Chapter 1: i.
The barn’s only just been raised when the tiny thing makes its appearance. It’s covered in mud and so are the children and Claire, on the other side of the clearing diligently hammering at a table leg and chatting with Murtagh, has yet to see them. Jamie holds his makeshift hand-saw and groans.
“Five minutes,” he says, removing the nails he’d been holding onto between his teeth and sounding rather more pleading than he’d like to admit. He looks at Fergus; Fergus, too, is muck-covered. “I turned my back fer five minutes. How?”
Bree’s got the trembling bundle clutched to her chest. It’s nearly as big as her head, though that is not saying much, and Willie, who picked up on the art of walking during their tumultuous ship’s passage here, now wobbles slightly on his toes, leans backwards, and in an elegant move plops down onto his bum, one hand belligerent clutching the hem of his sister’s skirt.
From within her arms, the kitten meows.
“He was under th’wagon, Da,” Bree explains, with huge blue eyes. She has gotten that from Claire, Jamie decides obstinately. Certainly he never had such a pout as a child.
“Kitty!” Willie agrees.
“We may keep him, Milord, no?” says Fergus, looking despite his teenaged features every inch the cherubic hellion he’d been at ten.
He wants to reprimand them. He very much should; that wagon’s wheels are dangerous on a good day, and never things to be crawling under. But perhaps it is the months of instability that have Jamie now, unbidden, a little shaky with relief that his children may get up to mischief at their total leisure.
He glances back to the other side of the clearing, once, then leans in close.
“Aye,” he says lowly, “but ye’ll clean up first, an’ then we can offer the wee rattin tae yer Mam as a gift, or she’ll no’ be well pleased.”
He’s rewarded with three identical grins of delight right before the unmistakable tones of his wife’s melodic voice sound behind them:
“Not be well pleased about what, exactly?”
The cat meows again, beatific.
Chapter 2: ii.
Claire thinks she is rather too excited about actually having neighbors to worry that the circumstances of their meeting involved Willie and Bree sneaking a handful of centipedes down Hiram Clancy’s pants -- an unfortunate side-effect of Fergus as the most willing and trusted child-minder is the sudden abundance of innocently sticky fingers -- and the prejudiced refusal of Wilmington’s blacksmithing services. Not exactly in that order. But she’s a feeling no one sitting at the dinner table right now cares much about it, either way.
Joe is laughing. He’s got that sort of full-bodied, eyes-and-shoulders laugh that Claire decided long ago means a person can be trusted. It’s been a little over a month, and he’s been sharing it more and more with them of late. Her family -- and now she looks over, and sees in Jamie’s eyes a similar sort of laugh.
She hasn’t seen him trust someone so willingly in years. It’s like watching something bloom in full spring colour, unfurl at its edges. He takes up so much space in a room in the most rote possible sense, she knows, but when he’s like this -- the warmth of it. It’s infectious, is what it is.
She catches Murtagh watching her bemusedly across the table and gets the distinct feeling he’s laughing at her unvoiced sentimentality. It’s very difficult not to stick her tongue out at him from over Willie’s sleeping head, burrowed against her breast.
“What I wanna know is how he’s kept up with her all these years,” Joe’s saying, half a piece of bannock in hand. Gail’s glittery eyes shine mirthful beside him.
“Ach, weel,” says Jamie, with an expression that sobers so rapidly one might assume a bucket of icewater was involved, “ye do ken what they say, Joe. If ye accept food from one’ve the fae folk, ye cannae ever leave.”
“Perhaps it is good that Maman is a terrible cook, then,” offers Fergus, with uncannily similar solemnity.
Claire reaches across the table and pinches him lightly. The warm cocoon of their year-old dining room expands and contracts with a breath taken in and then released in even more laughter. “Wha’s so funny,” demands Bree, popping into existence, until now preoccupied playing some private make-believe game under the table between her father’s booted legs.
When Claire looks over at Joe again, there’s a sparkle in his eye, not quite oblivious.
Chapter 3: iii.
