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

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They don’t keep a television in the bedroom - she’d won that battle - and so she can’t understand why Jamie is being quite this unthinkingly, vehemently loud, the way he is when he has the match on. Perhaps he’s arguing with Jenny? Regardless, he knows better than to do that where she’s sleeping and she tries to tell him so, but finds that she can’t quite make her mouth move.

It’s another minute before she can even get her eyes open, and as she does, she remembers where they are.

A shallow, flickering light has spread across the kitchen rather than the narrow strength of the torch she’d brought. Candles have been placed and lit on the worktop near the filmy, disused sink; she has to crane her head back to see them, because as awareness has come back into her limbs, she finds that the shaky old wooden table which had been shoved to the side has now been placed at the center of the room and she’s been tied to it. Already she can feel the strain in her shoulders and back from being forced into such a position.

“—dare touch her!” Jamie is still shouting, even as she can hear how worn he sounds beneath the volume, panting as he gets the words out.

It’s then that she registers a hand releasing her hair from its topknot, beginning to finger comb through the strands, spreading them upward on the surface. She feels a chill in the backs of her thighs, terror freezing along her nerves and through her veins. Craning back as far as she can once more, she sees a man leaning over her now.

For a moment she does think it’s Frank - the resemblance is bizarre, even with the bruises and the long, bloody scratch across one cheek which she guesses are courtesy of Jamie and which would have been so unexpected to see on the face of her genteel former husband, who always preferred to injure with words and mind rather than fists. But then she takes in the strange coldness in this man’s eyes, the longer hair and odd, restrained twitching around his mouth, and knows that she’s stumbled into something much stranger and much worse.

“Who the bloody fuck are you?” she spits out, feeling an odd relief that it doesn’t come out shaking. Whatever he’s dosed her with - she’d hazard ketamine; she can’t tell how long she was out but suspects by the fact that the darkness hasn’t lifted in any noticeable way that it wasn’t more than a quarter hour - has clearly not worn off entirely. She desperately wants to close her eyes again and has to fight off the urge, shifting her wrists both in an attempt to find some slack and to keep herself awake with the discomfort of the rope chafing her skin.

“I am the beginning and the ending, of course,” he says, perfectly calm, his syllables as proper and even as the Queen’s. “I’m the tool in the hand and the completion of the circle.”

“She doesna need any of yer mad ramblings,” growls Jamie. “Let her go.”

“But how can I,” says the man, “when she is just what I need to convince you?”

“What do you mean?” Claire asks.

She does want to understand, even as she’s frightened by whatever he might say, by his clear separation from reality. But it also strikes her that it’s likely been a half hour - depending on how long she was unconscious, perhaps even longer - since she texted Murtagh. He’ll be awake soon, he’ll see her messages and call her, and when she doesn’t answer he’ll come looking himself. She told him just where she was going. If she can stall for long enough, help will be here, for her and for Jamie.

For a moment, the stranger doesn’t answer, the only sound Jamie’s heaving breaths, the only sensation those long, cold fingers running gently over her scalp and through her curls. She wants to pull away but knows she can’t, tied as she is and with his obvious instability looming calmly above her.

“What do you mean?” she asks again, forcing her voice even, the way she learned from difficult days and distressed patients in the A&E.

Finally he says, “Five years ago, my brother was in hospital in Inverness. He’s had lung trouble since he was a child and was quite poorly. Our parents have been gone for a decade and I was on leave. I sat by his bed for...days. I felt as if I lived in Raigmore. Finally, one evening, I went out for a drive. And just when I was going to return, I saw it: an old building, abandoned, collapsing. Perhaps a shed, once.

“It had been years since I’d cleansed something, but it felt as if it were only moments. I used the petrol in the spare can. I had a lighter. It went up right away.” His fingers slow in their caress over her hair, eyes dreamy and far away even as they meet hers. “The flames were...beautiful. The colors of them, and the vitality. As I watched, I felt myself taking a true breath for the first time in ages. It was painful, terribly painful, to force myself away.

“The next day, back in the hospital, I saw a news piece about it. I discovered that someone, an off-duty firefighter, had been concerned that there might be someone trapped inside and was injured for his trouble. They showed his service picture, but none of the marks I’d left him with. Still, I knew that there had been a thread tied between us then, even if he didn’t.”

