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Atonement

Chapter Text

“Mr. Fraser?”

Jamie’s vision spun. Fragmented. Blurred, focused, then shattered again. He was vaguely aware of movement all around him — a sea of faces, flashing blue and red lights, a revolving glass door.

“Mr. Fraser, can you hear me?”

“… Aye…” He heard the rasp of his own voice as though he were somehow disconnected from it.

 “Mr. Fraser, you’ve been in an accident. You’re in the emergency room at Mass General. There’s gonna be a lot going on here, okay, buddy? A lot of people, a lot of activity. Just know that we’re doing everything we can to get you stabilized.”

“62/37, Dr. Goldstein.”

“Run that LR wide open. Did we type him?”

“Yeah, I got it.”

“Alright, let’s get 2 units of O neg on standby. We need that second access, people! Someone get me at least a 16 gauge in this guy—”

A fresh surge of blood trickled over the side of the stretcher, splattering the hospital floor with red.

Cold. Christ, he was so cold.

“58/35.”

There was a muttered curse above him, and then the heel of large, strong hands pressed to his chest, poised to begin CPR.

“Come on, buddy, stay with me…”

The world closed in, a monitor screamed, and then there was nothing.

 


 

Oblivion had its distinct advantages.

There was no comprehension of time or space, no sense that the world had continued to turn while Jamie lay motionless, hovering indecisively on the line between life and death. There was no pain, no horror, no anguish. He didn’t dream. He didn’t remember. He merely was — and even then, he managed only a tremulous, flickering hold on existence.

All in all, though, the void wasn’t so bad.

When he did, at last, begin the sluggish process of coming back to himself, Jamie’s first awareness was one of noise. All around him, enveloping him, was a mingled, whirring drone: a low, steady, mechanical thrum, the dull roar of a heating vent, a peaceful bubbling sound, like water boiling on a stove.  

Slowly, he managed to crack crusted lashes apart. At once, his vision swam dizzyingly, and he let the heavy lids fall shut again before they’d fully opened. Still, it was long enough to spark the realization that there was something there … something beyond the darkness.

Green, he thought dimly, struggling for the word. There was a green light, just ahead of him. If he focused hard enough, he could still make it out, glowing beyond his closed eyelids.

The overwhelming majority of his brain begged him to let it go; to surrender, to slide back down into nothingness. Still, his interest was piqued. Curiosity got the better of his instinct for self-preservation, and Jamie stubbornly pried his eyes open a second time.

There it was again: that bright chartreuse light. Ignoring the near-violent wave of vertigo, he stared at it hard this time, willing his pupils to constrict, to focus. Gradually, painstakingly, the blurred luminance began to sharpen and take shape.

A rectangle… several of them. Five of them. Glowing, neon green rectangles.

Jamie stared at them until the churning, pitching dizziness began to abate. Only then did he dare to drag his gaze down slightly, to the flicker of movement just below the steady green glow. Bleary eyes watched the letters that scrolled repeatedly in front of him, reading over and over without any sort of comprehension.

Fentanyl… Midazolam… TPN… Lipids… Cefazolin

His eyes began to blur again, wet and strained from the effort of remaining open so long. He let them drift shut, feeling himself tip back toward unconsciousness. Right on the cusp, he drew in a deep breath on the pretense of a sigh.

That slight stretch of skin over ribs, and it was over. He was back in his own body, then. Immediately, desperately, he wished he wasn’t.

Nothing could have prepared him for it.

Nape to waist, he was flayed open. Shredded flesh, muscle, sinew; raw red tissue, splintered bone, nerve endings exposed and pulsing, burning scalding…

Igniting with white hot agony, he seized up; he couldn’t move; he couldn’t stop moving — shuddering, convulsing. He tried to twist away from his own skin, and vaguely heard himself screaming.

Somewhere overhead, a high-pitched alarm screeched. Then another. Far away, he heard the pound of several sets of footsteps, running.

“Jamie!” A frantic cry rose over the whirlwind of overlapping voices that suddenly pressed all around him.

Da?

“Hold him!” commanded another, unfamiliar voice. 

A fizzy, chemical burn in his veins, and his head swam, rippling as though a stone had been skipped across the surface of his mind.

The void opened up gaping black arms and welcomed him home.

Jamie fell back into it with more relief than he’d ever felt in his life.

Chapter Text

Claire Beauchamp didn’t even read the page that changed her life.

Most nights, she had a nice, leisurely start to her shift. There was time to peruse her patients’ charts, make detailed notes, organize her workload on a spreadsheet — every med pass, vitals check, and dressing change listed in neat hourly columns.

Tonight was not one of those nights.

She’d hit the floor running the moment the day shift finished handoff. Six call lights, a spilled water, a wandering dementia patient, a dislodged and profusely bleeding IV, two requests for pain meds, and a full-blown projectile vomit later… she’d just barely sat down to chart when her pager erupted in a series of shrill, high-pitched beeps. On instinct, Claire smacked irritably at it to silence it. She had every intention of reading the message scrawled out in archaic block print, just as soon as she finished charting everything she’d done in the last hour and a half.

As fate would have it, though — or, rather, as Gillian Edgars would have it — she never got the chance. Ten minutes later, the charge nurse rounded the corner to the computer charting station, looking wild-eyed and disheveled.

“Did ye no’ get my page?” she demanded breathlessly.

Claire grimaced, and belatedly tugged the pager loose from her scrub top. “Shit. No. Sorry. What did you need?”

Gillian grabbed her by the elbow, pulling her to her feet and around the corner before Claire even had a chance to lock her computer screen. “I need my Velvet Hammer, that’s wha’ I need.”

A guttural groan wrenched itself from Claire’s throat. That couldn’t be good.

During her three year tenure at Massachusetts General Hospital, Claire had managed to acquire a bit of a reputation for her unflappable, level-headed demeanor with the more “challenging” patients. What that meant, she found out rather quickly, was that the worst kind of belligerent, demeaning, non-compliant arseholes were routinely hoisted off on her, because the charge nurses “knew she could handle it.” Her coworkers had taken to calling her The Velvet Hammer after Gillian repeatedly teased her that Ye’ll bash their skulls in and make ‘em thank ye for the pleasure. It was meant to be a compliment, she supposed, but what it really amounted to was more work.

To be fair, though, more work was exactly what Claire had been chasing these past few weeks. She’d racked up hours upon hours of overtime, working nearly double her normal appointment – sixty, sometimes seventy-two hours a week, if she could get away with it. She arrived at the hospital early and left late every day. Anything, really, to keep her occupied.

Anything to keep her sane.

Frank had texted her again on the way in to work this evening ( We need to talk, Claire. You can’t bloody well avoid me forever ). So whatever nightmare scenario Gillian was about to assign her, she supposed it would provide a much-needed distraction, if nothing else.

Steeling herself, Claire dug her trainers into the linoleum floor, forcing her coworker to stop and look at her. Welcome distraction or not, it didn’t seem particularly wise to venture into a warzone blind.

“Care to tell me what sort of fresh hell you’re dragging me into, here, Gill?”

The pretty young Scot winced, dragging her nails back through mussed strawberry-blonde hair. “Fresh hell is right. Mary’s in the locker room sobbin’ her guts out.”

“Oh, God.” Her stomach dropped. Mary Hawkins was a new-graduate nurse, barely a week off of orientation, and as skittish as they came. “What happened?”

“A fucking trainwreck, tha’s wha’ happened!” Gillian huffed out a sigh, gesticulating animatedly as she spoke. “The hospital’s at high occupancy, so the bed managers have been pagin’ me all day with these random off-service transfers, tryin’ to free up the ICU beds. I fought ‘em tooth and nail on this one before they went over my head and got the transfer approved. Fucking Trauma/Burn ! They said he’s plastic surgery, no’ ‘technically ’ a burn patient—” Her fingers arched in air quotes, accompanied by an exaggerated eye roll. “—so he falls under our jurisdiction. I tried to fight it, Claire, I swear...”

“What happened with Mary, Gill?”  

“I’m gettin’ there, haud yer wheesht! So we were down to the last bed, and I had no choice but to take this guy, and Mary was the only one open for an admit. I should ha’ just had her switch with you, I ken, I’m payin’ for it now! Anyway, she’d never seen a skin graft before, so when she did her first assessment, she tried to pull up the dressing to check the wound, and—”

“Shit,” Claire hissed through her teeth. Oh, she was being pulled in for damage control, all right. Most surgical sites were covered by a removable pad or gauze so that the incision could be carefully monitored. Skin grafts, on the other hand, were delicate, and needed to be left alone for optimum healing. The dressing covering it was literally stitched into the surrounding flesh to prevent tampering. It was an innocent mistake; they didn’t regularly take plastic surgery patients, so Mary’d never had a chance to learn. Still, Claire had a hunch that wouldn’t particularly matter to the patient whose raw skin the new nurse had tried to pry off, ripping at the fresh sutures in the process.

“Aye. Shit. So what I need from ye now is hyper-competence, my Velvetiest of Hammers.” Gillian slung an arm around her shoulders and began to lead her down the hallway again.

As they passed the clock mounted on the wall above the nurses’ station, Claire let out a groan, suddenly remembering all of the charting she still had yet to finish. “You picked a fine night to throw this at me, Edgars. My assignment is—”

“I’ll mind yer assignment while ye deal with this. And Mary’ll take one of yer other patients in exchange for this one. Maybe a gentle wee lamb like yer auld biddy in room 62?”

“Oh, sure,” Claire sighed. “By all means, take my easy patient.”

“Ye’re a braw lass, Claire Beauchamp.” Gill patted her shoulder in commiseration. “A bonny wee warrior. My favorite nurse to ever walk these halls.”

Claire shot her a look. “Coffee. You owe me coffee.”

“Large dark roast, two creams, sugar in the raw. Aye, on it.” She gave a mock salute. “And dinner, too, if ye want! Thai food? Hmm? Pizza? Ali Baba? Dumpling Palace? You name it, Beauchamp, I’ll have it delivered and waitin’ for ye once ye sort out this whole Fraser mess.”

“Fraser?” Claire echoed, pulling the pen and note paper from her scrub pocket. “Is that his name?”

“Aye, James Fraser. Room 43. Twenty-six year old male, motor vehicle accident—” If she caught Claire’s flinch, she kindly chose not to remark on it. “—extensive trauma. Ripped his back clean off. Three skin grafts sae far and he’s still a hot mess. Had every complication in the book: sepsis, necrosis, shock. Too many blood transfusions to count.” Gillian lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper as they approached room 43. “Puir bugger. Dinna blame him for bein’ like he is. I’d be a right heinous bitch if ‘twere me.” Her lip curled upwards in a half-smirk. “If it’s any consolation, he’s no’ horrible to look at.” With a wink, she spun on her heel and backpedaled toward the relative safety of the nurses’ station. “And he’s Scottish, too, like yer favorite charge nurse!”

“Joe isn’t Scottish!” Claire quipped as she held her palm out beneath the automated hand-sanitizer dispenser. Gill turned around mid-retreat to mime stabbing herself in the heart, her green eyes twinkling.

Claire was still smiling over her shoulder and rubbing Purell between her hands as she stepped into James Fraser’s hospital room for the first time. After enough years in this profession, the standard introduction bloomed on her lips automatically: “Good evening, Mr. Fraser, my name is Claire, I’ll be your nurse t—”

She stopped short when she actually looked up and got her first glimpse of the patient in question. Her customary script dissolved into a choked little “oh ” before she could catch herself.

Gillian had failed to mention that James Fraser was a giant.

Truthfully, she couldn’t see much of him; he was stretched out on his stomach, his hulking form covered by a starched white sheet. A mop of matted auburn curls peeked out over the top, but the bottom hem barely reached his mid-calf. Someone had taken the footboard off the bed so that he wasn’t scrunched up, but they hadn’t gotten around to extending the bed frame. As a result, his bare feet were dangling a good six inches off the end of the mattress. It was a strangely endearing sight – almost childlike, somehow. A faint smile touched Claire’s lips before she tucked it away behind a mask of cool professionalism.

She attempted to cover the momentary lapse in decorum by clearing her throat. “I’ll, ah, I’ll be your nurse tonight. I’m here with you until 7:30 in the morning.”

No response.

After the whole dressing debacle, she supposed he’d earned that much. Could be worse; she certainly preferred stony silence to explosive anger. In any event, carrying on a one-sided conversation with an embittered patient had become almost second nature to her by now. She pressed on brightly, clasping her hands in front of her. “Right. First thing’s first. Let’s start by fixing that bed, shall we?”

The patient didn’t move a muscle; made no effort to acknowledge her presence whatsoever. Pursing her lips, Claire turned on her heel and saw herself out, the mechanical whir and squelch of the hand sanitizer dispenser the only sound in the room.

Five minutes later, she returned with a teetering stack of supplies piled up to her chin – not only the mattress insert, but also all of the other essentials she thought he might need for a long hospital stay: lotion, Kleenex, chapstick, deodorant, body wash, shaving cream, a razor, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a wide toothed comb, a menu, the channel list for the TV, a ballpoint pen, and a little notepad with the hospital’s logo printed across the top.

“Brought you a few things,” she told him cheerily. Since he still wouldn’t pull the sheet down from over his face, she named each item aloud as she set it on the end table beside him. Unfortunately, her attempt to win Mr. Fraser over with a load of hospital-issue swag appeared to be falling flat; he remained silent and unmoving for so long that Claire finally decided to just leave him be. There was still the matter of the bed to be sorted, though — she couldn’t very well leave him with his feet dangling.

Circling around to the control panel, she quietly explained what she was doing as she pressed the little arrow button to elongate the bed. The machinery gave off a grinding whine as the frame stretched. Once it was extended as far as it would go, she moved down to the foot of the bed with the extra mattress insert tucked under one arm.

“Mr. Fraser, do you think you could lift your feet up for just a moment while I—?” She blinked a little in surprise when he immediately bent his knees, ankles crossing in mid-air, before she could even finish her sentence.

So, not a deaf-mute after all. Stubborn as all get out, but not totally incompliant, either.

She could work with that.

“Thank you,” she murmured as she slipped the insert into place and tugged the fitted sheet out around it. She smiled at him automatically, forgetting that he couldn’t see her. Resisting the urge to sigh, she added, “All set.”

She didn’t miss the way his calves had begun to tremble a bit, fatigued by that slight bit of effort. His legs slumped back to the bed like a deadweight the moment she gave her permission. God, how long had he been in the ICU? Gillian had mentioned three skin grafts, and judging by his level of deconditioning, it must have been several weeks of bedrest, at least.  

A tiny crease formed between Claire’s brows. She really needed to get a look at this patient’s chart before she proceeded much further with trying to care for him. She’d had a few plastic surgery patients over the years — reconstruction after breast cancer, usually — but nothing recent, and never anything this severe. She was flying by the seat of her pants, here, and the very last thing she wanted to do was cause this poor man any more pain. Particularly after his rather rocky introduction to the unit.

Which reminded her…

“Mr. Fraser—” She hesitated, twining her fingers together thoughtfully as she spoke. “I wanted to apologize to you for what happened earlier. Mary is one of our newer nurses, and I’m afraid we don’t see many skin grafts on this unit. For what it’s worth, she feels horrible for—”

“S’fine,” a deep, hoarse voice whispered beneath the sheet, so faintly that she thought she might have imagined it.

Swallowing back her surprise, Claire pulled over a wheeled stool and sat down by the head of his bed. “It’s not,” she said earnestly. “You trust your nurses to know how to care for you, and we betrayed that trust tonight. You have every right to be upset.”

There was another long stretch of silence, and she thought perhaps he’d clammed up on her again. She shifted her weight, and was taking a breath to launch back into her apology when the soft Scottish brogue spoke again. “T’was an honest mistake. I’m no’ upset.” A pause, an audible swallow, then he added faintly, “No’ about that, anyway.”

At last, she watched his hand drag up beneath the sheet to take hold of the upper edge. She held her breath unconsciously as he pulled it away from his face.

… and released it in a sharp exhale as his eyes locked onto hers.

She could live to see a thousand years and never be able to describe it: the raw agony reflected in those pools of fathomless blue, or the desperate, echoing ache it roused in the very marrow of her bones. She was a nurse; she’d always had the instinct to nurture and to heal. This was something else entirely. The very molecules of her body ignited with the need to comfort him, to touch, to soothe.

It was madness, really. He’d spoken less than a dozen words to her. He was a perfect stranger. Yet she knew by the shift in his eyes that he felt it too… the spark of recognition, of understanding; the strange and sudden intimacy amongst broken souls.

For the space of several heartbeats they simply stared at one another in silence. Then, finally, James Fraser opened and closed his mouth, wet his lips, and stammered hoarsely, “Yer name, lass... what did you say your name was?”

Her lips moved, but hardly any sound breathed past them. “Claire.” She cleared her throat and tried again. “My name is Claire.”

“Claire,” he echoed quietly, experimentally. The sound of her name in that soft burr elicited a tremulous smile, a fluttering exhale. She dropped her lashes then, breaking eye contact in a desperate bid to regain any semblance of professionalism.

“It’s a pleasure to finally put a face to the name, Mr. Fraser.” Her fingertips brushed teasingly over the hem of the sheet, gathered just below his shoulders. She could still feel the warmth of his skin lingering on the starched cotton. There was another long beat of silence, and Claire glanced up to find that his eyes had never once left hers. She swallowed against a suddenly dry throat, feeling her cheeks flush at the unabashed intensity of his gaze.

“Jamie,” he murmured at last, the lines around his eyes crinkling in the ghost of a smile. “You can call me Jamie, if ye like.”

Chapter Text

He hadn’t cried when Jenny told him.

He’d screamed at her; bellowed and raged until the vein in his forehead popped, until he was spraying spittle, until the nurse’s assistant came in, palms raised, imploring him to remember that there were other patients trying to rest. The charge nurse burst in right behind him, asking if she needed to call hospital security. At that point, Jamie had buried his face in his pillow and pulled the covers up over his head, opting to seethe in silence.

They transferred him out of the ICU three hours later. Said it was because he was stable now; he wasn’t critical enough to need a bed on the trauma/burn unit anymore. Maybe that was so.

Truth be told, it didn’t matter to Jamie what they did with him any more. None of it mattered.

His father was dead. Cremated, placed in an urn, his ashes flown back to Scotland and scattered amongst the heather. The ceremony had been beautiful, Jenny assured him. They’d recorded video of the whole thing so he could see it later, “when he was ready.”

He told her to go to hell.

Six weeks, and she hadn’t said a word. Six weeks . She insisted that it had been to protect him; he’d been so fragile, barely clinging to life himself, she didn’t think he could handle it. She thought it would kill him, too. Her face had crumpled with that confession, her breath hitching on a sob.

I couldna lose ye both, brother.

Jamie tried to pin the blame on her, at first. How could she let Da fly out to Boston in the first place? He had a bad heart, she knew that. He was supposed to be taking it easy until he got his defibrillator; he had no business getting on an international flight. She could have stopped him. Taken his credit card, hidden his passport. Something. Anything.

But even as he raged, hurling vitriol at his sister with everything he had, Jamie could feel the horrible truth begin to settle in his bones like lead.

It wasn’t Jenny’s fault. It was his.

It was his.

He was the one who’d gone through a fucking windshield. The one who had taken off his seat belt for one stupid minute, because his phone had dropped out of the cup holder and onto the floor, and the Bluetooth had disconnected, and God forbid he go five minutes without listening to his damned podcast.

He coded in the ER. Died, flatlined - twice. There was no question: it was supposed to have been his ashes tucked into a carry-on and brought back on a flight home to Glasgow.

Brian Fraser was supposed to be out on a rowboat right now, watching the sunrise as he cast a fishing line over a glassy loch. He was supposed to be finishing the Alexander Hamilton biography he’d picked up over the summer after being dragged to the musical and, shockingly, loving it. He was supposed to be shopping for Christmas gifts for his grandkids, panicking because he had no idea what the hell a Paw Patrol was.

He’d never do any of those things again, though. Because six weeks ago, he’d watched his only son wake screaming in a hospital bed, out of his mind with pain, and his weakened heart had given out.

Death had come to claim the wrong Fraser. The fury and the helplessness of that cosmic mistake was building in Jamie’s chest like a pressure cooker, the burning ache expanding by the minute until he thought his ribcage was going to crack.

Still, he didn’t cry.

He didn’t say another word, either. Not the entire time the nursing staff was cleaning out his ICU room, packing up his belongings into plastic drawstring bags; not during the excruciatingly bumpy stretcher ride down to the new unit; not when four sets of strong arms slid him over onto a smaller, infinitely less comfortable bed than the one he’d had upstairs. When prompted, he gave his name and date of birth through a tight, aching throat. That was it.

Until the mousy wee nurse assigned to him tried to pull his skin graft off.

He wasn’t quiet then.

A molten tirade of Gaelic and English curses had exploded out of him in a bone-shaking roar, sending several staff members running into his hospital room for the second time that day. Vaguely, distantly, he was aware that he had reduced his frightened young nurse to hysterics. She left the room sobbing, but it took several more minutes of chest-heaving agony before Jamie regained the wherewithal to feel sorry for having terrorized the lass.

It seemed to be becoming a habit, lately; his pain created a ripple effect of suffering to those around him.

He pulled the too-short sheet up over his head again, guilt-ridden and heartsick, feeling very much as though he were trying to hide under a blade of grass.

A few minutes went by before a slightly older, considerably more competent nurse — a Sassenach , he noted dully — came in to do damage control. He assumed they’d sent a battleaxe, a Nurse Ratched type, to get the wild, fearsome brute of a Scot back in line.

Not that there was any fight left in him. The last of his rage had erupted in that final outburst, leaving behind only a charred, empty husk of a man. He laid still and let the English nurse do as she wished, hoping that she’d go away quickly and leave him to mourn in peace.  

He never expected…

Claire, she said her name was. Claire.

She had the saddest eyes he’d ever seen.

 


 

Claire’s cell phone began vibrating in her pocket for the fourth time as she bent to drape a piece of sterile gauze across Jamie Fraser’s thigh. Hands gloved and sticky with vaseline, she had no means to silence the incessant buzzing. She winced, shooting her patient an apologetic glance.

“Sorry about that.”

Jamie’s gaze flickered up to meet hers briefly before dropping back to the dressing she was applying to his leg. “Ye’re a popular lass tonight.”

“Hardly,” she scoffed. Her brow creased a bit, lips parted in concentration, as she gently dabbed at the wound. “Just one very persistent individual, incapable of taking a hint.”

“Ah.”

The two of them lapsed into silence again as she worked. She’d just finished securing the second-to-last piece of tape around his dressing when her phone went off again.

“Jesus H. Christ ,” she hissed.

The corner of Jamie’s lip twitched. “Think you might need to take that,” he suggested wryly. “The silent treatment doesna seem to be workin’ for ye.”

Claire widened her eyes in annoyance. “Apparently.” Her gaze darted over his face before she added, blushing, “I really am sorry about this, it’s terribly unprofessional.”

“Dinna fash. I’m no’ the complaining-to-the-manager type.”

“Good to hear.” The lines around her eyes crinkled warmly as she affixed the last piece of tape. “There,” she announced, peeling off her gloves with a snap. “That should do it.”

“Thank ye.” Jamie flexed his knee experimentally, testing the feel and movement of the fresh bandage.

“How’s the pain?”

“I’ll bide.”

Claire frowned at him, unconvinced. “On a scale of zero to ten?”

He considered, then tilted his jaw in a shrug. “Eight.”

Eight? ” She pulled over the rolling computer and began to click through his chart. “Well, that’s why: you haven’t had any pain medicine since noon. Let me get you some morphine.”

Jamie let out a little grunt as he laid back down, settling on his right hip. “Dinna like the morphine.” At her look, he expounded gruffly, “Makes my head feel strange. I’d rather bear the pain, if it’s all the same to you.”

She opened her mouth to attempt to reason with him, but her phone interrupted as it began to vibrate again. Reaching into her pocket, she hit the button on the side to decline the call, and tilted the phone up just slightly so that she could see the screen. 

Fourteen text messages. Six missed calls.

Oh, for the love of…

Pushing down her irritation, she looked back up to Jamie and offered professionally, “It’s your prerogative to take or refuse any medication you choose. I’m only here to advise.”

“Yer advice is duly noted,” Jamie said, closing his eyes and tugging the sheet up over his shoulders. “But I’ll bide.”

 


 

She’d barely taken three steps into the hall when her phone started buzzing again. Biting out a curse, Claire ducked into the supply room. Despite her better judgment, she flicked her thumb over the green answer button, irritated to the point of confrontation for the first time in weeks.

“You need to stop,” she hissed into her phone without preamble. “I’m at work, Frank.”

“Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it?” a familiar voice answered on the other end, dripping with condescension. “You’re always at work. When else am I supposed to call, Claire? How much overtime have you picked up this week alone?”

She gritted her teeth, rolling her eyes shut. “What I do with my time is none of your—”

“You’re avoiding me! You’re fucking avoiding me, don’t even try to deny it! You’re working yourself into a bloody stupor trying to forget any of this ever happened. And that may work for a while, darling, but you can’t keep it up indefinitely. We need to talk about this like goddamned adults!”

“I have nothing to say to you. I thought I made that quite clear.”

“Be reasonable, Claire! Just think for a moment. Use that rational nurse’s brain of yours and think about what would have happened if we stayed. You think you’d still have your beloved job at that hospital? Hm? You honestly think you’d still have a nursing license? We’d have lost our work visas and been deported—”

A choked laugh of disbelief caught in her throat. “ That’s what you’re worried about? Honestly? Your fucking work visa?”

“No, what I’m saying is—”

She hung up on him then and powered her phone completely down. Bristling and defiant, she decided on the spot to stay for another block of overtime in the morning — make a 16-hour night of it. Frank might be right; she couldn’t keep up this reckless pace forever. But for now…

For now, she smoothed her hair, straightened her scrubs, and went back to work.

Shouldering through the door and out into the main hallway, Claire stopped short at the sight of another woman just a few steps away, close enough to have overheard her not-so-professional conversation if she had a mind to eavesdrop. Fortunately, given a quick once-over, it didn’t appear that she’d been paying any attention.

The woman was very obviously lost. She was studying her iPhone intently, muttering to herself as she looked back and forth from the hospital map on her screen to the room numbers above the doors. A bulky, heavy-looking paper grocery bag was clutched to her hip, and she hitched it up uncomfortably as Claire approached.

“Can I help you find something?”

The woman looked up in surprise, and then sagged a bit in relief when her eye caught Claire’s employee badge. “God, I hope so. I’m looking for my brother, James Fraser? They said he was transferred to this floor a few hours ago, but this whole place is a maze, I’m no’ sure I’m even in the right area…”

There was no doubt in Claire’s mind that the woman was who she claimed to be; the Scottish accent was a dead giveaway, and though she was slight and dark-haired, there was a clear resemblance to her brother. Still, her mind half-halted before answering. Taking care of the family was certainly part of her job, but her first priority was always her patient. She thought of Jamie, in pain and clearly wishing to be left alone, and steered his sister off toward the family waiting room.

“You’ve found the right place,” she said with a tight smile. “If you wouldn’t mind stepping into the lounge for just a moment, I’ll go check with Mr. Fraser and see if he’s ready for visitors.”

The woman paused mid-step, her jaw working back and forth as though easing an ache. She touched the tip of her tongue to her upper lip as she glanced off to one side.

“He willna see me if ye ask,” she admitted after a moment. Claire went still beside her, brows lifting slightly. The woman gave her a sharp look out of the corner of her eye — simultaneously vulnerable and irritated by that vulnerability. With a sigh, she dropped her heavy grocery bag into an empty lounge chair and planted both hands on her hips.

“Our father died a few weeks ago.”

Claire reached out briefly to touch the woman’s arm. “I’m so sorry.”

She gave a terse nod of acknowledgement. “Bad heart, ye ken? He barely left my brother’s side to take a piss after the accident; I’d bet my life he didna remember to take his meds. I had three bairns to get sorted before I could fly out, and by the time I got here, he’d…” She faltered, cocking her chin and rolling her shoulders as if to shrug off the grief. She was silent for a moment, composing herself, before she continued in a clipped tone, “I didna want to tell Jamie until he was stronger. He was barely hanging on himself at that point. But then it just wound up bein’ one thing after another — infections, more surgeries — and it just - it was never the right time. The longer it went on, the harder it got to tell him.” She shrugged, then crossed her arms tightly, defensively, over her chest. “Finally had to bite the bullet today. I fly back to Glasgow in the morning, no’ much choice left.” She stretched her neck, making a harsh sound in the back of her throat that was almost a laugh. “He didna take it well.”

“No, I can’t imagine he would,” Claire said softly.

The woman flashed her teeth in an expression that was somewhere between a grimace and smile. “Spent all this time worryin’ he’d blame himself. Turns out he blames me. And that’s fine, it’s better that way, ken. But he won’t even look at me now, let alone talk about it. And all of his friends, all of our family, they’re back in Scotland. The thought of going home and leavin’ him like this, wi’ no one—”

Claire reached for the woman’s hand this time, giving her knuckles a gentle squeeze. “We have a wonderful team of social workers to help patients during times of grief,” she assured her. “I’ll make sure we get someone in to see him as soon as possible.”

And there’s me, a quiet voice inside of her added, with a flicker of possessiveness she didn’t care to examine too closely. If no one else, he might talk to me.

Jamie’s sister was studying her with shrewd, catlike blue eyes, and Claire felt a bit of a flush creep up her neck. Lowering her own eyes, she added quietly, honestly, “He won’t be alone.”

That seemed to satisfy his sister. She nodded once, swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand, and cleared her throat. “You’re his nurse?”

“I am.”

“Would ye mind giving this to him for me, then?” She gestured at the grocery bag with her elbow. “It’s just a few wee things from home I thought he might like to have. If ye just say a package arrived and dinna tell him I brought it…”

Claire fixed a professional smile on her face and bent to pick up the proffered bag. “I won’t say a word,” she promised.

Chapter Text

Long after the Sassenach had finished his dressing change and left to deal with her overly-persistent caller, Jamie lay quietly in the dark, watching the rhythmic drip of his IV. His body was wrecked after such an eventful day; having pushed himself far beyond the limits of his exhaustion, he was now faced with the severe and unforgiving consequences of over-exertion. For the moment, it was all he could do to try and breathe through it, to consciously relax the spasming muscles of his back, to focus on anything but the pain.

Labeling that pain an 8/10 had been generous. Still, the last thing he wanted was more morphine. He was already woozy; if he had one more dose of pain medicine he knew he’d throw up, and the thought of pulling the raw skin and torn muscles taut over and over again as he retched… well, it defeated the purpose of taking the morphine in the first place. So he gritted his teeth, lay still, and begged his roiling mind to just shut up and let him sleep. At least when he slept, he didn’t hurt.

He was teetering on the brink of success, his conscious thoughts just beginning to waver and disintegrate, when the latch to the door clicked softly open. Though Claire was careful not to disturb him, his eyes immediately snapped open and followed her shadowed form across the room. She was carrying something large and heavy against her hip, but he couldn’t quite make out what it was in the darkness.

“Ye dinna have to tiptoe,” he said quietly, startling her despite his best efforts. “I’m no’ asleep.”

The nurse put a hand to her heart and let out a breath of a laugh. “Christ, you scared me.”

“Sorry.”

“No, it’s alright,” she assured him, reflexively reaching up to smooth her dark hair. “I’m just surprised you’re still awake.” She crossed the room in a few shuffling strides and deposited the heavy parcel onto the bedside table with a little grunt of effort. Upon closer inspection, it was a grocery bag… one with a very familiar logo stamped on the side.

From home. From a market in Broch Mordha.

All of the warmth evaporated from Jamie’s tone instantaneously. “So what did my sister have to say?”

Claire studied him for a moment, as though trying to decide whether or not to deny it. After a beat of silence, she admitted reluctantly, “A bit.”

A scoffing noise caught in Jamie’s throat. “Aye, I’m sure she did. She had quite a bit to say to me, too.”

They both looked away; the nurse was suddenly very interested in the handle of the grocery bag, while Jamie returned his gaze to the drip of the IV chamber.

“I’m sorry,” Claire said after a moment, her voice aching with sincerity. “About your father.”

A flash of moisture burned Jamie’s eyes for the first time since hearing the news. “Aye,” he whispered, squeezing his lashes shut. “So’m I.”

He felt the warmth of a hand hovering just over his shoulder — close, but not quite touching — before it suddenly withdrew, as though she’d thought better of it. “Can I get you anything?” she asked softly.

“No.”

He heard the slosh of melting ice water as she tested the amount left in his styrofoam cup; satisfied, she set it back down again. She lingered for another moment, and he could feel her eyes on him, that astute nurse’s gaze assessing, searching for any small way to help. The good ones were always trying to do that: make his hospital stay a little bit better by seeing to his creature comforts; fetching him a blanket right out of the warmer, topping off his water, sneaking him an extra packet of graham crackers, finding him a pillow that was just a bit less squashy.

Claire seemed like a good one. Better, maybe, than most — because in that moment, she stood there looking at him, and she understood. She fought down the instinct to fuss over him; seemed to intrinsically understand his need for silence. For solitude.

“You know how to reach me if you think of anything,” she murmured, nudging his call light closer before she turned to leave.

Jamie’s voice stopped her just as she began to pull the door shut behind her. “Thank you.” He opened his eyes and found hers, feeling unmasked and frighteningly vulnerable. “Claire.”

Those soft golden eyes held his, brimming with understanding. The corner of her mouth tipped up in a fragile smile, and it was as if something in him cracked. Jamie tasted salt in the back of his throat and turned away, swallowing hard against the burning swell of grief.

Claire hesitated for another moment before she shut the door, granting him privacy to battle his demons. Still, Jamie knew he wasn’t alone. He could still feel her there, strange as it was — he could feel her standing just on the other side.

It helped.

 


 

Claire stood with her palm on the door for several minutes, head bowed, listening. She half-expected him to call out for her to come back, and couldn’t deny the slight pang of disappointment when he didn’t.

She wasn’t sure what had come over her.

Lost in her reverie, it took her much longer than usual to recognize the familiar scent that beckoned from the nurses’ station. A few steps down the corridor, it finally hit her, and she veered off toward it, drawn by the aroma of good, strong coffee like a moth to flame. Sure enough, a Venti Starbucks dark roast was waiting for her, the cardboard sleeve completely covered in black sharpie doodles ( a horrible impression of the kissing face emoji, a hammer coming down on a scowling stick figure, the Scottish flag surrounded by hearts and flames ).

Claire rolled her eyes with a huff of a laugh, sinking down into a desk chair and swiping her badge to unlock the computer. While she waited for the charting system to load, she took a sip and smacked her lips appreciatively. Gillian had added a dash of cinnamon for good measure.

“Suck up,” she muttered under her breath, lip curling in a smirk.

Clicking into the portal, Claire went through and deleted sweet old Mrs. Graham from her patient list, then added James Fraser in her place. With his chart finally open in front of her, she took out her paper and jotted down a few quick notes: his most recent vital signs, his allergies, the date of his last surgery, which meds were due at what time. Before she forgot, she went into the pain assessment tab and charted his 8/10 rating, frowning slightly as she typed in an additional comment of Patient refusing medication at this time .

“Claire?” a meek, trembling voice said just behind her. She jolted as if she’d touched a livewire; it was all she could do not to slosh coffee all over her scrubs. For the length of three pounding heartbeats she squeezed her eyes shut, rattled just as much by her own overreaction as by being startled in the first place. She managed to compose her features before spinning the desk chair around, but it wasn’t quite fast enough to elude notice.

“Sorry!” Mary Hawkins squeaked. The young nurse stood a few paces back, wringing her hands. “I d-d-didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”

“No, you’re fine.” Claire breathed out a shaky laugh, offering a placating smile to cover her own unease. “Caffeine buzz,” she explained smoothly, lifting her still-full coffee cup. “Makes me jumpy.”

The lie came easily enough, but Christ , it had been weeks since she’d had to improvise an excuse on the fly like this. It was equal parts unnerving and infuriating, being in a position to have to do so again. There was no sense in denying that she was on edge tonight; Jamie had scared the wits out of her too, with no more than a quiet assurance that he was awake.

Her carefully polished veneer was cracking, and it was no great secret why.

She’d been doing just fine; she’d been handling herself, working hard, trying to find a way to move forward, a way to cope. Then along came bloody Frank Randall, barging back into her life with all the subtlety of a cannon ball. He was putting forth a damn good effort of dismantling her — ripping up her defense mechanisms by the roots, insistent upon rehashing the night she never wanted to think about again. He didn’t understand her at all, didn’t comprehend that she couldn’t , she…

She needed to get a grip. Frank was no excuse. He’d never been an excuse.

Get it together, Beauchamp .

Reaching out to touch the younger nurse’s arm, Claire did what she always did when confronted with her own paralyzing vulnerability: she deflected.

“Are you hanging in there?” she murmured, brows knitted in concern. “I heard our friend in 43 really put you through the wringer tonight.”

Fortunately, the younger nurse took the bait without a second thought. “Oh, God, it was terrible!” she moaned, pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes. “It’s all my f-f-fault. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed t-to touch the dressing and I pulled on it, and he—”

Claire got up and enveloped the poor girl in a hug. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t know.”

“He was so angry.” Mary’s voice was muffled in Claire’s shoulder. “I’ve never seen anyone so angry!”

“It wasn’t you,” Claire began, then bit her lip, torn between the ( strange protectiveness she felt toward Jamie ) duty to protect her patient’s privacy and the desire to soothe her friend. “He… has some personal things going on. He knows it was an honest mistake and he’s not upset with you.”

Mary pulled back to look at her with wide blue eyes. “He said that?”

“He did.” Claire smiled, giving the girl’s shoulder a squeeze.

The young nurse let that sink in for a moment, and then asked again, hesitantly, “So… you don’t think he’s going to t-try to have me fired?”

“No,” Claire assured her. “I don’t.” He’s apparently ‘no’ the complaining-to-the-manager type .’ Pursing her lips a bit, she added more somberly, “But I don’t think an apology would be amiss, either.”   

Mary gave an eager nod. “I want to. Apologize, that is. I was just af-fraid he’d yell at me again if I went back in there.”

Claire smiled. “Would you like me to come with you?”

“Oh, would you, Claire?!”

“Of course.” She gave the girl’s arm one last reassuring squeeze before sitting back down at the computer station to chart. “He’s resting now, but I’ll come find you when he’s awake, all right?”

 




Jamie slept fitfully.

There was no sense in trying to get comfortable; that particular luxury was beyond him, and he knew it. Still, he couldn’t help but shift his hips, his shoulders, his spine, searching for that elusive sweet spot where he hurt just a little bit less. All he wanted was to slip past that last barrier and into oblivion, but it seemed there would be no such luck tonight. Even when he managed to quiet his racing mind long enough to let sleep claim him, his traitorous body refused to cooperate. Minutes after drifting off, an inevitable muscle spasm would jolt him awake again, and the whole process started over.

After about two hours of this, he gave up trying.  

He had, up to that point, stubbornly avoided so much as looking at the bag Jenny’d brought for him. However, the nurse had left it at eye level, right in front of him, and it was taking considerably more effort to avoid it than to just glare at it with open contempt. So, after a while, he took to doing that instead.

His eyes traced the familiar curves of the green Mordha Market logo over and over again, telling himself it was just for lack of anything else to look at in that godforsaken hospital room.

Not because he was homesick.

Not because his first job had been bagging groceries and stocking shelves in that market, back when he was a brash, swaggering idiot of fifteen.

Not because his Da had driven him to work on his first day, clapped a big bear paw of a hand on his shoulder and told him, Ye’re a braw lad, son. I’m proud of ye.

Slowly, tentatively, Jamie’s fingertips curled over the edge of the grocery bag. He’d just take a wee peek inside, he decided — just to sate his curiosity so he could forget about it and go back to sleep.

A stack of folded construction paper cards was sitting right at the top. In the dim light from the IV pump, he could just make out his nephew’s careful, deliberate crayon handwriting. Abandoning any pretense of disinterest, Jamie grabbed his cell phone from the bedside stand and tapped the flashlight feature on, eagerly lifting the stack of colorful paper into the light beam.

YOR THE BEST OKL IN THE HOL WERLD proclaimed the first card. The blue construction paper was decorated with what he believed were supposed to be two Jedi Knights (one small and brown-haired, alongside a big redheaded one) fighting a tyrannosaurus rex. Jamie let out a shaky laugh, beaming through a sheen of tears as he opened the card to find about thirty Star Wars-themed stickers inside. Sandwiched in the middle was an additional note of I hop ye fil betr sun so we can pla Jedis. Love, Yor Favit Nefu (wee Jamie obvusli)

Setting the first card aside with a trembling smile, he tenderly lifted the next: a pink one this time, with several enthusiastic scribbles in purple, orange, and red crayon. Inside was one more slapdash scribble in green, and a note in Jenny’s hand: “This is a horsie eating an apple and a wee carrot, cos Uncle Jamie loves horsies.” -Maggie

The last card was orange, horizontally folded. Taped to the inside was a Shutterfly print of a chubby baby girl in a pumpkin costume, her wide mouth split in a gummy grin. Spookily Cute! the black glitter font read, and below that, handwritten on the orange construction paper: Katherine, 5 months, Halloween 2018.

Jamie’s heart skipped a beat at that. Jenny’s youngest had been a wrinkled, red, cone-headed newborn when he left for Boston. He remembered one of the last nights he was home, he’d offered to stay up with the bairn to let his sister and brother-and-law get some sleep. He’d sat on the couch with her all night, stroking her wisps of blond hair, murmuring soft Gaelic nonsense while he swayed her on his bent knees. Looking at the pudgy pink cheeks smiling back at him from the photo now, he tried to reconcile this child with the one he’d held that night, and felt his chest tighten with grief. He knew Jenny hadn’t meant it as such, but the photo was a painful reminder of how much time had been lost — how much he’d missed, stuck half a world away from the family he loved.

Aching with loneliness, he found himself reaching into the bag for more.

He’d say this much for his sister: she was a cunning wee devil. First, she buttered him up with cards from the bairns, and now he discovered a veritable treasure trove of his favorite treats. His eyes lit up like a child’s on Christmas as he pulled out a six-pack of Irn Bru, three boxes of Tunnocks Tea Cakes, a bag of Mackie’s salt and vinegar crisps, and a small tin of Mrs. Crook’s homemade shortbread biscuits. He popped the tin and shoved two of them into his mouth with an appreciative moan before setting the snacks aside and continuing on to the rest of the bag’s contents.

The next item was broader, bulkier; it took a bit of maneuvering to unwedge it from the paper sack without ripping it. Only once it was totally free of the grocery bag did Jamie recognize what it was. He drew the pads of his fingertips slowly across the smooth leather of the photo album, feeling the ache in his chest intensify. The family crest was etched into the front by hand, along with a set of dates: 1990-1995. It had always been Jamie’s favorite album to look through, filled with nostalgic pictures of his infancy and early childhood — memories too old for him to remember himself, but captured in painstaking detail by a mother who had a passion for photography. Since Ellen Fraser had usually been the one behind the camera, a vast majority of the pictures featured Jamie with his father: sitting on his shoulders, cradled on his chest, being hoisted in the air, squealing gleefully over Brian’s laughing, careworn face.

With a shaking breath, Jamie set the album aside, but he let his palm linger on the leather binding, unwilling to sever the connection; unable to face his Da any more than he could let him go.

There was one item left in the bottom of the sack. Something soft — fabric, maybe. Jamie held on to the edge of the grocery bag for a long moment, just breathing. He knew. He already knew what it was going to be.

That knowledge did very little to steady him as he pulled Brian Fraser’s plaid out onto the bed beside him.

It had been washed, pleated, and folded carefully since the last time he’d worn it. Still, it smelled like his Da; like horses, and mud, and straw, and sawdust, and sweat, and heather, and home.

With his nose buried in the soft wool, Jamie finally bowed his head and wept.

Chapter Text

Claire fully expected to find Jamie asleep when she went in to do his midnight vitals.

She thought he was, at first glance. He was laying on his left side with his back to her, facing the window. Reluctant to disturb him, she crept across the room like a shadow, and unwound the stethoscope from her neck as she quietly gathered up the thermometer and blood pressure cuff from their holders on the wall. If a patient was sleeping soundly enough, sometimes she could manage to get their vital signs without waking them at all. For Jamie’s sake, she hoped that would be the case tonight.

She was mid-turn, pivoting back toward him, when a muffled sound froze her in place.

He was trying to be quiet about it — the subtle waver in his open-mouthed breathing, the hitch just before he drew in another breath. But after another beat of silence, she heard it again: the small, strained sound as he tried to smother a sob.

Without a word, Claire set down her instruments and went to him.

As she rounded the far side of the bed, she saw what she had missed the first time: the grocery bag, empty and discarded on the floor, its contents spread out across the endtable and on the mattress in front of him; the long swath of plaid wool, wrapped around Jamie like a blanket and fisted against his tear-stained face.

Claire didn’t bother to grab the wheeled stool this time. She eased herself down onto the bed beside him, sitting in the space created by the bend of his knees. As her warm weight settled against him, Jamie pressed his lips together, chin quivering and dimpled with restraint. He sniffled hard and sucked in a few tight, ragged breaths, visibly trying to rein himself in. With a small shake of her head, Claire reached out to rest her fingertips lightly on the back of his hand.

“It’s all right,” she whispered.

The air slammed out of his lungs with a choked sound, then, and he curled in, curled around her, wracked with sobs that shook his whole frame. Beneath her fingertips, his knuckles haltingly loosened from their fist, fingers unfurled in a silent plea. Without hesitation, Claire slipped her hand into his and squeezed, giving permission to grip her hard, an anchor to hold him while he fell apart.

There was no attempt at platitudes; she knew from personal experience that no words, however kindly meant, would fill the aching chasm his father had left behind. The best thing she could do – the only thing she could do – was take his hand, and be with him.

She lost all sense of time as she sat with him in the darkness, her heart constricting with each cry that ripped from Jamie’s broken body. It wasn’t long, though, before the physical toll from that kind of full-bodied grieving began to overwhelm him; what had begun as juddering, violent sobs devolved into wide-eyed gasping, the lines of his face twisted in agony, the veins around his eyes strained and pulsing. He gripped her hand so tightly her fingers turned purple, his trembling bottom lip pinched between his teeth to keep from crying out. Before the words professional boundaries could even begin to register in her mind, Claire was reaching out to soothe him, tenderly brushing aside an errant curl, stroking the backs of her fingers over his forehead.

The moment it occurred to her what she was doing, she froze, her stomach sinking in complete mortification.

Jesus H. Christ. She’d never stepped so far out of line in her entire career. The realization that she was sitting in a patient’s bed – a young male patient – alone in the dark, stroking his face as if he were not a complete stranger… God, what on earth was she thinking? What on earth must he think of her for being so presumptuous?

She’d just started to withdraw her hand, trying to think up an apology for the egregious overstep, when Jamie tilted his head into her palm with a soft whimper.

That’s all it took; any inhibitions she’d harbored dissolved as quickly as they’d taken shape, lost in the visceral need of that sound. Somehow, the recognition that he needed this – needed her comfort – stirred something primal in her, something far beyond the reaches of rational thought. It was instinct alone that caused her to lean in again, releasing her breath on a tremulous exhale. The pads of her fingertips skimmed the warm arc of his cheekbone, then slowly began to trace the raised vein along his temple. Jamie’s eyes drifted shut as he leaned into her touch, making a soft humming sound that made her heart ache.

She could have smashed her pager against the wall when it suddenly pierced the room with its shrill mechanical beeping.

Claire jolted back as if she’d been scalded, hissing a breath through her teeth as she smacked at the bloody thing to silence it. “Christ. I’m so sorry. I should have put it on silent—”

“Och, no.” Jamie immediately released her other hand in embarrassment and tucked his fists up under his chin. “I'm sorry. I dinna mean to keep ye from yer other patients.”

“No, you’re not. Don’t worry about it, it doesn’t—” Cheeks flaming, Claire found she suddenly couldn’t look at him. There wasn’t anything outwardly wrong with what she’d done; a nurse comforting a grieving patient was nothing out of the ordinary. Still, she was gripped with the sudden, stomach-whirling sensation of having been caught in a compromising situation.

Worse yet, she still didn’t want to leave him.

Lashes lowered, she wrung her fingers as she explained haltingly, “I want to be where I’m needed. Not that I—” She swallowed, giving a little shake of her head. “I don’t mean to say you need me, only that — if you want me to stay...”

“Aye,” he breathed. “I do.” Claire’s eyes snapped up to his, and for a moment she was knocked breathless by the longing written there, the desperate loneliness. She had to forcibly tear her gaze away so she could try to think this through, formulate a plan.

After a meditative pause, she began nodding to herself, lips pursed in thought. “All right.” She climbed decisively to her feet, tapping her nail on the back of her pager before clipping it to her scrub top. “Give me five minutes. I just need to go pass this off to one of the other nurses.”

She saw the shadow of hesitation flicker over Jamie’s face. “I dinna want to be a burden, Claire—”

“You’re not. You won’t be. Trust me. The charge nurse owes me one, anyway. I picked up her last two Saturday shifts in a row; she can certainly watch my pager for a while.” Jamie studied her face for a moment, as if trying to gauge whether or not she was simply trying to placate him. With a gentle smile, Claire reached down to touch his wrist. “It’s all right.”

His own hand came to rest lightly over hers, almost a reflex. After a moment he nodded slowly, his eyes still trained on hers.

“I’ll be right back,” she promised.

 


 


Five minutes, Claire had told him.

She was back in three and a half. Not that Jamie had been counting.

He was being ridiculous, and he knew it. Claire was a kind-hearted lass, to be sure, but she was just doing her job. She was a good nurse. She cared for her patients; all of them, not just him. The only reason she was doing this was because, as she said, he needed her the most right now. Jamie wanted to curse himself for his weakness, for his selfishness, for taking up so much of her time when she had others to think about. But the imprint of her palm still burned on his cheek as if it had been branded there. Christ, it had been so long since he’d known anything but pain. To be sure, his back was hurting something fierce – probably the worst pain he’d had in weeks, if he were to think about it too much. But that was just it; he wasn’t thinking about it. It was as if his brain didn’t have room to process anything beyond the memory of her touch, the desperate yearning to feel it again.

He didn’t have to wait long.

Claire smiled a little as she entered the room, pushing the door shut behind her. “All set,” she announced quietly. “She said we could have as much time as we need.”  

Unsure of what to say, Jamie simply nodded, swallowing against a sand-dry throat. The tension suspended in the air between them was thick enough to cut with a knife; the few feet of distance that separated them were suddenly too much and not nearly enough. Struck shy in the tingling aftermath of their strange emotional intimacy, neither of them could meet the other’s eyes.

At last, it was Claire who broke the silence. She twisted her fingers together, then shrugged a shoulder at the instruments she’d been collecting the last time she came in. “Do you mind if I get your vitals?”  

Jamie shook his head, holding out his left arm obediently. He watched her shoes as she crossed the room and gathered up her supplies, noting offhandedly that she double-knotted her laces. It took nearly all of his concentration to keep his breathing steady as she returned to his bedside and slipped the blood pressure cuff around his upper arm. She worked efficiently, running the automated cuff while she moved the stethoscope around the planes of his chest, listening intently to his heart and lungs. Jamie pursed his lips into a white line, willing the stubborn wee thing not to hammer and give him away. If it did, Claire’s face didn’t show it; there was only polite professionalism as she snapped a clean plastic shield over the thermometer probe and held it up to his mouth. Jamie opened, and obediently maneuvered the probe a bit further back when she reminded him softly, “all the way under your tongue.”

For a fraction of a second he thought the probe was quivering a bit, as though her hand were shaking. He dismissed it as his imagination when the thermometer beeped its reading and Claire turned swiftly away with a flat note of, “98.2, no fever.”

A quick check of his oxygen saturation with the wee glowing clip on his index finger, and then her fingertips came to rest at the pulsepoint in his wrist, her eyes flicking to her watch before glazing over in concentration as she counted silently in her head.

It wasn’t intentional. Jamie wasn’t even fully aware he was doing it; one moment his hand lay limp against hers, and the next his pinky was moving of its own accord, slowly stroking back and forth across the inside of Claire’s wrist. There was a moment when they both recognized it, and neither of them breathed. His eyes dragged slowly up to hers, and as soon as they locked into whisky gold, the words tumbled out of him before he could stop them.

“Ye ken ye’re the first person to…” He caught himself just shy of the precipice, burning pink straight to his ears, snatching the confession back before he could embarrass himself further. He dropped his hand and his eyes away from hers, shaking his head to clear it. “Och, never mind.”

“What?” her voice was barely a whisper. “Tell me.”

Before he could second guess himself again, his fingertips sought hers, lightly skimming the delicate warmth of them. He hardly recognized his own voice as he confessed quietly, hoarsely, “Ye’re the first person to touch me since I’ve been here.”

The silence stretched on a beat too long, and Jamie felt the heat creep up his neck. His hand stilled, but he didn’t dare look up at her again.

He heard the tinge of confusion in her voice as she finally clarified, “Been here… on this unit?”

The corner of his mouth tightened in a sad smile. “Since I’ve been in the hospital, I mean.”

Claire’s breath hitched. She inhaled slowly and let it out in a trembling gust before asking tentatively, “And… how long have you—?”

“Six weeks, more or less.”

He heard her throat working to swallow as her fingers twined through his and slotted into the grooves of his knuckles. She opened her mouth, let out a stifled half-breath, and then closed it again.

“I ken it’s daft,” Jamie apologized, chewing nervously on the inside of his lip. “The nurses in the ICU explained it to me, why they had to put on all their gear before they came into my room. The gowns and the gloves and the masks and such. I ken it was to protect me. And I dinna mean to say no one laid a hand on me that whole time. They did, it was just…”

“Sterile,” Claire finished, finally finding her voice. “Clinical.” Something about her tone drew his gaze up to hers, and he found her amber eyes aching and damp with compassion. She shook her head a little, lips pursed. “It’s not daft at all, Jamie. Humans need touch. It’s… it’s why we put newborn babies on their mothers’ chests the moment they’re born. We need skin contact.”

“Aye,” he breathed, as her grip on his knuckles relaxed and she slid her fingers down, drawing them slowly, deliberately along the backs of his. “Didna realize it until ye took my hand earlier, how long it’s been. It felt…” He tried and failed to find the right words, lapsing into silence. Claire turned his hand over so that her palm lay flat against his, and they both watched, mesmerized, as their fingers began to glide over one another, rippling over the lines and dips of each other’s hands. They sat in silence that way for a long time, watching their fingertips move in a slow, rhythmless dance – drifting, circling, drawing together and splaying out over palms and wrists and fingers. Jamie had known, vaguely, that there were thousands of nerve endings in his hands, but never before had he felt them come alive the way they did against Claire’s skin, sparking and tingling as if they’d created an electrical current between them.

It was deprivation, he rationalized. Six weeks was a long time to go without touch, and as she’d said (she was a nurse, certainly she must know these things ), skin contact was a basic human necessity. Jamie made a valiant effort to convince himself that it explained this … whatever it was, thrumming between them.

This, as she reached her other hand down to touch his face, gently stroking the pad of her thumb over his cheekbone.

This, as she threaded her fingers back into the roots of his hair, and began to draw slow, meandering figure eights across his scalp.

As she worked her way back toward his nape, Claire paused here and there to tease apart a tangled curl, then twine the lock around her finger to create a smooth ringlet. When she brushed a sensitive spot just behind his ear, a warm, tingling shiver went down Jamie’s spine and spread out across his limbs in prickles of gooseflesh. He felt almost dizzy with pleasure, breathing out a sound somewhere between a whimper and a sigh. He sensed, rather than saw, Claire smile, and barely registered that she had asked him a question.

Peeping an eye halfway open, he hummed, “Mm?”

“I said you have some beautiful cards here,” Claire repeated, her fingers never ceasing their dance through his hair. “Are those from your children?”

“My nieces and nephew,” he answered, closing his eyes again. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard her breathe out a soft sigh of relief.

“Your sister’s children?”

“Mmphm. Wee Jamie, Maggie, and Katherine.”

“Tell me about them,” she suggested. “About your family.”

Relaxed and pliable as putty in her hands, he would have told her the sky was green and the grass was blue if she’d asked it of him. Talking about the bairns was easy enough. He started off by telling her the basics about each of them – their ages, what they looked like, what sorts of things they liked to do and play and watch on the telly. He told her how he and his wee namesake would chase each other around the living room, bouncing on the couch cushions when Jenny wasn’t looking, bashing each other with pool noodle “lightsabers.” At Claire’s insistence, he even did his best impression of the sound effects he used for such occasions, delighted when it made her giggle.

She had a bonny laugh.

Eager to hear it again, Jamie propped himself up on an elbow, his eyes twinkling as he got more and more engaged in his storytelling. Oh, he had some braw tales to tell her – stories about the weans , aye, but even more about his own childhood, all the antics he’d gotten up to with his siblings, Willie and Jenny. They’d been wild wee things, impish and prone to all kinds of mischief. He couldn’t even count the number of times they’d run his poor mother red-faced and haggard, bellowing at them out the kitchen window, Jus’ you wait ‘til yer father gets home!

Jamie sobered suddenly as those words left his mouth, his shrill impression of his mother’s voice fading into an aching silence. A muscle in his jaw twitched, and he worked it back and forth for a moment to keep it from cramping. Claire’s hands, which she’d been holding in her lap while he gesticulated animatedly, suddenly enveloped his hand again, her thumbs drawing comforting circles across his palm.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked softly. Jamie was still and silent for a moment, staring blankly ahead, and she amended, “You don’t have to, I just—”

“No, I want to,” he answered finally, and found that he meant it. His eyes moved to their entwined hands, watching the slow, mesmerizing caress of fingers for a while before he spoke again. “I ken that… that most people think they have the best dad. But mine truly was.” His tone had gone raspy already, and he swallowed twice to try to clear it. “He put up wi’ so much shite from me as a lad. He was such a… a good man, Claire. I didna deserve him.” His voice broke in earnest, then, and Claire squeezed his hands gently, drawing his tear-filled eyes up to hers. “Have ye ever heard of a man lovin’ someone to death?”

Claire thought for a moment, then whispered, “Yes, I suppose I have. Elderly couples who die within a few hours of one another, things like that.”

“How about a father, dyin’ for the love of his son?” he asked, chin quivering on the verge of a sob.

She wet her lips, releasing a shaky breath. “No,” she admitted softly.

“He was a good man,” he said again. “He didna deserve—” He released her hands and swiped angrily at his tears, pressing the heels of his palms to his eyes. “It was supposed to be me.”

“Jamie…” She knelt in front of him, her hands gripping his shoulders. “Your father had a heart condition. You can’t blame yourself for—”

“Aye, I can, and I do!” he insisted, letting his hands drop from his eyes so he could turn his tear-streaked glare on her. “It's my fault.”

Claire was shaking her head, a single, glistening tear beading at the corner of her eyelid. “It was an accident, Jamie,” she whispered.

“Aye, and if I ever find the bastard who blew through that light, I’ll—” He clenched his hands into fists, breathing hard through gritted teeth. His chest collapsed once on a broken sob, and he shook his head miserably. “But it was my fault too, Claire. My phone dropped on the floor, and I took my seatbelt off to grab it. If I hadna done that, I wouldn’t have gone through the windshield, and this whole thing would never have—” His throat finally closed, then, and he turned his face into his pillow, choked and shuddering with grief.

Christ, he was already so sick of crying.

It seemed Claire’d had enough of it, too. By the time Jamie wept himself into a restless sleep, the room around him was empty, his nurse long gone.  

Chapter Text

Claire didn’t remember leaving him. Crossing the room, opening the door, shutting it behind her. She supposed she must have; when she regained any sort of dim awareness of her surroundings, she found herself standing in the middle of the hallway, staring vacantly at the scuffed linoleum floor. Blinking, she slowly lifted her hands, watching them tremble with the clinical fascination of a scientist studying a specimen under a microscope.

It’s shock, her professional mind registered. I’m going into shock.

A faint peppery sensation tingled at the back of her neck. Subtle, at first, superficial; a mild, prickling heat that skittered across the nerves in her scalp. It gained momentum as it roiled deeper into her skull, like an ocean wave nearing shore. When the churning warmth broke over her temporal bones, her whole head started to ring.

When it touched her spinal cord, she saw black spots, and swayed on her feet.

 


 

 

“You’re drunk.”

Claire pitched forward, laughing so hard the veins in her temples stood out. Her ankles wobbled on four-inch stilettos, and she crashed headlong against her boyfriend’s side, cackling all the harder.

“Uhh, I’m the birthday girl? I’m s’posed to be drunk!” She used his shoulder to push herself upright, but overcompensated; teetering on her heels, she flailed backwards. Frank caught her by the waist just before she went over. She gave an appreciative hum as she pulled his mouth down to hers. “What’s your excuse?”

“Excuse for what? I’m sober as a judge.”

“Liar.” She smirked, taking his lower lip in her teeth.

“I am!” he laughed.

“After two cognacs and a Manhattan?”

“Three cognacs, actually. I grabbed another while you were in the ladies’ room.”

“Mm. Well. I’m not sure what kind of judges you’re keeping company with, but… I —” She giggled as he kissed a line across her collarbone, rummaging in her clutch for her cell phone. “... am getting us an Uber.”

“Completely unnecessary. Look. Claire, look! Watch.” Still spitting out little raspberries of laughter, Frank rolled his spine upright and squared his shoulders. He attempted — and failed — a serious expression as he held his arms out in an impression of a tightrope walker, balanced precariously along the crack in the sidewalk. Once or twice, he wheeled his arms about for dramatic effect, reducing Claire to stitches; but, to his credit, his feet never once strayed from the line.

Eyes sparkling with mischief, she dug through the inside zip pocket of her clutch. “Think fast!” she blurted, and then her little black key fob was hurtling through the air. Frank caught it one-handed, and barked out a triumphant laugh.

“See? What did I tell you? Catlike reflexes.” He sauntered over to her, dangling the key fob from one finger. With a chuckle, he dropped his smirking mouth to her neck and nipped. Claire let out a breathy laugh of her own, and tilted her head to allow him better access as he followed the carotid up to her jawline, then kissed his way over to her mouth. She couldn’t remember her own name by the time he pulled away.

“But seriously, darling, if it’ll make you feel better, go ahead and call an Uber.”

“No,” she said, an easy smile blooming across her face. “It’s alright.”

“You’re sure? Because I really don’t mind—”

“No, it’s fine.” She rose on tiptoe to peck his lips one last time. “It’s bloody freezing, let’s just go.” The light cardigan she’d thrown on earlier in the evening was proving woefully inadequate against the crisp October wind. Frank looked down at the goosebumps prickling up and down her arms, and quickly whisked off his suit coat and draped it around her shoulders. Claire leaned gratefully into the crook of his arm as they walked back to the car together, swaying just a little.

When he opened the passenger door for her, she looked up at him through her lashes, teasing the hem of her dress up a bit as she sat – a promise of what was waiting when they got back to her place. Frank wet his lips subconsciously, his eyes darkening. Tucking her long legs into the car, Claire gave him a wink as she pulled her seat belt on. He shut the door and jogged around the front of the SUV, an eager grin plastered across his face. He was breathless by the time he plunked down in the driver’s seat and strapped himself in.

“What’s the fastest way back to your flat?” he asked, hazel eyes roaming her thighs hungrily.

“Take Berkeley up to Storrow.” The words were barely out of her mouth before he hit the gas. The tires squealed as they tore out of their parking spot and onto the road. Claire grabbed at her door handle to steady herself, shrieking a little, torn between terror and delight. “ Frank!"

He eased off the gas just a touch, shooting her a shit-eating grin. “Oh, don’t pretend for a moment that this is my fault! You cannot tease a man like that and expect him not to blow through every stoplight on the way home.”

Claire felt weightless, reckless; high on a heady combination of adrenaline and gin and lust. Grinning right back at him, she hiked her skirt up further, teasing her fingers along the inside of her thigh. “Mm. Well. It rather defeats the purpose if you kill us before we get home.” She gave a throaty laugh at the look on his face, tipping her head back against the headrest as her fingers ventured further up. “Eyes on the road, Professor Randall.”

 


 

“Hey, you okay, Claire?”

She had to blink several times before she could clear her head enough to lift her gaze. The night shift tech, Elias, stood a few feet away, holding an empty food tray that he’d been clearing from a patient’s room. He was a short, round-faced young man; one of their newer hires, barely eighteen — a sweet boy, and a hard worker. His kind brown eyes were locked on hers, mouth drawn tight with concern.

Not trusting herself to speak, Claire attempted a smile and twirled her index finger in a self-deprecating gesture of absentmindedness. Elias returned a small smile of his own, but hesitated, watching her uncertainly for another moment before finally continuing on his way. Her face fell the moment he was gone.

She thought she was going to be sick.

Swallowing against a gathering pool of bitter saliva, she crossed the hallway in starts and stops. Her limbs felt too light — cottony, boneless — their movements twitchy and uncoordinated, as if she were a marionette controlled by an amateur puppeteer. The thought made her want to laugh hysterically. Instead, she collapsed, shaking and silent, into a computer chair at the charting station. For a while she simply sat hunched over, holding her head in her hands, trying not to vomit.

