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In the Forests of the Night

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Prelude I - This is a dark house, very big.

In the mornings, Claire forgot. As she stirred slowly, a twitch of her little finger, a stretch of her arm, reaching, seeking, finding--nothing. Slipping from sleep into wakefulness was the icy plunge into a loch in winter, a knife's edge of pain so sharp it left her gasping, the gut-punch of reality at first making her heart feel like it would stop before the adrenaline of a body in pain made it hammer so hard she wished it would.

It had been four months since she had come back through the stones. Four months of this, of stretching for Jamie as a flower turns toward sunlight, before the bright shock of day brought her fully into the world, wide awake and aching all over again. Some days she felt she would die from the pain of it. Some days she wished she would.

Slipping her feet to the cold floor and groaning, stretching her back, trying to release the tight muscles as she supported the weight of her swollen belly, Claire was struck, every day, by how different it all was. When she had been pregnant with Faith, every day had seemed a gift, one that had never been assured in the wake of Black Jack Randall. The happiness of it all had been blinding: Jamie, rubbing her feet every night; Murtagh, a damp gleam in his dark eyes and a smile whenever he thought she wasn't looking; Fergus, coltish with the excitement of new life; the nights of sighs and sounds as Jamie sought to discover the shifting terrain of her new and unfamiliar body. She had been filled to the brim with joy once. Now she felt like nothing so much as an iron pot, rusted through. It wasn't that there was no joy; she could still be taken by surprise and made breathless by the beauty of the autumn around her, so warm even now. It was that any joy lingered for a flash before seeping away, ebbing beyond her reach back into the earth where the rest of her heart lay.

Worse, she was ashamed. She hated this child. Hated it. Loathed it. Couldn't bring herself to think of it at all except in fiery anger. If she'd just stayed, if she'd just lied and said he was wrong, that she couldn't be carrying a child, that it was too early, that she was too thin--couldn't he see that?-- she could have died with him, maybe. As it was she was here. Alone.

And as she discovered, it was far more difficult to be alone when someone else was there with you. Frank was there. Seemingly always. His eyes tracked her every move, fingers twitching in her direction as he stopped himself from reaching out. Opening and closing his mouth, the words always sticking in his throat. That was fine. Hers were stuck too.

She didn't remember it being so ungainly, pregnancy. Faith had been born early--far too early--and she was desperate at the thought of experiencing something new without him. And this late stage was certainly new. How could her stomach be so large? It seemed impossibly large as she held it up; she sometimes wondered that it didn't rip clean off the front of her body. As if in compensation for her absolute emptiness--or was it deadness?-- the child was active, so active. Every other second a kick would come to some internal place, like being battered from the inside out. She felt herself like a hollow shell, emptied out of all its former residents.

She rose from the bed at long last and softly padded her way to the bathroom. Morning ablutions she wielded like the Eucharist, one of the few sacraments she had left. She loved the shower and hated it in equal measure, a tangible symbol of all she had missed before and all she had wished never to see again. Turning away, she made for the kitchen. "Nothing a cup of tea can't fix," Frank had told her endlessly since her return. It made her want to lob a teacup, the pot, all the boiling water in all the English kettles in all the world at his head. She didn't, though; a quick flex of her jaw and then a distant smile in his general direction was her only response, ever, as she turned her back on him and leaned towards the stove. Today, he was up and out early, off to the college for some reason or other. Perhaps she should have felt stung, nettled by his increasing avoidance of her, but damned if she wasn't just relieved. It made things easier, being alone with no one else around.

The house around her was cavernous and dark, too large a house for their paltry amount of furniture. She found a gnarled part of her soul loved it, this Virginia Woolf house. Its rooms evacuated, so like the chambers of her own heart and lungs; its windows, staring emptily out at the gray street beyond. They shared a kinship, they two, and during the day she would rattle around like an old ghost and run her fingers over the mantle, the columns, the doorways--soft touches tethering her to the reality of this place. Today, though, she had places to be so a quick morning tea and tasteless bite of something and she was out the door and once more thrown into a strange and unwanted land.

-

The doctor stared at her appraisingly as she sat on the examination table. Probably at some point in her life--back when Claire was still here-- she would have met his gaze with frankness. Now she alternated between staring listlessly at the poster of a baby in the womb and at the water stain on the ceiling. It looks like a rabbit, she told him, quietly in her heart.

"I'll be frank with you Mrs. Randall. You are endangering both yourself and the child." He was a short, unassuming man, with kind eyes and a deft touch, and she hated him, all at once, so suddenly it felt like a canon blast in her chest. Her whiskey eyes narrowed to slits as she saw his face for the first time, really, since she'd walked in the door. If he was taken aback by her sudden vehemence, he didn't show it. Instead he heaved a great sigh through his nose and sat down on his stool.

"Have you been eating at all? Have you even stepped outside? Because I'll be honest, Mrs. Randall, I can clearly count each one of your ribs. Your skin is paper thin. I'd bet my license your hair is falling out."

Her eyes slid away from his at this, his gaze so urgent, so earnest, so clearly kindly-meant.

"I've seen hundreds of happy couples awaiting the birth of their first child. Bluntly put, this isn't what that looks like. Like it or not--and I can tell it's not--I am your doctor. If you expect to get through this with yourself and your baby in tact, you will have to tell me eventually."

The sudden rush of tears to her eyes made them burn, burn as much as she hated this doctor, this city, this world, this time.

A pause, an assessing look so quick she might have imagined it. "So I'll ask now: is there anything you need to tell me?" Other doctors, ones less aware, less kind, less gentle, might have carried on at this point. But Dr. Campbell--a Scottish name, a final, bitter irony--just sat as the silence unfurled.

Claire had kept her word; she had told not a soul beyond Mrs. Graham about it all. But here, now, with this kind doctor in this sterile room she felt her ribs begin to crack open like the crushed shell of a snail on the sidewalk, the wreckage of a life inside. She didn't tell him everything--of course, how could she?—but she made a story that made it real. A husband lost in the war, she, already pregnant, reconnecting with an old school friend who had offered to marry her. She didn't tell of the hate in her heart, the bitter loathing that choked in her throat with every passing second, but she wondered if she didn't need to. He saw it well enough, it seemed.

At the end, she sat. Like an empty husk or a log of wood burned to cinder, still holding its shape until the smallest movement caused it crumble into dust--sparks, in the night sky, Jamie close behind her, a hand spread wide against her stomach and a raspy laugh in her ear--she waited, curling in on herself. Dr. Campbell said nothing, merely reached out a hand and laid it on hers. "My sons died in the war, you know." It was said bluntly, uninflected, safely compartmentalized behind the screen of professionalism and that hidden, dark place that every doctor kept inside of them. "I know you were a combat nurse. And I can tell that you saw the worst of it."

Christ, if he only knew, Angus bleeding out under her hands, the American soldier crying out for his mother, loss layered upon loss until absence was all that was left.

"But as a nurse, you must know this cannot go on." A tightening of his hand on hers, a firmness that bespoke of resolve. "You must keep on living. If not for yourself, then for this baby." A slight pause, and then with a ragged edge "If you don't, what a damned terrible waste."

The words hung on the air between them and Claire felt the rage inside her, the only thing keeping her warm, ebb away like the tide from the shore. "Yes," she whispered. "Yes."

-

As she trundled back home--just a bus ride and a brief walk--Och, look at that bird, mo nighean donn…— Claire stopped short in front of a store she'd never bothered to notice before. Herb McNutt's Garden Store! the sign out front cheerily shouted at her. Before she realized what she was doing, her hand was on the knob, and, pushing the doorway gently in, she was greeted by a chiming bell. "Out in a tick, darlin'!" shouted a voice from somewhere in the cramped shop. The aisles were too close together and haphazardly arranged, but stepping into the outdoor space beyond was like the first thrill of rain after a drought. Claire was conscious of the gentle smell of earth and loam, so familiar and so dear to her. Slowly she became aware of a kindly older woman, standing behind her, pretending to neaten one of the disordered shelves within the store. Claire stood there, paper skin, sunken, dark eyes, planet-sized belly, and exhaled, before turning abruptly and asking "Have you any mint?"

Mrs. McNutt--"Herb's out in the field today, don-cha-know, who wouldn't be with this weather-ha ha ha!-but never fret, I can help with anything you need"-- the feeling of pressure on her wrist, his hand encircling the delicate joint entirely, a bright and happy bark of surprised laughter "Just like Mrs. Fitz, she is" whispered against the shell of her ear--turned out to be a woman of perhaps sixty or so. Claire had the uncanny sense of having been weighed and measured without her having realized it as the determinedly cheery Mrs. McNutt quickly produced a basket and began filling it with various seeds and garden supplies, using gentle, fleeting touches to direct Claire this way or that. She never lingered, but her touches were soft and warm, a human kindness that deftly penetrated the glass bell jar encasing Claire's soul but was gone before the fragile substance could shatter and leave her exposed and raw.

As she rang Claire up, she chatted with the happy, fast pace of most Americans Claire had met, asking "My goodness, you must be due any day now! After a long, hot summer, I bet you can't wait!" And Claire was aware, for a moment, of awkwardness as she quietly murmured "Oh no, well, not yet anyway, I still have 2 months to go." Mrs. McNutt cast a skeptical eye upon her before saying "You must be expecting an elephant if you're only 7 months along!" She didn't have the heart to tell the friendly face before her that "No, sorry, it's just that I'm starving, my doctor tells me, so maybe I just look bigger in comparison?" and instead tested out a rusty half-laugh that creaked like the fire grate at Lallybroch whenever it had to be moved. After completing her transaction and being encouraged by Mrs. McNutt to return-- "Let me know how those herbs get along, darlin', and be sure to bring that tiny elephant of yours along too!"--Claire stepped back out into the street, into a slightly brighter and stronger sun, as she slowly made her way home again.

Back in the Mad Woman's House, as she thought of it, Claire went directly out into the garden and surveyed her patch of land. Jamie had turned to her with the sun in his eyes that day when they had crested the hill and she had her first glimpse of Lallybroch off in the distance, and with joy on his lips and skin had pressed her down to the heather and into her, into the very core of her. The garden was small--she hadn't cared enough to check any of the yards while Frank and her ghost went house shopping--and bedraggled, choked down by decades of weeds and vines and neglect. Is this what her heart would look like ten, twenty years from now? But it got good sun and it was there, at least, and so with a creaky sigh she got to her knees and began to dig.

-

Two months later

Frank was in his study so Claire couldn't partake of her daily ritual of greeting the house with the touches that should have gone to Jamie. Instead, she made herself some tea and looked out over her herb garden. The gray winter light was flat and watery, but she didn't bother turning on the light. Instead she just looked. She remembered that day, over a month ago now, that she had first seen the seedlings sprouting through the dark soil. The joy of it was like a needle piercing through the pad of a finger, so deep it pressed against the nail. It hurt, Christ it had hurt, to be reminded that she might begin to live again.

She had been a model patient since her chat with Dr. Campbell, eating if not with relish then certainly with gusto. When Frank was gone on his long days at the college, she would sit before the fire and make soups and stews for her lunch, softly chatting to the house, to the baby, to Jamie.

She kept her promise in word alone, never speaking his name, but in the cloisters of her own mind she talked to him constantly, shattered again and again by the sense of his soul entwined around hers alongside the total absence of him. Today, the ache of her heart had started deep in her back. That was fine, though. As she knew, sometimes you felt the pain of a place somewhere else, as when a patient with a heart attack grips their left arm. It wasn't unusual for her to feel her heartbreak in her temples, her throat, her inner thighs, her womb. Another sharp jab, though, and the sudden sense of letting go when Claire looked down and realized that her skirt was soaked.

She stood up slowly, like surfacing from the middle of a deep, cool pond. "Frank?"

He called back from his study, almost as far away as she. "Yes, Claire?"

"I believe my waters have broken. Give me a lift?"

