitor.”

He’d let her sleep, and when Claire had chided him about it, told him he should have woken her so they could talk or something, he’d just shrugged and said:

“Ye looked so bloody peaceful, mo nighean donn. Drool on my shoulder and all.”

That earned him a swat to the arm.

“I mean it. Holding ye while ye slept, not a care in the world…was like Heaven on Earth.”

That earned him a very generous kiss.

After saying goodnight, Claire collapsed into bed happy as a clam, and then the chaos began. She opened her eyes to Faith standing right next to her in bed, a la the twins in The Shining, and she’d nearly jumped out of her skin. The girl had proceeded to crawl right into bed with Claire, whining in protest when Claire’s alarm started going off. Claire tried to hold her off as long as possible, but when Mrs. Lickett knocked on the door and they were still in bed, she knew they were in trouble. The poor woman had to pry Faith off of Claire just so she could get ready for work, and she screamed her little head off the whole time. For some reason, Faith did not want Mummy going to work today, and did not want to be left with poor Mrs. Lickett.

There was no rhyme or reason to when Faith got in these moods; she just decided some days that Mummy was not going to leave. And, of course, with Claire’s chosen profession, she did not have the option to oblige her. Perhaps that was for the best; Mrs. Lickett did say they couldn’t always indulge her. But God, if it wouldn’t get her fired, Claire would get right back into bed and hold her baby until she calmed down, and she might never leave again.

Still hearing Faith scream even through the front door and then her car door, Claire finally shed a few overwrought, panicked tears. She glanced tearily at her phone in her bag, thinking to call Jamie, then talked herself out of it.

He doesn’t need to hear every time you’re going crazy, Beauchamp.

She put the key in the ignition, then caught sight of Faith in the window, slamming her palms on the glass, both Mrs. Lickett and Angus trying to talk some sense into her. And then she couldn’t stop herself.

She opened his contact and pressed the call button, put the phone on speaker, and put it in a pocket in the door before pulling out of the driveway. As the phone rang, she sniffled and swallowed thickly, even though she knew that her voice would give her away immediately. It rang for a while, and Claire immediately felt dread in the pit of her stomach, thinking he must be asleep. The stables didn’t open until ten, and she had him over until one. 

Idiot.

Before she could panic-hang-up, it stopped ringing.

“Everything alright, Sassenach?”

“Oh,” she said stupidly, putting on her turn signal to get on the main road. “Hi, yes, everything is fine.”

“Are ye crying, Sassenach?” His voice was alert.

“No, I’m — I’m fine. I’m so sorry I woke you, I had you up so late — ”

“Forget that. I’m an early bird. What’s wrong?” It was gentle, soft, but insistent. He was not going to let her let this go.

Claire sighed. “Really, nothing is wrong. Not really. I’m just driving to work. And it’s already been…a day.”

“How’s that?” 

So gentle.

“Faith did not want me to leave this morning. She just gets like that sometimes, doesn’t want me to go, doesn’t want to do anything Mrs. Lickett has planned for the day. She was screaming her poor head off and she didn’t even want anything to do with Angus, at least while I was there. I didn’t even get a chance to eat anything and I’m already getting a headache.” She chuckled nervously, wiping her eyes with one hand, keeping one on the wheel. “Sorry…I’m rambling.”

“Dinna be sorry, Claire. I’m sorry ye had a rough morning. And I’m sorry fer the wee lass. She misses ye when ye’re gone sometimes, eh?”

“Yeah…” she sighed sadly. “I suppose she does. She used to do it a lot more; there would be a meltdown every day I left the house. Every time I think she’s outgrown it, it comes back full force. And I just feel…awful just…leaving her like that. And I can’t call off for something that isn’t an emergency. I just can’t. And I…”

“Claire.”

She paused, having a feeling he was about to say something.

“Ye’re a good mam, Claire.”

She bit down on her lip fiercely, nearly losing sight of the road as her eyes watered. 

“I ken ye dinna feel that way when ye have to leave her every day, and I canna imagine how that feels. But ye’re no’ the only mam that works, and it doesna matter that ye’re a single parent, either.”

Claire sniffled again, haphazardly wiping her eyes. “I just…I know that I do so much for her. I do know that. But on days like today…it just feels like I’ll never be enough, like I’ll never be able to give her everything she needs.”

“Christ, Sassenach, ye’re more than enough. Ye have to know that. Ye have to work to give her those things she needs. Ye have to know that, too. Ye’re doing the best ye can, and it’s great. Ye’re a good mother.”

Claire sniffled again, quite loudly, and she almost laughed at how gross she must have sounded on his end. “Thank you, Jamie. I don’t even know what to say.”

“Nothing at all is just fine.”

She pulled into the employee parking lot of the hospital, and she sighed heavily. “I’m…I’m sorry again to have woken you up like this — ”

“No apologies, mo nighean donn — ”

“And I’m sorry I have to go so soon; I’m already running late and I’m sure I’m going to be reamed — ”

“No need to explain yerself. Hang up the phone, get yerself calmed down, and get in there and save some lives. Aye?”

Claire laughed as she pulled into her spot. “Nothing like a pep-talk from coach Fraser to get me in the zone.”

He laughed as well. “Glad to hear it.”

Claire took the key out of the ignition and picked up her phone. “Thank you again, Jamie. Really. This was…more helpful than I can even explain.”

“No explanation needed. I get it. I mean I don’t get it-get it. But I…I understand.”

“Right.” She smiled fondly at his carefulness to not even imply that he really knew what it was like while still ensuring her that he understood her. “I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

“Aye. Let me know if she’s alright when ye go home. I hope work isna too rough on ye today.”

“I will. Thanks. Goodbye, Jamie.”

“G’bye, mo ghraidh.”

She hung up and held her phone to her chest for a moment, closing her eyes and breathing deeply.

You’re fine, Beauchamp.

You’re a good mum, and a good doctor.

It was hard to believe even as she said it to herself, but she was at least able to get out of the car, checking how much of a wreck she was briefly in the rear-view mirror.

The day was just as hectic as it would be on an already bad day, and Claire was dead on her feet by the time she got to the break room, having not even had time for the shitty coffee it had to offer when she’d arrived. She collapsed in the chair nearest the door, pressing her eyes into her hand and watching the colors and shapes dance around in her head for a moment.

“Earth to Lady Jane.”

She inhaled sharply and picked her head up, finding Joe standing by the counter.

“Don’t fall asleep on me without getting a load of this.”

“What…?” She reluctantly heaved herself out of her chair and trudged toward the counter where Joe was smirking at a brown paper bag and a styrofoam coffee cup that did not belong to the hospital.

“What’s this…?” Claire said.

“Been here all morning. Louise said a very attractive redhead dropped it off for Doctor Beauchamp.”

Claire felt her face melt into the most ridiculously liquid smile. “He did not…”

She opened the bag to find a napkin sitting on top with writing scrawled in black pen:

Sassenach,

Got ye a BEC (that’s bacon egg and cheese) since you didn’t have breakfast. Plain bagel since I don’t know your preference (remind me to ask you that). Figured you forgot to pack lunch as well, so I got you a deli sandwich I thought you’d like. That coffee reheated is still better than the shite in your break room, I promise ye that. Good deli; I’m good friends with the owner. Great guy. Have to take you someday.

Hope this helps,

JAMMF

Claire shook her head in disbelief, handing Joe the napkin to read.

“Damn,” he said. “That man is too much.”

Claire pulled out her BEC and unwrapped it, melting into a nearby chair as she ate. Joe popped her coffee into the microwave for her and sat down next to her.

“Too much indeed,” Claire garbled, mouth full of food. “He’s too good to be true.”

“But it’s true, Lady Jane.” He patted her knee.

“Yeah…” She smiled dreamily. “It is.”

——

Saturday was another date-night, or rather date-afternoon. They went to see The Free State of Jones at the movie theater since it had been out for about a month and Jamie had been wanting to see it. Evidently, Jamie was more of a history buff than Claire had picked up on, and she thoroughly enjoyed watching him absorb the movie, and she also enjoyed the movie quite a lot herself. She knew next to nothing about the American Civil War aside from what was to be seen in Gone With the Wind.

They'd managed to keep kissing to a minimum in the theater, but they weren't completely prudish. There were, after all, only eight other people in the entire theater, and they were spread out enough that they managed to share a few lingering kisses. But outside of that, they actually watched the movie, and Claire did not fall asleep.

“I didna bore ye wi' my long movie this time, Sassenach?” Jamie teased as they left the building.

“Oh, don't even. I worked all day Wednesday, and it was past my bedtime,” Claire shot back. “And besides, I still retained what happened. I just retained this movie…better.”

Jamie tossed back his head in a barking laugh as they got into his car. He brought her to a pizzeria, and the man behind the counter cried out with joy to see Jamie.

“Hey! It's Fraser!”

“Hallo, Vinny,” Jamie called back, putting his hand on the small of Claire's back.

“And who is this?” the dark-haired, red-faced man asked.

“This,” Jamie flashed a smile at Claire, swelling with pride, “is my girlfriend. Claire Beauchamp.”

“A girlfriend!” Vinny boomed. “Hey! Luca!” He shouted at the door that Claire presumed led to the kitchen. His New York-Italian accent increased dramatically when he yelled. “Fraser’s got a girl here!”

Claire felt herself blushing fiercely, and Vinny reached over the glass display of pizza slices to shake her hand.

“Great to meet you, Claire.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Claire answered, shaking his hand.

“Ha!” Vinny laughed heartily, squeezing her hand and giving it another shake. “What’d ya do? Send for her from across the ocean?”

Jamie joined him in laughter. “She found me, actually. Her Englishness is a complete coincidence.”

“My daughter is a client at Harmony Stables,” Claire chimed in. “That’s how we met.”

“Oh! Well I’ll be damned! Hey! Luca! Get out here!” He yelled back again unexpectedly, causing Claire to jump a little. “Goddamn, Fraser, look at her!”

“Aye, I ken.” Claire blushed fiercely as Jamie swelled with pride again, squeezing her shoulder and pressing her into his side. “I’m a lucky man.”

“Ya gotta bring your daughter here sometime. I’d love to meet her,” Vinny said, leaning against the counter. “I know most of those kids already, but I think I’d remember you.”

Claire smiled.

“Vinny’s is where we get the pizza fer events,” Jamie explained. “All the kids know him by name.”

“Oh! Well then I’m already a happy customer,” Claire said with a chuckle.

“What’s her name?” Vinny asked.

“Faith.”

“Beautiful! Ya gotta bring her by, I just love those kids — ”

Just then, the kitchen doors opened, and a man who could have been a second Vinny burst in, apparently Luca.

“Well I’ll be damned!”

Claire chuckled to herself; they even said the same words in the same exact way.

“Where the hell did you find her?” Luca said.

“This is my brother, Luca. Vincent Senior is our old man. He’s around sometimes, just not today,” Vinny explained. “This is Claire Beauchamp. From England.”

“Great to meet you! Whatsamatter, couldn’t find a girl around here?” Luca ribbed, shaking Claire’s hand.

“Ye need original content, Luca,” Jamie said. “Yer brother said the same thing.”

“Alright, alright, enough gawking at the poor thing,” Vinny interrupted. “What can I get for ya?”

“The usual fer me,” Jamie said. “How about you, Sassenach?”

“What’s your usual?” she asked.

“Buffalo chicken slice.”

She wrinkled her nose at him.

“Yucking someone else’s yum again?” He cocked a brow at her, and she rolled her eyes.

“Do you have a meat lover’s slice? Something like that?”

“Sure do.”

“Alright, I’ll have that.”

“Anything to drink?”

“Just water for me,” Claire said.

“Ginger ale fer me,” Jamie said.

Claire pulled out her wallet.

“What are ye doing?”

“Paying for our lunch.”

“Sassenach — ”

“Jamie, you paid for that obscenely expensive food last week, and the carnival tickets, and you bought all the ingredients for that bloody lasagna. Not to mention today’s movie. Let me pay for one thing. I’m a doctor for Christ’s sake, it’s not as if I can’t afford some bloody pizza.”

Without another word, Claire handed Vinny her credit card, and Jamie did not try to fight her. Vinny’s brows were nearly at his hairline, and he was clearly fighting the urge to grin.

“I like this one, Fraser!” Luca called, shoveling their slices into the oven before departing into the kitchen.

Claire tried to hide her smirk of pride as she signed the receipt.

“So you’re a doctor?” Vinny said. “Stony Brook?”

“Yes, Emergency Medicine,” Claire said proudly. “Still a residency, but yes.”

“Goddamn, Fraser,” Vinny said again, shaking his head as he returned Claire’s card. “Don’t you even think about letting this one go.”

“Wasn’t planning on it.” Jamie winked, and then led Claire to a table.

“So, are you friends with every small business owner on Long Island?” Claire asked, flashing a glance at Vinny.

“Not every…but a fair amount,” he said. “Sorry about that, by the way. I should’ve warned ye that they’d be…curious. About my having a lass wi’ me.”

She chuckled. “That’s alright. They’re fun.”

“Didna scare ye away?”

“Not at all.” She laced their fingers together on the table.

They began discussing the movie and all the tangents it brought up, and then Vinny came by with their individual slices. Claire should have realized that Jamie would have ordered two slices; she didn’t even notice on her receipt.

“How you can eat neon orange on pizza is beyond me,” she said, watching him take a bite.

“Dinna like spicy, Sassenach?”

“I didn’t say that,” she said. “Buffalo chicken is a chicken wing flavor, not a pizza flavor. Two worlds that should not collide.”

He made an amused Scottish noise and took another bite. “So ye like buffalo wings then?”

“I’ve been known to handle a few.”

“We’ll have to test that someday.”

She hummed in amusement, and then dug into her own slice. Jamie was finished with both of his slices before Claire was finished with her one slice, even though she could tell he’d been trying to pace himself to be polite. Before they left, Claire ordered a plain slice for Faith to eat when she got home, since it would be dinner time shortly. Faith didn’t mind an off-routine early dinner if she was getting something special like pizza. Jamie also ordered them Italian ices, lemon for him and rainbow for Claire, and she caught him trying to pay for the ices and Faith’s dinner. One look was enough to have him putting his wallet back in his pocket, and this time, Vinny did laugh out loud.

With an aggressively friendly slap on Jamie's shoulder, Vinny bid them farewell, and they headed back to Claire's apartment. Though Faith was normally over the moon at the return of her mother (especially if she had Jamie with her), she remained entirely nonplussed at their arrival, entirely too focused on the puzzle she was doing with Delia. It wasn't until Claire said the word “pizza” that Faith sprung up from the coffee table and started pawing at her mother’s legs.

“That’s what I thought,” Claire said with a chuckle. “Yes, I know.” Faith reached up for the pizza and moaned in annoyance as Claire held it higher. “Pizza after you say goodbye to your friend and to Auntie Gail.”

Faith screwed up her face in protest, making exaggerated whining noises, but Claire just stared her down. “Stop whining, and be polite. Say goodbye.”

Faith turned around and gave Delia a reluctant hug, which Claire had to remind Faith to be gentle with in her reluctance. She hugged Gail with the same begrudging attitude, and then she began tugging on Claire’s shirt to pull her into the kitchen.

Claire looked back and forth between Faith and Gail and Delia.

“Jamie, can you go with her?” She handed him the box containing Faith’s slice, and he nodded wordlessly.

“C’mon lass. Let’s get ye settled fer supper.”

Claire shook her head in exasperation as she thanked Gail for babysitting once again, and then saw them off outside. By the time she got back to the kitchen, Faith was already sitting at the table with her pizza slice shaped plate, Jamie nearly finished cutting up the slice.

“How did you know about the pizza plate?” Claire said, amused.

“Well, I tried putting it on a normal plate, and she wasna having that. Tried one of those princess plates I ken ye’ve got, didna work either. Then she dragged me to the cabinet and wouldna move ’til I found this.” He finished cutting the pizza, having kept the general shape of it to fit the shape of the plate.

Claire’s grin was unabashedly enormous, and she closed the gap between them, meeting him behind Faith’s chair.

“Excellent work, detective.” He smirked, and she leaned in to kiss him, emboldened by Faith’s lack of attention, focused as she was on eating her pizza. Jamie hummed with amused contentment into the kiss, causing a brief vibrating sensation against her lips.

Jamie trailed his fingertips up over her hips to rest on the small of her back, pointedly avoiding her arse. Claire groaned in annoyance, but grinned anyway, pulling away to rest their foreheads together, draping her arms around his neck. For a moment, they just swayed absently to the music of Faith’s humming to the tune of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” not skipping a beat even as she chewed.

It wasn’t long at all before Faith pushed her plate away and hoisted herself up onto her knees, turning around to stand on the chair and tap on both of their heads. They both laughed softly.

“All done, lovie?” Claire took her hands off Jamie so she could sign. “All done?”

Faith repeated the sign lazily, and Claire was about to correct her when she started jumping in the chair, pointing at the freezer.

“Woah! Careful there, lass. Remember what Mam said about climbing, aye?” Without thinking, Jamie scooped her up from under her arms, lifted her over the back of the chair, and deposited her safely onto the ground.

Claire thought absolutely nothing of it, starting to head over to the freezer for Faith’s ice cream, but then Jamie froze. He drew away from Faith quickly yet gently, looking up at Claire, absolutely mortified.

“I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I should have asked. I’ve no right tae just pick her up like that. I’m sorry, Claire.”

Faith was none the wiser; she flitted over to the freezer.

“Jamie,” Claire said quickly, reaching for his hands. “She’s fine.” She maintained eye contact to emphasize her point, but the worry between his furrowed brows would not ease. “She’s been letting you touch her for a while now. That was perfectly normal for her. And perfectly natural for you to do it.”

“Are ye…are ye sure…?”

Claire still held his gaze as she raised his hands to her lips and kissed them fervently. “She trusts you, Jamie.”

Faith gave a small shout then, apparently not at all pleased that her request for ice cream was going ignored for so long.

“You ok?” Claire asked.

“Aye, sorry,” he chuckled. “Wee panic over nothing.”

“It’s not nothing.” Claire left his side to open the freezer, and Faith began bouncing with joy. “It makes perfect sense that you’d be afraid to cross that boundary with her. But I think in her head, you’re already past that point.”

She reached into the cabinet for a bowl and then the drawer for a spoon.

“I, uh…” Jamie stammered. “Hadna realized, I suppose.”

“You really don’t know how special you are to her? — Yes, yes, go sit down.” Claire crossed the kitchen to put down the ice cream in Faith’s spot.

“I suppose I…hoped. But I never wanted to assume,” Jamie said sheepishly. “I ken ye say I’m ‘dating’ ye both, but I didna ken if she…knew that.”

Claire chuckled softly, caressing Faith’s curly head as her spoon clanked against her bowl. “I think she does.”

Jamie’s grin widened lopsidedly, and Claire had to physically restrain herself from jumping into his arms and kissing him senseless.

“Ye’ll tell me, though? If I need to pull back wi’ her?”

“I think she would tell you, loud and clear,” Claire said dryly, her eyes full of mirth. “No, I know what you mean. And yes, I would. Surely it’s not the same with you as it is for me where you can just snatch her like I have to sometimes. It’s a bit different, as…”

“Her parent,” Jamie finished for her, nodding in agreement.

“Yeah.”

“Believe me, I understand. I ken I’m no’ her parent.”

Claire’s stomach flipped; not at what he said, but at what her brain decided to say after he said it.

You could be.

“Right,” she said instead, internally yelling back at herself that she was a nutter for thinking something so bloody serious about a man who she’d gone on a first date with a week ago. “But you’re…building something different, special in its own way. You both need time before you have to start laying down the law like I have to.”

“Aye, I understand.”

“But,” Claire said, finally making her way over to him and taking his hands again. “You can pick her up if it looks like she wants you to, you can hold her hand, hug her, whatever it seems she wants from you.” Jamie nodded, his eyes lighting up. “You read her well enough at this point. You’ll know.”

“Aye. I will.”

Claire pecked him gently. When she pulled away, Jamie was not looking at her, but instead looking out of the corner of his eye. When Claire followed his gaze, she caught Faith flitting out of the kitchen, hands and face still smeared with chocolate ice cream.

“Oh no you don’t!” Claire rushed to snatch Faith by the wrist and drag her back into the kitchen and toward the sink. “There will be no watching any movie that gets smothered with ice cream.”

Faith squirmed in annoyance and tried to get away, and then Claire got an idea.

“Hey, hey, listen, Faith,” she said. “Why doesn’t Jamie help you wash your hands? Hm?”

She looked up to Jamie, and he immediately sprang into action. “Right, how does that sound, lass?”

Faith immediately stopped fighting, and she turned around to face Jamie, holding up her messy hands expectantly. Jamie chuckled and turned on the water, then lifted her under the arms so she could reach the running water.

“Very good, give them a good scrub,” he crooned, and she obeyed clumsily. “Give yer face a good scrub too, aye? Dinna want chocolate-mouth fer yer movie. Aye, good girl.”

Claire stood there against the counter, paper towel ready for drying, her heart swelling three sizes.

How could I ever have thought we’d be better off without him…?

So occupied she was with adoration, she nearly missed when Faith was back on the ground and Jamie turned off the taps.

“Good job, Faithie,” Claire said, crouching down to wipe her face clean of any more smudges, using the lingering water on her face, then dried her hands. “Alright, all done. Let’s pick a movie, shall we?”

They shifted into the living room, where Faith retrieved Monsters, Inc., and they settled into their usual positions. Claire didn’t have a shift this week that ended early enough for Jamie to have time to come over and make dinner before Faith’s bedtime, so they were getting in their movie time tonight. Since dinner was a bit earlier than normal, the movie also ended a bit earlier than normal. They finished the puzzle that Faith hadn’t finished with Delia, then started and finished another one, all while Faith’s music played from Claire’s phone, with the occasional interruption for a little dance.

When bedtime rolled around, Jamie said goodnight to Faith, earning a pat on the cheek before she scurried off. After the whole routine, Claire poured them drinks and nuzzled into him on the couch. She flicked Netflix on and let The Office start playing from a random episode in the middle of season three.

“Ye’re like a wee kitten,” Jamie said.

“What?” She craned her neck to pick her head up from its spot on his chest.

“The way ye’re stretched out and balled up at the same time, all over me.”

Claire made an indignant little “hmph” sound, but made no attempt to move; she, in fact, buried herself in further.

“I hope you’re at least a cat person,” she said.

He made an amused Scottish noise. “More of a dog person, really. No’ those wee yapping ones; I need a beast wi’ more substance. Like Angus. That’s a fine creature.”

Claire scoffed indignantly, sitting up and facing him. “So you tell me I’m a kitten and then tell me you don’t like cats.”

“Didna say I didna like ’em.”

“You may as well have.”

“Och, Sassenach.” He leaned in, his lips lingering inches from hers. “Ye ken by now I like having ye on top of me, feline or no.”

He made to close the gap, to kiss her, but Claire leaned back, causing him to chase after her and open his eyes when he didn’t make contact. Claire laughed at the unconscious pout he made. “What on Earth ever made me think you were the smoothest talker I ever met?”

“Dinna ken about that. My foot ends up in my mouth quite more than I’d care to admit.”

“Hm. Indeed.”

“I’d much rather…” He moved in closer, and Claire had no further to go, stuck against the arm of the couch. “Have something else in my mouth.”

“Oh?” She raised a brow, then darted her tongue out to lick her lips, far too slowly. “What could that be?”

He growled possessively and claimed her lips with his, and she moaned lightly against them. She did not waste any time before obliging him, thrusting her tongue into his mouth and mingling it with his. They lingered like this for a moment, performing the carefully and repeatedly rehearsed dance of lips and tongue, then they parted, Jamie folding her into himself again. They focused lazily on the tellie for a bit before Jamie broke the silence.

“Ye ever seen the beaches around here, Sassenach?”

“No, actually. Seems silly after how long I’ve been here now.”

He hummed thoughtfully. “I was just thinking about my own family dogs running around on the beaches in Scotland — ”

“So now you were thinking of dogs while kissing me?”

“And I — Och, come off it.” He playfully swatted her arse, causing her to squeak and swat him back, directly on his left pectoral. “I was thinking that it would be nice to take Faith. She likes the water, aye?”

“Yes, she’s obsessed, ever since she was a baby. Bath time is a field day. Ever since I took her to the Abernathy’s pool that one time, every time Gail comes over Faith scurries into her room for her bathing suit.”

Jamie laughed softly. “She kens what she wants.”

“Indeed.”

“So…what d’ye think? Would she be alright if there was a crowd?”

“Well…we won’t know unless we try. And Angus is helpful during stable events. So maybe she’ll be alright.”

“Aye, he’s a service dog so he’ll be allowed on any beach we choose.”

Claire got an image in her head of Faith squishing sand in her hands, loving the sensory aspect of it, squealing as cold water rushed over her toes.

“If she canna handle it we’ll have a backup plan. We can take her to the stables and use the sprinkler from the Fourth of July. Fill a kiddie pool or something.”

