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When the World is Free

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John and Claire’s delicate dance continued into her seventh and eighth months of pregnancy.  Since that day of shared private pleasure, nothing much had changed between them. They maintained their chaste kisses on cheeks and heads, holding hands and sharing amicable silence.

And occasionally they would pleasure themselves in each other’s company.

By the middle of the seventh month, Claire could not comfortably reach around the swell of her belly to touch herself. John had watched her try one night, feeling himself grow hard as she did, and then she sighed with frustration. It wasn’t long before she had another idea, however, and she was suddenly sitting astride one of her pillows, undulating her hips as she grasped the headboard with white knuckles. John could not take his eyes off of her as he began palming himself and then pumping furiously, finishing only just before she did.

John could not make any sense of it.

She was a woman. John had known since quite an early age that he was not like other boys; he did not desire the company or touch of a woman the way he should. The older he got, the more it clicked in his brain that he desired men in the way he ought to desire women. And he'd done all in his power to rectify it, to change who he was, but to no avail. His confession to Jamie had come about as a result of his wishing to deny it to himself no longer. Jamie had flipped a switch in John’s heart, and John suddenly knew that if he were lucky enough to love a soul like Jamie’s, that being who he was could not have possibly been so terrible. It could in fact have been…absolutely wonderful.

But then there was her.

She, this woman who shared his home and his name, was making him question everything all over again. At first, she had been something to cling to as he floated adrift in a sea of grief. She was his one tenuous link to Jamie, the one thing keeping alive the miracle the man had done to his soul. Even after that first night of their marriage where they’d used each other so grossly, John still could not separate her from Jamie. It was like she herself had so bluntly said:

“We were really fucking Jamie.”

But then she’d offered to touch him…and he’d agreed. And they’d come to this place where they could watch each other in the throes of passion and be spurred even further into their own haze of pleasure.

“It makes me feel…very good to give a man pleasure.”

John quickly learned that Claire carried a great sense of erotic pride in her own abilities, and he had to admit there was something enchanting about it. Since that first time, it was rare that she touched him, but damn him if having her watch him do it himself didn’t light him afire.

And he couldn’t bloody make sense of any of it at all.

And then there was the child.

They’d been sitting and reading as they did every night, and Claire had very suddenly thrown her book aside and grasped John’s hands, causing him to drop his book as well. Before he could find the words to ask what in the world she was doing, he felt it.

“He’s saying hello,” she’d whispered, her eyes flicking back and forth between their hands and John’s face.

John could not stop staring at his hands, hands that could literally feel tiny feet pounding against them.

“I’m so glad you’re finally here for this. You’ve missed it a fair amount of times.”

John had to blink fairly quickly to clear his eyes of tears.

“See, lovie? I told you that you’d get to say hello to Daddy soon.”

John had looked up at her in amazement as the weight of her chosen word sank in, and was surprised at the tears on her cheeks, the pain in her eyes.

I know, my dear. I know you wish it was him instead.

“Thank you for sharing this with me, Claire,” is what he’d said instead.

By the eighth month, words like Daddy and Mummy were regularly exchanged between the two of them, as well as little one and sweetheart.

And Da.

John came home to the sight of Claire on the sofa, legs stretched out over the cushions, Jamie’s rosary in one hand, the other stroking her round belly.

“And then, your Da said to me: you need not be scared of me, nor of anyone here, so long as I'm with you.”

John smiled wistfully as he hung up his coat and hat. They’d decided early on that the child would know his father. John would be Daddy, of course, but he would know the brave man that loved him from Heaven. John and Claire would create that presence for him together.

It gave her comfort to talk to the child, especially while he worked when Geillis could not give her company, and it was more than natural for Jamie to be at the forefront of her mind while she did so.

John heard Claire sigh, and she pressed a kiss to the rosary before tucking it back into the box she kept it in, which she’d brought from the bedroom and put on the coffee table.

“Good evening,” John said warmly, unsure if the moment she’d just shared with the father of her child was meant to stay between them, or if she would bring him into it. Sometimes she did, sometimes she didn’t; it depended on the day as to which option it would be.

“Good evening,” Claire answered, both hands on her stomach now. “How was your day?”

Leave it alone, then.

“Just fine. Rather boring, actually,” he said. He sat on the coffee table in front of her, not at all surprised by the redness in her eyes or the lingering wetness on her cheeks. “Has Brian been behaving himself today?”

Claire sniffled loudly, but she smiled, seemingly savoring the sound of the name being spoken aloud. “What do you think, little one? Should I lie and tell Daddy that you were sweet as anything?”

“Oh my.” John frowned in sympathy.

“I think he’s stepped on my bladder a total of thirty-two times today,” she groaned. “And my feet hurt so bloody badly, I considered just staying here and soiling the couch an embarrassing amount of times rather than go to the toilet.”

“Poor dear,” John said, then gave her stomach a poke. “Naughty thing.”

