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Underneath the Elder Tree

Chapter Text

William Fraser had never known a mothers touch in all his young years until he found one under the withering white flowering of an elder tree.

 

It had happened deep in the forest where the trees grew wild and their branches twined thick, creaking as they swayed from the brisk autumn wind. Their leaves rained down in a golden, sweeping haze, pushing the lad down unfamiliar paths hoping he would notice with just a turn of chin, a maiden fair to care for and she him.

 

But Willie was deeply distracted searching for frogs, speckled back and green, hoping to find a friend before the forest would cloak in frost and he, stuck in his cabin with only the cracklings of the hearth and his father's chatter for company. 

 

He peered into the dark crevices of craggy rocks only to find hissing beetles, bent on hands and knees to the wet rot of decaying logs, coming eye to eye with a brood of mice huddled in grey furry warmth that glared at him with scorn at the rude invasion.

 

Nothing that croaked or hopped.

 

Willie puffed a disappointed sigh to a wasted morning where all he had to show for his efforts was a runny nose that he rubbed along the arm of his too-big wool coat, breeks muddied at the knees that would earn him a tongue lashing from his father with pockets of uneaten worms writhing for escape in the folds. Not to mention a mucky stench clinging to him that left Willie fearing a bath most of all.

 

He scrapped a hole in the damp soil with the heel of his shoon, crushing the ring of fungi tops and releasing their pungent tang as he emptied his pockets of the wee limbless creatures that had coiled around one another in a slimy pink cluster. 

 

Trudging back home through the slippery mud that left a squelching gasp with every step, Willie caught a sight that had him sinking to the sludge. Tucked away amongst thistle weeds and ferns under a crooked elder tree was a woman curled upon herself like a doe lost in sleep. He felt his heart lodge thick in his throat as his father's voice echoed in his head.

 

"A beauty beheld in the wilderness is to never be disturbed nor trusted, mo mhac, for there is only treachery lurking where their souls aught to be."

 

It was one of the many warnings from his father's tales told by the hearth where the spritely fires would alight his grizzle-haired face in a molten sheen as Willie sat at his knee in wide eyed captivation with his wooden snake, Sawney , clasped tightly in his hands. 

 

The stories he'd tell were of witches, faeries, and other vile creatures that dwelled in trees tall enough to blight out the sun so as to snatch a wanderer who'd lost their way, or hide in the rings of standing stones, shaped like jagged teeth as howling wails escaped its maw, waiting for boys such as he.

 

But there were no towering rocks for the wee folk to hide, nor yet was the sun on it's descent to swallow him in night. No, today he would be like his father. Just as braw, just as brave, if maybe not nearly as tall for the lass in need. 

 

Squaring his shoulders (blood pounding in his ears), Willie picked up a long weathered stick to wield in his hands on the off chance she was one of the wicked folk and approached her like he would for his much loved hoppers - quietly, with hands and legs ready to sprint into action if things went awry. 

 

But as he got closer he saw the woman for what she truly was. 

 

She was clad in a ragged brown cloak, thrown open at the waist, where a sullied pale dress could be seen that gathered at her knees. The once fine embroidery depicting spring had succumbed to her travels, unraveling budding flowers with their strange blue leaves (of which Willie had never before seen) and long green vines stitched like the rippling waves of sea. There were rips in the sheer fabric exposing her protruding ribs where faint streaks of blood marked her skin white as snowdrops and white as Willie's face from the startling sight of red. He tore his eyes up to see her tangled craze of curls dark as his own that framed her face gaunt from hunger with lips tinted a deathly kiss of blue. 

 

Her being was such a lifeless thing that Willie thought her dead. 

 

Though to be sure, he gritted his teeth (with a stuttering breath that whistled through his nose) and poked her bared calf with his stick. She woke with a blood curdling groan, swatting her hand towards Willie, who promptly dropped his stick to frantically scamper away at having awakened the dead - if only he hadn't tripped over a tree root jutting up from the ground, falling with a graceless thunk.

 

" Ifrinn !" Willie yelped, sure he was on his way to meet his creator. 

 

But then the woman of the forest unfurled herself from a pallet of ferns and leaves, parting her dirt-speckled hair that revealed eyes of bewitching amber that glimmered in the rich evening light dappling through the boughs above. They landed on his face, transfixed to hers taut with shock - then darted warily to their surroundings. When nothing stirred from the bushes, the looming shadows of the trees, she found her breath and spoke with a voice gentle and warm as summer rain.

 

"Did I frighten you, little one?" 

 

Willie nodded, mouth agape. The sound of her flushing his cheeks. "D - Di' I scare ye?"

 

She brushed a hand along her calf, as she nodded back too. "Terribly. I thought you were a daring fox mistaking me for its supper."

 

The word supper raised the fine hairs on the back of his neck as he was reminded once more of his father's words. He dug his fingers deep into the soil grasping for a stone.

 

"Are ye of the auld folk that steals away boys like me tae feed tae yer weans?" Each word tumbled from the quiver of his mouth that both pained and amused the woman to hear.

 

"Oh, dear boy, is that what you think of me?" She gave him a smile to reassure him that she was nothing of the sort. "You will live another day and many more until you're very old and grey for I have no interest beyond the elderberries to fill my belly." She then laid her palms open at her lap, fingers numb and stiff. "I promise, you have nothing to fear from me." 

 

Showing more trust to a stranger than a boy really ought to, Willie let the burning breath he'd been holding pour out of him in a white cloud of relief. But a new worry took hold as he reached forward, grazing a stubby finger against her berry stained ones, icy to the touch.  

 

"Ye canna eat the berries off the tree, they'll twist yer innards somethin' awful and the black ones do ye worst of all," Willie said with a frown, regretting sharing his last chunk of bread with the wood mice. 

 

Then a kindness so obvious to a child came to mind.

 

"Come home wi' me!" He said with bright-eyed sincerity, propping high up on his knees. "We have bread and meat and soup that isna cold and a hearth sure tae roast ye - no' that it would," Willie added hurriedly." And -"

 

"I don't think your family would want you bringing home a stranger, especially one who has no means to pay such generosity back. Don't worry for me, I'll make do here as I am," she firmly insisted.

 

But Willie saw how her breath whispered from her lips chapped with cold, and how she shivered in her coat, threadbare and useless to ward against the wind growing sharper, seeping to the bone. And what would shield her from the cruel things that hunted by moonlight? He knew not a thing, he saw those scratches at her sides.

 

No, despite what she said, whatever she may be, Willie wouldn't leave her be. 

 

Stubbornly shaking his head, Willie replied, "I ken my, Da, and he would skin me tae my toes fer leavin' ye here in the cold in no' but tatters, hurtin' and alone. But I promise if ye come wi' me no harm will touch ye as long as I'm near."

 

A flicker of tenderness shined in her eyes, before shutting them tight, bowing her head, feeling faint. She pressed a trembling palm to her brow as her sight began to haze and prickle with white. She needed to send this fool-hearted boy away before the desperate sleep she so sought would take her. Quietly. Finally at peace.

 

The lad had simply come too late.