 


 

She expected a proposal, if she was being honest. They’d been dating just shy of two years, and it made sense; her thirtieth birthday, the candlelit ambiance of the four-star restaurant, the rather extravagant bottle of champagne they’d polished off with dinner. They were both dressed to the nines: Frank in an Armani suit and imported Italian Oxfords, Claire in her most flattering little black dress (sleeveless, form-fitting, with a cleavage-enhancing neckline and a hem just high enough to tease). She’d dabbed her pulse points with Le Labo, spent two hours on her hair and makeup, and dropped a small fortune on a pair of red heels to complete the evening’s ensemble. On a whim, she’d even gone so far as to get a French manicure – the first she’d bothered with in years – knowing she’d have to remove it for work on Monday, but not before she got that Instagram-perfect engagement ring shot.

Or so she’d thought.

There’d been plenty of opportunities throughout dinner; natural lulls in the conversation, lingering romantic gazes exchanged over the rims of their champagne flutes. She offered Frank her left hand to hold frequently throughout the evening, trying to be as encouraging as possible without being obvious about it.

I’ll say yes, she tried to convey through her glass face. Just ask. The answer is yes.

But he hadn’t asked. Not through any of their five courses, not when the cheque arrived, not when he put a hand to the small of her back and guided her out of the restaurant. Not outside under a sky full of stars, and not in the quaint, upscale little bar where they’d stopped in for a nightcap. Fortunately, a few gin-and-tonics later, Claire was too far gone to care that the night hadn’t gone quite as she’d hoped.

Rather, she didn’t care as much.

And, in all fairness, the night wasn’t over yet.

She’d already checked the pockets of the suit coat Frank had draped around her for a little velvet box; no such luck, though of course he was far too meticulous to have made such a flippant mistake, no matter how many drinks he’d had. Claire’s heavy-lidded eyes lingered thoughtfully over the pockets of his trousers as he drove, trying to decide whether or not there was a discernible bulge on either side. Of course, there was no mistaking the rather more prominent bulge in between. Seeing her intent stare in that general direction, Frank drew his own conclusions.

“See something you like?” he asked, smirking like the cat who got the canary.

Claire smiled back, stretching a long arm up to drape over his headrest. “Not sure,” she admitted, teasing her fingers through the short hairs at the nape of his neck until he shivered.  She traced her index finger slowly down his neck and along the rim of his starched collar, making a swirling pattern as she reached the fine dusting of hair just above his top button. “Should I take a closer look and find out?”

Frank sucked in a shuddering breath, his Adam’s apple bobbing, as her finger drew down his sternum and steadily lower. “Yes, I—” Another sharp inhale as she reached the clasp of his slacks. “I think that’s a splendid idea.”

She flattened her palm and took his zipper between her thumb and forefinger, inching her pinky out to the right so that she could discreetly palpate the pocket closest to her.

Nothing.

Biting the inside of her lip in concentration, Claire succeeded in getting the zipper down and slipped her hand inside, masking her attempt to wriggle her thumb over toward that left pocket by kneading Frank into distraction.

He closed his eyes and groaned.

Everything happened so quickly after that.

The flash of white lights, the blur of motion too late to avoid. The horrible, deafening sound of metal ripping apart, tires screeching, glass breaking.

The airbag deployed just in time to catch the full impact of Claire whipping forward. She rebounded violently, slammed back against her seat, cracking the crown of her head against the headrest.

She gasped once. Tasted blood.

Then everything went black.

 


 

She knew.

In the marrow of her bones, she knew.

Of course, it could be coincidence — the time frame, the few details Jamie had shared. How many car accidents were there in Boston on any given week?

Six weeks, he’d said. More or less.

More or less.

Six weeks, twenty-three hours, four minutes. If it was… if he was…

Well. There was one way to find out for certain.

With an eerie, preternatural calm, Claire pulled the keyboard closer and logged into the computer. She pulled up his chart, feeling as though she were somehow detached from her body, looking on from a short distance away. A few clicks into the notes section, then several seconds of scrolling, all the way down to the bottom, to the very first entry.

 

HISTORY AND PHYSICAL EXAMINATION

10/21/2018   02:12

CHIEF COMPLAINT: Motor Vehicle Accident

HISTORY OF PRESENT ILLNESS: Mr. Fraser is a 26 year-old Caucasian male who presents to the emergency department with severe traumatic injuries and hemorrhagic shock resulting from a motor vehicle accident. He was an unrestrained driver involved in a head-on collision, ejected through the windshield and found unconscious on the ground, approximately 10 feet from the vehicle. No reliable historian present to indicate length of time between the accident and arrival of EMS on site (hit-and-run, no witnesses). C-spine immobilization performed at the scene and aggressive fluid resuscitation begun en route to the hospital...

 

She stopped reading.

Closed the tab.

Got up. Walked slowly to the nurses’ station, weaving slightly with each step.

 


 

Her ears were ringing.

It was the first thing she was aware of when she regained consciousness: the low, flat, monotonous hum, drowning out everything around her.

The second thing she was aware of was the coppery taste in her mouth. She coughed, putting the back of her wrist to her mouth. When she pulled it away, it was smeared with blood. She stared blankly at it for a long moment.

Then the pain hit.

Claire hissed through her teeth, squeezing her eyes shut and going perfectly still on instinct. For a while she simply sat in a daze, trying to remember to breathe. At last, she forced her eyes open again, trying to harness her nursing assessment skills through the fog of shock and intoxication. Her neck seemed to be the worst off; whiplash, that made sense. No numbness or tingling in her extremities, so likely no spinal damage. She’d hit the back of her head on the rebound, but the foam padding of the headrest had cushioned the blow; no blood, only a slight goose egg. Her next concern was her clavicle — the seatbelt had caught her hard, and there was a very real chance it was broken. She probed her fingertips delicately across the diagonal path of her torso, palpating, testing. There was no immediate, obvious jut of bone to indicate a larger break, but she’d need an x-ray to rule out hairline fractures. As for her mouth, that seemed to be a simple contusion from biting down on her cheek. A bloody mess, but superficial.

You’re alright, she soothed herself, letting out a shaky sigh. It’s alright. You’re all in one piece. It could have been so much worse.

And then she remembered Frank.

Turning her head to the left proved to be an exercise in controlled agony, but she forced herself through it, needing to see him, to know if…

But he wasn’t there.

She stared, uncomprehending, at the open driver’s side door, the deflated airbags. There was no blood, no broken glass. Terrified, she tried to call his name. Only a hoarse rasp came out. Swallowing hard against a tight throat, she tried again.

“Frank? FRANK!”

There was the sound of footsteps on pavement, and then he appeared around the edge of the car door, pale, wide-eyed, but apparently unharmed. Tears of relief sprung to Claire’s eyes, and she let out a hoarse sob.

“You’re alright,” she gasped.

He gave a weak nod and looked her once-over. “I am. You?”

She pursed her lips and swiped at her tears, making a soft, wavering hum of confirmation. Frank nodded again, his eyes glassy. He scrubbed a hand over his face and back through his hair, then pointed a trembling finger off behind him. “I don’t…” he muttered, shaking his head. “I don’t think he is.”

Claire frowned through her tears. “What?”

Frank leaned his head against the roof of the car, his throat bobbing with a swallow. “I think he’s dead, Claire.” A sob caught in his chest, and he let out a guttural, shaky groan. “Jesus Christ, I think he’s dead.”

 


 

Gillian looked up over her shoulder as Claire came to stand in the open archway. “There y’are. Was beginning to wonder if ye–” Whatever wisecrack had been budding on the tip of her tongue, it dissolved into a guttural sound of Scottish concern as she turned and actually got a good look at her friend. The charge nurse was on her feet in a split second, then, hands hovering over Claire’s upper arms. “Jesus, ye’re pale as a ghost! Sit down before ye fall down.”

“I have to go,” Claire rasped, eyes unfocused, staring blankly at a spot over the charge nurse’s shoulder.

“What happened?”

She shook her head once, eyes flashing a warning to her friend not to press the issue. “I have to go,” she said again, her voice breaking over the last word.

“Alright. I – alright. Uh… I’ve already got yer pager, aye? I’ll figure it out. Go. Take care of whatever ye need to do. I’ve got ye.” Claire gave a small nod and turned to leave, but stopped when Gill asked, “Can I call ye a cab? Or you can borrow my car if ye need...”

No ,” she choked, putting a shaking palm to the wall to keep herself upright. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to steady her voice as she answered without turning, “No, thank you. I’ll be fine.”

Gill let out a helpless little groan. “Gah, just – just text me when ye’re home safe, alright? And if ye need anything, just–”

“I will.”

 


 

Try as she might, she couldn’t reconcile the words coming out of Frank’s mouth with any semblance of reality. Her mouth opened and closed several times before she managed to choke out, “Who? Who’s dead?”

Frank heaved in two big breaths before he answered, “The other driver. He went through the windshield.”

… The other driver. Jesus H. Christ. She hadn’t even thought about… but of course, it had been a head-on collision. She’d seen the oncoming headlights in the millisecond before impact.

It took a few seconds for her head to clear, for her professional instincts to kick in with full force. Someone was severely hurt, possibly coding right this moment. She needed to get herself together, get out, get to him, call for help. Start CPR if need be. They were only a few miles from the hospital. If she could just keep him alive until the ambulance got here…

Her hands were shaking as she fumbled with the latch to her seat belt. Frank’s head snapped up at the sound, his eyes going wide.

“What are you doing?”

“I’ve got to help him,” she said, finally managing to get the seatbelt free. It recoiled into its holder, and her hand went to the door.

In the split second before she could pull the handle, there was a mechanical clicking sound. She pulled the handle, twice. Three times.

It wouldn’t budge.

She glanced over at Frank, confused, thinking perhaps the accident had messed with the wiring somehow.

It took her a moment to recognize that his finger was on the child lock button.

There was sympathy in his eyes, but his mouth was set in a white line. He shook his head firmly as he slid into the driver’s seat. “We need to go.”

Claire’s mouth was suddenly dry as sandpaper. “What?” she squeaked out. “Frank, he needs help!”

“What are you going to do, Claire? He’s dead.”

The reality of what he was suggesting began to register, and her heart picked up pace, approaching a state of panic. “Bloody CPR, Frank, that’s what I’m going to do! Unlock the door!”

“You’re drunk,” he said, infuriatingly calm, shutting his own door and shifting the car into reverse. “You’re not thinking rationally about this.”

“What are you doing? STOP! We can’t just

“Listen to the words coming out of my mouth, Claire. Listen. Vehicular homicide. It’s a felony here. Do you want to be locked away in an American prison for the rest of your life?”

“It was an accident!” her voice had risen to a near-shriek, and she was ripping frantically at the door handle as though it would make a difference. “We can’t leave him!”

“There’s nothing we can do for him. He’ll bleed out long before an ambulance gets here.”

“Then GO, Frank!” she screamed. “If you’re so fucking worried about it, let me out and leave! But I have to at least try!

“I’m not going to let you do that, darling.” His hands clenched and unclenched on the steering wheel, eyes locked straight ahead; he flat-out refused to look at her. “I won’t let you throw your life away on a drunken whim. You can hate me for it now, but you’ll see the reason for it when you’ve sobered up.”

Her rage boiled over into an incoherent scream as he spun the wrecked-but-still-running car around and shifted it into drive. She banged the heel of her hand ineffectually against the window, tried the door handle so many times she thought it might snap off in her hand. Ignoring the searing pain in her neck, she strained to try to find the man who was hurt. She caught a glimpse of him, finally, in the side-view mirror as Frank took a right hand turn down a side street. He was far enough away that she could only make out a dim silhouette: a large man sprawled out on his back, unmoving, laying in a pool of blood and shattered glass. She couldn’t tell if he was still breathing.

The sight of him only renewed the fight in her. Reaching across the center console, she tried to rip at Frank’s sleeve as he tore off at a frightening speed, her voice rising to a frantic crescendo.

“Let me out of the fucking car, Frank! LET ME OUT!”

He only drove faster.

Chapter Text

“Dinna mind me, Mr. Fraser.” 

The warm familiarity of a Scottish burr drew Jamie to the surface of consciousness. He hovered there for a moment, lost in the hazy interlude between waking and sleeping, with no recollection of where he was, or why. Turning his face into the pillow, he gave a low grumble of acknowledgement, but didn’t fully rouse until the woman’s voice whispered, “Just fetching a quick set of vitals, and then ye can go straight back tae sleep.” 

His eyes cracked open then, squinting up at the owner of the voice. She was a bonny lass, ginger and fair, with wide, round eyes and a mouth that seemed to be perpetually tipped up in amusement at some private joke. Jamie vaguely recognized her as one of the nurses who’d helped get him settled when he transferred down from the ICU, but couldn’t put a name to the face. 

As if sensing his line of thought, she offered him her hand as she dragged the vitals machine over with her foot. “Gillian,” she reminded him, with a surprisingly strong handshake for such a wee lass. “We met when ye first got to the floor.”

“I remember,” Jamie said, only a partial lie. He lifted his arm so she could wrap the blood pressure cuff around it. “Ye don’t meet many fellow Scots in this part of the world.”

Without missing a beat, she deadpanned in a flawless New York accent, “Oh, I’m from Long Island, actually.” Jamie gave a snort of laughter, but while the nurse’s eyes twinkled, she managed to hold an impressively straight face. She let a beat of silence lapse as she took his temperature and checked his oxygen level, then admitted with a little smirk, “Glasgow. You?”

“Wee town a few miles outside Inverness. You wouldna ken it.”

“Try me.”

“Broch Mordha?”

Her smirk broadened. “Ye’re right, never heard of it.” Tipping her head to one side, she considered him thoughtfully for a moment. “A Highlander, eh? A bheil Gàidhlig agad?”

Jamie’s eyebrows lifted. Even as a Highlander born and bred, he could count on one hand the number of people outside his immediate family who had any Gaelic. “ Tha, dh’ionnsaich m’athair dhomh . Agas thu?” [Aye, my Da taught me. You? ]

“[My Gran was from the Western Isles. She kept the old ways. Refused to speak a word of English, pretended she didna understand it. Used to drive me mad. I’m grateful for it now, though. ]” 

“[Aye, so am I. It’s nice to have someone around who understands it. Not many people do, even back home. ]” He smiled softly, and Gillian nodded, her eyes taking on a mischievous glint. 

“[We can use it to our advantage, ye ken? Gossip about the sassenachs to our heart’s content, and they’ll be no’ the wiser.]”

Jamie’s smile dissipated then, his eyes flicking to the open door. “Speaking of which,” he said, transitioning fluidly back into English, “I hope I didna say or do anything to offend Claire. If I did, I—”

“Och, no, it’s nothin’ tae do with ye. She had an emergency and had to leave for the night.”

He abruptly propped himself up on an elbow, brow furrowed. “Is she alright?” 

Gillian shrugged, but the look on her face was not particularly reassuring. “I’m sure she’s fine.”

A thought occurred to Jamie as he settled back against the pillows, fretting his bottom lip between his teeth. “Her phone kept buzzing earlier, like someone was tryin’ tae get a hold of her.” 

“Aye, weel, whatever it was, she had to leave in a hurry. Sorry for the inconvenience, lad, but it looks like ye’re stuck with me for the rest of the night.”

“[Lord, have mercy on my soul ],” he teased, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.

Gillian crossed herself and winked as she pulled up his chart on the wheeled computer. A few taps of the keys, a question about his pain (“Four,” he lied ), a quick check of his IV site, and then she was off to her next patient, calling cheerfully over her shoulder to give her a buzz if he needed anything.

She was a braw lass, Jamie decided. Funny, friendly.

… He missed Claire.  

 


 

It was 4:30 AM, forty degrees, and drizzling when she stepped out onto her front porch. Claire watched her breath shimmer in the air as she braced a foot on the wrought iron railing, mentally ticking off each muscle group as she stretched: hamstrings, quads, calves, glutes, obliques. Neat boxes, neat checkmarks; simple, efficient, and organized.

She could do this. Mental and physical discipline, that’s all she needed. 

She was fine.

Popping her earbuds in, she cranked up her Florence and the Machine playlist and set off down the rain-slicked pavement. Despite the inclement weather, she opted to take one of her longer jogging routes, crossing the Charles at the Museum of Science Bridge and following the river until she doubled back at the Anderson Foot Bridge. A little over eight miles, in total; nothing she couldn’t handle. She’d push herself, run hard, be back in time to shower, and hit the farmer’s market to get some fresh produce for lunch. After that, she’d deep clean the kitchen; she’d been meaning to reorganize her pantry and really scrub down the backsplash behind the stove. A cup of tea, then she’d reward herself by tackling the pile of dust-covered books that had been sitting on the back of her toilet for over a year now. Perhaps she would run errands after that... there was a dress draped over the end of her bedpost because she hadn’t had a chance to drop it off at the dry cleaners yet. She could do that, too. 

It had been a stunning realization to her, looking around her poor, neglected flat at 3 o’clock in the morning: she didn’t strictly need to work to stay busy. There were so many things she was behind on, things she’d let slide in favor of working overtime, and for what? Extra money to sit untouched in her bank account, paid time off accumulating to the point that she’d nearly hit her maximum? Certainly, she’d earned a break. That was a thing healthy people did: get away for awhile, breathe the fresh air, rest and recharge.

Escape the living, breathing reminder of what you—

She turned the music up louder. Focused on her form, her pace, her breathing; the smack of her footfalls on the pavement; the pleasant burn of working muscles; the trickle of sweat dripping down the center of her back...

“... Ripped his back clean off. Three skin grafts sae far and he’s still a hot mess...”

Grunting, she pushed herself faster. Harder. Watched the heart rate on her Fitbit climb to 160… 165...

Had every complication in the book: sepsis, necrosis, shock. Too many blood transfusions to count. Puir bugger. Dinna blame him for bein’ like he is.

170... 175...

“He was so angry. I’ve never seen anyone so angry!”

Jesus H. Christ, of course he was angry. His whole world had been ripped apart in a moment of fucking carelessness. One stupid drunken mistake had landed him in an ICU, wracked with unfathomable pain, infection, surgeries untouched and alone for six bloody weeks. It had cost him his father

180… 185…

“Aye, and if I ever find the bastard who blew through that light, I’ll—” 

190… 195.

She’d shattered him. Not just a nameless, faceless form; a big man in a pool of blood and broken glass. Jamie. Jamie Fraser. Twenty six, from Scotland. He had red curls, and blue eyes. He was handsome. Intelligent. He had a sister, Jenny, two nieces and a nephew. His eyes lit up when he spoke about his family. He was kind and gentle. He liked sweets. He did a very good lightsaber impression. 

He made a soft sound when she touched his cheek. 

200... 

Eyes glazed with tears, trainers pounding the concrete in a frantic blur, Claire wasn’t paying any attention to where she was running. She was halfway through an intersection when the light turned red, and the car that had been waiting to turn left blared its horn as it swerved behind her, tires screeching on the wet pavement.

The flash of white lights, the blur of motion too late to avoid...

She fell to her knees at the curb, clutching to the light pole for dear life, her heart threatening to crack through her ribcage.  

The horrible, deafening sound of metal ripping apart, tires screeching, glass breaking...

Blind and shaking with terror, she dropped her forehead against the metal pole and sobbed until she couldn’t breathe.

Chapter Text

Claire made it exactly five steps from the light pole before her stomach revolted. 

Another two to stagger to the side of an insurance building, open-palmed against the wet red brick.

She retched violently behind its well-manicured hedge. 

There wasn’t much for her roiling gut to surrender; she honestly couldn’t remember the last thing she’d eaten. She brought up what foamy green bile there was, then made an aborted attempt at pushing herself upright. Halfway up, she doubled over again, wracked with a second wave of lurching spasms — gagging, dry-heaving; her body’s desperate attempt at exorcism, at purging the knot of guilt that had taken up permanent residence in the pit of her stomach. 

It didn’t work.

She dropped her forehead against the brick as broken flashes of memory stuttered across the red-black of her eyelids.

{a smear of blood on the deflated airbag}

{the taut snap of the door handle against her fingertips}

{a trickle of sweat rolling down Frank’s temple}

{the glint of a streetlight on crushed glass}

Sniffling and humming miserably, Claire swiped at her nose and mouth with the wrist of her hoodie, as though it made a damned bit of difference; as though she weren’t already soaked to the skin; as though the rain wasn’t still whipping at her in slanted sheets.

As though any of it mattered.

She deserved this. Every bit of it, and then some: the PTSD, the night terrors, the insomnia, the crippling anxiety — the guilt that had consumed her whole and whittled her down to a shell of herself, too thin and too pale, anemic and exhausted. Pushed to the limits of her mental and physical capacity, she’d spent the past six weeks teetering precariously on the brink of a full-scale meltdown.

And that was before she knew about Jamie. 

Somehow, it had been easier when she thought him dead.

The assumption that the stranger in the road had died on impact had been some slight consolation to her while lying awake in the middle of the night, watching her ceiling fan spin. It was the minuscule scrap of solace that she’d clung to in her darkest hours: it had been quick. He hadn’t suffered.

Christ, but ignorance was bliss.

She’d seen for herself now. Touched. Gently traced gloved fingers over Jamie’s ruined flesh: the angry, inflamed red patch just below his left shoulder, where infection had taken root; the mounds of unnaturally smooth skin amidst a ravaged landscape, where flesh from his thighs had been grafted to the shreds of his back; the deep gash that sliced him diagonally from trapezius to hip — suctioned shut with a wound vac at first, then cut open again by the surgeons to drain a tunneling abscess — now packed three times a day with wet, sterile gauze. 

She’d heard him hiss through his teeth when she packed the wound herself. Watched him bite down on his lip to keep from crying out, take white-knuckled fistfuls of bedding in his shaking hands. Felt his muscles quiver while she murmured apologies under her breath, reminding him that she could fetch the morphine at any time.  

She’d cradled his face in her hands, brushed her fingertips over the premature lines etched around his eyes and mouth from six weeks of clenching against the pain.

So she knew. Intimately. 

She knew exactly what she’d done to him.

What she didn’t know was how to look at herself in the mirror anymore. 

How to live with herself, how to function, when it felt as though the guilt was clawing its way out of her chest cavity, leaving her open, exposed, raw and bleeding and desperately, desperately vulnerable. 

She wasn’t sure she could do this.

Choking out small, whimpering sobs, she pushed herself upright on shaking arms and started moving again. It was the only thing she could think to do; the very last self-preservation instinct she possessed. 

Keep calm and carry on, she mocked herself scathingly. How very British of you.

Still, she didn’t stop. Couldn’t. Inertia had never been a friend to Claire. If she lingered… if she let herself dwell too long, she knew in her bones that she would be lost. 

Shoulders hunched against the downpour, arms wrapped tight around herself, she let her feet carry her where they would. As she wandered, a disjointed film reel looped over and over in her mind’s eye, rehashing the night of the accident for what felt like the thousandth time. She stopped, rewound, and tried again, playing out countless different scenarios — countless minuscule alterations in what she’d said or done or implied at various points throughout the evening, each of which might have changed things. 

If only she hadn’t agreed to the nightcap. 

If only she’d insisted on an Uber.  

If only she hadn’t been so bloody intent upon searching for a fucking nonexistent engagement ring. 

If only she’d managed to get her hand on that door handle two seconds earlier. 

If only, if only, if only...   

It was madness, she knew, to keep torturing herself like this. It wouldn’t change things, no matter how desperately she wanted it to. Still, she couldn’t shut it off; couldn’t fight her mind’s desperate attempt to amend history, to unearth every stupid, careless mistake and mentally fix each one over and over again. 

Bleary eyes trained on the sidewalk, Claire was lost in her reverie, wandering without purpose, without any sense of time or distance. She passed block after block, intersection after intersection, drifting from residential neighborhoods to commercial to industrial and back again. Boston was a city that never slept; even in the rainy pre-dawn hours of early December, there were a few cars on the road, stray pedestrians huddled under umbrellas or the hoods of their coats, idling trucks making early morning deliveries, a few merchants just arriving to set up for the day. Crying and shaking, disheveled and soaked through, Claire garnered no more than a darting, awkward glance from any of them before they hurried on with their own tasks.

She’d never felt more alone.

The firm, ubiquitous nurse’s voice in the back of her mind reminded her that she couldn’t carry on like this much longer. Any heat kindled by the exertion of running was long spent; what had begun as light shivering and chattering teeth had advanced to full-blown muscle spasms. She couldn’t feel her fingers or toes any more. Her stride was becoming slower, more lethargic, as the blood left her periphery in favor of protecting her vital organs. 

Hypothermia.

She was going to land herself in the ER if she didn’t pull herself together. 

A quick tap of a slightly blue-nailed finger to her Fitbit showed that it was 5:48 AM. She’d passed at least a dozen places that were open at this hour — Starbucks, diners, convenience stores, bagel shops. Plenty of options.

Claire kept walking past four more of them.

She couldn’t… she didn’t know how to be around people at the moment. Interact. Wipe her swollen eyes and fix her hair, order a cup of coffee, and sit down at a table and pretend to scroll through her Instagram feed.

She didn’t know how to do any of it any more. Live in the world. Pretend to be alright when she wasn’t...

She wasn’t.

A fresh wave of tears rolled down her cheeks, mingling with the freezing rain. 

Three more intersections, and her calves started to seize up. 

With no choice left, Claire finally faltered, and stopped. 

Standing on the corner of a quiet residential street, she trembled so hard she could barely keep herself upright. She bowed her head, gasping, sobbing, clutching her arms around herself as though she could hold her bones, her muscles, her heart, her sanity together if she just gripped tight enough.

For the rest of her life, she’d never be certain what drew her tear-blurred eyes up in that moment. She only knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was the reason she survived.   

Claire did not consider herself to be a particularly religious person. Her parents had been dutiful, if not devout, Catholics; they’d had her baptized, taken her to Mass and her First Communion. And then they’d died, and she had not. 

And that was that. 

The day of their funeral, almost twenty years ago, had been the last time she’d ever set foot inside a church.

So she couldn’t say with any great certainty why she found herself staggering on unsteady legs towards the open door of one now. 

Obviously, it was the closest building open to the public, and it was no small miracle that her half-frozen limbs would even carry her that far. It was also centrally heated; she had to bite her lip to suppress a moan of relief as she stepped under the blast of a heating vent just inside the narthex. It was a convenient place to get out of the rain, warm up — decidedly less populated than any coffee house at this hour. She could simply sit with a bowed head and closed eyes and no one would bother her.

But it was more than that, and she knew it.

There was an undeniable sense of… peacefulness to an old, quiet, candlelit sanctuary. And in that moment, the promise of any sort of relief — any temporary respite from the maelstrom raging inside of her — beckoned to her like a port in a storm. 

Which was ridiculous. Fanciful. Sentimental in a way that Claire Beauchamp was not.

Yet here she was. Soaked to her skin, and still pausing at the entrance to dip her fingers in the holy water and cross herself (a habit so old and so deeply ingrained that it surprised even her ). 

As she’d hoped, the church was blessedly empty at this hour of the morning; had it not been a Sunday, she doubted it would have been open at all. The overhead lights were still turned off, but a tall, elaborately decorated Christmas tree stood in the half-circle of stained glass windows at the front of the sanctuary, casting the vaulted stone room in a soft golden glow. 

It was beautiful

Claire drew in a deep breath through her nose, held it for a moment, then released it in a slow, quavering stream as she sank into a pew. She clasped her hands on the bench in front of her, wringing the fingers from root to tip to try to coax some blood back into them. Bit by bit, she felt the numbness begin to give way to pinpricks of tingling pain, and finally a dull, throbbing warmth. After a while, her teeth began to chatter again, and the muscle spasms relented in favor of rapid shivering. 

“It’s alright,” she breathed out, allowing her burning eyes to slip shut. “It’s alright. You’re alright.”

In the quiet warmth of the sanctuary, she could almost convince herself it was true.

She still wasn’t certain if she wanted it to be.

Laying her forehead against the polished wood pew in front of her, she attempted to meditate, to focus on the slow bloom of warmth as it spread outwards from her core. She tried to visualize the arteries, tracing them methodically across the meridians of her body as though she were following an anatomy textbook. 

It helped.

Slowly, agonizingly, she started to feel better. Damp, stiff, shaky, and uncomfortable, but no longer in danger

It was some time before the realization dawned upon her that she was no longer alone in the little stone sanctuary. She wasn’t sure whether it was a sound, a movement, or simply the instinctual bristle of the hairs on the back of her neck that alerted her to the other presence, but suddenly she looked up, and saw him.

The priest was an elderly man, tall and bony and slightly stooped at the shoulders. Still, he moved with a quiet grace, the hem of his black robes rustling as he moved in front of the altar, lighting the large white candles on either side with broad, steady hands.

He’d said nothing to her, made no indication that he was aware of her presence at all. Perhaps it was naive to believe that she’d escaped notice altogether, but Claire knew she couldn’t stay any longer; watching him, she was gripped with the stomach-churning sensation of imposing on something sacred. Knuckling the residual tears from her cheeks, she rose and turned silently to leave. 

“I’m sorry,” the priest’s voice said softly, though his back remained turned to her. She halted in her tracks, looking up at him with wide eyes. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your prayers.”

A nervous smile flitted at the corners of Claire’s lips as he blew out his match. Wringing her chapped hands, she tried to decide how best to excuse herself without being blatantly rude. After a beat of silence, she opted for honesty. “I wasn’t exactly praying,” she admitted. “I was just sitting here alone, trying to clear my head.”

If the priest was at all fazed by her admission, it didn’t show in the lines of his posture, the fluid ease of his movement. “Were you indeed alone?” he asked as he slipped the matchbox into a drawer in the altar and closed it with the dull thump of felt against wood. 

It was a rhetorical question, coming from a priest. Still, a prickle of goosebumps streaked down Claire’s spine. She didn’t know how to answer him, so she simply stared mutely as he finally turned to meet her gaze. 

In the dim, flickering light, the features of his face were cast into sharp relief, the elongated shadows transforming him from elderly to wizened. His face was deeply lined, careworn; he had a nose that had obviously been broken, and deep set eyes of an indeterminate color. 

When he gestured for her to resume her seat with an unassuming “please,” she felt she couldn’t refuse him. Lips pursed, she returned to the pew and sat down again, watching him nervously for what he would do next. 

He drew nearer to her in a roundabout, unhurried fashion, moving with the great care of one approaching a spooked animal. He stooped to pick up a hymnal that had fallen to the floor, straightened the worn red cushion on a pew a few rows up from her, stopped for a moment to admire the wreath hung over the door at the back of the sanctuary. 

Giving her a chance to balk, she realized. 

Or to ask for help.

Completely unsure herself which option she preferred, Claire did neither; simply continued to sit straight-backed and stone still, save for the fingers twisting together in her lap. 

At long last, satisfied that she had no imminent desire to leave, the priest approached her pew and slowly eased himself down to sit a few feet beside her. They sat together in silence for some time, Claire occasionally casting him a fleeting glance out of the corner of her eye. 

When he finally spoke again, his tone was gentle, paternal. “What is your name, my dear?”

She offered him a tremulous smile, and her hand. “Claire. Claire Beauchamp.”

His own hands were weathered and warm as they enveloped hers. “Father Gregory Anselm,” he reciprocated, giving her knuckles a tender pat. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“You as well,” she said politely. 

“Now, I admit,” he began, leaning back against the pew with a wry smile. “My hearing’s not what it used to be. But is that an English accent I detect?”

“It is indeed.” She put her hands between her knees and bumped them together - an old nervous habit. “I’m from Oxford, originally.”

“And how long have you been here in the States?”

“Almost four years now.”

They continued to exchange pleasantries, small talk; he asked about her work (and was only too thrilled to share stories about his own mother, who had been a nurse in the first World War ), her family, the weather, if she’d tried this-or-that restaurant or visited various historical sites and attractions. He was easy to talk to; he seemed genuinely interested in what she had to say, and was animated in his responses. With time, Claire found her posture relaxing against the bowed curve of the bench, her smile blooming authentically. 

As pleasant as the whole encounter had been thus far, she knew in the back of her head that the inevitable question was coming. Still, she winced when it did.

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, Claire, what is it that brings you here this morning?”

Unable to meet Father Anselm’s gaze, she pinched one of the drawstrings of her hoodie between her thumb and forefinger, twisting it back and forth pensively. “As I said, I was just... looking for a quiet place to think.”

He nodded his acceptance with a soft guttural sound. “Mm. Well I certainly understand that. I like to come in early most mornings myself. Try to find a few moments of peace before I start my day.”

“And do you?” she asked hoarsely, feeling a lump rise in her throat. “Find peace?”

“Not alone.”

The words ripped through her like a lance, stealing the breath from her lungs. 

She’d been alone for so long now, she wasn’t sure she remembered how not to be; how to let anyone in deep enough to matter. Life had taught her the hard way that it was safer like this, when she relied only on herself. 

But for six miserable weeks, she’d been trying to handle this mess alone.

It wasn’t going well for her.

A warm, calloused hand came to rest on hers, and Claire blinked hard against the sudden sting of tears. Fighting the instincts that twenty years of self-reliance had ingrained in her, she slowly and deliberately dragged broken, vulnerable eyes up to his.

“Would you like me to hear your confession?” he asked as soon as their gazes locked. It was a gentle question, phrased without judgment or expectation. 

Drawing in a deep breath, she admitted on a quavering exhale, “I’m not so sure I can bear to hear it myself.”

The priest nodded to himself, as though he’d been expecting as much. Leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees, he clasped his hands in front of him, eyes trained thoughtfully on the lights of the Christmas tree. 

He seemed equally unsurprised when Claire began to speak again, her voice hoarse, strained, barely a whisper. 

“It’s just that I… I’ve discovered that something I thought had happened… what I—what I thought I was responsible for… never came to pass. And it should be a relief, but what really happened is— it’s worse this way, somehow, and I…” She wiped a hot, glistening tear from her cheek, sniffling. “I’m sorry. I know none of this is making any sense to you.” 

“Perhaps not,” the Father agreed with a small, tender smile. He inclined his head toward the crucifix at the front of the sanctuary. “But I assure you, He understands. Our Lord sees the truth in all things. And so He knows your truth as well. Whatever your sins might be, have faith that they will be forgiven.”

Claire nodded once, pressing her lips together to keep them from trembling. As she dropped her gaze to the hands folded tightly in her lap, a fresh trickle of tears escaped down her cheeks. 

She swallowed hard.

Took a deep, fortifying breath. 

And finally confessed aloud the truth that she’d been drowning in for the past six weeks. 

“I suppose the—the gist of it is…” Her voice broke, and she coughed and cleared her throat before continuing, “That through my… selfishness, I’ve brought great suffering to an innocent man.”

Father Anselm reached out to lay a hand over hers for a moment before resuming his position of prayer. “Go on,” he encouraged softly, as her shoulders began to jerk with wracking sobs.

And so she told him everything. 

Chapter Text

The transition to Ellison 7 had been a smooth one, all things considered. 

The surgical team that had been taking care of Jamie in the ICU continued to follow him on the new unit, rounding twice a day to check in with him, updating orders and medications, making sure he had everything he needed. The nurses and support staff were all friendly enough, though understandably wary at first, given the “problem patient” status he’d earned himself by bellowing at the skittish wee nurse (Mary, her name was Mary) not five minutes after he’d arrived on the floor. 

Jamie made a concerted effort to be polite whenever the staff came in, but mostly he kept to himself those first few days, quietly grieving behind glazed eyes. Eventually, the nurses stopped looking at him as though he might snap every time they walked into the room; he could only assume that word must have spread around the nurses’ station that his bark was worse than his bite. He did what he could to preserve that shift in his reputation — smiled a bit, cracked a few self-deprecating jokes. He tried his best not to be a bother, not to ask for anything he didn’t strictly need.

Except Claire. He did ask about Claire. 

He made his inquiries every evening without fail, when the day nurse indicated that her shift would soon be over. The answers were always the same: Claire was off until Friday for sure, but no one knew if she’d actually be back for her scheduled shift, or why she’d taken off in the middle of the night (very unlike her, they all agreed). Jamie had to bite his lip to hold back the barrage of questions that threatened to burst from him in a less-than-patient tone: 

If it’s sae unlike her to bolt in the middle of a shift, shouldn’t ye be a trifle more concerned? Do none of ye speak to her outside of work? Are ye no’ her friends? Can ye no’ text her and ask if she’s alright, if she needs anything? 

The fact that he seemed to care more about the Sassenach than any of her peers irked him something fierce. Could they not see that something was wrong? Even before she’d left in a hurry — without a word, without explanation — he could read it in her plain as day. She was hurting.

Knowing full well that he couldn’t do anything about the matter, he tried not to dwell on it. On her.

He failed miserably.

The nights were long, his sleep broken; he had too much time to think, worry, wonder. His days, on the other hand, were filled with a revolving door of professionals intent upon his rehabilitation. Physical therapy began his first morning on the new unit. The lasses who came to work with him were kind, but tenacious; they pressed him to his absolute limits — wide-eyed, dripping sweat, trembling with exertion — then encouraged him to push just a little bit further. They came three times a day, at 09:00, 13:00, and 17:00, and after the first couple of (exhausting, excruciating) sessions, Jamie began eyeing the clock at quarter-to like a condemned man counting down to the hour of his execution. To their credit, though, after only a few days he could already tell the difference in his stamina, his strength; the ruthless wee whip-crackers had him sitting up at the edge of his bed by Friday afternoon — head spinning, muscles shaking, and back screaming, but he was doing it.  

Claire willna believe her eyes when she sees this, he thought before he could stop himself, then forcibly amended, IF she comes in tonight.

He was riding the high of his success, beaming breathlessly up at the physical therapists, when the nurse’s aide popped her head through the door.

“Hey, Mr. Fraser, are you—? Oh! PT’s still here.”

“We’re just finishing up,” said Lisa, the blonde one of the physical therapy duo. She gesticulated at him grandly, taking a step back to show off his latest accomplishment. “Did you happen to notice that he’s sitting up all on his own? ” 

“Aww. Yay!” The aide clapped the tips of her fingers together, her youthful, freckled face splitting in a grin. “Good job, Mr. Fraser!”

Jamie rolled his eyes and choked out a shaky laugh. “Och, dinna play into their games, lass. They like to cheer for my every wee move like I’m a bairn.” 

“Baaaiiiiirrrnnnnn,” crooned Shariah, the other physical-therapist, a hand flapping over her heart. “Oh my God. This boy.”

“You know they’re just gonna keep doing it to get you to say that, right?” the aide informed him. “All the girls are gaga for your accent.”

Jamie laughed again, going pink. He was well aware; the more comfortable the predominantly-female staff became around him, the more they started to fawn and squeal and beg him to repeat certain words (and start in on the endless train of “how-do-you-say-THIS-in-Scotland?”). It was all very flattering, if a bit much. He tried to play into it good-naturedly, lapsing into broad Scots and rolling his r’s for them, much to the lasses’ delight. 

“Dinna ken about that,” he murmured humbly. 

“James ‘as always been blissfully unaware of the effect he ‘as on women,” said a familiar, deeply accented French voice just beyond the door. The tiny hairs on Jamie’s arms and neck stood on end in the brief moment before its owner stepped into view.

“Annalise,” he managed through a suddenly-dry throat.

She was as stunning as ever; smoky-eyed and red-lipped, her long golden hair - fine as silk - twisted back in a delicate waterfall braid. Dressed to the nines, as always; today she wore a curve-hugging, cowl-necked red sweater dress paired with knee-high leather boots. She’d modeled to pay her way through drama school, and Jamie had never quite been able to believe his luck that a lass as bonny as her had taken any interest in a bumbling dolt of a Highlander like himself.

They’d been dating casually for eight months before he left for Boston to pursue an internship at one of the most highly-regarded nonprofits in his industry. At the time, the two of them had danced masterfully around definitive terms like long-distance relationship, coming to a sort of unspoken agreement to let things develop (or fall apart) organically. She’d come out to visit him once over the summer; he’d taken her sightseeing around Boston, bought her the Prada purse she’d been ogling at Saks, and fucked her hungrily on his kitchen counter. She’d left on a flight back to Paris the next morning, and they’d barely spoken since. Jamie had received exactly two text messages from her after the accident: the first the very next day (your sister told me about the accident, how are you feeling?!!?!), the second just over a week ago, with only a kiss-face emoji. 

And now she was here.

And he had no… earthly idea what to make of that.

His mouth hung open a bit, and he only realized it and shut it again when Shariah elbowed her coworker in the ribs with a grumbled “told you he’d have a bombshell girlfriend.”

He eyed Annalise in bald-faced confusion, just barely biting back the urge to clarify “ … do I?” Pulling himself together, he smiled up at his possibly?-former?-current?-girlfriend and finally managed, “Canna believe you’re here.”

Annalise flashed him a megawatt smile. “Surprised?”

“Aye! Aye, I am. It’s, ah, it’s good to see you.” 

The three staff members kept glancing back and forth between the pair of them as though they were watching a tennis match. At last, Lisa was the one to come to her senses; she noted the way that Jamie’s muscles had begun to spasm from the effort of holding himself upright, and snapped back into professional mode.

“Okay, lover boy, let’s get you back into bed so we can leave you two to catch up without an audience, hm?”

“Aye.” He released his breath in a shaking exhale of relief. “Thank ye.” Leaning forward slightly, he lifted his arms to let one physical therapist brace him on each side.

“Oh, but—” Annalise began to interject, drawing his gaze up just in time to catch her perfect red-lipsticked pout. “I ‘ad ‘oped we might go down to the little cafe downstairs for a coffee?” 

“Not today, angel,” Shariah answered over her shoulder. “Mr. Hercules over here is kickin’ ass and taking names, but he ain’t ready for a wheelchair trip just yet.” She winked a long-lashed brown eye at him. “Maybe by the end of next week, huh, baby?”

“I think ye have a much higher opinion of my— oof —” He hissed through his teeth as they helped to boost him up on the bed. “—of my abilities than I do.”

“You’ll get there,” she assured him with an encouraging smile. “You just keep up the good work, honey.”

“Seriously. You’re doing such a phenomenal job here, Jamie,” Lisa added as she helped to tuck his shoulder and turn him ergonomically into a side-lying position, facing the window. “Fantastic work today. You should be so proud of yourself.”

Teeth chattering a bit from the pain, he nevertheless managed a tight smile. “Couldna do it wi’out ye, my wee whip-crackers.”

“Oh my God, you’re killing me with that. I need to make that my next tattoo,” Lisa chortled, flexing her bicep and using an index finger to trace invisible ink along the inside of her arm. “ Wee whip-cracker. You watch, I’ll do it, too.” She patted Jamie soundly on the outside of his thigh, and he managed a strangled laugh.

“Aye, save it for when ye get me out of here, and I’ll get one to match.”

The lasses fussed over him for a few more minutes — made sure he was in a comfortable position (as comfortable as possible, given that he was still shaking, muscles clenched against the pain), tucked the blankets in around him, handed him his call light and water, and reminded him to get some good rest, because they’d be back to torture him again in a few hours.

Although he couldn’t see her, he knew Annalise was still hovering in the doorway; he heard Shariah’s hiss of a whisper to her as she left the room (“Does he have a brother?”). His girlfriend gave a nervous little laugh. 

When they were finally alone, a blanket of silence fell over the room. 

Thick, oppressive, and fraught with tension.

She’d seen, then.

The sheets were pulled up over Jamie’s shoulders now, but the back to his hospital gown was open, so when the physical therapists had turned him over, he was sure Annalise caught an eyeful of the shredded, mutilated horror that used to be his back.

After a few more breaths, a few more thudding, anxious heartbeats, he finally heard the tentative tap of her boots on the linoleum floor. He tried to brace himself for the expression on her face, but it didn’t particularly help.

She was not as good of an actress as she liked to think she was.

Her blood-red smile was etched firmly in place, and she had her arms draped casually over her chest as she leaned against the window frame, but Jamie didn’t miss the tension she held in the tendons of her neck, the way she dug her nails into the thick cable knit of her sleeves. They were both carrying on a poor excuse for a charade, all tight smiles and awkward glances. 

“So.” He huffed out a brief laugh, fidgeting nervously with the edge of his blanket. “How long have ye been planning this wee surprise?”

Annalise’s phone chimed with a text notification, and she pulled her mobile from her purse and began scrolling absently with a finger as she answered him. “Well, it all worked out very nicely, actually! I just so ‘appened to ‘ave a flight booked to New York to visit a friend this weekend; it was something we ‘ad been planning for months. With a bit of research, I learned that it is only a four hour train ride to Boston. Of course, I told her at once that I must come up and spend the day with you!” She flipped her phone to face him, rolling her eyes with a scoffing laugh. “This is her now. We ‘ad tickets to see Wicked tonight, but of course I told her that coming to visit you was much more important than—”   

“Annalise.” 

She glanced up from her phone screen, her smile evaporating at his tone. Jamie stared at her openly now – stripped of pretense, forced charm, and social niceties. 

Christ, he was tired. So very, very tired. 

“Ye dinna have to do this, you know.” He stared at her for a moment, watching the weight of his words settle over her, then nodded in affirmation, smiling sadly. “It’s alright. I ken this isn’t… it’s no’ what ye signed up for.”

“James…” she whispered, and at least had the good grace to tear up a bit. She was a kind lass at heart, but he knew that this sort of trauma — this darkness — was more than the fragile bonds of a lighthearted, casual romance were meant to bear. He didn’t resent her for it; he could barely stand it himself. But it wasn’t as though he had much choice in the matter.

She did. 

He reached for her hand, and unshed tears quivered like diamonds in her eyes as Annalise took the few steps forward to take it. Gently, he brought her knuckles to his lips. 

“It was kind of ye to make the trip, ma belle. It’s good to see ye, and I mean that. But I don’t expect…” He swallowed, trying to find the right words as his thumb brushed gently over the back of her smooth, small hand. “I don’t want ye to feel as though there’s any… obligation, here.” 

It was an open door, one way or another. She could walk away, or she could fight with him, fight for him; tell him he was worth the effort, the distance traveled, the heartache and the worry and the pain…  

One glance up at her, and he knew which it would be. The social graces drilled into her demanded that she object, but beneath it, there was a palpable surge of relief at the offer to cut and run.

So he decided to make it easy for her. 

Before she could open her mouth to answer, Jamie reached over to the bedside stand and tipped his phone up to check the time. “It’s two o’clock now,” he told her matter-of-factly. “If ye catch an Uber back to the train station, ye can still make it back to New York in time for yer show.” He smiled encouragingly, giving her hand a squeeze. “I ken ye’ve been wantin’ tae see it for a long time now. Ye used to sing the songs in the shower.”

“Still do,” she confessed with a soft, tearful breath of a laugh.

“Well, I’d hate for ye to miss it on my account. Especially since I’ll likely spend half the afternoon sleepin’ anyway. I’m, ah, I’m always knackered after the physical therapy, ye ken? So I’ll no’ be great company to ye. I’d feel better if ye went back to be with yer friend and enjoyed yer wee holiday. Truly.”

She stared into his eyes for a long moment, as if trying to gauge his sincerity; Jamie could almost see the internal conflict raging behind her own misty blue eyes. At long last, she leaned down to press her lips to his, gently and chastely. A single tear escaped down her cheek as she pulled back slowly and whispered, “Je ne te mérite pas.” [I don’t deserve you.]

He tried to smile, and was almost successful. Running the pad of his thumb over her cheek to brush away a tear, he answered softly, “No. You deserve much better, Annalise.” Tucking his arms back under the blankets, he laid his head back on the pillow, silently granting permission for her to go. “I hope ye find it.”

“You too, James,” she choked. “You too.” 

And with one final, lingering, mournful glance, she turned and left him.

Jamie stared numbly out the window for over an hour, idly wondering which of the cars that pulled out of the circular drive was hers. 

He must have drifted off eventually, because he woke up to the rap of knuckles on his door just as the sun was starting its descent in a bright fuschia and marigold sky. 

Lisa and Shariah, back for his final session of the day. 

They took one look at him, and didn’t ask any questions. 

Shariah employed even more pet names than usual, and Lisa was gentler with him than she’d ever been; she suggested that maybe they should just do some stretches and light bed exercises this time.

Jamie quietly agreed, and did as he was told.

He ignored his supper tray that evening, despite his stomach’s growling protests. Fists clenched under his chin, he curled up on his side and watched the sun set behind Boston’s skyline, trying very hard not to cry. 

It wasn’t even Annalise. Not only her, anyway. She was just the most recent casualty of this godforsaken accident; one more hole ripped from the life he’d built for himself, the life he loved. Even during the darkest, most horrific days in the ICU, Jamie had done his best not to spiral into the depths of self-pity; it wouldn’t do him any good to start taking stock of all the damage he’d suffered, all that he was missing out on, all the things he’d never have again.

But Christ... lying there alone in the dark, he had to wonder: how much loss was one man supposed to endure before it just became too much?

He heard the click of the door sometime later; either the nurse or the aide coming to check on him, he imagined. He pretended to be asleep, and waited for them to leave. 

They didn’t. 

Cracking one eye open, he looked over at the window, at his own reflection in the dark glass, then up at the silhouette of the person standing in his doorway.

The breath caught in his chest. 

Ignoring the searing pain in his back, he twisted to look over his shoulder, needing to be sure the reflection wasn’t playing tricks on him.

Soft, shimmering amber eyes locked with his, and it was as if he’d stepped outside on a cloudy day, and suddenly the sun came out. 

Jamie’s breath shuddered out of him with a trembling smile, his eyes flooding with the tears he’d been holding back all afternoon. 

Claire.

Chapter Text

Claire studied her reflection in the bathroom mirror for several minutes. Smoothed the front of her scrubs. Lifted her chin, straightened her spine. Tucked the well-moussed brown curls behind her ears, pulled a few strands forward experimentally, pushed them back again. 

Scowling at the splotchy, raccoon-eyed wraith staring back at her, she unzipped the makeup bag sitting on her counter for the first time in days. Nothing Miss Maybelline couldn’t fix; two generous smears of concealer to the dark circles beneath her eyes, blush to disguise the death-warmed-up pallor, rose-colored lipstick dabbed over pinched, bloodless lips.

And a few swipes of mascara, in a moment of immense (over?) confidence.

Because she was well and truly done crying. For fuck’s sake, Beauchamp.

Whatever preternatural force had guided her to Father Anselm (be it God, fate, or sheer dumb luck), Claire had found in the kindly priest not only the catharsis of confession — an unbiased ear to which she could spill her darkest, most painful secret — but also a fair amount of sound advice on how to handle the situation going forward. The Father firmly maintained that the only way she would ever cast aside the yoke of her guilt was to confess her role in the accident to Jamie, then try to find some way to make amends for her part in his suffering. 

Confession and atonement

Perhaps not a shocking suggestion, coming from a Catholic priest, but they were words she needed to hear, nonetheless. Claire needed a plan. Something solid. Something she could do… because the helplessness of the situation — the inertia of it all — was eating her alive. 

Father Anselm had provided her with that plan.

Now it was up to her to execute it. 

She’d been practicing her script for five days now. Paced what would probably be permanent treads in the floorboards of her bedroom as she spoke the words over and over again, performing a variety of different approaches, inflections, phrasing. She tried to imagine how Jamie would react, played out every possible scenario she could come up with — from stone-cold silence to explosive rage. She wanted to be prepared for every eventuality.  

Because she was going to do this. 

She was going to tell him. 

Tonight.

And she wasn’t going to cry while she did it, she reminded herself firmly as she screwed the wand back on her mascara. She was going to face this with grace and maturity, like a goddamned adult. 

She pointedly ignored the fact that her hands were shaking so badly she could barely turn the key in the lock on the way out.

The wind whipped at her hunched form the moment she stepped through the rotating glass door of her apartment building and out onto the street. The weather remained unseasonably warm for December — slightly above freezing and not a snowflake in sight — but the wind was brutal as it screamed through the natural tunnel between skyscrapers. When she first moved to Boston, Claire had purposefully chosen an apartment complex within easy walking distance of the hospital; two blocks, manageable on foot even in the most horrid of weather conditions. Still, she couldn’t help but curse as she ducked her head and half-jogged across the intersection, knowing that all the effort she’d spent styling her unruly head of curls would be undone completely in the five minutes it took her to get to work.

A nice, safe distraction to focus on as the knot in her stomach pulled tighter and tighter with each step.     

By the time she reached the elevators in the Ellison building, her forehead had broken out in a sheen of sweat, despite the brisk trek through the cold. As each floor number lit over the elevator door, she chewed her bottom lip absently, forgetting the lipstick; she cursed under her breath the moment she recognized what she was doing.  

So much for putting up a cool, composed front. Hair a windblown mess, lipstick smudged (and probably some on her teeth, Christ, she’d have to check), concealer half-sweated off.  

Off to a great start here, Beauchamp.

Not that Jamie would give a lick what she looked like once she told him that she…

The elevator doors opened on the seventh floor, and for a single suspended moment, Claire froze like a deer in the headlights. Panic flooded her nervous system, rendering her completely paralyzed — chest heaving, heart pounding against her ribcage. 

I can’t do this. I can’t do this. Jesus H. Christ, I don’t think I can do this...  

And then Joe Abernathy stepped out of the locker room, ten feet ahead, and caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye. His whole face lit up in a grin, and he hailed her with a broad wave. 

“Hey, Lady Jane! You’re back!”

And just like that, Claire blinked away her stupor, jutting an arm out to block the elevator doors right as they began to close. Somehow, the sight of a coworker and friend was exactly what she needed to clear the haze of panic. This she could do. This is what she’d been doing — every day she worked, for six long weeks — right up until the moment she cracked. Here, with these people, in this place, she had perfected the pretense of normalcy; erected an impeccable facade to hide the ruins underneath. It was an ingrained habit by now to plaster a smile on her face as she stepped out of the elevator to greet her friend. 

“Miss me, Joe?”

“You bet.” He opened a long arm for a hug, and she slid in comfortably alongside him as they walked toward the nurses’ station. “How you been, lady? Heard you had something come up Sunday night and had to bolt on outta here. Everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine. Just something personal came up, that’s all.” At his suspicious side glance, she redoubled her efforts at a believable smile. “I’m good, Joe, really.”

“Mmhmm,” he intoned, completely unconvinced. He gave her shoulder a squeeze before releasing her. “Well, in any case, I’m glad you’re back. This place goes straight to hell in a handbasket when you’re not around. I thought our guy in 43 was gonna have an aneurysm if you didn’t show up tonight.” 

Any blood that had gathered in Claire’s cheeks immediately drained away. Through a sandpaper throat, she clarified haltingly, “Fo… forty-three?”

Oh yeah.” He raised his eyebrows at her with a smirk as he grabbed a fresh report sheet from a stack on the desk. “That boy’s got it bad.”

Claire could only blink at him, at an absolute loss. 

“Well don’t look so surprised, Lady Jane! You’re a beautiful woman. And it’s not like he’s the first patient to crush on you. You remember that one guy down in 52, who—?”

“Yeah, no, I remember, it—ah, it—” Claire felt as though her brain were short-circuiting, the ability to form words completely eluding her. “It—but—why would you say that Jamie—?”

“Oh, Jamie, is it?” Joe teased, wiggling his eyebrows at her. 

Mr. Fraser —” she corrected, the color rushing back to her cheeks in a flood.

“I’m just givin’ you a hard time, Lady Jane.” Joe grinned, clapping her on the shoulder. He held up a blank report sheet for her. “Here, you need one of these?” 

“Yeah, thanks.” She took the paper absently, following him in a daze over to the assignment board. Brow furrowed, she opened and closed her mouth twice before she asked haltingly, “But really, Joe, what on earth would make you say that about Mr. Fraser?” 

Joe maintained an obnoxiously cavalier smirk as he copied his patient assignment down on his report sheet. “Oh, I dunno. Maybe the fact that he’s asked about you every single day you’ve been gone?” He dropped his voice into a terrible, growling impersonation of a Scottish burr. “‘Where’s Claire? When’s Claire coming back? Does anyone know what happened to Claire?’

She smacked his arm with her paper. “Stop it. He did not.”

“Okay.”

“Or at the very least, it’s an exaggeration.”

“Okay.”

She smacked him again, harder this time, but decided to let the issue drop. Even if he weren’t grossly exaggerating just to get a rise out of her (which she highly doubted), it hardly mattered at this point. Any fleeting interest Jamie might have taken in her was about to be permanently and spectacularly shattered. 

Because sure enough, in solid black marker next to her name on the assignment board was J. Fraser, Rm 43.

With a small note in parentheses beside it that read (patient request). 

Claire closed her eyes, feeling something vital crack in her chest. 

 


 

 

She saw all of her other patients first.

Sought out report from every day shift nurse but Jamie’s, even though it meant skipping his room, going out of order, tracking down someone on the complete opposite side of the unit.

Anything to delay the inevitable.

What little confidence she’d possessed earlier in the day was draining out of her in an escalating drip the closer she got to actually having to face him. It had all been well and good in theory — coming back to work, seeing him again, taking him as a patient. And she knew, she knew in her bones it was the right thing to do, being here. 

But as it turned out, the “right thing” was fucking hard to do.

Katie S. had been his nurse on day shift (it seemed all the nurses on the unit had some variation of the same bloody name: Katie/Kate/Katherine/Kathy), and she looked utterly relieved to see Claire when she finally, reluctantly, dragged herself over to the charting station outside room 43.

“Hey, there you are! If it isn’t Queen C herself!” the other nurse joked. Claire couldn’t quite find it in her to smile, and her coworker looked a bit abashed as she cleared her throat and explained, “Jamie’s been asking about you all week. He’s gonna be really happy you’re here.”

“So I heard,” Claire said softly, eyes on her report sheet. “How’s he doing?”

Katie updated her on all the technicalities: changes in his orders and medications, recent vital signs, his new IV site, upcoming procedures and dressing changes. Apparently he’d started physical therapy this week, and was doing brilliantly with it. 

“Lisa and Shariah even got him up sitting at the edge of the bed today!”

“That’s wonderful.”

Katie looked over her shoulder to double check that Jamie’s door was closed, then leaned in, voice lowered confidentially. “I’m not sure what all happened today, but the PTs said something about a girlfriend coming to visit? She left pretty quickly and he’s been super bummed out all afternoon, so I don’t know if they, like, broke up or whatever? But just FYI, that went down today. So like I said, it’s good you’re here, Claire. He really likes you. Maybe you’ll boost his spirits, y’know? He needs it, poor guy.” She pouted sympathetically as she folded up her report sheet and tucked it away in her pocket. “You want me to go in with you to check his lines and everything?”

Claire quickly shook her head. “No, it’s alright, you can go. Sorry I kept you waiting.” 

The other nurse smiled and made a dismissive hand gesture. “‘Oh, no, it’s all good! Have a great night, Claire. I really hope you can cheer him up. He’s such a sweetheart.” 

Claire’s lips twitched in a vague estimation of a smile as she nodded her agreement. 

She waited until the other nurse was well out of sight before covering her face with her hands, releasing her breath in a shuddering gust.

Christ.

She scrubbed her palms over her eyes, belatedly remembered her makeup, then huffed out an exasperated sigh as she wiped at the mascara smears.

Nothing, not a single thing, was going according to plan. 

Of all the scenarios she’d rehearsed over the past five days, she’d never accounted for any of this. For him breaking up with his girlfriend — God, yet another loss she could count herself responsible for — on the day she was meant to tell him what she’d done. 

Or for Jamie being… attached to her in any way.

Or for the way it made her stomach flutter to know that he’d asked about her. That he missed her when she was gone.

She cut the thought off sharply, feeling the crack in her chest split a little bit further. It didn’t matter what he thought before, what… bond or understanding or camaraderie there was between them. Once Jamie learned the truth, everything would change. She had to remind herself of that. Brace herself for it.

It had to be now. Right now, before she lost her nerve. Because Christ, she could feel it slipping every second.  

She drew in a deep breath through her nose. Held it. 

Counted to five.

And, exhaling, opened his door.

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Jamie was laying on his side, facing away from her, breathing steadily. Still, there was a slight tension to his posture — a stiffening of muscles that were normally relaxed in sleep — that let her know he was awake. 

She tried to find her voice, to say… something. Anything. 

Hello.  

Good evening, Mr. Fraser.

Good evening, Jamie.

Jamie, I know you’re not asleep.

Jamie, it’s Claire. I’ll be your nurse again tonight. How are you feeling? Wait, before you answer that, let me tell you straight away that I am at fault for all of your pain and suffering these past six weeks. I caused the accident that ruined your life. You see, I couldn’t bloody well wait five minutes to see whether or not my ex-boyfriend would propose to me on my birthday...

But she said none of those things. 

Because before she could, he stirred. Wrenching up in bed, Jamie turned over his shoulder to face her, as if he’d suddenly realized she was standing there.

And God… God in heaven, he looked at her with such relief, smiling up at her as if she’d hung the stars.

“Claire.” A single crystalline tear spilled down his cheek.

She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t do anything but stare back at him, feeling the crack in her chest open into a chasm. 

She’d promised herself she wouldn’t cry. But one look at him, and she felt the desperate burn in her traitorous throat, her eyes filling immediately to match his. 

“Hi,” she whispered, so faintly she wasn’t sure he could hear. 

His lips trembled in their smile, then twitched higher. “Hi,” he whispered back. 

She blinked hard, drew a knuckle under her running nose, released a self-conscious breath of a laugh. “I’m sorry I left the other night, without—”

He was already shaking his head. “Ye dinna owe me any explanations, Claire.”

Oh, but I do, she thought miserably. 

God, her heart hurt.

Jamie looked at her as if he could see it. 

Maybe he did. 

His brow furrowed, the smile disappearing. “Are ye alright?” he asked, blue eyes watching her carefully.

She opened her mouth to give the reflexive answer: I’m fine, you?  Lie, then deflect; a social grace deeply ingrained in her, and very useful in avoiding self-reflection. 

But somehow, looking at Jamie, the lie wouldn’t come. 

Very... very slowly, she shook her head no.

There was no surprise in his face, only sadness. Arms crossed around her middle, Claire asked him shakily, “You?”

Jamie slowly shook his own head, tear-filled eyes trained on hers.

You have to tell him, her conscience begged her, even as she felt her heart cleaving in two. Tell him now. Tell him it’s all your fault. If you don’t tell him, you…

She took a shallow breath, closed her eyes, and opened her mouth to speak. “Jamie, I—”

Just then, the quick patter of trainers on linoleum approached in the hall behind her, skidding to a halt with a squeaking sound just outside the door. 

“Oh! Claire, you’re in here,” said Elias, the night tech on duty. “I was gonna grab Mr. Fraser’s 8 o’clock vitals, but do you wanna—?”

“I’ll get them,” she said without turning, managing to keep her voice impressively steady. “If you can grab 48’s, that’d be great, Elias.”

“Sure thing,” he agreed, and then he was off again.

And the moment was gone.

Chapter Text

He couldn’t take his eyes off of her. 

He’d been right. His every instinct had been right. 

Something terrible had happened to Claire.

The visceral response to her pain boiled up in Jamie like a hot spring: the desperate, anguished yearning to fix it, to help her; fury at her coworkers for not checking in on her sooner; relief — utter, bone-weakening relief that she was back. That she was here.

It was insane, Jamie recognized, to feel so strongly about a woman he’d known all of four hours. To care this much, this quickly. 

It wasn’t usual. 

But it was there. Whatever this was between them, it hadn’t disappeared in her absence. 

Just to be sure, he’d tested the waters. He held her eyes as he asked her if she was alright, and he’d seen it: the instinct to lie, to balk. But after a moment, she’d shaken her head — given him the true answer, even though she hated it; even though it fucking terrified her. 

There were secrets, painful secrets lurking behind Claire’s eyes, and Jamie swore to himself then and there never to ask them of her; it wasn’t his place. But the confirmation that he wasn’t imagining it — that the vulnerable, naked honesty that existed between them on the very first night was still there — caused the tension in his chest to release like a cord had been cut. 

For the first time in five days, he felt as though he could breathe again.

Of course, he knew Claire couldn’t just tarry about in his room all night; she had other patients to tend to, and the sudden appearance of the tech was an acute reminder of that. Once the lad scurried off down the hall, the two of them glanced at one another with soft, embarrassed breaths of laughter, the moment of raw vulnerability shattered by the intrusion. Claire gestured awkwardly at the vitals machine, and Jamie laid back down on his side as she crossed the room to fetch it. 

But the moment the stretched skin of his back relaxed again, the searing pain from his half-twisted position hit him in force. He saw stars for a moment, hissing sharply through his teeth. 

“Cack!—gah—schzzz fuckfuckfuck

Claire rounded quickly into view again on the window-side of the bed, thermometer and blood pressure cuff in hand. 

“Jamie, talk to me,” she commanded in a firm, steady tone. The fragile wisp of a lass that had stood in the doorway only seconds before was gone, replaced with a steely-eyed, no-nonsense nurse. “Can you rate your pain for me on a scale of 0 to 10?” 

As if sensing his instinct to downplay his response for her benefit, she rebuked him before he could even open his mouth, “And don’t you dare tell me ‘four.’ I saw in your chart that’s been your number of choice today.”

Despite the pain, Jamie’s mouth tweaked into a wry, tremulous smile. “None of the other nurses ever question it, ye ken,” he teased. “Is a pain score no’ meant to be subjective?”

She leveled him with a look.

Apparently, honesty would have to be a two-way street.

Drawing in a few lungfuls of air to steady himself, he considered for a moment, then answered gruffly, “Eight-and-a-half, mebbe nine?”

“Jamie,” she breathed, fingertips reaching for his, then recoiling at the last second. 

He shrugged his good shoulder, eyeing her with a sad sort of resignation. Whether or not Claire knew it, this had been his life for weeks; no need for her to start fretting about it now. “It’s nothin’ new, Sassenach.”

After a beat, her amber eyes darted up to his, narrowing in confusion. “Sass-a-what?”