She laughed softly. “Would you mind terribly if I asked you to cook? I really don’t think I can stand another second today.”

“Not at all.” John leaned forward and kissed her temple before heaving himself off the coffee table. “Whatever you wish to eat, I shall do my best to make it happen for you.”

“Just a plate of every single carbohydrate in the kitchen,” she said dramatically, and John chuckled to himself as he started rummaging through the cabinets.

“Well, I can put the water on to boil for some spaghetti, and get you some bread in the meantime.”

“With oil? And garlic?”

“As you wish.”

He heard her moan with delight, no doubt throwing her head back over the arm of the couch, and he chuckled again. He poked his head in the refrigerator and saw that there was still some baked chicken from the other night’s meal. He decided that would pair nicely as a protein with the carbohydrates his wife so desired, and he put it in the oven on a low setting to heat up.

“Some broccoli, my dear?”

God no. Nothing green.”

“Still? I thought you’d gotten past that by the fourth month.”

“I thought so too. But it’s come back. With a vengeance.”

“Alright, I apologize for even entertaining the idea.”

Chicken warming and water set to boil, John returned to the living room with a plate of bread and a small dish of garlic and oil, along with a glass of wine for each of them. As she dug into the bread, he began rubbing her feet almost as an instinct, remembering exactly what she needed.

“You are too good to me, darling.”

His lips quirked up and he peered up at her. “I do try.”

When the meal was made and John put a plate of pasta and chicken in front of Claire, she glowered at him, not at all unlike a stubborn child after seeing a plate of vegetables.

“Don’t look at me like that. You are the nurse, and you made me swear that I would not let you become undernourished no matter the cravings you had. So this is me holding up my end of that bargain.” He sat down across from her, unable to hold back a smile. “You said yourself you need protein.” She narrowed her eyes. “Perhaps eat it first so that it doesn’t spoil the spaghetti,” he said as if reasoning with a child of five years old. She rolled her eyes at him and reluctantly started to eat.

Claire had done exactly the opposite of what John had suggested; she devoured the spaghetti and a second helping before even touching the chicken. She shot daggers at him lest he even attempt to stop her, so he kept his mouth shut and bit his tongue to stifle laughter.

Just as she was reluctantly beginning to cut into the chicken, there was a knock at the front door.

“Who could that be?” Claire said.

“Don’t get up, I’ll take care of it,” John said. “Likely it’s nothing important.”

John pushed back his chair and made his way out of the kitchen, smiling fondly at the sound of Claire’s humming the beginning of It’s Been a Long, Long Time — one of her newest favorite records — accompanied by the sound of her knife and fork clinking on the plate.

“Never thought that you would be standing here so close to me…”

“Coming,” John called as he switched on a lamp in the living room; it had quickly grown dark since they’d moved to the kitchen.

“There's so much I feel that I should say, but words can wait until some other day…”

John opened the door, and he literally felt the blood drain from his face.

“Kiss me once, then kiss me twice, then kiss me once again! It’s been a long, long time…”

He had to be dreaming. He had to be.

His knees felt weak, and then felt like nothing. His legs went completely numb. He had to clutch the door with both hands to keep from toppling over.

“John.”

His voice sounded far away, echoing as if through a canyon. John’s vision blurred, and the door swayed in his grip.

A pair of strong hands suddenly caught him by the shoulders and held him upright; otherwise he would have slid down the door and landed in a heap. John’s eyes bugged out of his head at the contact, and he stared at one of the hands on his shoulder for several seconds.

He’s really here.

“Haven't felt like this, my dear, since I can't remember when…”

“W…what…?” John stammered, finally wrenching his eyes away from the hands and back into his face. “You’re…you’re dead…”

“No, a charaid,” he said, his grip on his shoulders tightening. “I’m…I’m home.”

John’s eyes finally registered what he was looking at. Trembling hands left the door to ghost over his face, recently shaven — unevenly at that, sallow cheeks and sunken eyes, hair unruly and poorly trimmed…but still him.

“It's been a long, long time…”

“My God!” John sobbed, throwing his arms around Jamie’s neck.

The hands previously holding onto John’s shoulders hovered mid-air for a long moment before resting on his back, and then he waited another moment before fully returning the embrace, holding his friend tightly to him.

“Christ, Jamie…” John stammered into his shoulder. “What…how…my God!”

Jamie gave him another solid pat on the back before gripping his shoulders and pushing him away so he could meet his eye. John almost jumped when he saw what they held. Once clear, bright blue, was somehow dulled, and yet filled with electric rage that John could not place.

“You'll never know how many dreams I've dreamed about you…”

Good Lord…Claire.

“Or just how empty they all seemed without you — Is everything alright, darling?”

Jamie tensed beneath his hands. Had he thought she was a record before she actually spoke, that he just now registered the other voice was her?

“Y-yes, I’ll be right back,” John said quickly. “Don’t t-trouble yourself getting up.”

“So kiss me once, then kiss me twice…”

“Married?”

John blinked as if it could clear the ringing in his ears. “What?”