Jamie’s scars are so much a part of him and have been ever since she’d met him. She wouldn’t know his skin without them. They have always been in her eyes a symbol of what he was willing to go through, what he would sacrifice for others, an outward signal of his bravery and selflessness. It never seemed possible that any aspect of them could disgust her, but now, knowing that this man caused them out of some kind of compulsion, hearing the caressing hunger beneath the words as he wished to have seen the burning for himself, she has to swallow down bile along with her insults.

“My brother recovered. My leave ended. I had to return to England. I had to pretend that I didn’t think of that picture, of that man, and wonder where he was, how he was honoring the beauty I’d left on him. And then I returned for my brother’s engagement party, and there he was, walking past the pub.” A dazzled, vacant smile comes across his face. “He didn’t notice me, but I couldn’t look away from him. I knew I would have to return and so I did, finding my way closer, waiting for the right moment.”

Slowly she says, "You're Alex Randall's brother, aren't you? Jonathan."

"You can call me Jack, if you'd like." It is so casually said. If she closed her eyes and released her mind, there would be nothing to tell her that they were here like this. They could be at the hospital, or in a shop. He could be anyone.

Jamie makes a low sound in his throat and spits onto the floor. She can't see it - purposeful or not, the table has been positioned so Jamie is just out of view even when she stretches back - but it sounds more viscous than saliva, which he can’t have very much of at this point anyway. With just the one free hand Jamie fought back, but it wasn't enough. She imagines the blood dripping into his mouth from his nose, or pooling from his cheeks and gums and tongue.

She tries to shake off the image, to match Randall’s calm. "Mary said you'd...She said that you'd come to stay." She doesn't mention the way Mary had once admitted that sometimes her future brother-in-law seemed so strange to her, that although she knew how much the Randall brothers cared for each other, there were times that she didn’t want to go to the toilet or get a drink at night because she could hear him moving around and was frightened to be alone with him in the dark. The way Mary felt like she needed to whisper about it even when he wasn’t nearby.

“I needed to be close,” he explains. “So I could be here when it was time. Of course, it also helped that fetching Mary from the hospital meant that I was able to get some of the supplies I needed more easily, even if I had to make certain to avoid you when I’d come. Easier than having to manage you accidentally asking the wrong question.”

She imagines herself walking around the A&E, chatting with patients or getting tea or laughing with her colleagues, striding over to meet Jamie at the doors, all without any thought that she might need to look over her shoulder. A scream gathers in her chest along with the shaking panic of the memories she is rewriting for herself, but she swallows and pushes it away, in too deep to dwell on that now.

“You’ve been setting the fires too,” she says instead, the realization heavy in her throat. “The ones Jamie’s been noticing. Were those your—your calling cards?”

Her tone skates closer to disgust rather than the show of benign interest and attempted understanding that she’d intended, but he doesn’t seem to catch it, instead nodding at her warmly as his fingers continue gently sifting through and arranging her hair.

“I wanted him to know that I was coming. I didn’t want him to worry.”

“Why would he—” For some reason the question disturbs her more than any other that she’s asked tonight, but she forces it out, determined to keep the conversation going, to spend as much time as she can on talking so they can’t spend it on anything worse. “Why would he worry?”

“I told you,” and he sounds suddenly impatient. “We’re tied together. I knew it from the first time I saw his picture. We’re meant to burn together.”

He says the words with a simple intensity but she knows by instinct that he intends them with the terrible literal meaning. It shouldn’t surprise her that Randall wants to kill Jamie. He’s held him captive for days, after all, refused him care, drugged him, hurt him. He is clearly past the point of reason. And yet hearing him state it so with such simple boldness is horrifying.

“I'll cleanse the both of us. Neither of us was meant to survive that night, I see that now. I'm only correcting the mistake. Why else would he have been put back in my path after all this time?”

“What if,” she says, trying to sound sensible instead of as desperate as she feels, especially in the face of his clear madness. “What if it was to show you that things worked out just the way they should have? That you didn’t have to intervene at all.”

She hears him breathe out and step back, feels his fingers give one last stroke through a lock before pulling away, and for a moment she almost relaxes.

Then he sets her hair on fire.

It’s so brief that she only truly puts it together after it’s already over: the slide and click of the match lighting, the accompanying flare of sulfur, Jamie shouting again, voice even more hoarse now and the sounds of his struggle against the ropes weaker but all the more frantic for it. Then Randall presses calm fingers onto the flame, extinguishing it.

“You,” he says, “simply do not understand what it is between him and me.”

