Actions

Work Header

The Lost Ones

Work Text:

For every year that Jamie Fraser could remember, the Christmas season was ushered in with a Fraser family trudge out to the woods to chop down their Christmas tree. In those early years of childhood, there was Willie walking beside him, helping Jamie every time he lost his too-big, hand-me-down boots in the deep snow. And for two more years after that, Jamie could recall slipping his hand into his mother’s as she walked slower than the rest of them, her lips pulled tight in a grim line. She would smile then, just a bit, when she felt his hand in hers, but she was never as happy as before they lost Willie. And then Ma was gone, with the baby too, and every year after that, it was only Da, Jenny, and Jamie making that trip.

Until this year.

This year, there would be no ushering in. No joyful, snowy trek about the grounds of Lallybroch.

This year, instead, everything started with a knock on his door.

He hadn’t seen his neighbor Claire Beauchamp since the day her world collapsed, but she stood on the other side of his door now with a casserole dish in hand ‒ a meal that he guessed she hadn’t made herself, given the glimpse he’d seen of her fridge.

“Claire? Hi. Hallo. This is…”

“I brought beef stew,” she cut in, holding the dish out to him. “As a ‒ a thank you. For the pizza.”

“Christ, ye dinna have tae ‒”

“Full disclosure, I didn’t actually make this, if that makes any difference,” she went on, and Jamie, feeling like a fool for letting her stand there with the dish in hand, took the food and stepped backwards into his flat.

“C’mon in, Claire.”

“A friend from work ‒ yes, thank you ‒ keeps sending me home with home-cooked meals from his wife and they’re starting to pile up in my fridge.” She gestured to the food he still held awkwardly in his hands. “Oh, that’s fresh, though, I just got it tonight and I figured‒” She shrugged. “Well, as a thank you,” Claire said softly.

“Ye really didna have tae…”

But she had. And she was here, in his home, with food. And truth be told, he didn’t really want her to leave. “Stay and eat wi’ me?”

Claire smiled, a small, sad thing, but it was enough to see it on her face again. “Sure. If you’d like.”

“I would.”

He glanced down at the covered dish with a small note taped to the lid, cooking instructions written in a smooth, cursive hand. “Ye’re back at work, then?” he asked, stepping over into the kitchen to turn on the oven.

“Yes,” her voice drifted in from the living room. He heard her sink into a chair. “For about a week now.”

“Can I get ye anything tae drink?”

“Have any wine?”

“Aye.”

His phone buzzed to life in his pocket while he was pouring her glass. He checked the screen ‒ Jenny calling ‒ and ignored it, shoving his phone back into his pocket.

By the time he’d walked out of the kitchen with drinks in hand, he could feel the vibrations from his phone in his pocket again, either of voicemails or follow-up texts ‒ neither of which he wanted to deal with at the moment.

“Oh hello!” Claire’s voice rose in delight, but it wasn’t him she was talking to; his cat Adso had crept out of hiding to investigate and gave Claire’s offered hand a perfunctory sniff before rubbing up against her legs. “Oh what a sweet thing you are.”

Adso arched his back into her hand as she pet him before flopping down at her feet. By the time Jamie was standing right before the pair of them, Adso’s purring was loud enough to fill the room.

“I see ye’ve met Adso.”

“Adso?” She smiled as she glanced up at him and accepted the glass of wine. His heart skittered.

“Aye. He’s verra friendly, as ye can see.”

“Yes, he is.” Her voice carried a certain, buoyant lilt he hadn’t heard before.

“He actually spent some time on my family’s farm when he was a kitten, surrounded by a bunch o’ dogs, so he acts like one sometimes too.”

The conversation ebbed and flowed as they waited for the food to heat, the stretches of silence filled with the unfolding of Claire’s burgeoning friendship with Adso as she rubbed under his chin or scratched his back.

They ate their dinner in companionable silence, and as Jamie started to clean up, refusing any assistance from Claire on the grounds that she was a guest, he watched out of the corner of his eye as she wandered back into the living room, taking a seat this time on the large sofa.

He followed into the room a few minutes later.

“What’s this?”

She held a piece of paper in her hand, looking at the messy, childish scrawl of a nine-year-old boy’s Christmas wish list. At the top of the list, with a heartbreaking strike through it, was one word:

family.

He watched her smile fade as she read it. She swallowed thickly and looked up to meet his gaze, her brows furrowed in concern. “What is this?” she asked again.

“There’s… there’s a program I signed up for this year. Ye buy a gift for a child in foster care and that’s… that’s the wish list for the boy I was assigned to.”

Claire’s gaze dropped back to the paper in her hand and the silence stretched uncomfortably between them. His phone buzzed again, noticeable in how quiet the room had become. “Ifrinn,” he muttered under his breath before he could catch himself, drawing Claire’s attention back to him.

“If now is a bad time‒”

“It’s not. Not at all. It’s only my sister.”

Understanding lit in her eyes and she nodded, but the guilt roiled in his stomach at the sight. He’d told her, the last time. Told her that Jenny was the only family he had left and now here he was in a fight with her that Claire didn’t know anything about.

“If you need to take the call, please do. I can go‒”

No,” he said a little too forcefully, panicked. “It’s nothing. It’s‒”

Claire had told him she was an only child, so he hesitated. Would she understand? He would give his life to protect his sister just as quickly as he would wring Jenny’s neck himself.