“Ye’re married?”

John swallowed thickly, feeling needles trail down his throat as he did. “Y-yes. To protect her. Like I promised, Jamie.”

“Then kiss me once again, it’s been a long, long time!”

Jamie nodded once and then gently pushed him out of the way.

“Wait!” John hissed in a low whisper. “You’ll shock her to death. Let me…prepare her.”

Jamie’s back was to John, but he could still see how he trembled…with…rage?

“Claire!” John called, brushing past Jamie before he could protest. “Are you sitting down?”

“Yes, right in front of this bloody chicken still.” She looked up at him as he entered the kitchen. “John! You look ill! You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

“I’m…not at all sure I haven’t.”

Her brow furrowed, and just as he was about to elaborate, he watched the blood drain from her face and her jaw fall slack. John turned around to see that Jamie was already right behind him in the doorway, and Claire was facing him dead-on. Whatever John meant to say died on his tongue, and he stepped out of the way of Jamie’s path to Claire.

She put her hands on the table like she was trying to stand up, but she didn’t move. She likely couldn’t. The table and tablecloth were obscuring any view of the life she carried. Very suddenly, Jamie collapsed to his knees before her, and John jumped at the sound of the impact. He just stayed there, on the floor, staring up at her, perhaps not knowing what to even do with himself.

Claire’s chest heaved, fat tears rolled endlessly down her cheeks. Her lips were trembling, her hands were trembling. She slowly, painfully slowly, brought her hands off the table and toward his face. She cried out, almost shrieked when she made contact with his skin. He made a noise as well, a heartbreaking, loud sob. Claire let out another noise, almost animalistic in nature as she threw her arms around his head from above him, pressing his face into her neck. He cried out unintelligibly as well, returning the embrace from under her arms, clutching her hair.

John braced himself on the counter and covered his mouth, tears flowing freely over his hand. They were both speaking, but he couldn’t understand a word. Jamie was muttering in Gaelic, and Claire was sputtering incoherently, words that eventually just morphed into a repeated chorus:

“Jamie, Jamie, Jamie, Jamie, Jamie, Jamie…”

Both pairs of hands were lost in curls as they rocked back and forth, Claire’s tears soaking his mess of red. She started kissing his head, over and over and over, every inch of it, and then his forehead, his cheeks, until finally she gripped his face in her tremulous hands and pressed their lips together.

John thought to leave, or to at least look away, but he couldn’t.

When he’d dreamed of Jamie’s fantastical and imaginary return, he hadn’t dreamed of holding the man for more than a few seconds, hadn’t dreamed of kissing him in relief, of crying in each other’s arms.

He had dreamed of this.

He had dreamed of not being able to decipher whose tears were whose, being unable to determine where she ended and he began. He had dreamed of watching them find each other again.

He loved Jamie on his own, he always would. And he’d come to love Claire, as well, though differently.

But together…it was enough to break his heart and mend it all at once. And it was all he ever dreamed of seeing.

They finally stopped kissing, and Claire half-laughed, half-sobbed into Jamie’s mouth, resting her forehead on his.

“Oh, Jamie…”

She started shifting, rotating her body in her chair, bringing her legs out from under the table. Jamie leaned back, and John could picture the exact position he was preparing for. He’d watched it all too often: Claire sitting high up and looking down at him, either on a tank or a bar counter or a fence, military grade trousers allowing Jamie to nest perfectly between her legs and hold her around the middle.

But her middle was not quite in the state that Jamie had last seen it.

Jamie leaned back again instinctually upon feeling the extra mass between them, not registering right away what it was.

Claire smiled blearily at him, her wet face now positively glowing with joy. Jamie was completely frozen in shock, his eyes locked on the large bump. Claire reached for his hands and placed them on the swell of her abdomen, letting out a beautiful, strangled cry as they rested there.

Jamie’s brow was furrowed, and he finally tore his eyes off of her middle to look up at her face, absolutely bewildered. Claire just nodded, her smile cracking all the wider as she broke into joyful hysterics, fresh tears pouring out of her. Jamie began sobbing anew as well, an even more broken, devastating sound than before. His arms were long of course, so he could still wrap them around her middle almost like before, but now he rested his cheek on her belly, weeping and whispering to it, to him.

Their child.

They started swaying again in this new position, Jamie pressing fervent kiss after kiss to her belly, and she to his head, all while sputtering incoherently to each other, the child, or to no one at all.

It was the most devastatingly beautiful thing John had ever seen. He did not belong in this moment, and yet he could not look away.

An indeterminable amount of time passed in this manner.

Claire looked up first, eyes and face swollen and red and shining. She took a stuttering breath before beaming a watery smile at John, exhaling in a tremulous laugh. He smiled back at her, his heart leaping out of his chest, his own eyes still stinging.

“It’s…a miracle…” Claire breathed, absently stroking Jamie’s head. “Tell me I’m not dreaming…you see him too…?”