Jamie’s cheeks pinked; he hadn’t even realized he’d said it out loud. He dropped his lashes, fiddling with the edge of his blanket. “Och… em, Sassenach. It’s what we call the English up in the Highlands. My, ah, my Grandda used to call ye the feckin’ sassenachs , actually, but—” He chuckled, glancing up at her again. “I figured ye wouldna much appreciate me includin’ the first bit.” 

He was admittedly terrible at winking (could never quite manage to get only one eye to close at a time), but he thought Claire probably caught the gist as he attempted it. The creases around her eyes deepened, and she huffed out a breath through her nose.

“I see.”  

“I dinna mean anything by it,” Jamie backpedaled hastily, suddenly afraid he’d offended her. “It’s only a wee nickname.”

Her eyes met his, soft and reassuring. “I didn’t take any offense.” Moving her stethoscope across his torso, she listened intently for a few seconds in each spot. As she removed the earpieces and wound the cord around her neck again, she added quietly, “But for what it’s worth, this ‘feckin’ sassenach’ would feel much better if you’d let her give you something for the pain.”   

Jamie made a Scottish grunt of malcontent, eyes pinching shut. “I’ve told ye. The morphine gives me the boak.”

She wouldn’t be deterred so easily. “Something besides morphine, then. There are other options. If nothing suitable is in your orders, I can page the doctor to ask for something else. But I can’t just let you suffer like this, Jamie, I...” Her voice wavered slightly over the last few words, causing his eyes to snap open and find hers again. A soft sheen of tears hovered just above her lash line, and the sight made his heart clench. “Please. Let me help you.”

He couldn’t have refused her even if he wanted to. 

Just barely restraining the urge to reach up and brush his fingers over the apple of her cheek, he nodded his assent.

“Aye,” he whispered. “Aye, whatever ye think best. I trust you, Claire.” 

 


 

 

Claire tried — truly, she did — not to be a terrible nurse to her other patients. If anything, she was overly attentive in the time she did spend with each of them; she offered to fetch warm blankets, fresh ice water, extra pillows, find them the white noise channel on the television, check which as-needed-meds were available and offer them preemptively. 

Do you need your Ativan tonight, Mrs. Jones? How about a sleeping pill, Mr. Parrikh? Any pain? Nausea? Restless leg? Would you like your door open or closed? Bathroom light on or off? Do you have your call light where you can reach it? Is there anything at all I can get for you to make you more comfortable? 

The patients were utterly smitten, finding her delightful, efficient, and thorough. And she was — for the express purpose of addressing any foreseeable needs that might arise in the next hour or so, leaving her free to focus her undivided attention on Jamie. 

In the end, the strategy panned out quite nicely. Her four other patients were tucked in, well-medicated, and out cold by the time the doctor had placed the order for Jamie’s oxycodone, the pharmacist had verified it, and Claire had pulled it out of the Omnicell dispenser and rounded back to room 43. 

When she stepped through the open door, her heart stopped cold for half a beat.

In the time she’d been gone, Jamie’s condition had escalated from bad to worse. He was bent in half, practically convulsing, his knuckles white on the bedsheets. In her haste to get the pain medicine scanned and pop the pills into the little plastic cup, she fumbled and nearly dropped them on the floor. Claire had to force herself to stop, take a breath, and attempt to regain some professional composure before stepping over to the bedside. She decided to forego trying to make Jamie take the pill cup himself, and instead held the little white tablets up to his mouth one at a time, placing them carefully on his tongue when he opened for her, then following with a sip of water. Even still, Jamie grunted at the simple movement of tilting his head back to swallow, then grimaced as each of the tablets went down. 

Without pausing to think, she instinctively perched on the bed beside him.

“Shhh,” she soothed, stroking the backs of her fingers over his stubbled cheek. “Fifteen minutes, Jamie. Shhh. Give it fifteen minutes, and you’ll start to feel better.” Her chin was set in determination. “And if you don’t, I’ll page again. We’ll get you something else, I promise.”

Teeth gritted, he ground out, “I’ll bide. Dinna fash. It’s just the — rmmph — the spasms, ye ken? They’ll pass.”

“Spasms…” Claire’s eyes lifted suddenly, a thought occurring to her. “Are you on any muscle relaxers?”

“Not that—” A shaking hiss. “Not that I — know of. Why?”

She stood abruptly then, and Jamie whimpered at the loss of contact. His hand grasped reflexively for hers as she began to walk away. 

“Stay wi’ me?” he panted, blue eyes pleading. “Just ‘til they — pass, I mean.”

Claire’s brows twitched up in compassion as she gave his hand a squeeze. “I’m not going anywhere,” she promised. “I’m just grabbing the computer so I can page the doctor again. If spasms are the problem, something like Flexeril might be more helpful to you than the pain meds.” 

“Ah,” he clenched out. “I didna — ken that was a — thing.” He raised an eyebrow at her as she pulled the rolling computer over and sat back down on the bed beside him. “Why didna — someone — think of that — before?”  

Claire shot him a look. “Well, it would help if you started being honest with your pain assessments. If the doctors and nurses think your pain is being managed with what’s ordered, they wouldn’t have any cause to look for alternatives, now, would they?”

“Suppose that — makes sense.” With what looked like considerable effort, he managed to broaden his grimace into a toothy grin. “Good thing ye’re — here to — mmrph — set me straight, Sassenach.”

She made a throaty hum of assent, clacking away at her keyboard. By a stroke of luck, the plastic surgery resident on call tonight was an acquaintance of hers. He’d been on the general surgery rotation a few months ago, and she’d interacted with him almost nightly during that time. He knew her, trusted her judgment, and would listen to her requests. It would save her the headache of having to barge up the chain of command to reach the attending in the middle of the bloody night. 

Hey Raj. Re: James Fraser, need flexeril too. TID please, and STAT. Highest dose you can reasonably order (10 mg?) 9/10 pain from spasms. Thx, Claire RN pgr#35461 

She sent the page off with a firm tap, then reached over to take Jamie’s hand again, enfolding it between her own. 

He clung to her like a lifeline. 

“There,” she murmured, massaging her thumbs in small circles over his knuckles. “Won’t be but a moment, and we’ll get you something that’ll really help.”

“I thank ye. Truly.” Already, it seemed the pain meds were starting to take effect. He was still shaking, but the tightness around his eyes and mouth had eased slightly, and his teeth were no longer chattering. He looked up into her face so tenderly that she wanted to weep, trying to hold a smile for her sake. “I’m glad ye’re here, Claire.”

She shut her eyes briefly, swallowing against the burning lump in her throat. When she reopened them again to meet the impossible blue of his eyes, she whispered, “So am I, Jamie.”

And she meant it. 

The longer she let the thought dwell — sink into the very marrow of her bones — the more she realized the fundamental truth of it.

Jesus H. Christ, this was all she wanted. To make things better for him in any way she could. 

And with that thought came a revelation, bleeding slowly but surely over the horizon of her consciousness like the first orange rays of dawn.

Maybe this… this was how she could atone; how she could begin to make things better. 

This. Exactly this.

Help him. Heal him. 

Advocate for him. 

Fight for him. 

Find all of the cracks where the system had failed him, and fix them. Use her knowledge, her experience, her ties to other medical professionals to pave the way for a swift and seamless recovery. 

Dedicate herself, and every resource within her grasp, to the rehabilitation of Jamie Fraser.   

She’d already been picking up insane amounts of overtime over the past six weeks; no one on the unit would bat an eye if she picked up a few more shifts. She could be here every single day if need be, taking care of him, watching over him; making sure he got the appropriate medications, that he was eating enough, getting enough sleep, following through on his physical therapy exercises. 

Jamie had asked for her every night she was gone. He wanted her here. He trusted her, he’d said it himself. He wanted to please her; it was plain as day in the way he looked at her. She’d been able to get him to take pain medicine when no one else could. Maybe she could motivate him in other ways — keep him on track. Expedite his recovery process. Get him home sooner.

Because that’s what he really needed: to be out of this damned hospital, and back to his own life. 

Back where he was before she ruined everything. 

And Claire could get him there. She knew she could.

There was a light at the end of the tunnel, now, and a clear path to get there. Her plan — Father Anselm’s plan — had been right all along; it just needed some tweaking. 

Atonement, then confession.

She’d tell him, of course. Eventually, she’d tell him everything — knowing full well that once she did, he’d hate her forever. So let her do something to help him now, while he could still stomach the sight of her; while there was still an opportunity to improve his life in a meaningful way. Ultimately, it was better for Jamie like this, and that was all that mattered. She could do this — she would do this — for his sake.

Even if it broke her heart.

Chapter Text

With the return of the Sassenach to his life, two things had become immediately and abundantly clear to Jamie Fraser.

One, she was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Two, so long as he remained under her charge, he’d never have another moment’s peace again. 

And here he’d thought the physical therapists were the wee whip-crackers.

It didn’t take him long at all to learn exactly why Claire’s peers had taken to calling her the Velvet Hammer (though he was still partial to Sassenach, himself; like it or no’, she was stuck with it now). While Jamie had experienced firsthand the gentle, tender side of her — the soothing caresses and honeyed murmurs of reassurance — he found out soon enough that there was a ferocious, blunt-force power within the lass that only served to amplify his awe of her.

Christ, but she was glorious when she was roused. 

She had a wicked wee tongue that she was more than happy to unleash on anyone she deemed guilty of the mortal sin of incompetence— up to and including Jamie. She was unapologetically candid in her critiques, and doled out commands (no’ requests, mind) regardless of whether or not anyone had actually asked for her input. She went toe-to-toe with attendings, grilled pharmacists over the phone, made more than one new resident cry. She was fearless and brazen and clever and strong, and she knew exactly what she was doing. 

And best of all, she was on Jamie’s side. 

In his wildest dreams he couldn’t have conjured up a better champion. 

Claire had torn into his life like a hurricane, and heaven help the poor fool who tried to stand in her way.

Unfortunately, tonight that poor fool’s name was Jamie Fraser. 

“No!” she barked, pointing a slender white finger at his chest. “Absolutely not!”

“Why? I did it with Lisa and Shariah earlier today wi’ nae problem!”  

“Yes, with two physical therapists and an aide, a walker, a gait belt—”

Jamie rolled his eyes. “Och, it was overkill, Sassenach, I dinna need all that.”

“Well, the medical professionals who have been specifically trained on the subject beg to differ.”

“Meaning you.”

“Meaning the physical therapists, who have written out a detailed plan with very specific instruc— Jamie!” she shrieked as he launched himself to his feet. He wavered for a moment on wobbly legs, holding her shoulders for balance, while her own hands latched onto his upper arms with a death grip. 

Ignoring the pain that scorched the length of his back (not so bad, really, now that she’d got him taking those wee tablets), Jamie looked down at her with his eyes sparkling triumphantly.

“See?” he panted, well pleased with himself. “Told ye I could do it.” 

Claire had gone deathly pale. Her amber eyes were blown wide, flitting from side to side as the shock of what he’d done gave way to thinly-veiled panic. “Alright,” she conceded slowly, letting her breath out in a controlled stream. She nodded at him once, eyes finally locking on his. “Alright. You’ve made your point. Now, for the love of God, sit back down.”

“Dinna need to sit. I’m braw. Now, if ye’ll just help me take the few wee steps over to the sink, I’ll—”

She lifted her chin, eyes flashing with whisky fire. “I’ll do no such thing! I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Jamie, but you’re significantly larger than me—”

He had noticed; standing in front of her for the first time, he marveled at how small she was, how fragile and delicate between the frame of his hands. Having only ever looked up at her from the bed, it was a stunning revelation.  

“—and if you start to fall, I won’t be able to catch you—”

“I’m no’ gonna fall.” Even as he said it, he felt his knees begin to buckle slightly. He locked them straight with every ounce of strength he possessed, refusing to be beaten by this. Not now, not in front of her. “The PTs are always sayin’ I need to challenge myself, aye? That it’s the fastest way to get better.”

“It is,” Claire agreed, with more than a hint of exasperation. “But you have to go about it in a way that’s safe, Jamie. In the proper setting, with the proper equipment and people there to help you. I know you think you’re ready for this, but—”

“But you can’t believe me.” He smiled down at her. His mouth trembled slightly, but he smiled. “Ye’ll no’ tell me what I canna do, Sassenach.”

“Yes,” she said flatly — eyebrows raised, lips pursed. “I can see that.”

“Will ye help me or no’, Claire?” His expression softened a bit, eyes imploring her to understand. “I just… I just want to get over there for five minutes, and then—” Before he could even get the words out, his knees started to buckle again. Claire leaned into him on instinct, bracing him with her body weight, her hands scooping down to grip him by the elbows. It was enough to steady him momentarily, and he growled, clenching his teeth. Forcing himself fully upright again on screaming muscles, he gritted out, “I just— I just need tae—” 

But he couldn’t hold it any more. Betrayed by his own useless body, he dropped back down to the edge of the mattress with a grunt. Gripping the side rail to keep from falling flat on the ruin of his back, he cursed viciously in both English and Gaelic. His face contorted with pain, burning red to the very tips of his ears.

Claire was bent forward now as she held him steady, her wee hands shaking with adrenaline, ribcage heaving against his. After a few quavering breaths, she pulled back to look at him, eyes flicking up and down his form with an assessing nurse’s gaze. 

“Are you alright?” she asked shakily. 

“Aye, m’fine.” Jamie shrugged out of her grasp with more anger than he meant. Unable to look at her, he fixed his glare on his traitorous knees, jaw clenched, and hoped she’d let him be. 

Of course, Hurricane Claire was just getting warmed up.

“That was a stupid thing to do, Jamie,” she scolded, her voice still wavering, but firmer now, furious. “You know that, don’t you?” Jamie clenched his jaw so tightly a muscle twitched in his neck. He still wouldn’t look up at her, but he heard Claire take a few breaths through her nose. When she spoke again, there was a froggy tightness to her voice. 

“You—you could have been seriously hurt, and there would have been nothing I could have done to stop it.”

The timbre of her voice alone was enough to finally draw his gaze up to hers; the look on her face was enough to hold it there. 

Christ. The lass was well and truly terrified. 

Chest heaving, lips trembling a bit even as she tried to press them into submission, she demanded, “Don’t you ever do that to me again, James Fraser. Do you hear me?”

Jamie’s middle and ring fingers began to tap out a staccato rhythm against his outer thigh. Chastened, he dropped his head and nodded once. 

“Aye,” he agreed, his voice a low, gravelly rasp. “Aye, I hear ye.” 

A pause, a swallow, then he passed a hand over his face, letting out his breath in a heavy sigh. 

“I’m sorry, lass. I didna mean tae frighten ye. It’s just—” 

He trailed off, unsure how to voice the jumble of thoughts twisting together in his mind. Glazed eyes trained on the floor, he shook his head dismissively and said instead, “Ye’re right, Sassenach. It was daft. Ye have my word, I willna do it again.”  

He felt it before he saw it: the gradual shift in the charge of the air between them, as fear and anger gave way to something softer. He didn’t look up as she lowered slowly into a crouch in front of him, her hands finding his and stilling them against his thighs.

“Jamie,” she murmured. Gentle as a summer breeze through the heather, but an implied command nonetheless: 

Look at me.  

And he did; slowly, he raised his lashes, feeling like an utter, irredeemable arse. Claire’s brows were tipped up a bit, compassion etched into every line of her face. Golden brown eyes stared deeply into the blue of his, bright and warm with an understanding of the words he’d left unspoken — the insecurities that raged beneath the exterior of a gallant, pigheaded fool. 

She could see him, and he knew it.

He could see her, too.

Jamie threaded his fingers through hers, still resting against his thighs, and Claire didn’t pull away; she only gripped tighter to him, whisky eyes open and honest, silently requesting the same from him.

“What’s this really about?” she asked softly.

His fingertips curled against the backs of her hands as he tried to find the words that had eluded him before. Wetting his lips, he admitted, “I feel foolish sayin’ it.”

“Don’t,” she reassured him with a gentle squeeze. “It’s just me.” 

‘Just’ you… Christ, ye really have no idea, do ye?

But all things being equal, he supposed he’d rather look a fool than disappoint her. So, taking a breath, he tried his best to explain. 

“It’s… it’s just…” He dropped his gaze again; not to hide from her, but because he couldn’t seem to focus on finding the right words when he was staring into her eyes. “I think there’s a part of you that has to die a little, mebbe, when ye’re in the hospital this long. When all of yer energy is spent fightin’ just to stay alive, ye dinna think much about it, I suppose. There’s no’ much space to worry about anything but the pain, and then after so long, ye just… get used to it, ye ken? Bein’ in bed all day, livin’ yer whole life in this wee bubble, wi’ no real grasp of the outside world or the place ye used tae have in it. And it’s… it’s mental, when ye think about it… when ye think about the person you used tae be, and then ye stop and look at yerself now, and think… Christ. I canna even wipe my own arse, or go to the damn faucet for a drink o’ water when I’ve a thirst. It… to—to be completely reliant on strangers to help ye with the most personal things, day in and day out, it just…” He sighed, letting his eyes slip shut. “You forget, after a while. What things used tae be like. And now that I’m finally starting to get better, ye ken, starting to remember what it’s like to be a… a man again, no’ just a patient, it’s just… hard. I suppose. To realize how… helpless I’ve become.”

There was silence for so long after he’d finished speaking that he was afraid to open his eyes again. He felt the blood creep up his neck and into his cheeks and ears as he realized just how long he’d rambled on, what a goddamn haverin’ eejit Claire must think him to be. 

Just as he began to draw in a breath to apologize, her hands disentangled from his, and reached up to cradle his face. 

He did open his eyes, then. And looked straight into hers, watching tears roll silently down her cheeks.

She had to swallow twice before she could answer him.

“You are anything but helpless, Jamie Fraser,” she croaked, her voice wavering and cracking over his name. Her thumbs wove back and forth over the arcs of his cheekbones, the stubbled hollows of his jaw. They stilled after a moment, her hold on him tightening. “You’re the strongest person I know.”

Praying to God that she wouldn’t think him too forward, Jamie slowly bowed his head until his forehead came to rest against the curve of her shoulder. Quietly, so quietly he wasn’t sure she could hear, he whispered, “I dinna feel strong.” 

Her hands moved to cradle his head, his neck, holding him to her. They stayed that way for a few moments before he huffed out a bitter wee laugh. His lips brushed the fabric of her scrub top as he murmured, “Canna even get to the feckin’ sink to shave my own beard.”

Claire shifted the hand in his hair to the far side of his head, encouraging him to look up at her. “Is that what you were trying to do?” she asked softly. “Just now?”

He shrugged in resignation. “I’m a mess, Sassenach. Got a good look at myself in the mirror for the first time today when I got up wi’ PT.” He dragged a hand across the scratchy stubble of his jaw and up into the long, straggly tangles of his hair. “I look like I’ve been livin’ on the streets.”

Given their unspoken promise to be honest with one another, Claire thankfully didn’t jump in with reassurances to the contrary. Her fingers followed his into his hair, a thoughtful expression settling over her face. 

“I think I might be able to help you with that,” she said, taking a red lock experimentally between two fingers. She let her hand drop away after a moment, meeting his eyes. “Get you trimmed up a bit. We can do it together, if you’d like.”

He sat up fully then. “Aye,” he agreed, a wee smile lifting the corner of his mouth. “I’d be much obliged, Sassenach.”

Chapter Text

She found Gillian sprawled out at the nurses’ station — feet propped up on the rolling chair in front of her, ankles crossed, one earbud in, completely absorbed in an episode of The-Real-Housewives-of-Something-or-Another on her phone. 

“Hey, G,” Claire greeted, scooting up to sit on the desk in front of her.

Gill popped a barbecue Pringle in her mouth, sucked a bit of brown dust from her fingertips, then waggled them at Claire absently without looking up from her screen. 

“You on lunch, or things just quiet?”

Green eyes did snap up then, reduced to accusing slits. “Shh!” she hissed, leaning over to rap her knuckles on the wooden desk. “Feck right off with the Q word, Beauchamp. If we get slammed wi’ six ED admits now, I’m makin’ ye take two of ‘em!”

Claire grimaced, knocked on wood herself, then raised her hand in conciliation. “Sorry. But you’re alright if I go to lunch? I need to run home and grab a few things.” 

“Mmphm,” Gill hummed, already lost in her program again. She held out a palm for Claire’s pager, clipped it to her scrub top alongside her own, and grabbed another stack of Pringles from the can in her lap. “Go eat, ye wee twig. Ye’re too feckin’ skinny these days.”

“Thanks,” Claire said flatly, sliding down from the desk and making to leave.

“How’s yer wee boyfriend, by the way?” Gill called after her, stopping her in her tracks. Frowning, Claire turned to fix her friend with a narrow look.

“My what?”

Gill’s face split in a Cheshire cat grin behind her glowing mobile screen. “Ye ken good and well who I mean.”

Claire huffed out an incredulous laugh. “What, Jamie?”

Her friend shrugged innocently, eyebrows quirked in amusement. “You said it, no’ me.”

“My patient is doing quite well, thank you for asking.”

“Oh, good. Glad to hear it.” She popped another crisp between her teeth. “... So has he proposed yet?”

“I’m leaving now.”

“Have a nice lunch!” Gill crowed to her retreating back. “Oi, and Claire! Bring him back a wee snack! Ye ken they say the best way to a man’s heart is through his wame!”

Claire raised her middle finger as she stalked off down the hall, the delighted peals of Gillian’s laughter following her to the elevator. 

 


 



It had been a joke. A goddamned joke. 

But it haunted her all the way back to her flat. 

Claire hadn’t the faintest idea why. 

She flicked on the lights and stood in the middle of her entryway for a few moments — hands on her hips, eyes glazed, lip caught between her teeth — replaying the conversation with Gillian in her head, trying to get a grasp on why it was bothering her so much. 

At last, she decided it was simply that she’d tried so hard to appear unaffected at work since the accident; having her professionalism challenged, even in jest, was a hard pill to swallow. 

That was it. That must be it; there was no other reasonable explanation.

Ignoring the lingering swirl of unease in her belly, she squared her shoulders and set about rummaging through her flat for the items she’d need to get her patient properly cleaned up: shampoo and conditioner — the good kind, salon bought, intended for curly hair; a spare five-blade razor; a new bar of Dove soap (she didn’t think Jamie would appreciate using her pink Skintimate Raspberry Rain shaving gel); the pair of scissors she used to trim her own curls when she was feeling daring; a plush towel and washcloth, much nicer than the rough, pilled hospital-grade ones.

Once she had everything thrown together in a canvas grocery bag, she paused at the front door, glanced at the clock, then over toward her kitchen as an afterthought. Meandering to the fridge, she opened the door and stared at the paltry, uninspiring offerings within. She pried open the lid on a container of questionable Chinese takeout, took a sniff, shrugged, and kicked the fridge door shut. Grabbing a fork from the dishwasher she hadn’t bothered to unload, Claire crammed five bites of cold lo mein in her mouth, tossed the rest, and was on her way again.

“Everyone behave?” she asked ten minutes later, finding Gillian exactly where she’d left her. The charge nurse looked up at her blandly as she handed back her pager.

“No’ a peep.” She peered curiously at the bag slung over Claire’s shoulder. “Whadja bring me, then?”

Claire shifted the canvas bag down so that Gill could see inside. “Unless you want a shower, nothing, I’m afraid.” At the uncomprehending squint from her friend, she clarified, “It’s for Jamie. I’m going to help him get a proper shave and shampoo.” 

Gill stretched her arms over her head, leaning back in her chair with the singularly most obnoxious smirk Claire had ever seen in her life. Before the charge nurse could even open her mouth, she bit out, “Don’t.”

“Dinna ken what ye mean, Claire,” her friend singsonged. “You go on and shear yer wee sheep, and I’ll just sit here, mindin’ my own business, wi’ nae opinion on the subject whatsoever...”

Rolling her eyes, Claire scoffed, “That’d be a first.”

As she rounded the corner out of sight, Gill’s voice trailed after her, “But ye will let me know if the rug matches the curtains, though, aye? I’ve been dyin’ to know!”

 


 


Jamie was asleep when she went to check on him. Claire set the canvas bag on his bathroom counter and tiptoed back out again, putting her finger over the door latch while she shut it to muffle the click. She watched through the narrow window to make sure he didn’t stir, then went to round on her other four patients. It seemed that Jamie’s sound slumber was a rarity tonight; three of the others woke in short order, needing something from her (pain meds, a new bag of IV fluids, a page to the doctor requesting something different for nausea, then a large pink basin when the meds didn’t come fast enough). By the time she got everyone settled and charted what she’d done, it was nearly 2 A.M., and time for Jamie’s next dose of antibiotics. 

Silent as a shadow, she slipped back into room 43 and badged into the computer. When she stepped over to Jamie’s bed to scan his ID bracelet, he lifted his wrist for her automatically, and she jerked back in surprise.

“Jesus H. Christ.” She let her breath out in a choked laugh. “I thought you were asleep.”  

“I was,” Jamie assured her, his voice deep and gravelly. “On and off. I dinna ever sleep long in this place.”

“Sorry.” She tilted his hand gently with her fingertips to scan his wristband.

“Och, no, ‘twasn’t you, Sassenach. Ye’re quiet as a church mouse. I was already awake when ye came in.”

“What, just lying awake in the dark?”

“Mmphm.” He shrugged. “No’ much else to do.”

She raised an eyebrow at him while she stepped back over to the computer to scan his medication. “As someone who’s always awake in the middle of the night, I beg to differ.”

“Mm. Well, I’m open to suggestions, Sassenach.” He tilted his head on the pillow, watching her cross the room back to him again. “What is it you do on yer nights off?”

Claire let out a pensive sigh as she spiked the antibiotic and hung it from his IV pole. “Well... I read quite a bit. Surf the internet. Bake. Watch a lot of HGTV.”

Jamie glanced up at her, eyes twinkling with amusement. “Fancy yerself a wee fixer-upper, do ye?”

“Uh, no,” she admitted, her lip curling wryly. “More like an expert at judging people’s flooring and backsplash choices in houses I could never afford.”

He gave a throaty hum of laughter, the hint of a dimple cutting into his cheek. Claire returned it, then dropped her lashes with a sudden and inexplicable wave of shyness. “By the way, I, um…” She gestured over her shoulder at the bag on his bathroom counter. “I ran home on my lunch break to fetch some proper shampoo and scissors and everything, if you still wanted to—”

“Aye.” Jamie propped himself up on an elbow. “Aye, do ye have the time now?”

“I think so. Everyone else seems to be sorted for the moment.” She glanced up at the clock with a sudden pang of guilt, then back at him. “But it’s two in the morning, Jamie. We could do this later, if you want to try and get a bit more sleep...”

He sat fully upright then, kicking his legs out from under the blankets and over the side of the bed. “No, I’m braw. Like I said, dinna sleep much anyway. I’m usually awake at this time o’ night.”

Claire gave him a hesitant smile, then nodded once. “Alright. Well, let’s…” She looked around at the sink, the bathroom, the bed, weighing her options. “Let’s wash your hair first, then. I had an idea about that. I think if you sit on the rolling stool, you can lean back and rest just your neck on the edge of the sink, like at the salon. We can try it, anyway. But if it hurts your back, you need to tell me straight away, and we’ll figure something else out.”

“Sounds like a plan, Sassenach. Slide it over and we’ll gi’e it a go, then.”

The near-fall was too fresh not to give her pause; she fretted her lip unhappily for a moment before suggesting, “Maybe we should call Elias in, just to help get you transferred.”

Jamie rolled his eyes, huffing out an exasperated laugh. “For the love of God, Claire, I think I can handle scooting my arse from the bed to a wee stool. Dinna even need to stand up tae do that.”

Claire made a dull hum of acceptance, but still eyed him skeptically as she hooked the stool with her foot and pulled it over to him. When Jamie scooted eagerly to the edge of the mattress and prepared to slide over, she put a hand on his shoulder to stop him, forcing him to look her in the eye. “You have to give me your word you’ll tell me if it’s too much. If you’re in pain, or you start to get tired, or—”

“I will. Promise.” He lifted his pinky to her with a twitch of a smile, and they both let out soft breaths of laughter as Claire crooked her own around it. 

“I’m going to hold you to that, James Fraser,” she told him, squeezing his little finger tightly with her own. “A pinky promise is a very serious transaction, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” he said gravely, even as his eyes sparkled. “Wouldna give such a vow to just anyone, Sassenach.”

 


 

Of all the daft feckin’ moves, Fraser. What are ye, five?  

He could feel himself burning red straight to his ears the second his damn pinky was in the air, but then it was out there, and he couldn’t exactly take it back. Claire took pity on him and indulged the juvenile wee gesture anyway, but Jesus Christ , he was such an idiot.

At least he managed not to fall flat on his arse when he scooted onto her rolling stool. Despite his assurances, it did occur to him that it was possible he’d not have the coordination to do it himself. Sheer stubborn pride spurred him to risk it; thank God he was a lucky bastard. He quirked his eyebrows triumphantly at Claire when he landed the transition smoothly, and she conceded the point with a pursed-lip nod. 

Using his feet to maneuver himself experimentally around the room, he beamed up at his nurse in pleasant surprise after a moment. “This was a stroke of genius, Sassenach. I canna use the wheelchairs ‘cos of the pressure on my back, but this…” He twirled himself in a circle, pushed backwards and forwards to demonstrate the ease of movement. “This is brilliant!”

She smiled at him indulgently, planting a hand on one hip. “Oh, God. What have I gotten myself into?”

He grinned at her over his shoulder. “More than ye signed up for. Gi’e a Scotsman a wee taste of freedom...”

“Mm. So I’ll be chasing you down the hallways in the middle of the night, trying to corral you back into bed, is that it?”

“Aye, somethin’ like that.”

Her foot jutted out suddenly to catch one of his wheels and snap down the wee brake mechanism on top. Jamie tried to scoot away from her, failed, and let out a bark of laughter. “Well played, Sassenach.” 

“Not my first rodeo,” she told him with a cheeky smile, then flicked the brake off and gestured him over to the sink. “Come on. Let’s see what I can do with that hair.” 

He sobered then, using the balls of his feet to backpedal very carefully toward the sink. Once he got close, Claire cupped her hand beneath his head and guided him the rest of the way, easing him backwards until his nape pressed against the speckled beige quartz. 

“Is that alright?” she asked, frowning a little. 

He was wincing, he realized, and made a conscious effort to relax his face. It wasn’t exactly comfortable; even without his back touching anything, the stretch of leaning this way burned something fierce. Still, it wasn’t any worse than the pain he’d borne for weeks, before the Sassenach got him on a regimen of taking those helpful wee pills. He’d promised to tell her if it was too much, and he was a man of his word; what he hadn’t said was that it would take a hell of a lot of pain — certainly more than this — to get him to ask her to stop. 

Jamie could bear quite a bit, given proper motivation.

And the promise of Claire’s hands in his hair again was the finest motivation he’d had all week.

He dug his nails into the leather seat of the stool, smiled as convincingly as he could, and rolled his neck back and forth as though he were trying to get comfortable. “Aye, just fine, Sassenach.”

Her golden eyes flicked back and forth, studying his face as if trying to judge his sincerity. At last, she nodded and flipped the taps on. 

“I, ah—” She wrung her hands, shrugging in the direction of the wee bag she’d brought from home. “I brought my own shampoo and conditioner. It’s a bit, you know, floral, but it’s, um, it’s meant for curls, and—”

“Och, I dinna mind at all,” Jamie interrupted, trying and failing not to sound too eager. Swallowing, he stammered a bit as a heated flush crept up his neck. “The, uh, the stuff they gi’e ye in the hospital is like water, ye ken. Only makes the tangles that much worse.”

“Right, no, it’s terrible. This should help with that.” Claire disappeared for a moment, then re-entered his visual field with a tall black bottle in each hand. She set them on the sink beside him, then stuck her hand in the stream of water. After fiddling with the taps for a few seconds, testing the temperature, she cupped a handful of water and trickled it over the crown of his head. 

“How’s that?” she murmured.

“Perfect.”

She drew in a deep breath, smiled at him, then nodded. “Good.” Exhaling shakily, she reached over for the first bottle. He heard the squirt of shampoo into her palm, and after a pause (one heartbeat… two… three…), her fingers threaded slowly, tentatively into his hair.   

Jamie bit down on his tongue, hard, and somehow managed not to make a sound. 

But Christ.

Plenty of people touched him now that he was out of the ICU. Casual contact that didn’t hurt (a handshake, a congratulatory pat on the arm or wrist or knee) was part of his everyday life again. He couldn’t chalk it up to deprivation any more. 

It was Claire. There was something about Claire’s touch… 

It wasn’t just gentle, it was… reverent, almost, the way her fingers cradled him, stroked through his hair. Though his eyes had slipped shut, he could feel her watching him to make sure she wasn’t hurting him. She was delicate, sae delicate, slipping his lathered curls between her fingertips to ease out the tangles, then smoothing them, combing them through, slowly, carefully.

He felt warm to his very bones; felt them soften and melt like butter set out in the sun. 

Cherished. That was the word for it. High on the scent of the shampoo steaming around him — Claire’s scent — dizzy and floating and warm and cherished.

Jamie opened half-lidded eyes to look at her, and the corner of her lip curved shyly.

He surrendered then and there.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d known. Since the first night, maybe, when she held him in her arms while he wept. But there could be no more pushing it back, no more rationalizing it away or pretending it wasn’t there. 

He wanted her. 

Craved her. 

Was thoroughly intoxicated by her. 

Loved her, maybe. 

She cupped a handful of water, smoothed it just above his temple and back around his ear. Jamie closed his eyes, and tilted his head into her palm with a soft sigh.

Nae… no’ maybe. 

Chapter Text

“There,” Claire huffed, nudging the taps off with her wrist and flicking her fingers into the sink. “I think that should do it.” Leaning sideways, she grabbed one of the towels from her canvas bag, but before she could turn back to Jamie he’d righted himself on the stool, red curls streaming. She lunged at him with the towel, trying her best to capture the conditioner-slick rivulets before they could streak down his back and burn the open flesh. 

Blue eyes flicked up briefly to hers, the skin around them drawn tight with pain. “Sorry,” he hissed. “Needed to sit up. I was gettin’ a cramp.”

“You might have told me,” Claire muttered, rubbing his head and neck down with the towel, scrunching up the curls at his nape to squeeze out the excess moisture.

“Just did.” 

She shot him a look, and he smiled, dropping his gaze again. “Dinna fash, Sassenach. Didn’t even notice ‘til the end.”

He wasn’t lying, either. Noting his poorly-veiled discomfort when she first began, Claire had gone in with the intention to be quick about it — get him shampooed, conditioned, and back to bed in two minutes flat. But as soon as her fingers slipped into his curls, Jamie’s whole demeanor had relaxed; melting into her hands, he looked so peaceful that she found her movements slowing instinctively. Knowing that he took comfort from having his hair stroked, Claire had begun to draw out the process, prolonging the moment of quiet pleasure — fingertips teasing apart each curl individually, massaging slow, gentle circles across his scalp. All the while, she’d watched the subtle tells in his facial muscles, the slow, steady pulse in his throat. And it was true: if Jamie was in pain, he hadn’t seemed to notice. 

But a pinprick of guilt pierced her now, witnessing the aftermath of a session she realized she’d dragged out too long. She was supposed to be the professional here. She was supposed to know better.

Narrowing in on something simple, something tangible to fix, she plucked at the soaked cotton covering his shoulders. “Your gown’s all wet,” she murmured.

“Och, if only there were others.” 

With a pursed-lip smile, she took a fistful of his hair in the towel and squeezed a bit harder than strictly necessary. “Cheeky. Get back into bed. Might as well give you a bath while we’re at it, since you’ve already done half the job.”

The silence between them dragged out a single beat too long before Jamie’s throat bobbed in a swallow. “Aye,” he agreed hoarsely, fingers curling over the edge of his knees. “Aye, might as well.”

Feeling her stomach flip at the tension crackling through the room, Claire offered hastily, “If you’d prefer someone else come and do it, I—”

“No.” He’d gone stone still. “I don’t.”

Now it was Claire’s turn to swallow thickly.

Several more beats of silence passed in which neither of them seemed capable of moving. At long last, without looking at her, Jamie scooted the stool over to the bed and reached up to take hold of the side rails. Realizing his intent, Claire launched forward, outstretched hands latching onto his shoulders just as he began to hoist himself up. 

“Wait,” she demanded. “Let me help you...” 

“I’ve got it, Sassenach.”

Amber eyes flashed as she fixed him with a glare. “You promised me.” 

Jamie gave her an exasperated smile, but eased back with a sigh of defeat. “So I did.” He lifted his left arm to let her brace him, his broad fingers clasping around her shoulder. “On the count of three, then?”

Claire gave a nod. “One. Two…”

“Three,” they said together, lifting and pivoting him up onto the mattress in one fluid movement. Jamie’s grimace gave way to a tight smile as he panted out a satisfied-sounding Gaelic phrase. His hand lingered on Claire’s shoulder for a moment, then quickly dropped in the same moment that she stepped back, wringing her hands.

“Let’s, um,” she began, eyes flicking over the water stains on his gown, then up to his damp curls. She gestured vaguely at his head. “I think it makes more sense to cut your hair first.”

Jamie nodded briefly, his lip pinched between his teeth. As Claire retraced her steps to fetch the scissors and towel, she realized her hands were shaking. She shook them out, then gripped them into fists, eyeing them uneasily. 

Adrenaline, she rationalized. From Jamie trying to get up on his own again. Fear of her patient falling and hurting himself.

The excuse rang hollow even in her own head. She was a bloody mess; flustered and disorganized in a way that was unnervingly out of character.

Squeezing her eyes shut for a moment, she drew in a deep breath through her nose. For Christ’s sake, Beauchamp, get it together.

As she returned to Jamie’s bedside and kneed the stool out of the way, the thought belatedly occurred to her that it had been a mistake to move him back into bed before she’d finished cutting his hair. She’d only made maneuvering around his head more difficult for herself. 

Jamie seemed to come to the same conclusion as she leaned over him, draping the towel around his shoulders. “We didna really think this through, did we?”

“No.” She let out a huff of a laugh. “But it’s alright. I’ll make it work.”

“I can move back to the stool, if it’d make it easier—”

“No,” she told him sternly, while she attempted to knot the thick towel at his throat. “You sit right where you are.” 

“Aye-aye, Captain.” His eyes glinted, lip twitching in a smirk. After a moment of watching her struggle with the towel, he raised an eyebrow. “Do ye need help wi’ that?”

Claire made a soft grunt in the negative, untwisting the hair tie from her bun and pinching it between her teeth. “Nope, I’ve got it.” She gathered the corners of the towel and banded them into a wad of cream-colored terrycloth. Stepping back to appraise her handiwork, she gave a bland shrug of acceptance before her gaze shifted up to Jamie’s. 

Her heart stuttered a half-beat out of rhythm at the expression on his face. 

His eyes were trained on her unbound curls, watching her with a warm, awestruck tenderness that flushed her from breasts to neck to cheeks. Letting out a breath through parted lips, she smiled self-consciously, raking her fingers back through her hair.

“Doesn’t inspire much confidence in my own hair-wrangling abilities, does it?” she asked hoarsely, eyes darting away in embarrassment before lifting back to his, unable to look away for long.

Jamie hummed a laugh, but sobered again quickly as his eyes traced the riot of frizzy curls framing her face. “Nah, it’s no’ that. Yer... curls are... sae bonny, Sassenach. I was just wonderin’ why ye dinna leave them down more often.”

She gestured at the unruly mop with an awkward laugh. “Because when I do, by the end of my shift they wind up looking like this.”

“Aye,” Jamie whispered reverently, as if she’d proven his point.

A shiver ran down her spine, and Claire looked away with a sharp exhale, crossing her arms over her chest. “So let’s, ah…” Her voice wavered as she tried to speak past the heartbeat pounding in her throat. “Let’s hope for your sake that I make better work of your hair than I do with mine.”

“Och, I trust ye’ll do a fine job,” Jamie said, straightening his posture and scooting a bit closer to the edge of the mattress. A smile played at the corner of his mouth as he ruffled a hand through his shaggy curls. “Shear away, Sassenach. I’m all yours.”

 


 

 

It occurred to him sometime later, as he watched a damp auburn curl flutter down to join a pile of its brethren on the bed, that he was placing a great deal of faith in the lass, letting her at his head with a pair of scissors and no direction whatsoever — no indication of length or style, no pictures of him from before to use for guidance. He was utterly at the mercy of Claire’s personal whims and preferences, watching her through his lashes as she snipped here and there, paused to study him, then snipped a bit more. 

Strangely enough, Jamie found he didn’t mind at all.

And, as it turned out, his faith was well-placed. 

He looked up expectantly when the lass finally stepped back to examine him for the last time, tilting her curly head from side to side before nodding to herself.

“I think...” she lilted, taking a half-step forward to sweep a stray lock off to the side of his forehead, then pulling his curls down between her fingertips on both sides of his face to check for evenness. “That’ll about… do it.” She nodded again, more certain this time. “Let me fetch you a mirror, see what you think.”

His fingers began to drum an anxious beat against the mattress. “I’m excited tae see. Been half-convinced this whole time ye’ve been givin’ me a Bozo cut.”

“The thought did occur to me,” she quipped as she turned to rummage through his bedside stand. Righting herself a moment later, she spun back to him holding a handheld mirror. “Alright.” Exhaling sharply, she lifted it up for him. “Have a look.” 

Jamie reached out to tilt the mirror just so. 

His eyes went wide at the reflection staring back at him, his mouth falling open incredulously.

“Well I’ll be damned,” he murmured, rotating his head like an owl’s as he examined Claire’s handiwork. 

The Sassenach chewed her lip nervously as she watched him. “Do… do you like it?”

Like was an understatement; he couldn’t stop staring. His hand went up into his hair, exploring the feel of his freshly-shorn locks as if making sure the ones on his head actually matched those in the mirror. “Like it? I think it’s the best cut I’ve ever had,” he told her, turning smiling eyes up to hers. “What’s yer hourly rate, Sassenach? My barber is fired.”

She blushed prettily and smiled back. “You know, it was fun, actually,” she mused, brushing her fingers through his fringe. “I’ve never tried cutting anyone else’s hair before. Just my own.” Her lower lip disappeared between her teeth again as she laughed. “Suppose I should have mentioned that before I started.”

Jamie hummed a throaty chuckle in return. “Well, my hat’s off to ye, Sassenach. Ye did do a fine job.”

“Thank you, thank you.” She inclined her head and dipped in a wee curtsy. “I’ll be here all week.” 

He reached for her hand then, and they both sobered at the touch, their eyes locking. “Truly, Claire. Thank ye. It… it makes a difference, ye ken?”

A tiny, genuine smile touched the corners of her mouth as her fingers squeezed his. “It’s my pleasure, Jamie,” she whispered. Her eyes roamed his face pensively for a moment, then she took a step closer, the fingers of her left hand drifting to the stubble of his chin. “And don’t forget, I’m not quite done with you yet.”

“No,” he said softly, his thumb working a slow circle over the flesh of her palm. “I didna forget.”

 


 

 

It was always an awkward affair, bathing a young male patient, and nothing to be done about it. 

As a med/surg nurse, Claire had bathed countless men and women of all ages and races, shapes, sizes, body types. After three years in this career, very little could faze her any more (“We’ve seen more cocks than a porn star,” Gillian loved to joke) . It was part of the job, and she got on with it unflinchingly. The patients, on the other hand, tended to struggle with the vulnerability, the exposure; particularly the young men, whose egos were very easily bruised.

Unsurprisingly, Jamie couldn’t meet her eyes as she tucked bath blankets and towels around him, filled a large pink basin with warm water from the sink, and fetched the Dove soap and washcloth she’d brought from home. The middle and ring fingers of his left hand were tapping out a dull rhythm against his thigh when she returned to his bedside with a clean gown and a few extra towels for good measure. Planting her hands on her hips, Claire took in a breath and released it in a sharp sigh. 

“Right. So. Let’s be organized about this, shall we? I’ll hand you a washcloth to clean whatever you can, and in the meantime, I’ll go ahead and get the bits you can’t reach. When we’re done, you can slide on over to the stool to shave while I swap out the bedding, and we’ll be all set. Sound like a plan?”

Jamie looked up at her, finally, with surprise that ebbed quickly into relief. “Aye. I didna realize… usually they just scrub me down. They dinna let me help.”

“Well, I’ll have a word with the aides about that. We need to start letting you do more of this. You’re certainly capable.”

A bright smile split his face, his eyes shining with appreciation. He gave Claire a slight nod, and she returned it.

This, she reminded herself, feeling a glowing warmth emanate from the very core of her being. This is why I’m here. 

Jamie had been willing to be vulnerable with her earlier (in a way that she knew he wasn’t with the other nurses) in confessing his profound sense of helplessness. And the fact that she could turn that confession into empowerment — give him a taste of the independence he so desperately craved — meant that she was actually, physically doing something to make his life better in a way no one else could. 

And that was everything to her. Everything.

Jamie unknotted his gown and pushed it down to bunch around his hips, then reached out a hand for a washcloth — steady and sure, the nervousness gone. She passed a soapy cloth to him, grabbed her own, and they lapsed into a companionable silence as they scrubbed in tandem; Jamie working from the top down, Claire starting at his feet.

She’d been right — Jamie was more than capable of handling most of this himself. He could reach his own arms and torso, all the way down to the tops of his thighs without bending or hurting his back. As such, Claire finished with his feet and legs long before he was done. She rinsed him off, toweled him down, and sat back patiently while he finished the rest.

She tried not to stare at him while she waited. Truly, she did.

But beneath her no-nonsense nurse exterior, she was a flesh-and-blood woman, after all. 

And Jamie was… well. How had Gillian put it? No’ horrible to look at.

Not horrible at all. 

Despite the weeks of bedrest and the inevitable softening and atrophy that accompanied it, it was plain to her that Jamie Fraser was beautifully made, with long graceful bones and flat muscles that flowed smoothly from the curves of chest and shoulder to the slight concavities of belly and thigh. His limbs and chest were dusted in a soft fuzz of roughly the same color as the hair on his head, and before Claire could stop herself, she found her gaze tracing the midline of his well-toned abdomen down to the matching cinnamon-and-roan trail just beneath his navel…

“Can ye pass me another towel, Sassenach?” 

Blushing furiously, she snapped her eyes away when Jamie reached out a hand to her, thankfully absorbed in his task and completely oblivious to her wandering gaze. 

Not trusting her own voice, she nodded mutely and handed it to him, then rose and began to gather up the used washcloths and towels scattered around the bed. 

Christ, what on earth — what on earth was she doing? 

Objectifying a male patient was bad enough; she was a goddamned professional, and better than that. 

But this was worse. This wasn’t just a patient, this was Jamie.

Jamie Fraser, the man you nearly killed?

She had no right — none — to look at him with anything beyond the crisp professionalism of a hyper-competent nurse intent upon his rapid and successful rehabilitation. That’s why she was here. The banter, the (admitted) light flirtation, that was all fine and well; he needed the companionship, the normalcy of lighthearted adult interactions. It was all within reason, all part of the plan. 

Finding herself attracted to him was decidedly not.

And so she barely looked at him throughout the remainder of the bath; doggedly, vehemently refused to cast a single glance in his direction that wasn’t strictly required by the mandates of her profession. While he toweled off and slipped on a clean gown, she was conveniently occupied dumping out the basin in the bathroom. By the time she came back out, he had slid himself back over to the stool, fully dressed and clean as a whistle, waiting for her to set up his shaving instruments. 

He quirked an eyebrow at her with a smirk when she brought him the razor from her bag, setting it down on his bedside table along with the soap, washcloth, and mirror. 

“Sorry. Pink was all I had.” Claire tried to smile, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes.

“I’m only teasin’ ye, Sassenach.” Jamie blinked both eyes at her in what she’d rapidly learned was his own failed approximation of a wink. “I’m grateful to ye for goin’ out of yer way to fetch all this to begin with.”

“Oh, it was no bother,” she dismissed, turning away to strip the soggy linens from his bed. “I live just down the street.”

“Still.” She heard the slick sounds of him lathering soap between his hands. “It’s verra kind of ye, and I appreciate it.” There was a pause, and then he asked suddenly, as though the thought had just occurred to him, “Ye said ye went on yer lunch break. Did ye no’ get anything to eat, then? I have a few wee snacks tucked into my top drawer if ye’re hungry—”

“Oh, no,” she answered airily. “Thank you. That’s quite alright. I had some leftovers at home.” 

“Ah. I see.” He sounded unconvinced, but decided not to press the subject. She heard the soft schick-schick-schick of the razor as he began to shave. “Well, the offer stands, Sassenach. Help yerself any time.” 

“That’s very hospitable of you, Jamie. Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind.” She pulled up the last corner of his fitted sheet and rolled the entire damp mess into a tight roll, lifting it up quickly and darting across the room to dump it in the linen cart before it dripped everywhere. Turning on her heel, she strode back across the room at a brisk clip to re-make the bed. 

Jamie’s hand caught her wrist as she stalked past, stilling her instantly. 

“Claire.”

She shut her eyes for the length of a single heartbeat, gathering her composure, then looked down at him with an expression of polite, professional inquisitiveness. 

Blue irises were trained on hers, flicking back and forth almost imperceptibly as he studied her. His brow was furrowed slightly, the premature lines of his face deepened in concern. “If I… if I said anything to offend ye, I’m sorry.”

In that, at least, she could be honest. “You didn’t,” she answered, removing her wrist gently from his grasp. He looked down at their parted hands, then back up at her face, a pang of hurt joining the doubt and confusion chasing their way through his expressive eyes. 

Jesus H. Christ, will you never cease to hurt this poor man with your own fucking idiocy?

Claire swallowed, feeling her professional resolve start to crumble. 

… She should tell him. 

Now. Right now.

He was improving steadily. Out of immediate danger. He had good relationships with other people on staff who would make sure he got home safely. He’d been in good spirits, for the most part; had good coping skills. He was on an adequate regimen for pain management. The doctors on his varying teams were all on the same page about his course of treatment. 

He’ll be alright now, without me.

Claire opened and closed her mouth, feeling her heart bleed out slowly into her chest. 

She reached for Jamie’s hand and held it tightly for strength, knowing full well it would be the last time.

“Jamie, I…” she breathed, blinking against the oncoming burn of tears. His frown deepened at her palpable distress, and he brought his other hand up to envelop hers, his calloused fingers stroking gentle figure eights over her wrist. He tilted his face to the side as he studied her deeply.

And then she saw it. 

A swollen bead of dark red just beside the pulsing line of his carotid. 

“You’re bleeding,” she murmured.

Jamie blinked, then brought one of his hands up to touch his face absently. “Where?”

“Just… just there.” She pointed, and his thumb swiped at the droplet, smearing the skin with red. Immediately, a new bead of blood formed in its place and began to trickle down his neck. Without pausing to think, Claire grabbed the washcloth and bent to press it to his skin. “Here, let me.”

She held pressure for a moment, focused singularly on the task of staunching the (rather minor) bleeding. It was a stalling tactic, she recognized, but one that she desperately needed to get her head together. She hadn’t planned this, hadn’t had any notion of telling him now, today, and God, she wasn’t ready, she didn’t…

… didn’t have any idea how their faces had drawn so close. 

Claire raised her head by a fraction of a degree, lashes still lowered, and felt Jamie’s warm breath shudder across her cheek, the corner of her mouth. 

Feeling as though she were suspended in time, she slowly... slowly... raised her eyes to meet his. 

And released her own breath in a soft gasp over his parted lips. 

Christ, she could almost taste him.

She wanted to. 

God in heaven… 

She wanted him.

Jerking away as if she’d been scalded, Claire dropped the washcloth and took four steps back. 

“I’m-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…” She was stammering, the blood in her body frantically divided between her flaming cheeks and the undeniable ache between her legs. Jamie watched her retreat with wide eyes, stunned into silence and flushed just as red, his own hands dropping in a rather conspicuous attempt to shield the tented bulge at the front of his gown. 

Raking her fingers back through her hair, Claire wheeled away from him to face the sink, trying to force air into her lungs and sanity back into her brain. Clinging to the last modicum of professionalism she possessed, she managed to rasp out, “I’ll… I’ll call Elias to help get you back into bed. Don’t you dare try to get up on your own, understood?”

She hoped Jamie had nodded, because he said nothing. 

She fled his room with her heart pounding, and didn’t look back. 

 

Chapter Text

Wide, restless blue eyes stared out the window for the better part of three hours, watching the first snowflakes of the season glitter beneath the streetlights.

Jamie had long given up on the prospect of getting any sleep that night. 

He’d spent the first fifteen minutes after Claire’s departure in a stupor. Dumbstruck. Gobsmacked. The poor tech had to repeat himself three times before he managed to snap Jamie out of it enough to get him back into bed. 

Curled up on his side sometime later, alone in the dark, Jamie had touched his lips absently, trying to wrap his head around the fact that he almost…

She almost...

His rational mind had rebelled against the idea, at first; rejected it outright. He was certain it was wishful thinking, nothing more. 

But then why would she apologize, if nothing—?

No... Jamie Fraser had done his fair share of wishful thinking (fantasizing) in his twenty-six years on this earth. He had a creative imagination, to be sure.

But no amount of imagination could have conjured the taste of her breath on his tongue. 

The shudder of humid warmth against his neck, then his chin… his lips… 

The way it hitched when she looked up at him. 

It made him burn for hours afterward. 

He’d given himself no relief either. Because immediately on the heels of the realization that the woman who haunted his every waking thought might actually feel something for him in return came the dread that dropped his stomach like a stone.

Aye, they’d very nearly kissed... and then Claire had balked. Bolted from the room.

And he hadn’t heard a word from her since.  

Jamie fumbled blindly in the blankets behind him for his call light. Finding it, he hesitated, letting the pad of his thumb hover over the nurse button — the desperation to make things right suddenly hampered by his complete loss as to how to go about doing that. 

Forcing a confrontation when she was already spooked would likely only make matters worse. Perhaps, on second thought, it would be better to let Claire come to him in her own time? But even when she did (if she did), what on earth would he say to her? What words would soothe her, make her trust him, prove to her that she was safe with him, always? 

“Claire, I’m so sorry, I never meant tae…”

“No, ye know what? I’m not sorry. I wanted it more’n ye ken, so please, for the love of God, dinna be embarrassed...”

Of course, there was the very real possibility that he wouldn’t get the opportunity to say anything at all. Claire wouldn’t abandon a patient, he knew that much, but she might send someone else in her stead — the charge nurse, or one of her peers.

The sinking sense of dread evolved into white-hot panic as the thought occurred to him that she might not ever want to see him again. 

He set the call light down next to him, fingers tapping restlessly against his pillow as his mind reeled and his stomach churned; as his lips tingled and his cock ached. 

Christ, Fraser, ye need to find a way… there has to be a way. Ye canna lose her. Whatever happens, whatever it takes, ye canna lose her.

 


 

The job of a nurse was never truly done. 

Although there were plenty of quiet, low-acuity nights when Claire would join her colleagues for coffee and gossip in the lounge, perhaps a round (or twenty) of Candy Crush, the downtime was not borne out of strict necessity; there were certainly job-related things she could be doing. 

Tonight she exhausted all of them.

Within a three-hour window, she’d managed to round on her sleeping patients (save one) twelve times. She documented assessments in every column of their charts, created detailed care plans with several additional paragraphs’ worth of notes, and completed her mandatory online learning modules that weren’t even due until the following year. After that, she restocked the supply carts, answered call lights for other nurses, brewed a fresh pot of coffee for the staff, then scrubbed down all of the computer stations, doorknobs, handrails, and light switches with bleach wipes. 

She was the model employee; the epitome of professionalism.

So long as she stayed far, far away from room 43 — didn’t look at him, breathe in his general vicinity, or think about him at all. 

A goal which Claire was currently failing miserably to attain, now that she’d caught up on every feasible job-oriented task she could come up with.

Sitting alone at a charting station on the far opposite side of the unit, she held her head in her hands and tried to think of anything but the smell of her shampoo in his hair, or the way his eyes creased when he laughed, or how his pupils had dilated when she nearly…

Nearly ruined everything, she reminded herself, just barely suppressing a groan. 

If it were any other patient, she’d walk away. Ask not to be assigned to him again. Claire still wasn’t entirely sure that wasn’t what she should do. They’d crossed a line — she’d crossed a line — and under any other circumstances…  

But these weren’t normal circumstances. This wasn’t just any other patient. She was in too deep, invested too thoroughly to walk away from him now. Jamie’s pain was her fault; his recovery was her duty.  

And regardless, it wasn’t about what she wanted or needed any more. All that mattered was what was best for Jamie. 

Nothing about this was simple. There was no clear path forward. No matter what she did, no matter how she chose to conduct herself, there was the risk that she’d only hurt him more. Things had always been complicated between them, but now with the added layer of mutual attraction… 

Christ, she just didn’t know what to do.

If she couldn’t manage to make it four hours without her thoughts returning to him, she supposed the likelihood of her being able to work on this floor several more weeks without interacting with him at all was slim to none. Avoidance was not particularly working for her, despite her best efforts. 

And that left only one option, really. 

She’d have to face him. Talk to him about it. Make him understand that this… couldn’t happen. 

She could tell him the truth. Now. Tonight. She’d almost done it earlier. That option was still on the table, but… but what if...

It had been a long time since her orientation to the hospital, but surely there were rules in place — protocols about the nature of staff-patient interactions? Something official, a corporate line she could throw at Jamie to explain why they couldn’t pursue a relationship; allow her delay the inevitable confession for just a little while longer, let him finish healing before she crushed him (and herself) with the horrible truth. 

Clicking into the internet browser on the computer in front of her, Claire navigated to the hospital’s webpage, then to the nursing code of conduct, looking for anything official to use as leverage. 

Her eyes lit up when she found it. 

Within their professional role, nurses recognize and maintain appropriate personal relationship boundaries. Nurse-patient relationships have as their foundation the promotion, protection, and restoration of health and the alleviation of pain and suffering. Nurse-patient relationships are therapeutic in nature but can also test the boundaries of professionalism… The intimate nature of nursing care and the involvement of nurses in important and sometimes highly stressful events may contribute to the risk of boundary violations. 

Dating and sexually intimate relationships with patients are always prohibited.

There. Right there, in black and white.

Prohibited.

She printed off a copy of the page, folded it, and put it in her scrub pocket, just in case Jamie needed proof.

Somehow, she doubted it. He had always taken her at her word, and she gave it honestly. Claire had her secrets, but she swore to herself that she would never lie to him. Though Jamie had never explicitly said as much, there was a silent understanding that he would do the same; a trust that whatever was said between them was the truth. 

And so, Claire pressed her palm against the paper in her pocket like a talisman, infinitely thankful to whichever member of the ethics board had been willing to spell out the strict restriction on romantic entanglements with patients. It wasn’t a lie; they couldn’t do this. It was expressly forbidden.

Of course, that wasn’t the reason at all. But Jamie didn’t need to know that.

Not yet, anyway. 

The code of conduct had bought her time (precious, precious time), and Claire tried to let that thought fortify her, even as she felt her heart race and joints weaken with each step that brought her closer to room 43. She had a clear plan in place now — the relief of an excuse to hide behind. This wouldn’t hurt him, not in the way a personal rejection would. It was out of her control; out of his. 

Now it was simply a matter of laying down the letter of the law.

She paused outside his door for a moment, eyes closed, steeling her nerves.

Took a deep breath. Two. Three.

Reached her palm out for a splash of hand sanitizer, squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and opened her eyes. 

And with a hand that shook only a little, she opened Jamie’s door.

There was a moment of deja vu as she stepped into the darkened room, blinking rapidly to adjust her vision, to find the contour of him beneath the heap of blankets. Just like last time, he was turned away from her, facing the window — still, but not asleep. 

She shut the door behind her and leaned back against it, watching with her heart in her throat as Jamie slowly turned onto his belly, then over onto his right side, facing her. His features were cast into shadow against the backdrop of the window, but she could feel his eyes on her, studying her. She tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear self-consciously, then crossed her arms around herself — bracing, protecting. 

Before she could come up with some way to break the charged, crackling silence, Jamie did it for her. 

“Ye came back.” 

His tone was quiet, unreadable; if she’d been able to see his eyes, she might have been able to gauge whether he was frightened, relieved, nervous, hopeful, or some combination thereof… but in the darkness, she could only guess. 

“I did,” she whispered.

Jamie nodded, fidgeting with the corner of his blanket. There was another lengthy, pregnant pause before they suddenly both spoke at the same time, voices overlapping.

“Claire, I never meant tae—”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have just—”

They both released soft breaths that were not quite laughter. Jamie yielded, gesturing to her amiably as he propped himself up on one elbow. “You go first.”

Claire made an anemic attempt at a smile and wrapped herself tighter, fingers digging into the slots between her ribs. She took a half-step forward, then stopped, fumbling for the words she’d been prepared to say. The more desperately she grasped for them, the further they seemed to scatter, rolling to the far corners of her mind like pearls cut from a string.

Jamie never stopped studying her as she struggled to maintain her professional composure. After several moments of watching her hesitation — her blatant nervousness — he slowly swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. He shifted just slightly to one side as he did, so that the light from the window illuminated half of his face. 

“Ye needn’t be scairt of me, Claire.” His brow was furrowed, his expression tender, almost painfully earnest. 

She let out her breath, shaking her head. “I’m not.” 

And it was true. 

Claire was scared of a great many things surrounding Jamie. She was certainly scared for him, for his recovery, for any potential setbacks or bumps in the road. She was scared to see him struggle or suffer any more than he already had. 

She was scared — bloody terrified — of the inevitable confession. Scared of the betrayal that would contort his face when she finally told him the truth. Scared of her guilt in the wake of it, of what it would do to her. She was scared of the pain, the heartbreak — both his and hers. 

She was scared of what she felt for him. What he felt for her. 

If she were being honest with herself, that scared her most of all. 

But she wasn’t scared of Jamie. Never. 

To prove it, she crossed the room and eased herself down onto the bed beside him — close, but not touching — her arms still wound protectively around herself. Jamie watched her closely as he shifted his weight to turn to face her, careful to maintain the distance she’d established. An acknowledgment flashed between their eyes in the dim, grainy yellow light from the window as Claire adjusted her own stance to mirror his, so that they both angled in slightly, facing one another.

A silent compromise; an understanding.  

Claire took a deep breath and released it in a controlled stream, trying to ease some of the tension in her chest. This was good. This was off to a good start. 

Fighting against the almost overwhelming urge to take his hand — afraid to send mixed signals while she let him down gently — Claire held his eyes instead as she spoke, and prayed it would be enough. 

“I’m not scared of you, Jamie,” she said again, her voice little more than a whisper. “I’m... scared of what this might cost me.”

The truth, and a profound one. She made sure he saw that in her face. His response was immediate; a tightening around the eyes and in his throat, the palpable urge to reassure her so strong it visibly pained him to remain silent. His fingers twitched toward hers, but then he clenched them into a fist, as if remembering himself. 

Claire swallowed hard, hating herself just a little for the bait and switch from the visceral truth into the facade, the excuse meant to preserve them both. She dropped her gaze, unable to look at him as she told him another truth, but not the reason

“We… we can’t do this, Jamie,” she breathed. “There are… codes of conduct, documents I signed when I hired in. If the Board of Ethics found out, I could be disciplined. Fired. And I… I can’t lose this job, Jamie. I can’t. I don’t have a lot of good things going for me in my life right now, but being a nurse, helping people, it gives me a purpose, and I—”

Whatever self-restraint Jamie had left, it dissolved entirely at the raw emotion in her voice. His hand unfurled from its fist and wrapped around her upper arm, warm and steady and firm against her skin. “Jesus, Claire,” he rasped, eyes wide, shaking his head. “I’d never want — Christ, ye dinna have to explain that to me.” 

“Of course I do,” Claire whispered fiercely, easing one of her own hands up to grip his against her arm. “You deserve to know why I won’t — why we can’t—”

He was still shaking his head. “I assumed as much, Claire. I didna ken the rules exactly, but I’m no’ a complete eejit. I had a feeling ‘twasn’t exactly encouraged for nurses and patients tae…” Neither of them seemed willing to say the words aloud; neither of them needed to. He dropped his gaze from hers, throat bobbing in a swallow. When he spoke again, his voice was a hoarse murmur, barely audible over the low hum of the heating vent. “It’s why I didna kiss ye earlier, even though I wanted to. Christ, I wanted—” He bit his lip as he trailed off, and she was certain if it were lighter, she’d see a blush creep up his neck. Her own cheeks were flaming, and she felt her heartbeat pounding in each of her pulse points. 

Jamie let his hand drop from her arm, twining his fingers together as he wet his lips. “Ye were born to do this, Claire. To be a nurse, to heal people. I’d never do anything tae jeopardize that, to… to hurt ye, to risk yer career.” His eyes finally dragged up to meet hers again. “Never. Ye have my word.”

The telltale, prickling burn started at the corners of Claire’s eyes, and she blinked twice to clear it, reminding herself sternly that this was exactly the outcome she wanted. Pressing her lips into a trembling smile, she lifted a hand between them and silently offered him the crook of her pinky. 

Jamie’s features softened at the gesture, a weak smile touching his own mouth as he twined his little finger with hers. 

They both held on perhaps a few moments longer than strictly necessary before letting their hands fall apart. 

Chapter Text

“So we’re…” he’d asked hesitantly, once Claire had finished charting his vitals and started to leave. “We’re alright, then?”

She’d smiled at him softly, resting her head on the corner of his door. “Yes. We’re alright, Jamie.” 

He’d finally been able to get a bit of sleep after that.

