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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.

Chapter Text

She saw Jamie Fraser in the hospital once more during the divorce proceedings, a meeting of eyes and an exchange of smiles as he’d been describing something to a doctor about the accident victim the paramedics had just brought in and she’d been on her way to take blood from a patient who didn’t look away from her phone the entire time. By the time she’d finished, he was gone again.

There was one afternoon, too, where she thought she might have spotted him in the street, was fairly certain that she had even though it was only the back of his head - her new flat is near the firehouse, after all, and how many massively tall redheads could be roaming around Leoch? - but when she’d looked again he’d been gone.

She tells herself that it doesn’t matter, that she’s thankful to him for the part he played on that night but doesn’t need any more.

She finds herself a liar when he’s wheeled, groaning, into A&E on a beautifully sunny Wednesday.

“We were finishing a high rescue at a construction site and I had my back turned,” the paramedic who helped wheel him in, a bright, round-faced little blonde, reports breathlessly. “There were unsecured materials on the back of a trailer. They would ha’ hit me, but Jamie—Jamie pushed me out of the way...” She trails off, biting her lip shyly as she glances down at him.

“Aye, and got hit with them himself for the trouble,” grunts the fire chief, a bearded older man. Claire recalls Jamie mentioning that they were related, finds herself examining his face for a resemblance and seeing little there. “Likely a concussion at least for the lad.”

“I’d hoped not to see you back here so soon, Mr. Fraser,” she tells Jamie later, once he’s been assessed - a concussion indeed, mild but considering it’s not his first it warrants him another stay, along with horribly mottled bruising on his chest and shoulders - and brought to the same room as before. She even allows a bit of teasing into her voice.

“So long as you’d hoped to see me back eventually, Sassenach,” he says, a grin coming to his face as if he can’t help it any more than he could the words.

“There are such things as well visits,” Claire says. She shakes her head, checking over his file. He has, she notices, altogether too many middle names. “I see that your birthday is in May. Perhaps you could try your best to keep yourself safe, and you can drop by to say hello then.”

When he looks over at her, his face is filled with less humor and more contemplation. “I’ll certainly try to keep myself safe, aye, but as for waiting until May—”

“And what’ve ye done to yerself this time? Dougal said I’d find ye here, but nothing more about the condition of ye.”

Claire recognizes the bearded man suddenly looming in the doorway from the first time she encountered Jamie, although he is dressed now in a pullover and jeans; the scowl has remained though, and perhaps furrowed even deeper. She steps over toward the doorway, shoulders back, and summons the tone of her favorite matron from training.

“I prefer to at least be introduced to people before they threaten my patients,” she says. “Claire Beauchamp.” She extends her hand with no hint of doubt that he will shake it.

It takes a moment, but he does. “Murtagh Fizgibbons Fraser,” he says begrudgingly. “Godfather to this one”—he jerks his chin toward where Jamie is lying in the bed—“and growing aged before my time for my pains.”

“Surely I’m not as bad as that, a ghoistidh?” Jamie comments, in a voice that makes Claire want to shake her head and mutter ‘bloody charmer.’ It works, though. Murtagh folds his arms and glares but steps further into the room.

“I’ve a spare charger for your phone, and a few odds and ends besides. Thought ye might be here for a while, considering whatever damned heroics you’ve been up to.”

The next time Claire has a chance to check in on Jamie, Murtagh is gone, his seat beside Jamie’s bed filled instead by a woman Claire doesn’t recognize.

Of course you wouldn’t recognize her, she admonishes herself as she quickly and vigorously applies hand sanitizer. You barely recognize him and he’s at least been your patient. She tries to pretend that vague recognition is all that fills her thoughts when she sees Jamie.

The woman seems to be at least a few years older than Jamie. She’s petite and pale-skinned, her dark hair pulled back in a smooth bun. Her rose pink sweater dress and slender figure emphasize her tiny baby bump. Claire finds her eyes flitting over to Jamie, examining his hands for a ring she might have neglected to notice and his face for an explanatory expression (guilt? contrition?), finds her mind turning over their conversations for mention of a wife or a child on the way.

“Sorry to interrupt, just here for a vitals check,” she says, brusquely, diverting the flow of Gaelic conversation between the two of them. “I hadn’t realized that you had a visitor, or at least a new one.”

“Murtagh phoned me,” says the woman. “I don’t usually come all the way out only to mop the brow of my fool brother, but I’ve a wee rascal running around my house and this new one going to join him before too long, so these days a hospital visit is actually a bit of a holiday when it comes down to it.”

“This is my sister, Jenny,” Jamie fills in. “Jen, this is my—This is Claire. Beauchamp. She’s been my nurse.”

“Aye,” says Jenny, her mouth twisting somehow, becoming more serious. She gives a sideways glance to her brother, then an up-and-down, examining look toward Claire. It isn’t the first time Claire’s had her professional abilities questioned - only two days ago, an elderly gentleman had informed her that she was “quite young and quite English to be taking care of my Gladys,” and she had laughed it off and told him that she had the feeling she was exactly the right age for the task, Englishness notwithstanding. Somehow, though, she wants to stand a bit straighter at this scrutiny, to ensure that her scrubs are unstained (fat chance) and her hair hasn’t gotten itself into too much havoc within its ponytail (even fatter).

“Aye,” says Jenny again, looking back at Jamie. “Your nurse indeed.”

“Not for much longer, I think,” says Claire, mentally reaching out and grasping luckily onto cheerful professionalism. “I doubt he’ll still be here by the time I come back on duty tomorrow. We only wanted to keep him to ensure there hadn’t been any issues following the concussion, but he’s held up well during the observation period.”

“I’m no’ surprised, considering how hard that skull of his can be,” Jenny says, seeming not even to need to see Jamie rolling his eyes to know he has done so; she snakes out a hand and gives him a quick, nipping pinch on the rib cage. He squirms away, his “Janet” half laugh and half warning.

Claire crosses her arms, trying to hide a smile, though she has the feeling she hasn’t been successful. “Well, he’s been a model patient, regardless of the reason why.”

“Ah, now, Claire, we’ll avoid years of trouble in future if ye learn straight off no’ to lie to me,” Jenny tells her with a shake of her head, her own hidden smile flashing there-and-gone-again across her face.

“I didn’t specify which model of patient he was,” Claire says. “I’ve had some extremely rude and difficult ones, after all. Although your brother certainly hasn’t sicked up all over me three times then stuck his hand on my chest while asking me to ‘give us a smile, will you, love.’”

“If I ever did that, I hope that you’d discharge me right into the street with a boot to my arse and no’ bother to let me get dressed either,” Jamie says, somber and vaguely horrified. Jenny laughs.

Claire says, “If you ever did that, I’d take you for imaging straightaway because you’d obviously developed the sort of brain tumor that entirely changes a personality,” and Jenny laughs again, but it’s different this time, considering, the way she had first looked at Claire.

It doesn’t occur to Claire until she’s after she’s actually taken Jamie’s vitals and returned to the nurse’s station to wonder what exactly Jenny meant when she was talking about years in the future. She tells herself that it was certainly a reference to the fact that Jamie is likely to find himself back in her care at some point and leaves it at that.

Well, wondering when that some point might be isn’t exactly leaving it, but she shoves that thought aside too; she’s getting very good at it.

Even though she’d predicted it, she’s a bit disappointed to spot Jamie’s empty room when she arrives for work the following day.

“Mr. Fraser discharged alright?” she asks Mary offhandedly as she rolls her neck and enters her login into the computer.


"He’d been in room four," Claire reminds her, and Mary's head pops up, that familiar nervous panic overtaking her face again.

"H—He hasn't been discharged! Or, well, he's meant to be soon, but he hasn't signed his paperwork or spoken with the doctor again. He is—isn't supposed to just leave. Oh, bugger, if I've lost him—"

"I'm certain you haven't lost him," Claire soothes. "He probably just stepped away for a moment. Here, I'll go track him down for you, it's not too busy just now."

But when she checks, Jamie isn't walking the nearby halls. He isn’t in the restroom or the café. He doesn’t return even after being paged - she doesn’t think he’d ignore that, but there certainly are places in the hospital where such messages can’t be heard. Finally she looks up his cell phone number among his intake paperwork. She knows she shouldn't do this, but her chest squeezes in something other than warning as she does.


Jamie, it's Claire. Where on earth have you gone?

If you've left the hospital without being officially discharged
I'm going to be extremely put out with you.


No need for displays of temper, Sassenach. I'm only in the chapel.

She doesn't typically visit the small space, although it isn't far from where she works every day. The hush within has little to do with the heavy wood paneling which likely blocked out the sound of his name over the intercom, or the fact that Jamie is the only one inside, his head bent and clasped hands resting on the pew in front of him. She finds herself stepping carefully, trying to keep the silence intact.

"I didna mean to cause trouble," Jamie says as she takes a seat beside him. "I spent the morning doing nothing but lying around - I didn't think a wee walk would do any harm."

"You might be feeling fine, you might be fine, but at least tell someone next time," she admonishes. "Mary thought she'd misplaced you and nearly fainted on the spot."

"The little blonde slip of a thing? Och, she’s made of tougher stuff than that, but I'll let her know I'm sorry for worrying her."

"Very gracious of you.” She looks around them; the place has quite a Christian feel to it, pews and crosses and not much room to meditate or roll out a prayer rug, for all that it’s supposed to be interfaith, but she supposes it’s to be expected considering the demographics of Scotland. She settles back against the hard wood of her seat and directs her attention back toward him. “At least you didn't venture far. I might have found you earlier but I hadn't realized that you were religious."

"I might not be a Mass every Sunday type," he says, "although I’m fair regular to that as well. But I believe in…something, and I dinna only mean traditions or scripture. Perhaps it's God, or saints, or angels, or the spirits of my parents and ancestors, but I do believe that there's a greater power watching over us."

"'More things in heaven and earth, Horatio'?" she offers, and he blinks, a smile blooming slow on his mouth. He lets out a one-note chuckle.

"Aye, precisely. So every time I manage to come through something dangerous, I’m sure to take some time to say my thanks for seeing me past it."

He separates his clasped hands so that she can see the religious medal on a chain between them. "St. Florian," he tells her, letting it dangle it in the air so it catches the limited light. "Jenny got it for me after I'd finished my training at Cambuslang. He's meant to be the patron saint of firefighters." He leans his shoulder a bit closer, a grin teasing the boundaries of his mouth as he adds, "Chimney sweeps and soapmakers as well, but I’ve the feeling there isn't much trouble wi’ them these days."

"A good thing too, as I suspect you take up a fair amount of time and oversight all on your own." She can't help the smile edging up her lips in a match with his.

"But well worth it, I hope."

"I should think so," she says, too quickly. She clears her throat, hoping he won't have noticed, although it doesn't seem that much escapes him. "Well, have the two of you finished your conversation, or do you need another few minutes?"

The direct gaze of his eyes on her nearly makes her look away, but he does first. "Just another moment," he says, holding up a finger before bowing his head again. She observes him there, his expression serene but intense beneath his vividly red curls. She doesn't know enough Gaelic to understand what he's saying, her mind only able to pick out a cognate around every tenth or twelfth word. There is one thing, “sorcha,” which she does manage to catch several times; perhaps she's able to make it out because it seems to have extra weight on Jamie’s tongue. She wonders if it means "please" or "thank you" or "God," something which would inspire the care and reverence he endows into the syllables.

But she doesn't want to interrupt or break the surrounding peace to ask him now; she can find out later. After another moment, he nods to her and they stand together to return to the world.

Chapter Text

As she takes the lift up to the administrative floor, Claire combs over the last few days in her mind, trying to think of reasons the hospital director has asked to speak with her. She comes up blank: her annual review shouldn’t be for another two months and would only involve her direct supervisor anyway, and everything has been routine in the A&E recently. (Well, routine in terms of things the director might care about - she’d seen Jamie again last Tuesday, the first time in six weeks, when he’d been in visiting a patient, an aunt of his. She was working and didn’t have much time to chat so they didn’t get any farther than small talk, and still she’s been trying ever since to put it out of her mind.)

So she has little expectation for why she might have been called to this meeting, and yet she’s still surprised when the director peers at her over the tops of his glasses and says, “I’ve a special opportunity to offer you, Ms. Beauchamp.”

“Oh?” she asks, steeling herself. Dr. Beaton has always been entirely appropriate the few times that they’ve met, and she’d actually say that she likes him despite not understanding how someone could go through the rigors of medical school and then choose not to work hands-on with patients, but those are the kind of words that set her teeth a bit on edge, especially with the door closed and his assistant off making copies.

“Aye.” He looks down at the file in front of him, and then back up at her. “You’ve degrees in both general nursing and midwifery?”

“Yes, I—” The explanations come reflexively to her mouth, the way they used to when Frank would question why exactly she was putting herself through all the pressure: that it would make her more employable, she had passion for both areas, that she loved the chance to build her skills, to put her mind and hands and heart to work. But he doesn’t need the full story, so she just repeats, “Yes,” and leaves it at that.

He closes the folder. “Excellent. Well, I’m sure you’ve heard about the wildfires up north. Now, obviously, the Fire and Rescue Service is well-prepared - it isn’t as if this is the first time things have been bad - but as the situation has stretched longer than they’d like, they’re beginning to call up personnel from the surrounding area. The provost has committed Leoch to sending two doctors, three nurses, and a fire brigade, and I think you would be an excellent selection for our contingent.”

“What would the work involve?” she asks, a blessedly normal, professional question which gives no hint of the way the words fire brigade have sparked in her mind.

“Partly working alongside the paramedics, triaging and treating as needed for injuries sustained by the locals and the fire crews - smoke inhalation, burns and bruises and the like, hopefully nothing more serious although it’s always a possibility. But the fires have also made it potentially hazardous for the residents to venture far seeking other sorts of medical care, regular checkups and all, so you’ll be on hand for home visits as well.”

“And will there be sufficient coverage here at the hospital while I’m away?”

He waves a hand. “Of course. There’s a firm two week limit on the assignment; additional crews from around the country will be rotated on as needed if the situation hasn’t died down by then.” With a hint of a smile, he adds, “I believe we’ll be able to manage without you for that long.”

Claire likes being settled, likes having a home to go to, clothing in a dresser and wardrobe rather than a suitcase, the night sounds familiar when she falls asleep. But she likes a challenge too, likes finding ways that she can be of service, and this sounds as if it will fill that part of her easily. She stands, extending her hand. “It does sound like a good opportunity at that.”

Whoever is officially in charge has arranged for the Leoch medical staff to stay at a small bed and breakfast in a village at the edge of the affected area. It’s a lovely place, carefully done up without being overly fussy, but it’s very quiet. Even Claire, not normally bothered by such things, finds that there’s a sad quality to the silence; they were able to find rooms because most of the bookings by tourists and visitors were cancelled due to the fire.

But she doesn’t have much time to dwell on the pinched look behind the smile of the owner. As soon as she’s arrived and set down her bags, there’s work to be done. First there’s her roster of patients to pay home visits to: an elderly man with a heart condition who needs to be monitored on his new medication, a young girl ready for her next round of routine vaccinations, a woman named Donalda Gilchrist who’s six months pregnant with a gaggle of kids running through her house and her husband away on military service and still somehow perfectly serene. Then it’s hours at one of the medical tents, afternoon shifting into evening as she makes sure none of the firefighters get heatstroke and that she’s on-hand for potentially more serious emergencies.

All of the crews wear essentially identical uniforms, that now-familiar tan with yellow stripes. Still, there’s something about the shape which approaches the tent from the distance on Claire’s second afternoon - the way he walks, perhaps, the breadth of him that even the turnout gear can’t hide - which tells her that it’s Jamie even before he’s taken off his mask and helmet to reveal the damp, darkened curls of his hair or come close enough for her to see his face.

“I wondered if you’d be here,” she says, offering him a bottle of water which he takes with a nod and a smile, downing nearly half in the first gulp.

“Since Sunday, aye,” he says, a bit breathless, then takes down the rest, until the plastic crumples slightly in his hand. Glancing around, he spots the recycling bin and tosses the bottle neatly inside before turning back to her. “When did you arrive?”

“Just yesterday. Is this your first time fighting wildfires?”

“We’ve taken care of them when they’ve cropped up around Leoch in the past, though I dinna think anyone from our station has come so far north, nor worked on this scale. But Chief MacKenzie works wi’ our shift and Provost MacKenzie is his brother, so we were chosen for it.”

“The provost and the fire chief are brothers?” Claire asks, eyebrows lifting in surprise.

He crosses his arms, smiling even as he does, as if he’s settling himself in place. “They are, though ye’d never ken it to look at them.”

“And no one’s ever thought that there was a bit of...nepotism in that?”

“I’m sure someone has, although no one can deny that they’re popular and good at their jobs - the provost’s on his fourth term, and Dougal has won an award or three in his time.”

“I’m surprised there isn’t more concern, when the provost chooses his own brother to represent Leoch during this sort of maneuver. At least for the optics - I thought politicians were quite focused on those.”

Jamie laughs. “Oh, Colum’s canny enough about optics, never fear. Him choosing Dougal isn’t necessarily an honor, Sassenach - it’s hard and thankless work, this, continuous, pushing on without much break and for the most part saving only the weeds and flowers in front of us so we don’t have to move to saving people and houses the way we would back home.”

Squinting up at him, Claire asks, “If Dougal is your uncle, then wouldn’t that make Colum—”

“They’re both my mother’s brothers, aye,” he says, but his smile loses a bit of light, his tone as if he’s closing a door.

Regardless, she asks, “Couldn’t you have gotten out of it, then? Asked for a special dispensation to stay back at Leoch?”

He looks down on her, face still. For a moment she actually wonders if he might get angry, demand to know what kind of man she thinks he is, use the breadth of his body or the volume of his voice to lash out at her. The potential of that isn’t why she regrets asking the question, though; it wasn’t a fair thing to assume any such thing when she’s only ever known evidence of his groundedness and his commitment to his work.

When he answers, he says simply, “I might have been able to, but I wouldn’t leave my crew wi’out my hands. And I didn’t get into this job to be thanked.”

It’s more of a relief then it should be, somehow, to not have upset him, to have confirmed her feeling about the sort of person he is. “Well,” she offers, gesturing over to another part of the tent, “come have a bite to eat, anyway. I think that’s the kind of thanks you might need right now.”

Her accommodations don’t serve an evening meal and, although lunch was satisfying enough, after getting a chance to shower and change out of her smoky, dirty scrubs, she isn’t exactly excited about returning to see what they’re serving back at the medical tent.

Instead she asks for a recommendation from the owner of the B&B and is directed to a pub in the next town which is still open. She drives herself over, glad she has her car with her, and walks in to find the increasingly familiar faces of the delegation from the Leoch fire brigade crowded around the most boisterous table in the place.

She could certainly approach them, introduce herself to everyone - or even likely rely on Jamie to do it; she can spot him along the side, focused as he talks to another firefighter she’d peg as the youngest of the crew - but she doesn’t particularly feel like making conversation tonight, or at least not with the entire noisy group of them. The day hasn’t been particularly overwhelming in terms of emergencies, but the work was consistent and she knows there will be more tomorrow. She’s ready for just a quiet evening, so she finds a table in a corner, ordering herself a steak and ale pie and a club soda. Her phone is in her bag and she even has fairly good service, but she doesn’t quite feel like watching anything or scrolling about on the internet, nor reading something on her Kindle app. Mostly she just takes in the low-lit, old-fashioned atmosphere, all dark wood and burgundy leather. There’s a fire in the grate and the irony strikes her, although it likely isn’t a symbol as much as a practicality meant to combat the chill of the March evening.

There’s something restorative about simple, hearty food cooked well, about sitting with her thoughts (or with few thoughts at all), surrounded by the buzz of conversation and laughter. She can feel the tension sliding from her shoulders and takes her time with her last few bites, trying to savor the moment.

A shadow comes down on her table just then, and she somehow isn’t surprised to look up and see Jamie there, fingers wrapped securely around the rim of his dangling glass.

He catches her looking at it and lifts it in a toast, downing the contents with a hint of a grin. “Only water, Sassenach.”

“Oh,” she says, blinking. “Of course. I was only…” She isn’t sure how she meant to finish the sentence - wondering? Worried?

Luckily, he picks up easily where she left off. “I know how to take care of myself after a day like today, and I’m much too aware that I’m on the job again tomorrow.”

"Well, good. I don't want to see you dragged in, collapsing from dehydration."

"Many thanks for the tender concern," he says, shaking his head, and she laughs, leaning back in her seat. He watches her for a moment, then adds, “I didn’t think you looked in the mood for company, but I saw ye sitting here and thought it would be rude to leave without saying goodbye. Or hello.”

The firelight behind him calls attention to the copper shine of his hair, the clear and kind oceanic blue of his eyes. She thinks that if she told him that she does want to be alone, he'd give her a smile and bid her goodnight. But somehow the idea doesn't hold the appeal it did a moment ago. “I don't think that going to sleep just after a heavy meal is going to agree with me," she says instead. "I think I might take a walk after I settle up. Would you—Do you want to join me, if you're not completely done in already?"

He doesn't answer right away, and part of her almost wants to turn her face or make a joke, to tell him to forget that she asked. But then he says very softly, "Aye, let's take a stroll then, Claire," and holds out his hand to her.

They fall into a pattern after that. Their days are filled with work and busyness such that the situation doesn’t even truly feel like danger to her anymore; it’s only when the wind changes and leaves her coughing, or she sits consoling someone for things that weren’t able to be saved that she remembers the enormity of the fires and their true cost. If she and Jamie do happen to overlap during daylight hours, perhaps they’ll have a few moments to speak or share a bite to eat, or sometimes he’ll help with handing her things as she’s treating patients, but they save most of their talking for the evenings.

She continues to enjoy her solitude enough to eat alone some nights, but on others she joins the group of firefighters who are now growing familiar: besides Jamie's uncle Dougal, with his crotchety authority and the looks he sometimes casts her way, there’s small, tough Angus and large, ribald Rupert, and Willie, sweet and quieter than the rest, who sometimes seems like he’s just trying to keep up.

Somehow, she finds herself enjoying the lot of them more than she had expected and they return the favor, laughing and clapping her on the back when she tosses a jibe back, booing good-naturedly if she chastises them for drinking too much (although they usually end up listening to her anyway - she’s told them to expect neither help nor sympathy if they come to her for hangover remedies). They’re uncouth and overly loud and don’t take kindly to her reminding them that feminist isn’t a dirty word, and she likes them anyway.

But whatever happens at dinner, there’s always the walk afterward that she finds herself looking forward to more and more each night. The village isn’t large, so she and Jamie end up wandering the same streets over and over, sitting on the same benches, but it doesn’t really matter. They usually start simple reviewing of the events of their day - Claire tells him about visiting the rowdy Gilchrest house to give stitches to one of the younger children who’d taken a tumble from a too-large bicycle, while Jamie discusses his conviction that Willie, who he’s been mentoring, has what it takes to be a great firefighter at the same time that he might never succeed in getting there with the others are undermining his confidence by not seeing his potential or placing their trust in him.

They talk about the things that they love and hate about their careers, and about strange or funny incidents back at work in Leoch - the times that the fire crew has been called out because someone exploded their kitchen mixing the wrong household cleaners, and the oddest items she's discovered inserted into people's bodies (not to mention the oddest places she’s found them).

They talk about things that aren't work at all.

He tells her about growing up on his family’s large farm, Lallybroch, shows her pictures of Jenny, who still lives there, and of her husband Ian and their son, Jamie’s small namesake, and she finds herself thinking over her favorite of his stories while she’s brushing her teeth or driving between appointments. In turn, she tells him about spending all those years traveling the globe with Uncle Lamb, about the places she’d like to return to sometime and those she’s happy to leave in the past.

And perhaps it’s the darkness or the nighttime hush broken only by the crickets, perhaps it’s that Jamie’s presence has never felt uncomfortable or other to her, but she finds herself telling him how angry she is that Lamb, who was so conscientious with the smallest and most inconsequential pottery shards, didn’t think to save more of her parents’ things; she has few pictures or artifacts, no home movies through which she might remember their voices and different expressions, the way they moved and laughed, even as her limited supply of true memories has thinned so drastically and inevitably with time.

She hears about his own mother and newborn brother who had died, snowed in at Lallybroch during a dangerous delivery, only a few years after his older brother Willie passed from cancer. Voice thoughtful, he tells her about how strange it is for him, still, that the brother who he’d hero-worshipped will forever be a boy while Jamie grows and strives and becomes.

“I canna truly say if I ever knew what he wanted to be when he grew up,” he says quietly. “And it hurts, now, that I’ll never ken how that would have changed, what he would have done with his life, the kind of brothers we would have been as grown men.”

She brushes the backs of his fingers with the tips of hers then, the motion so instinctual that she doesn’t even think to check it. He gives a corner-eyed glance and a smile that she can sense more than see, and crooks a finger around hers - so briefly that she could ignore or forget about it if she wanted to.

She doesn’t want to.

Between all the running about and activity during the day and their walks at night, she’s slept deeply and without dreams during the ten days since she came north. But she stirs on the eleventh morning earlier than expected and can’t make herself drift off again. She considers taking a walk but the wind has shifted and brought smoke and ash with it. She gets in her car instead, driving aimlessly along the roads she’s become familiar with since she arrived. The radio plays in the background, something soft and instrumental which she doesn’t pay much attention to, instead taking in the strange, dangerously lovely pale orange of the sky.

But as she drives onward, the sunrise softness of it changes, gray overcoming the color, and not a cloudy gray either: first a light, foggy shade, growing darker as she continues, as if she’s driving into a storm. Ten minutes from the Gilchrest house, she sees actual flames - she might judge them as distant now, but they’re eating their way through gorse and heather too easily.

She doesn’t have time to consider how the fire crews could have let the spread get out of control like this. All she can think as she speeds the last of the way and parks haphazardly in the drive is of Donalda Gilchrest, alone with her big, pregnant belly and her roaming flock of children and the fire coming ever closer to her home.

Pounding on the front door, she shouts her name - “Mrs. Gilchrest! Mrs. Gilchrest, are you there? Donalda!” - hoping that someone will hear. It’s early yet, and she suspects that the woman herself is probably snatching whatever last scraps of sleep that she can before the day begins in earnest, but surely with so many people in the house, she’ll be able to waken at least one…?

She’s nearly at the point of smashing a window when Donalda Gilchrest opens the door. She’s a bit bleary, crossing her arms to keep her overstretched housecoat wrapped around her middle, but greets Claire with a polite and almost unsurprised, “Good morning, then, Nurse Beauchamp. D’ye need something?”

“I’m sorry,” Claire says, words tumbling breathlessly over each other. “I’m sorry to wake you, but I was driving past and I—I don’t know why no one’s tried to warn you, but there’s fire, here, on the property.” She gestures, moving back so Donalda can make her unwieldy way down the steps. Donalda stares for a moment, eyes wide as she brings trembling fingers to her mouth. Then Claire can see the practicality overcome her, kindred to Claire’s own.

“Thank ye for the warning. I need to get the children in order so we can leave while there’s still time.”

Claire reaches out, almost pulling back, then carefully touches Donalda’s arm. “Let me help. Please.”

They wake the oldest boys first, Arthur, age eleven, and Finley, eight, and leave them to dress quickly before they move on to rouse the six-year-old twins, Orla and Alfie, then split off efficiently on separate missions. In some ways, Claire is impressed: the children, for all that she’s seen their youthful stubbornness and exuberance during her home visits, are calm and orderly, as if they’ve drilled for this. She wonders vaguely whether it might be a sort of inbuilt Highland way of things, a grace under pressure passed on from generations which have seen much pressure and needed much grace.

It’s only as they’re getting everyone into the Gilchrest van, only as Claire is settling a satchel on serious-faced Arthur’s lap, important documents and medications and likely a few family photographs already prepared and set aside as had been recommended, that Donalda lets out a cry from within the house. For a panicked moment, Claire thinks that perhaps the baby has decided to start making a most inopportune entrance into the world, but then Donalda is pushing Claire aside, peering around at where the children are already strapped in.

“Where’s your wee sister?” she asks Arthur, then Finley, the question breathless and urgent, so different from her typical rock-steady assurance. “Where’s Maeve? She isn’ answerin’ when I call.”

Claire hasn’t kept real track of the Gilchrest brood. She wants to put her hand on Donalda’s shoulder and point to the smallest girl, only eighteen months, already dozing off again in her seat. But then she remembers that the reason she knows that she’s only eighteen months is because she did a brief examination of her for a fever when she was here last week, and the current littlest Gilchrest is named Lucie.

“Who woke Maeve? Did anyone see her this morning?” Claire asks, budging her way beside Donalda so she can face the children. They are all shaking their heads, and she can see how wide-eyed Alfie is - the one who’d heedlessly taken the tumble from the bicycle and who’d tried to climb on it again before she’d even driven off from stitching him up. She wants to reset herself with a deep breath and has to remind herself not to; the fire is getting closer and even standing in the air is making her eyes tear. She turns to Donalda.

“Is there anywhere particular Maeve would go?” she asks. “Anything she might have gone to get even if she wasn’t supposed to?”

“She—” Donalda bites the inside of her cheek. She is forcing herself to be calm now, when before she carried it with unconscious ease. “She has a doll she sleeps with, and toys in the playchest, but she wasn’t in her bedroom or anywhere that I could see, and she didna answer when I called. Maeve’s always been a quiet wee thing, but she’s a good girl and knows to answer me, especially these days.”

Claire steadies her voice through the next question, not wanting to ask it but knowing that she must. “Is there a chance that she went outside by herself?”

But Donalda shakes her head, the negative firm, no frantic denial. “She knows better, and even if not, she’s still too small to reach the door locks - she’s only four.”

“And if no one’s seen her, then she must be inside somewhere,” Claire thinks aloud, and knows what she must do. She turns. “Donalda,” she says, taking both of the other woman’s hands in hers. “You must get yourself and the children away from here. The fire is coming closer all the time. Get to safety and call the fire brigade. I’ll stay behind and find Maeve, and we’ll follow you.”

Claire can see the arguments running through the eyes before her: that she can’t give such a responsibility to a stranger, that Claire doesn’t know the house well enough or Maeve at all, that the thought of leaving one of her children behind, perhaps forever, is a reckoning too painful to bear.

Donalda Gilchrest rubs a slow circle over her abdomen. She glances at the frightened faces of her children, at the flames crackling closer through the windows of the van. She swallows and squares her shoulders.

“Please, keep her safe,” she asks simply. “Keep the both of ye safe.”

Claire does not wait to see her drive off. She takes the steps to the house at a run, shutting the door behind herself. The air in here is still clear for now, and she sucks in great lungfuls, even as she moves through the rooms as quickly and systematically as she can. She remembers Jamie speaking of regrets: If only I’d gotten up the stairs a bit faster. If I’d only thought to check that room once more. The thought pounds in her ears that she might come away from this day with such regrets - or that she might spend her last moments with the weight of them on her shoulders.

She tears through the obvious places: Maeve’s bedroom, which she shares with Orla, the play area downstairs, small places like the hall closet and the pantry, where a frightened child might tuck herself away and be forgotten. Maeve is nowhere. Through the window, she can see the fire growing large and closer, monstrous. She closes her eyes, to put the fear of it from her mind and to try to think like a four-year-old child. Where would she go, if she saw something coming to consume her home?

Back then, when she was four, she’d had a mother. She thinks of all those times through the years that she’s wished she still did.

Donalda’s husband is away for months at a stretch; he’s barely reflected in the lavender-scented bedroom, only as a handful of change and pens on the otherwise clear bureau. Claire pats along the bunched up comforter which Donalda was lying beneath only half an hour before. She opens the wardrobe door, calling Maeve’s name. And then she drops down, lifting the heavy bedskirt: in the warm, muffled place beneath the old-fashioned wooden frame of the bed, she sees a lax little body, one arm curled around a blonde-haired doll. She touches the girl’s ankle and says, “Maeve,” and the girl stirs.

“I woke up and saw the fire from the window,” Maeve reports into Claire’s neck as they rush down the stairs. “And I went to Mam’s room, but she was asleep - we’re meant to let her sleep lots, cause o’ the baby, so I didna want to wake her. I was only quiet under the bed, playing with Fernie.”

“You certainly were very quiet,” Claire says. She holds the child closer. The smoke is thick through the windows now. She’s trying to think what to do: is it safer to try to get out to the car without knowing the conditions of the roads and exactly how close the fire might be, or to stay in the house and hope for the situation to change even though at last check that leaves them directly in the fire’s path?

It’s seven o’clock now, just when Jamie and his crew will begin another twelve hour shift. She wishes she had her phone with her so she could ask him what to do, what someone with experience would choose, but it’s sitting useless in the front of her car, and he wouldn’t have his on while he’s working anyway. They use radios when they’re on the job…

There’s a dated green plastic landline attached to the wall in the kitchen, with the sort of cord Claire might have twisted around a finger while talking with classmates or crushes in another life. Now she picks it up and dials emergency services.

“We already have a crew on their way to you,” the operator assures her. Claire hopes that means that Donalda and the children have made their way to safety without incident and reported the fire. “And we believe the wind is going to shift, although we can’t guarantee anything. Best to take precautions.”

Maeve is willing enough to dress in layers of the most protective clothing Claire can find for her, and busily takes up the task of filling the sinks and bathtubs and wetting towels. Claire shoves furniture away from the windows where she’s able, makes sure every entrypoint is closed tightly, with wet towels rolled in front of as many of them as possible. But after a time, there’s little to do but wait. She finds a spot that’s likely far enough away from the windows in case the glass shatters and helps Maeve cover her face with one of the wet cloths, holding the little girl against her own body, crouched as low to the floor as they can get.

“We’re going to be fine,” she tells Maeve, even as the child trembles and burrows close, Fernie’s soft body clutched between them. Claire can’t help but wonder if she might be right.

Maeve presses herself up in Claire’s arms. Lips very close to her ear, she says, quiet and plain, “I want my mam.”

Claire thinks then of Donalda Gilchrest and wishes she could tell her that she tried her best, that her little girl was calm and not very frightened, that someone was holding her with gentle hands and doing what she could to keep her safe.

She thinks of Uncle Lamb, and of her parents. She doesn’t believe in an afterlife, not truly, but she hopes that there might be some sort of meeting of energy, that which is neither created nor destroyed.

She thinks of her work, hopes that she did enough, that she helped those in her care in the ways that she could and comforted them when she could do nothing. She thinks of her friends, of Frank hearing what’s happened. Her life has been small in many ways, but she thinks that it was large enough in the ones that mattered.

She hums to Maeve in her arms, a song she thinks her mother must have sung to her as a child, for it comes to her lips without thought, and she thinks of Jamie Fraser: his features, most familiar by moonlight, and his easy storytelling voice, the bravery and loyalty and consideration he displays without even thinking to do otherwise, and the way he has seemed always to fit with her, when so few things do. What relationship they have can still most accurately be measured in hours. She had thought they would have more time. She had felt that they were meant to have more time...

And then the wind turns.

She won’t realize it for another several minutes, but the smoke becomes less oppressive against the windows, easing enough that some amount of light begins to get through. Claire catches in a breath at the reminder that it is still morning. And then there’s a pounding on the door, and Angus’s voice, unmistakable even muffled by his mask, saying, “Beauchamp, open up! ‘Tis the noble rescue party, and we don’t mean to break the door down if we dinna have to.”

“A foolish thing ye did here today,” Dougal MacKenzie shouts as a middle-aged paramedic named Clementina takes Claire’s pulse. He stands with arms crossed over his turnout coat, jaw clenched and pulsing, surveying Claire where she sits in the back of the ambulance. “Ye’re a nurse, Beauchamp, and supposedly a good one, which we’re sorely in need of at the moment, but I’ll have ye sent packing back to yer hospital if you ever try to play heroine like that again.”

“I have no plans to,” Claire coughs, but it’s only to Dougal’s retreating back as he storms away to speak to Angus.

“Ye seem braw, especially considering,” Clementina informs Claire as she drapes her stethoscope back around her neck. “But I think we’ll take you in for further checks, regardless.”

“Yes,” Claire says. “Yes, I understand,” but she barely registers the words because she recognizes Jamie striding over to her through the remaining smoke, charred plantlife crumbling away beneath his boots as he walks.

Somehow she had expected him to speak first, to make a joke or ask, “Are ye well, then, Sassenach?” but as he stops in front of her, he only stares down, expression inscrutable. So after several seconds of silence, she says, “Hello, Jamie.”

For a moment he doesn’t respond, but when he does, his words surprise her. “How dare you?” he says, voice low and careful and furious, as if he didn’t even register her speaking. “How dare ye be so reckless with yer own life - you’ve only the one, Claire. How dare you be so reckless with my—” He cuts himself off, shaking his head sharply and shoving a hand through sweat-dampened curls.

Any other time, she would be gently teasing him about the way “reckless” has come out with an elaborately rolling introduction from his accent, but now all she can do is let out a shocked, “I’m sorry?”

Words seethingly precise, he says, “You’ve no training for this sort of work, no equipment. Did you no’ think for even a moment of informing the professionals about the situation? Did you not think to call for help before trying to manage it all yourself, before you chose to stay behind the way ye did? Or did ye merely have the stubborn idea that you always know best?”

Still reeling a bit from the surprise of his words and their vitriol, she nevertheless finds her own words flowing without much thought, her temper sparking in response to his. “I did make sure the professionals were informed - you’re here aren’t you? Things were chaotic. I was doing the best I could to help. As if you would have done differently! As if you would have only reported it and driven by, or left that poor woman and her children to manage for themselves with only the promise of help on the way sometime.” She crosses her arms over her chest and glares up at him, towering and highlighted against the smoky sky. He glares back down at her.

“If the wind hadn’t changed, I’m no’ even certain we could have—” He shakes his head sharply, swallows, then says nearly with disgust, “I canna look at you just now." She almost wishes he would shout instead, but he only stalks away, SDBA back in place while Clementina comes to close her into the ambulance, so she can’t follow or even try to be heard.

She has a chance to see the Gilchrests once more; Donalda clasps her hands and tells her that she must come over for a meal before she leaves, to be thanked properly, but what Claire will remember most is Maeve, curled sleeping against her mother’s side with peaceful familiarity.

Miraculously, neither Claire nor Maeve - nor any of the other Gilchrests - have suffered ill effects, but she’s still told to take the rest of the day off. She thinks that she’ll find herself at loose ends once she’s showered and cleaned up, eager to get back to work rather than roaming the empty bed and breakfast during what’s meant to be her shift. Instead, she pitches into sleep as soon as she’s closed her eyes and doesn’t move for several hours. She wakes groggy and has to take a second shower to rouse herself (a good thing, too, for she went to sleep without taming her hair and woke with it still damp but flattened on one side). She brushes her teeth several times, but her mouth still tastes of smoke.

Word must have spread, unsurprising in these small communities: when she comes downstairs, she’s told by the proprietor what a wonderful thing she’s done, and is surprised with a large meal so she won’t have to venture out. She spends the afternoon half paying attention to a book from the shelf in the parlor, not sleepy precisely, but drained. There’s enough food leftover that she doesn’t have to go out that evening, either.

Lying in bed that night, she thinks about texting Jamie, demanding an apology or telling him not to speak to her again, asking what exactly was going through his mind that he would take such a tone with her.

I miss walking with you, she types out, but doesn’t send it. After a moment of staring at the words, she erases them and turns off the light and finds sleep again.

On the thirteenth day, just before they’re meant to leave anyway, the fires are declared under control, at least to the point that the regular fire service can handle things themselves. Rupert asks Claire if she’ll be raising a glass with them that evening in the pub. She’s carried her food out and eaten in her car for the past several evenings rather than with the group of them, but apparently the locals are gathering to thank those who came to help and it seems rude to miss it simply because she and Jamie are avoiding each other.

It’s crowded enough to make it easy to continue such avoidance. Claire sips a whisky although she wishes for something colder and more refreshing; she’s beginning to sweat simply from standing in the packed room, having her back patted by nearly everyone who passes by.

Dougal comes to stand before the fireplace after about an hour. He only has official charge over the fire brigade, but he doesn’t seem too bogged down by those details as he thanks the villagers on behalf of the whole delegation, a sentiment Claire agrees with anyway so she can’t be too angry with him for his presumptuousness.

Her mood shifts, however, as he nods to the barman to dim the lights and begins to narrate along with a presentation, projected onto the wall nearby. His words are persuasive, but she can’t help but be disgusted by his intent: asking for donations on behalf of the firefighters from those who have already been generous enough to them, people who’ve been injured, people who’ve lost their homes or livelihoods, or came close to it.

But her anger flares hottest when she sees a new picture flash up onto the screen - a man’s back, covered in a familiar pattern of burn scars - as Dougal narrates about the dangers his men are willing to go through, the permanent horrors which might afflict their bodies in the course of the job. The photograph doesn’t show anything easily identifiable as Jamie but she knows anyway, just as she knows without looking who just slipped out through the door, leaving it to shut softly behind.

Without thinking, she sets down her glass and follows.

Jamie stands further along the street, fists pressed against the low wall in front of Mr. Robertson’s front garden. He leans his weight onto them, face hidden even as everything else is revealed by the light of the moon, finally visible after being covered for so long by persistent smoke. It is only as Claire comes to stand by his side that he straightens and looks over at her.

“That was a horrible thing for Dougal to do,” she tells him. She nearly wants to take it back once it’s said, worried that he might misunderstand and think she’s disgusted that people were forced to see his scars, but he actually smiles, though it’s narrow as the thinnest crescent of the moon.

“I should have prepared myself better. He’s done it before, at benefits and such. Took that picture himself while I was still sedated in hospital. I should probably be grateful that it’s never been made into a recruiting pamphlet.”

Despite the attempted lightness of his tone, his clenched fists and tight jaw speak too easily. She shakes her head. “You shouldn’t have to put up with that. You’re allowed to be angry, Jamie.”

“Aye, I suppose I am. Though you’d certainly know a fair bit about my anger, Sassenach.” He breathes deeply and says, “I’m sorry for the way I spoke to ye the other day. I should never have done so, especially as I know you were only doing what needed to be done to save the Gilchrest lassie. The only explanation I can offer for my words is that being there, driving up and seeing the fire and knowing you were in the middle of it...I was frightened by the thought of you in that sort of danger, and separated from my judgement by the fear.”

A few clouds have shifted, muffling the moon, and between the shadows and his height, she can only make out that he’s looking at her without being able to discern the expression in his eyes.

“You didn’t exactly sound as if you were suffering from a lack of judgement,” she says, a bit stiffly. “You were quite judgemental, in fact, and pointed, and specific.”

“I know it, and I’m sorry for it, sincerely. I spoke harshly, and no’ in a way that shows my true opinion of ye either, I promise that. That you’re brave and caring, that you’d try to help as you were able, shouldn’t ha’ been a surprise to me, and you were right that I would have done the same. It was hypocrisy for me to criticize you for it. Something to work on for the future, along with controlling the Fraser temper.” Even with the shadows, she can see the way his hand moves, as if he wants to hold it out to her, but he sets it against his thigh instead and asks, “Can you forgive me for it, Claire?”

It is the formality of the question which catches her ear. People tell her they’re sorry or beg her pardon all the time: on a busy street or during a shift at work, even Frank, when he would get lost in his research and forget to take care of something as he’d promised. But there’s something perfunctory about those apologies, as if her forgiveness is already granted and the words only that. What Jamie is presenting her with is a choice, a true request, a chance to say that she won’t offer him absolution, or can’t just now.

But she finds that she doesn’t need to consider the choice much after all.

“Yes,” she says, just as formally - it seems to call for it. “Yes, Jamie, I forgive you.” A smile lightens her mouth, just a bit. “I can’t say that it was a particularly restful experience for me, when it comes down to it. I certainly don’t plan to get in danger like that any more than I can help.”

“I’ll hold you to that, for I won’t be able to stop being frightened over ye, even if I’m softening my reaction to it,” he says, as the clouds drift aside to reveal the moonlight again. She can see his smile now too, not on his lips but in his eyes as he looks at her.

She clears her throat and tries not to glance away, changing the subject instead. “You and Dougal don’t seem to like each other much.” She’s noticed during the meals she’s eaten with the group that Dougal and Jamie don't usually converse with each other unless pressed. “Is it because of him showing the photograph?”

He watches her for another moment but accepts the new topic, resuming his lean against the wall, one ankle crossed over the other. “I’d prefer that he didn’t, true enough, even if I agree with the cause he does it for, but that’s not the reason. It’s more that...we’re family and we work together, which can be a difficult combination.”

“I wouldn’t really know much about that,” she says, trying for a joke. Even though it’s been years, she can’t seem to manage to make the fact that she’s alone in the world into something lighthearted, and he seems to be able to tell.

“I hope that one day ye will,” he says gently. She knows that there must still be noise coming from the pub - it’s only a short way down the street - but the night seems silent but for his voice. “I hope that one day you’ll know the good of family, along with the bad.” It feels like a blessing, and she cannot manage to look away even though she feels as if he must be able to read the full wash of emotions across her face before she can truly figure out what they are.

Jamie clears his throat after a moment. “That wasn’t—I wasn’t entirely honest with you, just now,” he says. “Things were not always this way between Dougal and myself, even after we began working together, but these days we tend not to speak because since I’ve moved to Leoch I’ve found that I don’t approve of the way that he treats his wife, and I’ve told him so.”

He’s assuring her before her spine has finished straightening, before her mouth has even opened for an urgent reply. “No’ like that. Ken he’d no longer be walking were it like that. But it’s only—” He rubs a hand over his chin; she can hear the sandpaper of his stubble. “She’s been poorly for many years, Maura has. Times that she’s been worse and times she’s been better, but she hasn’t been truly well since I was perhaps seventeen.”

“That sounds very difficult.”

“Aye, I’m certain that it is. And I do see something in him that will be destroyed when she’s gone, so a part of me wants to say that it’s fear that makes him treat her so, that makes him step away from her. I canna say that I forgive him for it, the cowardice of it, thinking of himself when she needs comfort, but I would understand that, if only he’d—” He sighs, not sharply, but deep and sad - somehow disappointed in this man who is old enough to be Jamie’s father. “He isn’t faithful to her.”

Delicately, Claire says, “Perhaps that’s their arrangement. If she’s been unwell for so long, perhaps they’ve decided that he might go elsewhere to satisfy certain...physical needs.”

But Jamie shakes his head. “If it were so, he wouldn’ be out having meals with these other lassies, holding hands and laughing with them in the street, where his wife might be shamed by it, where his daughters might know. If the only reason was that he truly canna do without, he would take care of what needed taking care of and be back with her. But instead he goes on dates like she’s already gone, takes extra shifts and spends time with friends as if she has no need of him and he no need to take in all that he can of her while he has the chance. I think I see her more than he does, and that's only a visit now and again.”

He shakes his head again, pressing his palms and fingers into the brick of the wall. “I was raised to understand that the person you’ve promised yourself to should have not only your respect and attention and whatever safeguards ye can offer to them, but that they should be...that they deserve to be treasured as well. Cherished, every part of them. How many times did I hear my parents speaking late into the night, my father telling my mother, ‘Of course you’ve the right of it, my own, and my apologies for not knowing it sooner’ before he gave her a kiss? How often did I see her frame his face with her hands and tell him that to hear him laugh each day was the gift she had not known she needed?

“After she died, especially the way it happened, my da needed to care for himself for a while. He sent us to relatives - me to Dougal and Maura, and Jenny to our aunt Jocasta - but even then I kent that it was from love for her not lack of love for us, and that when he took us back home, it was in some way because we were a reminder of the love he bore her.”

He turns to Claire, and his eyes are direct and sad. “But even if I’d seen none of that, I would know that the way Dougal behaves toward Maura is no’ the way a husband should be toward his wife.”

She considers, for a moment, plying him with gentle reminders that prolonged illness can take a toll on everyone, that perhaps he is only seeing from the outside and does not understand the dynamic between his uncle and aunt, even that it might be naive to think that all marriages should be constantly filled with such caring and devotion as he had witnessed between his parents. But instead she finds herself leaning into him, resting her head on his shoulder, and when he slides an arm around her waist, she does not pull away.

Instead, she finds herself questioning what exactly it would be like to be treasured by Jamie Fraser. Because sometimes she wonders if she already is.

“You’ve been given at least a day or two free after this, I hope?” Jamie asks as they walk together to her car. She knows that his strides could be much longer and faster than he’s making them. So could hers.

“Yes, a bit over a week, actually. Do you?”

“Aye, we’ve the same.” They’ve managed to reach the car, even at their slow amble, but Claire only stands next to it. “Anything in particular you’re planning to do with all that time?”

“Well, sleep and washing, for a start.” She plucks at the blue scoop-neck top she’s already worn twice since she’s been here; they’d been told to pack fairly light, and she hadn’t exactly stuck in anything suitable for a night out. The shirt’s been tumbled through the laundry at the bed and breakfast, but still retains a smoky scent beneath the unfamiliar soap. “Perhaps some time out with friends if they’re not too busy. Otherwise, it’s probably Netflix for me.”

He laughs briefly, but then his face takes on that nearly inscrutable look again, only a bit of movement around his mouth giving her the sense that he’s trying to make some sort of decision. Finally he says, “I’m planning to stay for a few days at Lallybroch, to visit with Jenny and Ian. It’s a beautiful place, quiet, relaxing. If you dinna mind not returning to Leoch straightaway, you’re welcome to come along.”

She stares up at where he stands beneath the streetlight, trying to understand why he’d extend such an offer to her, inviting her to his childhood home, to stay with his family, but his face stays distressingly neutral.

“Are you certain you aren’t only doing this because I have a car with me?” she asks finally. “I’d let you borrow it if it’s a question of transportation.”

His neutral expression breaks with his round laughter. Even when he’s finished, a fondness remains on his face. “No, Sassenach, it’s not your wee car that’s made me ask. It’s only that...I thought you deserved some time away, and perhaps that you’d even enjoy seeing the place.”

“And there’s somewhere to take care of my washing?” she asks, because clinging to practicality is easier than making the leap.

“In a manner of speaking...”

She folds her arms. “What does that mean?”

“How are ye with a washboard and a bucket?” He grins a bit, only grinning harder when she flicks a backhand against his side. “The place is fully modernized, never fear.”

“Well.” She takes a breath in; the moment seems to call for it. “Alright. I’d love to come. Let’s go to Lallybroch.”

Chapter Text

“Are you certain that Jenny isn’t going to mind hosting me?”

He glances over at where she sits in the passenger seat, raising an amused eyebrow. “Are ye planning on being a demanding guest, then, Sassenach? A princess, lying in ‘til noon and making her serve breakfast in bed, forcing her to deliver delicacies to you?”

“Of course not,” she says, offering him a waspish glance such that he’ll know that she’d give him a slap on the shoulder were he not driving. “But she must be well into her second trimester by now, not to mention that I’m practically a stranger - I only met her for about five minutes in the hospital - and now I’m just going to turn up on her doorstep?”

When Jamie speaks again, his voice is surprisingly pensive. “That doorstep has had many turn up on it through the years - friend, enemy, family member. Sometimes we haven’t yet been sure which they were when they arrived. It’ll be happy to welcome you now, Claire, and so will everyone who calls the place home.”

It’s obvious to her, even without him saying anything, that he still considers Lallybroch home too; he is clearly delighted to be returning. He seems to be a comfortable driver under any circumstances, keeping only one hand on the wheel when he takes over from her, but as they get closer to the area where he grew up, he settles even further, confusing the GPS she’d set up with shortcuts and pointing out landmarks, telling stories about the trouble he and his friends got up to which have her laughing. Jamie so easily belongs in Leoch, in his turnout gear and on the firetruck and beside his crew, but this place is filled with such belonging for him as well that she finds herself almost jealous of it - she has very few places which feel that way for her, few people she was ever around long enough to make the sorts of shared memories that Jamie has in seemingly endless supply.

They’d stayed up north through the morning, helping to pack up the tent and supplies, and bidding people goodbye. Donalda had wrapped her arms around Claire as well as she could. Little Maeve had given an enthusiastic wave before continuing a rope-skipping game she was playing with Alfie and Orla; Claire couldn’t help but feel glad that their time together hadn’t left much of an impression and that the little girl was moving on so quickly. The drive down is nearly four hours once they’re finally on their way, and they take it leisurely, stopping periodically to stretch their legs and eat, chatting all the while and taking turns choosing music, so that it’s late afternoon, nearly dinnertime, when they arrive at Lallybroch.

“You might have mentioned that it’s a bloody castle,” Claire says as Jamie takes her small roller bag from the boot and sets it at her feet. She cranes back to take in the full scope of the house in the dying light.

He scoffs. “Och, you’ve no standards if this qualifies. Now come on.”

Not bothering to knock, he pushes open the front door, calling, “Jen, you about? Ian?”

“You might hold back on all the bellowing,” Claire admonishes, following him into the entry. “What if your nephew is taking a nap?”

“No worries on that score,” Jamie says, tipping his head in the direction of a coat tree to their right. Some of the coats are shivering in the rhythm of tiny suppressed giggles, and when Claire looks down, she can see a pair of little feet in bright green socks peeking out from beneath the wool and leather, alongside the edges of a stack of picture books. She smiles.

“Good, you made it.” Jenny herself appears at the top of the stairs, a hand on her now evident belly. “Jamie, ye can settle an argument between me and Ian.”

“Never a chance,” Jamie says dismissively. “I ken too well how that will go: I’ll side with one of ye, who’ll somehow get it in their mind that I’ve insulted their spouse and will change their opinion to defend them, and I’ll be left looking like a right eejit as ye make eyes at each other.”

“Aye, exactly. Now, if you’ll side with Ian at the start, that should work out nicely.” Jenny huffs out a breath as she reaches the bottom step. She twists a bit at the waist, likely trying to shift the way the baby is pressing within her, before she turns and looks over at Claire: that evaluating glance, this time seeming to wonder why Claire is here, not in confusion but almost as a challenge. Why has my brother brought you to our home, then? Why did you choose to come? But all she says, sounding sincere if somewhat more suppressed and significantly more formal, is “Lovely to see ye again, Claire.”

“You as well. Thank you so much for having me - and I promise, I won’t be a bother.”

“I think you might deserve to be a bother after all that you’ve been managing these past few weeks. Jamie told me about the way you helped that family and saved that wee child.”

Claire gives a lightly strangled laugh. “Oh, it wasn’t—Really, it wasn’t as dramatic as all that.”

“Aye, it was.” Jamie’s expression is placid, but his tone is firm. “And ye deserve the credit for it.”

“Well, either way,” Claire says, facing Jenny steadily, “it’s no excuse to take advantage of your hospitality, especially when you shouldn’t be bothered these days either.”

She has a split-second of worry that pointing out her hostess’s condition might be impolite, but Jenny actually laughs and says, “Right ye are, I should be relaxing. But then Jamie will complain that he’s been working as well, and Ian’s doing his head in over the quarterly figures, so I suppose the only one left to wait on all of us would be…” She scans around the foyer, then says loudly, “D’ye ken, Mrs. Crook bought too many sweeties when she did the shopping. ‘Tis only a shame that there are no wee lads about to help eat some of them up.”

The green-socked feet wriggle suddenly around, and a little boy’s face, round-eyed and rosy-cheeked, peers from between the coats.

“Mam,” he says assuredly, “I’m here, and I’m good at eating sweeties.”

“You’re hired, then, wi’ credentials like that,” Jenny tells him, wryly amused. “Sweeties only come after yer greens, though, so I’d best make certain there’s greens to eat. Now get your sly self out from there and say hello to your uncle Jamie first.”

He needs no more prompting, shooting sock-footed across the floor toward them. Claire steps back so Jamie can drop the duffel slung over his shoulder and catch his nephew up in his arms. He tosses the boy into the air (Claire thinks wryly that it’s a good thing the ceilings here are so tall) and greets him in Gaelic, the boy chattering back around his giggles. Jenny smiles at the two of them, brushing her hand over her brother’s back as she edges around and goes through a doorway, wading further into the house.

Switching to English and shifting the boy to his hip, Jamie says, “And this is Claire, if you’ll say hello to her.”

“Hello.” That little face tilts to the side, tipping into his uncle’s shoulder as he considers her.

A smile blooms on Claire’s face without her even thinking about it - the younger Jamie is absolutely cherubic, although she suspects that his parents would claim otherwise, and the sight of the two Jamies together could hardly be more adorable. She waves and says, “Hello to you, Jamie. It’s lovely to meet you.”

“Are you Uncle Jamie’s mam?” Wee Jamie asks the question with complete unselfconsciousness, but Claire can only blink in response.

“Of course she isn’t,” Jamie says, a laugh curling up the edges of his words. “Yer mam and I have the same parents, and ye’ve seen in the photos upstairs that Grannie Ellen had red hair like mine.”

No,” and that piping little boy voice is nearly teenaged with derision, as if they’re being purposefully obtuse. “But is she your mam?”

“He means your wife,” says a new voice, and a man Claire guesses to be Ian - his resemblance to his son is obvious - comes from the same doorway through which Jenny had disappeared. “At this age they canna always muddle through the family relationships. The lad told Jenny yesterday that they’d be married when he grows up.”

Sounding relieved to have found at least one person with sense, wee Jamie says, “Yes! Did ye marry that Claire, Uncle Jamie?”

It should be funny. She and Jamie should be trading a fond glance over the simplicity of childhood. Instead she finds herself waiting to hear how he will answer.

Meeting Claire’s eyes with care over his nephew’s head, Jamie says slowly, “No, Claire is a friend of mine, a good friend and an important one, which is why I asked her to come to Lallybroch: to meet more people who are important to me.” He holds their gaze for another moment - more, she thinks, to make her see the sincerity of his words than so he can read the mixture of confusion and affection and strange, overwhelming emotion flashing across her features. Then he shifts to face wee Jamie again, giving the boy a bit of a bounce and adding, “And of course my favorite nephew will be beside me on my weddin’ day, so when I’ve been married you’ll know it, aye?”

Ian folds his arms, laughing. “The new one could be a nephew too, and what’ll you do then to charm the wean if ye’ve already given away that title?”

“Och, I’m no’ above manipulating my words a bit if it will keep my reputation as favorite uncle,” Jamie replies, eyes twinkling. “Wee Jamie here can be my favorite tall nephew, and if the next one’s another lad, he’ll be my favorite small nephew.”

“Truly showing yourself to best advantage before your guest,” says Ian, shaking his head. “Same way I’m certain yer sister did if she’s still on about tryin’ to fool me into changing my mind.”

“A good night for the Frasers all around.”

