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Power Jam: A Roller Derby Love Story

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So with the current global lockdown, roller derby has been essentially canceled for the year. It's already been more than six months since I've played with my team and I really miss derby, so I'm channeling my sadness into a Claire and Jamie roller derby-tastic fic. 

 

A few notes and disclaimers for those unfamiliar with the sport that will be helpful as you read the first chapter and beyond.

 

Roller derby is a competitive contact sport played on quad skates (four wheels in a square as opposed to rollerblades, wheels in one straight line). It is largely a female-dominated sport, though not exclusively. As a whole, derby is also a highly inclusive and progressive community, welcoming people from varied backgrounds as well as LGBTQ+ persons. 

Basic gameplay: five players from each team take the track in a group called the pack. One player on each team is the jammer, who scores points. The other four players are blockers. Their goal is to break out of the pack then skate around the track, catch back up, and do it again. Blockers play both offense and defense (helping their jammer through the pack while preventing the opposing jammer from passing.) Jammers score a point for each blocker of the opposing team that they pass. You do this for up to two minutes at a time, called a jam.

The game is played in a counter-clockwise direction on a oval-shaped track; think like a running track but smaller. In general, games are staffed by about seven or eight referees on both the outside and inside of the track. Each jammer (the scoring player) is assigned a referee whose sole job is to watch their jammer and calculate points scored. 

If players receive penalties, they sit out 30 seconds in the penalty box. If a jammer receives a penalty, it is known as a power jam since the opposing jammer is the only one able to score points for the length of the penalty. 

The jam clock and game clock are different things. You'll see in the first chapter that, though the game clock runs out mid-jam, the jam continues either to its natural conclusion or until it's called off by the lead jammer. Lead jammer (whoever is first to escape the pack) has the ability to end the jam, which comes in handy as you can rack up as many points as possible then end the jam before your opponents get to score. 

Players also traditionally choose "derby names," a tough-sounding pun, to serve as their alter-ego on the track. Again, it's not universal and more players have opted to use their real names recently, but derby names are a fun way to create your own derby persona in the community and have a bit of fun. You'll see many examples in the story to come. 

 

 

If you're interested in basic gameplay, this is a short video explaining how the game works. I'll try not to lean too heavily on super niche descriptions of the game -- for me, it's more the atmosphere that matters for the story -- but knowing some basics may help understand the story and world better. 

 

This handy guide by the Women's Flat Track Derby Association is also helpful!

I'm US-based and am on a very small rec team. I do not believe rules or customs vary greatly between the US and Scotland/rest of the world, but if there are any discrepancies, I apologize. I'm also fairly new to this community -- this would have been my second year and my first playing season -- so I may make mistakes or get things wrong, but I'm doing my best to be as true to life in gameplay, rules, and atmosphere as possible. 

I also know nothing about Scottish teams, players, etc.; it's set in Scotland because Outlander, but I'm kinda flying blind here. Any similarities to actual people, teams, players, etc. are purely coincidental. I am in no way partnered with or affiliated with any Scottish roller derby teams or players.

I also am not affiliated with the Women's Flat Track Derby Association and do not in any way speak for them. 

 

That all said, roller derby is awesome, and there's truly a role for anyone who wants to give it a try. Even if you've never skated before (the literal first thing I did after putting skates on my first practice was fall on my ass...so don't worry, you can be taught!) or aren't interested in skating /contact (we always need non-skating officials -- NSOs -- for games!). So if this sounds like a community you're interested in, no matter your gender or gender identity, you should look into possible teams and leagues in your area. 

Phew, all right. That was a lot. Now on to enjoy the fic! (First chapter coming momentarily, if it's not posted yet.)

Chapter Text

"Next whistle starts the jam!"

As Jamie Fraser pushed open the door, the noise nearly knocked him off his feet. Shouted conversations and booming music melded together in the echoing warehouse to create a cacophony of excitement that, for all its frenetic bluster, failed to infect his own mood. At the shriek of a whistle, the crowd began to cheer. Jamie belatedly covered his ears, sighing. 

He was late. Apparently.

With a grimace, he pushed forward and began to mill through the crowd, eyes raking over the festivities. The sea of people blocked the track from view, but he heard the commentator giving a blow-by-blow of the action over the loudspeaker. He paid it no mind. 

A discontented sigh rattled in his chest. The day had been long, and Jamie had little desire to spend his evening hours amidst strangers watching a sport he'd never even heard of.

I suppose there are worse ways to be the clock, he thought to himself, attempting to curb his annoyance at both his uncles. The one who'd landed them all in hot water to begin with, and the one who'd demanded Jamie's presence here tonight to assess possible avenues of damage control. 

A pair of women walked by holding plastic cups filled with foamy beer. 

Well, if I have to be here, may as well be buzzed.

Tension pulled at his shoulders, and he rolled them up and back to release it as he set out in search of the drinks table. Edging through eager fans, Jamie reached the line and winced as a set of four rapid-fire whistle blasts echoed through the space to cheers and howls. Craning his head toward the track -- oval-shaped with a handful of zebra-striped officials camped out in the middle and around the perimeter -- he watched an exchange of skaters as some exited the track and a new group hurried on, huddling into position. 

"Just the one, then?" 

The voice jerked him back to the queue. An English accent in Edinburgh. Strange. Perhaps not as strange as in decades and centuries past, but still rare enough so as to warrant a quick flick of an eyebrow as he approached the table. 

Taking a look at the voice's owner, though, Jamie found that his response evaporated from his lips. Tall, fair, dark curls pulled into two braids over each shoulder. The slender nose and full, rosy lips turned up in a polite smirk. But her eyes...ah, Dhia, the exact shade of his favorite whisky, bold and alluring with hints of darker gold throwing the light. Heavy glitter eye makeup only made them seem to glow brighter. Even in the scant seconds he gazed into them, Jamie dreaded the moment he'd have to turn away. Their color would be burned in his brain for the rest of the night, he was sure.

"Aye." A flush heated his ears. His noticing the warmth creeping up his neck and face only made them burn hotter. She wore a blue jersey, her pale, toned arms bare as she poured him a plastic cup of beer from a cooler. 

"Six pounds," she said, handing it over. 

"A bit pricey, is it no'?" he asked before thinking as he pulled out his billfold. If his face burned any hotter, he'd be steaming. But the Sassenach chuckled and nodded. 

Christ, her cheeks turned such a lovely shade of pink when she smiled. 

"Indeed it is," she smirked at him. "But it's for a good cause. All the proceeds from concessions this season go to our charity partner, the Children's Medical Fund of Scotland. You could even leave a little something extra, if you feel so inclined," she added, gesturing to a pitcher filled with banknotes further along the table. 

Jamie nodded before succumbing to the first real smile he'd felt on his face all evening -- all day, in fact -- as he handed over the money. "Well, thank ye, then," he said. As he walked away, he found himself already missing that golden hue. Before departing, he added an extra bill to the pitcher. 

Bodies pressed together around the oval-shaped track, packed so tightly he had to elbow his way through to find a spot to stand. As he claimed a free spot against the wall, he kept the Sassenach still in view, and the noise seemed to fade away. 

Jamie was stupefied. Which, in turn, made him feel ridiculous. He hadn't been struck dumb just by a lass's presence since his school days; he was far too old for it to be happening now. 

Of course, the years of his self-imposed bachelorhood likely didn't help matters. 

He watched as her curly head reared back in laughter at whatever her teammate beside her said. Far away and out-volumed as she was, no hint of her laugh met his ears, but he imagined what it sounded like. And that she was laughing beside him. At something he'd said.

Jerking back, Jamie cast his eyes around as though caught, like his thoughts had been on display.

Focus, lad, he chided himself. Yer here for a reason. 

Shaking his head to dispel images of the curly-haired Sassenach, Jamie began to focus on the game, taking mental note of the environment. The crowd was diverse but largely skewed thirties and younger. And a lot of women, though Colum had explained as much (and not much else) when commanding Jamie to scope out the Edinburgh roller derby scene. For what he wagered was a somewhat below-the-radar sport, it certainly had its share of devotees. 

Craning his head, he turned toward the track. He'd only seen two or three rounds -- or jams, as one of the officials kept announcing before blasting the whistle each time -- when the clock ran out and the game was apparently finished. 

"Aaaaaand that's the final whistle, folks!" came the voice over the loudspeaker before announcing scores and player statistics.

Confused, Jamie checked his watch. He'd thought the game wasn't even supposed to start for another 15 minutes. Leaning over to a short blonde woman in a black t-shirt a few feet away, he asked, "I thought it wasn't startin' till nine?" 

The woman looked up at him with wide blue eyes, her lips turning up at the corners as she stood a little taller, arms pulled behind her as she minutely arched her back. "Oh, aye," she replied. "That was just the newbie bout."

"Newbie bout?"

She nodded. "Players who've just started out or havena yet passed all the skills tests needed to join the main team," she explained in a breathy tone. "Sort of like a scrimmage?" Her pitch rose at the end as if it were a question, even though, between them, he was the clueless one. 

"Oh, aye," Jamie responded, nodding once with a taut smile. "Thank ye."

The blonde bobbed her head in a rapid nod. "O' course. If ye have any other questions, don't be shy." 

Before Jamie could smile politely and ignore the lass, the MC named the skater Holly Go Fightly as the MVP jammer. Groaning, he turned back to the blonde.

"What's wi' the names, then?" Jamie asked as the MVP herself skated to the center of the track. He tried not to lean in too close, hoping to convey that he was lost and looking for signposts only. Nothing more. 

She didn't seem to get the memo. 

"Oh, that's part of the tradition!" she fawned, stepping close enough that her arm nearly brushed his. Not bothering to hide his annoyance, Jamie took a step away, but she continued. "Ye pick a 'derby name,' ken. Usually a pun or play on words. Somethin' that sounds tough. 'Tis like your alter ego when yer playin'."

One slow nod in understanding, a slight raise of his cup in thanks, and Jamie turned his attention back to the empty track. 

"Never been before, then?" she asked as she closed the distance again, clearly eager to continue chatting. Jamie, however, was in no mood. With a single nod, he lifted his plastic cup to his lips and took a long sip, ignoring the blonde at his elbow in favor of the warm, mediocre brew. Luckily, she didn't try to engage in further conversation but stood awkwardly at his side, rocking on the balls of her feet. When the announcer came over the loudspeaker to announce that all referees and NSOs (whatever that was) needed to meet in the center of the track, the blonde cast him a last hopeful glance before walking that way. 

More minutes passed, and Jamie watched as the crowd milled about, refilling snacks and drinks between games. Fresh skaters took their places on the team benches along the outside of the track. Looking that way, his heart leapt to see two curly pigtails in a blue jersey gliding past. Jamie ran his fingers through his own russet curls, this time not fighting the airy feeling in his center as he watched her set down her water bottle then take to the track to warm up with her teammates. 

For ten minutes, the players skated laps, stretched, and performed basic drills before the official commencement time. And never once did his eyes stray from the Sassenach.

"Good evenin', ladies and gents," the smooth baritone finally called in excitement over the speakers. "'Tis nearly time to begin the main event tonight, but first you gotta meet the teams, starting with our visitors tonight, the Inverness Wreckers!" A dozen or so green-clad players in roller skates took to the track in a large group, waving and smiling to the crowd. They bent over double, skating close together in a slow group as the loudspeaker announced each player's number and derby name, at which point the mentioned player would straighten and raise their hands into the air with a brief wave before bending down again. 

Jamie nodded as the last player, Fleetwood Smack, straightened and waved to the crowd. The green team then skated and lined up on the far edge of the track as the announcer prepared for the next team. 

"All right, Edinburgh, put yer hands together now for your home team, the Reekie Rollllleeeeers!"

Just as the previous team had, the new group in deep blue jerseys glided onto the track then bent double for each player to be introduced. Jamie watched and listened more carefully this time.

She was the sixth player called. 

"And give it up for Number 743, Sass N Whack!" She stood tall then, arms raised and face beaming. The curly bobs brushed her shoulders beneath her helmet, and he could see the bright blue of her mouth guard as she smiled toward the crowd. 

Surprised, Jamie found himself cackling as she bent back down for the next player to enjoy their moment in the spotlight.

So she had a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. And wasn't afraid to take the piss out of herself. He liked that.

As the final players enjoyed their introductions, he kept his eyes trained on Sass N Whack and suddenly wished he knew her real name. 

Then it was game time. Smaller groups from each team met together on one of the long straightaways just before him. The game mechanics weren't too difficult to pick up after a few rounds: A player with a star on their helmet (the Jammer) would fight their way through the rest of the players (the Pack) and lap them all to score points for up to two minutes at a time (a Jam). The skaters in the pack had to both block the opposing jammer on each pass and help their own jammer through to score. 

The crowd whooped and hollered at each block, hip-check, and jump. Jamie, though, watched with a detached interest. Truly the only time he felt half as invested as the rest of the vocal crowd was when a certain brown-haired Edinburgh player took to the track. His heart would flutter and he'd stand up straighter to see, flushing each time he did. 

She was good; even he could tell that. Confident and sure on her feet. Most often, she came out as a part of the pack (a Blocker, according to the announcer). And more than once as the opposing jammer (the scorer, he reminded himself) made a break to escape the pack, she'd sprint after them, thrusting a shoulder or hip out to knock them out of bounds. The crowd would cheer, and Sass grin before rejoining the pack, ready to do it again.

Jamie found himself watching her skates more than anything else. Her feet moved with speed and agility, just as often sprinting on the circular toe stops as swiveling on her wheels to spin in place or skirt by other players in the space of only inches. And all the while, even as she pushed and huffed with exertion, the brightness shining from those whisky eyes drove him mad. 

"And with only seventy-six seconds left in the game, this could well be our last jam. The score sits at Wreckers 167, and Rollers 158!" the MC shouted out over the loudspeakers. "Make sure you pay attention to our jammers, Number 98, Block Ness Monster for the Wreckers. And Sass N Whack, Number 743, lining up for the Reekie Rollers."

Novice roller derby spectator though he was, he knew immediately why she'd been sent out for possibly the final points of the game. She hadn't jammed often, obviously preferring the challenge of playing offense against the other team. But the handful of times she'd donned the star on her helmet, she'd proven difficult to stop, slithering by opponents or using surprising strength to muscle her way through clusters of blockers each time. 

With such a close margin, the entire game rode on her shoulders. 

"Next whistle starts the jam!" yelled an official in the center of the track, eyes trained on a stopwatch on his hand. Jamie saw Sass bent over, bouncing slightly in the knees in anticipation. Five seconds later, the official blew the whistle and chopped his arm through the air before stepping off the track. 

Without hesitation, Sass sprinted on her toe stops for three steps using her shoulder to push up and forward to break apart a pair of green blockers. A fellow blue player came to offer assistance, and Sass N Whack made her way through. The final green blocker ahead of the pack kept her gaze over her shoulder, ready to head the Sassenach off. Sass feinted toward the inner line before juking at the last second to surf around the green player on the outside, taking off at a sprint to outdistance the blocker. 

"And Sass N Whack is our lead jammer!" came the booming voice to various cheers. Lead jammer, Jamie had learned, meant that she could end the jam whenever she pleased, which, if she did so after the game clock ran out (in another sixty-one seconds), could end the game itself.

The green jammer struggled to escape the pack, remaining behind long after Sass had begun lapping for points. Over the next minute or so, Sass managed to gain eight points to the opposing team's four, bringing the score up to 171 to 166. With under a minute left, the green Jammer earned a penalty and skated to the penalty box. 

"Power jaaaaam!" the announcer roared to the crowd's pleasure. "With Block Ness sittin' out her thirty-second penalty, Sass N Whack has control o' the track and the clock!" 

Sass curved around the oval, eyes calculating as she approached the pack again. 

Twenty-nine seconds. 

With the other jammer temporarily out of commission, Sass's team focused solely on offense to get her through the opposing blockers. She dodged and rolled her way past three of them until there was just one left. With nowhere else to go, Sass made a beeline down the straightaway for the inside boundary just at the point where the track curved. A green blocker shot her way, ready to cut her off. 

Jamie swore the next few seconds happened in slow motion. As the green blocker camped on the inside corner to block the way, Sass leaned further into her squat, pushing off in a flying leap at the last moment. Her legs pinwheeled beneath her as she cleared the blocker's legs. Face screwed up in determination, she landed inside the boundary line on her left skate, then her right on the other side of the blocker. She wobbled for a second then steadied herself with a visible sigh of relief. Eyes on her assigned referee, breathing heavy, Sass immediately tapped both hands repeatedly to her hipbones until four sharp whistle blasts ripped through the air in quick succession. The game ended with only nine seconds left on the jam clock.

"And Sass N Whack nails that apex jump and ends the jam!" The audience roared, and Jamie sat with wide eyes in absolute awe. "And that's the game, fans! Wi' a final score Wreckers 171 and Rollers 170, the Inverness Wreckers take the night!" 

Even though her incredible last-minute aeronautics failed to secure them the win, Jamie could see that the curly-haired player was absolutely radiant. She rolled over to her teammates, and they all embraced with joviality. After a brief awards ceremony where each team elected the MVP Blocker and Jammer from the opposite team (and Jamie unabashedly swelling with pride when Sass was named MVP Blocker for the Rollers), spectators began to disband. Some waited around for players while others made straight for the exits, Jamie among the latter group until the loudspeaker voice made one last announcement for the evening.

"Be sure to join us at our after party down the road at Leoch Tavern startin' at 10:30 to share a drink wi' yer favorite players. Bring yer ticket stub for five pounds off any draft beer."

He'd been ready to bail and head for home, perhaps search and see if the team had a website where he may learn the brown-haired Sassenach's name. But at this, Jamie's heart leapt. 

Would she be there? 

"Aye," he breathed to himself, checking his watch as he headed toward the door. "I'm in." 

Chapter Text

Leoch Tavern, upscale casual with an industrial warehouse vibe, boasted an impressive Saturday night crowd. The lighting, moderately dim with a warm orange glow, put Jamie at ease as soon as he walked in. Soft music piped throughout the building cultivated a relaxed mood without overpowering the senses. One wouldn't need to shout to have a conversation here. 

Thinking about who he'd like to have a non-shouted conversation with made his head go fuzzy with nerves. 

Looking around from the bar, Jamie recognized a handful of spectators from the warehouse and a few players milling about who'd arrived with the first wave. Some wore skates, some in street shoes.

No Sass N Whack yet, though. 

With a closed-mouth sigh that rumbled from his throat, he ordered a Lagavulin neat. He leaned his elbows on the natural wood bar, tension stiffening his body like a board. Each passing moment, he got closer and closer to convincing himself to walk out and go home before he made a right fool of himself. Following a complete stranger here -- no, showing up here and merely hoping said stranger would also come -- based on nothing more than...attraction?...lust?...just felt pathetic. 

Resolving to finish his glass in the next two sips and escape with his pride largely intact, he caught a familiar accent down the bar. 

"Two waters, please."

His heart sped at just those few syllables. As discreetly as he could, he cut his eyes in her direction. Mere feet away. Nearly as close as they'd been when she'd handed him the overpriced beer at the game. Her brown curls, now piled into a messy bun atop her head, looked even more wild after the game. Her face was still pink, gold glitter still shining over her cheekbones and around her eyes, making her glow with ease and confidence. Beneath the musk of exertion (which, far from repelling him, unhinged him in a way he tried to ignore), he smelled hints of vanilla and patchouli.

She waited, eyes trained carefully forward, as the barkeep fixed two glasses of water with ice.

The second she walked away, the door would close. Jamie knew that. He'd never approach her amidst her friends and teammates. This was the moment. His one and only shot. If she pulled away from the bar before he said a word, he may never know her real name. That, and downing the rest of his whisky, gave him the courage to turn in her direction. 

"Can I ask a question?" he said, leaning slightly in her direction. 

How the color bloomed and deepened across the apples of her cheeks sent a bolt of something hot and sharp straight through him. With a smirk and a turn to look at him, she nodded in invitation. Butterflies the size of pterodactyls erupted in his stomach, so strong his voice nearly shook as he spoke. 

"I just wondered," he said, speaking slowly to control his nerves, "how many times ye heard that particular word muttered behind yer back before ye decided to adopt it fer yerself?"

It had been the question on his mind ever since hearing the moniker announced over the loudspeaker, wanting to know where that cheeky streak came from. Asking it aloud now, he felt like a complete tool. But her smile was kind. Her eyes -- damn him if it wasn't the exact shade of the whisky he'd just finished -- gleamed at him. "More than I can count," she admitted, shoulders still square to the bar but face and eyes trained on him. "You know, I'd heard a lot of talk before moving to Scotland about the creativity of Scottish insults, yet as soon as anyone hears me speak, it's always the same. I'd be disappointed if it hadn't inspired what is truly the greatest derby name I've ever heard, if I say so myself."

A grin spread across his face without his permission. "Well, apologies on behalf of my countrymen, both for their rudeness and their predictability, then." Heart pounding, deep breath. 

Take the shot. 

"Care for a drink in recompense?" He lifted his own empty glass in question. 

Was it obvious he was holding his breath?

Sass dipped her eyes for just a moment to the bar top before looking back, a small smile still on her lips. "That's very gallant," she said. "Unfortunately, I'm still on wheels." She popped up her leg behind her in demonstration, a pair of bright turquoise skates with still-spinning purple wheels. Different from the black and whites she'd worn during the bout. "Booze and skates do not mix."

"Ah, wise, indeed," he conceded with as much grace as he could muster. The air between them seemed to vibrate, her body now angled ever so slightly towards him, his open completely in her direction. 

One more try, then he'd accept his fate. 

"In that case, I've heard the fish and chips here are second tae none," Jamie said, leaning more toward her and speaking confidentially. "Care for a nip?"

Awe seemed to spread across her features as her amber eyes widened and a grin creeped over her own face. Her waters sat forgotten before her, condensation already beginning to pool around the base of the glasses. Jamie watched her face intently. He feared it would be too intently, but he couldn't tear his eyes from her for anything in the world as he awaited the verdict. Sass looked briefly away from the bar toward her teammates congregated around a cluster of high-top tables in the center before turning back to him. "Tell you what." She inched closer. "Fish and chips to split, and one of whatever you're having to drink, then meet me on the patio outside." A thin brown eyebrow arched in inquiry, the smirk back in place. 

Jamie huffed out his relief and nodded once. "As ye wish," he said. As she made to roll past him, he touched her arm. They both seemed to start at the contact, but Jamie didn't let it deter him. "If I'm tae buy ye dinner, I should probably ken your real name."

Dhia, would he ever get tired of that smile? He prayed not.

"Claire Beauchamp."

"Jamie Fraser."

They paused, looking at each other in a never-ending heartbeat where the space surrounding them seemed muted and distant. After a few breaths, though, Claire pulled away. "Well, Jamie Fraser," she murmured, "all I can say is I hope for my own sake you have good taste in whisky."