 

So she hardened her voice with all the grit she could muster, hoped it gleamed vile in her eyes like the creatures he thought she was. "You don't even know my name, nor I yours, boy. You owe me nothing. I need nothing. Now go home before the sun falls behind the mountains and you into the fangs of the beastly wicked." 

 

He flinched hard alright, but clenched his jaw just as quick, undeterred, and kicked himself to his feet with a throaty grunt.

 

"My name is William James Fraser, your servant," he said, sounding far older than his young years. He waited for a response and after several heartbeats it was given with a heavy sigh. 

 

"Claire," she answered simply with an exasperated look. "But this doesn't mean - "

 

"William!"

 

Came a worrying bellow, startling the two. They turned to see a man off in the distance crashing through the overgrown bracken, flushed red as his hair, frantically searching, searching. . .

 

Claire's hands balled into fists on instinct, her face marked with distress.

 

"Tis a'right," Willie said softly, trying to calm her. "It's only my Da. He willna hurt ye. He likes the lasses - I think."

 

Still, Claire forced herself to her feet, leaning against the trunk of the tree for stability as Willie reassured again that she had nothing to fear before rushing off to his father.



___





"Da! Da! Da!" Willie shouted, barreling into his father, all knooby elbows and knees. 

 

" Taing do dhia ," Jamie breathed as he kneeled and checked his son over for injury, feeling heart throbbing relief that he was whole and safe. Then he grabbed the lad by the shoulders to meet the ire of his eyes.

 

"Ye wee wretch!" He growled, though not entirely unkind. "Have I no' told ye time and time again yer no' to venture into the wilderness wi'out me. Tis dangerous for you, as it is for me. Yet here ye are again, blackening my temper, tearing my sanity in two. I aught to tie ye hand and foot but I reckon ye gnaw through the rope like the wee ratten ye are."

 

"I'm sorry, I dinna mean to stray far." But Willie was hushed from speaking more by a gentle shake of his shoulders. 

 

"That's always yer excuse, lad. Either yer sticking that heid of yers down foxholes or trying to snap yer neck climbing trees to gather bird feathers." Jamie had to refrain from rolling his eyes when informed they were, "No' just any feathers". 

 

"So what daft thing was it this time?" 

 

A smile touched Willie's lips, his face aglow. "I found a faerie woman, I'm sure of it. I promised she could come home wi' us, have supper wi' us and ye say it's a mighty sin tae break yer word, bad as lyin'."

 

"Aye," Jamie said quietly after a moment's troubled hesitation, eyeing him very closely. "I have told ye so." And ran a hand over his sons head, feeling for a bump. "Does this faerie of yers have a name?"  

 

"Claire," Willie said excitedly. "I'll show ye to her." 

 

He was then dragged to his feet towards the lone elder tree amidst the mossy sprawl of birch and pine, where the woman proclaimed to be faerie was where she'd been left - leaning against the drooping shade. Only now she was grasping a dagger, staring with eyes large and feral at the man in front of her, whose pulse convulsed at his throat.

 

Jamie's hand flew to the hatchet belted at his waist that could swing at animals twice his size with a graceful ease, but Willie exclaimed, "No Da!" knowing this as well.

 

"Claire's only scairt of ye! Please dinna hurt her!" The wee lad planted his feet to the grass and threw his arms around Jamie's hoping to weigh it down. Instead the elder reached with his other hand but with the wooden handle pointed at Claire.

 

"Does my son tell me true? Do ye hold that blade to protect yerself or to harm?" 

 

Her blurring gaze jumped from Jamie to Willie, whose face had gone ghost-white, yet still he kept true to his word, and moved to stand between her and his father like a devoted knight. With her eyes beginning to sting and an unaccustomed warmth flaring small beneath her breasts, Claire lowered her hand but kept hold of the dagger that had been hidden in the folds of her ruined dress.

 

Parting her lips she murmured near breathless, "I - I only lost my way." Then all went deathly black and chilling as she fell to the mottled, crackling leaves.

 

"Ye killed her!" Willie cried as he came to Claire's side.

 

"How could I when I laid no' but eyes upon her?!" But Jamie too sank beside her, with guilt rippling sickly in the pit of his stomach for raising his hand to one who now looked so pitiful and small. Gently, he rested his hand against her ribs, cringing at how he could feel the starving curve of each one, and found  that she did indeed still breathe.

 

"She's no' dead," Not yet anyway. She made a small sound, a strangled whimper, in unconscious agreement.  

 

"Then we bring her home, right?" Willie's voice was an anxious plea, as he smoothed Claire's curls from her face.  

 

"Seems we must as she has no other." 

 

Jamie then glanced up to the sky where clouds of stormy grey began to billow and whirl, slowly veiling the last orange rays of sunlight. Swiftly, he took off his wool coat and wrapped Claire tight, holding her flushed to the heat of his chest, wondering how she hadn't frozen before being found.

 

"What about her dagger?" 

 

The long blade laid off to the side and rather than leaving what had been aimed at his gullet, Jamie belted it aside his hatchet.

 

As he hoisted her up in his arms and walked down the sloping, steep paths home (with Willie uncharacteristically quiet, but with his lone urgent chant of "Hurry, Da" while casting worried glances his way) Jamie pondered who or what he embraced. This woman with eyes like no other being he'd ever known or dreamed of, yet fragile as any mortal man.

 

Where did ye come from, lass?







Chapter Text

The frosty wind battered the trees, creaking their boughs, stealing their leaves but in a cabin beneath the pines a fire was lit to a roaring blaze, shooting fiery tendrils out from the hearth of crackling logs and blackened stone. A rusty kettle whistled with steam, tea leaves steeped to a darkly, herbal brew that looked terribly bitter to the lad who sat atop a little wooden stool. Beads of sweat gathered at his brow, like his father's flushed with heat, sitting with the woman curled in a quilt at his lap, who Willie had proclaimed was a faerie and a many more wondrous thing, lost in a quivering sleep.

 

"The tea should be ready lad, bring it here." Jamie beckoned as he shifted awkwardly in his chair, unaccustomed so was he with a woman in his arms, clinging to him with distress carved deeply in her face.

 

Willie brought forth the cup, tempering the heat with puffs of air as he did so, careful not to spill. A move that was mimicked by his father with a sip that smacked of distaste, calling hoarsely for another spoonful of honey, "And dinna skimp." After another daring dip to taste, the tea was deemed suitable, if maybe now a tad too sweet, as Jamie felt the sugary stickiness coat his mouth and throat.

 

He tapped Claire to wake grimacing at how the pads of his fingertips met the cold hollowness of her cheek, the sharp prominence of bone. They should try for a bit of broth when the lass comes to, Jamie thought. With bread slabbed in butter soon to follow. But as he patted her again, Claire's eyes clenched that much tighter in drowsy defiance that had Jamie recall many a time his son when ill and treated her just the same.

 

"Ye must drink, lass. Directly or wi' a spoon if ye wish, otherwise I'll have to pour it to a bowl and dunk yer face to it." Jamie's well meaning taunt did little to stir the wee thing to a blink, ignoring him entirely as she burrowed closer to his neck in a cold nose shiver, more flush to his chest in want of his heat. Jamie grunted his disapproval yet obliged her, even as the fire and quilt had him fevered wet down his back. Even as his ears pricked faintly with pink.

