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In the Forests of the Night

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III. My business,—just a life I left,/Was such still dwelling there?

 

Both Claire and Jamie slept poorly that night, reluctant to release themselves to the deep clasp of sleep and the possibility that they might wake and find themselves in their lives from before. Try as they might to resist it, their hands and limbs sought the other’s insatiably throughout the night, craving flesh against flesh and bone against bone.

Very late, when even the soft noises of the brothel around them had quieted—earlier, after a particularly loud shriek of laughter, Jamie had looked up at her like a great rumpled bird and fussily grumbled “Och, I should ha’ taken ye to a tavern…”—she had lain her hand across his chest and heart, and felt his body breathe beneath her. His eyes blinked open at her, once, twice, stunned at the sight of her skin, luminous and milky in the moonlight filtering through the dirty window. He had pulled her to him then and, not a word passing between them, eased himself into her body, slotted against her back like a spoon. Their hips had rocked together, their only noises sighs, as they had slipped once more together into the silent pool of love.

Later still, she had come upon him with the fierceness of a wee Scottish wild cat. Jamie had once stood under the path of a flying swan, the massive beats of its wings pressing the air down with concussive force. As he roughly flipped Claire over, her torso melting into the bed beneath her even as she shoved back at him, hungry and desperate for their joining, he felt that same pressure, a feeling he’d never felt before nor since.

As they laid together in the aftermath, cataloguing the bruises and bites that littered their skin, apologizing with soft lips and eyes, he told her of the scar on his thigh, her questing fingers gently mapping its mountainous terrain. After he bit out “Culloden.” and stopped with his heart in his throat, she had bent her curled head and pressed her lips to it and whispered in halting gaelic, “Blood of my Blood and Bone of My Bone.” And then, meeting his eyes, “’Til our lives shall be done.”

The next time he had slipped from her, gasping from the tenderness of being face to face, tears still caught in his eyelashes, he laid down alongside her and began to stroke her from her collarbone down to her thigh.

“Tell me about them,” he whispered, lips moving against her temple. “What have they of you, of me? Can ye tell me? Show me?”

Claire turned her head upwards to meet his eyes with a damp smile. She pressed her palm to his, to make the telling and the hearing easier to bear. 

“Well, they are twins, so they do look quite a lot alike. Brianna has long, slender hands like mine, but bigger than mine. The curve of your wrist, just there? She has that too, and the same pulse point. Alex has blocky, broad hands, just like yours, though the fingers are long like mine.” She swept her own fingers softly from his temple down to his cheek. “This bold line, too, they both have that. And the same eyes and brows and lashes— yours, entirely. But their eye colors are more like mine. Bree’s are nearly the same as mine, but Alex’s are lighter, almost a golden whiskey color that fades into a blue like yours at the pupil. Do you remember the tiger in Louis’s menagerie?” A lifetime ago, it was. “They’re very like that. Joe, my friend from medical school, took Alex and his own son to the zoo one day. He said when they came to the tiger’s enclosure, Alex stood completely still and lifted his hands to the glass and the tiger just sat and watched him. Their eyes were so completely the same and so captivated— Joe said he’d never seen anything like that. He always called him Tiger after that.”

Claire felt her eyes burning. Would this be the only way she would see them again, her two beloved children? Only ever painted in her mind’s eye or glimpsed at in tiny photographs, as if either of those could capture the fullness of them?

“They both have a Fraser nose, though Alex had his broken playing lacrosse so he has a slight bump if you run your fingers down the sides.” Without thinking, Jamie raised his own hands to his face, feeling the slight bump of his own nose, broken several times over.

“My chin, pointed, on both of them, but stronger and more angular. Brianna has a mouth like mine with a full lower lip, but wide like yours. Alex’s lips are thinner, like yours, but not quite as wide, not that you’d know it when he smiles.” Jamie’s own lips widened into his own smile, the features of their children playing out across his face.