The pain was different, not worse nor better, than the terrible time with Faith. By the time they had got to the hospital, Claire was doubled over, gasping and sweating with it. Frank's normally cool and polish veneer had abraded, and his eyes darted around the room as though there might be an answer for him there, somewhere, to a question he had forgot. She was quickly settled into a room, feeling contraction after contraction bear down on her and the distinct sensation that she might be splitting open. She noticed when the tone in Dr. Campbell's voice shifted, when he started barking orders at a nurse. Her upper lip was wet as she began to say "What's--"

"Mrs. Randall, not to worry, we just need to wheel you down to the OR for a caesarean, and everything will be just fine," Dr. Campell's voice cut smoothly across hers. His tone left no room for argument, but still she struggled to get her questions out, finding each one smothered by the rapid action around her.

Claire felt like the house in the Wizard of Oz, picked up and blown far away, because before she knew it she was in the OR, staring up at the bleary face of Dr. Campell, who was saying "That's it, Mrs. Randall, tha--"

-

She awoke with tears still wet on her face, having started crying during sleep. It wasn’t an irregular occurrence, so she wasn’t much fussed by it. "Not to worry, sweetie," a pretty, young nurse chirped from the foot of Claire's bed, where she was examining Claire's chart. "Some people just react to anaesthesia that way—the crying, I mean."

It was a moment before Claire was conscious of the conspicuous absence of the weight of her belly, before she was grinding out, “Please—my baby, where is my baby?" The nurse's face suddenly crinkled into a very genuine smile.

"Oh, Mrs. Randall—“ she started to say, when suddenly Claire’s attention was caught by Frank, holding a small bundle against him, and behind him, Dr. Campbell, with another one.

The astonishment was blinding—Jamie’s gobsmacked face staring at her, pale with fear and joy together, "Two mo cridhe? Two!”—and as Claire inhaled she felt a tidal wave of something else, something she'd thought lost to her. By the time she had regained enough of her head to start to listen, she heard Dr. Campell say “—quite unusual not to catch it earlier, but these things do happen. Never you fear, though, both are quite happy and healthy. Largest set of twins I've ever seen, surely! Good job you had a caesarean, Mrs. Randall, eh? In a natural birth, well… thank God for modern medicine!” as his sincere smile beamed down at her. He leaned further, to pass her his bundle and said, "Mrs. Randall, your son," and then taking the bundle from Frank to lay it gently on her other side, "Mrs. Randall, your daughter."

The nurse came while Frank was recovering his wind down the hall, and ostensibly fetching Claire a cup of tea. She knew it was wrong, she did, but she took the chance and did it anyway. "Excuse me, Nurse? Could we record the names now?" The nurse, being quite agreeable, grabbed the form and responded "Of course, Mrs. Randall! How about your son?"

Claire's heart pounded, squeezed in the vice grip of the man who was gone. She had promised to name their son after his father, but— Looking down at the bright red of his crown, the shape of his face, the slant of his eyes—my God, it's you entirely, she told him—she gasped out as though punched "James. James Alexander Murtagh Randall." She had to spell "M-u-r-t-a-g-h" out to the nurse, who looked cheerfully puzzled but gamely struggled on. Frank would be furious, probably, maybe, but she could always tell the baby he was named after a friend of Uncle Lam's. Was it so wrong to ask for this little bit? They could never call him Jamie, nor James, no, but surely it wasn't so bad to wish he had his father in some way, if only attached to his name. If he went by Alex, surely it wouldn't be so bad?

"Now, on to baby girl!"

Her eyes fell upon their daughter--their daughter--her hair just as bright as her brother's and her older sister's. The same exact hue as baby Alex, but already more wild, snarled atop her head like a nest of birds. She and her brother were so perfectly alike, so much more Jamie than Claire, though both did have their mother's clear, high brow. For now they were perfect—perfect—and she cleared her throat before saying thickly, "Brianna Janet Ellen Randall". The nurse gave her a smile and a wink and then went off to file the paperwork, and Claire lay back in the bed and felt as her heart began painfully and laboriously to beat again.

The first months passed in a haze of approximately no sleep with two newborns in the house. Claire became aware slowly, though, that while Frank rushed to assist Brianna in any way, holding her, changing her diaper, singing softly to her, he rarely if ever did the same for Alex. At first, she assumed she must be imagining things and let it lapse from her mind. But as she watched with renewed vigor, she began to notice that Frank seemed to avoid any look at the baby. Claire felt ill, nauseous in the pit of her bones. Brianna, a girl, would at least forever be separate in Frank’s mind from the man who had fathered her. But the twins could have been identical, but for their genders, and their looks hadn't come from her: it was clear Alex was indelibly his father's son, just as she had described him.

But Jamie. Jamie had asked her to go to Frank, to be with Frank. His final request. But how could she stay knowing that Frank might ignore a child without his ever knowing why? The night after she had realized, Claire sat on the bed with her back facing away from Frank, and bit out, "I understand this is difficult, but if you cannot be a father to both these children, you cannot be a father to either of them." Claire could feel him stiffening, even across the bed. But to his credit he only sighed out, like the hiss of air from a spent balloon, "Yes. Yes, of course, I know. It's just-- God damn, Claire, he looks just bloody like him." Her jaw flexed with anger as she said quietly, "I know. But he is a baby, and it is not his fault. And you cannot punish him for something he did not do."

Days later, Frank would come to her, an apology on his lips as Claire stood still while he kissed her, saying, "We can make this work, we can."

It was odd to have the Mad Woman’s House suddenly feel full. Claire hadn’t had much experience with babies, not really, her role ending as she had slotted the ones she had helped birth into the arms of their parents. She had always thought that they would all be the same, like amorphous little blobs of something that might one day become a person. To her deep surprise, having always favored nurture over nature, she found that she was now cohabiting with two quite new individuals.

Brianna was exuberant from the first, joy spilling from her in helpless chattering, always with a hand flung wide towards whoever was most near. She had a stubborn streak a mile wide—A true Fraser she is, mo ghràidh as he smiled, and trailed his fingers down her spine—and would squall with the force of a tiny, red-faced, wrathful god. But her anger was as quick to leave as it was to come, and the smiles left behind took Claire’s breath away.

Alex was solemner, quieter. He fussed here and there, but mostly expressed his displeasure with his sister’s carrying-on with a scrunching of his face, a miniscule mirror of his father. It was as if the two parts of Jamie’s soul, the bright, brash one she had married and the one tempered by pain and by deep love, laid bare to her in the wake of Wentworth prison, had lodged themselves in their own two children. She wondered at it; sometimes she would read John Donne’s Metempsychosis to the two infants, far too small to understand the words, and wonder too if this had been the journey Jamie’s own soul had traced, taking root in their children, the only two pieces she had left of him.

It was remarkable, too, a gift really, to see them together. As the months drew on and they began to try with more constancy to speak their own thoughts, she noticed a curious thing that would pass between the two of them. Still in their babies’ babbling, they would chat back and forth, almost all day, as though they were having a conversation just they two. At night, kept awake by her grief that felt even keener as she looked upon them, Claire would creep into their nursery to watch them sleep. In contrast to their waking hours, Bree would sleep curled up, her hand resting on her little barrel belly. Alex, on the other hand, sprawled wild and free in these dark hours, kicking his feet and hands in punctuation of his dreams. But they slept together, her two tiny ones, always touching in different constellations—sometimes a hand, a foot, a forehead—faces turned always in towards the other.

Having the care of two infants kept her busy and exhausted, especially when Frank would parade them all out in front of some colleague or other at a dinner he hadn’t bothered to ask her about. He had stopped ignoring Alex fully, but she still sensed a careful distance in his interactions with the baby, a distance echoed by Alex’s always watchful stare upon his face.

As the weather grew warm, she began to bring them outside into her garden with her, laying them down on a blanket in her tiny greensward. Her plants were coming along nicely having survived the frosts and snows of winter, and here and there she would pick a leaf or a flower for them to touch, to smell, to taste. Brianna was always active; just now beginning to crawl, she preoccupied herself with pushing up, moving a few halting inches, and then tumbling down into the soft earth below as she chattered to Alex, telling him of her adventures.

Alex, though, tended to sit next to Claire, still and quiet save occasional responses back to his sister. As she moved from plant to plant, he would hold out a tiny palm in request and she would kiss it, softly, before giving him a pinch of mint leaf, a sprig of lavender, some lemon thyme. He would hold it up, as serious and solemn as a tiny Charles Darwin, and turn it back and forth, eyes sharp as he mapped his bounty by touch and taste and sight and smell.

When she was at her lowest, sometimes Claire would find herself resenting them for making her love them so deeply, part of her still wanting to drown in grief. But love them she did, so much more than she had ever thought possible, even with what it had cost her.

Years passed and the twins grew, becoming more and more themselves. Claire went to medical school, finding again a spark of who she once had been. The distance between Frank and Alex had only grown as the boy continued to, even as he became more and more the doting father to Brianna.

Claire confronted him about it, once, when the children were perhaps five, furious with the injustice of it. It was the worst fight they had ever had, accusations coming fast and deep. It was the first year of her medical training and the tension between them had been simmering, barely repressed, for months now.

At the last, her voice had cracked out between them, whipped like a lash deep into the back, “I want a divorce, Frank.” She had thought, prayed maybe, that this might be the end of it. But she had realized years ago—back with Jamie in Paris, maybe— that she had never truly known the corridors of Frank’s mind, never seen the all of him.

He was seething with rage, too, and hissed out to her, deadly as a snake, “Do you? And do you really think the court would give custody of two children to a mad woman?

Claire was taken aback. They had never discussed her story, not since that first time she had told him. She spoke from numb lips, “No one would believe you. There’s no proof.”

Isn’t there?” It was quiet, spoken with a gravity greater than threat. His eyes bored into hers, cold and frozen. “Do you not remember then? When you first came back—“ a sneer twisted his lips, “‘through’? You were drugged, sedated. You spilled everything out quite happily to the doctors, who very obligingly wrote it all down in your file. They suggested you might need to be committed. How terrible to think you might have had a relapse.”

Claire stared at him, stopped short. Her heart was pounding from very far away. “You wouldn’t. You’d have to take Alex, then. You wouldn’t.

He had turned at that and, leaning over the armchair into which she had sunk in shock, caged her between his arms, his face pressed close enough that she could smell the whiskey still on his breath. “Wouldn’t I?

She had shrunk away from him in some animal instinct of fear and rage. She had hated him then, hated him more than she had hated anyone. But stories such as theirs were neither easy nor clear, and she had known that as well as he. It was love of Brianna that had made him pull this his final card against her. And as much as she hated him, she also felt a taut tenderness at the knowledge that this man who she would never, could never, want was also the only person in the world who understood how she felt, willing to give up his very soul for the child they shared between them.

It was a curious bond forged between them that night and the air was heavy and tense with it. Neither had looked away from the other, so neither had seen the soft stockinged feet of a small little boy, peering at them from between the banisters before rising and silently moving off to bed.

They wouldn’t speak of divorce again, not until that day so many years later. The day Frank died.

Chapter Text

Prelude II - Tyger Tyger, burning bright

They called him Con Hổ, the tiger, after his eyes and his russet hair and his silent way of moving through the jungle. They were afraid of him, and rightly so. At six foot six, he towered over all the other soldiers and the villagers alike. Most of the time, he tried to shrink in on himself, making himself smaller, less alarming. He was a doctor, lacking only a final signature on a diploma, years of work summed up in the quick strokes of a pen. He was a doctor, and meant to help, but found he did little enough of that now. Healing and hurting were the same these days, the fast slice of a knife unerringly into artery, a mercy.

The Green Berets were quiet and quick. Death comes on swift wings after all, he thought to himself. They were out in the jungle mostly, moving through the night, brief bursts of violence and killing followed by long walks through moonlit groves. Amputations were uncommon, interestingly. He had assumed, when coming, that it would be an endless whirl of clamped veins, of soldiers biting into bark, of bone carved away. A type of artistry in flesh. But the Greenies were different, chosen for some unspeakable part of themselves that they all shared, eyes always assessing and calculating. Shadows in human form. Accidents were rare.

When they came into camps or hospitals—only ever for a few days, just to restock before vanishing back into the forests of the night—the other soldiers, the normal soldiers would look at them with wary eyes as if they were ghosts come to call. They were, so the soldiers weren’t wrong.