Claire felt warmth spread from head to toe. He knew without having to ask that even if Faith didn’t want to be at the beach, if she was in her bathing suit, she’d be expecting a water activity and would not be happy doing anything else.

She sat up and tenderly kissed his check, caressing his stubbled chin and jaw. “I think that’s a wonderful idea.”

He smiled and took her caressing hand in both of his, then kissed her knuckles. “Alright. That’s braw. I ken most of the beaches, so I ken the ones that are most crowded, the ones that play loud live music, which ones have sand or rocks. Faith’ll want sand, of course.”

She smiled, nodding. “Right.”

“Next Saturday? I’ll prepare the lunches, you prepare the bairn and the dog?”

“Yes, okay. That’s perfect.”

Seemingly from sheer excitement nearly bubbling over, Jamie kissed her soundly.

“I’ll start preparing her starting tomorrow, give her a rundown of the routine — ”

“I’ll arrive at nine to pick ye both up — ”

“Great, I can tell her what time she needs to wake up, what time breakfast needs to be finished, what time she needs to dress and lotion up — ”

“Have her bring her tablet in the car, the beach I have in mind is an hour away — ”

“I’ll lay some towels on the living room floor, and we’ll practice staying on the towel so maybe she won’t bolt while we’re there — ”

“Fine idea. That’s braw.”

They were talking over each other, stumbling over their words like a couple of school children talking about recess. They shook their heads at themselves, then shared another kiss, lingering with their foreheads together.

“D’ye think it’ll ever stop?”

“What?”

“This…feeling. Like I’m…gonna burst at the thought of seeing ye again, even when ye’re still right in front of me.”

Claire pulled away only enough so that she could meet his eye and caress his chin.

“I don't know. But I hope it never does.”

Chapter Text

It was refreshing for Jamie to pull up to the Beauchamp residence without feeling like he was going to vomit.

Even after Claire had agreed to the blessed terms “boyfriend and girlfriend,” the first few “dates” of theirs had still made him nervous. He was convinced so thoroughly that he’d stuff it up, and there were so many times he thought he had . But somehow, Claire kept wanting him to come back. And so did Faith.

As he climbed the steps to their apartment, Faith was in the window, as usual, and Claire chased after her with sunscreen. He chuckled to himself, then the front door opened to a frazzled Claire, holding the open sunscreen bottle.

“Hi,” she said.

“Good morning,” he said.

“We’re a bit behind schedule,” Claire said. “She was very stubborn about breakfast this morning, so the time I allotted for sunscreen-protesting went to breakfast-protesting instead.”

“Dinna fash, Sassenach,” Jamie said, shutting the door behind him, then pecking her lips. “We’re no’ on a tight schedule.”

She smiled at him gratefully as Faith ran circles around the room, flapping her hands and squealing with excitement.

“Are you ready to go?”

“Other than Faith? Yes.”

“D’ye want me to try?” he offered. “The sunscreen, I mean.”

Claire blinked dumbly at him for a moment. “Oh, ehm, yeah, why not.”

“If ye dinna think — ”

“No! No, you’re right, she always listens better to you,” Claire said quickly. She handed him the bottle. “I’ll load up the car and get Angus vested.”

Before Jamie could protest, she was out the door with her and Faith’s bag, and Faith’s wee pink backpack that contained her tablet and headphones for the car. Jamie turned back to Faith, still running back and forth, and his heart skipped a beat.

He thought Claire would wait and see if it went well before she took off, but she just trusted that he’d be able to handle it. He felt warmth blooming in his chest.

“Alright, wean, let’s go.” Jamie stopped her in her blazing path by crouching to put a hand on her chest. “We have to finish wi’ yer lotion.” He knelt down in front of her and had to scramble to stop her from bolting again. “Hey, listen now. Calm down, lass.” She hummed loudly and tugged against his grip, giggling. “Listen to me, Faith. No lotion, no beach.” It was syntax he’d often heard Claire use with her. He said it again, and she stopped tugging.

“Ye hear me? No lotion, no beach.”

She stood still in front of him, and Jamie praised her as he brought a bit of lotion to her face. She jerked away at the last minute.

“Faith,” Jamie said, slightly more firm. “If ye dinna let me put this on ye before Mummy gets back inside, I dinna think she’ll want to take ye to the beach.”

Faith made a whining noise, jumping and flapping in distress.

“Aye, I ken ye want to go to the beach. I want ye to go, too,” he said, adjusting the tactic a bit. “If ye canna go, I’ll be very sad. There’s sand to play in, and so much water to swim in, and we’ll have lunch. Aye?” She whined again. “I know, I know. So ye have to let me put yer lotion on. Because I want to play on the beach wi’ my wee lass.”

She didn't whine again, just flapped her hands.

“Alright, here we go. Fer me, fer Jamie. Aye?” He brought the dollop of lotion closer, and she only flinched a bit. “It’s alright. I’ve got ye.” He gently cupped the back of her head with his empty hand, and she allowed him to continue.

“Good girl. Good job.”

Claire returned from the car then, and she made a satisfied humming sound at finding Faith behaving herself. She vested Angus while Jamie carefully finished with Faith’s face.

“Don’t let her touch her face,” Claire said quickly. “She somehow manages to get sunscreen in her eyes every single time because she’s always rubbing them.” Jamie nodded. “I’m going to sit in the back with her on the way there so she doesn’t. She’ll be very irritable all day and won’t have any fun.”

Claire continued to flit around the apartment, snatching things from all around that she apparently hadn’t put in her bag; her sunglasses, a granola bar, a reusable cup filled with homemade iced coffee, two reusable water bottles that clinked with ice. By the time she dumped those items somewhere in Jamie’s car and returned inside, Faith was all lotioned up.

“All done? Yay!” Claire signed her applause, and Jamie did the same. “Good girl.”

“Are ye bringing this or did ye have another?” Jamie said, holding up the bottle.

“No, that’s the only one, just throw it in the bag when we get to the car,” Claire said. She was bunching up a wee cover-up dress to put over Faith’s ruffled princess one-piece. “Here we go,” she said when Faith’s head poked through. “Okay, flip flops are by the door; go on.”

She looked up at Jamie as she led Faith to the door, and he followed, holding Angus’s leash. “Thank you,” she said, sliding her own shoes on as Faith fumbled with hers. “That went a lot faster than it could have.”

Jamie shrugged. “No bother at all.”

He supposed that perhaps eventually his presence would stop feeling like a novelty, and Faith would listen to him just as poorly as she did her mother. His stomach flipped at the thought, at the implication: Eventually, he’d feel like family. But for now, they might as well take advantage of her desire to please him, wherever on earth that desire came from.

Claire did indeed sit in the back seat next to Faith to assure she didn’t incessantly rub her face, and between her and Angus, Jamie supposed it was a successful venture. He conversed with her over his shoulder, and it was altogether a pleasant ride, though he wished he could hold her hand while he drove. Maybe Faith would sleep on the ride home.

When they arrived at the beach, Cupsogue, Faith did not protest for a moment about finishing her movie. She threw the tablet and headphones aside and yanked against her seatbelt. Jamie could not help but smile at her excitement, even as Claire sternly told her that she was not to run off. They managed to get her tethered to Angus before she could, and then they were making their way out of the parking lot, Jamie carrying all the bags on his own and Claire holding firmly to the leash.

They were there early enough that it hadn’t gotten too crowded yet, but they walked a long distance away from the parking lot, just in case. Jamie kept an eye and an ear out for any signs of distress. If Faith showed even the slightest bit of discomfort, he was ready to scoop her in his arms himself and drive them to the stables. He didn’t tell Claire, but he’d bought a small kiddie pool for a backup plan; it was under a blanket in the trunk of his car. If everything worked out, he could return it. Or maybe he’d keep it for another time.

When they finally settled on a spot, Faith didn’t seem the least bit distressed. They stepped off the walkway and onto the sand, and Faith immediately abandoned her shoes and squealed. Jamie bent down and picked them up, even with his arms full, tucking them under his arm. He noticed Claire had to significantly tighten her grip on Angus’s leash to stop Faith from yanking her and the dog away. When they stopped to spread out the big beach blanket Jamie had brought, Claire instructed Angus to calm Faith down a bit so that she could help Jamie set up without fear of losing her, though she still kept the leash looped around her wrist.

“Look, baby, beach towel. Like we practiced.”

With a buzzing hum, Faith skipped onto the blanket and sat down right in the center, Angus plopping his head in her lap.

“Good girl!”

Claire dumped the contents of her own bag onto the blanket, grinning sheepishly at Jamie. She left the buckets, shovels, and sandcastle toys out and stuffed everything else back inside. Jamie grinned. His girlfriend was a hot mess, and he adored everything about it.

Jamie pulled his shirt off and was about to ask Claire to spray his back with sunscreen, but he instead choked back an uncomfortable laugh at the way Claire was gaping at him. He was then seized with dread at the thought of what he would look like when she pulled off her cover-up to reveal her bathing suit underneath. Jamie cleared his throat, and Claire turned red.

“Get my back?”

“Yeah, yeah,” she stammered, shuffling around him and taking the can from him. She liberally sprayed the large expanse of his back, and then she hesitated.

“Would you, ehm...” Claire cleared her throat. “Could you do mine…?”

“Aye, of course.”

Jamie deliberately didn’t look at Claire as she pulled the dress over her head, choosing instead to focus on Faith playing with sand between her fingers. When next he saw Claire, he swallowed thickly. He thanked god that she was wearing a one-piece; he thought he might have fully lost his head if she’d been wearing a bikini. She smiled sheepishly and then turned around, pulling her hair off her neck and holding it on top of her head. Jamie gulped again before spraying the sunscreen, gingerly lifting the neck strap to get under it, and then rubbed the lotion in with a hand that he had to force to not tremble. The back was open, scooping down from the front to her mid-back. He forced himself to not look at the way her bonny arse peeked out at the bottom, or how her legs seemed to go on forever.

“Ye’re…” Jamie cleared his throat again. “Ye’re beautiful, Claire.”

He watched the blush bloom all over her exposed skin, and then she let her hair fall again. Jamie had the urge to run his fingers through it.

“Ehm, thank you,” Claire said, her voice small. She turned around, smiling at him, her face still red. “You’re ehm…you don’t look bad yourself.”

Jamie’s stomach flipped, and he thought he might tip over. He almost laughed; he hadn’t been sick to his stomach in anticipation of this day. What a fool.

Jamie nodded. “Aye. I mean, well, thank you, I mean.”

Claire giggled, the freckles on her nose and cheeks crinkling in the sunlight. “Are you all covered other than that?”

“Huh? Oh, aye. I’m good.”

“Okay, me too.”

She flashed her bright eyes at him, somehow even more honey colored in the sun, and he suddenly got the urge to kiss every one of her freckles. Instead, he busied himself with putting away his sunscreen, and then sat on the blanket beside Faith.

“Ye ever made a sandcastle, lass?”

Jamie then launched into his sandcastle lesson, informing both lasses that it was of the utmost importance that the sand be wet before packing it in, and then before long, he was going to and from the ocean with buckets of water so that Faith could construct her castle beside their blanket. They all helped, and before Claire could snap a picture of the finished product, Faith was squishing the sand in her hands and laying her entire body weight on the structure. Claire groaned that she should have taken off her cover up, and Jamie just laughed.

“Ye like that, eh lass?”

They spent the next several minutes just squishing the damp sand, Faith squealing all the while. The higher the sun rose, the hotter it got, so Claire untethered Faith from Angus, and the four of them walked toward the water together. Jamie fought the urge to laugh when Claire gasped at how cold the water was. She caught his smirk however.

“What? It doesn’t bother you at all?” She raised a brow at him.

“Nah. Doesna bother her either.”

Faith was yanking at both of their hands to get closer, but then as a wave came in, she squealed, running back and letting the water chase her. Jamie and Claire allowed her to keep doing this for a while, flanking her on both sides as she ran back and forth, Angus sitting dutifully despite how badly it looked like he wanted to play. After about the fifteenth time Faith had run back and forth, Jamie looked over her to Claire, nudging his head down toward Faith. Claire nodded.

With a playful growl, Jamie scooped Faith up from under her arms and ran right into an oncoming wave, causing her to shriek with glee. He didn’t get too far, only up to his own knees, and he glided Faith along the surface, letting her legs dip in and splash. After he swung her back and forth a few times, she began pawing at his hands, wanting to be put down. He went closer to the shore so he wouldn’t submerge her too deeply, and then she started tugging on his hand, making their way back to Claire. When they arrived, she put her hands up and moaned, jumping a bit.

She wanted him to run in with her like that again.

“Good luck, Soldier,” Claire said, shielding her eyes with her hand. “She’s going to make you do it until you collapse.”

If bringing this little girl joy was how he met his demise, well…Jamie was quite alright with that.

She was squealing in a way Jamie had simply never heard before. Claire had always said she loved the water, but he had no idea how much. She was positively thrilled by Jamie splashing her around, and she didn't even protest when he decided not to run back to the shore and instead sank into the water. Claire joined them then, so that Faith could swim back and forth between them, only a distance of about four feet. Both of them could still easily stand up at this water depth, so grabbing her if need be would be all too easy. Claire had even taken Angus’s vest off and let him join them, keeping him leashed to her lest some nasty Karen decide to report a disturbance from a non-service dog.

Jamie felt relaxed, at peace. He was just so god damn content to be here with them. He’d never felt such a sense of belonging with anyone but his own blood. He remembered a few nights ago when Faith had allowed him to lift her up so she could reach the sink, and now here he was, carrying her around the water, carrying her because she asked him to. It was almost too much to bear, the overwhelming joy and love in his heart.

At one point, Faith had taken to standing on Jamie’s thighs, holding his hands for balance, and then letting herself plop bodily into the water, where Claire would get her upright above the surface of the water again. She did this over, and over, and over, shrieking with glee every single time, Angus doggy paddling a safe distance away. It went on for hours, this unadulterated glee from all three of them. Four if you counted the dog.

In order to get Faith to stop her plopping, Claire took her in her arms to distract her with a bit of tickling. Then, she wrapped Faith’s legs around her waist and let her float on her back.

“She likes the weightlessness,” Claire said to Jamie, walking closer to him. “I do this when I’m in the pool with her and it’s almost time to get out. It calms her down after all the splashing and jumping.”

Jamie hummed in response, smiling down at Faith. Her eyes were squeezed shut against the sun, and her mouth kept twitching between different funny smiles. Her arms were splayed at her sides, fingers stimming slowly in the water. Her hair looked even longer than it normally did, spread out and straightened.

“Usually I’ll sway her, but we’ve got waves for that today,” Claire said with a smile.

Jamie’s own smile widened, his eyes crinkling. “Come here, Sassenach.”

Claire smiled crookedly at him as she sloshed through more water. Angus had given up on swimming, and Claire had allowed him to stay on the shore beside his vest. As Claire approached Jamie, he opened his arms, and she leaned into him backwards, Faith’s legs still wrapped around her waist. Jamie enveloped her in his arms from behind, holding her to him by the shoulders and stomach, above Faith’s legs. He felt, rather than heard Claire’s sigh; she relaxed into him, every one of her muscles loosening. Jamie kissed her temple and buried his nose in her salty, sandy wet hair. She gripped his forearms, rubbing them occasionally.

“She’s got the freckles, too,” Jamie suddenly found himself saying.

“What?”

“Faith,” he felt himself blush. “Yer…those freckles ye’ve got, on yer nose and a few on yer cheeks. I didna think she had them too. It was just about the only thing she didna get from ye. But there they are.”

Claire hummed lazily in amusement. “Right. Mine are definitely more visible in the sun. Hers are invisible without the sun. It’s like sunshine charges them or something.”

He chuckled, rumbling his chest against her back.

“Sunshine,” he said thoughtfully.

“What about it?”

He kissed her cheek, squeezing her more tightly.

“Please don’t start singing,” she said, and Jamie wrinkled his nose.

“What’re ye talking about?”

Claire paused. “You weren’t…I thought…you know…” She stopped again, clearly waiting for him to catch on, but then she sighed reluctantly. “ You are my sunshine …”

Jamie tossed his head back in laughter. “I hadna planned on serenadin’ ye, but now I think I have to. Unless you’d rather go ahead.”

“Oh, God no,” Claire said. “To both options.”

Jamie would have liked to pinch her arse, but he didn’t want her jerking Faith, so he just grumbled in her ear. “Wicked besom.”

She hmphed , leaning into him again.

“Either way,” Jamie said. “I dinna need to sing it for ye to know it.”

From the corner of his eye, looking down at her, he saw that she’d broken into a wide grin.

Not too long after, the beach crowded up rather quickly, and when they tried to eat, there were families setting up their towels on either side of them. Faith grew more anxious by the second, trying to run back into the water for solace. They decided it best if they leave before she got worse, and even then, she was already crying, whether from the crowd, from the fact that she wasn’t being allowed back in the water, the heat, hunger, or all of the above. Angus’s ministrations kept her from slipping into a full meltdown while Jamie and Claire cleaned up as fast as they could, but they knew they were on borrowed time. The world was closing in on Faith and they needed to get her out before she started screaming.

She did start screaming, unfortunately, and Jamie did not hesitate to scoop her into his arms.

“It’s alright…” he soothed. “I’m sorry, lass. I’m so sorry. It’s alright…”

He knew they’d stayed past what would’ve been a safe time for the crowds. He knew, but Faith was so happy . He hadn’t been able to bring himself to tear her away from her fun. But they should have left an hour ago.

Even as he held tightly to Faith, he told Claire to sling a bag or two on his shoulder. Faith had her hands clamped over her ears as she screamed bloody murder into Jamie’s neck, and Claire coaxed her hands away to put her headphones on. They departed quickly once everything was ready to go, and Jamie could see the mortification on Claire’s face and the judgement on everyone else’s. He wanted to pummel them all, every single grown adult who threw dirty looks at a little girl, and at Claire , judging her parenting.

He kept walking forward, focusing instead on getting Faith away from the stressor. One foot in front of the other. During the long walk back to the car, Faith had carried on, though she was at least no longer shrieking. She was hitting Jamie, though, her tiny fists striking his neck, back, and face. Claire scolded her out of habit and then sighed in defeat; Faith couldn’t hear her with the noise-cancelling headphones on.

Back at the car, Jamie opened the trunk where there was a large, flat space. He put Faith down inside and handed her the bucket of sand he’d carried from the beach.

“Jamie, it’ll make a mess of your car…”

“Doesna matter,” Jamie said. “I ken it’ll help her calm down. That’s what matters.”

Claire sat behind Faith in the trunk, gently tracing patterns on her back over the towel that Jamie had draped around her tiny frame. He was attempting to engage her in the sand bucket, and Angus was applying deep pressure as well. It might take a few minutes, but she’d be calm eventually, sooner rather than later with all of them helping. Maybe they’d even have their picnic after all, right here in his trunk. 

Jamie noticed Claire kept looking up at something behind him, more and more anger in her eyes with each glance. After perhaps the tenth time, Jamie looked over his shoulder to see an old minivan, turn signal on. They were waiting for his spot.

Jamie rolled his eyes and turned back to Faith, who was sticking her hands in the bucket and sputtering incoherently.

“They’ll leave eventually, Sassenach. They canna see yer evil eye from over here.”

He meant to lighten the mood, but Claire suddenly scooted out of the trunk and stood up. “You’re right. They can’t.”

She stormed over to the van, and Jamie was too busy with Faith to stop her, but he watched, eyes wide.

Claire knocked on the window, and it rolled down. “Hi. Are you waiting for that spot?”

“Well…yeah.”

“Alright, well we’re not leaving any time soon. Very sorry.”

“We just watched you come from the beach and put stuff in the car.”

“I understand that, but we’re not leaving any time soon.”

Jamie had a bad feeling about this.

“Well what’s the hold up?”

Jamie watched as Claire planted her hands on her hips, her back straightening; she was winding up. “The hold up is my child having an autism-panic-meltdown in the trunk. Don’t you hear the occasional screaming? That would be her. And I’m not going anywhere until she is calm. And I’ll not have this ugly, tin can, gas-leaking piece of shit breathing down my neck while I try to take care of my child. So get the hell away and find another spot!”

Claire stood back while the van rolled away, window still down, as the driver and the woman in the passenger seat shouted something about Claire’s language and calling security. Claire stormed back to the open trunk of Jamie’s car, and he gaped at her.

“Un-fucking-believable,” she seethed, sitting back down and taking up her previous task of rubbing Faith’s back without a moment’s hesitation.

Jamie blinked. “That was…”

“Liable to get the police on your doorstep since they took a picture of your license plate?” Claire said, cringing slightly.

“Incredible,” he finished, grinning crookedly at her.

He supposed that much of Claire’s life consisted of similarly telling people off; he himself had been prepared to tell off the whole beach for just looking in their direction. But that didn’t mean he didn’t fall instantly more in love with her for it.

——

“Cooking time” — as Claire had started calling it with Faith — that week produced quesadillas on Wednesday night. Claire could not actually recall ever giving Faith anything like it, and she was pleasantly surprised to see that she loved it. She hadn’t wanted any chicken in hers like Jamie and Claire had, but she was eating the salsa with the organic tortilla chips Claire had bought, so Claire was happy.

The following Saturday, they took Faith to a local playground. She wanted nothing to do with anything but the swing, so Jamie and Claire took turns pushing her, though after a while, she figured out that Jamie was stronger and therefore pushed higher, so she started whining whenever it was Claire’s turn. Claire gave Jamie a mirthful look, crossing her arms and stepping away.

“Go on, Soldier.”

Occasionally, Faith would scrape her feet in the dirt and get off the swing to run laps around the park, but then she’d be right back to the swing. Faith’s energy never seemed to run out, as per usual. Jamie and Claire conversed and teased and laughed all day as they alternated on the swing and watched Faith run around. It was a small fenced in park, so they didn’t feel like they had to chase her around, they just stood together by the gate, hands laced together, to ensure the wild thing didn’t try to pull a fast one before she was ready to go back to the swing. They’d brought another picnic lunch, and toward the end of the day, there was an ice cream truck that they were all more than happy to order from.

They were establishing a routine, Claire realized, stability for Faith to cling to, and perhaps for herself, as well. Over the month, their Saturdays alternated between “date days” and “family days,” which was just a date that Faith joined them on. And then of course Jamie came over to cook during the week and watch a movie. Jamie even continued to bring Claire breakfast and coffee at the hospital on occasion, even lunch some days depending on how forgetful she seemed to him.

It should have been strange to refer to this time as “family time”; Jamie was not family, not really. It should have felt like it was far too soon to be talking the way they were about Faith, far too soon to have her as involved in the relationship as she was. But it didn’t. Dating with kids usually entailed, from Claire’s observation anyway, leaving the kids totally and completely out of it until you were sure that this new guy was the right one.

But it had never been about that with Jamie.

Jamie had always belonged to both of them, perhaps Faith sooner than Claire. Claire had said, simple as she could put it, that he was “dating both of them.” But it felt so much deeper than that. Faith was intrinsically part of the development of their relationship; in fact, it wasn’t their relationship. It was all of theirs: Jamie’s, Claire’s, and Faith’s.

And maybe that should have scared her.

Maybe Claire should have felt terrified that after less than a month, she so thoroughly felt that Jamie belonged in their lives, that he always had and always would. Maybe it should have terrified her that Faith seemed to feel the exact same, in her own way. Sometimes, when she thought about it too much, it did terrify her. But when she allowed herself, allowed them to just be…

She was blissfully happy.

Besides, this had been building for far longer than the near month they’d been officially dating. They knew it, their friends knew it, Faith knew it. The second Jamie had stepped through that back door into the welcome center, this had begun.

And Claire was beyond grateful.

Jamie was over on a Monday cooking pasta carbonara, having set aside a portion of spaghetti to put with plain tomato sauce for Faith. They ate dinner and ice cream sundaes together, watched Cinderella together, and Claire put Faith to bed. When she returned to Jamie on the couch, he seemed very tense. Before Claire could ask if he was alright, he spoke first.

“A week from tomorrow it’ll be a month,” he said, almost blurting it out. “For…us.”

“Yeah,” Claire said, leaning her elbow on the back of the couch. “I know.”

“Since we dinna have plans fer Saturday yet, I thought we could…get dinner. At a nice place, but nowhere too fancy,” he said with a knowing look. “I’ve got a wee plan that I think you’ll like. Ye’ve never been down port, and it’s really great. Great food on the water, lovely scenery to walk around.”

Claire smiled. “Okay, that sounds great.”

Jamie broke into a smile, a nervous smile. He apparently wasn't done.

“And I…” He cleared his throat, breaking eye contact with her for a moment before forcing himself to look at her again. “I wanted to ask ye if you, uh…” He swallowed, wet his lips. “If ye wanted to…stay the night. At my place.”

Against her will, Claire’s mouth popped open, her tongue feeling dry. Jamie looked very much like he wanted to immediately take it back, but he bit his tongue, waiting.

“Stay…overnight,” Claire said slowly, carefully. “Overnight…for…?”