“Tall, the both of them. God,” she laughed. “They’re honestly enormous. Bree is six feet tall—“ Jamie’s head shot up in disbelief as he eyed her with skepticism “and Alex is six foot six!”

A Dhia,” Jamie blanched. “How on earth did ye carry ‘em, Sassenach, in yer own wee womb?”

She sighed. “It wasn’t very comfortable, I’ll tell you that! It’s why I had to have a caesarean, to have them cut from my body. I’d not have been able to birth them naturally.”

His hand squeezed her thigh, gently, and pressed a kiss to the sensitive corner of her eye.

“And their ears?” he asked, once he had gauged her ready to continue. “Are they tiny fairy ears like yers then, Sassenach?”

Claire choked out a wet laugh, “No, both of them have ears that stick out dreadfully. Bree hated them, used to complain all the time, but Alex used to joke it was because she had to give the nuns something to hold onto in primary school.

“They’re pierced, actually, Bree’s I mean. You don’t mind do you? Frank was furious, thought it looked cheap, but mine are pierced and she wanted it done so desperately…” The words were spilling from her as though she were an unstoppered bottle, as she struggled to explain. 

But Jamie just shifted her closer in his arms and whispered, “Ye did right, Sassenach. Ye did right” through her tears. Lifting her chin to meet her eyes, he murmured, “Ye were a wonderful mother. I kent that as I ken yer very soul.”

The grief of them gone was one she would never recover from, but this time at least she had someone to share the burden with, someone to tell about the punctures in her heart. 

“Ye gave me not one child, but two, mo nighean donn. We are together for always. We will live forever now, you and I.”

In the early hours of the morning which had washed the room with a thin gray light, Claire told Jamie bits and pieces of their life. The hardest of this was Alex.

“So, ye’ve told me now about Brianna and her schoolin’. And Alex? Does he go to school as well?”

Claire let out a breath in a long steady stream.

“Well, no, actually.” Jamie cocked his head in curiosity, and she continued, “Alex is already done with school. He… he hadn’t wanted to linger in the house longer than he had to.” Darkness had come over Jamie’s face like a thunderclap from a pagan god, the one who presided over the stones maybe. Claire gamely kept going, “So he finished his school quite early, and then moved to Edinburgh when he was sixteen for university. He studied medicine, fastest anyone had ever gone through, it only took him three years. He has your knack for language, too, so he also took on a linguistics courseload.” 

Jamie looked surprised and proud as he said, “Och, tis good then, them both doing their schooling.”

She nodded at him. “They’ve always had voracious minds. Bree has your gift with mathematics, and mine for literature. Alex, though—“

“Has your healing,” Jamie interrupted smoothly, with a smile.

“Yes, and plants too. Before he went away to university, he spent a semester with an ethnobotanist down in the Amazon, in South America. It’s someone who studies traditional herbal remedies. Frank hadn’t wanted to let him go, he said it was a frivolous waste of half a year, but Alex pointed out that I’d spent my whole childhood on dig sites and I didn’t seem any worse for wear. He’d already finished up all of his coursework and was waiting to leave for university, just needed a few more credits. He bullied the school into giving him credit for an exchange semester, all on his own,” she laughed so she wouldn’t sob. “After that, we had no choice really.” She sighed, admitting softly, “It was good for him, to be there I think. He’s spoken to me about it, a little bit. The cultures there are very different. I think he must have seen… things. Perhaps more than expected. But he went a boy and came back a young man.”

Jamie’s hand tightened on her shoulder, bringing her closer to the warmth of his body.

“The year before I left, though…” Claire trailed off. How even to begin to tell Jamie this? She swallowed, and steeled herself, willing her heart to stay steady. “His draft number got called. There’s a war on, in my time, a terrible one. In a place called Vietnam in Asia. Thousands of young men have had to go. It was stupid, but I’d thought, since he was in Edinburgh after all… I thought maybe he wouldn’t be called.”

Jamie was clutching at her now, with true and deep alarm. 