She’s got a whole inventory in her head: of what each family member sounds like when sick, what inflections suggest simple neediness and which suggest emergency. She’s spent the last two days in a panic trying to determine whether the bug that’s crept up on their little corner of the world is something to be frightened of (Bree vomited once, and Claire only just stopped herself from becoming the boy who cried cholera) or one of those horrid common colds that just hit different people differently. All Joe has are some sniffles. He’s been looking after Gail’s cough and Mrs. Flannigan’s fever, with a knack for botanical medicine that Claire has not yet had that time to parse and process and tuck away as something kindred, her only thought around it so far limited to a simple thank God.
“Status report?” Claire asks, only slightly in jest, still bustling around the living room looking for the tea. She’s heard the creak of floorboard that suggests Jamie’s returned from the children’s room.
“Hm? Oh -- Fergus’s still coughin’, so I gave him a spot in our room sae Bree an’ Willie could sleep. I think their fevers are down, though.”
She turns around to catch sight of him rubbing an uncoordinated hand over one bleary brow and narrows her eyes. Christ; he looks exhausted.
“Jamie?” she says, her own voice still croaky.
“Hm?” he says again. Then, “Headache. All day -- I’ll be fine.”
“Mmm hmm.” She comes over and presses two fingers under his jaw and one hand over his forehead. “Oh dear,” she says.
“‘M I dyin’?” Jamie asks, with a drained version of his usual teasing smile.
“Have you really felt this way all day?”
“Well there were -- things t’be done. ‘N the weans needed me. I coulnae lettem alone --”
All things she knows -- Willie gets awfully clingy when he’s not feeling well and he’s been going through a phase recently where the crook of Jamie’s neck is more favoured than that of Claire’s -- but the frazzled feeling she had warded off earlier blooms again. Something heavy and tired settles in her stomach. She walks him over to the makeshift bed she’s made for herself in front of the fire and makes him lie down. He goes easily, which speaks volumes about how unwell he’s feeling all on its own.
“I’ll get you some of the fever tea,” she says softly, pressing a kiss against his burning temple. Jamie looks half-asleep already, an unhealthy flush high on his cheeks newly highlighted by the soft glow of the fireplace. His shirt is open and untucked but he’s still got his trousers on, and his long legs extend awkwardly over the bedding on the floor, one arm pillowing his head. In the space of a moment, he has completely given himself over to her, easy and habitual in his trust.
It always affects her, she thinks -- when Jamie is sick or injured. He’s so sturdy and full of life, it’s like some blunted reminder of mortal fragility.
“Sassenach,” he mumbles. “Stop fashin’.”
“I’m not fashing,” Claire protests.
“Psht,” he says. “Th’wee beasties must come an’ go an’ then we’ll be fine.”
Unfair, she thinks; those are her words, thank you very much.
“You’re insufferably smug when you’re sick,” Claire manages.
“I ken,” he says, and gives her a clumsy pat of comfort that she’s sure must have been meant for her leg but lands somewhere over her arse instead.
In the time she takes to get up and pour the last of the tea into a cup for him, he’s already fallen asleep. She can hear the soft, dry puffing of his mouth over the fire, see the small frown creasing his forehead. She knows she should go check on the children, but Jamie’s always prone to nightmares when he develops a fever.
She forces herself to make her way into the kitchen on the basis of more tea needed and finds Murtagh sitting at the kitchen table, busy in keeping baby Deliah entertained in Joe and Gail’s absence. He keeps bouncing her on one knee and narrating the journey of a spoon from one corner of the table to the next.
Claire feels something in her chest release; they have a system, she realizes. Everyone looks out for each other, now. She’s not alone in this.
“Hi,” she croaks. Murtagh looks up.
“Bairns alright?” he asks, not even bothering to look flustered mid-baby talk.
“Jamie said so. He’s come down with a fever, though. I left him sleeping.”
“Hmph.” Murtagh gently extracts Deliah’s pudgy brown fingers from his beard to the gurgly sounds of aahbaba. “I thought the lad didnae quite look himself.”
“I can take Deliah,” Claire says, and thinks, together. “And check on the children again. Can you keep an eye on him? You know how he --”
“Aye, I ken.”
The baby’s gentle weight in her arms is grounding. Murtagh gives her shoulder a squeeze on his way out, and Claire goes to set water to boil, easily picking up the tale of the spoon’s adventures where he left off.