 

"Her name's Claire, Da." Willie spoke in a quiet hush so as not to disturb her, settling himself back to the stool - elbows on knees, head in hands, attention startlingly focused for one so young.

 

"Claire." Her whispered name tasted of the silvery light she must have been shaped from, with skin so fine Jamie could see her veins rush blue from her temple down to the long expanse of nape. He spoke it again to the woman to see if it sparked a flutter of lashes like wings or twitch of mouth, blessedly no longer tinged of wilting heather.

 

"Did she say much else to ye?"

 

Willie shook his wavy brown head. Then twice more as his father urged him to a bowl of soup that was made earlier that day for supper as a riotous uproar roused from his wame. It was only when Willie felt his hunger twisting fierce that he was spoon to mouth potatoes and broth, even eating the carrots he so despised, usually hiding them inside his sleeve, had been swallowed without protest.

 

After a time another attempt of drink was more successful (without the aid of a bowl). By the third round, that was tipped to Claire's thirsty mouth, the warm sweetness had finally begun to melt the lines in her countenance smooth and calm her breathing to nearly match Jamie's own, without hardly a catch in her lungs.

 

"Another cup, Da?" Came a muffled drag of voice. Jamie flicked his sight to Willie, suppressing a yawn that watered his cloudy eyes yearning for sleep, but keeping his back ramrod straight like the wee guardian he felt he ought to be.

 

"Ye've done more then enough for today lad, off to bed wi' ye before I have to carry ye too."

 

Willie wiped the blur away with his sleeve hard in protest. "I made Claire a promise tae care for her, Da and I canna break my word and leave her."

 

"I will stay wi' yon Claire and see her through the night and when ye wake she'll have a pink to her cheeks and gratitude on her lips to ye." Willie pursed his own in objection and Jamie narrowed his eyes in authoritative reply.

 

"What if she wakes tae yer face, Da? Claire didna like it before, she took tae her knife and fainted."

 

Willie had a point about her reaction to him and it itched at Jamie's beard. "Then I'll call to ye - loudly so, as ye snore with the breath of a bear. Now go before I put ye clothes and all to a bath, which I should, but I'll settle for a wash of face to the basin."

 

With a groan he didn't bother to hide, Willie whispered a gentle, Oidhche mhathd, to Claire's ear and a hasty, tight lipped one to his father who captured him by the cuff in what Willie thought was a change of mind, having seen the rear end of his breeks.

 

"Ye did more than a kindness today, William, more then most lads or men would. I ken yer mam is beaming mighty wi' pride up above to have such a son as ye and so am I. Oidhche mhathd, mo mhac."

 

Willie's face broke into the broadest smile, endearing and bright, as he left to his room where he washed his hands and face with soap and not just to splash about. Once in bed under heavy blankets with hands clasped tightly together, a silent prayer was spoken to his mother (whom he had never known), to keep Claire well and safe and for she not to gut his Da, and to finally catch a hopper to show her, and, and...

 

_____

 

As the night went on, rain began to fall and drum along the roof while the two underneath sat encased in warmth with breath shared in a rise of her ribs to the fall of his. Jamie's bristled chin fell lower and lower, brushing against the curve of Claire's brow, stirring her from the depths of sleep in furrowed irritation. Her slender hand, luminous as pearl cast in firelight, rose to swat his copper haired cheek, though weak as it was she only managed to graze him with her calloused fingertips, dragging down his jaw and neck, to a grasp of shirt at his heart.

 

A midge she must think he was, Jamie mused, tilting his head away from hers. "Fair's fair, wi' yer curls teasing at my nose." The low pitch of his voice rumbled through his chest to a waking daze that flared like whisky gone aflame.

 

Willie had been right.

 

She clenched her fists readying to attack, be it his eyes, nose or a mauling twist in his lap (all three he was certain), as a trembling gulp rippled at her throat down the slight body shrinking away in fear. So staggeringly apparent what was flooding her mind, Jamie spoke as gently, as softly as he could, loosening his grip of her.

 

"Yer fine and well, lass. Under my roof are ye, out from the cold where I gave ye drink to drown the berries ye ate and thawed ye like I would a lamb. I promise ye. I'm going to put ye down in the chair to yerself with me over by the hearth, for if ye stand I think ye shall fall and cause more damage to yerself. Aye?"

 

With lips drawn tight and hawk eye glare never leaving his, Claire gave Jamie the slightest of nods as he shifted from her a good distance away, kneeling to the floor to show he meant no threat to her.

 

"My name is James Fraser. My boy Willie you met in the forest, he's just beyond that door asleep or maybe wi' his ear to it as we speak, we'll ken soon enough." Her ears perked up at Willie's name with a softness catching in her eyes, where Jamie saw a glimpse of what earned his son's devotion pulling at him too. "He told me yer name was Claire."

 

Another quiet nod from her as she poked her foot from underneath the patched quilt, bare and cradling it in question.

 

"I took yer leather off ye, no more of yer clothing did I touch. However, if it's the blade yer searching for, tis wi' me for now but dinna fash, I hadna planned on using it on ye. Only, I need to know the stranger who I've brought into my home for my son's sake, more then yer name I must ask of ye. Do ye agree?"

 

Sound broke from her mouth, stiffly and defensively with a jut of chin. "Why should I agree when I could easily unburden you by leaving."

 

"Have ye lost yer hearing along wi' yer sense lass? The rain will carry ye off yer feet, if no' the wind and wi' ye looking of hunger and nights of sleeping on twigs and leaves, it will take naught but two steps." Seeing her mind contemplating doing just that, Jamie assured her further. "If I ask ye a question that isna to yer liking stay silent like ye've been as I dinna care much for lying. Much like you I suspect."

 

Aided by the wind slapping against the windows and growls of thunder and lightning breaking the sky with white, it took all but three deep breaths of the smokey air around them for Jamie to receive his answer.

 

"What do you wish to know."

 

He began with the obvious and easiest to answer. "What were ye doing traveling so close to winter in that paltry stitch of dress without a pack of some sort?"

 

"My satchel that held all my belongings was lost to the waters of Ladhar Bheinn. What I wear is all that hadn't washed away."

 

"Through the mountains, ye came?" Jamie sat agape thinking of the harsh terrain and desolation made for keeping only but the chosen few away. "That's where the wise men go to bury their own. You crossed sacred ground."

 

"And yet here I stand before your very two eyes, fully alive with no vengeance from above or below taken." A wry smirk she gave sitting there aglow from the flickers of the flame, and Jamie felt the absurd urge to ask if she were of a human soul or made of the earth and wind but refrained from doing so, afraid he would be met with telling silence or a lie to cover the truth.

 

"When you raised a dagger to me..?"

 

"I've had good reason to raise my blade before another has a chance to do so. Man or woman, I have little trust in either." Claire pushed aside her curls that framed her face, pausing before her fingers threaded in the tangled locks, her face softening as if in recall, Jamie thought. "But never to your son would I ever harm. And you, it was as you said, I held it in defense."

