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Downhill

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A heartfelt “FUCK!” echoed off the bathroom tiles, followed by a quick and desperate, but silent What now?

She stole another glance at the offending plastic in her left hand. Nope, still the same outcome. But those cheap tests weren’t all that reliable, were they? Good thing Claire Elisabeth Beauchamp was prepared for this bout of doubt. She’d bought another one in anticipation of a vortex of thought circling around the same thing over and over again, even if she did finally have an answer to the question she hadn’t dared to ask for over 2 weeks. Even better that she had thought not to just use the loo, but peed into a small bowl, so she’d have an easier time with the second test. And the third. Okay, maybe three was a bit excessive. But then again, with that kind of equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat, who wouldn’t want to really make sure? Absolutely making sure would include confirming it with an OBGYN, of course. The tests were really just for her peace of mind. Peace of mind, yeah, so much for that.

She’d entertained the idea of a pregnancy only for a split second or so, and only because the symptoms she’d experienced over the last couple of days went hand in hand with her period being late. Too bloody late. Claire had never been the most diligent in tracking her own cycle, simply because there wasn’t much reason to do so. She always knew roughly when it was supposed to start, but hers just wasn’t one of those cycles that run like a clockwork. Hers was messy – in the figurative sense. And in the literal, too, but then again, whose wasn’t? It’s a bloody business, one’s body ridding itself of the monthly evidence that you had failed –yet again– to conceive. But this time, she hadn’t, apparently –failed, that is.

Here she sat now, staring at the second plastic stick that she’d dipped into her own urine, faced with the increasing unavoidability of the high probability that she might, in fact, have conceived. Which brought her back to her original, heartfelt statement. Fuck. Bloody, goddamn FUCK. Fuck, indeed. That’s what got her into this situation in the first place, hadn’t it?

But how? She snorted at that thought. Good God, Beauchamp, you know bloody well how that happened. And you a medical-student-to-be, too!

She wasn’t going to take a chance on this. Nope, she was going to be sure. And she’d paid for it, so she might as well use it. Ripping the third package open, Claire took out the final stick and dipped it into the bowl of urine. The liquid finally deemed done with and unnecessary for further proceedings, it was unceremoniously sent off with a forceful flush.

There was nothing left to be done in the tiny bathroom. No medical cabinet to be reorganised, no towels to be neatly folded. Now, she could only wait with nothing to distract her. Another 7 minutes passed before she picked up and looked at number three.

Eyes squeezed shut tightly, she dropped her head onto her knees and held onto them, trying to keep the overwhelming urge to vomit at bay. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought that this particular attack of nausea wasn’t due to what the two pink lines on stick number three confirmed, yet again. She was, indeed, pregnant.

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“Clai-haaaiire?” a sing-song voice and repeated knocking on the bathroom door finally jerked her out of her stupor. “Are ye in there?”

Shit, Geillis. How late was it? How long had she been in here? “Who else?” she called back.

“I thought the door was maybe stuck again. I didnae want tae break it doon and surprise ye in a compromising situation in case it wasnae stuck after all.” The fat smirk on her best friend’s face was all-too audible.

“How very considerate of you, Geillis”, she replied, her tone the vocal equivalent of an eye-roll.

She stared at the pregnancy test in her hand, then at the two still lying on the bathroom counter. Compromising indeed. Well, there wasn’t much to be done about it now. Stuffing them and the ripped packaging back into the plastic bag, she wrapped it all into a neat, small bundle and stowed it as far back as the cupboard under the sink allowed. That shouldn’t raise too much suspicion, unless Geillis would suddenly feel the urge to rummage through their cleaning supplies. Hell would probably freeze over before that one would lift even one finger to do anything that revolved around cleaning out of her own free will. Thank God for unanimously agreed-upon cleaning plans. That plan was one of the backbones of their successful cohabitation. Taking a deep breath to steady herself before facing the world outside of her head again, Claire opened the groaning bathroom door and had Geillis right up in her personal space.

“Hello there, beautif –,” Geillis began, her smile replaced for a second by a small frown before she continued, “Did ye fancy yer mornin’ parritch on the porcelain throne today, m’lady?”

“What?”

One long, pale finger pointed down. “You took a bowl in there wi’ you.” Claire could feel the heat of embarrassment rise up in her cheeks and tried to cover it with a cough.

“Ehm... I don’t know. I’ve not been feeling all that well today. I probably took it with me when I went for a pee.” Pee. That was her cue to leave this conversation before she said something she didn’t mean to or Geillis caught on that the whiff of urine didn’t come from the loo. Brushing past her roommate, she headed straight for the kitchenette to give the bowl a thorough antiseptic scrub and rinse. Not suspicious at all. 

“You must really be feeling peely-wally, ye didnae even take a spoon wi’ you,” her friend remarked, one fair brow perched in question as much as amusement.

“I guess so.” The warm water was soothing, but didn’t work against the green eyes she knew were boring into her back.

“You alright, hen?” There was a definite tone of worry now.

“Just a bit under the weather I guess,” she said, looking back over her shoulder, trying to reassure her friend with a smile. Geillis didn’t quite seem to believe that but didn’t press further. She knew she’d talk to her eventually.

“Anyhoo, I’m going tae jump intae the shower, dinnae want tae be late fer our first class, aye, Doctor-tae-be Beauchamp?” And with a dramatic flipping of her luscious platinum mane, Geillis turned around and disappeared behind the bathroom door, whistling. That would give Claire some time to get a hold of herself. ‘Looking like this takes an effort, hen’. She smiled at the recollection of her and Geillis’ first ever serious argument. ’Ye cannae jus’ assume that I’d be ready looking like this in five!’ She had not, in fact, had any problem whatsoever with the length of time it had taken Geillis to get ready for their own housewarming party – okay, maybe a tiny problem with that, too – but the major issue had been the lack of hot water for her own ablutions before the guests arrived. Both strong-willed and equipped with a healthy set of lungs, the argument had grown rather loud, but ended quickly in a hug and a compromise. Claire would always have the prerogative first turn in the shower, but Geillis could take as long as she wanted, and as much water as she wanted, too.

A highly confidently sung false version of the chorus to Get Lucky permeated through the bathroom door and her reverie. Glancing at the microwave clock made her jump a little, seeing how late it had gotten, and drop the freshly dried bowl back into the soapy depths of the sink. Shit. Not sparing as much time and thoroughness this time, Claire fished the bowl out again, gave it a superficial dry down and put it on the dish rack.

In her room, Claire double-checked that she had everything she needed for classes (phone, laptop, charger, notebook, pens) before she changed into the outfit she’d put out the night before. High-waisted black jeans paired with a tank top underneath her favourite plaid shirt, and comfy sneakers. Nothing spectacular, but comfortable – and that was her preferred state of being. Another look into her bag to make sure that her charger was really there –it was– since her phone had become irrationally unreliable since the Madeira trip and needed recharging every couple of hours.

One last attempt in front of the full-length mirror to tame her mass of brown curls into something not resembling a bird’s nest, and she was ready. Ready for the first day of classes. The first of many, to be sure. Claire Beauchamp would become a doctor, just as she always wanted. Would she, though? She glanced downward to where her right hand was hovering protectively above her womb. Before her mind could go down that road, she noticed that the singing had stopped and left her room to enquire. “Geillis?” While it took her best friend an hour or more to shower and put a face on, she was a miracle worker when it came to getting dressed. Just as she was about to call a second time, the door to Geillis’ bedroom opened and she came out, sporting a dazzling smile.

“Are ye ready, then, Claire?”

And this time, the answering smile was sincere. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

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Chapter 3 - The Steaming Mug

It turned out that Claire wasn’t quite as ready as she had believed herself to be. Arriving outside the campus gate after a 20 minute walk, her stomach seemed to have knotted itself into a proper fish braid. Ever the observant friend, Geillis picked up on her discomfort, and took hold of her hand.