His eyes met Claire’s and he recalled the state she was in, the day she came home after learning of her uncle’s sudden and unexpected passing. How the loss of her only remaining relative had rattled her so… The man was like a father to her, she’d said. Oh, aye, he knew that wound went deep. And so, maybe Claire would understand that piece of it…

“I’m no’ going home fer Christmas this year. I just told my sister today. She’s… not happy. So.” He cleared his throat.

She drew in a deep breath in the silence, her face giving away the battle over what to say. “It is hard, isn’t it?” Her arms wrapped around herself and she shrugged. “I’m not looking forward to the holidays without my Uncle Lamb. I’m completely dreading it, if I’m being honest.”

“Aye,” Jamie sighed, the relief of being understood mingling with the guilt and the grief. Since he’d lost his father, it was always like that; everything and all too much, all at once. “That’s why I canna go home, ye see? It’s too… too soon.” He cleared his throat, resolute in his effort not to cry in front of her. “So,” he gestured to the piece of paper still in her hand, half-forgotten by the turn in their conversation, “I thought… mebbe do something for someone else this Christmas so that theirs might be a little better.”

Claire nodded, her eyes looking suspiciously glassy. “It’s a nice idea.” She flipped the page around so it faced him, the crossed-out word being the thing his eyes were drawn to. “Breaks your heart a bit, though, doesn’t it?” she asked, and he knew she meant the dashed-through wish.

“Aye,” he said into his glass just before he took a swig of his whiskey. “Suddenly just buying the lad a wee gift feels woefully insignificant. What kind of loss has he known at such a young age?”

“Same as you and me, I’d imagine.”

Something in her words made his heart trip in rhythm and he looked up to find her gaze on the fire, so he let his eyes linger on her a beat longer than perhaps he should have, drinking in the delicate slope of her profile.

He hadn’t meant to share so much of his loss with her the last time they spoke, but she had laid everything bare in her state of shock, and he felt compelled to level the score. And they’d walked away from that day with the knowledge that they’d both been small children when they lost one or both of their parents, and they were both in their twenties now when they lost a father or father figure. Same as you and me, Claire had said. The heavy losses he’d suffered had always made him feel so alone, never knowing anyone else in his life who had gone through anything quite like that. But now there was Claire, who understood maybe too well a pain he’d have spared her from if he could. And yet… Whatever this magnetic pull between them was, he didn’t want to lose it.

“I think everyone could do with a little bit of kindness right now,” Claire broke the silence. “Especially our young…” she scanned the page again for a name, “Fergus, here. I’ll help you pick out a gift, if you’d like?”

“Aye, I would like that. Thank ye.”

 

She didn’t stay long, leaving what was left of the stew with him since, she’d pointed out, the pizza had fed her for days. He didn’t fight her, because as much as she’d smiled and been pleasant company, he could see the recognizable struggle in her; when you’d lost someone so important to you, even simple things became a chore.

He said goodnight and stood in the doorway, watching to make sure she made it down the hall to her flat without any trouble.

 


 

For every Christmas of her childhood that Claire Beachamp could remember, she and Uncle Lamb were somewhere new and exciting in the world whenever December rolled around. Every Christmas, even once she was grown and Uncle Lamb had settled in Glasgow to teach, still revolved around the man who’d taken in a scared, grieving five-year-old and given her a family ‒ a small one, just the two of them, but one that she wouldn’t have traded for anything in the world.

The Christmas season had arrived, whether she was ready or not, with her world still so off-kilter. This year there was no anchor for her home. No lively, eccentric soul for which her entire holiday season would revolve around.

And suddenly the whole city of Glasgow felt empty and desolate without his light in it. She’d come here after medical school to work and to be closer to him, and now she couldn’t bear to be anywhere except the hospital.

So the knock on her front door startled her. She’d done a good job these last few weeks of hiding from the rest of the world ‒ except from Joe, who wouldn’t put up with that even if she’d tried ‒ and couldn’t fathom who would be bothering her now.

Claire looked through the peephole and then sank back onto her heels. Right. Jamie Fraser. She pulled the door open and leaned her side against it. “Hello, stranger.”

He held out the dish she’d brought over only a few days ago, pristinely cleaned now. “Thought I should return this to ye,” he said, holding it out to her with a half-smile.

“So that I can return it to Joe?” She accepted it from him. “Though, I might wait a bit or he’ll send me home with more food the next day.”

“No’ the worst-case scenario,” he said with a cheeky grin ‒ was he teasing her? “It was delicious.”

“I’ll tell his wife you said so.” The words were out of her mouth before she could consider why she’d said them. Telling Joe Abernathy she’d had dinner with her neighbor ‒ a man ‒ was out of the question and the fact that she’d brought Gail’s food over to share with him would tickle Joe too much. No, she’d never hear the end of his questions over who the man was and when he could meet him.

Jamie cocked his head at that.

She shook her head a bit, flustered. “Never mind. Uh, how are you?”

A strange look crossed his face and for a moment, she thought he might be the one who was flustered. He cleared his throat. “This may seem like a strange request, but my best friend John is on his way over to drag me to a holiday party after I already told him I’m no’ interested in going and I‒” All the teasing light went out of the moment with the look in his eyes. He shrugged, trying to play it off as not all that serious, but she knew the look of a person drowning. Had seen it enough the past few weeks reflected back at her in the mirror each day. “I told him I had other plans and he called my bluff.”

“Always happy to harbor a fugitive,” she joked, hoping it eased some of his worry. “Get on in here.”

He exhaled a smile, a small relieved thing, and ducked his head as he entered, his ears faintly pink at the tips.