“But he was.” She scrubbed a hand down her face. “I think that’s part of why I looked for you so desperately. Better that than thinking of him somewhere in the jungle, alone or wounded or…”

She turned her forehead to his shoulder, and rested there a beat. “He was a certified doctor already, or near enough as one, and they desperately needed medics. But with his facility with language—as you can imagine that’s a great boon to most armies. He became attached to a Special Operations group, a small band of men tasked with the most dangerous missions in the war.”

Her throat closed and she blinked her eyes shut against the onrush of tears. “He—“ it came out rusty, like a broken-down car trying to start up again. “He was wounded, right before I left, and about to come home. I got to call him on the phone in the hospital, a true rarity. I told him everything, our real story, that I had found you, that I was planning on going back once he had gotten home and settled. But he was just quiet on the other end of the line, before he told me that I shouldn’t delay, that I must come back as quick as I could because who knows what might happen were I to wait another year? We weren’t even sure you’d still be here…”

She settled back against the headboard behind her, not sure if she was avoiding Jamie’s gaze or seeking it out. There was little else for her to say. With this confession she had told Jamie the ugly heart of it: she had left her children. She had made a choice, and it had been the wrong one. In those long years they had spent together, they three, with Frank distant at the office or secreted away in the flats of his prettier students, she had known what it was to have her heart beat outside her body again, the same and yet different from how it had felt with the man before her now. She had been certain that to leave them would be to die, and yet she had done it anyway. She had made a choice, and it was the wrong one, yet it was the one she could live with. Was it made better or worse, this decision, for having been made out of love? she wondered to herself.

Jamie had not looked away from her during this her most deep and terrible confession. Claire was unaccustomed to being looked at in this manner, hadn’t experienced it for twenty years. He regarded her as if she were a Japanese puzzle box, the kind Alex had sent home one summer after he’d gone to Japan with friends, the summer after Frank had died. Brianna had pored over it for hours, turning it in her fingers this way and that, mapping its surface with the sensitive tips of her fingers. It had taken her weeks to figure out its mechanism and when it had finally opened there had been a treasure trove of pressed flowers, scents still lingering, and dozens of tiny paper cranes, folded into shape by the broad, deft hands of her brother. He hadn’t written a note, but Bree had understood well enough, the distance of oceans not nearly far enough to sever the connection between them.

Claire was used to pain borne alone, kept secret and locked tight, a chain around her heart that Frank had demanded be kept firmly shut. Jamie was beginning to realize, she thought distantly, just what it had meant to come here. When they had been tangled in the first shimmering joy of reunion, he had seen only the goodness of her return. Now he saw the darkness, and the horror too. The price she had had to pay that was, perhaps, too high. She had underestimated him, though, if she had thought to drive him away. Because instead of looking disgusted at her incapacity as a mother—Frank always had, in those terrible days of her medical school when she would come home late and tired in her bones and he, more drunk than was wise, would hurl the words at her—“You’re a terrible mother”—in their constant fights and she would know, in her tired shell of a skeleton, that he was right—there was something else in his eyes. Their love had never been easy, not ever, but it had been young. Here, now, between them, was a love tempered by these terrible choices, ones they had made each for the other.

He didn’t say anything— what could he say, really? But he sat, and reached his hand to hers, and it was enough.

A bit stupidly, Claire realized that she had forgotten that time could move just as fast in the 18th century as in the 20th. Back in 1968, the increasing speed of life had been a topic as common as that of the weather. No one knew, of course, what time had felt like before—except Claire, not that she could say it—but everyone agreed that it must certainly have been slower.

But in the past three days alone, Claire had been reunited with the other half of herself, with an old friend in Ian Murray, and with her much beloved and hard missed adoptive son, Fergus. She had met a parade of new faces, from Yi Tien Cho’s gentle and dignified countenance to wee Ian Murray’s rascally one. She had killed someone, though not on purpose, and performed a complex surgery to no avail. She had, while Jamie had been out seeing to his mysterious business, performed regular care checks on the ladies of Madame Jeanne’s establishment which had done little enough to warm that lady to her, though the smiles from the other women had made it quite worth it. She had watched in terror as Jamie’s print shop went up in flames and counted her breaths, her heart in a vice, as she watched the burning doorway, praying for the first time in decades that she might see his face appear. She had hurriedly packed and absconded into the night with the rest of Jamie’s smuggling associates, off to see a shipment safely to shore. 