“It’s going tae be orite, hen. I’m wi’ ye.” What had been meant as an encouraging wink looked so distressingly like an imitation of Mister Bean’s facial car crash comedy at his best, that Claire couldn’t help but double over and burst out laughing, causing more than one of the passers-by to stare at them disapprovingly. Geillis, visibly embarrassed, the tip of her sharp-edged nose a rich pink, as she tried to get her friend to stop hooting, and look like someone who wasn’t friends with a total madwoman, just about to collapse on the path to the campus.

“Will ye bloody stop, Beauchamp?! It wasnae that funny at all!” she hissed, trying to appear nonchalant – and failing miserably.

It didn’t exactly help that the two of them didn’t blend into crowds easily in any case, with Geillis’ natural platinum blonde mane reaching down to her buttocks and Claire’s wild brown curls flying madly around her face, but the fact that they were currently half blocking the path leading onto the campus, wasn’t improving things in that regard.

As reasoning and pleading didn’t produce the desired result, Geillis took matters into her own hands – the matter of the moment being Claire. She grabbed her by the arm and bodily dragged her still shaking form off the path and under a nearby birch tree, out of sight of curious gazes from the freshers group that was just walking up towards the gate.

“God, that was just what I needed right now!” Claire’s mouth curled into a sincere smile as she straightened back up to wipe the moisture from her eyes and cheeks. Her belly was still quivering with the echoes of laughter when she locked eyes with her best friend, standing there with arms crossed, and noticed the tick of her left eye – a clear indication that his particular best friend was about to lose her patience. “I’m sorry, Gee,” Claire said, meaning it, and Geillis’ expression lightened perceptibly after considering whether this apology had been sincere or not, eye tick gone within the blink of an eye.

“Fergiven, hen.” Thankfully not being the sullen or grudge-holding kind, Geillis went straight back to her cheery self. “Sae, since we’re still half an hour early, how aboot we grab a coffee before the lecture?”

Claire nodded.

“But you’ll be paying, Beauchamp!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“That’s ‘aye, ma’am’, for you, d’ye hear?”

“Aye, aye, ma’am!” and the both of them dissolved in laughter, this time, together.

Since their favourite coffee joint was only a five minute walk away, they didn’t have to hurry. They knew it wouldn’t be crowded with students –it never was. A bit too far off campus to be adequately convenient for a quick caffeine fix and a bit shabby-looking, The Steaming Mug didn’t appeal all that much to the general student body. Which was a blessing. Decent coffee served in huge mugs for a good price and no uncomfortable hipster-wannabe furniture making a prolonged stay undesirable, it was the perfect place to plop down into one of the worn leather armchairs and have a chat with a friend, read a book, or tackle the odd essay assignment or two.

They chatted animatedly with their favourite barista Greg, as he got their order ready, Claire dutifully paying and tipping generously. Their exit was marked by the chime of the rusty, old bell above the door. Outside, the sun shone brightly and Claire closed her eyes in bliss as she took a careful sip of the fragrant brew. It tasted different today, and not just because she had ordered her first-ever decaf.

Liquid fortification in hand, and with much less nerves, they made their way back to the campus of the University of Edinburgh. They’d both known the place for some time now, having completed their undergraduates there together while becoming fast friends, but it still felt different today when they stepped over the gated threshold together, hands clasped in support of each other. Today, they’d both be starting their medical studies. There was no need to say out loud how much hard work had gone into achieving this goal. They both knew; both had sacrificed in their own way. But now the day had come, they had taken the first step towards their new life –and it felt amazing.  

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Chapter 4 - Revelation

As opposed to the figurative milestone step they had taken together through the gate onto the campus, the introductory lecture had been somewhat anti-climactic. The professor droned on and on about administrational issues and how to successfully write an email –not even kidding. Nothing exciting whatsoever about the prospects they would face in the field of medicine. Geillis rolled her eyes so hard when the poor man tried to tell a joke– and failed–that Claire chuckled, for which she received her other seat neighbour’s scowl and a bossy “Shhhht!”

She threw back a look that said quite plainly what she thought of his admonishing her. Deciding it wasn’t worth either her time or effort, she turned to face the professor again and ignored his knee that kept pushing into her thigh at intervals, hastily scribbling down the more noteworthy points on the PowerPoint slides.

The days passed by in a blur, but without much excitement, except for a rogue toaster that had been replaced with a quirky Star Wars one (‘Now ye can lick yer jam off Darth Vader’s face ev’ry morning!’), as Claire and Geillis settled into their new routine. The cleaning and other chores plan was adapted according to their new schedules, and room was made on the bookshelf to accommodate two identical sets of medical books. For a brief moment they had considered to share, but dismissed the thought as impractical.  It was 17 days into the new semester when Geillis came home to find Claire seated on the sofa, surrounded by books and notebooks, that their domestic bubble was about to burst.

“Orite, I’ve had enough o’ this, Claire,” Geillis announced as she plopped down on the sofa next to her, upsetting the carefully laid-out arrangement of study materials and snacks.

Claire’s nose twitched slightly at the intrusion, but was still buried in her course book as she sucked industriously on a pen during her revision of today’s lecture on biochemistry.

“Wa?”

“Take that pen out of yer mouth, Beauchamp, I cannae understand ye.”

With a heavy sigh that bespoke the trials of living with someone who had very little respect for personal space at times, Claire stopped sucking on the pen and started to worry the push button instead.

“What?”

“I said I cannae understand ye properly if ye’re chewing yer way all through that pen. Ye really shouldnae do that, by the way.”

“I know what you said, Gee. I meant what do you mean with ‘you’ve had enough of this’?”

“Weel, ye’ve been all quiet and often walking around wi’ a face like they announced that Ben and Jerry’s went out of business and ye’d never see a pint of yer Cookie Dough again when ye thought I wasnae looking. But ye havena said a single word tae me yet, and I’m getting’ worrit. So, what's happened that ye cannae even tell me, hen?”

Claire took a steadying breath, trying to put on a brave face and continue to pretend it was nothing– for now.

“And before ye tell me again that ye’re ‘fine’, Claire, I have tae warn ye, that I’m gonna punch you if ye do,” she said, fist raised in mock threat.

“You can’t, Geillis,” Claire said matter-of-factly, finally turning to look at her friend, and putting the pen down in her book to mark the page to return to later.

“O’ course I can! D’ye think I go tae the gym three times a week fer ma face? These babies are deadly!” The fair-haired woman locked eyes with Claire, setting her eyebrows in a way she hoped would approximate a menacing expression, and kissed her biceps affectionately.

Despite everything that was weighing her down–the as of yet unshared secret, the new demands of her studies– Claire laughed so hard that at that ridiculous display that her cheeks went red and her curls bounced wildly.

“First of all, my dear,” she said, regaining her composure and wiping at her eyes, “we both know very well that you go to the gym twice a week, and if it’s for biceps, that may be so, but definitely not your own. I seem to recall a fifteen minute conversation trying to persuade me to come with you to have a look at – what was his name again? Hunkster MacGlutes?” she shook her head, a smile playing on her lips as she said it and thought of the hilarious image Geillis had painted of her latest gym crush. “Second, while I’m positive that, technically, you would be able to punch me, you still can’t.”

Serious confusion was written all over her best friends face. The brows were knitted together, and she’d stopped speaking, lips slightly parted. If there had been any further indication necessary, this would have been it.

“I’m no’ followin’.”

Claire inhaled deeply and sat up straighter, but just couldn’t quite manage to meet Geillis’ eyes when she spoke next.

“Because you’re not supposed to punch pregnant women.”

It took what felt like an eternity to Claire for the meaning of that simple statement to sink in and register with Geillis, whose face went through an extraordinarily comical transformation when it finally did.

She hadn’t said it out loud before, not even when she was alone. Now that she –sort of– had said it, Claire felt a weight lifted off her shoulders that people, also recently unburdened by their secrets, liked to talk about. Apparently there was some wisdom to it.

“Ye’re...”

Another deep inhale before Claire answered, “Yes.”

“...pregnant?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Ye think?”

“Well, I know so, but I still made an appointment with Dr. Raymond to confirm it with a professional.”

“Aye, that’s... verra sensible,” she said, seeming lost in thought for a second. “But my god, Claire, how?!”

Claire snorted.

“How is it that how always seems to be the first question –myself included– even if we all know perfectly well how?”

