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Here's All the Melting Thrill (And Here's the Kindling Fire)

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The first time they encounter each other, neither of them knows it.

She’s brand new to Leoch, there for the first time since her interview, and her nose is buried deep in onboarding paperwork, brow furrowed and lip between her teeth as she attempts not to make any mistakes - refuses to. He is heading back down to the lobby after his most recent follow-up with his doctor, the whole thing routine by now: an assurance from Dr. Viswanath that everything has healed wonderfully, an assurance from Jamie that there’s no longer any discomfort, even at work, another brief discussion of possible further cosmetic options, and then a chat about rugby that takes the majority of the time.

He has his phone out as they pass each other, one entering and one exiting the elevator. Later, as he dozes off on the sofa to the murmur of the TV, he will have the strangest image in his mind of brown curls just at the edge of his vision, a scent memory of plain hand lotion and green things, and even though it does not smell much like Lallybroch at all, he will think to himself, Home.

As soon as she steps out of the stairwell, there is the unwelcome sound of Mary Hawkins saying, “Oh, Claire, th-thank goodness!”

Most of the time, Claire likes Mary. She’s sweet, keeps stickers in the pockets of her scrubs for kids, but it didn’t take long to wonder how exactly Mary had stumbled into A&E rather than working at a nice pediatric clinic or taking vitals in one of the other departments, something steady and undemanding - podiatry, perhaps, or dermatology. That overwhelmed tone of hers, after all, could indicate anything from a troublesome splinter to a tricky-to-find vein to a mass casualty event. And yet when she’s running a code or talking down an agitated patient, something else comes to the fore, a determined rightness that Claire recognizes from herself, and she understands.

Still, she can do without whatever has Mary in one of her tizzies tonight.

Things aren’t as busy as she’s ever seen them, but they’re certainly busier than when she left, and it’s obvious why: Mary had spotted her while hurrying over to bed six, where two paramedics are preparing to transfer a patient from their stretcher, and the doctors and most of the nurses are occupied with the group of firefighters, still in their gear, scattered about the other beds.

“Bed fourteen for you, lovely,” says Geillis as she swans over to bed twenty herself, tossing Claire one of her winks on the way. She and Geillis are friends of a sort - they get drinks together sometimes and often turn up to the same lectures on botany and natural medicine, and Claire has more than once appreciated another pair of practiced, unflustered hands around the ward - but sometimes there’s such a strange sense about the other woman, something about her frequent insouciance or the way she seems to take more than a professional interest in the plants they learn about together which strikes Claire amiss.

Trying to push Geillis - and everything else - from her mind, Claire slides back the curtain surrounding bed fourteen, greeting the occupant with a crisp, “Good evening, Mr…?”

“Fraser,” he slots in, head immediately coming up to look at her. “James Fraser.”

He’s still wearing his turnout trousers, although the suspenders are down around his hips, giving a clear view of an apparently muscled chest beneath a black Leoch Fire Department T-shirt. His jacket, utilitarian tan with reflective stripes, is on the chair, across the lap of an older, bearded man wearing a fleece, a pair of striped pajama bottoms, and a scowl.

“Good evening to you, Mr. Fraser,” Claire says with a bare smile as she continues her visual examination. His face is soot-smeared, even more apparently so against the white of the hospital linens, and shows some discomfort when he shifts and coughs, although he is carefully keeping weight off his right side - for the very obvious reason that his arm is quite clearly dislocated. “Seems you’ve had something of an exciting one.”

“Aye, although less than some. Are ye certain that there aren’t others who might need treatment first, lass? I’ll bide until—” He catches in a breath, clearly attempting to suppress another cough; it comes out anyway, harsh against his throat.

“I should damn well say that you won’t. There’s plenty of help to manage the others while I do the same for you,” Claire tells him, reaching to the cart beside his bed for a pair of gloves. “And I’m a grown woman, not a lass.”

On another night, she would have said it with a teasing smile rather than a sharp tone, or would likely not have said it at all; she’s been in Scotland long enough to have grown somewhat accustomed to the diminutive. Shaking her head at herself - regardless of what’s happening in her personal life, she can’t go around cursing and snapping at patients - she opens her mouth to apologize, but before she can, James Fraser gives a driftingly soft, “Aye,” before adding in a normal tone, “Apologies, then, Nurse—?”