John nodded, swallowing hotly. “I do, Claire. I’m almost certain we’re both awake this time.”

She bit her lip, more tears trickling down as she turned to look back down at Jamie. He had not picked his head up off her belly, had not loosened his grip. If John wasn’t mistaken, he was still muttering as well.

“Oh, my love…” Claire crooned, moving her hands down to cup his face in her hands. “Look at me, Jamie…”

She seemed to have to physically pry his head off of their child, raising him up to her eye level. She trailed her fingers over the lines of his face, weeping through a frozen smile.

“What…” she stammered, and his hands came to join hers on his face, lacing their fingers together. “How…? Where have you been…? Are you alright? Are you in pain?”

John could see Jamie’s shoulders tense, see his breathing quicken.

“Jamie…?” Claire said again, pressing her lips to their joined hands. “Talk to me, love. It’s alright.”

After a moment, Jamie’s breathing somewhat returned to normal, and he finally tore his eyes away from Claire to look at John. He hadn’t thought that Jamie even remembered he was there. He cleared his throat and stood up, not releasing Claire’s hands.

“I think…” His voice was hoarse, gravelly and low. “Ye should sit, John. You should hear it as well.”

John took his weight off the counter, swaying a bit as a result. He slowly crossed to the table and sat down in his seat in front of his cold food, across from Claire. Jamie took the seat between them keeping one of his hands linked with both of Claire’s.

“Your plane…it was shot down,” John said. “They said nobody could have survived that explosion.”

“Aye.” Jamie nodded. “It plummeted out of the sky, alright. Felt my guts in my throat. I…held onto…Claire’s picture…and I prayed…so hard…asking God to protect her.”

Claire’s knuckles went white gripping his hand, silent tears staining her cheeks.

“But the impact came and I…I woke up. I was in blinding pain, everywhere…’specially my back. My copilot, Hayes…he was alive. But he was trapped.”

His jaw hardened, his eyes focusing somewhere far off, his pupils tiny pinpricks in a sea of turmoil.

“I tried…I tried to get him out…I tried…” His voice broke.

“Jamie…” Claire soothed, lowering her head to press a kiss to his shoulder.

“I could smell the gas, ye ken. We both could. He begged me tae leave him.”

The hand that Claire was not holding trembled fiercely at his side, even as the rest of him remained still as stone. John had to fight the urge to reach out and take it.

“I would’ve stayed wi’ him. I swear I would’ve. But be begged me.”

“Nobody can blame you for wanting to live, Jamie,” Claire said fervently. “It’s not your fault.”

“So I just…I left him pinned under the rubble like that.”

He seemed to not even hear her.

“I dragged myself out like an animal. Christ, it hurt…it felt like my entire back was ripped open…and it turned out it was.”

John felt that he very soon would be ill. All the horrors he’d seen in the war…and none of them compared to Jamie Fraser thrown out of the sky, bleeding to death like a forgotten animal.

“I got out just before the explosion.” He winced, even jumped a bit, and John knew the explosion was happening right before his eyes again. It was something he’d often experienced, something Claire had coaxed him out of time and again over the past months.

“I don’t even remember losing consciousness…but when I woke up I was in a POW camp.”

“So the plane didn’t explode on impact…” John said incredulously. “And of course they thought you’d died…”

“There wasna anything to bury of Hayes, was there.”

He wasn’t asking. He knew.

“No,” John said softly. “So they…we thought you…”

“Aye.” Jamie nodded, his eyes finally leaving his living nightmare and flicking to John. “Logical train of thought.”

“So you’ve…been captive this whole time…” Claire said.

“Only just liberated,” Jamie confirmed.

“My God…” Claire shook her head, sobbing. “My poor love…” She released his hand to throw her arms around his entire frame, burying her face in the crook of his neck. “My poor, poor love…”

“It’s alright, mo ghraidh…” Jamie choked, gripping her arms as they tightened around him. “You saved me, ye ken.”

“What do you mean…?” she sputtered into his neck.

“The thought of seeing yer face again…my sorcha. Ye came to me at night…ye talked me to sleep, ye soothed my nightmares…but ye never touched me.” Tears rolled down his cheeks for the first time in a while.

Claire sobbed all the harder, tightening her grip again. “I can touch you now,” she whispered fervently.

“I’m alive because ye kept my soul alive in that horrible place. I knew in my heart that I’d live to see this day. I had to.”

John couldn’t stop himself; he reached over and put a hand on Jamie’s shoulder, squeezing tightly. “May the Lord be praised for it,” he said hoarsely.

“Why didn’t…no one sent a telegram…” Claire said, finally picking her head up again. “We didn’t even get a call,” Claire said to John.

“They tell immediate family first,” Jamie said, his face darkening in a different way than it had when he spoke of the war. “Neither of you are Frasers.”

John’s throat went dry, and he noticed how Claire’s eyes flicked downward in shame.

“Jenny didn’t call,” she said after a moment, her voice small and frightened.

