Richardson’s reply arrived at the Chestnut street house the next morning. The housekeeper delivered it directly to John’s hand, and Jamie held his breath as his lover broke the wax seal.
“This afternoon,” John announced, quietly. “Half-past three. Rapiers, that’s interesting.” He stared at the slip of parchment in his hand.
“When did ye last wield a rapier?” Jamie asked through a tight throat, dreading the answer.
John pursed his lips, considering. “Oh… just a few years ago. Before we left Wilmington, where we last saw Brianna, Willie, remember?”
Willie took a bite of toast, pressing his lips momentarily into a firm line, his face no doubt sore. The poor lad had taken quite a beating, but from the sound of it, the other three were in far worse shape. He nodded, swallowing.
“I still have the muscle memory, I’ll be fine.” John folded the paper in half, then half again, and tucked it under the rim of his plate. “You’ll be my second, yes?”
Jamie stared at John, and suddenly they were on another continent. A dewey English morning, heavy with the smell of wet grass and coppery blood. John’s limp body in his arms.
“Jamie?” Grey prompted, reaching out for him and squeezing his hand. “Are you alright?”
Jamie blinked. “Aye, I’m fine.”
“You’ll be my second then?”
“I should tell ye no on principle,” Jamie grumbled. “But, aye. Of course I will.”
John smiled at him, warm as the sun, and Jamie’s wame flipped over, a happy flight of butterflies taking wing in his stomach, despite the gravity of the situation.
Claire had begun putting together what she called a field medic kit immediately after breakfast. Jamie had insisted that she stay home. Not that he thought she had delicate sensibilities that needed protecting, but the whole point of this farce was to shut down Richardson’s damning rumors. Claire didn't care, of course. Ever the pragmatist, she'd argued that John's life could depend on seconds. John put his foot down in support of Jamie's point, assuring her that it would be fine.
Jamie still wasn't sure how she'd won the argument, but there she was, standing with Willie off to the side.
Richardson’s second was a squirrely little man with no apparent knowledge of the protocol for dueling. And of course there would still be a duel, neither party interested in working things out like sensible men.
Jamie took John's coat and waistcoat from him, handing them off to Willie to hold onto. He hated this. He couldn't stop thinking about the last time he'd watched John duel. "Ye ken I'll avenge ye, mo leannan." Jamie swallowed hard. "But please dinnae give me reason to. I'd rather have you than vengeance."
John smiled, but his eyes were distant, already thinking about the fight. "If it wouldn't completely defeat the purpose of this duel, I'd ask for a kiss for luck."
"I gave ye one before we left home," Jamie said, smiling.
"Yes, well, a little extra luck never hurt anyone."
Jamie handed John his weapon. Last time, John had fought barefoot to help keep his footing in the wet grass. But the terrain here was scraggly grass and dirt, lots of stones, and John kept his boots on. "Dinnae die," Jamie murmured. "And I'll give ye the kiss of yer life."
John grinned, backing away to approach Richardson. "You do know how to motivate a man, Jamie Fraser." Then he was on the field, and the duel began.
Richardson made the first charge, taking a cautious offense. John was right, he did still have the muscle memory, falling into a rather graceful defense, getting the feel for his opponent. Richardson was no novice swordsman, but he stuck rather rigidly to his form. Grey, in contrast, was flexible, adaptable.
John spun away from an attack, swatting Richardson lightly across the backside with the flat side of his rapier, looking exceptionally pleased with himself. Dinna get smug… Richardson went red in the face, clearly irritated, and charged with a straightforward attack.
"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ," Claire muttered. Jamie reached out for her, put an arm around her shoulders, not surprised to find that Willie had done the same thing from the other side of her. She was probably thinking about the most creative and expedient ways to put John back together again. He was holding his own easily, only taking a few offensive slashes and thrusts when Richardson showed signs of tiring.
As it turned out, Richardson was a talented liar. No sooner had Jamie come to the conclusion that Grey had him beat, than Richardson drove a hard charge, pushing John back to give up ground. Richardson landed two, then three blows, slashing through John's shirt twice and the top of his breeches once. At least one of the cuts to his torso struck home. A patch of red spread from the torn fabric low on his chest. John either didn’t feel it or ignored it.
“Come on, Papa,” Willie murmured.
“Jamie,” Claire whispered. “Did you mean what you said about avenging him?”
Jamie’s left hand had been on the handle of his dirk since the duel began. “No. It willnae come to that.”
“No,” Willie agreed. “He’ll best that son of a bitch.”
Jamie shook his head, attention fixed on the duel, clanging away in the field. “I’ll kill Richardson outright before he has a chance to beat John.” Richardson might yield if he knew he would lose, but Grey would not.
“Ignoring for a moment the very real possibility that you’d be arrested for murder,” Claire said. “John would be furious with you.”
“Aye,” Jamie said. Grey caught Richardson in his shoulder, making him cry out. He swung like a madman and John sidestepped to avoid it. Jamie’s heart was in his throat. “Aye, I can live wi’ that. I cannae…”
“You can’t live without him,” Claire finished for him, quietly. She took his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I know. I don’t know that I can either.”