Chapter 4: iv.
“We’ve gotta have a plan,” Bree declares, to the assembly at large, straightening Da’s hat where it’s slipping down over her eyes again. “‘Cause everythin’ worth doin’ must be thought about. Tha’s what Mama says, Willie.”
“You’re sittin’ on m’shirt, Bree,” Willie complains, tugging to free his entrapped clothing. Baby Deliah, from her place in Bree’s arms, claps her hands in agreement.
“Sorry, Willie,” Bree says (she has manners, thank you). “I’ll be th’leader, ‘cause every plan’s gotta have a leader. Willie, you c’n be my first mate. Tha’s what people do on ships ‘n things.”
“Bu’ we’re no’ on a ship,” Willie protests. There’s a sharp winnie as Bran, from her stall just above their Secret Meeting Place, agrees with him.
“We’re pretending,” Bree tells her severely. “Hones’ly, Bran. Anyhow. We must list out our options.”
Willie is sitting splay legged just in front of Bree. He’s bundled in one of the scarves Da knit last winter, as it’s spring but still quite chilly, according to Mama and Miss Gail, and it’s just a bit too big for him, coming up over his mouth and stopping just under his runny nose. He frowns at her, a little bit.
“I still think it sh’be Mama,” Willie says. He has voiced this opinion three times in the last ten minutes, and whilst Bree does acknowledge his logic -- Mama is the loveliest person in the whole universe, they all agree -- there is one critical flaw in his proposal.
“Unca Murtagh canna marry a person who’s already married, Willie,” she huffs.
“Tha’s jus’ not how this works.”
“Hmph,” Willie says.
“Humf!” agrees Deliah.
Bree is beset by betrayal and mutiny from all sides, it seems.
“We’ll jus’ hafta think of someone else. Delilah’s Mama’s married too.”
Bran offers a chuffing noise and bobs her velvety roan head.
“Oh,” Bree says. “But Mrs. Flannigan’s still grievin’ her last husband.”
That’s what Da said, anyhow. And that she is staying with them now because she is a good woman with a good heart who needs some friendship. Bree thinks Mrs. Flannigan’s bannocks are quite braw, almost as good as Auntie Jenny’s used to be, even if she is Irish -- that’s what Uncle Murtagh says -- but she doesn’t seem to be interested in marrying anyone, much. She has a tiny painting of her gone husband that she carries around everywhere and talks to sometimes. She tells him the funniest stories. One time she told him that Bree was a very smart young lady, and by all accounts he seemed to agree, so Bree has decided that he, too, is a good sort.
Bree gives their dilemma a good long think, now. “I s’pose I could marry him.”
“Oh,” Willie says, eyes widening. Bran winnies again, as though to say, yes, that is a good idea. Deliah claps her little hands in stalwart support.
The barn door opens with a gust of damp March breeze and Da ducks in, cheeks pink from the cold. They all, collectively, blink up at him. He blinks back.
“Are ye behavin’ yerselves then?” he asks, setting down the large bundle of firewood held over his shoulder.
“Bree’s gonna marry Unca Murtagh,” Willie informs him solemnly.
There’s a beat. They can hear the birds chirping happily from outside the barn.
Then Da starts laughing, so hard that he has to place a hand over the edge of Bran’s stall to keep himself upright. Bran snorts at him disapprovingly, and Bree frowns.
Betrayal and mutiny from all sides, she thinks. Hmph.
“I’ll ne’er learn French,” Willie cries, one small, four-year-old arm draped backwards over his dark curls, feet stuck up into the air. Only the tops of them are visible behind the kitchen table’s edge, as the tiny urchin doesn’t have much by way of height yet.
“Dinna say that, a balaich,” Murtagh says, trying his best to sound conciliatory. “The blasted language jest requires a wee bit of practice.”
“Willie,” Bree agrees severely, as though this is not her French lesson, and Willie a mere tagalong for lack of available playmates at this time. “Y’should try again.”
Nine years old and the girl’s already declarative as both mother and aunt alike. A natural leader, is what Jamie calls her. Which is all well and good if not for the fact that her troops comprise of her equally (though perhaps not more) hard-headed siblings.