“And the Murrays. It’s good to have you back, Jamie.” Ian steps forward, wrapping an arm around Jamie in a hug that ends with mutual slaps on the back before he turns to Claire. “Apologies for not introducing myself earlier. I’m Ian Murray.” He extends a hand.

“I’d gathered,” Claire says, amusement underlying her tone as she shakes. “Claire Beauchamp.”

“I’d gathered that as well,” he responds with a grin. “And we’ve certainly heard enough—”

He’s cut off by Jenny’s voice, calling from what Claire would guess is the kitchen. “I’ve changed my mind, Jamie Fraser. Those excuses of yours about how tired ye are won’t hold up - come set my table so we can eat. Mrs. Crook’s food is always better when it’s no’ burned to the bottom of the pot.”

“She means that she’s going to have finished every crumb in the next five minutes if we dinna hasten ourselves,” Ian tells them, his affection for his wife apparent despite the teasing.

Jamie laughs and rolls his eyes. “Best come along, then,” he says dryly to Claire, but starts toward his sister immediately, head bent to listen to his nephew’s story about a dog, or perhaps a frog, found somewhere nearby. Ian gestures for Claire to walk ahead of him. She slides her suitcase to the side a bit before doing so.

“We’ve gotten one of the guest rooms ready for you - we’ll bring ye up and try to be polite after dinner,” he says. “But welcome to Lallybroch, anyway.”

She’s never had any siblings, is single with no children, and even when she was with Frank, it wasn’t as if their house was wild with laughter. The bickering and bantering and jokes that she isn’t a part of could easily make her feel overwhelmed, excluded even. Instead she finds herself walking through the halls between Jamie and Ian as if her footsteps have fallen in with theirs a thousand times before.

She doesn't mean to have a lie in but ends up sleeping through her alarm and only waking up once it’s gone eleven, the past few weeks catching up with her now that she doesn’t have the urgencies of work pressing in. By the time she rises, the house is quiet, and she dresses and starts downstairs with some awkward trepidation.

At the foot of the steps she meets an older woman with a basket of washing on her hip who introduces herself as Mrs. Crook, the longtime housekeeper, and tells Claire that breakfast things are still laid out in the kitchen if she’d like to help herself. Claire thanks her and goes to move on, then turns back.

“Have you seen Jamie? Or do you know where he is?”

“Lad’s likely around here somewhere,” comes Mrs. Crook’s voice, already winding up the staircase.

“Helpful,” Claire mutters to herself as she seeks out the kitchen again. Lallybroch might not be an actual castle, but it’s certainly larger and more confusing than most houses she’s used to.

There are boxes of cold cereal on the table and a pot of creamy porridge on a low flame on the stove, but Claire is drawn to what looks to be a homemade loaf of bread resting on a heavy wooden cutting board beneath a gingham cloth; the old-fashioned loveliness of it melds easily with the general decor of the place, blending modern, blog-ready farmhouse with the ancient stone walls which have been home to generations of Frasers. Her bed in the guest room, for example, has deliciously soft sheets and an amazing new mattress, but the thick cherry frame dates back to the mid-nineteenth century according to Jenny.

Cutting herself a couple of slices, she looks around, making a softly victorious “Ah,” as she spots the cheerfully red toaster on the worktop. Humming, she drops the bread inside and turns to look for a plate and some jam.

“I thought you said you werena planning on lying in ‘til noon.”

She whirls, and it takes a moment for her to figure out where the voice is coming from: Jamie has sat up from where he was apparently lying with his head and shoulders beneath the sink on the other side of the table, and is grinning over at her.

“It isn’t noon,” she protests. “And I wasn’t planning on it, and I came down for my breakfast.” Noticing a jar of marmalade within the partially open pantry across the room, she makes a point to aim a soft kick at his foot as she steps over his legs where they’re stretched halfway across the floor. He only laughs, lying back and starting to fiddle again with whatever he’s been working on.

“Any idea what we might get up to today?” she asks once her toast has popped and she’s seated herself to add the marmalade.

Teasing obvious even with the echo off the pipes, Jamie asks, “Is the princess certain she doesna want another wee rest after such a taxing mornin’?” She gives him a glare that she knows he can’t see before she takes her first bite.

“I met Mrs. Crook just now,” she threatens playfully as she chews through the warm, cracking crust to the soft middle. “Apparently she’s been working here for years, and she’d likely have some wonderful stories about your youthful exploits if I were to ask her.”

“Ye’re a cruel and bitter woman, Beauchamp,” he replies, making a bit of a clatter as he apparently finishes with his work and sits up fully to rest his forearms on his knees and shake his head at her. The laugh she snorts out despite her full mouth should probably make her feel self-conscious, but it doesn’t.

“As for ideas of what to do today—” He gets to his feet, wrench in hand. “I was thinking I could show you the rest of the place for a start. D’you ride, Sassenach?"

She rests her chin in her palm and lifts a gentle eyebrow. "Horse, donkey, or camel?"

Luckily it’s horses - she’s only actually ridden a camel twice, and they’ve never been her favorite - and Jamie chooses a sweet, glossy brown mare named Eilis for her. He has his own horse in the stables, a great black beast called Donas who snorts at the sight of Claire but melts as Jamie murmurs to him. Apparently the affection isn’t limited to Donas; noses poke from the stalls when Jamie walks by, snuffling at his clothing as he goes to fetch the tack. Claire chuckles to herself, seeing that his charm seems to affect the equine community as easily as it does the human one.

“Are the stables most of what’s done here?” Claire asks as they set off beside each other at a trot. The sun’s high enough in the sky to have taken off the worst of the morning chill, but the breeze is still cool; she’s left her jacket on at least for now, but she thinks that she might have it tied around her waist before they return to the house. “I realized I don’t even know if this is more of a farm for livestock or for crops.”

Eyes closed, Jamie takes a moment to inhale the air; despite the smells of fertilizer and animals, there’s a natural pleasantness that even she can appreciate, that seems to fill the lungs like nothing else. Opening again, he gestures with his head up a track off the main road, guiding Donas with an easy hand, his seat straight and hair gleaming in the sunlight. “The place has been in the family for a few centuries, ken, been one thing and another over that time, and now it’s a bit of everything.

“We do own some horses, and board others in the stables, and there’s the paddock and an instructor we have in for lessons. We’ve also a few other animals, sheep and some cows, and Jenny’s chickens which we keep for the eggs - canna think of any other reason we’d do so, considering they’ve barely a brain between them and still have a most high opinion of themselves. And they’re vicious too. They’ll peck anyone but my sister as soon as look at them.”

The track leads them upward to a better vantage point. Reining Donas up as they reach the top, Jamie points back where they’ve come from. “There’s the stables, and the barn. That’s mostly just an attraction these days, for those who are driving by or who come to pick apples with us in the autumn.” He directs her gaze even beyond the barn to a stand of trees. “My granny, my father’s mother, had a great interest in apples, brought in a few different varieties. It’s quite a small orchard, but the trees produce well, and anything damaged can be sold for juice or cider. We always get tourists and families looking to make a day of it: pick some apples, have a wee picnic, pet the animals. The sheep are usually grown out again by then from being shorn, and the whole thing comes off well in photos e’en if the bairns spend the whole time screamin’ and the sheep take a shite just out o’ view.”

“And do you sell the sheep’s wool too?” she asks idly around her laughter; she can’t imagine it’s a great amount if the sheep are mostly a side attraction.

“In a manner of speaking.” She tilts her head, inviting him to finish the thought. “The wool usually goes to Murtagh - he spins it to use.”

“Murtagh?” Claire can’t help the dubious, good-humored arch to her voice as she thinks of the gruff man she’s met twice by Jamie’s hospital bed. There are few people she’d think less likely to be involved in handicrafts.

Clearly holding back a smile of his own, Jamie replies, “Aye, Murtagh. He comes to work the farm every now and again, way he did growing up, but most of his time is spent—Here, I’ll show ye.” He wrangles his phone from his pocket and taps around on it briefly before passing it to Claire. He's pulled up a clean, simple website for a business called MFF Designs. She tours around the online shop for a moment, scrolling through customizable jewelry and accessories in wood and metal as well as handmade scarves and sweaters, most with traditional Highland designs and all of beautiful quality. Blinking in surprise, she hands the phone back to Jamie, who says, “He has an Etsy shop too, though he keeps that quiet. Likes to maintain an aura of mystery, does Murtagh.” Claire shakes her head, half surprised and half amused. Clearly she’s going to have to keep a closer eye on the man the next time they see each other.

“So, what else do you have here besides some animals and apples?” she asks, and Jamie points out toward the horizon to the side of the small orchard.

She squints against the sun as he tells her, “Half the farm is for grain these days - barley mostly, but oats too.” He gestures to another field and adds, “Someone generations back started planting potatoes - an early adopter, you might say - and we’ve kept those on, and do a smaller amount of other sorts of garden vegetables in the greenhouses, sprouts and cabbages and such, that we keep for eating and sell to the markets and the local restaurants.”

He shifts Donas around a few steps and she does the same for Eilis, so they’re facing the back entrance of the house in the distance. “We sell honey as well. Ye canna see them from this angle, but the beehives are just there. I know you don’t usually take honey in your tea, but any ye have here will be ours, sweet from the local wildflowers.”

“You know quite a lot about the details of everything,” she remarks, struck by how often he’s used the collective in his descriptions. “Was this—If you hadn’t been a firefighter, were you meant to take charge?”

“No, it was never meant to be mine.” A shadow comes over his face, just quickly, like the sun being brushed over by a cloud. “It could have been Willie’s - he was the eldest - but ‘twas clear from the time she was a wee thing that Jenny was meant to have the run of it, and wanted it too. We’re modern folk, none of this business with only the sons being in line. She got her certificate in Agriculture, and a degree in business management as well. I help out when I’m here, but she and Ian are a braw team, genius at running the place. And it’s a good thing too - between the farming, the management, the horses, and all the other bits, it comes out to more’n a few jobs for people from around here, and that’s needed.”

He looks about once more, taking in the whole of the place. “Aye, it was the best place I could ever ha’ wished to grow up, but I kent that there were things needed doin’ that couldn’t keep me here forever.”

It’s almost as if he’s speaking to himself, but she responds anyway, voice gentle. “But it’s still there for you to return to. Always.”

He ducks his head, eyelashes brushing his cheeks as he smiles. “Aye, it is.”

Nudging Donas in another half turn, he clears his throat and directs her attention across the main road. “Now, this is the tower, Broch Tuarach. It’s what the estate’s named for, means ‘north-facing tower.’”

She squints at it for a moment. “But it’s—”

“Round,” he sighs, dropping his head. “Aye. They say it’s for the door facing north, but I think it’s for the poetry of the name. We’ve always had a bit of the poet to us, the Frasers.” His grin flashes again.

She shakes her head with a laugh and asks, “But is it actually original to the property? It looks to be in very good condition for its age, if a bit...tipsy.”

“It was original, and most of the materials are too, but it’s been restored. My granda started wi’ the historic commission, and Da finished the actual project. They didna add anything, didn’t even prop it fully upright - couldna go losin’ that lazy lean which gave the house its name - but just making certain it wasn’t completely falling down anymore and was sound enough to walk in. Sometimes we’ll have tourist bookings, or school groups in to look around when they’re covering Scottish history.”

“Have you ever played guide?” She imagines Jamie droning in a docent’s name badge and sensible khakis, although it’s likely more accurate to think of him in jeans with a bunch of schoolkids staring at him in admiration and envy and youthful desire.

“More than once. I could likely still give ye the tour, but I’ll hold off.”


“Weel, there’s quite a bit of goin’ on about the dastardly English.” He looks at her aslant, voice too innocent. “Mentions about the place in the house where ye can still see the slashes from the redcoats’ swords sunk into the wood from the time of the Clearances and all that.”

Claire rolls her eyes. “I grew up mostly in the Middle East and North Africa, and I can read a history book. I’m quite familiar with the sorts of things my dastardly ancestors were almost certainly getting up to.”

“‘Beauchamp,’ there’s likely as not some French in ye, even if it’s a bit far back,” he offers in a conciliatory way, which just makes her scoff.

“As if they’re much better.”

“Perhaps it should be you give the next tour. With that sort of outlook on history, ye’ll win the young Scots to your side easily enough.”

They sit back for a moment on their horses, taking it all in. The thought crosses Claire's mind that it’s still enough that she can hear the bees humming in their hives from all the way past the house. There’s so much peace to it, with the sun on her shoulders and Eilis snorting below her, soft and alive, and Jamie with his shoulders back and his eyes smiling as he takes in this place he knows so well. It feels a bit timeless, hearing the calls of the workers back and forth, the place alive with work and laughter, despite the burr of the heavy equipment in use and the sight of telephone wires along the road.

“It’s lovely here,” Claire says on a sigh - so obvious as to be unnecessary, but she wants him to know that she feels it.

“Aye.” He clicks to Donas, starting them on a slow walk side by side along the path. “These are my favorite sorts of days, where the air’s so clear and the sun’s shinin’ on it all. Jenny and Ian got married on a day just like this one, barely ten minutes from where we’re sittin’. There’s a space over by the broch that we sometimes rent out, set back from the road - the church isn’t far, and you can put a marquee up for the reception.”

“Jenny and Ian’s wedding, where she tried to storm the stage when the band played all three songs on her ‘absolutely do not under any circumstances play this’ list?” Claire laughs, recalling Jamie’s expressions and gestures as he’d relayed that story on one of their evening walks.

“Aye, that’s the one. Luckily everyone was so plastered by then that I think the only person who noticed was my great-aunt Wilhelmina, who’s a Carmelite Sister over in Dumbarton - though she did try to organize a betting pool over who would come out tops in the stramash.”

“From what you’ve told me, you’d have to be truly plastered to bet against Jenny,” Claire says. “I don’t know that the good sister would have had much luck even if she’d been able to get anyone’s attention.”

He laughs in agreement, but after a moment something serious seems to fall on his face. He glances around, toward her and away again, as he says, “I always thought I’d have my weddin’ here too, actually.”

His tone gives her pause more than the words. Rather than making it an offhand comment, the intonation is imbued with weight and intention, more than there should be when she and Jamie are only meant to be new friends, but somehow it doesn’t feel awkward or frightening to her. Perhaps it’s because Jamie always seems self-assured, not from the foolishly brash attitude of youth but with a weight of experience and too much seen behind it. Perhaps it’s the way she felt, since they met months ago, that there was belonging to be found by his side, a recognition within her that found its echo in him.

So, soft as the honeybees in their hive, she says, “I think it would be beautiful,” because she does.

They go into the village the next day. Broch Mordha is a postcard of a place, old-fashioned and enduring at once, window boxes and narrow streets, little shops and cottages along the sides of the roads. About every three steps, they’re stopped by someone who wants to shake Jamie’s hand and chat with him. Claire elbows him after the fifth time.

“Are you the mayor and you haven’t told me?”

He ducks his head, laughing. “Ye ken that we have provosts in Scotland. And it’s only small town friendliness besides, such they’d offer to any visitor and anyone returning home.”

She knows that it’s more than that, can tell that it’s particular to him from the sweet enthusiasm with which he’d greeted and the way that he recalls each person who approaches, remembers particular details and asks all the right questions. But still, each time he introduces her - “This is Claire Beauchamp. She’s a braw nurse, works at the hospital over in Leoch and came to visit after helping with the fires up north” - and the gaze of someone new runs over her, taking her in before a hand is extended and she’s greeted with a “Lovely to meet ye, Claire,” she feels the friendliness falling over her as well, gathering her into the warp and weft of the place.

(She does end up going into one of the shops to buy a crocheted shawl in a soft sage color even though it’s obviously meant for tourists, but it’s so beautifully made that she can’t resist. From the way Jamie smirks, she suspects that it’s one of Murtagh’s.)

It rains on Saturday, and with wee Jamie having no school, she and Jamie take it on themselves to entertain him while his parents work around the house and take some time for themselves. Lallybroch is the perfect place for it, with all its nooks to use when playing hide-and-go-seek; the cozy room which once belonged to Brian Fraser and is still referred to as “Da’s study,” ideal for building blanket forts and lying belly-down on the heavy rug looking at picture books; the warm kitchen where they can make an attempt at baking with Mrs. Crook thankfully off on the weekends so she can’t click her tongue at them, however fondly.

Wee Jamie tries to wheedle Claire into reading him his story and putting him to sleep that night, but it’s apparent from the flash which moves across Jenny’s face that she wants some time with her little boy, no matter how much she might mutter about him getting underfoot. Claire is worn out and perfectly willing to encourage him to go with his mother. Even if she weren’t, she has no desire to push back against Jenny Fraser Murray, who has been perfectly polite but who still seems to analyze her every time their paths cross, as if she’s just holding her tongue from demanding answers to questions Claire isn’t certain she’s ready for.

The rain pattering even harder against the pane, Claire relaxes with her own book, leaning into the arm of the settee, but, surrounded by the warmth of the fire and the comforting murmur of Jamie and Ian’s conversation, between one breath and another she’s asleep.

She wakes up fully dressed beneath the covers of her bed. There’s a note on the nightstand: Didn’t want you to wake up with a stiff neck - the sofa can be murder.

It’s not signed, and she’s never seen his handwriting before, and she has no memory of being lifted into his arms and carried here with such gentleness that she didn’t even stir. She still knows who left it.

The plan is for Claire to drive back to Leoch alone, leaving Jamie to spend a few extra days with his family and return with them when Jenny has her next ultrasound appointment. Her last day at Lallybroch is once again bright and clear and lovely, the sky a seemingly endless blue. Jamie offers a hike and a picnic nearby and she accepts readily.

Their conversation, when they make it, flows as easily as ever, but most of the time they walk softly, taking in the surrounding quiet of the world around them. How enormous it seems, and how small too: the plants and flowers Claire can spot and name, and those she can’t, sprouting strong; each tiny bumblebee and ant muddling busily on its way; the two of them moving along the hillside together, step by easy step.

Jamie brought a thick tartan blanket in his pack which they spread on the grass when they reach the top, setting it with the food Mrs. Crook had prepared for them and which they’d split between their bags. Even when they talk about Leoch, when Claire shares funny stories from the hospital, or Jamie wonders how the other shifts have managed without his crew for nearly three weeks, it doesn’t break the spell, the feeling of the afternoon not being quite in line with the rest of time.

They stay quietly for a while even after they’ve finished the food, not packing it up yet. Claire tucks her legs against her chest, resting her cheek on her knee as she watches the gentle movement of the wind against the petals of a primrose.

“Tell ye a secret, Sassenach?”

She looks over at where Jamie is lying on his back, his head beside her hip. He cranes back a bit, squinting up at her against the brightness of the sky.

“Go on.”

He pauses before he does, but only briefly. “That first night in the hospital, the night we met, one of the nurses who took me for the X-ray tied my gown for me.”

“No they didn’t,” she says definitively. “I remember being annoyed that they hadn’t taken enough care to help you when you couldn’t move your arm.”

“They did help me. I undid the wee ties - that’s something you can do with only one arm.” He sits up, shifting to face her.

“But why? Did you—You weren’t worried about me seeing your back?” From things said and unsaid, she’s always had the sense that he rarely if ever chose to allow anyone to see the burn scars there, even people who knew about them.

With a stillness that seems purposeful, he says, “I kent it was something I could trust ye with. I wanted a chance to speak with you, but I didna think you’d come over only to have a chat.”

She could joke the moment away - Oh, you’d be surprised what I might do to avoid catching up on charting! - but she doesn’t. “Why did you want to speak with me?” she asks instead, and her voice comes out quieter than she meant it to.

He studies her for a moment and then says, just as quietly, “Because I knew from the moment I saw you that I’d never get enough of doing so.”

When she reaches over and places her fingers atop his, she thinks it’s to communicate something for which she doesn’t have the words, but when she touches him, she finds them. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“Aye.” It comes out as a breath, a bit dazed.

“That first night in the hospital, the night we met…” The breeze blows her curls against her cheekbones, almost into her eyes, but she doesn’t pay attention, doesn’t let go or look away from Jamie’s gaze, blue as the cloudless day above them. “You touched my hand, just like this, and I—I felt something, something that I didn’t understand.” Her voice drops even softer, but the words remain firm and clear. “Something I still don’t.”

He nods slowly. “Ye weren’t alone in that, Claire. You haven’t been since.”

She catches in air - not a gasp, but a reminder, full and necessary, that she is here on this beautiful, encompassing day, here and hearing him. He watches her, the smile contained in his eyes, though she can see how easily it will move to his cheeks and his mouth, softening them broad and joyous.

“If I asked you,” he says, “to come out wi’ me when we return to Leoch - not only as friends, ken - what would you say?”

It takes no consideration at all for her to respond.

Chapter Text

It was always an obvious mistake for them to plan their date on a day when she was working, but their schedules don’t always match well and she doesn’t think he’s willing to wait any more than she is, so they did it anyway.

Still, she doesn’t think she realized how much of a mistake it was until she’s holding her breath on the bus, peering out the window at what seems to be the first traffic jam Leoch has ever had, willing it to move just that tiny bit faster. She gets off before her stop; having the control offered by walking feels better. She taps out a message as she strides down the sidewalk, bag knocking against her hip.


Ended up getting off work even later than expected,
so might be ready about ten minutes late


No worries, take your time

She’s slightly out of breath as she turns the corner to her street, calculating the absolute minimum time she’ll need to make herself presentable - she can probably manage a four minute shower, though she should probably tack on another two in order to make sure she doesn’t cut herself shaving... She doesn’t immediately register Jamie, even though he’s leaning against the brick by the front door of her building, looking more gorgeous than ever in gray trousers and a pale blue Oxford beneath his jacket - leather, probably not warm enough for anyone else but his overheated self on this chill April evening.

“You’re early,” she says as soon as she gets close enough. Her voice is more accusatory than she meant it to be, but he only grins.

“And a good evening to you as well, Sassenach.” He moves over a bit more to allow her access to the lock.

Too harried to stop herself, she runs her hand over her hair. “You weren’t even meant to be here for another five minutes, plus the extra ten.” She knows it’s silly - Jamie’s seen her in scrubs before, seen her exhausted after a long day and with soot on her face and sweaty from hiking, and he asked her out anyway - but she’d wanted to look good when he arrived tonight, or at least relatively put together.

“I can walk around the block a time or three if it would make ye more comfortable,” he offers.

It’s difficult to believe that he’s honestly offering to make her feel better, or that he’s truly so unbothered, considering the put-upon sighs and reluctantly polite I suppose I’ll see you when you arrive texts she became accustomed to from Frank when she missed some faculty event of his to study for an exam or was delayed for dinner because of work. But Jamie has not lost that good humor, looks the same as always. She hopes she’s right to trust that it won’t change. Squinting at him for a moment, she actually considers sending him away, then sighs.

“You’d better come up.”

Her flat is on the top floor, and they take the flights in silence but for the sound of their footsteps. As soon as Claire unlocks the door, she’s in motion, kicking off her shoes, tossing her keys and bag aside.

“Help yourself to a drink while you wait. Glasses are beside the stove,” she calls over her shoulder; she’d offer food, but they’re going out to dinner soon and she knows that there wouldn’t be much in her refrigerator anyway.

Barely thinking except for what she needs to do next, she tosses herself into the shower, scrubbing and shaving as quickly as she can. She knew that there would be no time to wash her hair, but there’s no time to straighten either; she ends up jabbing kirby grips in where she can to keep it back, thankful that the humidity from the shower actually softened things as opposed to making them unmanageable - it’s always a tossup. The finished product isn’t exactly a salon-fresh style, but it will do well enough.

Her dress is hanging from the closet knob where she’d laid it out earlier, knee-length and burgundy with lace details because Jamie had mentioned when they were texting that the restaurant was a somewhat nice one, and she whirls around the room collecting her good black underwear, low black heels and a black wrap, a simple clutch. She’s never been one for an extensive makeup routine, and doesn’t have any room to keep things beyond minimal now.

It’s only once she’s finished - precisely on time, if he had given her those extra ten minutes! - that she takes a moment to breathe and look in the mirror, mildly satisfied with the result.

“Alright,” she says as she exits the bedroom, eying the trailing end of her wrap so it doesn’t get caught on the closing door. “I’m ready.”

Jamie had been examining her bookshelf, his back to her, but he turns at the sound of her voice. The grin on his face transmutes as he watches her come closer.

“Claire. Christ,” he says soberly, taking a step back, as if he wants to be able to drink the whole of her in. “Ye look beautiful. You always do, but I haven’t had much of a right to say it before now, so I want you to know: you look beautiful.”

“So do you,” she tells him, because he does, in a way that has nothing to do with the fit of his trousers or how his shirt takes up the blue of his eyes or the strong forearms she can see beneath his rolled up sleeves now that he’s taken his jacket draped over his arm. She offers her hand. “Let’s get out of here, then.”

In many ways, she’s already been out with Jamie like this several times, a simple evening of eating and talking. Their conversation flows as it always has. He describes the degree he’s been doing online - in Classics, which is somehow a surprise and not at once. (“I’ll work with my hands the rest of my life if I can, and happily,” he tells her. “But I like my mind to have some work as well,” and that’s exactly right.) She tells him that she’s been considering getting a cat, but will need to find one temperamentally suited to being left alone for long stretches without destroying anything. They discuss work and his family, books and television and politics, all sorts of things they would have spoken about simply as friends.

At the same time, there’s an atmospheric shift to their togetherness this evening, a weight to his gaze as he pours her another glass of wine, a slow magnetism as she extends a forkful of her risotto for him to try. They linger over their shared dessert, a molten chocolate cake, densely rich and heavenly, and it’s nearly closing time when they finally stand. Jamie absently drops a rather enormous tip on the table as they leave together.

They pause outside her door. She doesn’t reach for her keys. He takes in a breath and asks, “Can I—May I kiss ye, then, Claire?” His voice is solid, his eyes on hers, even as she notices his fingers rubbing and kneading adorably by his side.

“Yes,” she says firmly, and reaches for him.

They end up pressed against the precise spot on the wall where he was leaning earlier. Her hands are cradling his face, fingertips in his hair, and she is up on tiptoe without realizing it, closer, closer humming through her blood, all thought of propriety, neighbors or passersby, the fact that it’s only their first date, driven from her mind.

“Will you come up?” she manages when they finally pause for breath. She only needs to whisper it: their mouths are still near each other, foreheads almost touching. She starts to fumble for her keys. He leans in and kisses her again, gently, before she manages to find them. His mouth already knows the movement of hers.

After another minute, he pulls back again, further this time, so he can look at her. Even under the dim streetlight, she can see his eyes taking her in.

“This isna—” he starts, then shakes his head and tries again. “What’s between us, it isn’t something I want to rush. This doesna feel to me like only a night. It’s no’ just a bit of fun that lasts while it lasts. When I look at ye, I see a beginning. I keep thinking of the and then, and then, and then. And I ken that ye might not feel the same way—”

“I do though,” she says, and it feels raw with honesty, so she reaches to kiss him again. He matches her easily. Even when they separate, she keeps her hands framing his face.

“Not yet, then,” he says, a bit hoarsely. “Not tonight.” She leans up, draws one more kiss from him; it isn’t intended to convince him or change his mind, but simply because she still wants it, wants him. His eyes are closed when she steps away again, and a bit dazed when he opens them. Slightly shaky but definite, he says, “Sometime, but not tonight,” and waits until she’s safely inside before he goes home.

Falling asleep that night, she keeps thinking: and then, and then, and then...

They both have the next Saturday free and are meant to go to the botanical gardens in Inverness, but the weather has turned from the expected drizzle to an especially chilly storm; it seems a shame to go when they’ll miss the outdoor bits. Still, there’s no reason not to see each other, so she invites him to spend the day at her place.

He seemed excited about it when they’d texted yesterday, but by the time he comes over around noon, there’s something distracting him. He doesn’t debate with her over takeout options or tease her about her kitchen being a wasteland, and he accidentally almost gives in when she suggests they watch the first season of The Crown before he catches himself. (“Ye want me to watch folk swanning around, pretending to be that bunch of actually useless wee shites?” he says incredulously, the first time he’s sounded truly himself all day.)

Halfway through the fifth episode of Broadchurch, the foil from her chicken quesadilla long since crumpled into the container from his beef fajitas and the side order of spicy cauliflower reduced to a pair of forgotten florets, she’s had enough. Throughout the course of the afternoon, they’ve migrated away from their initial polite seats; she’s leaning against his chest by this point, and that only makes the pause between her commenting on how good Olivia Coleman that she can go from this to Fleabag and his vaguely affirmative response more apparent. She pauses the scene and turns over, looking up at him, chin pressing into his chest.

“Alright,” she says. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Wrong? Why would ye think—” She silences him with a look, and he sighs but keeps his mouth mulishly shut.

She waits, but when it seems he won’t say anything, she adds, “If you didn’t want to come over, or if you changed your mind, you might have just said something.”

Although she thinks she was mostly successful in keeping hurt or insult from her voice, he responds with immediate vehemence.“It isn’t that at all. Believe me, Sassenach, there’s nowhere else I’d want to be. But I’ve been such poor company that I probably should have called off.”

“Jamie.” She rests her hands on either side of his body, pressing herself up so she can see him more fully. “I didn’t want you here entertain me, and the only reason I wish you were in a better mood is because seeing you like this makes me wonder if there’s something upsetting you. You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to, but I’d like to help if I can, even if that only means listening.”

For a moment, his face is so still that she thinks he is going to maintain his assertion that nothing’s the matter. But then something unshields in his expression - already a concession, considering how stoic he can remain when he wants to.

“Colum asked me out to the pub after my shift last night.”

“Your uncle Colum? Colum MacKenzie, the provost?”

He smiles just a little. “Aye, he’s the one. I think he’s feeling—Well, he didna precisely say anything outright, but even without knowing him as I do, how his mind works and such, I would ha’ gotten the sense that he thinks it’s coming near time that Dougal retired, or at least moved on to something new, made way for someone a bit less aggressive. He mentioned, just by-the-by, that there’s a position opening with the regional fire council. I think he was trying to get a sense for whether I’d speak up if he made a move against Dougal. Or ‘encouraged him to take this new opportunity,’ was how Colum put it.”

“He’d really do that to his own brother?”

“My uncles defend each other fiercely against outsiders, true enough, but they’ve each their own opinions about how things ought to be done and won’t let family relations stand in the way of that. They cut my mother off because they didn’t exactly approve of my da, barely even saw her from the time they married til her funeral.” He forces out a breath and continues. “Anyway, seems that Colum heard of how Dougal did his song and dance after the fires - he’s never truly approved of that sort o’ outside fundraising, even if it means that Dougal isn’t so forceful as he might be come time to make the city budget, but it seems that the others who sent personnel heard as well and weren’t best pleased that the Leoch crew was soliciting donations.”

“Well, it was a bit graceless, considering all that those communities had just been through. It couldn’t have made Leoch look good in the eyes of the others.”

He laughs. “Ye’ve too kind a heart, Sassenach. No, they were complaining that we were the only ones who got the donations.” His face looks somewhat more familiar as he leans forward and gives her a brief kiss.

There’s a moment after they break apart where she forgets the course of the conversation. Remembering makes her frown. “So it’s the optics again which have him displeased with Dougal?”

“I think it’s a bit of a buildup.” Jamie tilts his head, considering. “Dougal might have more of the charm, and he leads the department well, but Colum’s a politician through and through and he doesn’t like having someone who’s powerful enough to be independent of him, who doesn’t rely on his goodwill.”

“So he’ll use the fundraising as an excuse?” Something else occurs to her just then, and she sits up further. “If Dougal left, or was sacked, or got shifted out to that new position...Did Colum want to speak to you to try and get a sense for whether you thought that you or the firefighters would push back, or was he trying to line up Dougal’s replacement?”

He makes a rough sound in the back of his throat. “I told ye Colum is a politician. He can multitask with the best of them. Said he was glad to have me around the firehouse, that I was skillful at calming tempers if there was ever a need, then mentioned, just there at the end, that he’d be happy to support me in the future if I needed a leg up in anything. I ken what he meant well enough.”

“And what did you say in response?”

“The truth: that I think the benefits of trading in Dougal aren’t worth the trouble it’ll bring, and that I wouldn’t step into his shoes were he to go. Told him that I don’t have the ambition for it, and there are others who do and have more experience besides. Not to mention that I’ve no desire for more responsibility when instead I could be spending that time with you.”

He says it so straightforwardly that she finds herself charmed by the words all the more. She relaxes fully into him for the first time that afternoon.

Against his shirt she says, “I hope that’s the end of it. I wouldn’t want you to end up stuck between the two of them, especially when there are city politics involved, not to mention your job.” She brushes a hand down his jeans, slapping lightly against the outside of his thigh. “But next time something’s on your mind, even something small, I hope you’ll talk to me. I don’t only like having you around to put my burdens on, and I don’t l—I don’t like you only because you’re fearless and a good listener and bloody good-looking. I like seeing the human parts too, Jamie.”

When she looks up at him, his eyes are soft with smiling. “I’ll remember that, for if there’s a next time.”

“Good,” and because she knows that she wants to last with him through many more nights of something being on his mind, she says with pointed dignity, “When the next time comes, I’ll remind you.”

She unpauses the episode. They finish the rest of the scene before Jamie says, “I’ve barely been paying enough attention to track the characters’ names, but that Olivia Coleman’s a legend, aye? Just as believable here as she is as the stepmum in Fleabag.”

Her laugh is almost drowned out by a sudden, sharp grumble from his stomach, which only makes her laugh harder, even as he grows pink around the ears.

“Human enough for ye, Sassenach?”

She pushes herself off of him and to her feet. “Just the right amount of human. Come with me - I think I’ve got some pasta around, and the vegetables in the crisper are likely still good enough to make something of.” And she takes his hand and leads him into the kitchen.

It’s a week later before they actually make it to the botanical gardens, and she insists that they go out for brunch first as compensation to him.

“I dinna need compensation for spending time with you,” he protests as they amble along the sidewalk, sliding his arm around her waist to pull her closer. She’s wearing one of her new jumpers - she’d liked the shawl so much that she ordered two from Murtagh’s site before even leaving Lallybroch so they’d be waiting for her at home - this one a bold eggplant shade which goes down over her wrists, with little holes for her thumbs. He keeps trying to slide his fingers in as well.

“You’ll get it all stretched out,” she complains, laughing as she pushes him away, although she wishes that she hadn’t a second later - they’ve texted during their respective work shifts and even had a couple of long phone calls which left her smiling, but it’s the first time that they’ve been together, the first time she’s touched him, in days.

“I’ll have Murtagh make ye another. Three.” Seeming just as unwilling to be parted, he tugs her back, giving her a short kiss, then a longer one before replacing his arm around her waist. “Anyway, I dinna need compensation for having a day of ye all to myself, listening to yer yelping over this weed and that, listing what each one can do, telling me the Latin names as if you came up with all of them yerself.”

“Hush.” She kisses him quiet, fingers resting lightly against his face. “You aren’t helping your case. Come eat.” She pulls him through the door into the café.

They’re seated by the window, sun streaming over them, coffee poured into large, pastel mugs. Jamie orders himself a truly disconcerting amount of food.

“Are you trying to take up the whole day with eating?” she asks, incredulous, as the waitress walks away to put in their ticket.

He raises a brow. “Have ye forgotten I’m a firefighter? That’s hungry work - I have to keep my strength up.”

“Yes, you’re a firefighter, you’re not the Rock.”

They tease each other throughout the meal, and she only doubles down when he asks for a taste of her berry brioche French toast, wrestling his fork playfully away with hers.

“If you get through the rest of the menu you’ve over there—” She tips her chin toward his plate, holding back a smile. “—then I might consider giving you a piece.”

“Och, Sassenach, ye cut me to the quick with your doubts.” He shakes his head in mock sorrow, turning back toward his plate, but is interrupted by his mobile ringing on the tabletop. He glances at the screen and mutters a fervent, “Christ,” before rejecting the call.

“Who is it?”

“Angus. Probably sloshed, and champin’ to tell me altogether too much about some lassie he’s just met who’ll want nothing to do with him.”

“What, drunk at ten in the morning?”

“Aye, he and the lads were on a pub crawl last night. Some of us shouldna be trusted with four days off in a row. Leaves them too much time to forget themselves and get up to no good.” The phone starts to ring again, and he picks it up and stands with a sigh. “I’ll go speak to him for a minute to shut him up, but I’m coming right back, so dinna think of swiping any of my food, hmm?” She’s laughing at him, shaking her head as he passes, and he tips her chin up, kissing her, fingers tangled in her curls with care so as not to dislodge the sunglasses she has perched there, before he continues outside to take the call.

The laughter is still on her lips as she spears another blueberry, and contemplates perhaps stealing a piece of his bacon.

“Would yer boyfriend like a refill on his coffee, then?”

It’s the waitress, a plump young woman with a topknot and a striped apron tied forward and back around her waist. She manages to make the routine question sound like she cares, but for a moment Claire can’t help but stare, not answering.

Because she’s never called Jamie her boyfriend, has never even thought of the word in relation to him - they’ve only been seeing each other for a few weeks, and haven’t had any of those sorts of conversations to make themselves official. He would be perfectly within his rights to see a dozen other women if he wanted to (although she thinks she can imagine the dismissive response he'd give if she mentioned such a thing). But at the same time, she feels that the problem is that the word seems too simple and juvenile and temporary. It doesn’t feel like enough, not when she can’t imagine the two of them ever ending with a breakup or some mutual parting of the ways, not when she looks at him and, however irrationally, thinks of decades, of a future that’s not yet been filled in with detail, but is definitively there. She glances through the window to where Jamie stands on the sidewalk, grinning and gilded in the sunlight as he makes some comment into the phone, and - even knowing the ways that vows can lose their meaning and how "husband" can be just as impermanent a thing - she finds herself thinking of forever.

Blinking, she brings herself back. “Yes, he’d love more coffee,” she says, and sets the sugar beside his saucer as the waitress pours. He’ll take two when he gets back.

Chapter Text

She wants her sweater off. Jamie is an absolutely bloody brilliant kisser and that’s been enough so far, but now she wants something more. She wants to feel the shiver of his skin against hers, the heat of his hands imprinting themselves on her back through her thin, silky camisole or even on her bare skin, but she can’t bring herself to pull away to strip off the fabric, and can’t contend with the stupid, awkward thumbholes just now.

It isn’t until he pulls away (as far as he can, considering he’s lying back on her couch with her straddling him), until she registers his hands laying on her hips instead of pressed against her back, his hoarse voice panting out, “Claire, wait. Claire. Hold a moment, a ghràidh,” that she realizes that she’s been rocking herself against him, practically riding him. She shoves herself back, swiping at the disheveled cloud of her hair in an attempt to put it in order.

“Christ,” she says. “I’m—Jamie, I’m sorry. Mauling you like that...What you must think of me.”

But he is levering himself up and shifting her back into his lap. He places his hands over hers, taking his time as he settles each curl gently around her shoulders. He unearths a leaf, likely from earlier today at the botanical gardens, smiling a bit as he holds it up for her to see before setting it aside. He looks luscious in the light of the table lamp, his own curls in disarray, his mouth bright with the memory of hers. She has to force herself not to notice.

“I’m not able to think o’ much at the moment,” he says, humor soft in his still-breathless voice. “And what I can think isn’t particularly suitable for sharin’.” She laughs a little, and he leans in and rests another kiss from her lips, fast, as if he can’t help it. But when he moves away again, it seems as if a seriousness has fallen over him. He says, “You wanting - that isn’t anything shameful, Sassenach. And as for you wanting me, that’s an honor for certain. I only stopped ye because I felt that I should say…”

For a moment she can’t truly register his tone, unfamiliar as it is, but then she muddles it out for herself: nervousness, hesitancy, a Jamie who is unsure of himself. But even as she wonders what could be making him react this way, she rests her hands on his shoulders and says, “Whatever it is, you can tell me.”

He breathes deeply and says, “I grew up miles from the nearest village, and went to school surrounded by those who’d known me from the time I could barely keep my head upright.”

It is his storytelling voice; this, she is familiar with, although she could not say exactly when it happened. She relaxes into it as he continues. “I also had a father with old-fashioned ideas about love an’ relationships, things he imparted from the time I was small which became valuable to me as well.”

His hands have shifted to her waist now, thumbs rubbing absent circles on the skin uncovered by her sweater. Claire doesn’t know whether it’s meant to comfort him or her, but she finds it soothing all the same.

“When I began training, when I moved to Leoch, that was the first time I began to truly...explore things, to have experiences, with—wi’ women. But then…”

“The fire,” she says softly, realization beginning to creep over her.

“Aye, the fire,” he echoes back, just as softly. His shoulders hitch and release. “For some months I was healing and there was no room for those sorts of thoughts. But after a time, I simply closed my mind to the idea that someone would want me if she knew, that I would ever be able to find enough comfort with a woman to want to open myself to her in that way. But then I met you, and though ye saw them from the first so I never had to worry over that…”

He turns away from her then, chin tucking against his chest like a bird hiding beneath a wing. For a moment, she allows it, a gathering of thoughts, but then she takes his chin in the cradle of her fingers and directs it back toward herself, so he can see the understanding in her gaze, so he can take from her what he needs to continue.

(She knows that what is in her eyes must look a lot like love, although she can’t quite bring herself to say such things aloud, not yet.)

“I know that you were married before,” he finally says. “And he’d likely learned ways of pleasin’ women that I never have. But I swear to ye, Claire, that I’ll learn how to please you, and even if I dinna have such experience, even if I canna say that I’ll be...skillful at first, you must help me to get it right.”

He looks so sweetly determined then, steeled-over nervousness beneath his words, his eyes begging her to see the truth of his earnestness. She leans forward and touches her lips to his but doesn’t go further, sitting back again and trusting his hands to hold her upright.

“What we do together, whatever it is, should never only be about pleasing me,” she says, because as lovely as she finds his sentiment, she wants to make clear her expectations of how things should be between them.

He gives a tiny smirk at that. “That’s very considerate of you, Sassenach, but I think ye’ll find that I’m a fairly simple man in this respect.”

“And I’m a simple woman, with simple standards, and just being you seems to fit things quite nicely. And as for the particulars, I have no doubt that you’ll figure everything out along the way,” she tells him, thumb printed against his chin as a responding smile making itself known at the corner of her mouth. “I think I’ve shown you that you’re doing extremely well at pleasing me thus far.”

She hopes that he sees the truth in her eyes.

It was a quiet day in the A&E, and now it’s been a quiet night. Claire only has about an hour left before her shift is through, just sleeping old Agnes MacNab to take care of between the three nurses on duty, with all her charting finished and the whole place stocked and in order, so she’s texting with Jamie about buying a new sheet set.


What about this one?


That’s the exact same plain gray one that you
already have! Get these instead:

Really can’t believe you still only have the two sets
that you bought when you moved into your place


Well, you’re going to have to believe it sometime
because it’s the truth, same as it’s been every
other time I told you

And I’ve only the one bed so why do I need
more than one sheet for it at a time? 🤨

It’s still new, her familiarity with Jamie’s bed and his with hers. Sometimes it really has just been sleep; the first time she’d seen his bedroom had been when he’d refused to let her leave from watching a late movie at his flat into the downpour and she’d in turn refused to let him sleep on the couch when it was too short and couldn’t possibly be comfortable for him. They’d been stranger with one another than they usually were, stepping around each other too politely, pretending that they weren’t taking in all the details of a different bedtime routine. Falling asleep, they’d been neatly on opposite sides of the bed. She’d woken up with Jamie’s heavy arm slung over her and his breath fluttering her hair and it felt like that’s how it was meant to be.

Other times, though, it hasn’t been sleep that’s brought them to bed together, or at least not only that. The first time she’d had her mouth on him had been at her place, his fingers twisting in the sheets as he’d struggled joyously to listen to her orders and not move, and he’d barely managed to translate the Gaelic that had choked from him before he fell asleep as if he’d been knocked out. The first time he’d had his mouth on her, she’d forgotten where they were altogether; he had come up to kiss her afterward, lazy and languorous, for what felt like hours, before he’d said seriously that he wanted to make certain he’d remember this particular lesson, and kissed his way back down again.

(Apparently she’d made her appreciation of that very loudly known. She might not know the other people who live in her building but Jamie sees his downstairs neighbor, a man named Hugh Munro who’d had a glossectomy as part of cancer treatment, fairly regularly. Jamie had reported, half laughing, that he’d gone over to help Hugh make some calls and had been reminded good-naturedly that the man might not be able to speak but he could still hear perfectly well. She’d refused to linger in his stairwell over the next several days, not at all eager to accidentally run into the man.)

While she thinks that by some standards they might be taking things slowly, she prefers to think of it as thorough instead. Jamie is very keen on being thorough. So is she, for that matter. As much as he seems to think she’s the teacher, as much experience as she does have, everything with Jamie feels different, special and new and more.


If you’re never going to use them, just get
these then:

Your nephew will be very jealous!


I’m getting these ones

They’re the same color as the dress you
wore on our first date

I want to see what your skin looks like
when I have you naked against them

She bites her lip, but doesn’t tell him off for writing things like that to her while she’s at work. She’ll be home with him soon enough. Instead she taps out a response about how his bedroom will look like Lestat’s lair if he has sheets like that.

Just as she’s about to send it, the doors burst open, and she can tell just by the tenor of the commotion that she won’t be home with Jamie soon after all.

She doesn’t get a chance to text him again for another two hours, when she’d been forced by her bursting bladder to leave the floor for five minutes.


Everything alright there?


Major collision on A837. We’re all hands.
Not sure when I’ll make it out of here.

It’s bad, Jamie.


Saw it on the news

Come over if you want to, or call. I’ll be
here. It doesn’t matter what time.

Make sure to take care of yourself, Claire

Although she knows that it's sound advice, she doesn’t pay attention to it. For another hour and a half, all she sees are the patients in front of her, the only sounds around her the shrill of the monitors or voices calling a code.

It’s misting by the time she’s forced to leave, and fresh air feels like something she’s forgotten. She’s in time for the last bus of the evening if she wants to wait, but she starts walking instead, tired enough that her footsteps feel aimless and meandering although she knows the route well. It’s only once she’s a block from the hospital that she thinks to check her phone.


Going to bed, but call if you want to talk

Leaving keys under the mat too ❤️

She lets herself into his flat quietly, shoes in her exhausted hand. He’s left a lamp on, and she switches it off as she moves past, though his place is still unfamiliar enough that she worries about stubbing her toes or knocking something over in the dark.

In the bedroom doorway, she stands for some time, although she can't recall how long. She doesn't make a sound, she knows she doesn't, but after a while she hears Jamie turn over and then his voice squints from the darkness.


The duvet crumples back, and the shape of him, revealed in the dimmed streetlight through the curtains, starts to reach for the bedside lamp.

"I'm going to wash up," she says abruptly, and shuts herself behind the door of the en-suite before he can throw the light over her.

She's typically luxuriant in the shower, taking almost cinematic enjoyment: groaning as she rolls her neck and shoulders and lets the hot water settle her muscles, hair piled messily atop her head or streaming like a mane down her back. Tonight she fills her cupped palms with water and brings them up to her face, over and over. She's lost count of how many times when she hears Jamie's light knock.

"Come in." She has to clear her throat and try again. "Come in."

The shower curtain is too thick for her even to make out his shape. "I’ve brought a fresh towel, and there’s something for ye to wear by the sink," is all he says, and then he leaves again.

She uses his shower gel, something with a stupidly manly name which makes her sneeze but smells good because it's what he smells like. He must have taken her scrubs; they’re gone from the floor when she finally forces herself to push back the curtain and step out. As she pulls on the comfortably large T-shirt and unfortunately large shorts he'd left on the vanity, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror, her skin pink and flushed and fresh as spring, her face drawn. She turns off the bathroom light and encloses herself beneath the covers on her side of the bed.

"I don’t want to talk. I just want to sleep," she says when Jamie moves toward her. She turns onto her side, facing the wall.

"Sleep, then, Sassenach," he says, very gently, but she already is.

She doesn't think it's much later when she wakes again. The light hasn't changed outside, and it doesn't feel like she slept at all. From Jamie’s breathing, she can tell that he's awake too, but whether it's again or still, she isn't sure.

"The tour bus driver had a stroke. He lost control and hit the cars on the other side. They brought in twelve people altogether." The words float like ash into the empty air beside the bed. Jamie makes a small sound deep in his throat, a little listening catch. She turns over toward him but keeps the blanket up to her chin.

“I’ve lost patients before, of course I have, but tonight...We saved one. We could only manage one. A little girl. She’s turning six in three weeks. She was traveling with her parents. Her mother didn’t survive surgery. Her father barely made it to the hospital at all. He died beneath my hands.” Her voice is so quiet she might as well be speaking to herself.

“Will she hate me forever, Jamie?” she asks on a breath. “Will she ever forgive me when I couldn’t save them, and because I was able to save her?”

For a moment, he doesn’t speak and she fears the silence in a way she never has between them. And then, finally, he begins.

“There’ll be years of grief ahead of her, that I know,” he says, each word coming out with care. She hadn’t realized how quickly her pulse was racing until it begins to slow to the pace of his voice. “Years when she’ll rage at the world and at God or the universe, and at the other drivers and at her parents too. Years where she’ll be filled with sorrow for never knowing what it is to argue with her father about politics or with her mother about her future, never celebrating a graduation or a birth or a new home with them at her side. So many moments when the loss o’ them will arrive suddenly in her mind and make her live it again, or blame herself for letting it slip from her thoughts.

“But she’ll also have all those years to find places and things which matter to her: time to discover her talents, books and films she loves, songs that understand the deepest parts of her and ones she can’t help dancin’ to, so much time to go on adventures and learn about herself and about the world. She’ll find friends in those years, happiness and peace and passion, the best parts of who she is, and, someday, she’ll find someone for who she’ll be as their own heart. You gave all that time to her, mo chridhe, all those years, the good and the bad in their completion.

“That lassie who’s in the hospital tonight might no’ be able to forgive you. She might not have the understanding for it, or the words through the choke of it all just now. But the woman she’ll become...aye, she forgives ye, Claire, and blesses you for what ye gifted her.”

The words nearly make her weep with the relief and the anguish of them, but she doesn’t want to cry. She wants to stop feeling overwhelmed, wants to stop thinking about tonight, wants to stop dreading her next shift, just wants to stop.

She shifts forward, finding his mouth by instinct in the dark, although she can tell immediately that he isn’t responding the way he usually does, the way she wants him to; he isn’t cold, but there’s none of the fervency that she’s used to and that she needs just now. Trying to spark it, she reaches out a hand beneath the warm weight of the blankets. Although she suspects that Jamie prefers sleeping naked - he has a rather minimal collection of pajamas - he nearly always wears something to bed when she’s there, likely some sort of gentlemanly programming. Her palm lands on the flannel of his trousers, somewhere around his thigh. Before she can move it to where she wants it, before she can roll him over onto his back and kiss him more deeply and take him in until she can’t remember anything else, he finds her wrist, pulling further from her as he tugs her hand toward his mouth and kisses her knuckles. He maneuvers her wrist gently, even as she holds it stiff, moving it so that her palm rests against her chest.

“Not tonight,” he says, and it’s rejection no matter how soft his voice. She tries to twist away from that, from him, but he holds on.

“Just no’ tonight, Sassenach,” he says with assurance. “Just sleep, tonight.”

And miraculously, she does.

The clock is on Jamie’s side of the bed, angled such that she can’t read it, but she can tell from her own grogginess that it’s late when she finally wakes. Jamie isn’t scheduled to work today, but the flat is so quiet that she wonders if he went out; part of her hopes that he has so she doesn’t have to confront the weight of what happened between them last night.

She has no desire to put on the dirty scrubs she’d arrived in, if she could even find them. Pushing her fingers through the nest of her hair, she finds a pair of Jamie’s socks in the bureau and a big sweatshirt folded in the wardrobe. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous it looks, the sleeves bunched up so they don’t fall inches past her fingers. She wants to be warm.

Jamie is in the kitchen after all, one foot hooked on the chair in front of him as he scrolls silently through his phone. She finds herself noticing small things about him, things she already knows: that he’s left-handed, the entire language contained in his exhales, how his eyes miss nothing.

“Good morning,” she says, trying to say it as firmly and normally as possible. She’s not sure that she was successful - his gaze is so evaluating - but he nods at her and stands.

“Can I make a bit o’ breakfast for ye?”

“Oh, no, I can—”

“It’s no trouble. I can have an omelette ready in five minutes if ye’d like.” He nods toward the fridge. “Pick what you want and I’ll add it in.”

He probably has a full fridge; he’d been planning on going to Asda yesterday. They’d texted about their grocery guilty pleasures, that one thing not on the shopping list they just can’t help being tempted into adding to the basket. The memory seems to dredge itself from the dimmest, deepest part of her mind even though it happened barely twenty-four hours ago.

She sits at the table, watching him chop green peppers and mushrooms, start spinach wilting in one pan as he pours a whisked mixture of egg and what she thinks is actual cream into another. His hands are easy at the tasks, even more than his usual natural confidence.

“You can cook,” she accuses, the words blurting out as he folds the omelette over neatly, just a little sizzling hiss escaping.

“Aye, well enough,” he says over his shoulder. “Even when Jenny was small, she didna have a very high opinion of being the only one indoors cooking wi’ Mam while Willie and I were dirtying ourselves outside - said Mam should be teaching the lot of us. And when I was grown a bit, Jen was near raising me, and told me often enough that she’d no’ have me leavin’ the house to go off on my own without knowing how to take care of myself and my home.”

“And you still choked down my pasta mess.” She shakes her head.

“It was a terribly charming pasta mess,” he tells her seriously, and sets one of his white plates in front of her place, bending to kiss her hair. Before he can pull away, she touches the tips of her fingers to his wrist.

“I’m so sorry about last night. I’m absolutely fucking ashamed of the way I acted. Coming here and crying all over you, practically forcing myself on you again, and—” She releases him to press the heels of her hands furiously against her eyes. “Christ, Jamie, and it would have been your first time.”

When the echo of the break in her voice seems to have faded enough that she can make herself look up at him again, he’s taking her in thoughtfully, and it’s the fact that he’s actually considering rather than giving immediate and blank absolution which settles her mind. She never wants him to ignore his own needs and feelings because of the power of whatever is between the two of them.

Finally he says, “Aye, it would ha’ been my first time for that if it came down to it, but more important, it would have been our first time together, and I didna want it to be like that between us. I wish ye hadn’t tried to make it about sadness, about forgetting.”

“You were right, you should have stopped me, I’m glad—”

“But there’s nothing else that I need an apology for.” She doesn’t know how he does that, his quiet voice making itself so easily heard. “You were upset last night, you’d been through an ordeal, and you came here, ye came to me. It opens my heart with the pride of it, Claire, that ye trusted me for that, to try to find comfort with me when you were hurting.”

“I haven’t seemed to have trouble with that.” She gives a wavering little laugh. “I was crying on your shoulder about five minutes after I learned your name.”

He rests one hand on the back of her chair and one on the table beside her plate, bringing himself close to her. “I’m glad,” he says.

Mouth softening into a slight smile around the corners, he adds, “I was told recently to show the human parts of myself. It goes both ways, Sassenach. I want your joy and your pleasure, but your sorrow, your troubles - I want those as well, though I ken I’m greedy for that. I want whatever you can give me, and I’ll wait for what’s too tender for ye to give me now.”

And she doesn’t have the words to respond, so she takes his hand and kisses the back of it instead, and hopes that he knows that she wants everything from him too, that she wants to give him everything, just as she knows that she one day will.

Since she’s gotten involved with Jamie, she notices sirens all the more. He’s working over the next two days, and she hears the firetruck as she crosses the street on the way to her morning shift, when she finally remembers to go out for groceries that evening, as she stops by one of the food trucks in the park for a falafel at lunchtime the next day, while she’s half-dozing later on in front of the soapy drama all the other nurses are talking about. Still, she knows that any work-related preoccupation isn’t the reason that their text thread has quieted; things feel tender between them just now, delicate and furled as the shoots of a new plant just come through the soil, as if they’re trying to figure out a next step.

So she finds her heart leaping when, on the way back from removing a raisin stuck quite far up a little boy’s nostril, she passes Geillis, who says, “Oh, Claire, you’ve a visitor at the desk.” Her expectation as to who it might be must flash clearly across her face, because Geillis gives a little giggle. “Not exactly that strapping man of yours, I’m sorry to say. It’s a woman. Although I’m certainly not here to judge on all that...” She twitches an eyebrow at Claire, mouth sly, before continuing onward.

Puzzled, Claire goes to see who it is, and finds that while it is a woman, she does have something to do with Jamie after all.

“Jenny.” As her visitor comes into view, Claire takes the last few steps a bit faster. “Is anything the matter?”

“Oh, there’s no trouble, Claire, not to worry,” Jamie’s sister says, although she has that air about her of slightly worn busyness which Claire remembers from her stay at Lallybroch, as if between all she has to manage, she’s barely sat down all day. Her belly seems to have grown even larger since Claire last saw her. “I wouldna usually interrupt ye here at work, but I realized I didn’t have your number and I was here for my scan anyway, so I thought I’d pop by and ask - ye ken Jamie’s birthday is coming next week?”

“Yes, on the first.” Claire smiles a bit. She’d remembered the date from seeing his medical records, and had just bought a gift for him last night: a pair of tickets for one of Edinburgh Rugby’s first friendly matches of the new season in August. Choosing something had been a difficult endeavor when he doesn’t seem to want for anything in particular, and especially considering the tentative state of things between them just now. She’s decided to make certain he knows that he can bring anyone he wants - it doesn’t have to be her. When she clicked purchase, though, all she was thinking was how excited he would be to show her something he loves; the idea that they might not be in a situation to take a weekend away together in the summer never occurred to her.

“Aye, well, Ian and I arranged months ago for Mrs. Crook to stay over with the wean so we can take Jamie out for a birthday dinner. I dinna know what your schedule is like, but if you’re free at 7, you’d be welcome. I know Jamie would be pleased to have you.”

She looks as if she has to steel herself a bit to say the words, which Claire decides not to comment on. Jamie and Jenny are close, and this is likely the first time Jenny is ceding ground as the foremost woman in her brother’s life, and to someone who’s from outside the interwoven community of family and homegrown Highlands inhabitants besides. Claire also decides to avoid mentioning the slightly awkward carefulness that exists just now between herself and Jamie; Jenny Fraser Murray seems the type to squirrel these sorts of things away and let them color her viewpoint in the long-term.

“Thank you for asking me,” she responds instead. “I’ll be glad to come. Here, let’s exchange numbers so you won’t have to bring yourself into Leoch - and down to the A&E besides - only to ask me a question. Things always seem a bit easier when you can take care of them from home.”