“I asked her not to. I wanted to find ye myself.” He wasn’t looking at either of them. “Took me longer than it should’ve. Since I was looking fer a Beauchamp.”

“Jamie…”

“Jenny didn’t even know. Did ye know that?”

Claire met John’s eye, and she looked like she’d been slapped in the face.

“I was…I couldn’t speak of it to her, Jamie. Losing you…it was…God…it ate me alive, tore me to pieces…I wasn’t ready to talk to your sister and hear your voice, or look her in the eye and see you…”

Jamie didn’t respond. His eyes found that faraway place again.

“I was…ashamed…I didn’t know what she’d say about the baby, what she’d say about…marrying…so soon. I didn’t know if she’d assume it was yours or think me some sort of heartless slut…”

“I thought ye’d be there.”

His eyes did not move, but the vein beneath his right eye bulged out, his face turning red. Claire exchanged a frightened look with John across the table, unsure if she should touch him or not.

“What…?”

“I showed up at Lallybroch and I hardly even touched my own sister because I thought you were there. I was demanding to see ye so much that I didna even hear them the first three times they told me that they hadna heard from ye since I was pronounced dead.”

“Jamie — ”

“I thought I’d find ye taking comfort in my family, our family.” His voice was dangerously low. “Instead I find ye married.”

“Jamie, please, you can’t possibly understand — ”

“Oh, I can’t?” His eyes tore away from the wall and bore into her, and John could feel their heat even from behind him.

“No, you can’t!” she shot right back, not at all timid anymore. “I’ll not presume to know what you’ve been through, but I’ll not have you angry at me for how I chose to deal with this! I was pregnant with your baby, Jamie. What the hell would you have had me do?”

“It was my idea,” John interrupted before he could stop himself. Perhaps this should have been left between them, but the fact that he was the one in the middle of it was indisputable.

Jamie whipped his head around to look at John, his eyes afire with betrayal.

“I stopped by to check on her after I found out,” John continued, keeping his voice as level as possible. “She was just sitting on the floor with the phone dangling from the cord…just…staring ahead. I had to let myself in. I was terrified for her.”

Claire’s eyes burned fiercely with tears at the memory. John swallowed thickly before continuing.

“The second I touched her it was like flipping a switch. She just collapsed on me and…”

“John.” She was pleading, begging.

“No, he needs to hear it. She won’t tell you, but I will.” John’s jaw hardened. “She was ready to bloody kill herself, Jamie. She was completely distraught. When she blurted out that she was pregnant I…offered immediately. I made you a promise. And I intended to make good on it. But promise or no…I wouldn’t have let her suffer alone like that.”

Jamie was crying silently now, unmoving.

“A baby needs a father in this world. A mother needs a husband. We did what we had to do to ensure that your child would be brought up right. Christ, Jamie…we did it for you.” John’s voice broke, and he flicked his eyes away from Jamie, staring at his cold food. “We thought it’s what you’d have wanted.”

“It’s…you have to understand, Jamie,” Claire cut in softly. “You and I…weren’t…married. Not really. I know we were, but we…weren’t. Legally. In a legal sense…I was pregnant out of wedlock. I was in an awful lot of trouble without John. Not to mention I…well…he’s right. I’d have wasted away and died if he hadn’t come to check on me that day.”

Her face burned with shame, but John met her eye again and smiled softly, his eyes glistening with affection for her.

“I’m sorry that you’re…hurt, and that you feel betrayed. And I am sorry for avoiding your family. But I will not be sorry for doing it. And neither will John. Because it was the right thing to do.” Her voice was strong, but her chin trembled.

“And I don’t…” Her voice finally broke again. “I don’t want to talk about this right now…you’re…you’re back.” She cupped his face in her hands, forcing him to look at her again. “Look at me, love…” She sniffled and stroked his face with feather-light touches. “You’ve come home to me…to us. I never thought I’d be this happy again.”

Jamie was still stiff as a board, but the longer Claire spent stroking his face, John could see the tension start to roll away, see him melt against her.

And then, very suddenly, Jamie was weeping.

He fully melted against Claire, conforming to the mold of her body. She pressed his head into her breast and wept full-force as well.

“I’m sorry…Claire…mo chridhe, mo sorcha…I’m sorry…I’m sorry…”

John could not bear it anymore. He quietly stood up from the table and silently strode out of the kitchen, making his way into the bedroom.

Christ…was it even his bedroom anymore? He had to offer it to them tonight. They deserved it, they needed it.

Would he and Claire divorce? Would she move out with Jamie?

Christ…will I ever meet the child…?

“Damn you,” John cursed himself, sitting on the edge of the bed and burying his face in his hands. How dare he even think such things?

It’s not your baby and it never was. His father is back and you should be damned grateful.

And Lord, he was.

But his mind would not stop racing, would not stop asking: what now?

A light knock brought him from his thoughts; he hadn’t realized how long he’d been sitting like this, in the dark.

“Are you alright, darling?”

