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the printshop

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Samhain dawned cold and overcast. Another grey morning in Edinburgh – no different from the day before, and likely no different from the days to come.

Jamie blinked awake in the quiet of his loft. Still half-asleep, he reached beside him – acting purely by reflex – only to feel chilly, slightly damp plaster under his fingernails.

So it had been a dream.

He sighed and rubbed a hand over his tired eyes. She had been so real – if he closed his eyes, he could feel her still.

Jamie raised his trembling hands in the half-dark. Hands that bore her touch. He had no other physical reminders of her, save those on his skin. Being able to feel her, always, had kept him from going mad.

He flexed the stiff, scarred fingers of his right hand. He still had a ball of rags in the top drawer of his dresser, and used it every now and then – as Claire had shown him – when his fingers locked from tinkering with the printing press. Just as he still had the pale scars on the backs of his knuckles from when she had set and fixed the shattered bones, after Wentworth.

He examined the palm of his left hand, tracing a fingertip over the tiny C she had carved in the base of his thumb the night before Culloden – the last night they had spent together. The last night he had been alive – had been whole.

It was a great comfort, knowing that her touch was on him with everything he did – with everything he had done, good and ill, since they’d parted.

As much as he ached for her – longed for her, burned for her – he knew he could not offer her a good place in his life. A cramped loft above a printshop was no place for any woman – let alone Claire. She should have a true space of her own, surrounded by friends and family – as befitted her place as the wife of a respectable but decidedly unprosperous printer. Keeping company with smugglers and French madams was no life for her.

But he was so selfish. He wanted to hold her, smell her hair, feel all the curves of her body melt against his. To be vulnerable with her, and bury his face in that secret spot in her neck just to hide from the world for a while.

Was it so bad that he would do anything – give anything – just for a few minutes with her?

He had had to be so strong, for so many people, for so long. Only with her had he never hesitated sharing his fears and doubts. She had held him, healed him, understood him. Loved him – beyond all reason.

Jamie closed his eyes and called Claire’s face to him. Doing this always calmed him. But the edges of her face had gone soft now. She had begun to fade in his memory. He had lost her presence – but not the memory of her. And now he was losing that, too.

His eyes jerked opened in absolute terror.

Oh, Claire. Oh, God – Claire.

Jamie shifted under the scratchy wool blanket. Her absence was a physical part of him – as much as the stripes on his back – and, like a scar, part of him that was always just – there. Part of him that was dead.

He’d thought some of the loneliness would go away with the foolish marriage to Laoghaire. And it had, for a time. But sharing a physical space with someone did not – could not - repair the hole in his heart. And when she had turned away from him, he had been surprised to feel no shame or disappointment – just relief. And this had only compounded his sadness – his loneliness – his grief.

Better live a solitary life in the printshop, sharing nights and dreams with a long-gone wife, than a life surrounded by people who pitied him for his past – and a wife who shrank from his touch.

Claire had never pitied him. She’d never let him pity himself, either.

And he had sent her away.

Twenty years. She’d been gone more than six times the length of their marriage. A marriage that was almost half of his life ago.

Why had those three short years been the only time he’d felt alive?

The child would be grown – perhaps even have a bairn of his own. Good God – he was the father of an adult now.

And Claire. How had the years touched her? Doubtless she was as lovely as the first time he’d seen her – shivering in her shift, freshly fallen through the stones. Any man with eyes in his head would desire her.

Like her husband – the man with Randall’s face.

Jamie physically recoiled. He’d sent her back to him, after all. But the thought of any man – especially *that* man – touching her made him feel sick.

Slowly he eased upright. No use thinking any of these thoughts. It would do no good. Would never change anything. Better to move on with his day, shut all these feelings away again. Go back to a life where absolutely nothing reminded him of her.

It was a life with no discernable future, full of emptiness and uncertainty. But solid with the knowledge that he’d done right by her – and the bairn.

Quietly he dressed in the half-light and tied back his hair. He ate a few stale bannocks he’d taken from the tavern the night before, climbed down the stepladder to the printshop, and turned over the sign in the door.

Better to start repairing the printing press, and get a head start before customers started trickling in.