A smile starts to extend across Jenny’s face, almost as if she doesn’t mean it to. “Aye, that’s so.” She takes out her phone. “Go on, add your number. It’ll be good to have on hand.”

And while it might not be the ultimate stamp of approval, it at least feels like a test passed.

“Now, don’t deny yerselves on my account,” Jenny protests staunchly as the waiter brings over the wine list. “It shouldn’t become less of a celebration only because I can’t drink.”

It would probably have more weight if Ian weren’t leaning back in his seat where she can’t see, grinning as he mouths along with her words. Jamie manages to keep his face impassive except for a twitching at the corners of his mouth, but Claire has to pretend to cough into her serviette.

Ian and Jenny have chosen a lovely little seafood bistro, not particularly formal but what seems to be a first-rate kitchen judging by the scents which have been overwhelming Claire since they stepped inside. If she’s being honest, she was somewhat looking forward to a glass of sauvignon blanc to pair with her Venetian mussels, but she goes along easily with Jamie and Ian as they swear that they weren’t even intending to glance at the drinks menu.

“Ye ken, Sassenach,” says Jamie, leaning warmly toward her as Ian stands to let Jenny out to use the restroom. She’s missed this confidence between them. “Ye arena as convincing as ye seem to believe, but I think Jen might begin to like ye even better seeing as she can tell what ye’re giving up for her.”

“Oh hush, I’m not that bad,” she whispers in return, although she very well might be.

“Dinna worry yerself overmuch, Claire,” Ian says, voice at a normal volume now that Jenny is gone. “I love the woman more’n my own life, she works twice as hard as most everyone I’ve ever met and often doesn’t complain when she ought, but she also doesna mind making a bit of a martyr of herself at times. Did it the first time she was pregnant too as Jamie can—Well, she’ll likely do it the next time too.”

Claire doesn’t think she’s imagining the slight awkwardness which has come over the table, although she isn’t certain why Jamie’s mouth has tightened, why his fingers are tapping against his thigh, or why even normally good-spirited Ian looks as if he regrets the words.

“Well, I imagine she deserves it just now,” she says, trying to rally the conversation, but it doesn’t help.

Jenny returns at that moment, kissing Ian’s cheek as she slides back into her seat, and seeming to sense the mood.

“So,” she says, businesslike, “I’ll toast ye with a whisky again someday, brother, but I hope the thought will count for something now.” She raises her water glass and says, “To Jamie, who’s a credit to the Fraser name and who I’m lucky to have as a brother. No’ quite as wise nor as good-looking as he might think, but we like him well enough regardless.”

“Sweet of you to say, Jen,” Jamie tells her, a grin coming over his face, slow and genuine. “Look at ye, gettin’ me misty-eyed over here.”

Airily, Jenny responds, “If it’s sentimentality you’re looking for, I’m certain my husband can come up with something to satisfy,” and Ian chuckles, relaxed again, and raises his own glass.

“To Jamie, who gave me the honor of my life when he trusted me with his sister—”

“Trusted my sister wi' you, more like.”

“—and who we’re honored to celebrate another year with. To a truly worthy brother, uncle, partner, and man, sláinte.”

Ian’s face shows humor easily, and affection, but more than anything it shows truth plainly upon it, and his honesty comes to the fore now. Jamie, his own frame of mind clearly shifting toward seriousness, nods toward his brother-in-law, gratitude lighting his eyes.

As the others turn toward her, Claire isn’t certain what she’ll say. Then she opens her mouth and finds the words already there.

“To Jamie. For everything so far. For everything to come.” She touches her glass gently to his, the sound ringing clearly even through the noise of the restaurant. “Happy birthday.”

His hand finds hers beneath the table. Their fingers fit, just so.

It seems that everything - unseasonable flu, strep throat, pneumonia - is going around Leoch and everyone thinks they’re dying of it, leaving Claire run off her feet at work, so much so that she considers cancelling the plans she and Jamie had made to go to a concert after she’s through with her Wednesday shift. But she can’t bring herself to do it - two days and two nights he’s been working, and she misses him, misses talking and laughing with him, misses his broad scent, smoky and woody, and his arms around her and the way she’s aware of him in the bed beside her even as she sleeps - so she fits in a nap and ends up glad that she made the effort.

Even though the songs were in Welsh or Gaelic, neither of which she has any fluency in, and the frontman, Gwyllyn, was a mild-looking older man who she wouldn’t have guessed would have much stage presence, she’s going to have to look up the music from the band, The Bards, when she gets home. They’d done a mix of modern Celtic-inspired originals and more traditional folk songs, including some ballads that she’d been surprisingly moved by, especially with Jamie standing behind her, leaning down to murmur translations in her ear occasionally, sometimes just holding his arms around her, chin resting comfortably on her hair.

“How in the world do musicians even know to come to Leoch?” she asks Jamie as they leave the hall which had served as a venue. He has to bend close to hear her over the departing crowd, and his arm curves around her waist, a pair of fingers finding their way beneath her jacket and silk top to rest against her skin. “It isn’t exactly a metropolis.”

“Gwyllyn’s come for the past few years, all part of one of Colum’s initiatives, having the Arts Council reach out to lesser-known acts from around the UK, singers and bands who’re talented but haven’t struck it big and might never. It’s the same reason he’s opened submissions for a new museum design - partly for the tourists and the money they bring in, sure enough, but mostly he’s trying to give the place the sort of culture that will make folk stay and new ones move in, rather than shifting off to the bigger cities or out of the country altogether.”

“Is it working?” There’s actually quite a lot she likes about living in Leoch - the sense of community and recognition even though it’s not exactly a one stoplight town, how close it is to the more wildly natural parts of the country - and she’s willing to overlook the occasional gossipiness and the forty minute roundtrip to get real groceries. Still, she knows that there are plenty of people who would be stifled here; Frank, for all that he appreciated the archives and artifacts and research potential of the Highlands, used to arrange regular trips to London, missing meals out at well-reviewed restaurants and the chance to go to the theater or attend the opening of some exhibit at the British Museum - and he’d been living in Inverness, nearly double the size of Leoch.

“It’s helped, to be certain, but even those who want to canna stay around just because of a good concert now and again. He’s encouraged expansion of the city in his past terms, building more houses and flats. Still, real estate here might be cheap but it’s no’ free, and jobs aren’t exactly hanging off the trees. But if I ken Colum, and I do, he’s already got some plan in the works to improve the prospects there as well.”

They pause at the light, waiting to cross the road, and when she looks up at him she’s surprised to see that he appears to be mulling something over.

“Colum actually—” he starts, but then a voice from behind them shouts, “Beauchamp! Oi, Beauchamp!”

She spots Rupert first, then Angus and Willie, weaving through the crowd to come meet her and Jamie. They’re part of a larger group - Claire doesn’t know everyone, though she does recognize the blonde paramedic, seemingly in a bad mood tonight, arms crossed over her chest and a scowl on her face as if she doesn’t want to come talk to them, and another firefighter who she recalls might be called Johnny Mac. (While it could just as easily be MacAllister or MacDonald or MacLean, she’ll lay money that it’s short for MacKenzie. Half the town seems to be related to them.)

Absolutely devastatin’ that ye’d not even give the rest of us a chance before taking up with this one, Beauchamp,” Angus says, shaking his head. “And a bit dishonorable of yer man here not to so much as mention that he had his eye on ye. Nervous about the competition, a ruaidh?”

“I don’t think either of us needs to run our life decisions past the lot of you,” Claire says in fond annoyance.

Jamie says from beside her, voice only just joking, “And if ye see it that way, a bit of dishonor’s somethin’ I can live with considering what it’s got me. I think you’ll find that there’re some women worth quite a lot of dishonor.”

His arm is still around her waist, his fingers still running over the same spot; she doesn’t think she’s ever been more aware of those two inches of skin before. When she looks up at him, he’s already facing her, as if he was only waiting to let her see the truth in his eyes.

“When ye’re here saying things like that, seems we never really had much of a chance, aye?” Rupert says cheerfully, recalling her to the conversation. “Now, the pair of ye’ll join us at The Fiddlers Arms?”

“I told ye, I’ll not step foot in there,” Angus protests. “They water down the whisky and arena even honest about it! We’re going to Bannerman’s.”

Someone Claire thinks she recognizes from Jamie’s stories as being named Alastair snorts. “So we can wait an hour to be served from a dirty glass? It’ll be Sandy Bell’s or nothin’ at all.”

Going out certainly wasn’t in the plan for the evening, but they agree to one drink (Jamie wrangles everyone into agreeing to The Black Bull), and after a short walk find themselves pressed against each other at the overcrowded table the group’s stuffed themselves into. Willie makes sure to tell her that it’s good to see her again, reminding her of how sweet he is, especially compared to the rest.

Angus and Rupert make fun of her for ordering a glass of wine instead of a whisky, and she tells them archly that she’s not going to take drinking advice from the sort of people who were drunk-dialing friends just last month, Jamie laughing with his hand on her back, sliding a lock of her hair through his fingers over and over. His touch is light and distracting against her shoulder blades, contrasting with the broad, apparent line of his thigh against hers. She glances at him from the corner of her eye, runs her gaze over to him, the power of his body clear even as he sits relaxed. She takes another sip of her drink.

They’ve already been there for much longer than intended when Claire gets tired of listening to Angus critique the men playing pool near their table. She finishes the last of the glass of water she’d asked for and starts to try to edge her way out.

“Come on, then,” she urges, waving a hand. “They’re nearly done. Let’s see if you’re as good as you obviously think you are.”

“Challenging me then, is it?” Angus asks, chest shoving out. “I’ll take my apology in writing once I’ve shown ye. On pretty scented paper and all.”

Claire is much more adept at card games, a deck being nearly always at hand on the dig sites throughout her youth, but she spent more time than most growing girls in dodgy drinking establishments across a few different continents. She knows her way around a pool table. She chalks up, leaning over and sighting down along the table, getting her eyes accustomed to the dim light as Angus struts around getting his own cue. When she straightens up, Jamie is there, hands on her hips, pulling her back against him.

“Jesus God, you’ve a fine arse.” He only had a dram, but she can still smell it warm on his breath as he presses his lips to the soft skin beneath her ear. When she shivers, it only makes her press further into him. “One of these days I’m going to fall away dead just from the sight of it.” The hand that no one can seen runs over her backside admiringly.

“How terribly embarrassing to have Claire Beauchamp’s fine arse under ‘cause’ on your death certificate.” She pushes him gently away as Angus starts to rack the balls, the others calling out good-natured insults. “Now, go get me a pint, will you please?”

It must be more crowded than she’d realized, because it takes nearly ten minutes for Jamie to get back. He lays a hand on her low back to alert her to his presence as she’s bent over picking her next target, setting the glass down on the rim of the table. Arms bracketing her, he presses his front along the length of her back. Her grip loosens on the cue.

“Mop the floor wi’ him, mo ghràidh,” he says on a breath, just for her, and twists up her hair to press a kiss on the back of her bare neck before stepping away again.

She becomes aware of a sudden turn in her chest, molten and desperate, shifting lower. When she turns, Jamie’s eyes are easy to find even in the shadows, sparking as they are.

She wins five minutes later, though it’s more about Angus’s sloppiness than her own skill. She doesn’t care, doesn’t bother gloating or teasing him much, nor complaining when he downs the beer she hadn’t touched. She can’t even really be sure that she says goodbye to everyone. Jamie’s arm is around her waist once more, his lightly stroking fingers the entire world.

His place is closer, and she’s thankful for it. Considering her track record, if she had him alone in the stairwell of her building, she isn’t certain she’d manage to make it up to the fifth floor before she was pressing him into a wall. There’s only one flight of stairs here and then he’s opening the door and shoving it closed again, resting her back against it and opening her mouth with his instead.

They’re thorough but not slow, again, still. Her jacket is pushed onto the floor of the hallway with his lips against her neck. He leans against the doorjamb of his bedroom, head thumping back as she flicks open each button of his shirt, kissing each newly revealed inch. They scramble with the last few pieces, eager and laughing, and then she’s bare, deep in a kiss as he lowers her back onto the bed, covered with the blue sheets that she’d picked.

She expects him to lower himself over her, but he stretches out beside her instead. He knows by now exactly how to work her with his fingers and for a few moments she lets him, head tossing and legs straining, but he’s trying to make her come apart and she doesn’t want to, not now or like this, not tonight.

“I want you inside me,” she says, nearly all breath, pulling his head down toward her, arching her body up toward him.

Propped on an elbow above her, nude but for his St. Florian’s medal, he’s grinning, open-mouthed, denying her even his kiss. “Not yet.” He runs his lips against her, his rough jaw, teasing, not close enough. Like a secret, he tells her, “I want to watch ye like this first.” He’s burnished in the light, more than joyful, brimming with joy, overflowing.

She sets both her palms on his shoulders and pushes, tipping him onto his back. Her leg comes over him, and she rocks back and forth briefly so that he makes a sharp, helpless gasp below her, feeling the slide. “I’m afraid that sometimes in this life, we’re bound to be disappointed,” she says, stretching up to the drawer in his nightstand where they keep the condoms. His fingers run up the long line of her side.

Trying to be playful, he says, “I suppose I could be convinced to be satisfied with this as well,” but his voice is leashed and wavering, on the thin line of desperation.

When she takes him inside, it is exactly like she imagined it would be and better. She thought she’d learned his sounds already, but here is a whole new vocabulary to discover, just for her. She thought she’d seen all the shades of his eyes, but she doesn’t remember ever seeing this one before, wide open and endless, taking her in like she’s celestial as he leans up to kiss her and hold her ever closer.

And when they start to move together as if they’ve always known exactly how, she thinks to herself, How did I live all my life not realizing that my heartbeat was sounding out his name?

That Saturday, they walk together along the rows of stalls at the outdoor market, Colum’s latest venture. Hand in hand, they pick out a delicately painted wooden mobile of the sun, moon, and planets to keep as a baby gift for Jenny and Ian. She leans against Jamie as they order sandwiches for lunch and sample the craft beer on offer, and he tucks two fingers in the back pocket of her jeans while they watch some of the street performers.

His hip is beside hers as they sort through the boxes at the used book stand, and she lets out a soft “Oh!” as she comes across a copy of Le Petit Prince, the illustrations faded in just the same way as those in the version Uncle Lamb used to read to her. When she turns back from paying, Jamie’s gone.

She glances around and doesn’t see him. Still scanning, she continues down the row, only to have someone coming around the corner knock into her. The person grabs her elbow to keep her upright, and her skin realizes who it must be before she sees him.

“Where’d you wander off to?” she asks.

He gestures behind himself with a nod of his head. “Thought I saw a nice edition of Dante at the table round the corner, but it’s no better than the one I already have at home.” Draping an arm over her shoulders, they continue walking. He hooks a finger into the top of her bag to see what she’s purchased, smiling at the familiar, worn illustration on the cover, before turning back to her. “Why? Where did you think I’d gotten to?”

She shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter,” she says, and it’s true. “We found each other.”

Chapter Text

Hands deep in a planter, Claire doesn’t reach for her phone the first time it buzzes, nor the second. The third time, she’s finished and just about to move on to the next one, so she sits back on her heels and brushes the soil off her palms before reaching over to check it.


Finished my paper faster than I thought,
coming over now. Will pick up pizza

Spinach and basil aka useless leaves
on your can thank me when I
get there


Just got here, where are you?


Coming down to let you in now

“What’ve ye been getting up to?” Jamie asks, bending to land a kiss somewhere along her hairline between temple and forehead. A warm pizza box is tucked against his hip. “I didna wake you, did I? Thought you were on days this week, and nothing this afternoon besides.”

“No, you got it right.” He walks at a respectful distance behind her on the stairs, but she knows that he’s staring at her rear end. Turning to look over her shoulder, she catches him at it and clears her throat, raising an eyebrow. He raises one back in a sort of shrug, as if asking what exactly she expects him to do. She tries not to be amused, but knows her mouth has given her away.

“Hold on a moment,” she bids him as they enter her flat, and goes to rinse her hands at the kitchen sink. A little potting soil spicing her pizza certainly won’t kill her, but this will be more pleasant. Taking a pair of glasses from the dish rack and her Brita pitcher from the refrigerator, she motions for him to follow her, although he looks perplexed as she leads him into her room.

“I ken there are things that ye can do with food in the bedroom,” he says, “but I didna expect pizza to be a part of it. Or was I meant to have told ye that there was sausage on this?”

“Bloody fool,” she says affectionately, and goes over to the open window, passing the glasses and pitcher gently through to the fire escape outside before boosting herself onto the sill and crawling out after them. “Come on,” she says to Jamie, and waits while he joins her.

“This is one of the reasons I agreed to take the top flat even though it’s the smallest, and such a climb too.” She speaks a bit louder so he can hear her over the sound of their footsteps clanging on the black metal.

She can hear the grin in his voice as he asks, “What, so you could climb some more?”

“No.” They reach the top and she steps aside to allow him off the stairs. “Because it means I have rooftop access all to myself.”

The space is too small to make some sort of community gathering area, and the landlord has said that she was welcome to do with it what she would. There’s no railing, but the roof is recessed, the edges forming a low wall so that she’s never felt it dangerous to be up here; thus far it’s proven to be just as perfect for her plants as she’d hoped when the idea had come to her the other day.

“Did ye bring all this up here yerself?” Jamie looks around at the collection of raised wooden beds, sacks of potting soil, and small potted seedlings in disarray, not to mention the packets of seeds, stakes, twine, and watering cans still scattered everywhere. It’s all somewhat in the “worse before it gets better” stage of things.

“Yes, it was quite the production.” Setting the water and glasses onto the ground, she starts shifting things aside with her feet to clear them enough space to sit in. “I thought about asking you, but you’ve been so busy with your end of term work on top of everything else, I didn’t want to be a bother.” Satisfied that she’s made enough room, she drops to sit cross-legged and gestures for him to do the same.

“I know that I’ve been a bit busy,” Jamie says slowly, flipping open the pizza box set between them as Claire pours them water. “But ye’d never be a bother to me, Sassenach. And besides, my classes finish in only a week.”

“I know, just as I know the rooftop wasn’t going anywhere. But the weather’s turned so nice, and there are some things it’s better to get into the ground sooner rather than later.” She sips her water, drinking down half the glass and reaching for a slice of pizza before she adds, still carefully separating just the one she wants, “And I liked the idea of this so much...I wanted to have a place, one that seemed all mine. I didn’t want to have to wait for it.”

Jamie looks around again, and she doesn’t know if he can see it as she does, if he can imagine the way it will look when it’s put together over the reality of the jumble it all looks now. But when he turns back and says, “I ken that it will be your place when you’re through. It already is, with the time and love you’ve put in, the joy. Now, let’s eat and when we’ve finished, you can tell me what needs to be done,” she can tell that he does see.

Claire can’t remember ever going to a school dance. Oftentimes she and Lamb were only in a particular area for a few months, at the wrong time of year for whatever event was being hosted at whichever international school she was currently attending, or having arrived too recently for anyone to be comfortable or interested in inviting her.

When Jamie asks her to come with him to the firefighter's ball, her stomach jumps in a way she suspects would have been familiar had someone ever done so in the past.

Then again, he does ask as she's panting and sheened with perspiration, his cheek resting on her belly as her body calms itself from the high. When she leans up to look at him, she can see his gem-colored mouth, still wet from her.

"Of course I'll come," she says. His hair is sweaty too when she reaches a hand down to run it through the thick curls, but he leans into her touch. "I'd love to come with you. Though you didn't have to bribe me before you asked."

His eyes flit away for a second, almost abashed, but grins in a sideways fashion. "Och, that wasn't a bribe. I was just rewarding the both of us ahead of time - and I'll be happy to do it again after the occasion."

Jamie's attitude doesn't exactly set her up to be excited about attending, but it's for a good cause, and she never says no to spending time with him. She's actually ready before he is, letting herself through the unlocked door of his flat that evening and following his voice into his room where she finds him in his suit trousers but no shirt, replacing his shaving kit by the sink. His cream button down and navy jacket are draped across the back of the chair - she hopes it doesn’t look too sickeningly matching alongside her dress, with its dark blue top and white skirt spangled with blue flowers - but he makes no move to put them on, staring at her instead.

"What?" she asks, when the space and silence have gone on just a bit too long. She laughs awkwardly and glances around, wishing she hadn’t put her hair up so it might conceal her a bit. "Is something wrong?"

He makes a negative sound in the back of his throat, stepping toward her, still staring. "Nothing wrong with bein’ a bit late, Sassenach."

Checking the slim silver watch she'd added at the last minute, she raises an eyebrow and says, "There's still a half hour before it starts. I certainly think we can make it in time."

"Then you're underestimating," he says, and his palms are hot even through the fabric as he sets them around her, "how I feel about you in this dress." He kisses her deeply, and she knows that they are absolutely not going to make it in time.

"Do you think anyone will notice?" she asks as Jamie pulls into a parking space and shuts off the car. Her dress remained mostly unwrinkled, but she wasn't able to get her hair smoothed into an updo the way it had been before, and they are long past fashionable lateness.

"The only thing anyone will notice is that I have the most beautiful woman in the room on my arm." She can see Jamie's smile in the streetlight through the window, even if she couldn't hear the sincerity in his voice.

“Sap,” she says, but she’s smiling back as they get out of the car, and she gives him her arm as they enter.

The event is being held in the same hall where they saw The Bards - not many other options being available in Leoch - but it's been done up differently; she takes in with interest all the places where Fire and Rescue Service crest, with its thistles, flames, and waves, seems to appear. Jamie, however, doesn't seem to be paying much attention. At first she wonders if it might just be that the decorations are traditional, nothing he'd notice at this point, but as they walk toward the chattering crowd, she feels him straightening. More than anything it reminds her of the way he looks when he's on duty, the sense of focused energy.

"If I’m being honest, I wish we'd been scheduled to work tonight so we wouldn't ha’ had to come," he says, leaning in a bit so she can hear him over the trio playing in the corner. "But if I have to be here, I canna thank ye enough for agreeing to join me. I’m not sure I'd have another year of this in me without you here."

"Do you think Dougal is going to show those pictures again?" she asks, trying to sound practical instead of as furious as she is at the thought. The ball is meant to honor the members of the department but it’s also a benefit, and she wouldn’t put it past Jamie’s uncle to pull his old tricks even if it is an actually sanctioned fundraiser this time.

He shrugs, and she can feel it all through her, as close as they are. "He has for the past few years, but perhaps he'll get the sense that this crowd is bored by it, won't be shocked or amazed anymore, and leave it be."

"Why don't you get us drinks, just in case? If you're going to have your uncle illicitly exposing things which aren't his business to, you at least deserve to have that in hand."

"A fine idea." The smile he gives her as he turns to search out the bar is nothing like the one he'd given her in the car, or back in his bed, or a million other times before, and she wants to punch Dougal MacKenzie squarely in the face for that. But when Jamie squeezes her hand, she squeezes back just before he lets go.

She watches him move through the crowd for a moment before glancing around to see who she recognizes, frowning as she notices Geillis from work on the arm of Dougal himself; Geillis gives one of those shrouded smiles of hers and lifts her drink to Claire, who turns away. She's just spotted Willie taking an appetizer off one of the waiters' trays when a voice says behind her, “Good evening, madam.”

Turning around, she finds a man with brown hair streaked with gray and a high forehead, seated in a motorized wheelchair. She has never seen him before, and doesn’t think that she knew that the provost was a wheelchair user (is it progress that no one’s ever mentioned it, or simply some kind of politeness mixed with shame, the same sort that used to keep the press from discussing Franklin Roosevelt’s paralysis?). His eyes, however, have a shrewd discernment that reminds her too much of Jamie for this to be anyone but Colum MacKenzie, although uncle and nephew otherwise resemble each other little except perhaps around the chin, and she wouldn’t necessarily peg him as Dougal’s brother either.

"I believe ye must be Claire Beauchamp," Colum says, pronouncing her last name with particular emphasis.

“I am.”

His smile is that of a true politician. He holds out a hand. “Colum MacKenzie, very pleased to be meeting you at last after all those reports of yer excellent nursing skills - and of course, you’re almost a member of the family now. I hear my nephew is quite smitten with ye, barely has a moment for anything else.”

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the words, with the slightly jocular tone or the firm-but-not-painful handshake they exchange; if anything, it’s perfectly, precisely the right degree of politeness. Yet Claire somehow has the sense that she’s being intimidated, or at least evaluated for her response. She’s been threatened before, with physical harm even - by patients experiencing physical or mental crises, by family members who wanted the realities to be different than what she’d had to share with them - but that’s always been straightforward, shouting or curses, things she never had to doubt. The diplomatic subtlety here makes her feel off-kilter, as if she has stepped onto ice and doesn’t know whether when she next places her foot, she’ll be meeting solid surface or something which won’t hold her.

Recalling how easily Jamie says her face shows emotion, she makes a concerted effort at neutrality. “I feel just as happy to have found him, and I’ll do my very best to make certain we have each other for a long time.” She hopes she’s found the right words, or at least ones that are good enough, words which serve if she’s imagining things and if she’s not.

“Ah. How lovely.” Colum settles back in his chair. He smiles, thin and mild.

There’s a touch to her elbow and Jamie comes to stand beside her, handing her a chilly glass. “Old-Fashioned for you, Sassenach,” he says against her ear, before turning to Colum and extending a hand. “Good to see ye, Uncle.” His greeting might be at least courteous if not jovial, yet Claire can sense his tension in the way his arm comes around her waist to draw her closer as soon as he’s through shaking with Colum, can see it in the set of his jaw and the quick, singular movement of one of the veins in his throat, visible in the space left by the open collar and top button of his shirt. She sips her drink; he’s ordered it made with brandy, which is less common and how she prefers it.

“Jamie lad.” Colum claps his hands together. “I was just introducing myself to your Ms. Beauchamp. It's no wonder ye haven't the time for anything else."

"Aye," says Jamie, all casualness, fingers tight around his glass. "I plan on being with Claire as much as I can for as long as I can."

Claire leans into him a little further, but the warmth left by his words is chased away in an instant as Colum responds, "Och, but isn't that what we all wish for ye, laddie?"

She doesn’t know what she finds more disquieting: the smile which plays at the corners of Colum’s mouth, or the coldness which has settled in his eyes.

Dougal didn't end up doing anything untoward all evening, but his encounter with his other uncle throws Jamie off over the next several days. They’ve been growing increasingly tactile with each other, but she finds Jamie’s hands on her all the time - which she doesn’t exactly mind, but there’s a gripping quality to his touch, as if he’s worried that she’ll disappear if he loses contact for even a moment. The next time that they’re both back at work, they end up kissing on the street corner for rather longer than expected, Jamie more than once catching her wrist and pulling her back to him although they’re both already late. Claire hopes that he’s able to turn his mind away from the personal while on the job or else she's certainly going to be treating him soon for some injury or other.

But when she arrives at his place two days later, she actually finds that the time working has done him good. He’s whistling (badly) when she enters, stir fry sizzling in the pan on the stove. His mouth tastes of soy and sesame and ginger, and there’s a languidness to his kiss that she was missing when they saw each other last.

She’s smiling when she excuses herself to wash her hands and use the restroom, although her mood takes a turn toward pursed lips and aggravation when she realizes that she’s started her period. Before she’s fully remembered that she’s at Jamie’s, her hand has automatically opened the drawer in the vanity which takes the place of the one in her own where she keeps products for such times. Surprisingly, however, there’s a box of tampons sitting there, unopened and the exact brand she uses.

Her mind turns that over as they eat - it’s obvious that he isn’t seeing anyone else, both because of his character and because he wouldn’t have the time, so perhaps he keeps them there for when his sister visits and she and Jenny happen to prefer the same ones? - but she doesn’t bring it up until they’re tidying up the kitchen together.

“The tampons in the toilet,” she says, taking her time as she positions the pan on the lower rack of the dishwasher. “Are they for me to use?” She very attentively rolls the rack back in, watching her hands as they push the appliance until it clicks closed, before looking back over at him.

After a blank second, he shakes his head at himself. “Oh, those. Aye, they’re for you, right enough. Remembered it was coming close to the time, so I picked up a box last time I was in Boots - seemed sensible since ye’re here often enough. Next time I’ll be smart enough to actually mention that they’re there, so ye can get some actual use from them.”

He is completely casual about it, not performatively so but actually unbothered, returning to rinsing the cutting board and only giving a confused, “Something wrong?” when he notices her staring.

“You ‘remembered it was coming time?’” she asks. “You’ve been tracking my periods?”

“No’ like that!” His eyebrows shoot up. In her confusion, her tone must have been more reproving than she’d meant, as if she’s accusing him of something dirty or nefarious. He sets the cutting board into the drying rack, shutting off the water and leaning against the kitchen bench, watching her carefully.

She crosses her arms, forces herself to uncross them. “In my experience,” she says slowly, “limited as it may be, menstruation ends up as the business of the one doing it, and their partner doesn’t usually involve themself very much, even if the thought isn’t...offensive to them.”

Uncle Lamb, dear though he was, had only asked her once, with his face buried in a book, whether her schooling had covered “all that growing up business.” They’d both been lucky that it had, and that Dr. Safi from Stanford had been on the expedition when she’d actually bled for the first time. She knows that she asked Frank to get pads or tampons for her on occasion, which he did without complaint, but he’d never have done so independently. Sometimes, even years into their marriage, he was still surprised when he’d reach for her only to be gently reminded that it wasn’t the best time just then; he’d always moved away quickly with stammered apologies that she got the sense were more for his sake than hers.

“I grew up on a farm,” Jamie says, as if he can see the direction of her thoughts - and considering how transparent he seems to find her expressions, perhaps he can. “And in that kind of life, you learn that everything has its cycles, its seasons. Ye learn to pay attention to the ones of those you care about. And I think I care somewhat more for you, Sassenach, than I ever did sheep or cabbages.” He reaches for her, his hands still damp, and she takes a step toward him.

“It’s you going through the pain,” he adds quietly. “I’d do quite a bit more to make that easier than buying a box or two at the chemist,” and she folds herself into his arms.

“You’re a very considerate man,” she says into his neck. He laughs a little, and kisses her crown.

“Or you’re a very worthwhile woman.”

Pulling back, she shakes her head. “No, it has nothing to do with my worth. It’s about your character, who you are. You’d have done it for anyone.”

“Maybe,” he says. “But I mean it more for you.” And he pulls her back against him.

She works over most of the next few days, running into his next shift, and she laments a bit that they both have such full-on schedules; it might mean that they’re compatibly serious about their work, and that neither of them can accuse the other of being more unavailable, but it also means that they have to spend blocks of time away from each other.

She’s free for the second day that he works, so she takes care of some shopping and spends some time in the garden. They meet for a quick bite just after Jamie’s shift is over, and she can tell immediately that something is amiss - he’s too quiet, his smiles too shallow - but when she asks, he says that he’ll tell her later and she doesn’t push.

It’s only when they return to his place that he starts: “Did ye ever meet old Grannie MacNab?”

“Agnes MacNab?” she says in surprise, turning from where she’d been taking a bottle of beer from his refrigerator. For once his gaze isn’t distracted by the sight of her bent over. He looks far away.

“Aye, that’s the one. We were called along wi’ the paramedics to get into her home - a neighbor heard crashing about and then couldna get her to answer. When we got inside, we found that she’d slipped and fallen on the stairs. There wasna anything that could be done for her.”

Standing, she closes the refrigerator door. “That’s terribly sad. She was a lovely woman, and that’s a shocking way to go.”

She’d seen Agnes fairly often in A&E - despite having been diabetic for several years, she wasn’t very good at monitoring her blood sugar, or at least that was the excuse. Sometimes Claire felt like Agnes just wanted someone to talk to. At least she was always sweet and polite, with wonderful stories about growing up during the Second World War.

“I keep thinking of her from when I was a bairn, the way she’d always have batches o’ tablet to give to all of us when we ran wild in the streets, and how she was such a talent at storytelling - the classic myths o’ selkies and kelpies and Robert the Bruce, but the local tales about the MacKenzies of old, about Smervie More’s castle that they say was built and burned nearby and the haunted Wentworth House on the outskirts of the city that we used to dare each other to run up to. It breaks my heart a bit to ken she’s gone, to have seen her body so fragile like that.”

He sighs. “The others seem to simply keep on moving, but my mind is stuck on the image of her lying there. Sometimes this line of work feels like such a burden. When Jenny closes her eyes, or Murtagh his, they dinna see sights like that.”

Gently, she leaves the unopened beer bottle on the worktop and steps closer to him. He looks his same vital, reliable self, but tired too.

“Even here in a small place like Leoch, the work you do can be a heavy burden to shoulder,” she tells him. He breathes in and out, not quite a sigh, but close enough to it. “No one would think any less of you if you wanted to do something else. I certainly wouldn’t. But I also don’t think it’s a weakness not to simply be able to move past it. So long as it doesn’t weigh you down entirely, I’ve found there to be great strength in compassion.”

“It’s something I admire in you,” he admits, head bent, “but I worry that it would make me useless, just keep me frozen and overwhelmed wi’ the pain of it.”

As much as she appreciates touch between them, he is often the one to initiate it. Now she wraps her arms around him. “Jamie. You’re allowed to be overwhelmed. You’re even allowed to falter - you’re only human, remember? But in your life, it’s never frozen you. If it does, it becomes a different conversation, but what I hear now is only someone caring, if a bit saddened.”

She feels the rise and fall of his chest against hers; a true sigh this time. After a moment he says, “This isna the first time I’ve had such thoughts over the years. I feel—It’s a blessing to speak them aloud and to know I’ll hear guidance.”

“I’m happy to give guidance as often as you need it, and to remind you that I’d trust my life to you still.”

The conversation is on her mind a few days later as she finishes a twelve hour shift which was exhausting for more reasons than the length. She does, however, leave just at the perfect time to catch Jamie and the others coming out of the firehouse.

“Hard day?” he asks, wrapping an arm around her waist as she approaches them.

“The fact that you’re starting with that doesn’t speak well to my appearance, I suppose,” she says wryly. “But yes, a bit. I had to phone the police about a patient. Abuse cases are always hard, especially with children.”

Jamie’s shoulders pull back. “It was McNab, wasn’t it?” He gives a sharp look to the others on the crew who are walking alongside them. “Gone unhinged wi’out his grannie to hold him back. Now he’s had enough o’ quietly beating on that poor wife of his, so he went after his wee lad.”

“You know that I can’t tell you that,” she says, although he’s right. She’s seen Mary McNab before, always during an overnight shift, always darting careful looks around before asking to just have something quickly stitched up, always with bruises and tender places that she’d flatly explained away as clumsiness. But it’s the first time Mary’s son Rabbie has been brought into A&E - she supposes that the broken arm was deemed emergent enough not to wait, even though it meant that the bruises corresponding to a man’s large hand were still vivid on the boy’s skin.

“Ye shouldna have called the station,” Jamie tells her. “Next time something like that happens, tell me. The lads an’ I will handle it.”

She almost stops walking, she’s so surprised. Not by the rising darkness of his voice - she’d long suspected that Jamie could turn easily intense in his protectiveness, and isn’t frightened by it - but by the fact of the request.

“I most certainly will not. There’s a process to these things - I’m bound to report to the proper authorities, not to allow you and your friends to seek some sort of vigilante justice.”

“Och, ye dinna understand the way things are around here,” Dougal says witheringly from behind; she hadn’t even realized that he was there. “Ye can let yer man take the time to explain it all, Beauchamp, or just take his word, stop worrying that pretty head, and do as ye’re told in the future.”

Claire waits for Jamie to shut up his uncle with a knock to the shoulder, or at least to verbally curb the disparaging tone. Instead he says, with an air of deliberate patience, “He’s right, Claire. Did ye no’ think that calling in the law might only make things worse for Mary and for the lad? Living in that house with a man who blames them for his own troubles, and wi’ no guarantee that they’ll win the day in the courts at all - they could be in more danger than before.”

“And did you think,” she says, pulling away from his arm, turned restraining instead of warm, but staying angled toward him, her words bladed such that the others trade glances, “that I’d acted without consideration? I spoke to a caseworker at Women's Aid in Inverness myself who will help with finding a place in a refuge while things get sorted with the police.”

For a moment she thinks that will be the end of it, but Jamie only shakes his head. “It’s one thing for her to say she’s leavin’ him, another thing entirely to do it. Next time, ask me about these things. I’ll steer ye on the right course, as you’ve steered me.”

Even though the others certainly don’t understand what he’s referring to, the casual mention of the other night fills her briefly and entirely with anger, clenching through her jaw and tingling through her shoulders, making it so that for a moment she doesn’t even recognize that they’re passing the door to her building, and when she does realize it, she jams her key into the lock with such force she fears she might snap it. Jamie follows her upstairs, nodding a brief goodbye to his friends; he seems to understand that he hasn’t avoided her fury at all. When she hears him close the door deliberately behind them and turns to face him, she sees that he’s already braced.

“How dare you,” she says, low, eyes spitting fire. “How fucking dare you tell me how to do my job.”

“Yer job is patchin’ people up when they need it.” He hasn’t lost that condescending patience, though his jaw is tight. “It isna tryin’ to solve every problem for anyone who crosses yer path, whether ye’re equipped for it or no’.”

The hurt of the remark stuns through her. She’d thought Jamie understood that healing wasn’t limited to the physical for her, that her instincts will always lead her to try to help those who need it. But the hurt comes out of her mouth as acid-tongued anger as she spits, “No, that’s your domain apparently. Blundering about, trying to solve every problem, save every person in the bloody Highlands, not even able to admit that someone might know better than you.”

“Ye think ye ken the situation better than I do?” He barely seems to be able to contain his movement, shifting one way and the other. “I’m only trying to help you, woman, and ye’d see it if you’d take yer stubborn head from yer arse for even a moment.” He almost seems as if he is going to step forward and shake her.

“Oh, I’m stubborn?!” She actually does step toward him, clenched all over. Her neighbors can certainly hear by now; she’s shouting, incredulous, but more than that, furious. “I’m surprised you can even lift your head, with all the bloody ego you have crammed in there—”

“I thought ye’d at least a bit of sense crammed into yers!”

“And how dare you think,” she continues, somehow even louder, “that just because I let you stick your cock in me, you’re allowed to speak to me this way.” Referring to being with Jamie in such a crude way seems almost impossible, but the anger shakes through her, making it impossible for her to stop. She can’t believe that this is the same man who has been so careful and conscientious in all the months that she’s known him, the same one who’d not even a week ago told her that he paid attention because he cares for her. Now it seems as if he hasn’t noticed a single damn thing, or as if she hasn’t, as if he’s had somehow truer colors than the ones she thought she knew.

For a moment he seems nearly to startle with the vulgar nastiness of her tone, but then he rolls his eyes. “Och, take a breath, Claire. I canna reason wi’ you when you’re like this.”

It’s the pure dismissiveness that she can’t stand. She strides that last step toward him, hands on his shoulders, shoving him back. “Get out. I want you out of my bloody fucking house.” The words come clearly, torn as they are from her throat. “Get out! I can't stand the fucking sight of you right now." She pushes him again, harder, violent against his solidity. She can’t think of another time she’s touched him without a bit of gentleness.

There is a glimmering second where she thinks he might push back, but he wipes the back of his hand across his mouth instead. "Fine," he says, thick and tangled. "Fine, but dinna expect me to come back to put up wi' this nonsense, this poison. I dinna need it, nor do I need you."

He slams the door behind him when he goes, but it's his furious absence that rings through her more than any sound could.

The strangest thing is that no one over the two days actually knows that anything is wrong. Mary asks once if she’s alright - she hadn’t reacted to an incoming patient as quickly as she usually would have - and she can’t help but flinch when Alice McMurdo from the cleaning staff asks if “that lovely ginger laddie of yers” will be fetching her from work, but she doesn’t confide in either of them, only answers stiffly and moves on. The hurt and fury have coalesced into something hard and throbbing within her; each night she falls asleep turning the argument over in her mind.

She had been certain that if she passed Jamie in the street or a shop, she’d simply ignore him. Perhaps give him a freezing look or say his name disdainfully, but nothing more. When she returns home to find him sitting on the steps outside her building, however, she ends up stopping in front of him, crossing her arms, and waiting.

“I’m here,” he says, hands clasped over his bent knees. “To apologize.”

It’s the right thing for him to say, the only thing. “Well, I suppose we’d better go inside. I think we likely shared quite enough of our business with the rest of Leoch the other night.”

She steps around him to unlock the door. Someone’s been cooking fish with quite a lot of garlic, but neither of them mentions anything; despite herself, she misses the bantering casualness of only a few days ago.

When they arrive at her flat, she takes off her shoes and releases her hair automatically, turning away to set down her bag, listening as he shuts the door firmly behind himself. She’s armoring herself a bit with the routine, with pretending for a moment as if he’s not here, although she knows that it’s ridiculous. It won’t help - if he’s going to hurt her again or if she can’t manage to forgive him, then a moment’s preparation won’t make much difference - and he’s seen her routine anyway, has in many ways become a part of it.

She turns back toward him, shoulders straightening and breath even. She rests her bottom against the back of the sofa, crossing her arms again, and raises an eyebrow, ready as she will ever be to listen to him.

He doesn’t seem quite ready to speak, fingertips making their familiar, restless circles at his side. It gives her a moment to look at him: a layer of stubble and a green T-shirt worn grayish have left him seeming a bit worse for wear, and yet gorgeous and welcome too. She tightens her hold on herself even further.

“I told ye once that I’d work on controlling my temper,” he says, so suddenly that she nearly startles with it. “I failed in that, and I’m sorry for it. I shouldna have shouted at you.”

Woodenly, she says, “Thank you,” but not a second later she is dropping her arms, her own anger beginning to rise, roaring, again as she gestures. “But it isn’t your temper that was the problem. The way you spoke to me, Jamie, as if I was someone you needed to keep in line, in a way that I wouldn’t have expected you to speak to a child or a dog, like I was your property rather than your partner. We’re allowed to have differences of opinion, we can even have them loudly, but to not have basic respect for me, to take that tone and to imagine that I’d simply fall in line - I’d never have believed it of you. I wish I didn’t believe it now.”

“Aye,” he says. She gets the sense that he’s forcing himself to meet her eyes; there’s a gallows look in them. “Aye, I wish I didn’t believe it of myself, but it happened nonetheless.”

He takes in a breath before he continues: “I went to see Maura today. She isna doing well. And in the quiet of that house, I thought o’ the way I’d spoken to ye, and realized it was the way Dougal used to speak to her, the way I remember him when he wasna ignoring her: putting down her ideas, making decisions for the both of them, his opinion always the one that mattered. And she got stronger over the years, but she shouldna have needed to. He should have listened. I should ha’ listened.”

He steps toward her, and although she does not mirror him, she doesn’t move away either. She’s watching him closely, taking in the cautiously building animation in his voice but not allowing herself to be taken in by it. “I’ve never been in a relationship before, ye ken that, and when I was given the first true test of the way I’d imagined behaving in one, I failed it. I let the worst examples from when I was a lad override my good sense and my memories of my own parents. I let that override what I know of you, the care I’ve seen ye have for yer patients, the respect I have for ye - because whatever it might have seemed, I do respect you, your calling and your compassion and your spirit.

“I told ye once that I’d work on controlling my temper,” he repeats. His gaze is steady on hers now. “I willna forget that. But I’m swearing to you now that even in my anger, even if I don’t agree with your side o’ things - because I canna promise to always agree with ye - I will treat you as the equal I know you are. On the memory of my family, I swear it to ye, Claire.”

The silence that falls is even deeper because of the vehemence of his words. As it holds, she sees the rapid rise and fall of his chest slow, the light in his eyes begin to dim. She begins to speak.

“I’ve been with a man before who didn’t have true respect for me.” She thinks of Frank, his gentle condescension, his sighs and little remarks - that was a bit much, Claire or truly, Claire, I don’t understand why you’re so fixed on this, but go ahead, I suppose - the things she didn’t truly register until they had ended. “And perhaps that’s made me wary. I think it’s only made me wise, too wise to stay with another man like that.”

He blinks, long and slow, nearly horrified, until he sees her hand reaching out toward him.

“So you had better not be that man. You had better not let me down, James Fraser. I couldn’t stand it if you did.”

He steps forward, secures his fingers around hers, raising her knuckles to his mouth and kissing them.

“I wouldn’t be able to stand myself, and that’s the truth of it.”

She comes closer too, enough that she can feel the heat of him, gloriously familiar. Their heads are bowed together, even in the solitude of the flat.

“I missed you,” she confesses into that quiet.

He laughs, although without true humor. “Oh, Sassenach, if ye think I’ve spent these days doing much else but brooding over the possibility of a life without you, then you’re mistaken.” She feels him tighten his grip around her fingers just that much more, then he asks, “Do you think—May I kiss ye, then, Claire? Only, it’s been longer than I’ve grown accustomed to, and I think that if I dinna get a chance soon, I might go genuinely mad.”

Angling herself forward, she meets his mouth with hers. But beneath his smile, there’s a bit of honest desperation, and she can feel it taking over quickly, matched by her own craving. Her scrub top comes off first, then his T-shirt, and she’s feeling him up close now, his smoky scent and burning skin, the map of his scars that she’d know in darkness.

He kisses down her neck as she helps him out of his jeans; their eyes meet, dancing, when he has to break away to kick off his shoes and trapped trousers, but it doesn’t feel like there’s time to truly laugh over it. It doesn’t even feel like there’s time to make it to the sofa. The floor is hard but it’s there, and so is he, pressing himself into her in a rough slide that makes her cry out. He almost pulls back to see if he’s hurt her, but she wraps one leg firmly around his backside and keeps him close, angles him deeper, so that he shouts too.

The franticness is only just wearing off when she rolls them so that she is sitting queenly above him, taking control. She bends over him, wrapping fingers in his hair. When he tries to lean upward, to take her nipples in his mouth, she tightens her hold, digging her nails into his scalp and yanking his curls between her knuckles. He lets out shocked air, somewhere between a gasp and a groan. His head falls back against the floor. He watches her.

“I meant what I said,” she tells him, commanding despite her heaving breath and the wild, sweat-stuck hair she inattentively tosses off her neck. “I won’t stand for you to behave like that, not ever again. Don’t you dare break your word to me. Don’t you dare make me regret this.”

“I won’t,” he says, strangled. He’s very close. “I keep my vows. I won’t lose you. I won’t lose myself again.”

And she hopes with everything she is that it’s true; if she did have to leave, she thinks that she’d lose quite a lot of herself in the process.

Jamie apologizing just when he did turns out to be a godsend. Her next shift is difficult: as the only one on the A&E staff with specific midwifery training, she’s the one who’s called out to the car park when a man screeches up with a laboring woman in the backseat. The baby’s already nearly crowning - the woman’s partner shouts that she’d started having pains two hours before they got to Leoch, and he thought he might have to deliver the baby himself on the side of the road - and so Claire judges it more sensible to crawl inside the Renault herself than to try to get them inside. There’s some general dirt and a bit of detritus in the footwell, but it looks mostly clean, and as she sets down a sheet and gathers her supplies, she makes brisk jokes about all three of them being new to this particular circumstance.

The delivery goes smoothly and quickly, and Claire falls into the familiar pattern of instruction and encouragement, feeling that usual excitement simmering beneath her professional calm as the woman, Daisy, gives that one last push and delivers her stillborn son.

There’s no reason Claire can find for it at a glance - no cord wrapped around the neck, and the couple had reported their scans as normal - but that hardly matters considering the fact of the outcome. The worst part is helping Daisy inside. They have to go through the A&E to get her up to the maternity floor, and she sits numbly in the wheelchair. She’d insisted on holding the baby. The other patients and visitors had been able to hear some of the excitement and they look over eagerly, only to turn away when they see Daisy’s face, hear the sobs her husband can’t hold back as he follows them.

That night, Claire presses her face into Jamie’s neck in her bed. She hadn’t even had to ask him to come over - he’d heard what had happened from somewhere, small as Leoch is, and was already waiting for her when she’d arrived home, the second time in days. He doesn’t mind that she was quiet while eating through the food he’d brought over. He doesn’t try to buck her up or nudge her to remember that she’s lost patients before, that she’s delivered other babies who never got to take a breath. He doesn’t tell her that things will be alright. He only reminds her that they’ll go on - with each breath, they go on. And his voice going on, English and Gaelic, endearments and soft ramblings, verses that have meaning to her mostly because they have meaning to him, is what helps her into sleep.

He’s reluctant to leave her for his next shift but she insists, and she’s relieved to find that the missing him is the normal sort rather than anything unbearable. They fall back into their usual routine over the next weeks, work and food and television and sex and time together, even a decision to take a weekend away to see his family before Jenny’s due date - and to get out of Leoch for a bit. But then he returns to her from work one evening, sullen and irritated, with the news that he and Dougal are being sent on short notice as representatives to some sort of conference all the way down in Blackpool.

“Just a waste of time,” he grumbles as he brushes his teeth that night. “A week away, and what’ll I have to show for it? Likely as not only a couple of resolutions that’ll have barely been touched by the time they’re resolved again next year, a wee bit of jealousy over some equipment that we don’t have the budget to afford, and a commemorative pen. Not worth the trip, and certainly not worth the time away from ye. And it will barely bring me back before we’re to leave for Lallybroch.”

She shakes her head as she settles into bed, taking advantage of the fact that he can’t see her to roll her eyes. It seems silly not to take the opportunity when they already spend at least two full days a week away from each other, more than that if their schedules don’t line up. Not to mention that they can text and call just as easily between cities as when they’re both in Leoch, and their planned trip won’t be for days after he’s returned.

Once he’s gone, though, she does find that there is a different sense to this separation: knowing that he won’t be stopping by after a shift, that his next text won’t be about the new recipe he wants to try for the two of them tomorrow, that when she hears the door open downstairs as she’s watching something trashy on Netflix, there’s no chance that he’s just a moment away from dropping down onto the sofa beside her. She misses all of that, the time and touch and integration of their lives together. And as much as she’d thought that being truly apart would give things a bit more perspective, would allow her to remember what it means to be Claire Beauchamp rather than simply half of Claire-and-Jamie, she finds that she doesn’t have to try to remember. She doesn’t worry now that she needs make herself different, smaller, to fit her life alongside his, that she might need to quiet her opinions or her passion for her work; somehow their relationship defies the laws of fractions, and she sees that she is her full self whether she’s on her own, or part of them together.

The biggest surprise, however, is how, as strange as it is not to have him there, she doesn’t feel untethered from him. Whatever connects the two of them, it seems, doesn’t care about physical nearness at all.

Jamie’s predictions about the conference mostly seem to come to pass, although she suspects that he likes spending time with his fellow firefighters more than he wants to admit. Dougal is apparently irritating enough to balance out that benefit, loudly speaking his mind in the sessions when Jamie thinks that the time would be better spent listening before deciding if there’s more to add, and stumbling into their shared room late after hazily detailed nights out.

Thank God we won’t be here much longer, Jamie texts her Wednesday morning as she’s arriving at work. A blessing that he’s not insisted I come along with him so far, but I’d much rather be home with you than near him at all when it comes down to it.

Grinning, she types back, Afraid you’ve been away too long and I’ve been interviewing alternative candidates. You’ll have to resubmit your CV.

I have an in with the recruiter, he sends immediately. And I think by tonight you’ll have gotten a surprise that will put me over the others.

She only has a few seconds to wonder what that surprise might be before a man holding the hand of a small boy bleeding severely from the head approaches the desk and she’s swept up into the day.

Around three in the afternoon, the paramedics wheel a pair of new patients in.

“Robena Donaldson, twenty-six, twenty-two weeks along, and Simon Donaldson, twenty-seven. Pedestrians hit by car,” reports the male medic. “Came up onto the sidewalk. He pushed her out of the way.”

Claire is assigned to Robena, whose mouth open stretches open like a Munch painting as tears drip onto her maternity top, her hand still reaching toward the unconscious man who’s already being whisked up to a surgical suite.

“They’re going to take very good care of him,” Claire assures her quietly. She won’t make any promises, and doesn’t try to tell her patient to calm down. She imagines how she would respond if it was Jamie injured and someone tried to say that to her. “In the meantime, I’m going to take care of you.” Breathing slowly to try to get the patient to match her, she looks up at the paramedic, the blonde one who works with Jamie. “Let’s wheel her into room eight - it’s out of the way over in the corner, so it will be quieter and a bit more private.”

She positions herself on the side of the stretcher, waiting for the paramedic to follow her lead. Instead the woman leans confidentially in toward Robena Donaldson and says, “Ye dinna need to go wi’ her if ye dinna want to. We all heard about how she was there when tha’ poor bairn was born dead, and no one would blame ye if Nurse Beauchamp’s care made ye...uncomfortable. Especially as you’re expecting and all.”

Claire stares for a moment, shock turning quickly to iced over anger, but she has a patient to tend to. “You’re dismissed now, Medic,” she says, cool but even, moving toward the head of the stretcher and wheeling it across the ward herself. “If you can’t be useful to Ms. Donaldson, then I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

She turns to the woman herself and adds, more softly, “I don’t think that this will take very long, but I’d like to check you over and clean up that nasty head wound - you might need a few stitches, but I’ll know a bit better once I’ve cleaned you up.”

The medic follows with quick steps. “I’m only saying that she has the option,” she says, raising her voice a bit. Other patients and staff are peering over. Robena’s breath is starting to quicken once more. Her hands go to her belly, her head shifting about as if she’s trying to keep her gaze on everything at once. “She’s allowed to speak up if she isn’t confident in the care you’ll provide.”

Setting the brakes on the stretcher, Claire snaps, “I will be exactly as conscientious and thorough in this case as I am with all my patients. Now, I want you out of here while I examine Ms. Donaldson. You’re only upsetting her with this display.”

“Oh, trying to make certain there aren’t any witnesses, are ye?” Although they’re in the room now, with distance and some enclosure, that piping voice of hers seems purposefully carrying. “And were ye being yer usual thorough self when ye brought that wee thing into the world dead?”

Robena starts to sob in earnest now, shock turning into true panic, half choking even on her breath. “Don’t hurt my baby, please!” she manages, the last word drawn out high and keening.

“There’s no need to be concerned, Ms. Donaldson,” Claire says, trying to raise her voice over the competing words from behind her shoulder: “Aye, that’s wise of ye, if yer man is already gone, ye dinna want to lose any more.”

“My—Simon,” Robena cries. “Simon!” Her face is blotchy, her breath clotting. Claire is certain that if she had her on the monitors right now, she wouldn’t like the results.

“Don’t listen to her,” Claire says, coming closer to the bed, trying to keep her professional face intact, to make sure that it’s all the woman sees. Keeping her calm is the first priority. “I think there’s every chance that all of you are going to come out of this perfectly well, but you must let me examine you first.”

“Aye, of course ye’d say that. Ken, they might all come out fine, but if they do, it will be despite yer intervention, no’ because—”

The crack of Claire’s hand across her face is half lost in Robena’s continued weeping and the usual business of the ward. Even so, the medic stares at Claire for a moment, mouth round and open, before her eyes narrow.

“Remove yourself,” Claire says crisply, “before I find security to remove you.”

This time, she listens, hand held to her cheek. Claire doesn’t even fully watch her leave, turning her attention back to her patient. Without the added hysteria, she is able to calm Robena Donaldson and give her a thorough assessment, to clean her face and apply steristrips and assure her that her baby shouldn’t be harmed by the events of the day.

“I’ll go find out what I can about your husband,” she finally tells her gently. “But promise me that you’ll rest in the meantime. I know that you’re worried over him, but sleep and quiet are the absolute best things for you and your baby.”

Robena nods, not fully relaxing but closing her eyes nonetheless.

“Claire! Goodness, what was happening in there?” Mary asks, wide-eyed, as Claire brings herself over to the nurse’s station.

She shakes her head. “I barely know myself. That paramedic was needlessly worrying the patient, acting as if I was going to hurt her. The way she was speaking, it was almost as if I’d personally wronged her - I can’t think of another reason she’d behave in such a way - but I don’t know if I’ve ever even learned her name.”

“And so can I assume,” says a voice, barely familiar but already unwelcome, “that your behavior was entirely unimpeachable, Nurse Beauchamp?”

A man, tall and bald with a prominent chin, has come up behind them. Claire’s jaw tightens, and she doesn’t spare a glance for the short woman at his side. Their interactions have been thankfully limited, but Claire’s dislike for Assistant Director Bain is equal in measure to her appreciation for Dr. Beaton: he's an administrator with little specific medical knowledge, more attentive to statistics and regulations than actual patient care. Claire has received more than one email from him chastising her for taking too much time per patient or being lax in her enforcement of limits on visitors.

"I am terribly glad that this situation was reported to me," Bain continues. “The reputation of a hospital rests on the reputation of its staff, and we can’t have anyone damaging that, after all.” He takes a step closer to Claire, uncomfortably so, but she doesn't focus on him now.

Instead she looks at the blonde paramedic standing beside Bain, her eyes small and glittering. For the first time, Claire notices that she has "MacKenzie" stitched into the breast of her jacket - will she never see the end of them? She's little more than a girl, but instead of softening Claire it just makes her go hot that this is whose word they're privileging over Claire’s own.

Tightly, Claire says, "If you’re truly concerned about the reputation of the hospital, not to mention the well-being of our patients, I think you’ll find that Medic MacKenzie was entirely remiss in whatever duties she perceives as hers. Her conduct left my patient overwhelmed and half hysterical, and delayed the care that she should have been receiving."

“I only wanted—I thought that the patient deserved to know everything,” says the paramedic, hands clasped in front of herself. Claire remembers her now, just vaguely, that voice reporting numbers and conditions during drop-offs, but she’s never hated that girlish little warble before. “I thought she should be able to make an informed choice about her care, particularly seeing as she’s pregnant and we’d all heard such...such terrible rumors about that baby ye delivered several weeks ago.”

She lowers her eyes even as Claire stares at her, a chill replacing the blaze of rage. As if deciding that something was more important than helping the patient wasn’t enough, there had been no rumors before. Right here and now, this woman is taking the real pain of Daisy and her husband, Claire’s pain at what had happened, and twisting it for her own purposes. The manipulation, the easy pretense of false piety, is sickening and almost frightening.

“I’m very glad that Miss MacKenzie brought this to my attention,” comes Bain’s sepulchral voice again. “And we will be opening a full investigation according to hospital policy - both into what happened here today, and into the incident of several weeks ago.”