“You’re lucky this was tonight and not last night when I was working the night shift.”

She closed the door and turned to find Jamie walking into the open living room. She hadn’t noticed before how completely he filled a space with his presence, but the only other time he’d been here was after she’d been sent home from work after learning about her Uncle Lamb. Jamie had taken one look at her face on the lift and known something was wrong.

That day was a blur, but Jamie’s kindness had stayed with her.

“It’s a nice place ye have here.”

“Thank you. No Adso here, though, so I think yours has me beat.”

He smiled at that. “Would ye get a pet of yer own someday?”

“Someday, perhaps. Not exactly the best fit with my hours at the hospital but…” she shrugged, “yeah, maybe someday.”

She sank into the sofa, tucking one leg in, and gestured for him to have a seat as well. “So this friend of yours?”

“Oh aye, John…” Jamie took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “He means well. Truly. He’s one of my best friends and… weel, I think he’s just worrit about me. No’ that he doesna have cause to, but… I dinna think going to a party will make me miss my da any less. If anything, I think it would only make me miss him more wi’ everyone asking how I’m holding up.”

“Oh god.” Claire shook her head. “The first day back at the hospital for me… Everyone was so kind, but all the questions and the hugs and condolences. I never had a moment where I wasn’t being reminded! Someone even asked about how my parents were holding up, not knowing…”

“Aye, when I went back to work, it was to a classroom full of eleven- and twelve-year-olds who dinna ken what’s appropriate tae say to their teacher who’s just lost his father.”

Claire winced in sympathy.

“They’re no’ bad kids, though,” Jamie amended quickly. “Not at all. Most o’ them were quite sweet about it but aye those first few days back…”

“How long has it been for you? You never said.”

“Three months. So, first Christmas.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Aye, thank ye. I’m sorry… fer ye too.” He wiped his palms down his jean-clad thighs. “If ye ever need a place tae hide from well-intentioned friends trying tae drag ye to a Christmas party, my door is always open.”

She exhaled a laugh. “Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind.”

A gentle lull settled over the room.

“We could do that, you know.”

Jamie’s head swivelled at that. “Do what?”

“We could be each other’s… I don’t know, support system? Excuse for getting out of holiday obligations?”

For one horrible second, she thought maybe she was alone in wanting that with him ‒ needing it, really ‒ until his face lit up with a grin, the sight of which flooded her with relief. “Aye, we could do that.”

“Good. That’s settled then,” she said, smiling. “Is your friend really on his way here or did he only say that?”

“Oh, John isna above literally dragging me places when he feels it’s called for.”

“I see.”

“Actually‒” He stopped abruptly when his phone buzzed in his pocket. “Christ, that’s him calling now. Hold on.”

Jamie answered the phone, keeping his voice rather soft, though there wasn’t any risk of someone being able to hear them even with John being just down the hall.

“I already told ye I had plans… No, I’m no’ just sitting at home wi’ the cat. I’m out. With a friend…”

She saw the way his expression changed at whatever was said on the other end of the line. “Her name is Claire,” he added, sounding somewhat reluctant. His gaze swung over to her then and he held the phone away from his ear, looking a bit like a deer caught in the headlights. “Ye dinna have to, but John asked to‒”

She held out her hand for the phone, smiling slightly at his panic. “All part of the bargain, I suppose.”

“Hello?”

She was surprised to hear the voice of a fellow Brit on the other line. “Yes, hello, this is Claire.” She held the phone back from her ear when there was no immediate response, wondering if the line had dropped.

Christ, he wasn’t lying…” came through the speaker, though she wasn’t entirely sure John was talking to her directly.

“No, I’m a real person…” she intoned dryly, which got a snort out of Jamie.

“You’ll have to forgive me. I’m his best friend and he’s never told me about you,” John went on apologetically. Claire took the opportunity to become very interested in picking the bits of lint stuck to her leggings, hoping Jamie couldn’t see how flushed her face had become. And why would Jamie tell his best friend about the erratic neighbor who encountered him on her way home from receiving the worst news and burst into tears right in front of him? What right had she to feel embarrassed about John’s little admission?

“Listen, I’m sure he told you about the party. Truth is, I don’t really care if he wants to go or not. It’s madness every year and always ends with Rupert and Angus getting into a bloody drunken brawl. But… can you promise me something, Claire?”

Her gaze flicked over to Jamie, wondering if he could hear from his spot all that John was saying to her or not. Subconsciously, she pressed the phone a little harder to her ear. “Of course.”

Of course, she’d said, and she didn’t even know the man. Didn’t even know Jamie, really, though she felt like she did.

“Just… don’t leave him alone, yeah? I don’t know what he’s shared with you, but he’s going through a bit of a rough time the last few months and today was hard, I think ‒ of course he’s so stubborn, he won’t talk. That’s the only reason I pushed him about the party.”

She did understand, better than John could know. “Alright,” was all she said, ever so conscious of the way Jamie’s gaze hadn’t left her face since he’d handed her the phone.

“What was all that about?” Jamie asked, taking the phone back. Whatever John said, it cracked a smile from Jamie. He wrapped up the call quickly, sending an arched brow in Claire’s direction. “Sorry about that.”

“Don’t be. I can tell he’s a good friend. He cares about you.”

“Aye, he is, but he’s also a worrywort.”

She thought of her friend Joe then, how he’d been shoving meals at her every time he saw her just to make sure she was still eating. As much as his pestering could get on every last nerve, she was grateful for him ‒ and glad that Jamie had a friend like that in his life.