 

"Do I need to worry of it still?"

 

Her amber eyes boldly took in the scope of him, so much greater than her own, that left Jamie feeling quite bared. "You could have done me violence already and still easily can, of that I have no doubt. But no, a brute couldn't raise a boy like yours. You have my trust for as long as you know your place towards me."

 

"I can see verra well what that place is, lass, and I shall respect it." Jamie patted his bent knee and they finally shared a smile, however small and timid it was. "I will bother ye no' more tonight, though I canna guarantee Willie willna be asking more of ye come dawn. Ye will have my room for now - to yerself, with nay bother."

 

"You needn't trouble yourself. I told your son the same. I will take to where I am here on this chair."

 

"If I dinna trouble myself with ye my son, as wee as he is, will strike me down and I wouldna care much for myself either. Ye have a place here until the storm passes, which may keep on well into the 'morrow and even then..." Jamie glanced at her hands still dipped in a poisonous red every bairn kent to stay away from and only the very wretched would dare to eat.

 

Claire was quick to ball her hands from his sight, settling both her feet to the ground and jerking at the chilliness that curled her toes. "Mr. Fraser, I will accept your kindness if only to stop this conversation of how inept I am to care for myself."

 

"You may call me Jamie and I'm happy ye've admitted defeat." He raised himself slowly from the ground with a pop to his knees and Claire let out a sigh that colored her cheeks.

 

"Well, you Fraser men don't make it easy, both of you are fairly stubborn."

 

"My folk take after the worst of the mules I'm afraid, no reasoning wi' us unless there's food at stake." That seemed to amuse her, the perfect definition for the souls she stumbled upon and Jamie took comfort at the smile easing across her face.

 

"Never met a mule before but I have the blood of one, I'm told."

 

"Then I imagine we'll get along terribly well, Sassenach." She raised her brows at that, the word known to her and in what way Jamie was curious to learn, whatever breed of stranger she may be, but for another day it would have to wait.

 

Chapter Text

The scent of fresh pine so sharply pierced the air that Claire could feel the needles pricking along her skin in a tingling shiver, the stickiness of sap dripping gold to her cheeks and fusing with her curls filled with crushed leaves. Her bleary awareness now believing she still slept under a gloomy sky of rains and billowing trees, had her burrowing to the softness surrounding her and beneath. An earthy musk coated her lungs then, enveloping her in rich, delicious warmth to form an image obscured in a glowing ray of sunlight that she so sought to grasp.

 

So different from dreams of a dark abyss. Of hands olden and gnarled, withered away. Mouths smeared in shades of red…

 

But the blustery gusts of wind rattling against the shutters tore Claire away, smothering the light to wake. Amber eyes darted around the room, dimly lit from quiet embers, and small chinks in the timber shutters for alarm quickly melted away as her memory flashed to the long hours before. A conversation that had her heart thrashing loud as rolling thunder, down to a slowing beat like the soft patter of rain as she sipped broth and ate bread in companionable silence with the elder Fraser, growing in comfort of warmth and fullness. She then found herself in his room (sparse with only the barest of necessities), with he respectfully three paces behind her. His eyes were caught by hers, cutting through the shadows in a glimmering blue, his lips twitching with a blush stained question.

 

Would ye like a wash?

 

She had found slight amusement at the man who had held her for so long to be flustered, yet was hesitant herself to voice a yes, settling for a nod.

 

A steaming bath was summoned with a downcast gaze out the door, leaving a soft mumble in his wake that Claire returned. She submerged herself to the near boiling waters that left her raw to a rosy pink while her slight hands traced the scrapes and bruises along her thin flesh, landing on her ribs which she mournfully found could play a hollow tune that echoed the one carved in her heart. With a threat of a whimper rising tightly in her throat to choke her, Claire broke the waters surface of soapy bubbles, drying herself with little care and hobbled to a collapse of bed under heavy quilts and in a gifted sark where she laid awake until her eyes stung shut.

 

Now she sat heavy limbed in bed, mind still at a loss on what to do about the day and all the others left ahead of her. Bringing her knees flush to her brow in contemplation, she didn't hear the small, quiet step of a boy who thought her friend until a whisper of her name was carried in the air. She turned her cheek to see a sparkling pair of dew drops attached to an utterly sweet face smudged at the chin.

 

"Are ye still ill?" Willie loudly whispered with concern, seeing her as she was, hunched over.

 

Claire gave Willie a gentle smile of assurance not wanting to worry him and replied in the same raised hush as he. "All is well with me thanks to you, but why must we whisper, sweet lad?"

 

Pink colored Willie's ears at the endearment as he plopped down beside Claire, shoon and all. "Da said no' tae bother ye, that ye'd come out when ye'd wake. So I came tae see if ye had and ye did. So I'm no' a bother...Aye?"

 

Claire took her thumb to his chin as her spirits became more genuine. "A bother you are not, just a surprise you were with such a tender foot even to my hearing."

 

"That's what Da says. He thinks I'd be a good hunter like him if only I'd quit being sae sweet tae our supper." And speaking of supper... "But there's nay worry for us feeding ye. There's food like I promised ye and I can bring ye a bowl or two or more. Whatever ye like."

 

"An honest to goodness knight I have, and a gallant one too. How could I be so fortunate." Claire cooed, and a second wave of heat slapped Willie to the tip of his nose that spread to a bashful smile as he spoke softly, eyes shining with wonder.

 

"Does that mean I have yer favor?"

 

"What do you think I am, Sir knight, a jinn?" She teased, even as his awed gaze began to pluck at her nerves, striking one sharply when he uttered what he imagined her to be. A being decidedly otherworldly. He thought her a fairy born in a flowers bloom, to a fallen raindrop down to earth to grow for him to find and wondered if wings like a flutterby were hidden at her back. Willie would have carried on despite her assurance she in fact was not such a creature, but another's voice interrupted the two curly tops.

 

"I seem to recall ordering a wee gomeral to leave our guest be or he'd be hung by his ankles down the privy hole where my razor currently resides."

 

At being reminded of the foul stench threat due to his theft and clumsy fingers, Willie jolted to attention to his father standing at the door. "Claire was awake, Da. I didna poke her or pinch her any. I just wanted tae see her and I did, and speak to her like I am."

 

"Be that as it may, ye still dinna barge into a lasses room - for it's hers until it's no' - especially when -" Jamie quickly glanced at Claire, curled in quilts. "Did ye even think to let Claire properly dress, lad?"

 

A shake of Willie's head with a look that questioned ,'whatever for,' had Jamie hanging his own at his sons lack of manners that was of his own doing. He cocked his head for the lad to leave and a playful shove at his curly wig head as Willie called for Claire to hurry, hurry.

 

"Shouldn't you follow him? This lass isn't properly dressed." Claire arched her brow seeing his lingering stance.

 

"I shall, only - I have something for ye to amend that." It was then she noticed Jamie had something tucked under his arm, passed with hands outstretched to meet hers that gathered the bundle to her lap with tentative fingers tugging to unravel the messy folds that revealed themselves to be garments of his homespun.