“And you,” she spits, tired of appeasement although she’s shaking, shocked through from the adrenaline and belated fear, “are a fucking monster.”

In response, he lights another match, slower this time, letting her understand what he’s going to do. She sets her jaw. This was why he was so careful in arranging her hair: each curl kept separate so he could control the burn. The second time, he lets it go just fractionally longer, then again the time after that. She closes her eyes, braces herself, refusing to cry out, trying to let him distract himself.

Sternly, she tells herself that he isn’t actually letting it burn her flesh, at least not yet, that he’s burning only something dead and extraneous and barely connected to her, and so it doesn’t matter that her hair is the first thing she notices about herself when she passes a mirror. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, doesn’t matter that the choke of it is filling her nostrils in such a way that she doesn’t know that she’ll ever be able to breathe air free of it. It doesn’t matter that Jamie likes her hair so much, that he rests his chin on the mass of it from behind when they’re out, or ends up breathing it in when they sleep, that he winds it absently around his fingers and makes her see colors in it that she’d never noticed before. It’s only hair. It will grow back. All she has to do is stall, allow Randall to continue, just withstand for long enough that Murtagh arrives with help.

Except that the first time she can actually feel the heat close to her scalp, even when her mind knows that it is still too far to truly burn her, she gasps, and Randall chuckles, and Jamie says, scraping, “Alright. I’ll do it. But you have to let her go.”

She can feel Randall’s attention turning immediately; he sets his fingers down on the still-living flame almost absently. “He’s ready,” he breathes.

Claire stretches back once again, ignoring the ache, speaking loudly to try to bring the focus off of Jamie and back to herself. “What are you doing? What are you talking about?”

“The cleansing only works if we’re both willing. I couldn’t make him see, before. But now he’s consented. Now we can begin.”

Randall’s voice is shining, but below that she can hear Jamie’s quiet panting. Her first instinct is to tell him to save his energy, that they just need to hold out a bit longer, but now she understands the horrible truth of it all: that he’s been here for days, knowing that the only thing saving him were Randall’s inexplicable but unbreakable rules and Jamie’s own refusal to give in, and he gave up that weapon to save her.

He already was holding out, all this time. And now he’s finished.

She hears Randall step toward Jamie, then the sound of the chair scuffing backward. “Let her go first,” Jamie demands, unshaking but quiet. There’s a weakness in his tone that she would never have thought to hear there. She begins to thrash even as Randall loosens the ropes tying her. The tears are climbing up her throat, so she screams to keep them away.

“Take it back. Jamie. Take it back!”

“Claire,” he says. “Claire, it’s alright.” And what clutches in her chest is the way he doesn’t sound as if he’s being calm for her sake, but as if he has gone to a place of acceptance, so distant from her that she cannot reach him.

Her legs half collapse as they’re freed, and she has to catch herself on the tabletop, although her arms aren’t doing much better; the blood is rushing back through all the places that had been bound, her muscles shaky from the strain, and she doesn’t know that whatever drug she was given has entirely worn off. Still, she pushes back against Randall’s grip on her upper arm, fighting with fists and feet as he begins guiding her toward the door, though she already feels how ineffectual her struggles are, like she’s only a ghost in her own nightmare.

“Please,” she cries out, unable to stop the naked desperation. “Please, let me say goodbye.”

There is a galling minute where he stands considering it. She has never hated anyone more in her life, imagines vicious tortures for him even as the tears begin filtering over her vision.

“Please,” she says again, the broken voice certainly not her own and yet the only thing that she has, and he hauls her over to Jamie, who is sitting quiet; his breath seems barely there. Randall lets go, and she collapses a bit, coiling downward, barely checked. Scrambling upright again, she grabs Jamie’s uninjured hand, presses desperate kisses to the knuckles.

“Don’t do this, Jamie,” she says. “Don’t. We’ll just—”

“This is the way to see you safe, Sassenach,” he says, and even the tenderness there seems detached. “This is the way to make sure ye’ll have a good, long life. Swear to me ye’ll live it well.”

She kneels up shakily, arms around him even if he cannot hold her back. “It doesn’t have to happen like this,” she breathes into his neck. He doesn’t smell like himself there, or perhaps he does, some darker version that is unfamiliar to her. “We’re so close. Take it back, Jamie, I’ll get you home, I’ll—”

Somehow, although she knows he’s bound up, she feels as if he’s pulling away from her. “I love you, Claire,” he tells her, firm and final, and turns his face away. As Randall takes her upper arm once more, she screams, struggles, tearing and animal, but it makes no difference. He brings her over to the kitchen door, wrenching it open, dust and debris and chipping paint sifting down around them.