They’d been in the wilderness for weeks when he saw it for the first time. Out of the gloom of a palm frond, his own eyes stared back at him. Indochinese tigers were rare and becoming rarer as this place, their home, exploded in shrapnel and fire. He was on watch, the moon high in the sky. He looked at the tiger. The tiger looked at him.

He had been a person, once, a lifetime ago. He had learned every organ, every cell, in the body and thought he had mapped himself fully. Here, though, in the misted valleys and killing fields, he’d found another part of himself entirely. He’d never thought he might be suited to it, war. Killing came easier than expected, like a whisper of wind between trees. He wondered where that came from—his mother, maybe? But she had stitched people together and instead he cut them apart. The heady mix of adrenaline and fear made him feel alive, all the time, made him feel each and every blood cell moving around his body in time with his quiet heart.

They neither of them had blinked. He had the strange sense of having his soul stripped bare and looked at, of looking at himself. Yellow-blue met yellow-blue in the hot damp of the night around them. A rustle, one of the men shifting in sleep, and con hổ blinked, slipping away on soft cat-feet into the night.

Brianna Randall had had a happy life, and didn’t much care for a different one. She had a father, a mother, and a twin who all loved her, though her father had been gone for years now. She had friends and boyfriends, laughs, lies, and secrets. A life, in short. And what that life had most decidedly not included was a mother who went insane.

“Mama.” She breathed through her nose, hoping she might find some of Alex’s patience there, patience she never seemed to have. He used to tug on her earlobe and joke that he had stolen all of her patience right out of her, in the womb they had shared. Her eyes burned suddenly, and she shut them tightly against the sensation. God, she wished he were here. He would just be so much better at all this than her. “I really think you should just have some tea and lie down, and maybe you’ll feel better.” And not completely bats went unsaid.

Claire felt the graze of fingers on her shoulder, the touch of a man long dead who still had yet to leave her. As if reading her daughter’s mind, she said simply, carefully, “Your brother knows.”

Brianna stilled from where she had been restlessly pacing in the Wakefields’ living room. “What?” One word, laden with shock, but with a flash of hurt there too.

Claire sighed, feeling like the pulp of wet newspaper left on the street in the rain. “Not the whole story—not the time travel part, not yet. But he does know that Frank wasn’t your father. He’s known for years.”

Brianna looked betrayed, and was made younger by it. Claire remembered the time she had opened her Christmas presents too hastily, still a tiny little thing, and had sliced the paper through her hand in the doing of it. She had looked the same then, eyes wide with hurt and disbelief. 

“Did you tell him?” It was said with bravado meant to mask vulnerability, and Claire was reminded, forcefully, of a young man with red hair, insisting that his dislocated shoulder didn’t hurt that much, really.

“He figured it out,” Claire said simply. Brianna gave a nod to herself, Alex’s mannerism more than hers. She seemed unsurprised, long used to her brother’s perspicacity. 

Her daughter’s eyes darted to her and then away. “Why didn’t he tell me?” It was said in a small voice now, the voice of someone who had started to capitulate, letting go of what they thought they had known. 

Claire gave a helpless shrug. “He knew how much Frank loved you, I expect, and how much you loved him in return. He never would have wanted to take that from you.”

Brianna’s lips tightened, but she nodded and haltingly perched on the far edge of the sofa, away from Claire. “Fine,” she said. “Fine. Tell it to me again.”

Claire had told the story three times to Brianna, forwards and backwards and forwards again. She was clever, her daughter. Knew the way to sense a lie was in the retelling of it. To Claire, it had felt like doing surgery on herself, no anesthetic as she stripped away her own flesh piece by aching piece. It felt like it had in that long, terrible night in L’Hôpital des anges when Monsieur Raymond had reached inside her and removed the diseased and festering flesh, the bits of death in her own body. But she did it, again and again, because Brianna had asked her to. 

At the end of it, her teacup shook slightly in her grasp with exhaustion and something else. A gentle tuck of her hair behind her ear made by fingers that lingered, “Ye’ve done so well, mo nighean donn.” Much later that evening as she stayed awake and staring at the ceiling of her room, she heard the door open and her daughter crawl into bed beside her. Brianna was shaken still, small surprise, by what they had seen at Craig Na Dun, by Gillian Edgars and her husband’s corpse.

“I could hear them, you know,” Brianna whispered into the night air between them, as they curved towards one another like the opening and closing of a parenthetical statement. Claire said nothing, just squeeze a hand on her daughter’s arm. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. I’m sorry it took this for me to believe you.” Tears had slipped out in her night time confession, as though she were a child again, come to her mother with wisps of a nightmare still clinging.

A short time passed, though neither fell asleep. “What do we do now?” Brianna asked her.

“Now? We look.”

They did look, and even with the help of young Roger Wakefield the looking took months. Dead end accreted atop dead end, a sedimentary layer of dashed hopes and wasted time.

Claire returned to her work and Brianna to her school, though neither one had their heart in it. Alex was like a gaping hole, but not one they liked to talk of.

It’s enough, Claire told herself. It’s enough that she knows. Be content with that at least.

And so she tried to be.

Claire stared blankly at the Burns’ poem, decades too early, that she held in her hand. A. Malcolm the printer’s name said. She brushed her fingers over those words again and again, as if they might change shape in the sweeping or perhaps take flight entirely.

“Is it him?” Brianna’s voice came to her as though from a great distance.

“I—“ her voice came out rusted. “I believe that it is.”

Roger had bustled away to the kitchen, muttering faintly about biscuits and shortbread, generously giving mother and daughter the time and space to process this development.

Like a small child and not the woman grown that she was, Brianna laid her head in her mother’s lap. Long, delicate fingers came to stroke her hair and trace the ridges of her skull, a ritual between them that would never change. They were quiet together.

“I think you should go back.” Brianna didn’t look at her mother— couldn’t. Her throat felt thick and closed as she contemplated it, giving her mother up to a man who would never seem real to her, not really.

Claire made a quiet sound in response, but said, “I’m not sure, darling. What about you? And what about…”

Alex.

His name hung on the air between them.

Brianna gave a slight cough and said in a small voice, “The letter said we could call him. Let’s just see what he says.”

Days later, Claire found herself on the phone, the connection between herself and her son snapping and crackling in the silence. 

Brianna had gone to putter about the kitchen, pretending to fix tea and not to listen in. Claire had spilled out the whole story to her silent son, wondering at times if the line had gone dead and asking, with dread, “Alex?” Only for him to say, “I’m here” and for her to continue on.

With Bree she had had the gift of proximity; with Alex, it was like trying to sense her way through the darkened rooms of a house she’d never been in before, feeling her way by touch alone.

Did it make it easier or harder that he had already known that Frank wasn’t his father? She wasn’t sure, didn’t think he was either.

At the end of the telling, she sat shaky and waiting. There was a brief silence on the line, the distance attenuated between them.

“Okay,” he said, and that was it.

“Okay? What do you mean okay?” Claire asked with a laugh just this side of hysteria. 

“Mom,” he said tiredly over the line. “I believe you, okay? I believe you.”

Of all the responses she had expected, that was perhaps the last. Her confused silence echoed between them.

“It’s not like I’m… unaware,” he said slowly. “That there are things in this world we can’t explain. It’s not like…” He trailed off, and then repeated, more firmly, “It’s not like I’m unaware.”

Claire was shocked, despite herself. She realized that she had expected it to be a bigger fight, somehow. Maybe because Alex was a doctor, just as she was, or maybe because, when she allowed herself to really think about it, she knew that she herself wouldn’t have believed it, save that it had happened to her. She felt vaguely ashamed at that knowledge—that even for Alex, or Bree, or, God, even Jamie—she would not have been intellectually generous enough to believe such a story. Hadn’t her reaction to Monsieur Raymond and his healing been proof enough of that?

It still took her by surprise, these resonances of Jamie in her children. Jamie, she recalled, had been just the same, taking her at her word and needing no more. For all that Brianna had his brightness and his brashness, his heady confidence and quicksilver temper, she was Claire’s daughter too, and her skepticism was hard baked. And, she thought with a touch of melancholy, it was undeniable that Brianna was also part Frank. A small, twisted side of Claire resented her for that, for echoing Frank’s reluctance to believe her, but mostly she just felt the bittersweet tenderness of the love between her daughter and the man who had been her father in every way that counted. Frank had been good to her, good for her, had loved her so very deeply— was it any wonder that he had left fingerprints on her soul, as much as had Claire or Jamie?

“Mom?” Alex’s voice broke into her thoughts gently, as though she were the child and he the parent. 

She allowed herself a tremulous sigh, pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes as she cradled the phone between her ear and shoulder, before answering, “Yes, darling?”

“What will you do now?”

The lump in her throat was more boulder than stone, and for the first time Claire began to truly assess the impossibility of the choice before her. Which side of your heart will you keep, and which will you carve away?

Her laugh was punched out of her, a dark and hopeless thing. “You know, darling, I really, truly have absolutely no bloody idea.”

Alex had laughed at that, a surprised and almost unwilling thing it sounded to Claire. Even with all the countless miles and many oceans between them, the sound of it curled around her. Her own smile was more reflex than response, and yet she did feel lighter all of a sudden.

The moment had settled, and it occurred to Claire that her already-reserved son had become even more quiet, the first change in him she hadn’t been there to witness firsthand. How many more changes would she miss? she wondered desperately, breath short at the thought of it.

“Can I talk to Bree?”Alex asked her. “I’d like to talk again before I ring off, but…”

He had trailed off, unsure how to finish his own sentence. It occurred to Claire that he spoke now like someone unfamiliar with words, rolling each one around his tongue like the marbles he had loved as a boy before carefully placing them down between them. He had gotten out of the practice of it, the openness of language spoken freely and lightly. She hoped it might come back to him, but rather thought it would not.

“Of course, of course, darling— let me just call to her.”

Bree came and took the phone from Claire, who made her way to the kitchen on legs made of jelly. The products of Brianna’s labor lay strewn about the kitchen; she hadn’t even gotten around to putting the tea in the diffuser. Instead everything had been as carefully lined up as Claire’s instruments before surgery, waiting for the cutting hand.

She heard low murmuring, and wondered what her children were talking about. Brianna had kept her back towards the kitchen, though, rounded forward enough that her shoulder blades stood up from her back like the wings of a bird in a soaking rain. She was curling her left hand around and around the wire before she exhaled in a long whoosh of breath, nodded, and then said “I’ll tell her. I love you. Feel better. Come home?”

Brianna kept her eyes hidden from her mother as she passed off the phone, but the emotion was clearly written into the lines of her body, exhaustion and sadness in equal measure. Claire took the phone delicately from her grip, lingering as she pressed her opposite palm to her daughter’s face. Brianna fled back to the kitchen after a teary-eyed smile at her mother, and left Claire to speak to Alex, well and truly alone.

“She’s missed you terribly, you know,” Claire said. “Did you have a good chat?”

There was a muffled “Mmph,” from the other side of the line and Claire had a moment of joy, incandescent in its strength, that this one small part of him had been left unchanged. Alex had always made these expressive noises even as a baby; Claire had wondered at it, at the possibility that so Scottish a reaction might be passed through the blood, a remnant of the father he hadn’t known.

“Mom,” Alex began, but more firmly now, the tone he had always used when he was saying exactly what he meant to say, no more nor less. “You have to go back.”

Claire’s abrupt inhalation was a gasp in the quiet of the house. “Darling, I don’t— that is to say, I didn’t— that was never what this was about, you do know that, don’t you?” And it hadn’t been, not really, except perhaps very late at night or in the earliest hours of the morning when Claire had stared up at her ceiling and—a hand brushing over her cheek, across her eyelashes, tracing the whorls of her ear—allowed herself to think maybe…

“I do know,” Alex said, infinitely careful. “But— I think you need to go back. Not just for yourself or for him, but also for us. I know—“ A brief, heavy pause, and then, even more haltingly, “We would rather you be happy, Bree and me, than here just for us. You’ve been here long enough just for us.”