 

"I did a quick stitch to some clothing of mine while ye slept. They might still fit ye troublesome but ye'll no' be swallowed by it." He shrugged. "I thought it better then yer dress, ripped as it is."

 

Ripped as it was, tucked away under feathered pillows where Claire hoped safely they would remain.

 

"My modesty thanks you. I can't do much with my own hands except take a blade from fish to rabbit - and don't give me that look that begs to differ." She had lost her all possessions and the game was becoming scarce she reminded Jamie, who promptly muted his features but not the skepticism in his eyes. "But, as I was trying to say," she continued to the man who gave her shelter. "I do know a fine hand when I see one, even if it pains me to compliment you now."

 

"Then I'm happy to have pleased ye so, seamstress." Jamie's mouth quirked in a way that Claire felt the bloom of reciprocation pinch at her cheeks that she whole heartedly suppressed, even as his eyes traced her face like a sea breeze in kind regard. "And that yer looking fair better then the night had me believe."

 

Claire passed a hand self consciously through her riotous curls that caressed her from temple down to nape. "The night is no better then the day and I need not your assurance, however well meaning, or a mirrors to know I must look absolutely beastly." Then with a twinge at her belly that had his lips twitching and hers a thin line of warning, she added, "With an appetite to match."

 

"Och, I'll see to it that we fatten ye to rival any sow this side of the mountain."

 

"On any other day I would take insult to that but I find the idea at the moment to be more then appealing. But just this once."

 

"I shall keep it in mind, Sassenach." And for a scant second, Claire saw the flitting questions behind the name Jamie had given her.

 

"Calling me that, does it mean you think the same as Willie? A fairy he called me."

 

"No, but yer manner is damned odd for a lass that I've only ever seen once in my own kin." Along with her gaze a peculiar thing to behold with secrets held close within them. "So Sassenach ye are and very fitting for ye I think."

 

Leaving her be, Claire dressed in layers of warmth - soft fabrics at her breast, knit wool that hugged her well and bands of threaded earth draped around her legs, ignoring the scents caressing her, reviving what had faded upon waking. That ruddy beam she now saw caught in a curl that brushed over a vision like a sea.

 

Smoothing a flush at her brow that dizzied her eyes (from hunger she was sure, that coiled in a knotting ache), Claire left the small room to reluctantly meet the day.

 

And another,

 

And another after that.

 

Days had passed with no change of weather in sight. Claire would daringly step a foot outside, testing the wind misting with rain, that did indeed sweep her off her feet in a yelp straight to her arse - if it hadn't been for Jamie to snatch her to a steady stance.

 

The door and shutters were then swiftly bolted while tempestuous sounds raged on outside, harassing the house from all solidly built sides and taunting the ones inside when a lull would settle, only to rise again to shatter the peace.

 

But all was not so bleak.

 

Distraction from grey hours came in a little form who smiled bright under tussled brown hair, softly tapping at Claire's door to announce the day, with each passing one bringing a wider grin to his face. That first day Willie had taken her hand and proudly showed off every cramped corner of the cabin to his guest in a way a boy would.

 

The black spot on the floor, scorched from a fallen candlestick, when he saw a rat above his head crawling at the rafters. The dented copper pot that his father threw at said rat and the other battered two beside it when one lone vermin became a brood. (Jamie had been stricken red, adamant that there were none to be seen in months and gave Willie a gaelic hush.)

 

The cupboard he wasn't allowed to touch that kept his fathers ale and whisky, then in a secretive whisper told her that he had. From mouth to burning throat. And with revulsion contorting his face, warned against doing the same. (Which Claire would have that very night and found it more then pleasant.)

 

But most importantly, above all, Willie showed her where the dried apples and jam for loaves of bread and jerky were kept, with he enthusiastically partaking in both.

 

The second day brought a game of cards without rules that flung across the table and floors, then a stirring play of draughts where it was determined that red was the color of luck. The games lasted long enough for Willie to curl atop a pallet by the fire, leaving Claire with Jamie who took his place, enticing her with a tin cup of sloshing warmth, changing the rules and pieces of the board to engage her in a wicked battle of wits.

 

She didn't care for it. Nor his cocky grin that toppled her worthless pawns to rooks and knights, leaving her queen unguarded who never had a chance to rule triumphant.

 

By the third howling barrage of rain, Willie had taken to Claire with such affection (and she an undeniable fondness for him), he began speaking of springs and summers she would never see. Going as far as trying to teach her the different ways to mimic the call of birds that had been taught to him by his nunkie, with his fingers fluttering like wings. It was then Claire felt the need to remind him of her departure and how soon that would be.

 

They were seated by the hearth with Willie sitting on his little stool and Claire at his knee. He had been showing her his favorite book, Regnum Animalibus, with colors painted with lively, vivid detail of animals beautiful and strange, landing on the sleeked skin, sigillum, when she placed her hand over his atop the page.

 

"You know I'll have to leave when the storm passesWilliam, don't you?"

 

He gripped the edges of the book that was larger then his lap, his jaw going tight at hearing his full name. "That's what Da said, but he hopes ye stay longer."

 

"He said that?"

 

"Nae, I just ken so. He wants ye safe and happy like me." He dipped his head to the book, slowly slipping down his knees.

 

"Why would I not be?" Claire reached a hand to brush a lock behind his ear, where memory of a loving touch doing just the same whispered at her at the shell of her own, the last kiss at her cheek.

 

He then spoke quietly with an injured tone. "Because I saw ye hurt and lonesome when I found ye and I dinna ken why ye want tae be so when ye leave."

 

A creak in the floor boards saved Claire from speaking a lie of a family waiting for her return, releasing a strained breath she'd been holding. She looked up to see Jamie who nudged her shoulder with the back of his hand to sit kneel at Willie's hunched over form, where he spoke to his son soothing words that sounded of a gentle hymn to more then one saddening heart.

 

Then a morning came with birdsong, cheery as the sun that gently coated the pools of mud ready for a lad to splatter with glee, flattened grass slick enough to slip with a curse to nature and drooping trees where one very tall could shake a branch to drizzle on the unsuspecting.

 

But Claire had none of these thoughts as she approached Jamie, already awake and staring out the window no longer shuttered, by the door, tapping a rhythm at his thigh. When she spoke his name, Jamie looked over his shoulder with his cateye blues keenly taking in her solemn face, the hesitation to speak as her bottom lip was trapped between teeth. So he did so for her.

 

"Would ye care to walk with me, Sassenach?"

 

Her eyes fluttered in question, sending her glance to the obvious glaring beams behind him.

 

"Aye, tis a bonny day of sun we have for ourselves and yer wee shadow I see scowling behind ye." Claire followed his gaze, to see Willie peeking from his door with quite a look that could turn one to stone.

 

"And," Jamie spoke again, softer then before, yet it gave her heart no relief. "We must set ye on yer path wherever that is, aye, Sassenach?"

Chapter Text

Three souls trudged through muddied ground beneath the gentle warmth of sun, with the smallest wedged between, stubbornly latched to the one he dared not part from. With every step the air grew thick, laced in words that numbed their tongues lost in misty breath, overtaken by plumes from nose and heaving chest of Jamie. He'd glance to his son, stooped low in soured frown, shaming himself like a bairn that pained him so to see, then to the woman beyond the mountains set to vanish in the treacherous wilderness alone, just as she had been found.

