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Dusk

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He hadn’t touched his wife all day.

Brianna must have thought the silence would bring him some measure of relief; earlier that morning, she’d relegated Jamie to the bed in Claire’s surgery with an admonishment to rest — and when that didn’t work, a firm reminder that he was no good to his wife if he couldn’t see straight for sheer exhaustion. Bleary-eyed and bow-backed, he’d shuffled down the staircase as though weighed by iron shackles, his knuckles white on the handrail.

It had been nigh on three days since he’d closed his eyes. A horrific pain threatened to cleave his skull, and the edges of his vision blurred into a dizzying tunnel that narrowed by the hour. 

Bree was right to make him go, he acknowledged bitterly as he sank onto the mattress with a shuddering sigh. Claire would agree wholeheartedly, and scold him for having waited so long.

As though summoned by the thought, her voice came suddenly to mind, as clear as if she’d spoken from the pillow beside him: Go to sleep, bloody Scot. I’m not going anywhere. You’ve read our obituary, haven’t you? I can’t very well perish in a house fire if I’m already dead.

Jamie’s features slackened, the ghost of a smile tipping the edge of his mouth.

Imperious wee thing, are ye no’? Our daughter gets it from you, he told her, and was unconscious in a matter of seconds.

If he dreamed, he did not remember.

Some indeterminate amount of time later, he woke to a thick, oppressive silence. His wife was not, by her nature, a quiet sleeper; Claire tossed about during the night, rustling the sheets, grunting and humming and occasionally letting out a muffled snore. But even when she was deeply, peacefully asleep, he was accustomed to the rhythmic sounds of her breathing — a steadfast assurance that all was well. 

He didn’t hear her.

Brow furrowed, he groped out to the left on instinct and found only cold sheets.

“Claire?” 

It was only as he pushed up on an elbow to squint about the room that remembrance crashed over him like a wave.

Someone had lit a few candles in the surgery and the adjoining kitchen. Beyond the windows, the sky had deepened to a rich indigo, and a half-moon shone high over the eastern horizon. 

Dusk. 

The revelation snagged like a hook between Jamie’s ribs, and he jerked upright, wheeling his long legs ungracefully over the edge of the bed. It had been early morning when he’d laid down to rest — had the others truly let him sleep the day away while his wife lay in fever?

Anger came to him easily, a spark that ignited his blood like one of Brianna’s ‘matches.’ Jaw clenched and nostrils flaring, he allowed the Fraser temper to scorch through him in a fearsome blaze as he took the stairs three at a time. The instant he threw open the bedroom door, his eyes locked on his wife’s sweat-soaked form: the dark curls plastered to her face and neck, the chattering teeth and cracked lips, the ghost-white limbs splayed out unnaturally on the bed as she writhed in agony.

Christ. Christ in Heaven, she was worse.

He crossed the room to Claire’s bedside in five barreling strides. 

Malva and Lizzie scrambled to make way for him as though the Devil himself had stormed through the door. 

Perhaps they would wish so, once they had borne the wrath of Red Jamie himself.

“Why did no one wake me?” he ground out, his voice a low, lethal growl.

In his peripheral vision, he saw Lizzie wring her hands as she skirted around the foot of the bed. “We’re sae sorry, sir! Mistress Mackenzie bid us leave ye to yer rest, and—”

“Is Mistress Mackenzie the master of this house?!” he roared, wheeling on the lasses in a blind fury.

“No, sir,” they both whispered.

“No. I am the authority under this roof.” As he took a menacing step forward, the lasses retreated in turn, wide-eyed and skittish as fawns. “And in the event that I should leave my wife’s bedside for any reason, I wish to be notified immediately of any change in her condition. Do I make myself clear?” Spittle flew in their direction with each punctuated word, and he could feel the vein ticking under his left eye — every muscle, tendon, and ligament strained with the effort to contain the unholy might of his rage.

But not with them, Claire’s voice reminded him gently.  

His conscience, he supposed. It had taken on his wife’s inflection long ago. 

Teeth gritted, he allowed his eyes to close for the briefest of moments. Tried to summon some semblance of the paternal compassion befitting the laird of the Ridge. 

Befitting Brian Dubh’s son, and Claire’s husband. 

When he opened them again, the red haze of his temper had cleared just enough for him to see the lasses before him for what they were: a terrified apprentice and a lady’s maid, out of their depths and doing the best they could. Lizzie stared at the floor, chin trembling, eyes brimming with tears. Malva, on the other hand, looked up at him with reverence that bordered on awe, and he honestly wasn’t certain which was worse. 

Deflating as though someone had thrust a sword through his lungs, Jamie turned away from them and shuffled slowly to his wife’s side.

“Leave us,” he commanded hoarsely. With a trembling hand, he reached down to brush a damp tendril of hair back from Claire’s temple. “Go home and rest, the both of ye. I’ll tend to Mistress Fraser tonight.”

He sensed the flicker of hesitation behind him — the palpable unease at the thought of a husband taking on what was customarily women’s work. Still too terrified to voice any modicum of dissent, Lizzie made to obey at once. But Malva, decidedly the bolder of the two, took a half step toward him.