Claire was struck mute, adrift and bewildered by these words, so much so that she was unprepared for the gut punch of the next ones.

“You said—“ a huff of impatience this time, at himself, she thought, at the laboriousness of finding the words and slotting them into their proper place. “You said he asked you, made you come. Which means you know what it is to stay for the sake of someone else. Don’t make me and Bree know that feeling too. Let it end, let it stop, here, between the two of you.”

It had never occurred to Claire before, the burden of that knowing. Her mind would never be made up—how could it? how could one ever be sure about leaving one’s children?—but Alex’s words had smashed through her stomach like a cannonball on rotted wood.

She scrubbed her hand down her face. “Oh Alex,” she said, with a wry twist to her lips. “Don’t you know it’s terribly rude to be so much smarter than your parents?”

No laugh this time, but a breath of air that sounded like a smile.

“But—“ she continued, “How is one meant to choose when every choice is a bad one?”

The rawness of her own voice took her by surprise, the vulnerability of asking such a question to her own child, grown though he might be, making her feel abruptly that he was here in the room with her and not half a world away.

His voice was thick and tight as he responded, “You make the one that you can live with. And then you do.”

With Samhain just days away, Claire found herself at a crossroads. She and Brianna had talked endlessly the past few days—“Yes, Mama, Alex and I talked about it and we both agree, we do, now please will you stop asking me, you’re driving me up a wall!”—but the closer it got, the further away Claire felt.

The weight of the decision pressed on her, making her toss and turn throughout the night, through dreams of trailing hands and whispered words, ones she could never remember come morning.

After the talk with Alex, Brianna had gone out for several hours and returned with bolts of fabric heaped in her arms which she had pressed into Claire’s hands and said, “You should get started. Just in case.”

Whenever she was in her room, Claire found her eyes drawn inextricably towards the dress she had made, draped on the chair like an echo of a lady. On the lap sat the little leather case of medicines and the roll of implements she had filched from the hospital before taking her leave of absence. Every time she saw them it was a fresh stab of guilt— for why had she brought them, if she hadn’t been planning on going all along?

It was terrible timing; Alex wouldn’t be home until the next week, but they had all three agreed that Claire had better go now, while they knew where Jamie was, than risk waiting even the brief few months until Yule.

Hope and resentment existed within Claire in equal measure: the fragile kindling of hope that she might see Jamie again, and the resentment that he had forced this goddamn choice on her again. In the earliest hours of the morning, Claire would grip at her hair and curse him for forcing her away, for drawing her back, for not dying when he was bloody well supposed to.

But even the thought of him made everything seem sharper and clearer somehow, like the sudden brightness of a room after the windows have been cleaned. The dimness had been so long part of her she had ceased to notice it, and now all the world looked different.

The morning of Samhain dawned crisp and clear. Colder than was usual for that time of year, the ground was frozen and hard as Claire stepped out into the yard behind the Wakefield’s house. She stood there, staring at the bench where she had broken open to Mrs. Graham, heard her warning echoing in her head “Don’t spend the rest of yer days chasing a ghost…”, and then slipped quietly inside and began to pack.

Chapter Text

I. Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one

The stones were exactly as she had remembered them. She was taken slightly aback by her deep, seething hatred of them, though she wasn’t quite sure why it came as a surprise. They were, after all, the site of all her worst memories, a place pressed into her bones.

Brianna stood by her side, her red hair whipping in the wind. “I wish we could have seen the dance,” she said quietly. “Seen the beauty in all this horror.”

She gave a half swallow after her whispered words, and Claire knew she was thinking of Greg Edgars’ charred corpse, smoldering at the base of the cleft stone. She squeezed her daughter’s hand in hers, trying to press the feeling of the delicate bones beneath hers into her mind to come back to, once— 

Claire was reminded of her labor pains, of feeling like her body would split in two, and wished desperately for a moment that it would, that she could stay here and be there. Brianna’s gentle squeeze on her palm brought her back to herself, and she realized she’d been looking at her daughter’s face for agonizingly long through her sheen of tears.

“Come on, Mama,” said Brianna, as she began to carefully pick her way to the top of the hill. 

Roger was hanging back from them somewhat, giving them the space and time to be together here and now. Claire felt a rush of tenderness for the young man as she sent up, to whoever might be listening—Roger, maybe—take care of her, please.

The buzzing was growing louder the closer they got, a deep and painful thrum that grew worse with each heartbeat.

When at last they came to the circle, they stepped together, still holding hands, to the stone. Claire turned again towards her daughter, trying in these too-brief moments to memorize her face. She lifted a palm to the beautiful girl’s face, cupping a cheek in her hand, and whispered, “I’ve written you letters… You’ll find them back at the Wakefield’s. For Alex, too.”

Brianna’s eyes slipped shut and she let her head fall heavier into the cradle of her mother’s hand. Claire felt the the weight of the choice before her, heavier than all these stupid stones combined. 

She opened her mouth, about to change her mind, to ask to go back, to tell Brianna she couldn’t do it, when Brianna opened her eyes and said, simply, “You have to, Mama.”

She was staring down at her mother with a strange and wistful expression—how odd, Claire thought, not for the first time, to become so small next to my own children—before she smiled the wide, wide smile of her father. 

“He deserves to know us too, Mama. We took you away from him. Now it’s time for us to give you back.”

And with that, she pressed a kiss to her mother’s forehead and stepped back. Claire stepped forward, one hand outstretched, and, keeping her gaze locked on her daughter, vanished.

In all, it wasn’t as terrible as Claire had feared, being back. The journey of the stones was harder still than last time, and after Claire had stopped throwing up what felt like the last twenty years’ worth of meals, she had dizzily made her way towards Inverness.

The highlands around her were as austere and remote as she had remembered; God, she had missed this Scotland, this wild and empty land. There was a soft, drenching rain that misted everything around her, making her hair curl into water-speckled ringlets at her temple. The smell of earth and ozone was heady, and, without her even meaning to, Claire felt her lungs expand to full capacity for what felt like the first time in twenty years.

The carriage ride to Edinburgh, on the other hand, had been quite terrible, and not just because her clothes were sodden by the time she found her way to the stop. Her fellow passengers were asleep, ill, rude, silent, lascivious, or chatty in various combinations. She wished Brianna were here to giggle with, her eyes crinkling in repressed amusement, or Alex, who would wear his disgruntled, owlish expression, the one that seemed collaged from Jamie’s face.

Claire felt vaguely ill and aching—still recovering from the stones—by the time she stepped off the coach and into the streets of Edinburgh. She had been let off in a little market, stalls of not-quite-fresh bannocks and gently-used wares all around her.

As she stared about herself, getting accustomed to the sights and smells of this new old place, a young boy selling newspapers caught her eye.

“Excuse me,” she asked, watching him stiffen at her accent. “A. Malcolm, the printer?”

“Aye, missus,” the lad said, gesturing with his chin, hands occupied. “Carfax Close, just down there. Ye cannae miss it.”

She thanked him with a smile and headed in the direction he had indicated. It seemed only the briefest moment before she stopped, stock still, struck at the small black and red sign before her. She felt distinctly sick. Somewhat hysterically, she considered going round the block again. Why did the shop have to be so blasted close? 

For a moment, Claire was struck with the insane urge to laugh. Here she was, having waiting twenty years, after many months of searching, and all she could think was that perhaps she’d better take another turn about the streets.

A clatter in the alley behind her, amplified by the closeness of the stone tunnel, startled her out of her reverie. Get on with it, Beauchamp, she thought savagely to herself and, squaring her shoulders, back as straight as any soldier, she marched up the stairs.

The bell tinkled merrily as she entered, and she felt her heart clench with every step.

“Is that you, Geordie?” He didn’t turn around, didn’t need to. She knew his voice as she knew her own, as she knew their children’s. For an aching moment it was all she could do to stare, wondering faintly—perhaps she was dead after all, perhaps she’d died at the stones?—when he continued, voice rich with teasing, “Took ye long enough. Did ye go all the way to Glasgow for the ash?”

Her eyes swept from the swirl of hair at his crown, down the broad planes of his back, along the thick muscles of his legs. Her breath caught and held. She felt she was going mad, she felt she was trying to speak underwater, she felt, in short, too much. 

Her voice was wavering as she finally managed to answer, “It— it isn’t Geordie.”

He had stilled, turned to stone at her words and barely breathing.

“It’s me. Claire,” she finished somewhat lamely, her hands twisting in her skirts.

Distantly, she realized that for all her searching, for all her words, she had never really expected to find him, not really.

He slowly turned to look at her, and the world reordered itself around her. It was the same, beloved, stubborn face; the same slanted cat’s eyes; the same high, flat sweeps of his cheekbones. The creases around his eyes and brows had deepened, she noticed, though the laugh lines, those marks of a life well-lived, seemed much as she had left them.

He stared at her and, gulping, promptly fainted dead away.

Claire rushed down the stairs into the print room, taking very little heed of the space around her. He had gone down in a balletic flurry of white paper which now lay scattered around his body, a strange parody of flowers around Snow White. Claire dropped quickly to her knees, searching desperately for his pulse, but it was strong and steady beneath her fingertips; just shock, then.

She had already taken his pulse, knew very well that he was fine, and yet she found herself utterly unable to pull her hand away. Just as she had finally resolved herself to it, his eyes began to flutter and then snapped open. 

She withdrew her hand belatedly, and offered a half smile.

“Ye’re no’ real,” he breathed out, his eyes roving her face. Then, quieter still, “ye’re real?” said with the astounded tone of an apostate who had encountered Christ on a walk home from the pub.

Her eyes were already filling as she gazed at his face, so familiar and so distant to her. “So are you. I th— I thought you were dead.” She placed her palms against his chest, over his heart, a pantomime of helping him to sit up.

Haltingly, Jamie lifted one of his broad hands and, shaking, laid it over hers. His eyes, the blue of a deep pool in a quarry, lifted slowly to hers.

“Claire?” he choked out.

She inhaled sharply at the sound of her name on his lips, never more beautiful than when it rolled off his tongue.

Abruptly, he released her hand and shoved himself back a little, a hand pressing to the front of his breeks. Without her meaning to, her gaze had followed his hand and she flushed slightly pink. The few more inches between them felt suddenly unbearable, and Claire asked desperately, afraid, “Wh—What is it?”

He looked up at her and smiled, somewhat abashed.

“I was afraid I’d lost hold altogether and pissed myself, but it’s all right. I’ve just sat on the alepot.”

He sprang to his feet at that, scrambling further away from her. Claire felt her fingers twitch against her palm and curled them in before she could do something foolish like reach out to him.

Jamie’s hands began to unlace the tie of his breeches without his realizing it, his gaze still fixed upon Claire, before he suddenly flushed and halted. “D’ye mind?”

“It’s all right,” Claire said, surprised at the wobble in her own voice. Their gazes caught and held. “We are married.” She paused a beat before continuing, hating the smallness in her own voice, hating the distance between them. “At least, I suppose we are.”

He stared at her, struck dumb. His face twisted into a hint of an expression Claire couldn’t quite read, his wide mouth twisting for one terrible moment in what looked like, to Claire, horror. “Aye,” he breathed out. “We are.” At that, still hesitating, face wondering, he slid the breeches past his hips and stepped out of them.

Claire couldn’t help herself, though she tried. Unwillingly, her glance pulled downwards and she was rooted by a tidal wave of tenderness at the sight of his still knobby knees.

He stepped closer to her, close enough that she felt the heat from his body. His gaze wandered along the pathways of her face, down the swan-like sweep of her neck, traversing the strange and unexpected topography of her, the one he’d thought lost. Her own hands had come to meet in front of her chest; she felt they might be the only things holding her ribcage together. His large hand reached towards her, stopping short as he traced the pad of his thumb along the ridge of her silver ring.

“I never took it off,” she confessed, his face swimming through her clouded eyes.

The folded space between his brows throbbed with repressed emotion as he looked upon her face. So, so slowly, he swayed his head towards her. Startled by it, though she could not say why, she withdrew slightly, her eyes still wide and shocked.

“I want—“ he rasped out, destroyed. His eyes strayed again down the planes of her body, before his damp gaze met hers once more. “I would verra much like to kiss you.” His inhale was long, breathing in the scent of her. “May I?”