 

And it troubled Jamie

 

The touch of her frailty was still with him, from quivered whimpers at his neck to the shudder of her bones desperate for him to thaw, where darker thoughts of her fate grew. Claire lying under twilight, fingers clawing the air, wails lashed from her throat to be devoured by all that hungers the weak. While another had her breathless underneath a burial of snow. Crystals at her lashes. Quietly forgotten.

 

These flashes of possibilities gnawed at Jamie's nerves as the days of stormy seclusion passed, emerging in flicks at his wrists that pulsed to burning fingertip, drumming a rhythm to flesh, wood, and stone. With every bruising tap Jamie had felt the rise in urgency to bluntly ask her of where she planned to journey, how she planned to care for herself, even if he was met with silence (a choice he'd given her and his promise to uphold). Thus adding a new verse to the frantic beat of hand.

 

Jamie had decided to best offer Claire a dram (which he himself had directly taken a heaping dose of upon Willie mentioning the crawl of vermin in the rafters) to ease Claire of her bite, a woman who hid her vulnerabilities in jest with him. A plentiful sip was taken that lingered at the rim where she bloomed a posey pink that warmed her nape to cheek, leaving Jamie unwilling to distress the sweet expression along her features, framed softly in curls that ruffled like water in a burn.

 

Another day passed and opportunity came, where Jamie approached her with a challenge of chess while Willie slept on a makeshift pallet of blankets by the fire(A game draughts having wearied his eyes of their shine). This time the dram became a swirling pint that loosened Claire's tongue, peeking from lips muttering annoyance of a savaged defeat as she twirled a fallen rook in a hand that looked to know a perfect aim.

 

"The defeated earns another pour of whisky to lick their wounds, I think."

 

Despite her complexion darkening to a plumrose hue across temple to jutting chin, Jamie felt his ears glowing hot and grinning like a fiend.

 

"A consolation. How thoughtful. And what of the gracious winner?" Her brow quirked expectantly.

 

"Hopefully, the damnable man as ye so called me, will live to see another day wi' both his eyes intact."

 

He gestured to the rook, giving her an owlish wink. She slapped it to the board where it rolled off the table traveling to his chair with laughter brewing not quite breaking, horribly concealed in puffed cheeks.

 

It was only when Jamie reached a long arm below to retrieve the wooden piece that he realized the shake in his hand had stilled to a calm, his fingers silent all through the night. When Jamie lifted his gaze from beneath the table with a solemn blink to hers holding suppressed laughter, be heard it.

 

A hum caught in the air. Somehow impossibly within.

 

Jamie asked Claire if she heard it too. She was quizzical for a scant moment before looking aside him to the sleeping boy, mouth barely parted, yet resounding trumpets escaping where she left her seat, bending low to stroke the curve of Willie's round flushed cheek. The snoring ceased, replaced with a smile small as he and just as sweet.

 

The question was lost again.

 

Hurried to ignore. Forgotten in a sight of a tender touch.

 

Now on their last day together, no more could Jamie delay. He was about to send Willie to walk ahead of them when the hushed air was broken by Claire.

 

A Sassenach of places elsewhere and beyond. Of people gone,ever lost to the depths of earth and sea.

 

Yet, here was a hand clasped to her own, fierce as his beating heart pleading for her to stay with him.

 

Please. Please.

 

That twisted Claire's heart to a hollowed pang.

 

She convinced herself that in a few days she'd be nothing more than a yellowed scrap of memory to him, to be torn and scattered in time. Then as if divining her thoughts, Willie squeezed her palm now slick with sweat, while his other tangled itself around her arm in vehement disagreement.

 

"Chin up, Willie. We have the morning together don't we? Unless you mean for me to have conversation with the top of your head?"

 

Willie responded with an impressive grunt for his stature, burying his nose to the long sleeve of Claire's heavy coat (forced upon her by Jamie after a declaration of hers being only fit for kindling), when the chatter of plovers amongst the flourish of tress overhead had Willie tilting his ear just so, as well as Claire's.

 

"Maybe the birds will be more friendly to me. You did teach me the calls."

 

Willie pursed his lips to silence even as they trembled to speak and it was then Jamie intervened to lay a broad hand to his son's crown of chestnut locks, not unkind.

 

"I ken yer hurting, William. There's nothing comparable to parting from someone ye care for, but Claire's right. The morn' will be lost if ye keep on as ye are."

 

Jamie expected Willie to meet his eye with a dew eyed glaze for him to brush a hand too, instead they were pooled in a darkly glare with steam blowing from his chill kissed nose in perfect imitation of his sire, pulling Claire to a stop and release of hand.

 

"I dinna care how I'm acting and I wouldna be so if Claire'd stay but she'll go cause she doesna care at all!" With an outburst that startled Jamie and Claire to the grey feathered birds above to flight, Willie dashed ahead with Claire set to follow if not for a hand at her shoulder.

 

"Dinna fash, Sassenach. Contrary to his shouting the lads too taken with ye to let ye out of his sight." Sure enough she saw his little legs slow their pace to a copse of trees where he slapped his hand to the bushes of ferns, yanking fistfuls in frustration, tossed to the crisp breeze. "But it's best to leave him be till we talk, you and I."

 

"What is there to speak of other than my gratitude for your kindness towards me and a farewell that should have been said at dawn, that I say to you now, James Fraser, with a wish I could say so to Willie."

 

A goodbye unsaid that stung Claire's throat as she dug her nails to her cuffs, overlong and hastily hemmed from a shaky hand. One that clenched to a ruddy fist hearing a waver in her voice, sending his racing thoughts skipping finally to a single one.

 

"Are ye sure about parting ways, Sassenach? Because ye dinna have to. No' today or even in a week. Ye could stay with us, have a home, for however long ye need."

 

The spoken breath of home danced in the air, white as a veil to bridge the gap between, wrapping around her in a gentle thrum, stirring warm at her chest, stilled cold with the cutting press of her of fingertips.

 

This wasn't her place. Would never be. A lesson that had been relentlessly beaten into her. She wouldn't live through it again not even for him.

 

"You only say this for Willie's sake, to spare him of tears that I know must pain you as they do me but- "

 

"I say it because I worry for your own, Claire."

 

A quiet admittance that had Jamie's sight seeking the trampled thistles underfoot while swiping his hand down the sprouts of coppery bristle.

 

"Ye've been on my mind these days of rainfall of how to do right by ye, to know that ye'd be safe on yer own." He dug around his sporran strapped to his waist, producing a familiar silver blade that itched familiar at Claire's palm, soon joined with the leathered hilt. "Even sharpened yer dagger to a fearsome point for ye. But what use is it when I fear that ye have nowhere to go, nor kin to call yer own.

 

"And what of it?" Her defensive tone cut sharp at the wounding reminder that she was alone. "I'm no one to you. No longer of your concern. I free you from any obligation that I've burdened you with."

 

Claire pocketed the blade, moving a step back with Jamie following it's place, earning him a warning flared of amber that he leaned away from, though with a gaze just as determined.