Claire, who had been to medical school, wondered dazedly if she’d ever been so bloody busy in all her life.

She felt short of breath all the time, as though she had just run a mile as fast as she could and was not yet conscious of having stopped. She wanted, more than anything, just to press herself against Jamie, to sink her skin against his, to feel his warm, broad hands upon her.

But since they had seen Ian the elder in Edinburgh, days and a lifetime ago now, Claire had become more conscious that the Jamie she had left was not the one to whom she had returned. She was not sure of who this new Jamie was, the one who would lie to his family—to her? curled into her thoughts—without a moment’s pause. 

She supposed she ought to be grateful that he had listened to her insistent appeals to return wee Ian to Lallybroch. When she had discovered what he had done, hiding Jenny’s own son from her, Claire had confronted him with her heart in her throat. But it was like trying to speak around a mouth full of rocks. For how could she explain, how could she ever explain, what is was to be a mother and to know your son missing? 

Grief over Brianna and Alex came over her in waves, here and then gone again, and the thought of telling him of those sleepless nights—it had read merely, “Dear Mrs. Randall, We regret to inform you that your son, James Alexander Murtagh Randall, has been deemed Missing in Action…”, all possible meaning obscured by the bureaucratic-ese of the form letter, a measurement in print of her son’s worth made by the U.S. government—of drawing back the curtain that she had kept carefully closed, had been untenable. Instead, she had stared helplessly and miserably at him, unable to speak a word around the stone lodged in her throat, until he had scrubbed his hands through his hair vigorously, sighed, and assented.

Now, with Fergus on his way with the fruits of Jamie’s smuggling, she, Jamie, and Ian had turned towards Lallybroch.

Wee Ian was exuberant and oblivious in the way that sixteen year old boys tended to be, so if she and Jamie were more quiet and stilted with each other than was usual, he certainly never noticed it. Claire found she rather liked him, this boy her nephew, liked his restless spirit and irrepressibly merry heart. Other than his enduring skepticism over her assertion that she did not, in fact, live in a dun—an answer which he tested again at intervals through their travels, staring at her with a canty look, and asking “Are ye sure ye’re no’ from a dun then, Auntie Claire?”—she found herself quite taken with him, this lad who had slotted her so easily into his life.

It was another three days travel before they crested the ridge to Lallybroch, Jamie and Ian both looking out across her fields and valleys with their hearts in their eyes. Claire’s had felt hers burn then, for though Lallybroch looked just the same as she would always remember it—never the dark and crumbling thing she had come upon in her own time—she felt herself a stranger to this place that had once held her heart and her dreams.

Riding into the courtyard, she felt the weight of memories press against her, her own and those precious imagined ones of Alex and Bree dashing around the yard, a memory she had made for herself in the cold, dark years of her exile.

Jenny stood stock still on the stair to the house, eyeing Claire with a look she could not place. She looked, somehow, both happy and sickened to see her one-time good-sister. As Jenny’s throat worked, Claire wondered if she might cry, then wondered if she might hit her.

“Ne’er thought I’d see ye grace my front step again,” Jenny said, rapidly blinking as if to stave off tears, holding fast to her anger instead.

Claire risked a look to Ian, who stood implacable by Jenny’s side. “Me neither,” she returned softly.

“When Ian said ye were still alive, ye might ha’ knocked me down wi’ a feather.” Jenny’s words were accompanied by a happy, gasping breath, one that seemed to have escaped her lips without her meaning to.

“I— I know, it must be quite a shock.” Claire’s felt as though she were on the operating table, the sides of her chest peeled back to show her open and swollen heart.

