Jamie loaded the sacks of flour onto the wagon. He was most of the way through his list of purchases, and the sacks were heavy, fatigue starting to set in on the last one as he heaved it onto the back deck of the wagon and shoved it up against the others. He sat down on the edge of the wagon to catch his breath. The day was cloudy in Wilmington, a steady breeze off the river cooling his face. His knee was giving him gyp every time he lifted something heavy these days, and it irritated the fuck out of him.
With a sigh, he got up and went back in to the General Store to load the oats. He’d managed to trade surplus crops from Fraser’s Ridge – potatoes, corn and rounds of cheese, so was pleased to be returning home with cash still in his pocket.
He was staying at the Wild Goose Inn, his preferred abode, with stables and a shed round the back to store his mule and wagon overnight, ready for the trip back to Fraser’s Ridge tomorrow, and to see his two Sassenachs.
Claire, of course.
John was staying at Fraser’s Ridge, for now. He was a mess and Jamie was worried about him. The imprisonment on the ship and the death of Percy had sent John spiralling down in to a deep, dark melancholic hole, like an abyss had opened before him and he had fallen in. He sat silently at meals, the odd word here or there. He moped restlessly about the house, picking up trinkets and pocketing them, but the objects always reappeared somewhere else. It drove Claire nuts, this little quirk of John’s, all the domestic clutter, such as teaspoons, quills, bits of string, scissors, were never in their usual place, and she spent an inordinate amount of time looking for missing items. Other times, John sat brooding in a chair, staring out the window at the trees waving gently in the wind, lost in his thoughts for hours at a time. Then, in the evenings, he drank. Drank himself to a stupor on brandy, or whisky, seeking oblivion, then staggered up the stairs and fell into bed. God only knew if he slept, or was tormented by dreams.
It was worse in that first couple of weeks.
After all the Frasers - Jamie, Ian, Fergus, Germain, William, Roger, Brianna and Claire had successfully extricated John off the Pallas in a daredevil rescue, they had decided to take him back to Fraser’s Ridge so Claire could keep an eye on his wellbeing. To be honest, Jamie was shocked at the sight of John when they broke in to the cabin. Tears pricked Jamie’s eyes as he picked up John carefully in his arms and carried him to the wagon, gasping in distress at the state of his friend. The shackle had damaged his ankle, he was thin and frail, and looked like he had aged ten years. Nonetheless, John had smiled in grateful thanks and agreed to go to the Ridge for rest and recuperation with his dearest friends.
William stayed in Savannah with Amaranthus.
Well now, that had all turned upside down. William and Amaranthus were on the verge of marrying, the wedding plans all organised. Then all of a sudden, Amaranthus disappeared. Gone. To this day, no-one had seen her. William had gone off to Mount Josiah to lick his wounds.
And John came back to Fraser’s Ridge, and on the journey, Jamie told John that Percy was dead.
He said the words carefully, as much as one could ever say such a thing, but Jamie would never forget the look on John’s face. Everything crumpled, his features collapsing in to miserable, devastating anguish, his body slumping on to the floor of the wagon, like his very bones had given way.
“Dead?” he had whispered, tears pooling in his eyes.
“Aye. It seems he accidentally drank poison,” Jamie had said. “William saw him dead on the floor.”
Since then, John had closed in on himself, engulfed in sorrow.
The worst day was when Jamie found John curled up in a chair, overwhelmed with grief, his face wet with tears. It was evening, just after they had arrived back from Savannah, and they had finished their evening meal, John only picking at the food with his fork. John quietly stood up after a time, bowed, and left the dining room and Jamie thought he had gone to bed. Instead, he was in the parlour. Jamie didn’t notice at first, until he heard quiet sobbing and he came over to him, shocked at the curled up, desolate form in the chair, the sight of his ashen, tear-stained face wrenching Jamie’s heart.
He called Claire, and in the end, they made up a bed of quilts and pillows on the floor in front of the fire. Claire looked questioningly at Jamie, whereupon Jamie gave her a look, which said ‘he needs me’ and Claire nodded, resigned, taking herself off to bed. And Jamie held John in his arms in front of the fire all through that night.
John buried his face into Jamie’s chest and wept, rivers of tears without end. Jamie wrapped his plaid around John and held him close, stroking his hair, letting himself be washed by the flood, bringing out handkerchiefs to mop up the deluge as the fire slowly burnt down to its embers.
After some hours, John was drained, dried up and empty of tears, and he lay quietly in Jamie’s arms, eyes red-rimmed, big breaths coming in shuddering waves as he blew his nose with big honks into the handkerchiefs. Jamie’s hands were still there, still stroking him tenderly, and he whispered to John softly in Gaelic the only words he knew to say.
Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.
John rubbed his head into Jamie’s chest, soothed by his strong arms, the smell of leather and male sweat, the warmth of his muscular body and the calm, lulling rumble of his Gaelic words of consolation.
