"Edwina," Cait says very, very seriously. "You are going to fall off of there and blame me, aren't you."
Eddie regards her with huge, unblinking eyes. She's perched on top of the hotel's television, which is bolted to the wall. One of her paws is slipping off the edge, but she looks serene, as if she isn't on the verge of toppling over a precipice. She still hasn't quite forgiven Caitriona for her absence, and has taken to performing acts of daring not attempted since kittyhood.
"Stop being so arsey and come and read Twitter with me," she implores. Her cat is unmoved. Literally.
Caitriona huffs once - smiling all the way because what a little pudding - and opens her laptop. She's tummy-down on the soft, wide bed. Beside the wardrobe hangs her dress for tomorrow. Her belly is not so much aflutter with nerves as it is ablaze.
When she opens Twitter however, all thoughts fly out of her head. Because, what the fucking fuck?
In the video, which is making the rounds (and the rounds, and the rounds ad infinitum), Sam is in a pool, laughing. He seems to be having a grand time, and is in the midst of throwing a young, blonde girl into the water.
Caitriona reads through the tweets. Sam is persona non grata among many fans, and it's then that she learns he's been swanning all over Los Angeles, with a succession of yellow-haired women, wearing odd hats and posing strangely in front of cars. Christ, he looks... well, like a cliche? She hasn't checked his whereabouts since a week or so after the marathon, when she realized that this wasn't just a hiatus, it was a break.
She isn't stupid - well, at least not about this. She's heard the chatter and the gossip. She knows that a good portion of Outlander fans believe that she and Sam are a couple. Or at the very least, shagging on a semi-regular basis. She also knows that the Starz PR department finds this to be such a perfectly wonderful thing that she and Sam are to do nothing to disabuse them of the notion. It appears that Sam didn't get the memo, or at least, couldn't give a toss about it. There he is, grinning, tanned, drunk, messy - every Sam there is, every Sam she knows and doesn't know, in a succession of photos - none very flattering, and almost all humiliating in a way she can't articulate.
It's as if she doesn't recognize him, and when she looks back at their time in Scotland, and everything that followed, it's like it was all a dream, but a dream unlike any she's ever had. The convention, where they were instructed to act like a couple as much as possible, and had found it all too easy.
The touch of his hands at her waist. Her helpless giggles. The shrieks of the audience, and Sam being flirty, naughty, all the things he's so very good at. Interview after interview, and wanting so much to preserve it, keep him by her side, keep pretending, just a bit longer. It was as torturous as sitting above the Pacific on the bluff, feeling him lean in, almost touch the curls of her hair. As aching as the trace of his fingers on her palm at Loch Rannoch.
And beneath it all, the kiss by the water, his teeth hurting her mouth and the taste of him on her breath, like sex, that insistent and raw.
She hasn't thought of it in months.
"What would be the point, right?" she asks Eddie.
Her cat gazes at her with an expression that suggests Caitriona requires some sort of immediate medical intervention. Preferably by men wearing white coats and carrying straitjackets. She licks her paws and delicately hops from her perch, padding across the TV stand toward a ribbon of sunlight coming through the curtains.
"Fat lot of help you are," Cait says, and turns over onto her back. The memories are juddering around her now, like flotsam in the wake of a shipwreck, and she can't help seeing them over and over again.
She'd shown up for the marathon without any expectations and thought she might not even get to see him. But after a while, there he was, and she hadn't even needed to call his name. He was scanning the crowds every few moments, and their eyes had locked, held. He smiled so big that she thought his cheeks might crack. Her heart - still so foolish - sped up, until she could feel it in her throat, thought everyone must be able to feel it, vibrating between their bodies.
"You came!" he said, loping over to her. He was wet with sweat and radiant with exertion, his racing blood and the clicks of his muscles, his heart. He looked so familiar and dear to her in that moment that she almost reached out, almost grabbed him for a hug.
"I said I would," she said instead, grinning at him. "How're you feeling? Still strong?"