Claire looks over at Mary beside her, who glances back with only wide eyes and frozen, twisting hands; this will not, apparently, be one of those moments of surprising strength. Forcing her tone calm, Claire says, “We’re still in front of patients. Let’s discuss this further somewhere more private.” She can’t help the slight sarcasm which slips into her voice as she says, “The reputation of the hospital is paramount, after all.”

“It doesn’t seem to me that there’s much of anything to discuss,” says the paramedic, crossing her arms. “And I’m still on duty so I have to be getting on, if you’ll—”

“No, I will not excuse you,” Claire interrupts sharply, as much as she wishes she never had to see her again. Part of the response is anger, the desire to cause inconvenience because it’s all she can do just now, part of it the knowledge that she needs to know whatever story has been concocted in order to defend herself from it.

She looks the girl in the eye and adds grimly, “You’ve involved yourself. The time when you might have simply gone off is past. Come along.”

Whether because of her uncompromising tone or the comfort of things being two on one, they actually follow her. The A&E is filling with whispers regardless, the voices of patients, staff and visitors hushing behind the door as Claire leads the others to the small office at the back.

“Nurse Beauchamp, I truly don’t see what more there is to discuss,” Bain says as soon as Claire has closed the door. He sounds nearly bored, glancing around the small space with its utilitarian desk, its old computer and older filing cabinets, as if he might flick a piece of lint off his black pants at any moment. Somehow it makes Claire angrier than naked triumph would have. “You will be offered a chance to tell your side of things at the investigatory meeting. I believe I’ll have some space in my schedule for it sometime soon.”

Claire draws herself up. “Your schedule? Why wouldn’t Dr. Beaton be managing it?”

She regrets nearly immediately allowing even a small space for the possibility of any sort of hearing rather than simply holding firm to her own innocence. But Bain doesn’t even seem to register it.

“Dr. Beaton is unfortunately away on family business. I’m more than happy, however, to keep on top of things in his absence.” His small smile is all the more terrible because of his empty eyes.

Claire meets them anyway. “Well, I’ll be—”

The door opens behind her. She turns automatically, and for the first moment she sees him - well-rested and sharp-eyed, wearing a plain white T-shirt and jeans, the well-used brown leather duffle, a gift from his father upon his graduation from training, slung over his shoulder - she forgets about everything else, a smile soothing across her face.

My surprise, she thinks, and her heart gives a dazed little thump.

Then she spots the blonde trail of Mary’s ponytail disappearing past the open doorway, and Jamie is saying, “What’s all this, then?” with barely a hint of politeness, teeth half bared, and it all comes rushing back.

“The stillbirth from two weeks ago,” Claire says before anyone else can get in a word. “They’re trying to say that I did something wrong, that it was my fault.”

“No." He says it not in shock or confusion but as simple fact: that not only does he not believe it, he considers it an impossibility beyond questioning. And Claire feels such relief that he is here - not a rescuer, but an ally, someone to stand unflinchingly beside her.

“I know who you are, boy,” Bain says, taking a step closer to where Jamie still stands in the doorway. “And you might think your word holds weight in this city, but I don’t care about any of that. You’ve no authority here. Nurse Beauchamp made a mistake, and she’ll pay the consequences for it regardless of what you have to say.”

But it is not the seemingly foregone conclusion of the allegedly fair inquiry which catches more of Claire’s attention, but the spiteful little laugh and “Of course he’d take her part, everyone knows he’s been seeing the sassenach.” The round, girlish face is warped, hateful, and Claire hates the disgust with which she imbues the word, Jamie’s name for her, hates the way she phrases it to make things seem so shallow and tawdry and temporary, brief infatuation and nothing more.

“I’m not certain I ken what you’ve even to do with this, Laoghaire,” Jamie says flatly, barely sparing her a glance, though Claire can see the muscles tensed around his mouth.

“Ask her.” The girl - Laoghaire, a name Claire will never forget again, and yet wishes already she could - flicks a hand in Claire’s direction.

“She took it on herself to share this alleged information with a patient of mine earlier although it was quite evident how damaging it was,” Claire says tightly, holding herself back from shouting or even physically lashing out by the barest thread. She turns to Bain and adds, “If you insist on holding an investigation, I’m certain that viewing the security footage will show that I was acting in the best interest of my patient today, as I do every day.”

“Oh, authorized personnel will certainly be viewing it to understand the complete story,” Bain says, too casually. “Of course, there’s no sound to it, so it will not, perhaps, be as helpful as you might prefer.” Claire’s nails bite into her palms as she realizes that even if the footage itself is indeed clear and detailed, it still won’t be enough when he’s determined to see her blamed.

This time Jamie is the one who takes a step to close the distance between himself and Bain. His voice is low and dark. “And I suppose no one’s authorized to confirm that but you?” he says.

“I’m not certain that I like your tone, Mr.—”

“If it’s video ye need, I do have some just here.”

Geillis’s voice has that same strange, nearly ethereal quality which it always does, her appearance at the door inexplicable. But as she drifts into the room beside Jamie and locks eyes with Claire, her gaze is sharper and more solid than expected.

“Oh, yes,” she says, letting the words hang in the air as if they aren’t meant for anyone in particular. “There isna a scrap of anything that I know of to make anyone believe that the incident wi’ the poor couple and their bairn was more than terrible luck, but as for today, well, I happened to be walking through the ward earlier, filming a bit of a message for...a friend. Caught the situation unfolding in the background, clear as anything, and wi’ sound as well.”

“Nurse Duncan!” Bain sputters a bit, becoming even more serious as he regains himself. “Filming yourself during your shift—The patient confidentiality issues alone—We’ll be opening an investigation into this behavior as well.”

“Aye, of course ye will. I knew it before I came. But I could hardly have this - well, not to be giving myself a swelled head, but an important piece of evidence kept all to myself.” Her silky ponytail slides over one shoulder as she tips her head to the side and tells Laoghaire conversationally, “Even if the administration here doesna have the time to take a look, I’m sure there’s all sorts about Leoch who’d be interested in the conduct here today. The chief over at Fire and Rescue, he’s a...personal friend. I have the feeling that he’d certainly be interested in taking a wee keek.”

The girl flushes pink then pale, eyes flicking toward AD Bain, who doesn’t look back.

"Perhaps I was a bit hasty in saying that there needed to be an official investigation. I'll consult further before making any decisions," says Bain, but his gritted teeth and narrowed eyes allow Claire to unclench just slightly, to breathe that little bit easier.

“Excellent. Now.” Geillis smiles around at all of them. “I believe Nurse Beauchamp’s shift is through - canna be trying to sneak in the overtime, Claire. Off wi’ you, then.”

But as Claire gathers her things and walks out, even with Jamie’s hand resting solidly against her back, she has the feeling that this isn’t over. There’s the sense of a bullet dodged, but instead of being able to relax, she can only wonder how long it might take to reload.

They spend much of that evening in bed, quiet words and soft hands filling the space between them where they might have expected a rousing reunion. Even the next day, when they speak about it directly, they are not certain of what to say. Jamie’s face remains inscrutable, almost distant, the fingers of one hand tapping against his thigh as he leans the opposite arm against the bookshelf in her living room, listening while she recounts the full story.

Finally he focuses on her face and says, “Turned out that the only thing on the schedule for that last day was time for socializing, networking and all that, so I could leave Dougal behind enjoying himself and be off a bit early, and I’m glad for it - meant I was back in time to be there beside you, even if I wasna able to do much to help.”

He pushes away from the shelf, pacing with crossed arms. “But I canna even say I understand completely what happened, or why it did. I’ve worked with Laoghaire for years and I’ve never known her to act as she did yesterday.”

“Well.” She’d had her knees pressed to her chest but now she releases them, sitting up on the couch properly. “She obviously attachment to you.”

He tosses her a disbelieving look. “We kissed once, when we were working on Hogmanay, but that was years back—and everyone kisses everyone, it doesna mean a thing.”

“Perhaps that meant something more to her. Not to mention that you shoved her out of the way at that construction site—”

“As I would have done for anyone!”

“She might not realize that,” Claire says patiently, even though she feels that his sentiment is fair. “In her eyes, that might have made it seem that you were watching her, trying to protect her especially.”

Fingers still rubbing together, absent and restless, he asks, “And what can even be done for it? Am I meant to face her head-on, tell her directly I have no feelings of that sort for her, when she’s already shown herself unstable and that might make her do something like this again?”

“I can’t say what might be the best course,” she admits, standing and walking over to be near him. Wrapping his wrists in a gentle grasp, she looks up at him. “I will say that you should be watchful. Don’t confront her, but don’t feed into her beliefs about whatever relationship she imagines for the two of you. Until we can gather a more detailed picture, you should tread carefully with her, Jamie, please, and I’ll do the same.”

“Aye, for you’re so known for yer careful steps, Sassenach - I ken who’ll have more trouble in that between the two of us,” he says, eyes fond, then adds more seriously, “I could see the temper barely held back within ye, even knowing the power that wretch Bain has over ye. Truly, if it hadn’t been for Geillis Duncan coming in just when she did, things could have turned much worse.”

Claire expresses the same to Geillis herself when she insists on treating her to a drink that evening, but she only waves off the thanks.

“Really, Geillis,” Claire persists. “You got yourself in trouble for my sake when you could have simply looked the other way and let things play out.”

“And rob the people of Leoch of their second most capable nurse?” Geillis gave a smile and a dainty shake of her head. “I’ve the chance to relax now while they complete the investigation, and my punishment will be much less than yers would have been, seein’ the way Bain was treating ye.”

Claire takes a sip of her wine, finding the acknowledgement of her own experience of the situation by someone else more comforting than she would have thought. “Considering how much he was looking forward to punishing me, he might take it out on you since you robbed him of his chance,” she warns.

“Oh, I don’t think you’ll have to worry yourself about me.” Geillis takes the maraschino cherry garnish out of her lipstick red cocktail and twirls the stick lightly between two fingers. “Perhaps Dr. Beaton will be back before anything’s to be done and have a more welcoming pair o’ ears to take in the situation, but even if not, I have a talent for coming out of things on top—and I have some helpful folk on my side, ken.”

“Well, I’ll certainly be happy to be part of that number if you ever need me.”

She wants to take back the words nearly as soon as she’s said them - she has no idea what Geillis might see as an appropriate favor, or proper recompense - but the other woman only looks her over solemnly. “I’d sooner see ye taking good care,” she says, and it almost sounds like code, like a warning.

“What?” Claire asks with a slight laugh and another sip of wine. “Do you think that there’s some sort of dark plotting afoot?”

Geillis gives a delicate little shrug. “If ye want to phrase it that way,” she says, and taking the cherry in her teeth, she swallows it.

Claire had wondered whether coming back after time off might have been even worse than simply returning the next day, making people think she was licking wounds or stewing in guilt, and giving gossip the time to spread. And she certainly does get some glances and even narrow-eyed stares, but no one refuses her treatment or shouts or even asks about what had happened. She actually feels a bit buoyant when she arrives home that evening, as if she’s finally releasing clenched muscles.

She’s reading stretched out on the sofa when Jamie comes in, kicking off his shoes by the entry and barely sparing her a glance as he talks to someone on the phone in serious-sounding Gaelic. Knowing that she’ll be hard-pressed to pay attention to the adventures of her favorite Victorian-era lepidopterist/amateur detective (or even her tempting taxidermist partner) she rests a finger in her book and watches as Jamie finishes his conversation and puts his phone into his pocket.

He still has not greeted her, seemingly deep in thought, but she lifts her legs as he comes over to the sofa and he seats himself beneath them, giving an automatic smile as she sets her feet in his lap. The fingers of one hand wrap warmly around her ankle, thumb running with and against the grain of her stubble as he strokes absently - it’s been a day or three since she last shaved. He’s lately been reading her copy of Call the Midwife, which she’s had since her days of training, and it sits just beside his elbow with his bookmark still keeping his place, but he doesn’t make a move to pick it up.

Just as she’s about to break him from his contemplation and ask, he says, “That was Murtagh on the phone just now.”

“Is everything alright?” She sits up a bit.

Brow furrowing deeper, he says, “He went over to the town hall today to speak to Mrs. Fitz, Colum’s secretary. She has family all about the Highlands, plenty who’ve a braw hand with a needle, and with the shop so busy, Murtagh’s been looking for more help. She wasna there when he arrived, but the door to Colum’s office was open, and he saw Laoghaire within. Colum was berating her, saying she’d gone off half-cocked, that she should have let him get things in order before she said something against ye.”

For a moment, she can barely think, lips parting soundlessly. “You think that Colum was the one who told her to manufacture that situation?” she finally says, so disbelieving that a little laugh huffs out of her although she doesn’t find the idea at all funny.

“Aye, I do, or at least he was the one who had the idea for something of the like.” He turns his hip further into the cushion so he’s facing her more directly. “If ye wanted to return to your job in Inverness, would they have a place for ye?”

“Well, yes, they almost always can do with qualified—But this is madness.” Reclaiming her feet, she curls her legs against herself. “Why would I leave my job? Why would Colum even have reason to make moves against me?”

“To get to me,” says Jamie, and it sounds bleak, without any sort of ego.

“Do ye recall the explanations I gave when I said I’d have no interest in taking Dougal’s place? I told him that I had no ambition for it, especially when there are others with more experience, and that I was happy with my job as it was for it meant spending plenty of time with you. I’ll wager he believes that I could be talked into taking the position - by appealing to my sense of duty, the responsibility I feel to the department and to the people of the city - and that he could convince Rupert and Alec and Johnny Mac, those who’ve served for years and might put themselves forward, to step aside. But you...You’re someone he doesna ken much at all, someone he doesn’t have power or leverage over, and he must realize he canna simply convince me to give you up, silver tongue or no.”

Trying to stay composed even though she can feel herself beginning to get riled, she says, “So he tried to get me sacked instead? Because if I couldn’t work at the hospital, then I’d have difficulty pursuing my profession in Leoch at all, and perhaps I’d move away from here for a new job and we’d separate, or at least I wouldn’t be as large a strain on your time…” She can follow the logic of it, but it simply seems to lack sense or reality.

He runs a hand through his hair, saying with disgust, “Aye, that’s my thought. I’ve always kent there to be a bloodthirstiness to Colum just as there is to Dougal, a desire for power and to force things into their way o’ thinking, but I hadn’t imagined he’d go so far.” He sets his hand on her knee. “I’m sorry, Claire, that you were caught in this. I’m sorry that I didna realize soon enough to protect you when I should have. I canna tell ye how much. ”

“It’s alright.” She places her hand atop his, taking in the broad, working strength of it. “Colum and Dougal...The way that they are is beyond what anyone should need to expect. It isn’t your fault.”

He observes her pale, slim fingers there and swallows. As if he needs to balance each word carefully on his tongue, he says, “Perhaps it’s not my fault, but it is the way of what’s happening, and all of that is because you’re around me. And if ye wanted to end things because of it—”

“Never.” She feels her heart unfasten at the thought, and fortifies her gaze before meeting his. “I’m not running away from you, and I’m not running away from Leoch. This is the place I’ve chosen. You are the person I was meant for. And I don’t care who is waiting in the shadows.”

He swallows again, turning his palm over so that her hand rests in his. He grips it there, running his thumb over the smooth skin of the back, and smiles, although it flickers a bit at the edges.

“If that’s your choice,” he says, “then the other option I see is that we should be married.”

“No, Jamie.”

“Claire, would ye—?”

“No, Jamie.”

“Can I please—?”


She eyes her suitcase, trying to mentally run through what she’ll need for a long weekend at Lallybroch, while Jamie prowls distractingly through the bedroom around her, continuing the same argument they’ve been having for two days running.

“Go get my toothbrush, if you have so much energy.” She gestures irritably toward the loo before turning to add two extra pairs of socks. Her toothbrush lands on top, snapped into its travelling case; Jamie stands over her shoulder with his arms folded.

“Now will ye listen to me instead of being so damnably stubborn?”

She grits her teeth and glares - as if the only possible reason she hasn’t simply gone along with his stupid bloody plan is that she hasn’t heard him properly! “I have listened to you. I have heard your arguments and your reasoning, and I cannot agree with them - and you are coming very close to breaking a promise to me with your attitude. Now—” She zips her bag closed, swinging it from the bed. “It’s past four, and we told Jenny we’d be there in time for dinner.”

She can tell from the glances traded between husband and wife that the tension between herself and Jamie is apparent to their hosts from the time they walk through the door. It isn’t until wee Jamie, apparently no picky eater, has finished gobbling down his salmon and spinach and been excused, that they get to explain.

“And now Jamie has it in his head that if we were married, Colum would be convinced that he won’t succeed and will give it all up,” Claire finishes.

Jamie smacks a palm down beside his cleared plate, definitive even as the sound is absorbed by the heavy wood of the table. “As I’ve told ye too many times to count, he’d see a wife as different, more permanent, than he does a girlfriend, someone who ye canna simply chase off. And he’d see me differently as a husband - no’ someone to control or force to play his game.”

“But doing this would mean playing along with him! Perhaps not doing what he wants, but reacting to him, going along with the rules he’s set - and don’t you think that will only make him even more assured that he can manipulate you again, this time to get you under his thumb?” She looks appealingly first to Ian, seated with raised eyebrows across from her at the head of the table, then to Jenny, who’s pacing a short line by her seat beside Ian’s, one hand atop the now-enormous globe of her belly, the other pressing against her back. Claire has to fight against the image of Robena Donaldson in her hospital bed laying protective hands over her own bump.

Jenny’s brow is creased, and Claire is just thinking how surprising it is that she’s managed to hold back from commenting for this long when she turns to Claire and starts, “Well, few ken the mind and ways of Colum like my brother. Jamie learned chess across the table from the man, and if he says that this will convince our uncle, then I believe him.”

Before Claire can get out more than a syllable of protest, Jenny has turned to Jamie, pinning him with a stare as she scoffs, “But it’s pure foolishness to think this the best way, tying yourselves together after barely a few months. What sort of a basis is this mess for a marriage, especially when ye barely know each other!”

“There’s more between Claire and me than that, as ye well know, Janet,” Jamie says, low and fierce, shoving his chair back and planting both fists on the table, resting his weight on his knuckles. “So you’d do well to hold yer fool tongue.”

Uncle Lamb had rarely admonished her and seldom raised his voice to do it, and she never truly had friends her age at whose houses she might have seen the more complex interplay of families at home. But despite the unfamiliarity of the emotion raging through the room, Claire can’t help but be warmed that Jamie feels as she does, that the issue with the idea of marriage isn’t about rightness or any sort of limitation between them, merely timing.

“Fine!” Jenny throws up her hands. “You’ll do what ye like, James Fraser, you always have, and to hell with what I have to say on the matter.” She turns and leaves the room, anger clear in the tight set of her shoulders beneath her heather gray maternity tunic, even if she’s a bit too unwieldy now to stomp.

“And take care of the table - I’m not certain I could hold my tongue long enough to do it,” she adds, sharp voice fading into the stone walls of the house.

Claire stands, unsure whether to obey or follow Jamie’s sister and try to bring about peace; she takes a step toward the door only to see Ian shake his head. Jamie grunts out a breath, reaching across the table to snatch Jenny’s half-full plate and slam it atop his own. Claire fears that she might hear the next one crack.

Taking them out of his hands, she orders, “Go for a walk,” and when he only fixes her with a stone stare she adds, “A long one,” and continues to absorb herself in stacking the rest of the plates until Jamie leaves the room too.

Ian hauls himself to his feet and comes around the table, placing a hand on her shoulder. “They do make a wonderful case for why ye’d want to marry into the family, hmm?” His tone is so filled with dry good-humor that Claire actually laughs. He laughs with her, taking the plates from her.

“Come on,” he says. “We’ll get these into the kitchen, and I’ll tell ye all the secrets I’ve learned about handling a Fraser - though I’m happy to hear about any of yer own as well.”

Claire had expected that her first time in Jamie’s childhood bedroom would be full of lighthearted teasing about embarrassing posters, or stories shared about photos and beloved keepsakes. There certainly are plenty of points of conversation based on her brief survey of the room, but she keeps her eyes firmly on her book when he finally comes in, listening as he sheds his clothes. She puts the novel, bookmark unmoved, onto the nightstand as he climbs into the large bed alongside her and shuts the light.

“Good night,” she says curtly into the darkness, and turns over onto her side, facing the unfamiliar wall.

But apparently their bodies don’t realize that they’re arguing: when her eyes startle open sometime later, she’s shifted toward the middle of the bed and he’s turned over, arm holding her against his chest.

For a moment she doesn’t realize what’s woken her while it’s still night and almost tries to go back to sleep, but then there’s the renewed sound of a fist against the door, and Jamie is pushing himself out of bed to open it.

She’s only ever seen Ian cheerful and relaxed, or at least calm, even in the midst of family quarrelling, but his voice and the piece of his face she can see around Jamie’s bare side are panicked now.

“Is Claire awake? I need her.”

“Ian, what’s—?”

“Get Claire, Jamie, now!”

Jamie shifts over as Claire sits up, squinting against the light of the hallway. Ian’s hair is disheveled, his T-shirt twisted around him, prosthesis bare where it protrudes from beneath the caught cuff of his flannel pants. He holds his cell phone tight in one hand.

“Jenny’s in labor,” he says. “I’ve called the ambulance service, and those stationed closest to us are already on other calls. They’re dispatching one from Inverness, but it will take more than an hour to get here, at least. Claire, I ken you’re no’ on duty as it were, but can ye—”

She’s already out of bed, turning her back to Ian so she can slide her bra on through the arms of the tank top she was sleeping in. “Alright, I know she’s nearly full term, but how far along is she exactly?”

“Thirty-eight weeks on Thursday,” he replies.

“Good, Ian, that’s really good. Were you with her at her last scan, her last appointment?”

“Aye, we had a scan last Tuesday.”

“I’ll ask her as well, but did the doctor mention anything unusual about the pregnancy, anything to keep an eye on during the last little bit or during delivery?”

“No.” Ian is clearly trying to keep his breathing under control. “No, he said everything was normal, and the head was down.”

“That’s perfect, that’s just what we want.” She wraps an elastic one final time around her haphazard bun before glancing around the room in the hallway light. She considers Jamie’s pullover - even in summer, the house isn’t exactly warm without her personal hot water bottle beside her - but the baggy sleeves will be too much to contend with and she suspects she’ll have plenty of activity to warm her. She digs a simple long sleeve top from her own bag and layers it on instead. Turning, she throws the pullover to Jamie.

“Go down to the car and get my first aid kit - you know where it is,” she tells him, thankful that they took her car here. “Ian, go sit outside wee Jamie’s room. I know these walls are thick, but Jenny isn’t exactly quiet under normal circumstances, and I don’t want him to wake up and be frightened if she gets a bit loud. I’ll have Jamie take your place once he’s finished fetching and carrying for me.”

Claire has never been inside Jenny and Ian’s room but she knows which one it is. She raps her knuckles gently against the door and says, “Jenny? It’s Claire,” before she pushes it open.

Jenny is walking in circles around the room, wearing a big shirt and loose navy lounge bottoms with white spots. Coming further into the room, Claire spots a matching robe hanging out of one drawer. Jenny is breathing in what Claire guesses is supposed to be a practiced pattern but which instead seems a bit frantic; at the crests it sounds like a sob for all that it’s meant to calm.

“Talk to me, Jenny,” she says. “How long would you guess it’s been since things started?”

“Hours, at least,” Jenny says. Her eyes are enormous. “Maybe all day. I thought it was only the Braxton Hicks - I’ve been having them on and off for weeks - but then I woke up from the pains, and they weren’t fading anymore, and I knew.” Her words choke off with a shaky breath.

Claire wants to put a hand on her arm but resists - Jenny seems too tightly coiled to take solace from it - instead asking calmly, “Did wee Jamie come on suddenly like this as well?”

Jenny gives a watery snort. “No, I might as well have moved into the birthing suite wi’ that one. He was weeks overdue and still had to be induced, and then I spent nearly a day and a half in labor before he decided he was ready to wander his way out.”

There’s barely time for Claire to feel relief that even with her small frame she’s had at least one successful vaginal delivery, before tears edge their way against the laughter of Jenny’s tone. “It’s why I waited so long to wake Ian and have him call for the ambulance. Let the man sleep, I thought. No need to have him up and worrying when it’ll be hours yet.” She looks into Claire’s eyes. “I don’t think it’ll be hours this time round.”

“Let’s wait and see. There could still be plenty of time to get you to hospital, although I’ll make you as comfortable as possible here if it comes to that.”

Jamie arrives then, with a soft-sided case in hand, the orange nylon looking almost comically bright. Claire takes it from him, squeezing his fingers - she can see how tightly controlled his breathing is; as much experience as he has with emergency, it’s different with a loved one.

“Should she no’ be lying down?” he asks, watching carefully as Jenny makes another circuit of the room.

“She knows what she’s doing,” Claire says calmly, the reminder for Jenny’s sake as much as his. “And so do I.” That reminder is for her too; she doesn’t want to think about the last delivery she’d presided over, that perfectly formed, perfectly peaceful little body she had handed to his mother.

She allows Jamie to cup Jenny’s elbow and whisper briefly to his sister before she says, “Sheets and towels, please, Jamie. Older ones if you can, and a few blankets too. And a bottle of water.”

He ducks out again, and Claire takes a pair of gloves and a mask from within the case, along with the blood pressure cuff. Jenny’s vitals are thankfully normal, another worry set aside for now, although she’ll have to remember to keep checking them; after years in the hospital, she’s accustomed to automated monitoring. She does wish that she had a true midwife’s kit with her - the one she keeps in her car is an EMT kit, more extensive than the typical bandages and ointment sort, but it doesn’t include a doppler or even a fetoscope, leaving her limited and somewhat clumsy in the vitals she’ll be able to take for the baby with only the stethoscope at hand.

As she has Jenny laid back on the bed to ascertain how far along she is, Jamie returns, seemingly a full linen closet in his arms. He throws them over his face as he catches sight of the scene he’s walked in on, the fluffy lot he’s holding blocking the view and muffling the “Christ almighty!” which he lets out. It’s impossible to avoid Jenny’s voice, however, filling the room with a shouted, “Did ye never learn to knock?!”

“Leave them on the chair, Jamie,” Claire says, too occupied to tease that he was the one who’d been hoping Jenny would lie down. “And go send Ian in here, will you please? I’ll have him come for you if I need more help.” She knows Jamie might lack experience in this particular situation but he does have first aid training through the department, and it’s a bit of a relief to know that she can rely on that if necessary. She hopes it won’t be - and clearly he hopes the same, if only so he doesn’t have to see his sister in this state.

Ian is holding Jenny’s hand by the time Claire strips off her first pair of gloves and says, “Well, you’re certainly quite far along. Seven centimeters already, and things seem to be progressing quickly.”

“That’s for sure and certain,” Jenny grits out, shaking as another contraction trails off.

“Aye, but ye’ve never been one to shy from quick progress.” Ian’s voice is quiet and steady despite his still-rumpled appearance, and when he catches Jenny’s eye, there seems to be an intent to it, something passing between them which Claire doesn’t understand. She waits until they have broken away from each other, then as Jenny’s back stiffens and releases along with another contraction, before she says that they’ll be making a trip to the toilet, all three of them together.

Jenny and Ian’s window faces the road, and as Jenny’s labor becomes advanced, Claire has Ian looking every few moments for the ambulance; she’s lost track of the details of time, only holding onto the minutes enough to check vitals regularly, but she thinks that someone should be arriving soon.

As Jenny starts to push, however, Ian won’t leave her side and Claire doesn’t have it in herself to make him. His encouragement melds with Claire’s directions, and she doesn’t know whether it is one or the other or both, or something purely of her own body which propels Jenny, screaming, moisture running down her face which Claire can’t fix as sweat or tears, to bring her daughter into the world.

“She’s here,” Claire says, tender and joyous over the baby’s cries. “She looks absolutely perfect.” And as Jenny and Ian bend close to the newest member of their family, Claire can hear the sirens drawing nearer, lights flashing on the walls.

With the baby and placenta cleanly delivered, Claire almost expects that Jenny, unsentimental and practical as she is, will tell the ambulance crew that she had no use for them now and send them on their way rather than go to the hospital. But instead she allows the pair of paramedics to support her down the stairs, the baby in her arms, and Ian following behind with the bag she’d already had packed.

Jamie steps into the ambulance behind them, head ducked as he wraps Ian in a strong hug, going over to Jenny and placing what Claire thinks is a rosary in her hand, curling his sister’s fingers around it as he whispers to her and presses a kiss to her forehead, then cups his large palm around the tiny infant head. And Claire recalls that it wasn’t only Jamie who had to hear Ellen Fraser screaming that night so long ago. It wasn’t only Jamie who listened to the silence where a baby should have cried, who had to see that beloved pair placed together into an ambulance which didn’t need to turn its sirens on.

Claire steps in after he’s finished. She kneels beside Jenny. “You did so wonderfully,” she says. “You’ve earned a rest, you and your beautiful baby.”

“Claire, I canna even—” Jenny breaks off, squeezing Claire’s hand instead, breathing in deeply. “You take care of Jamie,” she finishes firmly, and Claire feels honored by the words, for she means son and brother both.

Jamie keeps an arm around her waist as they climb back up the stairs - equal parts, she thinks, trying to keep her close, and making certain she doesn’t topple over as the adrenaline wears off and exhaustion washes into its place.

They stop to listen as they pass wee Jamie’s room, relieved that he still hasn’t stirred. As they move to continue onward to their room, she notices something on the floor. Bending, she finds that it’s a rosary.

“I thought I saw you hand Jenny a rosary in the ambulance,” she says to Jamie.

“Aye, ye did.” He studies the beads for a moment before putting them into his pocket. “This one is mine, but I set it aside for the night. I was using my mother’s, not moved from her bedside drawer in more than ten years until I went to find it earlier. That’s the one I gave Jenny.”

He ducks his head for a moment, the dim hallway light shining on his crown, before he meets her eyes with his, glowing blue and earnest. “I thought it was my mother I needed tonight, she and the Holy Virgin, but it was you, Claire. You were a hero, mo ghràidh, even if you’ll insist it was none so great a task, and it filled me with awe to see the skill of your hands and the knowledge of your mind, yer instinct and yer heart. Ye brought my sister and my niece through whole and healthy and well, and I haven’t thanks enough for that.”

Cupping her face in his hands, he tilts it gently to his, his kiss almost chaste but no less emotional for it. Even when he pulls away, he keeps his forehead bent to hers.

“I ken that you’ve been angry wi’ me—” he starts softly, but she interrupts.

“I’d never let that interfere with caring for someone in need.”

“I’d never ha’ thought it.” The pad of his fingers stroke soothingly against her face. “But I wanted to explain. I wasn’t trying to control you, or to force ye, to keep you trapped, when I said we should be married. I said it because I know it’s a way to protect you and I always want to see you safe. But I also said it because...because I love you, Claire, I have since the first night I met ye, when ye drew back that curtain and I caught my first glimpse of those curls going in all directions, since I saw ye torn up inside over the loss of yer patient and the difficulties at home, and still troubling to make certain I was being cared for. I loved you when you came up north to the fires, and the first time you came here with me, and each day since. After tonight, I canna imagine how I’ll manage more, even as I know it will only keep growing, certain as we stand here. And though if I’ve not said the words before, I hope with all I am that I’ve been able to show you.”

She thinks of Jamie lending his listening ear, his understanding and advice, all the way back on that first night; she thinks of him trusting her with his vulnerabilities. She thinks of him bringing her home to his family, showing her the beauty of his home so she could be a part of it too. She thinks of those nicknames that he voices with such affection and the favorites things of hers that he seems to have instinctively filed into his memory, of the way she’s come to rely on and anticipate his touch, of him standing firm and reliable at her back only days ago.

Closing her eyes against the filling tears, she leans forward to kiss him again, warm and unhurried.

“You do,” she tells him finally, with tender seriousness. “I hope I’ve been able to show you even half as much. And I don’t want you to think that I was saying no to you when I was only saying not yet.” The thought of separating from him is too much, but she pulls back enough so that she can meet his eyes. “When I marry you, it isn’t going to be because of Colum, or Dougal, or fear, or necessity. It’s going to be because it’s the right time.”

“The right time for us.” The words are so low she can barely hear them, but it doesn’t matter as he wraps her in his arms while the sun rises on the day.

Wee Jamie has little interest in his new baby sister when Jenny and Ian return later the next evening, condescending to have her laid briefly across his lap and shaking a toy or two experimentally over her dozing face before he retreats, seeming simultaneously bored and relieved that she has no designs on his playthings. He is, however, indignant that he missed out on all the fuss during her birth.

“But I could have helped,” he protests resentfully, smacking down a hand to collapse his latest Magna-Tile structure in on itself as the adults, sitting on opposite couches above his eye level, trade amused glances.

“Ye’re a braw helper and we appreciate the offer, laddie, but even Uncle Jamie and I werena especially useful,” Ian says fondly. “We were lucky that a professional was here with us.”

“What’s April feshnul?”

Giving a snickering Jamie a subtle poke, Claire says, “Your father means that I’ve helped with babies being born before. Although it’s usually as part of my job instead of something I do as a surprise in a bedroom.”

Wee Jamie’s head whips toward his parents. “Was I borned in the bedroom too?”

“You were born in the hospital,” says Jenny, leaning further into Ian’s chest. “And as grateful as I am to Claire for her good work, I’m grateful to ye for that, mo mhac. Perhaps I’d be willing to do a home birth again in the future, but only planned and purposeful - and with plenty of gas and air on hand.”

“Och, Jen, Maggie’s barely been here a day and ye’ve already started talking about the next one?” Jamie teases. “She’s going to start thinking ye don’t appreciate her.”

Claire gives him a soft rap on the knee. “Oh, hush, of course they do, and how could they not? Look how darling she is.”

A look seems to pass between Jenny and Ian that has nothing to do with the two of them reaching to calm the stirring baby.

“I’m glad ye think so, Claire,” says Ian, stroking a hand over Jenny’s hair before resting it around her shoulders as Maggie settles again. “For we’ve a bit of a request for you.”

“Of course,” she says, although she can only imagine what sort of question could be causing them to pause this way when the last request they had was that she deliver their baby, and they weren’t nearly so cautious about that. She and Jamie have been sitting close on their sofa all evening, but now his shoulder feels even more noticeably solid against hers, and she appreciates it.

“Jamie’s to be godfather this time ‘round,” says Jenny. Claire’s somewhat surprised - she would have expected Jamie to be godfather to his namesake, although perhaps Ian has siblings as well? - but she doesn’t have much time to mull it over as Jenny finishes the sentence. “And we’d like to ask ye to be Maggie’s godmother.”

“Oh, I—Thank you,” says Claire, sitting up a bit straighter. “But are you—Are you certain? I am Catholic by birth but I’m certainly not religious in my own life, and, well...”

Jenny had put the request forward as a statement, without any tentativeness or efforts at persuasion. Claire doesn’t quite know how to bring up the fact that it seems unusual to give such a role to her when, as Jamie’s partner of only a few months, she lacks any sort of official relationship to the Murrays, or even an honorary one based on long standing. Finally she settles on, “We’ve only known each other a short time.”

Jenny makes a dismissive sound in the back of her throat. She strokes a finger over one of the drowsing baby’s perfectly soft cheeks, and looks back up at Claire. “Yours were the first hands that held her in this world, Claire, and regardless of yer church attendance or dates on the calendar, that’s no small thing. And I ken that you’ll be around with us for a long while yet - she’s a whole life ahead of her, and we’d like ye to be at her side for it.”

Unable to help herself, Claire glances at Jamie. He is looking right back at her, simply waiting, as if he is certain that whatever she says, it will be the right choice.

She leans forward toward where Jenny and Ian are seated across from herself and Jamie. “I’d be honored,” she tells them.

When she’d arrived at Lallybroch, she hadn’t been quite sure of her place here. She’d been a guest - a welcome one, perhaps, but still with a base of formality. Now, after days of arguments and emergencies and milestones shared with these people, she wonders if the next time she comes it will be as true family.

“I’m sorry that it wasna exactly the relaxing weekend away I promised ye, Sassenach,” Jamie says.

Claire glances over her shoulder to watch him, large fingers capable as he loops another strip of old T-shirt around the stem of one of her tomato plants and knots it neatly around the stake. She’s doing the same to the pea plants in the raised bed on the opposite side of the roof. Brushing off her hands, she moves to the bed beside him, absently testing the soil’s moisture with a finger.

“It was a wonderful weekend, Jamie. We got to spend time with your sister and brother-in-law and nephew, and we were among the first people to meet your new niece. There’s nothing which can replace that. I can relax some other time.”

“Aye, although ye won’t,” he says, raising a gently teasing eyebrow at the indignant click of her tongue - she knows that he’s right.

The day is gray but Scotland warm - good weather for being out of doors with a redhead who is constantly forgetting to apply sunscreen - and it’s tremendously peaceful to work quietly side by side. She’s just contemplating whether it’s time to harvest the courgettes when Jamie says abruptly, “Jen and Ian were right to ask ye to be godmother - I canna think of anyone better for it, especially when ye looked so natural holding wee Maggie in yer arms.”

“Well, at that age there isn’t much more to it than supporting the head and making certain not to drop them. And of course I have had some training, after all,” she says lightly, lifting a bent wrist to brush back her hair and wipe at the sweat along her browline.

“Hmm.” He takes a pinch of soil between his fingers, crumbling it slowly back down into the pot, then angles his head to look at her. "Is it only—I suppose I mean—D'you want children of your own, Sassenach?"

“Oh.” She settles slowly back on her heels, wiping one hand across the other.

She knew that this would come up sometime, has felt the conflict of keeping it within herself, and yet put it off with not now, not yet. Somehow she still can’t help but be unready with the moment here before her, unprepared both to find the words and manage what might come after.

It seems so evident to her what his own answer would be to the question - after she’s seen him with wee Jamie and Maggie, heard the deep, formative affection with which he speaks of his childhood and his relationship with his family, watched him mentor Willie and serve as leader and mediator and example for the fire crew, she knows that he’s meant for fatherhood.

And it claws at her heart that she might not be able to give that to him, to them.

The silence has sat between them for too long, the background of light traffic and soft wind too apparent. She crosses her arms over herself, holding her opposite elbows despite the dirt still on her palms.

"I'm not certain that I can have children," she says quietly. “I do want them. I don’t even think I realized how much until I—” She pulls in a shaky breath. “Frank and I, we tried, before. We had been trying, for over a year. It’s why I wasn’t taking birth control anymore when you and I started. We were beginning to talk about...further examinations, but I don’t know if it’s something which could have been helped.” Feeling too delicate, she has to push against the instinct of tears, the desire to drop her gaze from his. “I don’t know if it’s something which can be helped.”

Somehow, the way his eyes flick briefly and bracingly away from her face, the soft acknowledging sound he gives, feels as powerful as a shout.

“I’m so sorry, Jamie. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I’m sorry I can’t—”

She does look down then, fixing her stare on her locked and shielding arms. It hurts, remembering that she might never hold a child and know that they were made from herself and Jamie, permanently coiled. It hurts, wounding him with the knowledge that his image of a family is no guarantee with her. It hurts, the way she imagines drowning hurts, to know that this might mean losing him.

“I would understand, if this was too much,” she says, and she almost has to pretend that someone else is saying the words. “If you needed to walk away.”

"But 'Can you bear children' wasna even the question I asked."

Her head comes up again. His eyes are so clear and don’t drift from hers.

“I’m not the first to say it, but there are all manner of ways to make a family, Claire.”

“And you wouldn’t...You wouldn’t mind it?” She gives a quiet sniffle. “That any children we had together might not be ours biologically?”

And his hands are set on either shoulder, his forehead touching hers. “There are more important things in life than biology.”

“Biology is the study of life,” she points out, her next sniff turning into a soft laugh as her arms release to slide around him. “I see I’d be the one helping with the science homework.”

“Aye, I’ll take responsibility for teaching other things.”

He shifts so his back is against the space of wall between the two raised beds, letting her settle more comfortably with her front against his chest. She traces a finger over the outline of his St. Florian medal beneath his T-shirt and bends to press her lips to it.

“Which sort of things would you be in charge of teaching, then?” she asks, resting the point of her chin on his sternum and looking up at him.

“The sort which my own father taught me so well.” He doesn’t hesitate. “About honor and conscience, diligence and duty and devotion.” He looks down at her and adds with a touch of humor, “And I could likely round it out with chess and ancient literature and a decent bit o’ French as well.”

He pauses and, turning more serious again, says, “I’d like to start speaking to them in Gaelic at home as early as possible - immersion, ken, as I was brought up - and perhaps even have them in a Gaelic-speaking school. I dinna want you feeling as if you’d be excluded, but it’s important to me to try to keep the language—”

She places two fingers across his lips. “I understand,” she says. “If I had a heritage like yours, I’d want to do my part to keep it alive as well. To be honest, I wish I were a bit better at languages, but I don’t think I’d be able to pick it up for myself.” She pulls her fingers back, but not before he’s left them with a light kiss.

“Would it be important to you to raise children in the Church?” she asks, settling back on his chest.

He tips his head back, considering. “I think by now I ken the evils of it too well, and the dangers - so much has come to light since I was a lad. My faith is my own and I offer it gladly only to those who want it, but I know for certain that goodness doesna rely on belief or whether you’re in a pew come Sunday.”

Smiling at her soft sound of agreement, he asks, “And what sorts of lessons would you take on, my Sassenach?”

“Besides science, and geography?” She gives a considering sigh. “Help where you can. Heal how you can.”

“They’d learn it anyway from yer example.”

They’re quiet for a while, her cheek turned into his chest, their breathing bound in the same pattern. Finally she says, “I truly am sorry, Jamie. I’ve had time to come to terms, but I wish I could promise your dreams to you.”

His fingers come beneath her chin, lifting her gaze back to his.

“I say this now, and I will say it until you hear me,” he swears firmly. “You are my dream.” There is no doubt in his voice. “A life beside you is my dream, whether it includes bairns of our blood, or those who are gifted to us by others, or none at all. And were we blessed wi’ new members of our family, we’d teach them the most important thing first: that they’re loved, that they have a home where we do, always and without condition.”

“Always,” she echoes on a breath, feeling his conviction, and she senses the seed of new dreams taking root within her.

For all that her time away felt like years it was really only days, and she comes back to work to find that many - staff and patients alike - treat her with wariness. Apparently the story of what happened with Laoghaire MacKenzie and Robena Donaldson has spread farther, rooted deeper, painting Claire as aggressive and overbearing at best, negligent or even a murderer at worst. For all the ways she’d started to see Leoch as her own place, they’re the ones with long-standing history, family ties and mutual memories, while Claire might still be considered a newcomer after years. But she’s also warmed to find coworkers who tell her how much they admire her standing up for herself against Bain’s attempted railroading, and more than one person who tells her as she does their intake or inserts an IV or brings them over to see a relative that she’s helped them before and they don’t believe the things people are saying against her.

According to Jamie, Mrs. Fitzgibbons has been championing her along the Leoch grapevine, reminding everyone that when the other staff at the hospital had dismissed her grandson Tammas as being sensitive to the tummy bugs always going around or even of faking to get out of school, it was Claire Beauchamp who insisted he have the additional testing which discovered his celiac. It brings Claire a bit of satisfaction to think of someone singing her praises right outside Colum’s door, with him unable to respond openly, but even all of that doesn’t outweigh the feeling of being pushed away by those who had once accepted her, the knowledge that people who used to trust her now view her help with suspicion and even turn from it and so get no help at all.

Even harder than responding to those who refuse her care, however, are the times when the doors open and Laoghaire comes sweeping in with a new patient. Claire finds herself sharpening each time she hears that light, lilting voice listing off vitals or conditions. She forces herself to stay away, binding her will with reminders of her promise to Jamie, with her good sense, knowing how it would look to outsiders. Still, she finds her teeth baring, her fists clenching, even from across the ward - it’s hard to keep herself from hitting Laoghaire, shoving her back: retaliation for what she did to Robena and to Claire, protection against what she could do so easily to others who trust her with their vulnerability.

The only bright spot is the nurse who’s just started in the A&E. Joe Abernathy, a recent transplant from the States who’d followed his wife and her new job, has just qualified to work in Scotland, and to Claire’s mind he’s a welcome addition. She suspects that the supervisors would have preferred to assign someone else for his orientation in light of recent events, but Mary has a poor history with such undertakings (the last time she’d been chosen to onboard someone, she’d become so overly thorough that the newcomer had to constantly chivvy her along), Geillis still has a few days left to her suspension, and most of the rest of the staff is even less senior than Claire.

She’s glad to take on the task, not only for the distraction but because Joe is warm and funny, has a gentle touch and an easy manner with patients, and a smile always comes over his face when he tells stories of his wife, Gail.

Friday night after their shift is over, she actually asks him if he’d like to get a drink with her, something she’s only done before with Geillis, and even then rarely.

“Unless you have plans already,” she adds quickly. “Or if you think it would make Gail uncomfortable.”

Joe grins broadly, eyes crinkling and teeth showing. “Gail will be so happy to hear that I’ve made at least one friend that she might show up to drive us over herself.”

“Tell her there’s no need - the pub I’m thinking of is walkable,” Claire says with a laugh, gesturing toward the door with a nod of her head.

“This place certainly has enough watering holes to choose from, especially considering the size,” he comments, something that she had noticed as well when she’d first moved to Leoch. “But picking a spot close by is probably a good idea. I love the woman, but she’s not exactly an expert behind the wheel even without the whole other side of the road business added in.”

“Your man working tonight?” he asks as they settle themselves in a booth at The Amber Rose, a smaller, quieter choice than most of Leoch’s pubs, with light-colored wood paneling and a steady-handed woman smiling behind the bar.

She taps her whisky glass lightly against his proffered one and takes a sip before answering. “How did you know?”

Joe laughs again. “You don’t usually stick around to talk much when he’s available - it’s usually more of a speedwalk to the door as soon as your shift is over. But I guess that means that things are good between the two of you. How long have you been seeing each other?”

It actually takes her a minute to calculate back, past Maggie’s birth and Laoghaire’s accusation and her introduction to Colum MacKenzie, before she’d known what it was to come to Jamie’s bed for comfort, before she’d come to his home at all or brought him to hers. It’s strange to think that she could have been herself without having experienced those things. “Three months.”

She is bracing herself a bit for a doubtful sound, or a sage nod accompanied by a little remark which isn’t meant to be demeaning but is anyway - “Enjoy the honeymoon phase,” or “Young love, I remember those days” - or even an outright sarcastic, “That long, huh?” Instead, Joe just nods.

“Sometimes when you know, you know,” he says. “Gail and I met all the way back in college - our grandmas were in the same nursing home in Chicago. We ran into each other in the hall there when we were visiting one weekend, traded numbers, did the long distance thing until we graduated, and then we moved right into a place in Boston together and started planning the wedding even though we’d only seen each other in person about a half dozen times. People thought we were crazy, but…”

“When you know, you know,” agrees Claire.

“So your man--”


“—Jamie, he’s a firefighter?” Claire nods. “What’s the schedule like for that?”

“More regular than ours,” Claire jokes. “His crew has two full days on, then four off. We’re usually able to manage a good amount of overlap, thankfully, and I think it helps that he understands that my time isn’t always my own. In the sorts of jobs we have, there’s a piece of it that’s more of a—a calling rather than only being about a paycheck or a business card.”

Joe takes a contemplative sip of his whisky. “Does it ever make you worry, the things that can happen in that kind of job? It can be as intense as ours, sure, but we don’t spend our time running into fire, or at least not in the literal sense.”

It’s odd: for all the times that Claire has kissed him as he’s left for work and listened as he’s told her about his day, as often as she’s seen the scars on his back, regardless of the fact that he’s ended up under care in the hospital twice since she’s known him (with injuries he could have sustained anywhere, but still) and that she’s put more than one bandage on his smaller wounds herself - despite all of that, she’s never truly thought of Jamie’s job as dangerous.

She runs a slow finger around the rim of her glass before answering. “He’s very well trained, and most of the work they do here in Leoch is quite small-time, more cats in trees than burning tower blocks. And I also know - more than anything, I know - that he’ll always do absolutely everything that he can to get home to me if it comes to that.”

It’s true, there’s not a word of it that isn’t, and yet there’s still something in her that’s unsettled by the question. Because for the first time she can’t help but think of a day where even Jamie’s absolute everything might not be enough. And perhaps Joe sees that because he raises his glass and says smoothly, “Well, here’s to your Jamie, who’s already proven that he can take on many a challenge.”

“I hope that wasn’t an insinuation about my nature as a partner,” Claire teases, readily taking up the conversational detour.

“I’d never. Not when you’re so proper, all Queen’s English and Lady Jane manners - although I have noticed that when you think no one can hear you, you curse like you’re in Her Majesty’s Navy.” Claire narrows her eyes at him, but he just laughs and settles back on his side of the booth. “So, Lady Jane, fill a fella in on the characters around the hospital, and don’t feel the need to hold back that sailor’s mouth.”

When she tells Jamie about her evening out with Joe, she doesn’t mention their discussion about Jamie’s job. She tells herself it’s because it doesn’t feel relevant after Jamie’s recounting of his two days of napping and playing poker and Dougal making them go over the equipment with a fine-toothed comb even though they’d done so the week before.

“Sounds like just the sort ye need around that place,” Jamie comments, adjusting the knot in his tie as he dresses for Mass. “Fewer Bains, more Joe Abernathys.”

Claire snorts, rolling her wrists as she lounges back on the bed, watching him. “Too bloody right. No offense intended toward the locals, but I could do with a few more American imports if they’re like Joe.”

“I’ll keep my eyes peeled.” He leans down to kiss her, pulling away to add, “So long as you aren’t looking for a replacement for anything else,” before he kisses her again.

“Mmm, he’s happily married, and I love you, so I think you’re safe.”

“Good, seeing as I’ve no plans to let ye go.”

He stands, checking his pockets for his wallet and phone. His hair has grown a bit longer than usual, curls still damp from his shower and brushing the top of his collar. She smiles at the sight.

“Lunch when you get through?” she asks, already looking forward to a bit of a doze and then something nice to eat later - she’s craving a fresh salad, perhaps with one of the rolls from the bakery down the way, and some sort of pastry to go along.

“I’m off to see Maura right after,” he says apologetically. “But if you can stand to eat a bit later, we can meet then.”

“Perhaps I could join you for your visit and we can walk over together? I’ve never met Maura, after all,” she says before she can even really consider the words.

Her drowsiness disperses as she registers the look on Jamie’s face. She might not have meant to ask the question, had never considered it particularly imperative to meet Maura MacKenzie or come along to Jamie’s monthly visits with her, but there’s an unfamiliar pause, a calculation in Jamie’s expression, as if he’s trying to figure out how to turn her down.

But instead he says, smoothing his face over, “Aye, well, I’ll warn ye that there won’t be much excitement to it, but you can come if ye’d like. I’ll text you the address.”

She can’t help but feel that this isn’t the wholehearted invitation that she might have expected and even hoped for.

Jamie’s waiting on the pavement as she pulls up to the address, his tie loosened around his neck, hair dry now but bright in the midday sun. He gives her a light kiss as she joins him, placing a hand on her back as they walk up the path to the dark-wood front door. The low white bungalow seems fairly well kept, the grass trimmed and even the glass of the upstairs dormers clean, although from the straggling, overgrown rosebushes, poorly geraniums, and stubbornly persistent clusters of phlox in the dry beds on either side of the walkway, Claire can tell that it has been some time since anyone paid attention to the garden.

There’s a bell and a lion-shaped knocker, but Jamie pulls out his phone instead, sending a brief text. A moment later, there are footsteps in the hall, and the door opens to reveal a woman a few years older than Claire, a trace of silver obvious in her dark, curling ponytail.

“Hi, Jamie,” she says, her smile softening her slightly though not entirely erasing the tightness of her features. “Good to see ye.”

Jamie leans forward to kiss her cheek. “Aye, you as well.” With one hand, he gestures to Claire and then back to the woman. “Claire, this is my cousin, Margaret. Maisie, my partner, Claire.”

For a moment, Claire thinks that Margaret is going to make some sort of nudging comment, but then she only shakes Claire’s hand and says, “Lovely to meet ye. Come in.”

It’s dim in the foyer, with a bit of a dated feeling - carpeting everywhere, pine wood closets and baseboards and bannisters, the varnish fading - but also scrupulously clean, hoover marks still visible.

“They increased Mam’s dosage again earlier this week,” Margaret says as the door shuts behind them. She crosses her arms over her chest. “So she’s been sleeping nearly all the time, but at least the pain seems to be managed.”

“Is it still enough to have the nurse coming round for visits? Have you girls talked about having someone in full-time?” Jamie asks, voice low.

It’s the sort of practical question that must be asked, but Claire hates to see Margaret’s face grow even wearier. “Aye, we’ll have to soon. As I say, it’s no’ often that she manages to stay awake, and when she does, she’s barely any appetite. Although even between the four of us, keeping her clean is—”

She breaks off, glancing at Claire, who says immediately, “Whatever you’re comfortable with saying, I’m comfortable with hearing. I’m actually a nurse myself.”

“Aye, so I’ve been told.”

Jamie’s hand moves to rest against her waist, fingers pressing comfortingly there, before Claire has even realized she’s tensed. Margaret lives locally - Claire should have expected that she would have at least heard about what happened at the hospital.

But Margaret only adds, with a hint of a grin, “I heard about you helping out with the birth at Lallybroch, so ye must be made of steel and stone. Ye couldna handle my cousin Jenny and be less.”

The comment surprises a laugh from Claire. “Jenny was easy to work with compared to some.”

“You’ll need to share yer stories with me sometime.” Margaret checks her watch. “But I must dash just now. Jamie—”

“Aye, Mais, I know what to do, dinna fash yerself.” He sets his hands on Margaret’s shoulders and kisses her forehead, then steps back so he can look at her. “Say hello to Neil and the wee lads for me.”

“None so wee anymore. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to fit in a bit of a shop after the mechanic, else they’ll likely come back from mucking about, finish what we have in the pantry, and start eating through the walls.” She picks up her purse from the side table and steps around them to the door. “Tib’ll be here around half past two.” And she’s gone.

Claire looks around as Jamie leads her along the hallway, his steps familiar and confident. It’s hard to consider this as Dougal’s house - she doesn’t see any of his personal items lying about, nor can she imagine him agreeing to the flowered wallpaper or the leaf green accent wall in the sitting room - but he’s featured in several of the pictures mounted along the corridor. She spots him walking one of his daughters down the aisle, and at the back of an extended family snapshot that also features Colum and what must be their other siblings. (Claire can’t help but notice that Jamie, Jenny, and their parents are missing.)

The room that they enter at the end of the hall shows no signs of Dougal’s presence at all. Jamie twists the knob and opens the door silently, the two of them ghosting inside. Claire scans over it all, taking it in. Blonde wood bookshelves line one entire wall, spines packed tight and papers tucked in haphazardly. A desk sits at that end of the room, and although Claire can’t see the dust, there’s a sense that it hasn’t been used in a long time.

The bed is on the other side of the room and Claire steps toward it, Jamie behind her. Maura MacKenzie looks drawn even in sleep. Her short gray hair sticks up in odd, mussed points, head fallen heavily back against the pillow. Her breathing sounds as if her body is forgetting how to do it, even with the assistance of the portable oxygen tank.

"Ah, Maura," whispers Jamie sadly. He reaches out a hand only to pull it back. Claire takes it instead.

She realizes now why he had been reluctant for her to come: because Maura is someone he loves, and now this is the picture that Claire will have of her always, perhaps the only one.

"Here," she tells him, steering him toward the armchair that's been placed by the bed; the small table beside it holds a plastic cup with a straw and a bible, ribbon marker set about halfway through. She finds a second chair behind the desk and brings it over, setting it beside Jamie’s.

They sit for a few moments in silence. Jamie takes a small volume out of his pocket - a small paperback copy of Measure for Measure - but only turns it over in his hands. Finally he says, "It was a week after my mother's funeral when I was brought here for the first time. Dougal came to Lallybroch and drove me - sat me in the front seat and I recall wishing I could sit in the back, that I could be treated like a bairn again. I hoped he might say something to make me feel better - at least to try - but he barely stayed five minutes before he was off to work, and I was left here wi' Maura.

"I didna ken Dougal much at all, but at least I'd seen my da speak with him, had seen that he was being trusted with me. Now here was this strange woman looking down on me. I'm not certain what I expected her to say, but her coming out with a quote from Dante was a surprise."

"'At grief so deep the tongue must wag in vain; the language of our sense and memory lacks the vocabulary of such pain.'"

They both turn toward the bed to find Maura's lined gray-green eyes open, although she hasn't lifted her head from the pillow. Her voice is raspy with exhaustion and dehydration and likely pain, but Claire can imagine how graceful it must have once been.

Jamie angles that sideways smile at her. "It was the first time since it happened that anyone told me it was alright to feel what I was feeling. My teachers, the other mourners, they all gave me platitudes: that I was young, that my sadness would fade. That was the first time anyone seemed to think to say that they understood how powerful grief can be."

"I should ha’ quoted Much Ado instead, to teach you and remind them. 'Everyone can master a grief but he that has it,'" says Maura. She pauses for breath every few words, and her lips are dry, but there's humor in her voice. "Maybe then I'd have kept you on the right path from the first."

"Maura taught literature courses at the adult learning center," Jamie explains.

"You'd be surprised how quickly folk can learn to love what they once considered pointless. The Bard taught right can turn some stubborn hearts. I canna say where I went wrong wi’ this one that he insists on focusing a few centuries too soon."

"Och, Auntie," Jamie tells her, good-humored chiding shifting as he adds quietly, “Ye guided me well, I promise,” and wraps his fingers around hers.

She summons a smile from somewhere. "I must have done, for you've brought your lovely lassie to meet me at last." Her head shifts minutely, her gaze moving to Claire. "I've heard enough about ye to be certain that ye're Claire Beauchamp."

"I am," says Claire, wondering how exactly Jamie had described her. "It's very nice to meet you, Ms. MacKenzie."

"Och, call me Maura, dear one. You deserve it, after all, being the one carin’ for the lad, brash and stubborn as he is."

Claire knows how many people Jamie has lost, knows that he's going to lose Maura too sometime soon. She's familiar herself - too much so - with what it is to have people gone from your life that way. From her work, and her own experience, she knows how unpredictable the course of living can be.

And yet it doesn't feel like a lie when she promises, "I'll do that for the rest of my life."

"Seaside or mountains?" Jamie asks two nights later.

"Seaside," she says. "Sorry, darling."

"'S alright, I'll glory in the wonders of nature enough for yer ungrateful self as well."

