James Fraser knows loss intimately.
His own blood, mother, father, brothers and uncles. Murtagh. His kin, his men, slain on the battlefield.
His daughter, with slanted eyes and copper hair, gone before he'd ever had the chance to see her for himself, to hold her in his arms, just the once.
His wife, his heart and soul and entire world—
He’d lost her once as well, and lived twenty years as a hollow shell of a man. But Claire had come back to him…
“I will never leave you again.”
He watches her now, delirious with fever, writhing in pain, and wonders if the day has come that she'll break her promise.
Hours have passed since the moment she collapsed into his arms, white as a ghost and skin like fire. She’d been silent then, unresponsive to his touch as he swept her up into his arms. His knees had almost buckled, legs shaking as he ran towards the wagon. He had cradled her tightly the entire journey home, her head thumping against his chest each time they hit a bump on the road.
The whimpers of pain began just as they raced past the stables, each sound like a stab to his gut.
At a loss for what to do, he had stood aside as others took charge to care for Claire, watching helplessly as they tried to cool her fever and ease her discomfort. There was little he could do for her now, but perhaps he could have prevented this.
The guilt eats away at him.
If only he had put his foot down sooner, forced her to rest, made sure she had more to eat and drink than a bite of crusty bread and tea gone cold from sitting out.
Perhaps it would not have come to this.
She would have fought him at every turn, of course, called him wicked names and scolded him for interfering with her work. His Sassenach had always been such a stubborn wee thing.
But at least she would not be hurtin’ so.
He’d once said he couldn't bear her pain.
He knows now just how right he was.
“She’ll be more comfortable in her own bed.”
It's late when he makes the decision to move her upstairs to their bedroom. His cheek brushes against her forehead as he gathers her into his arms, and her skin is hot and covered in a sheen of sweat.
He may not be able to protect her from sickness, but he can take her someplace he knows she feels safe.
She shudders in his hold as he moves through the house and he tightens his grip, pausing just as he reaches the spiral staircase leading to the second floor. Taking a breath, he looks up.
He’d built each one himself, much to Claire's amusement. She was very much appreciative of his craftsmanship but thought a normal staircase would serve them just as well. On the day he had completed his work, she'd allowed him to sweep her into his arms and carry her up and over the threshold to inspect their future bedroom.
She had slapped him on the arm when he accidentally bumped her head against the wall on the way up and they ended up laughing so hard he almost lost his footing and dropped her.
The warmth of the memory fades away to a harrowing reality, and he’s careful, deliberate with each and every step.
Their room is blanketed in darkness, but he navigates his way to their bed with ease, gently setting her down atop the covers. Her hands begin to tug at the hem of her coat, and he silently curses himself for not realising sooner that wearing so much cannot be comfortable in her fevered state.
Lighting a single candle at their bedside to help him see properly, he strips her down to her shift, discarding each piece of clothing in a pile on the floor. He’s pulling her stockings off when Brianna enters, followed closely by Malva and Lizzie. They move in tandem, wordless, silent, but united with a single goal.
The helplessness from earlier returns to him, an iron band around his lungs, squeezing and squeezing until he drops to his knees, near-gasping for breath. He reaches forward, searching for an anchor to keep him steady and takes Claire's hand.
Touches her cheek.
He squeezes her cold, cold fingers between his own and begins a silent prayer.
God, shield my beloved, my white dove. Preserve her from violence and from harm in this place and every place, on this night and on every night.
Jamie flees their bedroom after less than an hour, no longer able to bear the sight of Claire in such agony. He thunders down the stairs and stumbles out into the night, losing the contents of his stomach mere steps from the house. He isn’t ill, only sick with the thought of losing his wife.
There's a nip in the air. His skin prickles with it, and he knows Claire would never forgive him if he went and caught a chill, especially not while she isn’t in a fit state to fuss over him herself. He hurries back inside, arms folded over his chest and heads for the kitchen, puttering around to find something to wash his mouth out with.
Drains the last dregs from a bottle of whisky that’s been open for too long — one of the last Fergus had helped produce before he left for New Bern. Christ… he misses his son and daughter all the more now. Part of him wishes they were still at the Ridge — Fergus would be a great comfort to him and Marsali, the lass wouldn’t leave Claire’s side until she saw her Ma healthy and hale once more. But it’s for the best that they’re away from here, away from the sickness and pain.
God knows they’ve faced their fair share of troubles already.
Sighing, he sets the now-empty bottle down on the table and sits down by the fireplace. Drops his head into his hands and wills the crackling of the flames to drown out the sound of puttering footsteps from above his head.