The first rays of a brilliant pink sunrise were bleeding across the skyline when he floated back up to the surface of consciousness. Though she was near-silent as she padded across the room, Jamie’s mind seemed to rouse instinctively any time Claire was near. He cracked sleep-blurred eyes, watching her lower the shade over his window with a silver beaded chain. He didn’t make a sound, but she stiffened the moment he was awake, turning to glance at him over her shoulder. 

“Sorry.” She winced. “Just didn’t want the sun to wake you.”

Jamie closed his eyes again with a faint, sleepy smile. “That’s kind of ye, Sassenach,” he mumbled. He’d sunk halfway unconscious again before he suddenly jolted awake as if a hook had caught him in the gut and tugged. His eyes snapped open and found hers, wide with apology. 

“Claire,” he corrected, biting his bottom lip. “Uh, Nurse Claire? Nurse Beauchamp? What, ah… what should I call ye?” 

She hummed a single-tone laugh, dropping her lashes. For a moment she remained at the window, peering out at the sunrise through the slatted blinds. She seemed to be pondering, so Jamie bit back the slew of words he wanted to say, rerouting his nervous energy into twisting the corner of the fitted sheet.

“You know, I… I’ve grown rather accustomed to ‘Sassenach,’” she said after a time. 

Jamie kept his gaze downturned until he was certain his face wouldn’t betray the palpable, beaming relief that bloomed in his chest. When he finally looked up at her, there was a war raging behind her eyes. Golden irises flickered infinitesimally in a slant of sunlight, and her lips parted as though to speak, but then clamped shut again. She took a breath, her brow creasing a bit. “I don’t want you to feel as though you have to… tiptoe around me. Walk on eggshells.” She shook her head, turning to face him. “That’s not what this is, Jamie.”

He held her gaze, searching for unspoken answers he wasn’t entirely sure she possessed. Perhaps Claire was at just as much of a loss as he was. 

Cracking a wee smile to ease the tension, he quipped, “Just the same, I’ll leave out my grandda’s feckin’ line.” It worked; the muscles of her face relaxed, at least momentarily. She shot him a sidelong look, nostrils flaring, lips pursed against a smile. 

“I’d appreciate that.”

The moment of levity bled away quicker than he would have liked, leaving a dull, aching silence between them. 

He wanted so badly to reach for her hand — to quiet her doubts, to reassure her that he could do this; maintain a respectful distance, keep his interactions to a level befitting her profession. And he had established fun, lighthearted relationships with other medical professionals on staff, so he knew what Claire meant: they didn’t need to be cold or distant with one another simply because they couldn’t pursue something deeper. 

But he was entering uncharted territory. Finding that line with Claire — between banter and flirtation, between familiarity and intimacy, between the necessary touch of a nurse and something more — was like balancing on a knifepoint. 

He was playing a high-stakes game, and he didn’t know the rules. 

And judging by the look on her face, neither did Claire. 

Swallowing his nerves, he decided to just go ahead and tell her so, and pray that the truth would ground them both. 

“I dinna ken how any of this works, Claire,” he confessed quietly, raising his good shoulder in a shrug. “I’m makin’ it up as I go. If ye give me guidance I’ll bide by it, but I’ll tell ye now, Sassenach, I’m a terrible mind reader. Just… be honest wi’ me, aye? And I’ll do the same wi’ you.”

Judging by the way Claire’s features softened with relief, that thankfully seemed to be the right thing to say. 

“Agreed,” she said, nodding once. She took a hesitant step toward him, then another. “I think what I’m — what I’m trying to say is…” She pressed her lips together, wet them, and tried her own hand at honesty. “I think there’s room within a nurse-patient relationship for a certain amount of... warmth. Familiarity.” 

“Ye’re saying,” Jamie echoed slowly, never taking his eyes off of her, “that we… might be friends, mebbe?”

Her nod this time was eager, eyes round with mingled trepidation and hope.

A broad smile split Jamie’s face, and as it did, he watched a nervous mirror of it twitch at the corners of Claire’s mouth.  

“I’d like that verra much, Sassenach.”

 


 

Claire was off the next two nights. 

It was supposed to have been a three-day stretch, but she’d picked up an extra shift for a colleague. She’d considered putting out feelers to see if anyone wanted to let her pick up one of the other nights as well, but stopped herself just shy of pressing send on the email. 

Perhaps the distance would be good. 

She and Jamie had arrived at an understanding — talked through the issue like bloody adults, established boundaries, and were just fine

But still. 

A couple of days apart, to regain some perspective, couldn’t hurt either of them. She’d come back on Thursday night well-rested, and they would start over fresh with their new, very-professional-but-warm-and-appropriately-amicable relationship. 

That had been the plan, anyway.

Unfortunately, like most of Claire’s plans to date, it had gone immediately and horribly awry. 

She found out rather quickly that her (naïve, Christ, so naïve) expectation of a ‘restful’ two days off was positively laughable. After tossing and turning for hours in bed, she finally got up and tried to sleep on the couch instead. She’d manage to drift off for about thirty minutes at a time before rolling over to check her phone, and letting out a low, miserable groan when she saw how little time had actually passed. After about five hours of that nonsense, she eventually got up and started pacing the length of her living room, chewing serrated pink teeth marks around the knuckle on her forefinger.

She worried about Jamie. 

She wondered which nurses had been assigned to him on day and night shifts; going down the list of everyone who might potentially be working, she privately judged whether or not she thought they’d do an adequate enough job of caring for him. There were a handful of truly excellent nurses, a majority of really good ones, a few mediocre, and one or two who were absolute rubbish and would make a proper mess of things. Naturally, she was certain the worst of the lot would be assigned to Jamie. 

What if they didn’t remember that he needed his 01:15 dose of as-needed flexeril, whether he woke up to ask for it or not? If he didn’t get it, he’d have terrible spasms that would wake him out of a dead sleep long before vitals time, and then it was an uphill battle trying to get his pain back under control, and if he didn’t get his proper rest then he’d do terribly with his PT in the morning, and he wanted so badly to get up and walking in the next few days…

She wound up falling asleep sitting up on the stool at her breakfast bar, her cheek pressed to the black-speckled granite, an empty bottle of wine tipped over beside her.  

The next day was worse. 

You’re a control freak, she berated herself viciously, two hours into her morning — raccoon-eyed, hair a straggly mess, pacing her kitchen (a change of scenery, at least) and stress eating white cheddar popcorn straight from the bag. You’re an absolute nutter. He’s fine. He’s in great hands. Get out of the goddamn house and go do something with your life that does not revolve around James bloody Fraser.

And so she went to Target (lingered in the toiletries aisle for ten minutes, picking up men’s hygiene items and setting them back down again), Whole Foods (stared at the fresh produce and worried that he wasn’t getting enough vitamins in his diet), Old Navy (touched a pair of soft plaid flannel pajama bottoms and wondered if he had something similar; he was at the point where he could start wearing his own clothes again soon…)

She lasted until two P.M. before she called the charge nurse to ask if there had been any call-ins, or if they were short-staffed that night? Tried to swallow down her disappointment when he assured her that they were actually well-staffed for once, but thanks for asking. 

She did, thank God, manage to suppress the absolutely ridiculous notion of stopping by the unit on the pretense of having left something in the locker room. 

But she considered it. 

Those forty-eight hours were the longest of her life. 

By 5:52 P.M. on Thursday, she was a haggard, exhausted, hung-over wreck, and still she jogged the two blocks to the hospital. She arrived a full hour early for her shift; the assignment list wasn’t even posted yet, but she grabbed a report sheet and dove headlong into Jamie’s chart on the computer, scouring his notes, orders, assessments, and medication administration records. Thank God in Heaven, Katie S. had been there for both day shifts; she knew him, took good care of him. And the first night Claire had been gone, his night shift nurse had been Mary Hawkins (she winced at that, knowing the history there, but Jamie seemed to have genuinely forgiven Mary for her newbie mistake). The second night, it had been Gillian.

And speak of the devil...

“Mornin,’ sunshine,” her friend sing-songed, plopping down unceremoniously into the desk chair beside her. Gillian gave Claire a once-over as she took a chug from her thermos of coffee, well-plucked red eyebrows disappearing beneath her fringe. “Jesus, Claire, ye look like hell. Did ye have a party and no’ invite me?”

“No,” Claire moaned, laying her head down on the desk. “I couldn’t sleep, so I had a date with a bottle of wine.”

“Been there, hen.” Gill reached over to give her hair a sympathetic pat. “Night shift’s the feckin’ worst. Oh! I brought a pound of that good Ethiopian roast in wi’ me tonight though. I’ll put a pot on once I get report.” 

“Thanks, love. I’m going to need it.”

“Aye, me too. I’ve got yer wee boyfriend back again tonight.”

Claire blinked. Once, twice. Lifting her head up from the desk, she squinted at her friend in confusion. “What?”

Gill waggled her eyebrows. “Ye did a bonny job wi’ his hair, by the way. He’s even prettier now ye can actually see his face.”

Claire was still struggling to process. She opened and closed her mouth, her brow furrowed. “Thanks. Um. But. I just— I thought—” She gave a little shake of her head in a vain attempt to clear it. “No, of course. He was your patient last night. I don’t know why I thought...”

The bald-faced smirk that stretched across Gillian’s face made Claire burn pink. “Och, weel, ye canna be a Scot-hog every night, can ye, hen? Unless...” She leaned forward, holding her chin in her hand, her eyebrows quirked in absolute glee. “Unless there’s any particular reason ye wanted him back?” 

Claire rolled her eyes and tilted her jaw in her best approximation of indifference. “Nope. All yours, love. Have at.” She slapped her open palms down on her thighs, then launched to her feet. “I should probably go see what my actual assignment is, rather than sitting here guessing.”

She’d made it exactly three steps toward the assignment board before her friend’s voice stopped her in her tracks. “Claire...”

She went perfectly still, shoulders tensed, fighting the irrational urge to cry. 

For once, Gillian’s voice was uncharacteristically devoid of humor.

“He missed ye, too.”

Chapter Text

Claire had an exceptionally busy assignment that night. 

In retrospect, she was glad for it. She was in her element, her body and mind thoroughly engaged in nurse mode (and therefore not straying — or at least not as often — to the pair of redheaded Scots down the hall). Between a late discharge, two back-to-back admissions, a patient with poorly controlled post-op pain, a leaking colostomy bag, and a pleasantly confused little old lady who repeatedly mistook her call button for the telly volume control, Claire didn’t even sit down to chart until just past one in the morning. 

An hour later, her bleary eyes scanned the screen one last time before she dropped her face into her hands with a sigh. She could feel herself disengaging, losing steam fast. Her head was throbbing, her stomach growling, her bladder stretched so full it ached. As a bonus, every time she swallowed she felt the ominous, vaguely scratchy sensation of oncoming sickness. 

And no wonder. She couldn’t remember all the tiers of Maslow’s bloody Hierarchy, but was fairly confident she’d been neglecting even the most basic of them for days. She needed sleep, water, food. A bathroom break. More sleep.  

Coffee? her mind begged in the alternative. 

The mere suggestion compelled Claire to her feet amidst the creaking, popping protests of weary joints. Scrubbing a hand over her face, she slumped down the corridor towards the lounge, where the promise of Gillian’s good Ethiopian roast awaited her.

Of course, she never made it that far. 

She might have been able to scrounge up the willpower to keep walking if his room had been dark. At least, that’s what she told herself. 

But it wasn’t. 

The rapid, colorful flicker of lights across his window made her miss a step, her brows knitting in contemplation. 

Jamie didn’t watch telly in the middle of the night. Not ever.

Not unless…

Unless he wants you to know he’s awake? 

The thought hadn’t even fully formed before she huffed out a derisive snort, shaking her head at her own idiocy. Jesus H. Christ, she was certifiable. Absolutely mental. 

… and yet...

She held her breath as she closed the few steps to his door, tucking herself off to one side where he couldn’t see her. She stood there for a moment — back braced to the wall, eyes closed, listening to the muffled sounds coming from the speakers. 

“Let’s take a look at the living room.”

“It’s a little bit small. I’m just a little concerned that this may be… maybe too narrow? I’m not sure if this is spacious enough.”

“This house is about 2,400 square feet, so seeing these really tight living spaces, that just is a bit of a conundrum for me because that’s really where I want to put the square footage.”

Claire released her breath in a gust, her lower lip caught between her teeth in a futile attempt to bite back the smile blooming across her face. 

HGTV. It was for her. She wasn’t mental; she wasn’t over-analyzing (or, rather, she was, but there was some consolation in knowing she’d been right).

She pushed the door open with a light click, just far enough to peer through. Jamie turned his head immediately, anticipation melting into a heartstopping smile as his eyes found hers.

“Just popping my head in to say hello,” she whispered needlessly; he clearly wasn’t asleep. 

“Hello, Sassenach.” Jamie’s smile deepened until the dimples showed in his cheeks. “Did ye have a good few days off?”

She shrugged. “Oh, fine. Ran some errands, nothing exciting. How are you holding up?”

“Good. Fine.” 

“Good, that’s good. Glad to hear it.”

They both nodded silently, awkwardly for a moment. Jamie drew in a breath to speak at the same moment Claire blurted, “Well, I shouldn’t keep you, I—”

“No! No, not at all,” he stammered as she began to withdraw. Claire paused, hiding her smile behind the edge of the door as Jamie continued hastily, “I told ye, my sleep schedule’s broken. I’m always awake this time o’ night. Took yer wee suggestion about the House Hunters tae keep myself occupied, but… I’m always grateful for yer company, Claire.” A deep flush had crept up his neck and into his cheeks as he spoke, his expression growing increasingly sheepish. “If ye have the time.”

Claire glanced over her shoulder, then back at him. “You know, actually, I… was just headed for a coffee break.”

“Ah.” Jamie dropped his lashes, his mouth twitching into a tepid smile that did nothing to hide his disappointment. 

“No!” Claire fumbled to explain herself. “No, what I meant is, I could — I do have time. Just now.”

Blue eyes snapped up to hers again as understanding dawned. “Oh.” He choked out a laugh, the blush spreading all the way to the tips of his ears. “Oh! Sorry, I didn’t — I’m with ye now. Why don’t, ah… why don’t ye go fetch yer coffee and bring it back here, then? I dinna mind.”

“Would you like one?” The offer spilled out of her before she had a chance to think it through. Wincing, she tapped her temple in a gesture of absentmindedness as he began to take a breath to answer her. “God, sorry. Clearly I need the coffee. It’s the middle of the bloody night.”  

“Nah, a coffee sounds braw, actually. I’ll be up anyway. Been catchin’ wee naps during the day between physical therapy, so I’m no’ tired just now.”

She frowned at him, not overly pleased with the idea. He was supposed to be getting his rest, not staying up all hours of the night on a caffeine buzz. Jamie shrugged in the direction of the television, giving her a lopsided smile that weakened the fault lines of her resolve. “Besides, I’m invested now. Will they pick the auld fixer-upper that’s all rotted out wi’ mold and asbestos, or the verra posh new construction that’s way over-budget? Cannae sleep ‘til I find out.” 

Claire leaned against the doorjamb, her eyebrows and mouth quirked in amusement. “I could just tell you, you know. I’ve seen this one before.”

“Och.” He scrunched his nose at her. “Where’s the fun in that, Sassenach?”

She stared him down for another long moment, and he stared right back — eyes glittering, a little smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth.

Relenting with a sigh, she began to walk off, asking over her shoulder, “How do you take it?”

“Black is fine, thank ye.”

“Easy enough.”

And it was. 

It shouldn’t have been. She hadn’t ever intended it to become a thing — the middle-of-the-night check in, the styrofoam coffee cups cradled loosely in warm hands, the dim background noise and flickering lights from House Hunters, the fluid banter interwoven with quiet, meandering conversations. 

But finding their footing — navigating this new, uncertain terrain as the dust settled between them — was easy. Startlingly so. Being with him like this, eyes meeting in the stillness of the night, talking at length about nothing of consequence, was perhaps the easiest thing she’d ever done. 

And so, the next night, when Jamie’s TV was on again just after 2 A.M., Claire fetched two coffees, smiling absently to herself.

And again the night after that.

And the one after that… 

 


 

“You’re quiet tonight.”

Jamie glanced up from his coffee to find golden eyes studying him over the rim of a matching styrofoam cup. He made a noncommittal grunt as he took a sip, taking the time to swirl it around his mouth before he swallowed. 

“Am I?” he muttered, knowing fine well he was. Claire didn’t bother to dignify that with a response. He could feel her watching him, trying to get a read on him. She’d been doing it all night. 

It had been a relief, seeing her at shift change, finally having her assigned back to him again. Gillian (God love her) was a fine nurse, and her witty antics kept him laughing. But Jamie didn’t feel much like laughing that night. 

He remained silent for a time, staring into his cup, absently smearing a drip around the rim with his thumb. When he did speak, his voice was hoarse, barely audible over the drone of the television. “I’m sorry, lass. Dinna mean to be such poor company.”

He heard the grate of the wheels on Claire’s stool as she maneuvered herself closer to the edge of the bed. “You’re not,” she assured him, just as quietly. The comforting weight of her hand settled over the blanket on his knee, and his own hand slid down to cover hers, almost a reflex. 

He felt her hesitation, heard the catch in her breathing as she struggled to find the right words. “I know... sometimes... it can be helpful to sit in silence for awhile,” she continued, her thumb sweeping in slow, broad arcs over the bend of his knee. “So I’m happy to just be here with you, if that’s what you need.” She paused, swallowed audibly, and took in a wavering breath. “But if you ever want to talk, I’ve... been told I’m a good listener.” 

Jamie tried to smile for her, but managed only a tic at the corner of his mouth. “Aye,” he huffed, curling his fingers into the warm flesh of her palm. “Aye, ye are.”

Still, he fell silent again, reluctant to start talking for fear that he wouldn’t be able to hold back once he began. The lass was heartbreakingly pale. Tired. Thin. Whatever burdens she carried — whatever the source of the sadness etched into every line of her face — he couldn’t stand the idea of making it worse, of asking her to bear his pain in addition to her own.

It wasn’t until he felt the impossibly gentle brush of Claire’s fingertips against his jaw that the confession slipped out of him unbidden — eyes closed, breath fluttering into her palm. 

“It’s my mam’s birthday, is all. Would have been.” 

He half-opened bleary eyes, tried to shrug it off and leave it at that. A terse explanation, but hopefully enough to sate her curiosity. “It’s been a long time, it’s, ah, it’s nothin’ new.” He tried to smile again, and was marginally more successful this time. 

Claire’s palm settled against the curve of his cheek, cradling him. Against his better judgment, he dragged his gaze up to hers — saw the ache, the understanding that dulled the brilliant gold of her eyes. 

“How old were you?” she asked, barely a whisper.

Jamie swallowed, wet his lips. “Eight.”

An almost infinitesimal nod, then Claire’s hand slipped from his face. She took the coffee cup from him and set it aside, then eased up to sit on the bed next to him, one leg bent and resting against his. Her small, slender hands enfolded one of his, and they both watched as her fingertips began to trace delicate circles over his wrist, the base of his thumb, the mound of his palm. They were silent for a moment, still but for the slow dance of their fingers. 

At long last, Claire drew in a shaky breath, then admitted on an exhale, “Ten. I was ten.” 

Jamie felt his stomach drop like a stone. “Ye lost yer mother too?”

He saw only a flash — a glimpse of the agony raging behind her eyes — before she dropped her lashes, shielding it from him. 

“And my father.” She pursed her lips and shrugged in a very poor attempt at nonchalance. “Car accident.” 

Jamie stared at her intently, unblinking; silently begging her to say more, to let him share this with her. He rearranged his fingers to twine through hers, and the half-moon of her thumbnail carved into the side of his hand, gripping him hard. She took a breath, opened her mouth, and shut it again, as if trying to decide how much to tell him. “I was in the back seat. We, um... we went off a bridge. I got out. They didn’t. So.” 

“Christ, Claire.”

She shrugged again, wiping a tear on her shoulder the moment it slipped down her cheek. “It was a long time ago for me, too.” She squeezed his hand and slowly brought her wet, strained eyes up to his. “But I… I do understand, Jamie.”

His heart stammered in his chest before wrenching painfully back into rhythm. A Dhia, he didn’t want her to understand; didn’t want to see the images that flashed before his eyes with all the clarity of a film he’d seen over and over again, only this time featuring a delicate curly-haired lass.

His tiny Sassenach holding a relative’s hand, her chin dimpled and quivering, tears rolling down her soft pink cheeks as she watched two caskets lowered into the ground. 

Sitting quiet and glassy-eyed at the back of a classroom, making a Father’s Day craft for an uncle or cousin or grandfather. 

Brushing her teeth and washing her face all on her own because her mam wasn’t there to remind her, then curling up under a quilt with a stuffed animal and putting herself to bed. 

Jesus Christ, he couldn’t bear it. 

He shook his head fiercely, as though by sheer force of will he might take this from her, make it not so. The instinct to hold her, shield her, wrap her in the protection of his larger body blazed so hot in his chest he thought it would scorch the lining of his lungs. Before he could check the impulse, his hand had slipped around her and pressed into the valley between her shoulder blades, drawing her tight against him. 

It was only with the hitch in Claire’s breathing that reality came crashing down on him like an overturned bucket of ice water. For a fleeting, terrifying moment, he thought she’d pull away, reprimand him for stepping dangerously close to the line they’d drawn in the sand. 

But another three staccato heartbeats stuttered in his chest, and then Claire went limp, boneless and trembling in his arms. She turned into him, released her breath in a shuddering exhale as she tucked her face into his neck, and Jamie made a soft, tender sound in his throat, bringing a hand up to cup the back of her head. He drew his cheek in a half circle against hers before nuzzling into her curls, breathing in the lilac and vanilla of her shampoo, the intoxicating scent of Claire just beneath it.  

It was right. God help him, this was right. She fit there, just there, tucked against him, and he into her — not as his nurse, not as his friend, not even as something so simple as a lover, but as a piece of him he hadn’t even realized he’d been missing. The relief of it cooled the fiery ache in his chest, even as he shook his head and breathed “I’m sorry” against the shell of her ear. 

“For you, too,” she whispered, her breath warming the hollow between his collarbones. 

Still haunted by the images of the lonely wee lass he imagined her to be, Jamie twisted a dark brown ringlet around his finger, staring over her shoulder with glassy, pained eyes. He couldn’t help but wonder if she could picture him, too; if Claire could envision a sad-eyed, red-haired young lad as easily as he saw the wee golden-eyed beauty. 

By the way she nestled closer, he thought perhaps she could.

“Tell me about her,” she whispered several minutes later, one hand drifting idly over the cap of his shoulder, her thumb tracing circles over a bony prominence. “What do you remember?”

Jamie’s deep, rib-creaking sigh lifted her head to brush against his lips before falling again on the exhale. He closed his eyes, just barely suppressing the urge to do it again so he could hold his breath and kiss her hair with lingering purpose. Instead, he nuzzled into her curls one last time, breathing her in, and then laid his cheek on the crown of her head. He was quiet for a moment, letting himself draw strength from her to delve into the parts of his memory better left untouched.

“Not as much as I’d like,” he admitted, in such a thin whisper he wasn’t sure she could hear him. “I remember she was… bonny. Kind. Soft. She smelled nice.” 

Claire’s fingertips trailed slowly down from his shoulder to rest over his heart, and she nodded faintly against his neck, encouraging him to go on.

“She, ah… she was a terrible cook, but she could brown mince. So we ate a lot of spaghetti, ken, a lot of tacos. I realize that’s a strange thing to remember, but…”

He felt her smile. “No, not at all. So did you get sick of them, then?”

“Nah. What bairn gets sick of tacos?” 

“True.” 

They both made hums of amusement and then fell quiet again, pensive. He began to stroke his fingers through her hair as the memories spilled out of him like water from a broken dam.

“She was, um… she was a braw artist. She was always sketchin’ things everywhere. Napkins, the corners of papers, on this wee chalkboard we had in the kitchen. She painted, too. Made her own jewelry, ceramics. And she, ah...” He leaned over just far enough to get the top drawer of his bedside stand open with the tips of his fingers, and plucked the leather-bound photo album from inside it. “She loved photography.”

He felt a hollow ache behind his breastbone when Claire slipped from his arms and sat up to study the album. It took every ounce of restraint he possessed not to draw her back to him, cuddle her close, curl up with her under the covers and whisper a narrative of each picture into her hair; to explain each wee fragment of his life until she knew him — every part of him, down to his roots, his marrow. 

Time enough for that later, he reminded himself. A lifetime, if he had any say in the matter. 

But for now, he’d made a promise.

So he curled his fingers into the bedding, holding her with his eyes alone as she looked to him for permission to open the album. He gave her a quick nod, and then watched her — every miniscule movement of her beautiful glass face — as she studied the 5x7 impressions of all that he came from, all that he’d been and still was, all that was most precious to him in the world.

Her eyes were like melting caramel, a tender smile playing at the corners of her lips as she ran her fingertip over a photograph on the very first page. Jamie didn’t need to look down to know which one it was. Second from the bottom, far right; it was his mam, sitting on the stone bench in her rose garden, the morning sun shining on her red hair. Her eyes were closed, her cheek resting against the peach fuzz of his newborn head. 

“This is her?” Claire murmured. “And you?”

He nodded, his eyes never leaving her face. “Aye,” he whispered.

“Jamie…” The way she said it filled his chest with the radiant warmth of a sunbeam — those two syllables he’d heard a hundred thousand times in his life, but never like this. “She was so beautiful.”

He smiled genuinely this time, so it reached all the way to his eyes. “She was.”  

Feeling every beat of his heart like a glowing, steady throb in his chest, he watched her turn each page, paying attention to which pictures caught her attention, which ones made her smile, which ones softened the lines around her eyes or caused a flash of pain to blitz across her face. It was intimate, vulnerable in a way he never could have imagined to let her see this part of him, knowing how deeply it resonated with her, how she understood the importance of these moments in a way only another orphan could.

They were all he had left of his parents now. 

A film of tears gathered along Claire’s lash line when she reached the first picture of his da. He was holding all three of his bairns at once; Willie sitting on his shoulders, Jenny on his hip, and Jamie cradled in a Baby Björn against his chest. 

She flipped that page quickly, her breath shaking and her eyes pained.

He wanted to ask, but didn’t.

Instead, he took her hand. 

A steadying breath, a squeeze, and she moved on, examining a full four-page spread of photos from his first Christmas and Boxing Day: Jamie and his siblings dressed up in their Sunday best for Christmas Eve Mass; baking cookies and making a flour-and-frosting splattered disaster zone of the kitchen; bundled up like wee penguins playing out in the snow; chopping down and decorating a tree; in footie pyjamas, opening a truly obscene amount of presents; his siblings smiling goofily as they stuck bows on his seven-months-old-and-still-completely-bald head.

Claire was smiling again when she glanced up from that last picture. “Your family really went all out for Christmas, didn’t they?”

“Och, ye have no idea.” Jamie rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t help the wistful smile that twitched at the corner of his mouth. “My mam was a total nutter for Christmas. She’d seriously start decorating the day after Samhain — uh, Halloween. Drove my da crazy. Christmas music blasting all hours of the day and night. We, uh, we had these giant blow-up snowmen that went out on the front lawn, and this full life-size reindeer set for the top of the barn. Mam would go out and string up lights on literally every tree and building on the whole property, and then she’d um, she’d go ‘round and put these wee red and green bows on all the sheep—” Claire threw her head back laughing, and Jamie cracked a grin. “Ye think I’m kidding?! She did! It was, um…” He started laughing too (Christ, his Sassenach’s laugh was contagious), and he shook his head, biting his bottom lip. “It was somethin’ else.”

“It sounds like it.” After a moment, their joint laughter dwindled to smiling hums, and Claire readjusted her hand in his, so that they were palm to palm, her fingers wrapping around his. “It sounds wonderful, Jamie,” she said softly, the old familiar sadness bleeding through her smile.

He felt the smile drain from his own face as the hollow ache of reality caught up with him; the remembrance of a childhood ended abruptly and tragically, and the many years of somber, quiet Christmases at Lallybroch without his mam there to brighten them. Tucking the glittering whimsy of his memories carefully back into the recesses of his heart, Jamie dropped his lashes, watching his thumb drift back and forth over the side of Claire’s hand.

“We have this tradition.” His voice was a hoarse murmur, pitched low enough that she wouldn’t hear the strain. “On her birthday, we um… we always go decorate her grave. We have this, ah, this god-awful sequined tree skirt that we wrap around the headstone, and we string up lights and tinsel and put up a wee wreath. Used to bring a popcorn and cranberry strand too, but the birds always got to it.” 

Jamie smiled briefly, let out a huff of a laugh before his face fell again. Claire leaned forward to rest her head on his shoulder, and he closed his eyes, trying very hard to keep his voice steady.

“When we were bairns, we’d, ah, we’d bring biscuits and thermoses of hot cocoa, and Da would bring a flask of her favorite whisky, and we’d sit together and just… just talk about her, ye ken? Tell stories. Willie and Jen always had so many more’n I did, just cause they’d had her longer. We didna really… we didna talk about her much otherwise. So I always loved her birthday, cos I’d… I’d learn something new every time, something I didna ken about her. And my da, he was… he was quiet those first few years, and even worse after Willie died. But he, ah… at some point Jenny ran out of things she remembered, ye ken, and… and so he started tellin’ us things. From before we were born, or from when we were too young to remember. He’d pick one story for each of us, for Jen and me, every year, somethin’ we’d never heard before.”

He could feel it, a single tear quivering on his lashes, waiting to spill. He swallowed hard, filled his aching lungs with air a few times, and still, his voice came out grated and raw. “Canna help but wonder what he would have told me today, ye ken? Or next year, or the year after that. It just, ah… it just hit me, I suppose, that I’ll never learn anything else about her. It was like she wasn’t… she wasn’t truly gone, because I was still getting to know her. But now, it’s just… it’s done now. She’s gone. They both are.”

He wasn’t sure when Claire had started crying, but suddenly he heard her, felt her whole body clutch with a sob. Surprise yielded quickly to concern, and he turned into her, wrapping her tight, his own sadness temporarily drowned in the need to ease hers.

“Shh, shh, a nighean, dinna cry…”

She shook her head fiercely against his neck, sucked in a gasp that stuttered into a sob. “I’m sorry,” she choked. “Jamie, I’m so — I’m so sorry, I…”

His fingers stroked through her hair, and he pressed a kiss to the top of her head before he could catch himself, seeking desperately to comfort her. On instinct he began to sway her back and forth, rubbing her back. He had vague memories of being rocked himself when he was a lad, cradled against his mother’s breast, and later Jenny’s, when she was gone. They both always said the same thing to him, and so he whispered it into the crown of Claire’s head. 

“Shh, lay your head, mo chridhe, lay your head awhile. I’ve got ye.” 

When that only made her cry harder, he shifted her closer in his arms, and began murmuring to her in the Gàidhlig, letting the lilting tone soothe her. Under the careful veil of a language she didn’t understand, he poured out his heart to her, praying that the meaning would reach her somehow, even if the words were lost.

She quieted after a time, snuffling and shaking, wiping her eyes and nose on the shoulder of his gown. When she lifted her head, her eyes were swollen and red-rimmed, still shining with pain and apology even as she tried to laugh off her own emotional outburst. 

“Sorry, I… I’ll have to get you a clean gown,” she muttered. 

“It’s alright,” he soothed, reaching up to brush away a curl that was plastered to her face. He held her gaze long enough for her to get the deeper message: she was safe with him; her hurts were safe, her vulnerability was safe.

She nodded faintly after a moment, her eyes still locked on his, and he returned it. 

When she blinked, he saw the shutters close; saw the precise moment that she withdrew into herself, back into nurse mode. 

“I’d better, ah, I’d better wash my face and go check on my other patients. I think I’ve blown through my coffee break and lunch hour both.”

“Aye, of course,” he said, squaring his jaw and letting his hand slip away from her.

  


 

His Sassenach was off the next night. 

She’d told him when she left that morning, her eyes still faintly puffy, her lips drawn just a little too tight. She would be off one day, and then she would be back for a stretch after that.

He’d nodded, wished her a nice night off. Professional, courteous. The words were right, even if their gazes lingered a few seconds too long, holding too much knowledge, too much pain for the boundaries they were both trying and failing to maintain.  

He worked hard with PT that day, throwing himself into the physical labor as if he could somehow transfer the ache from his chest to his tired, shaking muscles. 

He was out like a light, sound asleep five minutes after Lisa and Shariah left him at 6 P.M.

So he wasn’t entirely sure when she’d come. 

When he woke, it was pitch dark beyond his window, but his room was cast in a warm, dim golden glow. Squinting in confusion, he lifted his head from the pillow to find its source. 

His breath hitched when he did. 

On the bedside table behind him sat a slender white picture frame. His mother smiled serenely within its borders, cradling him in her rose garden. 

The frame was centered on a tiny, apartment-sized tree skirt, encircled by a wreath and several flickering electric tea candles. 

A letter was tucked up beneath it, and Jamie’s hand shook as he reached for it and carefully unfolded it.

I know it’s not the same, but it’s tradition, after all. 

You did tell stories about her today, Jamie. I just brought the decorations, and the cocoa and biscuits (in your top drawer. I hope you like chocolate chip?)

C

P.S. In case you’re still hungry, I’m having tacos delivered to your room during House Hunters tonight. We can discuss the abominable flooring choices (naturally, I’ve seen this one) when I see you tomorrow. 

P.S.S. It’s not my place, I realize, but I will say I wish very much that I had siblings who could share memories of my parents with me. You have every right to be angry with your sister, but perhaps you’d consider setting aside your differences just for today? She’s missing them, too.

Jamie closed his eyes on tears, holding the paper to his heart. 

Opened them several minutes later, and read it again.

Picked up his mobile, and let his thumb hover, trembling, over the first number on his Favorite Contacts.

Swallowed hard before pressing send. 

It was just after one in the morning in Scotland, but she answered on the first ring.

“Jamie?”

His voice wavered and cracked over the two words he hadn’t thought he’d ever say again. 

“Hi Jen…”

Chapter Text

“God, I hate subway tile.”

“So ye said.”

“Well, I do! It reminds me of something you’d see in a locker room.” 

“Or, ye ken… a subway.”

“Right. Still nothing I want in my kitchen.”

“That’s a nice color though, no?”

“Oh, I love the color! If they’d done it in herringbone we’d be in business.”

Claire caught Jamie smiling at her out of the corner of her eye, but by the time she turned to look, he was staring back at the television again, his expression carefully neutral.

She hid her own smile by taking a long sip of coffee. 

At the first commercial break, Jamie leaned over to rummage in his top drawer, and righted himself a few seconds later, clutching a tangerine and the ziplock bag of chocolate chip cookies she’d brought for him the night before (with at least half of them missing already). 

He tossed her the bag, and Claire immediately slung it back over onto the bed next to him. 

“I made those for you, silly.”

“Aye, so they’re mine to share wi’ whoever I want,” he insisted, flinging the ziplock right back into her lap as he set about peeling his tangerine. “Have a few, Sassenach. They’re delicious.”

“That’s sweet of you, Jamie, but I’m f—”

“Please? I dinna feel right stuffin’ my gob in front of ye unless you have some too.”

She raised her eyebrows. “You eat in front of your other nurses all the time.”

“Aye,” Jamie agreed, his eyes flicking briefly to hers, then back to the tangerine. “But ye’re more than…” He trailed off, swallowed. His thumb ran a full circuit around the inside of the peel before he added quietly, “We’re friends too, aye?”

She should have been used to it by now: the simultaneous flutter of butterflies in her belly and the knife-twist of guilt to her chest. 

But she wasn’t. She wasn’t sure she would ever be.  

“Yes,” she agreed hoarsely. With a slow nod, she opened the ziplock and took a cookie. “We are.” 

When she looked back up to hand him the bag, Jamie’s eyes were warm, almost glowing with tenderness. He nodded once in return, and wordlessly passed her half of his tangerine. She accepted without protest this time. 

They nibbled and sipped in silence for awhile, unsure of what to say after that. The commercials ended and House Hunters resumed, but neither of them were paying attention any more; they were attuned to one another — acutely aware of every subtle movement, every change in their breathing, every shift of the bed sheets or stool wheels.

Jamie was the first to drop any pretense of watching the show. Draining the last of his coffee, he turned down the volume and angled himself to face her. “I, ah… I called Jenny last night.”

Claire went very still, barely breathing. 

It had been a risk, making such a bold suggestion. Claire-the-nurse would never have been so presumptuous, gotten so deeply involved in a patient’s private family affairs. But Claire-his-fellow-orphan, Claire-his-confidant, Claire-his- friend had finally convinced herself to pen that second postscript, chewing her lip the whole time. It was clear to her what Jamie’s family meant to him — how close they were, how deep their ties bound them to one another. He’d lost so many loved ones already, and the thought of him remaining painfully distant from his sister over a rift Claire was partially responsible for — over a death she was partially responsible for… 

She’d felt she had to do something, say something. Nudge him towards reconciliation, and pray that he wouldn’t be angry with her for overstepping. 

There wasn’t any anger in his face as he spun the empty coffee cup in his hands, carving a chevron pattern into the styrofoam with his thumbnail. Still, Claire didn’t take a full breath until he continued, “We talked. For a… a long time. Hours. About Mam, Da. About the accident, about me bein’ here. I’m still — I’m still angry wi’ her, ken. I’m feckin’ pissed that she didna tell me. I had a right to know, and it wasna her damn place to choose for me. But…” 

He passed a hand over his face and sighed, deflating a bit. “I ken why she did it. Jen’s lost everyone but me now. And she… she thought news like that could kill me, when I was in such bad shape. So I get it. Dinna like it, but I get it. So.” He shrugged, and let his hand drop into his lap. “We’re alright now. I told her I’d call her again in the morning.”

Claire looked up at him then, her eyes misty and wide with hope. For a fleeting moment — just a millisecond — the thought occurred to her that if he could forgive Jenny for keeping such a terrible secret, maybe…

But then the millisecond passed, and the cold, hollow ache of reality settled back into her bones. 

No. It wasn’t the same thing.

Claire wasn’t Jenny; she wasn’t blood. Jamie didn’t have any history with her, any reason to dig deep for forgiveness.

And her own secret was so much worse. 

She’d known all along that she was going to lose him. There was no help for it. The day was coming, and soon (he was improving steadily, making leaps and bounds in his recovery every day), when she would have to watch his adoration, kindness, and understanding harden into pain, then fury, and finally, betrayal. 

Loathing.

And she would deserve it. The outrage, the vitriol. Whatever scalding words he hurled at her, she would deserve them, and so much worse. 

There would be no postscript, no second-chance phone call, no reconciliation for her. 

Once she told him, it would be over. 

And she would be alone again.

Claire pulled her heels up onto the stool and tucked her knees against her chest, curling in on herself. “I’m glad, Jamie,” she whispered, then took several long, deep drinks of her coffee until she’d swallowed the tight ache in the back of her throat.

She should have known better than to think he wouldn’t notice. 

Her eyes slipped shut when she felt his fingertips in her hair, gently brushing aside the curtain of dark curls she was trying to hide behind. 

“I have you to thank for that,” he murmured faintly, tucking a ringlet behind her ear, then tracing the shell with the edge of his thumb. “I would ha’ let my own stubborn pride ruin everything. But… yer words made me recognize what I couldna see on my own, Claire.” 

His touch was so delicate, his voice so soft, that she felt a shiver building at the base of her spine, felt her eyes flood behind their closed lids. She sat up straighter, blinked her eyes open before the moisture could gather on her lashes, and drew in a slow, wavering breath to steady herself. 

“It was like I was…” Jamie continued, his tone gentling even further as he watched her, “I was so caught up in my own grief that it didna ever occur to me that Jenny was hurtin’ for all the same reasons I was. And it doesnae make sense for us to grieve alone. Not when we still have each other.”

Claire nodded once, pursing her lips into an anemic smile. “You’re lucky to have one another,” she whispered. 

“Aye, we are,” he agreed, running his thumb over the back of her ear one last time before shifting his hand down to her shoulder. “Ye said ye… ye dinna have any siblings of yer own? Ye’re an only child?”

“Mhm,” she hummed, tilting her head in a shrug of practiced indifference. She was silent for a moment, pensive, before she continued quietly, “You know, I… I didn’t ever really mind it, growing up. But now that I’m older, now that…” She swallowed, then shrugged again. “It would be nice, I think. To have someone to share those childhood memories with.”

Jamie shifted his weight, angling himself further over on his hip to face her. “Ye have me, Claire,” he whispered, his grip on her shoulder tightening for emphasis. 

She gave him another weak smile, feeling the bottom of her stomach drop out. Not for long, she reminded herself. The thought made her want to shrink away from his touch, desperately try to re-establish some distance. Still, she would never forget the way his expression had tightened in hurt and confusion the last time she’d pulled her hand away from him. Without some sort of explanation, withdrawing seemed only like a punishment to him; made him think he’d done something wrong. She couldn’t do that to him, either.

So she gritted her teeth, feeling her heart ache with each gentle sweep of his thumb over the bony cap of her shoulder. 

“I ken it’s no’ the same thing,” he continued softly. “But for what it’s worth, Sassenach, I’m a good listener, too. And I want tae… tae know about ye. About what it was like for ye, growin’ up. What you were like. Yer parents.” He gave her shoulder another squeeze, and she looked up at him hesitantly. His blue eyes were open, earnest, eager. “Everything.”

She let her breath out in a self-conscious laugh, dropping her lashes. “What, my whole childhood?”

“Yer whole life,” he amended, without the slightest hesitation. “Anything ye ever wanted to tell someone. Ye could tell me, Claire.”

And there it was again: the butterflies, the knife.

She sipped her coffee in silence for what felt a small eternity, staring vacantly at a scuff mark on the linoleum floor.

You shouldn’t, her rational side objected. 

She’d already let him in too deep; allowed him to get too attached to her, and her to him. Every barrier she’d tried to erect, every time she’d tried to distance herself — to avoid him, walk away from him — she’d failed, miserably and repeatedly. And she knew, she knew it would only make it harder for both of them when the truth inevitably came out. All of this — the standing coffee date, the banter, the cookies and tangerines, the sharing of their most treasured memories — it was pointless . In a matter of days, this beautiful illusion would shatter, and both of them with it. 

It was perhaps equally pointless to start in again on the endless cycle of what-ifs, but in that moment she couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened had she and Jamie found one another before any of this; had they met under any other circumstances, in any other time or place.

The thought did not escape her that she might have loved him, then.

God, she might have loved him.

But you don’t, she told herself fiercely. You can’t.

And she felt her heart begin to rip at the seams. 

She’d been alone for such a very, very long time. Twenty years, by that point — most of her life. There had been a handful of moments, few and far between, where she thought perhaps she mightn’t be any more; Frank had probably been her best chance. But after two years together and an overly-indulgent birthday celebration, the desperate, drunken search for a ring (a commitment; a promise to finally belong to someone) was what had gotten her into this whole bloody mess in the first place.

She should have known better; should have recognized how futile it was to believe that a ring even mattered to begin with.

Everyone she’d ever loved had left her. 

By choice or by fate, they left. 

So it was better not to grow too attached to anyone; better to accept the hand that had been dealt to her, and soldier on alone. 

At least that was what she tried to remind herself when her loneliness started to get the better of her. 

But, God… God in Heaven, Jamie… 

He’d broken through every last defense mechanism she possessed. There was something… something in him, something between them that she couldn’t begin to describe. No matter how she tried to resist it, she was drawn to him — drawn back to him — over and over and over again. 

He wanted to know her. And even as her rational brain lectured about ticking time bombs and pending loss, the desire to be known — to have someone truly understand her, care about her for the first time in two decades — roused a raw, visceral, primal ache at the very core of her being.

She hated herself for it; for how desperately she needed him.

Blinking back tears, she reached for Jamie’s hand. 

Don’t do it, Beauchamp, her mind warned again. Claire, don’t do it…  

“What would you like to know?”

 


 


She wasn’t very good at talking about herself.

There’d never been much of an opportunity for it before. 

Fortunately, Jamie was a good listener, and an even better conversationalist. He seemed to know intuitively what to ask her, and then which train of follow-up questions to pursue. She allowed him to take the lead with no small measure of relief; whatever he asked, she answered, then turned the questions back on him. It was an easy back-and-forth, and soon enough their quiet, tender conversation evolved into more animated storytelling, rife with teasing and bursts of raucous laughter. 

They shared a lot of things in common, it turned out. 

And over the next several nights, Jamie seemed intent upon uncovering every last one of them. 

“Ye’re wrong!” he groaned sometime well into the third session, dragging his palm over his eyes. 

“What?” Claire yipped. “What do you mean I’m wrong?

“I would’ve accepted three answers, and that’s no’ even in the top five —”

She rolled her eyes, nostrils flaring, trying so hard to repress a grin that the apples of her cheeks hurt. “Uh, I’m fairly certain you asked for my favorite, not yours…?”

“Aye, but yer answer is just plain wrong, Sassenach!” Jamie shook his head as though he were gravely disappointed in her, even as his blue eyes sparkled. Readjusting his posture, he raised three fingers and began to tick them off one at a time. “Ye’ve got yer classics, aye? I would have accepted Robin Hood; ye’ve got the underdog, ken, yer pursuit of social justice—”   

Claire blew her lips like a horse, rolling her eyes again. 

“Or… or!” He laid down his next finger. “Aladdin. Robin Williams? Comedic gold. Perfectly acceptable answer.”

She raised her palm in acquiescence. “Okay, look, I’ll give you that one. That’s probably my second-favorite, but I still think—”

“But the real answer ye were searchin’ for, my canny wee Sassenach,” Jamie pressed, brandishing his raised pointer finger as Claire’s lungs seized with barely-suppressed laughter, “is The Lion King. That’s what ye meant to say, aye?”

“Mm…” She arranged her features into an expression of mock consideration, squinting at him and tilting her head to one side. “No. Nice try, but no. I still maintain that Beauty and the Beast is the—”

“Get out.” He pointed at the door, then pressed the heels of his hands to his temples dramatically. “Just get out, I cannae even look at ye any more.”

“Fine.” She shrugged, reaching across him to grab the bag of Doritos she’d brought in for him upon learning that they were his favorite childhood snack. “But I’m taking my crisps with me.”

He snatched the half-empty bag off of his bedside stand and clutched it against his chest. “I think ye’ll find they’re my crisps—” he quipped, feinting back and forth when Claire attempted halfheartedly to wrestle it out of his grasp. Once she managed to pry his thumb loose, he let go of the bag and snatched her wrist instead, bringing it up to his mouth in a faux-bite. She yelped out a laugh as she wrenched away, and Jamie’s eyes lit up at the sound. “But I’ll share ‘em wi’ ye over a lightning round, hm?” 

“Deal.”

He watched her suspiciously for a moment — eyes narrowed, lips pursed and twitching in an attempt not to smile — before releasing his grip on the bag and letting her have it. True to her word, Claire grabbed a handful of cheese-dusted crisps and then tilted the open bag for him to take some. She settled back on her stool cross-legged, munching contentedly while Jamie thumbed into his mobile and pulled up the random this-or-that Facebook quiz they’d been working through.

“Alright, Sassenach. Ye ready?”

“Mhm,” she agreed around a crunching orange mouthful. “Fire away.”

“Och, this is an easy one. Coffee or tea?”

“Coffee,” they said in unison.

Slàinte mhath, ” Jamie toasted, tapping his styrofoam cup against hers and taking a sip before continuing on to the next question. “Coke or Pepsi?”

“Coke,” they concurred.

“Winter or summer?”

“Summer,” with aggrieved glances at the snow falling outside the window.

“But, for the record,” Jamie added, blue eyes darting up to gold, “I’m partial to autumn, myself.” 

Claire studied him for a moment, a smile bleeding across her face as she tried to picture him in flannel and denim, heavy boots crunching over a spectacular palette of flame-colored leaves. “So am I.”

For the space of several heartbeats, Jamie was derelict in his quiz-reading duties, his features softening as his gaze lingered over the faint lines etched around her eyes. His neck twitched when he caught himself. “Right, ah…” He quickly shifted his attention back down to his mobile. “Rocky road or mint chip?” 

Claire’s heart stuttered a half-beat out of rhythm, any lingering tenderness on her face draining into a chilled, glassy vacancy. 

She had to swallow three times to force the coffee past the sudden stricture in the back of her throat. 

Jamie had already begun to answer “rocky r—” and glanced up from his mobile with quirked eyebrows when she remained silent.

One look at her and his expression fell. “Somethin’ wrong, Sassenach?” 

She blinked, then looked up at him with a thin, tremulous smile. “Sorry, um…” she rasped, dropping her gaze back to her coffee. She could feel his eyes on her, and tried not to fidget under the scrutiny. “Mint, I suppose.” 

Jesus H. Christ, it had been such a simple question. She kicked herself for letting it get to her; she didn’t need to go there, didn’t need to make it about… 

But there was no taking it back; Jamie was laser-focused, attuned to her discomfort — her underlying pain — as though he had a special sense for it. With anyone else, she might have laughed it off, made an excuse, asked for the next question. 

But not him. 

He wouldn’t push her on it, she knew; he didn’t ever demand answers she wasn’t willing to give. But he could see her, read her in a way that meant he probably already suspected… 

“I don’t eat ice cream any more,” she told him, her voice low, hoarse. Unable to hold Jamie’s gaze, she watched the light reflecting on the surface of her coffee. “I haven’t since the night my parents…” 

The silence that lapsed between them was palpable — coiled and pulsing like a living, breathing thing. 

Jamie slowly peeled back his blankets and shifted his legs over the side of the bed, sitting up fully and turning to face her head-on. He reached for her hand with both of his, and Claire gave it to him hesitantly, feeling her heart pound in her throat.

She hadn’t told anyone.

Not in twenty years.

Not since the police officer with a yellow sketchpad had given her a teddy bear and sat her in a plastic chair in his office, placing a recording device on the desk in front of her. 

And even then, she hadn’t told him everything; only the answers to the questions he asked.

What time did you leave the park, sweetheart?

Did you stop anywhere on the way home?

Did your Daddy have anything to drink? Anything with alcohol, I mean? Are you sure? What about your Mummy?

Did Daddy seem upset lately? Was he angry or sad? Did he ever try to hurt you or Mummy? Did he ever talk about trying to hurt himself or other people?

Were Mummy or Daddy awake after you crashed? Did they say anything? What did they say?

Claire’s hand seemed impossibly small, fragile and pale within the cradle of Jamie’s broad, warm ones. It was only by the contrast of his steadiness that she realized she was trembling. The recognition seemed to strike Jamie in the same moment, and he drew her closer, so that his knees rested on either side of her thighs — bracing her, steadying her. 

Her gaze lifted tentatively from his hands to his eyes, and found them holding her as well; just as warm, just as sure. 

He gave her an infinitesimal nod, and she swallowed against a sandpaper throat. 

When the first strained whisper moved past her lips, Claire didn’t even recognize the voice that emerged as her own. 

“There was a new amusement park that had just opened that year. I’d been asking my parents to go for… months. And the last day before school started, they finally took me as a surprise. One last hurrah for the summer, you know? And my dad, he… he’d been awake the whole night before; he had to work. But it was my first time on the roller coasters, and my mum was… deathly afraid of heights, so he… he came with us, so I wouldn’t have to go alone. And he never complained, he never…”

She lapsed into a pained silence, wringing Jamie’s thumb between her fingers. There were no tears, not even the threat of them; only a hollow strain in her chest, like a drum whose hide had been stretched too tight over its barrel.

Strange, the things she remembered — the fragments of that last day that had stuck with her through the years, preserved in perfect detail in the deepest chambers of her memory. 

Her mum lifting her sunglasses to smear a bit of sunscreen onto her high, delicate cheekbones. 

Her dad pulling the black foam restraint down over his shoulders, beaming over at her and waggling his eyebrows. 

The scent of frying oil, over-chlorinated water, coconut-scented sunblock, exhaust fumes, burnt sugar. 

The too-greasy pizza slice she and her dad had shared while they waited in line for a ride, their fair skin freckling as they baked in the late summer sun. 

The tug of practiced fingers through her curls as her mum leaned over the barrier ropes with a hairband pinched between her teeth, French-braiding Claire’s hair to get it off her neck. 

The memories were vivid, tangible — as real to her in that moment as they’d been the day they happened. 

And yet, they made her feel nothing.

It was as if they belonged to somebody else entirely; as if she were a casual observer in another person’s mind. 

That wasn’t entirely untrue, she supposed. The Claire Beauchamp who had spent the last day of summer at an amusement park with her parents had died with them in a car crash later that night. 

But she didn’t know how to explain any of that to Jamie; couldn’t find the eloquent words that seemed to come so effortlessly to him. It was all she could do to drag helpless, haunted eyes up to his, and hope he would understand.

His own eyes dampened as they held hers, the lines around them etched deep with empathy. One of his hands unfolded from hers to sweep back into her hair, threading gently through her curls until it came to rest at the base of her neck. He held her steady and still as he leaned forward, inch by deliberate inch, until his forehead came to rest against hers. 

For a long moment they simply lingered there, eyes closed, pressed to one another and aching in silence. Then Jamie shifted just slightly, his fingers tipping her head down in the same moment that his chin lifted, so that his lips settled softly against her brow.

Claire breathed out a wavering exhale as she slumped forward, letting Jamie tuck her under his chin. He let go of her hand to cup his palm over the curve of her spine, and the wheels of her stool gave off a quiet grating noise as he pulled her in, cradling her against him. She burrowed gratefully into the solid warmth of him, taking comfort from the steady rise and fall of his chest, the thump of his heart just beneath her hand.  

And after resting quietly with him for awhile, she discovered that it was easier, somehow, to talk like this — wrapped snug and safe in the circle of his arms. The words that had eluded her before began to take shape from lips muffled against Jamie’s chest, her confessions whispered just above his heart, where she knew he would keep them safe. 

“I’d asked for ice cream at some point. But the line at the concession stand was... bloody ridiculous, so my dad said we’d get some later. And I wouldn’t let him forget it.” 

She shook her head faintly, swallowing against the burn of shame that crested high in the back of her throat. The hand cradling her head tightened its grip, steadying her, while the one at her back began to smooth up and down the length of her spine. Nudging her nose tighter against Jamie’s chest, she forced herself to continue. 

“He was exhausted. I knew… I knew he was exhausted, but all I could do after that… that wonderful day was complain that he’d promised me a fucking ice cream cone. So after we left, he… drove all over looking for a place that was still open.”

Jamie pressed his lips to the top of her head, breathing out shakily. “Claire…” 

She shook her head, harder this time. She didn’t want excuses or platitudes. She needed him to know exactly what her selfishness had cost. 

“It was my job to keep him awake. Mum fell asleep, and he asked me to keep talking to him, keep...” She could feel it beginning — the telltale burn every time she took a breath, the well of saliva in her mouth, the tightness in her throat. She was either going to cry or be sick or both, so she tried to talk faster, purge the words before they overwhelmed her completely. 

“And I did, for a while. I tried. But then I… I fell asleep too, and the next thing I knew, we were… swerving off the side of the road, and there was this… this terrible noise when we went through the guard rail, and it…”

Her voice grew more and more strained, until it was paper thin, rasping, barely coherent. “It was almost like the… the water ride, you know… when you… you go over the edge and you fall, and your heart is in your throat, and then there’s the… the splash and then…”

The first hot tears spilled down her cheeks as a whimpering sob wrenched through her. At the sound, Jamie’s muscles tensed as if he were in physical pain, and then suddenly he was shifting, readjusting — molding his whole body around hers as though he could fuse her into him, envelop her completely. 

“I hit the… the back of the seat when we crashed. My collarbone sn-napped, went thr-rough the… the skin, and I — I couldn’t reach b-back to get my seatbelt off.” Her chin quivered uncontrollably, and she pressed herself closer to Jamie, sucking in tight, hissing breaths through her teeth. “I was… crying for help, and my… my dad was… screaming my mum’s name, and… he… he finally reached back and… got my seat-b-belt off and… m-made me… st-tand up and… and…”

Her words were fracturing, her humming sobs and gasps for air smearing one syllable into the next. She was vaguely aware that Jamie was rocking her, his lips moving restlessly over her head, kissing and shushing her in turns, but the broken syllables kept spurting out of her like blood pulsing from an open wound.

“We had a station w-agon, a hatch-b-back, so I… opened it and… looked back d-down and my… my dad was h-holding my mum. She was… I think she was already d-dead, o-or unconscious, maybe. But her legs were p-pinned and he — he wouldn’t leave her, he… he told me to swim, to go back to the road and get h-help, and I didn’t… I thought he m-meant help for them, but h-he knew, he... The water was already coming in and he… he told me they l-loved me and t-to go get help, so I — I jumped out, I left them, and I… I nev—never said it back, I never told him I lov—”

She dissolved completely then, surrendering to the grief that still tasted of the river water and mud and bile she’d retched at the roadside, waiting for help that didn’t come fast enough. 

Beneath the muffled sounds of her sobbing, Jamie kept whispering to her over and over, giving her the words of reassurance she needed so desperately to hear; a fluid mix of Gaelic and English, something that sounded like “mo grye” and “I promise they knew,” and “you did right, shh, you did exactly right.”

She nestled into him and cried until there was nothing left; until the hollow, drumlike tightness in her chest had worked itself loose; until the salt tracks had dried on her cheeks; until her breathing and pulse had steadied, locked into rhythm with his. 

And even then she remained, limp and spent in his arms, needing to be held more than she could ever remember needing anything. 

They lingered wordlessly for such a long time — swaying gently, breathing each other in — that when Jamie finally spoke again, his voice startled her, though it was little more than a whisper against her ear.

“Who took care of ye, after? Where did ye go?”

Claire sniffled and sat up slowly, her spine letting off soft cracks of protest after spending so long slumped forward. She swiped her fingertips over her puffy, salt-stiff eyes and back into her hair, raising her shoulders in a shrug as she inhaled, then letting them drop on a sigh. 

“My, um… my Uncle Lamb became my legal guardian,” she told him, her voice groggy and hoarse, about an octave deeper than it normally was. “But he didn’t... he didn’t exactly have a lifestyle that was well-suited for raising a child. He was an archaeologist, a brilliant one. Traveled all over the world excavating ancient burial sites. So when he um… inherited me, I suppose, he enrolled me in a boarding school just outside of Paris. And I think I saw him a grand total of… I don’t know, maybe five or six times after that? He died when I was sixteen. After that, I petitioned to become an emancipated minor rather than enter the foster system. So.” 

She shrugged listlessly. She didn’t need to look up to see the wheels turning in Jamie’s head as he processed what she was saying. She heard him take a breath and swallow before clarifying, “So ye dinna… ye dinna have any family left, then? Grandparents? Cousins?”

Another shrug, slower this time. “No. Just me.” 

Jamie was silent for so long that she felt a blush creeping into her cheeks. She huffed out a self-deprecating little laugh, trying to lighten the mood. “Apparently, I’m cursed. So I… I wouldn’t go getting too attached to me, if I were you.”

She heard the soft, incredulous gust of Jamie’s breath as his hand ghosted up the column of her neck, over the curve of her jaw. 

“It’s a bit late for that, Sassenach,” he murmured, brushing the pad of his thumb over her cheekbone. His voice was low, husky — a tone she’d never heard from him before; a tone that made her stomach flip and her heart stutter in her chest.

Her eyes slowly dragged up to his, and found them burning blue, lingering over her lips. 

And before she could think, she was leaning in to him, her breath shaking through parted lips as it mingled with the humid warmth of his.

She felt it, rather than heard it — the single, strained syllable of her name breathed into her mouth. 

“Claire.”

A warning, not an invitation.

She wasn’t sure which of them pulled back first, but when she opened her eyes wide to look at him, Jamie looked for all the world as if he’d just signed his own death warrant. Every line of his face was etched into agony, regret — but beneath it, a steadfast resolve. 

“I promised ye,” he rasped, his eyes begging her for understanding, for forgiveness. “I promised I wouldna do anything that could—”

“No, I know.” Her voice wavered, cracked. “I know, I—”

She couldn’t feel her bones as she stumbled to her feet; she felt too light, as if she might dissolve to dust in the faintest draft. Her hands raked back into her hair and then wrapped tightly around her ribcage, trying to hold herself together as she backpedaled, needing to get away from him, needing to... 

He sensed it, she was sure. The pain in his face shifted into panic as he watched her go. 

She wasn’t coming back this time. 

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, fresh tears swimming in her eyes, blurring the image of him as he tried to climb to his feet, come after her. “God, Jamie, I’m s— I’m so sorry.”

“Claire, wait. Claire...”

She managed to bite back the sob burning in her chest until his door clicked shut behind her.

Chapter Text

Jamie knew immediately who had entered his room without needing to open his eyes. 

Gillian Edgars was about as subtle as a ton of bricks.

She burst in with the squeak and clatter of the door, then the heavy clunk of a clogged foot kicking it shut again; the clomping footfalls of said clogs across the linoleum floor; the noisy smacking and popping of her gum; the squeak of wheels and squish of air out of the leather seat as she plopped onto the stool in front of him. 

“Right. I’ve got six minutes before huddle, so spill."

Jamie laid very still, hoping she’d take a damn hint and leave him alone. No such luck, of course; he could practically hear her eyes rolling as she jabbed her finger into his ribs. “I ken ye’re no’ asleep, ye numpty.” 

“Ow! Fer fuck’s sake.” He cracked his eyelids to glare narrowly at his fellow Scot. “I thought Mary was supposed to be my nurse tonight.”

“She is. She’ll be in after report. So tick-tock!” Gillian snapped at him insistently, then leaned forward, eyebrows raised, hands folded under her chin. “Out wi’ it. Tell me everything.” 

Jamie hitched his blanket up higher on his shoulders and buried his face in his pillow. “Dinna ken what ye’re on about,” he grumbled.

“Och, cut the shite, Fraser. What happened wi’ Claire last night? Did ye fuck her, is that it?”

He choked on his own saliva as his head jerked up in surprise. “What? No!”

“Did she blow ye, then? Get a wee bit handsy? Come on, details, I dinna have all night!”

“I—no. No! A Dhia, nothing happened!” he stammered, burning red straight to the tips of his ears. “Alright? Jesus. Rach a h-Irt.”

“Mmm...” Gillian made a show of considering his answer, then let out a flat tone like the sound of a game show buzzer. “Yeah, no. I’m no’ as daft as I look, a bhalaich. Try again. She was in here for what, an hour and a half? I ken, because I answered her feckin’ call lights so ye wouldna be interrupted — ye’re welcome, by the way—”

Jamie glowered at her, but having no real rebuttal to offer, he simply huffed out a sharp breath into his pillow. “I’m tellin’ ye, nothin’ happened.”

“Weel, something obviously did, if Claire-I-Show-Up-Tae-Work-With-Walking-Pneumonia-And-A-39-Degree-Fever-Beauchamp called off for the next three feckin’ nights rather than face ye.”

He winced at that. Of course, he’d suspected as much, but to hear it actually confirmed… 

Christ, she truly didn’t mean to see him again. 

Under his Sassenach’s watchful eye and stern regimen, he’d finally turned a corner in his recovery. Every day, it seemed he was checking off a new milestone. There had been quite a bit of talk over the past few days about transferring him to a short term rehab place, either here in Boston or back in Scotland. Claire had been researching on her mobile, kept showing him various places she’d found — only the very best, boasting top marks on performance benchmarks, excellent staffing ratios, and a whole alphabet of national accreditations. The one she kept pushing him toward the hardest was in Inverness; golden eyes brimming with tenderness, she’d reminded him that Christmas was coming, and he’d want to be close to his family.

And reluctantly, he’d agreed... all the while wishing she’d ask him to pick a place in Boston, give him a reason to stay.

Fat chance of that now, Fraser. Ye’ve fuckin’ blown it.

Jamie swallowed the bile rising in the back of his throat as he counted the remaining days again, hoping he was wrong, miscalculating somehow. 

The consensus for his discharge seemed to be Tuesday, assuming his team could coordinate the transfer. Claire knew that. She’d been the one to orchestrate it, advocate for it.

It was Saturday night. And she’d called off for three shifts.

Which meant she wouldn’t be back until Tuesday night... when he was already gone.

The optimist in him — the hopeless romantic — tried to frame it as a good thing. Any illusion of professional distance had burnt to ash in the searing heat of her breath on his lips. It was clear enough that neither of them could maintain the pretense of a friendship or a strict nurse-patient relationship when they both obviously craved more. 

So maybe… just maybe she was biding her time, avoiding him in her professional capacity until they could finally be together, free from the constraints of her job.

He had to believe that. Because the alternative was that he’d ruined everything, and he’d never see Claire Beauchamp again.

And that simply wasn’t a possibility he was willing to accept.

Any more, it seemed, than Gillian was ready to accept his vague non-answer to her question. 

“Fecked up bad, did ye?” she asked, with a sympathetic twist of her mouth. 

“Aye,” he agreed softly. “Mebbe.”

“Mmphm.” Gillian leaned back, her arms crossed and chin cocked. “Well, I’m deid fond of ye, Jamie Fraser. But I swear to God, if ye break ma girl’s heart, I’ll—”

“No. God, no, I would n— I never meant tae—” He crushed the heel of his hand to his brow as if it would relieve the dull, throbbing pressure in his skull. “Jesus, I only meant to protect her.”

“From what? You?”

“No, her job. This job.”

After a beat or two, she squinted at him. “I dinna follow.”