 

#

 

Balancing two glasses of whisky and a paper boat of fish and chips on a tray, Jamie shouldered the door open. The concrete patio boasted several small iron tables surrounded by cozy chairs with oversized cushions. Hedges around the perimeter gave the area privacy, insulating it from the road and parking lot just on the other side. Besides the one patio light by the door, the only illumination came from strings of fairy lights and vintage-style city lights, casting a warm glow on everything it touched. It took his breath away to see. 

And so did she. Sass -- Claire -- sat in a far corner of the outdoor patio. Only a few other people -- ordinary customers, not partygoers -- shared the space with them in the chilly early fall air. Jamie was grateful for it. Somehow, he doubted they'd have gotten much privacy if her mates were nearby.

Jamie approached and unloaded the tray onto the small table before her. "So how do ye intend to get around the 'no booze and wheels' issue, then?" he asked as he took his own seat and leaned back, crossing one ankle to rest on the opposite knee in a pose far more relaxed than he actually felt. 

Claire rolled her whisky eyes and held up her skates. "I'll catch a ride home," she responded, setting the skates back down. Smirking, she leaned forward conspiratorially. "I figured outside would be a safer bet with taking them off. Open air and all that."

Only a breath of a hesitation before Jamie raised his hands before him. "Yer words, lass, no' mine."

To his relief, she threw her head back in an unrestrained laughing fit. "Is that how you normally charm the ladies, then? Buy them bar food then tell them they smell?"

"Hey, I never said any such words," he defended himself as he struggled to keep his own giggles at bay. "I just...didna lie tae ye, either."

"Well, it's part of the grand derby tradition," Claire insisted. "If you find yourself feeling faint, we can always sit six feet apart."

As they were, their chairs were angled toward each other and close enough that if he wanted -- and gathered the courage -- he could reach over and touch her arm without shifting his own weight. 

"I've a stronger constitution than that, Sassenach."

"'Sassenach,' is it?" she asked, and Jamie wondered for a heart-stopping second if he'd stuck his foot in his mouth. 

"Och, 'tis just what I called ye in my mind 'fore I knew yer name. I dinna mean anything by it."

Claire popped a fish nugget into her mouth, still grinning. "I'm teasing, Jamie. I...I like it." His pulse eased a bit as she finished chewing then asked, "Now, I would've seen you around if you'd been to a bout before. What brought you out tonight?"

Blood pinked his cheeks, and he sipped his drink to avoid her gaze. "Och, 'twas actually a work assignment."

"Oh?"

"Aye," he said. "I run PR for Mackenzie Distillery. And...well..."

"Ahh," Claire said, instant understanding dripping from the single, stretched-out syllable. "This wouldn't happen to have anything to do with a certain Mackenzie and his...shall we say....questionable practices where his female employees are concerned?"

He rubbed the back of his neck, uncomfortable. "Unfortunately, yes." Jamie took another sip and gauged her demeanor. Eyes sharp but a light smile -- natural, not forced, he determined -- gracing her lips. 

Pink, full lips. Just a hint of moisture from where the whisky had kissed them.

"I dinna like tae claim them much," he went on, fiddling with a piece of fish before popping it in his mouth and swallowing it. "They're my uncles, ken? So when the issues wi' Dougal leaked, Colum immediately began searchin' for ways to restore public goodwill again." Jamie glanced to Claire, who regarded him with interest, as he picked his glass back up. "He's hopin' that if the Mack brand sponsors some women-run organizations that it'll help to that end."

She nodded her head slowly and took a long draw from her own glass. Embarrassed as he was to associate himself with either uncle, he couldn't help comparing her eyes to the glass held just inches away. 

The hue was identical. His skin buzzed at the confirmation. 

"Well," she crooned as she tucked her socked feet beneath her, "I hate to disappoint, but we tend to be fairly discerning about sponsors. Money talks to an extent, sure, but we take seriously who we align ourselves with." She furrowed one brow and shrugged. "I doubt the team will want to be the Band-Aid on Dougal Mackenzie's image problem."

"And who could blame ye?" he responded, smirking and popping another chip into his mouth. 

"Does that mean you're writing tonight off as a business dinner, then?"

"Och, nae, lass," Jamie answered immediately. He put his foot on the ground to lean forward. "And have Dougal and Colum Mackenzie treatin' ye tonight? Never."

She glowed beneath the lights as she bit her bottom lip, eyes glancing downward for just a moment. A not-unpleasant anticipation descended on them, his stomach twisting with it, before Jamie motioned to her with his glass. "So that's my embarrassing work story. What about ye?"

"I'm a nurse," Claire answered after finishing another bite. "I work A&E at Royal Infirmary."

"High-stress job, I take it?"

"Very." But she was grinning. 

"Ye love it, then?"

If possible, her smile grew, her eyes crinkling. She only nodded in response. 

"So she thrives under pressure," Jamie mused out loud, sitting back in his chair with a cocked eyebrow. "Would never have guessed that, watchin' ye on the track tonight," he added, imbuing the words with clear sarcasm.

Claire rolled her eyes and settled further into the cushions of her chair. "I guess that's accurate," she allowed. "I've always just...gotten really zen in a crisis. The more everyone else around me panics, the calmer I feel." She shrugged her shoulders. "Serves me well day to day."

"What drew ye to nursin' specifically, then?" he asked as he ate a piece of fish then pushed the paper boat toward Claire, an invitation for her to finish the final pieces. 

For just a second, her gaze fell to her lap, the corners of her mouth dropped. So quick that had he been taking a sip of his drink, he would've missed it. Before he could apologize, though, she'd perked back up. "Well, I've always been drawn to medicine. And when my uncle was sick a few years back, I just realized that...it fit." 

She left it at that, and Jamie didn't pry. "Well," he said, leaning against the arm of the chair toward her, "I'm glad ye found a path that's fulfillin' for ye. 'Tis more than most."

"So you don't like your job, then?"

Christ, she was quick. Of course, he hadn't been subtle about it. Even as he shifted in his seat, nervous again, Jamie appreciated her forthrightness, how she spoke her mind and heard his own without judgment or timidity. 

Jamie shrugged in answer. "I needed a job after uni. My uncles offered one. 'Tis a steady paycheck, and I'm decent at what I do." He sipped his drink. Probably only one left in the glass. "But, no, I dinna care too much fer it."

Whisky eyes watched him with fascination. Feet tucked beneath her, Claire leaned her chin into her hand, elbow resting on the arm of her chair. "So, then, money and real life aside, if you could pick any job to do, what would it be?"

Heart pounding, breath caught in his chest. The question wasn't even so very personal. But the way she looked at him as though attempting to read him like a book -- as though she were reading him so easily -- disarmed him. The intensity of her attention raised goosebumps along his arms and the back of his neck. No false interest here. No overeager but ultimately empty chatter. She asked to know the answer. Because knowing the answer would mean she knew him just that much more. 

Which thrilled and terrified him in equal measure.

Jamie leaned toward her, voice lowered. "Easy answer. I'd do what my uncles do, but for myself. Make whisky. Good whisky."

"Is that why you've stuck around with them so long, then? Because under it all, it's something close to your heart?"

He shrugged. "Partly."

"Do they not make good whisky, then?"

A contemplative exhale rushed from him, and he looked away to think for a moment. "Maybe once it was," he allowed. "But 'tis more about profit margins now than craftin' somethin' special. They dinna view it as an art but a routine. Do what's worked in the past, get paid, and dinna go beyond that. 'Tis all mechanical and no heart."

He didn't share where he'd first learned his love of whisky, the man who'd taught him to appreciate subtleties in flavor and quality, guided him in his first experimentations with distilling. Likely for much the same reason Claire had skirted around the issue of her sick uncle. An optimistic part of his brain insisted that was a story for another meeting. 

"On that note," Jamie held up his empty glass and motioned to hers. "Care for another?"

The debate warred across her face, emotions and thoughts passing across it with unambiguous clarity. Pleased though he was that she wanted to continue, he didn't want it to be a stress on her, either. 

"Water, then?" he asked. Another glorious smile as her shoulders relaxed minutely and she nodded. Standing, he grabbed the empty glass from her, their fingers brushing together. Just as had happened when he touched her arm inside, the breath caught in his chest and something akin to fire burned beneath his skin. 

When he returned with their waters, conversation continued to flow. Sitting with Claire, joking with her, bantering back and forth with exchanged smirks and glances felt so natural to him he was nearly dizzy with glee. 

As much as he yearned to reach over and touch her again, Jamie kept his hand to himself. Only once did he do so, laughing nearly to the point of tears at a story she'd told about one of their last after parties. Forgetting himself, he'd wiped the tears with one hand and patted hers with his other. One heartbeat later, he'd pulled away sharply, red coloring his neck and ears. Neither had addressed it. After a pause, Claire had asked another question, and the moment had passed. 

By the time Claire sighed and checked the time on her phone, Jamie was shocked to see that it was after one o'clock. "Christ, when did it get so late?" he breathed. They'd been alone on the patio for a while now, and through the windows Jamie could see only a handful of patrons and players still inside. 

"Sometime in the past two hours, I wager," Claire teased, smiling. "I should get ready to head out soon..."

Jamie latched onto the reluctance in her voice, how despite the words she didn't rise from her seat. Stomach taut with anxiety and pulse racing, Jamie leaned forward, elbows balanced on his knees and fingers folded together in the air before him. With conscious effort, he kept his grip light enough so his knuckles weren't white.

"Would it..." He cleared his throat, willing it not to waver. "Would it be too forward tae ask for yer number, take ye out sometime?"

Excitement flitted across her face before, as it had once earlier in the evening, it turned downward and her smile melted. She stared at her hands, fingers squeezing each other in anxiety. 

A boulder dropped in his stomach. 

"I've...so enjoyed tonight, Jamie," she whispered. "Truly. But I'm not really in...that place right now." Whisky eyes, shining behind a sheen of moisture, met his own. "I'm sorry."

Crushed was as apt a word as he could conjure just then. Every step of the night had gone without a hitch until now, the most crucial final step: To see her again. Disappointment incommensurate with the few hours they'd spent together thus far flooded through him. 

"Och, dinna be sorry, Sassenach," he said, wondering if his face or tone betrayed him. He sincerely hoped not. They sat next to each other, neither moving quite yet, until Jamie finally stood and pulled out his wallet. 

"Here," he said, passing a business card to her, his last-ditch effort. "In case the team changes its mind about the sponsorship, ken?"

With a kind, sad smile, she reached up and took the card from him. Their fingers didn't touch, and Jamie found himself missing that contact. 

Christ, man, yer pathetic, he chided himself. 

Jamie replaced his wallet in his pocket. "I should get goin' myself." Claire remained seated. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, not sure how to take his leave. In the end, he decided on honesty. "I havena enjoyed a night like this in a long time, Sassenach. I hope..." One small sigh, his eyes not leaving hers. "I truly hope our paths cross again sometime." And, with every ounce of strength within him, he smiled at her. "Goodnight, Claire."

Walking across the patio, through the bar, and out the door onto the street, tears burned at his eyes. He fought them back. Unreasonable, it was. Absurd. But as the door of the pub clicked closed behind him, he felt another door snap and lock shut. And it pained him to walk away and let it.

 

#

 

Most of the team had already left by the time Claire rejoined Geillis inside, holding her skates by their tied laces. The atmosphere more subdued now, Geillis stood alone at the table, sipping on a ginger ale. A blush warmed her skin as her best friend leveled her with an indignant raised eyebrow. 

"And where's yer wee fox, Beauchamp?" she demanded, one bony hand resting on her cocked hip. 

Claire rolled her eyes. "He left."

"Aye, I watched him go," Geillis said. Pushing off the high top table, she rolled in a slow circle around Claire as though herding her in. "I dinna think I've ever seen a man that fine leave a bar lookin' so sad an' lonely before." Crossing her arms and stopping her motion, Geillis added. "What happened?"

"Nothing worth mentioning."

"Och, 'nothin' worth mentionin',' she says," Geillis mocked, rolling her eyes. "She spends hours wi' the man, abandonin' all her friends and teammates to do so, and then lets him leave alone, then says nothin' worth mentionin' happened."

"'Abandoned'?" Claire laughed. "That's not how I remember it."

 

Geillis spotted him first. "Och, Beech, yer ginger made it out," she whispered, jutting out her chin to motion toward the bar. 

Turning to look, Claire fought a ridiculous swooping feeling in the pit of her stomach. Sure enough, the man from the bout -- a jawline like stone, eyes like ice, and a curly mop of red she'd immediately wanted to run her fingers through -- stood at the bar, nursing a highball glass filled with amber. She clamped her lips together, biting down, to contain the irrational giddiness that overtook her to see him here. 

Claire turned back to Geillis. "So?"

"Claaaire," her friend whined, "are ye gonna go say hi?"

"I can't just 'say hi,' Geillis!" she responded, mild panic making her shiver. Dating hadn't exactly been a priority for her in recent years. Besides the normal nerves of being out of practice, an exorbitant, unexplainable fear of failing with this particular guy ate away at her gut. She cast a furtive glance back toward him before adding, "What if he's just interested in a solitary drink before heading home?"

"Aye, he came to the after party after makin' serious heart eyes at ye over shitty beer and from across the warehouse because he wants tae drink alone. The puir lad drooled o'er ye so much durin' the bout they nearly had to call a timeout just to mop the floor. For skater safety, ken."

"That sarcasm is so unbecoming of you, Gillie."

A wicked smirk made her friend's green eyes glint. "Ye dinna even need tae say a word. I bet all ye need to do is walk up, stand within five feet o' the lad, and he'll be talkin' to ye inside of two minutes."

More than almost anyone else since Claire had moved to Scotland, Geillis had always been in her corner. Through every late-night shift, every canceled night out, every bad date and every harsh word snapped in the throes of bone-melting exhaustion, Geillis Duncan had breezed right by.

So if she were pushing Claire to take a risk, she knew it was a risk worth taking. 

Claire pushed her curls, still slightly damp from the game and the skate over from the warehouse, away from her face. "What exactly do I gain if I win this bet?"

Huffing an annoyed sigh, Geillis rolled her eyes. "Is this really a bet ye'd like to win, Beech?"

She didn't answer. Only looked again to the taut shoulders staring her down from a mere twenty yards away. 

"Fine. But if I win, you're sprinting laps on Monday till you puke."

 

"Seriously, Claire," Geillis asked, tone sobering. "Did he no' ask ye out?"

Pursing her lips and avoiding her friend's gaze, Claire shook her head. "No, he asked."

"Ah." Her high-pitched tone spoke of a sudden understanding. "So was he dull as mud, then? 'Tis always a shame when the extra fine ones make ye want to crawl up yer own arsehole just tae be rid of their drivel and tripe."

"No," Claire rushed to assure her friend before she could continue the vivid imagery. "No, he was..." 

He was what? Interesting? Witty? Kind? Thoughtful? Intelligent? All wrapped up with a touch that sent sparks spreading from the point of contact every time? Each word seemed so utterly lacking. The hours spent outside with him beneath the fairy lights had felt like a dream. 

But that was the rub. Relationships existed in reality, not in dreams. And her reality, in particular, posed difficulties and responsibilities most couldn't handle. And if her initial attraction to Jamie had made her fearful of blowing it big time, the hours spent laughing with him, watching how the whisky made his eyes shine, feeling the warmth from his fingers on her arm exacerbated that fear a hundredfold. 

As always, Geillis read the truth on her face. "Beech..."

"I don't need anyone in my life, Gillie," Claire whispered, embarrassed to find herself choked up. Taking a sniffling breath, she leaned her elbows on the high top and ran her fingers through her stiff curls. "We had a nice evening tonight. Why take that and put it out in the real world where it may just...crash and burn?"

Like all the others, she added with a mental scoff.

"Or why throw somethin' away before it ever got a chance to live because yer afraid of what may later fail, Beech? Ye canna ken what'll happen if ye never speak tae the man again." 

Geillis wrapped her thin arm around Claire's shoulders, pulling her close. "I'll tell ye one thing, Beech. Dutiful best friend I am, I was spyin' on the both o' ye outside the window. The fox looked at ye like ye were the first woman he'd ever seen." She paused, placing a hand on Claire's shoulder. "And I dinna ken when I've ever seen ye lookin' so happy and...unburdened since I've kent ye."

Claire ran her fingers along the firm edges of his card held hidden in her hand.

"Dinna make a decision tonight," Geillis said, downing the rest of her drink before pulling Claire toward the door. "Ye deserve happiness, Claire. And I just think if ye let fear keep ye from at least tryin', ye'll never find it."

So many times in her life, Claire had overcome her fears. Her insistence on traveling with Uncle Lamb rather than attend boarding school. The decision to pursue medicine. To leave Frank. To move to Scotland. Even to put on skates and try roller derby for the first time. And every time, life had been better for it. 

"I'll think about it," Claire promised as they stepped into the misty cool night air and made for home.

Chapter Text

Jamie returned to work on Monday with a sense of cautious optimism. Even as he broke the news to Colum that sponsoring the Reekie Rollers would likely not be an avenue to solving their current dilemma (news which did not go over well) and even as he spent his lunch hour on the phone placating distributors and clients threatening to sever ties over Dougal's indiscretions, he kept one eye on the phone. 

Claire had said no to another date, but she'd taken his card. Jamie clung to that all day. And then the next. His mood dampened by degrees each day that passed without hearing from her. By Friday afternoon, six full days since meeting her, Jamie left for the weekend in poor spirits. For a moment, he considered forwarding his office phone to his cell...just in case. But he conquered the urge, nearly running from the building before he could change his mind. Besides, the prospect of possibly arriving Monday morning to a voicemail from her kept him from descending into full melancholy for the next two days. 

Day nine, then, he burst into his office, practically sprinting to his phone. Five missed calls over the weekend. His heart hammered as he half listened to each voicemail, waiting for that posh English accent he'd grown so fond of beneath the fairy lights. But, after writing messages down from a supplier, a reporter, Ian, and deleting two robocalls, he admitted defeat. 

Blowing a disappointed breath out through pursed lips, Jamie wished he could expel Claire from his mind just as easily. There was too much to do today. Public outrage had largely waned since the first reports of Dougal's lechery had leaked, but Jamie still spent much of his time mending damaged relationships with the business contacts who were now wary of association with the Mack brand. He squeezed his eyes shut, pressing his fingers into the sockets as he regulated his breathing, willing himself to focus on the day's tasks and forget about the curly-haired skater and her whisky eyes. 

By two o'clock on day ten, all hope that Claire would call had dissipated. Grouchy, short-tempered, Jamie felt his colleagues' and family's unease as they gave him a wide berth. 

There was no explaining the morose distemper within him that had yet to ease. Disappointment wasn't quite the right sentiment. More like he'd discovered the holy grail itself only to bungle it, dropping and shattering the treasure with his own ineptitude. Like he'd glimpsed the painting God had made of his future before striking a match and watching the masterpiece disintegrate to ash. 

Some part of him knew this was not a rational reaction to rejection. If it had been a random woman in a bar, any other woman, Jamie knew he would've shrugged it off with hardly a second thought. 

Why couldn't he now? 

He was just shy of four years since his last relationship had crashed and burned. Again, by his own hand. Since he'd stepped back from dating at all and, really, any extended companionship outside his immediate family. 

Four years was a long time to be alone, though it hadn't been as difficult as he would've expected. The time to himself had been good. Grief and insecurity still haunted him on occasion, but in many ways he felt steadier than he had in as long as he could remember. Calmer, too. For all his professional dissatisfaction, Jamie had reached a peace within himself and with his family that had long ago been broken.

And that was the rub, then. In all that time, he'd never really missed what he'd banished from his life. 

Not until he'd seen her. Then he'd yearned for it, desperately. 

So now, the not having ate away at him. Four years of delayed loneliness swelled in his chest over mere days. Pressure built so quickly and surely he knew he'd explode from it.

The ringing of his office phone sliced through the dense air. Grunting in frustration, he picked up the handset and cradled it in his shoulder, attention still on the spreadsheet before him. "James Fraser, Mackenzie Distillery," he mumbled by rote. 

"Hi, Jamie, it's--"

"Claire." His eyes shot wide, head straightening so the phone nearly rolled off his shoulder. Gripping it in hand, he turned away from the computer screen. "I'm sorry, I didna mean to interrupt ye. I..." He couldn't have hidden the breathless ghost of a laugh if he'd wanted to. "I'm glad to hear from ye."

Her own exhalation rustled over the line. "It's nice to hear you, too," she responded.

The line fell quiet for a moment as Jamie waited for her to speak. With every shared breath, anticipation mounted. "Is...ah..." Nerves set his skin to crawling as he swiped his fingers through his hair. "Is there somethin' I can help ye wi', then?"

"Yes, actually," she answered. Her voice -- God, that lovely, smooth voice his memory had absolutely not done justice to -- took on the air of an actor throwing herself into a script. "I actually was hoping to discuss that sponsorship you'd mentioned before for the team."

Jamie deflated a bit before he gave his head a good shake. If talking shop was the only way he could see her, he'd take her through every business plan and press release and meeting agenda and branding kit until kingdom come. "Aye? That would--"

"To be completely transparent," Claire continued, voice raised ever so slightly, clearly indicating who was the lead on the call, "we're going to reject the offer. But I thought you may want to hear the news in person. One on one. Maybe over some dinner."

A grin creeped up his face. His pulse echoed in his ears. A writhing in his stomach brought his breath up short.

"Is that so?" Jamie leaned back in his chair, eyes trained to the ceiling as his face began to ache with the smiling. "Ye ken Colum was truly hopin' for a partnership. So if that's the case, it may even call for a drink. To soften the blow, ken?"

"Seems perfectly reasonable," came her casual response. 

"So when will this...negotiation take place, then?" 

A shaky breath, hardly a whisper over the phone line, was his first hint at Claire's own nerves. Somehow, sharing the feeling with her lightened his own. "I'm on shift today and tomorrow. Thursday night would work, if that's--"

"Aye," Jamie agreed immediately. "Do I get to pick the place this time?"

"Like I picked before?"

"Well, the team picked the bar, so ye picked by extension." Jamie spun his chair with his feet like a child to exorcise his suddenly boundless energy. That is, until the phone cord twisted around him and pulled him up short. 

Christ, he was a mess. But he still couldn't stop beaming.

Heat prickled from his scalp to his toes at the sound of her laugh, full and deep. "Fine," she relented. "You can pick."

"Wise decision." Glancing at the caller ID screen, he added, "Assumin' this is yer cell number, would it be all right to text ye the details?"

"Permission granted."

"Excellent. For now, plan on Thursday at six. Leave the rest tae me." Jamie affected an all-business tone as he added, "I'll be in touch with all due haste, Ms. Beauchamp."

He could practically hear her eye roll, but she played along. "Of course. We are looking forward to...working closely with you." The pitch of her voice lowered slightly as she finished her sentence, hitting him square in his chest. How would he survive actually seeing her again when her very voice disarmed him to his core?

Another heavy silence descended over them. Jamie didn't want to say goodbye, but he had to work, and if Claire was working, she'd likely need to hang up soon, too.