Jenny darted her eyes along Claire’s body, as though she weren’t entirely convinced that Claire would not vanish before her.

“But here I am,” Claire finished, lame and hesitating.

Jenny reacted to her words like a slap or an embrace, as though she herself weren’t sure which. “Here ye are,” she said, simultaneously cold and warm.

“You look well,” Claire ventured. Jenny had once been the sister of her heart, the closest female friend she had ever had, and Claire had allowed her into the nooks and crannies of herself that she usually kept closed off. Her heart gave a painful thump, and she swallowed around where it was lodged in her throat. She wished she could hug Jenny to her, wished they could cleave together as easily as they once had.

But Jenny only gave a faint nod in response to her words and was silent, offering nothing up to Claire.

“How are the children?” Claire tried again, desperately wanting to bridge the space between them.

Jenny recoiled, instinctually, Claire thought. “Grown, now. Some ha’ bairns of their own.”

The words and time and distance stretched between them. Claire felt stricken, agonized—oh God, what have I done? she thought, Why have I come back to this place where I’m neither needed nor wanted?—but a light touch to the small of her back, Jamie’s thumb giving a quick and careful stroke up and down, and she came back to herself. She had known this might be coming, but still had had the temerity to hope. More fool her.

Jenny abruptly turned away from Claire and stalked towards her son. “Ye had me worrit half to death!” she cried as she smacked him upside the head.

Wee Ian’s open face was a mixture of mulishness and earnest pleading, as he retorted, “I didna mean to worry ye! But—“

At this, Ian cut in, his face like marble, “Ge’ inside lad, afore yer tongue gets ye in more trouble.”

The Murrays moved into the house, wee Ian with a face like eating a lemon. Claire glanced back at Jamie who had been silent through the whole exchange. 

If her hesitation showed on her glass face, he made no mention of it. With a tightening around his jaw and eyes, he motioned her inside. Claire went, feeling lost and confused, as though she were a child once more.

Dinner was a tense affair that evening. Claire said very little, instead staring down at her plate as she slowly ate her food which settled like a leaden mass in the pit of her stomach.

Wee Ian, still smelling of the dung he’d spent all day patting into shape, had a look in his eye like that of a madman. He was curt in response to his sibling’s questions, though, cowed by the presence of his formidable mother, he kept a leash on his simmering temper.

Jenny carried on the conversation over and around her, and Claire was suddenly and forcefully reminded of a very different time and place, of sitting in Boston still as a stone as Frank’s colleagues talked condescendingly of how delightful it was that she had continued her education, their tones and eyes implying it was delightful in a similar sense to Smoky’s gifts of dead frogs or partially disemboweled rabbits whenever they took him to the mountains.

It was a relief to escape upstairs, finally; to put space between herself and Jenny’s accusing disdain; to curl up in the window, sheltered underneath Jamie’s broad shoulders.

His voice rumbled through his chest beneath her ear, soft and hesitating. “We could build a cottage, ye and I, near the edge o’ the property, maybe…”

Claire sighed, eyes downcast. “Jamie, Jenny is furious with me. You saw her, how she acted. Jenny— she casts a very warm light on those she favors. And a very cold shadow on those she does not.”

Jamie’s hand squeezed her shoulder as he let out his breath in a heavy and deep puff of air. “Aye, Sassenach…”

She sensed him shifting beneath her, his shoulders growing more rigid beneath her cheek as she curled tightly against him. 

“There’s something I havena told ye. I’ve been wanting to, but, ye see, it’s—“

Their eyes had caught and held, all the world falling away, as it always did before them. Claire was conscious only of his hand resting tenderly against her cheek, of his winding the curl at her temple around his finger, of the soft brushes of his thumb that he tracked with his eyes, which is why, she supposed later, she had not seen the blow coming.

He had brushed his lips tenderly over her forehead, as he continued, “It’s—“

Daddy—

It was the voice of a young woman and it cracked out between them, shattering their tiny, private universe.

“Daddy, who is that woman?”