He cannot hear Claire’s cries from down here… but the sounds are burned into him already, echoing through the recesses of his mind, reminding him that she’s suffering. His thoughts are spiralling with it, and he’s lost and unfocused when Malva comes and offers him tea.
He speaks of the snakebite.
Claire had barely left his side then, doing everything she could to tend to his wounds. She’d told him she was scared but done so well to hide it, even behind that glass face of hers. It was her touch that had kept him tethered to this world when every last bit of him was ready to die.
The guilt hits him square in the gut once more. He had run, unable to face the harsh reality that his wife might be dying. He couldn’t bear to see her in pain and so he looked away. The sound of her cries had fractured his heart and he’d gone far enough to hear them no longer.
Because I am a coward.
But his own pain shouldn’t matter — it doesn’t.
He… he needs to be with her.
With that revelation, Jamie stands, so abruptly it almost topples the chair in which he was sitting. He grabs a bottle of whisky, knowing he’ll need something to help get through it all, and marches straight upstairs to their room.
Malva is rather insistent on caring for Claire and while Jamie is touched that the lass is so fond of his wife, he makes the decision to send her down to the surgery instead.
“You tend to her patients, I'll tend to my wife.”
She’s reluctant but obeys his command, and leaves the room with a squeeze of his arm, ducking her head as she does so.
He dismisses Lizzie also, taking it upon himself to be there for Claire in every way he can.
It isn’t easy, and he knows that it isn't his touch that brings her pain, that her body spasms because of sickness, but to hear her whimper as he mops each bead of sweat from her brow—
For her to cry out when he takes her hand—
It tears his guts out.
By the third day, Claire hasn’t gotten any better.
Her condition has not worsened either, but that’s of little comfort to him.
He spoons honeyed water between her lips and feeds her watered-down parritch when she’s conscious enough to sit up for brief moments. She’s delirious, doesn’t recognise him at all, and it takes all the strength he has to not take her in his arms and scream out that he’s her husband.
She still has enough wits about her to indicate to him when she needs to use the privy, but on the one occasion it takes him a second too long to realise, he ends up mopping piss off the floor with her soiled shift while she lies trembling on the bed.
Brianna stumbles in moments later, sees him on his hands and knees, her mother sprawled upon the bed without a single stitch on and tells him he needs to take time for himself if only to eat and bathe.
“Da, you reek. Mama wouldn’t want to see you like this,” she admonishes.
He knows she’s right.
“I dinna want her tae be alone fer a single moment,” he says, and then picks himself up off the floor, piss-soaked shift in hand.
An unspoken agreement passes between them, that they will never mention this to Claire.
He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he moves to leave the room. He’s haggard, cheeks sunken in, face lined with worry. His hair had long since come loose, hanging limply down his back. His clothes: worn for three days and three nights, rumpled and stained.
Jamie almost wishes that Claire would see him like this — he can hear her voice in his mind, admonishing him.
She'd done so since the very beginning. He remembers it so clearly, that night, waking up in the dark and looking up at her face as she bandaged his shoulder and cursed him to hell and back.
He's not ready to lose that.
He's not ready to lose her.
The days are easier.
While he’s forced on several occasions to leave her side to tend to business about the Ridge, there’s the comfort of knowing that Claire is not alone — that there’s someone to watch over her while he’s away, however briefly.
When there are no other distractions, he sits by her side and reads from her wee books of healing and medicines. Though she had made it clear that there was no cure for these particular invisible beasties, he finds many of the things she’s noted down interesting. Pays close attention to the parts she's included about how to ease a patient's pain without causing them further harm.
Tries them all.
Brews every combination of tea and wee herbs, careful not to mix any ingredients she's noted may be harmful when consumed together. Lays cold cloths over different parts of her body, swapping them out the moment her fevered skin heats them and repeats the process, again and again. Rubs circles into her temples with his thumbs until she whimpers, not in pain but in relief. Repeats the same motion with her hands and feet.
When there's still no change, he reads the books again.
Pours over the detailed recollections written in her hand, traces a careful finger across the intricate wee diagrams she’s drawn and marvels at it all.
“Christ, Claire… ye’re a verra fine healer indeed,” he murmurs, even knowing that she cannot hear him.
It needs to be said.
The nights are harrowing.
He sleeps ill without her by his side, and perhaps that’s a blessing now, because he fears that he’ll lose himself to slumber when she needs him the most. He dozes for minutes at a time, sitting in the chair from her armoire, upon the chest at the end of their bend, or on the floor right by her side, close enough that he can keep a hold on her hand.
Every movement and every sound has him bolting upright and checking that she’s still breathing, that she hasn’t broken her promise and left him and taken everything he knows and loves with her.
