It was a marriage of convenience for them both.
John’s bride was quite well aware of his sensibilities, his preference for the non-female sex. And he was quite well aware of the precariousness of her situation. The tragedy of it as well.
Even if he could forget, it would have been impossible. She was constantly twisting the silver engagement ring she’d been given, constantly resting her hands on her stomach, whether she realized she was doing it or not.
Perhaps the bloke signing their marriage license at the courthouse noticed as well, because he smirked at John with a raised eyebrow when she stroked her flat abdomen for perhaps the millionth time since they’d arrived. John had pursed his lips together for an uncomfortable smile. His assumptions weren’t incorrect, of course, but there were many pieces missing.
The child, for one, still invisible and yet still so enormous in its mother’s heart already, was not John’s. And neither was the ring that lived on her right hand, something he would never ask her to remove.
The wedding band on her left hand seemed to weigh her down, like a ball and chain pulling her deeper into the black depths of her sorrow.
He drove them home from the courthouse to his flat, or rather their flat. He should start referring to it as such. It was her home now, after all. Their home, the three of them.
Well…four of us, really.
He hung between them like a thick cloud of smoke, solid as a brick wall, at all times. They didn’t speak of it aloud; they didn’t need to. He lived in these rooms rent-free without even needing his name spoken into existence.
John knew that the man who was gone had been the love of her life, her one great love.
And John knew that he was his as well.
He’d confessed it in the black of night, half-buried by rubble when he was sure he would die. They’d gone through basic training together, becoming good friends almost instantly. He’d defended John’s honor when the teasing started; he told him that John was more manly than those other clotheids would ever be. John kept those words, and the gentle touch of his hand that came with them, close to his heart.
“I love you, James Fraser. I love you more than I’ve loved anyone in my life.”
Unfortunately, he hadn’t died.
John had recovered rather quickly from his injuries and proceeded to avoid Jamie at all costs. Jamie was angry as a bull when he’d finally confronted him.
“D’ye think I give a damn, John? D’ye think it’s ever made a difference to me before? I bloody knew before ye said something, ye damned fool.”
John hadn’t realized he’d been that obvious.
“I’m only sorry that I canna be what ye want me to be, a charaid.”
Jamie held him while he cried, and if he hadn’t been mad, he could have sworn he felt Jamie’s tears soak into his hair as well.
Sitting at the kitchen table in his flat across from his new bride, John teared up at the mere memory.
He’d been so ashamed…and Jamie hadn’t given a damn. He was actually sorry that he couldn't return his affection. Instead of John’s confession wrenching them apart as he’d been so terrified of, it brought them even closer.
He watched his bride stare into her teacup as the liquid inside quickly chilled in the November air.
“Are you cold? Should I put on a fire?”
Her hands remained fastened around the teacup and her eyes remained locked inside it as she nodded silently.
God, she had changed.
The first time he’d laid eyes on her was only in a photograph, and even then he’d been astonished by her beauty.
“This is her,” Jamie said as he produced the small photograph that he kept in an inside breast pocket at all times, his face melting into an adoring gaze that took John’s breath away. “My Sorcha.”
She was giving the camera a smirk, eyes sparkling even in black and white, wild dark curls blowing in the wind.
She looked so alive, and that was just a photograph.
When he’d finally seen her in person, he understood quite well why his friend was so drawn to her. She was exquisite, even in her combat nurse uniform. She was radiant, so full of love and life. Her eyes were liquid honey and solid amber all at once. When she laughed, she tossed her head back and smacked whoever was closest, usually Jamie.
If they were beautiful apart…they were a glorious masterpiece together.
Even in the dirt and smoky haze of the camp, when John looked at the pair of them, he could have been looking at a painting. The rest of the world fell away when Jamie had his Claire back in his arms.
It was the most beautiful thing John had ever seen.
A woman was a rare thing in camp, being that most men met their wives elsewhere when they were on leave. But Claire had to be on leave as well if she wanted to see Jamie, and being that they were not yet married, the army wouldn't be bothered lining up their leaves.
And so they’d followed each other. They’d travelled from one battlefield to another, from one hellscape to the next just to be with one another. Even during what was meant to be a reprieve, Claire could be found tending to all sorts of illness and injury around the camp, Jamie trailing beside her like a lost puppy.
Jamie had told John they’d been handfast the night he’d been drafted, an old Scottish tradition that allowed young couples to be married in every sense of the word except in the eyes of the law. There hadn’t been time for a wedding before he was to leave, so that was the best they could do. What mattered to Jamie most was their marriage being seen by the eyes of God, and handfasting accomplished that to his liking. And so for all intents and purposes, Jamie and Claire were married. John could hear it quite well when she was in camp; she was not exactly very quiet about it.