Her voice, as always, was driftwood in a stormy sea, and he clung to it for dear life and allowed it to bring him back to the surface.

“I’m…” He cleared his throat. “It’s all just a bit overwhelming.”

“I know.” She turned on the light and leaned against the doorway. “I told him I was going to check on you, he’s in the kitchen with some whisky.”

John nodded. “Is he…still angry…?”

“I don’t think so,” she said, but her voice wavered. “You could come back, you know, drink with us. You’re his family as much as I am.”

John’s stomach flipped at that, and he had to focus substantial amounts of energy to calm his heart.

“I’m…I’m alright. You’ll…want to go to bed soon?” He looked up at her finally, and she was flushed head to toe.

“I’ll take the sofa until we can figure out something more permanent.”

“John, no. I wouldn’t dream of putting you out — ”

He is your husband, Claire. Or at least he should be.” He hadn’t meant to sound so bloody pathetic when he said that, but it was too late now. “He put that miracle inside you. You’ll share a bed tonight after months apart. It’s the least you deserve.”

Claire swallowed, then crossed to the bed. She embraced John rather awkwardly, being that she remained standing and he remained sitting on the bed, and then she kissed the top of his head.

“Thank you, darling.”

After a few minutes, John heard movement outside the bedroom, so he put on pajamas and gathered an extra pillow and blanket. He shuffled past Jamie to get to the couch, and felt his pulse quicken when a large, warm hand rested on his shoulder.

“Thank ye, a charaid.” His eyes held more warmth than they had since his return. “And I dinna just mean fer the bed. Ye’re…a good man. Man of honor. Kept yer word.”

John nodded solemnly. “Of course. It has been the greatest privilege to care for them.”

Before John knew what was happening he was being pulled into a fervent embrace, strong arms wrapped tightly around him. After only a moment’s hesitation, John returned the embrace, and then it was over.

John knew that this was Jamie’s way of apologizing for his behavior, and he was more than happy to accept.

Within the next few minutes, John was lying on the sofa, staring at the ceiling, wide awake.

Claire and Jamie were wide awake as well.

If they were passionate in camp…they were explosive now. John couldn’t say he blamed them, but dear God.

Jamie was quiet for a bit as Claire cried out to the heavens, and John could only imagine what his mouth was otherwise occupied with.

Shortly after that, there was an audible rhythm set, and John thought he might just pass out.

Claire was usually the loud one, but it was almost as if they were competing for that title tonight. Jamie was crying out almost as much as she; it almost sounded like sobbing. It probably was, from both of them.

“I love you, I love you, I love you…”

Every thrust was met with the words falling from Claire’s lips like a broken prayer.

At first it felt like a needle prick between John’s eyes.

“I love you — ” Prick. “I love you — ” Prick.

The longer it went on, however, the more it felt like a hammer to the chest. To his heart.

“Oh, Jamie! I love you! I love you!”

Over and over and over and over.

Overhearing them make love was nothing new; he and countless other saps in camp had heard it during the war. What was new was that John now knew the faces she made as well as the sounds, knew the way she tossed her head back and forth, the way her eyes hooded even as she stared her partner down, the way her lips remained parted as if in a state of perpetual preparedness for her next moan. He knew what her body looked like now, had seen it change with pregnancy. What was new was that she was legally his wife this time.

Most new was that John did not know who he envied most.

The answer had always been clear during the war. He would always listen to Jamie’s whispers of love and feel the deepest pangs of hurt knowing that they would never be meant for him, followed by guilt that he would even have a fraction of a thought of wishing to come between them.

It was foolish, anyway. When Claire touched herself for him to see, Jamie had always been there in bed with them, wedged right in between them. He’d always known that deep down. He had hardly touched her in those moments of shared intimacy; he didn’t think he was even capable. His touch could never live up to Jamie’s, even the ghost of it. He knew that. Claire’s keening and gasping and coy smiles were not for him. Could not have been.

Right?

Damn it to Hell!

Why should he want them to be? She was a woman!

Woman she may be…but she was yours. For a short time, she was yours.

And now he would lose her.

And how dare he feel grief for it? How dare he feel even remotely upset that Jamie was back? The love of her life had returned to her. How dare he feel anything but overjoyed for her?

He’s supposed to be the love of your life too, man.

Yes, yes, he still loved Jamie. He’d almost fainted dead away to see him standing in the doorway, almost kissed him instead of embracing him. As John had said, he’d probably want him until the day he died.

But he’d never had Jamie. Body or soul, he’d never been able to call him his. John cherished the kiss that Jamie had given him more than he could ever say, but one kiss did not make him his.

He’d had Claire’s body, that was clear enough. John was not fool enough to think he could ever possess her soul, not fully anyway. Parts of her that had died with Jamie were beyond reach forever. But the parts of her that remained, that smiled at him over tea in the morning, that grasped his hand at night, that called him Daddy as she touched her belly…those fragments of a woman had become his.

And he was losing it all.