He speaks to her, tells her things he’s afraid to say while she’s awake, hopes that she’ll hear him in her dreams.
“I ken I said that sometimes I thought you were an angel, Claire... but I didna mean for ye tae take my words so seriously. I'm no' ready tae let you go, mo ghràidh. Ye canna leave me. You promised, aye?”
Another day passes.
He finds himself slowly losing— losing faith.
"Claire... if ye truly cannae hold on any longer... just promise me when ye see our wee Faith again, tell her how much I wanted tae meet her. I dinna ken if I can bear tae go on wi'out ye, but I'll try, mo nighean donn. For Bree and Fergus and Marsali and the bairns— I'll try."
He leaves for a bit, to clear his head.
Claire's fever continues to rage on and he's close to crumbling, the crushing weight of everything that has been happening bearing down upon him.
He takes a short walk through the woods, thinks about taking his frustrations out upon an innocent tree, remembers that Claire had not been amused by such actions thirty-odd years ago.
She would certainly scold him for it now.
What he wouldn't give for her to rage at his impulsiveness while she cleansed his wounds.
If she did not already possess his soul, he'd give it to the devil himself to see her safe and unharmed.
He doesn't feel any less burdened when he returns to the house, and his worry peaks when he hears shouting coming from the direction of their bedroom. Taking the steps two at a time, he races upstairs, heart lurching in his chest.
The sight that greets him is so horrific he almost forgets how to breathe.
Mo nighean donn, he thinks.
His brown-haired lass, her beautiful curls…
Hacked away. Butchered. Strewn across the bed and over the floor.
He pushes past, ignores the voices calling to him. They're nothing but a faint buzzing in his ears.
His hands tremble as he reaches for her, fingertips brushing against the remnants of her wild mane, and the last bit of control within him snaps.
It isn't rage he succumbs to.
Jamie cries, loud, forceful sobs that wrack his chest, hot tears streaming over his cheeks, not caring that there's an audience to his breakdown.
He had tried so hard to hold himself together, to be strong for her, but it was too much for him to bear.
It's her he weeps for, her pain and her suffering.
Though she had never said so aloud to him, he knows how much Claire's hair means to her. Remembers the careful way she had braided it before bed each evening, only for him to tangle it anyway while they made love. Recalls watching her run a brush through her curls every morning, smiling at the curses she uttered each time she hit a snag.
He knows she'll be upset by the loss when she awakens.
If she awakens.
With shaking hands, he reaches to the back of his head, pulls loose the ribbon he uses to keep his own hair tied back during the day. Through tear-filled eyes, he finds one perfect lock of curls.
Tucks it away.
Cries some more.
It is Brianna who coaxes him downstairs to have a little dinner, when his heart feels so weakened that he can barely stand.
She watches him while he eats, and then pours him a dram, fingers playing with the hem of her dress as she waits for him to down it.
“I wanted Mama to be the first to know but… I can’t keep the news from you anymore, Da.”
He freezes, not wanting to jump to conclusions as he had before, but when she takes his hand and tells him that Jemmy will soon have a wee brother or sister to play with, he finds himself smiling for the first time since Claire’s sickness began.
“I’m so verra happy, a leannan,” he says, a single tear rolling down his cheek.
He knows why she chose to give him such joyous news now.
To give him a little hope, something to hold onto.
Claire's fever begins to subside the next evening. Jamie thinks it has little to do with the poor haircut she'd been given by Malva and Mrs. Bug.
His Sassenach has always been so incredibly strong.
He presses a kiss to her sweaty brow and moves to fill their bath up with water, heated by the fire. Claire has always loved hot baths and he thinks she'll want to feel clean now that she's no longer so feverish. He sets out fresh clothes and towels for both of them, and then strips down to nothing before moving to fetch Claire.
Her shift is soaked with sweat and he peels the damp fabric away from her skin, wincing when he sees the concave of her belly, the protrusion of her ribs. She's so incredibly thin and it's no wonder. She had barely eaten in the days before she succumbed to the sickness and in all the days that followed. He feels it when he lifts her into his arms - she weighs almost nothing to him.
She doesn't stir when he sits them down into the hot water, but he can feel her relax against his chest. He holds her steady with one arm while he gently scrubs her clean, clenching his jaw as his fingers brush over the jut of her hip, each rib and her winged collarbones.
Bracing her body with his legs, he takes handfuls of water and slowly but surely dampens her hair and begins the process of washing it. Claire doesn't often let him help with this part, knowing that he'll spend hours just playing with her curls, braiding and unbraiding them if she should allow it.