When John returned from starting a fire in the hearth with the intention of leading her into the room to warm herself, she’d replaced her teacup with a glass of whisky and was tossing the entire thing back. She topped her glass off again and then filled a second one. She handed it to him with a sardonic smile, her eyes hooded. There was no trace of that lively youth she’d had when he met her.
“Thank you, my dear,” he said warmly. “The fire is ready, if you’d like to move.”
“Thank you, John.” She stood up and made her way out of the kitchen, taking the bottle with her. Apparently, his bride did not intend to remain sober today. He wondered if she thought that he was going to force her to consummate this marriage, which was just about the last thing on his mind. She should know that he was more than capable of pretending for everyone else, but perhaps he should make himself clear.
“Claire,” he began as they settled into opposite armchairs in front of the fireplace. “You know that I don’t plan to — ”
“Jamie said he kissed you.”
John felt like he’d been smacked in the face with a frying pan. He cleared his throat.
“I beg your pardon?”
“He said that you shared a moment together, and that he kissed you.”
She was staring at him intently, but she didn’t look angry or accusatory. If anything, she seemed possessed by nothing more than morbid curiosity.
“Well…yes. That’s true.”
“We kept secrets, but we didn’t lie,” she said softly, taking a sip of her whisky. “I saw the way you looked at him from the very first time I met you.”
“I’m sorry — ”
“Please don’t be.” Her eyes held such sincerity that he almost wept as he had when Jamie had said just about the same thing. “I just…I wanted to know. That…that last night. The night that we…conceived.” Her hand rested absently on her abdomen again. “I asked him if anything had ever happened. And he told me you shared a kiss.”
“It…didn’t go any farther than that. I wouldn’t have let it, even if he wished it.”
“I know,” she said, taking another sip. “I wasn’t angry. I’m still not. I understand the need for that intimacy in such a hopeless place. And I understand that you…you were very close.” Her voice tightened, and she swallowed hard against the lump in her throat. “I was glad, really. I was grateful to you for being there for him when I couldn’t.”
John didn’t know what to say. He nodded curtly and took a long drag of his whisky.
“What did it feel like?”
He almost choked on the liquid.
“I know it sounds mad. But I…I want to hear you talk about it.” Her chin trembled, but she maintained her strong facade. “I want to hear because I…I want to remember with someone. What it was like to…to love him.”
John blinked back his own tears and ran a hand down the length of his face. He needed a bit more liquid courage before he dove into the details of how Jamie tasted and how he felt beneath his hands. Claire seemed to understand, because she allowed a long silence to pass between them before John finally spoke.
He poured his heart out to her, detailed the feel of Jamie’s lips like he was dictating poetry, described the way Jamie’s short-cut curls felt between his fingers, recalling the way he smelled.
“Like...silver from the gunpowder...but he also smelled vaguely of...aftershave. I remember wondering how on earth he’d come into possession of such a thing. I breathed it in so deeply it made me dizzy.” He closed his eyes and breathed in through his nose, and he could swear he smelt it again.
“And then the rest of the world fell away...even the gunpowder and the smoke...and I just smelt...him.” Eyes still closed, his tongue darted out to lick his lips. He’d wanted so desperately to run his tongue over Jamie’s lips, but he’d been afraid, paralyzed with shock that it was even happening.
“I was so overwhelmed by the...the feeling of him. His lips were so warm and so solid and so timid...and it was over so quickly, but I...” He opened his eyes, blinking back tears. “I saw an...an entire lifetime between us in that kiss. I wanted to...to fold myself into him and stay there forever.” His voice broke, and he anxiously ran a hand through his hair.
He could almost see the man right in front of him again, could almost feel him warm and alive in his hands again; he could feel the shuddering whisper of whisky breath on his lips and chin and nose, and he brought trembling fingers to rest over his mouth, as if to trap the feeling there. He looked up, seeing the real world again for the first time in several breaths, and his heart leapt into his throat to see that Claire was shuddering with silent tears.
“Claire…” he choked out, leaning onto his knees with his elbows, terrified that he’d gone too far. “I’m…I’m sorry…”
She shook her head, putting down her whisky on the table beside her chair. “That’s…that’s exactly it.”
He blinked dumbly at her, and she abruptly leaned forward with a tiny sob, clasping his hands in hers.
“That’s exactly what it felt like,” she said, something in her eyes that was almost desperate. “Thank you…thank you.”
She leaned forward and pressed her lips to their joined hands, hot and soft and wet. She kept her face atop their hands in John’s lap, and she fell apart. It wasn’t long before she slipped out of her own chair and was kneeling before him, sputtering hysterically into his lap, squeezing his hands until her knuckles were white.