Blessed wee things.
“I dinna want t’try ‘gain.”
“Brianna, ‘tis no’ yer job tae scold yer brother.”
“But Uncle Murtagh --”
“Fergus, tell Willie his feet are smelly so he should puttem down, please.”
“You should put your toes in her mouth, Willie.”
“Fergus!” Bree screeches, as Willie hollers in what must be triumph and sticks both sets of toes closer to his aggrieved older sister’s sensitive nose.
“Ye’re bein’ exceptionally helpful here,” Murtagh informs Fergus.
“I try,” Fergus says, not looking up from his book. He’s perched on some dry goods barrels and looking very much like a far younger Jamie’s poor attempts at casual grace, in that he is not sitting like a normal human person might at all.
Murtagh grumbles; Fergus flips another page serenely.
Gulliver’s Travels has of course been read ten times already, Murtagh thinks, but it’s damn near impossible to get hands on new books all the way out here. Likely why they’re all fumbling their way through Descartes (Bree’s lessons, once again, with Willie stubbornly along in spite of himself) via Jamie’s tidy penmanship on scratch pieces of parchment torn from the lass’s physicking notebook.
Claire and Jamie themselves are in the pantry just now. Claire, to string up heads of garlic to dry, and Jamie, allegedly to assist.
Murtagh’s no fool; he knows fine well that look in his godson’s eye.
“Voulais rechercher,” Bree is saying, somewhat impatiently, even though her own pronunciation leaves much to be desired.
“Voo-lays rusher-shay,” says Willie, with great melodrama, trying to creep one stray foot towards Bree’s cheek. Bree wards him off with the hem of her skirt, which conveniently means she has tugged it up so her stockings and underthings are on full display.
“You are both saying it wrong,” says Fergus, sing-song.
Murtagh reaches over to right Bree’s clothing just as there is a swell in the up-and-down lilt of teasing voices behind the door. Claire’s exceptionally giggly laughter, which is always an obvious tell of the mood she’s in, carries into the kitchen over the children’s bickering.
“-- dreamin’ all day --”
“-- yes but you’re all dirty, and the children are just in the kitchen --” more of that girlish, bell-like stuff -- “I’m going to drop this basket, you know --”
“-- about you held in my arms --”
“Something I suppose I’ll have to endure --”
“-- n’ my hands, right between --”
Thank Christ for the lad's ability to drop his voice to a whisper, Murtagh thinks.
“Willie, mebbe ye’d like tae leave today’s lessons fer Bree,” he says.
Willie is smack in the middle of his insert-feet-in-Bree’s-mouth plans. He abandons this now, to his sister’s great sigh of relief.
“Mebbe Mama c’n teach me,” he says, popping his head up from behind the table. “She’s good a’ everythin’.”
Claire’s muffled laughter sounds around the door again. Murtagh pulls his now-cold cup of tea towards him (terrible stuff, but Claire says it’s good for his heart). He tries not to take offence at Willie’s quick dismissal of his tutoring skills. He says,
“Perhaps no’ jest now, Willie lad.”
“Are Mama and Da making love?” Bree asks solemnly.
Murtagh chokes on his tea. Fergus abruptly buries his face between the papery folds of those blasted Lilliputians’ misadventures to smother his loud snort of laughter.
Impertinent little bastard.
“Where th’Devil did ye hear such a phrase,” Murtagh says, strangled, dripping tea all over the place.
“Mama says tha’ when I’m a woman grown an’ I care fer a man, then we might make love wi’ our bits,” Bree explains, with a patient sigh she did not deem worthy of her errant brother moments ago. “But I’m never t’let someone touch ‘em if I dinna wish ‘em to.”
“And we must be very careful about illness,” Fergus adds helpfully, from over the top of his book.
That does sound about right; Claire went on warpath last month, after Old Clancy’s niece died of the French disease at only eighteen.
One day, Murtagh thinks. He shall pass on from this life and explain to the Almighty that all he’d wished for was a quiet life of inconsequence, but was thwarted by the belligerent, joyful presence of Frasers in its every twist and turn.