After a time, they lay quietly together, just the quiet rise and fall of their breathing and little cracks and pops of the fire. The stars turned slowly across the sky outside, and Jamie’s arms were still there around John, the wee small hours slowly ticking by.
John turned his head. “Tartan,” said John, glancing at the plaid wrapped around them. “That’s ironic,” he said, in a feeble attempt at humour, his mouth lifting in the tiniest of smiles.
“Aye, it is,” said Jamie with a chuckle. “I hope ye dinna mind it bringing ye comfort now.”
“No. Thank you Jamie.”
“Dinna fash. Talk to me. Talk to me about Percy.”
John closed his eyes, the pain washing over him again, and he swallowed. “What would you like to know?”
Jamie expected to be here right through the night, so he thought they may as well start at the beginning. He let out a big breath, and settled himself into the pillows, ready to listen. “How did ye meet him?”
And John told him. He began with Lavender House.
“Lavender?” said Jamie of a sudden. “I hate the smell of lavender. Dinna ever give me anything with lavender,” he said with a shudder.
John lifted a brow. Then he carried on, telling Jamie about how Percy joined the Grey family, and how they were attracted to each other.
“How did ye know that?”
John thought back all those years, allowing himself to remember. “I knew he shared my preferences already. He was so very handsome, the most exquisite brown eyes, like sherry sack. Short curls, wavy brown,” as he twirled his finger in the air with a smile, remembering the feel of Percy’s soft hair against his cheek. “He had the most beautiful smile; the sweetest smile I have ever seen. Oh, and he was so charming, Jamie, he had oodles of charm!” said John chuckling, despite his tears. “I was enchanted, delighted, and I couldn’t wait for more of him!”
“Were ye lovesick already, John?”
“Love? Oh no. Not love. But I wanted him. Desperately.”
“Oh aye,” said Jamie with a humph. John’s head was tucked in to Jamie’s neck, his body flush with Jamie’s. Jamie became aware of a hard lump pressing in to his side. Surely….but no, it seemed like something else.
“What the devil do ye have in yer pocket John?”
John shifted his weight. “Oh,” he said. “It’s yours.”
“What on earth have ye pocketed this time…..…”
John put his hand in his waistcoat pocket and pulled out the paperweight with the embedded sapphire, and held it in the palm of his hand, warm and solid.
“Yes. I still have it. Do you want it back?”
“Nae John,” said Jamie with a chuckle. Damned, if the man hadna been carrying it for twenty-five years! “Keep it.”
“It does bring me comfort you know.”
Jamie nodded. Any comfort he could give to John was fine by him.
“So ye took him to yer bed?”
“Oh yes. His bed actually, at the beginning. He had private rooms.”
“A proper love affair then?”
John’s face became serious. “Certainly. It was a proper love affair. We made love. We talked. We shared things with each other no-one else knew. I told him about my father’s murder, and the time you broke my arm.”
“And he told me of his upbringing, his childhood, his name.”
“We became close, and remarkably, he fell in love with me.”
“Well, of course he did. You’re a bonny fellow.”
John snorted, and gave Jamie a watery smile. “I’ll never forget his touch, so gentle, so sweet, so boundless, like he never wanted it to end…..”
“If he loved ye, of course he didnae want it to end John.”
John smiled, then stopped, a cloud crossing his features as he pondered that. “But…”
“I…… I was sure I wasn’t in love. Then. I…”
“He seemed to touch those parts of me I thought were hidden. He……. unsettled me,” blurted John.
Jamie made an indeterminate Scottish noise. “Aye, well, love can be verra unsettling,” said Jamie noncommittally.
“I do want love. The idea of it is so beguiling. But the reality is so…so difficult,” said John, sighing.
“I know. Claire is…difficult sometimes.”
John chuckled. “The two of you are very much in love. You are fortunate Jamie.”
“I thank the Good Lord every day for my good fortune,” said Jamie. “Ye know, becoming intimate with someone, revealing yourself to someone is difficult. Then ye need to learn to accept all their little peculiarities. It’s not all easy, falling in love, staying in love,” he said, cocking a brow at John.
“Well, it’s too late now. Far too late to fix anything for Percy now.” John’s tears started to swell in his eyes again, and Jamie pulled him in close.
“It is too late for Percy. But Christ man, dinna close off yer heart, John.”
“My heart feels like a boat being battered in a storm.”
“The sun will come out John. The sun will come out, mo charaid,” whispered Jamie as he kissed John softly on the forehead.
Jamie had spent many hours holding John in the succeeding weeks. Holding him, listening to him, caressing him. It probably made the difference. The difference between John getting through this, or giving in to despair.
Memories of his own time of despair had come back to Jamie. His own deep, dark pit of grief when Claire was gone. John had brought him comfort then. Chess games at Ardsmuir, books and meaningful conversation of more than just prison walls. John had reached him, the simple, sincere connection from another person made him feel human again. Had given him a new purpose. It was the least he could do to offer John that human connection now. He didn’t want John to be alone with this, incarcerated in his own grief.