John was stunned, but he did the only thing he could do: he gave her comfort. He stroked her hair as she wept, rubbed her back, squeezed back on her hands. Somehow, he ended up on the floor with her, leaning against the seat of the chair and holding her trembling form to his chest. His own tears dissolved into her curls, and soon he was holding onto her for dear life as well.
“We are the only two people in the world who share this pain,” Claire said against his neck, her voice thick with hours of tears. “This pain…of losing Jamie.”
John nodded fervently, tightening his grip on her tiny body yet again.
“We’ll carry it…together,” John whispered into her hair, and then pressed a kiss there. He felt her nod into the crook of his neck and nuzzled in closer.
More and more hours passed, and more and more whisky emptied from the bottle, and then a second bottle, and then a third. It was well past suppertime, but neither were capable of preparing anything to eat in the state they were in, and their empty stomachs only served to send the alcohol straight to their already muddled brains.
They spent hours going back and forth talking about the mutual love of their lives, weeping and clinging to each other, and then they would laugh their drunken heads off, Claire swatting at him as she howled.
John had loosened the top buttons of his shirt and removed his belt, and Claire had undone the top buttons of her dress as well.
“God…I’m melting…” Claire sighed, pulling her dress over her head and revealing the tiny white slip underneath. “You don’t mind?”
John burst into hysterical laughter, and Claire soon followed.
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” Claire sputtered. “Of course you don’t bloody mind. I could be stark naked and you wouldn’t bat an eye!”
They howled again, and she swatted at him.
“Not to mention I’m bloody married to you!”
They howled a bit more until Claire had spilled her whisky onto the rug and fell over into John’s lap.
“I think we should get you into bed, my dear.”
She giggled, biting her lip, and John was briefly mesmerized by the way a blush bloomed down her neck and into her chest. He heaved her to her feet, and they laughed together as they both swayed their way into the bedroom.
“You’re going to have quite the hangover tomorrow.” John was attempting to make more lighthearted conversation, but as he looked down at the woman in his arms, he was taken aback to see something he could only describe as hunger in her eyes.
“Would you…” He struggled to think through his drunken haze. “Would you like a nightgown, my dear?”
He made to pull away from her and go to the wardrobe, but she fisted his shirt in her hands, not ready to release him. She pressed her face into his neck and hummed, vibrating the skin there, and it gave him gooseflesh.
“Claire…” His tone could have been a warning, or pleading. He wasn’t at all sure.
Her small tongue darted out of her mouth and traced a line from the bottom of his neck all the way up to where his jawline began, and he shuddered violently. She giggled all the while her tongue was hanging out of her mouth, creating a lusty, wanton sound.
John gently took her face in his hands and pushed her away just enough to look in her eyes. They were hooded with drink and glassy as a porcelain doll’s. He thought he detected the slightest bit of fear, and it broke his heart.
“It’s alright. We don’t…we don’t have to.” He gently took her hands off of his chest and held them loosely between them. “I didn’t expect you to. We don’t have to.”
She gave a heartbreaking little whimper and began nuzzling her face into his chest, practically leaning her entire body weight on him. “Please.”
He didn’t think he’d heard her properly at first.
“Really, we can just…go to bed. On separate sides.”
It was almost a moan in its intensity. She began pawing at his clothing, pressing desperate kisses into his neck.
“I need you,” she groaned. “I need this. I need you, Jamie.”
His blood ran cold, and it would appear hers did as well by the way she froze completely. She practically went cool to the touch.
He firmly took her chin between his fingers and forced her to look at him.
“I’m not Jamie.”
She could hardly stand on her own, could hardly focus her bleary eyes on him.
“I’m not Jamie,” he said again, more gently, moving his hand off her chin to cup the back of her head. “I can’t…I won’t have you like this. You’re drunk and…you’re not thinking clearly.”
She welled up with tears, looking very much like a wounded animal in response to his apparent rejection.
“I’m sorry, my dear. I know how much you’re hurting.”
God, did he know it.
“And you know that I…well…you know me.” He didn’t feel the need to speak it aloud again.
“You want to,” she sputtered. “I can feel it.”
She very suddenly and very firmly palmed him, causing him to jolt. And damn him, she was right. For some reason, some ungodly, horrific reason, he was aroused.
“It’s…it’s not you, Claire,” he said softly after regaining his composure, though he made no move to remove her hand. “It’s…it’s him. I’m standing here wishing it was his hand.”
“Good.” She tightened her grip, and he groaned involuntarily. “Because I’m standing here wishing it was his cock.”
She kissed him then, sloppily, heavily, lapping her tongue over him.
“Make love to Jamie, John,” she panted between kisses. “You make love to him, and so will I.”
“It’s not…it isn’t right.” He firmly seized her wrist and removed her grip from him, pinning her hands away from him.