“Are ye sure, sir? I dinna mind at all staying to help—”

“I’m certain, lass,” he answered, gentler than before, but with no room for argument. “Mr. Bug will escort ye home, or ye’re welcome to stay in the surgery, if ye like. Either way—” Sinking down onto the mattress, he took Claire’s hand in both of his. “I wish to be left alone with my wife.”

There was another long beat of hesitation before Malva’s voice said quietly, “Of course, sir.” He heard two pairs of retreating footsteps, but his eyes remained on Claire’s face as the Christie lass offered from the doorway, “Is there anything else I might fetch ye before I go? More tea, perhaps, or clean cloth?”

His mouth was already opening to reject the offer before he caught himself, considered, then nodded. “Aye. Aye, thank ye kindly, lass. I’d appreciate it.”

“Right away, sir.”

And then she was off, padding down the staircase, eager and dutiful as a wee terrier. 

Trying his best to smile, he lifted Claire’s knuckles to his lips. “I can see why ye’ve taken such a liking to her,” he murmured. “Verra keen to help. Willnae take no for an answer. Like mentor, like pupil, hm?”

His wife’s features were still drawn with pain, but her lashes cracked a bit, glassy eyes regarding him with a glint of vexed humor. “Ha,” she rasped weakly. “Ha.”

“You are awake, then.” His smile broadened, genuine this time. “I wondered.”

“Barely.” Claire tried to lick her lips with a parched, pale tongue. Immediately taking his cue, he grabbed the tepid cup of tea from the bedside table and helped raise her head to drink. She slurped dutifully, then took a few wincing swallows before going slack against the pillows again. Crippled by helplessness, Jamie could only watch as she let out a pained, shaky breath and rolled her neck from side to side.

“What can I do?” he whispered. “Mo ghràidh, tell me how to help.”

Claire went still for a moment, tense and rigid, as though it were taking a great deal of effort to conjure a response. 

“Open the window,” she said at last. “The girls…” Her voice faded out, and her lips moved almost soundlessly, “keep closing it.”

A twinge of doubt snagged in Jamie’s mind as he eyed the window in question. The days were still warm enough, but the nights had grown bitter, and the oak branches beyond the pane were bobbing and rustling in a hale easterly wind.

“Just a crack,” he negotiated, thumbing a bead of sweat from her temple. “Ye’re soaked to the skin, Sassenach. I dinna want ye to catch a chill.”

It heartened him more than anything to hear her scoff of annoyance. She couldn’t be in such a bad way, surely, if she could still manage that. 

“Then at least get this… bloody thing off me, will you?” she groused, pinching the sodden material of her shift. “I’m burning up.”

“Aye,” he agreed softly. “I will. Soon as Malva’s come and gone again.”

His wife made another disparaging grunt. “If she… can’t stand the sight’ve a… naked patient,” she grumbled, pausing to hiss in pain through clenched teeth, “she’s… in the wrong profession.”   

That earned a half-hearted hum of amusement, though the sound faded quickly into a terrified silence as he watched her breathe. The sharp, erratic jerks of Claire’s ribcage bore testament to her suffering in a way that no amount of humor could mask.

She was trying to put on a brave face for him.

Trying not to frighten him.

The realization froze the blood in his veins.

It must have shown on his countenance more than he meant; as she turned her head on the pillow to look at him, the lines of Claire’s face softened with empathy.

“It will be alright,” she whispered.

Tears flashed to his eyes, unbidden, and he huffed out a tight breath as he tried to blink them back. “‘S that a promise, Sassenach?” 

She watched him for a moment, considering. “The girls will do everything I’ve taught them, they’ll… make sure there’s fresh air and sunlight, willow bark tea for the fever.” Her eyelids drooped, heavy with exhaustion, and it seemed a Herculean effort for her to force them open again. Swallowing visibly, she pressed on in a dry, cracking voice, “But it’s you who needs to… force me when I won’t cooperate. If I’m delirious, or… or tired, it doesn’t matter, you need to… make me drink. Put honey in the tea to keep my… blood glucose up if I won’t eat.”

The medical jargon from her time was foreign to him, but he took her meaning well enough. Nodding eagerly, he smoothed a damp curl behind the shell of her ear.

“What else?” he pressed. 

She was losing her battle with consciousness, despite herself. When her eyes closed this time, she didn’t open them again. But after a few seconds, she managed one last, faint response.

“Tell me not to go, if I… seem like I’m… close to it. If I can help it, I won’t.”

 




He felt hollow, watching her. Like a drum whose hide had been stretched too tight over its barrel.

Everything he thought he knew about healing — everything any of them knew — had proven worthless against the disease that ravaged his wife from the inside out.

Her pain would not cease. 

Her fever would not abate.

And nothing Jamie did seemed to help her.

He tried not to take it personally when she shunned his touch, moaning softly and pushing at him with the flat of her palm. “Too hot,” she’d protested when he tried to curl around her. It was one of the last lucid things she’d said before descending into delirium.  

Stripped of his most basic instinct as her husband — from the very beginning, they’d craved one another’s touch, thrived on it, healed with it — the only thing he had left was to cling to the instructions she’d given him like a piece of driftwood in a raging sea. 