Jamie speared her with a glare. “Ye’re no’ allowed to get involved wi’ yer patients. She could be fired if—”

“Oh fer fuck’s sake,” Gillian scoffed, her eyes rolling to the ceiling. “I’m sorry, was there a manager lingerin’ about at two in the morning that I wasna aware of?” She made a sweeping gesture around the room. “Keekin’ through the window, hidin’ in yer wee closet?”

Jamie opened and closed his mouth, feeling a flush creep up his neck. “I — no, but we’re not exactly alone, either, are we? There’s the techs, the other nurses, the… the phlebotomists, the janitors, feckin’... I dinna ken, room service, the—the linen and trash people, anyone could see us and—” 

“God, ye’re right!” Gillian gasped, placing a hand over her heart in feigned horror. “If only there were this… this apparatus, ye ken, like… like a wide piece of fabric that could be pulled across the front of the room to block people from seein’ what’s goin’ on inside…”

His mouth went dry, a pang of want burning him from chest to cock at the very thought of what he and Claire might have done with and to one another behind the privacy of that curtain. He shifted the blankets covering his lap as subtly as he could (Christ, naturally he’d get a cockstand with the nosiest nurse on staff standing right in front of him), then swallowed and shook his head resolutely. “It’s still a risk, and no’ one I’m willing to take when her heid’s the one on the chopping block.”

Gillian looked up suddenly with a spark of realization. “... But she was. Is that what ye’re sayin’? Claire pulled a move on ye, is that it?”  

Jamie dropped his gaze, twisting the pillowcase between his thumb and forefinger. “She meant to kiss me, aye.” 

“And ye stopped her?!”

He gave a miserable nod. “Look, I ken that probably makes me the biggest eejit on the planet...”

“Aye, it does!” She raked both of her hands back through her hair, then settled them on her hips. “Jesus feckin’ Christ, man, no wonder she called off!”

“I didna mean to hurt her,” he murmured, his voice growing faint, pained. “If ye… if ye talk to her again, will ye please tell her that for me?”

Gillian studied him for a moment, her expression gradually softening. She reached out to pat his shoulder twice as she rose to her feet. “Tell her yerself, a bhalaich,"  she told him. “She’ll be back. Claire’s no’ the type to leave wi’out at least sayin’ goodbye.”

He swallowed hard, aching to his marrow, utterly desolate at the thought. “I dinna want to say goodbye,” he rasped. 

“Then tell her that, ye clotheid!” she growled, reaching over to flick his temple, hard. “And fer Christ’s sake stop being such a feckin’ hero.”

And with that, she began to turn on her heel, pausing as an afterthought to grab a handful of Doritos from the open bag on his bedside stand before leaving him alone to ponder in the silence of a dark hospital room.

 


 

“You okay, baby? You seem kinda out of it this morning.” 

Tired blue eyes dragged up to kind brown ones, and Jamie made a halfhearted attempt at a smile. “Och, aye, m’fine. Think I must have slept weird last night. Got a bad crick in my neck.” He winced, rolling his shoulders a few times before taking a firm hold on the grips of the walker Shariah was bracing in front of him. “I’m ready, though. Let’s do this.”

“Well, hold your horses there, Hercules. Let’s loosen you up a bit first if you’re hurting, stretch those muscles out before we get started.” 

Jamie followed the physical therapist gratefully through a series of stretches, and let out a sigh of relief afterward, tilting his head from side to side. 

“Aye, that’s much better. Tapadh leat, a nighean,” he said, knowing the wee bit of Gaelic would make her morning. True to form, Shariah flapped a hand over her heart, batted her lashes heavenward, and proceeded to call him “honey-bun” and “sugar-pie” and all other manner of blush-inducing nicknames throughout the remainder of his 0900 PT session. 

And his stiff neck was forgotten for the time being. 

But when Lisa showed up for his afternoon session a few hours later, the soreness had returned with a vengeance. His whole back was hurting — a deep, throbbing ache that radiated from his buttocks to the base of his skull. He explained the problem to her, and she suggested that he’d probably pinched a nerve. She had him repeat the same exercises Shariah had taken him through earlier that morning, plus a few additional ones to stretch out his lower back and glutes.

This time, they didn’t help.

He pushed through his session with her anyway, knowing he needed to walk as much as possible. Both Lisa and Shariah had warned him that the physical therapy sessions in rehab would be grueling, intended to push him hard and get him back to optimal functioning as quickly as possible. He needed to prepare himself for that — build up his stamina, his mental and physical discipline; he couldn’t allow a damn pinched nerve to prevent him from doing everything within his power to get back to his old self again — whole and capable and strong.

And worthy of a certain wee Sassenach. 

For her sake, he could push through just about anything.

But by the time Shariah showed up for his last PT session of the day, he could barely move.

She gave him an ice pack and a maroon-lipsticked kiss on the cheek, and told him to get some rest.

The next time he opened his eyes, his room was completely dark, and Mary Hawkins’ small, tentative fingers were tapping lightly on his forearm. 

“Mr. Fraser?” she whispered, and even that delicate sound made his whole head ring like a bell. Jamie grunted, grinding the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. 

“I’m s-sorry to wake you. I’m just here to get your v-vitals and do y-y-your assessment, if that’s alright?”

“Ach, my heid...” he groaned, and the vibration of his own voice made his skull rattle, no matter how tightly he clutched it. 

“You… you have a headache, Mr. Fraser?”

“Aye,” Jamie gasped, his whole face contorted in agony. “A bad one. Can ye-” He hissed in a breath through his teeth. “-get me somethin’ for it? Please? Gah... fuck...

“Yes! Yes, of course. I can do that.” 

Christ, her squeaky wee voice was like a needle through his brain. 

“I’ll be right back, okay? Just h-hold on one second...”

He was still hissing out curses through his teeth when Mary scurried back with a plastic cup and his pain pills. He released his viselike grip on his head just long enough to toss them back with a sip of water, then crushed his palms back into his eye sockets again. 

“Mr. Fraser, how w-would you rate your pain on a sc-cale of zer…”

“Ten,” he choked out. “Fecking ten.”

“Alright, well... w-w-we need to give those pills a little w-while to work, and then if you need s-something more…”

“Aye, fine,” he agreed, mostly to get her to shut up. He was beginning to shake, though from the pain or the cold, he wasn’t quite sure — because beneath the all-consuming, crushing pressure in his head, he was suddenly aware that it was freezing in that hospital room, as if someone had accidentally knocked the thermostat off. He keened out a long, low sound, pulling his blankets up over his head. “Can ye — schzzz, fuck — can ye get me a warm blanket, please? Freezin’ in here.”

She stammered some response in the affirmative and then she was gone again, leaving him to moan and whimper like a bairn. He took a bite of his pillow to stop himself when she came back, footsteps light and quick as a faerie’s. When the warmth of two heated blankets suddenly settled over him, he hummed out a muffled sound of appreciation.

“I’ll just be… I’ll just, um… I’m going to let those pain meds kick in, and I’ll be right outside, okay, right at that charting station, if you need anything at all.”  

Jamie grunted, and she went away again.

He had no sense whatsoever of how much time had passed, only the fact that her assurances had been empty. 

The pills did nothing; the longer he laid there, the worse the pain got. 

Although ‘pain’ didn’t even begin to describe the inferno that had raged to life inside of him.

Everything was on fire. His back, his neck, his shoulders, his head, Jesus his head … it was as if he was burning from the inside, imploding — a column of wildfire roaring up his spine and into his brain, the viscera and membranes and blood vessels being boiled alive in their own juices, expanding up and out against his skull until he was sure his head was going to split open at the sutures.

He slapped a hand around the bed for his call light, finally desperate enough for relief that he was willing to deal with Mary to ask for it. 

No sooner had his finger touched the nurse button than she scampered through his door again.

“Feeling any better?” she asked hopefully.

“Worse,” he choked. “I need the… the thing for spasms… flex-a -something… please.” His shaking had evolved to full-blown muscle spasms, the likes of which he hadn’t seen since his Sassenach had started him on the regimen of those wee pills. Each wracking spasm made him see red, as if the blood vessels in his eyes were going to burst. 

Mary hesitated, then asked falteringly, “Is the p-p-pain still a ten?”

“I canna stop shaking!” he sobbed outright, his teeth chattering with each gasping breath. “It’s making it worse, please, I need…”

Claire. I need Claire.

He wasn’t entirely sure what happened right after that.

Everything went black, and then he felt as though he were spinning very fast, though he could feel the mattress, solid and unmoving beneath him.

The next thing he recognized was Gillian’s voice.

“Get him on his left side!” He felt a pair of hands on his shoulders, turning him. “Do we have oxygen tubing in here? Then go grab some off the crash cart! No, just bring the whole cart back wi’ ye! You, get a pulse ox on him. You, call a rapid response. You, STAT page the attending. Not the resident, the attending. Tell them they need to get to the bedside right now. Right now, people! Go, go, go!” 

A cool hand on his cheek, fingers trying to pry open his clenched eyelids. “Jamie? Can ye hear me, a bhalaich? Come on. Come on, don’t feckin’ do this to me.”

With great effort, he forced bleary, unfocused eyes open, and heard Gillian’s sigh of relief. 

“Good lad. Blink if ye understand me, Jamie. Good. Good lad. He’s conscious, responding to commands.” 

He felt hands pushing him onto his back and then up onto his side again, lifting his arm, strapping wires and monitors all over him. 

He jerked back when someone stuck tubing in his nose, blasting cold air down his nostrils. The motion made his head spin, and he blacked out again.

When he came to, there was a high frantic beeping noise, and someone behind him was calling out a series of numbers. 

He heard Gillian cuss violently under her breath in the Gàidhlig

His vision was swimming, blackness pressing in like a tide at his periphery. Jamie wanted to let it take him under — wanted to stop hurting, burning.

But first, he had to ask. 

He rolled his dry tongue around his mouth, swallowed, and managed hoarsely, “Am I dyin’, then?”

Gillian’s face blurred in and out of focus — pale and terrified, but fierce. She set her chin and shook her head. “Not on my watch.” 

So he was, then.

Fuck.

He was sinking, spiraling down toward the blissful promise of oblivion.

He had regrets the last time, certainly. He was only twenty-six. There were so many things he hadn’t done, life goals he’d never accomplished, places he’d never traveled, plans he’d made that would never come to fruition. 

But none of that seemed important right at the moment. 

Because the last time he’d brushed elbows with death, he hadn’t known Claire. 

He hadn’t known what it was like to speak to another person as openly and freely as he spoke to his own soul. 

He hadn’t known what it was like to light up from the inside, to feel his heart race just from hearing her voice from down the hall, to have every nerve ending in his body fire at the brush of her palm against his. 

He hadn’t known that he was missing her, starved for her, until he held her against him, breathed her in, and felt his very veins hum with relief. 

And now that he did know… God, he just wanted more time with her. Perhaps that was selfish or greedy; even what little time he’d had with her should have been enough to fill him with gratitude rather than regret. 

But still, he wanted more.  

He wanted to know what it was like to taste her mouth, feel her body rise to his, move with her as he buried himself deep inside of her. He wanted to wake up in the morning with her arms wrapped around him, her wild tangle of brown curls splayed out across his chest. He wanted a thousand more nights — a hundred thousand — curled up on the couch with her, sharing cookies and tangerines and watching HGTV reruns. He wanted to look up one sunny Saturday morning to the sight of her veiled in white lace, walking toward him down a church aisle. He wanted to watch her belly swell with his child, wanted to pick out herringbone tile with her at the Home Depot with their curly-haired bairn asleep on his shoulder. 

He wanted to fight for those things. For her. For them.

“Claire,” he rasped.

But it seemed he wouldn’t get the opportunity.

He wouldn’t even get a chance to say goodbye. Even if he asked for her, begged for her to come — even if she dropped everything and ran as fast as she could — he knew he was fading faster than she could get here.

He was out of time.

“Tell Claire I…”

“No,” Gillian snapped at once, and he thought he heard her voice catch. “Don’t you feckin’ do that. Don’t you dare give up on me, Jamie Fraser. You tell her yerself.” 

Stubborn bloody Scot.

Too weary to argue, he let his eyes slip shut. “Ye were right, though,” he sighed. “Should have... kissed her when... I had the chance.”

As he slipped away, the last thoughts in Jamie’s head were of his Sassenach; of eyes the color of fine whisky; a smile that made her freckled nose crinkle; skin like opals and pearls; a riot of dark curls that felt like silk against his lips.  

Mo nighean donn, he thought fondly, smiling as the last of the pain finally ebbed. My brown-haired lass.

And then there was nothing.

Chapter Text

Claire couldn’t feel her feet touch the ground. 

As she tore across the salted concrete, her heart ceased to have any discernible rhythm; one frenzied beat slurred into the next until it had escalated to a fever pitch, a thunderous oscillation against her breastbone. The wind was at her back, roaring between the skyscrapers and propelling her forward until she was flying, flying

And still not fast enough. 

Of course, the one night — the one fucking night she’d set her mobile on silent, crawled under the covers, and succumbed to a Benadryl-induced sleep… 

CLAIRE ANSWER YOUR GODDAMN PHONE

There were twenty missed calls, three voicemails, and five texts — all from Gillian — when she’d gotten up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. 

CLAIRE I AM DEAD SERIOUS ANSWER YOUR PHONE!!!!!!! It’s an actual emergency 

She hadn’t bothered with a coat; had barely managed to slip on her trainers and snatch her keys and hospital ID badge off the entry table—

FFS I don’t want to tell you this by text! Pick up!

Barreled down the apartment stairs, slammed through the door and out into the bitter cold—

OK well… apparently not gonna have a choice here. You need to get to the MICU ASAP. Room 6. We just rapid responsed Jamie.

Took off at a dead sprint toward the hospital, the night around her blurring into smears of light as she ran as hard and as fast as she could.

He’s fucking sick, Claire. Think it’s meningitis. He’s seizing on and off. They were intubating him when I did handoff. You need to get here like now. Like right fucking now.  

Claire had managed to fire off a single, typo-filled request for as many details as possible. She could feel her mobile buzzing against her hip as she ran, promising answers that she didn’t have time to stop and read until she collapsed against the elevator panel in the hospital lobby, smashing her palm against the up button over and over again.

Last vitals I saw were temp of 41, HR in the 200s, O2 sats in the 80s. 

I know they were loading him with phenobarb and going to try to get an LP, then start IV abx and steroids. 

I can call down there and ask the charge for an update, but if you’re on the way you’ll probably find out before I do

Claire’s hands were shaking so badly that autocorrect struggled to fix both fumbling words as she tapped them into her screen: I’m here.

The light above the elevator door illuminated with a soft ding, and she drummed her palms restlessly against her thighs, hissing “come on, come on, come on” under her breath as she waited for the doors to open. Every fraction of a second seemed to take hours; it was like something out of a nightmare, in which a sinister, oozing black pitch had encased her organs and turned her blood to sludge, making her movements feel heavy — impossibly, infuriatingly slow.

With Jamie just out of reach, needing her.

And she wasn’t there.

She hadn’t been there.

The moment the elevator doors parted on the Medical Intensive Care Unit, Claire shouldered her way through sideways, eyes frantically scanning for bed numbers. When she found the correct sign, she pushed off hard to the left, wet-soled trainers slipping on the linoleum as she launched into a full-tilt run. She slowed at the front desk only long enough to brandish her ID badge, and heaved a sigh of relief when the clerk gave a quick nod of acknowledgment, waving her through without question. 

There was some sort of commotion going on as she rounded the corner into the patient care area. Staff were running in and out of a room near the end of the hall, and for a split second Claire stopped in her tracks, feeling her heart go cold in terror. 

Room four... they were coding someone in room four.

Four, not six.

Not Jamie.

She gulped in several strangled gasps for air, pressing a hand to her diaphragm as she staggered past the scene of controlled pandemonium. There were at least ten people crammed into the small room, blocking her view of what was going on inside, but she could hear a doctor calling out orders as her steps faltered outside the very next room. As her shaking fingertips lifted to touch the name FRASER, J. on the door tag, she heard the doctor command another dose of epinephrine and a “charge to 300.”

It was suddenly real then. 

Jamie was here. In this place, in this room. Surrounded by wires and monitors, hooked up to machines to keep him alive. Someone was actively dying in the next room. At any given moment, it could just as easily be him.

That was his current reality.

And now it was hers, too.

Claire was no stranger to trauma, or illness, or death. She had been a nurse for seven years — the first four in the A&E in London, the remainder here at Mass General — and in that time, she’d handled countless emergencies with a cool head and steady hands. She’d started IVs on patients who barely had a pulse; given rescue breaths to limp blue babies while their mothers screamed; pressed her palms into gushing wounds to staunch the bleeding; straddled a gurney as patients were wheeled up to this very unit, cracking ribs with the force of her chest compressions. 

She’d never been afraid before. Never shied from a challenge, never balked in the face of a medical crisis. 

But there was nothing left of the Velvet Hammer in her as she stepped over the threshold into room 6. 

She was just Claire. Plain Claire Beauchamp, and nothing more. 

And lying in the bed in front of her, motionless beneath a tangle of wires and gauze and tubing, was the man she loved.   

Desperately.

It was no longer possible to deny it. God, how she’d tried. But the fragile pretense of professional detachment that had caved first to friendship — and then, reluctantly, to attraction — dissolved entirely when death had come lurking in the middle of the night, threatening to rip away the man who had unwittingly taken root at the very center of her life.

She had never meant to fall in love with him.

With his kind eyes and his easy smile, his quick wit and his warm heart.

With his generosity, his gentleness. His protective streak. His chivalry, his passion.

With his stupid stubborn pigheadedness, his resilience; his incredible, impossible strength.

But there was no help for it. It was the most powerful thing she’d ever felt in her life. And with time, the devastating truth that she’d tried so hard to bury had merely etched itself onto the deepest parts of her — the walls of her veins, the marrow of her bones, the molten red matter of her soul. 

She loved him. She loved him, and all of this was her fault, and if he died on her now...

“Jamie,” she breathed, her voice nearly lost beneath the mechanical whir of the ventilator. Eyes swimming with tears, she took a half-stride forward, hesitated, drew in a shaking breath, then took another step. “It’s me. Claire.”

Of course, there was no response; how could there be? In the aching silence, Claire thought she heard her heart break — a small, clean sound, like the snapping of a flower’s stem. Closing her eyes, she tried to envision him the way he always greeted her; blue eyes lighting up, a tender smile touching the corner of his mouth. 

Hello, Sassenach.

Another step closer, another wavering breath. She wrung her hands, scoring her bottom lip with her teeth. Even if Jamie couldn’t respond, she knew he could hear her; the words themselves might be lost to him, but he would recognize her voice, at least, and know he wasn’t alone.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she whispered. “If I… if I’d known, I never…” 

Her voice broke, and she swallowed hard to steady it as she closed the last of the distance between them. 

It was only supposed to have been three days. He was fine when she’d left him. Healthy, strong. He was ready for discharge; it was simply a matter of paperwork, jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops of an international transfer. Claire’s plan had been — had always been — to come back, to tell him about the accident on the day he finally went home. Once he knew the truth, she knew he’d want to get as far away from Boston — from her — as possible. So in their final days together, she’d pushed Jamie hard towards the rehab facility in Inverness, desperate to get him back into the arms of his family, his friends; loved ones who would be able to comfort him, support him, help him get his life back on track after she’d done such a bloody thorough job of derailing it.

And in the meantime, she’d stepped back… a sinking pit of dread accompanying their near-kiss, the warning of her name whispered into her mouth; the knowledge that she’d allowed both of them to get in way, way over their heads. Every night she and Jamie spent together, they’d just kept getting closer, deeper. And it was only going to make the inevitable confession that much harder on them both. 

So she’d left. Knowing that when she saw him again in three days’ time, it would be to tell him the truth. To lose him forever.

She’d never thought… never dreamed that she might lose him in another manner entirely.

In the dim light, her eyes traced the lines of his face, the muscles gone unnaturally slack from sedation. He wasn’t pale, as she’d expected; his skin was flushed, coated in a fine sheen of sweat that had soaked his pillowcase and the sheet covering him. A damp washcloth was draped across his neck, and Claire peeled it back gently, making a soft noise of distress when her fingers brushed his skin. 

“Christ, you’re burning up,” she hissed, pressing the back of her hand to his throat, then his cheek. Jamie’s entire head was covered in a veritable rainbow of probes to monitor seizure activity; her brow furrowed in concentration as she flipped the washcloth to the cool side and began to dab it over his face, working carefully around the wires and tape. 

“There,” she soothed. “There, that’s better, isn’t it? That’s better. Let’s… let’s get this sheet off of you too, and… and we’ll get you a clean gown and some more washcloths when your nurse comes back. We’ll get you more comfortable, Jamie. It’s going to be alright. Everything’s going to be alright.”

It has to be.

Desperately grateful to have something tangible to do for him, Claire left Jamie’s side just long enough to wet the washcloth in fresh, cool water from the tap before returning to sponge off his neck and chest. When she unsnapped the shoulders of his sweat-soaked gown and peeled them back, she found ice packs tucked under both armpits, though his body heat had long since melted the ice; the water inside was almost lukewarm. Frowning, she glanced over her shoulder at the sliding glass door, and the vacant charting station just beyond where his nurse was meant to be seated, watching him at all times. 

Where the bloody hell—?

A loud thump, followed by a metallic crash and clatter from the adjacent room, was her timely and sobering reminder of the ongoing code blue. All hands would be on deck; she certainly couldn’t blame his nurse for that.

Easing closer to Jamie on instinct, Claire gritted her teeth as she listened to the voices of the medical professionals growing more and more frantic next door.

“I can’t get chest rise!”

“We’re still at 23, you’re in, he’s just—” 

“Someone get me suction over here, I — shit, shit…”

There was a sudden, long, deafening silence. Claire went very still, straining to hear, her eyes fixed unblinkingly on Jamie’s face.

At long last, an exhausted, defeated voice said, “Time of death, 02:48.” Another beat of silence, then a monotonous, “I’ll go tell his wife.” 

A single tear slipped down Claire’s cheek. She didn’t bother to wipe it away. 

Sniffling hard, she bent across Jamie, laying her arm over his chest, her fingers curling tightly into the flesh of his shoulder, as if by sheer force alone she might anchor him there with her. She tipped her forehead down until it rested against his temple, muttering fiercely into his ear, “Don’t you dare go getting any bright ideas, Jamie Fraser. You’re not going anywhere, do you hear me?”  

A few stray auburn curls peeked out from the bottom of the netting holding his seizure probes in place. Claire smoothed them back with her free hand, her fingertips beginning the slow, delicate weave through his hair that had always managed to soothe him when he needed comfort. 

“I know you’re tired,” she whispered, her lips wobbling before she pressed them briefly to the soft spot just behind his ear. “You’ve been fighting for such a long time. But you can’t give up on me now. You’ve got such a wonderful life ahead of you, Jamie. Y—you’ve got so much to look forward to.” 

Her breath hitched as she eased closer, fitting her cheekbone under the curve of his jaw. “You’ll be home in time for Hogmanay, for the new year. It’ll be a fresh start, Jamie. You can… you can put all of this behind you. You can work on that start-up you’ve been dreaming of, hm?” 

She remembered so vividly the way his eyes had danced as he told her all about his plans to create a non-profit to help farmers back home in Scotland. It was his passion project, his life’s calling. A few months before the accident, he’d landed an internship here in Boston with a coalition of organizations fighting to improve wages and working conditions for agricultural workers all along the food chain, from harvest to packaging to transport to sales. He’d been soaking information up like a sponge, he explained, learning “sae much” that he could apply to the folks back home. Claire couldn’t help but smile as she’d listened to him talk about it; his whole body had radiated enthusiasm, his broad hands gesticulating animatedly as he babbled on and on, his whole face lit up like a child’s at Christmas.  

“I know you didn’t get to finish your internship,” she continued, her gut wrenching with guilt (Christ, yet another loss she could count herself responsible for). “But that’s… that’s not going to stop you. I know you, Jamie Fraser. Once you put your mind to something, God help the person who tries to stand in your way. You’ll do it. You’ll get it up and running, I know you will. And you’re going to help... so many people. So many good, honest, hard-working people. And knowing you’re... making a difference — helping, somehow — it will give your life so much meaning. Purpose.”

She fell quiet for a time, lost in her vision of the future she imagined for him; all of her hopes for the life he would build from the ashes of the one she’d ruined. As she daydreamed, she absently stroked Jamie’s hair, tears rolling silently down her cheeks and onto his fevered skin. 

“And then,” she whispered. “And then, one day… when you least expect it… you’ll meet a woman.” A smile stretched over her quivering lips, even as she felt something vital break at the very core of her being. “And she’ll be… so kind, Jamie. Funny. Intelligent. Beautiful. She will be… everything you deserve.” A hot, salty lump swelled in her throat until she could no longer speak around it; the last few words were simply mouthed silently against the soft pink curve of his earlobe. “And she’ll take your breath away.”

She hadn’t known it was possible: feeling so utterly shattered, yet so at peace, so hopeful at the same time. Though the words pouring out of her were intended to reassure Jamie, she found them to be just as much of a balm to her own soul. 

He would be alright after all of this. 

More than alright — he would thrive.

She could see it play out with such perfect clarity; envision the hundreds of photographs he would tuck into another leather-bound photo album — stills of a life filled with so much love, so much joy. Trips to the beach, the forest, the mountains; a garden wedding drenched in sunlight; a honeymoon somewhere tropical, somewhere warm. Turning slowly on a dance floor, his bride’s head tucked into the curve of his shoulder; stolen kisses under a sky full of stars; the newlyweds painting their first home together, spending more time laughing and spattering one another than the walls.  

After a while, the free-flow of tears rinsed away the worst of the burn in Claire’s throat. She tucked her nose into the curve of Jamie’s neck when she could speak again, murmuring hoarsely, “You’ll make such a beautiful life together, Jamie. A home. Children, maybe.” A broken smile trembled at the corners of her mouth; somehow, that particular thought made her heart ache even more than the rest. “I think you’ll want children. Then you… you can surprise them with those giant blow-up snowmen at Christmas. Put lights up on every tree on the property.” She released her breath in a tight, choked laugh against his skin. “And you can… you can teach them to play Star Wars with you. Make those ridiculous lightsaber noises while you bash them over the heads with pool noodles.”

At long last, Claire lifted her head, sniffling and dabbing her eyes and nose on the sleeve of her sleep shirt. She drew in as deep of a breath as her aching lungs would allow, then released it in a controlled, pursed-lip stream. The hand moving gently through his hair shifted down to his stubbled chin, a curled finger stroking back and forth over the soft bristles. 

“So, you see,” she breathed, trying to hold a smile, “It’s like I said, Jamie, you have… so much to look forward to.” She felt her throat threatening to constrict again and swallowed hard, forcing her choked voice past it. “So don’t go anywhere, alright? Just stay with me. Please.” 

There was no way of knowing whether he’d heard her at all; whether he had any sort of comprehension of her desperate plea. But his chest kept rising and falling in measured breaths, timed by the ventilator, and the pulse at the hollow of his throat was rapid, but strong.

And so her vigil began. 

 




Claire had no sense of how much time elapsed before Jamie’s nurse finally returned to the room. Her head turned at once to the familiar whir-and-squelch of the hand sanitizer dispenser, and she looked up through tired, puffy eyes at a middle-aged woman who appeared just as exhausted as she was. 

“You must be Claire,” she said softly. At Claire’s look of surprise, the nurse smiled and gestured at Jamie. “He was asking for you, before we intubated. Are you his wife?”

Claire froze, feeling her stomach flip and her scalp prickle. She barely had time to process one wave of emotion (He wanted me. He asked for me. And I wasn’t here.) before the second, more devastating one struck:

I’m not his wife. And visiting hours for non-immediate family are long over.

Her mind reeled, trying to figure out how on earth to answer. 

She could lie, of course; say she was his wife and pray to God that the nurse wouldn’t check his record. Or she supposed she could simply flash her badge, explain that she had been Jamie’s nurse for a long time, and that she was just checking in on him. But checking in was temporary; Claire had no intention of leaving his side. 

She opened and closed her mouth, floundering. The muscles in her face tightened in desperation as her gaze moved from the nurse’s face to Jamie’s and stayed there, watching him breathe as though her own survival depended on it. 

“No,” she admitted finally, her voice so hoarse, so strained it was nearly unrecognizable. “No, I… he’s my…” 

Your what, Beauchamp?

Patient?

Friend?

Victim?

The love of your life?

What exactly is the end to that sentence?

She shook her head faintly for a moment, at a loss. At long last, she tore her gaze away from him and looked helplessly back up at the nurse, silently begging, her eyes brimming with tears. “He’s all I have.” 

It was the truth. 

Perhaps the nurse saw that. 

Perhaps she was just a compassionate soul.

Either way, her features softened, and she took a step forward to place a steadying hand on Claire’s shoulder. 

“Lucky guy,” she said with a tender smile. When Claire continued to look up at her, wide-eyed and uncertain, the nurse soothed, “I’m not gonna kick you out, honey, if that’s what you’re worried about. We let family stay at the bedside 24 hours a day, and our rule of thumb around here is that family is whoever the patient says it is. And, uh…” She tipped her chin up at the monitor above Jamie’s bed. “I think my friend Jamie here has made it pretty clear what he thinks.”

Claire blinked furiously to try to clear the tears from her eyes so she could read the bleary numbers at the side of the screen. “What do you mean?”

“I mean those are the best vitals I’ve seen since he’s got here. Heart rate’s down, blood pressure’s stabilizing, and he’s high-satting on that vent. I can probably even turn his oxygen down a little bit here. So whatever it is you’re doing, I want you to just keep on doing that. You keep on talking to him, holding his hand, telling him he looks like an idiot with all those wires taped to his head, okay?” She winked, chuckling good-naturedly.

Claire managed a weak exhale somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “Yes.” She sniffled, a humming noise catching in her throat as she took Jamie’s too-warm hand between her own. “Yes, I can do that.” 

The nurse clapped her on the shoulder, then eased behind her to grab the blood pressure cuff off the wall. “And in the meantime — ‘scuse me — I’m just gonna sneak on in behind you here and grab a set of vitals. After that, I’m gonna get some blood from him and tweak some of the settings on his IV drips, okay?” As she wrapped the blood pressure cuff around Jamie’s arm, she gave him a wry smile, then glanced conspiratorially over her shoulder at Claire. “I think between the two of us gals, we’re gonna get you sorted right the heck out here, Jamie my friend.”

There were not adequate words to convey the depths of Claire’s gratitude as she watched the veteran ICU nurse work, listened to her mutter to herself under her breath in a stream of consciousness that left little doubt as to her extensive knowledge and proficiency. She cursed at the vent and smacked at it when it beeped at her; flicked at almost-microscopic bubbles in Jamie’s IV tubing; worked out his medication dosages through barely-moving lips — eyes narrowed, brows raised in concentration — before double checking the math with an actual, physical old-fashioned calculator. She prattled on to Jamie in a conversational tone as she worked, explaining everything she was doing and wisecracking with him as though he were an active participant in the conversation.

Until that moment, Claire hadn’t realized how desperately she needed to share the load, to be able to relinquish her white-knuckled grip on Jamie’s care to someone she trusted inherently to do right by him as his nurse. Much of the equipment in the room was foreign and mystifying to her; she hadn’t seen or used it since her ICU rotation in nursing school, years ago. She was over her head and frightened, and the palpable, joint-loosening relief of having someone there to take charge of the minutiae of Jamie’s care made her want to bow her head and weep. 

It meant that in the precious little time she had left with him, she had a small window of opportunity where she could just be his Claire. His Sassenach. 

The woman who loved him.

When he woke, that window would close. She knew that. She wouldn’t leave him again — couldn’t, not after what had happened in her absence. Her duty was here, healing him, seeing him safe. But they couldn’t carry on the way they had been, either. It was why she had walked away in the first place — trying to spare him the pain of any more attachment to her, knowing full well the revelation waiting for him at the finish line of this long and horrific hospital stay. 

There was only one choice left, one option. No matter how it broke her heart, she would somehow need to find the strength to do what she had thus far failed to accomplish: pull back from him. Create distance. Function exclusively in the role of his nurse, even as she watched the hurt and confusion settle over his face. 

He’d understand soon enough. 

But for now…

For now, under the protective veil of sedation, she had this one last chance to be with him. 

To study him, memorize him. To tuck away every last sensory detail into the most sacred places of her heart; the lines of his palms, the smell of his skin, the texture of his stubble against her fingertips.

To hold him, breathe him in. 

To rest for a time with her head on the pillow next to his, her face tucked into the curve of his neck and her hand resting over the reassuring thump of his heart. 

To whisper all the things she’d never get a chance to say to him when he could truly hear her.

And to say goodbye.

 

Chapter Text

“Okay, so …” 

Claire barely had time to lift her heavy-lidded eyes before a takeout box was shoved into her hands. She blinked at it vacantly for a moment, her mind too foggy to grasp much of anything, while the veritable whirlwind that was Gillian Edgars pulled over Jamie’s bedside table and began to slap down one highlighted, color-coded spreadsheet after another. 

“I’ve got this about 90% sorted, but let me preface this by sayin’ I’m no’ a feckin’ miracle worker, alright? I’ve got ye covered for all but three days, and I’m tryin’ to crack those too, but I cannae promise ye anything.”

Claire dragged the heel of her hand over her eyes, then frowned uncomprehendingly at the papers in front of her. “What? I don’t… what are you on about, G?”

Ginger eyebrows arched in silent judgment as she gave her friend a once-over. “When was the last time ye slept, hen?”

“I’ve been sleeping,” Claire protested feebly, lifting the tab on the styrofoam takeout container to peek inside. At the look Gillian shot her, she clarified with a dismissive shrug, “Here and there. Oh my God, you absolute saint, is this pastrami?”

“Corned beef. Reuben on rye, extra swiss, dressing on the side. I stole some of yer sweet potato fries, sorry. Procurer’s tax.”

“I could kiss you,” Claire muttered before taking a wide, jaw-cracking bite of the sandwich. 

“Mm, rain check, love.” Gillian scrunched her nose in playful distaste. “Ye’ll notice I brought ye this particular meal while Jamie’s still out of it and doesna have to deal wi’ yer sauerkraut breath.” Her lip curled in a smirk as she reached over to pat Jamie’s leg. “Dinna say I never did anything for ye, a bhalaich.”

Claire rolled her eyes, and Gillian’s smirk broadened when she caught it in her peripheral vision. “I’ll bring some mints in wi’ me next time,” she added, leaning over to speak near Jamie’s ear in an exaggerated whisper. “Dinna fash.”

Refusing to rise to the bait, Claire finished chewing unhurriedly. She allowed her eyes to glaze over, her face carefully expressionless, as she attempted to smother the maelstrom that had swirled to life in her belly at the mere allusion to sharing breath with him again. 

At the sensory memories conjured without her will or consent. 

The humid warmth shuddering over her tongue, almost close enough to taste; the prickling heat that had singed her lips and breasts, left her slick and burning between her legs; the ache for him, the longing that was ancient, primal, and far beyond her control. 

And underpinning it all, the shame — the reverberating, shattering pain that accompanied the knowledge of what that near-kiss had cost them both. 

She swallowed her mouthful of food a bit more forcefully than necessary. 

“You’re hilarious,” she deadpanned, unable to meet her friend’s gaze. Eager to change the subject, she gestured at the papers Gillian had scattered across the table. “So… what is all of this, exactly?”

Even without looking, she could feel the smugness radiating from Gillian, who apparently wasn’t the least bit convinced by the show of nonchalance. Thankfully, for once in her bloody life, the Scot chose to let the subject drop. 

“This,” Gill drawled, stepping back over to the table and spreading her hand in a sweeping gesture over the papers, “is a work of feckin’ art, if I do say so myself. Now, ye dinna need to know all the details; it’s probably better that ye don’t. But let’s just say I called in a few favors here and there. And when that didna work, I reminded a few of the holdover day shift bitches of the dirt I have on them that would absolutely feckin’ ruin them if it got back to management. Suddenly they were much more cooperative, wouldn’t ye ken?”

If it was possible to actually, physically feel the blood drain from one’s face, it happened in that moment. 

“Oh God,” Claire rasped, with the acute sensation that a lump of ice had lodged itself in her esophagus. “What the hell did you do?”   

Gill made a guttural, distinctly Scottish noise of derision. “Found a way for you to keep yer feckin’ job, that’s what I did.” She planted a hand on her hip, quirking an eyebrow. “And I believe the phrase ye’re lookin’ for is ‘thank ye.’”   

Claire continued to stare at the highlighted pages in front of her — belatedly arriving at the realization that it was some sort of breakdown of their work schedule — her mouth moving wordlessly, at a complete loss. It was all she could do to sit in stunned silence as Gillian began to describe, in meticulous detail, how she’d managed to bribe, beg, or blackmail various nurses into taking Jamie Fraser as a patient, and turning a blind eye to Claire’s presence at his bedside. 

Every day for the next two weeks. 

Long enough for her to see him safe. 

Long enough for her to get him home.

And as she listened to her meddlesome friend spell out each of those precious remaining days with Jamie, Claire found her horror gradually beginning to abate — giving way first to shock, and then, finally, to a deep, almost pained gratitude. 

Because unorthodox (and morally questionable) as her methods might be, the motivation behind them was clear: Gillian was doing this for her. Putting her own neck on the line to help a friend, because she knew how desperately Claire needed to stay with him. 

The ginger was still babbling, going off on a side-rant about one of the day shift nurses whose arm she’d had to twist particularly hard to go along with this scheme of hers, when Claire suddenly reached out to touch her wrist. 

“Gill,” she whispered. 

The Scot broke off suddenly into a stark, profound silence. Claire tried to say more, failed, and settled for squeezing her friend’s wrist instead. 

Gillian’s free hand lifted to cover hers and squeeze gently in return. “It’s no’ perfect,” she apologized, her own voice suddenly gone quiet, tender. “There are still a few gaps I’m tryin’ to fill, and I promise I’ll do my best, but…” 

“It’s wonderful,” Claire managed. “It means… more than you could possibly know.”

“Oh, I think I have some idea, hen,” Gill murmured, reaching up to smooth the frizzy curls back from Claire’s temple. For once, there was no smugness in her tone; only sympathy, understanding. “And besides, it’s no’ just for you, ye ken. Jamie needs ye with him.” She leaned over to pat his leg, smiling fondly. “And since I went to all that feckin’ trouble to save yer miserable hide, figured I’d best see it through, eh?”

When she looked back over, Claire met her gaze and held it as tears welled in her eyes, needing her to see — truly see — how much it mattered. 

“Thank you,” she whispered. “For everything, Gill.”

“Ach.” Gillian reached out to clasp her in a hug, pressed her lips brusquely to Claire’s cheekbone, then pulled back again, holding her at arm’s length by the shoulders. “Thank me when we manage to pull it off, aye? You two can name yer firstborn after me. Gillian if it’s a lass, Gilbert for a lad.” After a half-beat of consideration, she added with an eye-roll and a shrug, as if it were self-explanatory, “And make me godmother. Obviously.”

Claire tried to smile at the joke; tried to ignore the pain that ripped through her like a knife at the thought of the delicate red-haired newborn who would never be.

“Obviously,” she echoed, with just enough sarcasm to mask the break in her voice.

 


 

It was like being underwater, he reckoned. Suspended somewhere far below the surface of a loch, adrift and weightless in the murky depths. 

Occasionally he’d catch a distant flicker of light, a muted murmur of sound, but he was neutral to them; he made only a vague notation of their existence with bland detachment. Oblivion was an old friend of Jamie’s. He didn’t fight it. 

It was safe here. Comfortable. 

Beyond the surface was pain. He did remember that much. Terrible, skull-splitting pain.  

So when he felt himself beginning to rise — floating slowly and steadily upward by no volition of his own — his first instinct was to resist. To stay submerged, to sink back down again. 

But then he heard her voice. 

<Jamie?>

Lost in the darkness, he couldn’t conjure her face. It was there, right on the edge of his consciousness, but…

<Jamie, can you hear me?>

Aye, he heard her. 

Knew her.

Her name... God, what was her name?

<Can you squeeze my hand?>

Up there, he realized. She was up there. 

He’d find her if he went.

He hesitated only a fraction of a second, as his soul registered what his mind could not.

Hers.  

He was hers.

And so he began to rise, willingly following that Siren’s call toward the surface. 

The perception of the boundaries of his body dawned gradually; the pressure of gravity seemed to grow steadily heavier as he became aware of the weight of his bones, his muscles, his skin. 

And the moment he rediscovered where his own flesh ended, he found where hers began.

Her fingers were curled under the limp weight of his palm — the pads of her fingers lifting, circling, while the firmer pressure of her thumb rolled back and forth across his knuckles.

“Can you feel my hand?” she asked. 

Her voice was close now. Sharp, clear; no longer muffled by the fathomless depths around him. If he could just turn his head, open his eyes, he… 

“Squeeze my fingers, Jamie. Squeeze if you can hear me.”

It seemed such a simple request. He could feel her. He could feel his fingers, and hers. 

Squeeze, damn ye, he willed his hand. Do as she asks.

It seemed a small eternity before his nervous system finally cooperated — and even then, it wasn’t a squeeze so much as a twitch. Still, he heard the breath slam out of her in a strangled sound of relief. 

“There! He did it. He just did it!” He could hear the smile in her voice as she gave him an encouraging squeeze in return. “Jamie, can you do it again? Can you squeeze my fingers again?”

It was easier the second time. Faster. His fingers clenched around hers, and this time, he didn’t let go. 

Neither did she. 

Another woman began speaking to him; he didn’t recognize her voice. She asked him to wiggle his toes, so he did. A few moments later, there was a great deal of fuss around his face. Something was ripped from his cheeks, there was movement and noise, then pressure, and...

He jerked on impulse, gagging violently when something grated along the back of his throat. He began to thrash, wrenching his head from side to side, trying to escape it.

Then he felt Her hand wrap tightly around the curve of his skull, steadying him.

“Easy,” she soothed, her breath warm against his ear. “Easy. Shh. Hold still, Jamie. Almost done.” 

Even as the gagging sensation intensified, he stilled beneath her palm, gripping her other hand like a lifeline. 

He trusted her. 

And just as she’d promised, it was over soon enough. 

Something was strapped to his face, and cool air started blasting into his nostrils. But whatever had been in his throat, gagging him, was gone. 

Still, she held him. Cradled him.

“Well done,” she whispered as her fingertips began to move in gentle circles through his hair. “That’s it. That’s it, Jamie. Shh. You’re all done. It’s all done now. Shh.”

He settled slowly, his hammering heartbeat easing. He relaxed into the comfort of her voice, her caress, and finally drifted again, safe in her hands. 

When he came to the second time, he felt… more. The senses that had been dulled before came sharply into focus as he woke; he could hear the familiar, low hum of ICU machinery; registered the dry grittiness of his tongue, the terrible, sour taste in his mouth; felt the crisp, starched sheets beneath him and the rotating pressure of the wee cuffs on his calves as they inflated and then released again, one at a time. They were meant to keep the circulation flowing to his legs when he had to lie still for a long time, he remembered. To prevent blood clots. Claire had explained it to h—

Claire.

His eyes snapped open. 

He was instantly blinded; he saw only harsh, fluorescent white light that burned his retinas and made him quickly clamp his eyelids shut again. 

But it was long enough for her to see.

“He’s awake!” she announced excitedly, just beside him, to his left. He tilted toward her on instinct, like a plant turning toward the sun. Her hand was still wrapped around his; she massaged his fingers, then squeezed his palm.

He squeezed back. 

He heard her shuddering exhale, felt the faintest shiver of it touch the tiny hairs on the side of his neck. Her voice was quiet now, meant only for him. “Try again, Jamie,” she murmured. “Go slowly. I’m right here.” 

More aware now of how bright his surroundings were — like stepping from pitch darkness into blinding sunlight — he did as she suggested, and barely cracked his lashes, squinting. The light still seemed painfully bright, but he forced himself to endure it, to let his pupils adjust, knowing that when they did, he’d find…

There.  

The most brilliant shade of gold he’d ever seen. 

Irises the color of fine, aged whisky. The same ones that had been haunting his dreams for weeks. 

The golden pools shimmered with tears as he locked onto them now, but she was smiling; he could see the delicate lines crinkle around the corners of her eyes.

“There you are,” she whispered. He tried to say her name, but his lips moved soundlessly, the breath wheezing ineffectually through a parched, raw throat. She was moving the moment she saw it, already anticipating what he needed. 

“Here.” She leaned forward, holding a spoon with a single ice chip up to his lips. He slurped it up gratefully, eyes shining at hers in silent appreciation as he rolled it around his sour, gritty mouth. He swallowed that wee bit of melted ice with a wince, then opened his lips to her for another chip. They continued that way in silence for several more minutes, watching one another closely. When he was finished, she knew at once; she set the cup and spoon aside and grabbed a tube of chapstick from the side table to dab on his lips.

Behind him, the other woman — the one whose voice he didn’t recognize — chuckled. “I don’t even know what they’re paying me for. You’ve got this, girl.”

Claire smiled sheepishly, turning to look at the woman over her shoulder. It was only with the faint tinge of pink that colored her cheeks that Jamie realized, with a sudden, sharp pang, how pale she was. He searched her face with a more scrutinizing eye then, moving past the initial swell of relief and into concern. 

She was white as a sheet, save the dark, bruise-like rings under her eyes. Her own lips were chapped, perhaps worse than his — Christ, was she not drinking? If she wasn’t staying hydrated, he could almost be sure she wasn’t eating enough, and...

Protectiveness raged to life like a column of wildfire in his chest, scorching the lining of his lungs and burning a trail up his windpipe, past his swollen vocal cords, until he managed to rasp out, “Sassenach.” 

Claire’s head whipped back to face him again, whisky eyes round with surprise. 

“Did he say something?” the other woman — a nurse, he gathered — asked, taking a step forward.

A trembling smile stretched over Claire’s mouth as she held his gaze, nodding slowly. “Yes,” she breathed. “He did.”

Jamie knew fine well that he didn’t have enough of a voice yet to remind her — chastise her, beg her — to take care of herself, see to her own needs. So he gripped her hand in his for emphasis, trailing his gaze slowly over her swollen, sleepless eyes, her sunken cheeks, her parched mouth.  

And she understood exactly what he meant. Her expression softened, saddened. “I’m fine, Jamie,” she whispered. “Don’t worry about me.”

He gave her a sharp look, but had no time for any further rebuttal before the nurse stepped in. 

“Well, welcome back, there, friend! I’m not sure if you remember me, but we met the night you came down to this floor. I’m Lynn, I’m your nurse again this morning. Do you mind if I ask you a couple of quick questions?” 

Jamie’s gaze flickered from Claire, who nodded, to the nurse. He swallowed hard, and managed to whisper hoarsely, “Aye.”   

“What’s your name?”

He answered without any hesitation, though his voice faded in and out over the vowels. “James Fraser.”

“Good. And do you know where you are right now, James?”

“Hospital.”

“Do you know which one?”

He nodded, swallowed. Glanced at Claire, who immediately read the silent request and spoon-fed him another ice chip. Once he’d forced it past his raw throat, he managed a bit more steadily, “Mass General. In Boston.”

“Excellent. And do you know what year it is?”

He thought for a moment, then arched an eyebrow. “How, ah… how long’ve I been out?”

“Four days,” the nurse supplied with a chuckle.

“Ah.” Jamie smiled weakly. “Still 2018, then.” 

“That’s the one,” Lynn agreed, giving him a broad smile and a wink. “Alright, my friend, alert and oriented x 3 right out of the gate. That’s what I like to hear. I’m gonna keep asking you those same obnoxious questions a couple times an hour, okay? Just go with me on it, I know it’s a pain in the butt.”

“Aye, s’fine,” he agreed. He did as he was told, following commands as she went through the rest of her exam, checking reflexes and responses, listening to his heart and lungs and stomach, taking vitals. She seemed very pleased with her findings; kept murmuring compliments to him as she went along, making wee notations on the margins of her paper. At last she folded it back up again and stuffed it in the pocket of her scrub top, told him she’d be off to do her charting, and reminded him that she was just outside the door if he needed anything.

A kind and competent nurse, to be sure. He nodded his silent thanks to her, but wasn’t the least bit sorry to see her leave. 

The moment he heard the telltale squelch of the hand sanitizer dispenser and the slide of the door closing behind her, his eyes returned to Claire’s. 

He knew at once that something had changed. 

At some point in the past few minutes, there had been a shift in Claire. She’d watched the entirety of the nurse’s assessment in silence, hanging back, just out of his line of sight. And now... 

A small crease formed between Jamie’s brows as he studied her. She was easy enough to read; always had been. He could see the conflict in her, plain as day. Sadness. Guilt. Trepidation.

Hurt.

And then he realized. Remembered.

The last time they’d been alone together, she had leaned in to kiss him. 

And he’d stopped her. 

For her own sake, for the career that meant everything to her, he’d stopped her. But it wasn’t because he didn’t want her , not because he didn’t love her with every fiber of his being. And he’d never had a chance to tell her that, and now she must think... 

Christ.

He stretched his hand out for hers, his voice a grated whisper. “Claire.”

Her gaze darted in his direction, but she wouldn’t look at him directly. She wrapped her arms around herself, and he saw the goosebumps prickling her skin.

“I owe you an apology, Jamie.” 

“No,” he breathed at once, shaking his head. He tried to prop himself up, but his sluggish limbs wouldn’t cooperate. “No, Sassenach. It’s me who should—” 

She held up her palm. “Let me finish. Please.”

Reluctantly, he went limp against the pillow, his mouth clamped shut. A single, faint nod from him, and she continued.  

“I was out of line. What I did was extremely unprofessional, and I’m sorry I put you in the position to have to—”

He couldn’t take it. 

Shaking his head vehemently, he blurted out, “I should have kissed ye.”

Claire went stone still for a moment, her eyes trained on the floor. He could see her pulse hammering in the hollow of her throat, watched as the long white column constricted with a swallow. If it was possible, she went even paler.  

But he was in too deep to stop now. 

“I promised ye I wouldn’t do anything that could cause ye to lose yer job. But if you think for a moment that I didna want—”

Now it was Claire’s turn to interrupt. Tears were gathering in her eyes, glittering in the light. “No,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper. “No, you were right, Jamie.” She drew her arms tighter around herself. “You were right to stop me.”

Her pain was palpable; he could feel it as surely as if it were his own. It burned like coals in his chest, a blackened heat scorching a hole straight through him. 

If he’d been able, he would have risen from the bed then and there, taken her in his arms and kissed her with everything in him. 

But all he could do was hold his hand out to her, watching helplessly as she withdrew further and further into herself. 

“Sassenach,” he croaked. 

Her chin quivered, and a single tear escaped down her cheek. She brushed it away quickly, then refolded her arms over her front. 

“My job,” she said, slowly and deliberately, “is to keep you safe. To help you heal. To protect you. And because of my own… selfish impulses, I failed in my most basic duties as your nurse.” She shook her head faintly, her eyes haunted. “You could have died, Jamie. You very nearly did.”

“No,” he barked, managing to get himself all the way up on his elbow this time. “No. Ye canna blame yerself for this, Claire. Alright? Look at me.” She resisted for a moment, her jaw set in self-fury, but finally dragged her eyes up to meet his. When she did, he held them, his gaze boring into hers. “I got sick. It’s no one’s fault. And even if ye had been here, there’s nothin’ ye could have done—” 

“I most certainly would!” she snapped, her voice raw and wavering. “I would have caught it earlier.” Her lips quivered as she jabbed a finger at her own chest. “I would have known something was wrong in enough time to get you help before any of this happened!”

Jamie’s arms ached, physically ached to hold her, to bring her to his chest and stroke her back until she steadied. 

“Aye, shh, aye, that may be so. That may be so,” he murmured, trying to soothe her with his voice if he couldn’t reach her with his body. “But I’m fine now, Sassenach. Hm? Look at me. I’m just fine.”

“No thanks to me,” she said coldly, and turned away to snatch a tissue from the box on his bedside stand. She wiped her eyes and nose with her back turned to him.

“Ye were here when I woke, and I needed ye,” he said softly. “Ye’re here now, Sassenach.”

He watched in pained silence as she drew in a deep breath, held it for a moment, then released it in a shaky exhale. When she turned back to him again, her eyes and the tip of her nose were red, but the tears were gone. 

Her chin was set in quiet determination. 

“Yes,” she agreed, nodding slowly. To his surprise, she came back over to sit in the chair beside him. “I’m here now.” 

She stared at her hands, folded in her lap, for a long while. When she looked back up at him again, he could see the resolve in her face — the fierce determination of the champion who had always defended him, fought for him.

She held his gaze steadily as she spoke. “I won’t leave you again. Not for any longer than I have to. I’m going to get you home to your family, Jamie Fraser. I promise you. I’ll see you safe no matter what happens.”

In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to tell her that she was his family now, too. His home. 

That he loved her. Desperately.

But she was promising to stay. So there would be another opportunity for it — a better one than this — when he could draw her close and give her a promise of his own. 

In the meantime, she needed to give him this one. It was written in every line of her face.

So he gentled his eyes in understanding and silently raised his hand between them, offering her the crook of his pinky finger. 

He saw a flash, then — fleeting and brilliant as a lightning strike — of raw emotion so powerful it stole the breath from his lungs. It turned Claire’s golden eyes molten, blew her pupils wide. 

Neither of them breathed as she curled her little finger around his and squeezed tight. 

She dropped her lashes when she let go, letting her hand fall limp into her lap. 

It was the last glimpse he saw of his Sassenach for a long, long time. 

Chapter Text

Jenny had sent him an article on Facebook a few summers ago, when he’d expressed an interest in taking his wee namesake to the beach for the first time.

Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning. In 10 percent of drownings, adults are nearby but have no idea the victim is dying. Here’s what to look for.

It was her passive-aggressive way of reminding him to keep his eyes on the lad, he supposed — as if he were likely to forget. Despite his annoyance at his sister’s complete lack of faith in him, he’d followed the link out of morbid curiosity.

Evidently, the tendency to thrash about and cry for help was an invention of TV and film; when truly drowning, a victim’s instinct was to go still — not kicking, not flailing, just tipping their face up, silently gasping for air whenever their mouth broke the surface. They went glassy-eyed, unable to focus, unable to cry for help, unable to do anything but try to stay alive. 

Drowning was deceptively quiet. Jamie had never forgotten that. 

And Claire Beauchamp was drowning. 

That much was abundantly clear to him. It was about the only thing that was clear to him any more.

 


 

She hadn’t left his side for longer than ten minutes — the bare minimum to see to her own needs; use the restroom, shower, change, and come right back. 

Gillian had gone to her flat to pack a duffel bag of clothing and personal items, then emptied out a local convenience store of their entire stock of junk food and caffeine in a can. The snacks went mostly untouched, but Claire had been going through the Red Bull, Monster Energy drinks, and cold brew coffee at such an alarming rate that even the ICU nurse made a comment to her about giving herself a heart attack if she didn’t ease up. 

She’d slowed down a bit after that. Paced herself. 

But she still didn’t sleep. 

Not the entire time Jamie remained in the ICU.

Whenever he slept, the nurses told him she watched the monitors or his chest. The moment he was awake, she was fashing over him: making him take sips of water; dabbing his face and neck with a cool washcloth; changing out his sweat-dampened sheets; helping him shave, wash up, brush his teeth, comb his hair. She “supervised” the nurses who did the dressing changes on his back, hovering and making suggestions until the majority of them just handed over the supplies and let her do it. When every last one of his needs was met, she took the pencil speared through her messy bun and began to update her own personal charting. She kept a running spreadsheet of his lab values, vitals, medications — pages upon pages of notes on his daily progress and changes to his care. 

In full Velvet Hammer mode and with a tongue sharpened by sleep deprivation, she’d quickly acquired a reputation for herself in those few short days in the ICU. With her wee notes for reference, she was unafraid to challenge anyone, regardless of rank, who she believed to be making poor decisions on his behalf. 

Out in the hallway, Jamie heard the medical team mutter warnings about “the wife” before they came in on rounds. He could only assume Claire must have heard them, too.

Neither one of them bothered to correct the misconception. 

But they didn’t talk about it either.

They didn’t talk, really, at all.

He chalked it up to the illness, at first. The meningitis had taken its toll; in the ICU, he slept more often than not. When he was awake, what little energy he had was spent in the basic functions of eating, drinking, maintaining some semblance of personal hygiene — all at Claire’s behest, and with her hands-on help. She was with him always, attuned to his every need. And that was enough.

For a while.

It wasn’t until he transferred back to Ellison 7 that the tectonic shift became truly apparent to him. Perhaps it was being in that old, familiar environment again, surrounded by memories of a woman that were so incongruent with the one currently sitting next to him. But as he stared over at Claire’s vacant, drawn, bone-white face, it suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t seen her smile in days. 

She was beyond the point of exhaustion, he reasoned. Subsisting on caffeine alone, and at the end of her rope. 

So he put his foot down. Hard.

From that point on, he refused to eat a single bite of food unless Claire did; refused to drink his water unless she took a sip of hers; refused to take a nap unless she closed her eyes, too. He mentioned, more than once, that he would be fine if she wanted to go home to sleep for a few hours — that he’d be right here when she got back. 

It only made her worse.

Any time he expressed concern for her, asked a question about her, tried to engage her in conversation that extended beyond his immediate needs or medical care, she deflected, her face going blank.

With each day that passed, she was retreating further and further into herself. And the harder Jamie tried to get through to her, the more she shut down. 

He tried everything. Everything he could think of to reach her, to bring out his Sassenach again. 

He turned on HGTV, threw her knowing looks and made wisecracks any time the new homeowners used subway tile in their renovations. She smiled faintly, indulgently, without any warmth or humor, before her face fell again. 

So he tried telling her stories, talking for what felt like hours on end simply to fill the gaping silence. He told her about Lallybroch — about the land, the history, the barn and all of the animals, the neighbors, his family and friends. That worked a bit better; her eyes lost their glaze whenever he talked about home. It was safe to talk about himself, he learned through trial and error, but the second he tried to include her — to ask her about her own life or experiences — she went cold again, giving him minimalist answers designed to either end the conversation or re-route it back to him. 

He had no idea what to make of it. 

He understood that she was wracking herself with guilt over the meningitis. No amount of reassurances from him had been able to soothe that hurt. There was no doubt in his mind that all of this, on some level, was over-compensation for what she perceived to be her failings as his nurse. She outright refused to leave his side; was wasting away before his very eyes, trying to make sure that he was tended to, safe and healthy. That he could help, at least, by proving to her that he was fine — adhering to his prescribed routine, doing his physical and occupational therapy, eating and drinking and sleeping on command (so long as she did, too). 

But if it was guilt alone that made her pull away from him, it should have been getting better as his health improved. Not worse.

And by the time a week had gone by, she would barely look at him. 

They sat four feet away from one another in stone cold silence, pretending to watch the telly or read. Whenever he needed something, Claire leapt up to help him — touched him as minimally as possible, avoided eye contact completely, and then sat back down again.

It was torture.

Slow, relentless, excruciating torture.

He never could have imagined that there was something worse than being parted from her for days on end — missing her desperately, physically aching for her touch, her voice, her smile. 

He was wrong. 

Having the woman he loved sitting there with him, right there, watching her suffer and being completely unable to reach her, was a whole new dimension of hell. 

 




On the tenth night after their return from the ICU, Claire finally ran out of paid time off, and had no choice but to start picking up her shifts again. She took him as one of her patients, of course, thanks to Gillian’s persistent meddling — worked her first twelve-hour night shift, went to shower in the locker room, changed into her own clothes, and immediately returned to his bedside. For all the good it would do, Jamie tried to argue that she should go home and get some sleep. Claire shook her head and drew her feet up under her in the stiff recliner, insisting that she could nap there, like always.   

When he returned from his morning physical therapy session — up and walking again, thank Christ, with Shariah just behind him, holding a gait belt around his waist — Jamie found Claire curled up in a ball, passed out cold, finally exhausted enough that the noise and bustle of the busy hospital floor didn’t wake her. 

The physical therapist cast her a look of pursed-lip disapproval as she helped Jamie back into bed, humming a soft mm-mm of concern.

“That baby needs to go home and sleep,” she muttered under her breath. 

Jamie gave a stoic nod. “I ken,” he agreed quietly, studying Claire’s face with a pained expression. “I’ve tried to get her to go. She won’t.”

Shariah helped him get his blankets and pillows situated, then glanced back over at Claire again, shaking her head. “Girl’s got it bad.”

Jamie continued to stare at her sleeping form in silence, his jaw tight and his chest aching. “I’m no’ so sure about that,” he whispered at last. 

Shariah craned her neck back to look at him with exaggerated skepticism, her eyebrows disappearing beneath her fringe. “Do you see any of the other nurses giving up their free time to stay with a patient past their shift?” He pressed his lips into a line, and she shook her head again. “Mm-mm, honey. Ain’t nobody fooled around here. Including you.”

He didn’t have the words to explain, or the energy to try. So he simply gave an ambiguous grunt, thanked her for the help, and continued to stare at Claire’s hunched form until the door clicked shut behind the physical therapist, leaving them alone again.

Exhausted from the workout of PT and starting to drift off himself, it wasn’t until Jamie’s eyes suddenly snapped open that he even realized they’d closed.

A faint sound of distress had come from the chair in front of him, raising the fine hairs along his arms, jolting him instantly and fully awake. 

The muscles of Claire’s face, smooth and relaxed in sleep, twitched once, her brows knitting then going slack again. Jamie held perfectly still, watching. Another few seconds and it happened again, her whimper muffled by the fist curled against her mouth. 

Another nightmare

She’d been having them a lot lately. It seemed half the time she managed to doze off, she jerked awake again shortly thereafter, breathless and shaking. Of course, she wouldn’t talk to him about it; always said she was fine, then went to go get herself another cup of coffee.

But she wasn’t waking up this time.

Moving slowly, Jamie pushed back his covers and wriggled his legs free from the sheets, easing them over the side of the bed. He’d be yelled at, he knew — by Claire, by his nurse, by the PTs — if they caught him trying to get up on his own. 

But the bone-deep instinct to comfort her overrode any thought of consequence.

Teeth gritted, he pushed himself up on stiff, tired muscles, crossed the four shuffling steps to the chair, and carefully eased himself down onto one knee beside her. For a moment he simply watched her sleep, silently tracing the lines of her face with his eyes. 

Christ, she was so beautiful. 

Swimming in an old, faded, too-large sweatshirt, exhausted, deathly pale, and undernourished, she was still the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

Twice, Jamie’s hand rose at his side and then dropped again. He wanted... God, he wanted to… 

But if she woke… 

Claire’s face twitched again in her sleep, and this time her whole body jerked, curling in as if to protect herself. 

His hand didn’t falter a third time. 

It was just the backs of his fingers at first; a feather-light brush against the apple of her cheek. When Claire tilted her face toward his hand, he froze, certain he must have woken her. He held his breath and waited through several pounding heartbeats, watching to see if she’d open her eyes. 

She didn’t.

Tentatively… one slow, painstaking millimeter at a time... he began to rotate his hand, easing it toward the warmth of her skin. 

When his palm finally settled against the curve of her cheek, she made a soft, desperate sound in the back of her throat.

Jamie knew that sound. He’d made it himself the first time she reached out to comfort him, when the very bones of him were sore with grief. 

As she nuzzled closer into the flesh of his palm, he couldn’t help but wonder when the last time was that anyone had touched Claire in comfort.

When he realized the answer, his wame gave a sharp, nauseating twist.

It was him. 

It had been him. 

The night she’d told him about her parents’ accident. She’d whimpered then, too — melted against him and wept as if her heart was breaking.

Christ.

In all the time since that night, Jamie had been so lonesome for her. So very lonesome. 

It hadn’t occurred to him how lonely she must be, too. 

He had no one here in Boston. No one but her. 

But neither did she.

He began to smooth the pad of his thumb over her cheekbone, and she made another faint mewling sound, quieter this time. Eyes burning with tears, Jamie leaned down to press his lips gently to her cheek, then her temple, her hair. 

“I’m here,” he whispered to her in the Gàidhlig. “Shh, mo ghràidh. Shh... I’m right here. Nothing will harm ye.”  

She went limp as he spoke, the tension in her muscles softening like warmed wax beneath his hands. 

Desolate at the thought of losing this again, Jamie stayed beside her far longer than was wise. He knew fine well that someone would be along to check on him soon, but ah Dhia, the feel of her... the silk of her cheek, the downy wisps of baby hair just in front of her ears, the flutter of warm breath between her lips…

Deeply absorbed in watching his thumb trace the edge of that petal-soft mouth, Jamie was oblivious to the moment her lashes parted. By the time he recognized that Claire was awake, looking at him — by the time he froze, his heart stuttering in his chest — whatever torrent of emotion had flashed through her eyes was lost to him. He caught only the tail end of it as she sat up, then stood, her back to him, fists balled at her sides.

For a long time, neither of them moved. 

He listened to the blood roar in his ears in the deafening silence. 

When, at long last, he braced a hand on the arm of the empty chair and began to hoist himself up, it was Claire who finally spoke.

“I think I should go home for a little while,” she said, as quiet and cold as falling snow.

Jamie stood behind her, breathing heavily from exertion. It would have taken three steps to reach her. To stop her. 

But Claire couldn’t have made it much more plain to him that she didn’t want to be stopped.  

Whatever she’d felt for him — if she ever felt anything at all — it was clearly gone. Lonely as she was, she still flinched away from his touch as if he’d stung her.

She didn’t want him anymore.

Swallowing against the lump in his throat, Jamie nodded once. 

“Aye,” he breathed, turning away from her, back to his bed. He slumped over to it and sank down on the edge of the mattress, feeling as though he were made of hollowed lead.