She laughs. "I'm sure. Hamburgers or tacos?"

"Tacos if they're done well, but a burger's more likely to be decent," he says, rock solid as if he'd already had the answer prepared.

She burrows a bit further into him as she waits for his next question. "Are you cold?" she inquires.

"Bit late for that is it no', Sassenach?" He quirks an eyebrow at her.

He isn't wrong. They'd already been nearly ready for bed when she’d checked the weather and realized that the temperature was going to drop unexpectedly low overnight. Despite her assurances that it would take very little time for her to dash up, water the plants, and cover them with some old sheets she had readily to hand, he insisted on coming to help.

Watching the way he made certain that all the leaves were tucked gently beneath the cloth, how he stepped back, surveyed her little pots of herbs, and asked with genuine concern whether it might be better to simply move them inside - she never needs excuses to find Jamie attractive, but sometimes he offers these extra reasons.

His mouth opened so easily under hers, and when she pushed him against the chimney which juts upward on one side, he only held her tighter and let her press into him hard, uncaring about the scrape of the bricks against his back. But when her fingers started playing around the waistband of the jeans he'd hastily put back on, when she brushed a palm against his zipper, he grunted and pulled away from her mouth.

"Claire," he said, drawing her name out warningly, although she noticed that he didn’t catch her hands. "Don' start something here when there's a perfectly fine, warm bed only down the stairs. I know altogether too well how chilled those beastly wee toes of yers can get, and that's when we're inside."

She kissed the corner of his mouth, below his ear, on the hinge of his strong jaw. Breathlessly she said, "Then being outside won’t make much of a difference." She kissed along his tensed throat. "And I can think of one way to keep warm enough."

Her tongue came out, running a path along the cords of his neck, tasting the salt there as he hissed in a breath.

All sorts of things have migrated up here during the summer. It was easy to make a little nest from the cushions of the lounge chairs and the pads Claire likes to kneel on, covering themselves with the extra sheets they'd brought even though the other rooftops aren't level with theirs and there's no possibility of anyone seeing them. As Claire recalls from when she was below him, it's comfortable enough - although she had been fairly distracted at that point, so it might be different for him, stretched out on his back with her weight resting freely on top.

"Mmm." She kisses lazily along his collarbone. "We should probably go in soon. I don't want to torture your poor back for much longer."

"Another few minutes. I'll bide until then." He leans his cheek against the top of her head.

"Alright," she says, too tired and replete to crow her own victory.

She must doze a bit, because his voice seems to come from far away as he finally comes up with another question for their game of this-or-that.

"My place or yers?"

Her brain so sleepy and open, she answers without thinking. "Both."

She expects him to call her a wee cheat, but when he speaks, his voice is more serious than that. "I'd hoped you'd say so." Unwrapping one arm from around her, he reaches over toward where his jeans were discarded earlier, rummaging around until he finds something. She lifts her head up to see.

He holds a simple key ring in his fingers, two keys looped on. He hands it to her with care.

"I ken you've your own place, but I wanted you to have it. So ye won't have to ask to be let in, and so—" She can see him swallow. "It's closer to the hospital than yours. Now you can let yerself in, if you're tired, or if you ever just wanted to. Even if I'm not there."

"Jamie…" she starts softly, but then doesn't know how to continue. She kisses him instead, the keys tight in her hand, as they lie together on the rooftop.

She'd thought that it was a place she was making for herself, but that it's instead become another place of theirs is all the more beautiful.

"Your flat is closer to the hospital. Mine is closer to the fire station," she says drowsily even later, surrounded by the scent of them mingled on her sheets.

He makes an affirming sound. "'Spose it's for the best we found each other."

And she drifts off imagining finding a new home with him one day, hand in hand, building a new garden together somewhere in between.

Chapter Text

She doesn't actually use the keys until two weeks later, when her overnight shift ends up pushing well overtime (despite Joe’s arrival, they’re still dreadfully understaffed). Gathering her things, she recalls that Jamie is working through the evening and contemplates the trip across town with dread - and then realizes that she doesn't need to go all that way.

Jamie’s flat is familiar by now, and yet it's different to let herself in without him there. Exhausted as she is - so much so that she can't even interest herself in warming the soup Jamie made over the weekend using her final, spurting overabundance of courgettes - she finds herself examining the front room with fresh eyes.

Much of it is the stuff of typical bachelor living: an indifferently brown leather couch cracked and worn where he sits most often, the enormous flatscreen which is, according to Jamie, the only way to experience rugby outside of the stands themselves. He has a single piece of art on his walls, a painting of two pairs of childish feet, one set kicking up a splash of water at the other as they dip in what Claire knows to be the pond at Lallybroch. If she was to take the picture from its frame, there would be Ellen MacKenzie Fraser’s signature in the corner.

Jamie does have plenty of photographs, however, of him with his friends and his crew and his cousins, with Jenny and Ian and wee Jamie and Murtagh. Some are printed out and hung with magnets on the kitchen refrigerator (Maggie’s birth announcement is currently stuck proudly in the center), others displayed in cheap frames on his shelves. There is one in a heavier gold frame: a copy of his parents' wedding portrait. As Claire looks it over once again, she can see that Ellen gave Jamie her coloring and a certain glint of the eye, while from Brian Fraser he inherited his bearing, and the familiar look of encompassing admiration and devotion which Claire has caught directed at herself.

There are also plants scattered around: little succulents on the shelves, a spider plant creeping across the end table, aloe vera and a jade plant on the windowsill. Her eyes had gone to them immediately the first time she'd come over, and at her questioning he'd told her that about a year past he'd gotten the sudden feeling that they were something his flat had been missing, something to help make it a home.

("Well, there is quite a lot growing at Lallybroch," she'd said. "Perhaps you wanted a reminder of that."

"Aye, perhaps," he'd said, although he looked contemplative, as if he wondered if there was something else to it that he hadn’t quite figured out yet.)

But the first thing most people would likely notice are the books, which absolutely line the far wall. She doesn't know if he realizes the way he’s arranged things to resemble Maura's office and his father's study at Lallybroch.

His dark wood shelving unit is broken into smaller sections, and he's divided his books accordingly. There's a little group of picture books at the bottom along with a basket of toys, surely for when his nephew and now his niece come to visit. Above that are a number of crack-spined, yellowing novels with appeal to younger readers: Tolkien and T.H. White and The Dark Is Rising, Enid Blyton, Robert Louis Stevenson, a full set of Narnia books, Jack London, Ursula Le Guin, Philip Pullman. Most of them seem to predate Jamie's childhood by a fair bit, and indeed, when she flips open a beautifully illustrated copy of The Wind in the Willows, she finds Brian Fraser’s name etched on the inside cover in spiky, childish handwriting. Still, it's easy to imagine a tiny Jamie curled up with his father's old books, tucked beneath his covers or hidden under the oak desk in the study as rain lashed the windows, adventuring through time and space with Meg and Charles Wallace, or sneaking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art alongside the Kincaid siblings, or learning magic opposite Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

He has little in the way of current novels for adults, his modest collection of more modern works tapering off sometime in the late nineteenth century. Instead, there are two entire compartments devoted to the works of Shakespeare. When she glances over them, she sees that his copy of Lear is askew, out of line with the others; he must have been reading it to Maura on his visits lately. She goes to adjust the volume, pulling it out and flicking through the pages first. She guesses that it’s an old secondary school copy - he's left notes penciled in the margins throughout - but there's one marking in blue ink which seems fresh. He's added parentheses around dialogue in act 1 - "Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty, Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare, No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor" - and inscribed a gracefully curving C along the side, and she knows it is not a reference to the Cordelia in the scene.

"Might have marked a passage that isn't about a back-stabbing daughter speaking to her father," she chides him with gentle good humor, even as her heart twists itself around. Once she’s returned the book to the shelf, she takes out his copy of Henry V, moving to act 5. She unclips her pen from the pocket of her scrubs and adds her own parentheses, blocking off the words she was seeking out: “I know no ways to mince it in love, but directly to say, ‘I love you.’” Her J hooks along the side of the text, waiting for him to find someday.

The bulk of his collection overall is unsurprisingly devoted to the classics from Shakespeare’s era and earlier. He has The Divine Comedy and The Decameron and The Prince, works by Milton and Spenser and Cervantes, Marlowe and Christine de Pizan. All sorts of religious texts and centuries-old philosophy: Plato, several different bibles, St. Augustine, Rousseau, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas. There are copies of the Iliad and the Metamorphoses and Lysistrata, Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod, Thucydides, Sappho, and about six different editions of the Odyssey. She knows that the empty space on that shelf is for the Wilson translation, which is sitting beside his bed just now. She'd come into the room two evenings ago to find him lying on his belly, chin resting on his stacked fists as his eyes moved over the open page in front of him.

He’d tilted his head to look up at her as she entered. "She's said something terribly beautiful, Sassenach, about the meaning of the tale. How it's a story which makes us see what twenty years does to parents and children, husbands and wives and their marriage between them. How that time can change servants and dogs and pigs and weapons, households, the entire community." He'd quoted to her, "'How long does it take to come home from a war? Will we ever be who we were?'" and nodded with firm appreciation. “That’s a scholar who’s thought through the task before herself.”

It is, she realizes now, one of those tiny moments she will remember forever, kept snug and quiet against her heart when she thinks of Jamie, a memory which is only hers, something even he will likely forget but which is all the more precious to her for it. She will be able to recall in years or decades the way his hair looked in the lamplight, how the navy of his T-shirt contrasted with the pale gray of the blanket, the precise, satisfied timbre of his voice, the surge of love for him filling her. She smiles to herself.

He has Homer translated into French as well, but it’s shelved with his non-English language material, below the works he has on Scottish history and culture. Beside the classical translations, there’s a group of dictionaries: French, Gaelic, Italian, Greek, Latin, even a Compact Oxford English, hefty and taking up more than its fair share of space despite the name. She slides out the Gaelic-English and pages through it, finding each of Jamie’s names for her, the meanings of which he has slowly made known: chridhe under C, ghràidh in the Gs. She finds Sassenach under S, but the entry reads only “English person, English.” She thinks of Jamie adding “derogatory” to his definition the first night they met and shakes her head, smile still on her lips as she thinks fondly, Cheeky bastard.

There’s one more name which she doesn’t bother to look up, knowing that it won’t be listed. She’d heard it weeks ago, one night when she had come back from work to find Jamie already asleep. As quiet as she had tried to be, when she’d returned from showering, he’d been sitting up against the headboard, sleep-mussed and dreamy-eyed, hopeful for her.

When has she ever refused him?

It had been entirely natural to take his extended hand, to settle herself into his lap, so easy to fall into a rhythm with him that it was almost thoughtless, the two of them rocking deep and comforting and inevitable as the next heartbeat. Their foreheads were bent close. Jamie lifted their twined hands to his mouth, kissing her fingers, the room silent but for the pairing of their breath until he let out a deep, “Mmm,” rumbled from within his chest. He’d leaned in and kissed her throat. “Sorcha,” he’d said, fervent and simple at once.

“What does that mean?” she’d asked, barely even a whisper. She had heard him say it before, months ago when she had found him praying in the chapel, but she had forgotten to ask then.

His chin lifted slightly, and she could see the shine of his eyes, exposed by the streetlight. “It’s you,” he’d told her, almost surprised, as if she should know already, as if he couldn’t believe the truth of it. “It’s yer name, Claire. No’ the word for it any longer, but it means brightness or clarity. Light.” And he’d placed a kiss over her bared heart.

She closes the dictionary gently and replaces it carefully on the shelf, standing back to take in the collection once more: so many parts of Jamie displayed here, and yet there’s so much more to him too. As she presses her arms around herself, a yawn forces its way out, her ability to ward off her own exhaustion seemingly at an end. She starts toward the bedroom. She’ll have him here, Jamie whole and complete, when she wakes up.

Deeply asleep as she is, she has her ringing phone in her hand before she’s fully fumbled her way to wakefulness.

“Hello?” she asks blearily. It’s Angus’s name on the display, and she remembers laughing with Jamie the first time she’d gotten her own drunk dial; they hadn’t even known that he had her number.

“Beauchamp,” he says, measured and serious, and then, “Claire,” and she’s swinging her feet to the floor before he’s even said anything else. She’s never heard him use her first name.

“I’m no’ precisely meant to be calling - there’s rules to this sort o’ thing, notifying family first, and you arena on Jamie’s paperwork, but we all kent he’d want ye to—”

“Is he alive?” Her voice is harsh.

“Aye,” says Angus. He hesitates. She doesn’t allow herself to breathe just yet, waiting for him to continue. “They’re still examining him. They willna tell us much, but we think they’re deciding whether to transfer him to Inverness instead.”

Leoch is a fine hospital for most standard injuries. Taking him all the way to Inverness means that they’re looking for specialist care. All of her nerves suddenly seem oversensitized, everything in the room in bitter sharpness. She is striding to the wardrobe before she even thinks of what to do next.

“I’m coming there now,” she tells Angus firmly, hanging up on his protests.

It’s only seconds later that her phone starts ringing again, Jenny’s name appearing on the screen this time.

“Angus called me. I’m leaving for the hospital now,” she tells Jamie’s sister, not even bothering with hellos; if Jenny’s voice trembled over her name, she doesn’t think she could stand it. “But I’m certain he’ll be alright.”

“Aye, course he will,” Jenny says, and Claire tries to take comfort in the lie they are telling each other.

Murtagh is striding through the doors just ahead of her when she arrives. He’s wearing pajama bottoms, the same way he was the night she first met him, but there are no begrudgingly fond eyerolls tonight, no gruff remarks about aging prematurely due to Jamie’s recklessness. His face is purposeful, and he only nods in acknowledgement as she falls into step with him.

She is suddenly aware of this as another element of loving Jamie Fraser. She is suddenly aware that she doesn’t know that she’s ready for it. She sets her jaw and pushes forward anyway.

Nurse Graham, the senior on duty, looks up from her place at the nurse’s station, face moving from automatic welcome to somber compassion.

“You’ll want to go on back, dear,” she says gently, and Claire nods in response. It’s strange, to hear that familiar phrasing referring to the small ICU, in the everyday voice of a colleague, and for it to have so much more personal meaning.

The hallway is empty when they arrive, and although Claire knows that the rest of the firefighting crew needed to leave considering the staffing rota for the Leoch station and the fact that they serve both the city and the surrounding area, she wants to shout at them, berate them for not caring enough about Jamie, for leaving him alone in this place. She wants Jamie to rest a hand on her arm and call her his fierce knight, wants him to laugh and remind her to ease off his friends, to grit his teeth and admonish her that he can fight his own battles.

Jamie is, according to the doctor, unconscious.

He’d been hesitant at first to share any information with her at all, saying that he could discuss Jamie’s condition with Murtagh, who was listed on his paperwork, but that he knew perfectly well that Nurse Beauchamp was not the Jenny Fraser Murray also authorized with healthcare power of attorney.

“I’m aware,” Claire had told him icily. “However, I’m—”

His girlfriend seemed such a weak way to complete the sentence. Employed by this hospital might be equally true, but it had nothing to do with her wanting to hear about the condition of this particular patient. She thought of the way Jamie had introduced her to Margaret - “my partner, Claire” - and nearly had the words out when Murtagh interrupted.

“She’s to have permission to hear everything Jenny and I will.” His voice was low and implacable. “Now get on wi’ it.”

As the doctor speaks, Claire has to force her expert imagination not to conjure up images to go along with the words. He informs them that Jamie had been injured while fighting a house fire earlier in the evening. He had been ensuring that the third story was empty when the floor had given way - a combination of damage from the fire and heat and likely as not some shoddy construction materials. On several counts he had been lucky: there was no fire in the area he fell into on the first floor; his mask had remained miraculously intact and his oxygen supply had flowed steadily; he fell or managed to twist himself so as not to land on his back, where his oxygen tank would likely have become the enemy, his bodyweight slamming the unforgiving, life-giving metal with extra force into his spine.

For all that he was lucky, it doesn’t mean that his injuries aren’t significant. He has several fractured ribs, and a broken arm which will require surgery. He had lost a significant amount of blood from the break - the rest of his crew hadn’t been able to reach him straightaway, needing to locate him and then fight through the fire in the surrounding rooms - and the surgeons are going to be operating as soon as they can in the hopes of repairing his spleen.

But the most significant issue is that he isn’t actively responding to stimuli, and while the imaging they were able to take of his brain doesn’t reveal large-scale trauma, the doctor can’t make guarantees about when he might wake up - or even if he will wake up at all.

They aren’t moving him to Inverness, she realizes, not because they think they’ll be able to care for him well enough here, but because they think that the outcome will likely be the same regardless of where he’s treated.

While Jamie is in surgery and before Jenny has arrived, she organizes emergency leave. Already her response feels rote when people give her their apologies.

Taking leave is the right thing - she can’t imagine doing otherwise, not when she can barely focus, when every page over the intercom has her snapping straight with tension even when she’s sitting at Jamie’s bedside staring at his continued stillness with her own eyes. Time off means that she can sit and speak with others who love him, hear stories of his childhood from Jenny and Murtagh and Ian, listen to his colleagues from the firehouse telling her staunchly that Jamie has returned from worse than this, share her own stories of Jamie, brave and loving and heedless. It means that she can be there watching the monitors, gently exercising his joints, asking questions each time the doctors examine him and ensuring that the nurses are taking the care with him that she would.

Geillis comes up to see her, bearing a cup of tea which Claire knows is a personal herbal blend rather than anything store-bought; after she leaves, Claire finds more sachets tucked in her purse, smelling of chamomile and rose and lemon and holy basil. Joe visits too, bringing bags of takeaway which she knows are more appetizing than the hospital food even if she can’t entirely register the difference just now. He introduces himself to Jamie’s family, squeezing her shoulder and telling her that he’s looking forward to meeting Jamie under other circumstances soon. She’s talked about them to each other so often that she hadn’t even realized they’ve never met. Her friend Louise, who works in publicity for the hospital, breezes in periodically, whipping open the curtains and chattering about her day; sometimes Claire actually summons a smile in response.

Claire even spots Mary Hawkins hovering outside Jamie’s room the next afternoon. When she motions her inside, Mary looks sadly down at Jamie.

“He was always k-kind to me,” she says softly, and Claire doesn’t know whether to be warmed by her words or inflamed by her use of the past tense.

She has no such indecision the afternoon Laoghaire shows up. As soon as she sees that blonde hair at the back of the group from the firehouse, everything inside of her sharpens and turns vicious.

“Get her out of here,” she spits at Rupert, eyes on Laoghaire the entire time. She knows that she had nothing to do with what happened to Jamie, but the idea that she might be here while he lies helpless and unaware is unbearable. “Get her out before I drag her out myself.”

Laoghaire huffs and looks around at her colleagues, their shuffling feet and averted gazes. She leaves on her own. Claire finds that her fingers are stiff and sore from clenching into fists, her palms showing neat nail marks. When she turns, she catches Murtagh’s eye and he gives her a nod - appreciation for what she’s done to protect Jamie, reassurance that she won’t be alone in keeping Laoghaire away.

On the third day, Jenny requests a visit from the chaplain, although she insists with a fierceness which borders on feral that it is for prayer only, because Jamie would appreciate it, and she will throw the priest bodily from the room if she catches even a hint of last rites. But Father Anselm, when he arrives, is a peaceable older man whose presence seems to allow everyone in the room a bit of space to breathe. He recites a prayer aloud, his voice quiet and sure. Claire bows her head and says her own sort of prayer, the one her bones know: Please, Jamie. Please.

She wakes from a strange dream - she had been trying to convince Jamie to row her across the ocean even as he complained that he would be seasick - and finds that she’s fallen asleep in one of the uncomfortable teal chairs by Jamie’s bedside. It’s barely gone seven, and Jenny is awake beside her.

Claire clears her throat and readjusts herself. The readouts from the monitors are the same, the beeping continuing at a steady pace. In some place in her mind, she knows that she’s hungry, but she can’t seem to force herself to act on it.

“The first time Jamie brought ye to Lallybroch, I didna know what to make of it.”

Looking over at Jenny, she finds that Jamie’s sister has not moved her gaze from his sleeping form. Her words are deliberate, however, no unconscious or hypnotized babble.

“He’d never brought someone home before. I dinna even think he’d ever truly dated anyone seriously enough to think about doing it. And then he phones, saying he’s bringing you along, blatherin’ on about you being his friend when anyone with half an ounce of sense could tell he was already in far deeper than that.”

Since the first night we met, Claire recalls him saying, but she keeps quiet.

“And I should have seen that as a blessin’ - after the fire, it sometimes seemed as if he’d given up on finding love for himself - but Christ, Claire, I’ll tell ye, I didna even trust that he had enough experience to be able to judge the sort of attraction he felt. What if he was just bewitched by his cock, or by that lovely arse of yers?”

Claire huffs in amusement despite herself, shutting her eyes; she knows that it isn’t close to her usual laugh. “He is rather fond of that regardless,” she says softly, choosing not to mention that Jenny, who married a childhood friend and hasn’t moved from the community where she grew up, doesn’t exactly have a leg to stand on in terms of experience; she knows that Jamie will always be Jenny’s younger brother in her eyes.

“Aye, and I’m certain he was none too subtle about it. As much as I liked ye, I couldna stop myself from’ if you were having him on, precisely, but that you might not realize that he didn’t have practice guarding himself or his feelings, that he didn’t know how to be casual. I worried that you might, wi’out even knowing it, break his heart.

“And now I want to go back and shake myself by the shoulders for not seeing the way you fit with him, and the way he does wi’ you.” Jenny sits up straighter, that iron spine of hers showing itself as she apologizes. “I didn’t understand that he’d found himself a true partner, the same way I had, the way our parents always wanted for us. But now seeing you sitting here all this time, I ken I was wrong - and I’m so glad for it, Claire. He’s lucky to have you by his side for all that comes.” Her chin juts determinedly. “He’s lucky now, and he will be luckier when he wakes to see you.”

Claire reaches over. She takes that small, skilled hand. “Well, we’ll simply have to be here for each other until he does.”

Even with all the people around, the moments of distraction, Claire finds that she still has too much time free, allowing room for her mind to wander over the future which might be dying before her even now. With each day that Jamie doesn’t wake, she feels the thoughts of finding a house together, of planting a garden and living out long and simple lives loving each other, diminishing, a shroud darkening the idea of what their family might one day look like.

There are dreams which only bloomed within her when he came into her life, and she has to bind the bright memory of that feeling tightly around herself, because the core of who she is now will wither without it.

She can’t bring herself to return to Jamie’s flat, instead lying restlessly in her own bed, unable to avoid the way her home smells like him now too but unable to take comfort in it either. At her request, Jenny brings a few items from his place, where she has been staying: the spider plant to put beside his hospital bed, the blanket that Jamie and Ellen had knitted together when he was a boy. She finds the Wilson Odyssey too, just where Claire had remembered it.

That evening, alone in the room with Jamie, Claire brushes her hand over his forehead, stroking across it with her thumb, feeling the warm, dry skin and the muted copper roots of his curls. She bends close and presses her lips to his hairline. “Don’t tell Maura that it’s not The Tempest,” she whispers and, sitting back, she begins to read.

“‘Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost…’”

When she does force herself away from Jamie’s room, the familiar hallways of the hospital seem strange and too bright. She finds herself quizzing herself over whether this plant or that broom cupboard has always been there or if they’ve somehow appeared while she’s been shut away.

Jenny had promised to sit with Jamie when she’d forced Claire out to “stretch those legs for a wee while,” and Claire knows that she’ll keep her word. Nevertheless, as she makes her way out through the corridors to the courtyard, she has to force herself to keep walking; somehow her mind has become convinced that disaster will strike the moment she takes her eyes off of Jamie.

“Nurse Beauchamp.”

She turns automatically at the name, before she has even truly registered who is speaking: Assistant Director Bain, his usual somberness somehow seeming affected as he approaches her.

“If I might have a brief word?” he says, gesturing to the doors she had been about to step through.

She thinks she actually spots a touch of a smile, just at the corner of his lips - not an attempt at comfort or encouragement, but a thing which lightens his mouth with triumph. Unprepared as she is for whatever he has in store, there is little she can do but meet it. Selecting a bench, open to the mild, gray day, she seats herself, straight-spined, and allows him to sit next to her.

“Naturally, I must first offer my condolences on behalf of the administration for what has happened to your...partner,” he says, with all the warmth of a discounted greeting card.

Flatly, Claire responds, “Thank you. Although as I’m certain the doctors will have told you, he is not actually dead.” She leaves the words dangling, pointed and slightly awkward, waiting to hear what he will say next.

“Yes.” He tips his head ponderously. “My understanding is that you’ve chosen to take an indefinite leave to oversee his care - commendable, of course. However, you must recognize the difficult position that puts us in, forced to make schedules without knowing when we can rely on ye, your fellow nurses stretched to their limits to make up the difference. ”

All Claire can see is his rage at having been thwarted once before, recrudescent now, flaring behind his pious words, his guise of professionalism and concern. Her mouth twists with her matching anger, but she knows that it’s muted with exhaustion, with worry for Jamie. Where a few weeks ago she would have been spitting fire - and had been - at the prospect of Bain trying to get her out, she simply doesn’t have the energy to prioritize this just now.

“Fuck’s sake,” she says softly. A tension headache is beginning to tendril out from behind her eyes. “So you’d like me to simply resign, is that it?” The words bubble up without her truly willing them to. “Fine. Fine, I’ll—”

“Wheesht! Dinna say another word now, hen.” Claire turns to see a round-cheeked, round-bodied middle aged woman standing from a bench a short way down the path and starting to hustle her way over. Without apologizing for eavesdropping, she plants herself in front of their bench and says, breathless but still half-shouting, “Shame on ye, Timothy Bain! Bullyin’ Nurse Beauchamp about her job when she's been here at all hours taking care of her poor laddie - and him injured in the line o' duty, and the provost's nephew besides. I tried to give ye the benefit of the doubt when my Laoghaire told me about yer twisting her words to try to come after poor Claire here, but now I see that 'twas no mistake, only power-madness and—and sheer malice! I dinna ken how they do things where you're from, but here we're a mite more kindly."

Every inch of her, from her fists, one still clutching some knitting project in progress, to her head of frizzy curls, trembles as the woman Claire realizes must be Mrs. Fitzgibbons draws herself straight. "Well, perhaps yer people are kinder than you are, but then they'd be as ashamed of yer behavior as I am."

Bain stares for a moment, startled into stillness, before starting in an oil-slick voice, "Madame—"

"I ken persistence is usually a virtue, but there are exceptions to every rule."

Claire shifts her attention to where Geillis has appeared on the other branch of the path, coming from inside, likely drawn by Mrs. Fitz's voice. She has her bag draped over one shoulder, and she is redoing her high, smooth ponytail. She is also not alone. "Going after Claire again? Just now? Poor form, and foolish to boot."

"Nurse Duncan, you are, if you'll recall, already in a tenuous position yerself," Bain says sternly. "And I don't believe that this private conversation is any of your business."

"If you're t-trying to fire Claire, it's all of our business." To Claire's surprise, it's Mary who blurts it out, shrill and seemingly too quick for her brain to check. Her own wide-eyed shock is evident for a moment before she breathes deeply and adds in a surge, "I think that you'll find that I'm not in a tenuous position at all, and that's thanks to Claire. There isn't a b-better nurse anywhere, so—so if you're going to try to sack her, than you'll have to do me too." She clenches her jaw as she finishes, still looking a bit taken aback by her own boldness, but doesn't move to retract her words. Claire almost wants to smile at her, the way she does when Mary gets overwhelmed on the job, but she's too shocked herself.

And then Joe is elbowing forward through the crowd, and saying, "That goes for me too. I don't think I want to work at a place that would can someone with Claire's healing hands because she needed a hand for once in her life." His voice, its atypical accent and rallying power, seems to echo through the courtyard, and everyone around is watching as he unclips his hospital badge and holds it out to a thin-lipped AD Bain.

"Now, see here, man—"

"Aye, ye'll have my resignation along wi' his," says Alice McMurdo. Her badge, when she removes it from her uniform, is clearly decades old, but she holds it out with a firm hand. "Ye think there's ten people here who Nurse Beauchamp hasna helped as a colleague, or a nurse? Whose family she's no' helped?"

And indeed, all around them, Claire's coworkers, and even those she has only traded smiles with - the man who runs the café in the mornings and the lady who brings the book cart around on the upper wards - are pushing forward to speak up too.

Bain looks over the crowd, hands clenched in his lap. Expression twisting, he demands, "Why have you even come out here? Do we not have a hospital to run?!"

"It's the shift change," says Claire quietly from beside him. “Didn’t you know?” She catches eyes with the nurse who always makes small talk with Jamie when she comes in to note his vitals, and with the security guard who she’ll bet anything is related to Rupert and the rest of the MacKenzies. Behind them, she can see visitors and staff pressing their faces to the glass of the windows, trying to get a sense of what is happening outside.

"Och, this is all a lovely sentiment, but not necessary, I think," says Geillis, holding up her mobile. Her fluting voice somehow carries and catches everyone's attention. "I have my legal counsel on the speed dial, ken, and I'm certain he'd ha' something to say about the whole business. Takin' leave isna illegal last I'd heard."

"You're right about that, Nurse Duncan," comes a voice from the back of the group, and a moment later, Dr. Beaton is being let through. "I believe I told ye the same, Timothy, when you first approached me wi' your...concerns. Nurse Beauchamp is perfectly permitted to take leave as she needs. Trying to intimidate her, however—" He looks over his glasses, and the keen intelligence of his gaze is overwhelmed for a flash by anger. "I wouldn't call that permissible at all."

Bain says, "Sir," barely managing it through his stiffened jaw, but Dr. Beaton shakes his head.

"We'll speak about this upstairs, and perhaps also about the fact that ye’re trying to sack our staff members when we already dinna have enough, and you’ve so reliably informed me that we haven’t the budget for hiring. The rest of ye can get on wi' your days - no sense hanging around at work when you've got things to be done." He turns his gaze to Claire. "And Nurse Beauchamp. We'll be glad to have ye back when you're ready."

"Thank you," Claire says, standing to shake his hand. "When that time comes, I'll be glad to come back. I only hope that some changes will have been made during my absence."

Neither she nor Dr. Beaton look over at Bain, even as he climbs to his feet to tower over them both. Dr. Beaton only purses his lips and says, "There are some changes which have been a long time in coming."

That evening, she rests her cheek on Jamie’s shoulder and tells him the whole story. Even with his eyes closed and chest rising and falling mechanically, she can imagine his reaction: "Ye see, Sassenach? There is a home for you here."

But despite the spark that this afternoon had lit in her chest, she knows that home is lying in this bed, no more responsive than he was the first night she found him here.

The days pass, building steadily until it has been nearly a week. Ian and Jenny both look run ragged, trying to manage the farm and their children and the doctors who are in and out seeing Jamie. Claire helps where she can, walking with Maggie in her arms to soothe her, remembering the medical details, assuring Ian that she’ll take care of Jenny when he has to make the long drive back to Lallybroch, but it never seems to be enough. The things which were once routine seem far and faded now, exchanged for a new reality. She eats her meals in the hospital, sits beside Jenny with little left to say, goes home and tries to sleep. When she can’t, she comes back, relying on the comradery and pity of the nurses to allow her access to him. In the dark and quiet, she reads aloud.

The sounds of the ICU at night - the beeping of monitors, the hush-rush of oxygen, soft-soled steps as the nurses pass in the hallway, her own fingers turning the page - are so familiar that the slightest variation is noticeable. They are in the midst of Odysseus’s trials with Scylla and Charybdis (“Then I ignored Circe’s advice that I should not bear arms; it was too hard for me. I dressed myself in glorious armor”) when the latch of the door releases.

Claire stops reading and looks up; it should be at least another hour before the nurse returns for Jamie’s next vitals check. She stands, and as the door swings open, she is glad that she did, for Colum MacKenzie is framed there.

Dougal has been in before, although only in a group with the others from the station, never as Jamie’s uncle. Claire had heard that Colum mentioned Jamie in some remarks he gave days ago, referring to him as “one of Leoch’s own brave firefighters,” and wishing him a speedy recovery, but the man himself has not come until now. Claire had not even thought to be glad for it. She’d nearly forgotten all the scheming, the strange drama which had only recently seemed of such importance. There are so much greater concerns now.

Demanding to know how he got in is useless - he’s technically family, and the provost besides. “Leave,” Claire says instead. “You aren’t welcome here.”

Colum ignores her, maneuvering himself further into the room, his eyes on Jamie. “Too heroic by half, my nephew. Doesn’t care for himself as he should.” He glances over her. “Sometimes people don’t.”

She knows that she looks far from her best, nothing close to the sharp, intimidating figure she would like to present: she had returned tonight in an oversized sweatshirt of Jamie’s and a pair of leggings, her hair piled haphazardly on top of her head, frizzy tendrils escaping everywhere. Her face is paler than natural even for her, and growing gaunt. Standing before Colum, she must seem fragile and transparent as a woman of glass, a woman of ice.

Glass can cut you when it’s shattered. Ice can let you crack it only to allow you to drown beneath.

“I hadn’t realized that Jamie’s welfare meant very much to you,” she says, cool and pointed. “Nor mine.” She crosses her arms, knowing that Jamie would tell her to be more strategic with this, to hold back and not confront Colum directly, knowing that Jamie can’t help her now and she needs to be enough for both of them.

Colum leans back, fingertips pressed together in his lap. “If ye’re referring to the nonsense wi’ Laoghaire and yer assistant director, I’d agree. That wasn’t exactly wise planning, nor neat the way I’d liked it to have been.”

“That doesn’t exactly strike an apologetic note.”

“And why should I apologize?” She must look startled despite herself, despite what she thought she had prepared herself for with Colum, because he spreads his hands, tilting his face almost in admonition. “You want me to tell ye I’m sorry for wanting this city to grow and to grow its public services along wi’ it, regardless of the quaint village my brother would like it to stay? To say I regret offerin’ the boy an opportunity he wasna canny enough to accept?”

“Oh, so he’s a boy now, when he doesn’t act in the way that suits you?”

Colum overrides her words. “Ye wish me to do some sort o’ penance for giving him a chance to be a part of a vision, for taking steps to guide him, to show him the path possible were he not held back by foolish loyalties?” He sits straighter, looks her dead on. “Ye seem a forthright woman, and too sharp to be appeased by platitudes or false humility, so I’ll apologize for believing that Laoghaire could be trusted to be more clever than malicious and that Bain could be relied upon the way she said - it was my mistake, placing faith in them.”

It is so dispassionate and so far from sufficient that she nearly laughs. Instead she says, “If you’re certain that that was your only mistake, I believe you’re beyond reasoning with, and a fool besides." It isn't difficult to find the disdain to fill the words. "Jamie would have been wonderful at the job you wanted him for, if only you hadn't been trying to force him into it by forcing someone else out, by trying to push me out of his life. But you insisted on treating him like a child or a puppet, some pawn whose life you could manipulate and then have him forget about what you'd done. Well, now he'll never trust you nor want to work by your side. For all your scheming you've gotten nothing."

Colum's gaze drifts over where Jamie lies in the bed, and Claire’s eyes can't help but follow. He does not look like he is simply sleeping as he lies there, not because of the still-healing bruises which his mask left on his face or the stubble which has begun to give him a faintly grizzled sort of appearance, but because of the stern, troubled set to his expression. Every time Claire has slept beside him, he has worn, at least faintly, a smile.

"Aye, I have gotten nothing from it," says Colum. He gives a vaguely regretful sigh. Claire turns back in time to see him shake his head, as if he hasn’t true sadness to spend on the situation.

"Leave," she tells him, iron-cast. "Get out." She sounds fiercer this time, even as her voice breaks on the words, and this time he obeys.

She can’t make herself leave for the three days after that. Colum likely isn’t nefarious enough to actually hurt Jamie - or at least it wouldn’t serve his ends to do so - but she can’t stand the idea of not being there, not watching and knowing that Jamie was alright or at least hadn’t gotten worse.

"Alright, Claire, you'll tell me what's happened," Jenny finally says when Claire doesn't stand to leave with her the first night. She crosses her arms. "Anyone can see you're worn through - I've been watching ye forcing yerself awake each time there's an extra blip on the monitor or someone breathing outside the door."

After Claire finally tells her, Jenny's mouth is held narrow, a blotchy flush coming over her face.

"The bastard willna dare show his face here again," Jenny says, but even the way she makes it sound like a decree and a threat doesn't stop her from adding, "Shall I stay with ye then, Claire?"

But the evenings, strained as they might have become since last night, are also hers and Jamie’s, and so that night she settles back with just the two of them in the dim room and picks up the Odyssey again.

“Stuck between Scylla and Charybdis indeed,” she remarks to Jamie, and imagines him smiling.

Two nights later, she sits in the same place, the book in one hand, his fingers in the other. She has stopped tensing each time she hears a sound from the hall.

“‘He held his love, his faithful wife, and wept,’” she recites. “‘As welcome as the land to swimmers, when Poseidon wrecks their ship at sea and breaks it with great waves and driving winds; a few escape the sea and reach the shore, their skin all caked with brine. Grateful to be alive, they crawl to land. So glad was she to see her own dear husband, and her white arms would not let go his neck.’”

She lowers the book, one finger keeping her place. The story is nearly at its end. She rests her forehead against his.

“He comes back to her, Jamie,” she reminds him quietly. “After all those years, all the terrible journeying, he comes back. Please, will you—It might take a while, but...don’t forget to come back to me.”

The book is in one hand, a tale of how people and their bonds are changed by separation and experience and simple time, and the way they remain constant and inevitable as well. His fingers are in the other, the familiarly strong, calloused feeling of them telling her his story.

And when they move in her grasp, just enough, just for her, he opens the beginning of the next part.

Chapter Text

In the days after Jamie fully regains consciousness, it seems as if Claire’s senses are all waking up. She feels the delightful nipping beginnings of the autumn weather and the light softness of her sweater against her arms, looks up as she walks to take in the slowly gilding leaves. Ian comes one afternoon with a cake carrier, and when he uncovers it to reveal Mrs. Crook’s cinnamon drizzle, the scent it releases into the air seems so apparent she can already taste it, the sweetness and spice swirling around her tongue.

And then there is Jamie’s voice, hoarse at first from disuse and intubation but growing stronger each day. After hearing it so often over the last months, Claire would have expected that she would have some supply stored up, but instead each time is like the first, her heart catching as he says, “Christ, but that Dr. Ross is a cocksure wee shite, Sassenach,” and “Take Jenny and go for a walk, will you please, mo ghràidh? The pair of ye have barely left the room all day,” and “I love you, Claire. Get some rest - I’ll see ye in the morning.”

Even when he snaps at her, patience frayed from the headaches he now has, or after she and Jenny have united in their refusal to allow him to use his phone after the doctor had recommended limited screen time, or because “I’ve only broken my arm, Claire, I can take myself for a piss wi’out yer hovering!” - even then, seeing his here-ness, having the chance to bite back when he grumbles and is short-tempered with her, there is a gratitude to her frustration which is nearly joy.

She leaves one afternoon to discuss her return to work with her supervisor, then to buy a new bottle of lotion - Jamie’s hands have been dry all through his hospital stay, and even now that he’s conscious she’s continued applying it to his skin, enjoying the look of catlike contentment on his face as she massages it in - and to get soup from Jamie’s favorite takeaway. He’s been grousing about being sick of hospital food, and although she knows she should hold the professional line, he’ll be discharged within the next few days anyway so she doesn’t think it can hurt (and she can rarely refuse him, besides).

He’s been moved from the ICU to a regular bed on a ward, and as she approaches, she sees that the curtains are drawn: one of the doctors must be there. She’s frequently been present during Jamie’s checkups, some of them having even taken place with half the Fraser family underfoot, and has supported him as he sweated and cursed through the physical therapy required for discharge, but it feels rude to simply insert herself into the examination. Taking out her phone, she waits a few feet away, grinning at a meme Joe’s texted her, glancing back over her calendar while they finish up.

“—looks good, and o’ course I’m glad to see those bonny blue eyes open again. Any questions for me now that you’ve the chance?” She recognizes the voice: the orthopedic surgeon, Reynolds.

“How often will ye want me back in for checks, then?” Jamie asks.

“We’ll start off at about two weeks. I’ll do an x-ray, see how you’re healing, but I’m expecting another month or so in the cast overall. After that, straight to physio for you, laddie, and I dinna want to hear about any slacking.”

“Nah, no’ from me.” She can hear the determination in Jamie’s voice, although he seems to grow distracted a moment later, turning squirrely as he adds, “I’m also wondering, well, wi’ the arm and the ribs am I allowed to…?”

Claire shakes her head, holding back a laugh. It’s a fair question, but he sounds so delightfully awkward.

“Can ye have sex?” The doctor actually sounds a bit amused, which is unexpected; Claire thinks of him as a bit of a stodgy bugger, a graying, rotund type who wears tweed vests beneath his white coat during rounds and can be easily imagined smoking a pipe. “Aye, if you’re up for it, though ye’ll want to at least try to be gentle at first - ease yer way back in, so to speak. Ye might need to try different positions than usual. Pay attention, listen to yer body, and obviously stop if it turns painful. I promise ye, it’s a sight better when ye arena worried about jostling yerself or about me shouting at ye for ruining my good work. But that’s just as regards the bones. Ye’ll have to check with neuro as well - yer brain’s had a nice shakeup, and they might want ye to hold back on more...vigorous activity, if ye will.”

“Aye.” She can imagine Jamie shifting uncomfortably as he hastily changes the topic. “And what about work? When d’ye think I can be back on the job?”

“Well, I dinna have a problem wi’ desk work soon as ye can sit comfortably for long periods,” Reynolds starts, but his voice seems to fade in Claire’s ears as the smile fades from her face.

Somewhere in the back of her mind she must have known that he would want to return to work. But for all those endless days of sitting in the hospital, it had only ever been about whether he would wake at all and whether he would even be himself if he did. Since then, she’s been so focused on the gladness and relief, her vision clouded to everything except whatever step comes just next: the next test, the next doctor making rounds, the next time Ian or Murtagh visited. It was even Jenny rather than Claire who had started them making plans for when Jamie was released.

She certainly hadn’t thought through to the part where he would go back to his job, where he would put himself in danger all over again. Perhaps her mind had chosen not to think of it - protection against the worry, against the breaking of her heart.

Few have ever accused Claire of hiding her feelings, but there is so much busyness over the next few days; in all the noise and chaos and preparation, it is easy to overlook the way she’s gotten quiet, how her smiles have turned strained and vacant.

Or, she thinks it is, anyway.

Jamie is discharged on a Tuesday, just over two weeks after he was admitted. It’s a true occasion: doctors and nurses clapping for him as he leaves on his own two feet, practically a parade of family and friends accompanying him home. Jenny has to stand in the doorway of Jamie’s building when they arrive and order everyone to leave, and even then, Hugh Munro pokes his head out of his door as they pass by, grinning and signing well-wishes.

“What if I’d wanted everyone to stay?” Jamie teases as they climb the stairs to his flat, luckily only on the second level. It doesn’t escape Claire’s notice that, although he’s still upright, he’s using the humor to distract from the bit of breathlessness in his voice and the way his hand has clamped tight on the banister she’s never seen him use before. Before she can say anything, she sees Murtagh standing sentinel just behind his elbow.

Jenny rolls her eyes, unlocking the door. “Then you can invite them back tomorrow when I’m gone home, although I think I’m leavin’ ye in quite capable hands. I have the feeling that Claire willna put up with them any more than I would.”

It feels like a lifetime since Claire was last here. Jenny bustles about, throwing the last of the scattered toys back into their basket and ticking off information regarding the meals she’s stored away in the freezer although the reheating instructions are already written down and stuck to the refrigerator door.

Finally Ian, swaying Maggie gently from side to side, says, “Jen, I’m certain that Claire can manage the care and feeding, aye?” and Jenny looks startled, her cheerful relaxation just a touch forced as she says, “Course she can.”

Claire actually starts to wonder if Jenny might convince herself to stay one more night, but by five, Ian has his family shuffled through the door for the drive back to Lallybroch. Murtagh also looks like he might plant himself on the sofa, but Jamie tells him to go home and get some rest - “Easier to fash yerself on my account once ye’ve finally had a proper night’s sleep” - and he does, closing the door behind himself with a look over his shoulder toward Claire.

And then they’re left alone.

Jamie lowers himself onto his usual place on the sofa, head dropping back. “Christ, I’ve barely done a thing all day and I feel as if I’ve run ten miles.”

“Well, your body is still healing,” she reminds him. Her hand reaches automatically to smooth gently over his hair, but she changes directions, going to adjust the heating instead. Facing away from him, she adds, “You went through quite an ordeal - of course you won’t simply bounce back. And there’s not even any reason to stay up. Let me get you something to eat, and then you should get some sleep.”

“All I’ve done is sleep,” he complains. “I’m aging before my time, Sassenach.”

When she returns with a plate of toast and cut up fruit, however, he is already out, just as he was sitting. She knows that the position is terrible, likely to have him waking with a stiff neck, not to mention that he’s taken off his sling so now there’s nothing supporting his casted arm, but she doesn’t rouse him. Instead she sets the food on the coffee table and starts herself on small tasks. She checks the dishwasher, finds it full with the clean dishes from before Jamie went into hospital; somehow after sitting inside for two weeks, they seem dirty again, so she starts a new cycle. Although she knows that Jenny probably changed the sheets on Jamie’s bed already, she takes them off to wash anyway. She decides to add the bath towels to the basket, catching sight of her face in the mirror then looking away, turning on the tap and rinsing her hands and face instead.

She had forgotten that Jamie’s hand soap smells of lemons. For some reason she has to force back tears at the realization.

Returning to the sitting area, she leans against the opposite arm of the couch, curling her feet up beneath her and picking absently at the neglected food as she watches the even rise and fall of Jamie’s chest, the familiar relaxation of his features in true sleep. The smile she had been missing while he lay unconscious is there now.

Finally, the room fully dark, she stands and makes fresh toast, gently shakes his shoulder until he opens his groggy eyes. He manages to eat a decent amount before she helps him get ready for bed, but he’s too tired and, she suspects, in too much pain to speak much. He swallows a pill this time, and is asleep again within moments.

She takes the wingback chair in the corner, starting her vigil once more. The windows are partially uncovered, allowing her yellow-lit flashes of him: the cheeks which have been filling out once again, the negative of his hair on the pillow, the sketches and scribbles his nephew has added to his cast.

Although she intends to stay alert, she soon finds herself dozing; it’s only when Jamie startles awake that she does as well.

“Are—” She has to clear her dry throat. “Are you alright? Are you in pain?”

“Nah.” His voice is tight, though, and he seems to rest himself back against the pillow with caution. “Nah, only a dream.”

He glances at the clock, which reads a quarter to six. He looks back toward her, seems to actually focus on her this time, taking her in.

“Ye didna come to bed, Claire?”

She tries for a little laugh, pushing her hair back behind her ears. “No, I—I made the mistake of getting comfortable here.”

“Dinna lie to me, please.” He says it with poise, almost a polite request, but the nighttime quiet makes it harsher. “You’ve no’ been yourself for days now. Will ye tell me what the matter is so that I may fix it?”

“Perhaps it’s the sort of thing which can’t be fixed.” Her own voice is colder than she meant it to be, but she doesn’t apologize; it’s honest, at least.

“And what d’ye mean by that?” He shakes his head, jaw clenched, as if trying to clear the fog from his mind. She wants to tell him that he should rest, that he needs to simply go back to sleep, that they’ll speak in the morning, or later tomorrow, or never. But he has sat himself up again, his face angled toward her even in the darkened room, and she swallows, the words simply escaping from her.

“You might have died, Jamie. You nearly did. You could have so easily shattered your spine, or been burned to death before they were able to get to you, or simply been brought to the hospital and never woken up again.” Her voice does not break, but it goes shallow on the words. She presses her palms over her eyes for a moment. The darkness forces into focus the even fall of his breathing, the reality of the faintly remaining raspiness, but also allows her mind to dwell on the images she’s conjured. She pulls her hands away, sets them in her lap.

“And you still want to go back,” she says softly. She forces herself to face him. “You would go back to work despite all that’s happened, and how can I ask you to do otherwise? How could I make you give it all up when it’s your calling?”


“No, don’t say any—”


He has shoved back the duvet, started to push himself shakily to his feet. “Jamie, stop,” she says, rising from the chair and taking frustrated steps toward him. He’s managed to stand by the time she’s reached him, and she places a palm on his chest, intent on pressing him to lie down once more.

He lifts her hand, holding it delicately in his.

“Will ye stop being stubborn for a moment and listen?”

It’s a poor start, but he takes in a breath, the sort she recognizes as preceding speech-making, and she finds her breath falling into rhythm with his.

“Claire. Ye ken already that you are mo ghràidh, my love.” He ducks his head and kisses her smallest knuckle. “Ye are mo chridhe, my heart.” A kiss to the next knuckle, and the next as he adds, “Mo Sorcha, my Claire, the light of myself.” His thumb rubs across the back of her hand in absent, contemplative sweeps. He looks into her face, and she feels he can see it better than the dim light and the cloudiness of the pain medication should allow. “There are many other things that ye are to me as well, so many that I hope you will become in the years we have together.” He looks at the last knuckle for a long moment before he lays a kiss on it as well, perfectly gentle. “But above all ye are mo bheatha, my life, and if this is the choice that allows me to keep that, to keep you, then I will not hesitate to make it. So, aye, if ye canna reconcile wi’ it, I’ll leave the job.”

“But I can’t ask that of you,” she says, setting her jaw against tears.

“Ye aren’t askin’, I’m offering—”

“And you wouldn’t be doing that if I hadn’t said something.” She starts to pull her hand away but he holds fast, gathers the other into his grasp too, and she lets him; more than anything she wants to collapse against him, to be pulled tightly into his chest and have him tell her that these troubles are nothing to worry over, that they’re small and easily remedied, that they’re already gone.

It would fix nothing.

“I don’t want to force you from this thing that you love. I don’t want to be apart from you. But I don’t know that I can stand to get a call like that again, to sit by your bedside and wonder if each breath is going to be your last, and as long as you’re in the job, you can’t guarantee that something like this won’t happen again.”

He looks down at their hands, still joined together. “Ye’re right, I canna promise such a thing.” There’s a beat before he brings his eyes to hers, weight in every word. “And if that’s how ye’re thinking, I think ye should go.”

“Go?” It is as if the syllable is foreign to her, another language, as if it has some new and secret meaning which she can’t comprehend. “I can’t go. Where would I—? You’re hurt, Jamie, you’ve only just—”

With something like a laugh breathed through his nose, he says, “I willna die only lying here in my bed. It’s nearly time for Murtagh to be up anyway. I’ll sleep, and call him if I need help.”

“You won’t call him,” she says roughly, as if this is the most important thing. “You’re too damned stubborn to do it, and you think you’re invincible.”

“Aye, I am stubborn, which is why ye’ll see that there’s no swaying me and listen: I’m sending you home now, Claire.”

“But why? Why would you do such a thing?”

“It’s because I love you that I’m doing this. Being here, it’s clouding yer mind, yer judgement. You’ve painted us into a corner, left us wi’ no way out. I’ve told ye my choice: I am yours, with the job or no. Now it’s your turn to make yer choice, one ye can bear, one which might hold for years to come, and you must do it away from wha’ever distractions you might conjure here.”

He kisses her hands once more, then releases them both, stepping back until he can’t anymore. He sits down on the mattress, head bent.

“Go now, Claire. I’ll be waiting if that’s yer choice, but please, you must go now.”

And, tearing with every step, she does.

The journey back to her flat takes forever. She keeps stopping - gazing blankly around his sitting room, wondering if he might one day find the passage she’d marked in Henry V and puzzle over who could have left such a note there; waiting frozen outside his door until she hears someone come onto the upstairs landing, likely on their way to work; standing on the front stairs, nearly able to count how many steps it would take to get back to him, half-believing he will rush out and find her here and say it was all a mistake - and having to convince herself to start again. She texts Murtagh from the street, not bothering to find the right words; she doesn’t believe that Jamie will ask for help until it’s desperately needed, and she doesn’t want him to wake up alone. Arriving at her own building, climbing the stairs, fumbling for her key, collapsing into her stale’s all a blur.

Her return to work isn’t scheduled for another two days - she’d assumed she would need the time to get Jamie settled. But she wakes mid-morning, in time to call to see if they might need an extra pair of hands for the afternoon shift, knowing that they always do. There’s no reason not to, after all, and she wants to be forced to think about something else.

Leoch is a small place. It isn’t only her colleagues who beam and congratulate her on Jamie being well enough to go home, but her patients as well. No one seems to notice how stiff her smiles are, how rote her thanks in response to their well-wishes. She is glad that Joe isn’t working today, or Geillis; she thinks they would see through her.

Even when there’s nothing to remind her, she can barely seem to focus, the work doing little to truly pull her mind away from her emotions. She remembers that first night she met Jamie, when she was trying to use work as a distraction from making a decision about Frank. The comparison of then and now seems nearly laughable. At the time, she had been able to put orderly words to her feelings - sad, confused, frustrated - to think through the options and figure things out. In some ways, she had already known the choice she would make, she just had to adapt to the truth of it.

Now, trapped in thoughts of never again hearing Jamie’s bleary, sputtering “Christ!” when he stubs his toe in the night, of forgetting what he smells like, just him, his skin, of missing being called Sassenach in all those tones Jamie has found for it, of having already made her last memory of feeling him move above or within or beneath her, of not getting the chance to see him waiting in his kilt at the end of the aisle, never raising children with him or growing old at his feels as if her organs are being carved out, as if she has lost the memory of breath, too.

It’s so strange. Both times she fell in love, it didn’t feel like a choice. With Frank, it seemed like they just found themselves together, and it had been so easy, so sensible in some ways, that she assumed it was right: he'd spotted her in the courtyard at the university and recognized her, invited her for a drink in honor of her uncle. She'd blinked and they were together, blinked again and they were married, lost focus for a moment and years had gone by.

There was none of that sleepwalking daze with Jamie. She’s felt awake at every minute, but with edges of a dream, as if something was telling her that it had already been spelled out, foretold, she didn’t need to worry about the details. She could just savor each moment as she and Jamie met their future together.

But that future can so easily include more danger. How can she force the choice on some burgeoning self, sentence that other Claire to sitting another vigil or standing by a graveside? Perhaps in taking on the pain now, she is leaving that version of herself only peace.

She sleeps again when she gets home. There are texts waiting on her phone, she could call Murtagh to ensure that nothing’s gone wrong, might at least have eaten something, but she can’t bring herself to do anything else.

It’s still dark when she wakes, staring for long, dazed moments at the ceiling. Finally she stands, wraps herself warmly, and climbs up onto the roof.

Her gardening things are all gone, the autumn chill already settling. She and Jamie had laid them into storage together weeks ago when there was still warmth in the air, speaking of next year. Now she sits alone on the hard, empty rooftop and misses his scent and his strength and his laughter.

She stays there for a long while. Then she brings herself to her feet and walks down to her car and begins to drive.

Two hours later, she parks in front of Lallybroch.

It is Ian who answers the door at her knock, listing and foggy-eyed.

“Claire?” He seems to come to himself a bit when he sees her there, opening the door wider and gesturing her in although he is still clearly half-asleep. “What’s happened? Where’s Jamie?”

“He’s fine.” She swallows, then reiterates firmly, for herself too. “Jamie’s fine. But I needed to—I have to speak to Jenny.”

“Jenny?” He repeats it as if he isn’t quite connecting the sound of the name to his wife, likely still sleeping upstairs. But he looks Claire over and, without further questions, says, “Aye, I’ll fetch her. Come up to the study.”

She follows him up the stairs, feeling shakier from his kindness, his immediate trust in her. They split off from each other at the top - she knows the way on her own by now - and it strikes her that losing Jamie will mean losing all of them too, all of this, the home and family in which she was actually beginning to fit. Without Jamie there will be no more weekend trips to Lallybroch, no conversations in the kitchen with Ian, spangled with good-humor and understanding, no laughing guesses as to whether wee Jamie will end up closer to his mother’s height or his father’s, or introductions of, “This is my goddaughter, Maggie.” She will be without Jenny’s protective, sharp-tongued alliance, the sisterly fabric of her.

It truly does strike her, in the soft place between her ribs.

She’s still reeling from the thought when Jenny enters, pulling a cardigan around herself. For the first time since Claire has known her, she sees Jenny without her hair up; even when she was giving birth, it had been twisted into a bun. Now, while not loose, it is in a thick braid which lies over one shoulder.

“What’s happened?” she asks, an unconscious echo of her husband, loud enough to cover the ticking of the mantle clock which had been Claire’s only companion. “Ian says Jamie’s well, so what are ye doing here, Claire, and in the middle of the night?”

She crosses her arms, eyes hard. Her voice is cold, moved past concern, but seems to hold something else at the core: betrayal, Claire realizes. Because she finally trusted her brother with someone outside of their family, and Claire left. She let her down.

Claire takes a seat on one of the sofas without being directed. Jenny strides over to sit opposite, back straight.

“Well?” she demands.

Claire can’t help but remember the two of them sitting here just after Maggie’s birth - wee Jamie on the floor by their feet, Ian exhaustedly delighted in fatherhood, Jamie warm by Claire’s side - as they’d asked her to be godmother.

“I ken that you’ll be around with us for a long while yet,” Jenny had told her. The thought of the words makes it hard to speak, but Claire tries, lacing her fingers tightly.

“I need to know,” she says. “I need to know how you can bear it, Jamie doing what he does. I need to know how you can manage with the idea that he’ll get hurt and you can’t do anything to stop it. That one day you might be told he’s already gone without a chance to say goodbye.”

It seems that something has, for once, struck Jenny Fraser Murray silent. She stares at Claire, her lovely blue eyes wide - those same eyes that Jamie has. In the quiet, the sounds of Ian in the hall, of his hand turning the doorknob and his footsteps entering, are overly apparent. He walks over to Jenny, holding Maggie against his shoulder.

“She was fussing - it’s time for her to eat again,” he says, handing the baby over to his wife, who accepts her with automatic hands. Without excusing herself to Claire or even seeming to take much notice, she lifts her shirt and allows Maggie to latch on. Ian gives a tiny smile and leaves again, shutting the door.

Claire wonders at the whole of it; she had watched Ian bottle-feeding Maggie more than once while they waited in the hospital with Jamie. Then she sees the way that Jenny’s hand runs over her daughter’s hair, how she repositions the small, warm body even closer to herself, and knows that it is more for Jenny’s sake than Ian’s that he would bring the baby here.