"Claire?" he finally said, a barely there tremor in his voice. He fiddled with a corner of the paper on his desk. "Thank ye. For callin'."

There was no immediate response, but Jamie imagined she was smiling. Hoped she was. "I'll see you Thursday, Jamie," she finally said, voice warm. 

"See ye Thursday, Sassenach."

 

#

 

"Oh, you did not!" Claire exclaimed, elbows on the table as she leaned forward toward him. Never had anyone looked so bonny, Jamie thought as he raised his glass for a sip.

Jamie had labored over his restaurant selection, wanting something nice enough that she'd feel special without slipping into the territory of ostentatious. Casual but romantic. Now, halfway through dinner and each on their second glass of wine, the space between them hummed and he couldn't care less about the food or the atmosphere. All that existed was the bubble surrounding them and the smile that hadn't faded from her lips all evening. 

When she'd opened her apartment door to him earlier at a minute to six, he knew she'd heard his gasp. Blood had rushed to her face as she failed to suppress a smile. But what else could he have done, framed in the doorway as she'd been in fitted black jeans and a blue blouse that popped against her fair skin? Curls pulled back loosely at her neck? Confident and sexy in heels, whisky eyes shining like she knew exactly what she did to him? 

She stunned him continually.

"Och, aye," he responded firmly, glass of wine still in hand. "Nicked the master key for all o' campus from maintenance, then filed copies -- by hand, mind -- and distributed them. Just to trusted friends, to be sure," he added in a confidential manner. 

"Oh, of course," Claire agreed. 

Another sip of his wine, another inch he leaned over the small table. Wicked delight oozed from him as he ran a hand through his russet curls. "O' course, the administration had some...idea what was happening but could ne'er catch me. Woulda been a serious offense if they had. One time, my hand to God, they came searchin' and the damned key was sitting right in the open drawer of my desk. I was lookin' straight at it, heart racin' so fast I was nearly sick right on the hall advisor's shoes." Boyish pride nearly a decade old pulled the corners of his lips into a mischievous grin. "Lucky for me, they only made me empty my pockets and my bag."

Claire shook her head, laughter bubbling through her chest and past her lips. "Well, teenaged Jamie sure sounds like a hellion."

"Quite," he agreed. "But I was the hero of the dorms."

"Is that a fact?"

"Aye," Jamie answered. "Well, at least among the canoodlin' ones lookin' for a spot of privacy in the wee hours here and there on campus."

Jamie watched as she stabbed her final bite of steak and popped it into her mouth. "So," Claire asked when she'd finished, "what lasses was fifteen-year-old Jamie Fraser taking to dark classrooms for a bit of...'canoodlin',' was it?" 

Azure eyes narrowed, and his crooked smirk climbed up one side of his face. "No one particular. I enjoyed breakin' the rule itself more than anythin'."

"Uh-huh." Claire leaned back in her chair with one eyebrow cocked. "Color me convinced."

"Enough of my yammerin' on, Sassenach," Jamie said as he leaned even harder onto his elbows. "I don't believe I ever heard the story of how ye ended up in Edinburgh."

A perfect brown ringlet fell into her face then, and Jamie found himself mesmerized by it. Then by the adorable face she made as she swiped it away from her eye, blowing sideways out the side of her mouth. 

"Oh, not much of a story really," she demurred. 

He raised an eyebrow of his own in invitation. 

When Claire sat forward again, weight on her elbows against her side of the table, scents of vanilla and patchouli washed over him. Images of those very curls burying him, smothering him with that sweet aroma assaulted his senses, and Jamie fought to contain the near growl of desire that rose unbidden to his throat. 

"Well, my parents died when I was a child, so I was raised by my uncle."

A gut punch tore through him at her casual statement, his own wounded heart bleeding anew to hear it. "I'm sorry, Sassenach."

Though she shrugged, a certain cloudiness masked her features before she shoved it aside. But not without visible effort. "I loved my life with him. He was an archaeologist, and every summer, we'd travel doing his research. By my twelfth birthday, I'd visited more than twenty-five countries. It was an...exciting way to grow up."

"Still," Jamie said, tone solemn for the first time that evening. "Those are losses that dinna leave ye." 

Claire's eyes bored into him. The golden hue of them paralyzed him, and he sat powerless to break her gaze. Until without a word, she simply reached over and touched his hand. Her fingers grazed his for only a moment, an acknowledgment of what he left unsaid, before she pulled back. 

Even without sharing a word of his own darkness, Jamie had never felt so seen as in that moment. 

Shifting in his seat, Jamie combed through his hair again, regaining composure. "So," he prompted, grasping for the lighthearted demeanor that had carried the evening thus far, "Scotland?"

She nodded. "When I was around ten, Uncle Lamb began fostering the child of a colleague of his who passed away. He eventually adopted him, as well, and hence my brother John came into the picture. He was only about two years older than me, so we grew up close. He moved to Edinburgh with his partner -- now husband -- after Uncle Lamb died, and I knew I'd move to follow him when I finished with nursing school. And...so I did. That's about it."

Jamie pondered her story before responding. Cursory though it was, Claire had shared a lot with him through it. The loss of both parents, her uncle. Picking up and moving countries to stay with the last bit of family she had. He felt honored, truly, for her to have trusted him with so much. Layered in, too, was a feeling of kinship. That connectedness between them that had germinated on the patio at Leoch Tavern seemed to thrive and blossom with each shared memory, every arresting glance. That briefest brush of skin. 

Linked by loss, yes, but something more, as well. Something that sent shivers rattling down Jamie's spine.

"So," Claire said on the end of a sigh, clearly keen to shift focus back to him even as he itched to hear everything he could about her. "What other salacious boarding school stories do you have to share?"

Draining his glass and leaning back, Jamie grinned. "I canna go spillin' all my best stories tonight, Sassenach. If the well runs dry on the first date, how on earth will I keep ye comin' back?"

He didn't miss how her gaze flicked down to his chest then back up to his hair, down to his lips before settling back at eye level. Assessing the bit of him she could see. Jamie felt it as though she'd run her hands along his body instead of her eyes. 

"I guess we'll have to see," she answered, voice low. 

Their food had long ago been finished. Wine glasses now both empty once more. Claire tried to cover the check when it came, but Jamie was quicker, pulling his wallet out and sending his card away with the waiter. 

"Tell ye what." Jamie donned his jacket and stood to help a still-grumbling Claire from her chair. "My favorite coffee shop is just 'round the block. Buy me a cup?"

Awaiting her answer, breath held, Jamie counted heartbeats. 

One beat. 

Two. Three. 

"Deal."

 

#

 

By the time he and Claire found a quiet corner of the coffee shop to nurse their drinks -- hot cocoa for her, Irish coffee for him -- Jamie felt the pinkness of his cheeks. His entire being, in fact, felt pink. Raw and warm and giddy. The low purr of the radio and handful of mumbled conversations echoed the tingling he'd felt beneath his skin from the moment he'd laid eyes on her at her door. 

She sat beside him on the over-loved sofa. Each sat with their body angled toward the other. Jamie laid one arm atop the back of the couch. Claire, rather bright-faced as well, had slipped her heels off and tucked her feet beneath her, bent knees pointing directly at him. More laughter, more giggling as the night carried on, each moment perfection. Emptied mugs sat forgotten on the end table, and the hands of the clock seemed to race through their rounds. Even as he knew Claire would likely need to leave soon, Jamie dreaded calling the night over.

Finally, though, she sighed and glanced at her watch. 

"About that time, then?" he asked, trying and failing to keep the whine from his voice. 

Her rueful smile quickened his heart. "Nearly," she admitted. 

Jamie cocked an eyebrow. As he opened his mouth to speak, Claire did instead. 

"Not to sound presumptuous, but this went...fairly well, didn't it?" Her whisky eyes glinted with glee, though Jamie sensed a genuine query in her voice. As though the night could've been deemed anything other than glorious. 

Smirking, leaning in closer so the outside of his leg butted against her knee, he lowered his voice as he answered, "Fairly."

Her dark curls bobbed a bit as she nodded, face reddening. "I agree. And on that note, I have a bit of a disclosure."

"Oh?" Intrigued, he moved closer. If he dropped his arm from the couch, he could easily envelop her within it. "Do I get to guess, then?"

An arc of her eyebrow invited him to try. She raised three fingers wordlessly into the air. 

Jamie stroked his chin, pretending to ponder deeply. "Are ye...a hired gun, sent on assignment tae 'off' one or both of my uncles and usin' me tae gain intelligence?" he guessed first, swinging his head back dramatically toward her to underscore the sarcasm. 

She bit her lips together and folded in one finger. 

"Well, couldna be blamed if that were the case, tae be honest. But no. All right," he inched closer again, eyes locking on hers. Her knees layered atop his thigh. Plump lips drew up in a pinched smirk as though holding the secret hostage just behind them. Jamie tried not to be distracted with only moderate success.

"Then...are ye on the run for whistleblowin' or some other high-stakes corporate-slash-government espionage?"

That earned him a cackle as she lowered her second finger. "Because the most prudent thing to do in that case would be to tell a stranger all about it."

"Och, but we're no' strangers anymore now, are we?" he asked, tone still jovial. She simply gave her head a single shake, eyes so alight they seemed to glow. 

One guess left. 

An exaggerated sigh escaped him as he flopped his head onto the back of the couch in faux exasperation. Wracking his brain, Jamie considered his actual deal-breakers. In truth, he could only think of one. He lifted his head.

"Are..." He averted his gaze. "Are ye married? Or...or wi' someone?"

Kindness beamed from her as she folded in her final digit, holding a fist in the air. 

"You, Mr. Fraser, are a bad guesser."

The pink feeling returned as he chuckled alongside her. His guesses spent, they sat for a moment as their giggles subsided. Gold attracted blue like a magnet, and Jamie found himself sucked into the hypnotism of her gaze. Second by second, Jamie felt his heart quickening. The longer they held contact, something akin to dizziness swelled over him. 

Finally, Claire broke their trance with a nearly imperceptible shiver and turned to grab her phone. The sounds around them -- which had seemed muted, far away for the last few minutes -- made themselves known again. Jamie took a breath as she freed him, all but panting as though he'd been underwater and his face had just finally broken the surface. 

They were close now, their torsos nearly touching. Her knees still hovered over his own. Even as his curiosity began to spiral, Jamie spent a moment considering the wisdom of placing his hand just there. A glance at her face told him to hold off. She still looked undeniably radiant, joyful. But a sense of resolve had eked into her features. Jamie wanted to give her the space to speak freely. 

"I'm not married," Claire said, words and tone measured. "But...there is someone in my life."

Before Jamie had time to puzzle over her meaning, she turned her phone toward him, showing him the photo on her lock screen. Claire was surrounded by orange and red. A tunnel of trees behind her, leaves littering the ground. Yellow sunlight danced off her curls. In her chunky beige sweater and jeans, she was the essence of autumn come to life. 

As was the lass in the burgundy velvet dress and matching curls on her hip.

Jamie exhaled, and a grin overtook his face as he eased the phone from her hand and took in the image. He cut his eyes up toward Claire. "She's beautiful," he said. 

Truly, she was. A miniature of Claire in so many ways. The long, wild curls blowing in the wind. The way both their noses crinkled as they smiled, showing them to be genuine. Love shining brighter than the light on her hair radiated from Claire's face as she laughed with her child.

Jamie felt her eyes on him as he studied the photo, and it didn't escape his notice how she still seemed to be bracing for impact somehow. 

"What's her name?" he asked, handing the phone back. 

"Elisabeth Quinn Beauchamp." Claire took the phone and, after a wistful hum of contentment at the sight of the image, replaced it in her purse. "I call her Quinn. Quinnie, sometimes. It was as close as I could get to honoring my uncle without naming the poor girl 'Quentin.'" 

Buzzed more from relief than the splash of whisky in the coffee he'd finished hours ago, Jamie laughed, head thrown back and lips wide. "Aye. Charitable of ye indeed, Sassenach." 

Now, he did place one hand over her knee, squeezing briefly. After spending the entire night dying to touch her, starved for it save for one brief brush of their fingers at dinner, he relished the charge that jumped between them. "She's lovely, Claire. Truly." 

Her squared shoulders finally sagged a bit as she collapsed on her side into the back cushions of the couch. "She is, isn't she?"

After a beat of silence, Jamie asked, "How old is she?" 

"Nearly four," Claire answered. "She was born not long after I arrived in Scotland, actually."

Jamie nodded, fingers tracing hesitantly over her kneecap. He wanted so badly to wrap her in his arms, chase away the doubt he saw haunting her features. "And her father?"

"Not in the picture," she responded, effectively shutting down that avenue of conversation. 

Signaling his understanding with a nod, Jamie moved on to lighter topics. "Does she get to watch ye play?"

Delight exploded over her face in a thousand-watt smile. "Sometimes. John brings her to the games, then takes her for the night so I can go out afterward." Her eyes settled on his hand, still resting on her knee. "I honestly couldn't have done it without him."

"Derby?"

"Well, yes," Claire responded. "That, too. He lives in the same building, two floors up. But I wasn't going to join the team. She was only a year old. I was barely twenty-two and just getting my feet under me at the hospital. And John and Hector helped so much when she was born and I was starting here. It seemed like too much to put that on them, too. But he pushed me to, insisting they could handle it. 

"I think..." Her eyebrows knitted together as she gathered the words. "I think he saw how much I needed it. I love Quinn so much, and I love being a mother. But..." She stopped, dropping her eyes to her fingers in her lap. "Especially with her so young, it can feel like you're a bit...subsumed into the identity of parenthood. Like you don't really exist as you anymore. You're 'Quinn's mum,' and anything outside of that comes secondary." 

When she stopped, Jamie squeezed her knee again in encouragement. She lifted her eyes to his and leaned her head sideways onto the cushions, head bumping against his arm still resting there. "It's nice to have a space where I'm not Mummy for a few hours. Where I'm just Claire or Sass N Whack, just a woman with a team and friends. My own person." 

Jamie nodded, thumb swiping up and down her jean-clad kneecap. "I understand it. As well as I can, anyway. My sister, Jenny, she has three bairns and twins on the way." 

"That's a noisy house for sure."

"Aye, 'tis," Jamie agreed happily. "And I ken she loves them all tae bits. But she still leaves them wi' Ian a few weekends a year to travel wi' her girlfriends. The way she explained it, ye can give them more if ye give yerself a little something every so often."

The noise of the coffee shop had died down considerably. Jamie knew closing time was likely approaching. Yet neither moved to stand. For his own part, he wished they could stay throughout the dark hours, just as they were here. Sharing. Learning.

Coolness over his knuckles sent goosebumps erupting up his arms and down his spine. Claire's eyes were homed in on his hand resting on her leg as she traced over his fingers before lacing hers between them. Jamie felt the corner of his lips pulling up, chest tight.

"Can I ask you something, Sassenach?" Emboldened, he brought his other arm down from the back of the sofa and traced the curl that had fallen to frame her face. 

"Yes," she answered, breathless. He swore her eyelids fluttered. 

Sighing, twirling his finger through the near-perfect ringlet, he asked, "Does it really give you such trouble, bein' a mam?" 

She shrugged. Lightness had returned to her face these past minutes, but he still sensed some...uncertainty? hesitation?...behind her eyes. "If it didn't, it would be conversation, not a disclosure."

His eyebrows furrowed, and he dropped his hand from her hair. As little as he liked the thought of Claire with other men, Jamie liked the idea of Claire being rejected because of her child even less. "I'm sorry," he said softly. 

"I liked that, you know," she said, pointing to her abandoned curl. Smirking, Jamie resumed his ministrations. 

"And don't be. Not like there's been so very many of them, and certainly no one worth fussing over. Most of the time after I tell them, they ask all the right questions and are perfect gentlemen, then I just never hear from them again." She chuckled before adding, "Then there was the one guy. Nice enough chap. And halfway through the third date, I was going to tell him. Until he came back from a phone call with his brother, apparently panicking over a lost blanket their toddler couldn't sleep without. 'That is one fucking mistake I'll never make,' were his exact words when he sat back down." She shrugged. "Finished the appetizers then told him I needed to get back home to my own little 'fucking mistake.' The ride home was...awkward." 

A hollow chuckle rocked through her as she rolled her eyes at the memory. Jamie tried to smile, mirroring Claire. She was a strong woman, he'd known that. But though she hid her hurt behind sarcasm and jibes, Jamie could still see it. In the darkening of her amber eyes, the tautness of her smile, her thumb tapping against her thigh.

She didn't worry about him running away, he hoped. Did she?

Jamie clamped his fingers more tightly around hers where they rested on her knees. "Och, well, any man scared away by a wean isna much worth havin' around, if ye ask me," Jamie replied, hoping to comfort her. Though she smiled, beautiful as ever, he could suddenly see it, written across that open, honest face. And he understood then why she'd said no when he first asked to take her out, why it had taken ten days for her to call.

She was preparing to be let down. 

If only he could fold her up in his arms and show her exactly how un-scared he was. How just seeing her wee lass on the screen filled him with an eagerness to meet her, compare mother to daughter, see which traits and habits and mannerisms had passed on. To share the jokes and tricks that made Jenny's bairns giggle like hyenas. To learn just what Quinn's little laugh would sound like.

Somehow, though, he doubted the words would offer the assurance he wanted. How many silver-tongued pricks had come before him, playing the "perfect gentlemen," as she'd said? How many had asked about her daughter and said how beautiful she was, scrolled through photos and oohed and awed only to disappear once the night had ended? 

"Sorry, folks," came a voice beside them. Both their heads snapped that way to see a teenager in a dark green apron standing before them. "We're closin' shop for the night."

Reluctant, sighing, Claire and Jamie exchanged a look before disentangling themselves and standing. He helped her into her coat. As they walked through the door, Jamie took her hand in his again, unwilling to surrender the softness of it yet. 

The stroll to his car took four minutes. By the time they climbed in and headed toward her home, he had a plan.

 

#

 

"You look happy."

John didn't waste time on a greeting as Claire let herself into the apartment. At nearly eleven o'clock, Quinn would have long ago been put to bed. Hector, too, had likely retired early, as was his custom. John's dark, unkempt hair fell into his face, eyes glimmering with suggestion. 

She huffed a sigh and rolled her eyes. "I didn't put out, if that's what you mean." She and Jamie hadn't even kissed goodnight, though, God, she had wanted to. All night sitting across from her in that gray button-up shirt, that black leather jacket, his curls tousled just so and mussed further as he coursed his fingers through them in a nervous habit that touched her with its sincerity...she'd burned for him. Electricity still surged from the spot on her knee where he'd caressed her, the side of her face where his skin just barely skimmed her own as he toyed with her curls. Her hand still held the heat from where first she, then he had reached out to twine their fingers together. 

But when he'd walked her to the door, in that second when both were weighing how to say goodnight, she'd leaned in for the hug. To his credit, she'd never felt so secure in an embrace as she did when Jamie wrapped her in his solid arms and held her against his chest. And her heart had fluttered to feel his lips press a kiss to the crown of her head. 

No matter how badly she'd wanted to kiss him, she couldn't. Not yet. Because to experience what it was to kiss this man then lose him would eclipse the pain any of the others had caused.

John scoffed and followed as Claire made her way down the hall to the guest room (lovingly dubbed "Q's room" when she stayed over). "Happiness isn't only shagging, Claire," John said quietly as the door creaked open. 

She didn't respond as she eased into the room and looked upon her sleeping daughter. Quinn looked so peaceful in slumber, like a cherub statue come to life. Brown curls, the exact shade of her own and carefully brushed by her uncles before bedtime, flowed around her head like a halo. A spot of drool darkened the pillow just beneath her open mouth. 

"Any trouble?" Claire whispered as she always did, picking the girl up and resting the tiny head on her shoulder. Quinn wrapped her arms around her mother's neck by instinct and curled into her body, never waking. 

"Never," came his habitual answer, John trailing behind as they made their slow way back toward the door. Claire caught his tender smile and soft pat on Quinn's curled head. 

If anyone loved her daughter as much as she, it was John. 

Meandering toward the door, Claire felt her phone vibrate once in her back pocket but, hands full, couldn't answer it. 

"Seriously, Claire." He moved to block her path to the door. "You look happy. Is he a good guy?"

The million-dollar question. Every cell in her screamed in the affirmative. But past experience told her to tread carefully. As had become evident the last almost-four years, so few twenty-somethings cared to dive into a relationship with the added complication and responsibility of a child. 

Daunted by the sheer weight of the emotions already at play, her brain bade her heart to err on the side of safety. If safe even existed anymore.

"I hope so." 

John smiled and hugged them both before bidding them goodnight. Claire made her way down the two flights back toward her apartment. As she approached the apartment, she saw something on the ground outside her door.

"What..."

A wallet sat neatly in the middle of the doormat. A wallet that had definitely not been there when Jamie had dropped her off, nor when she'd left again after dumping her coat and purse before heading upstairs to John's. Confused, she stepped over it and went inside. She quickly put Quinn back to bed, leaving a kiss on her forehead before rushing back out to the door and picking up the wallet. 

It was Jamie's. Even if the ID on the inside hadn't confirmed as much, she recognized it from when he'd paid for dinner. Had he come back when she went up to bring Quinn home? 

Claire pulled out her phone, ready to text him and find out. Only to see an unread message. She touched to open it. 

Sassenach, I left my wallet at your place. I'll have a hard time taking you out again without it. 

Tears welled in her eyes. Shaking her head, heart pounding, Claire reentered her home and typed back, Good thing I'm not on shift again until Sunday. 

Send.

The three dots appeared almost immediately. 

Then you're free for lunch tomorrow?

Depends. What's my finder's fee?

Breaths came fast, heavy. Her pulse thrummed in her ears. Three dots bounced on the screen. 

I'll surprise you.

Chapter Text

Monday

 

"I canna believe ye went on not one, but two dates wi' the fox in a single weekend and didna say a word to me about it!"

Awake since 5:00 a.m. Working since 6 a.m. And very nearly late for practice at 7:30 p.m., which would commence in four minutes sharp. After twelve hours in the A&E and over an hour of a fussy Quinn who'd recently decided that vegetables -- all vegetables -- were persona non grata in the Beauchamp household (and announced same by eating said abominations one agonizing lick at a time and howling at the top of her lungs as though they were coated in acid), Claire was hardly in the mood for a lambasting. 

Even if the subject of said interrogation made her stomach turn somersaults at the mere thought. 

Claire rolled her eyes and rushed to lace her skates before the first whistle sounded and she was officially late. "Gillie..."

"No, no, it's no' like I'm the one who convinced ye to e'en speak to the man. Faaar be it for yer best friend tae ken when her matchmakin' skills lead to what's apparently been the best sex ye've had in recent years."

"Geillis!" Claire hissed, brows constricting as she swiveled her head to check her surroundings. But they were the only ones still gearing up, the rest of the team skating laps to warm up. Sighing, Claire let her shoulders drop as she bent to tend to her laces again. 

