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Comfortable in His Skin

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Of all the brothers at the monastery who served as Jamie Fraser’s tutor, Brother Adso was the kindest. Not that the others were mean-spirited, but to a man, they were impatient with him. Jamie wasn’t accustomed to long stretches of time spent in silent contemplation, save for church and prayer on his own, the latter typically while he worked. The monks thought him lacking in discipline, unwilling to learn, incapable of minding their orders without the swift intervention of a switch. Some even thought him stupid and bull-headed. Well, he was bull-headed at that. But Jamie had always been a voracious reader. His mother had given him that gift, ensuring there were always books where he could reach, no matter how wee he was. He could read for hours on end, roaming the heather while the sun was high, or meandering through Lalleybroch, pausing now and then next to a fire or a taper when the days were short and bitter cold. As long as he was moving, Jamie had always been content to be silent.

But this, of course, was wrong. A small boy could roll around in the grass, wrapped in his plaid and engrossed in some book, provided he did not disturb anyone. A man, however, could not. It was unseemly, evidence of the devil in him. And at fourteen, it was high time Jamie sat still and acted like a man.

Sit still, ye cannae learn a thing wriggling around like that.

Dinna tap yer feet, lad.

Right hand, right hand, for the last time!

Go cut yer switch, ye cannae listen wi'out a sore arse, is that it?

Brother Adso, charged with teaching Jamie languages, didn’t yell at him like that. Jamie already had English and a good bit of French on top of his Gaelic. He could muddle through enough Latin to read the Bible and knew a few words of German. Greek was, well, still Greek to him, Spanish and Italian distant on the horizon, still outside of his reach. It was Brother Adso’s dreadful task to drag Jamie to all of these languages, kicking and screaming if necessary.

The bells rang ten, the sun long ago set, Jamie knelt at the modest hearth, rebuilding the fire with more peat. Brother Adso had seen that Jamie was likely to fidget out of his seat and given him the chore. “Count aloud while ye build up the fire,” Brother Adso said. “I ken ye’re tired. We’ll be done soon. Ye’ve a good hied for figures, imagine writing the numbers while ye say them in German.”

“I kent how to count in German,” Jamie grumbled, grateful though he was to be released from his hard chair.

“Aye, and well,” Brother Adso agreed. “But humor me. Perhaps it will help ye meander yer way back to the task at hand, aye?”

Jamie sighed and nodded. “Eins. Zwei. Drei. Vier. Fünf. Sechs. Sieben. Acht…” The fire once again warm and sufficient to read by, Jamie returned to his desk. Almost immediately he started bouncing one leg. His boots made no sound, but his chair rattled quietly on the uneven floorboards.

Brother Adso’s firm hand came down on Jamie’s shoulder. The smell of incense and garlic from his kitchen duties clung to his habit, surrounding him like a pungent blanket. “Deep breath, lad,” he said softly, kindly. “Ye’re no long for yer bed. Try again.”

Jamie tried to take a deep breath, but it stuck in his throat, his wame tight in a knot like it always was when Brother Adso stood this close. A cloud of midges swarmed in his stomach, and Jamie bit his lip hard to keep from looking up at him. Brother Adso was handsome, fair hair and fine features, with stormy gray eyes that always seemed to be smiling. And when he did smile—God. In those moments when Jamie did something clever and Brother Adso beamed at him, his rosy lips spreading with earnest pride, Jamie thought he might die and be happy about it. It was the same flight of midges he felt now, except they were on fire.

“Wrong hand again,” Brother Adso said, startling Jamie from his fantasy. “Ye must use yer right. I cannae teach ye with the left.”

“Scheiße,” Jamie muttered, switching his quill to his right hand. He gripped it awkwardly, taking both hands to settle it in his fingers with the tip more or less angled correctly. All the other brothers would have whipped him for using the wrong hand to write, and for swearing. More evidence of the devil in him, they’d say.

Brother Adso gave a laugh and shook his head. “I should slap ye for yer foul mouth. But, aye weel… at least it was in German.”

