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When We Were Young

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The hallway is long, dark. Flaring like a mouth without teeth, thin as a tunnel and as nondescript as the skies outside the aircraft as it arrowed toward Great Britain. She’d felt it all around her then, the sense of homecoming. Looking down onto the lands that had given her her chance, that had annexed a piece of the universe and presented it to her on a platter made of sheep’s wool and stone. And even as she emerged into the gloom and wet, there it was again. Welcome, Caitriona. As sweet as the arms of Mother, and just as complex, just as enveloping.


Her case falls to her feet. It makes a soft thwack against the tile as it lands, and she steps over it, shucking her shoes and reaching up to untie the knot from her hair. The release is like an orgasm, her scalp loosening, blood rush and pleasure akin to pain. She moans with relief, ruffling the tangles at her nape. The door shuts behind her. It has a clear panel in the very centre, with a small stained glass etching of a robin redbreast. From far away, it looks like a splotch of blood. Closer, the details are diamond-sharp. A tiny eye, sooty black. The straight, proud beak. One wing, slightly short, but veiny, as if pulsing with life. The vivid rendering of its chest and belly, the colour of fire.


When they first bought the flat, she'd sat for hours alone in the hall, cross-legged, staring deep into the bird's eye, wondering what it had seen, all these years, trapped in arrested flight.




“Jesus fuck,” she whisper-shrieks into the darkness. “This time I really am going to thump you, the key was for EMERGENCIES.”


“It was an emergency,” Sam says easily. He's in the living area, sprawled on the couch. Reaching up, he flicks on a lamp. “I didn't have any wine."


“You're a complete shit," she says, placing one hand over the thunder of her heart. "And Christ, at least pour me a glass."


She pads down into their bedroom. Feels strange to think that. Theirs. The ring still hurts her finger, and she worries it a bit. When she took it off last night, it left a stinging circlet on her skin. She showers quickly, steaming up the mirror with the hot torrent of water. Pees and scrubs her face clean. She changes into leggings and a loose top, no socks. She hesitates, but puts the ring back on, pushing it over her knuckle. Her hand swipes at the glass, revealing her reflection. I look old, she thinks uncharitably. The dark riverbeds beneath her eyes are like wounds. 


When she returns, Sam turns from the bar, passing her a large glass of Sancerre. 


“Cheers,” he says, clinking the air. “You’re home.”


“I ‘spose. This place still feels a bit odd.”


“You’ll get used to it, though an ottoman or somethin wouldn't go amiss,” he answers, flopping back down on the couch and extending his legs. He’s casual, trackies and a t-shirt worn through from too many washings. It looks ragged at the hems, and she resists the urge to fuss over him with a needle and thread. Not that she fucking knows how to sew anyway. But. The urge remains. She wonders sometimes if it will ever leave.


“Are ye just going to gawp at me all night, Balfe?”


“I’m thinking,” she says tartly. 




“How jet lagged I am.”


“If that’s supposed to be a hint, consider it ignored. I’m sick of being on my own.”


“It’s been three days.”


“Long enough,” he smirks and inclines his head. “Sit your arse down and tell me about the Globes.”


She feels herself unfurl, as always. It’s too easy, too familiar. She bundles herself onto her favourite chaise, tucking a blanket around her knees. “It was about what you remember from the first time. They fucked my name and I tried to look like all I wanted was Elisabeth Moss to win.”


“Quite enjoy her show though," Sam says, dodging the pillow she chucks at him. "How did Tony take it?”


“Eh, he coped. I think he was a bit taken aback by the noise more than anything. I mean, he’s been at enough — but it’s on another scale.” 


"Specially debuting that rock."


"No one seemed to know it was him," she says, shrugging and then realizing how that sounds. "I mean... well."


"I ken what ye meant," he answers, his voice carefully blank. "Must admit the publicist's flipping her shite. Apparently everyone thinks we're the ones getting -- y'know."




"Aye, that." He chuckles. "I've told her not to even bother responding. What's the point? It'll just add fuel to the fire."


"There's no fire."


"There was."


She breathes. In, out. "But there isn't any longer. And hasn't been for ages, so..."


"Oi, calm down," he says lazily. "I was just making an observation."


"Best to keep those to yourself," Caitriona answers sweetly. 


He laughs. "Don't tell me you're going to get all smug married on me now. It's going to be a long couple of years if so babe."


As the evening wears on, he opens a second bottle and they start to get a bit squiffy. He fills her in on his latest adventures (climbing vast mountains, breaking up with Mackenzie yet-bloody-again, trying to tweet without looking like a twat - "you've failed miserably," she says) and she tells him how Tony proposed (on a beach, so cliche, and how a random journo scooped it and then acted like an arsehole all over the shop - "it was like the gifs of blokes falling off their skateboards," Sam muses, "fail, fail, fail, get up again, nope, you've fallen, you're shite at this") and then, as the moon is entering its final, bloom-white phase in the sky, he asks her the question she's been dreading. 


"Do ye ever think about it?"


"About what?"


He raises his eyebrows. "Like that, is it? We lie to each other now?"


She flushes. "All riiiight... I'm not lying. I'm just not sure it's... appropriate."


"We were a couple once." He says it simply, but the words themselves are like hot stones thrown into the air, like sparklers.


It's her turn to raise her eyebrows. All the better to disguise her hands, how they tremble. "And?"


"I think that's important. Even if you don't."


"I never said it wasn't important."