“Aye. Fer that.” Jamie was bright red. “Only if ye want to do…that. Only if ye’re ready.”

Claire simultaneously felt her heart flutter with soft affection and felt her core rush with heat. It was her turn to lick her lips, her grip on the couch cushion tightening. There were a million things her mind raced to say, all with varying levels of vulgarity, but instead, she said:

“Are you ready?”

“I think so.”

Claire arched a brow. “Think so?”

“Aye. No — I know so. I know. I am.”

All of the heat and fluttering bubbled in her chest, and she bit her lip to stifle a laugh. It was cruel to laugh at him right now, about this. She knew it. But he was just too god damn endearing for his own good.

“Okay,” she said with a chuckle. She reached for him with the hand she’d been resting her head in on the back of the couch. “Me too.”

Jamie exhaled tremulously with a crooked smile. Claire kissed him gently, keeping her hand steady on his face.

“It’ll be okay,” she whispered, nuzzling their noses together.

Jamie didn’t speak; he just nodded and kissed her again before folding her into his chest, holding her close. She breathed him in, that scent she’d become so familiar with (his cologne, a crisp, clean smell, but always something earthy lingering underneath), she traced the muscles of his chest under his shirt, listened to his heart, his breathing.

God, she was so ready.

Chapter Text

Jamie was simultaneously in Heaven and in Hell.

The Heaven part was Claire Beauchamp’s hand laced in his, walking from the parking meter to the restaurant on the water, down port in Port Jefferson. If dinner was as long as he’d planned for, the timing would be perfect for them to be walking around just as the sun was setting so that the colors would dance on her skin, in her curls, in her eyes. She was so much more relaxed than she was on that first date, so much more comfortable in the restaurant this time, one by the name of Old Fields. She loved that they could see the water, loved the flowers and wee plants around them at their outdoor table (he knew she would), loved the string of lights crisscrossing back and forth above their heads. She was illuminated like an angel.

The Hell part was what he’d committed to doing after this.

Not that it would be Hell, not at all. Christ, the thought of giving himself to her that way, the thought of her being his first (and only, if he had anything to say about it, though he couldn’t exactly say that this early without sounding like a nutter), the thought of finally giving in to those urges he’d felt since the first time she’d pressed her body against his in that bloody office…

That too, was Heaven.

But the waiting. The anticipation.

Christ, he was nervous.

He wanted to do it right, wanted to please her, wanted her to like it. He wanted her to like it as much as he already knew he would. He didn’t want to lose his head, or lose it too soon. He’d heard his friends ribbing each other as teenagers, how they’d lost it nearly the second they were inside for their first time. Claire deserved better than that.

Then he remembered she hadn’t been pleasured as such in years, and his throat went dry. He couldn’t disappoint her. He just couldn’t. It was not an option.

“Jamie?”

“Hm?”

He was pulled from his whirling thoughts by that reminder of Heaven, her gentle voice, warm, soft fingertips on his wrist; on his pulse, he realized. He looked up into her face when he realized she was not going to say anything else, and saw her gazing softly at him, eyebrows raised inquisitively.

“You’re very loud without saying a word,” she said.

Jamie chuckled nervously, feeling himself blush. “Aye, sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” she tightened her grip on his wrist. “That’s not why I said that.” He wet his lips, nodding. “Are you…nervous? About…later.”

Throat dry, causing pain when he swallowed, he nodded. “Feels foolish, but aye.”

“It’s not.” Her thumb rubbed calming circles over his pulse, and it felt like she was literally soothing his heartbeat back to a steady rhythm. That was her affect, her healing touch, her magic. “It’s normal. I’m…I am, too.” He watched a beautiful blush begin at her sternum and creep its way up her neck and into her face, like watching flowers bloom up and down a vine.

“But I…” she went on, breathing shakily. “I really, really want to, Jamie.”

Jamie thought he might just die.

Her voice was low and husky in a way he’d never heard, and she did not break eye contact. He nodded, his jaw agape.

“Aye,” he somehow managed to stutter. “I…I do, too.”

She brought his fingers to her lips, and he prayed she would not feel how clammy his hand was.

“Worrying about it now won’t change anything that happens later,” she whispered, causing the hairs on his hand and wrist to stand on end, tickled by her breath. “It’ll be okay.”

And though he still felt like he might vomit, or faint, or keel over, he knew she was right.

He tried to focus instead on the menu, on the bread basket in between them, on watching Claire break the bread into pieces before putting it in her mouth, not biting it. He tried to think of those hands, delicately breaking bread, holding surgical equipment, of those fingers tying stitches, stroking the brow of a frightened child on a stretcher. And then the bread was popped between her lips, and he could think of nothing but those lips, doing…well…

The waiter thankfully interrupted that next train of thought, and they each ordered. Jamie ordered the buttermilk fried chicken, which came with cornbread, coleslaw, and french fries, which he swapped for sweet potato fries. He caught a glint in Claire’s eye when he asked for the substitution, and he immediately knew she’d be having quite a few of those fries. Claire ordered butternut squash ravioli, and Jamie smiled as he handed the waiter their menus. He’d have to make that for her sometime; he wasn’t too bad at ravioli and other pasta dishes if he did say so himself.

The more rounds of drinks they got, the more relaxed they both felt, and the more Jamie could look at the lights dancing on Claire’s skin without thinking of the terror of the rest of her skin being bared to him.

Well, not entirely.

It was always there, in the back of his mind, but Claire’s melodic laugh, her pensive gaze as she stared over the water, the way she jumped when the ferry horn blared, and that damned healing touch of hers always pulled him back out of his head. She talked about patients and incidents at work, about Joe saving her sanity nearly once an hour, about Faith’s new habit of laying out every one of her barbies on the coffee table in the morning and leaving them there untouched until it was bedtime, only to repeat the process every morning, about how Faith arranged the furniture in her dollhouse. Jamie talked about his own clients, about how great Faith was doing with Jessica, and he told a particularly long anecdote about his one client with Down Syndrome, Holly.

“I dinna ken what to do about that one,” Jamie said, shaking his head. “She’s making braw progress, just great. Her fine motor is getting so much better, her strength is improving, she communicates great wi’ the horse and wi’ us. But she…Christ, how do I say it…”

“She has a crush on you,” Claire said, putting her chin in her hands and smiling.

“Aye! How d’ye know?”

“I’ve seen her at the events. She’s the sweetest thing, but she’s especially sweet to you,” Claire said, her eyes bright with mirth. “How old is she again?”

“Eleven,” Jamie said. “The problem is, she does so well wi’ me, right? But I dinna ken if it’s just because she’s, well, sweet on me. And is that ethical? For her to progress so well because she’s sweet on a grown man more’n twice her age?”

Claire laughed. “Well, it isn’t your fault. You do what you can for her and you keep it professional. She’ll outgrow it, I’m sure.”

I’m no’ so sure,” Jamie said. “Doesna help that her mam encourages her.”

“Perhaps she has her own crush and she’s living vicariously through Holly.” Claire took a cheeky sip of wine, and Jamie barked with laughter.

“Shameless, Sassenach.”

“What? It’s quite difficult for a woman to resist someone like you. And good with kids, and animals?” She put down her wine glass. “You’re a dreamboat, darling. I’m quite aware how lucky I am. And I would be even if the other moms weren’t constantly reminding me.”

The thought made Jamie blush; all the mothers ogling at him from where he couldn’t see, telling Claire about said ogling.

Claire suddenly shook her head, mouth and eyes wide with disbelief.

“What?”

“It’s like…you don’t even know.” She rested an arm on the table, leaning her chin in her other hand.

“Dinna ken what?”

She bit her lip, perhaps stifling a laugh, or trying to stop herself from saying it. “I’ll…I’ll tell you later.”

His stomach flipped.

When dinner arrived, Claire did steal quite a few of his sweet potato fries, and he didn’t have it in him to tease her for it. She thoroughly enjoyed her own meal, and he catalogued that knowledge away, along with the knowledge of her love of sweet potato. They skipped dessert, Jamie promising her well-priced ice cream instead.

Said ice cream was obtained at a little shop tucked away at the corner of a narrow pedestrian cobblestone walkway. Claire was completely enamored with every little shop and cafe they passed, remarking how “sweet” or how “darling” everything looked, and Jamie wanted to kiss her senseless.

He ordered moose-tracks, which Claire had apparently never had, and Claire got her usual soft-serve vanilla with rainbow sprinkles on a cone. Jamie gave her a bite of his, and she nodded in approval, saying she might actually get that next time.

Next time.

The thought of an endless future of holding Claire’s hand at sunset with ice cream on her tongue was making him dizzy.

They strolled closer and closer to the water, chatting and eating. Claire insisted Jamie have a lick of her ice cream since she’d tried his, but Jamie was certain she just wanted to watch him make a mess of his face with the quickly melting mess. She got her wish, if that was her intention.

When they reached the beach, Jamie asked Claire to hand him her shoes; the wedges she was wearing were not conducive to walking in the sand. She obliged, and they walked on. They walked along the shoreline, passing groups of young people with grilles, families or couples with dogs. There was even a lone swimmer, stroking valiantly in the near still water.

Claire was looking out over the harbor, at the boats, the birds, the colors in the sky. “This really is so beautiful, Jamie.”

“I’m glad ye like it,” he said. “I used to come here by myself just to think. I come wi’ Toni to get food and people watch. It’s very fine to have you here.”

She bit into her cone, and he smiled, finally giving into the urge to kiss her cheek, even as she chewed.

They eventually found their way to a dock, and they sat on the edge, dangling their feet, Claire’s shoes sitting behind them. The sun was mere minutes from setting now, and Jamie’s heart could have burst. He’d calculated the timing just right; he’d gotten to see all of nature’s glowing colors in various states of sunset reflected on Claire’s skin, her hair, her eyes. He could swear that her eyes literally changed color depending on the color of the light around them. She was truly ethereal, so much so that his stomach settled for the first time all night.

They sat swinging their feet, Claire resting her head on Jamie’s shoulder, Jamie holding her against him. It was perfect. The scent of her was driving him mad, that sweet perfume, lemongrass, and that deep herbal essence that always permeated her, likely from her garden. Then they were kissing, madly and deeply, and someone could have docked their boat right next to them and Jamie wouldn’t have noticed.

——

When Jamie opened the back door of his car to retrieve Claire’s overnight bag for her, she noticed that he wiped his hands on his trousers before actually picking up the bag.

He was sweating.

She wanted to tell him that it was going to be alright, that it was not going to be as terrifying as he dreaded, that she’d be happy no matter how he performed.

Not that she wasn’t thinking about how he would perform.

It was perhaps a bit unfair to place such high expectations on him. He was virginal after all. But God, there was something about him that had Claire convinced that she wouldn’t be able to walk tomorrow. And she eagerly awaited it.

She’d wanted him, very badly, for a long, long time. Longer than she cared to admit. And she very well might finish at the first contact and then he’d have nothing to worry about.

Before Claire could reveal her horrendously mortifying train of thought, Jamie was unlocking the front door. He lived on the bottom floor of his building, and there were outdoor entrances like there were at her building.

“It’s no’ much,” he said sheepishly, turning on the lights. “Bachelor pad, after all.”

Claire looked around the living room they stepped into, her chest warming. “It’s lovely.”

There was a gray couch facing a not-too-big tellie, a coffee table in the center of a woven blue area rug that matched the tartan blanket draped over the back of the couch. There were burgundy-red throw pillows that matched the red on the tartan.

“Fraser tartan,” Claire said, rubbing the fabric between her fingers. “Right?”

“Aye,” Jamie said eagerly, beaming. “Ye remembered.”

“Remembered?” Claire snorted. “I have been entirely unable to forget the sight.”

She moved on to examine photos on the wall behind the couch, and she saw him blush out of the corner of her eye. She recognized Jenny and Ian from pictures on Jamie’s phone; there were photos from their wedding with Jamie in them, photos of the children, with and without Jamie. There was a photo of three cheesy grins on eager children, two of them redheaded little boys. The one in the middle leaned heavily on his sister and brother, grinning the brightest of all. Willie.

Above them was a photo of them with their parents. Ellen was beautiful. Like a Goddess or an Amazon. Her jawline could cut ice, and her high cheekbones gave way to cat-like eyes.

“You look so much like her,” Claire said softly. She felt him come up closer behind her.

“Thank you.”

She turned to offer him a sad but loving smile, wrapping her arms around his middle and resting her head on his shoulder. Her eyes wandered over Ellen and Brian’s wedding photo, both of them elegant and regal, Brian in his full Fraser regalia, Ellen in a gorgeous, very eighties gown.

“Your family is so beautiful, Jamie.” Claire gave him a squeeze. “Just looking at these I can tell how much love there is between all of you.”

Claire had always wondered what it was like to have family like that. Of course Lamb had been her family, and she loved him endlessly. She always would. But family like this, family to fill a wall with and look at similarities between…she’d never had such a thing. So she always wondered.

“I can’t wait to meet them someday.”

She said it softly, so softly that she might be able to take it back if she needed. But Jamie squeezed her back and kissed the top of her head.

“I canna wait either, mo ghraidh.”

They took off their shoes and moved into the kitchen, the counters empty and spotless save his coffee maker and a blender, quite unlike the ever-present mess in her kitchen. There were white roses in the center of the table, and Claire got the distinct feeling that he didn’t always have such a thing.

“For you, Milady.” He gallantly offered her a rose from the bunch, and she deeply inhaled its fresh scent, looking up at him through her lashes. The whisky came next, and then they were on the couch, glasses in hand, rose tucked behind Claire’s ear. They would go back and forth between talking animatedly, laughing, teasing, and then utter silence, sipping their glasses uncomfortably, sweat pooling at the base of Claire’s back. And probably under her arms. This went on for far too long before Claire decided to say something.

“So — ”

“Listen, I —”

They both snapped their mouths shut, blushing fiercely. They stumbled apologies over each other, but then Claire stopped it all.

“You first,” she insisted.

“Right.” He cleared his throat. “I was ehm…gonna…well…” He ran a hand through his hair, and Claire’s heart strained to see it was trembling. “I dinna ken what to do right about now. I mean, I ken what to do!” he corrected quickly, but he hadn’t needed to. Claire knew what he meant. “It’s just — ”

“No, I know. I know what you mean.” Claire took another sip of her drink. “I don’t…know what’s next either.”

Jamie laughed, a shaky, nervous sound. Claire wanted to take him in her arms and soothe him, kiss away all his fear. Yet she also wanted to pounce him right there, make him spill his whisky all over that beautiful carpet and drag him to the bed and leave it there until morning.

Though that didn’t seem very productive.

“I was going to say that you don’t have to worry about condoms,” Claire said, nodding curtly. “I mean, I know you don’t have anything, and I don’t. Unless you want — ”

He shook his head. “I trust ye.”

Claire nodded. “And well, I’m on the pill. So.”

He nodded thoughtfully, sipping his drink again. She saw the unasked question in his eye. She didn’t need to prove to him that she wasn’t just ready to start sleeping around at any given moment, but she wanted to.

“I took it even before I started having sex,” she explained. “Bad periods. Really bad.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It’s alright,” Claire waved it off. “It was convenient when I started having sex. Then Frank wanted kids right after getting married even though I was still in medical school, so I went off it. Went right back on it as soon as I could after Faith was born.”

“Frank wanted kids?”

She saw the regret as soon as he said it, flashing in his eyes like a storm.

“Exactly,” Claire said. “I don’t need to tell you of all people that Faith is my joy and blessing and…everything to me,” she said, her chest aching. “But…I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want to even start trying until the age I am now. Pregnancy and infancy during med school was really hard.”

“I canna imagine.” He put a hand on her knee, squeezing. “Ye’re brave, Claire. And strong.”

She smiled weakly. “I didn’t feel like it at the time. I couldn’t even say no to him. Even though I knew why he was doing it.”

He didn’t want to ask, she could tell. He squeezed her knee harder and rubbed his thumb over her kneecap.

“He thought I’d give it up,” she said simply, shrugging. “Being a doctor. If I had children. Thought I’d resign myself to barefoot and pregnant.”

Jamie’s every feature darkened. Claire covered his hand with hers on her knee.

“I’m sorry we got into that tonight. I didn’t mean…at all…”

Unprompted and unexpectedly, Jamie’s lips met hers, harder than they had all night. He pulled away, and Claire felt breathless.

“What was that for…? I didn’t exactly set the mood…” Claire rolled her eyes in admonishment of herself.

“I admire the hell out of you, Sassenach.”

Overwhelmed with affection, Claire kissed him back.

When they pulled apart, Claire took note of the time from the digital clock on the cable box.

“I need to call Gail, get the updates, make sure Faith went down okay,” Claire said, reaching for her phone. Gail and Delia were spending the whole night at the apartment rather than Faith sleeping at their house; Claire had been worried that Faith would panic if nighttime routine was not at home.

“Do you want to…” Claire put her drink down on the coffee table as she pulled out her phone. “Meet me in the bedroom?”

She thought he might drop his drink; she almost jerked her hand forward to catch it.

“Ah — yes, aye, that’s fine,” he stammered. He set his glass down beside hers and stood up. “I’ll just…do that.”

She covered her mouth to stifle a laugh. If she hadn't already had three overtly sexual encounters with this man, these interactions would convince her that she was in for a rough night.

Gail gave a glowing report for Faith’s behavior and informed Claire that she and Delia were fast asleep, Delia in her sleeping bag next to Faith’s bed. Claire thanked her for the millionth time in just that one phone call, and then she hung up. She suddenly got the urge to wipe her palms on her dress. Now she was sweaty.

Christ.

She took a deep breath, in the nose, and out the mouth.

It’s just sex, Beauchamp. It’s like riding a bike.

Just sex…

It couldn’t ever be just sex with someone like Jamie. Not when she was his first, not when she felt…the way she did about him.

Christ.

She forced herself off the couch, swaying only slightly when she stood, and not from the alcohol.

She made sure she was breathing as she headed in the direction that Jamie had gone and into the room. His head popped up from his task. He was turning down the comforter, having already put the throw pillows on the floor in the corner.

“Yer bag is on the dresser,” he gestured to the dresser where there was, indeed, her overnight bag. She briefly wondered if she’d even bother sleeping in pajamas, then the image of her naked body pressed tightly against his seared her mind, and she thought she might fall over.

“Faith alright?”

“Hm? Oh, yes, she’s asleep, Gail said she was great. Stubborn about dinner, wanted to eat Delia’s food instead of her own, but Gail was able to get it straightened.”

Please, do keep drawling on about your five year old while Jamie Fucking Fraser turns down his bed to fuck you in.

“Good, glad to hear it.” He flashed her a grin, then straightened up. “The bathroom is an ensuite. Right through there.” He gestured, and Claire nodded in acknowledgement.

Then there they stood, six feet apart from one another, no excuses left. Jamie wiped his palms on his pants, and Claire fought the urge to do the same on her dress. It was yellow, another high-low dress with flowing cap sleeves. How she hadn’t managed to sweat through it yet was beyond her.

Jamie took a step forward, hesitantly. “I’d like to kiss ye now, Sassenach. If that’s alright.”

Claire inhaled on a gasp, then exhaled tremulously. She nodded without words, taking her own step forward.

Like riding a bike.

He closed the gap between them, cupping her face sweetly.

Like riding a bike with someone that makes your heart feel like it’s going to explode from beneath your sternum.

He dipped down and kissed her, gentle as ever. In the back of her mind, in a place that she wished would shut up, she prayed that he wouldn’t be that gentle all night.

She could feel the sweat on his palms that he’d tried so desperately to be rid of, clammy on her face, but she focused instead on the feel of his lips, on the gentle probing of his tongue, mingling with hers. Her hands had been resting absently on his chest, but she snaked them up now, wrapping them around his neck. She wanted to be closer, needed to be. Her heartbeat was erratic, and she wanted to feel his thrumming in desperate time with hers, right up against her.

His hands moved too, threading through her hair, tugging gently so he could tip her back for better access. She sighed with contentment, smiling against him and reaching her hands under his collar to scratch his neck. He groaned as she raked her nails down, tugging harder on her hair. She’d apparently unleashed something, because he redoubled his efforts, flipping them around so he could push her to the bed. They crashed down together, and before Claire could blink, Jamie was lying perpendicular to the headboard, legs dangling off the bed, and she was hovering over him, kissing him senseless.

Something that had been simmering in her all night began rising, steaming. If she was sweaty before, she was melting now. She ran her hands all over his chest, his arms; he peppered kisses all over her neck and collarbones and even the swell of her breasts. His hands alternated between running up and down her back and squeezing her arse over her dress. She needed more. Nerves were gone, and she was ready to throw a leg over him and straddle him now. Hell, if she finished fully clothed she could still be ready for more. She moaned loudly as Jamie bit her bottom lip, sinking her nails into his neck. She was about to throw her leg over him, but then he abruptly sat up, digging his own nails into her shoulders and clawing down her arms, no doubt leaving already fading streaks of red. Claire began kissing his neck, biting, nibbling, licking, then —

“What were ye gonna say?”

She barely registered that he’d even talked. She picked up her head and looked at him blearily, her chest heaving.

“What…?”

“At dinner…when ye said, ‘I’ll yell ye later’…”

“Oh.” It came flooding back, the way he’d looked when she mentioned all the mothers lusting after him, what that look did to her.

She smiled widely at him, at first genuine and sweet, and then it morphed into something wickeder. No, she would not straddle him just yet.

She slowly, torturously slowly, ran her tongue along his bottom lip, and then nipped at it with her teeth. “You don’t even know…” She trailed her fingers down his neck, stopping at the buttons of his shirt to start undoing them. “How God damn,” another button, “bloody,” another button, “beautiful you are.” She pushed the fabric of his shirt apart, four buttons open now, and kissed his sternum. “How…” another button, another kiss, “fucking…” another button, another kiss, “hot you are, Jamie.”

His shirt was entirely undone now, and she yanked it out of his pants and over his shoulders. She moaned in appreciation of his body, beautiful indeed, sculpted from fine marble. She ran her hands down his chest, his stomach, then back up.

“God, Jamie…” She was completely breathless, and he was barely even touching her. “The first time I saw these muscles, under that wet t-shirt…I was ready to bloody have you on that counter.”

He growled then, finally moving, capturing her lips with his with an aggression she didn’t know he was capable of. She whimpered in surprised appreciation, running her hands back up his perfect torso to thread her arms around his neck as his snaked around her waist.

“Christ, Sassenach,” Jamie groaned, kissing her neck fiercely. “I wanted ye…I wanted ye so badly that day I could scarcely breathe…”

She laughed, a throaty, wanton sound. “I know you did…” She ran a hand down the planes of his torso again and then walked her fingers down, down, down…until Jamie cried out, jerking into her hand. “I could feel it.” She palmed him gently over his pants, and Jamie sounded like he was choking on something. Claire chuckled darkly and continued kissing him sloppily as she rubbed him, becoming less and less gentle.

“What did you do?” she panted, nibbling his earlobe. “That day? What did you do with…this?” She gave a particularly hard squeeze, and he cried out again against her neck, latching his teeth there, and she whimpered.

“I…” She felt him swallow, hard. “I tried not to, Sassenach, I didna…” He hissed; she did not stop touching him, “want to dishonor ye.”

“Tell me, Jamie,” she breathed. “And I’ll tell you what I did.”

He let out a soft moan at that, a beautiful, endlessly endearing sound. “Oh, Christ…” His voice was gravelly in a way that made Claire’s stomach turn to liquid. “I…I took myself in my hand, and I…” Claire was unable to suppress a moan at the thought of her sweet, shy lad touching himself for her. “I imagined this. Only it’s…” He kissed her deeply, lapping at her mouth with his tongue like he was desperately hungry. “It’s better than I could ever imagine.”

And we’re just getting started, my lad.

Claire kissed him back, finally letting her hand leave him so she could grasp both of his shoulders. “I…” she panted. “God, I touched myself too, Jamie.” She pushed his shoulders down. “I couldn’t help it.” She straddled him, and he hissed at the contact, gripping her hips. God, he felt huge under her like this, and it sent a shudder through her entire body at the thought of taking him inside her.

“Then I…” She braced herself on his shoulders and began rocking her hips, just as she’d done that night. “I did this, on a…a pillow.” She laughed through the words, even as she ground down harder on him. “And I imagined this.”

His grip on her hips tightened, and his hands moved under her dress, under her underwear to grab the flesh of her arse. She groaned as he dug his fingers into that flesh, continuing to seek her pleasure with her thrusts.

Not enough. More. More.

Claire stilled her hips and removed her hands from his shoulders so she could find the edge of her dress. Jamie’s grip on her arse became impossibly tighter; his whole body seemed to freeze up and stiffen beneath her. She smirked, feeling herself flush at the thought of letting him see her. And then the dress was off and discarded, leaving her in the lacy white matching set she’d worn just for the occasion. He raked his eyes over her frantically, as if he didn’t know where to look, where to settle his gaze. His eyes were practically bugging out of his head, and he looked like he might lose consciousness. Claire flipped her hair to one side and leaned down to kiss him, gently gripping both sides of his face. She did not move her hips again, just kissed him gently, sweetly.