“So,” Jamie clapped his hands together and gave her a crooked smile, “What did he say to ye?”

“Oh, no. That is between me and John.”

“You and John? Ye dinna even ken the man!”

“How dare you. After the conversation we’ve just had, I now consider him a very dear friend.”

“Oh Lort, it was a mistake tae ever introduce ye. The last thing I need is the two Sassenachs in my life joining forces against me.”

“Hey!” She pelted him with the closest throw pillow. “I know what that word means, you arse.”

He uttered an apology, but given that he was still red-faced with laughter, she refused his apology and whacked him with the pillow again for good measure.

“So how did you meet John?”

“John and the other lads who will be at the party are all friends from university.”

“He did mention something about the night typically ending in a brawl between Rupert and…”

“Angus. He told ye that? Aye those two clot-heids always o’erdo it.”

He glanced at his phone and took a deep breath. “Weel, I should get out of yer hair. I’m sure John is long gone by now. And my coming over here unannounced and all, I dinna wish tae ruin yer evening plans.”

“Actually, I… I was having a bit of a rough day, truthfully. I appreciate the company. You can stay if you’d like. We can watch a movie? Not Christmas-related, of course. And I think I have some popcorn somewhere.”

Jamie had already settled back into the sofa, his body language telling of his desire to stay ‒ a sign that made her absurdly pleased. “Aye, but how long ago did that expire?”

Her mouth fell open in surprise. “James Fraser!”

His hands flew up in self-defense, blocking the throw pillow. “It’s a valid question! Last time I was here, yer milk had expired.”

“That’s different,” she insisted, getting up to make popcorn ‒ for herself at least if he didn’t want any. “Popcorn doesn’t expire nearly as fast as milk.”

She grabbed a popcorn bag from the cabinet and removed the plastic wrap. And, just because, she checked for an expiration date. And stilled in her trek to the microwave. Her gaze flew to Jamie in the sitting room, but he was facing the television, already scrolling through her Netflix account.

Well… expiration dates were always more of a suggestion anyway.

 

By the time he was leaving her home, Jamie looked less rattled than when he’d entered, which pleased her more than she cared to admit. It had been a bit of a shock to see him so… so lost. Every previous interaction with Jamie Fraser, he’d always seemed so steady and certain.

But it had only been three months, he’d said. It’d only been three weeks for her and she couldn’t imagine she’d be in a different place in her grief in just a mere few months’ time.

She must’ve passed Jamie so many times in the hall and on the lift during those months without knowing what secret hell he was going through. She couldn’t have known, but she wished somehow that she had. At least she was able to return the favor in some way tonight, offering refuge from social obligations.

Jamie was halfway out of the door when she called him back. “Oh, hey, Fraser?”

His head popped back into view.

“I should probably grab your number‒ for the boy. For gift shopping. So we can schedule a time to go?”

She was mortified to feel her face flush ‒ why had it flushed, over a perfectly reasonable suggestion? ‒ and it only deepened at his responding smile and slow, owl-eyed blink.

God, Jamie Fraser would be the death of her.

 


 

He knocked at Claire’s door one day to collect her for their shopping trip and they walked out of the building, side-by-side, into the blustery winter evening. She was bundled up in a thick coat with woolen hat, scarf, and mittens, but still leaned further into him whenever the wind kicked up.

Jamie balled his hands into fists, not purely as a reaction to the cold, but against the damn near-impossible-to-resist urge to wrap one arm around her shoulders and tuck her fully into his side and shield her.

“Should’ve taken a car,” he muttered aloud. “We can still‒”

“It’s alright. The shops aren’t far.”

They weren’t far, but the night was bloody cold. By the time they arrived at the first shop, their wind-whipped cheeks and noses were red and they were both chilled to the bone, escaping from the wind and frigid temperature only to be drawn into the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping. Christmas music played over the loudspeaker, and every aisle they turned down involved shuffling and bumping past other shoppers.

They’d been in the store for a full twenty minutes before Jamie realized neither of them had spoken a word, nor were they really taking in what they were seeing. He glanced down at Claire to see her staring through the mess of loud, too-happy people.

“I read something recently,” he leaned down towards her as he spoke. “About grief. About… going out in the world again after losing someone.”

Claire’s gaze snapped up to his, giving her full attention as they continued to wind their way down an aisle.

“Someone was sharing about their experience after losing a parent and they said something that stuck wi’ me. They said they understood why the Victorians had worn black armbands when in mourning, because it signified to the rest o’ the world around them that they were no’ ready to engage wi’ it yet. I’d never thought of it that way.”

He gave a slight, sweeping gesture to their surroundings. “Kind of feels like what this is… Feeling no’ ready to engage wi’ all the holiday fanfare.”

“And like we don’t quite fit in with all the shiny, happy people,” Claire added with a wry smile.

“Aye, exactly.”

Her shoulder bumped into his as they walked. Nearby, a child was shrieking with joy, accentuating the gap between where he and Claire stood apart from the rest of the world just then.

They fell silent again, winding through the store and glancing at the shelves of toys without any spark of interest.

“There’s another toy store around the corner, we could pop in there,” Jamie suggested. Claire nodded, and they walked out into the cold night, greeted with twinkling lights and chunky snowflakes starting their slow saunter to the ground. At another time, in another life, it might’ve lifted Jamie’s spirit.

The next shop was smaller, filled with less of the joyful chaos than the other, but Jamie still felt a little lost perusing the shelves there. Claire had fallen silent again, seemed a little distant even from him.