Geillis rolled her eyes.

“Because ye ken verra well that I’m no asking aboot the particulars of the mechanics of intercourse, or how that led to conception– though it wouldnae came amiss if ye were inclined tae share some details on that specific night, mind– but why ye didnae use contraception, fer god’s sake.”

“We did,” Claire interrupted before her friend could talk herself into a diatribe about how ‘an independent woman cannae rely on a man’ and should never, ever put their trust in those ‘baw-heided buggers’ when it came to not carrying ‘their unwanted spawn’ .

“Oh. Shite.”

“Quite the accurate summary there, Duncan.”

A minute’s silence was broken by Geillis, when she asked “Whose is it?”

“That sounds as if I were jumping everything with a dick, first chance I get,” Claire huffed indignantly.

“I didnae mean it like tha’, and ye ken it well. Sae, who’s the father?”

Claire’s shoulders slumped, ready to admit defeat.

“Oh no. Surely it cannae be...?”

“Yes, it’s Jamie’s.”

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Chapter 5 - Revelation Continued

Claire wiped at her mouth, teeth freshly brushed after another unwelcome attack of morning sickness –not that her tiny co-habitant was cooperative enough to keep it strictly to the morning hours– and returned to her spot on the comfy couch. By now, there sat two mugs of tea on the glass table next to her, the aroma of peppermint calming her olfactory nerves immediately. While she was a coffee-junky through and through, Claire also maintained an extensive assortment of loose tea leaves, usually intended to create her own blends depending on her need and fancy, and it wasn’t an unusual sight for her to be found sipping some during late hours. It was the second mug that had earned Geillis a raised eyebrow from Claire.

 “Weel, I usually would ha’ opted for a healthy dram, but it didnae seem appropriate right now. And I didnae want tae rub it in, sae...”

Claire half threw herself at her friend, hugging her tightly.

“Och, I didnae say that my tea was completely virgin, though, aye?” She smiled into Claire’s hair and rubbed her back gently.

They each settled back into their own space, adjusting the pillows just a bit, but stayed close enough for their bodies to touch occasionally, the physical closeness a comfort she didn’t easily share with anyone else.

“Seeing that ye’re quite obviously no’ a virgin anymore –and with proof of it – maybe we should get back tae it, aye?”

Claire swatted her friend’s arm.

“Ha, bloody, ha, Geillis.”

Unperturbed by her roommate’s sarcasm, the fair-haired woman continued pushing the conversation forward.

 “Sae, what ye’re telling me is that the ginger half-god ye met on our Madeira trip is the maker of yer bun, aye?”

“Yes.”

“And ye’re absolutely sure aboot that?”

Claire jumped up, nearly upsetting the still-full mug to shatter on the floor in her frustration, and started pacing up and down their small living room, gesturing wildly with her arms as she did so.

“Yes, I am bloody sure! Jamie’s the only guy I’ve slept with in the last 7 months. And even if there were more, judgement would be the last thing I need right now. Especially not from you, Gee. You’re the one preaching female empowerment and taking our pleasure and what-not-else after all!” She stopped her pacing and, while looming over Geillis, pointed an accusing finger at the still-seated feminist in question.

Geillis simply moved the affronting digit out of her field of vision.

“Weel, I wouldnae be judging ye, even if ye were the hoor of Babylon, but it would ha’ been a lot easier if it wasnae Jamie, aye?”

“You’re not wrong there.” Just as quickly as her temper had flared up, it disappeared again with an exaggerated sigh, but her posture was still rigid as she sat back down and clutched her mug in both hands, staring into the golden liquid as if all the answers could be found at its bottom. Neither of them said anything else for some time, the stretch of silence only being broken by the companionable sounds of tea being slurped.

“Sae, how far along are ye then?” Before Claire could answer, however, Geillis counted back to their Madeira trip and came up with the answer herself, “Around 9 weeks then, aye?”

“Mhm.” Claire confirmed quietly.

“How long have ye known?”

“Since I was walking around with my ‘I’ll never have another pint of Cookie Dough-face’ apparently,” Claire retorted, still a tad annoyed still by her friend’s earlier description.

“Makes sense.”

“At least something does.”

She was staring at the whitewashed wall where they had hung their first jointly-purchased item for their shared flat– a life-sized, skilfully hand-drawn sketch of the human body, one half displaying the bone structure and the other the muscle layers, which they’d studied to prepare for their entrance exam for medical school– when Geillis’ put a hand on her shoulder. Feeling her friend’s supportive squeeze, all of Claire’s emotional dams suddenly broke, tears of unacknowledged fear spilling down over the reddening skin of her cheeks. Somehow she had managed to keep it under wraps until now, not allowing herself to be consumed by the overwhelming weight on her shoulders. But now that the gates were open, she couldn’t pretend any longer.

“God, what am I going to do, Geillis? I’m not ready for this. I can’t be a mother. Not now, not bloody now.” Her breath started to come out in quick, shallow wheezes, while the pressure in her chest heightened with each expansion of her ribcage. “Oh, god.”

“Breathe, Claire.”

“I can’t...,” she gasped for air, her chest feeling unbearably tight, “I...just can’t.”

“Fer fuck’s sake, breathe, woman! One, two, three. That’s it. It’s going tae be orite,” Geillis tried to reassure here, drawing soothing circles on her back and tucking a rebellious curl behind her ear. “Come here, hen, and lay yer heid.”

Claire collapsed against her friend and sobbed into her lap, dark blotches wetting the fabric of Geillis’ jeans.

“It’s–,“ she gasped again, “–not going to be alright!”  

“Aye, ‘tis.”

“How?” she demanded, head turning to look up at her friend, lost amber eyes meeting calm moss-green ones, as her breathing became steadier again. “How am I supposed to finish med school? With a toddler at my heels? I can’t even cook properly for myself, let alone a child!” Her right hand rested unconsciously where the unborn life, the size of a chickpea, lay hidden.

”We’re getting’ a wee bit ahead of ourselves there, don’t ye think?”

“Wha–“

“Ye dinnae have tae cook fer the wee one just yet, no? “

“Guess not,” came the muffled response.

“Listen tae me, Claire,” Geillis said with calm authority.

“Hmph?”

“Ye dinnae have tae learn how tae cook, nor decide anything else just now. I ken that you can be a mother if that’s what ye choose. But there’s nothing ye’ll have tae make up yer mind about right now, either.”

At this, Claire began to weep in earnest. Her frame was shaking from ugly sobs, her chest heaving with the effort not to let all the pain break free at once, and Geillis let her, giving her the time she needed. They sat there on the couch, not speaking, just listening to the quiet sounds of the apartment, occasionally interrupted by Claire’s sniffles. After a while, Claire had no more tears left –for now. She lay there with her head in Geillis lap, calmed by the hand that was still gently stroking her cheek.

“I’m sorry, Gee.”

“For what?”

“Ruining your trousers. They’re all snotty and ...” She sat up and pointed at the mess she’d made.

“Och, nevermind that. I guess someone’ll take over my next laundry duty as thanks,” Geillis replied with a wink that didn’t come even remotely close to being a wink. Claire chuckled softly.

“Your inability to wink cheers me up every time.”

“Happy tae be o’ service, I guess.” Geillis replied, her lips curving into a lopsided smile. “Anyway, we’ll deal wi’ one thing after another, aye?” She wriggled out of her jeans and threw them into the laundry hamper in the bathroom, not bothering to put on anything else in their place before she came back. “Trousers, check.” Claire smiled at her friend’s practical approach to the situation. “Next thing on the agenda– the doctor. When is yer appointment with Dr. Raymond?”

“In two days.”

“What time?”

“I think at 11, why?” Claire rubbed her face in an effort to release some of the tension there.

“Because I’m comin’ wi’ ye, of course!”

“You don’t have to do that, Geillis. I appreciate it, but–“

“I ken I dinnae have tae do it, hen,” Geillis interrupted, “that’s no’ the point. This came as a real shock tae me, and I cannae even begin tae imagine how hard it must be on you then. But whatever ye’ll do, Claire, I’ll be wi’ ye. All the way. Ye’re no’ alone in this, even if we cannae find Jamie. I promise ye that much.”