"Aye, I'm gonna smash it," he said, wiggling his brows. "I might do okay. My mile splits are insane at the moment."
"What's a mile split?"
He chuckled. "I'll explain it after over a pint. Sound good?"
"Won't say no to that. Take a selfie with me."
"It's not a selfie if--"
"Balfe, just shut up and snap the damn photo so I can go," he said, and they were both laughing, and it felt so much like old times that she couldn't help but hope.
Later, she sat in a cozy booth in The Wellesbourne, a bar lined with bookshelves and oak, like a slice of Britain in the City of Angels. She was wearing black skinnies and a loose cream sweater that kept falling off one shoulder. She wore no make-up or jewelry, and her hair was down, pushed behind her ears. It was as casual as she could make herself be. So casual that it was a form of armour.
The pub itself smelled of possibilities, like fire and paper and ink and she imagined all the worlds spilling out from between the pages of the books, filling the spaces around her. Witches and Kings and paupers and gemstones and the lost, the depraved, the sick and the mad. The happy. Families and car crashes and broken bodies and infamy. It was all there, surrounding her, comforting her. Those worlds where she and Sam were married. Those worlds where she'd never met him, never auditioned.
The worlds where they were lost in bed somewhere, and he was driving her into the mattress, his cock hot and his mouth hotter, and she could still taste him down her throat.
"Christ, I'm starving," Sam said from behind her, by way of greeting.
She jumped, blushing. But if Caitriona had anything, it was the ability to rally. She turned and winked at him. "Ohmigod it's Sam Heughan!!!!"
He chucked her chin. "Don't say that too loud, there's bound to be scores of fans about."
She looked around at the empty bar; the silence almost deafening, split only by the hiss and crackle of logs in the fireplace. "I think you're shit out of luck, hon."
"Ah well, have to make do with you then." He sat across from her and opened up the menu. "Have ye ordered?"
"Was waiting for the rock star marathoner."
It turned out Sam was just as famished as he claimed. Caitriona tucked into her cauliflower mushroom risotto and bright and tangly cabbage salad while he ate three burgers and a steak and frites. They shared a carafe of reedy, ice-cold Sancerre.
"How're ye handling the break?" he asked, once he was done eating. Giving his plate to the attentive server, he wiped his mouth with a napkin and took a long sip of wine. "I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself at first."
She couldn't help giggling. "You just ate an entire fucking cow, you realize that right?"
Sam looked abashed. "I was hungry, Balfe."
"No shit, Sherlock," she teased. "Shall we tell them to anchor down this table? I'm afraid of what you'll set your stomach to next."
"I've got my eye on that chocolate mousse."
"Maybe I should take up jogging," she mused. "Does it really allow you to eat whatever you like?"
"To be honest, it just makes ye lose muscle if you're not careful," he said. "I'll have to train like fuck when we get back. Speaking of which, ye didn't answer my question."
"How your hols are going."
"Oh." She thought for a moment. "It's... not as simple as I imagined. Remember how we said you can't go home again? I mean, right now the only bonus is seeing Eddie."
"I need to meet her."
She was surprised. "Haven't you?"
Sam blinked. "Well, no. Unless this is some sort of strange rip in the space-time continuum?"
"You have got to stop reading Reddit, hon." She sipped her wine. "I 'spose it just feels like you should have met Edwina by now. She is the most important person in my life after all."
"Aye," she mimics. "But otherwise, I just feel like-- I miss it. It felt like we were a part of something. And I miss Scotland. I miss the crew."
"Me too," he said. "Though it's not half bad being in the sunshine."
"Why does everything begin and end with food?"
He shrugged. "It's in our nature, Balfe."
The our made something bloom behind her breasts. "So, now that all that running shit is over with, do you have any plans?"
"Running shit, huh?"
"Isn't that the technical term?"
"I'm going to stick around for a bit. I think I told ye my agent wants me to be out and about more - go to a few parties. All sounds cheesy, but he thinks it'll raise my profile." He paused. "How did I become the kind of bloke who says twatty things like that?"