It’s okay. Take your time.

After a few lingering, deep kisses, Jamie finally moved his hands away from her arse and up the length of her back, bracing her against him. He flipped her onto her back and began peppering kisses on her neck, the crook of her shoulder, her jawline, all while sculpting his fingertips over the length of her collarbones. Claire kept her fingers threaded through his curls, tugging gently on occasion. He latched onto that spot, just above her collarbone where her neck began, and Claire cried out, the pooling heat within her rising to a boiling point. His hand snaked down the length of her torso, sliding over her bra, her waist, then resting on the small of her back. She felt his lips curl into a smile against her skin, and he softly kissed the spot he'd just assaulted, before trailing his tongue up the length of her neck and her jawline before finally coming home to her mouth.

She moaned greedily into his mouth, sucking hard on his tongue, combining it with hers. She moved her hands to the sides of his face, as if to pull him impossibly closer. He kissed her urgently, and she could feel the hard proof of his arousal on her thigh, but his hands remained still. Picking up on his shyness, Claire removed a hand from his face and took hold of the hand that was still stationary on the small of her back. He either didn't notice or didn't care, far too occupied with devouring her lips and tongue, tasting her teeth. She brought his hand back up the length of her torso, stopping on the left cup of her bra. She flattened his hand and firmly pressed his palm into the soft flesh.

He stopped kissing her then, and she felt him grow even harder, if that were even possible. He looked into her eyes, the bright blue almost gone, darkened with desire. His lips were hanging open in aroused shock, and the sight of them, swollen and red from her own assault made her squirm.

She gave him a wicked grin and pressed his hand harder onto her breast, groaning through her teeth, her jaw jutting forward. Despite how obvious it was that this was enjoyable for her, and him for that matter, Jamie still hesitated to squeeze on his own, floundering when her hand left his.

"Jamie..." She somehow found enough breath to pant out his name. "Touch me, Jamie, please."

Jamie gulped, and she watched as his Adam's apple bobbed up and down, having to bite her lip to stifle the moan it elicited from her. God, everything he did made her simply melt.

He repositioned himself slightly so that he could bring a second hand, trembling like mad, to her other, neglected breast. He took them in his hands with bated breath, and the sight of him, in awe of her like this was nearly enough to make her come without any stimulation at all. He ran his thumbs back and forth over the lacy material of her bra, and she groaned at the contact to her nipples, even through the fabric.

Still, he was hesitant.

"Don't be gentle," she blurted out, unable to stop herself. "Touch me, Jamie. Please."

Something finally seemed to click; something unleashed from within him. His hands roughly squeezed her breasts, and Claire arched her back as a strangled cry ripped through her.

"Yes, Jamie..." He reached one of his hands under the cup, and she gasped at the flesh-on-flesh contact. "Yes..."

Like a man possessed, he tugged at the straps of her bra, and without even thinking twice, she slipped her arms out of the straps as he reached underneath her to unhook it. Claire couldn't help but giggle; his fingers were practically vibrating with how fiercely he trembled; it took him far longer than it should have for him to unhook the bloody thing.

When he finally succeeded, and her breasts were free, she sighed with contentment. He unceremoniously discarded it behind him and returned to his former position, fueled even further by the full sight of them now. She swore she heard him growl as he took hold of her breasts again, and Claire moaned at the sensation. He kneaded roughly, pushing them together and apart, trapping her nipples between his fingers. He dipped his head to kiss her sternum, and Claire blushed, knowing full well there was a pool of sweat gathered there. He didn't seem to mind, however, as his lips and tongue devoured her there, and then trailed kisses up the mound of her breast.

Claire gasped raggedly as his lips latched onto the nipple, kissing it over and over before firmly sucking and circling his tongue around it rapidly, all while still kneading the other breast. Claire was becoming feral: her hands were pushing into his head with a force that was surely uncomfortable for him, her heavy panting had quickly morphed into repeated, loud keening noises, and she was bucking her hips into thin air. She briefly wondered if it was possible to come just from this, with her lower extremities completely untouched. She certainly felt like it was possible.

Evidently, she'd never get to find out.

He switched his mouth to her other breast and trailed his hand, flat, down the expanse of her stomach, and Claire groaned in anticipation of the oncoming sensation. He slid his hand over her underwear and palmed her, his hand completely covering the entire surface area. Claire moaned loudly; his hand was so warm and large, the heat pressing into her almost made her come undone on its own. Noticing how enthusiastically she responded to this, Jamie kept his hand flat and large as he could on her, kneading and squeezing almost like he had done to her breasts, only gentler. She rolled her hips, keening incessantly as he carried on. After a while, he slowed his hand to a stop and kept his fingers still, then began grinding the heel of his hand into her, pressing directly into that bundle of nerves that had so been craving his touch.

She loudly cried out at the sensation, but he only let it last briefly. He had other plans. All the while, his mouth had not left her breast, kissing the skin, the nipple, licking, sucking. Now, his mouth hovered over hers as his fingers tantalizingly teased the top of her underwear. He inched them underneath, slowly, so fucking slowly.

"Please, Jamie," she cried out, not even having the mental capacity to consider how wanton she sounded.

He chuckled against her mouth, kissing her hard again. She groaned into him as his fingers teased her entrance to gather her natural lubricant, and he chuckled again, his chest rumbling.

He's laughing at how you're dripping wet already, you sex-fiend.

Not wasting any more time, he began rubbing, up and down, side to side, circling…

“Jamie…Jamie…fuck…”

Claire was completely lost.

Her eyes were squeezed shut, her back completely arched, her fingers threaded in his hair again. He knew exactly when he spent too long in a certain spot, and he moved, he knew exactly when he needed to slow down, when he needed to speed up. He was watching her face intently, listening to her body, and of course to those noises.

Claire had no concept of how loud she was being now; she couldn't even hear herself anymore. The only thing she could hear was his panting in her ear, the purring in his throat, the chuckling growls in his chest. The world narrowed down to his fingers, taking up a pace with a quickness she had never felt before. Every breath she inhaled was a ragged gasp, every breath she released was a tortured moan.

Jamie latched teeth onto her nipple, and she was undone.

She came with a ferocity she hadn’t thought possible, her mouth hanging open, as screams, practically sobs, erupted from her.

His fingers slowed, gently stroking her down from her high. She was seeing stars as he kissed her lips again, and she kissed him back with a fervor she didn’t even know she could muster after the numbing orgasm he’d just given her. She kissed him until she was sure she would faint, only pulling away to ensure she didn’t drop dead for lack of air. She panted heavily, her walls still clenching inside her, her thighs still twitching. His hand left her, gently stroking up and down her ribcage. He was grinning down at her like a fool, clearly quite pleased with himself.

“Where the bloody hell did you learn how to do that?” Claire panted, her eyes hardly able to focus her vision.

He smirked at her, cocking an eyebrow. “I said I was a virgin, Sassenach.” He chuckled lightly and kissed her again. “No’ a monk.”

Claire shook her head in disbelief, completely dumbfounded. Would he ever cease to amaze her?

“Was it really all that good?”

She could tell that he was trying to play it off as a joke, attempting sarcasm, playing up his cockiness. But she could see right through it, could tell that he needed the reassurance from her verbally.

To answer him, Claire firmly took hold of both sides of his face and kissed him hard. When she pulled away she looked into his eyes, whispering: “Unbelievable.”

His grin widened again, and he kissed her back, threading his fingers through her hair. They pulled apart again and settled in to lay down, facing each other, foreheads pressed together.

“Ye’re beautiful when ye fall apart, Claire,” he whispered reverently, pushing a stray curl out of her sweaty face. 

She felt her face get hot, but not from arousal this time. “Really…? I found myself resembling nothing short of a wanton slut.”

She’d meant it as a joke, and looked at him as such, smiling sheepishly. But his eyes had darkened again, and his face was almost gravely serious.

“No, Sassenach,” he said, his voice low and gravelly. “Ye’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Watching ye in the throes of yer passion is…is beyond description, Claire. I dinna want to ever forget it.”

Claire felt tears stinging her eyes, and she felt ridiculous. Am I really about to cry because my boyfriend thinks I’m pretty when I come…?

But it wasn’t as simple as that. Not really.

The truth of his words, the depth of their meaning sank in, and Claire felt her heart being pulled to his. She was unable to stop herself from kissing him again, overcome with tenderness. The kiss gradually deepened, and it wasn’t long before Claire found herself burning, wanting again. She moved her hands down the expanse of his bare chest as he continued kissing her, stopping at his hips, where his pants began. She tugged on his belt until she got it undone, and Jamie smirked against her lips as she pulled it through the belt loops, discarding it over her shoulder.

“You…” she breathed out between kisses. “Are wearing…” She undid his fly. “Far too much clothing.”

He growled in response, deepening the kiss even as he tugged on his slacks, breaking away only to get them over his knees and heels, finally kicking them onto the floor. He laid back down beside her again, thrusting his tongue back into her mouth with an urgency that made her moan. His hardness was pressing firmly into her as they continued their exploration of each other’s mouths, and Claire found herself unable to resist rocking her hips against him. He mirrored her actions, grinding against her thigh. Claire draped her leg over his hips to increase her own friction, and slid her other thigh between both of his to increase friction for him, pressing the top of her thigh into his erection.

He let out a shuddering groan, a sound that sent heat shooting to her center. They began madly rocking together, their lips never leaving one another’s. Claire groaned and grunted as she fought to maintain a steady rhythm that stimulated her just right on him, the ever-present reminder of his arousal on her thigh driving her mad. Jamie was panting and groaning, his thrusts becoming frantic.

“Claire…” Jamie choked out, finally releasing her mouth. “I canna…I’m gonnae…”

“No.” Claire immediately stopped rocking. “Not like this.”

Every vein in his face was popping out, and he was dripping with sweat. Claire unthreaded herself from him and tugged on his briefs, and he obliged, sitting up and sliding them all the way off. Claire gasped raggedly as he was unsheathed. She’d guessed the relative size of him through clothing far earlier in their friendship than she’d have liked to admit, but to fully see it was another matter entirely.

She had to have him. Now.

She sat up, reached out and grabbed him, and he cried out. She squeezed and stroked oh-so-gently, not wanting to accidentally set him off this way, but wanting very badly to feel him in her hands first. He let his head fall backward, his mouth stuck open, his eyes looking up to the ceiling.

“Christ, Sassenach…” he hissed.

Claire chuckled softly, enjoying her turn to have power over him. “Are you ready, Jamie?

Ready for me to take your virginity?

The thought sent another jet of heat to her center, and she felt herself growing impossibly wet.

“Are you?” he asked.

She smirked and made a show of removing her underwear, exposing that arse that she knew he adored, wiggling them down torturously slowly. She could feel her own wetness trailing down her thigh without the barrier to stop it from doing so. When they were finally discarded, she rose up on her knees and took his hand in hers, bringing it between her legs. They both gasped, she from the sensation, and he from the arousal of feeling how ready she really was.

Claire held his hand there, letting him soak in the moment. She looked him directly in the eye. “What do you think?” she said breathily.

He growled again and kissed her hungrily, both of them kneeling in the center of the bed.

Yes, they were both quite ready.

They kissed and kissed and kissed, and Claire didn’t even notice that Jamie was gradually, gently, pushing her back. She sat back and untucked her legs from beneath her, spreading them, until she was laying on the pillows, Jamie braced above her. Jamie stared into her face, eyes wide, mouth agape. Claire had to stifle the urge to laugh. But God, was he beautiful.

“I…” he stammered. “I’m sorry if I…”

Claire silenced him with a kiss, gripping both sides of his face. “It’s alright.” She kissed him again, dragging her teeth along his bottom lip until it popped out. “Do what you must.”

Jamie let out a shuddering groan that had Claire arching her back, raising her hips for him. He took hold of himself, lining himself up. Claire could feel him, grazing every inch of sensitive flesh that he’d already given his attentions to, and then he was there, right against her.

Do it, Jamie. God, do it!

She wanted to scream.

Instead, she took in the question in his eyes, the bob of his Adam’s apple, still holding his face, and she nodded.

Then she did scream, or something akin to it at least. It was loud, whatever it was.

Her first thought was that she’d never been so completely filled by any other man she’d slept with. Her second thought was that that was a horrible thought to have. Her third thought was that she didn’t give a fuck.

He wasn’t moving; he was just staring at her with his hands braced on either side of her head. Claire was still catching her breath from his initial thrust, and she realized embarrassingly that she was white-knuckling the poor lad’s face. She eased her grip and brought his face down to hers, kissing him, swirling her tongue with his. She rose her hips up, thrusting against him herself, then he took the hint, beginning to move. Claire keened against his lips as he stirred inside her, and then she cried out again when he pulled back and slammed back in. Jamie made his own noise, choked and strangled. God, he was so fucking endearing, even as he hammered inside her.

He gave another thrust, and then he set a rhythm. Claire threaded an arm around his neck, pressing his head into the crook of her neck. He clearly didn’t have the brain capacity to do anything there but breathe, but that was enough. His panting, hot breath on her skin and his noises directly in her ear were a lovely sensation. With her other hand, she reached down to take purchase on his arse, smooth and firm. She held onto it as if for dear life, as if she could push him even deeper into her if she tried.

After not long at all, he began to speed up, and Claire knew he wouldn’t last much longer. She also knew she was going to die if she didn’t finish with him inside her. So she removed her hand from his arse and brought it between them, rubbing herself relentlessly. Eventually, she thought to herself, she’d bring his hand there while they fucked. For now, the lad could barely keep himself from crushing her. She didn’t blame him.

A new surge of pleasure coursed through her, an electric height only achieved by combining both pleasure points on her body, heightened further still when one was far larger than a few fingers. Claire’s moaning was unrestrained now; every thrust elicited yet another high-pitched cry. She tightened her arm around his neck, threading her fingers in his thick red curls. He began moaning against her skin with every breath, and Claire increased the pace of her fingers.

So close.

And then Jamie yelled against her, biting down on her shoulder. His body went rigid, freezing inside her. She felt the familiar warm rush of his seed filling her, and she kept rubbing herself.

“Jamie!”

A plea, a demand…it was anyone’s guess.

Whether he knew what she meant or not, he gave one final thrust, and it was enough. She screamed again, louder than she had all night, clenching tightly around him, yanking her hand away from herself out of pure overstimulation and then braced her hand on his arse again, squeezing tightly.

He remained still as she continued to grasp him tightly, pulse around him, spasm her hips erratically, shivering. He’d collapsed onto his elbows, and sweat dripped from his hair onto her forehead, disappearing into her own hair. They were both gasping for air, panting desperately against each other’s skin. Claire could taste her own sweat on her upper lip, could see and feel the sheen of sweat all over his body as well as hers. For a moment they stayed like that, panting and gasping, and then Jamie collapsed to the right, surely unable to hold himself up anymore. He slid out of her, collapsing onto his back, still breathing heavily.

Claire stared at the ceiling for a moment, feeling far too much like jell-o to be able to move, but before long, she missed his warmth above her, around her. She flopped over onto her stomach, landing bodily on his chest. The sound it made was rather horrid, and Claire snorted. Jamie had no reaction, and Claire propped her head on her hands atop his chest. She found him with his eyes closed, seemingly asleep.

“Don’t die on me now,” she said.

Jamie groaned unintelligibly, his eyes still closed.

“Well,” Claire said haughtily, folding her arms over his chest and laying her head on them. “At least you didn’t die a virgin.”

A loud slap filled the air, followed by a sharp sting, simultaneous with a loud shriek. Claire jolted, sitting up.

“You little bastard!”

Jamie was literally howling with laughter.

“I’m sorry lass!” he wheezed. “I didna realize it would be so loud!”

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” she cried, swatting at his arm. Both of them had done this while they were fully clothed, teasing. But evidently, Jamie had never smacked a naked arse before. Which would make sense.

She erupted into giggles right with him, collapsing onto his chest again, where he readily wrapped his arms around her and kissed her head.

“Oh, Christ…” He was still laughing, rubbing her back.

“That’s what you get for almost falling asleep on me!” Claire said, still sputtering herself.

They calmed themselves down, still teasing and shuddering with laughter, Jamie rocking her in his arms unintentionally. They quieted, and a sense of contentment filled the air.

“Ye…ye liked it, then?”

Claire was unable to stifle another laugh. “I’m sorry, it’s not funny…” She giggled again, then kissed his sternum. “I did. I did like it, Jamie. A lot.”

She could feel as well as hear his sigh of relief, his chest deflating, taking her with it. He kissed her head again. “So did I, Sassenach.”

She picked her head up, resting her chin on her hands again. “Was it like you thought it would be?”

Jamie grinned crookedly, and Claire was shocked by her desire to kiss every inch of that mouth, so soon after. “Better.”

She was unable to stop herself then, kissing him soundly. He kissed back with equal fervor until they were both breathless. Then he pulled away, and Claire looked at him questioningly.

“Would ye…” He gulped, blinking. “Maybe…would ye want to do it again?”

Claire cocked a brow at him, smiling wickedly and maintaining eye contact as her hand traveled further down until she found him, already hard.

“Hm,” she hummed, impressed. “Ready already.”

Before he could push her into the pillows again, she threw a leg over his hips to straddle him. She leaned down to kiss him, and he raked his nails down her back, then kneaded her arse roughly. She could feel a hot rush, and then he chuckled darkly.

“So are you.”

Proving him right, she lowered herself onto him with effortless ease, and Jamie’s face looked like he might explode in this new position. She sighed with ecstasy, biting her lip. God, he felt good.

“For the record,” Claire began before she could stop herself. “I didn’t…hate it.”

His brow furrowed, gulping, trying to maintain focus while he was inside her. “What…?”

She took one of his hands, previously kneading her breasts, and brought it down to her arse. Hard. Loud.

Jamie’s eyes blew impossibly wide, his mouth falling open. Claire almost regretted it, almost felt like a slut bringing a kink, even a mild one, into the equation on the first night. But then his eyes darkened, and he smacked the other side of her arse with his free hand, and she let out a gasp that ended with a groan. Claire bit her lip, smiling wickedly down at him.

“Fast learner.”

Chapter Text

On August fourth, the actual date of their one-month anniversary, Claire was working until ten at night. When she shoved the key in the lock and shouldered the door open, she expected to see Mrs. Lickett on the couch with a book as she always was after Faith was put to bed. What greeted her had her frozen in the doorway. Mrs. Lickett was talking animatedly with Jamie.

He shot up from his seat immediately, swiping something off the coffee table. Mrs. Lickett silenced herself, looking back and forth between the younger people like she was watching puppies play together.

“Happy one-month, Sassenach.”

Claire realized through her bleary vision that he’d swiped up a bouquet of flowers. She felt like her bones were melting in her body, and she just wanted to throw herself on him and weep with exhaustion and tenderness.

“I’ll leave you two…” Mrs. Lickett said, getting off the couch. “Nice talking to you, Jamie. Goodnight, Claire.”

Claire stammered an incoherent goodnight, and Mrs. Lickett closed the front door, Claire having had it open this whole time.

“I came after Faith was asleep so she wouldna get all excited, so dinna fash about that. Mrs. Lickett texted me.”

In any other situation, Claire might have laughed at the thought of the two of them texting one another.

“There’s a bottle of champagne in the fridge if ye’d like. I can also go, if ye wish. I ken ye had a long day, that’s why we celebrated on Saturday, so if ye’d rather I — ”

He paused, and only then did Claire even realize she’d actually started weeping.

“Claire? What’s wrong?” The flowers dropped from his hand, landing on the couch, and in three quick strides he was upon her, hands gripping her shoulders. “What is it, lass? Did ye lose many patients?”

Claire sniffled, laughing at her own hysterics. “No...well, yes, a few but that’s not…” She wiped her eyes, then cupped his face. “You’re just….so sweet, Jamie.”

“Oh.” The concern wiped itself off his face, replaced by vague dumbfoundedness. “Ye’re alright, then?”

Claire nodded vigorously. “I’m...I’m perfect, Jamie.” She kissed him, wet snotty face and all. “I’m so glad you’re here.” She nuzzled her nose with his.

Jamie exhaled with relief, nuzzling her back. “I’m glad ye’re glad,” he said with a laugh. “I ken we celebrated already, but it felt wrong to not see ye on the day. Even if it’s just fer a bit. I couldna stop thinking about ye all day.” His thumbs rubbed circles on her shoulders.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about you either.”

They kissed again, Claire threading her arms around his neck and Jamie threading his around her waist. When they pulled apart, Claire laughed wetly. “Shall we get out of the doorway?”

They did, making their way to the kitchen where Claire arranged the flowers in a vase while Jamie got flutes for their champagne. Claire remarked over and over how beautiful the flowers were, and Jamie retorted nearly every single time that they weren’t nearly as beautiful as she was. They clinked their glasses, toasting to one another, and they finished the bottle on the couch, intermittently kissing sloppily and laughing at the episodes of Friends that TBS was playing.

When the bottle was finished, Claire had herself wrapped around Jamie like a koala, and she found herself weeping again. When Jamie prodded, she sniffled and looked up at him.

“I don’t know, you just...you do so much for me.” She wiped her eyes. “I feel like I don’t...I don’t do enough.”

“Sassenach…”

“I just want you to know how much you mean to me,” she finished. “Even if I’m terrible at…”

“Claire.”

That stopped her. Not Sassenach. Claire.

“Ye’re no’ terrible at anything.” He wiped wetness from her cheeks with his thumbs, looking into her eyes.

“But do you know…? Do you really know that you’re...you’re so important to me?”

“Aye, mo ghraidh. I know.” He kissed her forehead, then her nose, then her lips. “I know.”

And then, like the person desperate for physical connection that she was, Claire pounced on him, tearing his shirt off and letting him tear off hers, and her bra, as she straddled him. The blazing warmth of his bare chest pressing her breasts flat was almost too much to bear. They kissed fiercely, Jamie raking his nails up and down her back, causing her to shiver and groan. It didn’t take long at all for Jamie to stand up, carrying Claire bodily with him. He paused for a moment to adjust her legs around his waist so she wouldn’t slip, and they both giggled. Then Jamie walked into the bedroom, kissing Claire all the while, and he laid her on the bed like she was made of glass and meant to be worshipped.

She didn’t wait for invitation before stripping her bottom half, and Jamie did the same before joining her on the bed. He teased her nipples with his mouth and rolled her clit in his fingers for a while, until Claire was choking on her own moans, bucking her hips into the air, desperate for him. He entered her, and she came immediately from the sheer release after a long day and the build up he’d given her. Jamie let her get her bearings before moving within her, and then he was reaching between them, pounding and rubbing her mercilessly until they were both crying out their release into each other's mouths, biting on each other’s lips to keep each other quiet.

Claire was seeing stars, the darkness of the night around them consuming her senses. Jamie’s warmth was all around her, surrounding her. He rolled over next to her and gathered her against him, and without thinking, she threaded her legs with his, nuzzling into his chest and kissing his sternum. In that kiss, she said:

Please know. Please know how much I care.

Jamie’s answering kiss to the crown of her head, accompanied with a large hand rubbing up and down the smooth expanse of her back answered:

Aye, mo ghraidh. I know. I know.

——

A persistent banging noise was what woke Claire the next morning. She groaned with annoyance at first, pulling the blankets over her ears, but then she felt someone shaking her.

“Sassenach,” Jamie whispered. “I think Mrs. Lickett is here.”

Claire’s eyes shot open, and she sat up. “Oh shit,” she hissed. “That’s Faith outside the bedroom, isn't it?”

“Aye, indeed.”

“Shit shit shit…” Claire scrambled from bed and breathed in exasperation upon remembering she’d fallen asleep stark naked. Faith banged more insistently on the door, moaning in frustration. “Coming, lovie! One second!” Claire threw up a prayer of thanks to whoever was listening that Jamie had thought to lock the door behind them last night.

She tore through her closet for a robe and yanked it on, then turned to see Jamie was getting dressed.

“Don’t move,” she breathed. Jamie froze with one leg still halfway into his pants.

“Ehm…why?”

“I don’t want Faith to know you’re here. She’ll never let you leave.”

Jamie bit his lip to stifle a laugh, finishing with his pants.

“Just…get in the corner. Far away.” She gestured absurdly with her hands, pushing him farther and farther back from several feet away. “Don’t make a sound. She will figure it out, and there will be a meltdown.”

Jamie pantomimed zipping his mouth shut and throwing away the key. Claire rolled her eyes before unlocking and opening the door, just a crack. Faith was way ahead, grasping the edge of the door the second she could, and trying to thrust it open.

“Good morning, Faith,” Claire said warmly. “No, no, we can’t cuddle this morning, I’m sorry darling.”

Faith groaned, giving another sharp push that would have had Claire stumbling backward if she hadn’t seen it coming. “Don’t push me, Faith,” Claire said softly, but firmly. “Mrs. Lickett is here, come on.”

Claire did a little pushing of her own, shuffling Faith away with her legs and prying little hands from the door. She quickly shut the door again behind her as soon as she was certain that no fingers would get crushed, and she scooped Faith into her arms.