It wasn't that she cared so much if anyone knew she was dating (or...dating) anyone, as the case may be. But for the first time in years, hope outweighed the voice constantly chattering away in the back of her mind, insisting no man could handle her, her life, her kid. Or would want to. In the space of a long weekend, though, she'd begun to believe that maybe, perhaps something could grow between them. And he'd made her believe so. 

But that didn't mean she could ignore the voice completely. For a time, while the excitement was fresh and the hope fragile, she'd keep him to herself. With one notable exception.

Geillis Duncan, after all, was not a woman to be denied.

"So ye did, then? How was it?" Geillis took a seat on the bench beside her, one red brow arched as her lips drew up in a fiendish grin. "Does he look as good out of his clothes as in them?"

Claire huffed a sigh, sitting up and grabbing for her elbow pads. "No, as a matter of fact, we haven't. Not that it's any of your business, Ms. Duncan."

"Well, somethin' happened," her friend pressed. "Yer poker face is shit, and ye've been glowin' since ye arrived, e'en frazzled as ye are. So tell me, then."

 

Friday

 

They'd set lunch for 1:00 p.m. at a small eatery just around the corner from Claire's place. She and Quinn passed the morning with a trip to the market, then the shoe store -- Jesus H. Christ, how she'd already outgrown her last pair was beyond her -- before finally folding the laundry together with Mary Poppins on the telly for domestic inspiration. (Quinn's very important job: sock matching. Which, while an engaging enough task for a toddler, had the added benefit of sparing Claire from her least favorite aspect of the chore.)

By the time Claire dropped Quinn at John's -- his smug look speaking to his suspicions about her midday plans, her traitorous pink cheeks confirming them -- and began the walk toward Glenna's Cafe, her heart raced faster than a hummingbird's wings. Thoughts zoomed through her head at nearly the same pace. 

What if the spark from those first meetings was just the result of the booze? The adrenaline from the bout? The inherent sensuality of the late-night hours that tinted everything just that much more thrilling? With the sun shining above, stone cold sober, would the allure of him still draw her in? In her everyday clothes -- stretchy jeans, well-worn olive green button-up blouse, and black jacket -- would hers even exist at all? 

She wasn't overly worried about being stood up; she did have his credit cards, ID, and cash bouncing in the bottom of her purse, after all. But after handing it back, would he scarf down his meal and then leave? What if they'd talked themselves out the last two times they'd met? How would she extricate herself if, in the daytime, he turned out to be incredibly boring or an arsehole?

Had she misremembered how it felt when his skin touched hers, the jolts that had coursed through her as tangible as static shock? Or what if she were simply hard up enough for companionship that she'd created this feeling where none existed? 

A bell dinged over the door as she entered, six full minutes early in her nervous haste. Perfect, she'd have a chance to catch her--

"Sassenach."

Head snapping to her left, Claire felt her stomach clench and warm. The sun, uncharacteristically bright in the Edinburgh autumn, glinted off his gorgeous red locks through the floor-to-ceiling front windows. His hair, his skin, his eyes, his smile...all of him seemed to glow. 

And he most definitely drew her in. 

"Jamie," she responded, walking over toward him as her own smile responded to his. He stood from the tiny, circular table in the corner as she approached, and Claire wondered if the elation on his own face -- relief, even? -- mirrored her own. Joy radiated from him, infecting her to the point of near giddiness as he wrapped her in another of his sturdy hugs that banished all doubt that the swooping feeling in the pit of her stomach was anything but organic. 

They held the embrace, neither quite wanting to pull away. But as they parted and as Claire began to speak, he leaned in and pressed his lips to her cheek. A quick peck, the same kind of kiss John would've given her in greeting, or Hector, or Lamb, or even Geillis. Even so, as Jamie pulled away with a blush to match her own rising color, that innocent touch sent shockwaves roiling through her, goosebumps prickling across her skin. 

 

A rolling whistle jarred Claire from her tale, and she grabbed Geillis's arm to join the rest of the team, gathering around to begin their warm-up drills. 

"So yer grinnin' ear tae ear ower a peck on the cheek?" Geillis shook her head. "Feckin' Christ, Beech, ye may no' survive when ye finally--"

"There was more than that," Claire cut off her friend in a whisper as they slowed to a stop with the main group, half listening to the instructions. "I'll tell you after practice, okay?"

She should've known better than to dangle the carrot before her best friend. Green, determined eyes glinted as Claire turned her attention to the coach. For the next two hours, every water break, every drill, every two seconds where Claire stopped to breathe, Geillis materialized by her side, expectant and hungry. When Phaedra tried to partner with Claire for a blocking exercise, Geillis swooped in and all but shoved her out of the way, shrugging off their teammate's annoyed eye roll as Geillis badgered Claire for a steady fifteen minutes. Claire brushed her off each time, though, keeping her focus (with no small difficulty) on practice. 

Finally, with ten minutes left, coach announced the 27/5 lap qualifier. Sharp fingers wrapped around Claire's bicep and pulled her to the outside of the track. 

"What? Gillie--"

"Ye got yer laps back in February, Beech," Geillis responded as they took up a leisurely skate around the outside of the track. She huffed a sigh as she swept a stray curl out of her eyes and under her helmet. True, of course, that she had long ago attained her lap goal. By now, with two months left on the season, only newbies hoping to roster for the last handful of games generally skated the dreaded 27/5 each week. Claire, though, participated whenever space allowed for the endurance practice. 

As she opened her mouth to say just that, Geillis shot her with a look of warning. "If yer openin' yer gob for anything other than tae tell me if ye let the lad cop a feel, I swear to God I will hip check ye into the wall."

Biting her lip, Claire glanced around. Four skaters had lined up on the track, faces taut in concentration. The rest of their teammates had either moved to one end or the other to work on individual drills or were cooling down with a relaxed skate around the outer track, as she and Geillis were now. No one paid them much mind as the whistle blew and the skaters on the track took off at a sprint. 

Scoffing and rolling her eyes as she suppressed a smirk, Claire knocked her elbow pad against Geillis's. "Fine, you bloody brute."

 

"Glad tae see ye," Jamie said as he pulled the chair out for her to sit before circling back to his own. 

Beaming, heart still racing, Claire replied, "You, too."

"If fer no other reason than I'm absolutely skint and desperately need petrol in my car." His upper body pitched toward her slightly over the table, one eyebrow raised and his crooked smirk rendering her nearly mute. 

"Call it a lesson in the consequences of forgetfulness." Elbows pressed against the table, hands folded together, Claire leaned forward. "Besides, I have yet to see my finder's fee."

Rugged features darkened with mock solemnity as he emitted a guttural grunt she'd long ago concluded every Scot was programmed with at birth. "I need proof o' life, Sassenach."

Claire bit down on the inside of her cheek, her lips scrunching to the side in a pinched definitely-not-smirk. She reached slowly into her purse, never breaking eye contact, and pulled out the wallet that had sat so casually on her doormat the previous night. A small brown rectangle, half an inch thick and slightly larger than a credit card. "Proof enough for you?"

"Aye," he answered, hand raised to accept it. 

But Claire wanted something else in exchange for her hostage.

Both dark eyebrows shot upward as she pulled the wallet out of reach. "And you really have no spare card? Didn't pull one out before 'losing' your billfold?"

His baritone chuckle sent tingles down her spine. "Would my fuel gauge restin' on the E be proof enough for ye?"

"Well, then," Claire said before sliding the wallet into her back pocket. "I'll hold onto this until after lunch."

"Sassenach--"

"Ah, ah, ah," she cut him off with a wag of her finger. "My turn to treat. Then you may have your money back."

 

"So...ye robbed the lad?"

"Geillis!"

"Fine, fine. Continue. Fuck."

 

Settling back in his seat, Jamie frowned at her as he crossed his arms. But a gleam danced in his eyes. "Fine, ye wee beast, ye win. Lunch is on you, then."

Two and a half hours, two servings of shepherd's pie, likely an entire pot of tea, and a shared blackberry tarte later, and the Scotsman and Sassenach still sat, heads close together, at the secluded corner table of the cafe. Twenty minutes in, he'd scooted a quarter way around the table and angled his seat toward her. She'd been sharing a Quinn story from earlier in the week, and he had curled his fingers around hers with a tentativeness that set her heart fluttering. 

"I'm sorry," she'd apologized, taking another bite of food with her free hand. "I know I can go on. Probably mundane to anyone who's not me."

But he'd only shaken his head and compressed his grip around hers. "I doubt any story of yours could be mundane, Sassenach. No' when yer face lights so wi' the tellin' of it." Claire had studied his eyes, his face, searching for signs of polite but feigned interest. She'd found none. 

As she'd finished her story, the nerves that had driven her to distraction all morning finally dissipated. 

 

"All right, that's a wrap! Wycked, Sass, sweep up!" Coach hollered the order at them before blowing a rolling whistle to signal the end of practice. 

"Well, let's hurry then," Geillis said, picking up speed to grab the push brooms from the closet in the corner. "There's no way yer beggin' off tellin' the rest because of work in the mornin'."

The warehouse had likely never been swept so swiftly as Geillis and Claire worked up a fresh sheen skating back and forth with their brooms. Finally, debris and dust collected and disposed of, they de-geared just as quickly. Once they'd packed everything away, Geillis accompanied Claire to her car in the near-empty car park. 

"All right. Out wi' the rest of it, then."

 

"So, what are your weekend plans?" Claire asked, taking a sip of her tea. A small sip, as she knew that once they'd finished this round, she really should return and collect her child for the evening. At after 4:00 p.m., John, too, would be insufferable and insatiable for details about a lunch meeting (as she'd described it) taking most of the afternoon. 

Spending time with Jamie was like stepping outside the space-time continuum. Hours slid by, and neither even noticed, ensconced in a delightful warmth that only intensified the longer they basked in it. 

Jamie adjusted his hand so his fingers filled the spaces between hers, loosely twined and resting on the table. "I head up tonight tae Lallybroch."

"Your family home up north, right?" He'd spoken of it so fondly the night before, detailing summer vacations passed on the ancestral estate.

"Aye," he affirmed, the briefest flick of his eyebrow betraying his pleasure that she'd remembered. "Ian has a cousin gettin' married."

"And Ian is your brother-in-law?"

"Two fer two." Jamie smirked, draining his glass. "Likely the last wedding Jenny can run 'fore the bairns come. She's only five months along, ken, but she's already huge. But dinna say I told ye so," he added in a conspiratorial -- and, perhaps, genuinely abashed -- tone.

"Your secret is safe with me," Claire promised. 

Jamie waited a beat before continuing, his eyes holding hers captive as his thumb swept the outside of her own. A quality somewhat dreamlike colored his voice, and a tremor seemed to pass through him as he smiled at her again and continued on with his plans. "We rent out the place fer a few weddings a year that Jenny coordinates, and can usually make enough to pay the property taxes. Then, of course, all the family weddings are at Lallybroch, too. It's...unbelievable up there, really. I ken I've described it for ye a wee bit, but till ye've seen it, it's difficult tae do it justice. If ye didn't work Sunday, I'd--"

His eyes shot wide as he halted, lips clamping together and thumb ceasing its steady path against her skin. Claire had an idea what he'd been about to say. So she turned her chair to face him fully and placed her free hand on top of their joined ones. "You'd what?" 

Ice blue eyes broke from hers, then, flicking between their hands and the tabletop. Heaving a breath, he mimicked her so that all four hands wove together as he looked up again. "I was gonna say...if ye hadna switched shifts for Sunday morning, I'd ask if ye and the wean wanted to come. Tae see it." A swallow. A tightening of the jaw with a minute shake of the head. "I'm sorry. It's--"

"Jamie," Claire hushed him. The inner corners of his brows turned upward, and his chin tucked slightly, his eyes regarding her with timidity. 

"I'm sorry." Pressure increased on her fingers, and his shoulders bunched together and rolled back before he continued."I dinna mean to...to push."

"Jamie, it's all right," she assured him again. Inhaling softly through her nose, Claire ran the backs of her knuckles and nails against the inside of his wrist just at his pulse point. "It doesn't bother me."

Between her words and touch, Jamie relaxed again, a nervous ghost of a laugh bursting from his lips. And for all she'd meant her caress of his arm to allay his self-consciousness, Claire found a surprising intimacy in the motion. She didn't stop as she spoke again. 

"I'm glad you brought it up, actually. I wanted to...to say something, and I hope you can understand." One nod of encouragement, and she carried on. "I like you, Jamie. I...am drawn to you in a way I can't fully explain to myself let alone put into words." Pausing, averting her gaze as she felt the heat swarm her chest and face, Claire tightened her grip on his hands. By now, they were both clutching the other with a near-desperate force. "But...I have to be careful who I let into my daughter's life. Especially now that she's old enough to really remember people. To miss them if they suddenly aren't around anymore.

"So until I know for sure where...where we're going, I..."

"Ye dinna want me to meet her yet," Jamie finished for her. She raised her eyes again and was relieved to see him smiling. All the air whooshed from her lungs at the sight. 

"You're not angry?"

"Nah, lass," he whispered. "Yer a package deal, and she comes first." Gleaming eyes still locked to hers, he lifted their tangle of hands until he could press a kiss to the back of each of hers in a gesture that would've made her weak in the knees had she been standing. "I understand."

Warmth prickled at the inner corners of her eyes, but she kept any moisture from escaping as she beamed at him. 

"And on that note," Jamie said, glancing out the window to the waning afternoon light. "I bet the lass is missin' ye, then."

"Probably so. And you'll need to be getting on the road, too?" 

Jamie pulled a hand free to tuck on of her dark curls behind her ear. "Aye." 

Claire settled the check before meeting Jamie outside the door. He took the lead then, the matter of whether he'd see her home clearly not being in question. Hand in hand, they didn't speak much as they ambled the three blocks toward her apartment. But their fingers slid together and apart, stroking, thumbs twirling round each other and massaging into palms. The blood pounded in Claire's head without pause, heat spreading from that point of contact through her like watercolor, staining her entire being with bliss.

Finally, they halted before her building. With a triumphant smirk, she pulled his wallet from her back pocket. "Well, here you are. Fill up your tank so I don't worry about you running empty on the way up to Lallybroch tonight."

"Tapadh leat," he said before stowing his wallet away with a grin. "As fer yer finder's fee...bear in mind I only had a fiver on me, so..." Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out a clear package and handed it over. Inside the plastic baggy was a chain of multicolored discs on an elastic string.

Her cackling echoed in the still evening air. "Candy bracelet?" she said, opening the package to examine the treat, stretching the elastic between her thumbs and raising a skeptical brow. "I've never had one, actually." 

"Dinna knock it till ye've tried it, Sassenach. 'Tis a fine delicacy," Jamie insisted as he pulled a second one from his pocket. "And I could afford two for under five quid."

With more awe than likely called for considering the trinket at hand, she reached for the second baggy. His words spoken not even fifteen minutes ago rebounded in her mind. Yer a package deal.

When she looked to him again, she knew he'd see the moisture pooling in her eyes this time. Grinning to quell the rising emotion, Claire slipped the bracelet on her wrist and chewed experimentally on one of the pastel discs. Tartness exploded and stung behind her jaw. 

"Oh!" Her face scrunched up as she laughed, eyes squeezed shut. "It's sour!"

"Ye said ye liked sour," Jamie said as he grabbed her free hand again. 

"I do like sour." She finished chewing the piece in her mouth and swallowed. "Thank you."

Dragging her bottom lip between her teeth, their giggles subsiding, Claire found herself falling again into the abyss of his gaze. A light breeze blew, and the scent of him -- hints of cedar and cinnamon and something indescribably him -- filled her senses until she was dizzy with it. Blood thrummed beneath her skin as the tension between them mounted, the minutes until he left now numbered. Another goodbye she didn't want to say. But at least tonight, she knew how she'd say it.

"You missed before," she said, taking his hands in both hers. 

"What?" An adorable quizzical look crossed his face. 

Claire took one step closer. "When I first arrived at Glenna's, you kissed me on the cheek." Short of breath, heart pounding, she pulled his hands to rest on her waist. His breathing shifted then. Short and shallow as she extricated her fingers and raised them, so slowly, to frame his neck. Rough stubble scratched her skin as she glided her thumbs over his jawline. "You missed."

"How foolish." The words rushed from him, breathless, as he struggled to volley the banter. "I havena done this...in some time...I must have..."

The rest of the bit was lost as Claire closed the distance between them, touching her lips to his. For a moment, they stood still as statues, the shock of that first contact freezing them both. 

Then his hands migrated to the small of her back and crushed her against his body, torsos pressed together. Mouths opened, and Claire ran her tongue alongside his own. A growl rumbling deep from the back of his throat sent bolts of heat through her, yearning building low in her belly, more intense and immediate than she could ever remember. Both, nearly blind with desire, fought for proximity, the better to slake the sudden unquenchable thirst they shared. Red curls tangled between her fingers as her grasp pulled his lips harder against hers. 

His arms -- Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, those arms solid as steel -- encircled her entire frame and anchored her against him as he sucked her bottom lip between his teeth. She whimpered, a soft vocal catch of her breath, as she dug her fingernails into his scalp, eliciting a gasp of his own. One of his hands cradled her face, smoothing his fingers along the edge of her jaw. Fire erupted in its wake. She trembled with the force of it.

Lips and tongues slid together, attacking and surrendering. Each pounding heartbeat reverberated through her every bone at a gallop. The world around her began to spin. Oxygen. She needed to breathe. But just the notion of allowing any space between them had her stretching on her toes to close the gap that existed. 

As the tip of his tongue carved a path along the inside of her lip, Claire actually swayed on the spot. Dipping to the side, she pulled away by instinct just as he reacted to catch her. Panting, Jamie grasped her by the hips as he rested his forehead against hers. "Ye alright, mo chridhe?"

"Yes," she whispered, gulping in air herself. In his grip, she felt small and safe, like a pearl nestled in an oyster, insulated and precious. Never in her life had a man made her feel so, as though the simple act of sharing words and time with her were a gift. Not until Jamie. Everything thus far -- his touches, his looks, the smallest kindnesses and every moment surrounding them -- exuded respect, tenderness, even gratitude. 

Jamie reached up to dry the droplet that leaked from the outer corner of her eye before it began its descent. "I apologize if 'twas that bad, Sassenach," he murmured, and she felt his lips -- only a breath from her own -- quirk up in a wry smirk. "I'm outta practice, ken?"

Claire sniffed and grinned, pinching his arm. "Oh, hush, you." 

Before he could toss another joke back, she huddled into his chest. Arms desperate to hold him close tightened around his large frame. A contented sigh hissed from above her as he copied her, hands rubbing up and down her back as he laid his cheek atop her head. They stood there until the streetlights flashed to life around them. Squinting against the harsh light, Claire turned her face into his chest and moaned. "That probably means I should go inside," she whispered. 

When he stepped away, he sought and captured her gaze. She recognized his expression as a reflection of her own, delirious want that cast his ice blue eyes several shades darker. She could drown in them, she thought with fascination, those mood-changing irises. 

Her heartbeat timed the seconds they stood in the growing darkness, staring. Seven until he dipped his head to kiss her again, calmer this time. Nine until he parted, placing another one on her forehead. Four until he murmured, "I dinna want to leave ye, mo chridhe, but I must."

"You said that before. What does it mean?"

Three before he raised her knuckles to his lips, bowing as he kissed them, those deep blue eyes never breaking away from hers. "I'll tell ye someday," he answered. Two until he bade her a, "Goodnight, Sassenach," and eleven until he turned the corner and vanished from her sight.

 

Geillis leaned against her hand, elbow propped against the top of the car. "So...yer glowin' from a make-out session?" Claire figured her blush and the grin that grew of its own volition across her face served as answer enough, so remained quiet. With a low whistle, Geillis shoved away from the car. "Well, all I'll say is when he finally does bed ye, ye may wanna prime yerself wi' some porn or something beforehand, or yer likely tae feckin' pass out at the sight of his cock."

"Seriously, G!" Claire aimed a swat at her arm, which Geillis dodged with a cackle. But she was laughing, too. She'd never admit it, either, but having been on the receiving end of Jamie's kiss, she wasn't unconvinced of her friend's assessment, meant in jest or not.

Three times she'd seen him, perhaps ten hours in total. Yet Jamie had managed to embed himself within her, vines crawling and weaving through stone, changing its very structure until neither could exist without the other. Thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. 

Of course, nothing was that simple. Every step of the process, of this...relationship?...had to be meticulously planned, Quinn at the heart of each decision. Deep as she already was, Claire knew she could never commit fully until she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he could accept Quinn, that she would accept Jamie.  Because if that pairing didn't work, neither would hers. 

But Claire recalled the look of delight when she'd presented Quinn with her matching candy bracelet the next day, her overflowing glee as they sat on the couch, watching a movie and munching on their sour candies together. All because Jamie had spent his meager few dollars on an extra treat instead of petrol. After having abandoned his wallet on her doorstep as an excuse to see her. And her worry abated further. 

Her friend's face softened as a genuine smile filled her face. She ran her hand along Claire's arm. "Ye look happy, and from what ye've said, he cares about ye and the lass already. Which makes him a winner in my book. More'n any of the others, at least. Just ken if he so much as breathes on ye wrong, I have connections and no one will ever hear from him again." With a peck on the cheek, Geillis grabbed her gear and turned toward her own car a few spots away before Claire could respond. 

Chuckling to herself, she loaded up her bags and was just about to climb in the driver's seat when Geillis shouted for her attention. 

"Ye said he called you somethin' in Gaelic. I could probably tell ye what he said if ye remember what it sounded like."

Standing behind her open door, Claire thought back to the timbre of his voice when he'd said it both times, low and rough. The way his eyelids had fluttered, how his fingers had clutched at her as though dreading the moment he'd need to release her. And she shook her head. "That's all right. I'd rather hear it from him."

 

#

 

Jamie checked his watch again, and Jenny scoffed. With a roll of her eyes, she stood from the couch and made for the kitchen. "'Tis only two minutes further along than the last time ye looked, brother," she called back in a teasing lilt.

The wedding had gone off without a hitch, and the festivities continued late into Saturday night. Family members not felled by hangovers Sunday morning partook in a quieter, more intimate day of celebration before the newlyweds left for their honeymoon in the evening. Jamie had stayed behind Monday to help his sister and Ian break down the decor and close the house up before they all departed the next morning. 

Exhausted from a long weekend, they'd put the bairns to bed and all collapsed around the fire in the sitting room after supper, the men enjoying drams while Jenny nursed sparkling grape juice. Ian had already retired an hour hence, and so Jenny and Jamie caught up alone. Though, he admitted, he'd been somewhat distracted as the night grew old.

He checked again. 9:49. Claire's practice ended at 9:30. She'd said that by ten o'clock, she'd likely be in for the night. 

Three days since he'd seen her, since he'd kissed her (or, really, since she'd kissed him), and he craved her nearness fiercely. He knew with another 12-hour shift the next day and his own work obligations after taking a day off, it would likely be several days or even the weekend before they could see each other again. 

Until then, he'd have to make do with texts and FaceTime. 