“Would the two of ye quit yer flirtin’ and get on with the treatment?” The older man’s voice is as crotchety as Claire might have expected, like squinted eyes and folded arms. “The lad fell and likely pushed that right arm out of joint on the last call, and now probably has the smoke inhalation too, from being so slow to get the wee mask on with only one hand.”

“Wheesht,” James Fraser chides, angling to face him, mouth pulled to the side in suppressed aggravation. “The fire had barely spread to the section I was in, and I did get my mask on, ye codger. Ye werena even there, and aren’t meant to be listening to our band on the radio anyway, as ye well know.”

“I didna hear it from there,” says the other man, eyes narrowing in protest. “I got a text from Glenna Fitz who’s filling in over at the dispatch—”

“Which she only sent because everyone in town's already seen what an interferin’—”

“Is he wrong, though?” interrupts Claire, taking a step closer, and Fraser turns back to her, shakes his head, reluctance obvious in the moment of hesitance he allows himself.

“Well, it’s an easy enough fix,” she says, trying to summon some of her usual professional demeanor. “We’ll give you something for the pain and then pop that arm back in, and you’ll likely stay the night at least to monitor you from the smoke inhalation. I’ll just bring a doctor over to confirm.”

She manages something she imagines is close enough to her usual smile before disappearing back through the curtains again, James Fraser’s voice behind her saying, “Thank you, Nurse—?”

They were already understaffed for the next shift, so her request for overtime was easily accepted. No one but Geillis seems to question it, and that only in the form of one of her otherworldly little smiles and a lifted brow on the way out the door.

Whatever hope Claire had of allowing her mind to be quieted by the distraction of work is quickly dashed. The A&E is still and nearly silent after the departure of the firefighters, and even the patients they brought in are settled or have already been discharged. Leoch might serve many of the small Highland communities for which a trip all the way to the better equipped hospital in Inverness would be too time-consuming or not worth the trouble for the average injury, but it doesn’t have the all-hours hustle and bustle of a city hospital. Most times this suits Claire fine: she chose to work here, after all, despite the commute from Inverness, because she liked the chance to live in a community and get to know her patients a bit. But tonight…

It isn’t as if I’ve been particularly successful at focus and professionalism this evening anyway. Likely as not, I’d bandage someone’s head while their leg drips blood all over the floor, she thinks to herself wryly, and goes to make some tea.

It’s on her way back with her cup - a fool’s errand anyway; the tea here is never satisfying, a cheap variety bought in bulk, and after the temperature sensor on the electric kettle started malfunctioning months ago, the water is rarely hot enough - that she hears the whisper.

“Nurse…? Nurse.

James Fraser had indeed been required to stay overnight; he’s just brought back from having a chest X-ray and, now that the ward has emptied out a bit, is in one of the closed off little rooms along the side rather than in the open bay where he’d initially been admitted and treated. Claire had expected that he’d be trying to get a bit of sleep now that the excitement is over and he has a bit more privacy, but apparently not.

“How can I help you, Mr. Fraser?”

“I know that there’s the call button just there, but I didna want to startle you, being as it’s so quiet out there,” he starts apologetically. “I only wanted to ask...Would ye lend me a hand? The ties in the back are a bit troublesome to do up with only the one, and I dinna exactly fancy trying to sleep with my backside hangin’ out.”

His recently relocated arm is neatly wrapped and secured against his chest, the black of the sling more apparent when contrasted with the ugly pale green pattern of the gown. Claire doesn’t like to disparage her coworkers, but she feels a flicker of annoyance at them on his behalf; truly, not one of them noticed or realized that he might need some assistance with this part of things? Then again, she hadn’t exactly checked in to make sure either.

“Here,” she says, and for the first time in hours, maybe days, her voice seems to sound like her own. “I’ll do you up, or what passes for it in one of these. Turn around, Mr. Fraser.”

He shifts on the bed so that his back is facing her. “You can call me Jamie,” he says toward the wall. “If ye’d like.”

She makes a small, affirmative sound although no promises, setting down her cup. Her fingers are likely cold - they usually are, even through gloves - but he doesn’t flinch when they brush his skin. Up this close, she can appreciate the brilliant red-gold of his hair, multifaceted and gorgeous even under the hospital fluorescents, and the fine play of muscles beneath the skin of his implausibly broad shoulders, the way he still smells slightly and not unpleasantly of smoke, the map of burn scars splayed across his back.

“These have healed up nicely,” she comments, briskly tying the knots which hide them away. Perhaps she shouldn’t have said anything, but it seems worse, somehow, to pretend as if she hasn’t seen them.