The phrase “better to have loved and lost” was replaying over and over in John’s head, and he wanted to scream. No, it was decidedly not. To never know what it was like to possess somebody made it easier to part with them; in fact, there was nothing to part with to begin with. He could live with never having Jamie, because he’d never know what he was missing.

But he was not sure he would survive having Claire torn from him, now that he’d known what it was like to call such a remarkable woman his wife.

And the most damnably ridiculous part of it all was that she never loved him. How could she?

So how had he been fool enough to allow himself to love her?

It was these thoughts that carried John into a fitful sleep, into dreams of giggles and swimming amber eyes, of fiery red hair and electric blue.

——

The next thing John was conscious of was a pounding pain directly into his face.

“Jamie! No!”

If there was any mistaking it before, there certainly wasn’t now after he’d heard Claire scream. Jamie had punched him — repeatedly in the face. John’s eyes flew open, and he nearly cried out at the fury before him. Even in the dark, no light but the moon, and even through the swelling that was already present in both of his eyes, he could see the glowing red of Jamie’s face, the map of veins popping out under his eyes.

Jamie fisted John’s collar in both hands and yanked him up off his back, shaking him furiously in front of his face.

“Stop! Jamie — ”

“She’s a woman! What sort of sick pleasure d’ye get…?”

Oh…Good Lord.

“Huh?” Jamie growled, shaking him again fiercely. “What does it do fer ye to fuck my wife, John?”

“Jamie, please!”

John swallowed, tasting blood in his throat as he did, likely from a bloody nose. “You must understand — ”

“Must I?” Jamie growled, shaking him again, causing John’s teeth to rattle, biting his tongue. “By all means! Help me understand!”

“It wasn’t…I never intended for it to happen,” he stammered.

“It was my fault, Jamie, really — ”

No, Claire, don’t,” John said frantically. No, she would not take any blame; she would not take any of Jamie’s rage. John would not allow it.

“Are ye implying that the news of my death deranged ye to such an extent that ye lost all reason and took him to bed by force?” Jamie shouted over his shoulder. “Is that what ye’d have me believe, man? Because unless I’ve been seriously misled regarding yer own nature, it would take substantial force to compel ye to any such action.”

“There was no force,” John said quickly. “From either party.”

“Ye went to her because — from desire?” Jamie actually laughed, tossing his head back mirthlessly. “And she let ye? I dinna believe ye.”

“We thought you were dead you bloody arsehole!” John spat, infuriated by Jamie’s inability to understand. “Both of us! Do you have any idea what that did to us…to Claire? We — we took too much to drink, far too much, and we spoke of you…nothing but you…and…Damn you! Neither one of us was making love to the other! We were both fucking you!”

Jamie’s jaw fell slack, but his grip did not loosen at all.

“It’s like I was saying, Jamie,” Claire’s voice punctured the silence. “It was…comfort, for both of us. For me, it was…familiar feelings in my body that I needed to feel again or I would die, even if my mind knew better that it wasn’t really you…”

“What about you, then?” Jamie shook him again, less violently, John noted. His voice was marginally softer as well. “There’s nothing familiar about a woman’s body to you, I ken it well.”

John gulped again, tasting more blood. “I…I can’t explain it.”

“Ye’d better bloody try, man.” His voice started resembling a growl again, and from the corner of his eye he could see Claire tense and step forward.

“It’s…she…” He looked helplessly to Claire, arms crossed over her chest, but she just sighed, shaking her head. She certainly couldn’t explain it any better than him. “She was yours, Jamie. I knew that. God, I knew it. Every breath she took I could hear your name in it. So it wasn’t about possessing her and taking her from you…it was about…possessing you. Through her.”

Jamie’s nostrils flared, his jaw hardened, but he did not speak.

“It’s…vulgar. I knew it then, and I know it now.” John couldn’t meet his eye. “I felt shameful for it. I knew it was wrong.”

“We both did.” Claire took another step forward, chancing a hand on Jamie’s shoulder.

Jamie flinched, jerking away from her touch.

“Do not touch me.”

Claire pulled her hand back as if scalded, unconsciously resting it on her belly as tears welled up in her eyes.

“Tell me,” Jamie said, low and dangerous. “Tell me exactly what happened, ye filthy wee pervert. Every word. Every motion. Everything.”

John got just enough breath to answer.

“No.”

In an instant, Jamie had transferred his grip to one hand and shoved his free fist into John’s stomach mercilessly. Claire screamed again as John doubled into himself, coughing helplessly.

“Stop it! You bloody bastard!”

Heedless of Jamie’s earlier warning, Claire seized both of Jamie’s shoulders and shook him with a might John did not know she possessed. Jamie dropped John and whirled on her. John tried to cry out, tried to move, but he could not.

Please don’t hurt her.

“What’ll you do? Beat me senseless like you did to him?” Claire challenged, jutting her chin up at him. John swore he could see smoke coming out of Jamie’s ears as he bore his gaze down on him. “Or are you quite finished acting like a fucking barbarian?”