"It doesn't disappear just cos ye want it to."


"I don't want it to."


"Could've fooled me, Balfe."


"Maybe you're easy to fool."


"I might be, at that." He pauses. "It just-- it ended so quickly, ye know? I suppose I always thought it might..."


Her stomach begins to hurt, and she tilts her head back, staring up at the ceiling, where the stars would be if they were outside. Christ, she wishes they were. Playing at Jamie and Claire, pretending to be lovers - they're so very, very good at that.


She whispers the next words. "Why are you telling me this now?"


"Because I'm a git, of course. I know the reasons we ended things-- obviously, I was there. But I don't know, it just all seems so final. So grown up, I suppose."


"What did you think I was doing with Tony this whole time?"


"I prefer not to think about it, thanks very much."


She laughs. "And same goes for me. With you and the teenager."




Caitriona sighs, still smiling a bit. "But you remember, don't you? How -- how bloody difficult it was? Trying to -- I mean, it was a nightmare, you know that. And we were stupid, really. Thinking we could ignore the noise and just be a normal couple. We work much better as mates. I mean, the situation-- it's just better off if we don't have that extra baggage." When he still says nothing, she huffs out another sigh. "You were the one who--"


"I know," Sam finally answers. "That damn Comic Con. I was shit scared, and I think now -- well, I just think-- maybe if we'd given it some time--"


"But we didn't." 


"Aye, we didn't."


And she knows, they're both remembering. San Diego. That feeling of being on top of the fucking world, feeling as if the earth was a giant piece of cake, ripe for eating, thick and sweet and sexy and God, that could never last, could it? But she can recall, the way her cheeks ached from smiling, and how well-fucked she was, pink and swollen and sated, and how he would grab her bum behind the scenes. Whisper against her ear, make the little hairs there stand up. How they thought about telling everyone. Announcing it to E! like a pair of fools. Fools in love. 


Fools rush in, she thinks now. If she's being completely honest with herself, she knows that she has a habit of rushing into relationships, regardless. That, like Karo once told her, she can't be alone. She's a serial monogamist, and she'd probably have married Dave too.


Probably have married Heughan, if it came to that.


If he hadn't broken it off, left her confused and spinning, like a tightrope artist without a wire. Straight into the arms of an old friend, who picked her up and made her laugh, and never left her side.


As if he was afraid of what might happen if he did.


Or maybe it was her who was afraid. She can acknowledge the possibility - that her fear had forced that horrendous 'denial', forced the excising of her heart from her body, as neatly as a surgeon might. 


Caitriona drinks more wine, terrified to say anything, terrified that if she makes the wrong move, everything she's built so carefully will be torn asunder. She can't - won't - go back to feeling that way again. Out of control, out of her mind, permanently drunk. Her mum once said to her that there's such a thing as being a bit too happy, and Cait has believed it ever since.


When you're too happy, Caitríona, you have so much farther to fall. That accent of her mother's, like a whooping crane, dipping and rushing. Bit of a doomsayer, she was, but she was also rarely wrong. 


Sam's voice splits the silence.  "Got ye a wee gift."


"Did you?" she's charmed, and grateful for the distraction. "What is it?"


"Why do ye always ask that? You have to open the bloody thing, Balfe."


She laughs. "Why would I do that when the alternative bothers you so much?"


The paper unwraps easily. Her throat catches a bit. It's a framed photo of them on one of their first days. Her hair in curlicues, and his newly ginger. There is a softness around their eyes, and in them too - like a new dawning, a new beginning. It's almost too much, and her poor heart, it shudders beneath her breasts. 


 "We were such babies. Were we ever that young?"


"I think so. Seems hard to believe." He pauses, as if considering the years that have passed, like plumes of smoke, and just as unreachable. "Anyway, I should be going. Let ye sleep."


He bends down to kiss her forehead, as is his habit. Caitriona doesn't allow herself time to think. If she did, she'd think that she can't help herself, never could. She tilts her chin up and their mouths touch. It's brief, the kiss. He tastes of the wine they drank, and something else. Salt ripe ocean and Scotland. That part of the universe that was annexed to her, annexed to them both. A gift, a sparkling box of treasure, brought up from the depths, where the mermaids live, and the drowned. He gasps a bit as his lips leave hers, rests his nose against her nose. Rests his hand against her hand. Twines their fingers together, palm to palm. Holy palmer's kiss. Their bodies, like twins for so long, so joined, so incomplete without the other.


"Y'know..." he pauses. His voice is soft, so very very soft. "I know we thought it wouldn't have lasted. That we'd have burnt out. But it was beautiful, wasn't it? What we had?"


She can't speak. He moves away then. He knows why she hasn't answered, why she can't


"See ye tomorrow, Balfe," he says, placing his hand on the door. His ring finger, bare in the light from the moon. The shadow of the robin's redbreast falls over his chest, like a smear of blood. 


"Goodnight," she whispers, meaning goodbye, goodbye, maybe I could have loved you forever, maybe I could have spent my days listening to the way your laugh explodes the air, spent them texting you and arguing with you, and my nights in the hot embrace of your arms, feeling those sore spots on your knuckles against my breasts and my back and I could have been content with that, and I'll always wonder, my darling -- 




And he is gone then, as if he heard her words glimmer in the air. A bright star in the night, gone into the night, as if he was never there, as if the universe closed around him, closed around them both, leaving only the redbreast, the moon, the empty dark sky.