When he's satisfied she's cleaned to her own standards, he quickly washes himself, with far less care and attention than he'd paid to her. It's a bit of a struggle to climb out of the tub with her on top of him, but after a few attempts he manages well enough.
Claire shivers as the cold air hits her damp skin, and he's quick to wrap her up in a towel. He lays another on the carpet in front of the fire and sits down, holding her upright between his knees as he gently begins to blot her hair dry.
"I remember when ye told me that ye'd coloured yer hair before ye came back tae me… I told ye then that you would always be beautiful to me. I ken ye're no' a woman who cares so much about vanity, but it will take time aye, tae get used to havin' such short locks."
They stay there, by the fire, until her hair is dry and his back begins to ache from sitting at such an angle for so long.
Jamie helps Claire into a clean shift and tucks her back into bed, now taking care to tuck a blanket around her to protect her from the night chill. Satisfied she’s as comfortable as he can make her, he goes to dress himself and then takes care of the bathwater, before returning to her side once more.
He touches an uneven curl with one hand and muses to himself.
“I dinna think I’ll mind it so much, mebbe I’ll stop wakin’ up in the morning wi’ the taste of yer hair in my mouth. And I’ll get tae see it grow long again. I remember it wasna verra long when first we met, and again when ye came back tae me. I’ve gotten tae see it grow in the time we’ve been together, and that is a gift.”
He’s out in her garden, making sure her wee herbs are being properly tended to when Roger appears, out of breath, eyes wide with excitement.
Jamie doesn’t think twice, runs towards the house, heart hammering wildly in the confines of his chest.
He feels as though the sun has come out from behind the clouds once more.
When Jamie reaches their bedroom, he lingers by the door, just out of sight, listening to mother and daughter speak. He doesn’t try to make out what they’re saying, not wanting to intrude on them, and despite every fibre of his being urging him to burst into the room and take his wife into his arms once more, he practices patience.
And soon enough, Brianna exits, a smile on her face.
“Ye told her then?” he asks, and she smiles even wider at that.
“Yes. And now I’m going to fetch some things to fix up her hair. Go on in and see her, I’ll take my time, Da.”
She gives him a knowing look and then brushes past, heading down the stairs.
Jamie pauses, suddenly nervous. He smooths back his hair with one hand, straights his clothing with the other. Satisfied that he’s presentable, he steps into the room and finds the most beautiful sight awaiting him.
Claire, sitting propped up in bed, hands folded across her lap, the smile on her face growing as she sees him approaching.
“Jamie,” she murmurs, voice cracking.
He closes the distance between them in the span of three heartbeats, sitting carefully on the edge of their bed and taking Claire’s hands in his own when she reaches for him.
There’s so much he wants to say to her, but he finds himself speechless, unable to come up with any words as he takes in the beauty of her — so alive, despite all that she’s endured in the past week.
He presses a kiss to her brow, now smooth, no longer pinched, no longer a sign of the pain that had wracked her for days on end. Her breath is warm against his throat as he continues, trailing his lips down the bridge of her nose and across to the hollows of her cheeks. When his eyes fall shut for a single moment, he recalls the sensation of her peppering him with kisses that night after the snakebite, and knows the relief she must have felt then.
Resting his forehead against hers, he breathes out a single word.
She kisses him then, lips dry and cracked against his own, weak but determined. It lasts only a moment, and then her hands cup his face, gently urging him backwards.
Her eyes meet his with a silent plea.
Let me look at you.
Her thumb grazes his cheekbone, moves around in a circular motion before tracing the line of his jaw. He sees the tears swimming in her eyes, threatening to spill, but resists the urge to reach out to her, staying motionless, allowing her to explore to her heart's content. She turns her hand, brushing against his stubble with the backs of her fingers, repeats the movement over and over, as if trying to familiarise herself with the sensation of prickly hair against soft skin.
She draws a finger over the dark circles beneath his eyes, mouth turning down at the corners, a shallow breath escaping from between her cracked lips.
“It’s a good thing I woke up, or you might have wasted away.”
He makes a sound — a sob or laugh or something in between and shakes his head.
She urges him close once more, brushing her nose against his and then pressing another soft kiss to his lips.
There is much for them to discuss, and things he needs to tell her, but all of it can wait a bit. For now, he intends to savour the embrace of his wife once more, having come so close to losing her again. He dares not hold her too tightly, for fear of hurting her, but it is Claire who clings to him with all the strength that remains within her. He knows she must have been afraid, wherever her mind dwelt, that she would lose him.
They both know loss all too well.
And there will come a time when he must leave her, or she must leave him.
Today is yet another day where they get to live, having found their way back to each other once more.
And that alone, gives him faith.