“Coming!” Claire called as she settled Faith onto her hip and scuttled into the living room. She put Faith down so she could unlock and open the door, and she cringed to think how unhinged she must look to the poor woman.

“Good morning, so sorry,” Claire said, flustered. “I overslept, clearly.”

“That’s alright,” Mrs. Lickett assured, stepping inside.

“Ehm, just a few things,” Claire said with an awkward chuckle. Before she could continue, a scratching noise filled her ears, and she whirled around to see Angus scratching on her bedroom door.

Of course he knows.

“Angus! Come!” Claire said, her voice thin with panic. The dog obeyed immediately, of course, well trained as he was, but he definitely knew something was up.

“Uh…” Claire cleared her throat. “Right. So, there is, ehm…J-A-M-I-E is H-E-R-E,” Claire said carefully, deliberately spelling any words that might trigger excitement for Faith. Realization illuminated Mrs. Lickett’s face, and she nodded, lips taut with the effort of stifling a smile. “So I, uh…just need you to keep her busy while I get dressed and get H-I-M…O-U-T.”

“Right,” Mrs. Lickett said.

“Have her feed Angus first and foremost and then…how about a bath? She never runs out of the tub.” Bath time was indeed one of Faith’s favorite activities; she treated it like her own little ocean, playing mermaid and squirting water with her bath toys. Getting her out of the tub was like trying to get her out of the Abernathys’ swimming pool.

“Sounds good,” Mrs. Lickett agreed. “I’ll shut the door for good measure.”

“Perfect.” Claire looked behind her to see Faith on the living room floor with her Barbies, arranging them on the coffee table using some filing system that Claire would never understand. She then watched in horror as Faith pushed a bra and two t-shirts off the coffee table. She darted forward and snatched them up before Mrs. Lickett could notice, though she likely already did. “Okay baby, listen to Mrs. Lickett, Mummy needs to get ready for work.”

With that, Claire shuffled away back into her bedroom, careful to only open the door just enough for her to fit in, locking it behind her. When she turned around, Jamie was just sitting on the bed, still shirtless for obvious reasons, grinning like an absolute fool.

“I’m glad you think this is funny!” Claire whispered harshly, throwing his shirt at him, but her own smile betrayed her.

“It’s like Jenny sneaking Ian out of our parents’ house,” he said quietly, biting his lip to contain a chuckle. “Couple of teenagers we are.”

Claire rolled her eyes, making her way to the closet. “You wouldn’t be smiling like that if she started crying when you left because she found you.”

“Aye, I ken,” he said. “It’s just…” He sighed, leaning back on the pillows. “Christ, Sassenach, my wame’s been doing tumbles since the second I woke up this morning, then watching ye fret and flit about…”

“Oh, stop…” Claire blushed, throwing clothes and fresh scrubs to pack onto the bed.

“And now ye’re just gonna flounce about in that wee robe like a temptress, to taunt me?”

“Please, you know I threw this on for any reason but to tempt you.” Claire rolled her eyes as she untied the belt, then she paused. “Do I need to make you turn around so you don’t get drool on the bed?”

Jamie grinned sheepishly, though he didn’t avert his eyes. Claire turned to face him, one eyebrow raised.

“I mean it, sir. I’m already running late, because of you.”

“I can control myself!” Jamie said in mock offense. “D’ye take me fer a heathen?”

“I might,” she grinned slyly, finally opening the robe and sliding it off herself. Her nose wrinkled in disgust, and she huffed. “I can’t believe I don’t have time for a shower, I feel disgusting…”

“Dinna look it.” She chanced a glance up to see Jamie laying back, hands behind his head, taking in her body like a royal feast.

“I’m sure I positively reek,” she went on, pulling on underwear and clasping her bra.

“Come closer, I’ll check for ye.”

She looked up at him again, aghast. “You are shameless.”

“Never said I wasna.”

Claire scoffed and rolled deodorant on before pulling her shirt over her head. She looked up to see a tiny pout on his face, though the evidence of what her naked body had done to him was still plainly visible.

“Ruined your fun, did I?” Claire said, tutting her tongue in mock sympathy. “Poor lad.” She pulled her capris on and started shoving the scrubs into her bag.

Jamie chuckled softly, but she could see how his eyes had darkened, could see the strain that his arousal was placing on his entire body. The veins in his neck protruded, his face was red.

“You know,” Claire began, trying to straighten the absolute mess of curls atop her ahead in the mirror full length mirror on her closet door. “We do have to wait until Faith is in the tub. You’ll hear once the water starts running, and only when it stops are you all clear to leave.” She gave up on her hair and decided to tie it in a knot atop her head, shoving in a few pins and pulling on a headband for good measure.

“So?” Jamie said, cocking an eyebrow at her from behind her in the mirror.

“So…” she turned around slowly. “I might be able to take care of that little problem.” She flashed her eyes at the tent in his pants, and he visibly and audibly gulped. “But only if you promise not to make me a mess again.”

He nodded eagerly. “Aye, lass, I promise.”

Claire smirked and chuckled wickedly, approaching the bed. “Go on, take them off.”

Jamie gulped again and lifted his hips to pull his pants and boxers down. A rushing noise filled the air.

“Ah,” Claire said. “That’s the bathtub.”

Jamie’s cock sprang free, and Claire knelt on the bed. “But I’m not worried about taking too long.”

Jamie’s eyes flashed with dark indigence, as if he’d like to punish her for saying such a wicked thing, but knowing that he could not, given the promise he’d made. Claire ran her hand up the length of his inner thigh.

“Oh,” Claire said, pausing her hand right before reaching the desired destination. “And you must be very quiet.” She wrapped her hands around his base, delighting in his quiet hiss. “Can you do that?”

He nodded dumbly, swallowing again. She gave a few languid strokes before leaning down and kissing the tip.

“Good lad.”

——

Claire spat into the sink and checked her breath for the third time out of sheer paranoia. Mrs. Lickett was sitting on Faith’s little step-stool next to the bathtub while Faith was playing in the warm, bubbly water. Claire watched as she fully submerged herself for the millionth time, flapping her little hands as if she had an entire swimming pool’s room to do laps in there. Satisfied with her breath, Claire finally rinsed her mouth and straightened a few wild curls, even while fully knowing they’d pop out the second she stepped out into the humidity (humidity; something she’d never experienced in England, and decided she hated).

Claire waited on her knees for Faith to pop back up from under the water, greeting her with a little “Boo!” when she did. Faith started, blinking a bit, and Claire worried she’d actually given her poor girl a fright. But then her absent face melted into that familiar smile, and Claire laughed.

“Okay, baby. Mummy is going to work now. You’ll be a good girl today, yes?”

Faith ignored her, slapping her hands at the surface of the water and reaching for her Ariel mermaid Barbie.

“Hey.” Claire picked up the doll herself, redirecting Faith’s attention. “Look at my eyes.” Faith reached for the doll, quite unhappy with Claire’s decision to withhold it. “Be a good girl today. Yes?”

Claire gave a thumbs up, and Faith whined.

“Faith Julia.”

Faith gave a hasty thumbs up, even as she continued whining and reaching for the doll.

“Good enough,” Claire remarked to Mrs. Lickett, who chuckled softly. “Okay, kisses.” Claire kissed the top of Faith’s wet head, and Faith returned with a wet sloppy kiss to her cheek. Claire dramatically wiped it away, eliciting more giggles from Faith.

With one final goodbye, Claire left the bathroom, grabbed her bag from the couch, and was out the front door. She locked it behind her then turned around to see Jamie leaning on his car, arms crossed, like some high-school jackass stereotype. It looked much hotter on him. She shook her head as she descended the stairs, laughing.

She’d rushed him back into his clothes when the tub stopped running, and then she’d shoved him out the front door. He’d gone, but not without pulling her in for several sloppy kisses, even as she was attempting to shut the door in his face, and not without stopping to give Angus far too many scratches and pats.

Evidently, that rushed goodbye was not good enough for him, because there he stood, waiting for her.

“Still haven’t had enough, Fraser?” Claire teased, unlocking her car and throwing her bag in the backseat.

Jamie sauntered over to her. “Never.”

She hummed in amusement, and he pulled her in for a sweet, lingering kiss.

“I really do have to go,” she said breathlessly. “I’m lucky if I’m even on time at this point, let alone early enough to get into my scrubs.”

“I’d apologize, but…” He kissed her again, and she groaned in either annoyance or something else. “I’m no’ very sorry fer any of it.”

“Hmph.” She gave him one final peck before getting into her car and shutting the door. As she started the car, he rapped on the window with a knuckle. She sighed with annoyance, but her smile betrayed her, as usual. “What?”

“Happy anniversary, Sassenach.”

She could literally feel her face melting into that stupid, soft expression reserved for only his most endearing moments (which was nearly all his moments, admittedly).

“Happy anniversary, Jamie.”

She leaned out the window to kiss him one more time, then started rolling in reverse, even with her head still craned toward him. He waved until she couldn’t see him in her rear view mirrors anymore, and she rolled up her window.

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, Beauchamp…

Claire gulped and turned the air conditioning up higher.

One month, only one month…

And you are so, so far gone.

——

For cooking night that week, Jamie brought over ingredients for homemade pizza. Faith very much enjoyed rolling the dough, and it was difficult to simultaneously stop her from playing with it like play-doh and keep her from eating it. She also had fun putting innumerable slices of pepperoni on the pizza. The original plan was to split the pie into sections and have each of the three of them put on whatever toppings they wished on their own section, but Faith’s pepperoni could not be contained. Then when Jamie tried to put peppers and onions on his section, Faith pushed his hands away, whining, and no amount of coaxing could get her to relent. There was no reasoning with her; regardless of the fact that she would only eat two of the small slices, this entire pizza was Faith’s to dictate, end of discussion.

To compromise, Jamie cooked his and Claire’s vegetables of choice in a pan on the stove to sprinkle on once the pieces were cut.

“It’s a good thing I like pepperoni,” Claire remarked wryly.

“Aye. I do too.”

Claire did not even allow Jamie anywhere near the bedroom that night; they’d agreed no staying the night, accidentally or not, when Claire had to work the next morning. They’d already embarrassed poor Mrs. Lickett enough for one lifetime. For Saturday night, however, they had a plan. On pizza night, they’d both told Faith that Jamie would be “sleeping over” on Saturday night, meaning he would be there when Faith woke up in the morning, and that he would leave sometime in the afternoon. Faith hardly seemed to even be paying attention, but Claire was almost certain she’d retained it.

It was important to Claire — to both of them, really, to normalize Jamie’s presence in the home, overnight or no, so Faith didn’t bounce off the walls every single time. Come Saturday afternoon in Jamie’s car, Claire was satisfied that Faith was properly prepared. They’d just dropped Faith off at the Abernathy house in her bathing suit, ready for a full day in the pool with her friend while Mummy and Jamie went on their date. Claire beamed at Jamie in the driver’s seat.

“What?”

“Nothing,” she said flippantly. “Just…excited. Happy. I don’t know.”

Jamie took her hand and brought it to his lips, keeping his eyes on the road. “So am I, lass.”

Their hands remained intertwined for the rest of the drive until they arrived at Jamie’s chosen date location for the weekend: the stables.

He’d promised her that night on the carousel that he’d take her riding for real, and today he was making good on that promise. Staff rotated who had to come and care for the horses on weekends, and this week was Jamie’s turn, so they’d be alone. 

“I’m there every weekend anyway,” Jamie had explained, “for Donas. But this way we ken we’re alone.”

The wink he’d given her sent a shiver down her spine.

Jamie had also packed a picnic lunch for them to have on the grounds, complete with a light whisky. They departed Jamie’s car in the parking lot, and Claire marveled at the lot’s emptiness with no one else around. Claire started to make her way toward the welcome center, then Jamie gently took her hand. She cocked an eyebrow at him, and he answered:

“This way.”

They bypassed the building and he took Claire to a gate, then produced a clanking ring of keys from the pocket of his shorts.

“This is the more direct route to the horses,” he said, shuffling through keys. “But if ye need the restroom, dinna fash.” He unlocked the gate, removed the key, and held up a different key. “I’ve got the key fer that, too.”

Claire chuckled and followed him through the gate, waiting for him to lock it again behind them. Jamie led them past the stable that Claire knew Pippi was kept in.

“We dinna keep Donas where we take the bairns,” Jamie said. “That’d be a recipe fer disaster.”

Claire’s brow practically raised to her hairline; she was almost nervous to meet such a notorious creature.

“Spoiled beast practically has the whole stable to himself,” Jamie said it in a chastising manner, but his sheepish grin gave him away.

“You’re quite fond of him,” Claire said.

“Aye,” Jamie said, handing Claire the picnic basket so he could open the doors to the barn. “One of my best friends.”

He winked before he heaved the doors open, but Claire was not at all certain he was joking. The thought had bubbles rippling in her chest:

My boyfriend, best friends with a horse.

“Could you be any more endearing?” she said, following him inside.

“Huh?”

She chuckled. “Never mind.”

Claire noticed immediately that out of the eight stalls in this stable, only four of them had horses in them, where the other stable was always full. Claire took in the sight of a regal white mare, a beautiful brown and white spotted Appaloosa, a silver Andalusian, and an enormous, terrifying black stallion, the stalls next to it deliberately empty. In fact, the four stalls on that side were empty save for him; the other three horses all on the other side.

Claire gaped for a moment. “Donas, I take it?”

“Aye.” Jamie swelled with pride.

“He’s…beautiful, Jamie. Really.” Claire had to fight the urge to reach out and touch him, somehow convinced he would bite her hand off.

“Aye, bit rough around the edges to be sure, but sweet as anything when ye get to know him.”

“He…doesn’t look like he wants to get to know me.”

Donas huffed, stomping his front right hoof. Jamie laughed.

“He’d no’ get to know anyone if he had any say in the matter. Lucky fer us,” Jamie put a hand on Donas’s muzzle, looking into his eyes, and the beast leaned into his touch. “He kens who is master is.”

Claire’s heart warmed at the sight; they really did look like a couple of chums.

“Now, Donas,” Jamie said sternly. “I’ve a lass here, and I’d no’ like to be embarrassed. I ken ye dinna care what she thinks of ye, but at least fer me, could ye no’ bite her?”

The warmth immediately disappeared, and Claire’s eyes bugged out of her head. Jamie laughed out loud, and Donas tossed his head away from the sound. Jamie pulled his head back, holding it in place and stroking soothingly, even as he continued to laugh.

“I’m teasing, Sassenach. He willna actually bite yer heid off. At least I dinna think he will.”

Claire eyed him suspiciously. “Is this going to be one of those things where if this doesn’t work,” she gestured between herself and Donas, “then this doesn’t work?” She gestured between herself and Jamie.

Jamie barked another laugh. “Well if that’s true, ye’re no’ trying very hard to keep me!”

“Jamie…”

“Come on, Sassenach. Ye canna be so afeared. He can smell it on ye. It feeds his ego to ken that ye fear him.” He gave the thick, black neck a solid pat. “And that just spurs him on to be more of an arse.”

Claire straightened out, sticking her nose in the air. “I’m not afraid.”

Jamie cocked an eyebrow. “Then show me.”

She took a deep breath and then approached the pair of them, careful not to shrink or falter in the slightest.

“I can do this,” she said calmly, slowly stretching her hand out, taking a quick peek at his ears to make sure they were not pinned back (they weren’t). “This is just like trying to talk to the misogynist pricks at work. Can’t let him know he gets to me.”

Jamie made an amused Scottish noise. “My horse is a misogynist now?”

“Very well could be. Have you ever asked him?”

Jamie laughed, but pointedly kept himself still and quiet as possible so as to not sway Donas’s opinion of the hand approaching him.

“Don’t worry,” Claire said calmly and evenly. “I mean no harm. I care about your master very much.” She let her hand hover under Donas’s enormous, flaring nostrils. “I just want to be friends. Acquaintances, even. For Jamie’s sake.” She flicked her eyes to Jamie to find him grinning like a fool at her, his pupils blown wide. But then:

“Dinna break eye contact,” he hissed, and Claire immediately rectified it. “He doesna like that.”

“Of course he doesn’t.”

Claire had to repeatedly tell herself, he will not bite my hand off, he will not bite my hand off, in order to remain still and have any hope of keeping the smell of fear off of her. Then, like watching a miracle unfold, Donas tapped his wet nose into Claire’s cupped hand for a split second. Claire laughed triumphantly, and Jamie beamed with pride.

“He doesn’t hate me!” Claire knew better than to say he likes me; that would certainly be pushing it. She knew enough from riding with Uncle Lamb that if a horse touched your hand, it was an invitation to be pet, so she flipped her hand and reached forward.

She stopped, however, when Jamie swiftly grabbed her forearm.

“What?”

“He showed ye he doesna hate ye, an achievement in and of itself,” Jamie said, his eyes full of mirth. “Let’s no’ push our luck by trying to get him to like ye. No’ just yet.”

Claire sighed with annoyance, letting her hand drop. “Fine.” She carefully stepped away. “Pompous brat.”

Jamie laughed out loud, giving said pompous brat another solid pat. “Careful now, Sassenach, or he willna be so gracious next time.”

“Gracious my arse,” Claire grumbled.

Jamie clicked his tongue and left Donas’s side to gather her in his arms and kiss her gently. “Ye’re no’ gonnae be grumpy the rest of our date because a horse doesna like ye?”

“No,” Claire said, but even she didn’t believe herself.

“Och…” Jamie cupped her face in his hands. “Ye ken I canna resist that wee pout.”

“I’m not pouting!”

“Aye, ye are.” Jamie laughed through the words. “Come here.”

He tipped her face up into his and kissed her much less gently, immediately demanding entrance for his tongue. She obliged eagerly, even though somewhere in the back of her mind she was thinking about how the horses were all watching them. Jamie’s hands moved from her face to her hair, tugging greedily and groaning into his mouth, wanting to swing a leg over his hip right there in the middle of the stable.

An indignant huff interrupted them, even as Jamie’s excitement grew. They pulled apart, and Claire looked over Jamie’s shoulder to see Donas stamping his hooves again.

“Seriously?” Claire fired at him. Jamie laughed out loud again, untangling his hands from Claire’s hair and running them down the length of her arms.

“Come on, lass.” He took both of her hands and pulled her away from Donas, into a stall, leaving an empty one between them and Donas.

“What on Earth are you doing…?”

“Getting ye away from prying eyes.”

Jamie captured her lips with his immediately, his tongue resuming its prior task of exploring every inch of the inside of her mouth. Claire whimpered in surprise and then began moaning, threading her arms around his neck.

“This is…” Claire breathed. “We can’t do this here.”

“Why no’?” Jamie nibbled at her neck. “I told ye we’d be completely alone.”

The thought sent a jet of heat to her core, and she stifled another moan. “Because…the…” She lost her train of thought as Jamie’s hand found its way under her shirt.

“The horses dinna mind, Sassenach.” He sealed his lips on hers again, squeezing her breast under her bra.

They moved together, back, back, back…until Claire’s back slammed against the wall of the stall.

“Besides,” Jamie said, palming her over her capris, eliciting a muffled groan from her. “I havena been able to hear ye since last week. Ye’ve had to keep far too quiet fer my liking.”

He squeezed her breast harder and increased the speed of his hand over her pants, and she sighed in ecstasy, kissing him hungrily and letting her hands roam to his fly. She forcefully pushed his shorts and boxers down, savoring the strangled cry he let out when she fisted him in her hand. His clothing fell around his ankles, and he reciprocated, unzipping Claire’s capris and forcing them along with her underwear down. Claire clumsily toed off one sneaker so she could get one foot out of her pants, and then hooked the leg around Jamie’s naked hips. She dug her heel into him, pulling him in closer. For a moment, Claire ground against him, savoring the friction, keening desperately as she did. And then, in one swift motion, Jamie viciously grabbed her thigh and lined himself up to enter her with a powerful thrust. Claire cried out loudly, breathing heavily.

“Aye,” Jamie rasped, kissing her sloppily. “Let me hear ye, mo nighean donn.”

Claire hummed in appreciation, her voice hitching with each of Jamie’s piercing, almost painful thrusts. Her back slammed and rubbed against the wood behind her, and somewhere in her hazy consciousness she thought she’d definitely have a bruise after this, and then that thought had her moaning louder.

The thought of him marking her.

Her increase in volume had him doubling his pace, grunting and groaning in her ear, biting her earlobe, her neck. Her grip on his shoulders became more desperate, her heel dug in harder, her voice grew higher and louder.

“Claire…” Jamie hissed, gripping her thigh harder. “Oh, Claire…”

The sound of her name on his lips like that was almost enough to undo her. Then his free hand began mercilessly rubbing her clit, and she made a guttural noise she didn’t even know she was capable of making.

“Aye, lass…” Jamie looked deep into her eyes and redoubled his efforts. “Let go. Only I can hear ye.”

It was a wonder to Claire that he was capable of speech right now, because if she’d tried to speak, only more shrieking moans would come out. And oh, they did. She felt herself tightening, and she dug her nails into Jamie’s back, and then she was falling, hard. She knew she was screaming, knew, and didn't care. Her walls gripped him so tightly he almost slipped out even though it would defy gravity in this position. Jamie was not far after, spilling into her with her name on his lips like a prayer.

Afterward, they sat in the hay on the floor, still half naked leaning against the stall, limbs entwined. Jamie kissed that spot on her shoulder where she thought she already felt a bruise blooming.

“I can’t believe you’ve already made me sore before we even get on the horses.”

Jamie snorted, then kissed the top of her head. “Wasna my intention.” Claire hmphed, and Jamie laughed again. “You just let me know when ye’re ready to go.”

Claire hummed, her eyes closed, and then felt consciousness slip from her against her will. She woke less than a half hour later, and after chastising Jamie for letting her fall asleep, and both of them repairing the state of their undress through endless fits of giggles, they made their way back to the horses.

Donas looked thoroughly disgusted with them, though Claire might have just been projecting onto an entity she knew had distaste for her.

“See that white mare?” Jamie said, leading Claire over. “This is Millie. Toni’s horse.”

“Toni rides?”

“Oh, aye. That’s why she works here.” Jamie let Millie sniff his hand, then began petting her. He gestured for Claire to do the same, and the process was much less painful (and terrifying) than it was with Donas. “They take a wee bit out of yer paycheck to keep yer horse here, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than having the land yerself, or using a public stable.”

“She’s beautiful,” Claire marveled, running her fingers up and down the long nose. “Very gentle.”

“Aye, she’s bonny. Toni said ye could ride her for today.”

Claire looked up at Jamie, her gaze warm with affection for Toni. “That’s really nice of her.”

“Please, ye ken that meddling wee besom’ll do anything to get us alone. Since last September. This wasna done out of sheer generosity.”

Claire chuckled, moving on to the softness of Millie’s mane. “You tease her too much.”

“Ach, she kens she’s a good friend.”

“Where does she fall on the friendship tier? Above or below Donas?” Then Claire yelped, or rather squeaked; Jamie had pinched her arse. She swatted at his arm, and Jamie remarked that if she’d done that so close to Donas, he’d really have bitten her head off.

Introductions out of the way and teasing (mostly) finished, they got saddled up and led the horses out of the stable.

“Now, I ken ye said ye rode before,” Jamie said. “So it’s yer choice. D’ye want to use the riding hall and keep it moderate, or d’ye want to roam around the grounds, get a wee bit exciting?”

Claire smirked at him around Millie’s head. “I’m always up for a wee bit of excitement.”

In one swift motion, Jamie launched himself onto his saddle, that wide, lopsided grin dancing on his beautiful face. “That’s what I hoped ye’d say.”

Claire mirrored him, getting herself settled in Millie’s saddle and giving her loving strokes on her neck. “Shall we?”

They rode anywhere between a trot and a gallop, all over the grounds that Claire had become familiar with on foot. It did look different without tables or Easter eggs or dunk tanks and projection screens. Jamie was a bit of a show off on his glorious, enormous mustang, and as much as Claire wanted to smack him, she also found it endlessly endearing, his desire to impress her.

They stopped somewhere to have their picnic lunch, letting the horses graze while they ate slowly, sipped whisky, and of course, kissed each other until they were both lightheaded. Claire very nearly threw a leg over to straddle him and ride him right there on the picnic blanket, but it would have been far too much effort to remove her shoes and capris again. So she took care of Jamie’s still-new-to-sex-and-always-ready excitement with her hand, and remarked with a sultry smile that she knew he’d take care of her later.

They rode some more, joking and laughing — Claire tossing her head back so far she nearly fell out of the saddle, holding hands between them (despite Donas’s apparent disapproval), and even guiding their horses close enough to kiss one another. And then of course Jamie yanked Donas away before he could bite off Millie’s ear. Obviously there was a very good reason they kept the stalls next to that brute empty.

They reached the stable again and bid their horses proper goodbyes, Claire remaining a safe distance from the Brute. Jamie held her hand all the way back to the car, and her legs felt wobbly, her stomach fluttery. It was impossible to tell if she was swaying from straddling the horse for so long or from the way Jamie had slammed into her against the wall, but either way, it was not altogether unpleasant.