Jamie learned a lot about Percy in their long conversations. His Methodist upbringing. The poverty of his childhood. How his mother had been so desperate, she almost deposited Percy in an orphanage. His time as a prostitute. And how, with the encouragement of Claude, he had become a bookbinder and spy.
And then they came to speak of the betrayal. It had been mentioned before in that hideous argument between them long ago at Helwater, Jamie and John shouting at each other with heated fury.
“Tell me about how he betrayed ye John.”
John told him about Michael Weber. How he had blackmailed Percy, threatening to expose him, and, by extension, possibly exposing John. How he and two other officers had caught them in the act, Percy’s arse being split like a buttered bun. Jamie inhaled a tiny gasp at that. How Stephan had shot Michael so as to not bring shame on his family. And how Percy ended up in prison, awaiting the death sentence.
“I didnae tell ye much about Geneva Dunsany,” said Jamie after he had absorbed all that in silence, a frown knitting his brows.
“Not much no. It’s your own business Jamie.”
“Aye, well ye need to hear it, ye’ll find some similarities in my story of blackmail. Because that’s what she did. She blackmailed me into her bed, right before her wedding. Wanted to lose her virginity to a young buck.” Jamie’s voice became tetchy, still galled at what she did. “She had found my correspondence with my sister Jenny, and used it. Threatened their safety.”
“Geneva? She blackmailed you?” John was shocked.
“She did. I was so angry with her at the time. Then the poor lass died. Died because of me. But then, she left me our beautiful son…” Jamie shook his head. “Please, dinna tell William. I want him to think the best of her.”
“Of course, I shan’t divulge any of it. Does Claire know this?”
“Oh yes, she knows. But even now, I still pay my penance to God for Geneva’s soul.”
John mulled that over. He still hadn’t forgiven Percy for what happened. Well… perhaps he still chose to not understand, to not fully grasp what Percy truly faced that day.
“Ye know, I was powerless to do anything about her, I had nae choice in the matter, once she threatened my family,” said Jamie, shifting his body, the weight of John’s body making his arm go numb.
“Indeed.” John closed his eyes and shook his head. “I regret to say it now, but I should have realised how powerless Percy was that day. Michael threatened Percy, and therefore his family. The Greys. I shouted at him, ‘I could have made sure Michael was no threat to you!! Why did you give in to a feeble threat like that?!!’ But he didn’t come to me, and I wasn’t there for him.”
The silence stretched out.
“I wasn’t there for him,” whispered John again, distressed, remembering how he had called Percy weak and stupid. “I should have been by his side; I never gave myself fully to him.”
Jamie crinkled his brow. “What do ye mean? Ye never gave yourself fully to him?”
“My care and protection, my heart. And not just my heart. My body.”
Jamie stiffened, the subject matter becoming uncomfortable. “I dinna understand, I thought ye went to his bed…….”
John sighed. “Oh, I did share his bed and I gave him my body, in the end. But I was raped when I was seventeen, Jamie. I held back, with no explanation. I find it difficult to give my body.”
Jamie’s mouth fell open. “Ye what??”
“You heard.” John turned to look directly at Jamie, catching his eye. “So….. I do understand.”
Jamie’s mouth was still hanging open. Then he realised what, exactly, John did understand. He swallowed, his Adams apple bobbing in his throat, a chill running down his back. “Aye.”
Jamie led the mule and wagon back over to the inn. The supplies were all there. The black smith had fixed the broken plough, and he had a new wheel for the wagon, paid for with bottles of whisky. He had time for a rest in his room at the inn before he went to find dinner, so he went up to his room, plopped on the bed, and opened a book.
But his thoughts drifted back to John.
Jamie had wanted to find out more about the soldier John lost at Culloden. So, he had asked him directly one evening as they sat in front of the fire.
“Tell me about the laddie ye lost at Culloden.”
“Was that his name? Aye it’s a bonny name.”
John squinted at Jamie. He knew he was fishing. “Losing Hector broke my heart Jamie.” Even now, after all these years, it was hard to say. John blinked, eyes moist as the sounds of the fire crackled in the room.
“And it’s still broken, mo charaid,” said Jamie quietly, his eyes becoming moist as he looked over at John, his own heart skipping a beat.
“Oh yes, it is,” said John slowly, closing his eyes.
Jamie reached out and pulled him close, stroking his hair. “Oh mo charaid, a chuilein…..”
And there it was. Everything Jamie needed to know. So many things about John finally made sense. Why John kept pushing Percy away. Why John loved him, even though he couldn’t have him. Why John needed him, a lifeline of sorts. Jamie’s affection for John blossomed in his heart. John had been a lifeline for him too.
But how does one mend a broken heart?
He sat on the bed in the inn and pondered the question for quite some time, until, exasperated, he stood up, put on his jacket and went out for dinner.