“What d’ye get a boy who really wants something ye canna give him?” He mused aloud.

“I’m sorry,” Claire murmured. “I offered to help and I feel like I’m not very helpful.”

“Nah, you’re no’ doing anything wrong, Sassenach. I thought something would jump out at me if I just wandered through the stores, but mebbe I should’ve done some research first.”

“When do you need to have the gift for him?”

“By December 21.”

“Well,” Claire said with a slight sigh of relief. “We have a bit of time left yet.”

Oh it’s we now, is it?

Her shoulder bumped into his again, and he wondered if both times had been intentional. “Try for another day?”

“Aye,” he gave her a weak smile. “Sorry to have dragged ye out into the cold fer nothing.”

Claire only shook her head at that, and they braced for the walk home. They beat the snow before it piled high overnight, but they were both covered in a thick dusting by the time they reached their building.

“I’ll text ye? We can plan for another day then,” he said when they’d reached Claire’s door. She nodded with a slight smile that didn’t reach her eyes, and bid him goodnight before slipping into her flat, leaving Jamie alone in the hallway.

Some small voice in his head told him he’d mucked this up somehow. Should’ve known beforehand what he wanted to buy the boy, should’ve never taken Claire to that first store…

Jamie slipped his key into the lock and turned, pushing the front door open. Adso came running to greet him, meowing and circling around his legs.

“Ye always do that, and I’m always worrit I’m gonna step on you,” he grumbled, scooping the cat up so that Adso was out of danger.

The image of Claire’s downcast face as she slipped quietly inside her own home was still running through his mind. “But she did say we had time, Adso,” he went on, as if the cat had known his thoughts. “So that’s not for nothing, aye?”

 


 

Claire Beauchamp began to fill more and more of Jamie’s days, out of solidarity for their agreement of helping each other through the difficult season. Her schedule being a bit more unpredictable than his, it had become a routine that she would text or stop by every now and then, on the evenings she wasn’t working during the week. And on the days that were hard, filled with aching loss or Jenny’s resentment, those moments became a lifeline for Jamie.

On one such day, he heard that familiar rap on the door and spotted Adso scrambling out of the bedroom and headed from the entryway. “Oh dinna be so obvious, ye lovesick fool,” he nudged Adso back from the door with his foot, and the cat meowed in protest.

He only realized that he was already smiling as he opened the door by the way it dropped sharply at the sight of Claire.

Her eyes were red-rimmed from crying and she stood before him with her arms crossed over her chest, hugging herself. “Hey,” she offered weakly, and cleared her throat, looking back over her shoulder in the direction of her flat like maybe she was about to lose whatever courage had brought her here and bolt instead.

Jamie caught her gently by the elbow and tugged her forward into his arms, letting the door close behind her. With a sigh, all the tension she held in her body went away, and her arms circled around his back. He tucked her head under his chin, and tried not to dwell on how right it felt to hold her, how perfectly situated her head was against the hollow of his neck.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh, just… a rough day at work.”

He let that go without further prodding, though the realization came a moment too late that while he’d had his fair share of rough days at work, for Claire that came with a heavier toll when it was life on the line. He swallowed thickly and didn’t voice the question. Didn’t want to make her say it if it was true.

“Have ye had anything to eat yet?”

She shook her head against him.

He became aware of how long he’d been holding her like this, having long since surpassed what could be considered just a hug. But she had made no move to extricate herself from him.

“I could whip us up something to eat?”

She stilled and then pulled back slightly to look up at him. The heaviness of the day was still there in her face but she cracked a wry smile in spite of it ‒ a small act that he was proud of her for, knowing how hard won those could be. “‘Whip us up something to eat’? Have you been holding out on me, Fraser? This whole time I’ve known you, and you know how to cook? I can’t believe I fed you Gail’s cooking.”

He exhaled a startled laugh. “Never said I was any good at it, don’t get yer hopes up.”

She had eased away from him ‒ it had happened naturally with the shift in conversation, but he still mourned the loss of her in his arms. Adso had perched himself on the armrest of the sofa nearest them,and was looking up at Jamie longingly. “Here, this wee fellow is good company on a rough day.” Jamie said as he scooped up Adso and passed him over to Claire and watched her snuggle the cat close. His breath snagged in his throat.

 

Claire hadn’t intended for the night to turn into this; Jamie at the stove, whipping up a meal for them and occasionally speaking over his shoulder to her, and Jamie’s cat purring in her lap as she sat on his sofa. She wasn’t sure what she had intended when she’d shuffled down the hall to his door, other than she was certain she didn’t want to be alone on this night, and Jamie was… Jamie was the only person who made her feel less alone in her grief.

And Jamie hadn’t lied; Adso was good company, purring non-stop as she stroked his soft fur and scratched behind his ears.

She pushed away the thought that this rather mundane, domestic moment in Jamie’s home was something she could get used to. Just because you are a wreck, falling for your neighbor in the midst of your life being turned upside-down, doesn’t mean he reciprocates those feelings.

Oh, but when Jamie set a plate down of steaming stir-fry in front of her, beaming proudly, it was hard to say with certainty that he didn’t feel anything toward her… Maybe there was something there…

Dinner was comfortably quiet, filled with the occasional soft-spoken word and shoo-ing the cat when Adso hopped onto the dining table looking to supplement his own dinner.