When Jenny returned to the room, a glass of water in hand, his eyes were cast down once again to his watch. 

"She's special, then?" Jenny asked as she sat beside him, sipping on her glass. 

Even if he'd wanted to, he couldn't have quashed the smile that lit his face. "Aye, Jen. She is."

Jamie hadn't spoken much of Claire since arriving on Friday night, though Jenny knew him well enough that she'd immediately demanded an explanation not only for his tardiness but the giddiness still bubbling over. He'd laid out the basics, then answered sporadic questions in the subsequent days. But as much as he could, he wanted Claire to himself for a time. It had been so long since he'd been with anyone or even wanted to be, and she was special beyond description. Jamie wanted to delay sharing her, even the idea of her, with anyone just yet. 

A long, heavy sigh sounded from Jenny to his left. She massaged a hand over her belly. "Brother, I ken ye like her. 'Tis plain as the nose on yer face," Jenny started, her tone growing serious enough to warrant a look up from his watch. "And I dinna mean to...disparage her or discourage you. But just...tread carefully. Datin' a woman with a bairn adds a whole new layer of complications. And she hasna told ye anything of the father, where he is or whether there's anythin' to worry about there. Wi' everything ye've gone through, all ye've done tae move beyon--"

"I appreciate it, Jen," Jamie interrupted. On some level, through the haze of agitation, he did. He recognized that his sister's comments came from a place of care, not malice. Of knowing how far gone he'd been for a time and of watching him claw his way back. 

Smothering the urge to lash out, Jamie attempted a placating smile in her direction. Truth was, even if he'd wanted to heed her advice, he'd long ago ceded control to the fast-growing attachment. From the moment he'd seen her with gold glitter sparkling on her cheeks and selling plastic cups of beer in a warehouse, a seed had been planted deep in his soul. Every day, its roots dug further into him. With every conversation, every meeting, every wondrous laugh that set his heart to booming, its stalk grew and bloomed with increasing speed, each flower more radiant than the last. If ever came the time to dig it up and toss it out, Jamie knew the damage would break him.

So he settled for the best version of the truth he could offer. "I'll do my best."

She fixed him with a searching look, lips pressed tight together. "I'm glad yer happy, Jamie. Truly. I just...dinna want anythin' or anyone to hurt ye."

The smile came easier this time, and he reached out to take his sister's hand, holding it in a moment of silence. 

His phone vibrated in his pocket, and he nearly dropped it as he pulled his hand back and scrambled to pull it out. 9:56. 

Any idea where I can find broccoli that tastes like sour candies? Asking for a (very tiny) friend. 

Jamie exhaled a laugh, hand rubbing over his mouth. Dinnertime tonight must've been a hoot, he thought. 

"Go on wi' yerself, then. Give her a call." Jenny shooed him away in a playful tone. Standing, he leaned over to kiss her temple before leaping up the stairs as quietly as he could at full speed. 

As he closed the door to his room and laid across the bed, typing back his response, another message came in from Claire. The blowing-a-kiss emoji. His stomach flipped as though she'd actually kissed him again. Pausing in his typing, his finger traced over his bottom lip as he replayed for likely the thousandth time the memory of how she'd lunged in and taken it between her own, the tingling that had lingered nearly until he'd arrived at Lallybroch hours later. 

A voice came, unbidden, to his mind.

When I met yer mother, a ruadh, every cell o' my body lit up like lightnin' when she was near. 'Twas God tapping me on the shoulder, showin' me the soul he'd crafted to walk through life beside me. He'll tap ye someday, lad, and show you yers, too. Just be patient. 

For once, the ache of remembering his father never materialized. Only fondness and gratitude. Lifting his phone, tapping on her number, Jamie silently let his Da know that he'd been right. His wait was over.

Chapter Text

When it came to letting loose with a stiff drink and a good meal, Thirsty Thursday had clearly usurped the crown previously held by TGIF. Or, at least, thus Claire deduced as she stood in The Ridge's lobby, squished between Geillis and Louise on one side and a pair of middle-aged women in business attire on the other. From noon to 4:00 every Thursday, The Ridge lured in diners with half-priced cocktails and a surprise chef's choice appetizer that changed weekly. And as a result, scores of hungry diners arrived early and stretched their lunch breaks to enjoy a meal, a drink (or two) the boss need not know about, and the utter relief of knowing that Friday had almost arrived.

Judging by Geillis's pout and crossed arms, the dense crowd and the beeper held in hand severely dampened any near-weekend relief as they stood, awaiting an open table. "I swear I made a reservation," she huffed.

Louise only laughed, uncrossing her twined arms and lacing her ten fingers with Geillis's. "Don't worry over it, G." A sweet smile dimpled her cheeks. Her mild French accent lent her words a cavalier air. "I do not mind waiting." 

"But it's yer birthday. Ye shouldna have tae wait on yer birthday."

"And we will not," Louise answered, sweet morphing into wily. She nudged Claire with her elbow without loosening her grip on Geillis's hands. "We are off today, which means we can wait at the bar, and the time will fly like that," she finished with a snap of her fingers. 

Claire nudged her back with a smirk. She'd hired into the Royal Infirmary A&E nearly four years ago, two months postpartum, and had worked alongside Louise on a heart-stopping multi-car pileup her second day on the job. An instant friendship had sprung up, for which Claire -- short on female companionship -- had been all too grateful. Exploring Edinburgh on a random Saturday night out a few weeks later, they'd stumbled upon the Reekie Rollers in their seasonal debut bout. A starstruck Claire had dragged Louise to the after party, where a gregarious Geillis had spent hours going over the finer points of derby. But her green eyes had sparkled just so whenever they'd lighted upon Louise, who had little interest in the game but left that night with G's phone number. Claire, on the other hand, departed with a soon-to-be best friend and a budding obsession. Six months later, after she'd weaned Quinn and was cleared by her physician (and with no little prodding from John), Claire had bought skates and attended her first practice. 

So, as far as Claire was concerned, she owed Louise twice over.

Geillis moped all the way over to the bar, a jovial Louise tugging her along by the hand and Claire hustling to keep up. She found an empty space, and they each staked a claim to a bit of bar to lean against. "Three mimosas, s'il vous plait," Louise ordered over the hubbub at the counter. "And it's my birthday, so do not hold back, ma cherie!" 

Standing at the bar, Louise continued to coax Geillis out of her annoyance as they waited, planting humming little kisses over her cheeks and nose and finally a quick peck on her lips. "Och, ye temptress, yer no fair," Geillis muttered, but her grumpy demeanor melted away as Louise continued to tease. 

Claire smiled at them and leaned her back against the bar, eyes scanning the crowd. The dining room was huge, every table packed and more parties standing in the entryway. Myriad sounds merged together into a wonderful cacophony that wrapped around her like a well-worn shawl. Some may have found such bustling noise grating, but Claire relished it. Perhaps that was part of why she thrived in the A&E. At work, it was the flurry of urgency that meant literal life or death. But places like this, it was the thrum of life, that messy and joyful quality she fought to preserve in every patient. 

In either place, that white noise of constant activity infiltrated her spirit, bringing her a satisfied peace.

Louise handed her a chilled mimosa, light on the juice, before turning back to Geillis. Claire didn't mind so much; they three had been good friends since that fateful night nearly four years ago now, which meant she rarely felt like a third wheel. Still, though, when Louise felt extra flirty -- like, say, when celebrating turning flirty thirty -- she gave them their space and took the time to people-watch. 

As her eyes glossed over the multitude of people, a familiar shock of red caught her gaze. Biting her lip, she stood on tiptoe for a better view. Sure enough, there sat Jamie at a table with three other men, one of whom she recognized as Dougal Mackenzie. He'd mentioned the previous night he had a lunch meeting today, another attempt to sanitize his uncle's grimy reputation.

"One of our biggest distributors threatened tae pull out weeks ago," he'd explained. Even over the phone, he'd sounded both embarrassed and exhausted. "It's been a constant 'will they, won't they' for weeks now. Hopefully a new contract and a wee bit of crow-eatin' from Dougal himself will convince them that stickin' with Mack is the most profitable avenue."

Judging by his steely demeanor and the hard line of his jaw, Jamie was enjoying the meeting about as much as he'd expected to. With a cheeky smirk, Claire pulled out her phone. 

You know you'll never get the contract inked looking like that. Send.

Her heartbeat quickened as she watched him pull his phone from his pocket, eyebrows scrunching as he read. A moment later, his head snapped up, eyes searching. Taking pity on him -- the restaurant was large, full to the brim, and she was likely hidden by taller patrons -- Claire sent a mimosa emoji as a hint. After a quick look back at his screen and a glance to the other men speaking at his table, Jamie trained his eyes on the bar. The moment he found her, the corners of his lips twitched up as she raised her glass in silent greeting. He nodded slightly before bending back over his phone. 

How is it I look to you, Sassenach?

Like you're witnessing a flogging. Or being flogged. 

Well, that's not far from reality.  

Which one?

Yes.

Claire snorted and looked up toward him through her lashes. Having shifted in his seat, he now sat in his chair at nearly a 45-degree angle, elbow on the table and body facing her. When he looked up, far away as he was, she could read his delight perfectly. She imagined the blue of his eyes would land somewhere between ice and powder. 

Her phone vibrated in her hand, a moon emoji popping up on her screen. 

"I'll be right back," she murmured to her lunch mates. 

"You haven't finished your drink!" Louise whined, lip pouting. 

"Drink it for me, birthday girl," Claire teased, stepping from the bar. "And order me another. I won't be five minutes."

A vibrant mural depicting a woodsy nightscape covered one of The Ridge's exterior brick walls. Black trees stood silhouetted against a full white moon lighting an inky blue sky with a wolf howling, the colors vibrant and sharp. Hoping she'd interpreted Jamie's text correctly, Claire exited and made her way around back toward it. 

By the time she turned the corner, a pair of arms wrapped around her and she felt the shape of his smirk as he nuzzled into her neck. Her stomach flipped, and heat stabbed through it as she instinctively layered her arms over his across her middle.

"This is a pleasant surprise," he breathed against her skin, raising goosebumps as she fought for breath. She turned and laced her arms around his neck, an identical grin spreading across her face as she studied his eye color. Slightly darker than she'd wagered, the blue of the sky as the sun dipped just below the horizon. 

Before she could respond, Jamie pressed her against the rough painted brick and took her lips. A sigh passed through her as she welcomed him. He swallowed it and answered with his own, fingers flexing against her waist. Her arms tightened around his neck, pulling him closer as she indulged his greedy mouth. 

Several minutes later, heartbeat echoing in her ears, Jamie pulled away slowly, dragging her lower lip between his teeth. A lazy grin brightened his face and made her heart flutter as he leaned his forehead against hers. "Sorry, Sassenach," he said between heaving breaths. "Seein' ye standin' there in those jeans, curls all wild...couldna help myself."

"I thought that's what you were doing," she whispered back. 

He chuckled, a rumble from the back of his throat. "Touché."

For a moment, they stood in silence, sharing space and air. Her fingers grazed his jawline, his held her tight about the waist. Touching her lips to the tip of his nose, Claire straightened up. "So the meeting's going that well, then?"

Groaning, Jamie rolled his eyes and leaned his head back as though requesting a mercy killing from on high. "The distributor's no' impressed. And if they walk, we could lose nearly a quarter of our overseas market."

Claire grimaced. "I'm sorry."

Jamie sighed, bringing his hand up to brush a curl behind her ear, evoking a fuzziness in her head incommensurate with the small gesture. His smile didn't reach his eyes as he spoke. "Problem is Colum wants the easiest way out and doesna want tae actually deal wi' Dougal, but everyone sees through it. Yerself included, if ye remember." He shook his head with a scowl. "He wants Dougal to shuffle his feet and apologize, then throw money at the 'right' organizations to show how enlightened they actually are. What he needs to do is remove Dougal entirely and focus more on changin' company culture and increasing employee diversity. But that would involve believin' actions speak louder than money." He rolled his eyes with another scoff. 

As she opened her mouth to respond, her phone vibrated in her pocket. She flashed him an apologetic smile as she pulled it out. A message from Geillis in the three-way group chat. Table's ready. If you're not back in thirty seconds, you better at least have a dirty story to share.

Heat rose in her chest, half embarrassment, half desire to bring a truly brunch-worthy story to the table. "It's Louise's birthday, and I snuck away to make out behind the restaurant. I am the worst friend ever," she murmured through a chortle. 

"Well, no worse than I. I'm on the clock. But what kind of man could resist a siren's song such as ye?" In an instant, his smile grew sincere again as he leaned in for a quick goodbye kiss, tongue flicking her upper lip as he pulled away, sending a bolt of want strong as lightning straight through her. "I'll call ye tonight?"

"Looking forward to it."

Jamie re-entered first, Claire counting to twelve before walking back in behind him, eyes averted from the table near the front where Jamie had presumably returned. She spotted Geillis and Louise at a table in the center and made her way there, sitting at the empty chair with the full mimosa waiting. "Wasn't so long of a wait then," she said innocently, ignoring their pointed looks as she took a sip. 

Louise looked exaggeratedly over her shoulder for a moment before turning to Geillis. "So that's the fox, then?"

"Mm-hmm."

"Guys--"

"The photos do him absolutely no justice."

Geillis giggled, ogling openly toward Jamie's table. "Ye should see him up close."

"Come on, seriously?" she hissed as they both cackled mercilessly.

As her laughter quieted, Louise turned to Claire, brown eyes calculating. Every second her gaze lingered, Claire felt her face warming, her own dopey grin harder and harder to fight. Finally, Louise turned back to Geillis. "Eight months."

"I'm sorry, what--"

"Yer daft," Geillis responded, completely ignoring Claire's sputtering. "Five tops."

"Guys, come on--"

"Have ye gotten a good look at the lad, hen?" Geillis cast another none-so-subtle glance toward the table where Jamie sat. "I dinna peg him as the type tae propose on Valentine's Day, if only 'cause I doubt he'd be able to wait that long. No, I give it four months till a ring. Or at least movin' in." 

Claire followed her sightline, stomach swooping as her eyes clashed with his blues staring straight at her, a lopsided grin and the diluted light from the window behind rendering him absolutely breathtaking. She didn't break eye contact as Geillis and Louise continued on, not bothering to keep their volume down. 

Jamie's attention snapped back to his own table, the other men all looking at him. Claire ducked her own head just in time as Dougal, brow furrowed, turned toward her. 

"All right, all right. Let's move along, then," Claire encouraged her friends as she took another long draw from her glass. Still smirking, her friends said no more as conversation turned toward other topics. 

Through the rest of lunch and into the afternoon, Claire's mind drifted back to their lighthearted jesting. The question of possible engagements seemed preposterous when he hadn't even met Quinn yet. Under no circumstances would she even entertain the idea until then. 

And they'd known each other for just less than a month! How anyone could be thinking of such things as rings and marriage and forever flabbergasted Claire. Even before Frank, before Quinn, she'd never been the little girl dreaming of pouffy white dresses and expensive flowers and lace invitations. 

Yet the thought of Jamie in a tux -- or, God, a kilt; he seemed the type for it -- waiting at the end of a long aisle filled her with longing like nothing else. The thought of coming home to his gentle touches (and, perhaps, not-so-gentle, given the right circumstance, she thought with a shiver) filled her with an unreasonable excitement. 

Whenever the images danced in her mind, Claire shook her head, banishing the tempting fantasy. Far too soon for such ideations. The rational part of her brain reminded her how easily their blissful little bubble could pop. A voice, sounding far too like her own, chastised her for getting ahead of herself. Nothing was guaranteed. She didn't really know him yet. He may still disappoint her yet.

Soon as it was, a sense of safety enveloped her in his presence. But with safety came complacency, and falling complacent could end with shattered hearts for both Beauchamp women. On her own, she'd consider it forfeit, a steep but perhaps fair price for the exhilaration of experiencing Jamie. But she couldn't let such darkness touch her child. 

No, until she could trust him with Quinn, no sense in imagining bells and violins and dresses and kilts. Until then, "forever" didn't exist.

 

#

 

Jamie hated the mall. Too crowded, too noisy, and too many salespeople vying for his attention made for an always-stressful outing. But Claire's birthday was coming up -- October 21st, days away -- and, for all its shortcomings, the mall also provided a plethora of options from which to choose. 

If only he had some notion of what would be appropriate to get the woman of his dreams whom he'd known for barely five weeks. And who hadn't even been the one to inform him that the big day was approaching. 

 

Three weeks after their first kiss, both Jamie's and Claire's schedules absolutely exploded. Jamie with handling the fallout of one of Mack's overseas distributors cutting ties, Claire with hospital understaffing that led to usually one, if not two overtime shifts per week. It had been nine days since he'd seen her at The Ridge, the last time they'd met in person, and he was starved for her. As they FaceTimed each other at night, sometimes so exhausted all they could do was bid the other goodnight before hanging up, Jamie thought -- or, maybe, hoped -- she missed him as desperately. Her sad smiles, the way she'd pause after saying goodnight, as though not yet wanting to disconnect. How she'd jumped at his offer for a coffee over lunch that Wednesday, even if they'd only have twenty minutes together. The light behind her eyes as they'd coordinated their schedules served as a beacon of joy that had kept him sane for the three days between.

Taking a seat on the agreed bench outside the hospital at 11:55 a.m., coffees and sandwiches in hand, Jamie crossed one ankle over the other knee and waited. His foot wiggled in the air, too eager to sit still. When she bounded out the doors and over toward him, his heart pounded against his rib cage. Hair wild, circles under her eyes, scrubs wrinkled and a mystery substance splattered across her top. But Jamie didn't care. Abandoning their drinks on the bench, he stood and closed the distance, scooping her up in his arms. High-pitched squeals rang in his ears as he twirled around on the spot before setting her back down. 

"Jesus H. Christ, I'm a mess," she said in an apologetic tone, a crease deepening between her eyebrows. "I'm so--"

He stopped her with a kiss. Every time his lips touched hers, he melted, and he felt her melt against him. Cool fingers framing his neck, minty breath making his tongue tingle as it danced with hers. Jamie drew away for air but stood close to her. "Dinna dare apologize to me, Sassenach," he breathed. Beaming at him, cheeks flushed, Claire kissed him again before pulling him over to the bench. 

Lunch was perfect, except for how short it was. After only thirty-five minutes, they were saying goodbye again so Jamie could leave in time to return to the office before his break ended. They parted ways with another lingering kiss and promises to plan a real date soon, Claire assuring him that after another week, the overtime should be finished...she hoped.

By the time he arrived back at the office, his chest already ached with the missing her again. Sitting at his desk moments later, he flinched as his phone vibrated in his pocket with a text from a strange number. 

Hello, wee fox. Claire's friend Louise here. She refuses to tell you herself so I broke into her phone for your number. Her birthday's coming up, 21/10. In case you wanted to do whatever magic it is that puts her in such high spirits. 

 

Passing by shop after shop, mind whirring, Jamie tried to quiet the roiling nerves in his gut. Atop the normal anxiety of not knowing at all what would be a reasonable gift at this stage sat the added pressure of recreating whatever magic it is between him and Claire. As if the inexplicable force that electrified her touch or the magnetic pull between them could be recreated artificially. Though Jamie couldn't deny that reading Louise's text, imagining Claire returning to her shift from their brief lunch date with the same grin on her face as he knew he'd worn all day, filled him with satisfaction.

He'd wandered around a department store for the better part of an hour, considering then immediately discarding a million different ideas (was jewelry too much for a five-week-old relationship? a scarf too impersonal? perfume too suggestive? a gift card a total cop-out?). With a frustrated groan, Jamie was heading for the exit when his ears pricked to a familiar name spoken in a deep English accent. 

"Quinn, love, slow down or you'll knock someone over."

Jamie froze steps from the door. His pulse skyrocketed as he turned, hoping for a surreptitious glance. After a moment of searching, he spied them twenty yards away. A tall, fair main with straight brown hair that fell into his eyes lifting to his hip a wee lass with dark curls, giggling and rosy-cheeked. Anxiety anew washed over him in a wave as he jerked away, eyes in the opposite direction. 

That had to be Claire's John. Which would make that Claire's Quinn. 

Somehow, even though it had been by sheer coincidence, he felt wrong being near them. She hadn't yet brought him into that part of her life. Even as raging curiosity begged him to turn and look again, just to see what they both looked like in real life, Jamie kept his head facing away. 

He had to leave. Now. 

One leaden footstep, then another. He forced himself to move toward the exit and into the main vestibule of the mall. Quickening his pace as he put space between himself and the Beauchamps, he trained his gaze straight ahead. All he heard was his own breathing as his vision and hearing muted, narrowing into an adrenaline-induced tunnel vision. 

Sharp aromas of the food court brought him out of his trance-like state just in time for his stomach to growl; he'd been meandering aimlessly all morning. The nerves eventually quieted and dissipated as Jamie sat at a table, a water bottle and oversized pretzel in hand to quell the sudden hunger. Bite after bite, the flight instinct faded from him, replaced by embarrassment at his overreaction. It wasn't like he'd followed them intentionally. Claire would've understood. People run into each other. It happens. Hell, had he not heard John speak, they could've both passed by, neither the wiser.

Yet Jamie couldn't quite dispel the feeling that he'd somehow been an invader, an unwelcome voyeur. Perhaps it was knowing who they were but not being known in return. Had they turned and seen him, he'd have been a stranger to them. Not their sister's-slash-mother's...boyfriend?

Jamie groaned and shut his eyes. Christ, they hadn't even had this conversation yet. Claire's "disclosure" made it clear it was unlikely that she was dating multiple men, and he knew he wasn't scheduling other women around Claire. The labels had hardly seemed necessary. 

The sudden realization of their untitled...whatever it was only put the pressure back on for the gift. An iron fist clenched his stomach as he returned to his original source of stress.

His mind spiraled from one anxiety to the other. He was a pier amidst a hurricane of uncertainty, winds and waves thrashing at him and his wooden boards groaning and buckling.  Old thought patterns he'd spent so much time recalibrating threatened to drown him. Flashes of waking nightmares passed before his eyes, all ending with Claire leaving.

Throwing the last few bites of his pretzel onto the plate, Jamie leaned forward and ran his fingers through his hair, never minding that they were still salty. Eyes closed, forehead resting on the table (another likely unsanitary choice, but Jamie disregarded it), he forced slow, steady breaths in and out. 

On some level, he knew this was ridiculous. A simple birthday gift shouldn't be this difficult. Shouldn't have so much riding on it. But with Louise's text echoing in his brain, this felt somewhat like a test he absolutely could not fail. 

Breathe in, lad, he told himself. Breathe out. 

Jamie let the mindless mantra repeat, following his internal instruction until the worst had passed. He sat up, head no longer fuzzy with worry and stomach calm. 

Whatever magic it is, she had written. Going over these last few weeks, Jamie dissected the glorious moments when he'd witnessed Claire absolutely glow. Her magic moments. 

And suddenly, he knew what to do. 