“Aye,” he said again, low and hoarse. “Mebbe that’s for the best.”

He couldn’t watch her go. He stared at the floor with unseeing eyes as Claire gathered her purse, her phone charger, her coat. 

“I’ll be back tonight,” she told him from the door, her own voice little more than a whisper.

The tears didn’t slip down his cheeks until the retreating sound of her boots had faded into silence. 


 

The nightmare always began the same way.

A sense of serene weightlessness; a tethered, floating feeling, like a tendril of seagrass drifting in a gentle ocean current.

She was peaceful. That was the terrible irony of it. 

As soon as she registered that it was happening again, Claire tried frantically to wake herself — her dream self, her current self, whichever self would respond faster.

It never worked. 

In the prison of her mind, she remembered everything; every sickening, horrifying detail. 

The lulling motion of the car, the flicker of passing street lights overhead. 

The sudden jerk, the screech of bending metal. 

The ripping, throbbing pain where her collarbone splintered and pierced through the flesh. 

The smell of burning rubber, of fish and seaweed, of coconut-scented sunscreen, of blood. 

The roar of rushing water, the sound of her father’s voice - panicked, then sure. The warm weight of his calloused palm on her calf. 

The taste of salt, of copper, of mud and river water… then bile, as she retched at the side of the road over and over again, doubled over against the mangled remains of the steel guard rail.

The blue and red lights of the ambulance. The silver hypothermia blanket, the firm hand that gripped the back of her head, tucking her face against the paramedic’s uniform to prevent her from watching as her parents’ bodies were dragged out of the water.

When she turned her head to look anyway, the river was gone. She was at an intersection, a street corner. The blue and red lights still flashed all around her. The paramedics were running, calling out orders, speaking hurriedly into walkie-talkies. The arms that had been holding her were gone. 

She was alone.

Her bare feet crunched over shattered glass, but she felt nothing. She was hollow, lifeless. Cold.

Jamie’s blue eyes were open, trained on hers, even as the paramedics worked frantically to code him. He watched her draw near and fall to her knees beside him. 

No one else, it seemed, could see her.

“You’re bleeding,” he whispered, his fingertips ghosting over the jut of bone protruding from her skin.

“So are you,” she whispered back, and bent to seal her lips to his, to offer him the last breath from her empty lungs. 

Claire woke in a cold sweat with her heart in her throat, all of the blankets kicked off her bed. 

She leaned over the side and retched onto the hardwood floor. 

When her stomach had wrung itself dry, she curled up on her mattress and sobbed until her ribs ached. 

Two more days, she told herself over and over, repeating it like a mantra until she could breathe again. Two more days.

Detaching from Jamie was like carving into her chest. Every day another rip of the knife through tendon or ligament, muscle or bone, cutting closer and closer to the pulsing red heart of her — to the day she’d have to surrender that, too.  

But she could endure it a little while longer. For Jamie's sake, she could endure it. 

A slow amputation of their bond would be easier for him, in the end; making herself as unappealing and uninteresting and cold as possible, so he wouldn’t want her anymore. 

That last cut would break her. But it didn’t need to break him.

He was going home. Back to his family, who would help him. Who would love and support him through the worst of it.

Two more days, and he’d be free of her. 

Two more days, she told herself again, running a tremoring hand over her face. 

She was so tired. So very, very tired. 

But the horror that awaited her in sleep was almost worse than the horror in waking. So Claire dragged herself out of bed with a sigh heaved up from the very arches of her feet, cleaned up the mess on the floor, and then shuffled, aimless and zombie-like, into the kitchen. 

For a long while she just stared vacantly at the far wall, swaying slightly on her feet. Blinking herself out of it some indeterminate amount of time later, she started a kettle boiling for tea and began opening her cupboards, pulling down bowls and beaters, flour and sugar and nonstick spray.

Even after weeks without proper sleep, Claire didn’t need to consult the faded yellow index card to remember her mother’s rolled butter cookie recipe.

Jamie had told her that his mam used to make them at Christmas, too.

It was a way to fill the long, empty hours of the night. To give him a bit of joy, perhaps, in these final, excruciating days of purgatory.

She’d be quick about it. Be in and out while he was at PT.

He’d never need to know.

 


 

Whichever of the physical therapists had called off on their holiday shift, James Fraser would remain grateful to them for the rest of his days.

With only one PT onsite instead of two, there was a frantic reshuffling of schedules; Lisa popped her head in a few minutes shy of his 09:00 session to apologize and let him know that it would have to be bumped back to noon. There was no protest from Jamie; he grunted in acknowledgment and burrowed back under the covers, only too eager to return to the oblivion of sleep rather than get up and face another day in that godforsaken hospital without… 

Claire?

He didn’t hear her enter. She was silent as a shadow, halfway across his room before his eyes popped open. 

Evidently, the preternatural instinct that always alerted him to her presence had not been dampened by heartache or rejection. 

With one glance at her, it was immediately apparent that she had no idea he was in the room. Her face was unguarded, nervous golden eyes flicking repeatedly to the open door as if she were undertaking some covert, dangerous mission. 

In both hands, she balanced a sturdy, heavy-looking tray of homemade Christmas cookies, wrapped snugly with Saran-wrap and topped with a red bow. No tag, no note. 

She settled the tray down on the counter with a soft clink and spun on her heel to leave. 

And then she saw him.

Froze.

And Jamie’s heart stopped. 

For a moment he was lightheaded. An involuntary shiver went down his spine, and every inch of his skin erupted in goosebumps.

Claire Beauchamp, RN BSN, had visited him every night without fail. Taken his vitals, done his assessment, given his meds. Avoided his gaze and set her chin, straight-backed and professional, courteous and distant. 

But he never thought he’d lay eyes on his Sassenach again. 

The woman he’d befriended, laughed and bantered with, held and rocked and confessed his secrets to. 

The woman he loved with every cell in his body. 

The woman he believed had maybe… just maybe… loved him, too.

He thought she was lost to him. 

But there she was. Caught off-guard, startled and vulnerable and her.

The breath choked out of him in a sound that was almost a laugh, his heart so light he thought it would float right out of his chest. 

“Ye dinna look like any Santa I’ve ever seen,” he said at last, his eyes locked on hers and holding fast. He cracked a smile, praying with everything in him that she…

There. She was already trying to pull back; he could watch her frantically trying to rein herself in, but there was the smile he yearned for — just a twitch at the corner of her mouth, but her eyes lit with it, golden and glittering.

Claire tugged absently at the hem of her sweater, then touched the hair just behind her ear. “You’re, um...” She waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the door. “I thought you were supposed to be at PT?”

“Ah. Someone called off, apparently. She canna get to me ‘til this afternoon.”

“I see.” 

He was losing her, he could feel it. Urgent to keep her talking, Jamie gestured to the tray. “Are those all for me?”

Claire crossed her arms over her chest, huffing out a shallow laugh. “Yes. I, um… I brought some in for the other nurses, and there were extra, so I thought…” Her cheeks flushed to match the light rose of her sweater. “Well. I know you have a sweet tooth.” 

“I do.” Jamie smiled at her tenderly, memories of shared tangerines and chocolate chip cookies lingering unspoken between them. “Those’ll all be gone in no time. There goes my New Years’ resolution already, Sassenach.” He tried to wink at her, knowing fine well that he was terrible at it.  

Claire laughed softly again, the dimples cutting into her cheeks as she looked up at him through her lashes. “Suppose you’ll just have to eat them all before then.” 

“A braw plan. Though… I dinna ken that it’s the soundest medical advice, coming from a nurse?” He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth; he meant only to continue the banter, not to remind her of her professional obligations. 

Thank God in heaven, Claire just shrugged, her smile turning wistful. “It’s Christmas.”

“Aye,” he breathed, his lungs deflating in relief. Emboldened enough to venture back into territory she’d firmly closed off to him weeks ago, he dared to ask her, “Any exciting plans for today?”

She lifted a hand from where it was clasped at her elbow, making an airy, dismissive gesture. “Oh, you know. Same old thing, I suppose.” She tugged at a loose string on her sleeve, then tucked her hand back into place. “Whenever I’m off for the holiday I usually just order Chinese takeaway and watch the Harry Potter marathon on the telly.”

Alone, Jamie filled in. 

He could envision it all too clearly: his Sassenach curled up on her couch with a blanket and that too-big sweatshirt, bathed in the cold blue light of a telly screen. Listlessly picking at a takeout box, trying not to listen to the joyous sounds of her neighbors’ festivities — all the painful reminders of everything she’d lost, of how very alone she was.

The very marrow of him ached at the thought.

Before he could stop to think, the words tumbled out of him in a reckless burst. “I’m a big Potter fan, ye ken.”

It was a mistake, he knew it immediately. Claire’s eyes flashed with pain, dropping away from his, and then he saw the shutters begin to close. 

He was on his feet in seconds. 

He wouldn’t lose her again. Not if she was still there, not if…

He took a step toward her and she recoiled slightly, physically curling in around her vital organs as if to protect herself. But she knew, surely she knew he would never hurt her. 

So Jamie edged closer.

“You could stay,” he offered quietly. 

Claire clutched her arms tighter across her front, her nails digging into the heavy knit of her sweater until they turned white. He tried desperately to find her eyes again, to get her to look at him, but she was staring firmly off to one side, just over his shoulder. 

She shook her head at him miserably. 

But he kept trying. 

“We could watch it together. Get the food delivered here.” 

Another step closer, and he watched her collarbones rise on a sharp inhale, watched her lips part as the breath shook past them.

“I… I have all these cookies, ye ken? Ye’d be doing me a favor, sharin’ them wi’ me...”

One final step, and he was close enough to touch her; close enough to see the film of tears flash to her eyes, to watch the individual droplets glimmer on her lashes as she blinked furiously to clear them.

“That way, we… neither one of us would have to be alone for Christmas.”

Claire’s ribs buckled as though he’d kicked her squarely in the chest. She tipped her face up, gasping for air like she…

Like she was drowning.

On instinct, he went to grab hold of her. But she spun her back to him as he moved, latching onto the countertop behind her, shaking so hard he thought she might break apart.

“I can’t, Jamie.”

Her voice was so small.

His was even smaller.

“Why not?”

She just shook her head, her shoulders hunched and juddering with each breath. 

He took a step closer, his front nearly grazing her back, and tried again. “Why not, Claire?”

It seemed that ages went by, filled only with the sound of her ragged breathing, before she sniffled hard, flattening her palms on the countertop to brace herself. She took several deep breaths, straightened her spine, and finally turned back to him. 

The tip of her nose was pink and running, her eyes drawn tight with pain. But her chin was set in that familiar way that meant her mind was made up.

“I picked up the first four hours of Laura’s shift tomorrow.” Her voice rasped through a raw throat, thin but steady. “So I can be the one to send you home.” She nodded faintly to herself, then looked him square in the eye. “We’ll talk then, Jamie. I promise.”

Only paying half a mind to the words coming out of her mouth, he studied his Sassenach’s glass face instead, obsessively trying to get a read on her.

He saw misery. Pain.

Exhaustion.

Resignation.

Whatever she’d set her mind to, it was clearly breaking her heart.

That didn’t bode well for either of them.

But it also meant that he hadn’t been wrong this whole time. She did feel something for him, whether she wanted to or no. 

The cogs in Jamie’s head spun frantically, trying for the thousandth time to piece together what had changed, why she thought she needed to pull away from him when she knew he felt the same way.

Why?

“And in the meantime,” she said, her eyebrows curving up, her whole expression melting into one of concern, of compassion, of—

Love, he realized, his heart tripping over a beat and then pounding twice to compensate.

Her fingers curled around his upper arms for emphasis, her eyes looking up into his, wet and vulnerable and pleading. “Try to enjoy your Christmas, Jamie. Please. You’re right, you… you shouldn’t spend it alone. You should Facetime with your sister, the children. Ian. O-or Murtagh? I know they’re missing you terribly.” Her voice was growing fainter as she spoke, until he could barely hear her, close as he was. “I’m sure they… they’ll be so happy to see you tomorrow.” 

Jamie’s hand was drawn to her hair without him even realizing it, gently brushing a frizzy strand back from her face. His own features had softened to match hers as she spoke, unspeakable tenderness swelling in his chest until he thought his heart would burst with it. 

“Is that what this is about, Claire?” he whispered, his thumb stroking along that delicate wisp of curl. “About me leaving?”

Her chin dimpled as she closed her eyes.

Oh, mo chridhe…

She took a wavering breath, then opened them again. “Tomorrow,” she said as she looked up at him — a request just as much as a reminder.

He nodded once, holding her gaze, her trust. 

He could wait. 

A day, a week, a year.

As long as she needed, he could wait.

“Tomorrow,” he agreed softly. 

Chapter Text

Her time was up.

There was no more later, no more tomorrow.  

No more delaying the inevitable. 

Claire had done her duty by James Fraser. He’d bear the scars of her mistake for the rest of his life, but he’d recovered as well as could possibly be expected. After two weeks of IV antibiotics, the tunneling infection in his back had finally cleared up, and that last troublesome gash was closing nicely; another week or two and it would be completely healed over. As long as he kept up his protein intake, stayed hydrated, slept enough, and took all of his medications exactly as prescribed, Jamie would be fine.

So that was the last thing. The very last thing Claire had to do for him. 

She stayed up all night making him a folder of hand-written instructions and schedules, highlighting the most important things in bright yellow and underlining them twice for good measure. She wrote until her hand cramped, trying to think of everything worth mentioning, every last scrap of information that could possibly help him or his physicians back home. When she’d exhausted her encyclopedic memory bank of his chart (and everything that wasn’t in his chart but should have been), she sat back and reread her notes with the tip of a pen pinched between her teeth, nibbling bite marks into the black plastic. 

What am I forgetting? What else, damn it? What else?

There wouldn’t be another chance after this. It wasn’t as if she could just text him with an “oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you…” 

The stomach-gnawing panic that she would forget something vital — something that could make a difference — compelled her to her feet, pacing the length of her living room restlessly until the next stray thought occurred to her and she dashed back over to the folder to jot it down. 

The previous thirteen days had dragged by at an agonizing crawl; every hour spent in silence at Jamie’s bedside had felt like weeks. But somehow, cruelly, that last night before she had to say goodbye to him seemed to speed by in a dizzying whirl, as if time had suddenly realized its error and lurched forward to correct itself.

With less than half an hour before the start of her shift, Claire finally, reluctantly, set her pen down on the stack of papers with a shaking hand.

That was it. That was everything. Everything she could remember. 

All she could do now was pray that something written in those pages would help Jamie when she no longer could. 

Claire felt strangely numb as she walked into the bathroom — hollow, cold; a living echo of her nightmare. She cranked up the hot water until it scalded her skin and scrubbed herself raw. 

It didn’t make any difference.

Staring vacantly at a fixed point ahead of her, she went through the motions of getting ready for work on autopilot.

She didn’t bother with mascara this time. 

Gathering up the folder from the coffee table and holding it to her heart, Claire stood for a long moment in the middle of her living room, eyes squeezed shut, just wishing... 

But then it was 06:55. And the time for wishing was gone.

She drew in a deep breath and held it for as long as she could. 

One last cut, and Jamie would be free of her. He could have his life back. 

One last cut, Beauchamp.

She opened her eyes as she exhaled in a burning gust, and strode resolutely out of her flat toward Massachusetts General for the last time. 

 




“Tell me again.”

Jamie heaved a sigh, but the creases around his eyes deepened in amusement. “The wee blue pill at 2. I promise, Sassenach, I heard ye the first six times.”

“I know.” Claire dragged a hand through her hair, then settled it on her hip. “I know, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to keep nagging you about this, it’s just… it’s very important that you remember that one. The antibiotic and the gabapentin. The rest are important too, but those in particular—”

“I hear ye.” He smiled at her tenderly, reaching over to pluck the color-coded medication schedule from his folder. “Look, ye’ve already done all the work for me. I’ll just follow this to the letter, aye?” 

“Right. Yes.” 

She must have appeared unconvinced; a dimple cut into Jamie’s right cheek as he suppressed a knowing smirk. 

“Here.” He pulled his mobile from his jeans pocket (it was still so incredibly strange to see him in street clothes) and began to tap his thumb over the keypad, glancing back and forth between his screen and the handwritten schedule. After a few moments, he tilted his mobile toward Claire to show her a series of alarms all down the length of the screen, labeled with cheeky names like the wee blue one, the one that tastes like arse, and gaba-daba-doo.  

“Better?” he asked, eyes twinkling. 

Still trying to make her laugh, down to the last minute.

“Lots,” Claire managed curtly, turning away to look at the computer so he wouldn’t see her swallowing against a swollen, salty-hot throat. She clicked into the chart she’d long since memorized and scrolled through it anyway, trying not to think about how much she was going to miss that bloody idiotic, childish sense of humor. 

The wry purse of his lips when he knew he was being funny; the way he peered at her out of the corner of his eye, waiting to see if she’d caught his joke; the way he beamed and scrunched his nose when she finally sputtered into giggles, unable to help herself.

No one had ever been able to make her laugh the way Jamie did.

“What’s next on the list, then?” he asked softly, in a tone that meant she was fooling exactly no one with her sudden interest in the computer screen. 

Claire rolled her tongue along her gumline, needing to keep her jaw moving against the cramping threat of tears. She read through the discharge instructions tab one last time, as if something might have magically appeared in the past few seconds to give her something else to do. 

“Well…” Reluctantly, she turned back to face him, wringing the tips of her fingers. “At this point I’ve been talking at you for — what, two hours? A bit more?” She tried to smile. “I think I’ve probably covered most of the basics.”

Jamie made a hum of amusement. “Aye. If somethin’ in that packet hasna made it through my thick heid, it’s no fault of yours, Sassenach.”

“I know it’s a lot to process,” she admitted. “So I suppose I… I should turn it over to you now.” She spread her hands, then clasped them together again, rubbing her thumb restlessly along the lifeline of her palm. “What questions do you have?”

Jamie fell quiet, a slight furrow of concentration forming between his brows as he picked up the stack of handwritten pages and and thumbed through them again, taking the time to truly consider each one. 

“About this?” he clarified after a moment, glancing up at her. He gave a slight shake of his head, then tucked the papers neatly back into their folder. “Nothin’ that I can think of.”

And there it was. 

The elephant in the room that they’d both been so studiously avoiding all morning. 

Of course he had questions for her — questions that had nothing to do with his discharge whatsoever. And she owed him those answers. 

That’s why they were here. 

Claire could feel her pulse picking up speed. Saliva pooled in her mouth as though she might be sick, and a strange tingling sensation started behind her ears before washing over her entire scalp in a wave. 

“Alright,” she said slowly. “Well, I… I suppose I’d better let the clerk know to call for your ride, then.” She crossed her arms over her front, dizzily scanning the room for an excuse — any excuse — for more time. “Did you remember to grab your charger?”

“Aye.” Jamie reached behind him to pat the outer zipper pocket of his duffel bag. “I got it.”

“And you got everything out of your top drawer?”

“I did.”

She nodded once, swallowing to keep her voice steady. “What about snacks? You hardly touched your breakfast, I know you’ll be hungry before long.”

Jamie exhaled in a tight, shallow laugh. “Well, I, ah— I made an impressive dent in those cookies last night, but I think there’s still at least two dozen left. I’m all set on the snack front for a while yet.”

“Right. Right, of course.” Claire shifted her scrutinizing gaze back from its sweep around the hospital room to rest on Jamie again, and her eye caught at once on his mop of shower-damp curls. She took a step toward him on instinct, lifting her hand halfway to touch a stray lock before she remembered herself. 

“Your hair’s still wet.” The burning ache in her throat swelled tighter, and her voice grew strained, hoarse. “Do you have a hat? It’s bloody freezing out there.”

“Nah,” Jamie answered quietly. “Dinna fash, I’ll only be outside long enough to get in and out of the car.” His fingertips brushed her elbow in reassurance. “I’ll be fine, Sassenach.”

She could feel it building with alarming speed now: the fluttering tension in her diaphragm, the cramp from the hinge of her jaw into her throat. 

Christ, she didn’t want to cry.

She nodded quickly, her gaze trained on his knees. “I know you will,” she whispered, and meant it. It was the only thing holding her together; the only thing giving her the strength she needed to do this.

He would be fine without her. 

Better.  

He would be better off.

So it was time to tell him the truth. To let him go. 

But somehow, all the words she’d practiced, rehearsed over and over for weeks, seemed to fall woefully short now that the moment had come to say them.

She was still attempting to figure out how on earth to begin when Jamie rose from his perch on the edge of the bed, moving to stand directly in front of her. “So are we done here?” he asked in a low murmur. “Wi’ all of this?”

Claire smiled as best she could, her eyes flicking up briefly to his before dropping again. “Almost.” 

Reaching into the front pocket of her scrub top, she retrieved a pair of silver nursing scissors, then silently held out her palm. Though she still couldn’t look at him, Claire felt Jamie’s eyes studying her as he placed his hand in hers.

For a long moment they were still, the scissors dangling loosely at her side. Claire pursed her lips to keep them from trembling, staring at his name on the ID band until her vision blurred with tears. With a feather-light touch, she drew her fingertips along the warm curve of his palm and slipped them beneath the laminated band at his wrist. 

One last cut.

“Jamie…” Her voice was thick with emotion, wavering, but she wouldn’t let it break. “I have something I need to tell you.” 

She wet her chapped lips, swallowed hard. 

“Something I… should have told you a long time ago.”

She sensed him nod. “Aye,” he whispered, his hand closing gently over the fragile bones of her wrist. “I have something I need to tell ye, too.”

Claire sucked in a shallow, burning breath, and opened her eyes to look at him. “You first,” she insisted on the exhale. It was the last chance for it; after what she had to tell him, she knew he’d never want to speak to her again.

Jamie stared at her for a long moment, opening and closing his mouth on a half-breath of hesitation. Then his gaze shifted down to the hand holding his, and over to the scissors she held in the other. 

He slowly dragged his eyes back up to hers and gave an almost infinitesimal nod.

With heart-sinking reluctance, Claire returned it.

One careful snip, and the worn white band fluttered limp into her palm. 

Several dozen heartbeats passed in silence, save for their ragged breathing. 

“That’s it, then?” Jamie asked at last.

“That’s it,” she agreed faintly.

“I’m officially discharged? Ye’re no’ my nurse anymore?”

I’m not your anything any more, she thought, and wondered if he could see her heart breaking. 

“No,” she whispered, a single tear escaping down her cheek and slipping off her chin. “No, I’m not.”

The breath went out of him in a shuddering gust. “Thank Christ.” 

He closed the remaining distance between them in a single stride, threading his hand into her hair, fisting the curls at her nape to tilt her head up and back. 

Claire barely had time to gasp before his parted lips closed over hers. 

The sound morphed into a whimper as Jamie drew her in, holding her so tightly against him that she could feel his ribs rise with every breath, feel his heartbeat thundering against hers. Every sweep of his mouth was desperate, deliberate — the kiss of a man starved, and a man who had knowingly denied her; a man who sought to make amends.

I should have kissed ye. 

And Christ, how he kissed her now.

Claire couldn’t think, couldn’t feel anything beyond him, beyond them ; beyond the inherent knowledge that this was right

With a desperate sound, she brought her hands up to Jamie’s face, pulling him in deeper as her mouth finally slid open against his. Their tongues met in a slow, heavy stroke, and then they were stumbling, crashing backwards. Two steps and Jamie had her pinned against the wall, growling so deep that she could feel it in her bones. 

It was like reaching the end of a long-burning fuse.

And together, they ignited. 

Equally frantic, equally ravenous, they clawed one another closer, their mouths smearing and tasting, biting and sucking away the sting. Jamie was everywhere at once, flooding her senses, communicating with her in a language she hadn’t realized she spoke — ancient and primal, foreign and familiar all at once. When their hips began an instinctual grind, he had to break away, heaving for air. His restless mouth dragged open down Claire’s throat, and he smiled against her skin when she arched into him, gasping his name.

Jamie panted something in Gaelic then, lifting his head to look at her — beaming red, flushed to the very tips of his ears. But as his eyes searched hers, his expression slowly began to shift, the lust that had sent him crashing hard and urgent against her giving way to something infinitely quieter, and infinitely more powerful. 

Shaking his head in wonderment, he brought his fingertips to her face, cradling her as though she were something precious. 

As though she were… deserving, somehow. 

And the resounding truth cracked through Claire’s chest like a gunshot.

She didn’t deserve him. 

That’s why she was here in the first place; why she needed to tell him the truth, send him home. So he could build the life he did deserve, with a woman who could... 

Her lips parted on a sobbing breath when Jamie leaned in to kiss her again, impossibly tender and achingly slow. She kept her eyes open even as they welled with tears, needing to watch him, to remember.

To memorize what it was to feel cherished.

Whole. 

Jamie made a soft sound when her lips began to tremble against his, shifting one hand down to the small of her back to pull her closer. He drew back from their kiss just far enough to run the tip of his nose gently along the length of hers, then sideways to the corners of each of her eyes, nuzzling at her tears. His lips followed, charting the same course; placing delicate, whisper-soft kisses to each eyelid and cheek before returning home to her mouth.   

“I love you,” he breathed, warm and shaking against her lips. “God, I love you.” He bowed his forehead into hers, wrapping his arm tighter around her waist. “I dinna want this to be goodbye, Claire.” 

Whatever strength she had left, it shattered beneath the weight of those words. 

She shook her head, pressing her lips together, humming miserably with a smothered sob. “Neither do I.” 

It was selfish to keep him. The most selfish thing she’d ever done in her life.

But she couldn’t make that last cut.

She couldn’t tell him. 

She couldn’t lose him.

“I can’t,” she choked out. “I can’t do it, Jamie, I... 

She collapsed into him then, crying so hard her breath came in a hoarse, wheezing drone.

Burrowing into his neck, she clutched his shirt with white-knuckled fists, and felt his hands smoothing over her back, trying to soothe her; vaguely heard him making quiet shushing noises against her ear. But Claire was far beyond the point of comfort. Her words slurred together incoherently, hitching and strangled, hysterical with grief.

“I can’t lose you, I can’t do it, Jamie, I can’t, I can’t do it...”

His hands left her back to grip her face, forcing her up from his shoulder. “Ye dinna have to,” he said, smearing her tears with the pads of his thumbs. “Claire, shh. Shhh. Look at me. Look at me. Ye dinna have to.”

She was shaking violently, and couldn’t get a deep enough breath — couldn’t gulp down enough oxygen to replace what she’d spent. But at his gentle command, she tried to settle, suck in as much air as she could through her chattering teeth. Her vision was too blurry to see him, but she looked up anyway. 

Jamie continued to stroke her face as he leaned in to press his forehead against hers. “Ye’re no’ going to lose me,” he promised. “We’ll figure something out. Hm? We’ll figure it out.” He shifted his lips up, pressing a kiss to her brow for a long moment before nuzzling into her again. “Let me call and cancel my flight, and then I—”

“No,” Claire insisted, digging her fingers into his arms, shaking her head firmly. It was exactly what she needed to ground her, force her to get a bloody hold of herself; after everything he’d been through, Jamie would not lapse in his recovery to play martyr for her. Straightening up, she swiped the wrist of her sleeve over her eyes and nose. “No, you can’t do that. Your rehab…”

“We looked at places here too, aye?” He smiled, tucking a damp lock behind her ear. “Good ones. I’ll talk to the case manager, see if we canna book a slot. If nothing else, I reckon I could just do outpatient PT and be fine.”

Claire opened and closed her mouth, trying to come up with an argument; trying to decide if she should even be arguing at all.

At a complete loss over everything that had just fallen into place in the last ten minutes. 

Jamie loved her.

He loved her.

He wanted to be with her. 

She didn’t have to lose him. 

If he didn’t hate her, if he never knew, they could just... move on. Build a life together.

Be happy.

“Jamie...” she whispered, looking up at him, vulnerable and uncertain, relieved and terrified.

He took her hand and kissed it. “D’ye want me to get on that plane, Claire?” he asked quietly, his cheek dimpling with that wry, knowing smile that made her heart hurt with loving him.

Holding his gaze, Claire slowly shook her head. “No,” she breathed, and felt a weight lift from her chest. 

Jamie’s smile broadened until his eyes crinkled with it. “Good,” he said, leaning in to capture her lips. “Cos buyin’ ye a last-minute flight would cost a pretty penny, Sassenach.” He tried to wink, and kissed her again when she finally smiled, thumbing away the last of her tears. “And I dinna mean to go back wi’out ye.”

 




By the time he forced himself to disentangle from the warmth of his Sassenach’s arms — her mouth, ah Dhia, her mouth — Jamie had less than ninety minutes remaining to get his affairs in order. 

It wasn’t much time.

With only three hours before his scheduled flight departure and no idea when he’d need to rebook, he figured trying to argue with the airline was a waste of breath. He couldn’t even bring himself to care; it was the best money he’d ever lost. 

Fortunately, the matter of physical therapy was something he’d been quietly working on since before Christmas, just in case. He’d been emailing with a few different facilities; it was simply a matter of calling them up, seeing which of them could actually take him on last-minute notice. Another call to the rehab place in Inverness to cancel his booking. Apologies, a pile of paperwork. A lengthy conversation with his insurance company.

And finally, the requisite call to his sister. 

Which went about as well as he’d expected.

His left ear would be ringing for hours. 

Jamie’s Uber driver was halfway back to his flat by the time Jenny hung up on him with a few scathing, choice words in the Gàidhlig. He shot her a final We can talk about this later, Janet text before pocketing his mobile. 

It was strange, he thought as the driver pulled down his street — going back to that empty place that had never really been home. But the lease was good through the end of January, and all of his stuff was still there, so he figured he should at least drop by to check on the state of things. 

No sooner had the front door swung open on its hinges, though, than he groaned with instant regret.

Every surface was coated in a fine layer of dust. His one wee house plant was dead and mummified, a rather industrious brown spider had built an intricate web across the arch into the back hallway, and whatever he’d thrown in the rubbage the night of the accident stunk to high heaven. 

He wouldn’t be bringing Claire up to his place any time soon, that was for damn sure. 

Making the best of what little time he had, Jamie took an inventory of his cleaning supplies, hauled the rubbish out to the bin, threw his bedding into the washer, and scribbled down a grocery list of all the things he knew his Sassenach loved. As an afterthought, he stepped into the bathroom to give himself a proper shear with a straight blade, then rubbed his face and neck down with his best aftershave. He swapped out his bulky winter coat for his well-broken-in brown leather jacket, and tugged a beanie on at the last minute, remembering Claire’s request. 

And then he went back for her.

He got to the hospital lobby three minutes before the end of her shift, and forced himself to sit in one of the chairs in the waiting area so he wouldn’t pace like a damned idiot — or worse, head back upstairs, unable to stand being so close to her without having her in his arms.

His knee was jiggling anxiously, fingers drumming against his thigh, when at last the elevator doors opened, and there she was.

Claire’s eyes were still puffy, her cheeks splotched from crying, her hair a frizzy, floating riot about her face. She saw him, and stopped — staring at him as though she couldn’t quite believe he was there. 

As though a part of her still thought he wasn’t coming back.

Jamie stood on legs that felt like water, opening his arms for her. They were both moving in the same moment, colliding in the middle and knocking the breath out of one another in gusts of relief. Claire immediately tucked her face into his neck, and he wrapped her up, kissing her hair. He opened his mouth to speak more than once, but finally settled for just holding her, swaying her gently, breathing her in as if they were the only two people in that crowded hospital lobby. 

They weren’t, of course. And the whooping cry of a familiar voice behind them was sudden and startling proof of that. 

“Oo-hooo, mama! You owe me twenty dollars!” Jamie glanced up just in time to catch Shariah elbowing Lisa in the ribs as the two women stepped out of the elevator. “They didn’t even make it outta the damn building!” 

“‘Bout damn time, you two!” the blonde physical therapist crowed in agreement. “Ow ow!” 

Both women were beaming, and Jamie grinned sheepishly back at them over the top of Claire’s head.  “Ach. Bit of a curse and give us peace!” 

“Look at those babies.” Shariah had begun flapping a hand over her heart and fanning her eyes. “Look at ‘em! Ooh, I could just—”

Fortunately, Lisa took pity on him, hooking her elbow through her friend’s and forcibly dragging her away. “C’mon, keep walking, keep walking. They’ve got a lot of catching up to do.” She threw Jamie a wink as they passed, then called over her shoulder as they rounded the corner, “But we better get wedding invites, Fraser, just saying!” 

He felt Claire snort against his neck as she burst into giggles, and then Jamie cracked too; both of them bent into one another, sniggering like miscreant schoolchildren. When their laughter dwindled to hums, he slipped his fingers into her hair, brushing it aside so he could bring his lips close to her ear. 

“I think mebbe we should take this somewhere we’re less likely to cause a scene,” he suggested. Goosebumps rippled along Claire’s neck where his breath touched it, and an electric thrill shot through him at the knowledge that he could affect her so. 

“What did you have in mind?” she asked, slightly breathless.

 


 

“I hate to say I told you so,” Claire teased, golden eyes glittering as their server placed three heaping plates of food in front of him: eggs and toast, potatoes, bacon, sausage, ham, and a towering stack of blueberry pancakes. “But I did call it. I knew you were going to be hungry again soon.” 

“I didna deny it!” Jamie spread his hands innocently, grinning, knowing far better than to comment on the lady’s own massive, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink omelet. It had taken all his willpower not to heave a sigh of relief when Claire ordered like a woman who was actually hungry. He knew fine well that she hadn’t been eating enough; probably hadn’t had anything at all that day — perhaps not the day before, either. She was already a slender, willowy lass when he first met her, and over the past few weeks, she’d only gotten thinner. When he held her, he could feel each of her individual ribs beneath her scrub top.

It worried him sick.

Watching her tuck into her breakfast, making a throaty mm of appreciation, made his heart feel significantly lighter.

Things were going to be better now.

There would be time to talk. Really talk. Draw her close, and make her feel safe; let her speak her heart to him, as she had the night she’d told him about her parents’ accident. 

He understood now — or at least thought he did — why she’d been so distant, tried to close herself off to him over the past two weeks. Claire had lost everyone she’d ever loved. She thought she was going to lose him too. So she’d been trying to detach from him, to… make the break easier somehow. 

Christ, he wished she would have just talked to him. He might have put her fears at ease so much sooner. 

But he also understood that trust was a fragile thing in those who had been hurt, and his Sassenach was hurt, deeply. And trying to buck twenty years of hard-wired instincts… well. He knew it would take time. 

He’d give her the rest of his life, if she’d have him.

Starting with breakfast.

They both ate until they were full to bursting, though neither of them could finish what they’d ordered — eyes bigger than his stomach, his sister had always chided him. Jamie asked the waitress for to-go boxes and the cheque, and glanced over to find Claire’s eyes drooping heavily, her head bobbing as she fought to stay awake. 

He lifted his arm around her to draw her in, and she let out her breath in a soft, contented hum as she snuggled into him. Jamie made the same sound, nosing into her hair and letting his eyes slip shut. 

He hadn’t slept a wink the night before. And he knew Claire hadn’t had a proper night’s rest in days, if not weeks. Pressing a kiss to her head, he murmured, “Ye need sleep, mo chridhe.”  

She made another wee humming noise. “I’m alright,” she whispered, nudging closer into the curve of his neck. She drew her fingertips in light, delicate circles over his opposite arm, and he felt warm to the very bones of him. 

“Mm. Dinna ken about that. I think I could just hold ye like this, stroke yer hair a bit, and ye’d fall asleep right here.”

He felt her smile faintly against his skin. “I wouldn’t be opposed.”

The waitress came back with their boxes and bill then, and Jamie managed to maneuver and sign everything one-handed, refusing to dislodge Claire from his shoulder. She was so exhausted he thought she might well and truly fall asleep on him, despite the jostling. 

A few months ago, he could have carried her home — a mile or more, if need be. It made his blood boil that he was too weak for it now, and he reminded himself to check his email as soon as he had a free minute. He needed to get into a physical therapy program as soon as humanly possible.

He needed to be strong for her. Claire had carried him long enough. 

Now it was his turn. 

The best he could do for the moment was to help maneuver her to her feet, and provide a shoulder to lean on as he collected their leftovers and walked her out the door.

The bite of cold winter air roused her a bit; blinking in the bright morning sunlight, Claire lifted her head and looked around, seeming lost, almost delirious. 

“What’s yer address, Sassenach?” he asked softly. “Ye live close by, no?”

“Just, um… just down the street,” she said, waving a finger off to the left. She looked up at him then, frowning slightly, her eyes unfocused. “But I’m fine, Jamie. Really. I’m not ready to go home yet.” Her voice grew thin as she leaned her head against his shoulder again. “I want to be with you.”

The idea was there — had been since he’d gone back to his own flat and seen what a disaster it was. 

Still, it was a risk. It was soon . And the last thing he wanted was to push her when she was barely hanging on.

But the compromise was obvious.

“I could go up wi’ ye,” he offered, trying to make his voice as gentle and unassuming as possible. He tipped her chin up with his finger so she could see the honesty in his eyes. “Just to sleep.” 

There was no fear in her face, no hesitation, but still, he clarified nervously, “I can nap on the couch, if ye want. We dinna need to do anything ye—”

She silenced him with a kiss. 

 


 

Claire cleaned when she couldn’t sleep. Thank God for that.

Every surface of her flat was polished to a citrus-scented gleam when she unlocked the door and led Jamie inside. Still, her mind raced with last minute thoughts of the empty wine bottles on her nightstand (Christ, he was going to think her a bloody alcoholic), the dirty knickers and sleep shirt she’d left crumpled on the bathroom floor, the empty kitchen with nothing to offer him but a few soy sauce packets and some possibly-expired orange juice. 

She ran a hand self-consciously through her hair, then gestured around the room. “So, this is it. Um… bathroom’s down the hall on the left. I have literally nothing to offer you to drink, but there are — there are clean glasses in the dishwasher, and the city water is quite decent, actually...”

“Och, I couldna eat or drink anything else right now if ye paid me,” Jamie assured her, weaving around the kitchen island to put their leftovers away in the fridge. He turned back to her then, his expression unreadable, leaning his palms against the countertop as he looked around the main living space.

“It’s a bonnie wee place, Sassenach. I’ll have ye give me the grand tour after we’ve had a bit of rest, aye?”

Claire swallowed against a throat that had suddenly gone dry. “Sure. Right, um…” Her cheeks were burning, she could feel it. So were Jamie’s. 

He’d been the perfect gentleman. Offered to sleep on the couch, if she wanted. 

If she wanted.

The question hung unspoken between them as they stared at one another, breathing shallowly, the tension in the room thick enough to cut with a knife.

And, God, Claire was so... fucking exhausted. She’d spent weeks trying to keep her distance from him, when all she wanted...

But she didn’t need to anymore. Strange as it was, they could… they could do this now. 

They could be together.

Slowly, she held out her hand to him. 

Eyes locked on hers, Jamie crossed the room to her, and took it. 

She didn’t know what to expect, what on earth they were doing. But suddenly she was leading him toward her bedroom, remembering the way he’d growled into her mouth, pressed her to the wall, and her head was swimming, and her heart was racing, and shit, was she supposed to change in front of him, or-? 

Thankfully, Jamie made it easy on her; excused himself to the loo for a moment, giving her time to strip out of her work clothes and pull on a soft knit henley and sleep pants. She took her bra off out of habit, then panicked, her eyes darting to the closed bathroom door, wondering if that was too forward, or if he’d want to take it off himself, or— 

“Jesus H. Christ,” she hissed, raking her hands back through her hair. 

But then the door opened. And it was just Jamie.

It was just Jamie.

He’d taken off his shoes, jacket, and hat, and he looked comfortable, but worn out; as exhausted as she felt.

And just like that, Claire’s nerves were gone. 

She slipped into bed and peeled back the covers next to her in invitation. Exhaling shakily, Jamie crawled in beside her, settling hesitantly on his side. Dark blue eyes questioned her about where she wanted him, how she liked to sleep; something intimate she already knew about him, Claire realized, but that he still needed to learn about her.

Smiling softly, she leaned in to brush her lips against his, then rolled over onto her opposite side, drawing his arm around her as she turned. Jamie took his cue without hesitation, spooning against her back and nuzzling into her hair, both of them shifting their hips and shoulders until they were snugly aligned.

Claire breathed out a long, deep sigh of contentment when they’d both finally settled, letting her heartbeat and respirations gradually slow to match his. He was so warm, and so solid, and the weight of his arm across her chest made her feel safe in a way she couldn’t remember feeling in… a very long time. 

She was already half-asleep when Jamie’s free hand began to slip through her curls, soothing her as she’d always soothed him. 

She let go then; let herself drift, knowing Jamie was there to tether her. 

Unafraid, for the first time in weeks, to face whatever dreams may come. 

 




They turned and moved together as they slept, always touching, in a drowsy, slow-motion ballet, learning in silence the newfound language of their bodies. Even subconsciously, Claire seemed to remember his back; whenever they shifted to their right sides, and it was her turn to spoon against him, she hugged him at the shoulders and shifted her hips back, careful not to press where it hurt. 

It should have been awkward, sleeping with a new person in her bed. That transitional period with a new boyfriend always had been. Learning to share a space, blankets, pillows; adjusting to the odd movements and sounds of another body when she was used to sleeping alone. 

But Jamie felt… 

Right.

She just kept coming back to that. It felt right with him.

It felt like home.  

And so she slept — they both did — better than either of them had in months. 

By the time she began to float leisurely toward the surface of consciousness, the entire bedroom was pitch black, save the dim blue light of her clock radio. She was on her back, with Jamie’s arm draped across her waist, his right thigh hitched over hers. 

And even through his jeans, she could feel him, half-hard against her hip. 

As soon as she recognized it, she was fully awake. 

Jamie wasn’t, though; she could feel the steady rise and fall of his chest, the stirring of his breath against the downy hairs on the side of her neck. 

Claire, on the other hand, could barely breathe. 

She lay completely paralyzed for a moment, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. 

Remembering. Taking stock.

Considering what she’d done. 

Slowly, she turned her head on the pillow, trying to find the outline of Jamie’s face in the darkness.

And finding him, she began to breathe again.

Stripped of the raw, reckless hysteria of sleep deprivation, she found a strange sense of peace in the fact that even now, she would still make the same choice. 

She was done hurting Jamie over this whole bloody mess. Christ, she was so very, very done. 

At this point, he rarely even spoke about the accident anymore. He was looking forward, not back. He hadn’t mentioned the other driver since the very first night they met — didn’t seek vengeance, perhaps didn’t even want to know who was responsible. 

Jamie had moved on.

It was Claire who couldn’t. 

Was it right, then, to rip open a wound that had already healed, just to absolve her own guilt, her need to confess? Especially when he was asking her — begging her — to let him love her, as she loved him?

She didn’t deserve him, that much was abundantly clear. She would never deserve him. 

But perhaps… perhaps… she could still make him happy.

She could try. 

Reaching out tentatively, Claire drew a fingertip over the curve of his bottom lip, the cleft of his chin. Jamie woke smiling into the tender press of her kiss, breathing out softly through his nose. 

They were languid for a while, sleepy and slow. The shift of their bodies was so gradual that it took Claire several minutes to realize that he had moved to lay fully on top of her, the warm weight of his hips pinning hers to the mattress. 

And the evidence of his wanting pressing ever-more urgently against her belly.

She wanted him too. 

Badly.

Wrapping her thighs around the backs of his, she drew him in deeper to the cradle of her body and began a slow, rocking rhythm against him. She felt a shudder go down Jamie’s spine, felt the moan building in his chest before it escaped against her tongue.

Lost in the smoldering heat of his kiss, stoking hotter and hotter as he began to grind back against her, she didn’t hear the insistent buzzing of the intercom out in the living room. 

Or the pounding fist on her front door as she arched her back, gasping, as his fingers teased her nipple to a hardened peak.

Or the jiggle of a key in the lock as she tugged his shirt over his head and pulled him back down to her mouth, ravenous and whimpering. 

It wasn’t until she heard her name in an unexpected voice — familiar, deep, slurred with alcohol — that her heart stopped, her blood turning to ice in her veins. 

Frank.

Scrambling to right her clothes, she pushed up on Jamie and wriggled out from underneath him. He had looked up, equally startled, at the sound of the other man’s voice, and watched her in confusion as she staggered to her feet, running her hands through her hair.

“Stay here,” she begged him, wide-eyed and desperate. “Please, just stay here. Let me handle this.”

And she stepped out into the living room with her heart in her throat.

Chapter Text

Every last one of his instincts screamed at him to go after her. 

Rationally, he knew that Claire was more than capable of handling herself. She’d told him in no uncertain terms to stay put, and it wasn’t his place to barge in where he wasn’t wanted, to hover protectively when he hadn’t the faintest idea what was actually going on. He didn’t know a damn thing about the man who had stumbled in unexpectedly in the middle of the night; didn’t know who he was in relation to Claire, why he was here, what he wanted. 

But he hadn’t missed the terror in her eyes at the sound of that voice. 

For the time being, Jamie did as he was told — perched at the edge of the bed with the unnerving stillness of a predator in wait, his muscles coiled and ready to leap into action at the first sign of distress.

It didn’t take long.

“Get out,” Claire hissed in a tone he’d never heard from her before — low and venomous, seething with unchecked hatred. “Get the fuck out of my house.”

“Hey, hey...” the intruder soothed, his own voice clearly slurred with alcohol. “No, don’t be like that. Look, can we just talk, Claire? Please? All I’ve asked of you these past few weeks is to talk about this like fucking adults, but you never answer your goddamn phone—”

“Right!” She let out a bark of incredulous laughter. “No, you’re right, Frank, I don’t. Which part of ‘I never want to speak to you again’ was unclear to you? Because I’m happy to say it slower.”

“You’re still angry,” the intruder — Frank — deduced. “I understand. I do. But darling, if we could just talk about this, I—” 

“Don’t you dare,” Claire growled, her voice dropping another octave, utterly lethal. “Don’t you dare patronize me. I want my bloody key back, and then I want you out of this flat in the next ten seconds, or I swear to God I’m calling the pol—”

“I was going to propose to you, you know,” the man interrupted. 

There was a long, deafening stretch of silence. Jamie went completely rigid, feeling as though all the blood had suddenly turned to ice in his veins. He wanted nothing more than to be able to see Claire’s face in that moment, to gauge her reaction to what was evidently a shocking piece of information. 

In the meantime, Frank wasted no opportunity to press his advantage, using her silence as permission to continue. “I had it all planned out. I was going to ask you tonight, at my department’s Christmas party. The ring’s been in my nightstand for months… opal, for your birthstone.” As he spoke, his tone grew ragged, desperate. “And being there tonight, without you, I… Jesus, Claire, we were so good together. We were so…” He hissed a breath through his teeth. “I want a second chance. I know — I know you’re angry, I know you think I… behaved selfishly. But you must understand that I was only acting in your best interests, darling, I — I was only thinking of you.”

Several more heartbeats passed in silence before Claire finally answered.

“No, Frank,” she rasped, low and strained. “You were thinking of yourself. Your reputation, your tenure, your fucking work visa.” 

She released her breath in a shaky stream, and when she spoke again it was as if all the anger had drained from her; she sounded hollow, exhausted. “You know, they… they say you never get the true measure of a man until you’ve seen him in crisis. And I saw you that night, Frank. I saw you for exactly who you are. When I told you I had nothing left to say to you, I meant it. So please, just give me my key and go.” 

Of course, Jamie had no context for the argument at hand — for whatever “crisis” had ultimately ended the relationship between Claire and Frank. Still, he felt a burst of pride at how well his Sassenach was holding her own. He’d watched her go to battle on his behalf more times than he could count, but to hear her stand up for herself … 

“So that’s it, then?” Frank demanded in a brash, too-loud tone that immediately set the hairs on Jamie’s arms on end. He’d known enough bastards half-gone with drink to recognize an escalating one. Claire was perfectly capable of standing her ground, aye, she’d proven as much — but there was only so much reasoning one could use on a drunken eejit with a bruised ego. 

“Two years down the drain, and I have no say in the matter?” Frank pressed her, bitterness dripping from every slurred syllable. “You won’t even talk to me about it, that’s what you’re saying? You’re just — you’re done, just like that?”

Jamie gritted his teeth so hard his jaw cracked. Dinna rise to the bait, a nighean, he begged her silently. Dinna try to argue wi’ him. But Claire was roused, furious; too exasperated to see the mounting danger.  

“I’ve been done, Frank!” she snapped, and he could almost see her whisky eyes flashing. “I don’t know how many more ways I can possibly say it!”

“Well I’m not! Damn it, Claire, if you’d just listen to me—”

“Get your hands off me!” she bellowed, her voice rising in pitch, tight with pain.

And that was the end of that.

Jamie catapulted off the bed — chest heaving, heart pounding — ready to wring this Frank ’s neck with his bare hands. Claire had just managed to wrench her shoulders from the drunken man’s grip when he barreled around the corner into the living room, wild-eyed with rage. Both Claire and Frank turned to face him with matching expressions of shock; the other man staggered back, white as a sheet, while Claire’s wide-eyed expression warped almost immediately into terror. 

“Jamie,” she breathed, her voice wavering with tears. She rushed forward to stop him, eyes pleading, palms pressed to his chest. “I’m fine. I’m fine, please go back to my room. Please.”  

He forced himself to take a few deep breaths to cool the inferno in his chest. The last thing he wanted was to scare the lass; he meant to support her, protect her, not make matters worse. Reaching down, he took one of her hands and brought it to his lips, then used it to draw her to stand behind him, shielding her with his larger body. 

“I ken fine well ye can handle yerself, Sassenach,” he told her, eyes locked murderously on Frank’s, daring him to give him an excuse. “But I’ll no’ leave ye alone wi’ a man who puts his hands on ye in anger.”

“I’m fine, Jamie,” Claire said again, touching his shoulder in reassurance as she moved around to stand beside him. She folded her arms and cocked her chin, joining him in glaring down the intruder. “Frank was just leaving.” 

 As Jamie watched the other man from across the room, the thought suddenly occurred to him that Frank might have indulged in a bit more than alcohol at the party; his bloodshot hazel eyes flicked back and forth between Jamie and Claire in utter bewilderment, almost hallucinatory. 

His suspicions seemed to be confirmed a moment later when, out of nowhere, the man began to laugh. 

Uproariously. 

Hysterically.

Frank doubled forward, a hand flailing through the air in front of him until he found the edge of an end table to brace himself. His whole body jerked with red-faced, vein-popping mirth, interrupted only for a second or two when he paused to look up at the pair of them again, then sputtered into a fresh round of breathless, wheezing laughter. Unsure of how to respond, Jamie glanced sideways at Claire. What little color remained in her cheeks had drained entirely, and she was breathing in shallow pants as she watched her ex with palpable horror.  

Either the man was unhinged, heavily intoxicated, or both; either way, he’d long overstayed his welcome. 

Jamie took a menacing step toward him, a muscle in his neck twitching with restraint. “Ye heard the lass,” he growled, raising his voice enough to be heard over Frank’s guffaws. “Get out, or I’ll be more than happy tae—”

“Oh, that is rich,” Frank spoke over him, as if he hadn’t heard him at all. He let out a few more high pitched sounds that could only be described as giggles, passing a hand over his sweaty brow before he began to wag his pointer finger at Claire. “That’s — that’s very, very rich.” Another pant of laughter, and he shook his head, looking at his former girlfriend with a combination of amusement and awe. “My God. I honestly didn’t think you had it in you. You clever... little... minx.”  

“Frank, stop,” Claire choked, her voice shaking so hard the words were nearly unintelligible. Unshed tears shimmered in her eyes, the pupils dilated until they nearly swallowed the warm golden brown of her irises. 

At the sight of her distress, the last of Jamie’s patience finally snapped. He launched across the room in six powerful strides, his nostrils flaring and his hands gripped into fists.

It was enough, at least, to get the wee fucker to stop laughing. 

“Whoa, whoa, easy!” Frank raised both palms as Jamie advanced, stumbling a bit as he backpedaled. “Easy. Look, I don’t blame you. Whatever she’s offered you, I imagine I’d take the same bargain. She’s certainly the best fuck I’ve ever had. And, I mean, look at her, she’s—” His beady, lecherous eyes flicked over Claire’s form, his tongue darting out to wet his lips. With a feral snarl, Jamie grabbed two fistfuls of Frank’s shirt and slammed him up against the wall, lifting the shorter man until he nearly came off the floor. He was weaker than he’d ever been, but Frank was slim, wiry; he could still take him, beat the bastard to a dripping red pulp.

Nay contest.   

“Jamie, don’t!” Claire cried out behind him. He barely heard her; his ears roared with blood, his veins pounding with adrenaline, with testosterone. 

So help him, the arsehole had already had plenty of chances to leave. 

Jamie was done talking. 

But Frank, on the other hand, was apparently just getting warmed up. The imminent threat of violence only spurred him to speak faster, wielding his words like a shield against Jamie’s fists. 

“Look, whatever she told you about me, it’s a lie!” he blurted, holding up both hands in front of him defensively. “I’m sure she’d have you believe the entire crash was my fault, am I right? Did she tell you that she gave me the keys in the first place? That it was her car? That she asked me to drive even when I offered to call a cab? Hm? Did she tell you what that clever little hand of hers was doing to make me lose my concentration in the first place?” 

It sounded like nonsense at first; like the havering of a drunkard who couldn’t tell the floor from the ceiling. 

But a few key phrases in that slew of rubbish found a holdfast in Jamie’s mind, forcing him to stop for a moment and consider what the man was actually saying. 

And gradually, piece by piece, the discordant words began to knit themselves into a narrative that was…

Impossible, Jamie’s heart resisted with a violent lurch. 

This was Claire. His Claire. He knew this woman to her very soul, and nothing this drunken stranger had just said was remotely compatible with the spirit of the woman he loved.  

It’s bullshit. He’s a manipulative feckin’ liar trying to avoid a beating, that’s all. 

It’s not possible. 

It canna be.

… So why did parts of it make sense to him?

The guilt — her unfathomable, relentless guilt — so much deeper than any nurse should feel for her patient...

Or all the times she’d begun a confession, only to break off at the last moment... 

“Jamie, there’s something I need to tell you…”

Christ, just that morning, she’d tried to—

“Something I… should have told you a long time ago.”

Jamie’s grip began to slacken as his fingers slowly went numb. It was as if his brain had gone to cotton, and nerve by nerve the gossamer strands snaked out to his periphery until he thought he might disintegrate completely. He couldn’t feel anything, he couldn’t think, he couldn’t…

Frank’s red-rimmed eyes glinted with triumph as Jamie’s hands went limp and dropped away from him altogether. “No,” he tutted with false sympathy. “No, I can’t imagine she did tell you any of that, did she? I am... truly sorry to be the bearer of bad news. But you can see, now, where—where you and I have both become the victims, here?”

Jamie didn’t answer. Couldn’t.

He couldn’t breathe.

He felt Claire behind him. He knew — he knew if he turned around, he would have his answer. One look and he’d know for certain. He’d have his reassurance that all of this was a slanderous, champagne-fueled lie, or… 

Or everything he thought he knew in the world would come crashing down around him.

He didn’t turn.

If he were being honest with himself, that was answer enough.

Vaguely, he was aware that Frank was still talking, though none of the words fully registered. He caught only snippets, fragments, as a small rectangular card was pressed into his palm.

… settle this outside of court… generous terms… any of my colleagues at Harvard Law… mutually beneficial agreement...

It wasn’t until he uttered one word in particular that Jamie finally blinked, focused:

“And as for Ms. Beauchamp, whatever your… pre-existing arrangements with her, I would remind you that any criminal charges filed against me will, of course, extend to Claire as well. So I would take that into… very careful consideration before you choose to act.” Frank squared his shoulders, straightened the lapels of his jacket, then extended a long, slender finger to tap the business card he’d tucked into Jamie’s hand. “As I said, I’m willing to discuss generous terms regarding settlement. Have your lawyer contact mine and we’ll get something set up.”

With a firm nod at Jamie, Frank went to the door, pausing for a moment with his hand on the knob. He turned back as an afterthought to look over his shoulder at Claire, then shrugged unsympathetically, his lip curled in a sneer, as he dropped his spare key on the entry table.

“You should have just talked to me, Claire. This was never how I intended this night to go.”

And without another word, he was gone. 

Chapter Text

Claire longed for her nightmares.

For anything — anything — her woefully inadequate imagination had conjured as the ‘worst-case scenario.’

She wanted him to wheel on her, scream in her face, accuse and curse and rage. She needed him to be angry, to hate her as much as she hated herself. 

Not this.

Jamie stood motionless, staring blankly at the floor for several minutes after the door clicked shut. When at last he turned to look at her, there was a moment — a fraction of a second — in which his eyes sought hers, begging her to contradict every vile and venomous word that had spilled from Frank Randall’s mouth. 

But one good look at her, and he knew.

For as long as she lived, Claire would remember the moment she watched Jamie Fraser’s heart break. 

His hair was still mussed from her roaming hands, his lips swollen from kissing her, and his eyes burned blue as flame, desperate and pleading, and then… 

Nothing.

It was as if the light inside of him guttered out. 

All of the radiance, the joy, the wit and passion that blazed so brightly in Jamie’s beautiful soul was just… gone. 

He stared at her through empty eyes, watching the tears stream down her cheeks until the silence grew too painful to bear. 

“I’m waiting for you to say something,” he rasped. “Anything that approaches an explanation.”

Jesus H. Christ, how many nights had she spent pacing these floorboards, meticulously choosing her words in preparation for this very moment? She had polished her narrative until it was linear and coherent, sympathetic but honest; practiced the script so many times she could have recited it in her sleep. 

But, of course, the moment she needed it, the words abandoned her entirely.

Claire stared at Jamie helplessly, opening and closing her mouth like a fish out of water. A fresh trickle of tears spilled from her lashes as she finally choked out the only words that would come to mind. 

“I thought you were dead.”  

Jamie didn’t move a muscle; gave no response whatsoever. His hollow blue eyes bored into hers, waiting for more.

“I didn’t know it was you, when we…” She swallowed hard and tried again. “Frank said you were dead and I—I couldn’t get back to you in time—”

“Ye’re saying ye didn’t know at all?” Jamie clarified, his brow furrowed, but his expression otherwise unchanged. “Until just now, when he said it?”

Claire felt her stomach sink, knowing full well she couldn’t lie to him. “No,” she exhaled in a sobbing breath. “I knew.”

Several beats of excruciating silence passed before Jamie nodded faintly, his gaze dropping to a fixed point just over her shoulder. “How long?” he whispered.

For the life of her, she couldn’t answer him. It was as if her lungs were burning, the flames licking up her trachea and scorching off her airway. Her face contorted in apology, her mouth moving soundlessly. 

“How long have ye known, Claire?” he repeated, his voice breaking on her name as his eyes snapped up to hers again.

It took several more tries to be able to produce any sound, but at last she managed in a high-pitched waver, “W-when you told me about your accident, you… you said the other driver blew through a red light, and you went through the windshield—” 

Jamie stiffened, the veins standing out in his temples and under his eye. “The night ye left,” he murmured to himself. His irises flicked rapidly back and forth, unfocused, as though he were replaying the scene in his head. “In the middle of yer shift, ye left and didna come back.” When they refocused again, he looked slowly up at her with the dawning shock of a man who had been stabbed through the heart. “That was the first night we met, Claire.” 

She was gravitating toward him before she realized it, spurred by the visceral need to comfort him. 

“Do not,” he hissed, jerking away from her outstretched hand, “Touch me.” 

Claire flinched as if she’d been stung, redirecting the hand to her mouth to smother a sob. She shook her head miserably, then shifted her palm down to her heart in a gesture of honesty. “I wanted to tell you,” she grated out. “Jamie, I tried... so many times...”

“Then tell me now.” A single glistening tear hung from his lashes as he lifted his hands and let them fall limp against his thighs. “Because all I got from that—that bastard Frank is that you were the one who caused the crash, and then ye just—just drove off and left me there in the road to die. Is that about the gist of it, then?”

“No,” she croaked, then squeezed her eyes shut and amended, “I mean, yes, I… I caused the accident, but I didn’t— I wanted to help you. I tried, but—” 

“Just like ye tried to tell me?”

Claire’s pulse wrenched out of rhythm as she opened her eyes again, her chin dimpled and trembling uncontrollably.

This was it. 

She was going to lose him.

She was going to lose him, and she couldn’t gather her fucking wits long enough to stop it.

“Jamie,” she begged. “P-please…”

There was a flicker then, the faintest softening of the lines of his face. He hesitated, studying her carefully, before taking a half step closer. “How much of what he said was true?” he asked. “Which parts?” 

He was tossing her a rope, she recognized — trying to build a bridge back to her, giving her every opportunity to try to help him understand. But with only Frank’s narrative for reference, every question he asked only cast her in a worse light, and she had no idea how to fix it, how to make it stop.

“I—” A sob hitched in her throat as she gestured helplessly. “All of it, but…”

“Jesus,” he whispered. She watched through swimming vision as the tear finally slipped down his cheek. His lower lip quivered, but his eyes were cold as ice. “God, Claire.”

“I’m sorry,” she mouthed; no sound would squeak past her swollen throat this time. “I’m so sorry…” 

Jamie let out a huff that was almost a laugh, rolling his shining eyes to the ceiling as though it would keep his tears at bay. “So… so all this time, ye…” He passed a hand over his face and raked it back into his hair, turning away from her and muttering to himself in Gaelic. He began to pace a few steps, then suddenly stopped cold in his tracks.  

When he turned slowly back to face her, Claire swore she could feel each individual muscle fiber of her heart begin to shred and peel away. 

He looked like a child. A little boy. 

M'athair,"  he breathed, his brow slightly furrowed. “That—that first night when ye came in, I… I had just found out about my father.” Round, disbelieving blue eyes lifted gradually to hers. “Ye gave me comfort. And all along, it was you who—”

“I didn’t know,” Claire gasped, wrapping her arms around herself as she began to shake feverishly from the adrenaline. “I swear, I swear to you I didn’t know.”

“But ye did after,” he countered. “That very night, isn’t that what ye said? And… and how many times have we talked about him since then, Claire? How many nights did I pour out my heart to ye, and all that time, ye never...” His voice cracked, and he fell silent.

For what felt like an eternity, the only sound that filled the room was their ragged breathing, synchronized to one another in a broken symphony. 

Squeezing her eyes shut, Claire began to pray from the very depths of her soul that all of this was just a horrible dream; that she was about to wake up in the dim blue light of her clock radio with Jamie wrapped around her. She swore to God that if He would just give her another chance, she would roll over, take Jamie’s face in her hands, and tell him everything, everything, exactly the way she’d scripted it, with no outside forces, no interruptions… 

And we would still wind up at this exact same moment, she reminded herself. This was never about fucking Frank, Beauchamp. You are the problem here.

It was inevitable.

Jamie was always going to hate her. Leave her.

Take her heart with him.

She’d known that all along.

Smearing the moisture from her eyes, she tried to get a hold of herself long enough to get one last look at him. She’d made sure, in those endless, silent days in the ICU, to memorize every last line and curve of his body; she knew he had a crooked left toe where a horse had stepped on it, a dashed scar on his right cheek where a splinter had caught him when he was chopping firewood. There were other marks on him — too many to count — whose stories she’d never learned, but she knew them by sight, by touch. She’d lain for hours with her forehead tucked into his neck, listening to him breathe, her fingertips gently tracing, stroking, learning.

Christ, what she wouldn’t have given for five more minutes. Just five more minutes to hold him like that again, one last time. 

Jamie must have sensed her gaze on him, for he looked up at last, his features schooled into that impenetrable mask even as tears slipped down his face.

“If I could take it back,” Claire whispered, softly enough that her voice wouldn’t break, “if I could do it all differently, I would.”

He was silent for a long time before he nodded, dropping his gaze to the floor again. “Aye,” he whispered just as quietly. “Aye, so would I.” He opened and closed his mouth, then pursed his lips and shook his head. 

Without another word, he crossed the room, brushing past her to go back into the bedroom. Claire stood stone still, her eyes closed, listening to him bustle about, gathering his things. 

She left them shut even when he stepped back out into the living room again, pausing a few feet beside her. 

At the end of all things, she couldn’t bring herself to watch him leave. 

She heard his breathing falter, the hitch that broke into an open-mouthed sob. “I dinna understand you, Claire,” he choked. “I’ll never understand how I could… possibly have been so wrong. I thought I knew you to yer very soul. And I loved you wi’ everything I—” His voice broke, and he sniffled loudly, then let out his breath in a shaky pant. “I would have sworn up and down ye were the kindest woman I’d ever met. But what kind of selfish feckin’ person leaves a man to die in the road, and then lies to his face about it for… for weeks at a time, I dinna…”

If he said more, Claire didn’t hear it.

There is an undefined physiological point at which the body becomes so overwhelmed with pain that it no longer processes it any more. 

She’d heard of it. Seen it in practice. 

Severe trauma or burn victims who went completely numb; end-stage terminal patients who reported with a sigh of relief that they didn’t hurt anymore.

She wondered dimly if she should be feeling relief, too. 

But she didn’t feel anything at all.

Jamie had been gone for… God only knew how long before she opened glassy eyes to an empty room. 

She stood blinking at the closed door for a few minutes… or perhaps a few hours, she wasn’t quite sure. 

At some unremarkable moment in time, she turned around and shuffled slowly back to bed. 

Sank onto the mattress. 

Stared at the rumpled sheets, the single red curl that had been left behind on her pillowcase. 

Laid down at the foot of the bed so as not to disturb it. 

Cocooned herself in the duvet that still smelled faintly of aftershave. 