“When you arrive back in the village, you can tell everyone of the greatness that has happened,” Randall says, and the worst part of his delusion is how calm he sounds, how completely sane. She feels her expression twist in the face of it.

“You—”

“Go,” he says, stone-etched. “And don’t look back. You have no place here.”

His body fills the frame as he closes the door in her face, but she imagines Jamie behind him, facing her once again, one last glimpse, and then they’re both gone. For a moment she wants to pound on the door, to break it down, to return and start it all again - not caring about Randall, and damn Jamie’s sacrifice - but then something about the cold, clear air wakes her and she notices the rising dawn and feels the weight in her pocket of Jamie’s mobile.

Randall must have found hers and not thought to check her for a second. She fumbles it out, cursing, holding back a scream behind her teeth when she types in the password wrong. She didn’t remember the first time Jamie had told it to her, but it’s the date that they met.

Murtagh picks up on the first ring, a slight hoarseness to his voice.

“What the hell do ye mean by these messages, lass? Ye went searchin’ again on yer own in the middle of the night?” She can hear the sound of bed linens shifting in the background. “Jamie would—”

“I found him,” she interrupts, rushed and flat. “And I need you to gather absolutely everyone and get them all to Wentworth House as fast as you fucking can. Call Dougal directly, have him bring the police with him. There’s a madman inside there, and he’s about to try to burn Jamie alive.”

She can hear the sharpness of breath on the other end, but Murtagh doesn’t tell her that she’s surely mistaken, that she’s made herself overtired and had a nightmare. She doesn’t know that she would blame him either; she was there, is there, each breath still tainted with the stench of her own burning hair, can still feel the charred, straggling ends blowing against the back of her neck, and she scarcely believes it. “I’ll have them there soon as I can,” he says instead, and hangs up without another word.

Dawn light is beginning to stretch its fingers across the house, reflecting off the windows. She can’t tell whether they are still in the kitchen or if Randall will have chosen some other room for his purposes. As unbearable as it is to think through the details, she hopes that they will have to move, that Randall’s horrible vision requires all manner of chanting and ritual, anything to use up time. But even so, she doesn’t feel like she can depend on that. She needs to be doing something, and a distraction needs to be made - a few minutes could be an eternity in terms of burned flesh, in terms of Jamie’s life.

Mind racing, she thinks over what she has at hand: the car and anything in it, Jamie’s phone. She considers playing some sort of music, making some sort of commotion, but she thinks that will be too easily ignored or that knowing that she didn’t leave might antagonize Randall such that he works faster. Driving the car into the house might be effective, but she doesn’t want to hit Jamie by accident. Then she remembers the only thing that had really seemed to catch Randall’s interest, his hypnotized love of the flame.

She always keeps a can of petrol and a set of jump leads in the boot, and her travels with Lamb ensured that she knows how to use them. Lifting the bonnet, she sets them up, the ends trailing down to a pile of leaves and brush that she’s constructed and doused; Wentworth House has nearly been swallowed by the forest, after all. Taking the ends of the cables, she touches them together. Sparks fly outward immediately, nearly burning her hands, but she has to try several times, half sobbing, before they catch. She encourages the fire larger, adding dew-slick leaves and whatever green wood she can scrabble for so that a column of smoke begins to billow, the flames arcing higher still; she needs it noticeable, the scent of it overwhelming the fresh morning breeze, the sight drawing him to watch.

It will be out of control before too long, thankfully. Already she has to stumble away to find cleaner air, tearing eyes on the house the entire time, so that she sees a curtain twitch just for an instant in one of the upstairs rooms.

Still alive, she thinks with relief, barely able to choke for breath. There are no answering flames visible from within either, and as the firetrucks scream up the drive, Dougal jumps down and begins directing suppression efforts toward her fire.

“Have ye taken leave of yer senses entirely?” he bellows to her over the push of the water. She grabs his arm, hanging on even as he tries to free himself, knowing that she must look truly mad and not caring.

“You didn’t believe me before,” she shouts back, hoarse, furious, terrified, “but Jamie is injured and being held in that room up there about to die, and you’re wasting his time.” She punches him in the chest then, hard, does it again; she wants him to feel it through his turnout gear, wants Jack Randall to feel it within the house.