 

"Tis more than an obligation I feel towards ye, Claire. I held yer life in my arms, felt yer heart beat to mine. You are a soul known to me. But the state of ye. Yer hands stained. What coursed through yer veins..."

 

"Marks a poor decision that will not be repeated." She murmured haltingly, fidgeting fingers gripped to her chest that Jamie brushed the back of a tentative forefinger to, with a gentle, "S'alright," unraveling a knot beneath her breasts to an irregular beat.

 

Looking up, up, she suddenly realized how close Jamie was. Too close.

 

Another step back was taken that Jamie did not follow.

 

"I dinna judge ye for it, Sassenach, and will no' bring it up again but whether ye will it or no I willna leave ye to a fate I can protect ye from."

 

"Your offer is committing to a stranger living in your home for however long she dares. One who has been wretched, forced to twist a tongue to lie with a hand swift to thievery."

 

"And have ye done such acts within my home, do you lie standing before me now?"

 

Of course she hadn't, telling Jamie just as much, then wondering why she hadn't lied. Why she hadn't just turned her heel to run.

 

"Then what else matters, Claire?" His voice sincere disarmed her, sending her hand to smooth distracting wisps of hair escaping from her plait like a fraying dandelion while the rise in her chest quickened.

 

"What if I simply refuse?"

 

Jamie nearly laughed, shoulders slumping in a shrug, his own hand combing through dancing flicks of fiery waves.

 

"I wouldna advise such a challenge. Stubborn as a mule remember?"

 

"Destined to sleep on the floors it seems."

 

A smile tugged hopeful, crumbling resolve, invitingly as a kiss that would be pressed to her palms on bended knees, over her breasts and lips in whispered promises, stealing her breath in sighs that sung his name, heart tortuously inflamed.

 

Had Claire known she would have refused his hand, instead of yielding to the warmth of him that tingled at the stiffly cold of hers, leading her to the ring of pines where Willie sat in wait.

 

Would have fled to the forest, back to the crooked elder tree, past brooks and cliffs. Gone without a backwards glance to those left behind.

 

As her mother had so long ago.

 

And all her kind before.

 

 

Chapter Text

Dawn had risen in delicate blooms of lavender and blushing heather across the waking sky, down to a pine drizzled cabin, quiet inside. Only stirring with the shuffle of Claire dressing for the day about her room.

 

Hers

 

To have

 

To keep

 

Where she could litter the floors with crumbs of bread, warm with honey, never to be stale. Dress without fear of a presence lurking, panting, leaping, as she dashed through trees, toppling over jutting stones, desperate for a brook, a stream.

 

Only to be seized by her hair in a fisting twist.

 

A ribbon lost. Rips of cloth, bruising skin.

 

A blade unseen tearing fatty flesh that had her fleeing, crossing waters rushing rapid, crawling beneath a tree.

 

To a home where Claire could sleep without worry, deeply, soundly, wrapped in a heat that seeped across her skin that always held a chill. Like now within the silence of the surrounding four walls, luring her mind to wander, blurring to a blue dipped memory.

 

She, young and shivering in her mother's arms where warmth slipped away with every slap of wind, as they laid in a ditch overgrown with weeds, far from home to a destination elsewhere. Her mothers breath at her cheek, voice losing shape from years gone and farther still, warning Claire of others who found themselves bound to men, so desirous of a woman's flesh to unsheathe them of their very soul for the secrets flickering behind their eyes. The silkiness of their skin.

 

“What of, Father? Did he steal yours away too, Mama?” A question hushed in broken breath, as Claire feared that her father was not the noble knight her mother had proclaimed him to be.

 

A beloved man whose hollowed heart held her endless tears and gasping prayers to breathe with life again. Those desperate pleas fell heavy as the dirt scattered around him as he laid in darkness amongst a sea of flowers, picked by her smudged little hands, to keep forever beautiful.

 

"Mama?" Claire persisted, squeezing her mother to speak despite the quiet flow of grief she felt dewing her crown of locks.

 

“Yes, he had but no more will he ever, my darling. Nor will you ever know the cruelty of any mans heart as I."

 

The vision dimmed, love warm whisked away to infinity by the sounds echoing in the air of a man anything but cruel. One Claire felt an intangible pull to trust despite her wary instinct that thought her a fool, whispering of the white petaled tree where the promise of all that she was still waited for her.

 

Calling for her.

 

But so did the tuneless whistle that stole a gentle sound from her, felt sharply in her cheeks dimpling in a smile. That same oddly beating thrum of her heart, the only call she cared to answer of a man who thought her friend.

 

And now she of him.

 


 

 

Woodsmoke lightly scented the air, drifting through a window left ajar as the newly kindled logs in the hearth caught a rising flame, heating the kettle to and fro along with Willie, drowsily draped across his father's chair, legs swung over the arms. While the lad had been eager to rise to quell his ever insatiable appetite, the lack thereof was enough to keep him stuck between the brim of wakefulness and the heavy pull of dreams.

 

No bother to Jamie though, as he rose with a sigh from his crouched position in front of the budding fire, arching his broad back to crack the bones knotted from another hard night spent on a pallet. That would have to be tended to and soon, he thought. But until then, Jamie rolled up his sleeves, baring the coppery brush of his arms, getting on with a breakfast of bannocks lest his son wither away to dust, belly first.

 

By the time Claire emerged from her room, Jamie was stickied white in oat dough from brawny wrist to blunt fingertips while crooning like a thrush, (without the harmony, but ever so the pitch) that could only delight the blessedly deaf. But from his lips the song vanished as his attention was drawn to her curls flowing wild in rebellion from their binding braid, framing a face softly nestled like a pearl, glowing in fondness seeing Willie's dozing form.

 

And then her eyes that could shame the very sun, a wonder that coaxed his sons imagination and in this moment Jamie's, of an otherness that enveloped her like a veil, a shield, now settled on him. The dusted hairs along his arms lifted, tingling to the back of his neck in what he reasoned was from a breeze slipping through the window.

 

But why was it warm as if sunkissed by spring?

 

An uneasiness struck through him, or rather a wave of something foolish stoking hot in his wame that had his hand hovering white and dangerously close to his cheeks to swipe away at the creeping heat. But he caught himself just as a smile curled at Claire's mouth in a prelude to a laugh that tempted him to be that very fool if only to hear the joyous sound.

 

Jamie wanted her happy always.

 

"Did Willie have a restless night?" Claire asked, dispelling Jamie's pondering, quietly in voice and touch that grazed Willie's hanging foot, tugging his wool sock dangling near off his toes to a snug fit.

 

Jamie shook his head in response as he wiped his hands on a strip of cloth. "Far from it, only the lad is no morning lark as he's had ye believe, what wi' him trying to charm ye these days past. I have to throw him over my shoulder half the time just to get him moving as I did t'day. And even then, as ye see."

 

Claire did see in a way that sputtered a giggle out from her belly, as even the spouting kettle only provoked a scrunch of Willie's dark brows in annoyance. Mindfully, she removed the steaming pot from it's hook where it gave a whimpering splurt, moving towards Jamie when he beckoned her near, upturning the bowl of dough with a heavy plop.