Claire stared at the outstretched hand that was offered to her in a solemn promise. She would have cried again if she hadn’t been run completely dry already, almost choking on the emotion that was welling up again at that simple but sweet gesture.

“Thank you.”

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Chapter 6 - Vacation Intervention

Island of Madeira, last week of July

Madeira was not what she’d expected. When Geillis told her about the idea to leave the city, the stress of summer-work, and applying for the Edinburgh Medical School behind in exchange for a week of relaxation on a Portuguese island, Claire had been reluctant at first. She thought that it would be too hot, too loud, and too overcrowded with drunk, German tourists for her liking. Despite feeling that it might not be the exactly right place for her to ‘calm her tits and forget about school for a while’, she’d given in to Geillis’ unrelenting nagging, agreeing to join the fray. God, that woman could be persuasive.

Now that she was lying on a wonderfully empty beach, protected by the expansive shade of a palm tree and a layer of sunscreen, she didn’t even mind all that much that the group of friends scattered on towels around her included Laoghaire MacKenzie.

While they had known each other since secondary school they had attended in Glasgow, Claire had always had the impression that the blonde girl didn’t like her very much. There was never any open hostility, no fighting over seating arrangements, no disputes about who should take on which part of the assigned group work. They talked politely when they had to, but they never spoke to each other if not forced into conversation by circumstance. If it were just that, Claire would have probably said that they were rather neutral towards each other, living their separate lives along a road sharing the same goal –becoming a doctor. She couldn’t pinpoint what it was exactly that made her uneasy about the other woman. It was more a general vibe than anything she could articulate. Whenever Claire looked her way, the watery blue eyes seemed to exude an air of intense dislike. Still, she tried to keep it friendly because they moved in the same circle of friends and study groups.

The days had gone by quickly, spent mostly on the beach –swimming, reading, and napping. It had been enjoyably quiet and surprisingly relaxing, despite being in constant company of other people. Claire was used to having Geillis around 24/7, but she hadn’t been sure how much she could take of the others. Mary Hawkins, a very shy and sweet thing, was a dear friend, but she’d never spent more than a day with her. The Randall brothers –three of them– were great company individually, but had a tendency to get a bit much when they were together. Must be the testosterone. And then there was dear Isobel of course. A smart girl with a sharp wit and a kind heart. There was only one thing about Isobel that Claire couldn’t stomach– her refusal to travel without her sister, Geneva, a bratty princess if Claire had ever known one. Because with Geneva, came Laoghaire. The two of them made quite a pair – one fair, the other dark, with long legs and big busts, but definitely lacking in personality. But there was space enough to avoid each other, and Claire did just that, having a great time with the others. Until she remembered that they would be hearing from the admission’s office any day now.  From that moment onwards, Claire wasn’t able to enjoy herself properly anymore. She stared at the too dark screen of her phone, willing it to light up with the notification of a new email, only to panic when it would finally ping, announcing an incoming message. And it was driving Geillis slowly mad.

The same night, when the whole group had gone to a club with live music near Porto Santo Beach for some drinks, her best friend had had enough of her compulsive behaviour when Claire didn’t pay as much attention as she should have to their conversation, her gaze drawn to her phone like a magnet to true north.

“Enough o’ this,” Geillis declared firmly, and snatched up Claire’s phone from the table-top before the curly-haired woman registered what was happening.

“What the bloody hell, Gee?”

“I ken ye’re nervous, hen, we all are, but this is absolutely ridiculous. Ye haven’t been able tae have a proper conversation wi’ anyone the whole day, and ye’re just staring at that stupid phone fer nae reason. They’re no’ going tae send us anything on a weekend.” Claire tried to make a grab for it, but, anticipating the move Geillis moved it out of her reach behind her back. “I mean it Claire ye’re no’ getting this back tonight. We came here to no’ worry about school, and that’s what you’ll do, too, even if I have tae use force.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? Give my phone back this minute!” Claire had jumped up from her seat, hand outstretched in demand.

Moss-green eyes assessed her coolly, as Geillis stood up as well and moved behind her chair.

“If ye want it, come and get it, Beauchamp,” she taunted, wagging the phone. Then, she turned around and bolted quick as lightning into the crowd in front of the stage.

“This isn’t happening, is it?” she turned to Mary and Isobel, still sat at the table, both trying to hide a chuckle.

Claire sprinted after Geillis, but navigating through the throng of people intent on listening to the band and dancing along in close quarters proved to be far more difficult than anticipated. The last thing she saw of her friend as she jostled her way through was a swish of the platinum mane disappearing around a corner.

A minute or two later, Claire found herself slightly sweaty and thoroughly irritated outside of the Porto Santo Beach Club ladies’ bathroom, using the less peopled area to scan the scene for her about-to-be-murdered best friend. She didn’t even have to look for long; the brazen thief already came walking up to her with a definite bounce in her step, face split by a victorious grin.

“Phone,” Claire demanded, “now.”

“I dinnae have it anymore.”

“Come on, it wasn’t funny before, and it isn’t funny now. Give it back to me.”

“I gave it tae someone else.”

There was a beat of deathly silence.

“You what?” Her eyes narrowed to slits as her shoulders tensed.

“I gave it tae someone else,” Geillis repeated, now admitting the probability that her master plan might not have been the smartest choice of action after all.

“Why, for god’s sake?”

“Ye gave me nae choice, hen. Ye were driving everyone– including yerself– crazy.”

“Who?” The colour in her cheeks was rising as was as her voice went cold. "Who did you give it to?"

“I ken ye’re mad at me, but I’m no’ telling ye just yet. Ye need tae get away from that phone fer a while. Ye’ll get it back in an hour, I promise.”

Her friend reached out a hand in consolation towards her, but Claire shrugged the gesture off.

“Fuck off, Geillis.” She turned around and walked away, leaving Geillis standing alone, smile gone from her face now.  

Her gut urged her to get as far away as possible from meddling friends who couldn’t mind their own bloody business, but rationality reminded her that Geillis had the key to their hotel room. And with her phone she had also lost the ability to find her way back there. Bloody, goddamn fuck.

Claire left the club and inhaled deeply, consciously trying to unclench her teeth and loosen up the tension in her shoulders. The reek of piss and hormonal drunkards didn’t much to assuage her wrath, so she began walking down the street lined with clubs and bars until the worst of it had subsided.

When she came back ten minutes later, she didn’t join her friends’ table again. Throwing Geillis a look that could kill, she walked over to the bar instead and sat down heavily with her back turned to her. She was still sulking when suddenly a drink was pushed into her field of vision.

 “If you think I’ll stop being mad at you for buying me a drink, Duncan, think again.”

“Good thing I’m no’ Duncan, then, aye?” The Scots accent didn’t come as a surprise, but the deep bass of it did.

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 7 - Decision

An appointment with an ob-gyn is never an especially fun activity, no matter how sensitive and professional a doctor such as Gregory Raymond might be. Even the fact that Geillis had accompanied her, holding her hand all the way through the examination –and keeping a straight face despite the death grip Claire had of her fingers – didn’t make this particular visit and the conversation about the available options to deal with a probable pregnancy any easier. But the worst part of it all was the waiting. ‘We’ll get in touch with you in two to four days to inform you about the results, Miss Beauchamp’ they had said. It was after the second night without much sleep that she finally got the call.

When it came, it was at a rather inopportune moment, in the middle of one of her morning classes, and she had to leave the lecture hall to take it. Good thing her phone was always set on vibrate when she was on campus. That way she still knew when someone called or texted, but it didn’t disrupt the class. It wasn’t unusual for a student to step outside during a lecture, so nobody batted an eye when Claire got up, and speedily made her exit, climbing over the back of her seat in the last row so as not to disturb anyone on her way out.  

She returned five minutes later, sliding into her seat from the back, awaited by inquiring fair eyebrows and lips drawn tightly together in anticipation. Geillis’ foot was tapping nervously under the table when she made a gesture as if to say Sae? Tell me! Claire swallowed visibly and shared a sad smile with her friend, a pained gaze clouding her honey eyes.