It is another minute before Jenny begins to speak, eyes cast downward even as she does, watching as her finger strokes delicately over the crest of Maggie’s ear. “The first time Jamie was hurt, I’d only just found out I was pregnant. We were going to tell him that night when he arrived home. Instead we got a call from Dougal. And ye’d think that between it all - talking to the surgeons and hearing about degrees of burns and percentages of survival, how sick and tired I was from the first trimester, planning my own father’s burial and trying to keep Lallybroch running wi’out him - ye’d think that I’d have been exhausted at the end of the day. I was, dinna think otherwise, but I couldn’t sleep, because every time I tried, I pictured just how close I came to losing my brother.

“And so, months on, when he was healing well and started talking about going back to work, I told him he wasn’t allowed. I forbade him to do it, told him to find something else, for I couldna stand by and let something like that happen to him again. And when he told me that I would have to become accustomed to the idea because the service was what he was meant for and it was going to happen, I stopped speaking to him.”

She shakes her head, mouth twisted as she brings her eyes to meet Claire’s. “For the rest of my life, I’ll live with knowing that I gave my son his name in pain and anger, not as a tribute but as if I was telling my brother that he wasna needed, that he could be replaced. I took from my husband the chance to have his best friend at his side for our son’s baptism, for so many of his firsts. I left Jamie alone for months, cut him off from his family when he needed us, when I ken well that he’ll always need us.

“It was Ian who brought us back to each other, and Murtagh. Jamie and I, we’re both stubborn Frasers to the end and wouldn’t have done it on our own. And I’m grateful to my dying day that I married a man with patience enough to put up with us, because when I did get Jamie back, when I watched him walk through the door of our home and hold his nephew for the first time, I knew that I didn’t want to be parted from my brother again. It was a grave mistake to try to force him to leave the job, for he wouldna do it, and I decided I’d have to learn to live wi’ it, because I didna want to get another call and find I’d missed out on the time I could have had only for my pride.”

“So you understand then,” Claire says. “You understand terrifying it can be to imagine having him in your life, picturing him at every milestone, there for you to speak to whenever you wish, and then to realize that a foot placed wrong or—or a moment of bad luck during the course of an ordinary day could take that away from you without any warning - could take him away.”

Soberly, Jenny says, “Aye, I understand it. But I’ve realized I’d rather live wi’ the fear of what might be than live with the certain regret which would come from not having him in my life at all. So I’ll ask that ye think long and hard about whatever choice you make, Claire, for Jamie’s a firefighter, through and through, and the fear of lovin’ him as he is doesna go away. Ye’ll need to decide whether that’s something you can live with.”

For a moment there’s only the sound of the clock, ticking calmly and without pause. Then Claire says, barely louder than the rhythm of time, “He offered to quit. He said that if it came down to it, if I couldn’t stand to have him stay, he would leave the job. But I don’t know if he was only saying that to stop me or if he’ll wish he hadn’t made such a choice down the line, and I couldn’t stand to make him unhappy for my sake.”

Jenny freezes in the act of coaxing Maggie to her other breast. For a moment she focuses purely on the task, even taking care to move her braid to her opposite shoulder so it doesn’t brush against the baby’s face or get in the way of her chubby, drowsy fist.

“Ian was meant to go to university, you know,” she says finally, for no reason Claire can fathom. “The military first - Murray men have served as soldiers for generations - but then he would have gone to Glasgow or Edinburgh. Only there was an accident in training, and he lost his leg. And though I’d known him all my life, it was only when he came back here to recover that we started looking at each other in that way.”

She fills her lungs and drains them slowly. Claire doesn’t interrupt.

“And so I asked him once, did he wish that it had never happened. Did he wish he’d gone straight to study instead, or even that he’d actually gone overseas. And he said to me—” Jenny swallows, her voice dropping a little, so careful; it is terribly clear that these are words she has thought over many times and keeps close to her heart. “He said, ‘How can I regret the way things unfolded? How can I regret the life we’ve built, and our family? How can I regret the love of you, Janet?’”

“Ye’d no’ expect it because they’re so different in looks, and Jamie’s so hot tempered, but they’re very alike, my brother and my husband. Loyal to the bone when it comes to those they love, and wi’ the endurance to wait for the things they want. So if Jamie’s offered, he willna take it back, nor wish he’d chosen otherwise.”

Her tiredness is suddenly apparent on her face: not that of a sleep interrupted, but the true exhaustion of compounding strain and worry. “I ken that my brother would—Well, Jamie’d walk into fire for a stranger and has, but I ken he loves me something fierce. But in all that time, when I shouted at him, when I demanded that he find other work, he never once even considered it for me. If he’s said he’ll do it for you, he will and he’ll not look back.”

She faces Claire with her familiar boldness. “So,” she says, “what will you choose for his sake?”

Jenny and Ian refuse to let her drive home again after the conversation has ended (“At this time of night? Havin’ barely slept?” Jenny glowers) so she agrees to stay until morning. She can’t stand the idea of using Jamie’s room, the only one ready, so she stretches out on the sofa. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, she passes out nearly immediately, waking to the bustle of the house.

She stands, neck aching - Jamie had been right about the sofa being murder - and goes downstairs, sitting through a breakfast which is thankfully more chaotic than awkward: she’s surrounded by wee Jamie’s piping voice growing progressively louder to be heard over Maggie’s cranky crying, muffled cursing about the toaster burning the bread, Mrs. Crook prattling obliviously through a story about her grandson...It’s almost enough for her to forget about the silent conversation taking place between Ian’s compassionate gaze, Jenny’s fraught one, and Claire’s own.

“Drive safely now,” Jenny says as Claire prepares to leave. Her tone is cool - not even having been in a similar position can allow her to completely overlook the hurt this all must be causing her brother - but Claire appreciates it, both for the love and loyalty it shows for Jamie, and because she knows how much more piercing Jenny could be if she wanted to.

Jenny’s words from last night circle around in her head all the way back to Leoch, and yet she doesn’t know what she is going to choose until she finds herself driving to Jamie’s instead of her own flat. Walking unsteadily toward the doorstep, keys that she isn’t certain she has a right to use anymore clutched in her hand, she notices that his window is dark. Suddenly she doesn’t care about her rights; the thought of what might have happened to him because she left him on his own presses on her, and she is letting herself in and taking the stairs two at a time without thinking.

But when she unlocks his door, her whispers for him turning into a call, she finds the place empty. She turns in a circle in the middle of his bedroom, trying to think of where he would go. He didn’t have an appointment so soon, and she’s barely left Jenny and Ian; surely they would know if there had been some emergency? Surely they would have told her, even with things so strained, or at least wouldn’t have been able to hide it? He can’t have given into whatever foolishness Angus and the rest tried to goad him into - a survival round at the pub, she assumes - and Murtagh wouldn’t have let him, not so soon.

And then she knows.

Ten minutes later, as she walks up the steps to St. Andrew’s, the long, low stone church where Jamie attends Mass, she’s proven right: Murtagh is sitting on a bench just inside the doors. He’s leaned back, although he doesn’t truly look relaxed; his eyes are too open and sharp.

“In there,” he says as he sees her, nodding toward the sanctuary. His lip curls just a bit, but his tone isn’t any more curt than usual.

Even in the diminished light and despite the large space, she finds Jamie immediately. He is seated in the front pew, head bowed, arms open at his sides, despite the way it must be awkward for the healing one. Her footsteps are quiet and shuffling, muffled in the aisle runner, but his head comes up, alert, and he finds her before she’s reached him.

For a moment after she has slid into the pew beside him, they are quiet. Then he says, eyes ahead, voice low and tenuous, “How did ye guess that I would be here?”

“You told me once that you make sure to come say your thanks whenever you’ve gotten past something dangerous. I didn’t think that you’d had a chance since....”

He makes an acknowledging noise at the way she seems unable to complete the thought. “I wasn’t certain I should come yet anyway.”

She frowns. “Whyever not?”

“The danger hasn’t truly passed.” He angles a look at her. “I could still lose you.”

It is breathlessly difficult to look at him just then. It is impossible not to. Seeing him here, she can’t avoid the scruffy, shadowed look of him, the way he is dappled with still-fading bruises just as he is dappled with the dull blue and green and yellow of the stained glass window. There is still a journey he will have to take toward wholeness once again.

She thinks that he would say he will never be whole if she leaves. She knows he would force her to go if she needed to. She begins to speak.

“I was at yours when I got the call. I was lying in your bed.” She doesn’t know that anyone but she would notice the way his mouth shifts up at the corner, even his stoic listening face, the solemnity of the moment and place, not quite able to battle back his pleasure at the image. She breathes deeply.

“I was under the duvet - I’ve no idea why you need one that thick, you give off heat like a furnace and kick off the covers in about five minutes anyway - and it was so warm, and it smelled like you. And I was thinking, just before I closed my eyes, I was thinking about how I would wake up a little when you came in, how I would be mostly asleep and listening to you shower, hearing the stupid way you hum and knowing that you could have showered at the station, but you don’t like to spend the extra five minutes away from—away from home.

“And I could already feel the way you’d come to bed and you’d be a little damp still and I wouldn’t be awake enough to talk, but I’d feel you put your arms around me and kiss my hair. I was thinking about waking up with you - well, before you - and about how we’d go out to lunch together and maybe walk in the park because the weather was supposed to be lovely. And it was such a good feeling, Jamie.” Her voice goes hoarse and narrow. “It was all such a good, safe feeling. And this doesn’t feel safe.”

He takes in air to respond, but she shakes her head, cuts him off. “I’m not certain what I want. I know that I should want that sort of safety, that assurance. But I was with Frank, who never gave me any cause to worry in that way, and he wasn’t right for me. And even if he had been, there always might have been something which could have taken him away: accident or illness, an infected paper-cut...abduction by aliens looking for an expert in Scottish history.” He breathes out a short laugh through his nose; his face doesn’t reflect it.

“I do know,” she says, deliberation in each word, “that it would destroy me to get another call like that one.” His casted arm seems to startle, muscles shifting on their own. She twists toward him, resting a hand on his thigh, keeping him in place. Their faces are very close now. “I also know that the selflessness of your work is a part of why I love you, and that it would destroy me to hurt you by making you leave the job that is so much a part of you.”

Voice dipping low, she says, “And I know that it would kill me faster than anything to let you go, to try to live my life without you. Or at least it wouldn’t truly be a life, not anymore, not after I know what we have together.”

He holds his lips tightly together for a moment. She can see the tears rising anyway. Finally he says, somehow steady, “There are things I can promise to you: that I will do everything I can to protect you, that I will give to you anything that I can, anything that I am, that I willna leave you if I have any choice in it. I dinna want to make promises to ye that I’ll never be hurt and will always be safe, for I ken I can only try to keep my word on that. But I can promise that I will work as hard as I can to come back to you, always.” Examining her with sober directness, he says, “That and myself is all I have to offer. Is it enough?”

She bends to him, kissing his mouth, and she knows that he must feel her shuddering. She wonders if he realizes why: that she is thinking that she might have missed out on ever kissing him again, that she is settling with the idea that she will live the rest of her life with the knowledge lingering in her mind that each kiss she has from him might be the last.

Even when she pulls away, she only rests her forehead against his, stroking fingers gentle on the sandpaper skin of his chin, his cheek. “I will never have enough of you,” she tells him. “You will always be enough.”

His arm comes around her, binding her against him. He doesn’t feel completely solid the way that he once did, but she can imagine the day that he will again. She lets herself lean into him.

“When you’re ready,” she says, “let’s go home.” He nods. When he rests his cheek against the crown of her head, fingers brushing over her scalp beneath her curls, she can feel his lips moving in prayer.

She knows that the tears which fall into her hair are a prayer in themselves too. She closes her eyes as they wash over her, and lets her own tears be their echo and their answer.

Chapter Text

Normalcy begins to return to them. It is in the small things at first: texting during her workday, debating what to watch next on Netflix, waking up late on a Saturday and taking so long to decide what they want delivered for breakfast that the menu switches over to lunch. And still, there is a brightness even to this, in all its ordinariness. Claire doesn’t believe there is anyone or anything to pray to, but every time she watches Jamie make faces while he talks on the phone with Jenny, every time she comes into the flat to find him moaning about the rugby match, or sets a hand on his back as she moves by him in the kitchen, or wakes in the night to find him breathing evenly beside her, she cannot help but think, Thank you, thank you, always, thank you.

Jamie gets his cast off on a particularly soggy, gray morning during the first week of October - “pure dreich” is his description, glancing absently out the window as they move around each other getting dressed. Claire joins him at the appointment. When Dr. Reynolds automatically asks if they’d like to keep the decorated plaster (“Some do, ‘specially the young ones”) they both decline simultaneously, with equal vehemence. She doesn’t join him at his first physio appointment two days later, but can easily gauge how it went from Jamie’s grunts and long silences that evening. Although he’s been continually exercising his arm in the ways he was directed while the fracture was healing - and, she suspects, in some ways he wasn’t entirely meant to - she knows that he has a long way before he returns to the level of strength and function he’s accustomed to.

He’s not even meant to return to desk work for another few weeks, and being home so much is already wearing on him. She suggests a weekend at Lallybroch, thinking it might put him in a better mood. At first she thinks that it was a mistake. Looking at the barns and fields of the farm only seems to remind him of the things he could once do with unthinking ease. When they admonish wee Jamie after supper to be gentle and avoid the roughhousing he’s always indulged in with his uncle, Jamie only lasts a short, glowering while before he takes himself to bed. He spends a long time speaking quietly to Donas, but refuses to even try riding.

On Sunday afternoon, when the weather is not precisely pleasant but certainly passable, especially in Scotland with the winter coming, they do manage to get everyone out of the house for a walk together.

“I suppose he’s as much of a ray of sunshine when ye’re at home too?” Jenny asks, wry and low. She and Claire are strolling several paces behind Ian and the two Jamies, with Maggie already dropping off in the carrier Jenny has strapped to her chest.

Claire sighs. “It comes and goes, and I’m never certain which version I’m going to get. Sometimes a night at the pub with everyone is what he needs, but sometimes there’ll be a mention of work that will just remind him of the things he’s missing out on and he comes home moody. I can tell he’s thinking that he might never be strong enough to go back.”

“Wouldna be the worst thing in the world, would it?” Jenny says, the words pointed even as she fusses with the little knit cap Maggie is wearing. She hasn’t said anything directly about the last time Claire was here, but there’s a vague layer of coldness between them. Claire feels as if they’ve taken a large step back in their progress with each other, as if those days of it being just the two of them in the hospital had only been dreamed and she is being assessed even more closely than she was the first time she arrived at Lallybroch.

Undeterred, and unwilling to step around it any longer, Claire says, “I made my choice, Jenny, just as you did. He wants to go back to work and I believe he will, but it might take longer than he’s hoping.” She crosses her arms, stares ahead at the road, and admits, “I shouted at him before we left, told him that there was a point where I couldn’t put up with his moods and his...his mourning for something which isn’t truly even gone. It didn’t help. Clearly.”

Jenny actually smiles, light and sideways and true. “The shouting can make ye feel a bit better, though.”

Sometimes Claire thinks that the most frustrating part is that he actually is getting better, stronger, all the time - she can see it, in the way that he moves more easily and doesn’t have to push through exhaustion and shaking muscles at the end of each day. She thinks of the way he had described his journey back after his first injury: “I had learned how once before, so I only did it again.” She knows now that the recovery wasn’t quite as pat as those words. For a moment she wonders if she would have fallen for him the way she had knowing the rocky bits in more detail, but then she laughs at herself; stubborn and infuriating as he can be, there was never a version where she didn’t fall for him.

They have to leave fairly early the next morning, and it’s another breakfast with a side of pandemonium. Claire rocks a sniffly Maggie on her hip as Jenny orders her son to stand still and put on his trousers because swim trunks are not appropriate for school and certainly not in October.

“Come up to the office to help me wi’ something, Jamie,” Ian says over the din, and Jamie follows, partially because it’s Ian asking, who Jamie would do anything for, and possibly more because he wants to get away from the madness.

Jenny has taken the keys and a pouting wee Jamie and driven off to the school, and Maggie is on her play mat lethargically gumming a crinkly book by the time Jamie and Ian return down the stairs.

“Is everything—?” Claire starts, climbing to her feet, but there’s something about the seriousness of Jamie’s face which stops her. He crosses the room toward her and places his hands on her hips, leaning forward to kiss her forehead. She closes her eyes at the contact, then forces them open again; it feels like days since he’s truly looked at her.

“Let me put the bags in the car, Sassenach, and then we’ll be ready to go, aye?” he says.


There’s something a bit straighter in his walk as he goes out to the drive. As she follows him, leaning in the doorway, she notices the way he lifts their bags in, the almost purposeful casualness to it; he is using his left arm, although he’s been generally reluctant to do so outside of physio and his designated exercise time. She suspects that he doesn’t like remembering the weakness where there used to be a simple, constant well of strength.

She senses Ian over her shoulder, Maggie whining softly to herself in his arms. “The two of you were up there for a long time,” she says absently.

“Just long enough,” Ian says, “for me to remind him to pull his head from his arse and celebrate the things he has and will have rather than brooding over what’s still to be done.”

Quirking an eyebrow, she turns to face him. “Apparently it works when you say it.”

“I’ve a bit of experience, ken, and he doesn’t feel a duty to me the way he does to you. He’s a proud man and he wants to be whole for ye, Claire, the way he was. He doesna want to have to seem weak around you. I dinna even think he wants to seem weak around himself.”

“I don’t—” she starts, aggravation tendriling through the words.

“We both know that ye don’t care about that,” Ian interrupts calmly, crooking his knuckle and allowing Maggie to begin gnawing on it. “But it doesn’t stop him from feeling that ye might, even that ye should care about it.”

“So you’re saying I should just be patient and let him set himself straight?”

“No, I’m saying that you should keep shouting at him when he needs to be reminded, but just be there too.” Bouncing Maggie a bit, he adds thoughtfully, “And don’ forget to be there for yerself too. You’ve your own needs, and ye canna simply forget them because Jamie’s are louder at the moment.”

Maggie, apparently no longer willing to be soothed, lets out a cranky sound and begins crying in earnest. “Speaking of louder…” Claire says jokingly. Ian shakes his head, smiling.

“Aye, time for this one to have a wee rest.” He opens his free arm and she leans in to hug him briefly. “We’ll see the pair of ye again soon, I hope?”

“When we can,” she promises.

With a grin, Ian says, “I know a certain laddie who’ll be happy to hear it. He could barely sleep the day before ye arrived, talking about seeing Uncle Jamie and Auntie Claire.”

The warm flash that the name gives her is surprising in its strength. She presses her lips together for a moment. “Tell him and Jenny that I miss them, and that we’ll be back.”

“Course ye will,” Ian says. “Ye canna stay away from family for too long.”

Jamie seemed to have taken Ian’s reminder to heart; he does his stretches in the passenger seat and they talk all the way back to Leoch.

As she finishes parking the car, he puts his hand over hers on the gearshift. “Sometimes I forget,” he says, “how lucky I am. That ye chose to stay, that ye put up wi’ my moods and my poor manners, that I have ye in the first place, no’ to mention my own life. But when I forget, that’s only the luck speaking, allowin’ me to take for granted what’s truly a gift.” He lifts her hand, wrapping his fingers around it. “You’ve given me the gift of yerself, and I do treasure it, Claire.”

She looks directly into his eyes. “Then prove it,” she says simply.

He nods once. “I will,” he tells her, and lifts her fingers to his mouth and kisses them. Briefly, she lets him, then she pulls away.

“Good.” She gets out of the car, and a moment later, he follows.

Claire doesn’t know if it’s the apology or the thought that she isn’t alone, that there’s support and understanding only a phone call away, but she goes around to fetch their bags feeling as if a weight has been lifted from her heart.

“Where do ye think ye’re going?” Jamie asks groggily several days later as she comes into her dawn-lit bedroom wrapped in a towel. She usually showers when she returns from work, but she felt that she needed a bit of an extra boost this morning.

“You know that I have a shift today.” She manages to keep her voice normal as she closes her eyes in a long blink; when she opens them again, they’ve focused enough for her to set off to pull out a fresh set of scrubs.

Jamie levers himself up, resting his arms over his splayed knees. “You can barely stand, Sassenach. Ye’ve been going all hours between work and taking care o’ me. You’re done in. No’ to mention—”

The harsh onslaught of coughing cuts him off; she aims into her elbow even as it nearly doubles her over. Although she doesn’t look at him, she can hear the glare in Jamie’s voice as he says, “No’ to mention that ye coughed yer lungs out in yer sleep half the night.”

“I’m sorry if I kept you up—”

“It isn’t about that, as ye ken well.” He pushes the blankets back and reaches her in two strides, bracing her upper arms with his hands. “You won’t be what your patients need right now, and ye need time to recover yerself, Claire. Call in for the day - especially today.”

Her instinct is to snap back, to refuse anyone placing boundaries or authority over her life; in her experience “why don’t you stay home for now?” was only a breath away from “why not stay home from now on?” But she looks up into the worried blue of Jamie’s eyes, and that, more than the continued storm of coughing she can feel unfurling within her lungs or the shakiness of her muscles, convinces her.

When she next wakes up, it is fully bright out, though wind is bustling through the trees. Despite the cough which still nags, she feels significantly better as she sits up and checks the clock - past noon. She takes a deep, testing breath and scrubs her fingers through her hair, deciding that she’ll see how things go then perhaps switch over from the Night Nurse to the Day Nurse capsules.

“Glad to see you up,” Jamie says from the doorway. She turns to see him holding a tray laden with...well, she doesn’t think that lunch in bed is strictly a thing, but the general concept applies. It’s a mystery where he’s gotten the tray from - she doesn’t think she had such a thing - but he’s more comfortable in her kitchen than she is; in fact, she’s likely to find the sink filled with dishes that he’ll only sometime get around to washing. “I thought it wouldn’t be altogether polite to wake ye on yer special day.”

“Oh, Jamie, this is too much.”

He scoffs. “Soup and a cheese toasty is too much? We truly need to improve on yer cooking skills.”

“Apparently not, when I have you. Anyway, I don’t think a sick day quite qualifies as special,” she comments, rearranging the bed a bit to allow the tray to balance better. He rests it on her lap, bending down to press his lips to her forehead before pulling back to look at her in surprise.

“Dinna tell me—Have you forgotten the date, mo chridhe?”

She picks up the spoon he’s placed next to the bowl of soup. “Of course I haven’t, it’s the twentieth.” The creamy tomato-basil mixture is still steaming, so she stirs it around for a moment before lifting a spoonful, pausing before she puts it in her mouth when she sees his raised eyebrow.

“The twentieth of...?”

“October,” she says, squinting back at him; she’d strongly prefer that Jamie not go suddenly daft, or have some sort of delayed neurological side effect reveal itself. Unless there’s actually some significance to the date…

He grins as the dots connect. “There ye are.”

One would think that turning another year older would at least register, even if she didn’t have big plans. “Christ, I’d completely forgotten.”

“That’s obvious enough. Don’t worry, I’m certain yer colleagues will be alright postponing yer party for another day.”

She groans. “They’ll probably think I’m skiving to celebrate. At least the Asda cupcake variety pack should hold over if they even want to give it to me now.” She sighs ruefully, spooning up more soup. Besides the lovely taste, the warmth smooths down her throat and spreads through her delightfully.

“I’m wounded on their behalf.” Jamie makes a tsking sound. “I’m certain you’ve a place in their hearts such that they sprang for the confetti cupcakes, and they might even buy ye a fresh one tomorrow.” She laughs, and he tosses her another grin before coming to sit on his side of the bed, leaning up against the headboard with his legs in their tracksuit bottoms stretched out in front of him.

“In the meantime, since you’re skiving—” She shoves his shoulder, gently so as not to upset her lunch, and he laughs. “Alright, ye vicious thing, since I have ye all to myself, I thought we’d have a bit of a party of our own.” Seeing where her thoughts are going, he grins but shakes his head, and she can’t help but feel relieved; she actually is ill, not to mention that her teeth are unbrushed and her hair a disastrous nest atop her head, so she isn’t exactly feeling her sexiest. “Maybe wait on that a bit, Sassenach, dirty minded as ye are. No, I meant gifts.”

She hastily swallows the last spoonful of soup, watching as he leans over the side of the bed and pulls a bag that he must have stored there earlier up into his lap. “Oh, Jamie. You didn’t have to get me anything.”

“Och, just a few wee trinkets from the family.” He pulls out the first, a folded piece of construction paper, and waits as she sets the tray at the edge of the bed, flattening out a bent corner before he hands it to her. Opening it, she finds an illustration of what she assumes based on the brown corkscrews coiling around the widely smiling face is meant to be her. Happy birthday, Auntie Claire! reads the neat adult handwriting across the top, while underneath, Wee Jamie has added his own message: I hop yu will com and play wid me agin sun.

“Lad’s captured your likeness in an uncanny way,” says Jamie as his face lightens in laughter.

“And he’s clearly inherited that...what did you call it? A touch of the poet that runs in the family?” She sets it upright on her nightstand, facing toward the bed. “We’ll have to find a time to go see them again ‘sun.’”

When she turns back, he’s looking at her with an aching fondness. “Suppose we will. Now, this one’s from Jenny.”

The small package reveals itself to be a beautifully knitted set of fingerless gauntlets in a muted burgundy.

“Because yer fingers are always chilled,” Jamie explains as Claire runs her fingers over the soft wool. He wraps his hand over hers, thumb running gently over the back, which is indeed cool. “And she doesna want ye thinking that Murtagh’s the only one in the family who can wield a needle or a crochet hook.”

“They’re lovely.” She strokes them one last time before setting them aside as well as he moves to give over another wrapped package. The box within contains a small stack of carved wooden stakes, each with a word engraved on it.

Jamie picks up the one which reads Radish. “Ian had me tell him which plants you’d grown last summer. He’ll add to the collection if you need something different in the spring.”

“This is so—I’ll have to call them tonight to tell them how thoughtful it all is,” Claire says, peering into the heavy bottom of the box to find a small set of gardening tools. She holds up the larger trowel for Jamie to see and he grins as he reads the words Ian had emblazoned on it: Plant lady. Still in the box, the rake simply reads Claire, while the narrower trowel has on it Chosen Fraser. She swallows against the lump in her throat as she sets the box aside.

To her surprise, Jamie says, “This next one is from Murtagh,” before handing her a small box. Inside is something made of burnished wood and metal with blue accents. When she takes it out to examine, she finds that it unfolds into a surprisingly long-bladed, wicked-looking knife. She turns to Jamie with wide eyes.

“Aye, I told him ye might find it a bit overwhelming,” he says, scrubbing the back of his neck. “But he insisted. Said that he doesna like the thought of you coming home after a late shift, walking the streets at all hours wi’out any protection.”

“I don’t know that I could use it well enough to count as any such thing. I’d likely stab myself before I got a hand on anyone attacking me,” Claire says, folding the knife once more and returning it carefully to its box.

“I’ll show ye how to use it one day,” Jamie offers.

“Alright. And for now, at least I can tell that it’s very well made.”

She places Murtagh’s box on top of Ian’s, sparing it one last glance, raising an eyebrow as if it might tip over and spring open once again. It is Jamie’s voice which brings her back, suddenly serious.

“This last is from me.”

Turning, she finds him holding a small box flat in his palm. It’s not wrapped, and the edges of the still-glossy cream cardboard are clearly aging. She glances at his shielded face, tilting her head in slight confusion, before she takes it from him and removes the top with delicate fingers.

Inside is a looped necklace of beautiful pearls. When she holds them in the air before her, she sees that the strand is long, each oblong addition varying slightly in color as they catch the light, and offset by small gold pieces.

She looks back at Jamie to find him already watching her. “They’re beautiful,” she says, surprise at the extravagance emphasizing the truth in her voice. “But Jamie, you shouldn’t have gone to the trouble, not to mention the cost…”

“They didn’t cost a thing, Sassenach. No’ that you wouldn’t have deserved it.” He shifts his focus toward the necklace, eyes flicking over it before he takes the pearls carefully from her and drapes the strand over her head, freeing her hair from beneath with a gentle touch. She can’t help but splay her fingers over it, feeling the lovely smoothness, even as she’s certain it looks ridiculous against the graying, overlarge sleep shirt she’s wearing.

“They belonged to my mother,” Jamie continues, voice low, as he watches her touch slowly over the strand. He brings his eyes to meet hers. “They were a wedding gift to her. Our da gave Jenny her rings, but I got these. To give in turn to someone who was as precious to me as my mother was to him, he told me.”

“Jamie…” It’s all she can say. Once again, he’s stolen her words, stolen her breath. She knows that her eyes look absurdly wide, her fingers still stroking over the pearls.

His eyes fix on hers, broad and direct. “I’ve known for a long while that they would belong to you. They couldn’t belong to anyone else.”

“I’ll treasure them,” she says. “Always.”

When he leans forward to kiss her, she almost lets him. But as they get close enough to touch, her good sense stops her.

“I don’t want to get you sick.”

She feels his laugh against her lips. “D’ye ken, Sassenach, when the choice is between that and not touching ye, I’ll take my chances with a few germs.”

He still maintains, when he wakes up coughing two mornings later, that it was worth it.

Later, when the moment has become a memory, she will think of herself as having been deeply asleep. But that can’t have been the case, because she wakes on the first ring of her phone on the nightstand beside her.

When she gropes for it and finds Angus’s name on the screen, she finds herself back there, trapped in that night of devastating uncertainty. But there is a snapping second, too, where she wonders if none of it ever happened, if the last tearing months had somehow been only a nightmare.

Then she realizes that it’s Jamie’s skin against her bare shoulder, his croaky voice asking, “Who’s phonin’ ye at this hour?” and it rouses her enough to answer.

Angus cuts her off before she’s even gotten her “Hello?” all the way out. “Is Jamie with ye?” he demands. “He isna answering his mobile.”

“Yes, he’s right here,” she says, and before she can explain that Jamie must have left his phone on the coffee table when they’d been watching a film together earlier, Angus says impatiently, “Put him on, then.”

“It’s Angus,” she says, confused and a little put out as she hands the phone over; she turns on the bedside lamp in time to catch the bewildered expression Jamie tosses her along with his greeting into the phone.

She tries to puzzle out what might be going on - Jamie is back at the firehouse, on limited hours and only deskwork, but surely even if he’d been on a full time schedule there couldn’t be anything so urgent as to call when he isn’t working. Jamie’s face is closed, offering no clues, his responses to whatever Angus is saying limited and only half spoken: “Christ...So you’re—...And he willna—...Alright, I’ll be there soon.”

After he’s hung up, he rests the phone in his lap and stares at it until the screen goes dark. Finally he says, “We lost Maura, earlier tonight. The lassies told Dougal - perhaps they thought he’d come help them start the arrangements or at least want to be wi’ them, I dinna ken - but he told them he was working and refused to leave.” He scrubs his hand roughly over his face and through his hair. “Only now he’s distracted, isna payin’ the attention he should, and that’s no’ something you can allow in the one who’s supposed to be in charge of a fire crew. They want me to go over and reason wi’ him before there’s a call and they’re under his command when he doesna have his head on straight.”

“Dougal can be hard to reason with,” Claire points out, watching Jamie swing his legs over his side of the bed and start to dress. After a moment, she does the same. “And I suppose you’ve been elected for the task because none of the rest of them is willing to put their foot down with him?”

Jamie tugs a navy blue hoodie into place; the white lettering of the logo in the top corner has half flaked off, but she can make out enough to figure out that it at one point read “Lallybroch.”

“Perhaps they think I’ve a particular bond wi’ him,” he says, turning to face her with a thin smile. Seeing her searching for her trainers, he says, “You should go back to sleep. You’re working tomorrow, and I dinna need—”

She stands and comes over to him, placing gentle arms around his back, her head finding its familiar place beneath his chin. “I’m sorry about Maura,” she says.

“Aye,” and his voice nearly breaks on the word. His arm comes up, sliding around her in return. He kisses her hair.

“Now let’s go take care of this business with Dougal.” She steps away from him, finding his hand and holding it as she turns toward the door. “I’ll drive.”

Jamie looks through his phone on the way, which shows the expected missed calls from Angus as well as one from Rupert, along with some from Jamie’s cousins. It’s Molly, the eldest, who’s left a message: “Jamie, love, I wish we could ha’ spoken, but I’m glad to know ye’re actually restin’ yourself after everything that happened.” There’s a sigh, and then she returns. “Mam passed tonight, around eleven. She went in her sleep, which would likely as no’ have made her quote Hamlet…”

“‘By a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to…’” Jamie whispers. The streetlight flashes over his face so she can see his own heartache there. She takes a hand off the steering wheel and rests it on his arm for a moment.

“I suppose it’s a blessin’ to ken that she isna suffering anymore, but—” Molly’s voice chokes a bit, leveling only with a pause and a fortifying breath. “One of us will call wi’ the details about the funeral. I love you, cousin. Take care of yerself.”

“Take care o’ myself,” Jamie says quietly, glancing out the window. “Maura raised them too well.”

Claire pulls into the car park attached to the station and finds a spot, turning off the engine. She turns toward him, although he is still facing away. “She put so much love into her girls - into you - and that will continue on,” she says. “That’s a beautiful legacy for her.” Finally he turns, giving another barely-there smile.

“Aye, it is.” He takes her hand in his and presses a kiss to it. Then, his mouth turning slightly more grim, he opens the door and shifts himself to his feet. “Now, let’s deal with the less beautiful part o’ things.”

“—so I canna understand why there’s still spots of rust on it!” Dougal is shouting as they enter through the raised door, red-faced and spitting, practically nose to nose with Willie even though it’s evident that the poor boy is holding back tears. “I only ask for a bit o’ fuckin’ competence and instead I get—” He notices Jamie then, swings around toward him. He sneers. “Och, seems my brave lads felt the need to call in the cavalry. They expectin’ ye to talk me down, Jamie? Have me weepin’ as if I’m on the therapist’s couch?”

There’s a particular nastiness to the way he says it, a digging, man’s man sort of reference to the fact that Jamie was in counseling after the fire which gave him his scars. But although Jamie’s left hand curls into a fist, his voice is calm as he says, “Nah, they asked me to come help pull yer head from yer arse.”

“I’m fine.” Dougal swats a hand through the air. “Go home. Yer delicate self needs rest - and take yer woman wi’ you.”

Claire crosses her arms, ready to step forward, but Jamie only snorts. “Aye, I can see how fine y’are. Shouting and carrying on at two in the morning rather than lettin’ everyone get their rest so they can do the job.” He steps closer, placing himself squarely in Dougal’s sightline. “Or perhaps it’s that ye canna sleep and only want to make certain ye willna be alone with yer thoughts. Wi’ the things that haunt ye.”

For a moment, Claire believes that the words might actually have had some sort of effect on Dougal - he squints briefly as Jamie, opens and closes his mouth, then turns a firm shoulder on him. “I sleep fine. Or I do when the equipment is actually cleaned and put away properly!” His eyes search out Willie once more, though he’s tried to lose himself among the rest. Jamie strides around, still keeping himself as the most apparent target. He jerks his head toward the door, encouraging the rest of the crew to disappear into the bunk area; they need no more prompting, leaving Claire the only one watching.

“I wouldna sleep fine, if it were me,” Jamie says, meeting Dougal’s eyes. “If I thought about the way I’d left my daughters to do what should ha' been my responsibility, if not my privilege, I'd not sleep fine. If I recalled that I was still neglectin’ them when they're hurting, I'd not sleep fine. If I kent—" His throat contracts as he swallows. "If I kent that I'll never again listen to Maura shouting about anti-Stratfordians, that I'll never again taste that shortbread, the only thing she ever chose to bake, or watch her add boxes to the crossword so her answer will fit, or tell a joke and hear that witch's cackle of hers…If I kent truly, in my blood and bones, that I'll never see or speak to her again, that my time's run out, I'd not sleep fine. I'd not be fine."

For a moment, she thinks that Jamie is going to be the one to break, the reality of Maura's death sinking down upon him, the unavoidable guilt that he missed out on seeing her in her last weeks - first unconscious, then recovering. But to her surprise, it is Dougal who blinks first, a tear slipping down his cheek.

"She’s truly gone then," he says, hands loose at his side now. He peers at Jamie as if seeing him from a great distance or after a long while. "I wasted all my time with her, spent it at work or—Well, it's all run out now."

"Ye did. It has," Jamie says, not without kindness. "But that doesna mean there's nothing to be done. Your daughters are grieving. You can try—try to be with them."

He shakes his head immediately. "They won't want to see me."

"Maybe no’. But you can try. For them, and for yourself too."

Jamie steps forward, places a hand on Dougal’s shoulder. "Perhaps they won't want to see ye, perhaps they'll tell you to leave them to take care of things the way you have for years now - and if they do, ye can only accept it and tell them that you'll be there when they're ready. But perhaps they'll open the door to you and you can grieve together." A small smile secures itself across his face. "Whatever happens wi’ them, it'll be a sight better than you bellowing fit to wake the neighborhood.”

“Aye.” Dougal swipes a hand across his face. “Aye. That’ll all get back to my brother, I’d expect. Remind him that he wants me out o’ my job, and then where’ll I be? Canna be a husband or a father or a fire chief—”

“Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself!” Claire bursts out. “You could have been all of those things, you still can be, but you made choices.” She glares at him. “You’re an adult. Choose to make different ones, or stop moaning about it.”

Dougal, taking in the words, looks thunderous. Claire finds her shoulders pulling back in anticipation of him turning his roaring, spittle-flecked fury on her, and she can tell Jamie fears the same, already moving to put himself between them. But then Dougal lets out a sound, a croaking thing that Claire first thinks is crying, then realizes is a sort of laugh.

“Take care o’ this one, Jamie,” he says. “Take care of her better than I took care of my poor lass.” And then he truly is crying, curled in with his arms around his chest, tears streaming.

Jamie gives Claire a long look. “With my life,” he says, a promise in the space between them, before he turns to comfort his uncle in his grief, whether he deserves it or not.

Two of Maura’s daughters, Molly and Maisie, give eulogies at the vigil. Eleanor tries but cannot manage it, only shaking her head when it is her turn, tears dripping down her face onto the page of notes she holds in her trembling hand. A middle aged man with a potbelly and an unexpectedly quiet voice speaks as well, giving a reading of Sonnet 60 and even drawing a chuckle from those gathered as he explains that without Maura they would have been only words to him, so he was glad that he’d stumbled into her classroom all those years ago and been too embarrassed to leave and find the course on the stock market he’d been meaning to attend. Dougal sits stiffly with his daughters and says nothing at all.

Jamie is abstracted as they wait to view Maura in her coffin. Claire does not know what he says when they finally get their turn - his voice is low and her Gaelic comprehension is still minimal - but she recognizes the copy of As You Like It that he places beside her before they step away.

(For her part, Claire whispers her regrets that she didn’t get a chance to know each other better, along with quiet thanks for what Maura did for Jamie.)

When the priest offers the homily at the funeral Mass, it is clear that he knows Maura well, mentioning not only her work and family, but her avid viewing of whatever tennis matches she could find on television, and even some particular advice she offered him on how to increase attendance at services.

The pews are packed. Claire recognizes a good number of the attendees as various MacKenzie relatives: Jenny and Ian are in the back, in case Maggie begins to cry, Colum toward the front, although away from Dougal, with a woman on one side who Claire guesses to be his wife, Leititia, and another who looks enough like an aging version of Ellen Fraser’s wedding portrait for her to be recognizable as Jocasta MacKenzie Cameron. But many more of the mourners are Maura’s friends, her colleagues and students from her years teaching.

Jamie didn’t give a eulogy at the vigil, but Claire can’t help but feel that she’s already heard his. He’s been asked to do a reading instead, delivering his passage from Matthew straight-backed and clear, although Claire can see his bleached knuckles as he grips the lectern. Tib follows him up, singing May the Choirs of Angels in a thin but sweet little soprano, her eyes focused over the heads of everyone in the church.

As they walk away from the burial, Claire secures Jamie’s hand in hers. “She knew that you loved her,” she reminds him quietly. “Even if you weren’t there at the end.”

“I hope so.”

After another few steps, she asks, “Why As You Like It?”

Jamie ducks his head against a touch of a smile. “She liked the comedies more than the histories or the tragedies. She’d always pretend it wasna so, that she didn’t have favorites, but that’s the truth of it.”

“Your set won’t be complete anymore,” Claire points out.

“Well, neither will I.” He takes in a deep breath; emotion, yes, but it’s also apparent to her that he’s tiring, his stamina still not quite returned to its former levels. Thoughtfully he says, “It’s been five years since I lost my father, thirteen since I lost my mother, sixteen since Willie. The grief of it...fades, dulls, but it doesna disappear altogether.”

She nods. “My uncle’s been gone nearly a decade, and there are still times I’ll read an article and think I have to send it over to him, or I’ll smell something - a certain type of tobacco, or old paper - and feel that sadness all over again.”

“I suppose,” he says as they step from graveyard grass to pavement, “being missed like that is the sign of a life well lived.”

“A life well loved,” Claire amends. “Which is a beautiful thing to have, and to hope for.” She leans gently against him, and when he puts his arm around her and does not falter, she stays like that, all the way back.

“Yer man seems to be healing up nicely,” Geillis tells Claire, peering appreciatively over the top of the computer monitor as Jamie strides through the front doors. “Best make certain the provost doesna find out, or he’ll be back to making a nuisance o’ himself.”

Claire takes the last of her pins out of her mouth, sliding it smoothly into her hair. “I’ve been hoping that Colum has realized that both of us are quite prepared to be a nuisance in return, and will turn his attentions to easier routes.” She watches as Jamie is waylaid five paces into the ward by some acquaintance, then turns to pin Geillis with a direct look. “But I’ve never quite understood what your business was in all of this.”

Geillis shrugs. “The two of us have lived here all our lives, Colum MacKenzie and me, though that bein’ a bit longer in his case, of course. I only think he’s lost sight o’ what keeps Leoch special. This place has a taste of old Scotland to it still, its ways and its people, and every time he brings about some sort o’ modernization or speaks of the tourism revenue as the key to it all, I see that he only wants to make this into another city like the rest and to leave all the best parts behind.”

There’s nothing dramatic or bitter about her tone, no shouting the way that Claire can imagine Dougal doing, but she sounds truthful and convicted. She gives Claire one of those sweet, curving smiles.

“I’ve thought of trying to take him on in an election, but he’s gotten people complacent so that they’d rather the wrong choice than a change. So I keep my work behind the scenes instead - and you and yer sweet lad have helped terribly much.”

“Yes, as a distraction, or bait,” Claire can’t help but snap. Geillis doesn’t seem to take offense, however.

“Aye, ye have been that,” she responds peaceably. “But it’s all worked out for the best. After all, ye canna even tell that yer Jamie was dead to the world in a hospital bed only a few months ago.”

“I’ll be certain to pass on the compliment,” Claire says dryly, rolling up her scrubs and tucking them into her bag.

Geillis, as frustrating as she is, isn’t wrong either: while Jamie is still on desk work for now and he has far more regular checkups and physio appointments than he’d ever needed before, with hard work and focus, he truly has regained an amazing amount of strength and ease of motion. Visually his left arm looks only slightly smaller than his right, and she knows that now that he’s been allowed to ease back into weightlifting, even that will start to fade. The report from the neurologist at the last follow-up was also promising: the slight hearing loss in one ear appears to be long-term if not permanent, but neither the fall nor the coma seems to have had significant effect.

Sometimes Claire remembers not knowing how any of it was going to turn out and has to force herself back to the present before she can dwell too much on that sort of despair. Sometimes despite the routine, the almost boring settledness of their life together, she remembers that the present can turn dangerous in a moment, in a breath, and the despair comes for her anyway.

Not tonight, though, she’s determined, bending to switch her work trainers for the black ankle boots she had tucked beneath the desk earlier. She appreciates that Jamie is tall enough that she doesn’t tower over him on the rare occasions that she does wear a heel like this. She appreciates that he wouldn’t care anyway.

“Evening, Nurse Duncan,” Jamie says from above her, a restrained smile in his voice; clearly he’s managed to pull himself away from whatever conversation he’d been wrangled into. “Not joinin’ us tonight?”

Geillis gives a good-humored little sniff. “Well, somebody has to stay here, bein’ responsible, while the lot of ye go gallivanting about town.”

“Mary’s never struck me as the gallivanting type,” Jamie points out mildly, and Claire gets to her feet.

She forgets, sometimes, how good-looking Jamie is. That she’s attracted to him is a given; he gets her hot with a touch or a look, a word. Her hands, her whole body, turn greedy for him with constant ease. (She would never for a moment begrudge him the time he needed to heal and return more slowly to that aspect of their relationship - in fact was relieved he didn’t push himself nearly as hard as she’d expected him to - but is terribly glad to have it back.) But Jamie’s body has become so familiar to her that she doesn’t remember on a daily basis how very handsome he is, not until he’s standing before her in a dark trousers and a gray V-neck sweater, a checked collared shirt arranged underneath with just the right level of casual formality, and an expression on his face that...well, she can’t quite discern whether “horrified” or “distraught” would be the better descriptor.

“What’ve ye done to yerself?” he demands.

Geillis narrows her eyes and says, “Cleaned up for you, lad, and ye shouldna forget it. That wouldn’t be very gracious at all.”

“You’re so dramatic,” Claire tells him, shaking her head at him, a smile flitting around her mouth anyway. “It was a half-hour with a straightener in the staff changing room, and it will probably be warm enough in the restaurant to reverse it in half the time.” She lifts her bag over her shoulder, stepping around the nurse’s station toward him.

“Ye look gorgeous, is what I meant to say.” He slides an arm around her waist, looking sheepish, but there’s a bit of relief to it too. Fool, she thinks fondly, warmed more than she would have expected at the thought that he likes her usual curls so much. And she does look rather gorgeous tonight, if she does say so herself. She likes having her hair sleek around her shoulders for once, and the dress she’d found tucked in the back of her closet still fits her well: forest green with a fitted bodice, swirling knee-length skirt, and long, gauzy sleeves which button at her wrists, it’s not exactly weather-appropriate for winter in Scotland, but she’s paired it with black tights, and they’ll be in the cozy indoors for most of the evening anyway.

“Better,” Geillis declares, and then checks her watch. “Time for me to deliver some meds, and time for the pair of ye to be off enjoying yourselves.”

“I’ll see you Thursday,” Claire says over her shoulder, and she and Jamie leave.

The restaurant that Mary and her fiance Alex have rented for their engagement party is close enough to the hospital that it made more sense to get ready there as soon as her shift was over. At a brisk clip, it only takes her and Jamie ten minutes before he’s holding the door open for her and they’re enveloped in the scents of sauteed mushrooms and onions, meat and garlic and something sweet.

The place is homey, although fairly pricey for Leoch. Claire understands that Mary’s family cut her off after she followed through not only with obtaining her nursing degree but actually getting a job in the field - apparently they had envisioned her future starting and ending with marriage to the suitable son of one of their suitable friends. However, Alex, a quiet, gentle-faced man who’s a civil servant at one of the local government offices in Inverness, comes from some money. It’s ironic, Claire reflects, that the man Mary will be marrying could hardly be so different from those her parents would have approved of. They’ll almost certainly hear about the engagement, and she wonders whether they’ll try to make overtures, and whether Mary would accept them.

Family drama aside, Mary looks sweetly young and entirely relaxed tonight, leaning into Alex with a smile; when Claire and Jamie go over to offer their congratulations, she doesn’t once glance anxiously around or ask Claire whether she thinks the guests are enjoying themselves. Perhaps that’s because it’s evident that they are, the dining area filled with chatter and laughter, people exclaiming over the food and boisterously asking for the next drink, but Claire thinks she’s simply and delightfully in love.

Mary and Alex drift away to be congratulated by more new arrivals, and Claire and Jamie are absorbed into another conversation, Joe asking Jamie to help him understand rugby (“I swear, I’m finally going to get it one of these days!”), a challenge Jamie takes up with enthusiasm. Claire and Gail listen for a moment or two to the explanations of scrums and mauls and hookers before they turn to each other and begin discussing the latest book by an author they both like and the merits of love triangles as obstacles and sources of drama.

As the evening goes on, Claire introduces Jamie to other hospital staff he’s never met before; Louise in particular looks him up and down appreciatively and raises an eyebrow at Claire as if to ask why she doesn’t see him more often. While they make the rounds, they are always touching, his arm warm about her shoulders or teasing around her waist, her fingers slotted neatly between his. As they listen to the toasts, her back is held snugly to his chest, his chin resting gently atop her hair (which, just as predicted, has begun to curl again).

They start saying their goodbyes close to eleven, making promises with Joe and Gail to get together soon and weaving their way over to congratulate Alex and Mary once again; the restaurant is still fairly crowded, although they aren’t the first to take their leave either.

“They really are terribly sweet together,” Claire comments as she slides her arms into the coat Jamie is holding out for her and moves to button it.

Jamie shrugs into his own coat. “Well, Mary’s a sweet lass. It’s good to know she’s happy.”

“Mmm.” She nods, finally frees her second glove from her pocket, and they step out together into the cold. Jamie’s arm goes around her shoulders once more as she settles against him.

They don’t often go out like this - considering the way their schedules sometimes don’t quite align, they’ve always liked spending the time they do have alone together - and she’s forgotten how nice it feels, not only to show Jamie off, but to simply be another couple with couple friends.

“We really should have Joe and Gail over soon,” she says, tilting her head up to look at Jamie. Something catches her eye as they pass the edge of the restaurant’s large front window. She looks again, but the glimpse is gone, and she shakes the thought out of her head, tucking herself back against his side. Jamie’s caught the movement, however.

“Ye alright, Sassenach?”

“Yes, of course, I only—Well, for a moment I thought I saw Frank. My first husband.” She gives a short laugh. “It’s silly, of course - I don’t think he ever met any of my colleagues and he’d have no real reason to be here tonight. He and Alex are distantly related, fifth cousins or something of the sort, but I don’t think they even know each other.” She remembers telling Frank that one of her new Leoch coworkers was seeing a man named Randall, how excited he’d been to trace up the family tree and then back down again. “It was probably my mind conjuring him up simply because I had the connection in the back of my memory.”

“Hmm.” The sound Jamie gives is simple, almost distracted, but she knows him too well to be fooled by it. And indeed, a moment later, he takes in a breath and says, “Ye dinna talk about your marriage very much.”

“No,” she says. “No, I suppose I don’t.”

Their matched footsteps are loud on the pavement in the quiet night. After a time, when she doesn’t say more, he adds, “I dinna mean to—If you don’ want to tell me, you only have to say. Ye’re an adult, and entitled to yer privacy if you’d prefer.” He swallows. “Only...If ye do choose to tell me something, now or later, be honest wi’ me, please, Claire. I dinna want you only saying the things you think I want to hear.”

It’s another quiet moment before she does begin to speak.

“In many ways, we actually had a fine marriage. We got along well. We were comfortable with one another - conversation, even some level of debate, was easy between us, and our sense of humor was similar. We each had work we were passionate about, and both wanted a family.”

She trusts Jamie without question, likely more than she’s trusted anyone since the unthinking days of her childhood, when she had never doubted her parents’ presence and care. But it is easier to say the words as they walk, eyes ahead, and she is glad that he seems willing to keep pace with her. Breathing deeply, she continues.

“I ended it because he went back on his word to me; it was a small promise to him, something I don’t even think he considered before he broke it, but it was important to me, and there was a—a principle to it. Not only that he should be faithful and trustworthy and reliable, but that he should respect what I asked of him, that the things which mattered to me should matter to him at least a bit, even occasionally more than what he wanted. It was only when I was thinking about separating from him that I realized that there was an undercurrent, an unspoken truth of the way things had been between us for the entire time we had been together: that he was meant to be the center of our relationship and I was only along for the ride. My opinions and values and time, my work, the things I enjoyed that didn’t overlap with his, were secondary in his eyes.

“Perhaps I should have seen it from the start. I was quite young when he first approached me - only nineteen - and twenty when we married. Even now, I’m younger than Frank was when we began seeing each other, and the idea of starting a relationship with some undergraduate is simply…” Her mouth purses, and although they are still side by side, her expression hidden from him by position and darkness, she can tell from his acknowledging noise that he understands.

“Do ye think he was taking advantage of you?” he asks. His voice is calm, but she knows that it could easily turn dangerous.

“No,” she says slowly. “Not purposefully. I think he did like me and thought me mature or different than the other girls my age, and it was subconscious - convenient - more than anything, choosing someone younger, someone who didn’t have much in the way of friends or family. When we met I’d only recently lost my uncle, after all. For my part, I actually liked that they had been acquainted. They reminded me of each other in some ways, the delight they took in uncovering the past, only Frank seemed much more...settled, I suppose, not quite as afflicted by wanderlust, and that was very appealing. So there was something mutual to it, really.”

They are still several minutes from Jamie’s building, but she stops them at a corner beneath a streetlight, takes his hand. She turns to face him, although she cannot look up at him just yet.

“I can’t wish away my marriage, Jamie. Perhaps I should want to, but I can’t even do that. First because it was Frank and his position which brought me here in the first place, to Scotland, but also because...I did love him, once. He was a home for me when I needed one, someone who wanted to build a future with me, imperfect as it would have been. And having known what that relationship was, it made me realize that, from the first night we met, the things I said and felt had value to you. It made it easier for me to recognize the difference in what we have between us: friendship and compromise and passion, partnership, love stronger than any I’ve ever experienced.”

He says nothing for a moment, running his large thumb over the back of her hand. There’s no real sensation through her glove, but she watches the contact, feels the pressure, imagines that she can feel his skin against hers. She looks up into his face. He begins to speak.

“Ye ken that I’ve never been with anyone before you, Claire, never loved someone this way before you. And I knew that it hadna been your first time for any o’ that, but it’s—” He stops for a moment, breathes in before he continues. “I wondered if perhaps I was imagining what it is between us, if I was only too untried to know what was usual and what wasn’t.”

She is shaking her head before he’s even completely finished. “This—What’s between us, it isn’t usual. It’s...I’ve never felt something more powerful. Never.”

When she reaches for him, framing his face in her hands, he is already bending to her, the darkness of his shadow textured differently from the night around them. She kisses him, long and full, resting her forehead against his even after she’s pulled away. The connection between them lights down her spine.

It’s a moment before he speaks again. “I wasn’t yer first love, and though I can wish for those extra years wi’ you, it eases my heart to know that you had someone before I could be there for you,” says Jamie, the words all fact, no heartbreak in them. His thumb rests against the ring on its chain through the layers of her coat and dress. “But if I have anything to say about it, I’ll be yer last love - today and tomorrow, and for every tomorrow after that.”

Her lips twist in a smile against tears. “I’m holding you to that, Fraser,” she tells him. “Between the two of us, I think we’re just stubborn enough to manage it.”

When she falls asleep that night, she dreams of Jamie’s hands sunk deep in the earth beside hers.

“—so it’s clear that it isna only some unlucky lad who was trying to keep warm, nor teenagers havin’ a bit o’ fun that got out of hand. It’s a pattern now.”

“Even if it is,” Murtagh says from the backseat, impatience barely checked, “ye’d best get the thought out o’ yer mind before ye see that sister of yours. She’ll no’ want any such talk spoiling the day.”

Jamie has spent the last twenty minutes of their drive going over the evidence for why he thinks a recent spate of small fires around Leoch is the work of a single, purposeful actor, and as much as Claire can appreciate his enthusiasm and conviction and attention to detail, she wonders if he’s attaching more meaning to the incidents than they truly deserve; after all, it was a few empty bins, and a pile of rubbish in an alley which could have easily come alight from a dropped cigarette, none of which caused damage or even took more than a moment for the firefighters to put out. Jamie, however, hasn’t been cleared for regular duty quite yet, so it’s easy to imagine that he might be looking for ways to return to the more meaningful parts of his job - filing reports and writing out new equipment requests doesn’t quite fulfill him the same way.

“Murtagh’s right,” Claire says as Jamie takes the turn for Broch Mordha. His handling of the car this morning has been smooth and controlled, another piece coming back to him. “Jenny will be able to read the distraction right off of you, so perhaps you’d better start thinking your most godfatherly thoughts to get you in the right mindset before we arrive.”

He looks over at her from the corner of his eye as he flicks on the indicator to take them off the high street and around back to the church car park. “I will say, Sassenach, that if I’m no’ to think about work, there are certain other directions my mind could go…”

“She said godfatherly thoughts, ye dobber.” Murtagh thumps the back of Jamie’s headrest.

Lifting his chin to meet Murtagh’s eyes in the rearview, Jamie retorts, “Aye, and if I ken that a godfather might think about more than bible verses and mashed banana, I think it’s apparent where I learned it,” while Claire looks down at herself; she’d thought the collared sweater and polka dot circle skirt were quite respectable and appropriate. Then again, Jamie looks equally conservative in his suit and she’s been eyeing him for the whole ride - and not to check his driving.

Apparently there was no need to worry about her outfit choice: as they come through the entrance, Jenny bustles right over with Maggie in her arms and steps up to kiss Claire’s cheek, saying, “Thank ye for coming. Ye look lovely, Claire.” Her eyes don’t miss her mother’s pearls fastened around Claire’s neck. She raises an eyebrow and smiles.

“So do you—”

“As if anyone can look lovely when they’ve had barely a full night’s sleep in months,” Jenny interjects.

“—and so does the woman of the hour,” Claire finishes blithely, holding back a smile as she bends over little Maggie, who looks a bit wide-eyed in her lacy white frock, her still-sparse cap of dark hair held back by a thoroughly unnecessary matching band. It seems she’s already starting to suspect that something unusual is going on and hasn’t decided whether she approves.

She starts hiccuping partway through the ceremony, the sound of it so tiny and adorable as it punctuates the priest’s speech that the onlookers laugh each time. But when the moment comes for the holy water to be poured over her head, she starts to squirm in Jenny’s arms such that it ends up splashed all over her face and her sweet white dress.

“Well, at least she didna spit up all over herself and Father like wee Jamie,” Ian says optimistically as they stand around in the church hall with paper plates full from the lunch buffet. Maggie’s exhausted herself so much that she fell asleep in her pram and is being watched over by her Murray grandmother out in the corridor.

“Nah, she only sobbed so much I was afraid tha’ she’d give herself the boak as well,” Jenny says, shaking her head, resigned.

Ian secures a comforting arm around his wife’s waist. “Well, that’s already an improvement. Seems certain that the next one will be a perfect wee angel.”