 

"Let's have ye earn yer keep, Sassenach, and maybe we can wake that wee lazy boy of mine."

 

Under lashes Claire gave Jamie a skeptical look, poking a finger to the mound. "I'm not afraid of hard work but I must admit I have a hand that lacks the skill to prepare anything remotely edible. They're better suited covered in dirt which is what you'll be salivating for if you have me as your cook."

 

"Were ye a miscreant as a child then? Forgoing yer chores to climb the tallest trees, perched like a curly wig bird without a care for falling and breaking bones, turning all who loved ye grey?" Jamie's wicked tease of a grin dwindled as Claire's paled to a thin line, dragging her hands to grip the powdery edge of the table leaving ghostly streaks. She didn't want to speak of a time that haunted her like a phantom, yet she didn't want to be a mystery to entice curiosity.

 

Chancing a glance when Jamie uttered his apology, she saw the disquiet darkening his blues, carving deep around the set of his jaw that regretted ever opening and Claire then reasoned that no secret of hers would unfold from sharing a childhood memory.

 

"I was skinned from palm to knee if you must know." Claire began, offering Jamie a sheepish smile that eased his marked concern. "Disobedience was a skill I mastered from the moment I could walk. Always leading me astray from home to anywhere that crawled with life different from my own."

 

And oh how she wandered and disobeyed with devilish glee before disillusionment tainted her in blood but Claire pushed that aside for the precious wonderment she once had.

 

"My dresses were miserably torn and stained, replaced with trousers that fared even worse, all because I would hide in the crooks of split trees and old fox holes just to see of I could brave the dark. I even carried my -" her breath hitched in momentary hesitance, only to carry on as she was unable to prevent buried memories from spilling free.

 

"I even carried my father's satchel in my explorations, stole it really. Filling it with every sprig of green I could possibly find, pressing them to his books with the roots still dangling between the pages, and father would always say I must've born under a cabbage leaf for how could he ever have such a troublesome daughter as I."

 

Claire hastily blinked away a glimmer that shaded her amber eyes when the sudden quiet built between them was bridged in light reply.

 

"My da reckoned me a changeling. A hellion most days." Jamie half laughed, taking the burden of memories on himself as he handed Claire a rolling pin, gesturing to the dough with a flick of his chin.

 

"I gave the poor mans heart holy hell with my recklessness, spending my youth wi' a band of lads riding on horseback raiding cattle, crossing swords - for fun mostly, mind ye, lass. No' even a whisker bristled my chin." Jamie rubbed his now full mass of hairs, leaving streaks of flour amongst the golden copper that had Claire bearing a smile bright.

 

"Most often though, it was for opening my mouth when I should'ha kept it closed. Always questioning and pestering, challenging every word from his mouth, whether it an order or simple conversation over the weather. I have a knack for that, as ye know, Sassenach."

 

"Me standing here and not knee high in the forest underbrush is testament to your persuasive skills."

 

"I'm starting to think my offer of shelter had more to do wi' the promise of a decent meal." Jamie squinted his eyes to a catlike slant of judgement, clicking his tongue at Claire. "Ye're punishing that puir bread like it's insulted yer virtue."

 

"Regale me on how exactly your father handled that gaping mouth of yours." Claire huffed even as a grin peeked from seeing Jamie drag a finger down the bridge of his nose leaving another stripe.

 

"By grabbing me by the scruff, damned exhausted he would be too, and have my mam deal wi' me. She could make a grown man piss himself wi' just a look, so ye can only imagine what it felt like as a snot nosed bairn, squirming and hoping I didna wet her floors."

 

Jamie shifted in his step, creaking the wood underfoot at just the very thought which begged the question…

 

"What did she have you do then if not dirtying her floors?"

 

Leaning on the table he eyed Claire in consideration or rather her slender, mussied hands, having resorted to palming needlessly at her handiwork to make a perfect circle. "If ye manage to no' burn the bannocks, I'll tell ye, Sassenach."

 

They dipped their heads towards one another then to the mess that was Claire's attempt at domesticity. She arched her brow in question at the misshapen circle between them with Jamie giving it a satisfactory nod.

 

"My mam would appreciate the effort. The proof is in the taste she'd say." He gave the rolled out dough a light pat before sectioning it off to a cast iron pan to set over the fire, with one piece clearly larger than the rest. "And no doubt reward ye wi' this piece here, big as my fist to be slathered in molasses or jam, always in butter and a fat slice of he ham. Too bad yer drooling devoted will nip yer fingers if ye try for it."

 

Claire cast a glance to Willie as she made her way to the hearth with the readied bannocks, where he was now bare footed, wool socks kicked to the floor.

 

"He isn't much trouble at all is he?"

 

"None so much considering I'm the one who sired him, but he'll grey me soon enough I reckon. Turned my father's by the time I was his age, or so my godfather has told me."

 

"Is he the one who could pipe smoke through his nose and spit farther then he could piss?" Willie had painted a rather colorful image to Claire of a man seldom seen yet left a lasting impression of awe.

 

"Aye, a charmer Murtagh is to any young lad or lass who cares to live the life of a scoundrel. He has the keeping of my parents land, my birthright since they've passed." Like yours, he would have said but he wasn't willing to upset her as even just the mention of loss shook her to a flinch and that wouldn't do.

 

"Tis no' much," Jamie continued, as Claire fixed her attention to poking the logs. "Only a stone walled home bigger, larger though than this patch of wood, wi' fields to farm but I hope to travel wi' Willie when he's older or the very least big enough to mount a horse himself."

 

"So until Willie sprouts like a weed you're stuck living in a lonely place?"

 

"The living here may be harsher with only a small village days away from here, but when I stumbled to these mountains it took my mind off my troubles - for a time at least." He shrugged dismissively, more to himself to rid the image of another woman. “Now it's just Willie and I under this roof, with you, our fairy lass, who ought to keep her eye on - Sassenach! Ye dinna fan the - Daingead!"

 

 


 

 

It was the thick acrid smell of bread blackening to a crispy brick that finally stirred Willie to wake, nose pinched and teary eyed, then quickly bolting upright to Claire's howling curseswith his father hissing right along while hurrying out the door, smoking iron pan in his towel wrapped hand.

 

"Was that breakfast?" Willie questioned, swatting at the smoke and his own cloud of disheveled curls, only to be answered with a cough.

 

Still blanketed in a thinning grey the threesome took to their morning meal made solely by his father's hand, that had Claire stained the shining pink of failure, yet sitting defiantly straight, daring the man in front of her to babble a remark.

 

He did of course, head tilted with a mouth full of mocking buttery delight .

 

And despite her glaring demeanor, she laughed full hearted and in such a way that illuminated his father's being, flaring indistinct in a gaze unabashed towards Claire.

 

Because of her.

 

It was then a seed planted in Willie's mind rooting deeply inside his heart. Thriving. Shooting to his thumping fingertips on how to make a moment of happiness flourish past days and weeks. Long through the winter, far beyond the summer.

 

Where he might gain a mother of his very own.

 

To have

 

To keep

 

Always