He snorts, throwing her a disgusted look, trying to shake her off. “You’re deluded. Ye could have burned down half the town wi’ this setup, and all for what? A bit o’ attention? Well, no wonder Jamie—”

“Chief! I think there’s someone inside there.” It’s Willie, pointing to the house.

“Och, dinna be taken in by her hysteria,” Dougal says, but then Rupert elbows his way over and says, “There’s smoke comin’ from around that window frame.”

Dougal peers at it, each blink eternal, and Claire shoves at him, screaming. “Do something! Fucking do something, you useless fool.” And just as she herself is about to race forward and take what control she is able, he actually begins to act, ordering the men to change focus, warning them of an injured Jamie, a dangerous arsonist. He’d listened to Murtagh, although he might not have believed.

Even when they were up north for the fires, she barely saw Jamie’s crew truly doing their jobs, and in that moment, so much of the personality she’s come to know falls away or is hidden behind their masks and their shorthand. And for once she’s glad of it, because the Angus who brags about his skill at pool, the Willie who looks so readily to Jamie for advice, those versions, the ones she’s come to love, aren’t who Jamie needs right now. She hopes with everything spared inside her that there will come a time that she’ll familiarize herself with those men once again, where Jamie will be by her side and everything will be as it was, but for now there is only this moment, and she needs their gritted and expert knowledge because if they can’t do the job, she will have to try herself, even knowing that she might well burn in the doing of it.

The first floor is flickering and evident with flames now, and if she could spare a moment from the terror, she would think it strange, considering that she’d thought the two of them were upstairs. But she can’t even consider if that is a good sign or bad; every bit of her is knotted, and she can feel the stride of her feet across the limp, scorched grass as if it were already happening, the urge to be inside, pulling Jamie out, even as the crew shouts back and forth through the radios about the structure being fully involved now.

She will stand here as long as she has to, but she is only now realizing that it might mean watching the last of her hope die with the final sparking ember, leaving her looking at a skeleton mansion that is Jamie’s grave.

And then she becomes aware of Murtagh’s arm holding her from behind, grounding her to life. He’s in his pajamas again, still, and she has the horrible urge to laugh, wondering whether the man has gotten a full night’s sleep since Jamie was born.

When she takes in the breath to do it, she stops, suddenly unable to remember what it is to laugh. The air singes across her tongue.

“Hush, a nighean. Hush now and breathe,” says Murtagh’s rough voice, his arms tightening around her, and she realizes that she is very quietly gasping, her trembling moving into him as well.

They find Randall first, or what she thinks is Randall. Rupert and Alastair carry him out and bring him over to the ambulance, professional despite the situation, despite the fact that even from where she stands, she can tell that he doesn’t have a chance, not with burns like that, burns that make it hard to remember who he was an hour ago.

She almost steps over to help, the urge automatic regardless of everything that he is, everything that he’s done. But before she can put action to it, she’s distracted: they’re raising the ladder to the upper window, the one she had noticed earlier, and a moment later, Jamie is helped down. She can’t tell who is on the ladder with him, who is guiding from behind, can’t focus on anything else but his slow downward progress, the unbelievable wholeness of him through the smoke.

There’s a disturbance behind her - an argument over whether the stretcher they want to bring over for him will be able to manage on the terrain - but Jamie makes it redundant. He walks, although she can see the effort in it, the sharpness of his breath, his clenched and cutting fist that refuses to rest on the eagerly offered shoulder beside him. He walks, until he has reached the stretcher himself and laid his body back upon it.

And she is there too, unable to remember choosing to run or her steps removing the space between them, unable to remember whether she’d broken away from Murtagh or he had let her go.

“Move,” she snarls, elbowing the paramedic out of the way, and it’s only after she’s done it that she even notices that it was Laoghaire. She runs her hand over Jamie’s forehead, and forces her voice not to break as she promises, “You’re out, Jamie. You’re safe now. You’re safe.”

For a moment, he does not move, and she wonders whether he even realizes that he’s here, breathing lightening air, with people who love him. Then, very slowly, he turns his head so he faces away from her, away from the illuminating horizon at her back, and she knows that he realizes everything and still doesn’t care.

And she has to work around and through the renewing terror, because although she found him, although he’s alive and here and away from harm, he is still lost to her. In many of the ways that matter, it feels as if she didn’t bring him back after all.