“Shite,” Geillis mouthed quietly as she rubbed Claire’s shoulder to convey her sympathy. “D’ye want tae go, hen? We dinnae have tae sit through this–“.

“No, it’s alright.” She squeezed the hand on her shoulder affectionately and turned to face the lecturer again. Despite her looking straight at the projected slides, Geillis knew that Claire wouldn’t be taking note of anything and kept extra diligent notes for her to copy later.

The rest of the lecture seemed to last half a life-time. Geillis kept throwing her sideways glances, trying to judge how composed her friend really was. It came as a surprise to her as well, but she was calm– unnervingly so. There had been a tiny speck of hope, of course, that the three pregnancy tests had indeed been wrong, but she hadn’t really counted on that. She was a realist and she had had time to digest that news already. What she wasn’t ready for, was the decision she was about to face now. What was she going to do about it? Geillis had the good sense that broaching the subject in public was not an option, so they walked home together in silence.

Reaching the refuge of their apartment, keys left in the bowl next to the door, bags dropped to the floor, both women went straight to their respective rooms, following an early-on-established routine of shedding their clothing and changing into more comfortable wear before doing anything else.  

“Peppermint or chamomile, Claire?” Geillis shouted from the kitchenette as Claire pulled up her sweatpants.

“Peppermint, please!” she called back, finishing dressing.

The scene that greeted her when she entered the cosy living room reminded her eerily of a couple of days before, when she had shared her burden with Geillis, and crumpled to a teary mess in her friend’s lap. Not a moment she was particularly proud of, but it had made her appreciate Geillis even more. Her best friend sat cross-legged on the sofa, inhaling the steam of her freshly made cup of coffee with an expression of pure bliss. Sitting down next to her, Claire added a spoonful of honey to her mug of tea and stirred, gaze turned inward.

“Do ye want tae talk aboot it?” Geillis’ smooth voice called her back from wherever her thoughts had taken her.

She shrugged helplessly.

“I honestly don’t know.”

Geillis didn’t speak, encouraging her silently to take all the time she needed.

“It’s not just that I have to make a decision about... well,” she begged her friend silently to get her meaning, so she wouldn’t have to say it out loud. When she saw Geillis nod in understanding, Claire continued, “It’s also that I have less than two weeks to take it.” She seemed lost, gaze wandering aimlessly around the apartment.

“I hate myself for even considering it, Geillis.” The curtain of her wild curls hid her face as she turned away, but her voice gave the rawness of emotion away.

“Dinnae hate yerself, Claire. Ye have the right tae consider every option available. It’s yer life, no one else’s. Ye’ll be the one who has to live wi’ it, either way. Sae it’s you that’ll get tae make the call.”

 “The problem being that I just don’t know what is right for me,” she responded with a weak smile.

“Mmphm.”

“I never saw myself as a mother, you know? It’s not that I don’t like kids, I do, but they were never really part of how I saw my future.”

“Never?”

“No. I only ever wanted to become a healer. That was pretty much it. I guess I wouldn’t have minded to start a family at one point with the right guy, but that never really seemed important to contemplate.”

“Before now, ye mean?”

“Yes, before now,” she sighed, head hung low.

Geillis patted her head, closing what little distance was left between them on the couch.

“And it’s such bloody ill timing, too,” she began, “I mean, I just got into medical school. That’s going to be hard enough as it is, but having a child at the same time? And being a single mother to boot?”

“Och, Claire.”

“Never mind that I don’t have any family left that would maybe support me with this,” she continued, finally being able to let all her worries roam free. “It’s also a financial issue. How am I supposed to provide for it?”

“Ye have me Claire. I said it before and I meant it. I’d support ye and the bairn wherever I could.”

“I know you mean it Geillis, and I love you for it –so much it hurts – but having a baby around in this apartment?” she asked, gesturing around the confined quarters. “It’s not just the space. It wouldn’t just take over my life, it would impact yours as well, and not in a good way.”

“I ken verra well what it means tae have a bairn around. My mither had seven of them after all,” Geillis insisted. “I mean it Claire, ye’re my family. If ye choose tae have it, I’ll no’ leave ye alone, and if it means that I have tae break my vow ‘tae never ever touch a nappie again’, sae be it!”

Despite her misery, Claire chuckled softly at Geillis’ earnest vow, which the blonde woman emphasised with a dramatic crossing of her heart and intent look.

“I’d never thought you’d be so bloody good at dealing with stuff like this, Gee. No offense,” she added quickly, anxious that her friend might take it the wrong way.

“None taken, hen. Trust me, it’s a lot easier from where I’m sitting.”

“God, I don’t know what to do!” Claire cried, exasperated.

“Weel, I think it comes down to the question o’ whether or no’ ye want that child.”

“But that is the problem!”

“No. I mean, aye, o’ course, but that’s no’ what I meant. What ye’ve been thinking and talking aboot were only circumstances. Strip all o’ that away before ye consider the real question. Would ye want it if ye didnae have tae worry aboot school, finances, or the father? Once ye got that, we can figure out the rest.”

She opened her mouth as if to say something, but closed it again.

“I dinnae expect ye tae come up wi’ that right away, hen. But think aboot it that way: would ye regret not having it later?”

Claire didn’t respond. How could she ever answer that question? It seemed like such an impossible thing to do. She sat there quietly, head leaned back against the cushions, eyes unable to focus on anything for long. Thoughts were racing wildly and incoherently, while Geillis fetched herself another cup of coffee and turned Netflix on. She had said her piece, and now it was up to Claire to reach a decision.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“If you think I’ll stop being mad at you for buying me a drink, Duncan, think again.”

“Good thing I’m no’ Duncan, then, aye?” The Scots accent didn’t come as a surprise, but the deep bass of it did.

 Chapter 8 - Footprints in the Sand

Island of Madeira, Porto Santo Beach Club

Claire turned toward the deep voice, ready to rebuke whoever was daring enough to disturb her quiet seething, and looked up to find herself face to face with the most gorgeous pair of dark blue eyes she had ever seen. They were set in a strong, good-humoured face framed by short, curly red hair, with prominent cheekbones and ruddy brows. A knife-edged nose that was just that tiny bit too long pointed the way down to a wide mouth that seemed fixed in a slightly lopsided smile, which was not even remotely diminished by a crooked canine tooth. He was clean-shaven, but had missed some of the red-golden stubble just above his Adam’s apple. And just like that, all the anger she had built up evaporated into nothingness.

“Ehm...,” she cleared her throat in an attempt to mask the blush that was creeping up on her neck as she stared at luscious lips begging to be kissed. Pull yourself together, Beauchamp! “I guess so.”

 “I’m Jamie,” he stated simply, anticipating her next question. “It seemed like ye could use one.” He pushed the glass of brightly-coloured liquid further into her space.

“Well, thank you, ehm...Jamie, but I don’t drink, so...,” she began lamely, pushing the cocktail back to him.

“Ne’er? And here I was under the impression that humans needed water tae sustain them,” his wide mouth curved with amusement. Before she could counter anything, he continued, still smiling widely, “It’s virgin, dinnae worry, lass.”

“Oh...thank you, then. What is it?”

“Jus’ a fruit cocktail,” he said, settling himself down on the bar stool next to hers, “May I join ye?”

“I think you already did, Jamie.” She smiled invitingly at him.

He chortled.

“Seems I did, aye? I can go if ye –,“ he said, half rising from the stool.

“No!” she interrupted, putting a hand on his shoulder to prevent his leaving, thankful for the dark lighting in the club hiding her reddening cheeks somewhat.

Not letting on what he thought of that display of eagerness for his company, his gaze fixed on her face and he smiled even wider while gesturing to the barkeeper for a refill of his own glass.

“What’s yer name, then, lass?” he asked, turning his body fully towards her.

“Claire,” she answered, extending her hand in polite introduction.

“Pleased tae meet ye, Claire.” He grasped her finely-boned hand in his much larger one and squeezed lightly, sending tiny sparks through her nervous system.

“The pleasure is all mine, Jamie.”