“Aye, alright then,” he manages.
“Bree, you’re talkin’ no sense,” Willie declares, then huffs again. “Unca Murtagh, I think I dinna wanna keep doin’ m’lessons."
“Y’said when I was done I could go look at the toads.”
Fergus looks like he is trying very hard not to fall to pieces laughing again, which is not far off from how Murtagh himself is feeling. At least Bree has given up her plans of marrying him, he thinks. That would be far too complicated now.
“Aye, laddie,” he says. “Go off an’ look at yer toads. We’ll be jest fine here.”
"the french disease" -- syphilis circa ye olden times
Chapter 6: vi.
It’s still thundering long after Brianna and William have fallen asleep. They’re curled tightly in upon themselves against the intensity of the mid-May rainstorm. Bree remains tucked in the exact place she started, molded between Jamie’s hip and Fergus’s ribcage, but Willie has wriggled his way out from under the bedding to hedgehog atop his father’s chest.
Jamie supposes the even up-and-down of his breathing is distracting him from the rattling windows.
But the storm doesn’t sound quite as loud as it did when it started. In fact, everything is muted and quiet. Gentled, even more so since Jamie let the candle die down. No need to waste the stuff now when it might be needed later.
“Hmm … Orion. The hunter, with his bow and arrow, but I think you could probably take him in a fight, Milord. And the bigger bear, like the one you do in your stories that petite hates the voice for.”
Jamie rolls his head back and tries not to laugh too hard, lest he wake Willie up.
“Ah, aye. Bree does still get frightened of that.”
“But I can never find the little bear.”
“Ursa minor? ‘Tis the easiest one, a balaich. Shouldae taught ye better then.”
Fergus hums and lets his cheek loll over to pillow against his arm. He’d had no complaints, even grown as he is, about moving himself into the big bedroom with Bree and Willie when the loudness of the storm woke them. With Claire called to Wilmington for a sudden and complicated labour and Murtagh accompanying her, gravitation around a centrifugal point of togetherness feels only natural.
The house feels too-big somehow. Like they’re outdoors, instead of in.
Maybe that’s why they’re muttering about constellations, Jamie thinks. They did it before, too, that first passage over from France, when Fergus was not yet an easy extension of his own self and none of them were sleeping much at night.
“Oh, do not fash,” Fergus is saying. “I know you’ve taught me many important things.”
“Mmmhmm. Chess, for one. Bree cannot beat me yet.”
Jamie snorts and taps two fingers idly against the top of the bedframe. They watch together as Brianna’s nose twitches a bit in sleep, rabbit-like, in tandem with a particularly loud clap of thunder muffled by the windows. In the blue-grey lighting her hair looks almost as dark as Claire’s, as Willie’s -- as Fergus’s.
“And how to fight a man who is larger than me. And you have taught me how to speak with the ladies.”
“I havenae done any such -- what ladies?” Jamie protests. “Oi. Fergus.” His insistent whisper is accompanied by a careful poke to the ribs that blessedly does not disturb the small bodies wedged between them. “What ladies?”
“You have,” Fergus says dismissively. He’s sleepy -- far more than he is letting on -- and his too-long eyelashes are drooping as he mumbles into the crook of his own arm, just as quiet and slurred as Jamie is. “Anyhow,” he continues, “I ken that you and Maman have told me many important things. And that you have not told me some things.”
Jamie freezes mid-poke.
“Aye,” he manages, very quietly. At eighteen, Fergus’s big eyes have retained the doe-like quality they had when he was ten. He smiles, lopsided, muffled against his pajama-clad arm.
“It is alright, Milord,” he says. He’s always been mature for his age, in a quiet, idiosyncratic way that equal parts endeared and concerned. Jamie swallows carefully. He says,
“We’ll tell ye someday, Fergus.”
“I know. I do not think I would be here if there was not something special about Maman.” He pauses, considering, and then flops his pillowed arm over to give one half-hearted poke right back. It lands somewhere against Jamie’s shoulder. “And you as well, I think.”
In loose, simple movements, Jamie draws one arm out from under Bree’s gentle weight and drops his hand against Fergus’s neck, roughly mussing the curls there.