“The next one?” Jamie chokes a bit on his sausage roll. “It was a joke when Maggie was a newborn, but she’s still barely crawlin’. Dinna tell me that ye’re already—”

Stifling a laugh, Claire tugs him back - although she doesn’t know how much good it will do considering the true danger is Jenny’s flaming glare. “Purely theoretical, I’m sure.”

“Aye,” Jamie agrees, but all the same, he is eyeing Jenny’s midsection with suspicion which will get him in trouble.

“Didn’t you tell me that some of Maura’s girls are here?” Claire says as a distraction. “We should go—”

“Can I have a quick snap of the group of ye?” asks the photographer from behind. When Claire and the others glance over at her, she holds up her camera in demonstration. There’s a beat, then they set their plates aside, arrange themselves, and smile. “Parents and godparents, lovely,” the photographer says, and the flash goes off.

Claire buys herself a small hinged frame. On one side she places the picture of the four of them, on the other, the shot they’d gotten with a red-faced, bawling Maggie just after the ceremony: Ian half wincing and half grinning, Jenny with her eyes narrowed and mouth open as she told someone off, Jamie clearly trying to hold back laughter even as his fingertips brushed sweetly against Maggie’s hair, Claire with her smile hitched on gamely, the priest trying not to seem put upon, and wee Jamie looking like he might throw a tantrum of his own just for spite.

“Best no’ have that out when Jenny comes over,” Jamie says with a grin the first time he sees it sitting on her bookshelf. “She willna think it the most flattering for any of us.”

Claire crosses her arms, standing back to take it in. “Well, I like it,” she says firmly.

Jamie comes up behind her, kissing her hair. “I didna say I don’t like it.” And she knows that they appreciate it for the same reason: because when someone looks at it, they see a family.

Claire narrows her eyes. “How are you cheating?” she demands, looking at the cards she has slid from their envelope.

“It isn’t cheatin’, Sassenach,” Jamie smirks, leaning across the Cluedo board to steal a kiss before he stands and begins collecting the dessert plates. “It’s only observation, and strategy. And perhaps a bit o’ luck.”

Joe laughs, low and full. “Your luck is going to run out if you win at the next game. You’ve woken up an unexpectedly competitive side in our Lady Jane. Or should I say Professor Plum?”

Despite their best intentions, it’s been another several weeks before they actually have Joe and Gail over as they’d promised at Mary’s engagement party. Even if he’s still only on desk duty, Jamie’s schedule has gone back to normal, which means just another complication in finding an evening that works for the four of them. By the time they actually do, Joe jokes that they've been texting about it for long enough that the night had better live up.

As far as Claire can tell, it is certainly living up. She’d tidied her flat, Jamie cooked - chicken deeply flavored with lemon and fresh herbs which he is going to have to make her again - and they’d both thought the other was buying wine. Luckily, their guests had gifted them with a couple of bottles, and between that, the flow of conversation, and the games Claire had borrowed from her neighbors, things have rounded out nicely.

Except that Jamie has been declared winner of both games of Cards Against Humanity, and now has been similarly successful in two games of Cluedo as well.

“We’re playing something with teams next,” she declares, standing as well, catching a glimpse of his jokingly rueful headshake as he disappears into the kitchen. “But does anyone want tea or coffee first?”

Gail raises a finger. “I’ll take a cup of tea.”

“Me too, if you’re making,” says Joe, then, yawning, amends, “Actually, might need to make mine a coffee so I’m awake enough to trounce the two of you.”

“Old man,” teases Gail, but her affectionate hand rubbing up and down his back belies her words.

Smiling, Claire turns toward the kitchen, but pauses. “Do you already have the water boiling, Jamie?” she asks, although she knows that isn’t possible.

“Course no’,” he says. “Why d’ye ask?”

“I thought I heard a—There it is again.” This time the noise, small but distinct, cannot be mistaken for a whistling kettle. Jamie appears, frowning, in the doorway, palms braced against the frame.

“It sounded like a cat. Do any of your neighbors have one?” Joe asks, glancing around the room.

“Not that I know of,” Claire says.

Gail objects, “But it isn’t coming from the hall anyway.” She stands too, holding still as they wait to hear any other sound.

“It seemed like it was here in the room,” Joe says hesitantly. He’s on his feet now as well, all four of them roaming abstractly around the space, trying to find the source of the tiny mewing. “But I don’t see anything.”

“It almost sounds like it’s behind the bookshelf,” Gail says slowly, her ear cocked. “Do you think it could have gotten in when the door was open and squeezed back there?”

“I think someone would ha’ noticed,” Jamie comments. Claire adds, “And besides, the shelf is nearly flush with the wall, I don’t think even quite a small—Oh, Christ!”

“What is it?” Jamie asks immediately, but Claire is already turning away from him, striding over to where the bookcase stands. The sound is definitely louder here. She turns back toward the others.

“I haven’t given it a thought since I moved in, but behind the shelf is a covered over fireplace. It’s been that way for years, but there’s still—”

Jamie’s eyes meet hers. “The chimney up in yer garden.”

“You think a cat accidentally fell in through there, and now it’s stuck behind your wall and can’t get out?” Joe sums up, half incredulous.

“I think that’s exactly what happened.” Claire rolls up the sleeves of her sweater. “Now, we’ll need to start by moving this out of the way.”

Claire had always thought the taste she had developed for vintage pieces built to last was rather commendable, especially when the alternative was wasting money on cheaper products which she’d only have to replace a few years down the line. However, her beautiful oak bookcase is hell to move, even after they’ve shifted off the books, photos, and other miscellany, making room for it all on the sofa and the end table, the floor, atop the forgotten Cluedo board.

“What do we do now?” Joe pants once the bookcase has been pulled away and they’re staring at the revealed wall. It’s slightly discolored, the shape of the forgotten fireplace apparent. It’s also obvious that they’re on the right track; the mewing is both more frequent and clearer, easily audible even to Jamie’s still-limited hearing.

Claire pushes against the wall, hoping for thin, shoddy workmanship hidden by the paint, but no such luck. She looks over at Jamie. “Will you call the department? I know we’ll have to endure quite a bit of teasing when it gets back to your crew, but the poor thing needs to be broken out.”

Except that when Jamie calls through to the dispatch, he’s informed that there was an alarm at the care home and the trucks and ambulance crews have gone over there.

“We could get a rope down that chimney you were talking about, see if the cat won’t climb up,” Joe suggests.

Claire casts him a dubious look. “I don’t want to take too much longer. I have no idea how much air the poor thing might be getting, or what sort of nastiness there might be inside.”

“Well,” Jamie says, eyeing the space in question in evaluation, “the only thing the department could do is use better tools to break open that wall. If ye wanted, we could open it up ourselves.”

A sudden, shocking gratitude swells through Claire that he’s there with her. Not for his expertise, such as it is, but because she can so easily imagine Frank’s soft disdain if he had been with her for this: It’s only a cat, Claire, just leave it alone, or wait for those who are equipped for this sort of thing if you must.

She leans into Jamie, pressing a kiss to the soft shoulder of his shirt. She looks up at him. “I do have a hammer somewhere. It might take a while, but we can probably get through.”

Even between the hammer and the pair of wheel braces they brought up from her car and Abernathys’, it takes a while to get through the plaster.

“Good thing they didna cover it over wi’ brick,” Jamie says, giving another hearty smash on the last word. He’s sweating and breathing a bit harder than he likely would have prior to his injury, but he hefts his wheel brace easily enough.

Finally they’ve broken open a hole large enough for Claire, uncaring that the knees of her jeans will be covered in paint chips and plaster dust, to squeeze her arms through. She worries that the cat might be frightened and cower away from her, force her to feel around and chase it down despite her limited maneuverability, but it comes to her immediately, curling itself around her hand and purring more loudly than ever.

“It’s tiny,” she tells the others as she gently brings the cat into the light. “I think it might even be only a kitten.”

“I hope that it’s only a kitten,” Gail says when they bring it into the kitchen to rinse off. Jamie goes to find something in the pantry for it to eat. “If this size is full grown, you’d have needed a microscope to see it as a baby.”

“Looks like a miniature version of the cat my mother had when I was a wee lad,” Jamie comments, bringing over a saucer with some canned tuna flaked onto it. “He was just this shade of gray, though his eyes were none so noticeable.” He runs a finger over the kitten’s furry back as it starts sniffing the food.

“I didn’t know you grew up with a cat, although I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” says Claire, thinking of the abundance of animals making their comfortable homes around Lallybroch. “What was his name?”

“It was a play on a saint’s name,” Jamie says, “but we all just called him Adso.”

“Mew?” says the little cat, glancing up from his meal as if in answer.

Joe laughs. “I think you just named him, Jamie. Or he decided that was a good enough choice and named himself, I guess.” He looks down at the plate, which the apparently newly dubbed Adso is now licking spotless, and raises an eyebrow. “Seems he decided that supper was good enough for him too. If you kept him around, he’d eat you out of house and home soon enough.”

If we keep him around?” Jamie turns to Claire, looking her over as she adds more tuna to the plate, and chuckles. “I ken that look. I’ve the feeling we’ll be making an early morning trip to the vet to check if the wee thing is chipped and get him his shots. And I’ll likely as not need to find a loch to fish to keep him properly fed.” Seeing that Adso has nearly finished his second portion, Jamie adds, “Perhaps I’ll need ye to join me, Joe, or he’ll starve.”

Gail laughs. “Barking up the wrong tree with that - I married a city man who’s never baited a hook in his life. But I’ll help you out.”

“It’s a plan,” Jamie says, and holds his hand out to shake.

“Your landlord isna going to be best pleased wi’ this,” Jamie comments later, after Joe and Gail have said their goodnights and thanks for the strangest dinner party they’ve ever been to. He lies on his back on the sofa, Claire lax atop him as she holds Adso in her palm, petting him gently. They swept up briefly, but the wreckage of the evening is still apparent.

“I’ll simply remind him that I warned him to close up that chimney and he ignored me. Did he want me to let an animal die in the wall?”

She feels more than hears Jamie’s laugh as it rumbles from his chest into hers. “I’d guess that he’d ha’ wanted someone more professional to take care of it.”

Nudging him a bit, she protests, “I did have a professional with me, even if he was off-duty.”

“I dinna think he’ll much care about my credentials when he sees what I’ve done to his wall.”

They laugh quietly together, this moment so perfect and also like so many others - the two of them talking and teasing, sharing, scheming, lives intertwined. She runs her finger down Adso’s soft back once more and then, breathing deeply, says, “I was thinking, actually. If I’m already speaking to my landlord about the repair, and he’s already put out with me, perhaps I might tell him that I might not stay when my lease is finished.”

Jamie pulls back slightly, trying to see her expression. “And where would ye plan on goin’, Sassenach?”

“Well...” She shifts in his arms, turning so she’s facing him, although her words come out delicately. “I was thinking that perhaps we could find somewhere together.” When he doesn’t reply for a moment, she hastens to add, “We don’t have to, of course, if it’s too soon, if you like your flat, I only thought—”

He kisses her quiet, cutting her off, not saying anything for a moment, face blank. But then, between one blink and another, there is that smile of his, joy roped and restrained so she won’t be overwhelmed by it, head ducked against it even as he looks blessed and breathless. She loves him so much just then. She loves him so much, always. “Does that mean yes?” she asks, her own smile just beginning.

“Aye,” he says. “Aye, it does. Let’s find a place, mo ghràidh. Let’s make it ours.”

His hands are light on her as she sets Adso on the floor and presses herself closer to kiss him this time. This can be a place of theirs too, just to start.

“I think I might have left a mark or two on ye,” Jamie says apologetically a week later, setting her down on the floor of the muster room, the heavy kit swaying softly.

“That’s alright.” She presses a kiss to his mouth and gives him a slightly dazed, satisfied smile before twisting to try to glimpse the fingertip bruises she can feel forming already. “The wall did worse to my back. And anyway, I liked it.”

“Did ye now?”

His voice has turned knowing, just that shade darker, his gaze hot on her. He reaches out to grasp her wrist and pull her closer once more, but she pushes him away, shaking her head and starting to straighten her clothes instead. The others will be back soon.

She had intended only a brief visit to the firehouse on the way home from her morning shift. But the group of new listings for Jamie to look over before the open houses that weekend went forgotten as she’d entered to find a cross-legged nursery class scattered around the empty apparatus bay. Jamie, gorgeous in his crisp black uniform, had been crouched, gently placing an overly large helmet atop the head of a dazzled looking little boy, while the girl next to them waved her hand in the air, declaring, “My turn’s next!” Spotting Claire, Jamie had grinned over the heads of the children, and she’d felt the airless heat of wanting lick through her.

As soon as he’d waved goodbye to the last of them, she’d had her mouth just by his ear, warm and close as she’d demanded to know where they could go to remain undisturbed.

“A bit of a blessing that you don’t have your appointment to get cleared for full duty until next week,” Claire comments, reaching to kiss him quickly one last time. “Otherwise you’d have already been gone with the rest when I arrived.”

“Aye, and kind o’ them to schedule the call so well,” Jamie says, peering carefully out of the door. “They dinna usually have nearly such good timing.” Assured that they’re indeed still alone, he leads Claire over to the kitchen, quickly shifting aside the map he’d had laid out on the table, pins marking the sites of the fires he’s still certain are arson even if no one else believes, and starting to brew coffee as if she’s only just arrived for a polite chat.

It’s another five minutes before the rest of the crew comes clamoring back in; by then, Jamie and Claire are sitting side by side, flipping through the potential properties and debating how well each meets the criteria that they’ve set - proximity to both her work and his, a spare bedroom for visitors, an outside or rooftop area for a garden, parking for at least one car.

“Ye’ve truly tamed him, Beauchamp,” says Angus, shaking his head in mock sorrow. “Got our Jamie completely domesticated. Took his balls before he’d even had a chance to roam—” Jamie tips his chair onto two legs and smacks him across the back of the head. “Wha’?! I’m only sayin’ that ye wouldna catch me sitting about, talking crown molding and kitchen islands. When a lass is wi’ me, we have better things to do.”

“Well, I wouldn’t expect you’d be able to talk about real estate or home decor with the type of girls you end up with,” Claire comments dryly, barely looking up from the photos of a newly listed townhouse. “Girls made of latex rarely have opinions about these sorts of things.”

Rupert begins to chuckle immediately. Angus scowls at him, then at Claire, then twitches into a smile as if acknowledging the hit before he and the others begin to laugh too, loud enough that it almost drowns out Willie’s voice as he calls from back in the muster room, “How’d three turnout coats end up on the floor in here? I dinna even—Oh, Claire, seems ye dropped yer hospital badge underneath them somehow.”

They see plenty of places that are obviously wrong - wrong size, wrong location, wrong price. They see a few that they like well enough to keep considering but not enough to end their search. Jamie gets attached to a little cottage that looks as if the city sprung up around it; wrapping his arms around Claire, he murmurs images of the two of them curled up to watch the snow in front of the picture window or hosting friends and family on the little back terrace. She almost falls for it too, but dredges up enough practicality to remind him about the doorways which are so low that he’ll constantly have to remember to duck a bit and about the draft that she can feel although she has her coat on, not to mention the absolute fortune they’d have to put into the plumbing.

In the end, it’s Murtagh who finally finds their new home. He calls Jamie as they leave, discouraged, from their last open house of the day.

“Just heard that Billy Campbell’s movin’ to Glasgow to live wi’ his son,” he reports. “Pain in the arse for me - dinna ken how I’ll find someone else who’ll sell me sheet metal at Billy’s prices - but his bit’ll be comin’ up for sale next week. Nice wee place. I think he’ll let the pair of ye take a keek about earlier if ye only ask. Might even prefer no’ having to go through the hassle of it all.”

They arrange to look around after work a couple of days later. Mr. Campbell is very sweet, but has a visible tremor and is half exhausted from simply opening the door and welcoming them inside; they assure him that they can show themselves around.

“It would need quite a bit of sprucing up, and that’s putting it kindly,” says Claire cautiously as they stand in the upstairs hall outside the third bedroom. “Why they ever thought pink and yellow was acceptable decor for that kitchen, I’ll never understand, and all the light wood finishes are terrible - and everywhere. And that’s even assuming we’d be able to afford to fix it all considering that we were looking to rent a flat, not buy a house. The mortgage payments would likely be at the top of our budget already.”

Jamie makes an acknowledging “hmm,” but it is half distracted and she almost questions whether he was even paying attention. But then he directs a stare right at her. “Do ye love it, though, Claire?” he asks.

And she has to admit that she does, for beneath the choices of paint and tile and curtains, the bones of the house fit into place for her. It is more than just the fulfilling of their criteria with the proper number of bedrooms and the two-car garage, or the durable mid-century construction which is still solid after all these years. The kitchen is large, such that she can picture Jamie cooking comfortably there, perhaps with Jenny weaving around the space too. It isn’t eat-in, but there’s a worktop that can fit a few bar stools, and a dining area that could easily play host to holiday meals or groups of friends, which even whispers the possibility of rushed and rowdy breakfasts before seeing children off to school and family dinners at night. The sitting room has a long, empty wall, perfect for fitting all of their books and plants, and she can see how the light from the big windows would fall over them on sunny days, how the room would fill with warmth and coziness on gloomy ones. She can imagine walking into the master bedroom after a shift and finding Jamie asleep there; she knows where the bed would be, and how their clothes would jumble a bit in the built-in wardrobe because they haven’t taken the time to straighten them lately, and which spot by the radiator would be Adso’s favorite to curl up near before slinking over to settle on the duvet instead.

Despite the hard winter dark that the weak fall of the outdoor lights does not truly cut through, when she peered out the back door, she found that there is green space and earth to make her own.

“Yes.” She looks up at Jamie, ignoring the bright sounds of the quiz show on the television below. “Yes, I love it anyway.”

He takes her hand. “Good. Because so do I.”

As they go down to speak to Billy Campbell, she tries not to think of cliches about houses and homes but she can’t help herself; they fit too well.

Between purchasing the house and packing up and moving the contents of both of their flats, followed by unpacking and rearranging and ordering new furniture and starting to redecorate, all alongside their regular work schedules, including Jamie’s return to full duty, and Hogmanay celebrations at Lallybroch (they’d both had to work on Christmas, and so opened gifts together and spent the day lounging in bed on December 26), they don’t get to host an actual housewarming until nearly the end of January.

“Just friends and family,” is how Claire describes it as she breezily extends invitations, only to discover that these days there isn’t any just about it.

Jenny and Ian arrive early to help set up, Jenny brushing off their thanks as she heats the oven for the trays of appetizers she’d prepared without being asked. It’s their first time leaving Maggie for the night and she seems half excited, half edgy with nerves, whipping out her phone mid-conversation to check for texts from Mrs. Crook until Ian gently takes it from her and tucks it into his own pocket.

(Claire comes upon him later, messaging from a quiet corner - “Jus’ wanted to remind her to keep the monitor by her,” he explains sheepishly.)

Between her friends and colleagues and Jamie’s, their new neighbors, his various relatives - she forgets sometimes that being related to the MacKenzies means that Jamie is also related to a significant percentage of the city - the house fills fast, but it’s a busy, happy sort of fullness. Gail stands over by the speakers debating with Rupert about the best Fleetwood Mac album. Alex Randall is managing to hold his ground against Dougal in a conversation about municipal regulations, although Claire notices that he is gripping his glass rather tightly. Joe is delighting Molly MacKenzie and the couple from two doors down with some of the less gruesome highlights of hospital work.

But something doesn’t feel entirely right to her. She glances around to make certain that there is still enough to eat and drink, to ensure that they haven’t been joined by someone unwelcome, Colum MacKenzie or Laoghaire, but that isn’t the trouble. Then an arm slides around her from behind, pulling her toward a warm, familiar chest, and she relaxes into Jamie, her missing piece.

There you are, she thinks, leaning against him and closing her eyes. The dark and the highland cold might nudge against the windows, but within there is friendship and laughter, a surrounding brightness. Their loved ones are all around, their sheets on the beds and books on the shelves, their cat dozing upstairs. Jamie surprised her last week with seeds for lupins and geraniums and bulbs for lilies - a bit of beauty to look forward to when the spring weather comes. After she managed to get them into the ground, she realized that she’d have nowhere but a pitcher to put cut flowers; she went out during her lunch hour and bought a vase and some sunflowers, arranged them just so, and put them on the mantelpiece where they watch over everything now.

She feels the press of Jamie’s kiss to the top of her head, and in the bustle and only for her, he says softly, “Welcome home, Sassenach.”

And she is.

Chapter Text

It is, at first, a small thing.

“Are ye certain you have to go?” Jamie asks, reclined back on the pillows with one bare arm beneath his head as he watches her dress. “Is there truly no possibility that I could...tempt ye to stay?”

Pausing in her search for her second trainer, she turns to raise a wry eyebrow at him. “Have you ever considered a career as a writer for dirty films?” Bending, she checks under the bed, knowing that he’s certainly appreciating the view of her as much as she’s been appreciating that of him. “Anyway, I’ve told you a thousand times that we’re understaffed - they still haven’t hired anyone new and it’s been months, and now that flu is going around, and apparently Alex’s brother was discharged from the military and has been staying with him and Mary for months and he can be a bit difficult so she decided that they needed a week away from their houseguest.”

Shoe retrieved from what she guesses is the place Adso decided it belonged, she sits on the edge of the bed to tie them both on. Jamie shifts toward her, kissing up her arm, along her shoulder, up toward her neck…

“You work too much,” he whispers in her ear, and nips softly at the lobe.

And perhaps it’s because she really has complained to him over and over about the staffing and it feels as if he didn’t listen to any of it, perhaps because the remark rhymes with too many conversations that she’d once had with Frank, perhaps because she’s still annoyed that when Jamie did the wash earlier that week, he accidentally shrank her favorite of the sweaters she’d purchased from Murtagh. Regardless, instead of laughing off the comment - or, for that matter, giving in and kissing him back for at least a moment - she pulls away, shoving to her feet.

“I work the right amount,” she says coolly, striding over toward the en-suite. She fumbles through the drawer where she keeps her hair accessories, more aggravated than she would usually be to find that Jamie accidentally dropped the new toothpaste he’d bought in there as well. “I work the amount that I need to.”

“And what exactly d’ye mean by that?” he says, voice moving from early morning lethargy to alert sharpness in an instant. “Are ye implyin’ that I canna provide for you?”

She scoffs out an incredulous laugh. “First of all, I can provide for myself perfectly well, thank you.” Dropping the toothpaste into the correct drawer, she slams it shut and adds, “And second, I’m not certain what arithmetic you’re doing, but mine says that our budget depends on both of our wages. So I suppose I’m not implying anything, only mentioning the facts.”

Despite her anger, she does manage to hold back any direct reminder that the down payment on the house came from her inheritance from her parents and her uncle. Nevertheless, he seems to hear it, bristling and shoving back the duvet; it had been a trial in the first place to get him to agree to use the money rather than the vast bulk of his savings, and she’s erased that work, the coaxing and the promises and the assurances of the way things are between them, without even a word.

“And what do you suppose will happen when we start having children?” he asks, planting himself in the doorway. “Were ye expecting to leave the bairn all on its own while ye swan off back to work? Canna have ye thinking of aught but yer budget after all.”

The anger crushes through her so thoroughly that she has to drop her hair from the ponytail she was starting to form; her hands are shaking too badly. “I suppose that I expected that we would discuss it when the time came. Although I also expected that there would be a second parent who might also be able to take care of a baby. Apparently that was too much to assume.” Marshaling herself, she yanks her hair up and snaps it into some semblance of cohesion as she half snarls, “And it’s especially rich to expect me to be the one to give up my career when it’s you who could die anytime you go to work.”

“Ye said ye’d put that behind you.” Jamie raises a punctuating finger close to her face. His own is twisted, but her own rage is such that she cannot even truly grasp the expression.

“Don’t be a fool,” she shouts. “I will never be beyond that fear. I only decided I could live with it because I love your useless bloody hide. Now get out of my way - I have work to do, regardless of what you have to say about it.”

She shoves past him and is gone.

“Bit o’ trouble at home this mornin’, Claire?” Geillis asks serenely, blowing gently on her mug as Claire stabs repeatedly at the backspace button.

“Of course not,” Claire says tightly. “Everything is absolutely perfect.”

She’ll ask Louise if she’s free for lunch today. Her friend will call Jamie a bâtard at all the right places, and never make Claire recount the parts where she could have been kinder or wiser, and insist she deserves extra dessert.

They don’t text all day, and Jamie is gone when she arrives home, leaving only a note on the table which reads, Out for a drink with the lads.

Jamie hasn’t been out for a spontaneous drink with the lads in nearly the entire time of their relationship. She snorts and orders takeaway for one - garlic prawns with the extra spicy chili sauce that Jamie only pretends he can manage - topping off a nice glass of red for herself as well, and binges six episodes of the sort of soapy drama Jamie can never stand to watch before she takes herself to bed early. He still hasn't come home.

She shuts off all the lights as she moves through the house and tells herself it serves him right if he bumps into every piece of furniture along the way, considering he's probably spent hours getting sloshed and slagging her off to his friends.

Ten minutes later, she returns, switching on the lamp closest to the door and the light on the stairs.

"Can't have you knocking into things and breaking my vase," she mutters, and goes to lie awake a while before her body gives into sleep.

When he's not there the next morning, she assumes he's passed out in someone's sitting room or guest bed, either too drunk or still too angry to come back. Then again, she doesn't have particular experience with this situation; even when they argued before, they didn’t live together. There was no expectation that the place he was meant to come back to was going to automatically be with her.

Picking through a bowl of yogurt and granola at the kitchen bench, she taps out a tentative text:


Leaving for work, can talk when I get home

But Jamie isn't there when she gets home. Her text is still unread. When she calls, it rings and rings until the voicemail picks up. And that's when she starts to...perhaps not worry, not yet, but certainly to wonder.

She starts with his friends, puzzling together an understanding of what happened yesterday. They’d gone drinking at The Quill & Tassel - which, for all its upscale name, Claire knows to be an establishment which serves rotgut liquor at rock-bottom prices, the sort of place you go if you want to get drunk without a care for ambiance. But Jamie had refused shots with the rest of them, and even the beers some of the others kept ordering, nursing a whisky and then another over the course of hours, leaning over bent elbows propped on the table. Even Jamie’s friends, coarse and obtuse as they might be, could tell that he and Claire had argued, but he didn’t share and they didn’t press for details. He had left earlier than any of the rest of them. They had assumed that he was going home to have it out with her.

Trying Jamie again, and still finding only voicemail, she knows that the obvious next step is calling his family - perhaps he went to Lallybroch to settle his temper. But surely Jenny or at least Ian would have reached out to tell Claire that he was with them…? Perhaps they didn’t know he hadn’t been in contact with her. For a moment, she lets irritation at the idea of such childishness overcome her concern.

Jenny doesn’t answer right away. When she does, Claire can hear Maggie screeching in the background.

“Cuttin’ a tooth,” Jenny explains, making shushing noises. “What can I do for you, Claire?”

Claire swallows. “Is Jamie…”

“A stubborn arse? Aye, but ye knew that. I called him yesterday afternoon and he told me that you’d argued.” She leans away from the phone briefly, saying something muffled, before she returns to add shrewdly, “I’m guessin’ he wasn’t the only one to say things he regrets. I’ll tell you what I told him: you’ve both got tempers and strong opinions so it was only a matter of—Och, what d’ye think ye’re doin’ over there, ye—!”

Whatever’s happened, Claire can hear the resultant crash clearly through the phone. “I’ve got to go, I’ll speak to you later,” Jenny says all in a rush, and hangs up.

Sitting in the kitchen with the phone dark in her hand, it is as if Jenny’s voice came from a different world, a brighter, unquestioning one. It’s clear that she doesn’t know where Jamie is, doesn’t know that he hasn’t come home.

She keeps calling: to Murtagh, to the firehouse, to the A&E although the chances are vanishingly slim that after a full day where no one’s seen him, Jamie would have been brought in during the hour since she left.

And then, with no one left to ask, she goes to the police.

“I’d like to report someone missing,” she tells the officer behind the desk, an older man with kind-looking eyes behind round glasses. “My partner. He hasn’t come home, and no one’s seen him since last night.”

“Does he have any medical conditions?” the officer asks. His calm, slow voice and his steady blinks would be comforting in any other scenario but this, where she wants immediate reaction, flashing lights and voices shouting over each other to organize in force.

Quickly, she shakes her head. “No, he doesn’t. He’s a firefighter, actually. Jamie Fraser.” Fair play or not, she hopes that there’s enough overlap between the fire and police services to inspire action.

“Fraser, of course. Young lad. Good looking.” He pauses as if unsure how to ask, then says delicately, “Did ye have an argument, by chance?”

“We did, but I don’t see how that could—”

“Well, might he be...taking some time away? Or perhaps he made a mistake and isna quite ready to face ye?”

Claire breathes deeply and with force. “That would be extremely out of character for him, on either count. He isn’t answering messages or calls, and he hasn’t been in touch with friends or family either.”

But the officer has begun to peer at her pityingly. “Now, I dinna want to tell you yer business, but I’ve worked this job a long time, and people do turn up. He’s an adult who’s no’ committed any crime and who has a hold on his health and his senses; there’s no reason to think he’s met with any sort o’ misfortune and no law that says he needs to be anywhere.”

“So he’s just allowed to be missing?” She flings out a hand, incredulous, but only gets a nod and a bit of a shrug in response.

In the end, she forces them to take down a report - a physical description, notation of his last confirmed whereabouts, a list of his close friends and relatives and the people she’s already called - but knows that it’s done to humor her and they might well simply ball up the paper into the bin as soon as her back is turned. As she leaves the station, her footsteps fall with unusual force on the concrete stairs. There will be no one looking but her.

“No help, were they, lass?”

She startles before she can stop herself, before she recognizes Murtagh’s voice or his shape looming from the sidewalk, dark jacket barely outlined against the inky night.

"How did you know I’d be here?"

Murtagh gives a little grunt. "Heard you'd been callin' everyone and their grannies asking after Jamie. He’s not answering me either, and this is as good a place to start as any if he still hasn't come home. Although I've the feeling ye're wishing you started somewhere else now."

Shoving her hands into her coat pockets, she continues down the steps. “They think I’m mad and paranoid and too foolish to accept that I’ve been jilted.”

“Aye, but we ken better than tha’ lazy load o’ weapons,” says Murtagh as she descends the last step so she’s level with him. “Just as I ken that whatever’s happened to Jamie, he willna want to hear that you’d been left to manage it all alone. Now, come on. We’ve a meeting to get to.”

“What on earth do you mean?” Her feet are already following briskly beside his, relief like a wave washing her clean as she realizes that here is someone who believes her immediately and without question.

“Won’ be pleasant, but it’s important. I think ye just might be able to convince ‘em.”

Seeing either Colum or Dougal MacKenzie was not exactly how she’d hoped to spend the evening, and the two of them together seems almost unbearable - but she has to admit that it’s a good idea, considering the resources and influence they have at their disposal. And regardless, anything she’d hoped for her night is looking less and less relevant the longer Jamie is gone.

Murtagh had arranged for them to meet in the neutral territory of his studio, which Claire appreciates. Under other circumstances, she would interestedly examine the tools and materials and products which line the space - particularly the area that looks like it’s set up for a social media photoshoot, something she’d never have expected Murtagh to know a thing about and yet with which he is clearly familiar. Likes to maintain an aura of mystery, does Murtagh, she remembers Jamie saying, and has to shake the thought away before she gets too lost in bits of the past.

“What’re we here for, then?” Dougal asks, impatience breaking through his stone-faced expression. “Murtagh said it was important.”

She glances at Colum before she speaks. His expression, unlike his brother’s, is mild, face upturned with placid interest, but she detects a sparking victory at the edges of his mouth, as if he always knew that she would come to him for something one of these days. Crossing her arms against the urge to turn away and ask nothing from him, she tells them what she knows.

“He’s no’ missing,” is Dougal’s response when she’s finished. “Ye had a bit of a tiff and he went off on his own. He’ll be back, lass, you’ll see.”

The difference between his use of the name and Murtagh’s couldn’t be starker, and she wishes for that absently soft familiarity, almost affection, rather than this condescension. But Murtagh is standing against the wall, impassive now, letting her have control - or expecting her to - so she straightens her back and takes it.

“You’ve known Jamie since he was a child,” she starts. “What on earth makes you think that this is the sort of thing he would do - run away from his responsibilities, not be in contact with the people he cares about, simply disappear? Because that might be how you would behave, but it isn’t how he would. If he’s not come back then there’s something stopping him, and we need to find out what it is and help bring him home.”

Dougal shakes his head. Colum tilts his head in consideration but no more. The lack of reaction only infuriates her more, fingernails piercing into her palms.

“If it were one of you in trouble,” she snaps, “he wouldn’t hesitate to help. He didn’t hesitate.” She directs the last at Dougal, and his mouth tightens at the reminder that she’s seen him vulnerable. “So I can’t decide if you won’t help out of laziness, or lack of compassion, or just because you’re completely bloody incompetent—”

“A compromise, if I may offer it.” Colum’s voice, when he speaks for the first time, is perfectly calm, elbows resting on the arms of his chair, fingers triangulated before him. “I canna say there’s good evidence so far for this certainty ye have of something having happened to Jamie. While it might be...unexpected for my nephew to be out o’ touch like this, it’s no’ impossible, and after all, it has only been a day.” Seeing Claire ready to excoriate him once more, he holds up a hand. “If, however, he doesn’t turn up for work the day after tomorrow, I’ll make certain that there will be an official search started.”

Claire presses her lips tightly together against the words that want to come: that these two are so caught up in their business that they can’t imagine someone being otherwise. Jamie missing work is a sign that something is wrong in a way that him not coming home to her isn’t.

Against the wall, Murtagh shifts just slightly, catching her attention to give her the very smallest nod. Fat load of help you’ve been, she wants to snarl at him, but if no one else is going to be looking for Jamie for another two days, she’s going to need him.

“Fine,” she spits. “But when you find that I’m right, you’ll regret wasting time.”

“The only one who’s wasted time is you,” says Dougal roughly, and strides past her toward the door. Colum gives her a long look before he moves to leave too.

When it is just she and Murtagh in the studio, Claire sags a little, somehow worn out by a few words and a raising of hackles. “Well, that was useless,” she says.

“Wouldna exactly say that,” Murtagh tells her, pushing off the wall and walking to stand before her. “Ye secured help, even if it isna coming right away. And we’ll have tongues waggin’ before then as well: it’s Grannie MacLelland lives ‘cross the way, and the woman’s never been able to keep her eyes from peering into what everyone else on the road is doin’, nor from spreading round what it is she’s seen. At least now it’ll be useful rather than a list o’ who doesna bring their bins in on time. There’ll already be an army o’ biddies who’ve heard that Colum and Dougal MacKenzie met with Claire Beauchamp tonight, and by morning someone will ken the reason why.”

She stares at Murtagh and for a moment doesn’t know what to say. She’s never given much thought to Jamie’s godfather, never spent time with him just on their own. Now suddenly she finds that, unlikely as she would have been to choose him or even remember him as a choice to help her, she is glad that he found her.

Knowing that she does need at least some sleep, she takes a Nytol - she’s certain to just lie sleepless and wondering otherwise. She bursts awake with her alarm, dressing hastily and taking one of Jamie’s energy bars from the box in the pantry before going to meet Murtagh.

Leoch had always struck her as a small place, easily claustrophobic to some. Now that they're trying to conduct a search of every corner only between the two of them, it seems impossibly large, with infinite places for disappearance.

At least it’s a community, though. As they visit shops and knock on people’s doors, starting around The Quill & Tassel and moving outward in circles, they find that more than a few of those they speak to know Jamie at least by name - he’d pulled a sibling from a car wreck, or happened to save some family heirloom from the flames, or is related in some roundabout manner. When Claire shows them the picture she’d managed to select despite the choking feeling that came with looking back at their happiness and wondering if they would ever have that again, many even recognize him, his face or his height or his hair. But no one has seen him.

“Ye’ve got to eat something, lass,” Murtagh finally tells her. The sky is touched with evening now and they’d had nothing for lunch but sandwiches hastily swallowed while walking. “Ye’ll be of no use to him if ye fall off yer feet before we’ve even a clue as to what’s happened.”

Every tasteless bite feels like a betrayal when she doesn’t know what Jamie might have to eat, or whether he’s in any condition to eat something at all, but she thinks of the bowl of stew Murtagh ordered for her as fuel and shovels it in grimly. She needs strength for tomorrow, because as much as they did today, walking so her trainers feel as if they’ll have holes soon, they’ve also done nothing at all.

By the end of the second day, she feels gritted and numb. Every time someone opens a new door, she has to remind the muscles in her face how to form a polite smile, though the words of her automatic little speech always come with easy emotion: "My name is Claire Beauchamp. I'm looking for my partner, Jamie Fraser. He's a firefighter, and hasn't been seen since Tuesday at The Quill & Tassel. Do you know anything that might help me find him?"

She's gotten blank stares and tongue clucks and offers of tea. There have even been a few leads - "Saw a lad wi' hair that color at Gentleman Jim's. Might ha' been Tuesday night…" and "Does he have a deep voice, yer man? Only I was visiting my auntie that night and she lives near there, and there was an awful stramash happening down the road" - but nothing comes of any of them.

“Only have to keep lookin’. Someone will have seen something, and the more folk who ken to keep an eye out, the more we’ll learn and the more chance there is that someone might find him and tell him we’re searching,” says Murtagh as the day wears on into evening, but she can see that his determination is deliberate, a shielding assurance he’s giving himself too.

“How can you say that?” she asks quietly, and then louder, stopping in the middle of the pavement, one arm flinging outward. “How can you say that? How can you just keep calm and carry on, stiff upper lip and all, when we haven’t the faintest bloody clue where he might—” She shoves the heels of her hands against her eyes, presses hard for a moment before releasing to look at him again. Voice dropping low once more, she says, “He could be dying right now. He could already be dead. How can you not even consider the possibility?”

For a moment Murtagh only stares at her, features set and still. Then he says, tender with disdainful venom, “Ye think I’ve no’ been considering it? Ye think I’ve no’ lain awake playing through the possibilities, wondering what might have happened and if I’ll ever see him again? Are ye so selfish, then, as to think you’re the only one who loves him? I’ve known Jamie all his life, held him in my arms before he was a day old. I read him stories when he was ill and snuck him sweets and sat beside him at too many funerals. I’ve been at the hospital for him in the middle of the night and barely a day’s gone by in ten years that I’ve not spoken to him. He’s—” His mouth shifts, bent and twisting before it settles but his voice remains full of crags, near cracking. “Ye’re no’ the only one who loves him.”

Jamie would be ashamed of me, is her first thought, but quickly on its heels is the realization that she’s ashamed of herself - for lashing out at the only person who’s helped, who’s stayed by her side, someone who isn’t even truly angry at her rudeness because he knows her frustration and worry as his own.

“You’re right,” she says, throat thick. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

She tips forward a little, arms coming around his neck, cheek pressing against the rough, heavy material of his ancient coat. She imagines the shock and awkwardness on his face as her tears slip beneath his collar, but after a moment his arms slowly wrap around her.

“It’s alright.” He sighs. “It’s alright, a nighean. I know you’re worried over him.”

“But we only have to keep searching?”

“Aye,” he says, and there’s a bit of a smile in his voice as he lets her go.

They continue down the street, knocking on doors, interrupting people’s evenings, their dinner and, later, television programs or bath— and bedtime routines. More and more, they’re met with familiarity as they state their purpose, with promises that they’ve already been looking out for Jamie. As much as it hurts to see the little glimpses of normalcy that she took for granted only a few days ago, the glimpses of a future she isn’t certain anymore that they’ll have, Claire lets that warm her, just a bit.

She and Murtagh collect takeaway and start on again. Biting into her falafel as Murtagh eyes his own pita with grim determination, Claire asks, the question almost idle, “Why didn’t Jamie and Jenny come to stay with you, after their mother died?” She’s never thought of it before, but it suddenly seems such an odd choice for Jamie to have been placed with Dougal and Maura, by all accounts strangers then, rather than this man who has been there always.

Murtagh chews slowly and swallows before answering. “Brian Fraser was my best friend. A good man, and an honorable one. I’d ha’ taken them if he’d asked but I think he knew I was doing enough of my own grieving at the time.”

“Grieving—?” Claire begins, although his answer seemed like more of a closed door than an entry-point, but then it dawns on her. “Ah,” she says.

“Aye.” For a moment there’s only the sound of their footsteps along the pavement, then he says, not looking at her, “So I ken all too well what it is to understand ye might never again see the one ye love.”

She doesn’t even have much time for the burning pain of the statement - for him, for herself - to settle into her heart. Taking his final bite, Murtagh crumples the wax paper wrapping in his fist. “Now, come on. I think a wee drive around the outer roads could be a plan.”

Eyes peeled out the windows as Murtagh drives a slow route around the city, Claire finds the landscape blurring before her. Hard as she tries to fight it, she’s tired, even her well-practiced body giving in to the days of constant action and emotional strain.

She wants to be back beneath the blankets with Jamie teasing her for her frigid toes. She wants to have missed work today not because she’d called in as an emergency but because she’d faked sick, Jamie smothering his laughter as he listened to her raspy, feigned coughs. She wants to be talking through their argument, finding the soft places and compromises between their furiously staked ground. She wants to hear him shout at her for clogging the shower drain with hair and to shout at him for arranging everything wrong in the dishwasher so they have to put it all in to wash again. She wants to feel his hands on her hips while she cleans her teeth, holding her still as he passes behind her to shave, placing a kiss on the back of her neck, absent but no less heartfelt for it. She wants to lie with him and plan a future, she wants to sit with him and write out a shopping list, she wants to be with him and do nothing but breathe.

She wants.

She wants.

She wants.

“I should have married him,” she murmurs blearily, breath fogging and dissipating on the window glass. Murtagh clears his throat, just quietly, but she can tell he’s heard. “I should have...He asked me, months ago, and I told him no. I thought I was being sensible, not rushing into things, seeing that we were stable before we took that step. I thought we had time. Even after he was hurt, I thought we had time. But I should have...Whatever’s happened, I wish I’d made certain that he knows how I feel about him.”

The silence in the car is almost an imprisonment before Murtagh breaks it. “He does.”

“How are you sure?” she asks, glancing over at him before turning quickly back, afraid to miss something, the tiniest sign along the road.

“Because I’m no’ an idiot, and neither is he. And because he asked me—After you’d been at Lallybroch, Jamie asked me to make a ring for ye.”

“After we’d been at Lallybroch?” There have been so many times by now. “When we came home from Hogmanay?”

“Nah,” says Murtagh. “After he brought ye back wi’ him, after the fires.”

The first time. Before they’d gone on a date, before she’d known each scar and scrape and scrap of him, before she’d settled in amongst his family. When all there was between them was tentative talking and a sprouting friendship and a wondering of...something.

“He kent how he felt about ye from the beginning, soon as he saw ye,” Murtagh continues. “Same way his father fell for his mother in the span of a moment - that’s twice now I’ve watched a Fraser fall like that. Said he knew in his bones that it was forever between the two of ye. ‘Might take some time for her to feel the same, but I’ll wait,’ he told me. He wasna in any hurry. Wanted to be certain you were ready for it.”

“We barely knew each other and he asked you to make me an engagement ring?” The words chafe along her throat.

A car passes them from the other direction, headlights illuminating Murtagh’s worn features. He says simply, “No’ an engagement ring.”

Her wedding ring from Frank still lies on the chain against her chest, proper gold with a simple inscription. The whole idea should be presumptuous, mad, but she aches now with the desire to know what it looks like, the ring Jamie had made for her all the way back then, wishes she had the memory of Jamie’s eyes straight on hers as he’d slipped it onto her finger.

She swallows. “Where—?”

But then the electronic ringtone of a phone breaks the resting quiet between them: Murtagh’s, lit up in the center console. He picks it up with a terse “Aye?” before she has a chance to admonish him about the danger or the law; his eyes remain on the road as he takes in the voice on the other end, adding in a sharp “When?” and “Which one?” and listening to the answers before he hangs up. In the space of the empty road, he turns around and heads back.

“Tha’ was Dougal.”

“What’s happened?” Claire asks, the simultaneous desire to know and the worry at what she might be about to discover beating inside her chest.

“Says one of the lads on shift at the station tonight recognized Jamie’s car parked outside the Rowan Cross Inn. Proof in his mind that Jamie’s only been keepin’ to himself and will come back tomorrow as if nothing’s changed.”

“At least,” says Claire as they drive back toward Leoch, the words knotting within her mind, “it’s somewhere to start.”

Jamie’s car is several years old, a used gray-black Ford Focus. The driver’s seatbelt has been replaced and doesn’t match the others, and the floors and seats have remained clean more from lack of use than true and careful attention. It isn’t as if he’s particularly attached to it - Claire has a key of her own, has driven it before with no overbearing advice or patronizingly careful examinations once she’d finished. He’d gotten it mostly to be able to drive back to Lallybroch whenever he wanted; Leoch is small enough that they often walk around the city itself. Regardless of the small touches of his personality - a bilingual copy of The Poems of Catullus tossed in the backseat, a St. Andrew’s medal hanging from the rearview, a Fire and Rescue Service sticker on the rear - it isn’t something she associates particularly strongly with Jamie.

Still, the fact that he isn’t inside when they arrive seems to have its own mass, taking up space and shoving aside even the oxygen within.

“Damn it,” Claire whispers to herself, slamming the empty boot shut.

Murtagh’s footsteps behind her, returning from speaking to the clerk. “Find something?”

“No.” She bites off the word, hard and bitter. It feels terrible to have wished for bloodstains inside or gouges in the grille, shards, scratches, something to provide clue or context or at least proof. It feels like the truth.

She pushes back her hair and looks up at him in the minimal light of the car park. “Did you manage to get anything from the clerk?”

“In a manner of speaking. I ken her family - dated her auntie some years back, actually - so she didna hold back on the information, but from what she tells me, Jamie’s no’ registered here and she’s not seen him. Only an Australian couple and a German lady have checked in since the weekend. She says the car wasna here when she worked yesterday afternoon, but it was when she arrived earlier tonight.”

It’s good detective work, such as it is, more information than they had before. He must see the dismay in her face anyway.

“I’ll bring ye home for some sleep, lass,” he says gruffly. “Things’ll be starting in even more earnest in the morning when Jamie doesn’t turn up for work. Colum and Dougal will keep their word - I dinna think they’ll be able to avoid it. The city’s already talking about what’s afoot, and I’m certain you’ve been getting messages from the lads on the fire crew, same as I have.”

Her mouth tightens and she turns back to the car, opening the driver’s door again and bending over to sweep the floor with her hands. “I want a few more moments here, just to be certain.”

Just this side of snapping, Murtagh demands, “And what d’ye think ye’ll find?” His voice is too loud for the small car park, but she doesn’t admonish him.

“I don’t know,” she admits, slightly muffled - by her position or weariness or tears, she isn’t certain. Then she feels something that shocks her out of it all. “Maybe this,” she says, leaning back into the open with Jamie’s mobile in one hand.

In the end, it’s the exhaustion which Murtagh is pretending away which makes her give in and stop for the night. The phone is dead anyway, and she agrees to bring it home and charge it to see if it offers any further information. As he leaves her at the door, Murtagh makes her promise to sleep (“...and shower. We hiked miles today, lass” - though she doesn’t take offense to that, instead accepting the blunt remark with the affection it was meant).

She does shower, then stands in her towel reading through the messages she’d skimmed and swiped aside all day (from Joe, offering to take the day off to help her look; from Willie, asking if there’s anything he can do to help), fills Adso’s bowl and considers calling Jenny, knowing that Jamie’s sister will be furious that she’d been left out of the loop regardless of what happens or what they might discover. She even falls asleep for a time in the sitting room, too worn out for anything else. But when she wakes up for a drink at three, she sees that the battery on Jamie’s mobile is at full power again and can’t help but turn it on. A barrage of notifications pops up, obscuring her own smile, caught from the side, on the lockscreen: her unanswered messages, transforming from angry to worried, friends and colleagues checking in, even a brief sentence from Dougal roughly requesting that Jamie confirm that he’ll be on time to the station tomorrow. No incriminating last text, no tracking beacon or flashing sign as to his whereabouts, simply his electronic life resuming without Jamie there to see it.

“Damn it,” she says again, aloud this time, with only herself to hear in the darkness of the kitchen. She scrolls through the texts and emails once more by the green light of the microwave clock, searching for something that she might have missed, but there’s nothing. She feels her face go slack for a moment, then she breathes in renewed determination and goes to change.

She knows, even as she puts on fresh leggings and an ocean blue sweater, that Murtagh - not to mention Jamie - would chastise her for going out this late on her own. But she can’t stand this not knowing, can’t escape the feeling that Jamie needs her more with every minute and no good will come from her sitting around waiting for something to arrive on her doorstep, and so she ties up her hair, stuffs some essentials into a bag, and goes out into the chill, liminal night.

Even without a destination and as tired as she knows herself to be, it feels better than staying in the house. She drives down the street, her car’s engine the only sound breaking the containing silence. The smooth shift from one street to another is almost hypnotic, such that when her headlights catch someone jogging along on the side of the road she nearly doesn’t register them, and then jolts with shock at the unexpected movement.

To her surprise, when she gets a bit closer, she finds that she recognizes the man: Hugh Munro, Jamie’s old neighbor.

It actually isn’t terribly unusual for him to be out so late - sometimes if she was coming to Jamie’s at odd hours, she would run into him in the stairwell or on the street. He calls himself a night owl, but she suspects that it might simply be easier for him to have some space alone and unbothered and this is the best time for it. Nevertheless, she pulls over and steps out, calling softly, “Hugh!”

He turns and sees her at once, slowing and walking back toward her. They meet in the middle.

For a moment she isn’t quite sure what to say. After all, she’s never done more than nod at him when they’ve passed each other, and he was clearly out for a run; he doesn’t need help or directions or a ride home. What she finds herself saying is, “It’s nice to see a familiar face.”

His expression, what she can make out of it, is kind. She never learned much sign language, certainly not to the level that Jamie did, but she recognizes the circling motion he makes with a fist over his chest as the sign for “sorry,” and when he points to his own ear and holds up his hand and traces a letter J along his middle finger and palm, ending at his thumb, she understands the message.

“Thank you,” she says, although she knows that the waver in her voice might make it sound insincere. “Thank you, I—”

She doesn’t know how to finish, because she isn’t sorry to hear about Jamie, she’s terrified and furious and confused and caged in by her own powerlessness. Hugh doesn’t seem to notice the pause, however, digging into the pocket of his gray track pants for his phone. He types with his thumbs for a few seconds before holding it up and angling it toward her, the notes app open on the screen.

Thought I saw his car last night. Hoped you’d found him.

A chill runs down her spine.

“You—You saw Jamie’s car? Last night?”

Late, when I was running. Looked like it was Jamie’s but it was dark and I didn’t see who was driving. Suppose I was wrong.

Hugh passed Jamie’s car daily for years. She’s certain he identified it correctly, and is equally certain that it was being driven by whoever left it in the car park at the Rowan Cross.

“Do you remember where it might have been coming from? A direction?” she asks hastily.

Hugh shrugs, pointing, then types again.

Definitely from that way. Not much there though. Only the road toward the sea. Just as she’s caught the last word, he seems to reconsider, taking the phone back to add something quickly: And Wentworth House.

Claire has never believed in hauntings before. She never saw any reason to doubt when Uncle Lamb scoffed at the idea of pharaonic curses, and for all the folklore she’s heard around Scotland and elsewhere, none of it has seemed to her more than stories.

The idea of Wentworth House begins immediately to manifest like a vengeful spirit inhabiting her mind.

If someone’s taken Jamie for some reason, it would be the perfect place to bring him: uninhabited since it was repossessed by the bank so many years ago that rumors about the place were well established, large and isolated such that no one would be driving by or arriving unannounced to check things over, but close enough to Leoch that it wouldn’t be trouble to drop in around town to keep up with what people might be saying about Jamie’s disappearance.

But there’s something more, something deeper than logic, which tells her that this is the place, the answer, this is where she’ll find Jamie.

Barely focusing, she bids Hugh good night. She doesn’t quite remember driving along the twisting road on the edge of the city. After twice missing the narrow, hidden turnoff to the house, the one Jamie had pointed out to her in passing months ago, she tightens her grip on the steering wheel and focuses, spotting the break in the bushes. It’s still a tight fit - there will almost certainly be at least a scratch or two on her car - but it puts her on the path again; she’ll care about her paint job later.

The glimpse of the house that she catches in her headlights is essentially what she’d expected: overgrown, in disrepair, no lights or signs of anyone’s presence. It’s evident why this place became a town legend, somewhere to frighten and excite the local children.

She doesn’t so much park the car as yank it to a stop, throwing darkness over everything once more. Grasping in a breath, she reaches for the door, then reconsiders.


Heard from Hugh Munro that someone might
have been driving J’s car from Wentworth House

I think he’s there

Going to look

I know you’ll disapprove

Murtagh, who is surely asleep, won’t see the messages until he wakes up several hours from now. For a moment she considers informing the police as well, but they have shown no interest or belief and she has no reason to think they’ll see this as anything more than another wild, desperate fancy of hers. She shoves her mobile back into her pocket and gets out of the car, reaching out a torch and the knife Murtagh gave her for her birthday from the bag slung over one shoulder.

She obviously doesn’t have a key, and hadn’t considered what she might do with a locked door; she can’t imagine digging out pins to try to pick the lock, or smashing the window and reaching through to the knob like a character in a film. However, she finds that it opens quite easily and soundlessly beneath her hand, and her heart beats even harder at the corroboration that someone has been here recently.

Most of the furniture in the front room seems to have been taken or sold or given away over the years. The remaining pieces, covered in sheets and drop cloths, only emphasize the abandonment. She keeps the beam of her torch low, passing by everything as quietly as she can. It isn’t until she sees the way the light shivers across the floor that she realizes that her hand is trembling slightly.

The house was obviously a grand place once. She passes room after nearly empty room, including one with a chandelier and room for seating two dozen, which it probably once had. There are disturbances in the dust which give her a strange sort of hope, but there’s no sign of Jamie - nor anyone else - and she’s already nearly to the back of the house. In only another moment, she’ll have to return to the stairs and try the second story, and then…

But before she can consider the hopeless possibility of it, she walks through the doorway to the old, disused kitchen, darkened windows likely looking out onto the surrounding forest, and there is Jamie.

He is sitting, head bent low against his chest, with his arms and legs tied to a plain wooden chair, so still that for a moment she stops breathing herself, certain that he must be dead. Then she is across the kitchen, on her knees, propping up the torch with a shaking hand as she scrambles to search his neck for a pulse with the other.

Sluggish, but absolutely present.

“Jamie,” she whispers, unsure if he’s drugged or concussed or only sleeping. It doesn’t matter. “Jamie.”

She tightens her trembling mouth and begins to use the knife on the rope holding his right wrist. It’s tight around the arm of the chair, leaving little room to slip the knife in and use the tension to help her, so she has to slice from the underside. It takes a minute, and she’s nearly hacking at it by the end, but it gets through.


Jamie’s voice is hoarse, slightly slurred, and when she looks up at him, she sees his eyes are sunken, but they’re open, the shimmer of them obvious even in the dim light of the torch.

“Shouldn’t ha’ spoken to you the way I did, ‘specially when I’d promised to keep ahold of my temper. Wanted to—’S good I had a chance to apologize.”

For a moment she doesn’t even recall what he’s referring to. Then the argument comes back to her, their sharp words and nastiness, unresolved for days.

“Bloody man,” she chokes out. “Bloody—Bloody Scot.” It’s the only thing she can think to say. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve found you.”

She drops the knife, swipes away tears with her wrist, replaying the exact cadence as he’d called her “Sassenach,” only now realizing that she’d thought he was dead, that somewhere unacknowledged in her mind as she’d searched and pushed and worried was the certainty that she would never see him alive, would never hear his voice again.

His free hand comes down to cup her cheek, and she wants to allow herself a moment to relish the feeling of it, but his voice suddenly becomes sharper, more aware, as if by touching her he’s only just realized that she’s actually here.

“Claire? What’re ye—You have to leave. Go, before he—”

“Not without you,” she says fiercely. His palm is feverishly hot against her, even more so than usual, and she takes his hand, turning it over and pinching a bit of skin on the back: it stays tented, slow to return to normal flatness. She rummages in her bag for a moment before finding a bottle of water, shoving it into his freed hand and picking up the knife again. “You’re dehydrated. Drink that for a start,” she tells him when he makes no move to do so.

“I—” His grip crinkles the plastic. “He put it in water, the first time. If—”

She has no idea what he’s talking about, isn’t entirely certain that he’s even tracking the situation clearly, but has no time to think more about it. Her focus has shifted to cutting free his left hand, and as she turns to it, she can barely hold back from vocalizing at the horror: it’s smashed and only half recognizable as a hand at all, swollen and bruised to a twilight of purples and blues at the end of his wrist.

“Fuck,” she mutters. “Fucking Christ. How did this happen?”

Strangely, he almost smiles. “Managed to crawl to the door, even had it open. Dinna ken what I meant to do still attached to the chair, but it didna matter. He came through the back that time, slammed my hand in the door. Fairly certain he broke a bone.” He looks down at it, tilting his head to examine it as much as he can in the scattered light. “More than one, I expect.”

“He who? Who did this?” Claire demands.

Jamie’s chin comes up, his gaze shifting from her. He still hasn’t taken a sip of the water. Voice grating with alarm, he manages, “Randall. Claire, ye’ve got to—”

That startles her enough to look back up at him. “What do you mean - Frank? Jamie, do you mean that Frank did this to you?”

“Not quite,” says a voice from behind her, and she feels something jab into her deltoid.

Everything falls into chaos: she’s turning, slashing out with the knife on instinct, forgetting the lessons she’d been given for its use, and Jamie is shouting her name as he fights to free himself, either losing control of his grip or throwing the bottle, water spraying everywhere. He knocks over the torch and it goes rolling, making it difficult to pick out particular features of whoever has attacked her; a man, tall, is all she can tell, and she has her teeth gritted as she keeps him back from boxing her in, is almost certain from his grunt of pain that she’s cut him on the leg although she doesn’t know how deeply, but he mostly stays away as if waiting her out and she can’t understand why and Jamie is yelling for her to run and then her mind shades over, senseless and silent and blank, everything going darker than even the empty, night-cloaked house.

Chapter Text

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.


“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.

Chapter Text

She wakes with the bed cold beside her.