“Ye foul mouthed bitch! Ye’ll no’ speak to me that way!” Jamie roared.

Fuck you!” she shot right back. “You will not speak to me that way! Perhaps you weren’t aware, but I am not your wife! The law doesn’t acknowledge bloody handfasting. My husband is swollen and bleeding because a brute beat him like an animal! And you will let me tend to him or I will walk out that door and you will never see me again!”

John’s jaw went slack. He knew it was an empty threat; he knew Claire would endure anything to remain by his side; threats, rage, physical harm. She’d not be parted from him now, not ever again.

She shouldered past Jamie and sat on the edge of the couch, gently touching the swells of John’s face.

“Rags, clean water, and something cold from the icebox,” she commanded, not unlike John had once seen her do during the war. “Now.”

Jamie swore in Gaelic and kicked over the coffee table as he went, but he did as he was told.

“Oh, John…”

Her fierce front melted away, the fear returning to her eyes. “I’m so sorry…I had to tell him. It didn’t feel right. I thought he’d understand…I didn’t think he’d…”

She silenced immediately when John picked his eyes up, seeing Jamie reenter the room with the requested supplies, flicking the lamp on.

Try as she might, Claire could not get back that cold indifference she’d regarded Jamie with just minutes before, and she wept pitifully as she tended to John. At some point, Jamie reached out to touch her, having been hovering over them uselessly all the while.

No,” she snapped.

John’s heart was in pieces. Never had he seen them at such odds with one another. Not once in all the years he’d seen them together.

And it’s my fault.

She directed John to hold the ice she’d wrapped in a rag over his left eye and told him to lie down. She’d determined he was not concussed and that nothing was broken. Just bruised, bloody, and oozing.

“Claire…”

Jamie sounded like a wounded animal.

“What do you want to know, Jamie?” Claire stood and faced him, her voice hoarse with tears. “Do you want to hear about how I tore his clothes off like a desperate slut? Do you want to hear about how I threw him onto the bed, how I rode him? Do you want to hear about how I forced his hands to touch all the places that you always touched? Do you want to hear how I screamed your name while I came around his cock? Is that what you want?”

She was fully weeping now, and John could tell it was physically hurting Jamie to not reach out and crush her to him.

“Do you want to hear how I…I vomited my guts out the first time I called somebody that wasn’t you this child’s father? Do you want to hear that I wished I could make it go away so that I wouldn’t feel guilty about killing myself? Does that make you feel better? Does that help? To know that I would have let myself, let your child die if it hadn’t been for John? Or perhaps you’d have preferred it that way.”

“Claire!”

“He saved me, Jamie. You were dead. And so was I until John unburied me. So don’t you dare…” Her voice cracked. “Don’t you dare make either of us feel guilty for doing what we needed to survive.”

John winced as his tears burned his wounded eyes.

“Claire…mo ghraidh…” Jamie began weeping as well. “Please…”

She swallowed, looking past him at the clock on the wall.

Mo chridhe…” He sank to his knees before her, not daring to touch her, but gathering her robe into his hands instead. “I…I dinna deserve ye, Claire…”

She still would not look down at him.

“I’m…I’m no’ worthy of yer forgiveness…God knows I’m not…” His knuckles went white gripping the robe. “There’s…there’s a darkness in me, Claire…darkness that wasna there when ye last knew me…I tried to hide it…it’s eating me alive…and it’s gonnae eat you alive, too…”

She finally moved, looking down at the top of his head, being that his face was pressed into her robe.

“I dinna deserve forgiveness, so I willna ask. Just please…” His voice cracked. “Please dinna leave me…”

A sob escaped Claire’s lips.

“I dinna deserve to ask this of ye…but I need ye…I’ll die wi’out ye as ye nearly died wi’out me…” 

“Get up, Jamie,” she said softly, touching the crown of his head. He looked up at her, face shining with tears. “Go to bed. Let me finish tending to John, and then I’ll be in.”

He maintained eye contact with her as he pressed a fervent kiss to the edge of her robe, and then departed to the bedroom. Claire sighed heavily and shakily when he was gone, and John sat up to grasp her hand.

“You don’t really mean to go in there?”

She looked down at him and squeezed his hand. “He won’t hurt me.”

He wanted to believe her…but had the man not just said that there was a darkness in him that he could not control?

“I’ve seen this war do things to men that…that are beyond comprehension,” John said, and a chill ran down his spine. “Some of them come out completely different men.”

“He’s still Jamie,” she insisted. “I’m sorry he hurt you, I am. I feel sick over it. But me…he’d never hurt me.”

John sighed and gave her hand a squeeze. “I’m right here if you need.”

She nodded, squeezing him back. “I’m just there if you need. Come get me if anything starts bleeding.”

And with that, Claire disappeared after Jamie into the bedroom, and John was lulled to sleep by the steady rhythm of the throbbing in his face, and the sound of broken crying from a shattered man.