“So my surgeon tells me. I suspect most people wouldn’ think so.”

“Well, most people would be wrong.” She secures the final knot and steps away, smiling just a bit. “Or at least they won’t have seen many examples of skin grafting.”

“Most of those at the station know about them,” he says, “and they’re fair expert about seeing burns, but I still dinna usually go around showin’ them off.”

Moving even further, she says, “I’m sorry if I overstepped—” and has already turned to go when he adds, “My own fault, anyway. Being burnt the way I was.”

There’s nothing self-pitying or sorrowful about the way he says it. The words come out as mere fact, and she almost doesn’t expect him to go on, but he does.

“I was barely nineteen, just past training at the Fire and Rescue Service center in Cambuslang and assigned to the station here in Leoch. My family lives in one of the villages, about two hours away. I was driving there late one night to visit them and as I passed into the countryside, I saw an abandoned old barn burning.

“I was smart enough to call back to the station for help, but cocky with all my training and the new position. I kent from growing up in these parts that this was just the sort of spot that young folk like to use without permission.” He shakes his head at himself; she isn’t certain when she had turned back around to face him, propped now against the pillow, but at some point just hearing his voice recounting it hadn’t been enough. “‘Young folk.’ As if I was much older than that myself...But I decided that playing the hero was my job now, so in I went, calling out for anyone who might have been inside, frightened or overcome by the smoke.

“By the time I realized that the place was empty, I was nearly overcome myself. I was lucky that I remembered where the door was, and that the trucks had gotten there as quickly as they did. They found me just after one of the beams had fallen across my back. If they hadn’t been just there and just then, I’d likely have died before they had a chance to even try for a rescue.”

“My father did die, though, that night beside my hospital bed, waitin’ for me to wake up. They said it could have happened at any time - an aneurysm, ken, all chance - but I blamed myself for the timing, the shock of it, that I wasn’t able to say goodbye. And when I learned that the fire had been no accident but arson instead, I blamed the person who set it, too.”

“And after all that,” asks Claire, voice quiet even in the quiet of the ward, “you just went back to firefighting?”

“I wouldna say that there was any ‘just’ about it, but after the surgeries, and with time, and therapy, and the love of the family still with me - including one very displeased fire chief uncle - I did come back, aye.” He gives a shrug, but there’s nothing light or self-deprecating about it, nothing that shifts any sort of weight off of him. “Being a firefighter was all I ever saw for myself. I had learned how once before, so I only did it again.”

The silence which rests between them isn’t uncomfortable, but it is a stopping place; if she wanted, she could thank him for trusting her with the story and excuse herself to check on other patients. Instead, she finds herself needing to say, “I’m sorry for earlier, when you first came in. I was short-tempered, and I shouldn’t have been. Everyone under my care deserves to be treated with respect rather than taking the brunt of my own bad mood.” She tries for a joking tone, a teasing smile. “Especially when they’ve just spent the evening running into burning buildings.”

He doesn’t reciprocate the smile, instead catching her eyes with his. They are, she notices, deeply blue and extremely kind. She doesn’t know why she thought he wouldn’t have compassion like that in his gaze - his size perhaps, or the fact that he spends his days surrounded by other men?

“That face of yers has a difficult time hiding anything, Nurse, including your own distraction. It’s difficult work you’ve taken on yourself, and there’s no shame in finding that you’ve given into being human for a moment. Don’ trouble yerself on my account - ye treated me fine, and I have the feeling that you’ll be back to being superhuman tomorrow.”

“Well, I’m not scheduled to work tomorrow,” she says, and so much within her - training and professional experience and her own practical nature - tells her to truly make this the end of it, to smile and leave and see him again only to check his vitals and discharge him in the morning. But something else, something strong and instinctive as righting herself after a stumble, has her taking a deep breath and speaking again.

“I had lost a patient, just before you arrived. He had a heart attack - we couldn’t save him. His wife had stepped away just before it happened, and I was the one who found her and broke the news.”

She doesn’t mention, although the image hasn’t left her all evening, the way his wife had been humming, selecting the buttons for the Oven Baked Walkers at the vending machine, when Claire had reached her. About the way she had shaken her head over and over and politely but firmly repeated, “He was only here for the kidney stones,” as if this might jog some memory, might make Claire realize that she’d been mistaken.

She doesn’t tell Jamie Fraser this, and yet he seems to understand, those compassionate eyes still on hers. “I keep thinking,” she says, “that I must have missed something, that if I’d only paid better attention, asked more about his family history, seen him wince or—or touch his chest, we might have prevented it, might have done something.”