It isn’t a surprise by this point - since he returned from hospital, Jamie barely seems to be able to stand being in the same room, much less sleeping next to her - but she still runs her palm over the sheets, as if she’s hoping to find some trace of residual warmth.

She misses him.

Her dreams all through this past week that he’s been back have been filled with sex, the details of it, sensory rather than sensual: Jamie’s weight resting on top of her, his heat under her palms as she rides him, the bold slide of him thrusting through her slickness, how coarse the hair on his arms and legs and chest is compared to hers. His shivering breath on the inside of her thigh, the understanding of his smile when she grips his hair and pushes him more sharply downward, the moaning press of his teeth in her shoulder and the sweat on his forehead when he finishes, the high, cracked cry when she does.

Now we have returned to our own bed, as we both longed to do, she remembers from the Wilson Odyssey, only these days she knows that returning in body is not enough. He’s home now, and she misses him. The bed is colder still. She sighs and stands and starts the new day.

Everyone in Leoch is still buzzing, horrified, about what happened with Randall. She could have gotten more time off without a problem, but she couldn’t stand being in the house anymore. Jamie seems to spend half the night awake, aimlessly walking the halls, silent and staring as marathons of television wash over him, playing hours of online chess with people from around the world, and yet he doesn’t sleep during the day either, nor does he want to go out, or speak to her, or interact very much at all.

There are indications that he is getting better; aside from his hand, set and healing now, his shoulders no longer tense visibly when she enters a room, and he doesn’t insist on getting his own beverages the way he did for the first few days. (He could barely stand being on IV fluids in the hospital, constantly eyeing the liquid and the nurses with equal suspicion. Randall had originally drugged him with ketamine injected into a plastic water bottle, offered after Jamie had pulled over and helped him change his tire. Or, at least, that’s what she understands. He hadn’t wanted her in the room as the officers were taking his statement.)

But the prowling quiet, the way Jamie’s eyes look just past her when he does say a few words, the sense of haunting over everything in the house…It was all too much. The chaos of the A&E today was actually a blessing, even with the whispers following her, the well-meant good wishes: less time to think, more things she could fix, and people who seemed to want her help.

Murtagh had texted that he would be coming over that afternoon. From his expression, even more dour than usual, she has the feeling that Jamie isn’t opening up to him any more than he has been with her. He does muster a bit of a smile as Claire comes through the door, saying something in a low voice to Jamie then getting up and patting him on the shoulder. As he passes, he bends to kiss Claire’s cheek.

“Call if ye need me, aye, lass?” She nods, leaning into him just barely before turning toward the coat closet. He sees himself out into the evening.

She clears her throat and starts, “Joe sends his best,” unzipping her coat as she does. (She doesn’t mention the other things Joe said, starting with, Claire, shit, you should still be at home and continuing on to, Tell me what I can do to help even though she had no answer.) “He wants to know whether he has even a chance at understanding cricket, or if he just needs to focus on appreciating tennis and football more.” She hangs the coat and flicks off a bit of dirt on the front before removing her knit hat. “Although he still calls it ‘soccer,’ so I have the feeling that—”

“You cut yer hair.”

Jamie’s voice is so familiar to her, even slightly grated like this, but sudden and surprising as well. She swivels toward him quickly, hand coming up to brush unconsciously over the shortened ends. The light is dim in the sitting room, but he is watching her through the open doorway.

“Yes, I—Yes.” Geillis, who Claire had never before seen so pale and shocked, her jaw set, had dragged her without a single smart remark into the staff room that night to attempt a basic trim, trying to use a pair of scissors to fix unfixable things. She’s kept the remaining ragged curls up in a bun since then. It was only this afternoon that she forced herself to go to a salon to have it evened out professionally. The stylist must have already heard the stories and realized who was in her chair because she didn’t say anything or ask questions, only snipped and shaped in silence as Claire turned her gaze firmly from the mirror. The result, chin-length and probably chic and almost frighteningly unfamiliar, is the most expensive haircut Claire has ever gotten, and she’d give anything not to have needed to indulge.

She forces her hands down. “I know that you liked the way it was before,” she says, turning to put the hat into the box on the closet shelf that they keep for outerwear. She stares inside for extra, unseeing moments. “So did I. And it will grow back, but I know that this must be—” Different is what she means to say. What comes out is, "I know it must be ugly to you."

"Aye." She presses her eyes shut at the hoarsely whispered word, wrapping her arms around herself. Blinking, she forces the tears away, determined not to turn back to him until they’re gone, but before she manages, he curses quietly to himself. She can hear him standing, his sock-footed steps as he comes over to her, hands hovering warm near her shoulders.

"Listen to me, Claire. There is no way that your body can look, no way for your self to be which is less than beautiful to me." He sounds, suddenly, so very like himself. When she turns to him, she sees the sincerity in his gaze, a flicker of the light she has been missing there. He swallows and she can tell that he wants to move away again, but he forces himself to continue. “It’s only that it’s a...a reminder. Of the ways I failed ye that night.”

Reaching up, she cups his roughened cheek. It’s the first time he’s allowed her to touch him in days, the first time he’s come close enough for her to do so. He feels vividly warm, but there’s a fragility to the connection that was never there before.

“You didn’t fail me,” she says, soft and just without shaking. “You went through something terrible, you had to make a terrible choice, but you didn’t fail me. No matter what you might think, you saved me.”

He shakes his head slightly, and she can feel him readying himself to pull back. She couldn’t stand it if he did. Forcing her voice determinedly cheerful, she turns first. “I brought fish and chips,” she says. “They shouldn’t have gotten too soggy yet. Let’s eat before they do.”

To her surprise, he follows her automatically, waiting as she fetches vinegar and glasses, even resting himself on the stool beside hers as she sets out each wrapped portion. It isn’t the Jamie from before, teasing or recounting some story from his day as he maneuvers around the shared space with unthinking ease, but he is here, and she’ll hold on to that - it’s what she has.

“You haven’t eaten anything,” she prods gently after a few quiet moments, swallowing a bite of fish.

“It’s alright, Claire.”

Trying to think of what they have in the house - neither of them exactly having been in a mindset for a marketing trip over the last few days - she offers, “We can make something else.” The words feel awkward even as they come out, the sort of thing she would say to a guest she wanted to please rather than her partner who knows perfectly well where the pantry and refrigerator are and is a better cook than she besides. (Not that he cooks much these days - only the other morning, she had started to fry herself an egg and he had flinched as the burner ignited - the sound of it, she thinks, or perhaps the smell.)

“It’s fine, Claire.”

“You really should eat something. You—You’re still recovering.” She picks up one of the chips as an example, but doesn’t actually feel like eating it herself either now.

“I’ll eat later, Claire,” he says mechanically, and all that fills her mind is his voice saying her name. He hasn’t called her anything else since that night. She has the sudden thought that the last time she will ever hear him call her “Sassenach” was back at Wentworth House, and the idea fills her mind with shadows so dense that she finds herself shouting back at him to try to chase them out.

“You won’t!”

The sound of her scream fills the kitchen, but Jamie doesn’t react, holding himself still rather than coming back at her with his own fury, and that difference in him just spurs her on more.

“You won’t eat! You fucking won't, Jamie! You won't shower or wear something other than that bloody jumper or talk to me or touch me. You can barely even stand to look at me, and I can't understand why."

"Truly? Ye canna understand?" A slightly mocking note coming in his voice, although she can't tell which of them it's for, he continues, "Canna imagine that I'd be ashamed to face you, now that you've seen me that way, now that ye know how damned weak I am?"

"I don't even understand what you're talking about," she says, the words coming out half frozen. She sets down the chip she had been holding, circling her fingers slowly to wipe away the oil.

A look comes across Jamie's face, almost contemptuous, a hatred she could never have imagined he would feel for her, much less show. He blanks himself quickly, wrapping a hand around his glass instead and fixing his eyes there, as if he might ground himself to the cool solidity of it.

"You were there that night, Claire. I dinna ken why you're making me say it again. No matter what you say, I failed you. Let him take you, tie you up, hurt you - don't lie, ye’re here right in front of me wi’ yer hair cut and rope burns on yer skin—"

"You didn't let him do anything--"

"But I didn't stop him!" He shoves his stool backward so sharply that it topples, wrenching himself around, barely appearing to notice as he pitches the glass toward the wall, not even registering her stark-eyed look as shards and liquid spray and spread across the floor.

"I couldn't stop him." His voice is loud now, but it's the hurt there that cuts into her more than the volume. He claws his good hand through his hair, moving like he can’t stand to be still, half mad with the grief of it all. "He might have killed you and I couldn't have stopped him. Sittin’ there, helpless, while he did all that to ye."

"You did stop him, Jamie. You gave yourself up for me," she says, standing herself, but her voice is so raw-edged, her words lost beneath his vast breaking.

Wild-eyed, looking toward her even as he hardly seems to recognize her, he shouts, "He made me break my promises to you! I sat in a church and vowed that I’d do whatever I could to protect you, that I'd never leave ye if I could help it and still I made the choice to die, to leave you forever. Ye lived once wi' a man who broke his word, and I'll not make ye do it again."

Something about the words seems to calm him. He nods, though his breath still hauls itself in and out of his chest, nods again, settling.

"I'll sleep in the spare room tonight. In the morning, I'll go."

He leaves the kitchen without waiting for a response; she doesn't think she could give him one anyway. For a moment she only stares into the place where he once was. Then, feeling each muscle and joint, she steps across the tile and crouches to collect the broken glass.

It's a mid-sized piece that cuts her, a sharp edge catching across her palm and gouging her there. She watches the blood well, mesmerizingly rich in its redness, then drops everything and stands, uncaring about the mess she's leaving behind in the kitchen.

She must have been quieter on the stairs than she'd thought, and Jamie, despite the pattern of the past few days or likely because of it, is actually already asleep on top of the blanket. The surprise and relief and regret at the sight barely have a chance to flow through her as she slams the door open hard enough for the knob to dent the wall they'd painted together - Dulux’s Blue Lagoon; there’s a splotch of the color on the floorboards in the corner from when Jamie had dipped her into a deep kiss and she’d dropped her roller.

Jamie has startled into sitting and is already half off the bed as she smacks on the light, but she ignores that.

“Yes, you did give me your word. And so now it’s mine - I decide whether or not you broke it, and I say no.”

Jamie’s shoulders bend in, his head low. “Ye canna just—” he starts, but she shakes her head and snaps, “Quiet.”

"We," she tells him, tight and clear and absolute, "do not end this way. Not with you running away because you can't stand what's happened. I can't stand it either, but the only place I want to try to fix it is by your side. Because you belong with me, the way you always knew I belonged with you. So don't you dare leave, because that is not the future that happens for us."


No louder than before but still overriding him with her vehemence, she continues. "I am going to marry you, and have a family with you, and sleep beside you every night. We’ll argue over absurd things, and you’ll take care of me when I’m ill even when I’m being an insufferably stubborn patient, and I’ll get irritated with you for leaving the kitchen a mess, and we’ll both get in trouble with Jenny for spoiling her children, and we’re going to be the sort of happy that makes everyone we know so bloody jealous that they don’t know what to do with themselves.”

That is the future that happens for us,” she says, stepping closer, standing over him now as a warrior, blood still drying on her palm. “Not this. Not you leaving. We don’t end this way, Jamie. We don’t end.”

In the silence, she can hear his breathing so clearly and she anchors herself to it: here, still, here.

“Do ye think I want to leave?” he unearths the words to ask, squinting up at her against the light. “I’m doing it for you.”

She shakes her head. “You aren’t. You’re doing it for you, or perhaps because you don’t know what else there is to be done, so I’ll tell you: you’re going back into counseling, tomorrow if we can manage it.” Seeing that he is going to interrupt again, she continues even more firmly. “You took yourself before, when you needed it. Now I’m taking you, and if I have to get help to drag you there, I swear that I will. And then I’m going to take you to church, because no matter what you seem to think, you did survive, and if you can’t say your thanks for that then I will.”

“You dinna believe in any o’ that,” he points out, only a bit cracked.

“No.” She kneels gently in front of him. “But I believe in you.”

“Even now?” he asks, a small, true wondering, so earnest that, for the first time since Wentworth House, she begins to weep, tears slicking unchecked down her face.

Half-ragged, she manages, “Especially now. Because one of us bloody well has to until you can remember how to do it yourself. That’s the way it works between us, Jamie. We take care of each other. We hold each other up.”

She takes his hands in hers and he nearly twists away, but she holds firm. “Anything that you can give me,” she reminds him, ruination tipping each syllable despite the tears. “Anything that you are. You promised me those things too—”

“And if what I am is broken? If what I can give you is nothin’ but shame and nightmares?” The self-recrimination in his voice is rusty and clotted as blood, and she forces herself to push past the feeling that she might gag on it too.

“I don’t care! I believe that you will one day come back from this, but even if you don’t, I still don’t release you from those promises. So I need you to keep your word.” Trying for calm, for quiet, she finds his unwilling eyes. “I need you to make sure that I don’t fall too.”

Somehow, of all the things she's ever done - hitchhiking on the road to Cairo without telling Lamb, moving back to the UK on her own with no friends or family, staying behind in the Gilchrest house, facing down a madman only days ago - this feels the most dangerous. But she also feels as if everything they’ve been through before, fires and fights, Colum and Laoghaire and Bain, the birth of their goddaughter, those nights beside Jamie’s hospital bed and those weeks of his recovery, the house and the garden, each touch between their hands, all of it has been readying her, readying them, for just this: so she can be the person he needs, so she can cast a light on the returning path.

She reaches out to Jamie, feeling how precarious it all is, how everything, the entire rest of her life, can shift on a breath. And despite what she says, despite how much she truly does believe in him, she worries that he might be too far gone, might perceive himself as too broken regardless of her assurances or convictions.

And then, between breaths, he reaches back.

"Alright.” He speaks very quietly, the words choking up from him, and she knows that they must be more for her than for himself, but he says them anyway. “Alright. Tomorrow."

Even weeks on, she sometimes wakes up without him beside her, and the days when he is there aren’t guaranteed to be the good ones.

She opens her eyes in the silver-shaded light before dawn, finding him lying on his back, head turned toward her on the pillow, and doesn’t know whether this one will be good. He’d been quiet after his appointment yesterday, but his gaze now is very clear and thoroughly present.

“He had petrol put away,” Jamie says before she can muddle through her muzziness enough to ask him anything. “He’d prepared everything, as if he knew who I was inside, knew I’d give in eventually. He told me to pour it over everything alongside him as we went upstairs. Had me pour it over myself too, soaking my clothes in it.”

It takes a sort of mental force for her to push her memory back into that moment, trying to recall if she smelled the petrol on him. She must have, must have felt the liquid weight of it on his shirt, but all she registered was his skin beneath her fingers, pulse and heat and motion. And perhaps she wouldn’t have been able to smell it anyway, not over the burning surrounding them. She pulls herself back before she can begin smelling it again, and focuses back on his words.

“He wanted me to light the match, wanted me to take it down to start it from below, so we’d see it coming.” He swallows, and she can hear the dryness of his throat, but he continues. “So we could see the fire coming at us upstairs. And even though I knew I should be frightened, even though I could barely hold myself upright and I was half sick from the - Christ - from the smell of it all, I—I welcomed it. There was a moment when we got upstairs that he was distracted, watching something through the window, and instead of being relieved or trying to escape, I only wanted to get on wi’ it.”

He stays still but turns his eyes from her. “If I’d been able to stand, I’d have done it myself, I swear to ye that I would. If I had instead o’ him, I’d likely have been caught in the blaze downstairs and never have made it out at all, and in the moment I’d have wished for that end. I was just—I’d gotten you out, I thought I’d at least done one last good thing, and I was tired, Claire. Tired of it all after everything.”

Her instinct as his words blade through her is to say something soothing, to hush him with a kiss, to stop him before his words become worse. But she knows the difficulty and value of what he is managing to say. Settling herself into his side, chin against his shoulder, eyes on his, she remains quiet.

“At my appointment yesterday,” he continues, only slightly less flat than before, “she said that she thinks I’m angry at ye. Because when I made the choice to give myself up, it was the first time since—since I was taken that I’d been able to have a bit o’ control, and when you brought me out ye took that from me.” He looks down at her, shaking his head. “It’s madness, but it’s the way things have twisted themselves in my mind.”

“It’s what trauma can do,” she reminds him quietly. “Confuse things that way, divide what you know intellectually from the way you can’t help but feel. And you’d been through trauma enough before the fire. You were kidnapped, Jamie, and tortured.”

“What he did to my hand, that wasn’t—”

“I don’t care about definitions, and I’m not only talking about your hand.” It comes out more sharply than she’d meant it to, and she feels Adso’s sleep-startled claws pressing at her through the duvet. She presses her lips together, softening herself before speaking again. “That man tortured you - your body and your mind, pushing you beyond what anyone should be expected to bear, making you think that you would die, that no one would find you. There is no reason to expect that you would simply come back from that.”

Slowly he says, “Even if that’s true...Claire, ye canna live wi’ a man who isn’t whole in his mind, who was somehow disappointed that he managed to survive, who looked at the fire coming to kill him and wished it was done. I’m not the man ye thought I was. I’m not who I thought I was, and ye canna live with someone who gave up the way I did.”

“That night—” Very briefly, she needs to stop and concentrate on the soft cotton of the sheets beneath her and the weight of the duvet tucked around, on the touch of cold at the tip of her nose because the heating hasn’t switched on yet for the morning and his warm skin at her side. “Jamie, no one should ever go through any of it. But what you wanted then, what you wished for then, that isn’t what matters. What is it that you want now?”

It is so long a moment before he answers that the fear over what he might say creeps in. But then he begins to speak and she can hear the sob tangled in his chest although he won’t let it out.

“I want…I only want to be myself again, the self I was before. I want to have people look at me wi’out pity in their eyes. I want to go to work the way I always have instead of being sick just at the thought o’ it. I want to wake in the morning and sleep at night feeling settled in my heart. I want to be yer husband one day, I want to be a father, I want to touch ye and not be frightened that I’ll be filled wi’ hatred toward you or for myself. I just want—I want it all back.”

It is a weight, knowing that she needs to find the right words, over and over, to keep Jamie with her, to stop him from falling apart, to remind him of the way back. It’s a privilege too, that he’ll open himself enough to let her, that he trusts that she can bear the responsibility.

“I don’t know that it can ever go back to the way it was before,” she says. She keeps her breathing even, hoping that it will eliminate the waver from her voice. “With all that’s happened, it has to change something.”

She rolls over onto her front, hesitating before she rests a hand on his middle and runs her palm up beneath his shirt. The movement is slow, giving him warning and the chance to pull away, but he stays still other than the dip and catch of his shallow breathing. He’s rarely been this modest since they first began spending the night together, but he’s been keeping carefully covered since they came back from the hospital. The fire hadn’t actually advanced terribly far toward him, so the marks he was left with were mostly chemical burns, from what she supposes now must have been the petrol; they’ll have healed after this long, but he seems shadowed by the idea of their presence, barely able to look at the skin where they’d been.

“But even if you are changed, that doesn’t matter to me. I’ll take any version of you and gladly, because no matter how different you are, my love for you doesn’t change.” She raises her eyes, meeting his in the pale light. “You told me once that I’m your life. Well, you’re the rest of mine. We belong together, and I don’t want to imagine what living would be like without you - I don’t think I’d truly be able to. You can still live a beautiful life, we can, together, even if it’s different from the one you’d imagined, and I need you here for it.”

Her voice almost catches and she presses it calm again, although she thinks he can still hear the ragged emotion beneath. “Regardless of whether you care enough for your own life right now, I know you care for mine. Before—That night, you chose to give yourself up for me. You have so many choices now, Jamie, but I want—I hope that you’ll keep choosing me, keep choosing us, until the day you don't feel like you're having to choose anymore.”

She feels his living skin beneath her palm and determines to savor it as they lie in his silence. Finally he says, “You don’t feel like a choice to me. You never have. Ye’ve always felt like fate.”

“Not one you’ve simply resigned yourself to, I hope.” Her breath holds in her chest as she watches him smile. Not the familiar one, given to her so many times and so casually, but a smaller one, new and carrying and all the more precious for it.

“Nah,” he says simply. “Not one I’d trade either.”

The moment lightened slightly, it seems the right time to ask something she’s been wondering. “Would it be better if we left Leoch? It isn’t as if things have always been perfect here before now.” The mentions of that first scarring fire, of Colum's attempt to push them apart, go unspoken. “Perhaps if we went somewhere new, things would be easier - fewer people to know you, and fewer reminders.”

He draws back a bit, brow heavy. “But you’ve a home here, Claire, one ye chose. Your work, yer friends, all of it’s here. I willna take ye from it.”

She shakes her head. “Think on it, alright? Because I promise, I can be anywhere as long as you’re there beside me.” She can already feel the build of tears once again and pushes them down, looking at him directly as she says, “It isn’t Leoch, or even this house, that’s home at all.”

There are times, as they go on, when she forgets, for a minute or an hour or longer, what had happened, when she gets excited because they finally replaced the electric kettle at work, or when she smiles as Jamie suggests that they go for a trail walk nearby. And then Mary Hawkins will come in to use the new kettle and duck her head while apologizing for the thousandth time that she didn’t see any of the signs, or Jamie will smell petrol from another car as they drive out of the city and go quiet, or she’ll realize that she automatically tried to schedule something around the work shifts that Jamie no longer has, and it will all come back. But there is nothing to do but take a breath and close her eyes and think stubbornly, Onward, onward.

There are days when they go out together and he wraps his fingers around hers in the street, or when he curses at the cat for knocking over the carton of eggs and walking all through the house with filthy paws, or when he joins her in the garden and tells her she has “a wee bit o’ dirt, just there,” and she lets him cup her face in his hands, the left one nearly healed now and clumsy with gentleness, even though she can feel him only getting her filthier with the soil on his own palms, when they come inside with sunburns on the backs of their necks and he asks, “What’re ye thinkin’ for dinner, then?” and they sit and eat and talk and wash the dishes and argue over what to watch on television and she feels happy in a way she took for granted before and never will again.

And there are also days, still, more than some, when his eyes gape like the shutters of an abandoned house, when he shoves himself out of nightmares or refuses to sleep for the possibility of them and snaps at her if she tries to push him, when he pulls away from the feeling of her skin against his, when she has to say his name half a dozen times before he seems to remember who he is. Those are the days when she knows that he’s choosing, that sometimes in each minute he’s choosing to stay with her, even when it hurts, even when he can hardly bear it, he’s still choosing to stay, and she goes to bed burdened and unable to count the blessings.

Jamie turns another year older.

She had wondered if they might end up with a small celebration between the two of them, or perhaps no real observation at all. Jamie has, after all, only recently and occasionally started joining his friends again for workouts or a drink. He says that they’re well-meaning if a bit awkward around him, but she knows that it must weigh on him that they saw him hurt and weak on that day and that he has been on leave since, that he must worry that they view it as his back turning on the responsibility that they had all trained for. More often, he goes running in the night with Hugh Munro and at least comes back more peaceful for it - she thinks that it helps that there’s no expectation for him to speak. Even when it’s just the two of them going to the shop or him picking her up after her shift, she can see the way simple conversation and presence still takes effort that it didn’t before.

So she is surprised when he responds to her tentative prodding with an easy request, already formed, but one which will take them from this home.

It is the first time that they have been back at Lallybroch in months - since Hogmanay, she realizes with a jolt as they walk through the front door, the juniper wreath long since taken down. Jenny cooks the expected, delicious feast, and if the conversation doesn’t pile over itself the way it once might have, it isn’t pitted with pauses or flinching away from painful topics.

Claire holds Maggie as Jenny fetches the cake from the kitchen, and Jamie glances over from making some remark to Ian, watching the baby pull and release Claire’s curls in fascination.

“It’ll be the wee lassie’s day soon enough,” he says as Claire gently untangles herself from those tiny, grasping fingers.

“I certainly remember the occasion,” she says dryly, and Jenny reenters the room with a heartfelt, “So do I,” which makes everyone laugh, even wee Jamie, although he clearly doesn’t understand why.

Jenny sets the cake on the table, the lit candles flickering brighter when Ian shuts off the light. They had asked beforehand, and although Claire hadn’t known what he would say, Jamie doesn’t flinch even with the scent of flame strong in the room. Jenny stands behind her brother, and says with a brisk sniff, “Make yer wish, then, a ghràidh, or all we’ll have to eat is sweet wax,” before she presses a kiss to his head.

Even in the low light, Jamie finds Claire’s eyes, doesn’t close his or break the gaze as he extinguishes the flames.

It isn’t from clumsiness or lack of attention, but he wakes her when he returns to the room later that night; she simply sleeps more lightly these days, and the slit of hallway light and quiet closing of the door is enough.

He sits on the edge of the bed to remove his socks and she asks, “Did you have a good talk with Ian?” She sits up, her hair falling forward as she rests her chin on his shoulder.

“I did, aye.” He balls the socks and tosses them toward their suitcase, but they go wide and he sighs and stands again to fetch them. “He’s always been good to sit with as ye mull things over. And he understands a bit about the way your mind can play ye for a fool, even the way it can affect yer body. He still has phantom pains in his leg, ken.”

“Yes, he mentioned that to me once.”

She can see the outline of Jamie’s nod in the clouded light from the window. “Well, he’s an aged bugger these days, fell asleep after just the one dram. And then my sister came in to see what was keepin’ him, and she had a word to say to me as well.”

Something prickles up Claire’s spine - interest or warning, she can’t quite tell. “Oh?”

Jamie takes off his shirt before answering, taking the time to fold it, however unevenly, and letting it fall on top of the suitcase before he answers.

“She wondered if I might think about coming back to live here - in the house or the village. Said she’d have a job for me if I wanted it. She thought it might be easier for me, being away from Leoch.”

“Did she?” It’s a struggle to keep her voice emotionless, although she can’t quite tell what emotion would come out. She had asked him the same, after all, but it feels different for Jenny to have done so - interfering, somehow, or overprotective. “What did you say?”

“I shouldna have been really surprised she suggested it,” Jamie says. He turns his face, looking toward the window. It is as if he isn’t quite having a conversation with her anymore, simply speaking his thoughts aloud instead, comfortable with her hearing. “She never would ha’ chosen for me to live farther than a ten minute drive, regardless of what I was doing. Likes having everyone under one roof, Jenny, so she can count heads every night. And a part of me even thought of how peaceful it might be, but in the end I told her no.”

He gravitates closer to the window, the curtain pulled back and showing the moonlight, and she pushes the duvet aside and gravitates toward him.

“Why?” she asks, resting a hand on his arm. “Why did you say no?”

She feels his shoulder shrug beneath her fingers. “I told you - because I dinna want to take ye from your home. And because I dinna want this to be a place I hide in, taking all the peace from it with grieving. If I ever come home here, I want it to be in the wholeness of myself.” A brief smile touches his mouth. “And because if I ever lived under Jenny’s roof again, I think one day we’d tear that roof off wi’ temper.”

That brings a bit of a smile to her too. She almost holds back the remark that comes automatically to her lips, but decides to say it anyway. “Not to mention that the house is large, but perhaps not large enough to fit two families one day.”

For a moment he stands quiet. “Well,” he finally says. He places one arm around her, then the other, doesn’t have to do more to have her pressed against him. “That too.”

They stand for a moment, arms and breath. Then Jamie’s voice: “I didna think I’d ever see this home again. After he took me.”


But he shakes his head and she lets him speak. “And even when I came out, I dinna think I truly thought I’d be able to see it without pain.” His words vibrate from his chest into her heart. He shifts back so she can meet his gaze, and she sees him in his eyes. “He took me, Claire, but ye came and took me back. And so I think ye get to keep me.”

She kisses his throat, where he smells of skin and sweat and their laundry soap and the faintest memory of chocolate and whisky, keeps her lips there for a moment. Then she says, “I think I can manage that. I always meant to keep you, after all.”

He is gone when she wakes the next morning, but that isn’t a surprise. She doesn’t find him in the kitchen either, however, and has begun nudging away the touch of worry before discovering from Mrs. Crook that he and wee Jamie have only gone out to the stable.

Their voices reach her before she’s gotten to the open doors. Jamie’s laugh first, reacting to some joke of his nephew’s that she missed - probably for the best, considering that wee Jamie’s sense of humor tends toward the scatological these days.

There’s a pause in their conversation as she walks the last steps, silence broken only by the sound of their curry combs against one of the horses. Then wee Jamie says, “I’m glad ye came back. Donas missed ye - no one else likes riding him, and he doesna like anyone but you either.”

“Anything for the feisty wee devil.” Jamie sounds amused. “I suppose I missed him too, after a fashion.”

“Do ye mean—Did ye not miss us, then?” The response is very small. “It’s been a long time since ye came back. Months and months.”

Claire freezes outside the doors, listening, taking in shallow breaths of the animal-scented air. There’s a pause before the combing resumes again, and Jamie’s voice, unwavering. “Aye, lad. That’s so. But it wasna because I dinna care for you and wee Maggie and yer mam and da.”

He takes a breath and says, “I expect ye heard something from yer parents about what happened to me.”

“Not very much,” wee Jamie says dubiously. “They said that you’d been hurt but they wouldna tell me anything. But they were crying, after they came back from seeing you in hospital. Both o’ them were.” Without prompting, he adds, “I was supposed to be sleeping, but I heard. Were ye hurt in a fire again, Uncle? The way ye were before? Or more bad?”

Claire swallows, and hears Jamie do the same, but his voice is still clear as he says, “Not exactly. A man hurt me, a bad man who’s gone now and willna do the same to anyone ever again.”

“Oh.” She can imagine the little wrinkled brow and downturned mouth, considering this. “Were ye in hospital all this time, so ye couldna come to visit? Or chasing down the bad man with the polis?”

“No, not exactly.” In other circumstances he’d probably smile, they’d probably smile together at the thought of Jamie playing action hero sidekick, but instead he only says, “The way that man hurt me…it wasna only in my body, ken, it was in my heart. He hurt my heart so badly that it was hard for me to remember how to have good feelings, and I didna want to bring so much sadness back to Lallybroch.”

“But we’re your family here,” wee Jamie replies with immediate and furious dignity. “We’re meant to help ye if you’re sad! It’s part of the family’s job.”

“Aye, and you’re wise for knowing so, a bhalaich. But I forgot it for a while. I had to get help from other people.”

“Auntie Claire?”

“Yes.” Jamie’s voice dips quiet before rising again. “Other people too, but her more than anyone.”

“Oh, that’s good. That ye had some family to help.”

They brush quietly for another moment before wee Jamie says, slightly puzzled, “So ye came back because the people helped you remember your good feelings, and because now you havena got the sadness anymore?”

Slowly, Jamie says, “I think I’ll always have a bit of that sadness with me. Only, I was able to see that there are things beyond the sadness - things I still want to do with my life, and people I want to do them with. Including my family here.”

“So ye’ll start visiting again?”

“I will. Perhaps enough that ye’ll be sick o’ me.”

“Mam will get sick of ye first,” wee Jamie predicts immediately. “You sometimes make her say yer name in the in-trouble way.”

“Hmm. Well, keep in mind that I only sometimes deserve it.”

There’s the sound of a hand - Jamie’s, she guesses - patting flatly against the side of the horse, and then she hears it being led back to its stall. As the latch falls shut, Jamie says, “Now, I’ve heard that Donas doesna like anyone riding him besides me, but I dinna think he’ll object if someone comes along wi’ us. Go fetch yer auntie, will ye, lad? It’s a braw day for a ride.”

Claire moves away, then, on silent feet. She returns to the house and waits to be found.

“Not exactly like last year, was it?” Jamie asks on the way back.

She thinks of the two of them then, out for dinner with Jenny and Ian, napkins in laps and sweet conversation, everything only just beginning. Thinks of them two nights ago, Maggie banging the tray of her booster chair while they talked, the candles slightly askew in Jamie’s cake, thinks of all the things she wouldn’t trade. “No,” she says, soft with memory, then and now both whispering through her blood. “Not exactly.”

He watches her as she drives and she lets him. “Yer hair is growing out again,” he finally says.

“Yes.” It is true, although it doesn’t even reach her shoulders. It will take time - years, maybe - before it is the length it once was. They’ll still know, even as it grows, but they have the years now.

“I love you,” he tells her. “You’re very brave. I havena said it to ye before, but I hope you know it.”

She shakes her head. “You wouldn’t say that if you knew how scared I have been sometimes. How terrified I was that night.”

“I do know, and I do say it.” He lays his fingers over her left hand on the wheel, lifts it gently, kisses the knuckles. “Brave, and bonnie, and beloved, and still here. Wi’ me.”

It isn’t said as a question, but she answers it anyway. “I wouldn’t be,” she says, “anywhere else.”

It begins to rain, heavily enough that the windscreen blurs. She flicks on the wipers, sighs, adjusts herself in the seat - a slight motion, but he catches it.

“Pull over when ye’re getting tired, mo chridhe. I can take us from here.”

She nods and squeezes his hand back as they make their way home together.

There are, it seems, two tattooists in Leoch.

Jamie has never gotten anything himself - she’s always supposed that he felt his back already marked enough - but many of the other firefighters have ink. She’s seen for herself the Fire and Rescue Service emblem across too much of Rupert’s hairy chest, and glimpsed a bit of a design on Alec’s neck that Jamie says is just the tip of the iceberg - apparently he was a navy man first, and has all sorts of things in a dozen different styles snaking from his wrists up across his shoulders. Still, it’s Murtagh who tells them which artist to go to.

Jamie’s spent the day at the police station, finally doing one final recounting for the record of what happened at Wentworth House, and hasn’t slept well since he was told that it would happen. She’d expected that after it was done, he’d only want rest, but instead he drops into the passenger seat and gives her an unfamiliar address.

They drive quietly. She already gave her statement, and he’d asked her not to accompany him - “There’s nothing I’ll say there that ye dinna already know” - but she knows that it must have been difficult. Still, his eyes seem clearer than they have in some time, and when they arrive at their destination, he catches her look and only says, “Trust me.”

The artist is younger than she’d have thought (or hoped), probably somewhere between her age and Jamie’s, but she stands with crossed arms, not withdrawing under Murtagh’s questioning, and her hands are steady as she sketches ideas, as she prepares her station and sets the tattoo gun against Jamie’s skin.

When it’s finished, it is black and shades of red, about the size of Jamie’s hand from fingertip to base, spanning along the ribs on his left side, where the chemical burns can no longer be seen or felt except by his own senses, deeper than sight. The phoenix’s face isn’t very detailed, but its neck arches upward, beak calling triumphantly open, and its feathers are etched with individual clarity even as they transmute into flames beneath.

“Good clean lines,” Murtagh tells the artist with a nod. She nods back, then turns to Jamie.

“It’s in a bit o’ an awkward spot. Do ye have someone you can ask for help wi’ keeping it clean and dry if ye feel you canna quite reach?”

“I do,” says Jamie, just as Claire says, “He does,” and they do not need to look at each other for the meaning to be clear.

She worked successive overnight shifts last week, and so finds herself dozing off on the sofa directly after breakfast on a Monday morning. When she wakes up, she is warm beneath Ellen Fraser’s knitted blanket with the spring sun beaming through the large window, and there is Jamie, his book open and unattended in his lap, staring at her as he absently pets Adso. He’d withdrawn from his classes months ago, the term an absolute wash, but he’s started catching up with the syllabus; preparation for when he gets back to it in September, he says.

“What are you looking at?” she asks, her voice just a bit croaky. She must have been sleeping for a decent bit of time - he’d only just left for Asda when she curled up.

He tilts a smile at her. “My favorite sight in all the world.”

“You need to see more of the world,” she tells him, and he shakes his head, resuming his petting when Adso butts against his distracted hand.

“It wouldna make any difference. I’d only come home wi’ a whole list o’ things that still aren’t as beautiful as you are.”

“Flatterer,” she says, a blush coloring her upturned cheeks as she smiles. “But at least then I’d know that you have some real basis for comparison.”

“Och, ye think all the crystal blue lochs and gorgeous mountain views across this country aren’t enough? I can recognize the beauty that’s out there, and still think there’s nothin’ I’d rather look at than what’s here with me.” She laughs, and he tips his head, watching.

“D’ye know,” he says slowly, hand still running over Adso’s back. “I think I’ll go to church today. I think there’s a few words that still need saying.”

She smiles at him, broader and deep, even as her heart chasms in her chest from love of him. “I think that’s a beautiful idea.”

“And then…” He flinches a little as Adso kneads his claws contentedly into his flesh, but quickly settles. “And then, I think I’ll go speak to Dougal about comin’ back to work.” He catches her slight concern, but only says gently, “It’s alright, Sassenach. I can remember why I wanted it, before. It’s time.”

She hasn’t truly forgiven Dougal for those moments of inaction and she might never do so truly, but she does know it is time. Without her realizing that it was happening, she’s stopped keeping track of the good days and the bad. Perhaps because the bad ones are fewer, but also because Jamie can wake up shaking, every muscle knotting when she moves to touch him, or she will get caught in watching his hand as he reaches something from the cupboard, finding herself unable to stop thinking of the cracking of the bones there, the blood pooling beneath his skin, and that doesn’t mean that they can’t meet up for a drink with Jamie’s crew in the evening, that she won’t lose herself as he takes her, hard and careful and laughing, against the wall of their shower. What happened at Wentworth House is a part of them now and they can’t ever change it, but it doesn’t shadow the whole of things, not anymore.

She drapes the blanket over the back of the sofa, moving herself so she rests against his chest, careful not to disturb Adso. He tucks his other arm around her and leans to kiss her for a long and comprehensive while; they stay there, afterward, foreheads touching. There is such stillness to the house that for this time, it feels as if they might be the only people left in all the world; it’s not such a bad thought. Then she has another.

“Do you think that Jenny and Ian have arranged for anyone to use the meadow by the broch in the next few weeks?” she asks.

“Bookings for events dinna usually pick up until later into the summer, so I suspect not. Why d’ye ask?”

“Well,” she says slowly, feeling and gauging the weight of each word on her tongue, in the tiny space between them. “I’ve always felt that it’s a beautiful spot for a wedding.”

He stares down at her, and there is a second where she thinks he is going to protest, to say that he can’t or she can’t, that she got it wrong, the time isn’t right, not after everything, that he doesn’t think that it can be ever again.

But he stays silent, and so, infinite with hope, she says, “If I asked you to marry me there, what would you say?”

She knows he’d thought of this long before she ever considered it, back when she was still too raw and confused to know the love of him as forever. She supposes he must have started thinking of that future again sometime over these last weeks, for he answers without contemplation, and even before his words, his smile is already beginning.

In the garden beyond the window, the flowers - lupins and geraniums and lilies, gifted by Jamie’s hands, planted by hers, tended by both together - have bloomed.

Chapter Text

There is a moment - just one - as Claire wakes when she is too groggy to understand where she is. But then she feels the mattress beneath her, smells the familiar scent of her own bedroom, and her mind resolves the sound which had roused her: only Jamie’s firm tread on the stairs of the house, stopping as he comes close to the top, only his low voice speaking Gaelic to someone.

She blinks slowly, swallows against the gummy sourness which comes with unintentional dozing. Looking over at the clock, she finds that it’s just past eleven.

Jamie’s steps resume, reaching the landing. “Time to get ye back to bed, hmmm, mo lasair?” he asks quietly as he passes the closed bedroom door.

Bree, then. He has plenty of general terms of endearment he uses, his “a leannan” and “m'annsachd” mixing with her “lovey” and “sweetheart,” but each member of their family has a particular name from Jamie as well. She isn’t certain whether the one he uses for Brianna comes from her fiery head of hair - more vivid than the auburn her sister’s has settled into - or the ruddy shade of her face when she used to scream and flail even as he walked the halls with her, or her vibrant personality and blazing, stubborn temper, but it truly fits regardless.

He’d used all sorts of names for Faith while Claire was still pregnant with her - “m’ionmhas,” “mo lacha,” from when he couldn’t make head or tail of the first scan, and later on as she began to move about more, “mo leumadair.” But Claire still remembers that first time that she’d been deemed stable enough to be wheeled to the NICU, seeing Jamie’s hair greasy beneath the lights from days without a shower, his forehead leaving streaky marks and his breath fogging up the walls of the incubator, his voice continuing worn and steadfast as he spoke to their tiny daughter, revealing all of the past of her parents and family, spinning out for her every possible future, promising her that he was her father and he would be “right there for always, mo mhìorbhail.” And on that day and so many after, as Faith struggled and eventually began to thrive, he’d called her “mo leòmhann,” and that was the one which stuck.

She hadn’t needed any sort of explanation of his name for Henry, either: “mo sgoilear,” from those wide, wise, searching eyes of his which have shifted from their initial baby blue to a blue-gray that neither of them can lay claim to, uniquely his and beloved for it. Always the patient observer, their littlest boy.

Their first boy is truly a teenager now, a bit old for nicknames, but Claire sees the way a smile slides along Fergus’s mouth when Jamie hooks an arm around his neck and calls him “mon fils” or ruffles his hair and refers to him as “mo mhac” - perhaps all the more meaningful because they’re words that belong to thousands of other boys and their parents and now they belong to Fergus too.

And Claire is, just as she has always been, simply—


She looks up to find that Jamie has returned from putting Bree back to sleep, opening the door silently and standing with his hands braced on either side of the frame, observing her sitting up against the headboard of their bed. His eyes darken as he sees what she’s wearing: an overlarge gray T-shirt, the Fire and Rescue Service logo long begun to fade and flake off, which had originally been his but which they’d stolen back and forth for ages, he for daily wear and she for sleep. Finally they’d been too enthusiastic about getting it off of him one evening and the collar had stretched beyond decency, leaving it permanently hers. He doesn’t seem to mind; when she wears it, his eyes are always drawn to what he terms “the sexiest shoulders in creation.”

He steps into the room and shuts the door behind himself.

“Was it alright?” she asks, sliding the jacket flap into her book to mark her page. “No injuries?”

“Aye, house couldna be saved, but everyone was out before we got there, even the wee terrier. We were mostly there to control the burn.”

He walks around to her side of the bed, bending to kiss her. Her hands twine up his neck, then rest cool on the sides of his face, holding him closer to her. After a sighing minute, they pull away and she admonishes him, “Go wash,” her smile small but thorough.

Holding the book open in her lap, her eyes scan over the words, but she doesn’t take much in, half-absorbed by the rhythm of the water as Jamie showers. By the time he shuts it off, she’s nearly drifting again, only looking over as he pushes open the door. A fair amount of steam vents out into the bedroom, but behind it is Jamie, towel around his waist, brushing his teeth at the sink.

“How was yer day?” he asks, or so she guesses.

“Fine, but busy—”

He snorts. “Which makes it even better for ye.”

“I swear that we’ve about fifteen expectant mothers on our rolls at the clinic—”

“Meaning you’ve got about fifteen more appointments to take on these days.”

She gives him a light glare, more for another interruption than inaccuracy. “It’s the nicest sort of busyness, I suppose. There’s a reason I wanted to study midwifery after all.”

He lets out an affirmative grunt, spitting into the sink. “Well, they’re all luckier for that.”

Giving up the ghost on reading for the evening, she sets her book on her nightstand then looks back over toward him.

“Did I hear Bree out on the stairs when you came in?”

“Aye. Said she couldna sleep, though she was half-dozing on the landing there.” He hangs the towel on the hook on the back of the door - Jenny once told her that she hated that living with Claire had finally gotten him out of the habit of simply leaving it moldering on the floor, which drove her mad all through their childhood - and walks over to the bureau, searching for a pair of pajama bottoms.

When he can get away with it, Jamie certainly still prefers to sleep in nothing at all, but it often isn’t truly practical these days, between one or another of the children needing them in the night, not to mention the completely miserable cravings she’d had while pregnant with Henry. She used to wake up and lie staring at the ceiling until Jamie’s groggy voice would suddenly say from beside her, “Best tell me what it is now so we can get it over with, Sassenach, or neither of us will get a bit more sleep,” and he’d venture out muddled in flannel to fetch particular novelty crisps, or a bottle of hot sauce to mix with orange juice, or “I swear, Jamie, as many tomatoes as you can find.”

But the change had really started earlier, with Fergus, back when he was still waking up shouting from his nightmares and it was apparent that although he was Jamie’s absolute shadow during the day, seeing a grown man stumble in from the hallway darkness half-undressed came with strong and terrible associations. They’ve never forced him to share details about his life before he came into theirs, although he has sometimes chosen to and they know he’s told more to the therapist they finally found who’s a good match for him, but it was such a simple thing for Jamie to change and one that helped their son so much.

It’s been long enough, however, that at least full coverage isn’t required anymore, and she watches as Jamie digs out a pair of black and green checked cotton trousers but no shirt.

“D’ye think something happened with Bree at school?” he asks, glancing over his shoulder at her.

“Her teacher didn’t mention anything,” Claire says thoughtfully, “although you know that she’s good at hiding what she’s done when she wants to. But I wonder if she’s starting to go through that same phase.”

He makes an acknowledging sound. “Was wondering the same.”

Jamie has worked as an on-call firefighter in the rural service ever since they made the move from Leoch to Broch Mordha, before Bree was even born. His work certainly doesn’t shape their days the way it would have if he’d kept his full time schedule, but there does come a point where the children seem to gain awareness of the realities of the job. Fergus, forced as he was by his life before to learn to adapt and not ask for extra, had come to terms quietly early into his time with them and so quickly that they could see it only in retrospect, but Faith had grappled with it just last year, when she’d had a period of shying away from Jamie in the days after he’d been out on a call; Claire thought they’d have a bit more time before Bree started going through the same realization.

He’ll stop if she asks him, she knows that, knows that he’d stop before she had to ask if it was truly hurting their children, but for now this is the life that they’ve settled into, the compromises that allow both of them to do what they love and still be there for the ones that they love.

“We should find a time to take Bree aside and speak to her tomorrow,” she says. He nods, tossing his pajama bottoms onto the end of the bed and following them over.

It’s not an intentionally seductive thing, the way he comes closer up her body, but it works anyway: the fixed power of his muscles, the steady intensity of his gaze. Her mouth opens easily beneath his, her fingers sliding into his hair, still wet from the shower. It’s longer than it’s been in quite a while; he’ll likely cut it soon, but just now it reminds her of how he’d worn it when they first met. She smiles into their kiss and, without even knowing why she’s done it, he does the same in response.

Instead of explaining, she pulls away just enough to say, “You used my shampoo,” against his mouth.

“Forgot to get a new bottle of mine,” he responds, still smiling a little, eyes half-lidded and sweetly hypnotized. “And yers smells like you.”


He winds kisses down her jaw, incremental, toward her throat and over her revealed shoulder. One thumb runs over the chain she wears around her neck; Frank’s ring, a faded reminder now, important to who she was but not urgent to who she is now, has a companion in the charm Jamie gave her for their engagement: a trinity knot with a piece of amber at the center. They’d gotten married so quickly that there hadn’t exactly been time to purchase a real ring - “No’ that ye’d weigh yer hands down with such a thing either,” Jamie had told her fondly.

Her eyes drift dazedly to the ceiling as he takes slow sips of her skin, her hands visiting along his shoulders and back and sides, brushing over the marks which he’s taken on himself. A memory comes to her of bringing Brianna to a classmate’s birthday party last year at the swimming center, how as she’d bent to bundle her daughter into a towel, Bree had leaned over and whispered loudly, “All the da backs are wrong, Mama. Can ye fix them?”

God, she loves them all. She shivers as she helps remove her own T-shirt, and not from the way the air goosepimples her skin.

He’s taking his time tonight, his mouth tracing across her clavicle and down her sternum with the focus she’d once applied to learning anatomy; the whole of her body seems to be waking up, muscles and organs and nerves, although she isn’t certain she could remember how to identify any of them at the moment.

“Oh,” she blurts a few moments later, once again sprawled on her back, the ceiling blurred before her eyes. “When I went to fetch Henry, Jenny said that Mrs. Crook’s announced that she’s finally retiring by the end of the year - going to live with her granddaughter in Nice.”

Jamie laughs, muffled against her left breast. “Mrs. Crook’s been saying that for a decade now, as ye well know. Dinna ken she’d last a month in Nice either, even if she ended up trying.”

“Well, if she does, we’ll need someone new to watch Henry and wee Ian at least part time for another few years, and we’ll have to be conscientious going about the selection too. I don’t want Jenny and Ian to think we’re leaving it all on their shoulders, but I don’t want to be so hands-on that they think we don’t trust them either.”

“Shame to bring poor Ian into it when my sister’s the one ye feel ye have to manage,” comments Jamie, and then he takes her nipple into his mouth, applying first his tongue then his teeth, very gently torturous.

She brings in air in a rush, the feeling of it so much that she arches uncontrollably upward. He knows how sensitive they’ve been, even after she stopped breastfeeding Henry. His thumb runs along the curve of her waist, perhaps meant to be soothing, but it just makes it worse. She moans a little, trying to gather herself.

“And,” she breathes out shakily, “Faith had her last session with the speech and language woman before she goes on holiday. Apparently she’s made such progress that they think she can drop down to monthly appointments once the therapist is back, just to enforce strategies.”

Kissing across to her other breast, he smiles into her skin. “Aye, I could tell last night when she was doin’ her schoolwork wi’ me. Enunciation’s better, and she doesna get so tripped up on the words when she reads aloud.”

“Yes, I could tell that was frustrating her, knowing the words in her head and yet not being able to speak them clearl—Jamie!” She lets out his name in a sharp hiss as he starts on her other nipple, not at all displeased.

He pulls back, but keeps close enough that she feels the fervency of his breath on her skin, even as he speaks conversationally. “You know, Jenny says that her weans wake up for a pin droppin’, but ours sleep through everything. D’ye think they’ve been trained to ignore loud noises in the night because their mam canna keep herself quiet? Self-preservation and all that?”

“I can stay quiet,” she protests, although it’s more instinct than anything else - she’s been proven a liar too many times before, as they both know well. His shoulders shake as he returns to his task.

She loses track of exactly how much time he spends there, things only coming back into focus as he continues down her stomach, his stubble rough on the skin there. He’ll shave tomorrow or the next day. While she likes him a bit rugged like this, which he certainly knows, he hasn’t had a true beard since that frantic period after Faith was born when they didn’t have five minutes to themselves, running sleeplessly to and from the hospital at all hours while at the same time trying to get through the paperwork because Fergus had become free for adoption. When she looks back at their few pictures from the time, she thinks that it’s a wonder the social worker hadn’t deemed him a madman and rejected them altogether - not that she was much better.

(There was also that time three years or so ago that she came back from the conference he insisted she stay at to find him looking fairly grizzled after having dealt with a triple dose of stomach flu. He told her later that he’d already suspected that she was pregnant with Henry and didn’t want her exposed - or just another casualty for him to clean up after.)

“Oh,” she gasps as his fingers reach her shorts. There’s always a risk choosing them instead of something longer when he’s not there warming up the bed, but she’d turned up the heat even though he hates that and gone for it. “I forgot to tell you about the email we got about Fergus. Apparently he’s started a business, selling chat-up lines to the other students. Their choice of English or French - although he charges extra to include a phonetic pronunciation, and double that for a sound recording.”

“Canny wee entrepreneur, he is.” She can feel him laughing again even as he slides a hand beneath her, prompting her to lift her hips, although she doesn’t exactly need the encouragement.

“The head teacher was not amused.”

“Head teacher’s got no sense o’ humor, and could probably do wi’ learning a line or two in French.”

The shorts land, she thinks, somewhere on the floor, but she isn’t really paying attention, too distracted by the tender treatment he is applying to the skin of her right hip bone, the way he nibbles across to her left, paying soft tribute to the stretch marks and scars along his path. She’s long since been disabused of the notion that he might find any of them distasteful.

Shifting bare against the sheets, not entirely certain what she is saying or why she needs to be saying it just now, she nevertheless comes out with a breathless, half-gasped, “And Joe messaged to ask if you would—”

He does not sigh or grumble, but the next moment he has shifted up over her again. Leaning on his elbows, he takes her face between his hands. “Claire Fraser. Heart of my heart, bone of my bone, mother to my children, wellspring of that which is beautiful in my life: I will speak with you about all of this tomorrow and gladly, but just for now, will ye hush yerself and let me love you?”

She blinks. “If I must,” she says, kissing him lightly to seal the bargain.

“Well,” Jamie says, reconsidering, “I suppose you dinna have to keep entirely quiet.” He kisses her this time, quiet and lasting.

“You’re so very considerate,” she says when he pulls away, too languid to add truly stinging sarcasm to the words, a bit of a gasp already coming once again into her voice as he returns downward, paying brief but heartfelt attention once again to favorite landmarks along the way. She dazedly sinks a hand into his hair and lets herself be carried onward.

Later, in the dark, she wraps his fingers between hers, their legs tangled beneath the duvet.

“Are you really alright?” she asks. There wasn’t anything overt earlier - he isn’t short-tempered, and although there have been times where great emotion has driven him to come to her with a frantic sort of energy (not that she particularly minds that state of affairs), he’d been entirely patient and deliberate tonight - but there’s some deeper sense which makes her ask the question.

He doesn’t say anything for a moment, only lets out a breath through his nose, and she knows that she was right. Finally, low-voiced: “The fire earlier.”

It had taken time, even after he’d gone back, for him to truly return to a comfort with his work, but he’d fought for it and eventually settled into an ease with the job. Still, he has nightmares occasionally, or flashbacks that she’ll notice if she’s nearby, quickly flinching across his face or in the unprompted tensing of his jaw, even when there isn’t a particular trigger for them. She tightens her grip and lets him speak.

“I thought I was such...such an authority back when we met. Thought I kent what it was to see horror, to have terrible things happen to me. But I saw that family tonight, losing so much, and I couldn’t help but think that if that was me now...If something happened to me now, if I missed out on a moment...If something happened to you, to any of you…”

They are in darkness, the curtains drawn, the lights off, and yet she still imagines the panic overwhelming his gaze as clearly as if she can see it. She bends her head, hair falling forward, long and soft, as she presses her mouth to his chest, kissing over his racing, brilliant heart.

“It’s alright,” she says softly. “It’s alright, Jamie. It’s alright, love.”

He is indeed different now from when they first met, changed by all that’s happened to him and from the simple growth of a person over time. She loves him all the more despite that, because of it.

He barely seems to hear her, deep as he is in his own mind. “And then I wonder about what if I’d lost it all before it even happened. What if I had made one choice differently, or you did? What if I didn’t speak to you that first night, or bring ye back to Lallybroch, or get up the nerve to ask ye on a date? What if I had been too stubborn to apologize after an argument, and we’d never spoken again?” He shakes his head. “I can hardly stand to think of it.”

Although he doesn’t speak directly about the greatest choice he ever made, the one to come back to her after all that happened with Randall, the choice over and over to try even when trying seemed the most difficult thing in the world, she hears it regardless. She thinks that’s why she couldn’t stop speaking earlier: because she could tell that he needed those reminders tonight, reminders of their family and life together, the everyday wonders that they both are privileged to hold in their hearts.

“There’s no need to think about it at all,” she says, “because you made exactly the right choices.” But she remembers herself, too, asking him to take a walk with her one night at a pub up north, believing that he was so worth the danger that she knew she had to stay, even simply remaining to listen to him that first night instead of hurrying on about her work. “And so did I,” she adds. “But even if we had made different choices, I think we'd still have ended up here, or somewhere like it.”

She can feel him shifting to look down at her, too dark to truly see. “Do ye truly believe that?”

It is, she supposes, a sensible question. After all, he is the one who holds most with what is typically seen as faith, that trust in things which are felt rather than seen.

“Yes,” she says honestly, because if nothing else, she has faith in this. He feels like fate to her, too. “Even if it had happened some other way or taken more time, I would have loved you and married you and had a family with you regardless.”

He makes a soft snorting sound, an apparent lightening of the mood. “Taken more time? If I’d had my way o’ things, it wouldna have even taken half as long as it did.”

“If you’d had your way of things, you would have proposed that first night and had done with it,” she points out, a bit indignant.

Peaceably, without equivocation or shame, Jamie says, “Aye, I would have, and I’d not have regretted it either. After all, according to a clever woman I know, even if ye’d thought me mad then, we’d have ended up here loving each other anyway.”

She laughs a little but, as it fades, lifts her face toward him in the dark.

"I do love you now," she says, sober, tender. "I love you. Do you know?" It is the heart of nearly everything in her life, root and breath and anchor.

She can track his breath through the silence that follows. Then, very softly, he says, "I think that when I no longer know anything else, when I canna recall what I’ve done wi’ my life or even who I am, I will still know that, and how much I love ye in return.”

A life well loved was a beautiful thing to hope for, she’d told him once, and she feels the infinite blessing in each cell that she has such a life, such love. From her friends, from Murtagh, from her nieces and nephews, Jenny and Ian, her children (and one day, she believes, her grandchildren).

From her husband.

She sets her hand over his, taking in the places where his bones have been broken and healed, the reliability of flesh and muscle that has worked a farm, brought people from burning buildings, held tightly and with care to each newly arrived piece of their family. She touches over the calloused skin which speaks of labor and yet which strokes against her with such gentleness, and feels his wedding band wrapped solidly around his finger - Murtagh had made this ring too, without needing to be asked.

That first night, he’d touched her hand, a perfectly simple and innocent thing, and she hadn’t understood why it was different than any other time in her life that she’d been touched, why it was more. All these years later, she still doesn’t understand, but the more is still there, deeper now, as her love for him has twined itself into her and every bit of her life, gaining strength and dimension.

His mouth opens unquestioningly beneath hers, following her lead as she takes calm and easy comfort from him, as he takes the same from her. Long moments later, she pulls away, settling herself more tightly against him, nose tucked by his shoulder. A yawn slips out. He holds her to himself.

“Time to sleep then, Sassenach?”

Nodding, she closes her eyes, but her mind won’t quite let go, even as Jamie’s breathing deepens and evens beside her. She’s thinking through the day, and what tomorrow will bring too.

These unremarkable days are her favorite kind: working for a full and satisfying time, listening to her children’s eager, overlapping voices as they sit around the table or dig their hands into the dirt of their new garden, driving around an estate and village and countryside she knows so well as to have favorite parts and notice the new, speaking with Jamie, lying tangled up with him, echoing the way everything in their lives is tangled, one irrevocable piece.

She must tell him in the morning about how thankful she is for it all. Although, she suspects that she won’t have to, that he already knows and feels just the same. She strokes a crooked finger over his sleeping cheek, and even in the blackness feels it shift upward with his smile.

Yes, she decides, nestling against him and beginning to bend concertedly toward her own rest. Yes, he already knows.