Slept, she supposed. 

There wasn’t much difference between the two forms of consciousness anymore. 

Waking or sleeping, she heard the same phrase repeated over and over until it became almost white noise.

What kind of selfish feckin’ person…

It was everything she’d dreaded for twenty years; her worst fears confirmed by the one person she loved more than she’d ever loved anything.

It was her fault. All of it. 

Her parents. Jamie.

What kind of selfish feckin’ person...

She hurt the people she loved. Ruined them. Destroyed everything and everyone that mattered to her.

He was right to leave. 

It was only her selfish fucking heart that whispered into the night, “Come back. Please come back…”

Chapter Text

Jamie walked until he was numb. 

In retrospect, he was glad he’d swapped out his warm winter coat for the leather jacket; it did very little to insulate him from the biting wind, the needle pricks of blasting snow. It didn’t take long at all to lose sensation in his hands and feet, the tip of his nose.

The rest took longer.

So he just kept walking, as long and as far as his weakened muscles would carry him.

He thought at first that he was wandering aimlessly, with no particular destination in mind except away.   

But his subconscious directed him with far more purpose than he’d given himself credit for. 

Towards the river, then a left — walking west along the water, glassy eyes trained on the sidewalk. 

Another left onto Berkeley Street.

Then he knew.

He lifted his gaze intermittently, checking street signs, landmarks. It wasn’t an area of town he knew particularly well; he’d only been passing through after a few of his coworkers had asked to meet up for late-night tapas. 

A fluke, really.

One that had changed his life irrevocably.

His stride finally slowed as he approached the intersection of Berkeley and Commonwealth. A partition of old trees separated the one-way streets, each limb and branch generously wrapped with warm golden Christmas lights.   

Bonnie, he thought.

And went to his knees, sobbing.

He had seen pictures of the crime scene when the police came to question him about the accident. They’d asked him if he wanted to look, and he had, in the vain hope that it might unearth a hidden memory, some overlooked piece of information that would help them catch the bastard who had done this. But shuffling through the glossy photographs (the bloodstained pavement, the shattered glass, the smoking ruins of his car), Jamie had felt only the detached, morbid curiosity he usually experienced while watching real crime documentaries on the telly. It hadn’t felt real, somehow; hadn’t felt personal.  

Until now.

Here, it all came back to him with staggering clarity.  

The squeal of tires and shriek of bending metal, the wame-dropping lurch of being thrown from his seat, the splintering pain as he flipped headfirst through the glass...

He’d been conscious for mere seconds, if that — just long enough to register the glare of headlights before his shoulder blades ripped open on the pavement, his head bounced with a sickening crack, and then there was nothing. 

He hadn’t been able to tell the investigators a color or make of the vehicle that had hit him, only that it was larger than his sedan — could have been an SUV, a van, a Jeep. There were no traffic cameras in Boston, so short of a viable witness, he had nothing.

And no one had come forward.

A Good Samaritan had apparently seen him lying in the road and called 911 (whether it had been a person who was just driving past or a local who’d seen him from their window, he couldn’t be sure), but no one had come to help him; no one had been with him when the paramedics arrived on the scene.   

In all fairness, anyone who’d seen him in the road that night had probably mistaken him for dead. To see a man unmoving and torn to shreds, bleeding out in a pile of broken glass… aye, he could understand why passersby would be hesitant to approach — why they would wait on the medical professionals to handle what they presumed to be a corpse.

But Claire...

I wanted to help you. I tried.

Christ, the mere memory of her voice was like a pickaxe through his chest.

Because the woman he knew — or thought he knew — would have clawed her way out of the ruins of a car to get to a patient in need, and neither hell nor high water would have stopped her. How could she have tried to help if he was left completely alone to die? It hadn’t even been Claire who called for an ambulance; the police told him it had been a thickly-accented Asian man who hung up quickly when the dispatcher started asking questions.

That was where he struggled. Where she’d lost him.

Jamie could have forgiven the crash. 

Then and there, standing at the site, he could have forgiven it. 

It was an accident; he knew fine well there was no malicious intent, only drunken, reckless stupidity — and Christ, how many feckin’ stupid, reckless things had he done when he was three sheets to the wind? As a lad of eighteen, nineteen, he’d driven his motorbike home from the pub on winding dirt roads more times than he could count, completely pissed. It was sheer dumb luck that he hadn’t wrapped himself around a tree or hit anyone else.

This accident had been a stupid mistake, too. A costly one. 

He’d suffered for it. 

Lost his father for it. 

Still, he could forgive it. 

But… but leaving him there… driving away from a dying man without even calling for help… and then seeing him every day at the hospital — befriending him, talking with him deep into the night, holding his hand and stroking his hair while he wept for all he’d lost, letting him fall in love with her, cradle her, kiss her — and never once saying a word…

What kind of person could do that to another human being?

He understood, now, why she couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. Why she’d been plagued with nightmares. Why she’d balked every time they’d gotten too close, made up every excuse she could think of to avoid any modicum of intimacy.

It was guilt. All along, it was guilt. 

What he’d thought… what he’d believed with every fiber of his being to be love… was a lie.

But even now, his heart and his mind couldn’t seem to reconcile on the matter. 

Perhaps he simply didn’t want to accept that he was such a poor judge of character — that she could possibly be this terrible of a person. If he’d been wrong about Claire… he couldn’t be certain about anything anymore .  

He’d never believed in anything the way he believed in her. 

And now the world around him was crumbling, tilting wildly off its axis, and Jesus, he was so… 

Confused.

Grief-stricken.

Lost.

But worst of all—

He covered his face with his hands and bent forward until his forehead touched the pavement, jerking with sobs. 

—worst of all, in his darkest hour, when nothing made sense and he so desperately needed comfort… all he wanted was Claire.

To crawl into her arms and weep, lay his head over her heart, feel her hands in his hair, listen to the gentle murmur of her voice. 

Christ, he needed her so much his bones ached.

A lie, he reminded himself. All of it was a lie. The woman ye’re longing for doesna exist.

And on his knees at the intersection where it had all begun, he tried to force his breaking heart to believe it.

 




When she heard the deadbolt click open, Claire knew immediately who it must be; only one person still had a copy of her house key now that Frank’s was sitting on her entry table. 

Still, she flinched when she heard the bang and clatter of the door hitting the wall, followed by an anger-sharpened bellow that seemed to reverberate through her skull. 

“I swear to God, Beauchamp, ye better be on yer feckin’ deathbed, or I’ll kill ye myself!”

With a moan, Claire buried her face in her pillow, pulling the blankets up over her head in the split second before her bedroom lights flipped on.

“The fuck’s the matter wi’ ye?” Gillian demanded, brusquely ripping said blankets away from her. “Why aren’t ye answering yer phone?”

Claire whimpered at the onslaught of blinding light, curling the pillow up around her face to block it out. “I didn’t hear it,” she grumbled, and found her voice almost incoherently hoarse from disuse. “It’s probably dead.” 

She heard the slap of Gill’s hands as she let them fall dramatically to her sides. “And ye didna think mebbe ye should charge the feckin’ thing? Jesus, Claire, I’ve been worrit sick about ye! We’ve been tryin’ to get a hold of ye all night. The Fitz even called ye when she got in this morning.”

Despite herself, seven years of hardwired professional instincts caused Claire to freeze for a moment. The threat of being in trouble with her boss proved enough to clear some of the haze from her mind, more than anything else had in… however long it had been since…

Slowly and deliberately, she peeled the pillow back from her face, squinting up at her friend in the painfully bright light. “What—” she asked, shaking her head in confusion, “what day is it?”

“Well, it’s Thursday morning now,” Gill answered flatly, planting her hands on her hips. “Ye were supposed to be in at 7 last night. Ringing any bells?” 

Claire blinked at her several times, uncomprehending. 

Thursday...

Jamie had been discharged on Wednesday morning. The day after Christmas. She was supposed to be off for a whole week after that… 

Jesus H. Christ.

She blinked twice more before murmuring, “Sorry, I… lost track of time.” 

Her head felt like it was filled with fluid; she was sluggish, lethargic, having a hard time concentrating. Even keeping her eyes open for this long was proving to be exhausting, so she burrowed back into her pillow and let them slip shut again. 

She supposed it didn’t matter. She wasn’t going back anyway. 

The ghost of him would haunt her regardless, but in those hallways, those rooms... 

She couldn’t.

“I didn’t mean to worry you,” she said softly. “You can tell everyone I’m not coming back. I’ll… I’ll send Glenna an official resignation letter soon.” 

The change in Gillian’s demeanor was almost palpable, like a shifting electrical current in the air between them. 

Or perhaps that was only the delirium.

Either way, the Scot’s tone gentled as she sank onto the mattress next to Claire, reaching out a hand to smooth a matted brown lock behind her ear.

“Ye ken I was… I was kidding about the deathbed thing. I’m sorry, I always run my stupid gob before I—” She gripped Claire’s shoulder with almost bruising force. “Please tell me it’s no’ cancer.”

Though her eyes remained closed, Claire managed the ghost of a smile. “Look that bad, do I?”

“Aye.” Gill let out her breath in a huff of relief, giving Claire’s shoulder a rub before releasing it. “Ye look like shit, Beauchamp.” A pause, then, “I take it that’s a no, then?”

“No,” Claire murmured. “I’m not sick. It’s… it’s for personal reasons, that’s all.”

She could feel Gillian’s gaze on her, astute as a bloody hawk’s. “Did something happen wi’ Jamie?” 

Silence.

Her friend’s voice took on a fierce edge then. “Claire, look at me. Did he hurt ye? Because I swear to God, if he laid a hand on ye, I’ll—”

“No.” Claire opened her eyes, propping herself up on an elbow so quickly her head spun. “No, never. He—” Her voice faltered, and she had to swallow twice against a gritty throat before she could choke out, “I hurt him.”

Gillian studied her for a moment, then readjusted her position, bending a leg up onto the bed and taking one of Claire’s hands in her own. “Alright... why don’t ye start from the beginning, hen. Tell me everything.” 

She gave Claire’s hand a squeeze, and golden brown eyes lifted hesitantly to meet green.

“Well, it’s… it’s quite a long story.”

“I’ve got time.”

It had always been an unspoken understanding between them: Gillian hinted, but never asked; Claire deflected, denied, but in the end, made it abundantly clear how grateful she was for all the times her meddlesome friend had come to her aid, and Jamie’s.

But Gill deserved answers, and now she was asking for them. 

It was just… she was the only real friend Claire had left. What if she found out the truth, decided Claire was a horrible, selfish person, and left her, like Jamie had?

Then you’ll deserve it, she thought miserably. And godspeed to her.

Several moments passed in silence before Claire drew in a slow, pained breath.

“Well,” she began falteringly, wetting her chapped lips with the tip of her tongue. “I... suppose it… all began on my birthday…”

 


 

Her hands were shaking so badly she could barely get the clasp open on her handbag. Frank glanced over sharply when he heard the rustle of cosmetics and crumpled receipts. 

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

Claire drew in a sobbing breath as she finally excavated her mobile from the bottom of the bag. “What do you think?” she snapped, casting him a venomous look as she thumbed 9-1-1 into the keypad. “I’m calling a fucking ambulance.”

“Oh no you don’t—” 

She saw his hand coming in her periphery, but her reflexes were too slow; she didn’t have time to flinch away before he snatched the iPhone from her hand and flung it back over their heads. Twisting her torso around, she could only watch helplessly as it skidded on the floor mat and landed somewhere behind the second row of seats, far beyond her reach. Before she could do more than let out an incoherent scream of rage, Frank was lecturing again in that infuriatingly condescending tone.

“Think, Claire. They can trace the bloody calls, track your mobile back to you. I already told you, the man is dead. It’ll be the police who come to the scene, not the fucking paramedics. You need to let this go.”

She twisted back around to face him incredulously, her brow furrowed and mouth agape. Frank certainly had his faults — everyone did. The tendency toward pretentiousness she’d always chalked up to a career in academia, and history in particular; so many of his colleagues at Harvard seemed to share the same self-congratulatory appreciation for their own intellect. They’d had their fair share of arguments over the course of two years about the way he spoke down to her when he thought she was in the wrong, and he always conceded in the end that he was being an insufferable arsehole, and apologized.

But this… this wasn’t just arrogance. This was reckless disregard for human life. 

And it shocked her to her very core.

She’d never, never in her wildest dreams thought him capable of something like this.

“Let it go?” she echoed. “Are you… are you hearing yourself?” 

He glanced at her briefly out of the corner of his eye, looking only slightly chagrined. “I realize how it sounds, Claire. I know you must think me callous. I assure you, I’m just as unsettled by all of this as you, it’s just… I have the benefit of an academic mind. Logic. Reason. I’m thinking about the bigger picture here, whereas you—”

“Are what? A hysterical woman?” 

Frank shrugged dispassionately. “I was going to say heavily intoxicated. I do think you’ll see the reason for this when you’ve sobered up. I don’t believe for a moment you’re any more interested in a prison sentence than I am.”

“You have no fucking idea what I’m interested in,” she hissed. “You’ve made that perfectly clear.”

She turned away from him then, and refused to engage him again. They were almost home; two more lights, and they’d be at her apartment building. The wheels in her head spun frantically as she tried to formulate a plan. She didn’t have a landline, couldn’t think of any payphones close enough to get to quickly. For a moment she considered just making a run for the Emergency Room — she could get to an ambulance dispatcher, direct them to the man in trouble. Maybe they’d even let her ride along, and... 

But that would take time. Precious time that the man may not have.

Her eyes went to the clock on the dash of her car as she suddenly realized she had no idea what time it actually was. 

02:09.

She tried to calculate backwards — they’d crashed at Commonwealth; she remembered staring hazily at the statue of Alexander Hamilton down the row of trees. That was about a mile from her place. Given how fast Frank was driving, it couldn’t have been any more than three minutes ago.

If she moved quickly, if Frank was wrong — if the victim still had a pulse when they’d driven off — maybe he could still be saved…

The second the car pulled to a stop outside her front door, she started ripping at the handle again. 

“Let me out,” she commanded.

Frank hesitated, staring at her back for a long moment. “What will you do?”

“What I do is no longer any concern of yours,” she replied, her voice low and raw, thick with tears. “I never want to hear from you again, do you hear me? Now unlock the fucking door!”

“Fine,” he said flatly, and she gasped in relief as the child lock clicked, and the handle gave way under her shaking hand. “I’ll return your car and your mobile to you when you can be reasonable about this.”

Claire didn’t stick around long enough to argue with him. She flung the car door open and staggered onto the curb, wobbling in her stilettos and nearly crashing to the pavement on the first step. Without hesitation, she knelt to the ground and unstrapped them from her feet, kicked them aside, and took off at a run back in the direction of the crash, barefoot on the cold concrete.

She was a strong runner; she’d done the Boston Marathon the previous year, and routinely jogged an eight-mile circuit around the river. On a good day, she could run a mile in seven minutes flat.

But these weren’t exactly the best of circumstances. 

The pounding adrenaline helped; the dizzying level of alcohol in her blood certainly didn’t. And without proper footwear, she had to watch her step, slow her stride and weave around broken patches of concrete, shattered glass, gravel and debris on the sidewalk. 

There was no real way to measure time without her mobile, but at this rate, she knew she wasn’t going to make it back to him fast enough. 

At any hour of the day or night, there were always people out and about in Boston. Cars passed her every few seconds, and she was nearly at the point of flagging one of them down when she spotted a pedestrian up ahead, standing at the railing along the riverwalk, looking pensively out at the water. She redoubled her speed to get to him, breaking into a full-tilt sprint. The man looked up in alarm as she ran up to him, and it occurred to her suddenly what a sight she must look — hair coming unpinned, her face red and sweating, wearing a little black dress and no shoes. 

“Help!” she panted, heaving for air. “Please, I need help! I’m a nurse, there’s a man in trouble. Do you have a cell phone on you?”

The pedestrian continued to look her up and down uncertainly. He was an older Asian gentleman, and for a moment her heart sank. She knew a handful of words in Mandarin — pain, sick, water, blanket, vital signs — but nothing that would help her now if this man didn’t understand her. “Do you speak English?”

“I do,” he answered after a pause, and Claire put a hand to her chest, doubling over in relief. He continued to eye her warily, but reached into the pocket of his jacket. “You say you are nurse? From hospital?”

“Yes,” she gasped. “Yes, and there’s been an accident. A car accident. A man is hurt, dying. He needs an ambulance. Please, call 9-1-1 and tell them a man needs help at the corner of Berkeley and Commonwealth.” 

“Berkeley and Commonwealth,” the man repeated carefully, looking up at her one more time before he began to tap into his mobile. “I will tell them, honorable nurse.” 

Claire pressed her hands together in the universal gesture of gratitude. “Thank you,” she choked out, and took off again at a breakneck run.

He kept his word, her erstwhile river-gazing savior; she’d barely made it three blocks before she heard the oncoming wail of sirens. The sound made her heart leap, propelled her legs even faster as an ambulance went screaming past, heading straight for the site of the crash.

“Hang on,” she whispered to the stranger in the road. Fresh tears sprang to her eyes, turning the nightscape around her to streaks of light. “Hang on, help is coming.”

When she finally veered left off the riverwalk and onto Berkeley, she could see an army of red and blue lights spinning up ahead. A few blocks more, and she was able to discern that the entire street was barricaded off, with fire trucks blocking traffic in all directions. At least a dozen emergency vehicles were clustered around the intersection, and…

Her stride slowed a block shy of Commonwealth.

Stopped.

For a moment, it was all she could do to stand there, staring, her chest heaving and hands hanging limp at her sides. 

Then it was as if all the adrenaline drained from her bloodstream at once, along with the last of her hope.

“No,” she breathed, and sank to a heap on the pavement. 

Two police officers were making a square around the intersection with crime scene tape. Others were on the ground with evidence bags, sorting through the rubble with latex gloves on. Still others were snapping flash photos of the ground, the wrecked vehicle, the surrounding area. 

The man — the body — was gone. 

Three ambulances sat idle at the scene, blue and red lights flashing silently.

Claire had lost patients before. More than she could count. She was acutely familiar with the stunned, heart-sinking silence after a marathon of a code — the medical team sweating and panting, stepping back to stare at an unmoving chest, a flatlined monitor, after over an hour of pounding chest compressions, rescue breaths, administering shocks, pushing meds. Sometimes no amount of resuscitation helped, and a person was just… gone. 

But this time, the blood was on her hands. 

She was too late. 

Help had come too late. 

Again.

As she hunched over to retch violently into the grass, Claire swore she tasted river water. 

Chapter Text

“Holy shit.”

There was a long, stunned pause, then Gillian said again, louder, “Holy shit!”

Claire sat with her chin on her knees, and remained carefully expressionless as she watched realization dawn on her friend’s face.

“So… so this whole time, the man in the road was Jamie?” At Claire’s small, miserable nod, Gillian flopped backwards across the bed, staring up at the ceiling with wide eyes. “I just— ye ken that’s like… that’s insane. I mean that’s… that’s like somethin’ out of daytime telly.” She went silent for a few seconds before popping back up again. “So wait, did ye ken about this all along?!”

“Not at first. I thought he was dead, it never occurred to me that…” Claire gave a listless shrug, then turned her head so her cheek rested on her kneecap. “But the more I talked to him, the more the coincidences began to line up. And when I went to look in his H&P…”

“Fuck,” Gill moaned, shaking her head in glazed disbelief. She fell quiet again for a minute, then suddenly snapped her eyes up, reaching out without warning to smack Claire’s upper arm. “And ye never told me about this?!”

Claire sat motionless, non-reactive. She took in a deep breath, filling her lungs until they ached. “I didn’t want you to think I was this… terrible person,” she admitted on the exhale.

Gill made a scoffing noise. “Fer what? Getting sloshed and jerkin’ off yer boyfriend? Jesus, Claire, if that was the worst thing I’d ever done…” 

“You know what I mean.”

“No, I really don’t.” The Scot maneuvered herself backwards on the bed until she was side-by-side with Claire, drawing her own knees up to mirror her friend’s posture. She studied her for a moment, then leaned over to bump her shoulder gently. “Hey. Listen to me. Ye did everything ye could for him. Ye always have.”

A single tear quivered on Claire’s lashes, and slipped down her cheek when she closed her eyes. “I didn’t do enough,” she whispered. 

“Oh, sweetheart.” Gill reached over to brush the tear away, then leaned her forehead against Claire’s temple. “He’s alive, isn’t he? Alive and well. That’s down to you, ye ken. I cannae even count the number of times ye saved that boy’s life.”

“He only needed saving because of what I did to him in the first place.”

“More like what yer rat bastard ex did.”

Claire shook her head. “It wasn’t just Frank. It was my fault too.”

Pulling back to frown at her, Gillian insisted, “Aye, but at least you tried to make amends. Ye’ve been feckin’ killin’ yerself this whole time tryin’ to make it right.”

Claire shrugged slowly, wiping her eyes and nose on her knee. “It doesn’t matter. Nothing I ever said or did could make this any better for him. I ruined his life, Gill.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is.” She lifted her head to fix her friend with a trembling, teary-eyed glare. “Do you realize what I’ve cost him? His girlfriend, his internship, his…” Her voice cracked. “His father.”

Apparently, Gillian had run out of platitudes; a few times she took a breath as if to say something, then thought better of it and resumed their miserable silence.

“Do ye want some wine, hen?” she asked finally. “Or something stronger, mebbe? I can run to the corner store and get the good stuff.”

“No, thank you,” Claire whispered, as another heavy tear rolled down her cheek. “I think I just want to be alone for a little while.”

“Aye. I understand.” Gill bent to place a kiss on the crown of her head, then smoothed the hair down. “Get some rest, hm? And drink some water, ye’re dehydrated. Dinnae make me come back here with an IV start kit and a banana bag.” She smirked, giving a playful wink, but Claire couldn’t quite summon the strength to smile back. Gill’s face fell again, her brow creasing in concern as she shifted her hand down to hold Claire’s shoulder. “I work a twelve tonight, but I’ll be back in the morning to check on ye, alright? I’ll bring breakfast.”

Eyes glassed over, Claire reached up slowly to clasp her friend’s hand. “I’m grateful to you, Gill,” she said, low and tremulous. “For everything you’ve done for me. For—” She faltered, tipped her chin. “For Jamie. I want you to know that.”

Gillian scrutinized her with an assessing nurse’s gaze, any trace of humor permanently dissolved. “Are ye sure ye dinna want me to stay?” she pressed. “I have the PTO, I can call in right now—”

“I’m sure.”

She heard Gill take a hesitant half-breath, release it, then take another before she conceded, “Alright, but… remember, I’m only a text away if ye need anything. Seriously, Claire. Any time, day or night. I can be back here in ten minutes.” 

“I know.” She tried to smile for her friend’s benefit, and must have been marginally more successful this time, because Gill finally, reluctantly, climbed to her feet and picked up her handbag from where she’d dropped it on the floor.

“I’ll see ye in the morning, then. Or sooner, if ye need me.”

She was at the bedroom door when Claire’s voice stopped her. “Gill?”

“Aye, love?” 

There was one last thing.

One last thing she needed to know.

Claire could feel her throat closing over the words, and had to stop to swallow, to steady her voice enough to be understood. “What does ‘mo cree’ mean?”

“Mo chridhe?” There was silence for several aching moments as Gillian struggled to decide how to respond. “It’s, em… it’s a term of endearment.” She wrung the strap of her handbag, apology written into every line of her face. “It means ‘my heart.’”

 




“Alright.” Through the speaker phone, Jamie heard the metallic clang of a pot being thrown forcefully into the sink. “That’s it, I’m hangin’ up and callin’ Ned.”

His brow furrowed; he was too far gone with drink, too distraught, and too sleep-deprived to catch his sister’s meaning straightaway. “Ned who?” he asked around the rim of his glass before taking a long sip of whisky. 

“She means Ned Gowan,” his brother-in-law’s voice answered, even as Jenny began to speak over him. 

“I ken ye’ll probably need a fancy, high-powered American attorney to take this to court in Boston.” Her voice was clipped, tight with rage, her words punctuated by the rasp of steel wool over the pot she was scouring. “But he could at least advise ye in the meantime. He’s kent ye since before ye were a gleam in Mam’s eye. We can trust him.”  

“Jen…” Jamie sat his whisky tumbler on the coffee table in front of him, rubbing his hands over bleary eyes as his sister prattled on. 

“I’m sure the prof will have the best lawyer at Harvard on retainer, but if ye can get a confession out of the bitch who—”

“Stop.” His voice was sharp enough to elicit complete silence on the other end of the line; even the scrubbing came to an abrupt halt. For a moment Jamie sat completely still, holding his head in his hands, before he took a steadying breath and said more quietly, but with no less conviction, “I’m no’ taking this to court, Jen. I dinnae want anything more to do wi’ it. I just...” He shook his head faintly, then heaved a bone-deep sigh. “I just want to go home and try to get on wi’ my life.” 

Several more beats of strained silence passed before the rasp of steel wool started up again, his sister having fallen uncharacteristically quiet. 

It was Ian, surprisingly, who answered at last, his voice gentle, but concerned. “I understand that, Jamie. I do. But mebbe ye… ye might think on it awhile before ye make a final decision? Ye havena yet seen the hospital bill for yer stay. The insurance will cover some of it, aye, but if ye dinnae get recompense from the people who did this to ye, ye may find yerself saddled wi’ a debt that would put off startin’ yer life over the way ye want it for quite some time.”

It was all Jamie could do to close his eyes and breathe. His brother-in-law was right, of course. Any hopes he had of starting up a business or owning his own home would have to be put off indefinitely if he was faced with crippling medical debt.

But the thought of actually having to go to court made his wame drop and his heart wrench.

It meant he would have to see her again. Sit across from her at a negotiation table, watch her give her account from the witness stand. Have to listen to her confess again, with tears streaming down her face, the role she’d played in the night that had broken him.

He couldn’t do it.

Not for all the money in the world.  

Still, to pacify the two people who meant the most to him, he lied quietly, “Aye. I’ll think on it.”

They let it go, thank Christ, though he could almost hear the thoughts crashing about his sister’s head.

Out loud, though, she said only, “When are ye coming home, bràthair?”

“Fly out Monday morning,” he answered gruffly, picking up his whisky again and draining the last of it in a burning swallow. “I should be home by suppertime.”

“It’ll be good to have ye back,” Ian said. 

“The bairns’ll be fit to burst when we tell ‘em,” Jenny added, a smile in her voice. “Wee Jamie asks about ye every day, ye ken. He misses his Jedi Master.”

The sudden sting in Jamie’s eyes had nothing to do with the whisky. He put a hand to his mouth to smother a shaking breath, struck by a pang of homesickness more profound than he’d known in weeks. 

Since before Cla—

“Aye,” he choked out, then cleared his throat and tried again. “Aye, tell him I miss him too.”

In that moment, he held onto the image of his nephew’s jack-o-lantern grin with everything in him. 

Of the hearth at Lallybroch, crackling with a merry fire. 

Of the rolling hills of the farm, dusted with snow, glittering blue in the moonlight. 

Of his sister’s arms, small but fierce, wrapped tight around his ribs. 

It was enough, he reminded himself as he scrubbed desperate tears from his eyes. 

It had to be enough.

 


 

She didn’t get up immediately when Gill left. 

There was no rush, no real sense of urgency. 

It wasn’t that Claire was eager for death. It was only that she couldn’t find any reason to go on living. 

Not like this.

Her great purpose in life, her driving force, had always been to heal others. It had finally occurred to her, though, that perhaps that was selfish too — perhaps it was only a coping mechanism, soothing some deep ache in her to be needed, somehow. 

But she wasn’t, really. 

She’d called off for weeks at a time to be at Jamie’s side when he contracted the meningitis — maxed out all of her paid time off during the holiday season, when staffing needs were critical.

And they’d made do without her. 

There’d been no scrambling, no chaos, no patients left unattended. It was a wake-up call, of sorts, for how easily replaceable she truly was. There was no question in Claire’s mind that by the end of the day, Glenna Fitzgibbons would have a stack of resumes on her desk from highly qualified nurses, eager to take her job. 

She would be forgotten. Massachusetts General would carry on without a hitch, at no great loss for the lack of her. 

Her friends would mourn her, of course. She knew that. Gillian would take it especially hard. Joe too. Mary. Elias. Lisa and Shariah, maybe.

But they had their own lives. Families. Other friends. They would be alright.

Claire didn’t have anything.

And she never would.

That had been her great and fatal mistake: allowing herself to believe, for one naïve moment, that she could finally have someone. That she could love, and be loved in return.

She knew better. Or she should have. 

She didn’t get to keep the people she loved.

That was the punishment for her sins. For her selfishness. 

She just couldn’t bear it any more.

And so, at some unremarkable point in the quiet of the morning, Claire rose from her bed and went to her medicine cabinet. 

The offerings within were over-the-counter stock, for the most part. She had a sneaking suspicion several of the meds were expired, though that hardly mattered now. With glazed eyes and a steady hand, she began to pluck the plastic bottles and foil-wrapped packets from their shelves and spread them one by one across the countertop. 

Advil. Ambien. Benadryl. Robitussin. Tylenol. Xanax.

All benign individually, and with proper dosing. But if she took the whole bottle of each, all at once...

It would be peaceful, painless. She’d simply drift into a stupor, fall asleep and never wake up.

There was always the risk, though, that Gillian’s sixth sense for trouble would intervene. A few missed calls or texts, and she knew her friend would barge back in, perhaps find her in enough time to get help.  

Claire stood motionless for a long moment, then, feeling dreamlike, went to the kitchen and pulled a boning knife from the knife block. It was sharp; the edge gleamed raw and silver. 

It would be sure, and it would be fast.

Pushing back the sleeve of her sleep shirt, she placed the tip of the knife midway up her forearm. During her time in the A&E, she’d seen many unsuccessful suicides — those who slashed their wrists from side to side, the wounds like small mouths that cried for help. And she’d seen those who meant it. The proper way was to slit the veins lengthwise; deep, sure cuts that would drain her of blood in minutes, assure unconsciousness in seconds. 

Quickly, experimentally, she shifted the knife tip into the flesh, to see how well it would serve. At once, a bead of dark red blood welled from the pinprick and began to trickle down the length of her arm.

Oh, it would do well enough.

Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath to steel herself. 

One last cut, Beauchamp. 

The thought came automatically, unbidden — and with it, a sudden swell of emotion that knocked the breath from her lungs. 

Jamie.

It seemed impossible, somehow, that he had been the one person she hadn’t considered in this plan. He’d occupied every one of her thoughts for so long, and now…

She hadn’t even stopped to think about what this would do to him.

With a hand that shook violently, she threw the knife into the sink with a clatter and took a horrified step back, panting as if waking from a nightmare.

She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t lay another death at his feet.

He would be shattered. 

Never mind what he thought of her — how he despised her. That wouldn’t matter. 

She knew Jamie Fraser’s heart. 

He would blame himself, even if the fault was entirely hers. 

If surviving like this — and that’s all it would be, surviving — meant that he would be spared any more pain by her hand, she could do it. She could be brave. She could face a life sentence of loneliness if it meant...

A sharp breath, and her eyes snapped up, lucid and blinking — clear, for the first time in seven days.

That was it. 

Jesus H. Christ, why hadn’t she thought of it before?

Claire left the kitchen on trembling legs, feeling her veins flood with relief.

If she was going to throw away the rest of her life, let it be with purpose. 

Chapter Text

Claire felt like a bloody idiot for having taken Frank at his word when he insisted, repeatedly and with conviction, that they would both face a life sentence for what they’d done. 

It didn’t even take half an hour of Googling to completely debunk that notion. 

If Jamie had actually died, and if there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver of the vehicle had been operating under the influence, Frank could have been facing a prison sentence of up to thirty years. 

But Jamie hadn’t died. And there had been no breath analysis, no police encounter, no witnesses to the crime; no proof beyond her word that he’d been drunk — and that would be a matter of he said, she said, with Frank’s lawyers certain to eviscerate her character, her motives, her own level of intoxication on the stand.

For fleeing the site of personal injury, with no proof of alcohol intoxication, Frank would be looking at a sentence of six months to two years. 

His Harvard-elite attorney would ensure he only served the minimum.

And Claire would face no charges whatsoever.

She’d searched desperately, trying to find a law that would hold her accountable for her role in the accident. As far as she was concerned, she was just as guilty as Frank… yet the only laws she could find were for the drivers involved in the crash, not the passengers. 

The iniquity of it all boiled molten in her veins. 

Weeks after the fact, she still remembered with excruciating clarity how Jamie had writhed beneath her hands when she’d first changed the dressings on his back — tears leaking from the corners of his eyes, teeth clenched to keep from crying out. She could still feel him shaking, wracked with spasms that juddered from his flesh and bone into hers. 

If she listened hard enough, she could hear the mechanical drag and hiss of the ventilator in the deafening silence of her flat. 

More than anyone, Claire knew how Jamie had suffered. 

She’d done what she could to heal him, see him safe. But it wasn’t enough; it had never felt like enough. And now she understood why.

There was one final step in her atonement.

She needed him to have justice.

In a perfect world, she would have taken Frank down with her. She wanted him to be held accountable, to be punished right alongside her for what they’d done. But if an elegant courtroom dance with the right lawyer meant he would serve only half a year, while Claire walked away unpenalized…

It was a no-brainer, really. 

She would take the blame. 

All of it. 

Turn herself in to the police, say that she had been the one who’d driven recklessly and under the influence, hit Jamie, and fled the scene of the crime. She would decline counsel, plead guilty to all charges. 

A felony and a misdemeanor: a twelve year sentence, at the maximum. 

And she would ask the judge for the maximum.

As soon as she decided, it was like a switch had flipped inside of her. After a week spent nearly catatonic, vacant and hopeless, there was finally a way forward; a way she could live with herself. 

A way to do right by the man she loved.

What little knowledge Claire possessed of the American criminal justice system came from the telly: Law and Order reruns, Dateline NBC, Orange Is the New Black. From what she gathered, she wouldn’t be allowed to bring many personal belongings. She had an empty Amazon box that seemed about the right size to slide under a prison bunk, so she placed it on her dresser and designated it for holding the few sentimental items she’d take with her.

Everything else in her flat needed to go. 

It was perhaps the one benefit to living such a lonely, minimalist existence: if she worked solidly through the weekend, she thought she could probably have the whole place packed up, sorted, and labeled, either for charity or for her coworkers to pick through and take what they wanted.

Planting her hands on her hips, Claire turned away from her dresser to survey her bedroom, already assembling a task list in her head.

“Right,” she whispered to herself.

And with a renewed sense of purpose, she went to work. 

 




She managed to put off the inevitable for three days. 

Gillian had been so thrilled to see her out of bed on Friday morning that she hadn’t even stopped to question why the entire contents of Claire’s closet were sprawled across her mattress or stuffed into rubbish bags. 

On Saturday, seeing that she had moved on to boxing up the dishes in the kitchen, she’d quietly asked if Claire was moving.

Claire had told her friend yes, and left it at that. 

But by Sunday evening, with her entire flat nearly packed, she had finally, reluctantly, decided to tell Gillian the truth. If she was going to ask for her help in doling out this mess of donations, she supposed she owed her that much. 

Thus far, the Scot’s reaction was fairly on par with what she’d been expecting.

“Are ye aff yer heid, woman?!” she yelped, chasing after Claire as she carried a box of books out to the growing pile in her living room. “Ye canna do this!”

Claire lifted her brows, her jaw set in defiance. “Actually, I can.” She dropped the box with a heavy thunk, then wiped her palms on her jeans to mask the visible, almost Parkinsonian tremor in her muscles. “Do you think the library will take these, or should I just mark them for the Salvation Army?”

“Neither!” Gill all but shrieked. “Because ye’re not turnin’ yerself in! Jesus, will ye just sit down for two feckin’ seconds and talk to me?”

Claire paused, glancing briefly at the couch before turning back to fetch another box.

She knew damn well that if she sat down now, she wouldn’t be able to get back up again.

Her body had already been pushed far beyond its limits. For a while she’d been able to power through on adrenaline alone, and then on sheer stubbornness once that ran dry. But hour by hour she could feel herself slowing down — her mind growing hazy, her reflexes delayed, her movements shaky and disorganized. 

Going nine days without food had perhaps not been the wisest thing she’d ever done. 

She’d picked at a few bites of the eggs and toast Gillian had brought for breakfast on Friday morning, then (over-ambitiously) ordered a pizza for herself later that night. But after wolfing down two greasy slices in quick succession, Claire’s shrunken, roiling stomach had rebelled and hurled them right back up again.  

So she was back to square one. And growing more exhausted, more depleted by the hour.

But she was so close now. She wasn’t about to stop for a run to the store for bloody soda crackers and broth. 

She only had to make it one more day.

Tomorrow morning, as soon as the Salvation Army truck came to pick up her donations, she’d go straight to the police station with her photo ID, a box of her most precious possessions, and a handwritten confession. 

Assuming her meddlesome friend would get out of the way and let her get back to work.

Naturally, she should have known Gillian Edgars would do no such thing.

The feisty little ginger stepped directly into Claire’s path, reaching up to grip her by the shoulders. The abrupt stop sent the whole room spinning on without her, and for one terrifying moment Claire thought she might actually pass out.

“Look, Beauchamp,” she heard her friend say beneath the ringing in her ears, “I care for ye like a sister, so I want ye to know this comes from a place of love.” Claire blinked a few times as the vertigo began to clear, forcing her pupils to focus on the fierce green eyes glaring up at her. “But ye’re off yer feckin’ rocker. I honestly think ye’re delirious. Ye haven’t slept, ye probably have low blood sugar, and ye’re dry as a nun’s chuff.” She shifted one hand down to clasp Claire’s wrist, falling silent for a few seconds as she counted in her head. “Aye, what a shock. Yer pulse is through the roof, and yer cap refill is shit. Ye need to go to the ER, not the feckin’ cops!” 

“I’m fine,” Claire snapped, jerking her hand away. “I’ll… I’ll go drink a liter of water, alright? I don’t need to sit in a bloody waiting room for five hours just so they can give it to me through an IV.”  

Gillian’s expression didn’t shift in the slightest; she wore her Nurse Face, and was currently accepting none of Claire’s excuses. “It’s a start, hen, but I think we’re way past that. If ye’re honestly having delusions about turnin’ yerself in to the police for a crime ye didna commit, I—”

“I knew I shouldn’t have told you,” Claire muttered darkly, shouldering past her friend to get through her bedroom door. “Just forget I said anything. I’m sorry to have brought you into this.”

“Don’t you do that,” Gillian warned, following right behind her. “Dinna shut me out because I actually give a shit what happens to ye!”

Claire felt her heart trip violently over a beat, and braced a hand on her dresser as she shuffled to a halt. 

It was a long time before she could form words again, and when she did, they came out in a strained whisper. “Unlike Jamie, you mean.”

“No, that’s not what I mean!” Gill insisted, hands moving stubbornly to her hips. “This isn’t about Jamie. It’s about you.” She stepped out of Claire’s peripheral vision to face her head on again. “But while we’re on the subject, aye, let’s talk about Fraser for a minute. Ye honestly think this is what he would want? That if he kent what ye intended, he’d applaud ye for yer bonny notion to get yerself locked up for something ye didna even do?”

“Why do you keep saying that?” Claire seethed, raising burning, dry eyes to glare directly into Gillian’s. “Of course I did! I may not have been the one behind the wheel, but I am just as responsible for what happened as Frank is. And you know damn well, damn well that he’ll get off with a slap on the wrist, and then just—just carry on about his life as if nothing ever happened!”

“Aye, so?!” Gillian threw her hands up in the air. “The American justice system is fucked! What else is new? It’s no’ yer job to fix it by martyring yerself!” 

“It’s not martyring if I’m responsible for the crime.” Claire ended the conversation decisively as she picked up another box and turned away. “And I am.” 

For once in her life, Gillian seemed to be at a loss for words. She watched Claire carry the box into the living room, and was still standing there silently when she came back into the bedroom for another load. Her green eyes were glassed over, deep in thought, and she narrowed them slightly before she blinked, focusing again. 

“I’ve gotta go,” she said suddenly, taking off toward the door without so much as a backward glance.   

Claire stood rooted to the spot — swaying slightly on her feet, her eyes closed and her heart in her stomach — as she listened to her last friend walk away. 

“Drink some feckin’ water while I’m gone!” she heard the Scot bellow from the front door before it slammed shut behind her. 

 




The packing hadn’t taken Jamie as long as he’d hoped. 

His flat had come furnished, and he’d only been living in it for four months before the accident. Admittedly, the place was a bit of a bachelor pad — scant on décor, intended simply as a place to crash after a long day at work — so it had taken him a grand total of eight hours to pack up all of his belongings and haul the boxes down to the post office. 

Which left him with far more free time than he had any idea how to fill.  

And when left idle, his traitorous mind kept drifting back to her.

He made himself coffee and glanced instinctively to his right, remembering how her cheeks had flushed when he caught her watching him over the rim of her own cup. 

He showered, aching for the delicate touch of her fingers as she massaged lilac-and-vanilla shampoo into his hair. 

He flipped aimlessly through the channels on the telly, lingering a few seconds too long on HGTV before he swallowed and clicked past.

She was in everything, everywhere — whether waking or sleeping, whether he wished it or not. 

A naÏve part of him thought perhaps it would get better when he was home, away from all of this... back in a place where he’d never seen her, never known what it was to love her. 

But it was a fool’s hope, and he knew it. 

Claire’s ghost would be waiting for him at Lallybroch. He’d let her in, brought her with him into his deepest, most sacred memories; watched her eyes melt like caramel as he showed her his childhood photos, regaled her with endless stories of his home, his family, his upbringing. She was there now too, stitched into the very fabric of his being.

Time and time and time again, he had to remind himself that none of it had been real. That he’d been blinded by love, was a fecking idiot, and needed to get past it somehow.

Claire wasn’t who he thought she was. What they had wasn’t real.  

The admonishment felt like a death, no matter how many times he repeated it to himself.

On his last night in Boston, Jamie lay flat on his back in the flickering light of the telly. Over and over, he tossed a squashy wee stress ball he’d picked up at some conference or another, watching it arc through the air before dropping back into his open palm. The mindless, repetitive motion was blessedly numbing; he had no delusions that he’d get any real sleep before his early morning flight, but if he could manage to pass the hours without falling into a rabbit hole of memory, it would be victory enough.    

When the unexpected knock came at his front door, he craned his head to look back in confusion, and the ball dropped onto his chest with a dull thwap.

Wrong flat? he reasoned at first. He’d already had his dinner delivered; the empty styrofoam container lay on the floor beside him.

But before he could even climb fully to his feet, the persistent knocking (pounding, rather) was accompanied by a very familiar voice. 

“Fraser, it’s me. Open the feckin’ door, it’s colder than a witch’s tit out here!” 

He was sure his expression must have been comical in that moment; a thousand different thoughts jumbled in his mind at once, and each one only served to heighten the utter befuddlement stamped across his face.

The second he unbolted the door and turned the knob, Gillian Edgars burst past him and into his flat, red-cheeked and panting. She stomped the heels of her boots on his mat to get the snow off of them, turning accusatory green eyes up to his. “Jesus, took ye long enough,” she muttered.  

Jamie opened and closed his mouth, still at a complete loss. “Gillian… hi.”

“Hi yerself. Sorry to burst in on ye like this, but I need to talk to you.”

Belatedly, he closed the door behind her, gesturing to the couch. “Aye... of course, come on in. What’s, ah… what’s going on? Is everything alright?”

“No, it’s not,” Gill said bluntly. She ignored his invitation to sit, looking at him head-on as she crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s about Claire.”

Chapter Text

The intercom crackled mere seconds after he’d pressed the wee silver button next to her name. 

“Hi, come on up. I left your tip on the entry table, just leave the food there, please,” her voice said through the speaker.

Jamie stood motionless as the front door unlocked with a buzz, every one of his muscles clenched tight to the bone. 

Christ, he wasn’t sure he could do this. 

Just that brief interaction — not even meant for him — and already he felt bile cresting in the back of his throat.

Still, he didn’t see that he had much of a choice. 

Even when he’d been dying before her very eyes, Gillian Edgars had barked out orders with the cool precision of a military commander. The lass could be flippant and irreverent and downright obnoxious at times, but he’d never once seen her rattled.

She’d been rattled tonight.

He knew from personal experience that she was fiercely loyal, and would have done a great deal to help a friend in need. But to risk her nursing license, break privacy laws to go back through his chart and hunt down his home address... that was something else entirely.

So he’d listened, with his wame in a knot, as she told him of Claire’s plans. 

Convinced that Frank Randall would not see the justice he deserved if he were to have his day in court, she’d set her mind to taking all the blame herself. It would mean not only a twelve-year prison sentence, but the end of her nursing career; with a felony charge on her record, Claire would never be able to work in health care again. 

Apparently, Gillian had tried everything she could think of to make her see reason, but the stubborn wee Sassenach would have none of it. 

“The lass would throw her whole life away to try to make this up to you,” she’d told him accusingly, her eyes raw and gleaming. “If ye let her.”

Not a choice, then, at all.

In the last second before the buzzing door locked again, Jamie squared his jaw and pushed through.

The elevator in Claire’s building seemed to hurtle upwards faster than any he could recall in his life. When the metal doors slid open on her floor, he swallowed against the heartbeat pounding in his throat, the fingers of his left hand tapping restlessly against his thigh.

He had no earthly idea what he was doing. 

What he would say. 

What she would say.

How it would be between them.

Forcing in a tight breath, he rounded the corner to face her door. It had been left ajar, just as she’d said... but at first glance, there was no sign of Claire. He listened hard for a moment, and heard a distant rustle of movement from her bedroom.

He released the breath in a huff of relief then, grateful for the extra time to get his bearings, find some semblance of composure before he saw her again. He’d only been in the flat one time, but the memories of what had happened in this living room were branded permanently in his mind. To see it completely dismantled came as a shock to the system; all of the furniture had been wrapped in blankets and duct tape, the walls and bookshelves and cabinets stripped bare, and just inside the entryway, boxes were piled nearly to the ceiling.

It was one thing to hear that Claire was planning to throw her life away. But to see it with his own two eyes… 

A Dhia, she truly means to go through with this.

It wasn’t protectiveness, he told himself, that suddenly blazed to life in his chest; it was only a sense of honor, duty. She hadn’t committed the crime for which she intended to turn herself in. It wouldn’t be justice to let her do so. 

He quietly cleared his throat, preparing to call out to her — to tell her as much, sternly and succinctly, then leave before he could say anything more. 

But then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw it. 

A small box sat on the entry table, apart from all the rest, not yet sealed with packing tape. On the side, in handwriting he would have known anywhere, was written a simple C. Beauchamp. 

And resting inside was a picture of him.     

He recognized it immediately; it had been his profile picture on Facebook a few summers back. Ian had taken it when they were bagging munros — a candid shot of Jamie’s sweaty, beaming face, squinting up into the sunlight as he looked out across the Highlands.

Swallowing several times, he lifted the sheet of paper with a trembling hand. 

He felt her then. 

The fine hairs on his arms stood suddenly on end, a peppery sensation tingling across his scalp and down the length of his spine.

When her voice whispered to him across the room, broken and disbelieving, he closed his eyes on tears. 

“Jamie?”

He held very still, not yet trusting himself to speak. 

In the pin-drop silence, he heard her take a hesitant step closer. “What are you doing here?”

Slowly, he forced his eyes open, but kept his gaze trained on the floor between them. “Gillian,” he answered, his voice low, gruff. “Came and found me.”

“Jesus H. Christ,” she breathed out. “She said she was sending something over. I thought she meant...” There was a long pause, then she sighed shakily. When she spoke again, the sound was muffled, as though she were speaking through her fingers. “I’m so sorry she bothered you. I promise, I... I never intended for you to have to worry about any of this. I’m going to plead guilty to everything, I don’t think you’ll even need to make a statement.”

The muscles around his eyes tightened in pain. “Is that why ye think I’m here, Claire? Because I dinna want the inconvenience of a day in court?”

He heard her swallow, take a wavering breath. “Why are you here?” she whispered.

He finally lifted his eyes to look at her then.

And his hammering heart went still.

In all the time he’d known her, Claire had been too thin, too pale; too invested in tending to his needs to see to her own. On their last day together, his chest had ached with worry as he brushed his lips over the bruise-like rings under her eyes, cradled her against him and counted each of her ribs beneath his hands. 

It was nothing compared to this.

The woman trembling in front of him was bloodless, deathly white, the skin stretched like wax over her bones. He could see the individual hollows and curves of her skull, watch the pulse in the veins in her temples and forehead. The soft, generous pink mouth that had molded so eagerly to his was now withered and cracked, a tiny fissure in her bottom lip clotted off with dried blood.

Only her eyes — those heartbroken golden eyes — were recognizable to him as Claire. 

He was halfway across the room before his mind could catch up, every molecule in his body igniting with the need to touch her, comfort her, help her. She wasn’t just too thin anymore; she was wasting away, dying...

So were you, the logical side of him retorted when he was almost within arm’s reach of the lass. And she left ye in the road to bleed.  

The thought stopped him cold in his tracks. 

Claire looked up into the storm of his gaze with quiet, unflinching resignation, her posture braced as though she expected him to scream at her — scold and berate and scathe until she buckled beneath the battering ram of his fury.

But he didn’t want to hurt her. 

Christ, he never had.

Swallowing hard, he took one more deliberate step into her personal space. His eyes held hers, steadfast and painfully vulnerable, searching for any sign of the woman he loved in the one standing before him. 

“Why are you doing this?” he asked, his voice so hoarse he barely recognized it as his own.

Claire gave an infinitesimal shake of her head, her eyes pleading for an understanding he didn’t possess. “I have to,” she answered just as faintly.

“Why?”

For a moment her heavy eyelids slipped shut, and he thought that was it — she was withdrawing, hiding. But then she tried to moisten her lips with an equally dry tongue, and her lashes parted slowly again, as though with great effort. 

“It’s the only thing I have left to give you, Jamie.”

He felt a crack like a gunshot through his chest, and the air went out of him in a strangled breath. 

She was telling the truth. He could feel it.

There was no logical basis for it, no grounding in any sort of reality that made sense. But more than the words themselves, her pain echoed deep inside of him, stirring that place of innate understanding that no one had ever been able to reach but Claire.

He took another half-step closer.   

“Do ye think this is what I want?” he pressed. “For you to suffer, to… to rot in jail, give up the rest of yer career for my sake?” His brow furrowed, but he made a conscious effort to soften his tone. “Ye truly think I want revenge?”

The dull, weary gold of her irises flickered back and forth as she studied him. Slowly, she began to shake her head. 

“No,” she murmured. “No, I know you better than that.”

Gently, she reached out to take the paper from his hand. Jamie released it to her without protest, watching the subtle shift in her expression as she looked down at his picture — the softening of the lines around her eyes and mouth, the anemic curve of her lips that was not quite a smile. Even her voice went tender as milk as she asked, “Ian took this, didn’t he?”

“Aye,” he whispered.

The smile reached her eyes then. “I thought so.” 

She wove around him in slow, shuffling steps, never tearing her gaze from the picture as she went to place it back in its box. Bracing one trembling hand on the entry table, she tried again to wet her lips. “You know, I… I’ve thought a lot about him these past few days,” she continued softly. “He and your sister. Murtagh. Your aunts and uncles. Friends.” 

She was quiet for a moment, staring down into the box with vacant, glassy eyes. When she spoke again, her voice was so thin that he had to take a few steps closer to make out what she was saying. “I know there’s nothing I can do to make this any better for you, Jamie. But the people who love you, who—who are going to help you rebuild your life… I think maybe this will help them. It might give them some peace, knowing that the person who did this to you will be brought to justice.”

As she spoke, he continued to drift closer to her, until he could hear every shallow, shivering breath she took. He could go now, he realized — take those last few steps past her and leave this place. The door was wide open. He’d done his duty, confirmed that this wasn’t what he wanted, that she didn’t need to do this for his sake. If Claire meant to turn herself in for his loved ones’ peace of mind, there was little he could do to convince her otherwise. She was right, after all; it was what they wanted. They’d told him as much, and didn’t mince words about it.

But that was what troubled him.  

Jenny kept insisting that Claire must be a sociopath — a canny liar, with no empathy, no heart. But Christ, this woman had been wasting away before his very eyes the entire time he’d known her; literally, physically consumed with guilt. She was whittled away to nothing now, and still trying to sacrifice whatever scraps of herself were left to try to atone for what she’d done. 

If nothing else, it meant she had a conscience.

But how could someone with a conscience have left him to die in the first place?

It didn’t add up. It didn’t make sense. 

Which meant he was missing something. 

Slowly, hesitantly, he followed Claire’s gaze to the wee cardboard box that bore her name and his picture. It seemed the most obvious place to start searching for answers. But whatever he unearthed, whatever it confirmed about the person she was (or wasn’t), he knew he would have to live with that knowledge for the rest of his life. There would be no take-backs, no do-overs.  

Perhaps ignorance was indeed bliss, Jamie conceded. 

But he was already far beyond the gates of Eden.

 




At the end of the day, with all of Claire’s worldly possessions laid out before her, the few items that truly mattered had not even filled a small cardboard box. 

As she’d placed it on her entry table earlier that evening, she couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps that was true of everyone... or if it was just a sad indicator of how little meaning her life held; how little she had to hold onto.

She had a fairly good idea what the answer was. But she’d tucked those thoughts away in favor of all the work still to be done, and not looked at that half-empty box again since. 

Until Jamie…

She’d thought him a hallucination at first. Told herself she really did need to stop and get a bloody drink of water if she was seeing him in her doorway again.

But he was here. He was real.  

And she would murder Gillian for it with her bare fucking hands the next time she saw her.

It was excruciating, seeing him like this. All of the hurt and confusion he’d managed to mask so effectively the last time had been laid bare tonight, his pain right there at the surface, as plain as the wounds on his back.

But it was his impossible, heartbreaking tenderness that shattered her. 

She tried her best to deflect his empathy in the direction of his family, where it belonged — reminded him that the ripple effects of her selfishness extended far beyond just the two of them. She still wasn’t sure if it had worked; Jamie had gone deathly silent while she explained, and he still hadn’t said a word either way.

It wasn’t until she felt the heat radiating from his skin that she realized he’d been inching steadily closer to her the entire time. 

A violent shiver rolled down her spine at the contrast, and she drew her arms around herself to rub away the goosebumps. She’d known for several hours that she was running a fever; the chills were much easier to ignore when she was moving. 

But she didn’t dare move as Jamie edged to a halt beside her, their shoulders nearly touching.  

Neither of them said anything for a while; neither of them needed to. He let out a soft, shuddering breath as he reached out to curl his fingertips over the rim of the box, then hesitated, inclining his head toward hers in a silent request for permission. She gave him a tiny nod, even as her stomach twisted with anticipation — with the terrible vulnerability of what that box would tell him about her.

It was everything there was. Her whole life. 

Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp, in a half-empty Amazon box. 

The well-loved, stuffed bunny she’d slept with every night as a child. The pearl-inlaid hair comb her mother had worn on her wedding day. A woolen scarf that still smelled like her father. A manila folder of birthday and Christmas cards she’d kept over the years. Her framed diploma from nursing school. Orange-tinted polaroids of her parents and grandparents, postcards from her Uncle Lamb, glossy 4x6 prints from her childhood.

And a picture of Jamie.

She chewed the inside of her lip, watching through her lashes as he lifted each precious item — touching the pad of his finger reverently to the missing eye on her bunny, reading the handwritten messages on her cards, pausing to study each of her pictures with soft blue eyes before he moved on to the next.

When his expression suddenly darkened, his Adam’s apple bobbing in a taut throat, she knew without looking down that he’d found the newspaper clipping.

LOCAL TRAGEDY: Oxford statistician Dr. Henry Beauchamp and his wife Julia, a local grammar school teacher, were killed in a fatal car accident on Sunday evening when their vehicle plummeted from the Isis Bridge off Oxford Ring Road. They are survived by their daughter, Claire, who was also in the vehicle at the time of the accident, but suffered only minor injuries. Services for Dr. and Mrs. Beauchamp will be held—

Jamie’s eyes lifted abruptly from the page. “It was true,” he said, his brows curving upwards with mingled surprise and relief. “What ye told me about yer parents.” 

Claire tried to smile, even as she felt another piece of her heart break off and crumble away. “It was.” 

Of course. Of course he would doubt everything — every story shared over 2 AM coffee, every moment of quiet tenderness between them, every single word that had ever come out of her mouth. She deserved that. But the thought that she might have broken his trust altogether… made him doubt his own intuition, perhaps hindered his ability to open up to someone else down the road, someone who could love him the way he deserved... 

Claire drew her arms tighter around herself, knowing that she needed to explain somehow, find a way to help him understand. She turned slowly to face him, looking directly into his eyes and praying with everything in her that he would be able to read the honesty in her face, even if the words themselves were difficult to hear. 

“I never lied to you, Jamie,” she promised, her voice hoarse and cracking. “I know that probably doesn’t mean much, given this… terrible secret I kept from you.” She had to pause to swallow against a dry, aching throat before she could continue, “But for what it’s worth, whenever I told you something, it was always the truth.”

Jamie’s eyes were fathomless as the sea, churning and inscrutable and dark, dark blue. But when they searched hers this time, he finally seemed to find what he was looking for. 

“Aye,” he whispered, giving an almost imperceptible nod. “It’s worth a great deal to me, lass.” His fingertips rose for a moment as though they might brush her cheek, but faltered, coming to rest just above her elbow instead. “So if I asked it of ye now, would you tell me?”

“Tell you what?” Claire asked, though she already knew.

“The truth,” he answered steadily. “Everything that happened that night, wi’ you and… and Frank.” His fingers closed gently around her upper arm. “I need to hear it from you, Claire. That’s what you can give me.” 

She closed her heavy, drooping eyes for a moment, convinced that twelve years in prison sounded like a much easier alternative to what he was asking of her. Just the thought of watching his heart break again, seeing the horror and disgust as she spelled out every excruciating detail… 

But he was right. If hearing it might help him come to terms with what had happened, find closure for this chapter of his life so he could try to move on… of course she would give that to him.

There was so little strength left in her. But what she did have was his, if he needed it.

“Alright,” she agreed faintly, anchoring herself in the feel of his hand as the world pitched and reeled around them. “You should have a seat, Jamie. This may take a while.”

Chapter Text

He couldn’t look at her for a long time. 

But he listened.

At first he sat stone still, his back straight, hands folded between his knees. But when she began to tell him about the search for an engagement ring — about kneading that smug, smirking bastard into distraction — he thought he might come out of his skin if he didn’t move. 

Claire’s voice faltered as he climbed to his feet and began to pace.

“Keep going,” he urged hoarsely.  

And she did, even as her throat closed with tears.

She told him about the flash of headlights. About cracking her head on the seat, and waking to an empty car and the taste of blood. 

She told him how Frank had returned pale and visibly shaken, insisting that the other driver was already dead. How he’d put the child lock on the door when she tried to get out and start CPR.

Jamie staggered to a halt at that, bracing a hand against an empty bookshelf.

From that point on, every word she said made his heart pound faster.

She told him that she’d tried to call 911, but Frank had snatched the mobile from her hand, paranoid that the call might be traced. 

She told him that she’d kicked off her heels and ran to get help as soon as the car door unlocked; that she’d stopped the first pedestrian she could find and asked him to call an ambulance.

Jamie finally turned to face her then, his wame in his throat. “Can ye describe him?” he rasped. “The man ye asked to call?”

“Yes.” Claire’s brow furrowed slightly as she tried to remember. “He was… older... 60s, maybe? Chinese. Grey hair, glasses—”

“Thickly accented?” he prodded, remembering what the police had told him. 

“Very. I wasn’t sure he spoke English, at first. But he said he would call, and I saw the ambulance driving toward you a few minutes later, so...”

Christ.

No one, save Frank and Claire, knew the details of the accident itself; no one would be able to confirm or deny the accuracy of her account. But this… this was proof that she was telling the truth. How else could she possibly have a description of the man who had called the ambulance dispatcher? 

And if she was telling the truth, then she hadn’t just left him to die. She’d done everything in her power to save him.

She had saved him. That 911 call was the only reason Jamie was still alive.

“And then ye came back?” he asked softly, hopefully.

Claire gave a slow nod, her chin dimpling as though she might cry. “I never wanted to leave you in the first place.”

Relief bloomed warm and aching in his chest, like a morning sunbeam thawing the last of a bitter night’s frost. 

It was her. 

It had been her all along.

A film of tears hung on his lashes as he closed them, and a single drip escaped down his cheek as he swallowed and looked up at her again. 

“I believe ye, Sassenach.” 

Golden eyes snapped up to his, round with surprise. When she found only tenderness reflected back at her, the muscles of her face went slack in relief, then crumpled. 

Whatever fleeting solace had buoyed Jamie’s heart, it was replaced with a slow, sinking terror as he watched her frail body curl in on itself, juddering with sobs. 

She wasn’t making any tears.

Her nose wasn’t running; her eyes were bloodshot, bone dry.

He had no real medical training, of course, but Jamie knew well enough that if she was too dehydrated to cry, she was in a bad way. The image of Gillian’s face suddenly surfaced in his mind’s eye — her uncharacteristic fear, her desperation. She’d assessed the situation as a nurse who knew exactly what a dire state her friend was in… and ultimately, she’d come to him. 

Which meant that it wasn’t a medical condition draining the life from Claire. It was the same unfathomable pain he’d seen in her eyes on the very first day they met; the grief of a healer who had caused terrible suffering, and didn’t know how to make it better.  

There was nothing more that Gillian could do to help her. 

Nothing that anyone could do.

Except him. 

Feeling as though the weight of the world had settled squarely on his shoulders, Jamie slowly closed the remaining distance between them, and eased himself down onto the couch beside her. 

He had questions. A Dhia, there were still so many things he needed her to explain. But for the first time in eleven days, he truly believed that there was an explanation — a good one — for everything that had happened.

And he knew, somehow… knew down to his marrow that Claire needed to tell him as much as he needed to hear it.

Her breath hitched when he reached over to cover her hand with his.

“Can ye tell me more?” he asked quietly.

 




Claire had always expected Jamie to be furious when she told him about the night that had shattered them both.

And he had been, for a moment. When she told him about the drunken sexual exploits that had caused the accident in the first place, he’d paced in front of her like a caged panther, corded veins standing out in his neck and temples. 

But the longer she spoke, the more his demeanor softened, muscle by muscle — and the more he relaxed, the easier the words seemed to flow, until they came pouring out of her like a cataract of water over a broken dam.

There had been undeniable relief in sharing her story with Gillian; in having another person who knew everything. But it was different, somehow, with Jamie. 

Everything was different with Jamie.

It wasn’t… vindication, exactly, that she sought in telling him about her attempts to save his life. She didn’t expect a bloody pat on the back for trying to fix what she’d broken in the first place. 

She just… needed him to know that he hadn’t been alone that night. That someone, somewhere, had been fighting for him.

And somehow, during the course of that revelation, she found herself holding his hand.

As she told him about her return to the corner of Berkeley and Commonwealth, Jamie’s thumb smoothed back and forth over her knuckles, unusually cool against her fevered skin. She felt his eyes on her face the entire time, watching her, but couldn’t bring herself to meet them.

“... and by the time I got there, they had already blocked off the intersection with crime scene tape. They were bringing in photographers, collecting evidence. And there was... so much blood, I knew there was no way you could’ve—” Her voice cracked, and his fingers tightened around hers.

“I did, though,” he said softly. 

Claire sucked in a trembling breath, and nodded. 

They were both silent for a long while. But Jamie never let go of her hand, or pressured her to say any more until she was ready.

“I should have turned myself in then,” she continued at last. “Told the police everything. They were right there.” She paused to try to swallow, shaking her head at her own cowardice. “But I just kept hearing Frank’s voice in my head, saying that there was nothing more I could do for you. That you were dead, and—and what use was it for me to go to prison if it wouldn’t help anything? It wouldn’t bring you back. But I was still a nurse, and I... I thought if I worked hard enough… if I saved as many lives as I could, maybe it would…” Her ribs buckled on a sob, and Jamie slid closer, until their sides were pressed together.

“And I tried,” she choked, knowing full well that she was nearly incoherent with grief. Perhaps Jamie wouldn’t understand a word of what she was saying, but she needed to tell him regardless. “I tried, Jamie. I was working nonstop, I was picking up everyone’s shifts and I—I took all the most difficult assignments, and I ran codes in the middle of the night, and I... I was at seven. I’d saved seven people by the time you came to our unit, and it didn’t — I just kept wondering... how many people do you have to save to make up for taking a life? Fifty? A hundred? A thousand? I...”  

The more desperate her sobbing became, the more restless Jamie grew beside her; he shifted in his seat as though her pain was physically affecting him, until at last he released her hand in favor of wrapping his arm snugly around her shoulders. Claire sat up straight, resisting the impulse to lean into him, no matter how her failing body yearned for it. 

She didn’t deserve comfort, least of all from Jamie Fraser. 

What she needed to do was to get a bloody hold of herself. The hyperventilation from crying certainly wasn’t helping matters any; between that, the dehydration, and the fever, the room around her had begun to go black at the edges. While she forced herself to slow down and take deep gulps of air, Jamie held her steady, his fingertips stroking in gentle circles over the cap of her shoulder. 

It was several minutes before he broke the raw, aching silence that had fallen between them. 

“Do ye think that’s why ye became a nurse in the first place, Sassenach?” he murmured, his breath warm on the shell of her ear. “Because ye couldna save yer parents, but… but mebbe ye could still help other people?”  