She giggled. "I'm glad you said it before I could." It was her turn to hesitate. "Just be careful... it's a different sort of scene out here. I learned pretty quickly in my modeling days that it wasn't all it's cracked up to be."
"I guess those are mistakes I'll have to make myself," he said.
Caitriona flushed a little. "I wasn't saying you shouldn't--"
"And what're your plans then?" he interrupted.
"New York," she said, unaccountably stung. It was as if he didn't care about her advice - or worse, thought she was presumptuous to give it. "I leave in a few days."
Sam looked as if he was concentrating. It was his 'memorizing lines' face. He played with the stem of his wineglass and nodded. "It'll be great for you - ye know, reconnecting. I was thinking the other day -- the convention, it really brought it home how careful we need to be."
"In what way?"
"Just with the lines and how they can get crossed. It's... it felt very easy to pretend to be a couple, I guess." He laughed self-consciously. "Too easy. It's not fair to either of us or to Tony."
The name went through her like a shock. He rarely said it, if ever. "I thought we... well, we worked all that out, didn't we?"
"Aye, we did. I just mean -- it can't be a bad thing to spend some time apart. I think you'll find those issues you mentioned will disappear."
She forced a smile. "Look at you, getting all philosophical."
"Still waters run deep, Balfe."
He grinned, but it didn't look the same as his smile from earlier, during the marathon. This looked practiced. Fake. "Look, I should go--"
"Already?" she said before she could stop herself.
He grimaced. "Yeah, sorry, I've got a thing with a few mates-- said I'd celebrate with them. Haven't seen them since Outlander and--"
"No need to explain," she cut in. "Go, go! Flash your medal."
"Is that an euphemism?"
"Whatever floats your boat, darling."
He stood, and so did she. There was an awkward moment where they didn't quite know what to do with their hands. Sam stepped forward and drew her in. It was careful, and slow. She felt the tips of her breasts touch his chest and breathed in, trying to stop herself from trembling. He pressed a kiss to her forehead, just beneath her hairline. Was it her imagination, or did they both inhale? He smelled of apricots and boy and the wind.
He smelled like home.
"I'll text you," he whispered against her skin, and turned to go.
He hadn't. Caitriona stares up at the hotel ceiling. She remembers thinking once that the sky was theirs, and the ocean beneath, and the rolling cosmos above, and what does it say that where once there had been so much, now there is only silence? A silence as thick and black and wounded as a dying star.
In exactly twenty hours, he's scheduled to be at a Vanity Fair and Burberry party with her. Their stylists skyped to colour-coordinate their outfits. He hasn't texted. He hasn't called. Neither has she. Soon enough, they'll be back in Scotland, filming a love affair. And she feels so very, very cold inside. The locked cupboard is tight, sealed with wax and salt and her own feverish, disappointed, silly hopes.
She thinks again of him in that bar, of how he spun around and began to speak. How his words had made her feel like Alice, stepping through the looking glass into a new world, a wonderland, where everything you thought was, wasn't. The worlds were tumbling from the books around them, but she recognized none. As the glass swallowed her, his words echoed, soft and sad.
"That day at Akasha? When ye were out with your mates?"
She stared at him, still as a statue.
"I thought ye might come over." He paused, shaking his head ruefully. "I didn't see a wedding band. I didn't see anything but-- well, it was like... lightning, Christ that sounds stupid but-- and then you walked into that audition and I was just so glad I had the chance. Because I knew I'd always wonder."
He had been watching the floor, but suddenly his head shot up and he met her gaze with such intent that she felt as if he'd touched her.
"I knew I'd always wonder what could have been."
Caitriona could do nothing. Could say nothing. She just looked at him, at those blazing eyes - the same blue as that day at the restaurant, when she'd failed to see the train rushing toward her. The inevitable. Sam shrugged then, and it cracked her heart, because she somehow knew he wouldn't text her, wouldn't call. It was as final as the key on the table by the door.
"Don't say anything, Cait," he said, low. "There's no point. I just wanted ye to know."
"That I remembered."
To Be Continued...