 

#

 

October 21st was a fairly typical Tuesday for Claire. She woke, fixed breakfast for two, and dressed for work. Louise wished her a happy birthday, as did the handful of other people close enough to know her birthday. Whenever she could throughout the day, she texted with Jamie. 

Louise seemed extra deflated when Claire answered her for the millionth time that, no, she hadn't told Jamie it was her birthday, so no, he hadn't wished her a happy one. She shrugged it off. 

Besides not generally being overly flashy for birthdays (hers, at least), there had never been an organic moment to pop in with, By the way, my birthday is coming up. Every time Geillis or Louise had prodded her to tell him or she'd tried to find the right time to say it, the words had caught in her throat. Maybe it was too early to expect some kind of special gesture or gift. Maybe it was just another string that would've connected them, one small piece of herself kept hidden away. In case. 

Twelve hours passed on a forgettable if not unpleasant day, and Claire picked Quinn up from the hospital daycare (where John, bless his soul, dropped her off when they opened at 8:00 a.m. whenever she worked). Walking home together, Claire oohed and awed as Quinn swung their clasped hands back and forth, waxing as poetic as a three-year-old can about her day. 

A small box with an envelope sat outside her door. Claire's heart jumped at the sight, confusion playing second fiddle to the thrill of anticipation. Seemed no one is immune to presents. 

"Mummy, is't for your birthday?" Quinn asked, skipping up to give the box a closer inspection. 

"Maybe. I'm not sure, Quinnie. Want to take it in and open it?" 

Claire unlocked the door, but Quinn stayed by her side, bouncing on the balls of her feet as her mother bent to bring the box inside. Setting the box carefully back on the kitchen floor and swiping the card from the top, Claire looked to Quinn. "You can unwrap it, but remember to be gentle."

Sounds of ripping paper cut through the air. Claire chuckled at her daughter as she pulled the paper from the envelope and flipped it open. 

Sassenach. 

She looked up from the paper as her heart leapt to read the pet name scrawled in relaxed writing across the top of the page. Swallowing, Claire went on. 

I'll have to chide you when we speak tonight for not telling me of your birthday. You have your reasons, though I have to say I'm glad Louise gave me the heads up. It's killed me today not to call or even text you happy birthday, but I wanted this to be a surprise. 

 

"Mission accomplished," Claire murmured under her breath. 

 

I spent days agonizing over what would be the best, most appropriate, most meaningful way I could tell you happy birthday, Sassenach. And as every idea I had fell short, I realized you don't care overmuch for bits and baubles. You care about thought and meaning. 

We've been dancing around words unsaid for weeks. Maybe we've both hidden from them a little bit. Now, I want to say them. 

 

Moisture built behind her eyes. Her breaths came in shallow gasps as she fought the emotion long enough to read the letter. 

 

Claire, I yearn for you when you're not around. And when you're near, the air is sweeter and the sun is warmer. Touching you, Sassenach, sends literal shockwaves over my skin. And kissing you, mo chridhe...I never knew what perfection felt like until you told me to kiss you that first time then leaned in to do it yourself.

You asked me what that meant that night. Mo chridhe, the Gaelic for 'my heart.' From that very first night at the warehouse, you were, Sassenach. Strong and fierce and wily and beautiful and caring and tender and...just absolutely incredible. Every minute I spend by your side, I wish for a thousand more.

I know you have to be careful, for yourself and for Quinn. I tried to be careful, too, in a way. I think we both have some hurt we haven't yet shared. But I don't want to be careful anymore. I am in this. I don't want casual with you. I want something real. Nothing's ever felt as real as the time time I spend with you, down to the stolen moments and the falling asleep on our phones at night. 

Writing this, I am praying harder than I've prayed for anything that you want that, too. But I won't push you, or rush you. Not on the labels, or on Quinn, or anything else. 

I hope you'll call me tonight, Sassenach. But if you don't, I understand it and I don't begrudge you for it. Just know, if you did, you could trust me. And that's my gift for you, Claire. My word. 

 

"Mummy, why're you crying?"

Claire started as Quinn hugged her around the legs, round whisky eyes so like her own looking up in concern. 

Chuckling, Claire stooped to her daughter's level. "I'm all right, lovey."

Her tiny brow furrowed, a pink lip pouting. "Well, you can't cry on your birthday," she said solemnly. "Birthdays are happy." 

"I am happy," she whispered. She placed a gentle kiss on Quinn's knitted eyebrows, easing the tiny worry line from between them. Biting her lips, she let the fresh tears roll down her face. "I'm happy, Q." Quinn regarded her with confusion, unable to reconcile her mother's words with her wet cheeks. 

Claire nodded to the box again. "Should we open it and see what's inside?" The suggestion erased the dubious look from her daughter's face as she clapped her hands together. With her help, Quinn opened the box to find a plastic container with two frosted cupcakes inside, two virgin candles and a matchbook laying beside them. Another white envelope sat on top.

 

That, plus a wee bite of cake and candles for you both to blow out. Happy birthday, Sassenach. 

 

"Cake! Can we have cake, Mummy?" Quinn asked, voice high-pitched with glee. 

Claire stood, smiling. "After supper, all right?"

It took another forty-five minutes to get Quinn cleaned up from the day and settled in front of the telly. Presumably for Claire to cook dinner. But as she hovered in the kitchen doorway, she whipped her phone out. She stared at the screen, breathing deeply as she hit his contact. 

He answered on the second ring. "Happy birthday," he said. Something like giddy relief dripped from his voice, so thick she could all but feel it seeping into her own skin.

"Thank you," she said, biting the inside of her cheek. A silence stretched between them, his unsaid-now-said words hanging over them. His gift -- his vow -- thickened the air. 

Claire cleared her throat. "Your letter was lovely, Jamie."

"I meant it all, Sassenach," he whispered, voice gravelly. "Every word. E'en the ones about no' rushin' ye if yer no' ready, if--"

"You're not. Rushing me, I mean." She swallowed. "I...I want those things, too. With you." 

A muffled sniffle came through over the line, and she wondered if he was crying as she'd been. As she nearly was now. "Thank Christ," he breathed over the line, and she couldn't help but laugh. His own joined with hers, and for a minute, they giggled together like lovestruck teenagers. 

No more hiding. 

Claire nodded, taking the last step out of her hiding place into plain sight. 

"Jamie, would you want to come over for dinner Friday night?" A breath, shaky on the exhale. "Quinn will be here. I'd...I'd like you to meet her."

The hitch of his own breath was soft, but she heard it. When he answered, she was positive he was fighting back tears as surely as she was. "Aye, Sassenach. I'd like that very much." 

Pulse racing, stomach clenched in nerves, hands practically shaking with adrenaline. But as soon as he answered, it all disappeared. And the voice of worry in the back of her mind never uttered a single word.

Chapter Text

"Jamie, be reasonable, lad."

As if he'd been anything but all morning. Standing before his uncle's desk, Jamie counted five deep breaths as he fought for calm. "One of us here is reasonable, Colum, and it isna you."

"Pah." His uncle flapped a dismissive hand at him. "Mackenzie Distillery has been in our family fer generations. 'Tis Dougal's birthright as much as mine, and I wilna force him out while he bears the name 'Mackenzie.'"

"Dougal forfeited his birthright when he decided that company performance reviews included compulsory blow jobs," he seethed. "Even more so when he blackmailed the women wi' the videos should they try and speak against him." 

Jamie paced before his uncle's desk, changing tack to try to reach Colum on a level he cared about. "Yer shares are down forty-three percent. Three distributors have cut their contracts short, including yer sole supply line tae the States. If ye dinna do something drastic, ye wilna be able to pay yer staff by year's end."

"Ye said yerself the public outrage is dyin' down! If we just wait--" 

"Because the full details havena yet got out," Jamie countered. Mack's lawyers had done their jobs, and done them well. Only vague notions of Dougal's actions had so far made it to the outside world. Whispers of inappropriate workplace talk and propositioning female employees had leaked after the first of the women had served Mack with a sexual harassment lawsuit. By the time the media had picked up on it, she and the two others who came forward after had signed ironclad NDAs, prohibiting the disclosure of further details in exchange for hefty settlements. 

"Let me ask ye, Colum, and think on it hard." Jamie gripped the edge of Colum's mahogany desk and leaned over it, sick to his stomach as he posed the question. "Do ye really think there are only three?" When he didn't answer, Jamie continued. "All it will take is one woman who decides yer hush money isna worth her silence. And when the full details come out, ye'll have a lot more to worry ower than the value of the company."

His uncle's chest rose and fell with shallow breaths. Pink cheeks and the bloodless line of his mouth further spoke to his agitation. Looking into his uncle's face -- the hard set of his milky gray eyes, the ticking of the vein at his temple -- Jamie saw the same answer written there. So when Colum again insisted on waiting before taking drastic action, he wasn't even surprised. 

Enraged, yes. But not surprised. 

Mounting anger set his pulse hammering through his chest. Pushing off the desk with a hmph, Jamie crossed his arms and began to pace again. Neither man spoke, both fuming. 

For months, he'd fielded calls and sat in meetings to discuss "the image problem." He'd crafted the press releases and negotiated with suppliers and customers, insisting that Mack understood the gravity of what had transpired and would never allow such a thing to happen again. Meaningless words, so far as Jamie was concerned. For all he'd spent that time behind closed doors trying to steer Colum toward more decisive action, he knew he would run out of air to breathe before he'd see a Mackenzie yield.

All in an effort to save Mack from the iceberg that was Dougal Mackenzie and insulate a sexual predator from the consequences of his vile misdeeds. Every day, guilt and shame writhed in Jamie's stomach over his part in keeping the Mack brand afloat. 

It was a crazy man who willingly remained on a sinking ship. 

"If ye wilna take steps to hold the man accountable," Jamie spoke suddenly, turning toward Colum, "then I resign effective immediately."

Colum stood from his seat, groaning from his advanced arthritis, and narrowed his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was sharp as steel. "Ye'd abandon yer family so easily, family who's supported ye when ye had naught but their own kindness tae sustain ye?"

The words should've riled him, but for the first time in a long while, he felt calm. Tension eased from his face and shoulders. Not so long ago, he'd needed the job. For the money, yes, but also for the purpose. Early on, knowing that his uncles depended upon him, had taken a gamble on him had been all that had got him out of his bed each morning. 

Now, though, the same job that had pulled him from the depths threatened to shove him back into them. He should've left ages ago, the moment he'd realized his father wouldn't have been proud of the work he was doing or the company he was supporting. 

And he had more people whose pride he yearned for now. Jamie closed his eyes for a moment, and hers looked back at him. Peace enveloped him like a blanket, and he knew he'd do whatever he needed to be a man worthy of her. 

He clasped his hands before him and looked into Colum's gaze. "I'll always be grateful to ye for reachin' out tae me and givin' me a chance, Uncle. But I canna be a part of this any longer. It's eatin' away at my soul, and honestly it's just no' worth it anymore. No' when the both of ye are more concerned with...wi' image and money than yer own honor and integrity."

"Yer contract is through February," Colum growled. "Ye leave now, and ye'll have penalty clauses tae pay. And ye will pay them, lad."

A hollow laugh bubbled from Jamie's chest as he turned toward the door. "And that's the difference 'tween you and me, Uncle," Jamie said. "I happen to ken some things matter more than money."

For the rest of his life, Jamie knew, he'd relish the sublime combination of fury and confusion on Colum's face as he shut the door on him for the final time.

 

#

 

Lungs and legs burning, Claire panted as she willed herself to maintain her speed. Fingers dug into the handle of the pram she pushed before her. Vibrations tingled up from her wheels and through her body as she rolled along the paved path at the neighborhood park. Winter was fast approaching, and she knew these skating days were numbered. 

Skating was supposed to be a time of relaxation, yet the last seventy-six minutes had been anything but. Sweat dripped down her face even in the cool Edinburgh air as her mind flipped through the menu of items she could cook moderately well. 

The short menu. 

Not for the first time since extending the offer, Claire wished she'd had the good sense to suggest a night out for the occasion. She wondered if takeout would be appropriate if it were from a nice enough restaurant...

"Mummy, you're too slow!" came a disgruntled voice from the carriage ahead of her. 

Chuckling and rolling her eyes, Claire slowed them to a full stop. She put on the brake before hovering around to the front of the pram. Quinn lounged on her side, her bent legs creating a canyon of the fuzzy purple blanket wrapped about her. She clutched her favorite stuffed giraffe in the crook of her elbow, her fingers gripping the edge of the blanket. Wild dark curls stuck out from the lilac beanie she wore. Drowsy lids drooped over her eyes, and her brow was furrowed with annoyance.

Claire wanted to hug her to her chest and never stop squeezing.

"Mummy's tiiiired, lovey," she whined with an exaggerated pout as she squatted. "How about you give me a push for a while? Would that work?"

The crease between her tiny eyebrows eased as she smiled. Giggling, Quinn shook her head. 

"No?" Claire said, aghast. She reached in and tickled at her daughter's belly, high-pitched squeals echoing in the still, late afternoon air. "No, you won't let your Mummy take a break in the pram, then?"

Gasping for breath, Quinn shook her head again. "No, Mummys push!" 

With a grin, she desisted her tickle attack and planted a loud, wet kiss on Quinn's cheek. "Right you are, pet. Fine, then, I'll keep pushing." Sitting back and balancing on her toe stops, Claire checked her watch. 3:47. They should head back to the flat soon; she didn't like to be skating with Quinn as the sun set. Plus they were due at John and Hector's for supper tonight. 

Claire pecked her girl again on the cheek before standing and resuming her post. She took the brakes off the pram and, with a grunt of effort, picked up momentum again so that her wheels and Quinn's ran smoothly.

If only the cogs of her brain would work just as well. 

 

#

 

"You offered to cook?" 

She'd have been offended at Hector's incredulity had she not understood the root of his astonishment. John eyes were glassed over and his cheeks pink from the wine in his hand. He sat silent with a smirk on his face as his husband continued on. 

"You, who nearly burned the house down on two separate birthdays trying to bake your uncle a cake?"

"And whose failed attempt at an engagement dinner for us resulted in two days of food poisoning," John put in. 

Hector nodded and took a sip from his own glass. "You're likely the only mother the Royal Infirmary childcare staff has ever requested 'stick to store-bought' after the kids wouldn't even go near your Christmas biscuits your first year here."

"At least they were already in a hospital," John added with a chortle. 

Claire leveled the sniggering men with a stern glare but allowed them their fun at her expense. It was hard to do anything else when they hadn't even needed to exaggerate the stories to drive their point home. "If you two are quite finished, some advice would be appreciated."

"My advice would've been to not promise the man dinner," John murmured into his glass. 

"Thank you very much, Captain Arsehat." She pinched the bridge of her nose, inhaling a deep breath. "Anything that will help without the use of time travel?"

Hector leaned forward, dark eyes still glinting with mirth but face slightly more serious. "What does he like to eat, then?"

Blood rushed to her cheeks as she shrugged. "He doesn't seem picky, but I haven't exactly chatted up his mum and gotten the family recipes from her yet."

"Haggis!" John suddenly exclaimed, palm striking the table for emphasis. "I've yet to meet a Scotsman who doesn't like haggis."

She ran her fingers through her curls, pulling at the roots as she hung her head between her elbows resting on the table. "Yes, haggis. Because if I can manage to give us all debilitating food poisoning with Chicken Florentine, dealing with sheep innards wouldn't be at all dangerous."

"That'd be a weapon more than a dish," Hector agreed in a matter-of-fact tone. Claire groaned and curled in tighter. Hector's comforting grasp on her shoulder barely registered. "You're putting too much pressure on the whole thing. It doesn't have to be fancy. No need to put on airs for the man."

"Right," John agreed through his giggling. "Don't mislead the poor sod. Let him see what he's in for if he sticks around."

Before Claire could speak, Hector had pulled the wine glass from John's hand and set it on the other side of the table. Halting John's sputtering protestations with a look, Hector ran a hand through his chestnut hair. "Helpful commentary only. Lay off the sauce and help, or go watch the ending of Moana for the twenty-second time and let the adults speak."

John's eyes slid over to Claire, whose breathing had picked up with rising anger. His face softened then. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't always know when to shut my big mouth."

The warmth of indignation ebbed from her face and chest, and she gave him a small smile of forgiveness. They three fell into silence, all thinking. 

"Tomorrow's Friday, isn't it?" Hector finally asked. 

"Last I checked, Friday still comes after Thursday, yes."

Tentative excitement exuded from his tone as he sat straighter in his seat. "You and Quinn do pizza nights on Fridays, don't you?" 

"Yes, but I think ordering in pizza--"

"Don't order," Hector interrupted. "Make them yourselves."

"Have you not been paying attention? I cannot cook." 

"No, he's right," John jumped in, all jesting gone. Wide brown eyes beamed with eagerness. Claire opened her mouth to argue, but he raised a finger. She sank into her seat and motioned for him to continue. "Buy the ingredients precooked, so that worry's taken care of. They even sell personal pizza crusts now, oven-ready. All you'd have to do is pile on the sauce and toppings and stick it in the oven."

"And set a timer," Hector added. "Maybe two. Then take them out when the timer dings."

She bobbed her head back and forth slowly, considering. It should be fairly easy. Quinn could even help. She'd love that. Her lips tugged up at the corners thinking of Quinn standing on her stool with Hector earlier that evening, stirring and pouring, engulfed in the too-big apron and the most beautiful grin plastered to her face.

Still, nerves and doubts nipped at her heels. "Would that not be a little...underwhelming?" 

John shook his head. "From what you've told us, I don't think he'll care about what you make. He cares who he's eating it with."

"And besides, he's coming over to meet Quinn," Hector said. "It's not really about impressing him. It's about seeing if they can be comfortable together."

As they descended into quietude once more, Claire could suddenly see it. She could see smiles and laughter and a kitchen messed with their efforts. And it felt right. Bubbles of anticipation fizzled beneath her skin like champagne, replacing the itch of anxiety that hadn't abated for days. She nodded once with a smile. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," John said. He leaned across Hector to retrieve his wine glass, the conundrum at hand having been solved. He paused for a brief, gentle kiss before resuming his seat. Their eyes locked as he sat, smirks playing on their lips as their fingers entwined between their chairs. Claire watched with satisfaction and again thanked whatever power existed that her brother had found the one someone in all the world who fulfilled him. 

When Hector finally looked toward Claire and asked for an update on the latest drama from work, she hoped in the deepest pit of her being that she'd found her someone, as well.

Chapter Text

"Shit, shit, shit!" 

"Mummy, you can't say that!" 

One time-out a year ago for repeating a naughty word, and she had her very own swear police. Claire closed her eyes in frustration and heaved a breath. "You're right, Q. You're right."

Who knew three-year-olds could be so damn judgmental? 

Garments rained down about the room as Claire emptied the hamper, dug through her drawers, and upended the infamous "chair pile" in search of her favorite sweater. The deep blue cabled one that managed to be somehow both cozy and cute. All the while, she mouthed the forbidden word without giving it any volume. 

It wasn't half so satisfying. 

But finally, she found it. (And not even in the mountain of dirty clothes, much to her relief.) With a sigh, she pulled on the oversized sweater and checked herself in the mirror. She looked relaxed but put together in her black leggings, sweater, and socks. Curls sprang from the haphazard bun atop her head, but there was nothing to be done for that. 

Then again, he liked her curls. With a smirk, she pulled one curl out at her temple, giving it a tug until it fell just right. 

Over the last few days texting Jamie, she'd been sure to mention that her home was a strict casual-only zone. No way was she adding the pressure of looking sexy on top of dinner and introducing him to Quinn and...whatever else came about this evening. 

Claire was tense. Had been for two days. Shoulder-aching, jaw-clenching tense. Because if tonight wasn't at least a moderate success, things with Jamie would have to end. An unpleasant chill stabbed through her chest at the possibility of tonight being the last night.

She focused on keeping her expectations low. Quinn was sociable enough with other children but could be standoffish with adults, at least at first. It needn't be love at first sight between them. Awkward was acceptable, as was polite. A for effort, as it were. Barring meltdowns from Q or open hostility from him, Claire assured herself, she'll have won the night. 

By the time the knock came at six on the dot, adrenaline vibrated beneath her skin and cast her mind into a fog. 

"Mummy, it'sa door!"

Quinn's voice reached her muted and distant, as though her ears were stuffed with foam. With a shake of the head, Claire breathed deep and crossed from the kitchen to the sofa, holding out her arms. "Should we go see who it is?" 

Abandoning her book she'd been "reading" aloud from, Q stood on the cushions and gave a little hop as Claire scooped her up. Arms and legs locked around her neck and waist as she settled her little monkey on her hip and stepped toward the door. Resting her hand on the knob, Claire shut her eyes to draw a long inhale.  

Here we go. 

The door opened, cool air rushing into the warm apartment. All the breath in her lungs dissipated at the sight of him. Red curls brushed back from his face, plain grey t-shirt and jeans, black leather jacket. 

She suddenly felt frumpy in comparison. 

"Good evenin', Sassenach," he said with his trademark half-smile. His blue eyes shone, one eyebrow arched as he hit her with a look that raised goosebumps along her arm. 

"Hi!" Quinn piped up from her hip. She raised her hand in a floppy wave before tucking it back beneath her chin and curling against Claire's shoulder.

Jamie then aimed his jovial smile to her. "Well, hello, wean. How are you this fine evenin'?"

Her lips pursed and brows scrunched in a quizzical expression as she pointed a finger to her chest. "I'm ween-in?"

Claire chuckled and pasted a kiss onto her cheek. "Yes, you're the wean. Do you want to invite our guest inside?"

"Come oooon in!" Quinn sang, bouncing once on her hip and giving a swooping gesture for Jamie to follow. Shooting him a wink, Claire stepped aside.

"Thank ye kindly," he said as he entered. Jamie looked back to Claire as he added in a softer tone, "I've grown quite familiar wi' yer door these last few weeks. I'm excited to see the inside."

A blush reddened her cheeks as she closed the door behind him. As she looked about the room, she tried to see it as he was now. The shoe rack behind the door with trainers for feet big and small. A secondhand television winged by bookcases filled to bursting with books, movies, board games, notebooks, and albums. Photographs that sat upon the coffee table and hung on the walls. A bright pink painted handprint dried on clay hanging over the light switch. Quinn's play kitchen and dollhouse arranged in the corner by the window. Handmade derby trophies resting on a shelf out of reach of little hands. 

After she was lowered to the ground, Q immediately took shelter behind her mother's legs, all bravado apparently expired in the greeting. Claire placed a soothing hand atop her head but otherwise let her be. Clearing her throat, she fiddled with the edge of her sweater with her other hand, feeling suddenly vulnerable as he took in her home for the first time. "Not much, but it's ours." 

"It's lovely, Claire." Jamie faced her then, smiling. "It feels like a home. A well-loved one."

His face was relaxed, his words comforting, but she didn't miss the tapping of his left forefinger against his jeans or the minute widening of his eyes. He was nervous. Somehow, seeing his nerves -- evidence that he, too, cared how tonight went -- eased most of her own.