Then he says, in a loud whisper,
“Sae. What girls.”
Fergus groans into the pillow. “Milord.”
“From Wilmington, are they? Or -- dinna tell me, at Nayawenne’s camp --”
“There are no girls --”
“Ye answered that far too quickly an’ as such I was clearly right. Lord, ye best be tellin’ me that ye heeded Claire’s lecture last month --”
“You should have left me in France. I do not deserve this.”
“Dinna act so martyred, you brought it up -- weesht, ye’ll wake the bairns -- hey! Mac na --”
The ability to grapple someone intent on pinching you in a loose headlock whilst ensuring two small children stay asleep is a fine art, Jamie thinks. The thunderstorm hasn’t stopped, but it feels quieter than before even as Fergus’s sputtering laughter is smothered between Jamie’s armpit and the bedding.
Chapter 7: vii.
i haven’t had the time to respond to all the comments on this ficlet collection, but to anyone and everyone reading please know how appreciated you are ❤️
She returns to the barn riding on an instinct engrained -- one of those impulses to make sure no bits and bobs are left behind in the wake of chaos, something far more motherly than soldierly. Claire has come to enjoy the knitting of those two parts of her together. Anyway: Joe is inside, stroking Bran’s snout lightly and staring at the opposite end of the barn wall.
“They’re asleep now,” Claire says, quiet-voiced. It doesn’t sound overloud as she might have expected, and Joe does not start, but still looks up suddenly enough for her to tilt her head.
“You’re real good in a crisis, you know?” he says. There’s something noncommittal lurking around his chin.
That was hardly a crisis, Claire wants to say, but knows it would be unfair. All things are relative, and relatively, in the moment, the realization that the young people huddled in their barn were drenched in freezing early-March river water was urgent enough.
“I suppose I am.”
Jamie had found them, awoken as any perennial light sleeper might be by the faint sound of Bran’s nickering. The chickens had only started up after his eyes opened -- not caterwauling by any means, but making the disgruntled noises of any nesting old biddies awoken mid-beauty sleep. By one long-faced young man with pale brown eyes and skin, it seemed, and a dumpling of a girl whose straw coloured hair was plastered to her red cheeks with icy water.
Jamie had called for Claire, then for Joe, and she does remember now arriving on the scene -- torchlight and the inky winter air intermingling into something that should have been confusing -- and feeling it evolve seamlessly, easily managed and dealt with. There were no injuries; they were not followed; the children stayed asleep and a flustered Mrs. Flannigan was sent to put the tea on. Joe says,
“Isaiah and Fanny’ll be alright,” with a sort of finality to it, like he’s going to make sure of it. Claire nods; Gail is inside with them now, and they got out of their wet clothes faster than she thought possible -- perhaps a side effect of her prescient rhapsodizing of correct hypothermia prevention protocol in her husband’s ear for the last ten years, because Jamie had been halfway through tugging off his own wool coat and shirt to wrap them in when Claire arrived. The lingering body heat would have been better than waiting for fresh blankets, anyway.
Claire bites her lip and lays a hand on Joe’s arm. “They will be. You ought to come inside -- it’s very cold out here and we’ve used up all the spare layers.”
He laughs. “You ain’t the only doctor ‘round here, Lady Jane.”
“I know,” Claire says. Joe looks at her curiously a long moment. One hand stays pressed against Bran’s velvety snout; she looks down on him with long-lashed reproving eyes, as though sniffing at their continued disruption of her bedtime. “What,” Claire says.
“Nothin’.” He looks back down, then up, out the barn window, biting his lip in turn. Claire has a sudden memory of Uncle Lamb, red-faced from sunburn on a dig in Cairo, explaining to her the mirroring of behaviours among closely-knit social groups. Friends, Claire, says the boisterous, excitable voice of her memory.
Joe says, “Just -- thinkin’, I guess. Were you runnin’ too, the way you got here?”
Bran nickers gently. Claire thinks of her husband, wearing nothing but his trousers, tramping back indoors with one of his exhausted, lopsided smiles in her direction.
“In some ways,” Claire says. “And in other ways, no.”