Claire found herself utterly touched by the surreal formality of it, like being back at Versailles and swept into a court dance never having learned the steps. Her head began to nod before he’d even finished speaking. “Yes.”

Achingly slowly, he bent his head towards her. A breath away from her lips, he whispered, shattered, vulnerable, “I havena done this in a verra long time.”

A tear streaked past his nose pressing into her cheek, and she shakily returned, “Neither have I.”

Something sparked in his eyes, something like hope, as he closed the gap, gasping. It was, Claire thought distantly, perhaps the most tentative kiss they two had ever shared. His hands barely grazed her upper arms, as if to grip her tightly would be to cause this moment to break apart between them. Feverishly, Claire’s hands floated to the strong hollows of his cheeks, her fingertips stealing to the place where his jaw met his ear and pressing in.

He came away from her, breathing hard and fast as a horse slowed from a gallop. “I’ve seen ye so many times,” he said, his voice was aching and raw, but his eyes never left her face. “When I was in a fever. I was so afraid and so lonely I knew I must die.” His eyes slid closed for a moment at this, before opening wide as though even that tiny separation were unbearable. “Whenever I needed you. I would see you, smiling, yer hair curled around yer face.” He smiled at her, face filled with pain and love both. Pressing his forehead to hers, he whispered agonizingly, “But ye never touched me.”

She lifted her hands back to his face, pulled him back to the space between them, the only thing that mattered now. “I can touch you now.” She added, even more tremulously, unsure of who she was even talking to, “Do not be afraid.”

He rolled his forehead back and forth across the curve of her own and said, just as unsteady, “There’s the two of us now.”

At that, the centimeters between their lips became unbearable and they crashed together again. Claire felt a trickle of sweat at the small of her back, nerves and desire both making her knees feel wobbly. Tentatively, she slipped her tongue to touch the sensitive corner of his mouth. It was as if some strange spell had broken and suddenly he surged to meet her, gripping her firmer in his arms, dragging his tongue across her own, licking into her upper lip—

“I quit!” The irate pronouncement lashed the air and Claire and Jamie startled apart, guilty. 

Jamie, still pantsless, moved towards him and said, despairingly, “Geordie—“

A young man was in the open window of the store front, looking down at the pair of them accusingly. “I’m Free Church,” he declared. “Workin’ for a Papist is one thing, but workin’ for an immoral Papist is another. Do as ye like wi’ your own soul, man, but if it’s come to orgies in the shop, it’s come too far.” He held out a hand imperiously, looking down his nose at the both of them. Distantly, Claire heard the ringing of bells. “Och, God’s tooth,” Geordie spat, disgusted. “It’s no’ even noon.”

At that, young Geordie turned on his heel and swanned out of the shop, as regal and magisterial as any cleric Claire had ever seen.

Jamie turned slowly towards Claire, who let out a wet chuckle. “I hope I haven’t caused you trouble?”

His wide mouth stretched into a grin and he let out a laugh of his own. “Och, he’ll come back,” Jamie said, shaking his head bemusedly. “He lives across the way, I’ll explain it to him.” And, with another delighted laugh, his eyes holding hers, he said “God knows how!”

She laughed, too full of emotion to do otherwise. Ducking her head down, she was reminded, forcefully, that there still lay another matter to be resolved. “Do you have another pair of trousers?” she asked, striving for coolness and extremely aware of her failing.

He looked down at himself, genuinely surprised, let out another glad bark of laughter and said, “Aye, in the back.”

He turned and started weaving his way around the equipment of his work, when he suddenly stilled and turned around to face her.

“Come wi’ me?” His hand stretched out to hers, his face crinkled with emotion—gladness, humor, bemusement, a tinge of anxiety as though he worried she might disappear. “If ye dinna think it immoral,” he finished, his face relaxing into its wide, broad smile, creases carved deep into his cheeks.

He held her hand as he led her through the shop and into the inner room. Most of the space was taken up by the objects of his trade, but set to one corner by the happily roaring fire was a small, spare cot.

He parted from her then, moving towards a chest, and turned away as he pulled on a fresh pair of breeches. As he bent, the flash of the curve of his buttock, firm and clearly muscled, made Claire flush and look away hastily even as a tendril of fire licked at her lower belly.

She stood where he had left her, unsure if she was even capable of movement.

He stood opposite her, drinking her in. “It’s, ah, verra fine to see ye again, Claire. I never thought that…” At this, he trailed off, unwilling to speak the thought aloud. She watched the emotion play across his face like the shadows of clouds over a meadow in summer, so she saw the moment he realized what her presence must mean. He asked, clearly steeling himself for the worst, “Our child…?”

Claire couldn’t stop the sudden outpouring of sheer joy she felt in that moment, to hear him speak those words. Scarcely conscious of her own actions, she pulled a small package from the inside of her coat. “Here— I thought you’d like—“ she paused, suddenly overcome by the emotion. “To see our children.”

She beamed at him, too deeply moved to continue.

Jamie stilled, processing her words. “Child—ren?” he asked, baffled. “Our children?”

Claire’s face ached from the exhilaration of this moment. “Twins, you see—a daughter,” she breathed. “And a son.”

She had never seen Jamie’s face look thus, like coming alive and dying all at once. He towered over her, but she thought in that moment she might be able to blow him over with the lightest blow of her breath. 

“They— they know?” he asked her, trembling in an effort to maintain a handle on his emotions.

She nodded, the joy unbearable. “They do. Brianna and Alex. They do.”

He stretched his hand to hers, gently taking the packet from her nerveless fingers, before walking to the cot and sinking down to it as though his legs could no longer hold him up.

She walked towards him, stopped herself from running, and sat carefully down beside him. She longed to press herself against him, to feel him from hip to head, but she sensed the need to go slowly, carefully now.

“I told Brianna before I left. Several months ago now, actually. She’s the one who helped me to find you.

“Alex…” The words snagged in Claire’s throat, a bramble at the back of her mouth. “He’s known for longer.”

Jamie’s eyes cut quickly towards her, away from the photographs for the first time since she had produced them from her skirts. He didn’t say anything, not at first, but his eyes traversed her face as though his fingers were trailing over it instead.

“How—“ An abrupt stop, to clear his throat, his eyes never leaving hers. “How long then?”

“He was fourteen,” Claire started quietly. “He was studying for his advanced biology classes, and learning about genetics.”

“Gee-ne-tics?” Jamie inquired, bewildered by the unfamiliar terrain.

“It’s… how babies are made, I suppose. Why they look like their parents or their grandparents. How things get passed down. Half of you and half of me entwine together and make them, Brianna and Alex.” Her fingers traced a double helix on the back of his palm. It had never occurred to her, before, to think of the sheer beauty of it, but explaining it aloud to the man sitting before her made her blink away the burning rush of tears.

Jamie made an abortive nod, and a soft sighing “Mmph” that Claire took as invitation to continue.

“Their hair, you know. So distinctive. And so unlike mine or Frank’s!” she said with a sudden laugh, needing someone to share that hidden joy with. A half squeeze of her fingers and she drew in another shaky breath. “Red hair is uncommon, genetically. You have to have two parents carrying the trait for it to happen. Alex was doing a sort of map—a Mendel square—of his own genetics for his schoolwork. He waited a few days, though, before bringing it to me.” The breath in her body left with a whoosh like a bird’s wings in flight. The keenness of the loss of her children cut deeply again. In a whisper, like giving up a part of her soul, she murmured “He always did, you know. Always watching and observing. Waiting. He never said anything he didn’t mean exactly to say. I’d always…” A flick of her eyes towards Jamie and away. “…always wondered where he’d gotten that from. Certainly not from me nor you.”  And quieter still, “Nor Frank either.” Despite herself, Claire found her lips quirking into a smile as she looked askance towards Jamie’s face. He was arrested by the telling of it, these gifts of knowing what he’d never thought to.

“My mam. Ellen.” His voice was rough and hoarse with emotion, words and air squeezed out as though by force. “She was the same, ye ken?”

Their lips smiled at each other, a tender and a painful curve in equal measure.

Another squeeze of her hand, firmer this time, and Claire resumed the story. “I was often at the hospital, of course—I’m a surgeon now, actually, went back to school for it and everything—but he had had a lacrosse game that day—it’s a game somewhat like shinty but played in the air and the sticks have nets on the end—and I’d snuck away early to watch and to bring him home. It was a close game, but they had lost and Alex was quieter than usual.”

Claire could still remember that day so clearly. The flex in her son’s jaw as he looked out over the field, the breeze ruffling his fiery hair. The color heightened in his face. He was still a boy then, still a child, but she’d seen a glimpse then of the way he would be and had felt breathless with it.

They had sat together and watched the sunlight turn golden. Not talking, really, just sitting. And then Alex had firmed his shoulders and made a short nod as if to himself, and turned more fully towards her. “I know Frank’s not our father,” he said simply.

Claire had been taken aback, reeling with it. She felt mired in a swamp of panic, like that zebra in Alex’s favorite film, The Swiss Family Robinson, caught in quicksand and thrashing to get out. But he had seen and known, perhaps, and laid his rough palm over hers, dwarfing it even at so young an age, and continued quietly “I’m not angry. But I’d like to ask you to tell me about it. About him.” His eyes had met hers then, and Claire had the curious sense that she had never truly seen her son, not all of him. He was so careful with word and deed, but in the crystalline moment of that sunny afternoon he had laid aside his walls and let her stand upon the threshold of his mind. Not invited in, not fully, but able to see the rooms and hallways, the inner spaces of himself.

Claire had felt something like the finality of a prison door clanging shut behind her as she told him the broad strokes of their story, of his story. She had been married to Frank but had been taken far away and, unsure if she would ever see him again, had been forced into a marriage that had blossomed into something she couldn’t have imagined. She had told him quietly of Jamie, of his face, hands, voice, mannerisms, all that she had left of him, nearly, she gave to Alex, like dropping pebbles into a wide, still mountain lake.

He had watched her, always quiet, and nodded here or there. When she was finished, when she was done pulling her heart open, the fibers and sinews clawing apart, he just stood and offered a hand down to her. He brushed himself off and she did the same and then they had gone home and worked in the garden together without another word.

“It was my final betrayal of Frank, I suppose.” Claire forced out, at the end of her tale, a rusty laugh settling at the back of her throat. “I had promised not to tell the children, and I did. I did it without a second thought. I’d never thought..” That I could do such a thing. That I could be such a person.

Jamie said nothing in the wake of her story and the silence hung between them, full but not heavy. A brief clearing of his throat and he asked, “And… after? Was all well?”

Claire smiled at him damply through her filled eyes. “It was. It steadied him, I think, to know the truth. To be able to explain, well…” She trailed off, a burn of shame in her stomach. They had reached the point of the story Claire hadn’t wanted to tell, hadn’t ever wanted to tell.

“Explain?” Jamie prompted, her shift in tone making him turn more fully towards her as his shoulders hunched slightly inwards. It was as if he was trying to bring her into himself, to shelter her from what was to come.

“You see, Frank, it was difficult, you know? He and Brianna had a remarkable bond, heads always bent together and frequently off on some adventure or other.” Claire sensed the bitterness creeping into the tone of her voice, the resentment of it all brought back in force. But how to explain so that Jamie might understand?

Already the windows of his face had shuttered, and he sat observing her with a darkened look.

A breath, and then continuing, she said “But with Alex… He just looked so like you. Frank was never cruel or violent, I must make that clear, but he was distant from Alex, reserved in a way he never was with Brianna.” The pain of it stung at the corners of her eyes. For all the good Frank had done and been, sometimes she thought she could hate him for that, for making Alex sense his difference. “It’s not that uncommon, in my time, distant fathers, I mean. But Alex had never understood it as a child. Knowing, I think— he got to feel for the first time that there had been a father out there who had loved him, who had wanted him, who perhaps could’ve helped him understand himself in a way Frank would not.”

Jamie was quiet as he suddenly stood up and began pacing the small space before the cot. His face was turned away from Claire and, selfishly, she was stung by the rejection. Can’t you see? Can’t you see what it did to me to be away from you? Can’t you tell what it cost?

