Leoch Tavern, upscale casual with an industrial warehouse vibe, boasted an impressive Saturday night crowd. The lighting, moderately dim with a warm orange glow, put Jamie at ease as soon as he walked in. Soft music piped throughout the building cultivated a relaxed mood without overpowering the senses. One wouldn't need to shout to have a conversation here.
Thinking about who he'd like to have a non-shouted conversation with made his head go fuzzy with nerves.
Looking around from the bar, Jamie recognized a handful of spectators from the warehouse and a few players milling about who'd arrived with the first wave. Some wore skates, some in street shoes.
No Sass N Whack yet, though.
With a closed-mouth sigh that rumbled from his throat, he ordered a Lagavulin neat. He leaned his elbows on the natural wood bar, tension stiffening his body like a board. Each passing moment, he got closer and closer to convincing himself to walk out and go home before he made a right fool of himself. Following a complete stranger here -- no, showing up here and merely hoping said stranger would also come -- based on nothing more than...attraction?...lust?...just felt pathetic.
Resolving to finish his glass in the next two sips and escape with his pride largely intact, he caught a familiar accent down the bar.
"Two waters, please."
His heart sped at just those few syllables. As discreetly as he could, he cut his eyes in her direction. Mere feet away. Nearly as close as they'd been when she'd handed him the overpriced beer at the game. Her brown curls, now piled into a messy bun atop her head, looked even more wild after the game. Her face was still pink, gold glitter still shining over her cheekbones and around her eyes, making her glow with ease and confidence. Beneath the musk of exertion (which, far from repelling him, unhinged him in a way he tried to ignore), he smelled hints of vanilla and patchouli.
She waited, eyes trained carefully forward, as the barkeep fixed two glasses of water with ice.
The second she walked away, the door would close. Jamie knew that. He'd never approach her amidst her friends and teammates. This was the moment. His one and only shot. If she pulled away from the bar before he said a word, he may never know her real name. That, and downing the rest of his whisky, gave him the courage to turn in her direction.
"Can I ask a question?" he said, leaning slightly in her direction.
How the color bloomed and deepened across the apples of her cheeks sent a bolt of something hot and sharp straight through him. With a smirk and a turn to look at him, she nodded in invitation. Butterflies the size of pterodactyls erupted in his stomach, so strong his voice nearly shook as he spoke.
"I just wondered," he said, speaking slowly to control his nerves, "how many times ye heard that particular word muttered behind yer back before ye decided to adopt it fer yerself?"
It had been the question on his mind ever since hearing the moniker announced over the loudspeaker, wanting to know where that cheeky streak came from. Asking it aloud now, he felt like a complete tool. But her smile was kind. Her eyes -- damn him if it wasn't the exact shade of the whisky he'd just finished -- gleamed at him. "More than I can count," she admitted, shoulders still square to the bar but face and eyes trained on him. "You know, I'd heard a lot of talk before moving to Scotland about the creativity of Scottish insults, yet as soon as anyone hears me speak, it's always the same. I'd be disappointed if it hadn't inspired what is truly the greatest derby name I've ever heard, if I say so myself."
A grin spread across his face without his permission. "Well, apologies on behalf of my countrymen, both for their rudeness and their predictability, then." Heart pounding, deep breath.
Take the shot.
"Care for a drink in recompense?" He lifted his own empty glass in question.
Was it obvious he was holding his breath?
Sass dipped her eyes for just a moment to the bar top before looking back, a small smile still on her lips. "That's very gallant," she said. "Unfortunately, I'm still on wheels." She popped up her leg behind her in demonstration, a pair of bright turquoise skates with still-spinning purple wheels. Different from the black and whites she'd worn during the bout. "Booze and skates do not mix."
"Ah, wise, indeed," he conceded with as much grace as he could muster. The air between them seemed to vibrate, her body now angled ever so slightly towards him, his open completely in her direction.
One more try, then he'd accept his fate.
"In that case, I've heard the fish and chips here are second tae none," Jamie said, leaning more toward her and speaking confidentially. "Care for a nip?"
Awe seemed to spread across her features as her amber eyes widened and a grin creeped over her own face. Her waters sat forgotten before her, condensation already beginning to pool around the base of the glasses. Jamie watched her face intently. He feared it would be too intently, but he couldn't tear his eyes from her for anything in the world as he awaited the verdict. Sass looked briefly away from the bar toward her teammates congregated around a cluster of high-top tables in the center before turning back to him. "Tell you what." She inched closer. "Fish and chips to split, and one of whatever you're having to drink, then meet me on the patio outside." A thin brown eyebrow arched in inquiry, the smirk back in place.
