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She’d let Jamie go ahead upstairs, needing a bit of space. And time to blow out the candles in her surgery, to lay aside the instruments that she still set out each morning in the vain hope that someone would knock on the door, seeking help. And quiet to calm her jumbled mind.

Claire glanced over to the door. Lionel wasn’t there anymore.

Of course, he’d never actually been there. But it was so real…

The floorboards above her head creaked with Jamie’s weight.

She closed the cupboard and walked upstairs.

He was crouching in front of the fireplace, back turned to her, gently coaxing a flame to life.

Her mind whirled – a memory, or a dream, of Jamie (naked) doing the same, in the Laird’s bedroom at Lallybroch.

She bolted the door with shaking hands.

Jamie rose – small flames crackling to life as he stepped toward her. Took her hands in his, and kissed them one by one.

“It’s always easier if we touch, aye?”

She nodded.

He squeezed her hands. “So. Come sit wi’ me, then?”

The two chairs in the center of their bedroom, although comfortable, were too far apart. Out of the question. So she led him to their bed, sinking down on his side, still holding his hands. Sitting so close that their knees touched.

Jamie smiled. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Sassenach?”

Her eyes darted to him – and to the bedside table, where he’d thoughtfully moved the decanter and poured two not-so-small glasses of whisky.

“If you’re deliberately trying to re-create our wedding night, James Fraser – ”

“I’m no’ deliberately trying to re-create anything, Claire Fraser. Though I must say – I’m still crazed wi’ love for you, and you hold secrets, and you’re so bonny…”

She shook her head. “I did have secrets, then, didn’t I?”

“I dinna hold it against you. But I do understand now, how hard it must have been for you. Then. And now.”

It was his way to bring up Frank – that was clear. Not exactly a topic she wanted to discuss tonight.

Let me do the same, he had asked.

She looked down at their joined hands. “I felt like I had betrayed him – even though he hadn’t been born yet. And I felt…” Her thumb traced the long, thin scar spanning the length of his middle finger. “I don’t know if it was deprivation, or because I’d been drinking. But I wanted you quite badly that night. And it was bloody hard to fight against it.”

He smiled wryly. “I’ve told you, Sassenach – all I could think about when we were in that church, was what it would be alike when we were alone together.”

“My marriage to Frank wasn’t planned. I don’t know if I ever told you that – we had discussed getting married, but on the day it happened it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I was thinking about that quite a lot when you and I were married.”

“Also a spur-of-the-moment thing.”

“Yes.” She sighed. “But you did so much to make it so nice for me, Jamie.”

“It was the least I could do,” he said quietly. “I couldn’t give ye anything else.”

She raised her eyes to meet his. “I seem to remember an eager young man giving me quite a lot that night. Small things. Like his name, his clan, his family, and the protection of his body. And a beautiful ring that held so much meaning.”

His pupils were so dark. “I’ve never withdrawn those gifts.”

She smiled wistfully. “You haven’t.”

Again her thumb traced the scar on his finger. “This, now – the night you got this. It was the worst of my life.”

He stiffened. “Do you mean – the night my hand was smashed, or the night you fixed it?”

She traced her fingertips over the small circular scar on the back of his hand. “Both. I felt such tremendous guilt and shame that it happened to you. Not only that – but for my sake.”

His fingers – long healed – flexed around hers. “I’d do it again.”

“I know you would. Oh my love. I know you would.”

He wiped a tear from the edge of her eyes. “It saved your life.”

“And nearly ended yours.”

“But it didn’t. Because of you.”

She threaded their fingers together. “It hurt me so much that you wouldn’t touch me. That you were withdrawing from the world. I didn’t know how to fix any of that. But I could fix your hand.”

“And you did. And kept at me to do those exercises when we were in France.”

“It’s why you can use it as well as you can, all these years later.”

“Aye. And having endured all of that – it helped me when…when I brought you home after you were taken, all those years later.”

He let go of one of her hands, and reached to the bedside table for a glass of whisky. Sipped it. Offered it to her.

“I’ve been thinking, Sassenach – when it was me, at least when I was healing I was in the abbey, and then we were in France. I didnae have to be in the same place where it had happened. Has that been difficult for you?”

She sipped. “It was at first, whenever I walked into the surgery. But not anymore. It’s no different than if I think about the surgeries I’ve performed there, or the teeth I’ve pulled, or when I’ve been vomited or shat upon in that same room.”