He turned on his heel abruptly, his face blazing and chest heaving with emotion. “A Dhia, I could murder the bastard.” His R’s had always become even more pronounced when he was stirred, and Claire found herself distantly relieved that this small part of him was unchanged.

“To- to-“ He was grasping for the words as they exploded outwards from him. “To reject a bairn, yer own bairn Sassenach, what sort of low man could—?” He turned suddenly away again, rolling his shoulders back and forth as though the wings of an avenging angel might burst forth from him at any moment.

And then, the question she had been dreading. “And ye, how could ye—?

How could she stay with such a man? Claire had wondered it often enough over the many years, but hearing Jamie—blood of my blood and bone of my bone— say it to her felt like the first time she’d been thrown from a horse, all breath forced from her body at the impact.

She should have let him see, perhaps; should have let him glimpse what these years and these choices had done to her. But instead she churned the small kindle of rage inside her with the bellows of her own pain and lashed out “I was alone, James Fraser. At least one of them got to have a father.” Her words were a bitter dagger lobbed at his own heart, designed to cut and to stay there.

He stared at her as if he had never seen her before. She supposed perhaps he hadn’t. With Frank, whenever these tempests could come over her heart and mind he would just sigh heavily and turn on his heel to go back to his study. She waited for the sound of a door or of movement. Instead, she heard only the hiss of Jamie releasing the air in his lungs, a sound of rage and of helplessness both. He did sit, then, and slowly, carefully, as though she were a flower in the last gasp of life with petals that would wilt off her with too firm a touch, he put an arm around her.

“I know you’ll have had a life,” she whispered to him, and she had too. Jamie was palpably conscious of the chambers of her heart that were still sealed to him, doors shut where before there had been none.

“I canna pretend to understand the choices ye’ve had to make over these long years with the—“ another clearing of his throat, clogged with emotion thick like the smoke of a fire, the plural of it every time a surprise. “The bairns. But I hope, in time at least, ye’ll share some of the burden of those choices and help me to.”

The shirt over his heart was damp as the tears slipped out of her eyes. New, that was. The Claire he had known like his own mind had never been able to cry in silence, never been able to tamp down on her emotions enough. She had cried then like a rough, raging storm on the sea. Jamie was, oddly enough, reminded of the lump of scar tissue on his own thigh, twisted and thick and yet somehow so much more delicate than surrounding skin. This, here, what she was telling him: this was a scar over her heart and to prod it more would only be to open it up again. And there would be time enough, he hoped—he prayed—to meander again through her soul.

Two bairns though, a dhia,” he laughed out, allowing the moment to ease, testing the taste of the words on his tongue.

Claire allowed a small smile to unfurl across her lips as she said wryly, “I know. It was quite a shock for me as well. I’d had no idea, you see, and the birth… It was a difficult one. They had to be cut from my body. We none of us would have survived had we stayed.” His hand squeezed reflexively over hers; it was like the familiar twitch of his fingers as he thought, a movement Claire had thought never to feel against her again.

Suddenly, he sat up a bit straighter. “Brianna though? What an awful name for a wee lassie!” There was a laugh in his words and his eyes, a softening of what might have otherwise registered as a blow.

Claire shoved at him slightly as she sat up, insisting, “It’s not awful. It’s a beautiful name, and besides you’re the one who told me to name the child after your father! The last— that last—“ The words had lodged in her throat again, not to be unstuck.

He blinked at her. “Did it no’… Did it no’ occur to ye to name the lad after him?” He was bemused, but there was warmth there and true happiness.

Claire took a breath and, understanding that the question was kindly meant—he is trying to know them, her own mind whispered— she struggled to articulate it all so that he might understand. “You were always so sure that the baby would be a boy, and we’d never talked about what to name a daughter… And when I saw them both, God Jamie, they both looked so like you. I couldn’t bear to give you up. I needed Alex to have part of you, yes, but I needed Brianna to have that tether too. So Alex became James Alexander—“ The name Murtagh rested on the back of her tongue, but not yet, not yet her own thoughts murmured. “—and Brianna became Brianna Janet Ellen,” she finished smoothly. “I knew you’d want her to have your mother’s name, but I wanted her to have Jenny too.” The words sounded lame on her lips even as they left them—how to explain? how to explain the restless hole of her shattered heart at that time?—but she swallowed and let them hang.

“I know you wanted a son… But are you disappointed to have also had a daughter?”

The question had hardly left her lips before she was crushed to his broad, roped chest in a squeeze so tight as to be almost painful.

“No,” he said. “Never that. Never that!” The humor crept back into his eyes like a cup of earl grey set to steep. “But I willna deny they’re the hell of a shock, Sassenach. So are you.”

Claire listened to the sound of her own heart beating, the whoosh of blood in her ears as she felt her circulatory system stop and start up again, over and over. Beneath her cheek the strong, wide rhythm of his own beat against her face.

“I know,” she said simply. “I know. Should I not have come?” Her chest squeezed as if in a vice. “Would you like me to—“ a swallow “—to go?”

His hands seized her shoulders, a reflex so quick and tight it stole her breath away. It would leave bruises, she thought with a curl of pleasure, the mark of his love upon her.

His face had snapped like a whip through the air, and his lips pressed together so firmly they were ringed in white. A hiss of unsteady breath, before he said, loud enough to be heard over the hammering in his own heart, “No. I dinna— I canna—. No.”

Slowly, so slowly it felt like the shifting of the earth beneath their feet, Claire rested her forehead briefly in the center of his chest. He had yet to release his firm grip on her upper arms, but it had loosened enough that the pain had turned into the promise of an ache to be found later, but not quite yet.

They sat this way for a moment or maybe for a lifetime, before he reached down to her lap and picked up the photographs. Claire watched his eyes as they looked across the life spread before them, fingers tracing Bree’s and Alex’s tiny infant faces as they curved towards each other like two inverted commas.

“Tell me about them?” His eyes shifted to an image of Bree and Alex in their separate baby chairs. Bree’s hair was a nest like a halo around her head and she exuberantly gestured towards Alex who looked at her with the same scrunched, unconvinced expression of his father. “What were they like, as wee bairns? What did they say, when they first learned to speak?”

Claire leaned over his arm, inadvertently pressing her breasts against his bicep, a quicksilver bolt of something long dormant within her, as she breathed out “‘Dog.’ That was Bree’s first word. And ‘No!’ the second.”

His lips quirked and a flash of heat in his eyes at the feel of her against him caused her nipples and belly to tighten as rosiness stole over her cheeks. “Aye,” his voice had mellowed and deepened, shooting straight to her core like a shot of whiskey tossed back. “They all learn that one fast. And Alex?”

“‘Plant’,” she said with a breathless laugh, happy with the sharing of it. “I should have known then that he would be like me. And the second was ‘bird.’ He loved birds when he was little. I had—“ Claire stopped abruptly, waiting a beat, before baring her cards to him. “When I first came back—through— I used to listen to the birds and imagine it was you, talking to me.” She turned her face slightly away from him, the thicket of her hair shielding her from the vulnerability just enough. “I thought that—perhaps—he could hear it too.”

His eyes, as deep and blue as the Atlantic ocean and equally as unknowable to her in that moment, looked at her. “Aye.” He allowed the moment to fade away, though, perhaps sensing the fragility of her at its center. “Bree likes dogs then? What sort is this?” He held up a photo to her, our family dog Smoky.

“Ah! That’s our dog, Smoky. He was a Newfoundland, I’m not sure if they exist here yet. Bree and Frank had gone on a research trip back to England. Alex and I spent that summer hiking a very, very long trail in America in a place called the Smoky Mountains. We found him, shivering, wet, starving, really, under a log and Alex couldn’t bear it. He begged me to take him with us. I said yes, but only if he and his sister would watch over him. Alex named him Smoky to remind him of where he’d come from. They were so, so good with him, the two of them…”

She traced the sensitive pads of her fingers over the dog and over Bree. Smoky had died almost four years ago, now. It wasn’t unusual, the vet had told them. Big dogs have such big hearts, the man had told Bree kindly as she had wept, that they have to go sooner. It had taken Claire by surprise, and made her feel foolish even, how deeply she had mourned that dog. After all the grief and pain of her life she had thought there could be none left to give. She had been wrong, though.

At that, her stomach let out a fearsome growl, bringing a broad grin to Jamie’s face and setting his eyes to twinkling. “Hungry, Sassenach?”

Claire bumped his shoulder gently with her own, the touch of him not so much a drug as oxygen, necessary for life. “However could you tell?” she joked back, relieved by the respite from the swell of emotion.

The clock began to toll—one, two, three, four—when Jamie suddenly blanched and let out a curse that would strip paint. “The tavern! Christ! I’ve forgotten Mr. Willoughby!” He sprang up and began frantically gathering various bits and bobs from the surfaces around him and stuffing them into his bag.

“Who’s Mr. Willoughby?” she asked, still processing the sudden activity.

“Och,” he muttered to himself. “Was meant to meet the man at noon, slipped from my head entirely.”

He made towards the door, grabbing his coat as he went, before turning back and saying hesitantly, but with a smile and an outstretched hand, “Ye’ll come too? ’Tis only— Claire, I dinna think I can bear not to lay my hands on ye. I find I’m afeared this is all but a dream.”

Her hand shook slightly as she stretched it out toward him, but he grasped it firmly in his and before she had time to gasp, they were out the door and into the street.

Chapter Text

 

II. All that’s best of dark and bright

 

After the fuss at the tavern and the pleasure of meeting Yi Tien Cho, who was kind and generous if a bit diffident, embarrassed perhaps at the circumstances of his and Claire’s first meeting, Jamie and Claire made their way slowly through the streets of the city at night. Jamie was pointing to various shops and buildings, mapping the city of his daily life before her.

Before long, they had come to their resting place. From the exterior it seemed cozy enough, the courtyard illuminated by the warm lantern glow which lit up Jamie’s hair like sparks. As they made their way up the outside stair, Claire became aware of distant noises, ones half forgotten in her ears. By the time Jamie had opened the door for her and the “Ah-’sand choked “Mmm-’s” had become louder, pounding in her body like her blood stream, a deep blush had already stolen its way down her throat to the tops of her breasts.

Jamie was greeting a woman—the madame, by the looks of her—warmly. Too warmly? Claire had time to wonder. She came back to herself as Jamie gestured towards her with his hand, bringing her up to his side to introduce her as his wife to the clearly dismayed woman. His eyes were bright and happy as he glanced over at Claire, before a wrinkle of concern and dismay pulled him up short as he noticed the rosy state of her cheeks and her breast. He blanched and began to open his mouth, but shut it again and shifted his eyes back to the proprietess as she stammered 

“Your…wife?” Her voice was halting with astonishment and horror in equal measure. “But Monsieur Fraser…you bring her here? I thought…a woman…well enough, but to insult our own jeune filles is not good…but then…a wife…” 

To her credit, Madame Jeanne, as Jamie had called her, recovered herself and sank into a brief curtsy, murmuring “Bonsoir, Madame.”

Claire bobbed quickly back, feeling like a cork at the end of a fishing line, adrift and yet tethered. “De même enchantée. 

The French had surprised Madame Jeanne, but she attempted a smile that was more a grimace as she gestured them towards the stair. “Your room is ready as always, Monsieur. Pauline will bring you supper and some water for washing up.”

Claire began to make her way haltingly to the stairs, her flush deepening at the sight of so many bodies joined. The slight trickle of wetness between her thighs took her by surprise, and she squeezed them together convulsively, ashamed.

Jamie had been settling something else with Madame Jeanne, and the light touch to the small of her back as he came up behind her brought her to and set her aflame, all at once. The sudden hardening of her nipples, as though she were a tuning fork he had set to humming, made her bite her lip. Perhaps in recognition of the shifting ground beneath them, Jamie quickly withdrew and motioned her up the stairs, his mouth tightening at her expression.