They picked Faith up promptly at six, having given her a hard stop time in the pool at five so she’d know what to expect and be ready to be picked up, and hopefully not have a meltdown when it was time to get out. Gail’s report was that she was very well behaved, though she’d had more snacks than Claire would have liked. Faith did not at all protest when it was time to leave, especially because it was Jamie who stepped into the room first. Claire could not help the twinge of jealousy when Faith wrapped herself around his legs and listened to him far better than she would have to Claire if she was alone, but she knew this was normal, for any child, let alone a child on the spectrum.

After Faith and Claire showered together, Claire made mac and cheese with dinosaur chicken nuggets for all three of them while Jamie showered.

“See?” Claire remarked when they were all sat down at the table, loading a stegosaurus with several little Frozen character-shaped macaronis. “Being a bad cook is fun sometimes.”

They watched the movie of Faith’s choice (Frozen, to no one’s surprise), and then Faith did not protest when it was time to brush her teeth and get into bed. She did not protest because Jamie had promised to be the one to tuck her in that night. He was not granted the honor of teeth-brusher or Risperdal-dispenser, but tucking in and turning on the nightlight were sacred parts of nighttime routine nonetheless.

And Claire knew that Jamie took it very seriously.

She stood back, watching from the doorway as Jamie pulled the blankets up to her chin, multiple heavy blankets despite it being summer.

“Sleep well, a leannan,” Jamie said softly, stroking back her wild curls. “Ye were a very good girl today.” He leaned down and kissed her forehead, and Claire’s chest ached. “I’ll see ye in the morning.”

That had Faith grinning, her eyes wild with excitement.

“But morning willna come if ye dinna sleep,” he warned. “So I willna see ye unless ye sleep.”

She bit her lip and squeezed her eyes shut, wrinkling the lids with the effort. He and Claire both chuckled, and Jamie shook his head.

“Alright. Goodnight, lass.”

With that, he patted Angus’s head and stood up from the bed, allowing Claire to say her own goodnight, and then they departed to Claire’s room.

Jamie did take care of her, face buried between her legs hooked over his shoulders, took care of her so well that she had to put a pillow over her face to keep from rousing the five year old they’d just put to bed.

When he was finished taking care of her, he rose up and tossed the pillow away, laughing no doubt at how positively insane she must have looked after flattening her face into a pillow. He kissed her anyway, insanity and all, and he lined himself up to take her.

“You didn’t have enough today?” Claire teased, breathless.

Jamie’s eyes darkened, and he wet his lips. “Never.”

And he took her.

Chapter Text

Vortex: a mass of swirling water that draws everything to it

——

In late August, with September right around the corner, Claire and Faith were about to experience their first hurricane. Claire had experienced all levels of terrifying weather with Uncle Lamb out in the field, including floods, sandstorms, mudslides, and nearly every other manner of natural disasters. Hurricanes, however, had eluded them. They’d only gone to South America one time, and they’d merely seen some heavy rainfall.

Claire had been keeping her eye on the news, seeing how hurricane Matthew was affecting other areas along the east coast. She shuddered to think of them even losing power, let alone anything actually disastrous happening. All news and weather outlets were assuring that by the time it hit the island, it would have lost most of its power, so the storm wouldn’t be devastating, but it would do damage nonetheless.

Claire was doing another scan of the weather channel (which Faith did not appreciate) before work when her phone rang. Jamie.

“Sassenach?”

“This is she.”

“Good morning, lass. Sleep well?”

“I did, is everything alright?”

“Aye, fine. Just wanted to check in. The storm is gonna hit tomorrow; wanted to make sure ye were prepared.”

“Prepared enough,” Claire said, throwing a bar and a yogurt into her purse. “I’ve gotten the bread and milk, as they say. Stocked up.”

“Aye, that’s good. Are ye prepared for losing power?”

“Flashlights are ready with spare batteries and all. Portable charger for the iPad.”

“What about fer you?”

“Oh, I have to be at the hospital before it starts and then stay. It runs on a generator so I’ll be good with a regular charger.”

“Wait, what d’ye mean, stay?”

“Well, I’m considered an emergency worker so I can’t take off. I’m going to have to sleep there if the roads are flooded or blocked with trees.” Claire zippered her purse as she flitted back into the living room, then started pulling on her shoes.

“Ye could be there for days, Sassenach.”

“I know.”

“What about Faith?”

The little girl in question barreled into her as if on cue, waiting for her goodbye. “One second, Jamie. Yes, time for goodbye hugs.” Claire crouched down and gave her daughter a squeeze and a kiss. “Be good for Mrs. Lickett. Yes? Okay, bye-bye.”

With one final kiss and a farewell to Mrs. Lickett, Claire was out the door. “Sorry, what were we talking about?”

“What’re ye gonna do wi’ Faith while ye’re at the hospital?”

“Oh,” Claire said, opening her car and sliding into the driver’s seat. “I’m dropping her off at the Abernathy’s with a few provisions before work tomorrow. After I’ve taped all the windows, of course,” she added wryly.

“She’ll be alright?”

Claire sighed as she started the car. “She’s going to have to be.”

Her voice wavered, and she cursed herself.

“She’s never spent the night away from home. Will she no’ get upset?”

“I don’t really have much of a choice.” She was not defensive or angry, but resigned, sad. She didn’t want to leave Faith at someone else’s house, but she could not very well ask Gail to live with her toddler and child in her small apartment for an indeterminable amount of time. The fact that they’d opened their home to Faith was kind enough. She couldn’t very well ask it of Mrs. Lickett, either. Her children were older, but she still shouldn’t be away from them for that long during a potentially dangerous storm.

Jamie was silent on the other end, and as Claire turned onto the main road, something clenched in her throat. He couldn’t be upset with her, could he? He couldn’t be judging her decision, condemning her for planning to dump her child off during a natural disaster? Logic told her that of course he wouldn’t, but she was so god damned insecure about it all herself that she could not be calmed.

“You still there?”

“Aye,” he answered quickly. “Sorry, I was thinking.”

Claire swallowed. “What about?”

He paused again. “Tell me to shut my gab at any point going forward,” he began uncertainly.

Claire’s brow furrowed. “Ehm, alright…”

“What if…what if I stayed wi’ her. In her own home.”

Claire was gobsmacked. Her mouth actually dropped open in surprise.

“Please tell me no if ye’re truly no’ comfortable, Claire. I mean it. I ken it may be too soon, and I understand. I just thought to offer — ”

“Jamie,” Claire cut him off. “It’s okay…I…” She blinked away tears. “Would you really be alright doing that?”

“Aye,” he said quickly, perhaps a bit too quickly. “Anything I can do to make it easier fer her. It’s gonna be scary.”

Claire swallowed thickly. “She’s heard thunderstorms before.”

“I’m sure. But this willna be like anything she’s ever experienced. And Gail is lovely, truly, she’s a blessing fer ye both, but she’s…she’s no’ you.”

“And she’s not you,” Claire said, finishing for him what he likely was thinking but would never say.

“Claire, I’d never presume —”

“Well I would,” Claire said. “There’s no denying you have the experience that Gail lacks, Jamie. And Faith trusts you. And I trust you.”

He was silent, likely processing what she said. Claire turned into the employee parking lot.

“Besides,” Claire said with a chipper tone that was only slightly forced. “It’ll be good for her to have you all to herself. You’ve never been alone with her before.”

She heard him chuckle. “Aye. Ye think she’ll like that?”

Claire put her car in park, and her heart swelled, warming her from the inside out. “I really think she will.”

——

Jamie arrived the following morning with a duffle bag and a backpack. The sky was already gray, the air thick with the oncoming storm, the wind picking up. He’d half expected the skies to open up on his way there.

The door opened, and his heart cracked. Claire’s sweet, lovely “hello” included a smile, but he could see that frantic look in her eye. She was close to tears. He greeted her gently and then addressed the bouncing, squealing thing below them.

“Ah, yes, hello, wean.” He cupped her head gently to stop her bouncing. “I’m happy to see you, too, lass. Can ye fetch ballerina Minnie Mouse? I’d like to see her if ye dinna mind.”

Like a shot, she was off, eager to please Jamie, and Jamie pulled Claire into his arms. She clung to him tightly, breathing deeply into his neck.

“It’s times like these,” she began shakily, “that I believe Frank was right.”

His brow furrowed. “Whatever d’ye mean?”

“That I should’ve given it up, that I still should.” She sniffled. “I don’t know if I can leave her for several days during…during what they’re saying it’s going to be…”

“It’s alright, Sassenach.” He kissed the top of her head, and then Faith emerged from her room, waving the stuffed animal above her head. “Ah, thank ye, lass. What about…” He wracked his brain, trying to remember any of the dozens of toys she’d shown him. “Daisy Duck? Can I see her?”

She was off again, and Claire laughed wetly against him.

“Listen to me, Claire Beauchamp.” Jamie pulled far enough away so that he could tilt her chin up and look her in the eye. “Ye’re a doctor because it is what God put ye on this Earth to do. Ye’re a damn fine one, from what I gather. Ye’re going to help lots of people in the next few days, people that might have been much worse of wi’out ye.”

“What about the baby that He gave me?” Claire said hoarsely. “The baby with…so much that she needs from me…”

“It’s not just you,” Jamie said, with the most careful combination of firmness and gentleness he can muster. “No’ anymore.”

Claire rested her forehead against his, breathing deeply. “It’ll be alright,” he assured her, Faith puttering back in with the next toy. He praised her quietly, tucking Daisy under his arm with Minnie. “I will do everything in my power to see that she’s alright these next few days.”

“I know,” Claire said, then pressed her lips to his. “I know.”

Faith was reaching up, bouncing again impatiently. Jamie handed her back down her toys; evidently, she did not like them out of place for very long.

“I can’t thank you enough for this,” Claire said, squeezing his hands. “I think I’d be beside myself if I left her away from home. Well,” she laughed dryly, “more so than I already am.”

“It is an honor to ease yer burden, mo ghraidh.” He lifted their joined hands and kissed her knuckles fervently. 

Claire led him around the apartment to show him one last time where everything was kept; Faith’s vitamins and nighttime medicine, snacks, candles, spare batteries, matches. Jamie had remembered, but he let her show him all of it again to ease her mind. He knew it helped her feel like she had more control over the situation.

“Once the power goes out,” she said, gathering her own duffle bag with her overnight essentials. “Either soybean butter and jelly, cold cuts from that cooler that’s still in the fridge for as long as they’ll keep, or the spaghetti-o’s. Just pretend you’re using the microwave or something and she’ll never know the difference.”

Jamie nodded seriously, though he’d remembered all that, too.

“And watch her with the fridge. She’ll keep it open and stare in there looking for something which is bad enough when there is power. Make sure she doesn’t let the insulated coolness out if you can help it. Though if it’s gone for too long it’s a moot point.”

“Right. Got it.” Jamie nodded curtly. A large gust of wind howled outside, rattling the windows.

“Jesus.” Claire shuddered.

“Ye’d better get going before ye get stuck in the oncoming downpour,” Jamie said.

“Right.” Claire froze in the middle of the living room, her eyes glued to Faith, sitting cross-legged with Angus’s head in her lap, calmly stroking his fur. Jamie’s heart strained, and Claire looked like she might cry again. She exhaled heavily and crouched down next to Faith.

“Hey, baby.” She cupped her little head and smiled. Faith kept her attention on Angus, and Claire gently tapped her nose. “Can you look at me, Faith?” She did not, and so Claire took her hands off of Angus and held them between hers. Somewhat annoyed, Faith looked up at Claire, obviously waiting for her hands to be released. “Hi,” Claire said. “Remember what we said? Quiet hands, quiet feet, and quiet mouth for Jamie.” She pointed to each mentioned body part. “And listening ears on.” Claire poked each of her ears, one after the other. “Mummy will be gone for a few days, but Jamie is going to play with you, and keep you safe. It’s all going to be okay. It might get very dark, or very loud, and there might not be any tellie. But Jamie is going to make sure you’re okay. Yes?”

Faith moaned impatiently, and it was unclear if she was listening.

Jamie is going to make sure you’re okay.

Jamie’s chest involuntarily puffed out, and his back straightened. He silently and solemnly vowed to do just that.

“I’m going to miss you, lovie.” Claire cupped both of Faith’s cheeks. “I love you.” She held up the sign, and Faith mirrored her as always, pressing their foreheads together.

“I’m going to call every day. I’ll talk to you on the phone. I promise.” Claire pulled Faith in  for a hug, squeezing her tightly. “Big goodbye hugs,” she whispered into her hair.

When Claire released her, she stood up with a heavy sigh. Jamie was holding her duffle bag, and he walked her to the door.

“Please be careful,” Jamie said. “Text me when ye get there.”

“I will.”

He kissed her deeply, pressing her tightly to him. When their lips parted, he looked into her eyes, those swimming pools of amber and honey. On his tongue was something he’d known, something he’d been burning to unleash from within him since April.

I love you.

Instead, he swallowed thickly and kissed her forehead. “Drive safe, Sassenach.”

With one final squeeze of his hand and a reassuring smile, she was gone. Jamie ran a hand over his face before peeking out the window to make sure she pulled out of the driveway. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to tell her. Christ, he’d wanted to reply with it the second he watched that video; he’d wanted to tell her that day in the office, he’d wanted to tell her on the ferris wheel, the carousel, he’d wanted to tell her when she fell asleep and drooled on his shoulder halfway through The Godfather, he’d wanted to tell her when he’d finally positioned himself between her legs and entered her, and felt so completely fulfilled and complete, and every time he was in that position thereafter.

But he didn’t. He couldn’t. Not until she was ready to hear it.

He knew she was scared; no matter how well this was going, he knew she was still worried and paranoid. He wouldn’t rush her.

A giggle pulled him out of that train of thought, and he realized that Claire’s car was long gone. It had also already started to rain, and it would definitely get nasty soon. He turned to see Faith grinning impishly down at Angus, who was licking Faith’s open palm over and over. This was something she did often, put her palm right at his snout and wait for him to oblige her. Jamie supposed she liked the tickling sensation. He smiled and made his way to the couch, sitting down and watching Faith with her loyal companion for a while.

Claire had given him a whole list of things that Mrs. Lickett usually does with Faith while Claire is gone for the day. There was play-doh, the big clunky legos (both good for fine motor), the flashcards for identifying signs, and of course coloring. On the list, Claire wrote that when Faith colored with Mrs. Lickett, Mrs. Lickett always — underlined several times — signed the color that Faith picked up. Color identification would be a big deal once she started school.

Something else that Jamie knew would come once school started was the school district-provided tablet for text to speech communication. Claire had been recommended speech therapies to get a head start on that, but she’d turned them all down, insisting that it was very important to her that Faith know how to sign before relying solely on the screen. And since Faith had proven capable, she’d stuck to that.

It amazed Jamie how Claire somehow just knew what was best for her child. Jamie saw all too often at the stables parents that had no idea what they were doing. Which was understandable and nothing to be judged about. But when he’d reach out, recommend additional services, hint that they might get more out of equine therapy if they approached certain things a different way, they didn’t want to hear it. It was hard to watch those kids regress because their parents weren’t willing to set their pride aside and admit they weren’t aware of something. But his reach only extended so far, and if he was going to sleep at night, he had to let those things off his conscience.

With Claire, if someone offered her advice, she could plainly tell them that she’d already researched that and had either tried it or decided it was not going to work, but thank you very much. Prompt speech therapy, for instance. If Jamie had a nickel every time Claire complained to him that yet another person had recommended Faith try it, he’d be quite the rich man. Prompt speech involved a lot of touching, and Faith would certainly not be okay with that. Even if it meant her daughter would never say a word, Claire would not put her through it. Not even an eval.

And Jamie admired the hell out of her for it.

After letting Faith continue with Angus for a bit, Jamie intervened and ushered her into the kitchen for some “structured play with learning benefits,” as Claire had referred to it. Faith, having never done any of the listed activities with Jamie, wanted to do every single one. They went on even longer than Jamie had anticipated she would sit still for because playing these games with Jamie was a novelty. They built a castle with a wall with her legos, made several snakes and desserts out of play-doh, colored, and worked on signs. Faith was not satisfied until every single card was flipped over and worked on. Jamie knew full well that she did not insist on such a thing with Mrs. Lickett. It made him grin smugly and melt at the same time.

It was pouring in earnest by the time Jamie finished getting through Faith’s stack of flashcards. Instinctually, he checked his messages from Claire, even though she’d told him hours ago by now that she’d gotten in safely. The wind was picking up, too, turning into a constant roar.

“Ye’re brilliant, Princess Faith,” Jamie said, giving her a thumbs up. “Ye did such great work today, lass. I’m so proud of you.”

She smiled cheekily and then reached for her crayons and princess coloring book again. Rain suddenly pelted against the kitchen window, the wind having changed direction to blast the water right into the glass. Faith dropped her crayon with a startled cry and clamped her hands over her ears. Jamie had to admit it even startled him.

“It’s alright, lass,” he crooned, getting out of his chair to kneel beside hers. He stroked her back soothingly. “Just the rain. It’s alright.”

She kept her eyes squeezed shut and her hands on her ears, so Jamie switched tactics. He scooped her in his arms, cradling her to his chest. He brought her out of the kitchen and deposited her on the couch. If the wind was blowing into the window in the back of the apartment, perhaps a similar noise would not happen in the front windows. He called Angus over when Faith still would not move or open her eyes, and after a few minutes of deep pressure, she at least opened her eyes. Jamie was then able to coax her into picking a DVD. They were on borrowed time until they lost power, so he thought it best to take advantage of the tellie while they still had it.

She ended up choosing a Winnie the Pooh movie, jabbing at it with her elbow, hands still on her ears. She didn’t even take them off to put the movie in the player, though she stood by and watched every move Jamie made as he did so instead. As the DVD started playing the previews before the “play” screen, Faith got behind Jamie and started pushing against his legs. He took this as his cue to walk, and he allowed her to push him into her bedroom. He knew immediately what she wanted. He smiled widely as he stepped into the room and picked up the enormous “Pooh Bear” that he’d won for her at the carnival. Faith hummed in excitement and bounced a little as Jamie carried the giant bear into the living room and deposited him on the couch. She skipped back into her room and Jamie gathered the rest of her Hundred-Acre Wood friends, arranging them around their giant leader.

A few minutes into the movie, Faith finally took her hands off her ears and began enjoying the movie in earnest. The wind continued to howl and the windows continued to rattle, but the movie drowned most of it out for now, as did Faith’s giggling and humming along to the little songs. At one point, she moved all of the little toys into Jamie’s lap and tipped over the giant bear so she could lay bodily on top of him. It really was practically a mattress underneath her. She nuzzled further in, humming contentedly and smiling broadly, bottom lip caught between her teeth. Jamie smiled down at her, her eyes fixed on the screen, and then he brought his legs up on the couch, cross-legged, so he could fit every toy she’d given him in his lap, holding onto them with as much care as he would if Faith herself was in his lap.

The power went out before the movie finished, close to the end if Jamie deduced correctly. Faith immediately sat up, nearly toppling off the couch because of her uneven position on the bear. Jamie felt dread settling in his gut, and he immediately wanted to kick himself. He’d made the wrong move, and he was about to pay dearly for it.

Faith slid off both bear and couch and marched right up to the tellie. She began pushing all the buttons on the tellie and the DVD player, the volume of her whining increasing. Jamie set aside her toys and approached her tentatively.

“Faith, it’s alright. Remember what Mummy said? That there might be no tellie?”

With a great wail, she began slapping her hands against the television screen, and Jamie grabbed her wrists.

“No, lass, ye canna do that. No hitting.”

She began screaming in earnest, jerking against him with all her might.

“I’m sorry, Faith. The tellie is all done. I’m sorry.”

Fat tears rolled down her cheeks as she continued to pull against his grip on her wrists. He swiftly picked her up under the arms and deposited her away from the electronics. She pointed at the tellie, bouncing impatiently, wailing all the while.

“Aye, lass. I ken. It’s my fault, I’m sorry.” Jamie genuinely hated himself at the moment. He thought they’d have time before the power was gone, he thought that it would be good for her to be able to watch a movie that wasn’t downloaded to her tablet. He should’ve thought of this possibility, and he should’ve known that she’d be grossly unhappy if the movie was unable to finish. It would drive her mad for hours, knowing that the movie was sitting unfinished in the player. She couldn’t even get it out of the player to put away. One of her biggest OCD triggers had gone off, and it was his fault.

Jamie wracked his brain. Claire had said if she were melting down to either give hugs and cuddles, or to deposit her in her room and let her scream it out. That is if Angus didn’t do the trick. Jamie tried for the hug, but narrowly avoided a swinging fist. Clearly she blamed him for the tellie’s sudden malfunction. As she should, he thought miserably.

He called Angus over just as Faith started swinging her arms with abandon, and Jamie caught one of her fists before it collided with a picture frame on the table behind the couch. She pushed at his hand, punched his arm, pulled backward, but Jamie knew that if he let go, she’d dive right for trouble and possibly break something. Angus arrived just as Faith sank her teeth into the skin of Jamie’s hand.

He swore in Gaelic, and then he pinched her nose shut, causing her mouth to immediately open as a reflex. Jamie shook his hand, hissing in pain, but he didn’t skip a beat. He maneuvered himself to be behind Faith, and he scooped up the photos in her reach. He stood back and let Angus do his job, shoving his bleeding hand into the pocket of his shorts to avoid dripping anywhere else. At least if it stained, it wouldn’t be where anyone could see.

Angus kept hopping up on his hind legs so he could brush his snout against Faith’s screaming face, gently patting her chest with his paw before falling to all fours again. Every time, Faith pushed him away with an indignant yelp, but he kept trying until she sank to the ground with him, tightly squeezing his neck. Jamie sighed with relief when girl and dog were settled in a pile on the floor. He took the opportunity to put a bandaid on his hand before it soaked through his pockets.

When he returned after being in the bathroom for mere seconds, Faith’s screaming had been reduced to a heartbreaking, whimpering sobbing. Angus used his front paws to stop Faith from scratching and hitting her face or pulling at her hair, and he started licking her palms to keep them otherwise occupied. Jamie sighed and quietly made his way to the kitchen, where he could sit down and still see her through the doorway. He kept his eyes glued to her, his leg jiggling and his left hand tapping on his thigh. The urge to press her to him for comfort was painfully strong. Ignoring the urge to comfort was just as painful as it had been with her mother, all those months ago, before he’d ever really held her.

Jamie’s eyes must have glazed over, either with tears or weariness, because when he blinked, Faith was standing right in front of him, still weeping quietly.

“Hi, leannan. What d’ye need?” He restrained himself from touching her. Her hands were laced in Angus’s fur, sitting dutifully beside her. “What d’ye need, Faith? Show me?”

She inhaled slowly with a great tremor, and on the exhale, she put her arms up in front of her with a long, drawn out whimper.

I need a hug.

He heard her, loud and clear.

“Oh, lass…” Jamie’s voice broke, and he practically sprang forward. “Come here…I’ve got ye.” He scooped her into his lap and hugged her tightly, rocking gently. “It’s alright, now. Ye’re alright. I’ve got ye. Dinna fash, now. It’s alright.”

Claire had said that during a meltdown she wouldn’t want to be touched, but that perhaps after, she’d need to be held. Jamie had thought about it, then brushed it off. This was his fault. It was clear she’d blamed him for the mishap. She’d bitten him, swatted at him. She’d take her comfort from Angus until she was calm, and then she’d ask to be fed. That was what he’d thought.

But here she was, clinging to his shirt and sputtering into his neck, wetting his collar.

“I know, mo chridhe, I know…” he soothed. “I’m sorry, leannan. It’s alright. I’m sorry…”

He continued to whisper such platitudes, in both English and Gaelic, rocking her and holding her tightly. He knew how silly his train of thought had been. He’d seen with his own eyes this exact same pattern of kids coming back again and again despite how much it seemed like they hated their parents or guardian. He was always the first to assure a parent that it was never personal, that the child just could not see past their distress and only wanted to swat at whatever was in the way.

But even the thought of Faith resenting him had made him sick, however briefly it came to him. He couldn’t mess this up; god, he just couldn’t.

She burrowed in further, nuzzling her wet cheek against his neck, and then her hands came up to caress his beard stubble. Jamie smiled involuntarily. He knew she liked how that felt. He let her rub her hands and arms all over his cheeks, even shaking his head back and forth so she could feel it across her skin.

And then, after an indeterminable amount of time, she was quiet.

——

Claire [9:22]: Made it here alive. Just in time it would seem. Have a good day. xx

Jamie [9:25]: glad to hear it. stay safe. good luck. xx

Jamie [10:03]: cheerios and a banana for breakfast. made sure she had milk too.

Jamie [10:03]: not in the cereal, mind. I ken she doesn’t like that.

Jamie [10:37]: *photo attachment*

Jamie [10:37]: look at the size of that castle :)

Jamie [11:16]: *photo attachment*

Jamie [11:16]: “snakes. why did it have to be snakes.”