“That was very good,” Claire sighed contently, leaning back in her chair with hands crossed over her full stomach. “Though, this also means you’re back in hot water for hiding this special talent of yours.”

Jamie laughed that off as he collected their plates, though she noticed that the tips of his ears had gone faintly pink. She smiled to herself.

“I hope I didn’t intrude too heavily on your evening.”

“No, not at all,” he said quickly from the kitchen. “Just have a few quizzes to grade tonight.”

She nodded at that, and polished off her glass of wine.

“Ye can stay and help me grade them?”

Claire glanced up to find him watching her, feigning indifference as he waited for her answer.

Stay and help him grade quizzes? After he’d fed her dinner and she’d snuggled his cat? Some small part of her brain that strived for her to stay self-sufficient in life screamed at her leave and stop indulging in… whatever this was with Jamie.

“Deal,” she said, a little too forcefully.

 

He handed her a stack of papers and a pen, and she settled into the sofa beside him. She skimmed the top of the page and didn’t get very far. “Jamie.”

“Hmm?” He played his tone off as nonchalance but she heard the amusement hiding there.

“This is all in… what is this, Gaelic?”

The corners of his mouth twitched. “I told ye that I teach Gaelic, didn’t I?”

“Yes, but how am I supposed to help you grade these, you arse?”

He finally cracked, smiling at her name-calling, and retrieved another paper for her. “Here’s the answer key. I reckon that should help.”

“Yes,” she snapped it out of his hands with mock-annoyance, “I reckon it should.”

She was determined to actually be of help to him, so she stayed quiet for a while, until she started to get a rhythm going with the grading. “What made you want to teach Gaelic?”

One corner of his mouth quirked, an almost smile. “I had a fantastic Gaelic teacher when I was a lad. He was so passionate about preserving the language. Made me want to master it, and then when I was older, I thought I could see myself teaching. And…” His voice dropped a little lower, softer, “my ma spoke Gaelic, too. She was the one who first taught me some o’ the language.”

She hummed softly. He’d told her, obviously, about when he lost his mother, but not of the woman herself. “Do you remember her much?”

“Aye, better than I can remember Willie at least.”

“Your poor dad. I can’t imagine…”

“Aye.” Jamie flipped the paper into the completed pile and grabbed a new quiz. “Those first few years after we lost my ma were tough… my da was so heartsick but he still wanted to be present for me and Jenny. There were better years when I was a little older, but I dinna think one ever really gets over that kind of loss.”

“No,” Claire sighed softly. “I don’t think so either. And I’m sorry… for you and your sister, that’s hard for you too.”

He swallowed thickly and didn’t respond.

“How’s it going with your sister?”

“Oh, that.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I mailed her the Christmas gifts for the bairns ‒ she has two weans, did I tell ye? ‒ and uh… well, it’s no’ going well wi’ Jenny, no. She’s threatening to hide the gifts from them tae try and make me come up for the holiday and give them to the bairns myself.”

“God. I’m so sorry, Jamie.”

“Aye, well, that’s Jenny for ye. Stubborn as a mule.”

She shook her head despairingly. While it didn’t excuse Jenny’s behavior, it was painfully obvious to Claire that both Frasers were struggling and, while she had no real knowledge of what it meant to have a sibling, she did find it equal parts fascinating and frustrating that they seemed incapable of seeing the struggles of the other.

“Probably grateful ye’re an only child, huh?”

She snorted softly. “To be honest, no, I always wished I had a brother or sister. Oh, this child’s handwriting is terrible. How am I supposed to grade their work if I can’t tell what the fuck they wrote?”

Jamie laughed at her sudden outburst, glancing at the paper in front of her. “Oh aye, that’s Rabbie MacNab, most o’ his work is illegible but he’s verra bright and works hard, puir handwriting aside. Here, I’ll grade that one.”

She handed the paper over to him and resumed grading the next one.

“Jenny got to see our da a lot more than I did, in recent years,” Jamie began, head bent over the paper in front of him. Claire stilled in her work, listening. “She lived close-by tae Lallybroch still and especially once she had the bairns, she’d bring them over tae see their granda at least once a week.” He smiled suddenly, despite the heaviness of his words and the apparent longing. “He loved Jenny’s bairns in a way I’ve never seen wi’ him before. He was so happy and besotted wi’ them.” He swallowed roughly and the silence stretched between them. Claire’s gaze fell back to her own paper.

“Anyway, I didn’t get up to Lallybroch as often, being settled here in Glasgow now. So Jenny saw him more often. And Jenny remembers the last time she saw our da and the last words they shared. I dinna ken which time was the last I saw my father. Dinna recall our last words. And that’s no’ Jenny’s fault, but… she has that knowledge for herself at least and she‒” He broke off suddenly and she was powerless to stop the impulse to touch him in some way, offering some bit of comfort; she reached out and her hand smoothed over his russett curls.

Jamie took a deep breath. “It’s no’ so much that I don’t want to be around Jenny as I’m just… struggling wi’ the unfairness of it all. Some people have their whole family wi’ them. But my da had to lose two wee sons and my ma all within two years and‒ and then to suffer through those losses and no’ even live to see 50… to die before Jenny’s bairns would ever really know him. Now if I ever have bairns of my own…” His voice drifted off, letting the sentence hang. They both knew well enough the regret and the longing tied up in that thought.

Jamie scrubbed a hand over his face. “I canna help but feel… angry. And I dinna ken who to even be angry at. Other than God, I suppose. Because it doesn’t feel right or fair that my family has suffered so greatly.”

His gaze flitted over to meet hers.