They entered the room and Jamie kept his back firmly from her, bustling here and there, stoking the fire into a blazing glow as he chatted over his shoulder to her, the too casual tone of his voice belied by the tension of his shoulders. “I, eh, it’s no’ much, but it’s convenient,” he explained tightly. He turned around when she made no response, seeing her unmoving before the door.

A laugh and a moan from somewhere nearby split the silence as Claire looked around her, feeling as though the links of the chain of her heart were coming undone, one by one. The hurt welled like fresh, bright blood at the site of an incision: deep, and even.

“Take your cloak off, Sassenach,” he said from behind her, stress betrayed only by the slight hesitation of his voice before each word.

Claire came to as if roused from a dream as she began to mechanically unbutton her coat. The coat she had made for him, to see him. Her words came more haltingly than she had anticipated as she struggled for aloofness. “So, ah, you live in a brothel?”

She had meant it to be a statement, but it came out a question. As she turned to hand him her coat, she noticed the flicker of pain across his face and something that looked like shame. There had been no shame between they two, not after the trial by fire of Wentworth Prison and the long months afterward. They had emerged from that as burnished steel, unbreakable and forged together.

“Aye,” he said, eyes slipping away from hers as he convulsively continued “Sorry. I- I knew it wasna right to bring ye here, but we were in need of a hot supper. And it’s a good deal more comfortable than my cot at the printshop…”

He had turned away to hang Claire’s coat upon the door as she meandered into the room. Her fingers itched with the urge to run her fingers along the surfaces, to feel out the corners and crevices of this new Jamie. She stayed silent, looking around as he continued looking towards her and then abruptly away. “Perhaps it was a poor idea… We could leave if—?”

Claire’s voice came from far away. “Why— do you have a room in a brothel?” A forced smile settled in the corners of her mouth, the same one she had wielded at faculty parties with Frank, paraded around like a show pony as she was belittled and dismissed. Her eyes met his, but couldn’t bear their openness and so slid away again to a corner of the room. “Is— is it because you’re such a good customer?”

Her voice had become higher-pitched without her meaning to, her forced attempt at levity fooling neither of them.

The relief on his face was like a rubber band snapping, earnestness and pleading surfacing in his voice. “No!” he breathed. “No, I’m no’ a customer of Madame Jeanne. She’s a customer of mine—“ He made an abortive step in her direction before stopping short at her confused—betrayed— expression. Making his way towards the fire again, he continued “She keeps a room for me because I’m often abroad late on business, and I’d as soon have a place I can come to where I can have food and a bed at any hour… and privacy.”

She couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes, not yet, and tried to say “Sounds reasonable enough” even as it escaped her mouth with a quick exhale, a snort near derision. She turned towards the window again, feeling as though she might crack open like an egg fallen from the nest. She heard him move behind her.

“Sassenach.” It was said quietly, and with feeling. She turned as a reflex, her heart always curving towards his by her will or not. His blue eyes bored into hers. “Why have ye come back?”

He was standing ramrod straight, a soldier awaiting a blow. But the blow fell on her as she asked, made breathless by his not understanding, not knowing, “Why do you think I’ve come back?” The accusation lingered in her voice. She had meant to do this better, to understand that while she had had so much time to think and feel and plan for this reunion, for him there had been no warning. For him this had been as sudden as a grenade lobbed into the trenches, a moment of stillness before his life had exploded apart in both shrapnel and fire. But could he not see? Could he really not know? Was she truly alone, adrift in the sea that she had thought was their love for each other?

“I dinna ken.” It was wrenched from him, from some deep and unhealed part of him, a mirror of the wound she too bore. He looked at her for a moment, and she felt the magnetism of they two snapping together, undeniable, stronger than gravity it had always felt to her. He began to move slowly towards her as he said, “Ye’re the mother of my children—for that alone, I owe ye my soul.” He stopped and let his words linger in the air. “But have ye come back to be my wife again? Or only to bring me word of my daughter and son?”

She looked at him, stunned. Her chest felt split open like the ribs of a corpse in autopsy. “I came back now because before… I thought you were dead.” She couldn’t look away, caught like a leaf in the wind in the swirls and eddies of his gaze.

“I meant to die.” He said it simply, and Claire felt another piece of her heart slip through her fingers and crack on the floor. “Tried hard enough.”

He sat carefully on the edge of the bed, as though any sudden movement might startle her into flight like a doe in the forest. “How did ye find out I hadna died? Or where I was?” he asked as he looked up at her. He felt simultaneously a lifetime away and achingly present, here in this room with her.

She smiled slightly, a corner of her mouth drawn upwards at the sight of the crown of his head. So dear, so near to her. “I had some help. A young historian. He tracked you down to Edinburgh and I saw A. Malcolm and I— I thought it might be you.” She turned towards him at this, closing the open parenthetical of his body, the fire warm at her back. She felt like a crocus piercing through the melting snow in spring, leaf by painstaking leaf. “So I took a chance.”

He nodded slightly to himself—so very, very like Alex—and murmured “And then you came back.”

It wasn’t a question but she found herself nodding anyway. His eyes tracked down her body, illuminated from behind by the firelight. It was lustful but unmeaning, a knee jerk response to the smell and the feel of her whispering across the air.

Another curt nod to himself—Oh, Alex—and he pushed to standing, saying “But still. Why?”

Claire was aware of the shutters of her heart closing, one by one, as she asked “Are you trying to tell me something? Because if so, I— I’m not sure I understand.” Her hands were twining ceaselessly round and round each other, gripping at her silver ring. “Perhaps there are other ties, or—“

His voice cut across hers like a blaze of fire in the night. “I have burned for ye. For so long. D’ye not know that?” The crease between his brows deepened as he stared at her. His jaw tightened again as he forced out, “But I am no longer the man you once knew.”

Claire’s breath felt punched from her body. Distantly, she knew if she were to move she would shatter, so instead she stayed rooted, feeling her heart pounding in her chest.

“You and I, we know each other less than we did when we first wed,” he gasped it to her like a confession, as a pilgrim before an altarpiece.

“Do you want me to go?” Claire was conscious of the words as they left her bloodless lips, but she couldn’t remember how she came to be speaking them.

Their eyes held like the scrape of flint against flint when it first makes a spark. He halved the distance between them in a step. Claire had remembered, of course, his size. Her own children after all had utterly dwarfed both her and Frank. But here, now, in front of her, he seemed to take up the entire room.

“No. No. I dinna want you to go.” The words were torn from him, raspy and thick. “But I must know. Do ye want me?

As a girl out with Uncle Lamb in those faraway places, Claire had loved to swim. She would plunge beneath the surface to hold her breath as long as she could before rocketing to the surface and gasping in breaths of air, the exuberance of oxygen one of joy and pain both after just a hair too long of deprivation. “Whoever you are James Fraser, yes. I do want you,” she smiled at him, eyes filled with things she could not yet say. She stepped closer into his space, their lips only a breath away from each other. “What about you? How do you know what I’m like? I could be a horrible person for all you know.”

He leaned even closer to her, his eyes never breaking from hers. His words were breathed out into the space between them as she, in turn, breathed them in. “I suppose you might be at that,” he whispered to her, wrecked. “But you know, Sassenach, I dinna think I care.”

“Neither do I.” They were brimming with the newness of each other. Claire felt shy under his gaze—ridiculous, you have children together for Christ’s sake!— and was suddenly aware that the last time she had felt thus was on the eve of their wedding, before their two hearts had entwined into one.

The millimeters between their mouths felt unbearable all of a sudden, and with a short gasp from her and a rough exhalation from him they came together like the crashing of waves on rock. It was not the gentle, mannerly meeting of tender lovers’ lips. It was a fire, a storm, the endless energy of a pounding waterfall. It was everything and nothing that Claire had remembered—hadn’t allowed herself to remember, except in the snatches of her dreams—as Jamie pulled her to him with a violence that bespoke a barely banked passion. His hands clutched at her back, at her ribs, grazing the sides of her breasts, one thumb irresistibly drawn to the already hardened nub of her nipple, reflexively stroking and feeling. She gasped into his mouth as their tongues tangled together, as he sought out all the inner workings of her soul. She could feel the hard length of him pressed against her soft stomach, a twitch of his hips following the gentle bite of her teeth on his lower lip.

Claire wondered for a brief moment if she wasn’t still in the stones, if she had gotten caught there betwixt and between as had so many others, as her soul itself screamed and shred itself apart, leaving something new behind. 

Her hands pressed feverishly into his neck, the pulse point throbbing under her fingers, and the tangible here-ness of him made her feel suddenly slick and shaky with it.

Her hands had wandered down, pressing against him in his breeks, when a knock at the door had them springing apart like rabbits surprised in a springtime meadow. “Dinner, Mr. Fraser!”

Pauline bustled in with dinner and bid them both a “good e’en” as she left, Jamie bolting the door behind her.

Turning back into the room, cheeks truly red now, rosy and flushed with desire, Claire looked at him and then darted her eyes away. She had seen mirages in the desert, familiar with the illusion of heat pretending to be life-giving water, and wondered if she would be driven mad by this.

But Jamie merely extended a hand to hand and helped her to sit. They dined saying both much and very little, sharing snippets of lives lived without the other. Under it all was a thrumming awareness, as deep as the buzzing of the stones in her skull, as their bodies moved gracefully around and against each other, passing food back and forth and allowing themselves to linger—just a bit. The atmosphere in the room was heavy with intention, but they were still too fragile to risk its fracture instead merely allowing their eyes to roam where their lips once had. 

As Jamie watched Claire slowly eating grapes, twisting her silver ring around and around whenever her hands were empty, every turn of it stoking the fire low down in his belly, he became aware of a curious and unknown sensation between them. While her eyes met his often enough and he caught her in her liquid perusals of his body, there was a hesitancy there where there had been none before.

Draining his wine glass and setting it down again, he stood and held a hand out to her. “Will ye… will ye come t’bed wi’ me then?” His voice was roughened by emotion and by desire, but he had to ask, to be sure.

“Yes.” It was a breath, a gasp, that passed from her to him, but it was enough.

She rose to meet him and they stood before the fire, and Claire was aware of the strange sensation of being unsure what to do. It was something she had tried not to think about, this vacuum where once such a vital part of herself had lived. After all, hadn’t Mrs. Graham told her that her husband would never stray far from her bed, all those many years ago? 

Jamie reached down to begin unbuttoning his waistcoat, but a gentle hand upon his chest stopped him.

“Jamie. There’s something else,” she said it softly, eyes closed against it.

He stood stock still, perhaps the most he had ever been in his life. Would it be Frank? he wondered. Had it been very, very good? Or very, very bad? He was shamed to realize he hoped for the latter, and he closed his own eyes against his selfish thoughts. It was monstrous, brutish, of him to wish her a cold and unhappy marriage bed since leaving theirs, but wish it he did even as he prayed for her forgiveness.

Opening his eyes again, he realized she still stood as if she had been turned to stone by whatever she had to stay. He eased his own warm palm over hers and curled his fingers around her. 

“What is it, mo nighean donn?” The endearment came like the whisper of God himself on his lips, unbidden but irrepressible. 

She blinked her whiskey eyes open looking him dead on for a heart stopping moment, before looking away again. “It’s… it’s been a long time.”

It hung on the air between them.

“Aye,” he breathed out. “Ye did say Frank had passed some years gone.”

Her eyes slid closed again, as if this moment were too unbearable to watch unfold. A painful swallow of her throat and then a whispered confession, “No. Longer.”

His heart hammered and roared in his ears, and he felt sick with what the admission had clearly cost her and grimly triumphant with it all the same.

He didn’t want to ask, shouldn’t, felt ill with himself for doing it, and yet he did it just the same. “How long?”

A hitch of breath in from her full, parted lips, and a clench of her eyes as she tried, and failed, to say with levity, “Oh, just about twenty years, give or take…”

Twenty years. It clanged in his bloodstream like the bells of Edinburgh, heavy and metallic. His own eyes slid closed that she might not see how happy she had made him, how happy he was disgusted with himself for being. He allowed himself that one glorious, gruesome moment, before opening his eyes again. If he would be made happy by the wreckage of her life, the least he could do was bear witness to it.