Jamie [11:16]: since i ken you’re too busy to answer, i’m just going to trust that you got that reference.

Jamie [11:17]: don’t panic, they’re made of play-doh. lol.

Jamie [11:56]: *photo attachment*

Jamie [11:56]: the art gallery we’ve created today

Jamie [12:32]: *photo attachment*

Jamie [12:32]: the gang’s all here for movie time. bet ye can’t guess what we’re watching ;)

Jamie [12:32]: got through a bunch of signs cards today btw. she did great. very proud.

Claire [12:46]: Thanks for all the updates. Faith looks so happy in all these. You’re amazing Jamie. Thank you.

Jamie [2:17]: power went out a bit ago. wee meltdown, but she’s alright now. eating soybean butter and jelly. already picked oreos for her treat.

Claire [2:18]: I saw the word meltdown. Do you need me to call? Are you okay? Any blood or bruises?

Jamie [2:19]: everything is fine. angus did a great job. i swear she’s perfectly content now. back to work missy.

Jamie [3:24]: *photo attachment*

Jamie [3:24]: needed to hold the flashlight while she did this so i couldn’t help. shame. i love puzzles. can’t believe how dark it got.

Jamie [3:24]: she’s got the headphones on now. wind is really loud. hope everything is ok by you.

Claire [4:04]: I’ll be able to call at 7:30. If she starts asking for me, tell her that.

Jamie [4:05]: aye aye captain

Jamie [6:02]: dinner promptly at six. spaghetti-os.

Jamie [6:55]: *photo attachment*

Jamie [6:55]: a wee faerie in her den.

——

Jamie tucked his phone back in his pocket after sending the latest message, smiling contentedly. The “faerie den” was a fort of sheets in the living room, tall enough for Jamie to sit up. Draped around the edges above their heads were battery powered string lights that Jamie had picked up a few days ago. He’d also blown up the air mattress that he’d known Claire had (with a battery powered air pump), put on a fitted sheet, and piled it with blankets and pillows from both Faith’s bed and Claire’s bed. Claire had told him to sleep in her bed, so he’d assumed the pillows would be up for grabs to do with as he pleased.

Faith was absolutely enamored with it. The smallness of the space made her feel cozy and safe, and it also made it easy to illuminate, so it was very bright in there in an apartment that was otherwise very dark. The worst of the storm was happening right at that moment, and it was dark as night at six in the evening in August. If Faith hadn’t been wearing her headphones, she’d be inconsolable at the sound of the wind, the occasional crack of a tree, the rattling of the windows. But she was blissfully unaware, petting her dog in her faerie den, tablet at the ready.

After Claire’s phone call, Jamie pulled out his flashlight and led Faith to the bathroom to brush her teeth. On their way there, she tried turning on every light switch they passed, growing increasingly distressed the more she encountered that would not work. When they reached the bathroom, she flipped the switch an uncountable amount of times and then started crying. No matter what Jamie did, she would not allow him to brush her teeth; she just sat on the floor with Angus and cried inconsolably. Jamie brushed his own teeth to the sound of her wailing, and she only got off the floor when Jamie pushed aside one headphone and she heard the words “faerie den” in her ear.

She calmed down very quickly after she was settled back in her bright little safe space. Jamie quickly shot Claire a text that teeth-brushing did not go very well, but that he’d snagged the Risperdal and dropper from the medicine cabinet so he could give it to her without reminding her that the lights weren’t working.

Apparently, she’d be sleeping in the fort tonight. Jamie had anticipated the possibility, which is why he’d included the mattress, blankets, and pillows. The question was whether or not he’d be sleeping in there.

The answer came shortly after when Faith had fallen asleep in his lap at the end of the movie she’d put on for them to watch on her tablet: Brave. Jamie couldn’t hear since she was using her headphones to continue to block out the storm, but he watched it playing, laughing when she did, pointing at the screen and signing to her occasionally. It was a whole new experience, watching her watch it rather than watching it with her. The only audio he got was from Faith herself, humming along to the music. It made his heart ache with love.

They were nestled in a veritable nest of blankets and pillows when Faith fell asleep in his crossed legs, head resting against his heartbeat. For a moment, he told himself he would simply stay in that position all night, that it would be worth it if it brought her a good night’s sleep after the chaos of the day. But then his hip started cramping in the open position, and he remembered he hadn’t given her Risperdal yet. So he had to move. 

Cradling her like a tiny infant, he lifted her off his lap and laid her gently atop a free section of the air mattress. He commanded Angus to lay beside her and left the fort to put on the sleep clothes he’d brought in his duffle bag. Just as he got his shirt off, Faith started whining. He quickly finished dressing and crawled back into the fort.

“I’m here, leannan. I’m right here.”

Right. So he was definitely sleeping in there.

After coaxing her to take the dropper of her medicine, Jamie swiped a pillow off the air mattress. She began whining again.

“Come on, lass. I’m no’ going anywhere. See?” He settled in on his pillow, facing the air mattress and looking up at her. “Go back to sleep.”

She did, and Jamie flicked off three out of the four strings of lights inside the fort before laying down again, getting as comfortable as he could on the floor.

——

Jamie [9:02]: she’s asleep. we watched brave in the fort and she crashed. made sure she had her medicine.

Claire [9:11]:  Of course you watched Brave. That’s the one she associates with you.

Claire [9:11]: I’m in bed now myself. These cots are not nearly as comfortable as my bed. Especially when you’re in it.

Jamie [9:11]: don’t start talking about me being in your bed. not when i can’t do anything about it.

Claire [9:12]: ;)

Claire [9:12]: Really though, I’m about to crash myself. Sleep well, darling. Give Faith a kiss for me.

Jamie [9:12]: what about me?

Claire [9:12]: I think you know exactly what you can give yourself. From me.

Claire [9:12]: ;)

Claire [9:12]: Goodnight, Jamie.

Jamie: [9:12]: goodnight sassenach

Chapter Text

Storm surge: rise in seawater level during a storm

——

Four days. That was how long Claire was stuck at the hospital, how many nights she slept on that shitty cot, how many days she’d eaten nothing but hospital food, how many days since she’d seen her daughter.

How many days that Jamie had spent with her daughter.

The roads were finally clear of debris at around noon, but her shift hadn’t ended until 8:30. She was racing home, desperate to get there before Faith fell asleep. She was certain she’d burst into tears if she couldn’t hug her after the longest separation of their lives. The last text she’d received from Jamie had assured her that they were both wide awake and watching The Little Mermaid, but who was to say that she wouldn’t crash during her drive home?

Unfortunately, the power was still not back at the apartment complex, and Claire’s drive home confirmed that it was not just them. People at the hospital were predicting it would be out at least a week. Claire prayed it would be sooner considering how upset Jamie said Faith had gotten when the lights would not work.

She pulled into the driveway, and did not even bother grabbing her duffle bag from the back seat. She snagged her purse and bolted up the front steps. The door swung open, and there she was, her little girl, bouncing with her arms stretched upward.

“Oh, hello!” Claire exclaimed, letting her purse fall to the floor and scooping Faith up. “Oh, my sweet girl, I missed you so much…”

Faith was humming loudly, squeezing her mother around the neck, and kicking her dangling legs uncontrollably. She began rubbing her cheek against Claire’s and running her fingers through her hair.

“Oh, yes, hello, love…” Claire kissed both of her cheeks over and over, then her head, then her cheeks again. Faith intercepted more kisses by slapping her palms against Claire’s cheeks, causing Claire to sputter and flinch, but she didn’t have the heart to scold her for it. Faith held her mother’s head in place, squishing their faces together.

“Yes, hi, baby, I missed you, too…” Claire nuzzled her nose against Faith’s, even as her little hands squeezed the life out of her cheeks. From the corner of her eye, Claire could see Jamie standing back, watching them. Claire shifted Faith in her arms, settling her on one hip so she could see again. Faith was not finished, however; she continued to rub Claire’s face and fiddle with her hair and rub their cheeks together.

“Hi,” Claire said, her voice thick with emotion, her face flushed.

“Hi,” Jamie answered, stepping closer.

Claire flicked her eyes down to the fort of sheets in the middle of the living room, and she bit her lip.

“It looked bigger in the pictures,” she said, laughing. “You really fit in there?”

“Aye,” Jamie said in mock offense. “It would be a failed endeavor entirely if I didna.”

Claire broke into an enormous grin, and she slid Faith down her body to set her on her feet. Before she could step into Jamie’s arms, Faith wrapped herself bodily around Claire’s legs, rubbing her face on her capris. Claire snorted with laughter as Jamie closed the distance between them, and she was still laughing when he captured her lips with his.

Behind Claire’s eyes danced every photo that Jamie had sent her over the last four days, every play-doh sculpture, every coloring book page, every lego structure, every selfie of the two of them in the fort, and she was overcome. She grasped his face in her hands, squeezing, deepening the kiss.

Despite how busy she’d been at the hospital, she’d had lots of time to think, many hours on that damned cot where sleep eluded her. And she knew, she knew to the very marrow of her bones the truth of what was ready to burst out of her like a storm surge.

Just when she was becoming dizzy for lack of air, she broke the kiss, and Jamie gaped at her. “What was that f— ”

“I love you.”

Jamie’s voice broke off immediately, his mouth flapping soundlessly. As Claire cradled his face close to hers, her stomach flipped, and her heart leapt into her throat. She’d meant it; meant it more than anything in her life. It was something she supposed she knew for a while, perhaps even before that first kiss, but it wasn’t something she’d allowed herself to feel until very recently. And it wasn’t something she was ready to say until it was ready to burst out of her. She was smacked over the head with it on that first night in her hospital cot, and the days and days before she could get back to him and tell him had been agony.

“What…” Jamie’s voice was light and airy, “did ye say..?”

Claire’s breath stuttered out of her with a tremble, and she wet her lips. “I love you, Jamie,” she repeated, resolutely, tightening her grip on his face.

His shuddering exhale danced across her skin, and she watched as his eyes welled up. They danced all over her face, as if to memorize her every feature the moment she’d said it.

“Christ…” His voice broke, and he laughed in spite of himself, a single tear spilling over. “I love you, Claire. God, how I love ye.”

As if he couldn’t control himself, he kissed her feverishly, threading his fingers through her hair. Claire nearly tipped backward at the force of his affection, being that her legs were rooted in place by a thirty-eight pound weight. Jamie quickly adjusted to catch her, covering the entire span of her back with his two hands. Their lips broke apart to laugh, and Jamie pulled her back upright into a tight embrace. They swayed for a good while to the tuneless melody of Faith’s joyful humming.

God, how I love you.

Claire inhaled deeply, breathing him in. He smelled of his aftershave, crisp and clean, and somehow also like spaghetti-os, like Angus’s dental treats, and like Faith’s shampoo that somehow always clung to her hair no matter how long it was between showers.

He smelled like home.

Reluctantly, Claire peeled herself away from him, then looked down at Faith. She debated using her harsher tone to make her let go, but then decided she didn’t have it in her at the moment. Instead, she melted to the floor, forcing Faith to topple on top of her. Faith got an idea then; Claire could see it in her eyes. Then she was being pulled into the fort, and there was absolutely nothing Claire could do about it.

Before Claire could even blink, she was nestled in a veritable bird’s nest of blankets and pillows, Faith in her lap, and Prince Eric was finding Ariel on the beach. Jamie crawled in after them, grinning impishly.

“I hope you realize what you’ve done,” Claire said. “I’ll never be able to take this down now. It’s going to become a permanent fixture. Are these pillows from my bed?”

She arched an eyebrow at him, attempting intimidation, but given the spread of Jamie’s grin, she supposed it was not at all working. He settled in beside her on the air mattress, brushing hair off her neck and kissing her there and then nuzzling the spot with his nose. Like a cat whose favorite scratching spot had been found, Claire’s body went limp and liquid against him until she was in his lap, pulling Faith with her. Eventually, they were in an indecipherable pile of limbs, all three of them. During “Kiss the Girl,” Jamie kept looking down at Claire and waggling his eyebrows absurdly until Claire rolled her eyes and obliged him for a quick peck. She lost count of how many times it happened by the end of the song.

Faith didn’t fall asleep during the movie, but neither did she want to move when it finished. Jamie retreated from the fort and returned with a plastic cup that came from the kitchen, a bathroom Dixie cup, and Faith’s toothbrush. To Claire’s bewildered look, Jamie replied:

“I wasna gonna let her get away wi’ no’ brushing until the power came back. So I brought it to her. It’s been working.”

Claire’s face softened as she remembered the meltdown over the lights that Jamie had mentioned on the first night. That he had found a workaround solution that did not distress Faith was astounding and heartwarming. She watched in awe as Faith sat in her nest of blankets with her mouth open, putting up no fight as Jamie brushed her teeth. He had her spit into the empty plastic cup, and then rinse and spit with the water from the Dixie cup.

“Good girl,” Jamie praised, poking her nose with her toothbrush. He departed then, and Claire could hear him washing the cup in the kitchen sink.

“Good job, baby,” Claire repeated, rubbing her shoulder and kissing her head. “You had so much fun with Jamie, didn’t you?” Faith hummed contently, swirling her fingers in Angus’s fur. “Such a good girl.”

Jamie returned shortly after, and Claire could not help but laugh at the sight of that Viking of a man crawling into the small opening. “So what now?” The words bubbled through her laughter. “We lay here all night?”

He blushed a little. “Well, that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Claire gawked. “Are you serious? I was joking.”

His blush deepened. “She got upset when I tried to leave. And she’d already melted down twice that day. Figured it wasna fair to make her go again just fer me.”

Claire could literally feel herself melting, inside and out. If she hadn’t already found the nerve to say it, she would have been overcome and blurted it out right then. Perhaps Jamie could see it, because he inched closer.

“Come here,” Claire crooned, holding onto Faith with one arm and pulling Jamie closer with the other, kissing him soundly. She pulled away when she felt something plastic poking at her nose, and she went cross-eyed trying to see what it was.

The medicine dropper.

“Right,” Claire said sheepishly, and Jamie smirked at her. Claire lifted Faith off her lap as Jamie simultaneously swiped the pillows that came from Claire’s bed off the air mattress. Faith settled in on her pillow, nestled under her blanket, and Claire gave her the Risperdal.

“Good girl,” she said, and she patted the space next to Faith, which Angus hopped into obediently. When she shifted in her seat on the air mattress, she saw Jamie lying on his back with his hands behind his head, a pillow on the floor for each of them. He raised his eyebrows invitingly and nodded toward the unoccupied pillow, and Claire groaned audibly.

“I am not sleeping here all night,” she grumbled, even as she nuzzled into him, mostly on him rather than the pillow. “Not after four nights on a cot.”

“Aye, alright,” he said, kissing her forehead. “We can move in about an hour.”

Claire sighed resignedly. “You’re staying the night?”

“I don’t have to — ”

“I want you to,” she interrupted firmly, resting her chin on his chest to look him in the eye. “It wasn’t really a question.”

“Aye.” Jamie chuckled nervously. “Alright.”

Smiling in victory she lay her head on his chest again. They lay tangled together, Jamie rubbing up and down her back, Claire tracing circles on his chest. Once Faith’s breathing grew heavy, they tentatively sat up. One by one, they inched out of the small opening to the fort, each of them holding a pillow, both of them having to bite their lips to keep from giggling like school children. Once they got to their feet, they crept quickly and silently to Claire’s bedroom, and the second the door was shut, they let loose the bubbling laughter. Jamie tossed the pillows onto the bed and turned back to her.

Even as they were both still laughing, Claire locked the door behind her and pressed her mouth to Jamie’s in one swift motion. She felt the growl in his chest before she heard it, and both sensations sent heat rushing to her core. They stumbled back until they landed in a heap on the bed, laughing again. Claire straddled him immediately, deepening the kiss and rolling her hips when Jamie greedily seized handfuls of her arse.

She sighed a delicious moan into his mouth, grabbing fistfuls of his shirt and pulling it off between kisses. In return, he pulled off her shirt and undid her bra with an expert ease of someone who’d been having sex much longer than he’d been.

“Oh, I missed you…” Claire crooned, her entire body tingling with delighted electricity at the feeling of skin on skin, her breasts pressed flat against his chest. To further relish in this feeling, she scooted lower to suckle at his neck, delighting in his groans and how his roaming hands on her back would stutter and dig their nails into her when she nibbled. She made her way down to his nipples, having recently learned that he was nearly as sensitive there as a woman. She teased him for probably longer than he could bear, considering he yanked her face back up to his for a searing kiss. He abruptly sat up, pushing her up with him, so she was straddling his lap. He bore his eyes into hers while he undid her button and fly.

“Take them off.”

She shivered from head to toe at his command, and she immediately obeyed, getting up on her knees to slide her capris and underwear down, and he did not help her get them over her knees and heels. She stayed up on her knees and he growled hungrily, reaching up to kiss her, trailing his hand up her inner thigh, and resting to cup her, cover her entirely. She gasped raggedly, tugging on his hair roughly. His fingers slipped in easily, and she groaned loudly, unable to stop from thrusting her hips, riding his hand.

“It is such an honor…to worship this body…” he breathed into her neck, stroking her walls deftly. “To love this body.”

Love.

Claire had had sex. She’d had sex before Frank, had sex with Frank. She’d had sex with Jamie, of course.

But she’d never, ever made love.

That was what this was, what it had to be. Sex, fucking, was not enough to describe it. She’d never been caressed inside the way Jamie did, she’d never known such affection as his other hand roaming up and down her torso, tenderly squeezing each breast in their turn. Every touch said he loved her.

And she believed him.

It would have been too easy to let his fingers finish her, and she would have been all the more ready for him, but she couldn’t stand another moment without him inside her. Caught off guard, Jamie did not expect the rough shove she gave him, pushing him onto his back, forcing his fingers out of her. She undid his fly and slid off the remainder of his clothing until he was fully bared to her.

She greedily roamed her eyes all over his perfect form, her lips flapping uselessly. What could she say that could even come close to the poetics that Jamie had uttered to her? “I’m honored to worship your body, too,” would be ridiculously stupid, not to mention inadequate.

So, she settled on the only thing she could think to say.

“I love you.”

She whispered it against his lips as she took him in, inch by inch, his grip on her arse tightening and tightening with every inch. He kissed her then, groaning. She rode him slowly, savoring every second; every second of their love-making.

“With all my heart, I love you.”

Tears sprang to his eyes at that, and she kissed them away. She didn’t realize that she, too, was crying, until he flipped her over, staying inside, and kissed away moisture on her own cheeks.

“I love you, Claire,” he groaned into her ear, moving slowly inside her. “My heart is yours. I love you.”

He loved her tenderly, softly, wildly, hard, so achingly hard, loudly. They fell together in shared ecstasy, their hearts beating as one. 

If his heart was hers, then hers was his.

Even while Claire was still convinced she was in love with Frank, she’d never known what it was like to lose her heart. Not until Faith. The second her baby was put in her arms, her heart was no longer hers. She thought it was impossible to give away something that had already been given.

But, without her knowing, there’d been a piece tucked away all along, a piece that was waiting for Jamie.

I’ve waited all my life to love you.

And as the blackness of a deep, dreamless sleep overcame her, the scent of their combined sweat dancing in her nose, his arms like a vice around her, she knew it to be true.

——

From a dead sleep, Claire was woken by a sudden chill. For a terrifying moment, she thought she might be coming down with something. She listened to her body for aches and pains but felt nothing. And then she realized.

Jamie’s warmth had left her.

She sat up, too quickly considering how her head spun, and could see in the light of the moon that Jamie was getting dressed.

“Where are you going?”

Jamie turned around, putting his arms through the sleeves of his t-shirt. “Ye didna hear?”

A loud bang sounded, making Claire jump ten feet in the air and instinctually cover herself with the sheets. The bang was followed by a loud whine, and the pieces clicked in her head.

Jamie tossed Claire a t-shirt, one of his given the scent of it, and a fresh pair of underwear. Claire was too tired to remark on his going through her underwear, but she tucked that away for later. Now in flannel pants and a fresh shirt, Jamie made his way to the door, turning to make sure that Claire was dressed before unlocking and opening it. Faith did not even address Jamie, and before he could say anything, she was already shuffling past him and toward the bed. Claire glanced at her phone for the time, two in the morning.

She sighed in defeat, helping Faith as she climbed clumsily into the bed. Angus trotted behind her and hopped up onto the bed, settling at Claire’s feet. As Claire was getting Faith settled, she felt the bed shift, and looked up to see Jamie getting in on the other side of Faith. It did not take long at all for Claire to fall dead asleep again, Jamie’s arm draped over Faith’s body and around Claire’s waist. The last thing she heard was a muffled kiss to a curly head, and not her own.

“I love ye, sweet Faith.”

Chapter Text

The rest of August flew by. The power was restored a little over a week after the storm had initially hit, and getting Faith back into her normal routine (sleeping in her own bed, brushing teeth in the bathroom) was a bit of a struggle. Dismantling the fort had been a feat as well; Faith was not at all happy about it. Claire would absolutely not sleep on the floor, but she couldn’t bring herself to force Faith to sleep alone with no nightlight or option to turn the lights on, so she’d been allowed to sleep with Mummy until the power was restored.

September was upon them, and with it, the terror of a day that Claire had been anticipating with dread and excitement for months.

On September ninth, Faith was going to school.

In the middle of August, Claire had rearranged her work schedule to be able to take her to the orientation, tethered to Angus. They’d been picked up by the bus together so that Faith could practice with a school bus. The orientation leader had been extremely kind and helpful, showing them the whole school before they got to the special education room. It was a different district than the one they lived in, but Mrs. Lickett (and Claire’s research) had told her that this was the best program for Faith’s specific needs. The classroom was smaller than the others, but her class was only eight children altogether. Claire had heard horror stories of special needs children in a classroom that was essentially a glorified closet, no windows, no color in the room. So when the room they entered was nothing short of the most adorable, sunshine-y kindergarten classroom she’d ever seen, Claire could have cried with relief.

Each child’s individual aid was waiting in the classroom, including Carole, Faith’s aid. She’d been told about Angus and what he was specifically meant to help with in terms of Faith’s behavior and education. He’d responded well to a few experimental commands from Carole, and Faith seemed to like her well enough. Miss O’Reilly was the teacher’s name, and she gave a small sample lesson to demonstrate for the parents, and for the children to practice. Claire hung in the back of the room with the other parents, who all looked equally as terrified as she was.

Watching Faith at her little desk, her aid pointing to her pencil and paper, whispering in her ear to encourage her participation, was overwhelming. She was squirming a bit, turning around occasionally to reach for Claire. Angus was dutiful, however, nudging her, applying pressure in her lap with his head to bring her back, to calm her down.

She can do it. They can do it. Together.

Claire took the day off for Faith’s first day; she knew she wouldn’t be able to focus on a damn thing at work, and she didn’t feel like being responsible for people’s lives while her mind was otherwise occupied. Jamie insisted on taking the day off as well, on being there to see her off on the bus, and then staying with Claire like her own emotional support animal. She’d insisted he didn’t need to, though it was a rather weak insistence, because she knew deep down she needed him.

He had arrived promptly at seven o’clock, being that Faith’s bus was to arrive at eight-fifteen. He seemed surprised to find her fully dressed already, full-well knowing by now that his girlfriend was not a morning person. He’d apparently expected her to be in her pajamas.

“I hardly slept last night,” she admitted, standing aside to let him in. “I finally gave up around five, got dressed around six.”

He smiled with sympathy and gently pulled her in for a brief kiss. “I didna sleep much at all either.” He pulled her in for a comforting embrace, and his heartbeat in her ear did wonders for her nerves, if only temporarily. She felt his breath on the top of her head, and he pressed another kiss there.

“She nervous at all?” he asked.

“I don’t know, it’s hard to tell. I’m not sure she realizes that I won’t be going with her this time.” The thought sent her stomach turning again, filled with dread over Faith’s heart-crushing realization that Mummy was sending her away.

“Aye, suppose we’ll find out.” He pulled away to offer her another smile, and she craned her neck to kiss him again. “Here.” He produced a paper bag from behind his back, and Claire started, not even having realized he’d been holding something the whole time. “Picked ye up a wee treat fer breakfast. Ye deserve something better today than those crumbly chunks of oat ye call a meal.”

Her eyes smoldering with affection, she took the bag and peeked inside. “Granola bars are quite good for you. Fiber and protein are important.”

“Perhaps. But so are taste buds.”

She rolled her eyes as she shuffled away, depositing the bag on the kitchen counter. “I’ll eat it later. Could you get her cereal ready while I wake her up?”

“Aye, certainly.”

They brushed past each other in the doorway of the kitchen, and Claire entered Faith’s bedroom, her heart hammering in her chest.

“Angus, come,” she said lightly, and the previously sleeping dog sprang up from his spot beside Faith, trotting next to Claire. She sat down on the edge of Faith’s bed and began stroking her head. “Faith, darling. Time to wake up.”

Her eyes fluttered open, and Claire was greeted with a sweet, absent smile.