 “Sae, I assume the lass who gave me this was the ominous Duncan?” He pulled a black phone adorned with a unicorn sticker out of his shirt pocket and handed it over to her.

“My phone! Bloody fuck! She actually gave that to you? A fucking stranger?!” Claire was furious, whipping her head around to glare at the back of Geillis’ head across the room, when she realised what she had said. “Oh, sorry, I –“

“’Tis orite, lass. I was a stranger a couple of minutes ago. I didnae take offense,” he assured her, his expression warm and welcoming.

She relaxed at that, and took a sip of the fruit cocktail that sat still untouched on the bar, tiny umbrella and all.

“Sae, who were ye waiting tae hear from sae badly, lass?”

Claire sighed, her shoulder slumped with the frustration and anxiety she’d experienced all day hitting home again.

“The admissions office of the Edinburgh Medical School.”

“Oh,” he said, blinking rapidly.

“Oh?” she repeated, right brow arched slightly, “I guess that’s not what you expected?”

“Um, no. I didnae really expect anything, ye ken. But, ... I have tae admit, I’m really glad ye didnae say ‘my boyfriend’,” his smile spread impossibly wider as his eyes beamed with obvious pleasure.

“Sae ye’ve applied fer med school, aye? In Edinburgh, no less? Impressive!”

“Well...yes. It’s been my dream for as long as I can remember, becoming a doctor, I mean. I always knew that was what I was supposed to be and –” Claire stopped, biting her lip, uncertain whether she would bore him to death if she continued rambling.

“Go on, lass,” Jamie was still smiling, listening to her with rapt attention, leaning in closer to catch everything she said over the loud background noises.

Heartened by his sincere interest, she went on, “And I’ve worked really hard these past years, and –“

“And now that ye’re about tae find out whether ye made it or no’...,” he encouraged her to fill in the rest.

“I’m positively terrified,” she confessed, searching and finding understanding in his eyes.

“I bet ye are. I’d be shitting blue lights if I were ye.”

“Who says I’ve not already done so?” Claire asked, eyebrow raised in challenge.

“Weel, I’d say I’d smell it if ye had –despite the stench in here,” he countered, tapping his nose lightly, “I’ve a verra fine beak, ken?”

She snorted into her cocktail as he reached for his own glass, very pleased with himself to have eased the tension in her narrow shoulders. They nursed their drinks in silence for a moment, enjoying the flavourful taste of pomegranate juice sliced with pineapple, passionfruit, and a dab of salt –the club’s signature virgin cocktail. Claire tucked one of her many unruly strands of curls back behind her ear, when a thought struck her.

“Jamie?”

“At yer service, ma’am,” he raised two fingers in mock salute to his forehead.

“How did you know I was waiting to hear from someone?” Claire asked, honey eyes narrowing with suspicion.

 He averted his gaze, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

“Weel, I’ve been watchin’ ye fer some time since ye came in wi’ yer friends–,“ he cleared his throat.

Claire’s eyes widened at that admission.

“Ehm, I didnae mean that in a creepy way, mind, but...” he tried to downplay it, scraping a hand through his thick red hair.

“It’s alright.”

“Ye sure?”

She nodded.

“Why were you watching me, Jamie?” Her voice sounded much more confident than she felt, even to her own ears.

His ears turned a bright pink, unmistakeable even in the dim light.

“’Coz ye’ve the bonniest eyes I’ve ever seen. Golden, like a great cat. I simply couldnae look away.”

“So why didn’t you approach me earlier?” she was truly curious, taking another sip.

“I didnae think I could compete wi’ wha’ever –or whoever– ye were waitin’ fer. Ye were staring at yer phone as if ye were expecting the Almighty himself tae call.”

“God, I must have looked spectacularly pathetic,” she sighed, rubbing her temple.

“No, not at all. I just... ye seemed a wee riled up and I didnae want tae bother ye,” he said, inhaling deeply as if to steel himself, “and I didnae have the courage, tae be honest. What wi’ ye being surrounded by an army of friends and all. I didnae want tae make a fool of myself.”

Claire looked him up and down at this revelation, appreciating his tall, broad frame, and handsome features, the bright eyes and the charming smile. Then, she shook her head slightly, curls bouncing gently, as if to rid herself of the ridiculousness of his statement.

“Have you ever taken a long hard look at yourself in a mirror, Jamie?”

Confusion was written all over his face. That was certainly not the reaction he’d expected.

“I dinnae get yer meaning?”

He was so tall and broad, perching on that tiny barstool, that his knee and elbow kept bumping into her when he moved to pick up his drink. But Claire couldn’t say she minded that much. His touch was non-intrusive and gentle. She felt that she liked the accidental contact very much.

“You’re easily one of the hottest guys I’ve ever seen, and I’m not the only one who noticed,” she gestured subtly pointing out drooling females throwing him overt glances around the club. “And that’s just the ladies. I’m sure you have a handful of male fans here as well.”

That assessment was true enough, just as she’d said it, a handsome dark man in a neon pink tank top was checking Jamie out discreetly as he was waiting some way down the bar to wait for his drink to be prepared.

He snorted.

“That one could as easily be interested in you, Claire.”

“I doubt it.”

Letting his gaze roam freely over her, Jamie had no problem whatsoever to list all the enticing attributes that any other man –or woman– would find as attractive as he did. It was true that he had noticed her eyes first –those great golden orbs emanating fierce passion and profound gentleness at the same time– but there was much more to her than that. He was sure he could spend hours just watching the colours of her curlywig change without the activity losing interest. She had an athletic build but wasn’t very muscular, the lines of her body softened by the warm curves of hip and bosom. God, what a backside. But most of all, it was the light radiating from her that drew him to her flame. Sorcha, he thought and reached out his fingers to move a wayward curl out of her face.

Thoroughly embarrassed to find that he had touched her so openly without having been invited to do so, he withdrew his hand again quickly, and rubbed it on his thigh.

“Anyhow, what ye’re trying tae say wi’ that is...?”

“That anyone lurking in the shadows of this establishment would have wanted to be noticed by you,” she said, covering his hand with her own. Touching him seemed to ease some of the nervous energy coursing through her veins and replaced it with a different form of excitement.

Jamie’s eyes jerked up to find hers creased with warmth, cheeks dimpled.

“But you’re probably right, I’m not sure I would’ve registered that you were talking to me in the state I was in,” she admitted. “I’m really glad you did come over, now, though.”

“Guess ye’ll have tae thank yer friend Duncan fer it,” he remarked, trying to sound casual, not daring to move a single muscle, fearing he might lose the touch of her hand on his.

Claire sighed dramatically and retracted her hand again in doing so. His fingers twitched slightly with the loss of it.

“I guess so,” she didn’t care to admit that her friend had actually done her a favour by taking her phone away. “And I guess I’m grateful that there wasn’t anyone else to catch your eye,” she added as an afterthought.

“Definitely no’,” he stressed. “I dinnae really like these clubs, and I’m no’ a fan of lasses throwing themselves at lads they dinnae even ken, thinking it’s orite tae grope and touch what isnae theirs tae begin wi’.”

Seeing that she had finished her cocktail, he motioned to her glass asking silently whether she would like another one. She declined the offer with a shake of her head.

“There was one taenight, I swear I was sae close tae call her out on it,” his jaw clenched at the echo of that annoying encounter. “She was all o’er me, and wouldnae take ‘no’ fer an answer, sae I had tae escape tae the men’s room.”

“Poor lad, must be really trying to be so handsome,” she noted, shoulders shaking under the force of her mirth.

“Are ye laughing at me?” his eyes went wide with mock indignation, left hand held over his heart.

“I most certainly am!” she snorted with the grace of an elk.

It didn’t exactly help that he was pouting now. She doubled over, tears beginning to form at the corners of her eyes.

“God, stop that Jamie, please!” she wheezed.

“Only because ye asked sae nicely, lass.”

 “So, you were saying?” she said, aiming for a calm tone, trying to regain her composure.

“I was hiding for a good quarter hour at least. But my friend Rupert saved me,” he explained. “He came in and said he’d distract her until I could get my stuff and leave. That’s him wi’ her, by the way.” Jamie tilted his head to indicate a stocky-built lad with a well-groomed beard who was deeply immersed in flirting with none other than Laoghaire.