Jamie huffed out his relief and nodded once. "As ye wish," he said. As she made to roll past him, he touched her arm. They both seemed to start at the contact, but Jamie didn't let it deter him. "If I'm tae buy ye dinner, I should probably ken your real name."
Dhia, would he ever get tired of that smile? He prayed not.
They paused, looking at each other in a never-ending heartbeat where the space surrounding them seemed muted and distant. After a few breaths, though, Claire pulled away. "Well, Jamie Fraser," she murmured, "all I can say is I hope for my own sake you have good taste in whisky."
Balancing two glasses of whisky and a paper boat of fish and chips on a tray, Jamie shouldered the door open. The concrete patio boasted several small iron tables surrounded by cozy chairs with oversized cushions. Hedges around the perimeter gave the area privacy, insulating it from the road and parking lot just on the other side. Besides the one patio light by the door, the only illumination came from strings of fairy lights and vintage-style city lights, casting a warm glow on everything it touched. It took his breath away to see.
And so did she. Sass -- Claire -- sat in a far corner of the outdoor patio. Only a few other people -- ordinary customers, not partygoers -- shared the space with them in the chilly early fall air. Jamie was grateful for it. Somehow, he doubted they'd have gotten much privacy if her mates were nearby.
Jamie approached and unloaded the tray onto the small table before her. "So how do ye intend to get around the 'no booze and wheels' issue, then?" he asked as he took his own seat and leaned back, crossing one ankle to rest on the opposite knee in a pose far more relaxed than he actually felt.
Claire rolled her whisky eyes and held up her skates. "I'll catch a ride home," she responded, setting the skates back down. Smirking, she leaned forward conspiratorially. "I figured outside would be a safer bet with taking them off. Open air and all that."
Only a breath of a hesitation before Jamie raised his hands before him. "Yer words, lass, no' mine."
To his relief, she threw her head back in an unrestrained laughing fit. "Is that how you normally charm the ladies, then? Buy them bar food then tell them they smell?"
"Hey, I never said any such words," he defended himself as he struggled to keep his own giggles at bay. "I just...didna lie tae ye, either."
"Well, it's part of the grand derby tradition," Claire insisted. "If you find yourself feeling faint, we can always sit six feet apart."
As they were, their chairs were angled toward each other and close enough that if he wanted -- and gathered the courage -- he could reach over and touch her arm without shifting his own weight.
"I've a stronger constitution than that, Sassenach."
"'Sassenach,' is it?" she asked, and Jamie wondered for a heart-stopping second if he'd stuck his foot in his mouth.
"Och, 'tis just what I called ye in my mind 'fore I knew yer name. I dinna mean anything by it."
Claire popped a fish nugget into her mouth, still grinning. "I'm teasing, Jamie. I...I like it." His pulse eased a bit as she finished chewing then asked, "Now, I would've seen you around if you'd been to a bout before. What brought you out tonight?"
Blood pinked his cheeks, and he sipped his drink to avoid her gaze. "Och, 'twas actually a work assignment."
"Aye," he said. "I run PR for Mackenzie Distillery. And...well..."
"Ahh," Claire said, instant understanding dripping from the single, stretched-out syllable. "This wouldn't happen to have anything to do with a certain Mackenzie and his...shall we say....questionable practices where his female employees are concerned?"
He rubbed the back of his neck, uncomfortable. "Unfortunately, yes." Jamie took another sip and gauged her demeanor. Eyes sharp but a light smile -- natural, not forced, he determined -- gracing her lips.
Pink, full lips. Just a hint of moisture from where the whisky had kissed them.
"I dinna like tae claim them much," he went on, fiddling with a piece of fish before popping it in his mouth and swallowing it. "They're my uncles, ken? So when the issues wi' Dougal leaked, Colum immediately began searchin' for ways to restore public goodwill again." Jamie glanced to Claire, who regarded him with interest, as he picked his glass back up. "He's hopin' that if the Mack brand sponsors some women-run organizations that it'll help to that end."
She nodded her head slowly and took a long draw from her own glass. Embarrassed as he was to associate himself with either uncle, he couldn't help comparing her eyes to the glass held just inches away.
The hue was identical. His skin buzzed at the confirmation.