Moments passed in confusion. Claire was conscious of a small, red-haired girl in the corner of the room, staring at them with hurt in her eyes; of a taller, willowy young blonde woman, sharp with betrayal; of Laoghaire, lurching into the room, face turning purple with rage; of her own shift and how transparent it was made by the light of the fire, exposing her to hostile eyes that refused to look away.

She was aware, dimly, of Jamie springing away from her, trying to appease the woman before him, dashing out the door behind her as Laoghaire’s parting shot—English cunt!”—struck at her.

The grief was overwhelming. She had excised her own two hearts, Brianna and Alex, for the sake of him. She had told him the truth of her marriage to Frank, and borne his anger and scorn for it. She had stripped herself bare before him, had left nothing out.

She wasn’t sure when she had started to pack, wasn’t even conscious of having decided to do it, didn’t know when she had started to cry the deep, gulping sobs of feeling something well and truly lost.

A small sound by the door indicated that Jamie had returned. He stood on the threshold, watching as she tried to hold her tears back from him, as she tried to salvage what little pride she had left. Claire,” he pleaded. “If ye’d just let me explain—”

She scrubbed at her face roughly—Christ, she had left her children for this man, this stranger before her—and continued to pack as she avoided his eyes. “It’s a little late for that,” she had wanted it to come out angry, to lash into him and slice him in two as surely as he had done to her, but instead it came out broken, an index of her hurt.

“I dinna live wi’ her!” It exploded out from him, as though he couldn’t contain it, couldn’t bear it, any longer. “She and the girls live at Balriggan— I didna think they’d come here.”

He came further into the room with the heavy steps of a man walking to the executioner, a walk with which he was familiar. “It was a great mistake, the marriage, between Laoghaire and me.”

She couldn’t stand to look at him, couldn’t stand to think of him. Did he think she was the biggest fool to ever walk the earth, to try that out on her? “With two children—that’s—it took you quite a long time to figure that out,” she bit it out, a sudden boiling over of rage and betrayal and dashed hopes.

In the many years since Claire had been away, her anger had become a seething, quiet thing. Rage— the screaming, shouting rage of love and anger too close to the surface, the kind she’d had with Jamie—had long since gone out of her marriage to Frank. She had not seen it since that terrible fight, the one she had always thought of as their last true argument. For they had separated that day, they two, as surely and as finally as two people could do, in action if not on paper.

Here, now, she thought she might incinerate with the heat of her anger, that she might burn all of Lallybroch to the ground and not even notice it.

He looked truly taken aback now, as though he had wandered into some strange set piece and did not know the lines. “Claire, the lasses arena mine, I’m no’ the father,” he said, trying to convince her to trust him, just once more, even as he stood amidst the wreckage of that fragile thing between them.

Really— that little girl with the red hair—“

Christ, had her eyes always been so huge in her pale face, he wondered for a moment, struck by the unsteadiness of her chin and gaze.

It was wrong of him, but he found himself infuriated by her words, enraged by her temper and his guilt both, as he scornfully told her, “Well there are other red-headed men in Scotland, Claire.”

It hadn’t helped; he had known it wouldn’t. Instead she began packing more feverishly, tears spilling faster and heavier down his face. It was the twist of a knife to realize she had cried thus only once before with him, her face a wild, open wound, as he had slowly pressed her into the stones behind her back, as she had shouted “No!—“ and disappeared.

He needed to find a way to explain this, this next most great betrayal. “Laoghaire was a widow wi’ two bairns when I wed her. It’s only been two years, and we’ve lived apart most of that time.” He tried to convey with words and tone what those two years had been, what it had been to try to move on from her.

“That makes it better?” She stood holding her elbows, as if she might break apart if she let go. “It’s Laoghaire,” she whispered, meeting his eyes for the first time,“She tried to have me killed.” 

Jamie felt the ground crumbling beneath his weight and desperately scrambled for something, anything, that might make it up again. “Ye told me to be kind t’ the lass.”