Claire turned her head to look at him, taken aback by the suggestion. The instinct to heal had been a part of her for as long as she could remember; she’d always thought it as intrinsic to her being as hair or eye color. But was it possible that her calling was a coping mechanism in itself, born out of her failure to save the ones she loved most in the world? 

“Maybe,” she whispered, her chin trembling. 

Jamie held her gaze for a moment, a profound sadness sinking into the lines of his face. He nodded to himself, then looked down, the comforting circular movement of his fingers stilling against her upper arm.

“And that’s why ye stayed wi’ me,” he deduced quietly, “when I was sick wi’ the meningitis. Once ye learnt who I was, ye… ye thought it yer duty to see me safe.” His eyes glazed over, the muscles around his mouth tightening in resignation. “Yer penance.”

“You know it was more than that,” she heard herself saying before she could stop it. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wanted desperately to snatch them back.  

A flicker of hope brightened Jamie’s eyes as he shifted his weight in towards her. “What do ye mean?”

Yes, Beauchamp, what do you mean? she scolded. 

It would be better for Jamie if he thought her motivations strictly guilt-driven; it would give him closure, let him sever his ties to her and walk away, without the complication of… them.  

“Nothing,” she dismissed weakly. “Never mind.”

His fingertips curled into her shoulder. “Claire...”

She squeezed her eyes shut as a fresh wave of vertigo got the better of her, suddenly reeling and dizzy and too warm. “I… I just meant that...” Christ, if the room would just stop spinning, she might be able to think. “You were more to me than just a… a means for atonement, Jamie.” She took a shallow, shivering breath, and opened heavy-lidded eyes to look at him again. “Maybe at first, before I knew you. But with time, I…”

—fell desperately in love with you — 

“... grew to care for you… very much. When you contracted the meningitis, it… it wasn’t a matter of obligation to stay with you. I wanted to be there.”

Jamie’s expression slowly tightened with hurt, until a taut blue vein stood out beneath his eye. “Did ye?” he rasped, sliding his hand down from her shoulder to rest on the couch just behind her. “Because the way I remember it, ye would barely look at me for weeks, Claire. Ye’d go hours wi’out saying a word, and when ye did, it…” He hesitated, chewing his bottom lip. “It was like it wasna even you. No’ the Claire I kent, anyway.”

Shame settled like coal in the pit of her stomach — a searing, black, heavy pain that threatened to burn right through her. “I know,” she agreed, so faintly she wasn’t even sure he could hear her. “And I know that it… hurt you, terribly.” Her voice dropped even further then, until it was little more than a breath through parched lips. “Christ, every time you’d look at me and I had to… pretend that I didn’t see you…”

“Why?” Jamie begged hoarsely, shifting so his knees pressed into hers. “Why did ye have to?”

She raised her shoulders in a long, stiff shrug before letting them fall slack again. “I thought it would make things easier for both of us if I cut ties slowly; if I made it so you didn’t want to be near me anymore. That way, when I told you the truth about what I’d done, it…” Her voice wavered, and she rolled her tongue along the inside of her cheek to ease the cramp of tears in her jaw. “It wouldn’t hurt so much.”

As he weighed her words, the furrow between Jamie’s brows deepened in thought. “But ye didn’t tell me,” he pointed out. 

“No,” Claire admitted softly. “I didn’t.” She drew in a deep breath through her nose, and released it in a sigh. “I meant to. That very first night I came back, and a dozen times since. But there was always some reason why it wasn’t the right time. You were in terrible pain, or… or you’d just broken up with your girlfriend, or...” She squeezed her eyes shut, shrugging slowly again. “There were a hundred different excuses I could come up with to convince myself to wait. But the longer I went without telling you, the more... time we spent together... the harder it was to…”  

When her silence trailed on for several pained beats, Jamie gently reached out to lift her chin with a finger. “To what?” he whispered. 

With great reluctance, Claire lifted her gaze, and found that the harsh lines had eased from his face, melting into an expression of unutterable tenderness. It was enough to compel the truth through lips that wouldn’t stop quivering.  

“To face the idea of you hating me.” 

Jamie let out a quick, incredulous breath, then blinked several times against the flash of moisture that had sprung to his eyes. 

“I could never hate you, Sassenach,” he told her huskily. “Even when I thought…” Now it was his turn to trail off, with a small shake of his head at whatever he was remembering. After a moment, he focused decisively on her again, his pupils slowly dilating as he lifted the backs of his fingers to brush a strand of hair from her face. His thumb trailed directly behind, ghosting over the arc of her cheekbone. 

“In all that time,” he said, very quietly, “Did it never occur to ye that I might forgive ye, Claire?”

Everything inside of her went very still, suspended for a moment as if time itself had frozen in place. 

Did she? Believe that he could forgive her?

Her Jamie, with his big heart and his endless compassion?

She knew the answer in her bones... had known it for a long time, she supposed. 

None of this had ever been a question of his capacity for forgiveness. 

“Even if you did,” she croaked, “I wouldn’t deserve it.”

“Aye, ye do,” he insisted. “Claire, look at me.” She swayed a little as the eerie sensation of stillness bled steadily outward, and she felt herself beginning to fade into it. But the warm grip of Jamie’s hands moved to the base of her skull, anchoring her there with him. “Look at me...” 

She tried her best to do as he asked, to focus on the deep blue in front of her even as her periphery drained into shades of grey.

“I forgive you,” he breathed, his thumbs stroking the downy wisps of hair in front of her ears. He brought his lips to hers, gentle as a butterfly’s wings, and whispered against her mouth, “I forgive you, mo chridhe.”  

Claire tasted salt and whisky and Jamie as she drew in a single, sobbing breath. 

From very far away, she heard herself whisper back, “I don’t.”

Whatever Jamie murmured in response, it was lost on her as she slipped into darkness. 

 




He barely had time to panic — to shake her shoulders and pat her cheek, calling her name over and over; to shift her limp weight into one arm so he could dig for his mobile with the other — before Claire roused with a sharp inhalation against his neck. 

“Wh-what happened?” she slurred, pulling away from him to look around with dazed, bleary eyes. 

Jamie heaved a sigh of relief, pressing a hand between her shoulder blades to draw her back against him. “I dinna ken,” he panted, his throat gone dry as cotton. “I think ye passed out on me, Sassenach.” With a bit more one-handed maneuvering, he finally managed to fish his mobile out of the zippered pocket of his coat, which he’d draped over the back of the couch some time ago. “Just stay wi’ me, alright? I’m calling an ambulance.”

For as weak as she was, the sudden, sharp press of Claire’s palm against his sternum was enough to make him wince. “No,” she wheezed, trying to push herself up from his shoulder again, but collapsing back into him after she’d only raised a few inches. Still, he felt the stubborn wee thing shake her head fiercely. “No, Jamie, I’m fine. Really. I’m just a little dehydrated, is all—”

“Ye’re not fine,” he snapped, his thumb fumbling as he tried to type 9-1-1 into the keypad with his free hand.  

Her fingers slid up his forearm to grip him at the wrist. “Jamie,” she pleaded, in a tone that immediately drew his gaze down to hers. She looked up at him from the cradle of his shoulder, flushed and trembling and barely holding on — and still, those desperate golden eyes begged him to understand. “Please… I don’t want to go back there.” 

Aye, he knew the feeling well enough. But it didn’t seem there was currently much choice in the matter.

“Ye’re sick, a nighean,” he murmured. “We need to get ye some help.” 

“All they’ll do is give me fluids,” she argued hoarsely, still holding tight to his wrist. “With dextrose, for the blood sugar. I can do that here.” 

He opened and closed his mouth, at a complete loss. Perhaps she was right; she was the nurse here, and he didn’t have enough medical knowledge to be able to tell one way or another.

But he knew someone who would.

“Let’s phone a friend, aye?” he suggested, with a feeble attempt at a smile. “Ye can make yer case to our favorite charge nurse, see what she thinks.”

Claire didn’t look particularly thrilled with the idea, but nodded nonetheless. “Fine. Put her on speaker.”

Over the next five minutes, there was a great deal of technical discourse between the lasses that went completely over Jamie’s head. At first, Gillian sided with him (“Dinnae listen to her, a bhalaich. Nurses are always the worst feckin’ patients. Take her stubborn arse to the ER before she codes”), but after she and Claire debated heatedly about dehydration protocols and dextrose concentrations and around a dozen other phrases of medical jargon that sounded like gibberish to Jamie, the other nurse sighed sharply through the speaker.

“Let the eejit try it, I suppose,” she conceded unhappily. “I’ll run to Walgreens and be there in fifteen. If she passes out again before I get there, call the feckin’ ambulance.”  

“I won’t,” Claire insisted stubbornly, and Jamie’s heart felt marginally lighter. If anyone could manage to hold onto consciousness by sheer force of will, it was his Sassenach.

Of course, it wasn’t nearly that simple.

She managed not to lose consciousness again, right enough. But as soon as he ended that phone call, everything else went immediately downhill. 

Fast.

The wee stramash with Gillian seemed to have drained what little energy Claire had left; she could barely lift her head after that, let alone sit up on her own. Exhaustion won out over stubborn pride, and she let him hold her without protest, laying boneless and silent in his arms. 

That was his first sign that something was horribly wrong. 

The second came when her teeth started rattling. 

He tried to tuck her closer, to wrap her in his larger frame as best he could. Claire burrowed into his warmth with a grateful sigh, her arms curled up between their chests, and for a few minutes that seemed to be enough.

But then she started shaking in earnest. 

A particularly violent tremor rolled down her spine without warning… and then it wouldn’t stop. She began shuddering so hard he worried her ribs would bruise against his, wracked with convulsions that reminded him of his muscle spasms, back when he’d been so terribly sick.

“Sassenach,” he warned, shifting a hand to his mobile. “It’s time to go in.”

“She’ll be here soon,” Claire ground out through chattering teeth. “It’ll be alright.”  

Jamie felt his wame sink as he tilted his screen up to check the time.

Jesus, how had it only been five minutes? 

His gaze flicked helplessly to the kitchen, where the dark walnut cabinets were all flung open, and completely bare. “Where are yer glasses, a nighean?” he asked. “Let’s at least get some water in ye in the meantime.”

Claire waved her fingers vaguely in the direction of the ceiling-high pile of boxes, and his Adam’s apple bobbed with a hard swallow. By the time he sorted through that stack, Gillian would already be here.

Heart pounding in terror, he pressed his lips to the crown of Claire’s head, and prayed with everything in him for the wisdom to know what to do. Whenever he was sick and hurting, whenever he needed her, she’d always known instinctively what he— 

And then he remembered.

The very first night they’d met, she’d given him the answer.

Before he could overthink it or give himself the chance to balk, he braced a hand on her shoulder to prop her up, then reached down between them to pull up his shirt, wrenching it over his shoulders and off his head in one quick jerk. As he did, Claire blinked her unfocused eyes in confusion, shaking all the harder for the loss of his body heat. 

“Wh… what’re you do-oing?”  

Jamie leaned his forehead against hers, dropping both hands to hold her at the waist. “The verra first thing ye taught me, Sassenach,” he murmured, then shifted his lips up to press a quick kiss to her brow. “Humans need skin contact, aye?” 

He waited for her permission, but she was shuddering so violently he couldn’t be sure whether or not she’d nodded. She didn’t voice any protest, though, so after a few seconds he began to tentatively lift the hem of her sweater. When she lifted her arms and helped to wriggle herself out of it, he let out his breath in a gust of relief. There was no further hesitation, then; he gathered her against him, belly to belly and chest to chest, and drew her down with him as he lay back, readjusting a bit until he found a comfortable position to support her, with the warm weight of her centered evenly on top of him.

Too warm, Jamie realized immediately, with a gut-twisting wrench of panic at the stark contrast of his own skin to the blazing heat of hers.

Everything about them was currently a study in contrasts.

Her hummingbird heart fluttered wildly against the slow, steady thump of his; her ribs rose and fell in quick, shallow pants, easily twice the speed of Jamie’s. Against the natural ruddy gold of his complexion, Claire’s skin was alabaster white, smooth and soft as velvet beneath his hands. Under any other circumstances, he might have lingered over that revelation; savored the wonder that was her naked torso pressed against his. But then Claire let out a soft noise of distress as she tried to nestle even tighter against him, frantically seeking warmth.

“I’m cold,” she whimpered, so faintly that he felt it more than heard it. “Jamie... I’m so cold...”

She was already burning to the touch, and he had no idea whether he should be trying to cool her down or keep her warm. But every instinct in his body screamed at him to do something to soothe her, so he reached up to grab his winter coat and wrap it around them both, tucking it tightly around his sides to trap the heat between them.

“There,” he panted, pressing a string of kisses along the side of her face and back into her hair. “There, mo ghraidh, is that better?”   

She hummed against his neck, a noise that he supposed was meant to be agreement. And whether or not it had been the right thing to do, swaddling her against him did seem to bring her a measure of comfort, at the very least; the ferocity of her tremors gradually eased until she was only shivering a wee bit, and as that slowed, so did the breakneck pace of her breathing. 

“Aye, that’s it,” he whispered, his palm smoothing a rhythmic loop up and down the length of her spine, while the other wrapped snug around her bare shoulders. “Slow down… shh... that’s it… cùm a 'dol, a nighean … shh…”

He wasn’t sure what he was saying half the time; he lapsed in and out of Gàidhlig with no rhyme or reason, murmuring half-nonsensical terms of encouragement and endearment. He had no talent for music, but he tried to maintain a lilting rhythm to the cadence of his voice — low and steady and deep, soothing her with the age-old instinct of a lullaby.

It worked, thank all the saints in heaven. 

He nearly had Claire asleep, every muscle relaxed against his, by the time the front door opened with a clatter, revealing a breathless, snow-dusted, red-nosed Gillian. 

She stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of them, and Jamie flashed her a warning look that should have pierced her straight through. 

Slowly but surely, the most smug, shit-eating grin he’d ever seen in his life spread across her face. 

But, to her credit, she held her fucking tongue.

“So, I, ah…” she began in an airy, singsong voice. She twisted her lips to keep from laughing outright as she held up the very heavy-looking double bag in her left hand. “I got ye two bottles of Pedialyte, and nabbed one of the big slurpee straws to drink them with.” She lifted the smaller brown paper bag in her right hand. “And plain white rice from the Chinese place down the street.”  

Jamie gave a slight nod, careful not to dislodge Claire from her burrow in the curve of his neck. “Thank ye,” he murmured as the smug wee Scot approached the couch with her bounty.

Something shifted in her expression, though, as she caught sight of Claire. He couldn’t see her face at all from his position — didn’t know if her eyes were even open — but whatever Gillian saw, it sobered her quickly. 

“Make sure she drinks both of these,” she instructed, setting the Pedialyte on the couch beside him. “But dinna let her gulp it down too fast. Slow and steady, a few sips at a time.” She frowned a bit. “What time is yer flight in the morning?”

“Seven,” he answered softly. “But it doesnae matter, I’m no’ going.”

Gill smiled at that, but it faded as she reached out to touch Claire’s cheek. “Jesus, she’s burning up.”

“Do we need to take her in?” he asked, grateful to have someone else — someone more knowledgeable than him — to weigh in on the decision. 

Gillian’s frown deepened, but she stood back up again slowly, her eyes never leaving Claire’s face. 

“Get her to drink that, and we’ll see,” she decided after a long moment. “But for now, I think…” She crossed her arms over her front, drew in a deep breath, and nodded slightly to herself on the exhale. “I think she’s exactly where she needs to be, a bhalaich.”

Chapter Text

He used the stopwatch on his mobile, at first, as a reminder to prompt Claire to drink. Every thirty seconds on the dot, he’d nudge her head gently with his nose, and she’d obediently lift the straw to take a few sips from the bottle of Pedialyte resting against his side.

By about the tenth round, he didn’t even get the chance to remind her; she did it on her own, with surprisingly accurate timing — almost to the second mark. After she’d repeated the trick four times in a row, he tilted his head back to look at her with mingled awe and amusement. 

“How are ye doing that?”

He felt her smile a little. “You breathe like a metronome,” she said softly. “Sixteen times a minute. I’ve taken your vitals enough times to know.”

A radiant, glowing warmth spread through his chest, and he pressed his lips to her hairline, humming contentedly. “Aye. S’pose ye have.”

They were both quiet for a long time after that. Jamie tried not to think about his breathing overmuch, lest he disrupt her wee metronome; he shifted his focus instead to the sensations beneath his fingertips as he drew absent circles over her back. Gradually, the amusement drained from his face as he began to map the sharp ridges of her spine from her nape to the small of her back. 

Christ, she was so painfully thin.

With each jut of bone he traced, he felt guilt rise like acid in the back of his throat until he thought he might be sick. If he closed his eyes, he could see her exactly as she’d been that last night — just there, not five feet from where they lay now — her face contorted with sobs, begging him…

“Jamie… P-please…”

She’d been drowning. 

She’d been drowning, and she’d reached out to him for help. 

And he might as well have put his foot on her shoulder and kicked her further underwater.

His eyes burned savagely at the thought, and he hitched her higher, tighter against his chest.  

He would never leave her again. He swore an oath to himself, then and there — would have promised aloud, if Claire hadn’t been measuring her sips against his breathing.

There would be time for that later; time for that vow, and any number of others. He’d swear them all with his whole heart, and mean every word. 

But for now, he needed to see her safe. 

The best way to do that, for the time being, was to give her the quiet strength of his body. But even as he lay steady and silent beneath her, Jamie’s mind churned restlessly, trying to think up all the things he might say when the time came to do more.

He’d spent so long in a godforsaken hospital bed, hurting and broken, having lost all sense of himself and his place in the world. But no matter what state she found him in, Claire had always managed to give him exactly what he needed, whether that meant scolding him like a magpie or stroking his hair with murmured words of reassurance. Now that the roles were reversed, it was all he could do to pray, desperately, that he could do the same for her.

Lord, let me be enough.

Over the course of the next hour, it seemed that perhaps his prayers were finally being answered. 

Whether it was due to the skin contact, the Pedialyte, or both, he could physically feel Claire stabilizing. By the time she finished the first bottle, her heartbeat and breathing had fallen into rhythm with his, and while she was still hot to the touch, she was no longer burning. 

When she broke the longstanding silence between them, he felt the hitch of her ribs as she drew a hesitant breath to speak, and a slight, self-conscious squirm that was yet another sign of her improvement. 

“Jamie…” She lifted her head a little, trying to make eye contact. “I know it’s getting late. If you want to go, I—”

“I want to be right here,” he insisted with a crooked smile. “If ye dinna mind it.” He held her gaze until it softened in acceptance. When she gave a tiny nod, he cupped the back of her head, kissed her brow, and drew her back down to him. “Lay your head, mo chridhe. Rest a bit, hm? We can start on the next bottle in a few minutes.”

She let out her breath in a shaky sigh as she nuzzled back into his skin, the tension draining from her muscles as she molded to him again. With a matching sigh of his own, Jamie settled in and began to slip his fingers through her hair. One lock at a time, he gently teased apart the tangled strands, then re-curled them into ringlets the way she’d always done for him. The silence that fell between them this time was one of profound comfort — the relief of simply holding her against him, knowing that she was out of immediate danger.

It would have been painfully easy to succumb to that sense of peace, to doze with her after so many restless nights of little to no sleep. Claire clearly needed it too, which only made the temptation that much stronger; after only a few minutes of stroking her hair, she drifted off, her breaths soft and slow against his neck. But Jamie had been left with clear instructions from Gillian, and he had no desire to face the wrath of an angry charge nurse, should she check back in again and find him derelict in his duty. 

He gave Claire as long as he thought he could reasonably get away with before he uncapped the second bottle of Pedialyte, plopped the straw into it, and reluctantly nuzzled her awake. “Time to drink some more, Sassenach,” he whispered against her ear. “Once ye’re done wi’ this one, I promise not to wake ye again.” 

Claire made a soft hum of acknowledgment, but didn’t move for several more seconds. He thought she’d fallen back asleep, and was preparing to give her another nudge when she finally leaned over to grab the straw, taking up her task again without protest. 

But she was much, much slower with the second bottle. 

Initially, he chalked it up to drowsiness, or thought perhaps her belly might still be full from the first liter. But with time, it became increasingly apparent that she was doing it on purpose: taking wee half-sips, barely enough to wet her tongue, before laying her head back down on his chest again. The closer to the bottom of the bottle she got, the more she tarried, until finally it dawned on him...

She thinks I’m going to leave once she’s finished.  

The next time she lifted her head to take a sip, Jamie caught her chin with the crook of his finger. He tipped her face up to look at him, and for a moment he simply searched her features for confirmation of what he already knew. 

When he found it, he leaned down and kissed her.

Just a single, delicate brush of their lips, at first… then he paused, sharing the warmth of her breath, before he leaned in again, slower, deeper… 

When they parted for air a second time, he stayed close, pressing his forehead to hers. “I’m not going anywhere, Claire,” he murmured faintly, stroking his thumb over the apple of her cheek.

She was still for a long moment, her eyes closed and lips pursed. After a time, she drew the tip of her nose slowly up and down the length of his, then eased herself back down onto his chest to keep drinking. 

She didn’t stall any more after that. 

But neither did she give any indication that she’d heard him.

When she finally finished the last, bright orange swig a few minutes later, Jamie bent to kiss her temple softly. Tha mi moiteil asad, a nighean,” he murmured against her skin, then lifted his head just far enough to get a good look at her face. “How’re ye feeling?”

Her lips twitched in a weak smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Like I have to pee,” she confessed. 

“That’s a good thing, aye?” Jamie laughed, butting his forehead gently against hers. 

The smile deepened, but her expression was still so terribly sad. “It is,” she said softly.

When she made no move to get up, Jamie took the initiative himself, bracing one hand to the middle of her back as he pushed them both up into a sitting position. His spine cracked in protest after spending so long in one spot, and his head swam at the sudden change in posture; he could only imagine how dizzy it must have made Claire. 

It’s called orthostatic hypotension, she’d explained to him weeks ago, the first time he got lightheaded trying to get up too fast, and every subsequent time he stubbornly ignored her and tried it anyway. You have to change positions slowly, Jamie. Easy does it.

He held tightly to her now, steadying them both until the room stopped spinning around him. When it did, he let go of her just long enough to stand up — slowly and carefully, like she’d taught him — before reaching both hands down for hers. 

“Come, Sassenach. Let me help ye.”

Goosebumps erupted down her arms as she stood, and she wrapped them around herself as soon as she was on her feet, chewing her lip self-consciously. At once, Jamie reached for her discarded sweater and held it up for her so she could slip back into it. As an afterthought, he grabbed his own shirt and hastily shrugged it back on, more for Claire’s comfort than his own; his back was still sweaty, and the cool air felt like a blessing to his overheated skin. But stripped of the urgency of a medical crisis, there was an undeniable awkwardness that hung thick in the air between them after such prolonged physical intimacy.  

He didn’t like it one bit. 

Under the pretense of keeping her steady, he slipped an arm around her waist as she took her first shuffling step toward the bathroom. In truth, he just wanted to keep her close; somehow, everything was easier when they touched. 

He would have walked with her all the way to the toilet — Lord knew she’d done the same for him more times than he could count — but she lay a hand on his shoulder when they reached the bathroom door. 

“I think I can take it from here,” she said, glancing up at him through her lashes.

He relinquished his hold on her with an awkward pat. “Aye,” he agreed on a huff of a laugh.

He began fidgeting the moment the door closed behind her, just barely resisting the urge to pace. When she emerged again, that would be his moment; that would be when he needed to find the right words to prove to her that he meant what he’d said. 

He forgave her. Fully, and without reservations.

The transgressions he hadn’t been able to wrap his mind around had never been true to begin with. She hadn’t abandoned him; had never once stopped trying to help him. And the concept he’d struggled with the most — how she could have possibly kept such a terrible secret from him — had finally been answered in terms he could inherently understand; terms he could reconcile with what he already knew about Claire. 

She’d lost everyone she loved. And she was terrified of losing him too. 

But she didna say “love,” he reminded himself soberly. “Care for” is not the same thing as love.      

She’d never said it to him. Never once. 

But it was in every line of her face, every brush of her fingertips; every breath that shivered between their lips; every selfless act of devotion in all the time he’d known her. 

So as much as he craved those words, he knew fine well they were redundant. She’d shown him, a thousand times over.

  … Perhaps that was the key he was missing here, he realized slowly.

It wasn’t words Claire needed from him now.

She needed a demonstration. 

He was still grappling with how, exactly, he could show her that he meant it when the door clicked open again, and Claire stepped back out into the living room, drying her hands on her leggings.  

She wouldn’t look at him. 

“Feeling better?” he asked, trying to keep his tone light even as uneasiness began to churn in his wame. Something had changed in the few minutes she’d been alone. He’d seen Claire withdraw from him enough times to recognize the signs: the way she braced her arms protectively around herself, the set of her jaw, the clouded look in her eyes.

She tried to smile, and wasn’t remotely successful. “Much.”

He counted exactly five pounding heartbeats before he took a step toward her.

“Claire—”

“Jamie, I—”

He couldn’t manage to hold a smile either. “Go ahead,” he offered.

She shifted her weight, wrapping her arms a bit tighter around herself. “I just… wanted to thank you—” she began haltingly.

“No.” He gave a firm shake of his head as he took another step closer. “No, ye dinna need to thank me, Claire. Christ, how many times have ye done the same for me?”  

He watched the column of her throat constrict with a swallow. “I didn’t… intend for things to get so out of hand.” 

Jamie didn’t miss the double meaning; she hadn’t let herself get so sick on purpose, but… she meant the bigger picture too. Another step closer, and he was able to reach out to touch her arm gently. “I ken,” he whispered. He didn’t know whether to be relieved or heartbroken when she began to blink against a film of real, glistening tears. After a moment, she unclenched a hand from around her arm and slid it over to grasp his. 

She squeezed once, hard.

Then, with a shuddering breath, she took a step back, and finally looked at him. “You should go,” she said, her voice wavering slightly over the last word. “Try and get some sleep before your flight. It’s an early morning for you.”

He locked eyes with her like a lifeline, and refused to let go. “If ye heard me tell Gillian what time my flight was,” he said, arching a brow wryly, “then ye also heard me tell her I willna be on it.”

Claire raised her chin, looking at him with a spark in her eyes he hadn’t seen in a very long time. “You asked me once if I wanted you to get on that plane,” she said, managing to keep her voice steadier. “And I’m telling you now that… that I do. I want you to go.”

He moved slowly toward her again, and watched the slight flicker in the size of her pupils. “Do ye, now?” he asked quietly. 

“Yes,” she exhaled, and swallowed hard again. Her eyes held his resolutely, even as they flooded with more tears. “I promised you, Jamie. I promised that I would get you home to your family.”

He could feel his features softening with tenderness. “Aye, I remember,” he murmured. “In the ICU.”

Claire nodded faintly, and when she smiled this time, a tear slipped from her lashes. “A pinky promise is a very serious transaction,” she whispered.

Blinking against the sudden sting in his own eyes, he breathed out a laugh. “Aye, it is.” For a long moment he considered her, then slowly reached up to thumb the tear from her chin. “S’pose that leaves me no choice but to counter wi’ one of my own, then, Sassenach.” 

The smooth white plane of her forehead barely had time to crease in question before he’d taken her hand, wrapping his pinky tightly around hers.

“Jamie,” she choked in warning, her eyes going round. 

He only stepped closer, until he could wrap his other arm all the way around her. “I’ll no’ leave ye, Claire. Never again. Do ye hear me?” He brought their twined fingers to his lips and kissed them, hard. “Never again.”  

She was shaking her head, her spine beginning to shudder with sobs beneath his palm. Again she tried to say his name, but this time no sound moved past her lips.

So he kissed them, warm and steady with his own, and broke away only to murmur against her salty cheek, “I s’pose that means ye’re coming wi’ me.”

Chapter Text

Until the moment the Uber pulled up to the curb in front of her flat, it truly hadn’t occurred to her: 

She hadn’t been back in a car since the night of the accident. 

She wasn’t even sure it was intentional; there had been no strict need to drive anywhere, as her flat was within easy walking distance of the hospital and the corner market where she bought her groceries. But judging by the way her blood chilled at the sight of the idling vehicle, Claire had to admit that perhaps there had been an element of subconscious avoidance in play. 

Which was absolutely ridiculous, she scolded herself, as she watched Jamie sling her duffel into the boot and climb into the back seat without a second thought.

Jamie, who had been thrown through a windshield and spent six weeks in a hospital bed. 

Jamie, who had bled out his entire vascular volume three times over. 

Jamie, who had been septic, untouched, and morphine-dependent, even when it made him so sick, even when the retching ripped at the gashes and the road burn and his fresh graft sites, and—

And yet she was the one who was hanging back, wringing the straps of her handbag and chewing her lip until she tasted blood. It wasn’t until he ducked his head to look at her, an eyebrow quirked inquisitively, that Claire climbed in beside him. 

Her hand was pale and shaking on the door handle as she pulled it shut.

No child lock on this one, she reassured herself, and forcibly exhaled the breath she’d been holding.

She discovered rather quickly that keeping her eyes squeezed shut only heightened her awareness of her other senses: the rumble of the engine, every bump and curve in the road, the whoosh of other cars passing too close, Jesus H. Christ, too close… 

So, when the glare of Jamie’s mobile screen brightened the black-red of her eyelids, Claire slowly peeled one eye open, then the other, needing to focus on something else — anything but the drive itself. She watched him scroll through his contacts, texting his close friends and family members one at a time to give them the heads-up that she would be accompanying him home.  

As the responses began to flood back in quick succession, he immediately dropped his mobile lower in his lap and angled it away from her, making a valiant effort to shield her from every cutting remark that flashed across his screen. 

For his benefit, Claire feigned oblivion. 

But she saw.

Are you out of your damn mind? No, seriously, are you pissed right now? Because that’s about the only explanation I can come up with for this level of idiocy. 

and

????? wtf mate?!!? the lass wae hit ye wi her car???? 😳 

and

Jamie, I say this to you as your best mate since we were in nappies: you’re thinkin w/your cock, man. This is insane.

Murtagh took the longest to respond. Given Jamie’s description of his “auld coot” of a godfather, she could almost imagine him hen-pecking the words one painstaking letter at a time. They were pulling up at the curb outside the international terminal by the time his reply finally came through:

No.Very  ba D idea.

Claire was silent and glassy-eyed the entire walk into the terminal, listening to the relentless buzzing in Jamie’s pocket as every last person he loved replied with some variation of the same theme. 

For his part, Jamie ignored the deluge of texts all the way through Immigration and Customs, his face a perfect mask of nonchalance. It wasn’t until they were in the queue for security that he pulled out his mobile again, careful to stand behind her so she couldn’t see the responses. Minute by minute, though, she could feel the tension building in him until he was practically vibrating with fury — flushed to the tips of his ears, teeth gritted, typing so fast his thumbs were a blur. The TSA agent had to remind him twice to remove his belt and coat and place them in a bin before he could proceed through the security checkpoint.

As soon as they’d collected their belongings on the other side, he latched onto Claire’s waist with almost bruising force, clutching her to him the rest of the way to their gate. She laid her head on his shoulder in response, stroking the small of his back with gentle fingertips. 

It’s all right, she promised him silently, letting her eyes close. It’s all right.

She hadn’t harbored any delusions that she would get to keep him.

Her job was to get him home safely. Once he was there, his family and friends would see to the rest. 

For as much as they despised her, Claire couldn’t help but feel an odd sense of camaraderie with these people — these fiercely protective strangers half a world away who loved Jamie as much as she did. 

It was a comfort, knowing that they would take care of him when she couldn’t anymore. 

As it turned out, Jenny Murray made quite the formidable Velvet Hammer herself. She’d sent an essay’s worth of texts by the time they took their seats on the plane. Jamie skimmed quickly, so Claire only caught glimpses here and there, but it was more than enough to get the gist of it:

—only saying this because I love you. You’re all I have left, and I don’t want to see you hurt again, or worse—

—a fucking con artist, Jamie. We talked about this. She’s a sociopath, and she’s using you. Think about it. Use your God-given common sense. You notice how her story suddenly changed when Randall offered you substantial funds to settle?—  

—and I don’t trust her to be around the bairns. If she did anything to hurt them, God forbid, you’d never forgive yourself either—

—so I won’t be picking you up from the airport, and that psycho is not welcome in my home. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it’s going to be. I talked to Ian just now, and he agrees—

Jamie powered down his mobile with a clenched, trembling hand. As soon as he’d shoved the black screen into his pocket, he lifted the arm rest between them and pulled Claire into a crushing hug. 

“I love you,” he whispered, his breath shaking in her hair. 

Claire’s eyes burned, her throat swelling so tightly she couldn’t say it back. 

Not yet. Please don’t ask me to say goodbye to you yet.  

Swallowing against the knot in her throat, she pressed her lips to his Adam’s apple, his jaw, his cheek, then snuggled back into the curve of his neck, refusing to cry when their plane hadn’t even pulled back from the gate yet.

On the night Jamie had left, she remembered so vividly wishing that she could have five more minutes… just five more minutes to hold him.

The first leg of their flight, from Boston to London Heathrow, was seven hours long.

It was more time than she ever thought she’d have with him again. She refused to be anything but grateful for that. 

And for her part, she didn’t plan on wasting a single second of it. 

It was like the long nights in the ICU all over again, where she could take her time to study him, to commit every last detail to memory by sight and smell and touch and taste. 

Only this time… this time he could hold her too. 

For the length of that one perfect flight, they would have each other. No sickness or pain, no call lights, no coworkers, no secrets. No family members desperate to rip them apart.

It would be enough, Claire promised herself, nudging her nose tighter against his neck and breathing him in. Seven hours with Jamie Fraser would be enough to sustain her for the rest of her life.

It would have to be.

 




“What about something like that in a light gray?”

“For an entryway?”

“Aye.”

“Mm… it’d show too much dirt, I think.” 

Jamie tilted his head. “Could we no’ just get a rug?”

“Rather defeats the purpose if we’re covering up the flooring you want.”

He shoved a Dorito into her smug wee mouth, then kissed away the bit of orange dust that caught on her lips. “Smart arse.”

Claire hummed in amusement, her whisky eyes twinkling as she looked up at him. But as her stare lingered — a beat or two longer than it might normally have — the sparkle slowly dulled back into the terrible sadness that had haunted her face ever since he’d returned to her.

It would take time, he knew, for her to be able to believe in this. In them.

Time, and patience, and infinite, unconditional love.

Claire had been starved of it for so long that she didn’t know what to do with it now that she had it. That much was plain to him in every gesture, every glance. She’d been tracing the lines of his body during lulls in their conversation; her fingertip followed the ropes of his veins from wrist to bicep, stroked the delicate skin in the crook of his arm, drew feather-light circles around his moles and freckles.

Memorizing him, as if he might disappear at any moment.

He’d given her promises back in Boston — bonny words that he was only too happy to repeat as often as she needed to hear them. But right now, it was his touch she seemed to crave more than anything. She’d always been tactile, and so was he; from the very beginning, it seemed to be a common language between them, more profound than words.

So as soon as the seat belt sign was turned off, he’d unclipped them both and reached over to draw her in, bringing her thighs over top of his so he could hold her in his lap. It had taken a bit of maneuvering, with the gaps between the seats and the limited leg room, but with some trial and error they’d eventually managed to find a position that was comfortable for both of them. She’d tucked her face into his neck, and he’d wrapped his coat around her, and for the first time since they’d left her flat, it felt like they could both breathe again.  

Still, there was a quiet desperation in Claire, a restless need for closeness that seemed almost insatiable no matter how tightly he held her. He tried to soothe her with slow, deep kisses, with lingering lips and lethargic strokes of his tongue. But no matter how unhurriedly or how thoroughly he kissed her, she chased his mouth every time he began to pull away, whimpering as though she expected never to be kissed again. 

Please don’t leave me, she begged each time. And each time he answered her: Never.

Christ, he wished he could have her skin to skin again. He could show her, then; kiss every inch of white velvet skin, worship her with his hands and lips and tongue until she let him inside of her, until there was nothing left between them... until she knew in every cell of her body that he was hers. 

In the meantime, he did the next best thing he could think of: he turned HGTV on the screen in the seat-back in front of them, and ordered two coffees, Doritos, and cookies off the flight attendant’s trolley. Resting his cheek on Claire’s mop of unruly curls, he tried to meld the nostalgia of their first dates with the promise of a future together. He encouraged her to dream up a home with him; asked for her thoughts on color schemes and furniture and lighting fixtures and cabinet pulls. She was quiet at first, reluctant, but with a bit of gentle persistence his wee fixer-upper’s opinionated streak had finally started to shine through. 

Hardwood on the main level. Carpets for the bedrooms.

Earth tones for accent walls. 

A rain shower head and heated tile in the master bath.

Abundant greenery in every room — hanging ferns, potted plants, a fiddle-leaf fig tree.

He briefly considered keeping a running list on his mobile for future reference, but his stomach soured at the mere thought of turning it on again. 

His family and friends had only heard the first draft of the story of the accident — the one he’d gleaned from Frank Randall — so Jamie had fully expected them to tear him a new one when he announced that he was bringing Claire home with him. But even braced with that expectation, he hadn’t been prepared for the level of vitriol they’d hurled in her direction, nor the physical reaction it roused in him to read it. It had literally bristled the hairs on his neck, made his blood run so hot he started sweating. 

They needed to stop flapping their feckin’ gums long enough to let him get a word in edgewise, but at the same time, he recognized that this story was one better told in person. So he’d responded to everyone with some variation of “There’s more to the story. She isn’t what you think. Trust me, aye? I’ll explain when I get home,” then powered the bloody thing off, and planned to keep it that way as long as he could.

For the rest of that flight, he refused to give their words any more real estate in his head. There would be plenty of issues to sort out once they landed — a rental car and hotel room, for starters, since Lallybroch was apparently off the table. 

But they would keep.

He and Claire had fought too long and too hard for this — for the ability to find comfort in one another’s arms, to kiss openly and freely, to laugh again — for him to waste a single moment worrying about problems for another day. 

“What do ye think about those sliding barn doors, Sassenach? I like the look of ‘em fine, but I canna help but think I’d feel like a horse if that’s meant tae be the entrance to our bedroom…” 

 




Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. As we begin our final descent into London Heathrow, the captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign. At this time we do ask that you please make sure your seatbacks and tray tables are in their full upright and locked position, that your seat belt is securely fastened, and that all carry-on luggage is stowed in the overhead bins or underneath the seat in front of you—

She would not cry.

Claire had been repeating the mantra for the past hour as Jamie slept, curled loosely around her and using her head as a pillow. 

When she closed her eyes, she could map the contours of his body in her mind: the notch in his chin, the lines of his palms, the knobs of his collarbones and wrists and ankles. 

She could remember the smell of his hair when it was slightly damp with sweat, or fresh out of the shower, when his own scent mingled with the vanilla and lilac of her shampoo. 

She could hear the sound of his voice, and his laugh, and the soft hum he made when her tongue slid forward to graze his.

She had memorized as much as she possibly could in what precious time they’d had. 

The hardest part now was trying to let go of all the things she would never know.

She remembered so clearly how Jamie’s voice had cracked when he told her about his mother’s birthday — about how it had finally struck him that she was truly gone when he realized that he would never learn anything new about her again. 

Claire understood him now. God, she understood. 

For the past hour, the solid weight of Jamie’s head had pinned hers in place, with her eyes locked on a tiny white half-moon scar behind his ear. She’d first discovered it in the ICU all those weeks ago, when she’d helped to peel the seizure probes off of his head and mistaken it for a streak of adhesive residue. When it wouldn’t rub off, she’d chuckled softly and kissed him there, asking his unconscious form what sort of mischief he’d gotten up to as a boy to etch a scar in such an unlikely place.

“You’ll have to tell me about it sometime,” she’d told him quietly.

But she’d never asked again, not when he could hear her. It hadn’t been important at the time.

It wasn’t important now, for that matter. Of all the things to be upset about, it was ridiculous that this was what she’d latched onto in their final minutes together. But when the announcement of their plane’s descent woke Jamie with a snuffled breath, it occurred to her that this would be her last chance to ask him about it. Irrational though it might be, it was imperative, somehow, that she knew.

She swallowed twice — hard — to be sure her voice didn’t break.

She would not cry.

“Tell me about this,” she whispered, tracing the tiny white mark with the edge of her fingernail. 

The flesh of his neck rippled with goosebumps at the delicate touch, and he made a soft, contented sound in the back of his throat. “‘Bout what?” he murmured sleepily. 

“You have a scar, just there. How did you get it?”

Jamie was silent for a long moment. She was beginning to think he might have fallen asleep again when he finally chuckled, “Ah. I think that one was probably Adso.”

“Adso?” she echoed, shifting her head on his shoulder so she could see his face. His eyes were only half-open, the glassy grey-blue of a lake in the early morning, but the corner of his mouth twitched with the promise of an entertaining story.

“My mam’s cat. He’s an affectionate wee thing most of the time, but he was caught out in the rain that day, and none too pleased about it. I heard him yowling all the way from the barn and went to bring him in the house. Found him hiding under one of the wheels of Da’s truck.” He paused for a moment to kiss her hair, humming in amusement at the memory. “I tried to tuck him in my raincoat, but he, ah, apparently didna appreciate the gesture overmuch. Bit my hand and clawed his way up my neck like a tree. Bled like mad at the time, but I didna realize it had left a scar.”

Claire pressed a trembling, watery smile to his neck, exhaling in a tight laugh against his skin. 

It was the perfect last thing to learn about him. Silly, tender, altruistic, humble.

So quintessentially Jamie.

… Christ, she thought her lungs would collapse from the grief.

The words came spilling out of her before she could stop them, her voice wavering and threatening to crack. “Don’t tell anyone else, okay?” She pressed her lips to the scar and held them there, as if she could seal that secret away where no one else would ever find it.

Please, just let this one thing be for me. The woman you wind up spending the rest of your life with, she’ll know everything else, all the other stories I’ll never learn, but… let this be one thing I know about you that no one else ever will. Just one piece of you that’s mine.

A streak of hot tears escaped from her lashes before she could squeeze them back, dripping onto Jamie’s neck. His whole body tensed beneath her, and then he was moving, gripping her close, and she could feel his heartbeat pounding in his carotid. 

“What’s wrong?” He tried to nudge her up to look at him, but she stayed burrowed against his neck, heaving in deep breaths, trying to get herself under control. “Claire, talk to me. What’s the matter?” 

The mental curses she lobbed at herself put his family’s scathing texts to shame. 

This was the last thing he needed. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t cry, that she wouldn’t make this any harder on him than it needed to be. Yet here she was, once again, failing him with her own fucking selfishness. 

“Nothing,” she whispered, kissing the juncture between his neck and shoulder and smoothing her hand comfortingly up and down his arm. “I’m okay.” 

“Ye’re not,” he insisted. 

She willed the tears back this time, drawing in a deep breath through her nose and letting it out through pursed lips. “I will be,” she promised. 

Jamie was quiet for a moment. At long last, he nodded, then drew the tip of his nose along her cheekbone and back into her hair. “Aye,” he whispered, his breath warm against her ear. “Aye, mo chridhe, you will be.”

 


 

Their plane landed twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Jamie was grateful for that; their layover would have been a tight one otherwise, and he wanted to get some food into Claire before their connection to Inverness — some actual, substantive food, not just the rubbish they’d been snacking on during their flight. They’d have to pass through Immigration and Customs first, recheck their bags, and go through security again… but still, he reckoned he should pull up the map of the terminal on his mobile, so he could see which restaurants were near their next gate.

The moment he powered it back on, though, Jamie immediately regretted it; his mobile erupted in a vibrating fit as seven hours’ worth of texts, WhatsApp and Facebook messages came through in a veritable avalanche.  

“Oh fer fuck’s sake,” he hissed, watching the names of every distant relative and vague acquaintance from grammar school blitz across the top of his screen.

His sister had rallied the troops, apparently. 

Because of course, Jenny couldn’t very well just give him the benefit of the doubt, leave her neb out of his business for one feckin’ day…

Every time he swiped to dismiss a notification, two more seemed to pop up in its place. He hissed out a Gaelic curse as he led Claire up the jet bridge, and felt her thumb brush a comforting arc over his knuckles.

“Sorry,” he said, half-glancing at her over his shoulder as they stepped out into the terminal. “Dinna mean to ignore ye, Sassenach, just tryin’ tae find us a place to grab a quick bite. What’re ye hungry for? It’s been a while, but if I remember right, I think there’s a Pret and a sushi place…”

“Jamie,” she interrupted softly. 

A chill passed down his spine before he’d even managed to get a good look at her face. There wasn’t anything inherently strange about her tone, he simply knew that something was wrong.

“Come here.”

Claire’s fingers closed around his, tugging him gently off to one side, out of the stream of traffic of the other deboarding passengers. The gate opposite theirs was practically empty, with only a few stray people charging their mobiles at the sockets along the walls, and he felt the sense of foreboding sink deeper in his wame when she led him in that direction.  

Whatever she’d been holding back throughout their flight, it seemed she had a mind to tell him now.

She stopped amid a row of empty seats, and turned to face him head-on, taking both of his hands in her own.

They were both silent for a long moment. 

She couldn’t look at him. 

He couldn’t look away.

At last, Claire took a deep breath, and said steadily but quietly, “Text your sister back, Jamie. Tell her she… she should be there to pick you up from the airport. I’ll get off here.”

He felt as though a lever had suddenly been released in his abdomen, and all of his guts had plummeted. 

Ifrinn. 

He hadn’t realized she’d been reading his screen. Christ, he should have been more discreet, should have just waited until she was in the loo, or…

But regrets wouldn’t help him now. She’d seen.

His mouth worked soundlessly for a few seconds; he had absolutely no idea what to say. 

“No,” he managed at last. “No, I told you, Claire, I w—”

She closed the gap between them and silenced him with a kiss. 

Panic began to course red-hot in his veins then, sending his heart straight up into his throat. Immediately, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her flush against him. He’d hold her there, if need be. He’d physically refuse to let her go.

She wasn’t leaving him. 

Claire broke the kiss first, but stayed close, her forehead resting against his. “It’s alright,” she whispered, smoothing her palms up and down his back. “I promise, everything’s going to be alright. There are so many people waiting at home who love you, Jamie. They’ll help you get back on your feet, and… and build that start-up you’ve always dreamt of…”

“I dinna want it,” he insisted, gripping her tighter. 

“Jamie…”

“No, listen to me. I mean it, Claire. I don’t want any of it wi’out you. If ye dinna want to go to Scotland, then we’ll leave here, now, together. We can go anywhere ye want, we… we can make a fresh start, just you and I…”

She shook her head slowly, nuzzling her way back to her favorite spot in the curve of his neck. “I won’t take you away from them, Jamie.” Her lips pressed to his pulse point and stayed there for several beats before she whispered, “I lost my family. Do you think I could ever be the reason you lost yours?”

“But you are my family too.” 

Claire’s ribs hitched under his hands at that. He could feel her resolve slip just a notch, and he gentled his hands and his voice, swaying her slowly from side to side. 

“I’ll no’ lose anyone, Sassenach. Ye dinna need to fash yerself on that account. Okay? Look, right now, they just… they dinna understand what’s going on. I haven’t had the chance to explain it to them, and they’re jumpin’ to conclusions before they have any clue what they’re runnin’ their gobs about.”

Claire took a few shaky breaths, then sniffled. She was quiet for several moments before she spoke again, so softly he could barely hear her. “But they’re right about me.” 

“Oh, aye?” He leaned down to kiss her temple, letting a slow smile spread against her skin. “Are ye a con-artist out for my millions, then, Sassenach? ‘Cos I’m sorry to say ye’re about tae be sorely disappointed...”

The wee joke didn’t even earn a flicker of a smile. She stood silent and deflated in his arms, and he sobered immediately, brushing a hand back into her hair to stroke her curls as he rocked her. 

She didn’t make any move to pull away from him. He took that as a good sign.

Still, the words she said next were so quietly devastating that he felt his heart break for her all over again.

“When everyone you love and respect in the world is telling you the same thing,” she rasped, her voice paper-thin, “At some point you have to believe that there’s some truth in what they’re saying.” He felt her throat constrict with a swallow, but her voice broke anyway. “I know I don’t deserve you, Jamie. Your family and friends know it. So I’m just… w-waiting for the moment when you look over at me and realize it too.”

For a while, all he could do was shake his head, lacking any words strong enough to negate that sentiment. With enough time, he could write an entire dissertation about how wrong she was, or a passionate speech that would convince her that he— 

And suddenly it occurred to him.

It was a risk. A huge one. The biggest one of his life. 

But he knew what he needed to do. 

And he knew what he needed to hear from her first, if he was ever going to be able to summon enough courage to try it.

Very gently, he shifted her off his shoulder, curling a finger under her chin and lifting her face to look at him. 

“Do you love me, Claire?” he whispered.

Her tear-filled eyes went round as they locked on his; it clearly wasn’t what she’d expected him to say. “What?” 

“Do you love me?” Jamie repeated slowly, softly.

He already knew her answer. In his bones, in his soul, he knew. But he needed to hear her say it. Just one time, and then… 

Claire’s chin dimpled in the split second before she released her breath in a sob. A fresh trickle of tears escaped down her cheek, and Jamie thumbed it gently away, waiting, watching. 

She leaned into his hand, letting her eyes slip shut.

Took another shivering breath…

Two…

Three…

And finally, finally, whispered into the flesh of his palm, “More than you’ll ever know.” 

Jamie hadn’t realized tears were dangling on his own lashes until he collided with her on a sob, tasting salt on her lips that could have belonged to either of them. Neither one could hold a kiss for long; he held his trembling lips against hers, hard, until a lack of oxygen forced them apart, panting into one another’s open mouths. He held her face to his, grinning like an absolute idiot as he smudged her tears ineffectually with his thumbs.

“Alright then,” he exhaled, pressing a kiss to each of her cheeks, her temples, her brow. “Let’s get out of here, Sassenach.”

“Jamie…” She was shaking her head, but with less conviction now.

“We can still make our way to Scotland, if that’s what ye want. But there’s someplace I need to take ye first, before we go home.”

Claire sniffled, looking up at him uncertainly. 

He dropped his forehead to rest against hers and closed his eyes for a moment, drawing strength from her as his own wame fluttered with nerves. 

A Dhia, please let this work. 

“Trust me?” he whispered.

And with a deep breath, she took his hand.

Chapter Text

 

“Good evening Mr. Beauchamp, Mrs. Beauchamp. My name is James Fraser.”

His voice lifted into the night — casual, conversational, just loud enough to be heard over the rush of dark water beneath them. 

“It’s, ah… it’s an honor to finally be able to speak t’ye in person. Claire’s told me so much about the both of ye.”

He faltered for a moment; opened his mouth on a half-breath and closed it again. “Sorry,” he exhaled shakily, pressing his palm to the small of her back. “Just a wee bit nervous. I want to say the right things, ye ken… make a good first impression.”

 




She hadn’t thought anything of it when he’d taken M40 heading northbound out of London. It was the fastest route to Inverness, after all. 

Nor when he made to exit the motorway an hour later. They were both tired; she assumed he meant to find a hotel where they could stay the night, start the rest of their drive fresh the next morning.

It wasn’t until he turned on his indicator at Oxford Ring Road that Claire realized where he was taking her.

No… Jesus H. Christ, he wouldn’t… 

After the initial paroxysm of panic had burned through her, she was left staring at him with the smoldering embers of indignation.

Hurt.

Anger.

Resentment.

Jamie knew what this place meant to her. He, of all people, should have understood that she could never come back — that she could never face the sight of that water, those guard rails; the grassy bank where she swam to safety; the stretch of road where she waited for help, retching river water and silt and and bile while her parents… 

Several hundred meters before the bridge, Jamie pulled the rental car over to the side of the road and turned on his hazard lights. He sat quietly beside her for what felt a small eternity, resting one hand on the gear shift while the other clenched and unclenched on the steering wheel. As the silence stretched on, it was all Claire could do to glare at his profile in the dim blue light of the dash, her lips pursed and chin quivering with the effort to keep tears at bay.

“I can turn around, a nighean,” he said at last, softly but decisively. “Just say the word, and I swear to ye, I’ll put us straight back onto the motorway.” Though he’d tipped his head toward her as he spoke, his gaze was trained on the bridge ahead of them, as if he were seeing something ahead that she couldn’t. “But you should know that the reason I brought ye here is ‘cos I… I’d like to have a word wi’ yer parents.” He finally turned to look at her then, every line of his face etched with tenderness. “And I think it might help ye to hear it.”

Drip by scorching drip, Claire felt her indignation begin to erode, running down her cheeks in slow, heavy streaks.

Jamie knew her. 

In moments when she didn’t even know what she needed, he always seemed to intuitively understand how to help her.

And right now he thought she needed this. 

He wouldn’t force the issue. Claire believed him; she could tell him no, and he would turn around, no questions asked. Part of her wanted to do exactly that. Her survival instincts were screaming at her to run away, far away, as fast as she possibly could. 

But she’d been running from this place for twenty fucking years. 

It hadn’t helped.

Jamie had. 

He’d been the only person to ever hear her darkest, most painful confession — to learn exactly what she’d done, what it had cost. And rather than condemning her for it, he’d drawn her close, whispering the words of absolution her soul had been starved for. 

In one hour, he’d given her more comfort than she’d known in two aching, empty decades.

But that had been a different set of circumstances entirely: tucked away in a hospital room in Boston, thousands of miles from this place, carefully removed from the sights and smells and sounds that would be a vivid, inescapable reminder of everything that had happened that night. 

And here, under Jamie’s unflinching, knowing gaze, she felt as though there was nowhere left to hide. It was as if every last nerve ending in her body had been flayed bare, raw and exposed and terrifyingly vulnerable. 

He knew what he was asking of her. He knew, and still...

Trust me? he’d asked at the airport, holding her eyes with the same expression that he’d locked on her now.

At long last, Claire swallowed against the knot in her throat, giving him a slow, tremulous nod. 

“Okay,” she breathed.

 




His Sassenach had tucked her face beneath his chin the moment they were out of the car, shaking like a leaf and steadfastly refusing to look at their surroundings. He could feel the occasional tear drip onto his neck as he walked her to the middle of the bridge, but her steps never once faltered. 

Christ, but she was a brave wee thing. 

If there was a choice to be had, he would have bundled her right back into the car, sped off into the night and taken her somewhere she felt safe. But with time, he had finally come to understand that there was no such place; the memories of this bridge haunted her no matter where she went. Someone should have been here to help her process the trauma twenty years ago, when she was just a bairn, soaked to the skin and standing in this very spot. Instead, her guilt had been allowed to fester, to permeate every last crevice of her soul until there was no escaping it. 

What had happened here, on this bridge, was the root of every insecurity, every doubt, every ounce of self-loathing in the woman he loved. And as excruciating as it might be, he knew that she would never be able to heal until the ghosts of that night were finally laid to rest. 

So he meant to have a word with Henry and Julia Beauchamp. 

He’d started off with a strong enough introduction, he thought, but stumbled as the weight of what he was doing began to hit him in force. Failure was not an option here. He couldn’t misspeak, couldn’t phrase anything in a way that might unintentionally hurt more than it healed. 

Courage, man, he counseled himself. She needs you. Just speak from the heart, aye? 

Burying his face in her hair, he filled his lungs with the warm scent of her, then looked back out over the metal railing, lifting his voice into the crisp winter night. 

“I think, before anything else, I should start off by thanking ye,” he continued. “Your daughter is the best person I’ve ever known in my life. She’s… completely and utterly selfless, she… she’s kind, and compassionate, and whip smart, and—and stubborn, Christ is she stubborn.” He made a soft hum of amusement, and felt some of the tightness ease from his chest. “She makes me laugh harder than anyone. She can light up a room just by walkin’ into it, and she immediately puts everyone at ease, makes them feel comfortable. Safe.” 

He could feel Claire’s resistance in the bowstring tension of each muscle, the subtle shake of her head against his neck. He smoothed a reassuring hand over her back as he spoke, but even if it strained every last self-deprecating instinct she possessed, he knew that these were the words she needed to hear. 

“And I ken that she’s grown into this… incredible woman because of the values and the… the empathy she learned from her parents. That much is plain in the way she speaks of ye. So I think it’s only right that the two of ye should hear it from someone who… who’s been on the receiving end of it, ye ken? Someone who’s only able to stand here speaking wi’ ye tonight because your daughter saved my life.”

“Jamie,” Claire finally croaked in protest, trying to raise up to look at him. He tightened his hold just enough to still her, then cuddled her back in, laying his cheek on top of her head.

“It’s natural for her, ye ken. She’s a born healer. Before I knew anything else about her, I knew that. The very first day I transferred to her floor in the hospital, another nurse, a new one, she, ah—she almost ripped my skin clean off.” At the mere memory, he clenched the muscles of his back reflexively, wincing. “And I snapped, I was… raging at her like some kind of animal, screamin’ and cursin’... and it wasn’t even about that. See, I’d, ah… I’d just learned that my father had been dead for six weeks, and my own sister hadna told me. I was out of my mind wi’ grief. So this was just the last straw, I suppose. And the first thing the charge nurse did was send Claire in to calm me down. And she did, she…” His voice grew faint, and he paused for a moment, swallowing thickly and turning his lips in to kiss her crown.   

“She touched me. She found me when I was broken down, weeping like a bairn, and she gave me her hand. She asked me about my Da, she… she gave me space to… to grieve him, but she wouldna let me take the blame for his death, even when I was so sure that it was all my fault.”

“It wasn’t,” Claire choked out, and the pads of his fingers gripped into the soft flesh of her shoulder, desperate for her to hear her own words.

“I canna help but wonder what would have happened if someone had been here to do the same for yer daughter.” He dropped the register of his voice to a low murmur, right against the shell of her ear. “If someone had taken her hand that night, standing where we are now, and told her that a… a bairn askin’ for an ice cream cone was not responsible for what happened here.” 

She was still fighting, resisting; so rigid in his arms that each smothered sob felt as though it might splinter her bones. 

Jamie held her tighter still, but he didn’t stop. Christ, he didn’t dare stop. 

“I ken if you’d been able, you would have told her yerselves. Explained that you were the adults; you were the ones making the decisions. You knew, Mr. Beauchamp, that ye’d worked all night and been awake all day. That ye were nodding off at the wheel, and too tired to be drivin’ home. Just like I knew that it was an eejit move to take off my seatbelt and reach down to grab my mobile.” He nodded faintly to himself, then fixed his gaze on the shimmering reflection of the moonlight on the river. “We made our choices, you and I. And we paid the consequences.”

Claire broke then.

Her knees gave out from beneath her without warning, and the full weight of her slumped forward into Jamie’s arms. He would have carried her, if he could. She was so small, so fragile — it physically pained him to not be able to scoop her up, as he might have done a year ago. 

But it was also right, somehow… he recognized that there was something right about the fact that he slid down to the ground with her, holding her right where she was.

For a long while, he simply cradled her in silence, gently repositioning until she was sitting between his bent knees, her limbs wrapped around his torso like a vine. The sobs ripping through her were so merciless, so violent that they were completely soundless, save the desperate, shrill gasps for air she was trying to drag through a clenched windpipe. 

He squeezed his eyes shut, gritting his teeth to keep from trying to comfort her just yet. 

Somehow, he had the feeling Claire had never done this: never grieved with her whole body, let it ravage her, consume her. 

And she needed to.

But every muscle fiber in his body burned with the need to do something; as a compromise, he began to sway her, just slightly — rocking on instinct to the metronome of his own heartbeat. 

“Leig a-mach e, mo ghràidh,” he whispered, his lips pressed to the soft skin just behind her ear. “Tha e ceart gu leòr.”

Claire had no Gàidhlig, of course, but the encouragement behind the words seemed to reach her just the same. She gripped him with white-knuckled fists and locked ankles, allowing him to anchor her as wave after wave of crushing grief battered her from the inside out.

And, in time — as with even the most ferocious of storms — the worst of it finally passed. 

The frantic, breathless sobs gave way to rapidly stuttering ones — and those, in turn, eased gradually to rhythmic, whimpering hums. When Claire had enough lung capacity to stop and sniffle between breaths, Jamie knew the time for comfort had come: the hand that had been holding steady at the base of her skull softened and slipped through her curls, while the one at the small of her back began to massage deep, calming figure-eights over the muscles knotting her spine.

The effect was immediate: Claire heaved out a deep, shaky sigh, and relaxed against him, boneless and spent.

Christ, how he wanted to collapse with her. It felt as though they’d both run a full marathon already. He had said much, and the heady exhaustion of catharsis was right there with open arms, tempting him to slip down with her. 

But he had brought her here for a reason. And he couldn’t lose his courage — or his motivation — quite yet.

Gently, he guided Claire’s head up from his shoulder, and gave her a wee smile as he wiped at her swollen eyes and runny nose with his shirt sleeve. She let out a soft, pained breath that was almost a laugh, and he couldn’t have stopped himself from kissing her in that moment for anything in the world.

Long after he’d released her bottom lip from between his, he rested quietly with his forehead pressed to hers, listening to the sobering babble of the river below them. He let himself get lost in it for a moment; tried to imagine himself as a bairn of ten, listening to that deceptively peaceful sound as he waited for help that would not come fast enough. Shaking his head faintly, he cupped Claire’s face in his hands, and slowly drew back to look at her.

“The weight of what happened here is more than any one person can bear alone,” he rasped, so hoarsely it was barely audible over the sound of the water. “And for so long, ye’ve had no choice but to carry it yerself.” His own vision was too blurred to be able to see her clearly, but he felt a fresh trickle of warm tears slip over his fingers, and tenderly brushed them away. “There’s nothing I can do to change those twenty years, Claire. But I can promise ye that no matter what happens, you’ll never be alone again.” 

He reached for her left hand and held it tight for a moment — considered wrapping his pinky around hers to make it official. 

But she needed more from him now. That’s why they were here.

So instead, he brought her knuckles to his lips, then smoothed his thumb back and forth over the delicate skin as he looked back out at the river one last time.

“Which brings me back to you, Mr. and Mrs. Beauchamp,” he said, swallowing hard against the lump in his throat. His voice couldn’t waver, not for this part — even if it did feel as though his wame was trying to wrench itself up his esophagus.

“I’ve done a fine job of tellin’ ye what you already know about yer own daughter,” he continued, huffing out a tight laugh to cover his nervousness. “And I want ye to know that, more than anyone, I realize what she deserves. And I’m, ah… I’m unemployed at the moment. Dinna have a car, or a place to live. Dinna have much of anything to my name except a mound of medical debt. I would lay the world at yer daughter’s feet, but I have nothing to give her.” With a wee frown, he brought Claire’s third finger to his lips. “Not even a ring.”

She gasped, then.

Understood.

Her fingers clenched around his until they were bone white, and she exhaled brokenly, “Jamie…”

He didn’t dare look at her. Not yet. He would never finish if he did.

“But with your blessing, Mr. and Mrs. Beauchamp, I would spend the rest of my days reminding your daughter that she is loved. That she is worthy of being loved. Even if we dinna have much, I think… I think I can make her happy.” He dropped his voice to a whisper as Claire bowed her head into his chest. “I’d verra much like to try.” 

It seemed she was incapable of saying anything but his name, choked once more into the folds of his coat. 

But it was certainly better than no.

With a trembling hand, Jamie curled a finger under her chin and eased her up to look at him. He nuzzled away her tears as they fell, then kissed the salty softness of each cheek.

“Do ye think they’d approve of me, Sassenach?” he asked quietly.

Claire opened her mouth to try to answer him, but no sound came out. When at last she bobbed her head in a vigorous nod, he felt his bones turn to water with relief.

“Thank Christ.” He grinned into a panting kiss. “Because I would have asked ye anyway.” 

His lips closed over hers twice more before he clasped their joined hands between their chests. He couldn’t kneel, not with her currently sitting in his lap — but he found he didn’t care overmuch about the unorthodoxy of it at all… only that she knew, finally and forever, that he was hers.

If she’ll have ye, he reminded himself, feeling his throat turn to sandpaper. Ever since he’d returned to her, Claire had been trying her damndest to push him away at every turn, convinced that it was better for him, somehow, to be without her. And whether or not he’d done enough to persuade her otherwise still remained to be seen.

Both of their hearts were pounding by the time he managed to gather enough moisture in his mouth to be able to speak again. “I know ye have yer doubts, mo chridhe, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I dinna ken what the future has in store for us. Canna promise that it’ll be easy, but… but what I can promise is that I am willing to do whatever it takes to make this work.” He leaned back so he could look her straight in the eyes, even as hers overflowed with tears, sparkling silver in the moonlight. 

“When I was sick wi’ the meningitis, when I thought I was dying…” he continued softly, “All I could picture was the life I would never be able to have wi’ you. All the mornings waking up wi’ you on my chest, and.. and the evenings curled up on the couch, listenin’ to ye gripe about subway tile.” He smiled crookedly, but the expression softened as he leaned in to graze his nose up and down the length of hers. “The day I would finally look up to see you walking down a church aisle to meet me.”  

His lifted his thumb to stroke slowly over her cheekbone, sweeping a tear-matted curl behind her ear. “At the end of my life, you were all that mattered. And you were what brought me back. So now that I have a second chance to get this right, I need to ask ye… Claire…” 

He brushed his lips against her temple. “Elizabeth…” 

Her brow. “Beauchamp…” 

Her mouth. 

“Will you marry me?” 




“Leig a-mach e, mo ghràidh,” = let it out, my love.

“Tha e ceart gu leòr.” = it’s alright