"Well," she crooned as she tucked her socked feet beneath her, "I hate to disappoint, but we tend to be fairly discerning about sponsors. Money talks to an extent, sure, but we take seriously who we align ourselves with." She furrowed one brow and shrugged. "I doubt the team will want to be the Band-Aid on Dougal Mackenzie's image problem."
"And who could blame ye?" he responded, smirking and popping another chip into his mouth.
"Does that mean you're writing tonight off as a business dinner, then?"
"Och, nae, lass," Jamie answered immediately. He put his foot on the ground to lean forward. "And have Dougal and Colum Mackenzie treatin' ye tonight? Never."
She glowed beneath the lights as she bit her bottom lip, eyes glancing downward for just a moment. A not-unpleasant anticipation descended on them, his stomach twisting with it, before Jamie motioned to her with his glass. "So that's my embarrassing work story. What about ye?"
"I'm a nurse," Claire answered after finishing another bite. "I work A&E at Royal Infirmary."
"High-stress job, I take it?"
"Very." But she was grinning.
"Ye love it, then?"
If possible, her smile grew, her eyes crinkling. She only nodded in response.
"So she thrives under pressure," Jamie mused out loud, sitting back in his chair with a cocked eyebrow. "Would never have guessed that, watchin' ye on the track tonight," he added, imbuing the words with clear sarcasm.
Claire rolled her eyes and settled further into the cushions of her chair. "I guess that's accurate," she allowed. "I've always just...gotten really zen in a crisis. The more everyone else around me panics, the calmer I feel." She shrugged her shoulders. "Serves me well day to day."
"What drew ye to nursin' specifically, then?" he asked as he ate a piece of fish then pushed the paper boat toward Claire, an invitation for her to finish the final pieces.
For just a second, her gaze fell to her lap, the corners of her mouth dropped. So quick that had he been taking a sip of his drink, he would've missed it. Before he could apologize, though, she'd perked back up. "Well, I've always been drawn to medicine. And when my uncle was sick a few years back, I just realized that...it fit."
She left it at that, and Jamie didn't pry. "Well," he said, leaning against the arm of the chair toward her, "I'm glad ye found a path that's fulfillin' for ye. 'Tis more than most."
"So you don't like your job, then?"
Christ, she was quick. Of course, he hadn't been subtle about it. Even as he shifted in his seat, nervous again, Jamie appreciated her forthrightness, how she spoke her mind and heard his own without judgment or timidity.
Jamie shrugged in answer. "I needed a job after uni. My uncles offered one. 'Tis a steady paycheck, and I'm decent at what I do." He sipped his drink. Probably only one left in the glass. "But, no, I dinna care too much fer it."
Whisky eyes watched him with fascination. Feet tucked beneath her, Claire leaned her chin into her hand, elbow resting on the arm of her chair. "So, then, money and real life aside, if you could pick any job to do, what would it be?"
Heart pounding, breath caught in his chest. The question wasn't even so very personal. But the way she looked at him as though attempting to read him like a book -- as though she were reading him so easily -- disarmed him. The intensity of her attention raised goosebumps along his arms and the back of his neck. No false interest here. No overeager but ultimately empty chatter. She asked to know the answer. Because knowing the answer would mean she knew him just that much more.
Which thrilled and terrified him in equal measure.
Jamie leaned toward her, voice lowered. "Easy answer. I'd do what my uncles do, but for myself. Make whisky. Good whisky."
"Is that why you've stuck around with them so long, then? Because under it all, it's something close to your heart?"
He shrugged. "Partly."
"Do they not make good whisky, then?"
A contemplative exhale rushed from him, and he looked away to think for a moment. "Maybe once it was," he allowed. "But 'tis more about profit margins now than craftin' somethin' special. They dinna view it as an art but a routine. Do what's worked in the past, get paid, and dinna go beyond that. 'Tis all mechanical and no heart."
He didn't share where he'd first learned his love of whisky, the man who'd taught him to appreciate subtleties in flavor and quality, guided him in his first experimentations with distilling. Likely for much the same reason Claire had skirted around the issue of her sick uncle. An optimistic part of his brain insisted that was a story for another meeting.
"On that note," Jamie held up his empty glass and motioned to hers. "Care for another?"
The debate warred across her face, emotions and thoughts passing across it with unambiguous clarity. Pleased though he was that she wanted to continue, he didn't want it to be a stress on her, either.
"Water, then?" he asked. Another glorious smile as her shoulders relaxed minutely and she nodded. Standing, he grabbed the empty glass from her, their fingers brushing together. Just as had happened when he touched her arm inside, the breath caught in his chest and something akin to fire burned beneath his skin.