For a moment, Claire was back in Boston, back with the man whom she had thought the opposite of this one, back when Frank had said, awkward and stilted, “You were the one who suggested we live separately…” Just as now, it had been a dodge of the real issue; yes, she had said that, but she hadn’t bloody well meant for him to sleep with his students who would glare daggers at her at faculty parties, the Cold, Frigid, Bitch Wife to his softly wounded romantic academicism.

She scoffed, disbelieving, “I told you to thank her. Not marry her.”

Recognizing the sheer disdain that weighted her words, Jamie seized her tightly by the upper arms, a bitter parody of the way he had done so when she first arrived, when she had asked if she should go. “Ye’re no’ going anywhere,” he hissed out, eyes burning into hers.

You cannot stop me,” her words snapped like a lash between them, poisoned by his betrayal, as she tore herself out of his grip. “You lied to me. You told me that—“ Claire had to stop here, had to gulp suddenly against her angry tears, against the thought that perhaps, even more than the lie, she was furious at this: “—that you never fell in love with anyone else.”

“I didna fall in love,” Jamie’s voice was earnest and seeking, even as it snapped with anger. Damn ye, he thought bitterly. Damn ye for no’ seeing the emptiness of my life without ye.

“I told you about Frank. I told you about everything. Why couldn’t you tell me about this? Why?” The condemnation, when it came, was quiet and Jamie found it, her, suddenly unbearable.

“Why? Why?” he hissed and seethed, his gut churning like a roiling sea.Because I am  a coward. That’s why.” Jamie was no longer sure whom he was castigating—himself? her? All he knew was an anger that felt all-consuming. Like a ship in a hurricane, he felt he would burst apart with the violence of his ire and true, blistering hatred, fully felt for the first time in decades. “I couldna tell ye for fear I would lose ye and I couldna bear the thought of losing ye again. I wanted ye so badly that nothing else mattered. I would sacrifice honor, family, life itself to see ye, lie wi’ ye again, even though ye left me.” He hadn’t meant to say it; it had slipped out without his meaning to, risen on the tide of his turbulent words and spirit. It was the deepest, ugliest core of him, the part of his heart that had turned to pitch in her absence. The part of him that hated her for it.

Left you? Left you?” Claire cried out, incredulous and indignant both. Her tears had been of grief, but had long since turned to the product of a sharp and biting rancor. They felt like acid, hovering in the edges of her eyes, as she tried to fight them back. “You forced me to go back! You pushed me through the stones. I would have died, gladly, at Culloden with you.” If she had thought to hide her heart, she was unsuccessful. It had cut to the quick, what he had said to her; it was her innermost thought about herself spat back at her by the person she had loved more than any other. His words were a stab to the back, cutting deep and hitting bone. “And now you want to blame me for that?”

The hoarseness of her voice had surprised Claire, had surprised Jamie, too. For a brief flash, she thought she saw shame on his face, but a rough toss of his head like a dog shaking a burr from its ruff, wiped it away quick enough that she couldn’t be sure.

His voice dripped with scorn, even as he looked away from her face in frustration. “Dinna blame me for it, ye had to go, for the bairns— I canna regret that.”

“But you blame me for coming back.”

“No— yes—no,” Jamie’s hands were flexing ceaselessly, open and closed and open again, as thought he might be able to grip this moment itself and break it in half. “God, no.” It was a plea more than a disagreement, a wrenched out and tortured entreaty for her understanding. Jamie’s eyes fastened upon her face, catching her gaze and holding it. “Do ye know what it is to live twenty years wi’out yer heart? To live half a man, and accustom yerself to exist in the bit that’s left to ye?”

For a moment Claire wondered if she were actually outside her body, just observing, the moment so suddenly and forcefully surreal. She felt like laughing, and screaming, and saying nothing at all. When she came back to herself, still reeling from the breathtaking callousness of his words, she felt the rage again, stoking higher than before. “Do I know?” she demanded, breathless and panting, as though her own fury had consumed all of her oxygen and left nothing behind. “Do I know what that’s like?” 