Her laughter didn’t die away completely, but it was now noticeably less. She should have known –that was so like her. Shrugging it off and deciding firmly to concentrate on Jamie instead of wasting her energy on someone she didn’t care for anyway, she turned to him again, smiling.

“Ye ken her, then?” he asked, red eyebrows shooting up almost to his hairline.

“I do. She’s part of our group.”

“Oh, sorry, I didnae mean tae insult yer friend, only –“.

“You didn’t, Laoghaire and I are not friends,” she emphasised. “So you were on your way out?”

“Aye, I was,” he was glad that the unpleasant encounter with the touchy-feely blonde didn’t bite him in the arse just now. If she had been a friend of Claire’s, things might have gotten really awkward just then. “I was just grabbing my jacket and turned tae leave when –imagine my surprise, yer friend Duncan grabbed my arm and told me tae take care of this for an hour, and to NOT let ye have it before then.”

“Seems that you didn’t keep your word,” Claire noted.

“Weel, I never had the chance tae give her my word,” he countered, smirking, “She’d turned on her heel before I’d even understood what had jus’ happened. And then...”

“And then?”

“Then I saw ye stomp out of here, fuming, wi’ yer eyes ablaze.”

“Rather accurate account of what I felt like.”

“Then I had tae wait for ye tae come back, o’ course. I couldnae leave wi’ yer phone after all.”

“Of course not. You couldn’t possibly have returned my phone to Geillis –that’s the name of the meddling bosom, by the way,” Claire blushed, realising that he must have been really interested in her to want to stay despite clingy and overbearing blondes in the vicinity.

“No, that I couldnae have done,” he smiled brightly at her.

Downing the last of his beverage, he darted his tongue out to catch the drop that had escaped his lips, and then set the empty glass on the bar counter.

“’Tis a verra fine night, would ye maybe care for a walk on the beach?” he offered his hand and she took it, jumping up from her seat.

“I’d like that a lot, Jamie.”

Hand in hand and smiling like two goofballs, they exited the building. Claire was so immersed in her conversation with Jamie that she didn’t even think to tell her friends where she was going.

The air outside was exhilaratingly refreshing by comparison to the stuffed interior of the night club, and the pair of them inhaled deeply as they made their way –fingers entwined– towards the ocean. She only came to fully appreciate his height now that he wasn’t crouched on a tiny barstool and was able to stretch his long shanks. Her crown reached just above his shirt-clad shoulder, which provided her with a vantage point to stealthily regard the handsome lines of his profile.

 “Take yer sandals off, Claire,” Jamie instructed, doing the same with his own sneakers. “The sand is sae wonderful between yer toes if it isnae burning the skin right off them.”

They walked for a while, leaving the outlines of their feet in the sand, never losing the connection formed by their fingers, whilst talking of this and that. Conversation with Jamie flowed easily, taking no effort at all. He was both, a born story-teller and an attentive listener, eager to capture her every word.

Reaching an outcrop a mile down the beach from the club, they decided to make themselves comfortable there, perched atop one of the big flat boulders overlooking the sea, the sound of waves rushing inland soundtrack to their conversation.

“So, what is a Scotsman doing so far from home?”

“I could ask ye the same, Sassenach,” he replied smugly.

“Sasse-what?”

“Sassenach,” he repeated helpfully.

“And what’s that?”

“It’s the Gaidhlig, ye ken?”

“I didn’t even know people still spoke that. That doesn’t answer my question, though,” she persisted.

 “My father was verra traditional, ken. It means ‘Outlander’ or ‘English-person’.”

She raised her eyebrow at that. “That doesn’t sound very charming.”

“I didnae mean it as an insult, mind,” he clarified, his ears turning pink.

“No?”

“Definitely no’!”

“Good. Wouldn’t want to have to punch your pretty face,” she slapped his cheek jokingly, the other hand still playing with his. “The ladies might kill me for that blasphemy.”

Jamie acted as if it had been a heavy blow, pretending to fall back theatrically, but then losing his balance and actually falling, and –hands still linked– taking her with him in the process. Laughing at his clumsiness, Claire hadn’t realised that she was lying almost on top of him. As soon as she noticed the firm muscles of his chest move under hers, her cheeks flushed with more than simple embarrassment and she sat up, putting a bit more distance between them again.

Jamie, however, didn’t seem fazed by the impromptu full-on meeting of their bodies; he just smiled at her lopsidedly and reached for her hand again.

 “I would verra much like tae kiss ye, Claire,” he admitted shyly, looking at her from under long lashes, face bathed in moonlight. “May I?”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 9 - Taking Steps 

“Sae ye’re sure, Claire?”

“Yes.” she nodded with conviction, sending her unruly curls to sway around her face with the motion. “I thought about what you said. And I know the circumstances are less than ideal, to be sure, but I want to have the baby.”

“Have ye thought aboot adoption?” came the follow-up inquiry.

“I considered it, but... no. I want to keep it,” she revealed for the first time, a shy smile curling her lips upward.

It had been a harrowing week, but Claire had eventually reached the decision on her own, in the sanctuary of her room without even meaning to. She had not been actively thinking about the situation at all; in fact, she had been at her desk, studying the anatomy 101 flip cards. During a particular tough one – about peripheral proteins – her vision zeroed in on a picture as she tried to come up with the correct answer. It stood there, its wooden frame in a prominent position in the left corner on the table-top, showing herself –aged 10, with sun-kissed skin and a gap-toothed grin – and her uncle Lamb on one of their excursions to Egypt. It was then that the yearning had suddenly hit her. Yearning for someone that was entirely hers again. The thought of a relationship and connection to someone that couldn’t be severed was something that resonated within her more deeply than she had anticipated. It was as frightening as it was elating.

Having been orphaned at a young age, Claire had not had what was generally viewed as a conventional upbringing. Her father’s brother, Lamb Beauchamp, PhD, had taken her on as his responsibility. He had loved her as any surrogate father would, but that hadn’t meant that he altered his life for her. Instead, he took her with him on his travels to dig sites all around the globe, providing as much parental affection and education as a scholar-married-to-his-work possibly could. It had been enough for the little girl with bright honey eyes who was barely able to remember her parents, though, and she had loved her uncle Lamb dearly.

Life, however, can be cruel more than once, and viciously took from her a second time what was most precious to her. Quentin Lambert William Beauchamp of the University of Glasgow had died shortly before her high school graduation, losing his battle against testicular cancer after 13 months of chemo and radiation therapy. He left her a personal letter, a small inheritance set aside for her education, and an old, leather-covered box filled with photographs and other small memorabilia.

Claire took the box that was not often looked at but never forgotten, down from its place on top of her wardrobe, and rummaged through the depths filled with memories. She’d been a chubby child, fat little cheeks inflated with outrage whenever she had been forced to wear something frilly. Her uncle, bless him, had given up on that particular venture early enough. The handful of images alongside her parents illustrated that she’d been a happy girl, always smiling broadly into the camera, no matter if she was pulling her mother’s hair or showing off her favourite teddy. She hadn’t allowed herself to do it until now, but seeing herself next to her parents and uncle, she couldn’t help but picture a child of her own– a girl with Jamie’s red curly hair, her father’s dimples, and her mother’s eyes smiling up at her. It was in that precise moment, that Claire Elisabeth Beauchamp promised to be the mother she would have wanted for herself if her parents had survived.

“I’m glad of it, hen. It’ll be a bonnie bairn wi’ genetics like yours and the elusive ginger’s.” Geillis squeezed her knee in support. “Sae, when’s the wee one coming, then?”

“Dr. Raymond estimated the date of birth to be the 19th of April,” Claire answered, rolling her shoulders to rid herself of the lingering trepidation.

“Orite, then,” Geillis said, face set in a mockingly grave expression, “I guess we’ll have tae do some shopping, aye?” The blonde’s eyes gleamed at the opportunity to spend hours and hours researching the advantages of one pram over another, and buying silly little things no baby could possibly have a real use of.