“I— We— We tried, once or twice, when I had gotten back, but…” A helpless shrug.

“And he didna go mad?” Mad wi’ the wanting of ye?

A wry and somewhat pained twist to her lips. “No. He— There were others.” She had said it simply and lightly and yet he could tell that it had cut.

He was pulled to her as though by a rope wound round his heart and hers as well. His fingers traced her cheeks, her brow, her nose, her lips.

“Dinna fash, Sassenach.” It was said in the same low, gentle tones he used with the horses that spooked. She pressed closer to him and he grunted, and made as though he would turn away. He was ashamed to realize that he had hardened further in his breeks at her admission, his cock the throbbing and painful evidence of his jealous heart.

With gentle touches he disrobed her, turning her this way and that. At times he would press his palm firmly against her, as though he could not bear this moment without the reminder that it was real. After divesting her of her waistcoat and neckerchief, he moved behind her, parting her hair to press his lips to the pulse point of her throat. The breath sighed out of her at that, and he realized like a punch to the gut that he could smell her, smell her wanting of him. Desire was a knife’s edge at his throat.

His hands grew more fevered as they roved her body, gripping and pulling at her arse—A dhia, still so round and plush, even fatter, he thought, fat for sinking his fingers into.

Undoing her skirts quickly, he was stopped short by the corset she wore. It was unboned, revealing the whole of her figure—Dear Christ, he could burst aflame—but was set with a curious contraption down the front. 

She laughed, the full-throated, low laugh she had used to make in the long nights between them. “It’s a zipper!” she explained, brightly, hesitancy forgotten in the moment of breathless joy. “You just pull the tab down—see?” She had brought his broad, rough hand in her small, fine one to the center of her chest. He grabbed hold of the dart of metal and gave a tug, the sides of the garment separating open like the cage of her ribs, waiting for him.

She stood in her shift alone and she stared Jamie deeply in the face. Her hands came to the sides of his jaw and rubbed, eliciting a breathless moan and he turned like a cat beneath her palms, trying to kiss the sensitive concavity against the flat plane of his cheek.

Her fingers skimmed down, down, lower still to the laces of his breeks where she began with deft touches to pull them free. Every so often her fingers would brush against him and his cock would leap like a hound in the hunt.

Her half-smile curved around her lips and for a moment Jamie felt that they were back in the past, back in that first night together and the many that followed. His heart would burst if he didn’t kiss her. He leaned down, slowly, gently, and captured that upward corner of her mouth. His breeks fell away at the same moment, and he stepped from them without ever breaking their kiss.

He was in his shirt now and she her shift. Her teeth bit down into the meat of her lower lip, residual nervousness even still, but her nipples were hard and prominent against the fabric.

He broke his lips away from hers and mouthed down her neck to the valley between her breasts. He watched with his slanted cat’s eyes as he slowly rubbed a thumb back and forth over her nipple, the breaths shuddering from her chest faster now, her eyes dark and heavily lidded. Bending down, slowly, so slowly, announcing his intention in deed if not word, he sucked her into his mouth, fabric and all. She gasped at the wet heat of him, and a mewling he had never heard the like of started high in her throat as he bit and sucked at her.

“Yer nipples…” he sighed out. “Christ, Sassenach, yer nipples are like fresh, bright cherries and I would have myself a bite.” He moved his tongue against her, giving a last sharp tug as she keened, before transferring to the other. “Larger than before, are they no’?” he asked, ruminating, his voice thickened with lust.

Hers was high and reedy, ready to snap, he could tell. “Well, you try nursing two babies and see how yours turn out.” 

It had all the sharpness of her that he loved and he looked up at her with a grin. “I’m no’ complainin’, Sassenach. I’m highly appreciative of there being more of ye here.”

He felt like a lad again, giddy and arrogant with it. A Dhia she was even more responsive now even than she had been, and he’d have sworn that an impossibility. He wondered, in a dark flash, if he could make her come from this alone and his blood roared even more fiercely in response.

“Jamie, Jamie, Jamie,” she was softly chanting, her hips moving of their own accord now, pumping against his and begging for it. 

His voice was wild with it as he said “It has to be now, Sassenach. It has to be now.”

She answered him with a breathless stream of yesyesyes, and he seized the bottom of her shift and pulled it roughly upward. No sooner was it off her than he tore his own from his body and, pressing their lengths together from legs to shoulders, began walking her back towards the bed.

Claire had forgotten what this felt like, to be so surrounded by him. She was aware of a sudden flutter of anxiety and she tried to wedge her hands between them, to cover herself and what she had become.

“No. No, Sassenach, let me look at ye,” he said it with such pleading she couldn’t deny him and so with a gasp she let her arms fall away.

He took a step back, the better to peruse the terrain of her skin, seemingly unaware or just uncaring of his own nudity. She was struck by him. Whereas before he had been muscled and lean with youth, there stood before her now the hard and solid body of a man in full. He was massive, built like a wall, his belly so firm his abdominals protruded out, and against it—and this she had remembered, oh how she had remembered—his cock thrust dark and flushed, a drop of precum already gathered at its tip, the foreskin pulled back to reveal his gleaming head. Her tongue darted to her lips without her even meaning to and her fingers twitched with the urge to grasp him to her. But he had asked to look, and looking he was. His eyes were hungry for all of her, from her tousled hair and the ridge of her sternum to her belly, hips, and thighs, thicker now than when they had last met, plumped by the years of being well-fed. She felt embarrassed at the directness of his gaze, taking in everything, and she worried suddenly about the purple-silver stretch marks that still gleamed across her belly and thighs, remainders of the time she had been three people instead of one.

His words came as a breath or a prayer as he whispered, “Jesus, Claire… ye’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” He reached out with an index finger to trace the silken dent of a stretch mark, to feel the softness of the skin that had been left when the rest had pulled away.

He bent his mouth to her then, tracing each line with his tongue, peppering these long-hidden places of her with nips and bites.

She aware, she supposed, of what he was doing, but it didn’t properly hit her until he had made his way between her thighs and finished worshipping the parts of her she would have hidden if she could. Her heart gave an almighty lurch as she stared down as his tousled crown, while he stared down at her. He was seemingly transfixed, his breath scorching against her inner lips. He had been the last man to do this to her, she realized, and a reflexive tightening of his hand on her thigh suggested he had had the same thought. 

He used his hands—had they always been so giant?—to hold her thighs far apart from each other as he stared. He knelt on the floor beside the bed as though awaiting a benediction, awaiting his sacrament. His tongue had reached out to touch the corner of his mouth, an unthinking indication of his appetite that seemed to break his reverie as he suddenly shot his eyes towards hers. She felt completely exposed, vulnerable, and yet powerful at the same time, the pulsing in her belly growing in time with her breath. He bent down to her again and, without ever breaking his gaze, lapped his tongue from her opening up to her clitoris in one firm stroke. She moaned as though it were wrenched out of her as he buried his face between her folds, his breath coming in short, sharp pants against her. “Sweet Christ, the taste of ye, Sassenach.”

He returned to his task with vigor, laving her inner lips over and over, swirling his tongue around her sensitive crest whenever he got to the top. Overtaken by fire, sometimes he would plunge his tongue roughly into the depths of her and then, returning to her clitoris, suck so firmly she thought she might die at the feel of it. He was clutching at the velvet of her inner thighs convulsively and seemed to be murmuring a string of prayers and curses both into the folds of her body. When he glanced up at her, his eyes were wild with it, his face gleaming wetly with her juices. “A dhia” hissed from his lips. “Could ye be any wetter than this, Sassenach? Have ye e’er been wetter than this?”

Claire’s face bloomed like the opening of a rose, but she still whispered, “No” into the night air around them and her confession made him frenzied with lust, burning him from the inside out. He brought two of his own fingers to his lips and plunged them deep inside, before returning to the place between her legs. But he wasn’t fully gone, not yet, and he took care to open her softly and carefully, pumping one finger then both in and out of her. Her muscles clung to him with an iron force, as if begging him not to go. He had taken to rubbing her clit over and over with the flat of his tongue, his hand pumping into her while the other stole up to squeeze and fondle her breast.

Her inner muscles began to flutter and contract, and it was so much, too much and she keened her pleasure and her pain into the hot air around them. He had known when to stop, always an expert of her body it seemed, before she got too sensitive, instead just resting his lips around the hooded bud of her pleasure, his head tilted down to watch her ride out her ecstasy against his hand.

She came to gasping, somehow less sated than before. He still sat on his heels between her legs, looking up at her face like she was heaven itself.

“Jamie…” she said softly, reaching towards him.

He sat back a bit, but didn’t come to her. Resting his rough cheek against the softness of her thigh, he canted his eyes up to hers. He would wait. After her confession, he would wait until she felt safe and sure.

“Please.” The plea left her lips simply, but it was all she had to say.

Jamie launched to his feet and crawled on top her, sinuously rubbing himself against her like a large and needy cat. He bent his lips to her and kissed her, first passionately with their tongues entwining, doing battle, then as softly as the gentle, drenching rain on the moors.

“I canna bear not to be inside ye, Sassenach,” his hands gripped her arse suddenly and kneaded with a firm pressure. “That I should have yer taste on my lips and yer walls on my cock, aye God that should surely kill me.”

Whiskey eyes met blue in the still and quiet night surrounding them. Claire reached down, tracing her hands over his gnarled back, so achingly beloved to her, pressing eager fingers into the dent above his buttocks, the spot that had always made him moan and she found still could. She began the traverse again down his front, over hard planes of his chest, more thickly furred than the last time they two had met like this. She trailed quiet fingers down his belly, muscles rippling in her wake, his jaw flexing and breath coming in pants, before she finally reached down and grasped him. His whole body shuddered against her as he buried his face into her neck, breathless and wordless at the feel of her small palm against him.

She stroked the hard, hot velvet of him, rubbing her thumb against the leaking head, before taking grip once more and guiding him to the center of her, that pulsing, aching spot within her that she had left sealed and locked for twenty years.

The muscles of his arms bulged as he held himself above her, but still he waited. His eyes were dark and hungry, pupils blown wide in the flickering fire light as he looked down at her like a man dying of thirst come finally to a place of water.

She reached up to trace his shoulders, the wonderful and sought-after lines of his body, and nodded to him. Solemnly, he nodded back and inch by inch, fed himself into her. He was like a furnace, dripping with sweat and desire, the tangy taste of him one Claire would chase with her tongue. It was painful, surprisingly, though as a doctor she supposed she should have known. But the pain was a good, deep kind, like sutures knitting the secret parts of herself back together. 

At last, he had pushed all the way inside her, deep up into her until their pelvises met with the thunk of a key turning in the lock. Jamie wasn’t sure he’d ever been so happy, could ever be so happy, all the chapters of his life a mere prelude to this. Her sex was swollen and drenched against his own, greedily grasping at him with every slide of flesh against flesh.

Even had he doubted her words about her marriage with Frank—which, of course, he had not— the tightness of her and slight clenching of her body would have shown him the truth of it.Though he thought his heart might stop, hammering the way it was, he stilled within her, giving them both time to feel every breath, every rush of blood. 

As he nuzzled as her throat and plucked at her nipples, though, she became more frenzied beneath him, growing more limpid as her hips began to press against his in an urgent appeal. He shifted his hips in long slow strokes against her, rolling into her like storm making landfall, ebbing and flowing from her body like the tide. He felt wild with the pleasure and the nearness of her—had it always been like this? had it always been this blaze hot enough to burn all else to ash?—their lips meeting and parting, tongues twining as they gasped into each other.

They spiraled together, higher and higher, when he felt her wildness become unchained. Claire shook her head from side to side, urging his hips to hers, faster and faster. Each thrust was a snap of his hips and, with madness in his eyes, his hand drifted down to rub at her crest, his fingers slipping in the absolute mess of her. A filthy litany of curses and her name poured from his mouth and she scored her nails down his back, sure to leave marks, before sinking her fingers into the firm globes of his buttocks, massaging as she pulled him to her. His thrusts became ragged and uneven as she screamed her pleasure into him and, clenching around him endlessly, over and over again, pulled him with her off the edge.

 

 

Chapter Text

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.