Hands or no, Claire was never one to give up. When she wanted something, she would get it, consequences be damned.
She began gyrating her hips against him, and God help him if it didn’t make him even harder. It wasn’t long before he released her hands and finally surrendered to her, allowing her to pin him to the bed and have her way with him. He could have stopped her if he’d truly wanted. He could have tossed a bucket of water over her, given her a light but firm smack, shouted at her, gone to sleep in the living room. But, God…he wanted this, needed this as badly as she did.
He reached out and sought purchase in her skin as she rode him, soft in all the places where Jamie was solid. She was wild, a mad look in her eye as she tossed her head back in delicious ecstasy, and yet she was entirely lucid, he was sure of it. Perhaps the moments leading up to their joining were hazy, but now she was more than aware.
Her hands were all over him as well, small and yet hard and demanding. She even gripped his hands at one point and directed them exactly where she wanted to be touched.
She cried out for Jamie as she came around him, and God help him if he didn’t do the same as he spilled into her.
It was filthy, it was shameful, and he was disgusted and confused and terrified.
But when she collapsed onto his chest and wept like a broken child, everything faded but the need to comfort her, to protect her.
“I need ye to promise me something, John.”
“If anything should happen to me…”
“God, Jamie, please don’t talk like this.”
“Ye said anything, man. I need ye to mean it.”
He looked into those steel blue eyes, his pupils shrunken to tiny pinpricks. John nodded, though his heart hammered with terrible foreboding.
“If anything should happen to me…I need…I need ye to promise me that ye’ll look after Claire.”
John took a moment to blink back his shock.
“I ken she’s strong as a stallion and stubborn as a mule. She’d have ye think that she doesna need any help. Truth be told, I ken she doesna. But just…fer my peace of mind. Will ye swear to me that ye’ll look after her?”
John swallowed thickly, unable to stop the rush of tears.
“She means more to me than anything in this world. And I’m entrusting her to ye, my dearest friend. And in return, if ye want…I would be willing to…”
John's eyes widened, unblinking.
“If ye want.”
John’s mouth hung agape, and he stammered incoherently for a moment.
“Are you actually offering your body to me in payment if I promise to look after Claire?”
Jamie’s jaw hardened, and he nodded once. “Aye.”
“Dear God…” John shook his head, and he actually started laughing. “That I should live to hear such an offer!”
Jamie blinked rapidly, and John could have sworn he saw tears gathering there. “Ye dinna want me then?”
“I shall probably want you ’til the day I die!” John exclaimed, and then lowered his voice to a whisper, remembering that tents were thin, flimsy things. “But tempted as I am…do you really think I’d accept? I should feel my honor most insulted, save that I know the depth of feeling that prompted it.”
Jamie wet his lips and nodded, averting his eyes and staring at a stain in the tent. “Aye. I’m…I’m sorry. I didna mean tae insult yer honor. I just…I thought to…to give ye something of what is most precious to ye in return for protecting that which is most precious to me.”
John placed a comforting hand on Jamie’s knee, desperate for his friend to not feel ashamed. “I understand.”
Jamie nodded again, and then forced himself to look at John. “Besides, I…I wouldnae ha’ offered if it wasna something I could bear.”
Despite how fiercely John blushed, how much he wanted to tear his eyes away, he didn’t. He held Jamie’s gaze as he whispered, almost inaudible: “You could…bear it?”
“Aye,” he said without hesitation. “I could.”
Then before John knew what was happening, Jamie’s lips were on his, and his soul ignited. It was sweet and chaste, and gentle and beautiful.
Jamie was beautiful.
He pulled away after about three seconds, and the two men maintained their intense eye contact.
“You have my word, Jamie,” John whispered fervently. “God forbid you are taken from us, I will keep safe what you love most. And I am…most grateful for such an honor.”
“Thank ye.” His steel blue eyes welled up with tears, and he clutched at the back of John’s neck. “Thank ye, John.”
John had sworn it with everything he had to give in his heart and soul. She was the most precious thing in the world to Jamie, and he’d left her to his care. It felt like an honor he was not worthy of. He was not worthy of the man as he lived, and he was certainly not worthy of the woman he’d loved and the child she would bear. Perhaps Jamie hadn’t meant for him to marry the woman if something should happen, but what else was he to do? Leave her unmarried and childless in a world so cruel?
No, he’d sworn on his honor that she’d be safe with him, forever and always.
And as he held her, naked, broken, and sobbing to his own naked form, trembling like a leaf with the force of her tears, John could feel her seeping into the cracks that Jamie had left in his heart. He could feel her already becoming as precious to him as she’d been to Jamie…as precious to him as Jamie had been to him.
Don’t fret, Jamie, love. I’ve got her.
I’ve got them both.