When he returned with their waters, conversation continued to flow. Sitting with Claire, joking with her, bantering back and forth with exchanged smirks and glances felt so natural to him he was nearly dizzy with glee.
As much as he yearned to reach over and touch her again, Jamie kept his hand to himself. Only once did he do so, laughing nearly to the point of tears at a story she'd told about one of their last after parties. Forgetting himself, he'd wiped the tears with one hand and patted hers with his other. One heartbeat later, he'd pulled away sharply, red coloring his neck and ears. Neither had addressed it. After a pause, Claire had asked another question, and the moment had passed.
By the time Claire sighed and checked the time on her phone, Jamie was shocked to see that it was after one o'clock. "Christ, when did it get so late?" he breathed. They'd been alone on the patio for a while now, and through the windows Jamie could see only a handful of patrons and players still inside.
"Sometime in the past two hours, I wager," Claire teased, smiling. "I should get ready to head out soon..."
Jamie latched onto the reluctance in her voice, how despite the words she didn't rise from her seat. Stomach taut with anxiety and pulse racing, Jamie leaned forward, elbows balanced on his knees and fingers folded together in the air before him. With conscious effort, he kept his grip light enough so his knuckles weren't white.
"Would it..." He cleared his throat, willing it not to waver. "Would it be too forward tae ask for yer number, take ye out sometime?"
Excitement flitted across her face before, as it had once earlier in the evening, it turned downward and her smile melted. She stared at her hands, fingers squeezing each other in anxiety.
A boulder dropped in his stomach.
"I've...so enjoyed tonight, Jamie," she whispered. "Truly. But I'm not really in...that place right now." Whisky eyes, shining behind a sheen of moisture, met his own. "I'm sorry."
Crushed was as apt a word as he could conjure just then. Every step of the night had gone without a hitch until now, the most crucial final step: To see her again. Disappointment incommensurate with the few hours they'd spent together thus far flooded through him.
"Och, dinna be sorry, Sassenach," he said, wondering if his face or tone betrayed him. He sincerely hoped not. They sat next to each other, neither moving quite yet, until Jamie finally stood and pulled out his wallet.
"Here," he said, passing a business card to her, his last-ditch effort. "In case the team changes its mind about the sponsorship, ken?"
With a kind, sad smile, she reached up and took the card from him. Their fingers didn't touch, and Jamie found himself missing that contact.
Christ, man, yer pathetic, he chided himself.
Jamie replaced his wallet in his pocket. "I should get goin' myself." Claire remained seated. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, not sure how to take his leave. In the end, he decided on honesty. "I havena enjoyed a night like this in a long time, Sassenach. I hope..." One small sigh, his eyes not leaving hers. "I truly hope our paths cross again sometime." And, with every ounce of strength within him, he smiled at her. "Goodnight, Claire."
Walking across the patio, through the bar, and out the door onto the street, tears burned at his eyes. He fought them back. Unreasonable, it was. Absurd. But as the door of the pub clicked closed behind him, he felt another door snap and lock shut. And it pained him to walk away and let it.
Most of the team had already left by the time Claire rejoined Geillis inside, holding her skates by their tied laces. The atmosphere more subdued now, Geillis stood alone at the table, sipping on a ginger ale. A blush warmed her skin as her best friend leveled her with an indignant raised eyebrow.
"And where's yer wee fox, Beauchamp?" she demanded, one bony hand resting on her cocked hip.
Claire rolled her eyes. "He left."
"Aye, I watched him go," Geillis said. Pushing off the high top table, she rolled in a slow circle around Claire as though herding her in. "I dinna think I've ever seen a man that fine leave a bar lookin' so sad an' lonely before." Crossing her arms and stopping her motion, Geillis added. "What happened?"
"Nothing worth mentioning."
"Och, 'nothin' worth mentionin',' she says," Geillis mocked, rolling her eyes. "She spends hours wi' the man, abandonin' all her friends and teammates to do so, and then lets him leave alone, then says nothin' worth mentionin' happened."
"'Abandoned'?" Claire laughed. "That's not how I remember it."
Geillis spotted him first. "Och, Beech, yer ginger made it out," she whispered, jutting out her chin to motion toward the bar.
Turning to look, Claire fought a ridiculous swooping feeling in the pit of her stomach. Sure enough, the man from the bout -- a jawline like stone, eyes like ice, and a curly mop of red she'd immediately wanted to run her fingers through -- stood at the bar, nursing a highball glass filled with amber. She clamped her lips together, biting down, to contain the irrational giddiness that overtook her to see him here.