On the hour, every hour, two of them would sit Claire up and help her drink… or make her, as the case had often become. In her fevered state, she’d taken to thrashing and clawing at them like a feral cat. Much of the time, more honey water ended up on her shift than down her throat. But when the lasses (even Bree) grew weary of fighting her, when they looked at him imploringly and asked that they let their mistress rest “just this once,” Jamie gritted his teeth and hoisted his wife stubbornly into his arms.

It’s you who needs to… force me when I won’t cooperate.

In his most desolate moments, when despair threatened to consume him whole, it was a small comfort that perhaps she yet lived because of his persistence.

But by the fifth night, he was no longer sure even that would be enough.

After writhing for days on end as though demon-possessed, that evening Claire went suddenly and inexplicably still. Though a fine tremor continued to shake her frame, shivering involuntarily with fever, her limbs fell flaccid on the sweat-soaked sheets and did not move again. 

Too young and too green to recognize the creeping quietude of a deathbed, Lizzie looked up with a smile of relief.

“Thank goodness,” she sighed, setting aside the cloth she’d been using to dab Claire’s forehead. “Seems she’s finally worn herself out. Perhaps she’ll have a good night’s rest now, wi’out all that thrashin’ about.”

Face impassive and heart gone to stone, Jamie crossed slowly to the bedside from the track he’d been pacing in front of the fireplace. Bending over his wife’s form, he strained to hear the shallow, rattling breaths that barely moved her chest.

Take me, he begged suddenly, the prayer sent in a blind panic before he could even stagger to his knees. Lord, take me instead. Yer servant Claire has too much yet to give this world. Please, if Ye must have a soul this night, have mine.

“Lizzie,” came Brianna’s voice from behind him, with a gentleness that he did not have left in him, “would you go down to the kitchen and put two big stock pots of water on to boil, please?”

A lingering beat of confusion, then, “A-aye, mistress. Do ye wish me to make a soup of some kind, or—?”

“No. We’re going to draw Mama a bath.”

Jamie’s face lifted abruptly from prayer to regard his daughter in bewilderment. Nearly in unison, he and Lizzie both blurted, “What?”

Bree folded her arms in a severe, didactic posture that so closely resembled her mother’s that Jamie’s heart skipped a beat. “That’s what she used to do, whenever I had a fever as a little kid. She’d put me in a lukewarm bath to cool me off.” Glancing from one skeptical face to the other, she pressed on, “Look, I don’t want to move her any more than you do. But if we don’t find a way to bring her temperature down—”

Jamie was already nodding before she’d finished her explanation. It was always a shock to the system, being confronted with a bizarre concept from the future that challenged everything he thought he knew about a subject. But while his feeble understanding of disease precluded him from common notions about bloodletting and purging ill humors, the fact remained that he had no idea what should be done for a fever. 

His mind could grasp easily enough, though, the concept of water to chill overheated flesh. Did he not seek to cool himself in the river on stifling summer days? 

Mind racing, he looked to Bree with newfound hope.

“Would it no’ be more prudent to put her in cold water, a nighean? I should think it would only cool her that much faster.”

 Bree hesitated. “I… I honestly don’t know. Maybe?” She gave a small, helpless shrug. “I guess I don’t really understand the physiology behind it. That’s Mama’s area of expertise.”

Jamie followed her gaze back down to Claire’s form, drenched in sweat and breathing in quick, shallow pants. 

“Well then…” he mused, “s’pose the wisest course is to do as the expert did. If yer mother drew ye a tepid bath, she must’ve had good reason for it, aye?”

Bree nodded. “Yeah. No, yeah, I think that’s smart.” Rubbing a comforting hand briefly over his shoulder, she turned for the door. “I’m gonna run down to the well to start bringing buckets up. You stay with Mama, okay?”

At any other time, Jamie’s pride would not have borne the notion of sitting idle while Bree and Lizzie did all the heavy lifting. But at the mere consideration of leaving Claire’s side, a black, preternatural sense of foreboding lanced through every nerve in his body.

He could not part with her now. Not even for a quick sojourn to the well. 

If he did, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would return to find her a corpse. 

Bree must have accepted his silence as assent, for it registered with him after a time that he was alone with his wife again, gripping her mottled hand in both of his.

“Sassenach?” he whispered, his voice small and tremulous in the silence. Part of him expected her to rouse as she’d done hundreds of times before, whenever he spoke to her softly in the night, needing comfort. But there was no response this time — no tic of a muscle or flutter of lashes to indicate that she’d heard.

Terrified, he clutched her fingers to his lips, kissing the ring that bound her to him. Her second command came to mind then. 

“Dinna leave me, Claire.” A wet, guttural sound caught in his throat. “Dinna leave me alone again.” Bowing his forehead until it rested on his wife’s crown, he called to the spirit encased in her failing flesh. “Blood of my blood and bone of my bone… m’ anam, mo chridhe… fuirich còmhla rium.”  

{My soul, my heart… stay with me}

Behind clenched eyelids, he could have sworn he saw a flicker of delicate blue light.

The trick of an exhausted mind, and nothing more; when he opened them, it was gone.