“There she is! Good morning, lovie.” Faith sat up and rubbed her eyes. “Do you know what today is? It’s the first day of school! Yay!” She signed applause, and Faith copied lazily, her hands apparently not totally awake yet. “It’s time to get up and get dressed. Do you want to look pretty for school, Faithie?”

Faith nodded excitedly, giving a little hum.

“That’s right. Up we get now, come on.” Claire stood up and went to the dresser, picking up the  blue dress she already had lain out. “Look at your pretty dress, baby. You’re going to look so pretty. Yes?”

She gave an excited little hop, and she raised her arms up, indicating she was ready for Claire to pull her pajama shirt off. Claire chuckled and obliged her, talking to her gently as she got her dressed. Claire insisted she give her a twirl when the dress was on, and Faith was more than happy to do so. Dressed and twirled, Claire loosely pulled half of her wild curls up, then clipped the tartan hair bow at the base of the ponytail.

“There. Pretty dress, and Merida bow. You’re all ready.”

Faith hummed loudly, jiggling her hands, and she followed Claire into the living room, trailed closely by Angus.

“Look who’s here, Faith! Special for you on your first day of school!” They entered the kitchen, and Faith practically launched herself at Jamie, throwing her arms around his legs right where he stood at the counter.

“Ah, there she is! Good morning, my braw wee lass!” He cupped the top of her head, and looked up at Claire as his fingers brushed the hair bow. “Ye’re a proper wee Scot today, aye? Wearing the hair bow I gave ye?” He pointed at the bow, and Faith giggled.

“It’s her favorite. Of course she had to wear it for such a big day.”

Brimming with affection, Jamie crossed the room, swinging Faith as she clung to his leg, and pressed a sweet kiss on Claire’s lips. Claire giggled into the kiss, the silly image of him wearing her daughter on his leg impossible to ignore.

“Alright, little monkey. Let Jamie go, please. Time for breakfast. Angus first.”

Faith obeyed, marching over to Angus’s bag of food and dumping the scoopful into his bowl, and Jamie handed her the pre-measured cup of water for her to pour into his water bowl.

“Good girl,” Claire said warmly as Angus already began digging in. “Your turn.”

A bowl of Cheerios was already waiting on the table, and Jamie hurried to pour the milk in. “Didna want it to get soggy while it waited fer her.”

Claire’s heart felt fit to burst for the fifth time that morning. Before Faith had interrupted, Jamie had been cutting up an apple at the counter, and he finished up before putting the plate next to Faith’s cheerios.

Having finished his breakfast in a matter of seconds, as usual, Angus was free for Jamie to pet and coddle while Claire carefully arranged Faith’s lunch and snack in her Frozen lunchbox.

“See, Faith?” Claire said. “Lunch is all ready to go.”

Faith looked up from her cereal to give a thumbs up.

On the way home from orientation, as a reward for being a good girl, Claire had stopped at Target and let Faith choose any lunchbox and backpack she wanted, along with a few folders and fun pencils. They were all Disney, of course, mostly Frozen dominated.

“These are for school, lovie. All of your favorites are going to help you be a big girl in school, yes?” Claire had said while Faith filled the shopping cart. Faith had simply hummed contentedly, smiling dreamily.

Claire checked said backpack about eight times before Faith finished her breakfast, and she heard Jamie coaxing her to drink the milk leftover in her cereal bowl.

“To make yer wee bones grow big and strong, a leannan.”

She re-entered the kitchen to see him popping an apple slice in his mouth, making an absurd face, and Faith squealed, shaking her head.

“If ye dinna want me to steal every slice, ye’d better hurry.” He picked up another slice, and Faith tried to grab it, but he stealthily dodged her and popped it in his mouth. She squealed with laughter again, and then countered by popping a slice in her own mouth.

Och, I wanted that one.” Jamie leaned back with contrived exasperation, crossing his arms. Faith giggled incessantly, and Claire had to bite her lip.

“Ridiculous human being,” she said, shaking her head.

“Can Mummy have any apples d’ye think?”

Faith squealed and adamantly shook her head, curls flying wildly.

“Oh, I can’t?” Claire challenged, crossing the room to join them at the table. She swiped a slice off the plate and popped it in her mouth, and Faith shrieked. “You heard him. You’d better hurry before we finish them.”

Faith ate another slice, looking back and forth between the adults like a little conspirator. They carried on like this, Jamie and Claire bringing slices to their open mouths, but then depositing them into Faith’s instead.

Eight o’clock came much too soon, and Claire cleaned up in the kitchen while Jamie led Faith into the living room. When Claire joined them, Jamie was giving her a quiet pep-talk while tying her shoes, her pink princess sneakers that didn’t at all match what she was wearing, but that she insisted on wearing no matter what.

Claire picked up her backpack when Jamie finished, not wanting to interrupt. “Alright, lovie. Ready?”

Faith nodded, extending her arms and allowing Claire to put the straps over her shoulders.

“There you go. All ready for school.”

“No’ quite,” Jamie said, reaching behind him into his back pocket. “I’ve got something special, Faith. Since ye’re such a big girl now, going to school and all.” He produced a tiny plush brown horse, attached to a little hook. “It’s a keychain, fer yer princess backpack.” Faith smiled, reaching out to hold it. “It’s a wee Pippi. See? She’s even got the white spot.” Struck by the familiarity, Faith stroked the white snout gently.

“Aye, very good, lass.” Jamie smiled widely. “Since ye canna take yer noble steed to school, or Horsie, I figure this’ll have to do.” He gently pried it from her hands to clip it to a loop on the backpack strap where she could reach it. “I’m very, very proud of you, Faith. When ye miss yer mam, I want ye to give wee Pippi a squeeze. Alright?”

They exchanged a thumbs up, and Claire almost burst into tears.

“I’m very proud of you too, baby.” Claire joined them, kneeling beside Jamie in front of her. “You’re such a big girl now.” She pushed her hair behind her ear. “Are you a big girl? Big girl, Faith?” Claire signed big girl, and Faith bounced with excitement, signing big.

“Yes, good girl.”

They spent the last few minutes before the bus arrived trying to coax her to uncover her face long enough to get a picture of her first day of school outfit. Claire and Jamie took turns being in the pictures, and Jamie even insisted on getting a selfie so they could all (Angus included) get into one picture.

There was suddenly a honk from outside, and Claire’s stomach lurched. She looked up at Jamie with terror, and he gave her hand a squeeze.

“Angus, come,” Jamie called, and he made quick work of getting him vested, leashed, and tethered to Faith.

Claire stood up and opened the front door, waving to the bus driver. She turned back to see dog and child ready to go, Jamie holding her hand.

He looked just as terrified as she felt.

Together, the four of them made their way down the steps to meet the bus, and they stopped a few feet away from the curb.

“Okay, baby. There’s the bus.” Claire said, kneeling in front of her on the concrete. “Are you ready?”

Are you ready, Beauchamp?

“It’s only for a few hours,” Claire said, perhaps more for herself than for Faith. “And then you’ll be home again with Mummy. Yes?”

“Ye’re gonnae have lots of fun, Faith. Show Angus to all yer new friends, learn sae much,” Jamie chimed in.

She was not humming, but her hand was jiggling at her side, and Jamie grasped it.

“It’s alright, mo chridhe.” He pressed a kiss to her little knuckles. “It’s alright.”

Claire bit down fiercely on her lip. No tears until she’s gone.

“I love you, baby.” Claire held up the sign, forcing a tiny smile. “I love you.”

Faith returned the sign, touching her thumb, finger, and pinky to Claire’s as their foreheads rested together. They held the sign and their embrace for several lingering seconds, until the constant chugging of the bus’s engine reminded Claire that time was still passing.

“Alright. Hugs.” Claire pulled her in for a quick hug, fervently kissing the top of her head.

“A hug fer me too, lass?” Jamie said tentatively, and Faith did not hesitate. He pulled her in and kissed her head as Claire had, offering her a wide grin when they pulled apart. 

“Alright. It’s time now, baby.” Claire and Jamie stood up, each taking one of her hands and leading her to the bus. Carole was waiting at the top of the steps, smiling kindly.

“Hi, Faith,” she greeted warmly.

“Hold onto the railing, now,” Jamie said quickly, releasing the hand he was holding so Faith could grasp the metal railing.

Claire had to force herself to let go of Faith’s other hand, her heart stinging as Carole took it instead. She hesitated at the top of the stairs, stopping Carole from pulling her into a seat. Faith turned around, and Claire thought she was going to faint. Jamie seemed to read her mind, and he desperately grasped her hand, squeezing like his life depended on it.

Faith looked like she may cry, and her hand was jiggling in a way that both of them knew was not happy.

Angus pressed the top of his head into Faith’s side, and she laced her fingers in his fur, ceasing her jiggling.

“It’s okay, baby,” Claire choked out. “It’s okay.”

Angus stayed rooted in place, waiting patiently for the panic to pass, and Carole looked back and forth between girl and dog, and the anxious couple.

“Ready, Faith?” Carole gave her a thumbs up, and Faith turned away from Jamie and Claire to look up at her. “Ready?”

Faith returned the thumbs up, removing her hand from Angus.

“Okay. Let’s go sit.”

The doors to the bus closed, and Jamie and Claire staggered back, clinging desperately to one another. The bus lingered for several more seconds, and Faith soon appeared in one of the windows, or rather, her eyes and forehead did. Carole was talking to her, waving through the window, and Faith started waving, too. Claire and Jamie waved wildly with their free hands, and then the bus was pulling away, and Claire felt a piece of her heart leaving with it.

As soon as the bus was out of sight, Jamie crushed her to him, and she finally released the sob she’d been holding back.

“It’s alright, mo nighean donn,” he crooned into the top of her head, rocking her gently. “That was the worst part. Dinna fash, now. She did it.”

Claire wept quietly into his shirt, not caring if any one of her neighbors decided to peek out their window and see them on the curb. She felt his tears in her hair despite his calming words, and she held him tighter.

He was right; the worst part was over. She’d imagined so many different scenarios that ended either with Faith bolting off the bus, or with Claire dragging her down herself. She’d imagined Faith screaming her head off, red in the face with tears, inconsolable even by Angus.

But that hadn’t been the case.

“What if…what if she’s crying now? Just after we couldn’t see her anymore…?”

“She has Angus. He’s quite good at his job, ye ken.”

“I know, but she…” Claire couldn’t put words to her exact fear. “What if she’s not ready? What if I’ve just thrown her to the wolves…?”

“Ye’ve done all ye can to prepare her. Ye got her excited wi’ her supplies, ye trained her dog fer this moment fer months. If she canna handle it after all that, it’s no’ yer fault.” He kissed her head, and she felt its warmth reach her outermost extremities. “If it doesna work out this year, she’ll be all the more prepared next year. Mrs. Lickett said it’s alright if she’s no’ ready ’til next year.”

Claire nodded against his chest, sniffling loudly.

“Carole said she’d call if there was a problem on the bus. So there’s no need to worry, aye?” He pushed her away just enough to look into her eyes, and she nodded. He kissed her gently, brushing away her tears as he did. “Let’s go inside. Ye’ve got quite a tasty muffin waiting fer ye in the kitchen, if ye recall.”

She forced a tiny smile, hiccuping a bit. “I hope I don’t vomit it up.”

“If ye do, I’ll hold yer hair and rub yer back.” He put his arm around her shoulders and led her up the stairs. “Then I’ll get ye some saltines and ginger ale and take care of ye.”

She sighed and leaned into him. “I don’t deserve you.”

He scoffed. “Ye deserve to be taken care of, ye stubborn fool.”

She couldn’t help but smile as they entered the apartment, Jamie shutting the door behind them. “Thank you. For being here today. I think it helped ease her mind. And I…” She swallowed, catching her breath. “I really needed you.”

“Aye. I ken ye did.” He kissed her soundly again. “Come on, now. No more weeping. Breakfast time.”

——

Jamie did his best to distract Claire; it really was a valiant effort. They tried sex, but when he could see that her mind was elsewhere, he stopped, not wanting to force it when she wasn’t fully with him. Admittedly, even Jamie was struggling with that particular activity today. And he’d never had that problem before.

They settled on watching mindless television, but it didn’t do much for either of their nerves. He could feel Claire’s pulse going far too fast against his body, and Jamie’s fingers continued tapping anxiously on his thigh, his leg jiggling.

They were on perhaps their tenth episode of The Office, the sandwiches Jamie had made and tried to force Claire — and himself — to eat sitting untouched when Claire’s phone rang.

He swore Claire might have been having a stroke given the way she completely stiffened in her seat. She scrambled for the phone, resting idly on the coffee table.

“It’s the school,” she stammered, simultaneous with accepting the call. “Hello?”

Jamie’s stomach lurched, and he was grateful Claire put the phone on speaker.

“Hi, is this Miss Beauchamp?”

“Yes.”

“Hi, this is Miss O’Reilly, Faith’s teacher.”

“Yes, hello,” Claire said impatiently. “Is she alright? What’s happened?”

“Everything is okay, don’t worry. I’ve got Faith here with me. She keeps signing ‘mom,’ and she got more and more distressed every time, so we thought we should call you so she could hear your voice.”

Claire flashed a heartbreaking, guilt-ridden look up at Jamie. “Yes, give her the phone. Thank you.”

In a few seconds, the sound of sniffling came through the receiver, and Jamie instinctively grabbed Claire’s hand, squeezing for dear life.

“Faith? Hi, baby, it’s Mummy.”

Claire’s voice was wavering.

“It’s okay, lovie. I’m here. Jamie is here, too.”

“Hello, Faith,” Jamie chimed in. “It’s great to talk to ye.”

“I know you miss us, we miss you too,” Claire said carefully. “Don’t cry anymore, baby. It’s okay. You’re going to be home so, so soon. And then you get Oreos, remember? And a sticker.”

Mrs. Lickett and Claire had worked to put together a system where every day she went to and from school without a problem, she got a sticker on the sticker chart. She would earn little prizes for every filled row, and then, once the whole chart was full, she earned a big prize.

“I know you can do it,” Claire continued. “You’re such a big girl.”

“Aye, Faith, we’re verra proud of you.”

“That’s right,” Claire said. “I love you so much, baby. I’m doing the sign. Can you do it?” She paused for a bit. “I love you. Can you please give the phone to Miss O’Reilly?”

“Okay, thank you Faith.”

“How is she? Did that help?”

“I think it did. Now, just so you know, she did wet herself at her desk. And I know you said that she hasn’t really had bathroom issues in a while, so I assume it was just the stress.”

Claire’s grip tightened painfully on Jamie’s hand.

“Yes, I’m so sorry, I didn’t think she’d…”

“It’s okay. It happens to someone on the first day every year. It usually doesn’t happen more than one more time. She’s wearing the clean clothes you packed with her.”

“Ehm, okay,” Claire stammered. “Thank you so much.”

“Okay, I’ll call you again later to let you know how she did with the rest of the day.”

“Great. Thank you.”

“Bye-bye now.”

“Bye.”

The line went dead, and the phone collapsed in Claire’s lap as she buried her face in her hands. Jamie hung up the call to stop the ringing, and he pressed her against his chest.

“It’s alright, mo ghraidh.”

“No, it’s not…” she muttered tearfully against his chest. “I can’t do this, Jamie, I can’t. I’m going to go pick her up.”

Hey.” Jamie tightened his grip on her, physically restraining her from getting up. “Ye’re no’ gonnae do that.”

“She hasn’t wet herself in nearly a year! Something is wrong! You could hear her crying. I have to go.”

She was nearing hysterics. Jamie pushed her away just enough to look in her eyes.

“Claire.” His voice was firm, tightly holding her shoulders. “Miss O’Reilly said she calmed down. What reason would she have to lie to ye?”

“She could’ve started right back in again once we hung up.”

“If you go get her now, she’ll never learn. She’ll think that if she pitches a fit that Mummy will come get her, and she can get out of school, or anything else. She needs to learn.”

He could tell how badly Claire wanted to look away, but she held his gaze. She welled up with fresh tears, and Jamie watched them trickle down her cheeks. Her chin trembled, and he, like the hypocrite he was, very nearly gave into her just to stop her from crying.

“You’re right,” Claire rasped, swallowing thickly. “I hate it…but you’re right.”

Jamie loosened his grip and moved his hands up to cup her cheeks. “It might be a long learning curve, but she will learn. She’s ready for school, I ken she is. She just doesna ken it herself yet. And ye canna give in before she has the chance to figure that out. She needs ye to give her this chance, Sassenach.”

Claire nodded, inhaling with a shuddering gasp. “I know.”

He tenderly kissed her forehead, letting it linger. “She’s a strong wee thing. And she gets it from her mother,” he said with pointed emphasis. “If she can do it, so can you.”

Claire nodded, swallowing again. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Sassenach.”

——

A bit after 3:30, the bus pulled up in front of the driveway, and both Jamie and Claire raced down the stairs. The doors to the bus opened, and Faith and Angus descended the stairs, Faith letting go of Carole’s hand to launch herself into Claire’s arms.

“Oh! Hello, darling!”

Jamie untethered her from Angus and commanded him to go upstairs and inside. Faith properly wrapped her legs around Claire’s waist, and she hoisted the girl up higher. Carole smiled sweetly down from the top of the stairs.

“How was she on the bus?” Claire called up.

“Fine, much more excited on the way back.”

The three adults shared a laugh.

“Oh, I bet,” Claire said, more to Faith then Carole. She fervently kissed her temple. “Thank you so much. I’ll be here tomorrow in the morning with her caretaker, and she’ll be getting her off without me.”

“Gotcha,” Carole said. The bus driver nodded as well.

“Okay, thank you, have a good day,” Claire said, waving. “Say bye-bye,” she crooned to Faith.

“Bye, thanks,” Jamie said, waving as well. Claire held Faith’s hand and waved with her, and the bus rolled away.

“Okay, time for Oreos!” Claire said.

“Aye, Oreos fer our big girl.” Jamie took Faith, knowing that Claire would have a hard time walking up the stairs with her. She was getting bigger every day.

They all sat at the kitchen table, Faith with her Oreos on her napkin, scraping the icing off with her teeth, Jamie and Claire watching her like she hung the stars, hands laced together. 

Jamie gave her hand a squeeze, leaning in to kiss her cheek. “She did it.”

Claire nodded, resting her head on his shoulder. “We did it,” she corrected.

Jamie’s answer was a fervent kiss to the crown of her head.

Chapter Text

November 27th

Jamie felt a flutter of excitement as he rang the doorbell to the Abernathy home. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and neither doctor had had the day off on Thursday. Claire had mentioned they’d done exactly this last year. Claire had casually asked if Jamie wanted to make a pie or pick one up, and he’d stared at her, bewildered. 

“Ehm...fer what?”

Claire eyed him as if he’d asked what color the sky was. “For Thanksgiving?”

“Oh! I...thought ye spent it wi’ Joe’s family...”

She blinked at him like he had two heads. “Yes. And you’re coming.”

And that was that. 

This was a big step for them as a couple, as a potential family, and Jamie knew it. He knew better than to make a big deal out of it to Claire, but that simple assumption that of course he’d be celebrating with Claire’s adopted family had made him fit to burst with joy. The next day, Jamie had texted her:

speaking of holidays and families, how do you feel about spending christmas with mine?

She’d replied hours later, likely during her first break of the day:

I’d absolutely love to.

So they were there now. They were officially bringing each other “home for the holidays.” Well, Jamie’s family was coming here to avoid putting Faith through air travel, but still. If somebody had asked Jamie last Thanksgiving or last Christmas if he’d ever imagined this, with her, with them, he’d have told them they were crazy. 

That morning, they’d gone to see Moana. The local movie theater did half-priced tickets before noon, and the movie had come out the day before Thanksgiving. Jamie had told Claire that he and his family always went to the cinema on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day; since the closest one to Lallybroch was an hour away, it was a special occasion. Claire had immediately lit up, declaring that they had to go on Thanksgiving. Rather, their makeshift Thanksgiving. Claire had never actually brought Faith to the movies before, but the place was empty aside from one other family, so it was perfect. She was in heaven. She was absolutely enthralled by the hugeness of the screen, the colors, the music. They’d sat near the front in the wider aisle where the railing was, meant for handicapped viewers, so Faith could run around or lean on the railing, dangling Horsie over the edge with her mouth agape. Claire had bought the album on iTunes on the way home, anticipating that Faith would want to play the music all day, and she’d been right. Jamie already knew almost every word to “How Far I’ll Go.” He wondered if it would hold up against “Let it Go” for Faith, but only time would tell.

A gust of November wind brought Jamie back to the moment, and the front door opened to reveal Joe, white teeth flashing against his dark skin in a radiant grin. 

“Ah, there he is!” Joe enthusiastically clapped Jamie on the shoulder with one hand, and shook Jamie’s hand with the other. “It is so good to have you here, Jamie.”

“Hello to you too,” Claire said wryly.

“Come on, I see you all the time,” Joe said. At that moment, Faith slipped right out of Claire’s grip and bounded inside, humming loudly and flapping her hands wildly. 

Claire rolled her eyes at both Faith’s escape and Joe. Jamie watched with amusement as Gail appeared at the end of the hallway and exclaimed in surprise as Faith barreled into her. 

“Sweet Jesus!”

Joe ushered Jamie, Claire, and Angus, leash held by Claire, into the house. 

“Well it’s nice to see you, crazy bean!” Gail said, laughing, and Faith disappeared into the living room. “Dee-Dee! They’re here, and Faith is looking for you!”

Jamie handed off the pie (that he’d made from scratch, of course) to Gail, and insisted on helping her finish with the hors d'oeuvres and the drinks. Faith darted about, in and out of the rooms, until the pitter-patter of little feet coming down the stairs had her running back into the hallway. By the time all the adults were settled with finger foods and drinks, Delia and Faith were already in the corner of the room, engaged with dolls and a little house. Even Faith’s Horsie was involved in the game, of course. 

“They did this last year too,” Claire said as they sat down on the couch. “We got here and Dee-Dee had a whole spread. It was adorable.”

“She does it every time she knows she’s coming over,” Gail said. 

“Aye, I remember her at Faith’s party; she’s a sweet one,” Jamie said fondly. 

“Thanks,” Gail said.

“And that one got so big!” Claire exclaimed, looking at Lenny, sat in his own corner with a tablet. “Last Thanksgiving he still looked like a baby.”

“Four years old, you believe that?” Joe said, shaking his head. 

“Oh, I believe it,” Claire said, eyeing Faith. “They grow too fast.”

“Oh my gosh, Claire, I never even asked.” Gail said, putting down her drink. “Faith started school!”

“Yeah, she did.”

“You were scared shitless,” Gail dropped her voice to a low whisper. 

Claire chuckled. “Yes, I certainly was.”

Jamie put his hand lightly on Claire’s knee, and she took it, seemingly without thinking about it. They laced their fingers together with practiced ease, and Jamie squeezed. 

“You mentioned at work the first day went okay,” Joe said. “How’s she been since then?”

“Really good, actually,” Claire said. Jamie could feel the warmth of glowing pride radiating from her. “She stopped having any bathroom problems, finally, and she hasn’t had to call home or either of us at work in a while. Which is good, because it’s hard when I’m at the hospital or if Jamie’s with a client...but I think we’re finally past that.”

“That’s great,” Gail said. 

“I can tell she still doesn’t really love it. It’s a bit of a fight to get her on the bus after a weekend or a break. Monday should be really fun,” she rolled her eyes, “but she’s doing it. She’s getting her stickers when she earns them and prizes and after school treats.”

“Claire is doing all the right things,” Jamie cut in. “It’s hard to motivate her sometimes, but as long as she’s on the bus in the morning, then we’ve done all we can do.”

“Right,” Gail said. 

“Remember after Labor Day when she would not get on, no matter what I did?”

“Aye, I do. I had to leave the stables to try to get her on myself.”

“I couldn’t believe the driver waited that long.” Claire covered her face and shook her head at the memory. “If that never happens again, it’ll be too soon.”

The adults shared a quiet laugh. 

“I see she’s got a communication device now?” Joe said, gesturing to the tablet resting next to Faith. “The school provides that?”

“Yeah,” Claire said. “She’s been getting more and more comfortable with it lately. She still signs for her basic needs, and Mummy, but she loves being able to say ‘Angus,’ and all your names, and Gillian’s name, and Jamie’s. I don’t want her to lose the signing, but this is a great additional tool.”

“Yeah, of course,” Gail said. “I saw that video on Facebook that you posted, when she first figured out the ‘Mummy’ button.”

“Oh, yeah,” Claire smiled fondly at the memory, and so did Jamie. When it had first clicked for Faith that there was a word on her device for every sign, she could not get enough of saying “Mummy,” calling out to her beloved mother in a brand new way. “She did the same thing to Jamie the next time we saw him.”

“Over and over,” Jamie confirmed. “It was sweet.”

“Until the third hour,” Claire said, and Jamie could tell she was only half-kidding. He didn’t blame her at all. 

Jamie was about to ask about how Delia was doing in school, how pre-k was for Lenny, when