Richardson was actually getting tired now, not shamefully so, but he was clearly slowing down. John noticed it too, found his opening, and took the offensive. He moved with a truly elegant grace. It was clear then that he’d been holding back, wearing Richardson down.
John caught Richardson across the belly with the tip of his blade. Richardson slashed at John’s swordhand, forcing Grey to pull back his elbow at the last second. Jamie swore. That should have been the end of Richardson.
A pained shout from Richardson, blood on his shirt too. A fast thrust from Grey. Another shout from Richardson as John pierced the meat of his thigh. John slashed at his swordhand.
Richardson’s rapier fell from his grip. His empty hand shone red with blood. He stumbled over a stone and fell.
Between the entire contents of Jamie’s whisky flask—his large flask—and the reserve flask that Mother Claire had stashed in her medical kit—also whisky—Papa and Father had worked themselves up to a proper frenzy by the time they arrived home. Papa made the trip more or less under his own power. He stumbled once, and Willie swooped in to steady him, taking as much weight as he would allow him to. The housekeeper met them at the door, relieved and loudly praising God for Lord John’s triumphant return.
Mother Claire directed them to her surgery immediately. Willie steered his Papa to the chair by the alcohol lamp and helped him sit, more out of his own need to be useful than Papa’s need of assistance.
“Right,” Mother Claire said in that tone of hers that meant she was taking charge now. “Help him out of his shirt—carefully—and let’s see what the damage is.” She’d given Grey a once-over already, before she’d even let him put his waistcoat back on, determining that he would survive just fine until they returned home to better working conditions.
Grey struggled with the buttons of his waistcoat, his hands unsteady. Jamie nudged him aside with a tender brush of his hands and took over, kneeling in front of his chair. He muttered under his breath in Gaelic, the musical syllables rolling off his tongue effortlessly.
Papa laughed, face rosy in the light of the alcohol lamp. “That’s not English, my love.”
Jamie said something else, a little louder, and Papa’s jaw dropped in a scandalized gasp that Willie was rather certain was an act. “Now, I remember the translation for some of that from Ardsmuir. Besides,” Grey said, wincing as Jamie eased the waistcoat off his shoulders, handing it to Willie to hang up. “You’ll have to ask my physician before I consent to such strenuous activities.”
“Merde,” Jamie swore, taking Papa’s ruined shirt gingerly over his head. “She’s sure to say no. Kiss me before she scolds ye, aye?”
Willie had seen his fathers kiss before. They were quite discreet, even in their own home, but they were demonstrative with each other in a way he’d not expected. The first time he’d seen them, Willie had returned to the dining room after supper to find his Papa stooped over his father’s chair. It had been only a slight jolt, Oh, yes, this is indeed who they are to each other. Poor Papa and Father both had been frantic, Jamie looking rather comically like a spooked rabbit. But Willie had assured them it was perfectly fine, that there was nothing to apologize for.
Now, they grinned as they kissed, thoroughly enamored with each other, the consummate joy lighting his Papa’s face unlike any that Willie had seen on him before. That feeling was echoed in his father’s eyes. Jamie was so often guarded, his inner thoughts and feelings a total mystery, but he didn’t hold back with John. They were, without a doubt, perfectly in love. Willie couldn’t help but smile, even as he turned away to give them a moment of privacy.
“Alright, you two,” Mother Claire said, not a bit of heat in her voice. “That will have to wait. Doctor’s orders.”
Jamie stood, kissing Claire on the cheek on his way up. Those two were desperately in love too, of course, plain as day. And Mother Claire and Papa loved each other as well. The three of them together truly just made sense. Willie hadn’t even noticed before what his Papa had been missing, but now he couldn’t imagine a world where they didn’t love each other like this.
Mother Claire set to the task of cleaning up Papa’s wounds, her slender hands sure and gentle, especially when Papa winced or sucked in a quiet breath.
“Thank you, my dear,” Papa said, smiling up at Mother Claire.
“Well, someone has to keep you bloody men in one piece,” she answered. “You all seem quite hell-bent on getting yourselves killed on a daily basis.”
“That’s only because we ken ye can fix anything,” Jamie said, holding John’s hand when Claire started stitching up the worst of the rapier slashes. Mother Claire hummed, sounding thoroughly unimpressed with his flattery.
“Do you think this will be the end of Colonel Richardson’s interference?” Willie asked.
Father’s shoulder twitched in an odd kind of shrug. “Aye. Or no. I dinna ken. I hope so. He yielded, at any rate. But… he might hold a grudge.”
Papa nodded. “Most men are slow to forget who they’ve lost duels to. But, with any—” He broke off, pressed his lips into a firm line against pain until he could go on. “With any luck, it’ll have put an end to the vicious rumors, at least.”
Mother Claire didn’t even look up from her work to scold him. “Which means no more fighting for you either, young man.”
Willie laid his hand over his heart. “I give you my word, madam, never to fight again. Unless it’s a matter of life or limb. Or duty. Or honor… Or if he’s been a right prick and needs his teeth knocked out. Or—”
“I’ll take that as a no, shall I?” Mother Claire scoffed and shook her head. “Just like your father.”
The three men asked in unison, “Which one?”