“Yeah,” Joe says, with a final pat under Bran’s cheek. “Yeah, Gail’d say the same thing.” He sniffs, and rubs one long finger over the dark line of his jaw, and its quick coming laugh-lines. “More similar than different.”
They’ll have to find Fanny and Isaiah each proper places to sleep, she thinks. Or perhaps inquire whether they wouldn’t rather just the one, though Mrs. Flannigan might have conniptions over the lack of Catholic priest in the proceedings -- but no matter.
She squeezes Joe’s arm.
“Quite so,” she says, and they stand in the cold barn together for another few moments.
Chapter 8: viii.
rating for this chapter goes up to a light T
Claire can feel thick-stemmed grass prick into her back at the same time her own sweat dries on her skin. June is not yet so hot that it is uncomfortable, and down here, on the lush-bedded forest floor, it’s almost cool, even.
Of course, she was very recently quite overhot indeed, but her body has receded gently into a steady, lingering sort of warmth.
Still -- between her shoulderblades tickles. The lumpy arrangement of her skirts and their more tattered quilt beneath them is not quite big enough to house both she and Jamie at once. And it is not just between her shoulderblades that is tickling. Claire turns her head around, lazy in the grass, to the sight of Jamie’s long finger tracing carefully over the underside of her breast.
Sometimes, the idea of being so far out into the wilderness frightens her. Other times, it feels as though they were made for it.
And it does make it so much easier to ride out by the mountain’s ridge for the afternoon, alone.
“That tickles, you know,” she says.
One corner of his mouth twitches, but he doesn’t stop. There seems to be a pattern emerging, so Claire refocuses: the wide pad of his thumb bypasses smoother skin to run along the spindly, creased tissue of a silvery stretch mark. There are many of them, and discordantly placed. Every so often the edge of his thumb will catch the areola and Claire will want to squirm.
“Jamie,” she tries again, but stops at his expression. He’s always been able to get almost disconcertingly intense at times, and this is not quite it -- pensive instead of sharp, and muted with it. “What,” she says instead, in a voice not entirely a whisper.
Above them, the canopy that faces the namesake of this home of theirs twitters loudly. It was Jamie’s idea to sneak away, full of cheeky laughter and wandering hands. The age-old claim that they have gone looking for some of her herbs -- but even with Fergus’s knowing smirk in mind, Claire’s heart has been full all afternoon.
“I was just thinkin’ how … I dinna ken. How God’s made women tae carry marks tha’ come purely from an act of love.”
He sounds rather like he did years ago, that first few weeks of summer they spent at Lallybroch. She had bled for the first time in their marriage and Jamie had helped her wash her soiled linens in the river and wondered aloud at all the woes of womankind. Her mouth twitches at the memory, but a full smile does not come. Not even to pick apart the epistemic flaws in his presentation of breastfeeding; there’s something too-quiet in his voice.
She shifts now, rolling over to face him properly. Her cheek is propped practically against one hand. He blinks up at her, a faint tilt to his lips.
“I think it’s a matter of perspective,” Claire says, philosophically.
“Mmhmm. How you’re accounting for the act of love. Is love held in the literal gaining of the mark itself, or in the intention behind its catalyst?”
“That’s verra philosophical of ye, Sassenach.”
You started it, she wants to say, but once again does not. She shifts, pulling forward, directly above him now. The lush green of the grass makes his hair appear all the brighter. Young, still, he has not yet started going grey like she has -- she found her first lone, wonky silver curl last week, and pouted privately for a full day.
With her free hand she reaches out and skims her fingers over the slope of his bare shoulder, down behind his neck; Jamie remains relaxed beneath her touch.
Then she says, “Jenny,” quietly, fingers pressing against rubbery skin. She moves, trailing her palm over the inside of his thigh. Far more complicated in its single, familial syllable: “Us.” She brings the hand up to press a very careful finger at the coin-sized mark against his rib cage.
“Claire --” Jamie begins, his voice hoarse.
She bites her lip, then presses her palm directly over his heart, and up, against his temple.
But he’s always been much better with words than she has been; “You know?” Claire says, after a long moment.
They’re completely dry by now; the breeze has made sure of that. But pressed against him, she is nothing but warm.