“Aye, I’m familiar with those thoughts. If only I’d gotten up the stairs a bit faster. If I’d only thought to check that room once more.” Voice very gentle, he adds, “If only I’d seen him touch his chest."

She can see in the way he’s started to rest his weight further into the pillows that he’s tired; she has no idea how long a shift he worked before being brought in here, or what else the call might have involved besides the injuries she’s seen. Still, he speaks as if he has all the time in the world and nothing better to do than grow philosophical with her.

“It can drive a person to madness, the torture of those notions. But we truly are only human, and if we think only on the mistakes we’ve made and what might have been instead, we can have trouble clearing our eyes to take on what is and what will be. For if ye spend all the time staring to make certain ye never miss the next person touchin’ their chest, how easy it might be to miss the sign of something else, the troubles that someone else is having. And how easy for it all to become too much to bear day after day. Though I’m certain ye ken all this already, aye?”

“Yes,” says Claire, a smile summoning from somewhere, because it’s true and because she needed the reminder tonight and is glad that he gave it to her.

“Aye, but sometimes we need the reminders,” he says, as if he’s plucked the thought from her. “I have certain people I speak to when I do - a friend, or the chaplain. Is there someone among the nurses who will be there for ye, or—” He doesn’t seem to swallow just then, but for an eyeblink there’s a pause in his cadence; she hadn’t known that she was familiar enough to recognize it. “Or a spouse?”

The engagement ring Frank gave her isn’t overly flashy, but she leaves it off when she’s working to avoid the inconvenience. She looks down at her hands, at the simple circle of gold which rests around her finger. Her smile has gone entirely.

“That’s the worst part of it though,” she says, very softly. She doesn’t mean to confess it. She can’t seem to stop. “I do have a husband. And while that poor woman was falling apart in my arms, I realized that there was never a moment where I wanted to tell him about it, where I wanted to find solace in him, where I thought he might be able to give it to me. It was terribly selfish, to be thinking about that just then, and true too.”

He doesn’t say anything, Jamie Fraser, just makes a noise so deep in his throat it’s nearly from his chest, and reaches out to lay his hand atop hers. She doesn’t pull away, doesn’t admonish him for it or even truly feel as if he’s crossed any sort of boundary which would require her to. She looks at it, those large fingers gentle on her smaller, slimmer ones, covering her ring entirely. A breath startles from her. She lifts her chin and tells him, before she's even said it to herself, "We're getting a divorce."

"I—I'm sorry to hear it." He blinks rapidly several times over, as if a bright light has been flashed in his eyes.

"Likely you don't often get these sorts of confessions along with your medical care," she teases slightly, trying to break the tension of the admission. He laughs obligingly, shaking his head.

"No, but you haven’t proven to be precisely usual, then, Nurse."

She pushes her hair back with her free hand. She doesn't feel awkward because of the conversation, more because she knows that she should feel that way but doesn't. "You don't have to keep calling me that."

"Well," he says, smile curling the corners of his mouth, "if it isn’t to be 'lass' and it isn’t to be 'Nurse,' I suppose it will have to be 'Sassenach,' for I don’t ken much else about ye."

She crinkles her nose, playfully affronted. "’Outsider’ is what you'd call me?"

"Aye, or 'English person, derogatory,' if it's more to your likin’." His tone takes any true sting out of it - if anything, it sounds affectionate. She notices that his eyes, lovely blue that they are, crease a bit at the corners when he smiles so deeply.

"Perhaps you could simply use my name." And she forgets that after this she might only nod to him in passing or find that he doesn’t actually remember her next time their paths cross, forgets that she might not even see him ever again once the night is over, as she tells him, "Call me Claire."

When she speaks to her more sensible friends about the divorce, she couches it in terms of logistics and the fact that she’s unwilling to upend her life on Frank’s word. When talking to the more romantic ones, she finds herself using expressions related to combustion: their spark died, their love slowly snuffed itself, the fire flickered out between them.

With Frank, she came home from her shift that day to find him bent over a book in his study, a page of carefully pencilled notes on the right-hand side. She’d placed her engagement ring on top of it and he’d looked up at her, sadness in his eyes but mostly mild surprise. He had given her the last week to think, hadn’t questioned as she took on extra work to distract herself or keep away from him, but she realized that in the end he had thought she’d see sense - his version, at least.