“I can understand that,” she murmured. “The anger, at least. I know our situations aren’t exactly the same. And I didn’t expect… I mean, I love my Uncle Lamb very much, but it also feels like his death… kicked open a door I had shut a long time ago, and suddenly, I’m grappling with being an orphan at twenty-seven even though my parents have been gone since I was five. And I feel small and broken and five years old all over again. I feel like I’ve‒ like I’ve backtracked. Like I’ve lost my way a little, and I don’t know where to go from here.”

He made a small sound at the back of his throat and reached for her. She was gathered up against Jamie’s side, her head coming to lay on his chest. For the second time tonight, she settled into the safety of his embrace and wondered if she could ever go back to how it was before she’d entered his flat tonight. Some nebulous thing had shifted between them, even before Jamie had opened up to her. Maybe even before tonight, if she was being honest.

“Jamie,” she looked up at him, and registered at that moment how close his face was to hers. Her gaze dropped to his lips, so close to her own, and flicked back up to his eyes. She swallowed roughly. “What are we doing?”

 

Jamie… what are we doing?”

It wasn’t, he thought, a question posed in the literal sense. And with her face mere inches from his own, staring up at him, he responded in the only way he could think to answer her question.

His hand cupped her jaw as he leaned down and kissed her. Her lips were soft against his, and he felt her fingers card through his hair, taking hold at the nape of his neck.

It was a thought that had hounded him the last few weeks — what would it feel like to kiss Claire Beauchamp, how would she taste on his tongue? He tilted his head, seeking further access to her mouth, and swallowed a delicious sound from her.

And he kept kissing her to stop the rush of words to his tongue that even his foolish brain knew were too premature to admit out loud: That he’d wanted her from the first moment he saw her in the hallway of their building, but he’d loved her since that day she’d wept in his arms and allowed him to care for her.

 


 

“This one, this is it,” Jamie said decidedly.

“You’re sure?”

“Aye, look, the lad says on his wishlist that he loves football, and he can practice his juggling and tricks wi’ this.” He bounced the smart ball on his thigh to demonstrate as it counted out loud.

“Alright,” Claire said with a laugh, and he relished the sound. “Well, this was much easier the second time around.”

They purchased Fergus’s gift and began their stroll back towards home. They’d gone on a Saturday afternoon this time, which didn’t help much with the crowds, but the sunshine peeking through the clouds had lifted their spirits.

And… well, they were both feeling a bubbly, infectious joy in each other now, a little at war with their grief, and they were simply stumbling through it ‒ the grief and the joy and the confusion of it all. Claire’s hand slipped into his and squeezed tight.

“So what’s next now that we have the gift?”

“We could choose to just drop off the gift at any time before Dec 21st but… there’s also a holiday fundraiser on that day for the kids and we do have the option of attending and being able to give the lad his gift in person.” He chanced a sideways glance at Claire. “What d’ye think, Sassenach? Would ye like to meet wee Fergus?”

 


 

Their one concession for the holiday season became the banquet, a chance to meet the lad who had become something of a kindred spirit to them before they even met him. Without knowing his story, regardless if he had been orphaned or abandoned, they each knew the sharp pain of not having parents to belong to.

It felt like the first tentative step in his and Claire’s newly formed relationship, going to the holiday event together. The sight of Claire standing in his doorway, all dolled up and looking up at him with that coy smile of hers had his stomach doing somersaults.

“Dinna ken why I’m nervous,” he whispered to her, gift in his hands, as one of the event coordinators went to find Fergus and facilitate an introduction. They stood in a banquet hall starting to fill with people, some of the children flocked together near the large Christmas tree.

Claire let out a soft laugh. “It’s alright. I’m a little nervous too.”

The woman returned with a boy by her side. Fergus had a slight, lanky build, and striking blue eyes peering out from under a mop of unruly brunette curls.

“Jamie and Claire, this young man is Fergus,” the woman introduced brightly. “Fergus, they brought you a gift for Christmas.”

“Hallo, laddie,” Jamie stuck his hand out and shook Fergus’s hand.

Bonjour,” he replied.

“Oh, Fergus dear, use yer English tonight,” the coordinator corrected him.

Il n'a pas à le faire. je comprend,” Jamie spoke up, which startled Claire and the volunteer into silence. Fergus’s whole face lit up and words poured out of him so fast, he could hardly catch his breath.

Claire sidestepped a little closer to the woman who had brought Fergus over as he and Jamie chatted excitedly. That Jamie also spoke fluently in French was a bit of a surprise, but maybe it shouldn’t have been, with the fact that he taught Gaelic for a living. What other languages did he know, she wondered? “Is Fergus from France then?” she murmured, out of curiosity. “Or perhaps lived there for a time?”

The woman gave a slight, sad smile. “We don’t know much of Fergus’s story before he entered the system last year. He can speak English fluently, but it’s very clear that French is his native tongue.”

“And his name really is Fergus? Or‒”

“No, that’s his name! That’s the name he went by, at least.”

Claire’s gaze turned back to Jamie and the boy. She knew bits of conversational French, but Jamie carried on effortlessly with young Fergus.

“Your husband is wonderful with him. Have ye two ever considered fostering?”

“Oh. He’s not ‒ we’re just…” Claire let the sentence hang, long enough for the woman to get an idea. The woman’s eyes widened.

“My apologies‒”

“No, no, you’re fine.” Claire waved a hand dismissively, wanting more than anything to move on from having to define whatever this was between her and Jamie, so new that they hadn’t stuck a label to it. “And it’s true, Jamie is very good with children. He’s actually a teacher.”