To be shaped and molded into a person you don’t recognize, to have the borders of yourself eroded away by the tides of your own life; oh yes, she knew. Even cliffs crumble into nothing, subjected to forces outside and greater than themselves.

Yes, you bastard, I know!” Her hands were shaking now and she curled them into fists. The urge to hit him, to hurt him, as he had her welled dark and deep.  “What did you think, that I could go back to Frank and live happily ever after?”

“Sometimes I hoped that ye did.” It was spat at her. “Sometimes I could see it, him wi’ ye, day and night, lying wi’ ye, taking yer body, holding my bairn, and God, I could kill ye for it!” 

Claire had spent years, decades, turning to stone within the confines of her own life. The coldness had been overwhelming. But she had been wrong, she realized, to assume herself granite. She was a volcano, burning so hot that she turned stone to liquid. Her fires had long been cooled, but that didn’t mean they were banked: it meant they were overdue.

With a snap that felt like coming back into herself, Claire saw only red. “How dare you? You have the bloody fucking gall to say that to me? To me?

You want to know what happened in my marriage bed, James Fraser?” It was said with a sneer, contempt on every word.

Jamie closed his eyes against it, a noise like a wounded animal tearing from his throat.

“Well fine, allow me to enlighten you! Frank attempted to lie with me once, and I with him once. But unfortunately, as I was too busy imagining your goddamned face, I refused to open my eyes to him which—unsurprisingly!—he didn’t take well. So there. That’s whole fucking story, and god damn you for it!” Claire’s voice had receded to a low hiss as she bit out these words, but she finished at a yell, saying “So don’t go blaming me for being unable to keep your cock in your kilt! And with fucking Laoghaire.

Jamie didn’t realize he was gripping the table until he was hurling it at the wall. His anger and rage—at himself, at her, at the world, at Jenny, at this whole terrible version of a farce—was consuming. 

Laoghaire?” It exploded out from him. “I dinna care about Laoghaire, and I never have! D’ye suppose my marriage bed has ever been empty of ye? D’ye think I ha’ ever lain wi’ a woman and not seen yer face? I have ached for ye, Claire, every moment, and worse when I’m meant to be aching for another.” 

Claire scoffed at the attempt to assuage her. “So you would marry a woman you care nothing for, a woman who tried to have me burned alive?”

“I am damned one way or the other. If I felt anything for her, I’m a faithless lecher, and if I didna I’m a heartless beast!”

You should have told me.

“And if I had, ye’d have turned on yer heel and left wi’out a word, as sure as ye are now! But having seen ye again, I would do far worse than lie to keep ye.”

His broad hands clamped hard around her biceps again as he jerked her towards him. The kiss was a wild thing, a bucking horse, before Claire ripped free and her palm collided against the plane of his cheek. For a moment, they stared at each other in the shock and stillness, both breathing hard and heavy. In the space of an inhale, the reprieve was shattered as Jamie fell upon her, bearing her down to the floor with the weight of his body. 

It was madness, this place where they met. Claire had never felt so wild with rage, her anger pushing out from inside her skin. She was used to the hollowness of grief, had grown accustomed to it in the long and lonely years she had been away. This was something different, something dark and deep that swelled within her body. She was conscious of the desire to hurt Jamie, to maim him as surely as he had her, but also of a black and velvet heat beginning to unfurl between them.

His words, when they came, were panted and gasped against the hollow of her throat.“Claire— Claire— I love ye, and only ye.” The kiss that came next was searing, and Claire was an inferno, raging on and on when—

Stop it! The pair of ye! Fightin’ and ruttin’ like wild beasts, and no’ carin’ if the whole house hears ye!” Janet stood over them, water bucket empty, seething and furious, while they gradually stilled and registered the cooling water that had soaked them to the skin.

Claire pushed herself up, barely noticing the sting of bruises on her knees. She didn’t look at Janet, nor at Jamie, as she curled her arms around a thickly knitted woolen blanket and silently slipped out the door.