“I’ll be sorry to lose you, Claire,” he said gently, just personally enough to make it sound as if he was speaking to his wife rather than an attentive teaching assistant or a housekeeper who made the beds in precisely the way he liked.

“I’m sorry as well,” she responded, brushing a hand over his shoulder, and went to take a shower.

He had come home the week before with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and an opportunity to transfer to Oxford in the autumn following the success of his book from last year, The ‘45, a culmination of his entire scholarship so far and already being called the definitive work on the topic. (She couldn’t help but wonder whether the Scots felt the same.) He’d been baffled when she’d barely managed to cover her dismay at the announcement.

“It’s only—” she’d tried to explain when pressed, the champagne fizzing itself flat and quiet in their glasses. “I asked something of you. When we were married, I asked you to promise me one thing, do you remember?”

“I do.” He took a slow sip then looked up but did not quite meet her eyes. “But never moving again wasn’t truly practical, was it? Especially when we’re in Inverness and—It’s Oxford, Claire. If I take the offer...Well, it’s all I’ve ever wanted, so we’d be settled after this, we wouldn’t move again, and Lamb loved it there, you must remember from his stories. That counts for something, surely?”

“Of course it does,” she murmured, and asked for time to think, knowing that he would go anyway even if she didn’t agree.

There are practical reasons for ending things with Frank, and emotional ones: not only that he broke his word (“Promise me, Frank, swear to me that we’re here to stay, because I’ve spent my whole life wandering and I need to make a home with you”) but the way he’d dismissed her mentions of her work and her friends in Scotland, waving off the concerns with promises that she’d be able to build everything anew at Oxford. She can’t stop the flow of memories, all those times it was easier simply to go along with his preferences, the way he’d never quite seemed to understand that medicine was not something that she was simply using to pass the time, something she would give up in favor of managing their life together, that it was a calling for her. And even amongst the sadness, there’s a flicker of anger too, that he hadn’t even seemed to think it a discussion between them, that he took it entirely for granted that he would make the plans and she would follow.

And there are reasons of passion as well, or lack thereof. Physically, they had always been easy, generous, with each other, willing to satisfy and be satisfied, but when was the last time she had woken in the night wanting him or found herself being pulled closer, warm breath and a whisper of “Please, Claire, I need you” against her ear? How long ago was it that she’d last smiled in anticipation at the thought of coming home after a long day and curling up with him, finding freckles she’d never noticed on his chest? Had she ever felt that way? Perhaps she had never wanted that, or never felt she deserved it, or scoffed at the possibility of it, but now she imagines those sorts of feelings and yearns for them with outstretched fingers.

She had thought it most practical to simply separate for two years and go through quick proceedings afterward, but Frank has only been in Oxford a month before he requests that they formalize things more quickly. She knows without being told that he’s met someone, feels no jealousy over it, but no true joy for him either, as if the part of her life with him in it has already been cut neatly away, the feelings sanded smooth.

As these things go, the proceedings themselves are fairly straightforward once they get started - they have no children, after all, and were selling the flat anyway as neither of them is staying in Inverness. Her solicitor actually asks once if she’s certain they want a divorce at all; apparently the Randalls are more civil with each other than many married people he’s seen. Sometimes when she and Frank come to sign papers or negotiate particulars, they can hear couples shouting at each other in the adjoining conference rooms. The two of them don’t speak to each other much at all outside of practicalities, their texts beginning “Hello, Frank” or “Good afternoon, Claire” - although when she looks back through their conversations, she finds that they weren’t saying much before then either.

Even after it’s all over, after she’s made the move to Leoch and rented a new flat for herself, after Frank’s settled in for the new term, the bond dissolved between them, she keeps the wedding ring, looped on a chain around her neck. She did love him once and wants to remember that even if she doesn’t feel it anymore. There are so few things she owns which represent love to her. How can she give up this one?

It doesn’t matter to her that sometimes people notice and think it odd, coworkers wondering if she regrets the divorce or was only pretending that the situation was mutual. Let them think what they want.

After all, she’s never told anyone the strangest part of it, the part she doesn’t understand and barely admits to herself, leaving it tucked silently in her heart: that she might have given in and gone with Frank, despite the broken promise and the ways in which they’d grown apart, the ways in which they’ve never truly been together. But something changed in that one night at the hospital, and she can never say it aloud because it sounds insane - “A patient touched my hand, and I realized my marriage was finished.”

Jamie Fraser touched her hand once and it called to something in her, something she had never even believed in before. He touched her hand, and it shifted everything in her life.