 

Jamie had purposefully navigated the conversation with Fergus around to football in advance of giving him his Christmas gift, feeling his own excitement bubbling up as Fergus’s love of the sport became very plain.

“Here, I want to make sure you have the chance to open this before the festivities start soon,” he added in French, handing the wrapped gift to Fergus.

He glanced over and saw that Claire was watching them as well. He attempted a wink at her, which only made Claire’s smile deepen, and turned back to see Fergus’s reaction. The boy dug into the gift bag and retrieved the smart football, taking a moment to read packaging with a furrowed brow. Suddenly, his face brightened and he uttered a heartfelt thank-you.

“Ye’re very welcome lad,” Jamie switched to English, wanting to include Claire in the moment as he held his hand out to her to join them.

“We hope you have a very happy Christmas,” Claire added.

“Thank you, Milady,” Fergus said cheekily with a slight bow, and Jamie felt his rib straining against the bottle-up laughter. “I wish the same to you and your husband.”

He noticed Claire’s face turning beat-red out of the corner of his eye. He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Oh, no, we’re just…”

Fergus’s face scrunched in confusion. He turned back to Jamie. “You haven’t married her yet? Why not?”

“Fergus,” the woman cut in, her tone the only warning she issued.

The boy shrugged. “If that is the case then, Mademoiselle,” he turned to Claire, “can I just say that you have very beautiful‒” His hands cupped in front of his chest, but before he could finish his sentence, his arm was seized by the volunteer who’d brought him over.

Fergus, I believe it’s time you rejoin the rest of the children.”

“Thank you again for the gift!” he shouted to them as he was led back to the group of children. “I absolutely love it!”

“That was…”

“What just happened? And why does everyone here think we’re married?”

“Wait, what?”

But before she could clarify on that point, Claire turned her face into his shoulder, shaking with laughter, and it triggered his own.

“Cheeky wee devil,” Jamie managed, once he’d sobered up from the laughter.

Claire shook her head, still smiling bright. “I’m obsessed with him. What a character.”

He nosed in at her temple and pressed a kiss there. “I’m glad we did this.”

She gave him a soft look, eyes twinkling with merriment. “Me too.”

They stayed through the rest of the evening’s program, but never bumped into young Fergus again. Still, he was top of mind for both of them as they left the event.

“D’ye think that wee lad will get his family after all?”

“I hope so. He deserves a loving home.”

The night was chilly but windless, and he breathed in the crisp, clean air and saw his breath on the exhale. Claire’s hand slipped through his arm and held on. They had taken his car tonight, but it was a bit of a walk to the car park. “I wish we could know, somehow,” he mused.

“Maybe we’ll see him again.”

He glanced down at her and found her own expression a little startled at her words, like she hadn’t meant to say them out loud. She shrugged helplessly and dropped her gaze. “Don’t ask me what possessed me to say that; I couldn’t say. Just a feeling, I guess.”

He exhaled a laugh and let it go. They reached his car and climbed in.

“I’m working tomorrow night, but do you have plans for the night after that?”

Jamie started the engine and made sure the heat was going, but didn’t move to put the car in drive. Claire’s words hung in the air, the typical start to a conversation they had quite a few times a week now, sorting out their schedule with each other. “That’s the 23rd, aye?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve been thinking… I might go up tae Lallybroch for Christmas after all.”

Surprise flickered across her features but it was swiftly followed by a smile. “I think you should.”

“Aye?”

“Yes, absolutely. If that’s what your heart is telling you to do, then go be with your sister over Christmas. I think that would be so good for both of you.”

He returned her smile, but also didn’t miss the rest that she was trying to hide ‒ the reality of what her days would look like if he left. Jamie took a deep breath, hoping that she went along with his next thought as easily as she had the first. “I was also thinking that ye should come wi’ me.”

“What?”

“Look, Jenny and I will both probably be miserable all day anyway, so ye dinna need to worry about putting on a happy face fer us. And the kids will just be happy it’s Christmas and won’t take any notice if the adults are a bit more sad than usual, and,” he shrugged shyly, “they’re a good distraction. They’re cute kids, ye’ll like them. I think,” he added, realizing how bold he sounded. He drew in another deep breath, feeling like his heart was about to march right out of his chest. “Come wi’ me. It’s going tae be a terrible holiday anyway, but I’d ‒ I’d like it verra much if ye were there. And I did promise tae support ye through this season and I canna do that verra well if ye’re no’ with me.”

She was gnawing on her bottom lip without an immediate answer for him. He reached for her hand and brought it to his lips.

“No gifts, no pressure or expectations, none o’ that. I promise. All I want fer Christmas… is you.”

He savored the sound of her startled laughter and the way she was still smiling when she rolled her eyes at his joke. “That was terrible, Fraser.”

“Aye, but I meant every word.”

Her gaze softened a little. “I know.” She sighed heavily, her thumb caressing his skin where their hands were still clasped. “Take me home so I can get some rest before my shift tomorrow, Jamie, and in two days, you can take me up to Lallybroch.”

“Aye?” He couldn’t contain his wide smile. “Ye’ll come wi’ me?”

She threw her hands up in slight exasperation. “To hell with it. Everyone already thinks we’re married, apparently. Might as well tackle Christmas with your family next.”

He laughed at that and leaned over the console to kiss the smile on her lips, and started the drive home with her hand still clasped in his.