"I, uh, brought these for ye." Only then did she notice the small cluster of wildflowers in his hand. A few daisies with a combination of purple, pink, and yellow-petaled blooms. She couldn't remember the last time a man had brought her flowers, if it had ever happened at all. Not that it had ever bothered or even occurred to her. Even dating in secondary school and uni, she'd never cared about receiving corsages or bouquets. Yet as she wrapped her hand around the bundle of stems, her fingers grazing over his in the transfer, she finally understood the appeal.

Jamie then crouched on the balls of his feet, eye-level with Quinn still hiding but peeking out with curiosity. "And I brought this one especially fer ye, Miss Quinn." From his back pocket he pulled another flower out, this one a plush made of soft velvet. Fuzzy purple petals surrounded a smiling yellow face, and Claire's stomach flipped. 

He remembered her favorite color. 

Q's amber eyes widened as she clutched the stuffed stem in her hand, fingers tightening into the velvet with her other arm still hooked around Claire's leg. "For me?"

"Aye, lass, 'tis fer ye."

A fluttering erupted in her stomach. He wasn't just tolerating her child. He was good with kids. And he liked them. Indulged them. After the numerous duds over the last few years, she'd have settled with patience and acceptance. To have so much more in Jamie felt unreal. 

The soft pressure of her daughter's arm around her knee vanished. "I go put in water!" She'd taken only a few running steps before Claire caught her around the middle. 

"Who taught you your manners, you little beast?" she asked with no bite, bent at the waist and swinging Quinn to face Jamie again. "What do you say to Mr. Jamie?"

Once Claire set her down again, Q stood on her tip-toes with her flower held in both hands before her. "Thank you!" 

"Yer welcome, a nighean." 

God, the softness of his eyes, his voice...it invoked in her the contradictory desire to shove him back against the door and devour him. Blood warmed her cheeks as she tempered the impulse. For now. 

"Q, lovey, go put your book away and we'll put the flowers in water before dinner." Socked feet padded on the floor as Quinn ran around the couch with her flower clutched in one hand, picked up her book with the other, and sprinted into her room.

Claire and Jamie stood in silence for a moment, air heavy with some mix of anticipation and shyness. It had been days since they'd seen each other in person. Not since before his letter. Just the thought of his words on paper -- bits and pieces memorized, she'd read them so many times -- made her stomach drop. She laughed nervously on an exhale, waving her hand to encompass her ensemble. "I wasn't kidding when I said casual, you know. You look great, but you'll just have to suffer through yoga pants and jumpers galore on my end."

"Suffer, Sassenach? Christ, yer..." His neck flushed, as did her cheeks. The naked want she recognized in his eye made her skin buzz. It made her feel as though she stood before him in silk and pearls. And it made her bold.

Claire took a slow step toward him, heart thumping. Flowers held in one hand, she lifted the other to caress his clean-shaven cheek. She delighted in the hiss of his barely there inhalation, how his darkening eyes flicked to her mouth as she leaned ever closer.

"Hi," she whispered before ghosting her lips over his. He hummed on the contact before his hands sprawled across her lower back and pulled her flush against him, sealing the kiss. Their lips alternated, hers over his top lip and him gently nuzzling her bottom. Tender. Tame but no less scorching than any of their others. 

But they weren't alone. He pulled away after only a few seconds. "Hi," he finally replied with an elated grin. His fingers at her waist flexed gently, as though resisting the urge to pull her to him again. 

Quinn colliding against her legs interrupted her reverie. With a huff, she bent and lifted Quinn to her hip again. She was small for her age, but Claire's heart ached to feel how much she'd grown. Before long, she wouldn't be able to lift her up like this. 

Claire looked to Jamie, cocking a brow. "You hungry?" 

"Always."

With Quinn situated on her left and Jamie walking on her right, they meandered toward the kitchen. "Tell Mr. Jamie what we Beauchamp girls do on Friday nights."

"Pizzas!" 

Jamie's eyes went comically round as he clapped once and rubbed his hands together. "Oh, wow, how'd ye ken that was my favorite?"

"Whats'at? What's kin?"

"It means 'how did you know,'" Claire answered. "Did you know Mr. Jamie loves pizza?" 

She shook her little head and buried it again in her mother's shoulder. 

Jamie chuckled, his hand resting on the small of Claire's back. "Och, well, 'tis just somethin' we have in common, then, lass." 

Stepping into the small kitchen, Claire gestured to the table laden with ingredients in plastic packages and bowls, three small crusts on a pan in the center. "I'm a dreadful cook, to be quite honest. Hector -- John's husband, you'll remember? -- he takes good care of us food-wise. We normally order in on Fridays, but I thought this would be marginally less pathetic. It's nothing fancy or extravagant, I know, but--"

His lips on her cheek cut her off. "It's just fine, Sassenach."

"No, it's wack!" Quinn corrected Jamie with a stern furrowing of her brow. "Say it right."

Between her daughter's admonishment and Jamie's apologetic expression, Claire struggled to contain her laughter. 

"I'm very sorry, a nighean. Yer right, o' course." Clearing his throat, he amended himself. "It's fine, Sassen-wack."

"And don't you forget it." 

After filling a vase for her flowers (and putting Quinn's into a waterless one beside her own), the next ten minutes unfolded like her daydream at John and Hector's come to life. Her guiding Quinn's hand to spoon and spread the sauce over the crusts. Jamie drizzling cheese over all three (and flicking a pinch into Quinn's giggling face at the last second). And then both adults taking direction from the preschooler on what ingredients to pile on top. Pepperoni, bacon, ham, and -- Q's favorite -- black olives. 

"There, how's that?" he asked after plunking down a measly three olives.

Brown curls swayed over her shoulders as she shook her head with vigor, a tiny pout pulling down at her lips. "No, more!" 

"More? How many more, then?"

"Mmm, about...about this many," she said, cupping her hands to form a bowl. Tiny because of her almost-four-year-old hands but still large enough to hold a fair number of olives.

"Oh, that many, then?" he asked, astounded. "Would be easier to just have ye eat them from the jar."

Quinn shook her head again, brushing a wayward hair from her face. "No, Mummy...um, Mummy not like that."

"Oh, she doesn't?" Jamie asked with a gleeful look up toward her. 

Claire rolled her eyes and gave her child a brief tickle in the belly. "No, she doesn't." Shrill little-girl laughs filled the room and eased her soul; Quinn-giggles always did. She ceased her onslaught and looked back to Jamie. "Hector left the jar open on the counter one night before supper. How she can still stand to eat them after that tummy ache, I haven't the foggiest."

"Well," Jamie said, scooping a spoonful of olives out and holding them so Quinn could sprinkle them over her food. "Ye can have mine, how about that? Dinna much care for olives myself."

Between her thumb and forefinger, she plucked the little black circles from the spoon one by one and placed them around her pizza as she asked, "Why?"

"Och, tastes of metal to me," he answered. "But that's okay, lass. Means more for you, aye?"

"Um, aye!"

Claire giggled and leaned in for a smooch on Quinn's round cheek. Not one to be distracted, Q continued arranging her olives on her pizza, tongue between her lips in concentration.

As she looked up, Claire found Jamie's eyes glued to her, the blue of them vibrant and glittering. Her heart beat extra hard against her ribs, and she caught her breath. Quinn had only parroted what he'd said, but hearing that wee bit of Scots spoken in her sweet voice did something to her. 

They didn't look away from each other, even as her daughter chattered away beside them. In that space, she felt as though she could read his mind. Beyond words, his every emotion passed between them like a current. And foremost among them, she found gratitude. He was grateful to be here. That realization stung behind her eyes as she blinked back moisture. 

"Ye all right, mo chridhe?" he murmured so Quinn couldn't hear. 

Claire nodded, brushing the backs of her fingers along his jawline. "Aye," she said. "Perfect."

 

#

 

All the energy she'd expended worrying over how Quinn would behave around Jamie, she decided, had been a total waste. Throughout the making of dinner, the waiting for it to cook, and then the eating of it (all without burning the food or the house down, to Claire's genuine relief), Q hardly ever stopped talking. Stories from daycare that week and of helping Uncle Hector bake muffins and of the grocers they'd visited that afternoon spilled from her in a constant barrage such that Claire wondered when Jamie would fatigue of it. 

Instead, he, too, surprised her at every turn. Every story received his undivided attention, and he prompted her with questions of his own. In between those moments, he'd glance to Claire, and they'd drift for a moment to that unreachable place, silent and soft and warm, until they both turned back to Q and carried on over the night. 

After dinner, they gathered in the sitting room and let Quinn dictate their activities for the night. Two minutes later, she'd gathered all her play cutlery and dishes and foods, declaring she was playing kitchen. 

"Hector would be so proud," Claire murmured to Jamie beneath her breath as Quinn ran to her play kitchen in the corner. "His little sous chef can't get enough of it."

He chortled. "She's capable for her age, is she no'? Granted, her taste in toppings is questionable," he smirked to Claire, who rolled her eyes, "but how she layered it all so neatly. I'd have expected a lass her age tae be more haphazard wi' it."

They lowered themselves to the couch. Claire's propped her elbow on the back cushions and leaned her head against her hand while Jamie crossed one ankle to rest on the other knee. He grabbed for her hand between them and stroked his fingers along hers, sending sparks flying up her arm. 

"As much time as she's spent upstairs with Hector, I'm not surprised. He's an illustrator by trade, but he is an amazing cook. She's spent a lot of time with him and John, so she's been in the kitchen with him since she could stand and hold a whisk." 

As the words left her lips, the old, familiar guilt washed over her. Claire swallowed, the corners of her lips turning down as she attempted to banish the pang of self-doubt. That she foisted Quinn onto her brothers too frequently, was too selfish. That she wasn't home enough. That she wasn't enough, period. 

Jamie's fingers contracting around hers brought her out of it. One corner of her mouth quirked into a thankful smile as she squeezed his fingers back. His thumb grazed back and forth over her knuckles, and she marveled at how serene such a motion could make her feel. 

Quinn served up a scrumptious second dinner, bringing over plate after empty plate of imaginary fare. Both adults encouraged and teased, Jamie earning a particularly adorable glare as he shivered theatrically at the mention of marshmallow and chocolate pizza (but was instantly forgiven as, eating his own words, he insisted he'd devoured every crumb). 

"Okay, is time for tea!" Q announced as she brought over her plastic yellow mugs, handing one each to Jamie and Claire. 

"True little sassenach, aren't ye?" Jamie whispered to Claire with a wink before leaning forward and taking the proffered cup. To Quinn, he said, "Och, thank ye so much. I've been absolutely parched." He raised his cup, pinkie out, and pretended to drain it. A moment later, he lowered it with a dramatic ahh of satisfaction. "Is toil leam tì gu mor. Tapadh leat, a nighean." 

Claire had heard his Gaelic on occasion, the natural lilt of foreign sounds and syllables creating poetry even if she had no clue what it meant. Usually, it rolled from his tongue, smooth and constant like a cat's purr. As he spoke it now, though, the words were slowed and distinct, patient and measured. The rhythm of a teacher, she realized with a jolt. 

He wants to teach it to her. 

Quinn giggled behind her hand, eyes flicking to Claire as though unsure how to respond. When Claire nodded, she stepped closer to Jamie. "Whats'at?" she asked. 

"'Tis the Gaidhlig. The language of the Scots."

A finger twirled in her hair as she tilted her head. "How d'you know that?"

"Well, I'm a Scot," he answered. "And my mam and da spoke it when I wee so I'd ken it as I grew older."

"What's a Scot?"

"It's someone who's from Scotland."

"What...what's Scotland?"

Claire bit down on her lips to hold back her laughter, Jamie beside her apparently struggling just as much. "Well, it's where we live."

"Oh, okay." Undeterred, Quinn looked back to Jamie. "Do...um, is your mummy still doing gal-egg?"

His face never faltered, but Claire heard his breath catch as he froze. After a brief squeeze of his fingers, she let go and stood from the couch. "All right, my little muppet, it's time to brush teeth and get in bed." Claire grabbed Quinn's hand and began to walk around the couch but stopped to look back at Jamie. "You'll wait here?"

Pale-faced even as he was, he nodded with a shaky smirk. "Aye, Sassenach. I'll be here."

Fifteen minutes later, teeth brushed, hair braided, and pyjamas donned, Quinn ran around the couch with her mother hot on her heels. "She wanted to say goodnight," she explained.

 Standing at the edge of the couch, Quinn waved her hand at him. "Night, Mister...um...." 

"Mr. Jamie," Claire reminded as the "mister" in question chortled. She was glad to see color back in his cheeks and his smile easy again. 

"Night, Mr. Jamie," Quinn said, her j sounding a bit more like dj. To both their surprises, Quinn jumped on the couch and, rocking on her knees, linked her arms around Jamie's neck. Tears warmed Claire's eyes as, after the barest hesitation and a questioning glance at her, he encircled her tiny body in his arms in return. "Nighty-night, sweet lass." 

After Q had been tucked into bed with a kiss and extra hugs from Mummy, Claire eased her bedroom door closed and joined Jamie on the sofa again. Her cheeks ached from grinning as she perched on the edge, arms crossed over her knees with one hand raised to prop up her chin. "You did well tonight," she said. 

"'Twas easy," he answered, leaning back against the cushions. "She's an angel, Claire. Truly."

"She is," Claire agreed. "Mostly. Just wait till you see her on a non-pizza evening. You may reassess after watching a veggie tantrum."

He squinted at her slightly, lips parted just a hair before he pulled her against him. Settling into his side, she rested her head on his shoulder as he stroked his fingers up and down her arm. "Ye ken I'll no' be scared away by a...a tantrum or a cranky toddler, aye?" 

She swallowed and rubbed her face against his cotton t-shirt, inhaling him. 

"Sassenach..."

"I know it in my heart, Jamie," she interrupted. "And soon my head will, too."

He tilted her face up to look at him. Looking into his eyes felt eternal, somehow. A swirling, boundless space that drew her in. That she leapt into willingly. Her arm rose as if on a puppeteer's string, and her fingertips skated along the lines of his cheek and jaw. She thrilled at the tremor that ran through him. "I trust you," she whispered. 

For the first time since they'd met, they found themselves in true privacy, away from colleagues or friends or the general public. When he kissed her then, something deep in her cracked. Walls of ice constructed within her soul fractured, overcome by the flames licking up at them. Heat, sweltering and consuming and roaring unlike anything she'd felt, ripped through her. She fought for breath as his tongue requested entrance and she granted it, her own meeting his. Beneath her touch, he shook. Desperate power barely restrained. The dichotomy of it -- the fierce warrior felled by her touch alone -- only fanned her inner fire.

His hand flattened against her neck and swiped its way down over her shoulders, her back and waist and hips until, after a breath of a pause, it landed on her arse and pulled her closer. She gasped, and he groaned. 

"Christ, I've wanted tae ken how this would feel in my hand since I first saw ye," he breathed before diving for her lips again. 

Minutes ticked by. Or they must have, at least. She had no notion of how long they spent there, lips locked, his hand gripping at her as she stroked his face and hair. She wasn't aware, either, of rocking backward or of pulling him with her. Only when she felt the tentative warmth of his fingers on the bare skin of her waist did she pull back and, panting, take note of their prone position. They lay facing one another, her back pressed into the couch cushions and him on the edge. 

His hands stopped. "Sassenach?"

"Yes," she breathed, nodding. "Not...I mean, not that, not yet. But what you're doing is fine."

Claire cradled his face between her hands and kissed him again, sliding her tongue along his. One of his arms wrapped beneath her, hand still clutching at her arsecheek as he anchored her against him. His other rested beneath her sweater and began a steady, agonizing exploration. Every inch of her sang as he moved from hipbone to the small of her back, upper back over the bra strap, then back down. Palm skimming over the dip of her waist, Jamie groaned into her mouth and crushed her further against him. Against the hardness of him. "Christ, yer so soft."

As the words tumbled through her like a body in free fall, her own fingers itched to feel him. Eyes opening and kiss paused, she latched onto his sea blue gaze as she lifted the hem of his shirt. "Is this..."

"Aye," he answered immediately. "Please, Sassenach."

His gasp when her fingers fell on the taut skin of his stomach, the contractions of his muscles as they trailed up his obliques melted her. She slid her hand along his stomach and around to his back. 

Both of them panted as she shared breath with him again. Just for a moment before he pulled away. She felt bereft, but only until he tasted the skin at her neck, kissing at her pulse point before the tip of his tongue traced along the side of her neck. 

The same moment he nipped at her earlobe, his palm cupped her breast over her bra. How her heart didn't tear from her body and knock him clear across the room, she had no idea. Somehow, though, it remained lodged (and pounding) in her chest as his fingers clenched around her before dipping back down to her ribcage. As the tip of his thumb nudged beneath the edge of her bra, swiping along the bottom curve of her, it stopped beating altogether. 

"Fucking hell," she breathed, back arching toward him as her nails dug into his back, likely leaving red marks as she begged for more. He granted it, his hand -- bolder, surer -- slipping fully to engulf her as she ground her pelvis against him. 

Sensation flooded her and spun her head. He was everywhere. Her ear, her breast, her nipple, her arse, her neck. Foreign sounds filled the air around them as he kneaded and teased her. Keening inhalations and choppy, choked exhalations. His and hers, mingled so as to be indecipherable. 

It had been so long since she'd been touched like this. With affection and reverence and hunger. Certainly not by the one man she'd been with since Quinn was born, perfunctory as it had been. Not even Frank. 

With Jamie, she felt like something more than human. And to listen to him -- his breathing, his noises, the words he muttered beneath his breath -- to know that merely feeling her evoked such a response in him was transcendent. Her inhibitions evaporated completely, leaving behind only raw need.

To hell with not that, not yet. 

But as her hands traced down his torso again and toyed with the edge of his jeans, he stiffened. She stopped immediately. 

One breath, two breaths, three, four. He still didn't move. 

Claire moved her hand away. "I'm sorry," she whispered, breath still ragged. 

"No, mo nighean donn," he answered in an equally breathy tone. "No, lass, it's all right."

"We can stop." Half of her hoped he wouldn't. She prayed he would simply lean in and take her lips as his again. Instead, though, his hands both retreated and he righted himself, pulling her to sit beside him. She clasped one of his hands in hers. His other cradled her cheek and pulled her forehead to rest against his. They breathed, letting stillness descend over them as they returned to themselves. 

"Are you all right?" she asked after a few moments. 

"Aye, mo chridhe. Christ, Sassenach, I want ye with everything I am. I...it just..." His lips landed against her forehead before he sat back, weighing his words. "In the past, it's no' always been how I'd have hoped it would be. So I just...I want to be careful with this. If that makes...any sense." His lips twitched up in a nervous chuckle. 

She nodded without hesitation. "It does." With a smile, she combed through his messy curls. "Would you want some tea? Or wine? You don't have to leave just yet."

His smile could have illuminated the deepest of caves as he nodded. With a cock of his head toward the plastic cups still sitting on the coffee table, he said, "I've filled up on tea, so how about some wine?"

Escaping to the kitchen, Claire took an extra two minutes to recenter herself. When she returned to the living room, glasses in hand, Jamie was standing at the bookcase. He eyed a photo near his shoulder level. 

"Is that yer uncle, then?" he asked, taking one of the glasses from her. 

Nostalgia and a dull, familiar pain twinged in her chest, but just for a moment. "Yes," she answered. Her fingers caressed the cold glass. Behind the pane, she stood in all her seventeen-year-old glory, curls blowing in the wind and her sundress whipping around her legs on her first day of uni. Beside her stood Uncle Lamb, bespectacled and wild-haired and grinning so wide nearly all his teeth showed. His arm hugged her around the shoulders, still strong and healthy. 

"That was his last good year. He'd already been off for a while by this point. A year later..." The lump in her throat prevented any further speech as she caressed her uncle's image again. Jamie leaned into her, kissing her temple and resting his head against her own. 

Clearing her throat, she said, "He's the reason I went into nursing, you know." 

"Aye?"

Claire took a small sip from her glass, nodding. "Kept putting off going to the doctor, insisting he was fine. Until he wasn't." A shaky breath she tried and failed to hide. "It was in his bones. And by the time he finally went in, it was everywhere.

"Toward the end, when he stayed in hospital longer and longer," she continued, "the doctors were all very nice. They did their jobs well. But the nurses...they knew how he liked his sandwiches cut and which radio stations he couldn't stand. They knew when I had exams and they needed to kick me out to go home and study." She rolled her eyes and leaned her own head atop his. 

"I went in one time, earlier than they were expecting me. Not long before he..." She swallowed. "I'd never seen him cry before. I don't even think when my parents died. But he was sobbing to her, and she held him and comforted him. Because he wouldn't in front of me.

"He was in this...cold, sterile place, but they made it as close to home as it could've been. I don't think I've ever admired anyone so much. After he was gone, that's what I decided to do."

Jamie's hand rubbed up and down her back. "Do ye get to do that so much in A&E? Stayin' wi' individual people, I mean."

Claire shrugged. "Not so much. But it still makes a difference. And when I hired in, they had the shifts I needed to take care of Quinn." Another sip, a peek at Jamie to her side. "Don't worry. I love my job, even if it's not quite what I'd planned on."

Grabbing his free hand, she led him over to the sofa. They sat, bodies turned toward each other. She tucked her feet beneath her, as per custom, her bent knees grazing over his. Claire remembered that first night at the coffeehouse, their tentative proximity. How she'd watched the debate in his eyes before he placed his hand on her knee. Now, he did so with hardly a thought, his grip sure.

"I'd wager he was a wonderful man." He tilted his glass up for a drink.

She nodded with a sad smile. "The biggest disappointment in my life is that he never met her. But I try to make sure she knows him."

Jamie nodded but didn't speak. Both sipped on their drinks for a few silent moments. 

"My da..." He swallowed, setting his glass on the side table and twining his fingers with hers. For strength, perhaps, or comfort. "He passed more than four years ago now. He...he and my brother both."

Sympathy surged through her like an electric shock. "Oh, Jamie..."

"Willie was the eldest of us, six years older than me. Christ, he was my...hero. Since we were bairns, I thought he was the brawest person who e'er lived. And he always took me 'round wi' him, even when his mates gave him grief fer it. Taught me how to swim, how to fight, how to brush a horse and how to be gentle wi' 'em." 

His accent thickened as emotion mounted in his voice, and Claire gripped his hands in hers, an anchor amidst a tumultuous sea. The barest flick of the corner of his mouth served as thanks before he carried on. 

"And Da taught us both about whisky and distillin'. I was but twelve when he took me to the still for the first time. Dinna tell yer sister yer samplin' the wares, a ruadh, he'd say," Jamie chuckled. "Wee as she is, she'll take the strap tae all of us, ye ken, lad? But we'd spend hours out there, the three of us, him teachin' us how tae craft and savor it."

The knuckles of his hand shone white as he gripped hers, and his brows cinched together over the bridge of his nose. "I was doin' a year abroad in France during uni, and he was livin' in Glasgow when we got the call from his roommate that he'd just...dropped. Aneurysm." 