“Good.”

She took another sip. “Bree wanted to talk with me about it. I love her all the more for it. But I can’t.”

“Because you don’t want her to open up her own wounds?”

“No. Because…well, would you want to talk with your parents about your sexual experiences?”

“I’d hardly call it such, Claire. And I did talk wi’ her about Wentworth. She asked me about it.”

Jamie took the glass and sipped. “Maybe it was easier because it was just as we were getting to know each other. She…she was still more of a stranger to me. Perhaps that made it easier for both of us. Because she hadnae been there when it happened.”

With her free hand, Claire reached between them and pushed aside his stock, thumb tracing his collarbone.

He spluttered on his sip of whisky. “Claire? What are you -”

“I was with you when this happened.”

“The bullet wound? Aye.”

“This one wasn’t avoidable.”

“I’ll never know who shot me – but I’ll forever be grateful to him.” He downed the rest of the whisky and set the empty glass on the bedside table. Rested his hand atop Claire’s on his shoulder. “For it gave me an excuse to seek you out.”

“I knew what you were doing,” she confessed. “And I didn’t stop it.”

“No’ because you…weel…” He flushed.

“No. Not at that time, anyway. More that…you were kind to me. You never lied to me. You cared for my safety, when you had no reason to. So I knew I could trust you. And I certainly couldn’t trust anyone else at that time.”

“Seems like no’ much has changed in that regard,” he mused.

Her hand lifted from his shoulder to cup his cheek. “I was drawn to you. Even then.”

“God,” he breathed. “How I dreamed of you, when we were at Leoch.”

Her thumb settled in the cleft of his chin. “What kind of dreams?”

“No’ what you think, Claire. You ken well that I had just the basic notion of what passes between a man and a woman.” He swallowed. “Just simple things. Sitting with you in the window of the Laird’s room at Lallybroch. Holding you. Telling you stories. Making you smile.”

She hooked her finger behind his chin and pulled him in for a kiss.

“Did you dream of this?”

“Aye,” he breathed, leaning in for another.

Sometime later, she reached over him in the bed for the other glass of whisky.

He edged up on his elbow a bit – and she nestled right against him. He brought up the quilt to cover her naked shoulders. She sipped the whisky and he kissed it from her lips, taking the glass from her.

She wrapped her arms around his middle, holding him tight.

“My heart aches for you, Jamie. For all those years you lived without touch.”

“It’s no’ a time I like to think back on. And I’m sure it’s the same for you, mo nighean donn.”

Almost twenty years in a loveless, touchless marriage. Enough to make her heart shrivel.

“When I came back to you, I thought it would bother you how close I want to be when we sleep. It was different than before. I thought you wouldn’t want that. That it wouldn’t be comfortable for you. But you’ve never turned away from that.”

He drained the glass and set it back on the table. “No. No’ ever. Not when God has blessed me wi’ the second chance I never thought I’d have. Do you remember my dream at Leoch? All I wanted – all I want – is to be close to you.”

She kissed the side of his jaw. “Every need I have for you, you meet it. And every need you have for me – I meet it.”

He nodded. “It’s always been so, between us. The way we touch each other. The way we put each other first.”

“It’s as you once told me – we’re mated for life.”

His fingers traced down her arm – finding the scar that Yi Tien Cho had stitched up, on a beach a thousand miles and years away. “I will always find you, Claire. If you’re lost, I’ll bring you home. If your mind or your heart is lost, I’ll bring it back to its home.”

She nestled closer. “At the abbey – you asked me, ‘how can you have me like this?’”

“I remember.”

“I couldn’t understand you then. It hurt my heart.”

He wrapped his hand around her elbow. “And now you understand it?”

She nodded. “I didn’t feel like a full person. Certainly not the woman you married.” She paused. “I’m an old woman now, Jamie. Anyone can see that. And a small part of me is so afraid you won’t find me beautiful.”

He kissed her forehead. “You know that’s not true. I’ll tell you every hour of every day, if it means you’ll believe it.”

“You didn’t marry an old woman.”

“And you didn’t marry an auld man. Seems we’re even.”

Somewhere outside their window, the wind brushed through the trees.

“If you see him again, Sassenach – will you tell me?”

“Yes. Yes, of course.”

“I will fight him for you.”

She shifted up a bit, to look into his eyes. “I’ll fight him myself. But with you at my side, I’ll win.”

The light outside was fading fast. But his smile was clear as day.