Claire turned back to Geillis. "So?"
"Claaaire," her friend whined, "are ye gonna go say hi?"
"I can't just 'say hi,' Geillis!" she responded, mild panic making her shiver. Dating hadn't exactly been a priority for her in recent years. Besides the normal nerves of being out of practice, an exorbitant, unexplainable fear of failing with this particular guy ate away at her gut. She cast a furtive glance back toward him before adding, "What if he's just interested in a solitary drink before heading home?"
"Aye, he came to the after party after makin' serious heart eyes at ye over shitty beer and from across the warehouse because he wants tae drink alone. The puir lad drooled o'er ye so much durin' the bout they nearly had to call a timeout just to mop the floor. For skater safety, ken."
"That sarcasm is so unbecoming of you, Gillie."
A wicked smirk made her friend's green eyes glint. "Ye dinna even need tae say a word. I bet all ye need to do is walk up, stand within five feet o' the lad, and he'll be talkin' to ye inside of two minutes."
More than almost anyone else since Claire had moved to Scotland, Geillis had always been in her corner. Through every late-night shift, every canceled night out, every bad date and every harsh word snapped in the throes of bone-melting exhaustion, Geillis Duncan had breezed right by.
So if she were pushing Claire to take a risk, she knew it was a risk worth taking.
Claire pushed her curls, still slightly damp from the game and the skate over from the warehouse, away from her face. "What exactly do I gain if I win this bet?"
Huffing an annoyed sigh, Geillis rolled her eyes. "Is this really a bet ye'd like to win, Beech?"
She didn't answer. Only looked again to the taut shoulders staring her down from a mere twenty yards away.
"Fine. But if I win, you're sprinting laps on Monday till you puke."
"Seriously, Claire," Geillis asked, tone sobering. "Did he no' ask ye out?"
Pursing her lips and avoiding her friend's gaze, Claire shook her head. "No, he asked."
"Ah." Her high-pitched tone spoke of a sudden understanding. "So was he dull as mud, then? 'Tis always a shame when the extra fine ones make ye want to crawl up yer own arsehole just tae be rid of their drivel and tripe."
"No," Claire rushed to assure her friend before she could continue the vivid imagery. "No, he was..."
He was what? Interesting? Witty? Kind? Thoughtful? Intelligent? All wrapped up with a touch that sent sparks spreading from the point of contact every time? Each word seemed so utterly lacking. The hours spent outside with him beneath the fairy lights had felt like a dream.
But that was the rub. Relationships existed in reality, not in dreams. And her reality, in particular, posed difficulties and responsibilities most couldn't handle. And if her initial attraction to Jamie had made her fearful of blowing it big time, the hours spent laughing with him, watching how the whisky made his eyes shine, feeling the warmth from his fingers on her arm exacerbated that fear a hundredfold.
As always, Geillis read the truth on her face. "Beech..."
"I don't need anyone in my life, Gillie," Claire whispered, embarrassed to find herself choked up. Taking a sniffling breath, she leaned her elbows on the high top and ran her fingers through her stiff curls. "We had a nice evening tonight. Why take that and put it out in the real world where it may just...crash and burn?"
Like all the others, she added with a mental scoff.
"Or why throw somethin' away before it ever got a chance to live because yer afraid of what may later fail, Beech? Ye canna ken what'll happen if ye never speak tae the man again."
Geillis wrapped her thin arm around Claire's shoulders, pulling her close. "I'll tell ye one thing, Beech. Dutiful best friend I am, I was spyin' on the both o' ye outside the window. The fox looked at ye like ye were the first woman he'd ever seen." She paused, placing a hand on Claire's shoulder. "And I dinna ken when I've ever seen ye lookin' so happy and...unburdened since I've kent ye."
Claire ran her fingers along the firm edges of his card held hidden in her hand.
"Dinna make a decision tonight," Geillis said, downing the rest of her drink before pulling Claire toward the door. "Ye deserve happiness, Claire. And I just think if ye let fear keep ye from at least tryin', ye'll never find it."
So many times in her life, Claire had overcome her fears. Her insistence on traveling with Uncle Lamb rather than attend boarding school. The decision to pursue medicine. To leave Frank. To move to Scotland. Even to put on skates and try roller derby for the first time. And every time, life had been better for it.
"I'll think about it," Claire promised as they stepped into the misty cool night air and made for home.