Claire scooted closer to him. 

"'Twas hard on all of us, but Da...it broke him, Sassenach. My mam passed when I was wee, and her loss nearly did him in then, but he had three bairns tae care for. But then, to lose one of us too..." The tear that dripped over his cheek and dropped off his jaw shredded her heart, and she squeezed his hands again.

"We buried him five weeks after Willie. His heart just...couldna take it."

Without thinking, she wrapped her arms around his neck and guided his head to rest on her shoulder. He curled into her, arm encircling her waist. She felt the breeze of his measured breaths on her neck. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. They held each other there, a mutual giving and receiving of solace. 

She thought back to that first dinner, the clouds in his eyes when she'd mentioned her own parents' deaths. The way, just for a moment, his face had fallen grey, eyes dimmed. How when she'd reached over and placed her fingers on his hand and his gaze attached to hers, they'd sat that way until the light returned. She just wanted to hold him until the pain disappeared. Which, of course, she knew would never happen. 

"Those were the...lowest months of my life. 'Tween that and--" He stopped himself, swallowing. When he started again, his voice shook. "I was lost in it, for awhile."

"There's no shame in that," she whispered back, hugging him closer. "It's natural. And you found your way out."

He sniffed. "Jenny's the one who brought me out of it. For a time, it wasna at all clear I'd make it out myself. But she told me if I left her tae be the last one of us, that she'd never forgive me. 'Twas the last thing I wanted to do at the time, but I forced myself to...to rejoin the world. And after a while, it got a little easier."

Claire grabbed his hand at her side and brought it to her lips. "You're brave, Jamie. And strong. I'm proud of you." 

His arms tightened around her, and they hovered there for another moment. Jamie pulled away first, placing a gentle kiss on her cheek before sitting up again. As pained as she was by his story, she was humbled even more. To share that kind of heartache, to risk that kind of vulnerability... 

No more hiding. 

"Well, since we're talking about fathers," she started slowly, "there's one more you should probably know about."

His brows pinched together in momentary confusion before he realized who she meant. "Sassenach, ye dinna have tae--"

"Yes, I do." Chin jutted out, their four hands woven together, she met his gaze. "We're in this, right?" Eyes still wet from the baring of his own soul, Jamie nodded as a fresh glean shone from his eyes. She nodded back. "Then you deserve to know...about Frank."

Claire reached over and grabbed her wine glass, taking a sip before starting in. 

"It's not like it's some big, dramatic story. Rather mundane, really," she said, eyes cast to their joined hands. "He was a grad student in Lamb's department. I'd seen him coming and going every so often, but we met again at a function in Lamb's honor halfway through my third year at uni. They named one of the conference rooms in the history department in his honor. A small thing, but..." She shrugged, shooting him a nervous smile before continuing. 

"We dated for about four months. Frank was a decent guy, but there just wasn't much beyond the physical between us." Claire tried to ignore the flush that rose to her cheeks; of course, her daughter sleeping in the other room left little ambiguity to the matter of her past sex life. Still, her stomach squirmed to relay the details to the man she hoped to know similarly someday. "By the end of the semester, he broke up with me. Which was really fine, as I'd been trying to find the right time to do it myself. We split amicably, and that was that."

Claire paused. Jamie's fingers squeezed her own, and that's when she realized just how tightly she was clenching his. With an apologetic glance, she loosened her grip. 

"But?" he prompted. 

She nodded. "But then two months later, I found out I was pregnant. Don't know how. We'd...well, there had always been...protection."

"Does he ken? About her?"

Barely stifling her scoff, Claire rolled her eyes. "Of course." 

No doubt sensing her unease, Jamie raised her hands to his lips, placing kisses on them both. "I'm sorry. Keep goin'."

"Well," she said, "I asked to meet with him, and I told him. His first response was to offer me money to 'have it taken care of.'" Jamie bristled beside her, and she squeezed his hands in comfort. "I believe in choice, Jamie, but I told him point blank that that wasn't the choice I was making. 

"Next, he offered to marry me. But that wasn't an option either."

"Why no'?"

"For one thing, I only had my practicals left before graduating, and plans had already been made for me to follow John and Hector to Scotland. And he was in the middle of a research grant at the university and had a five-year plan for his master's and doctorate, a ten-year plan for a professorship, so on and so forth." Claire shook her head. "He was just as rooted there as I was unrooted." 

He leaned his shoulder back against the couch cushions without breaking their contact. "And the other thing?"

Claire followed him, collapsing into the cushions with a deep sigh. "When you end a relationship, you're meant to have some sort of emotional reaction, positive or negative. Whether it's sadness or heartache or relief, anger or...or joy, feeling something after a relationship ends shows that it had meant something to you, or that you at least learned something from it. That it wasn't an utter waste of time.

"And when we broke up, I felt...nothing. It was like...returning a library book. Just the end of something. And I refused to sign up for a lifetime of that. But I would never deny him access to his child if he'd wanted it. I told him that if he wanted to be in her life, that we'd figure something out." She shrugged. "But without the full familial unit in tow, he wasn't interested in trading off co-parenting duties. On top of everything else, he had a fairly...old-fashioned view of marriage and child-rearing. I guess it was easier to just let us go and wait for the trophy wife to come along and give him a real family."

Jamie's face was difficult to read as he masked his emotions. It made Claire nervous. "What then?"

"There's no formal legal way for a man to release his parental rights. But we signed an affidavit and had it notarized. He relinquished all paternal rights, and I forfeited any claim to spousal or child support of any kind. He gathered as extensive a medical and family history as he could, in case she'd need it, and that was that.

"And that's really the whole thing. I squeezed in my last practicals over the summer and autumn terms and moved to Scotland after I graduated in December, and Quinn was born the last week of January. And I haven't seen or heard from him since we finalized everything. And that's it."

She felt her heartbeat in her temples and behind her eyes as she waited for him to speak. His lips drew together then parted as his tender eyes fell upon her. "Christ, yer...yer a brave thing yourself. To do it on yer own for so long."

Well, I had John. The contradiction died on her lips as his blue eyes bored into her. In truth, despite everything John and Hector did to care for her, for Quinn, it wasn't the same as a partner. His fingers brushed against the shell of her ear as he tucked a curl behind it, his smile genuine as he added, "I'm proud of you, Sassenach."

For years now, she'd clawed her way through life. Every time she'd felt like a failure or when she was so bone-achingly exhausted she felt like a zombie, she'd borne it without fuss. She'd known she deserved it. She'd chosen her path, chosen to go alone. 

No one had said those words to her, not even John. Now, the force of them stole her breath. Jamie pulled her against his chest before the first of the tears rolled down her face. She felt so safe there, and it all fell away. The self-doubt, the loneliness. The guilt and desperation that had filled her first years of motherhood as she'd sought desperately for a suitable father for her child, convinced that no matter how much she gave, Quinn would be missing something without one. The defeat that had chilled her heart when she finally relinquished that dream.

As his scent filled her nose and the steady warmth of him enveloped her, she allowed the tears free rein. Her hand covered her mouth, muting her sputtering sobs so as not to wake Quinn. And all the while, he cradled her. 

"Aye, Sassenach," he whispered above her. "Yer strong, too, and ye've done well wi' her. And I am so, so verra proud of you."

Chapter Text

"All right, we're going to stand up now. Ready?"

Claire held her hands out to Mary Hawkins, who looked back at her as though she'd proposed they find a cliff and jump off without a parachute. Still, she hesitantly reached out, and Claire grabbed her forearms below her wrist guards, ensuring she had a firm grip as she helped the new skater to stand without rolling.

"So far, so good," she encouraged, and Mary released a nervous breath of a laugh. Fully geared with borrowed helmet, knee and elbow pads, and wrist guards, Mary looked every bit like a baby deer venturing from her mother for the first time. She was a tiny thing with wide eyes that only exaggerated her timid demeanor. Her fingers dug into Claire's arms where she clung as she adjusted to the sensation of wheels beneath her feet. One day soon, Claire hoped, she'd put them on and feel invincible. 

Who needs a cape when you've got skates?

As she guided Mary across the carpet (rented squares temporarily placed at the staging area as a safe place for green skaters to gain their skate-legs, as it were), she heard Geillis already admonishing her own newbie. "Sit yer arse down, Dee. Ye dinna stand on yer skates till all yer gear is on!"

Each October, the Reekie Rollers hosted a two-month derby clinic for novice skaters. Monday practices became newbie nights where those interested in joining the team could come and learn the basics before the more rigorous training and rostering qualifiers after the new year. With only two games left in the season, the team used it to hone their foundational skills and wind down the year.

Mary froze at the edge of the carpet. In her impossibly wide eyes, Claire saw the precipice she knew Mary was terrified of plummeting from. So she became a parachute. 

"You've got this, Mary," Claire said with a squeeze of her forearm. Rolling to stand behind her, Claire braced her hands on Mary's tucked elbows. "Ready?"

Another deep breath later, and they rolled onto the smooth concrete. As soon as Mary's wheels touched the smooth surface, her feet whipped out from under her. With a huff, Claire caught her before she hit the ground and pulled her back up. She shifted again so she was face to face with Mary, holding both hands and gently pulling her stiff body forward. "You're all right, no harm done."

But her cheeks were already pink with embarrassment and her eyes glassy. Strands of light brown hair not trapped by the helmet floated about her face as she shook her head. "No, no, no, I can't do this."

"You can do this. Nobody skates without falling. It's an integral part of derby. In fact, that's the very first thing you'll learn is how to fall, and fall safely."

"No, you...you don't understand. I am...am just...I'm not built for this type of thing."

Maybe it was the mother in her who hoped that if Quinn ever had that look on her face, that she'd find someone who'd treat her with love. Perhaps it was Mary's English accent, similar to her own. Regardless, Claire was determined to comfort her but also to push her beyond what she believed herself capable of.

She smiled at the girl before her. "I think you'll surprise yourself what you're built for. You came here for a reason. Don't tell me why, but do you have it in mind?" Mary nodded with choppy bobs, eyes glued to the floor in front of her skates. "Then don't hold yourself back before you even get to do it. If it's not for you, that's still okay, and you'll know you didn't let fear stop you from trying. Yes?"

Swallowing, clenching her fingers even tighter on Claire's arm, she nodded again. Like a tugboat to a ship, Claire led a still-stiff Mary as they began moving again. Face to face, hand in hand, they orbited the track on an interminable lap. By the second one, Claire pulled her hands away. Mary's eyes bugged, but she moved her feet and, inch by inch, propelled herself forward. "That's right...bend your knees, and you'll balance better...I know it's scary, but you'll do better if your eyes are up...look to me...there you go...keep those knees bent. See! You're doing it!" 

Glacially, but yes, she was moving. Only once did she fall, landing with an oomph on her backside. Claire helped her stand and waved her on, and Mary completed an entire lap on her own. When Claire cheered her on, she smiled through gritted teeth, arms thrown out to her sides and shoulders hunched around her ears.

A whistle rang through the air, and they made their way to the center of the track. Five newbies had shown up for the first night, each paired with a current team member as a mentor. The rest of the team surrounded them, ready to go through the paces together.

Coach skated to the center of the group, a friendly smile poking through his brindle beard. "Everyone feelin' good on yer skates, then?" Rupert's eyes scanned the new faces before stopping on Mary's visibly stressed countenance. His eyes flicked to Claire in silent question; she answered with a minute nod, and he continued. "All right, then we'll start wi' everyone's favorite part: falls."

"Told you," she whispered in Mary's ear. The shy giggle that answered her made Claire want to smother her with hugs.

Rupert went through his usual instructions, showing the proper technique for "taking a knee," emphasizing the importance of engaging the core to fall forward rather than backward. 

"But if ye canna help it, then I have three words for ye." He raised a padded fist, a finger popping up for each word he spoke. "Pick. A. Cheek."

Laughter rippled through the group, and Rupert along with them. "Ha, ha, yes, very funny indeed, till ye land straight back on yer tailbone and ye canna even sit tae take a shite wi'out remembering that ye didna pick. a. cheek."

He spent a few more minutes illustrating how to fall small (to the knees, then elbows, then forearms, keeping yourself compact like a frog rather than sprawled like a starfish) before sending them to practice. Mentors helped their assigned newbies as Rupert moved from pair to pair, offering extra advice or encouragement as needed. 

Mary had just fallen to both knees -- hard -- with a grimace. She stood without assistance (a small victory on its own), and Rupert glided to stand beside Claire as she spoke. "Remember not to drop both knees at the same time. If you drop one then the other -- boom, boom," she demonstrated, her right knee landing a blink before her left, before popping back up, "you won't have quite as hard an impact. Say it out loud if it helps you remember."

"Aye," Rupert chimed in. "And believe it or no', it's easier wi' a bit more speed. Ye'll get a bit more of a slide in, and it willna hurt in yer knees so bad. Watch the difference." He rolled back a few feet and, at a glacial pace, plonked to his knees. "See? All yer energy is goin' straight down. It's loud, and it feckin' hurts. But if ye take it a wee bit faster..." He reset, then rolled forward at a moderate speed before taking to his knees, plastic pads hissing as they slid across the floor. "It helps tae disperse the force of yer fall. Give it a try."

Mary's cheeks pinked again at the extra attention, but she nodded, a determination behind her eyes. After a visible gulp, she pushed off a touch harder than she had been previously. Her lips traced out a silent boom, boom as she landed on her left knee, then her right. The loud knocking of her pads still made Claire's own knees ache, but she'd at least managed to stagger her fall. She looked to them both with the question in her eyes. 

"Better! Keep at it. And dinna be too afraid o' the ground, lass. That's what the pads are for, ken?" With a light tap to Mary's helmet, he moved on to the next pair. 

For the next hour, Claire guided Mary through more knee-taps as well as the other lesson for the night (T-stops). By the time Rupert blew the whistle to signal the end of practice, Mary's smile could be seen from across the track. 

Claire followed her to their bags, and they de-geared together. "How do you feel?" 

"Well, I'm not dead. Which is more than I expected, really."

The crunch of ripping Velcro created a cacophony all around them. She cocked an eyebrow as she pulled off her elbow pads. "So who's not built for derby now?"

Mary rolled her eyes. "Falling down is still different from actually hitting people. Still plenty of time to get my arse handed to me."

"Hey, who's handlin' arses over here wi'out me?" Geillis strolled up, hand on hip and sweaty red hair pulled back in a quick braid. 

"We wouldn't dare," Claire assured her as she stuffed the last of her gear into her bag. "Mary, Geillis. Geillis, Mary."

"Or Wycked Sista -- Wycked fer short. Whichever ye prefer," Geillis added. "Ye have a name yet, Mary?"

"Oh, um..." She rolled her lips between her teeth. "I hadn't...not really..."

"Now you have to share." Claire zipped her bag and stood up. "Come on, what're you thinking?"

Flushing deep scarlet, Mary averted their gazes. "Well, Jane Eyre is my favorite heroine, so I thought...Jane Slayre. But it's stupid, I know. I'm going to think on it a bit mo--"

"It's brilliant," Geillis cut her off. Her eyes trailed down Mary's slight frame, and she gave her a kind smile. "Slayre...it suits ye." Mary absolutely beamed, but Claire didn't fixate on it; already she'd learned that any excess attention, even positive, was uncomfortable for her. 

Geillis spoke up again. "Anyway, we're goin' out fer a bite and a sip. Either of ye care to join?"

Mary gathered up her things and shook her head. "My boyfriend's outside waiting already. Thanks, though."

"Next week, then," Geillis turned her eyes and smirk on Claire. "And I suppose ye'll have a man waitin' on ye as well?"

Rolling her eyes, Claire made for the exit with Mary and Geillis on her heels. "I have to pick up Quinn, and then, yes, I'm calling Jamie tonight."

"Mmhmm. One o' these nights, yer comin' out wi' us, Claire. I'm determined."

"Just means you have to have a dram for me. I know you're extremely put out over it."

"Extremely." With a smirk and a kiss to the cheek, Geillis waved bye and walked toward her car. "Night, Sass. Night, Slayre."

Mary waved at a thin man sitting in the car three spots away before turning to Claire. "Thanks for everything tonight."

"Of course. I'm really glad you came, and I'm happier you stayed." She leaned in for a sweaty hug, and Mary held tight for a moment before they pulled away. "I'll see you Monday. And you have my number, so if you have any questions at all, don't hesitate to use it. Promise?"

"Promise."

 

#

 

Jamie lay in bed, phone to his ear and lips pulled into a wide grin. Claire had been regaling him about tonight's practice and the new skater she'd been partnered with. A shy, scared wee thing, apparently, but to hear Claire talk, the lass had already made great strides. 

He could listen to her excited rambling all night long and never bore with it. The fire of joy in her voice settled into his chest, warm and comforting as a hearth in winter. 

"I just hope she comes back next week," Claire said on the end of a sigh. "Seven days is plenty enough time to psyche herself out. I'm tempted to text her sometime this week, but I'm not sure if that would make her more anxious."

Standing, Jamie meandered toward the kitchen. "I dinna think there's anything wrong with a friendly check-in. Make her feel like she's part o' the group already."

"Maybe. Probably." She huffed into the phone again, and Jamie poured himself a glass of water. "Anyway, I've been droning on forever. How was your meeting today? What did Ned say?"

He groaned and leaned back against the edge of the counter. Ned Gowan, the family lawyer, had helped him go over his employment contract with Mack and figure out just how much Jamie owed his uncles for breaking it. "Och, it'll just depress me, Sassenach. Talk to me more about yer wee Bambi."

An empathetic hum tickled in his ear. "That bad?"

"Half my savings and a three-year non-compete." Jamie downed the rest of the water in his glass and set it in the sink. Momentary frustration surged through his veins. His fingers gripped the rim of the counter. Eyes closed, he sighed and released them, imagining the stress seeping from his bones like dye in water. "It'll be fine. And it's worth it to be gone from that place."

"I'm sorry."

"Dinna be. Should've left a long time ago. Maybe I'll take ower managing Lallybroch from Jenny till after her maternity leave is through. There's still a bit of time to book some last-minute winter and summer weddings. We hadna planned on doin' much wi' her having twins, but it would at least give me somethin' to do."

Her smile was nearly audible. "That sounds wonderful. You'd get to be up there more, I imagine. You love it up there."

"Aye," Jamie answered as he padded back toward the bedroom. "It's...a different world up there. Quieter. Peaceful. Feels like a place that shouldn't exist anymore."

"Well, I hope to see it someday."

Settling against the headboard, he bit down on his bottom lip as the corners of his lips turned up again, employment woes forgotten. He thought back to that first time he'd proposed it over tea and tarte, terrified that he'd just stuck a colossal foot in his mouth. 

Of course, Friday night had changed it all. Meeting Quinn had been the catalyst, walls between them crashing down like dominoes. 

"I'm sure it can be arranged," he finally answered. 

They sat in silence. The faint sound of her breath in his ear reminded him of the breeze there at Lallybroch. How it whistled, rustled his hair. How it always seemed to smell of earth and life. 

He couldn't wait to bring them. Soon. 

Before he could speak, she gasped. "Oh! I didn't even tell you the cutest part."

"Hmm?"

"Mary, her derby name," she clarified. "Jane Slayre, like Jane Eyre. Of course that would be her inspiration. She's adorable."

Jamie chuckled and rested his head back against the headboard. "Aye, I've got a bookish vibe from her, e'en just from what ye've said."

"Oh, a hundred percent." She paused again. "You know, I've been trying to think of your derby name for a while, and I cannot come up with it."

"Yer kidding," Jamie laughed. 

"Nope! So, come on, if you had to pick one, what would it be?"

He heard a rustling over the line and guessed she was sinking into the cushions of the couch. Picturing her there, memories of her soft skin and how desperately he'd clutched at her sent his blood rushing. Warmth emanated from his ears and face such that his fingers holding the phone sensed it. 

Giving himself a shake, he focused on the conversation at hand. "Honestly, I wouldna even ken where to start."

"Well, you can base it on your interests like Mary, or your actual name. What could we do with James Alexander Fraser..." she murmured thoughtfully.

Russet eyebrows jumped up nearly to his hairline. "How d'ye ken that?"

She snorted. "I stole your wallet briefly, remember? You think I didn't poke around in it before giving it back? Besides," she added before a pause, probably sipping on a drink, voice dripping with mirth, "after very nearly surrendering my virtue to you, I'd hope I'd at least know your middle name."

Another bolt of heat ripped through him. Mention of their brief, heated exchange did nothing to keep his attention trained on the topic at hand. Still, he had to chuckle. "Well, thirty percent of the way there isna so bad, I suppose."

"What do you mean?"

Smirking, Jamie said, "I use 'James Alexander Fraser' as my everyday name and on documents and such. 'Tis easier than the full."

"You...have more?"

"Oh, aye."

He let a dramatic silence linger before Claire finally broke it. "Are you...going to share, then?"

Leaning forward and resting his elbows on crossed knees, he listed them with intentional laziness. "James. Alexander. Malcolm. Mackenzie. Fraser."

"That is...quite a mouthful," Claire said after a minute. "I can certainly see how that wouldn't fit on a driving license."

"Indeed. Now imagine how long it took tae learn how to write all that as a bairn. Throw in the nickname 'Jamie,' and I was a goner. Ye ken, I actually argued wi' my first teacher that was my actual name, Jamie, no' James."

Giggles sang in his ears and sent a shock of giddiness right through him. "I can just imagine a tiny red-headed boy with the cutest little scowl, staring down his teacher because she got his name wrong."

He hummed in agreement. "When she refused to concede, I think I called her a walloper, actually."

"Jamie!" 

"Aye, that's what I said. She wouldna listen, though. Got quite a thrashin' fer that."

She cackled some more. Barely two months ago, he'd watched her across the warehouse, imagining what it would feel like to make her laugh. It felt like the best kind of vertigo, balloons expanding in his heart and head. Some mixture of pride and disbelief. The bubbling heat of euphoria that he'd pleased her fizzing throughout his body.

"You, my dear, are a ridiculous human being."

After a few more minutes, they said goodnight and hung up the phone. Laying in the dark later, Jamie relished the total, unadulterated contentment that was his time with Claire. Every moment with her, even just these phone calls, further proved what he had known for some time. That she was his. And he, hers. Beyond labels, beyond vows, he knew it in the truest, deepest part of himself. 

When he woke the next morning and checked his phone, he saw a number of texts from after he'd fallen asleep. Reading them through bleary eyes, he found himself laughing harder with each one.

 

11:47 Sassenach: Climbing into bed. Goodnight, Jamienotjames. Sweet dreams. ❤️

12:02 Sassenach: JHRCHRIST. 

12:02 Sassenach: Jamie. I got it. 

12:03 Sassenach: James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser = JAMMF

12:03 Sassenach: Power JAMMF!!

12:03 Sassenach: I'm a genius. You're welcome. 

12:04 Sassenach: Okay, for real. Goodnight, JAMMF. 

 

Christ, how he loved her.