Jamie’s cheeks burned and he ducked his head so that his wild mane of ruddy curls hid his face. Perhaps the devil was in him. Jamie had on occasion seen men kiss their brothers or their friends on the cheek, a burst of joy when they embraced after months or years apart. When Brother Adso smiled at him, Jamie had the urge to kiss those pink lips. Not the way his godfather had kissed him on the forehead before they’d parted ways at the monastery. But the way his da had kissed his mam while she was alive, God rest her soul. He wanted to put his arms around Brother Adso and feel the body concealed by the folds of his habit. Wanted to taste the wine on his lips and leave him gasping and blushing. Maybe he would put his hand on Jamie’s bare knee and slide his fingers under his kilt…

All the deep breaths in the world weren’t going to stop his leg from bouncing. Jamie gripped the quill tighter with his right hand, hunching farther, trying to force his hand to cooperate, fighting it with the strength of his entire body. He was spelling everything correctly, but not a soul could have told from the mess he was making on the page.

“Jamie,” Brother Adso said softly, laying one warm hand on Jamie’s right wrist, stilling him.

Jamie looked up at Brother Adso, his heart hammering away behind his breastbone. The midges were on fire again. He stood so close, surely Brother Adso would feel the heat or smell the smoke. Maybe he'd assume it was the fire. “I beg yer pardon, Brother. I dinna ken how to make the devil leave me, but I am trying.”

Brother Adso frowned, fair brows drawing together, making little vertical lines in his smooth forehead. “Is there evil in yer heart, lad?”

Frowning, Jamie gave the honest question real thought. He thought the answer was no. He’d never caused any living creature undue pain or suffering. Never killed, save to eat, or to spare a grievously ill or injured animal more suffering. He’d been in fights with other boys. He’d finished the brawls, sure, but he’d never started them, and never wanted to hurt anyone doing it. And as for his feelings for Brother Adso, well… Jamie didn’t want to cause him pain or grief. Nor did he wish for him to turn away from any of his vows. Jamie would take this secret to the grave so that Brother Adso could remain in his memory the man standing before him, always. Kind, gentle, devoted to his faith.

At last, Jamie shook his head. “Nay. At least… nay, I dinna think so.”

“Ye’ve always preferred yer left hand, aye?” Brother Adso squatted next to the desk so that Jamie had to look down to maintain eye contact. Jamie nodded. “So ye were born that way. Do ye think God would let the devil have a wee bairn like that?”

Jamie shook his head.

“So, God made ye prefer yer left hand. Does God make mistakes, James?” One of the few monks to call him Jamie, Brother Adso almost never used his full name, except when he had a very serious point to make.

“No, Brother, He doesnae.”

Brother Adso smiled. “Smart lad. So, it stands to reason that if God didnae make the mistake, and it isnae the devil, and ye didnae invite it upon yerself, then it must not be evil. Aye?”

For a moment, Jamie forgot that Brother Adso was talking about his restlessness and preference for his left hand. He was waiting for acknowledgement, so Jamie nodded in agreement.

“Now, Father Robert may no’ agree wi’ us, but in this room, wi’ me, there’ll be no more talk of devils and evil as it relates to how ye were born. Do ye understand?” Brother Adso arched one handsome eyebrow high, his expression permitting no argument.

Jamie smiled, a wave of emotions rising up in him, too confusing to pull apart just then, but he resolved to do it later. “Aye, sir, I understand.”

Brother Adso nodded. “Good.” He rose again and dug into the pocket of his habit, first the right, then the left, searching. “Ah, there we are.” He removed something small and held it out to Jamie. “Here, hold onto this.” He dropped a small, dark gray stone into Jamie’s waiting hand, rather flat.

It was polished on one side, smooth as glass, reflecting the light from the fire. The other side was rougher, marred by three deep, uniform gouges. Jamie rubbed his thumb over first the smooth side, then the rough, turning it over and over in his hand. It was inexplicably satisfying and his racing mind calmed just a little. With an effort he was able to still his leg.

Jamie let out a short laugh, amazed, and gave Brother Adso a joyful smile. “Danke, Bruder.”

Brother Adso beamed down at him, genuinely proud. “Bitte,” he said. Jamie’s heart skipped a beat. “Keep it wi’ ye. Hold it in yer left hand while ye write, if it helps. Stroke it when ye cannae sit still. Perhaps, if ye can hide it under the folds of yer plaid, the others willnae notice and they willnae beat ye for it.”

“Aye, I’ll do that.” Jamie had never wanted to kiss anyone so much in his entire life as he wanted to kiss Brother Adso in that moment. He ducked his head again and returned to his studies, lest it show. For the first time since coming to the monastery, Jamie felt comfortable in his own skin.