“But before we get tae the fun part,” she began, then jumped up and crossed the small living room to her bedroom and returned, rummaging in her school bag. “Ah, there’s the little bugger,” she declared triumphantly, as she got hold of her notepad.

Delving into her bag again to fish out a pen as well, Geillis started, “Now that we’re sure that ye’re keeping it, and there’s nae doubt aboot the parentage, we should try tae find the man in question, aye?”

“Aye,” Claire replied, her voice steady and radiating with enthusiasm for the first time in weeks.

While she was still not prepared to be confronted with all aspects that came with her decision, it felt rather good to start somewhere, to take care of things step by bloody step.

“Sae,” Geillis began, “we dinnae have his phone number.”

 “No,” Claire sighed, her enthusiasm deflating slightly at the memory of how things had gone in an entirely unexpected –and unwanted– direction.

“And he doesnae have yers, either,” her friend stated, remembering.

“No,” she repeated. “I’m afraid we don’t have much to work with,” Claire admitted, frowning.

“Then I’ll get a chance tae prove my stalker abilities, aye?” came the spirited reply. “We’ll make a list o’ everything we ken aboot him and see where that gets us. Sae, let’s start wi’ the lad’s name.”

“Well, his name is Jamie –that much is clear at least.”

“D’ye ken his last name?”

Claire shook her head.

“O’ course no’, that would have been way too easy,” Geillis sighed dramatically. 

“Tell me the last time you introduced yourself with your last name, Geillis Duncan” she said a little tersely.

“Fair point, Beauchamp. Orite, what else?”

“He’s Scottish –but you know that. And tall, but you know that, too, and–“ she broke off, a blush creeping up on her neck.

“And?”

“I don’t think what I was going to say would help us find him.”

“Let me be the judge of that, hen.”

She coughed to hide her embarrassment. “Ehm...he’s what you’d call a true ginger.”

One split second of confusion was followed by a spark of recognition glinting in moss-green eyes, and then Geillis erupted in full-bellied laughter. “Sae,” she wheezed, still laughing whole-heartedly, “what ye’re telling me is... that the lad’s carpet... matched his curtains?”

“You could say that, yes.” Claire barely managed to contain the laughter that was bubbling up inside her.

“Weel, then ye’re right, that’s probably no’ going tae help us much, unless he’s an avid hobby actor on Pornhub.” Geillis wiped the tears from her face, assuming her back-to-business manner again. “What else have ye got on him?”

“Only that he’s a junior athlete, and that he was training there with his whole team.”

“Junior, ye say? That means he cannae be older than 22 or so. And assuming that ye didnae bed an underage lad, I’d say our chances are that he was over 18.”

Claire rolled her eyes and crossed her arms in front of her chest.

“Dinnae roll yer eyes at me, hen,” Geillis admonished her. “What sport was it?”

She shrugged helplessly.

“I don’t know. He didn’t tell me anything specific. It seemed a bit of a prickly subject, but since they were on Madeira, I assume maybe something that involves swimming? He did have the build for that,” she surmised.

“Mmphm. Maybe triathlon, then? Weel, we’ll have tae check everything anyhoo just tae be sure.”

The notepad on her thigh had already been filled with a few bullet points and pointers where to start looking online.

“Did he mention a place, or family, mayhap?”

“Only that he lost his mother some years ago and that he was from a small village in the highlands.”

“Sae very specific. What else did ye talk aboot?” Geillis continued her cross-questioning.

“I don’t know, we spent more time on trivial things, enjoying each other’s company. Honestly, I can’t really tell you what we talked about, but it was easy, you know. No awkward pauses, it just felt...right.”

“Disgustingly enviable, that.”

Claire chuckled. “I guess that’s the only enviable thing about my current situation, Gee.”

“True. That, and that ye actually got tae see that verra fine Scottish specimen nekid.”

“Fair enough,” she agreed.

And what a fine sight that had been.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“I would verra much like tae kiss ye, Claire,” he admitted shyly, looking at her from under long lashes, face bathed in moonlight. “May I?”

Chapter 10 – Hot Nights in Madeira

Island of Madeira, Porto Santo Beach

Claire nodded, giving her permission freely –and without any sign of uncertainty. He moved to cup her face with the utmost care, almost as if he were afraid she might break upon impact. She had felt the sparks fly between them all night, but without any real danger of catching fire. Until now, that is. Anticipation had built up into a low, steady hum of excitement coursing through her very essence with each graze of his blunt, yet gentle fingers. But even that had not prepared her for the blaze that he ignited when their lips came together.

He seemed hesitant at first, despite the fire spreading from her mouth through his system, seemingly wanting to gauge her reaction before really engaging her with his lips, but as soon as Jamie felt her eager response, he lost his inhibitions and started to kiss her in earnest. Her lips were soft like velvet and tasted of sunshine and fruit cocktail. Out of their own volition, his hands moved from her cheeks into her hair, relishing in the silky feel of it between his fingertips as he tilted her head just so that he could better access that hungry mouth of hers.

Exploring each other’s mouths with unmatched alacrity, they only broke apart when the need for oxygen forced them to.  

Sighing with pleasure she asked, “Where on earth did you learn to kiss like that?”

“A gentleman doesnae tell, Sassenach,” he smiled brightly at her, the white of his teeth in stark contrast to the dark of the night as she moved in closer, seeking to expand the area of contact.

Once this new connection between their bodies had been formed, Claire found it difficult to part her lips from his –asphyxiation be damned. While she was feeling rather dizzy herself –intoxicated by the heat of him– Jamie was facing a whole different level of deprivation –a not inconsiderable amount of blood had rushed to an entirely inconvenient place further down south. If the hour hadn’t been so late already, she might have noticed the tips of his ears going bright pink with embarrassment as he struggled to shift their bodies into a different position, not wanting to upset her with the rather noticeable reaction to her nearness.  

Claire, still oblivious to his predicament resisted Jamie’s attempt to move her out of between his knees and moved in for another breath-taking kiss. Feeling him tense suddenly, his knees locking her thighs in place, she was about to ask what was going on when she felt the evidence of his wanting press lightly against her abdomen.

“Oh,” she said without much intonation.

For a second she didn’t speak. Her stillness made him fidgety, fearing that she would withdraw from him.

“I’m sae sorry, Claire, truly, I didnae mean tae...,” Jamie stammered, but she stopped him, putting her hand on his mouth.

Claire smiled encouragingly at him, willing him to understand that she wasn’t put off –not by a long shot.

“It’s perfectly alright, Jamie.”

“Ye...ye don’t mind, then?”

She snorted at his innocence.

“I could hardly be more flattered than I am just now.”

His eyes went wide and his jaw dropped in a way that was almost comical.

“Let’s go,” she jumped up, and offered him her hand.

At first he thought he must have misheard, but when he locked eyes with her, he saw the silver moon reflected in golden eyes turned dark with desire, and followed without question.

They walked closely together, sand pleasantly cool underneath their toes, arms around each other’s waist, heads tilted towards another, sharing stories and more kisses as they made their way to – Claire suddenly stopped dead.

“Where exactly are we going, Jamie?” she asked, looking up at him, only now realising that they’d been walking with no real destination in mind except –well, they would get to that part later.

“Oh… I thought...well... that we were headed tae yer hotel,” his inflection rose, marking the statement as a question instead.

Claire chuckled.

“Only if you want to have an audience, my lad.”

“Audience?”

“Geillis,” she stated simply. “Though I’m sure she would really enjoy that.”

He joined in her laughter and drew her even closer to him.

“Weel, then I guess it’ll have tae be mine?”

“I guess so,” she replied, the humour now gone from her voice, “Let’s hurry then.”

Fortunately, the hotel was not far, and they’d made it there still clinging to each other and sharing breath more often than not.

“Sae, this is it,” he opened the door and followed her into the room, turning the lights on, “’tis where I’ve been staying fer two weeks. We usually share a room, but since we’re an odd number and I’m the strongest, I get a room tae myself.”

It was the picture of a generic cheap hotel room. The air inside was stale and the furniture nondescript but practical for a short-term stay. The single bed had been hastily made in the morning before the occupant had left and the only items providing some semblance of individuality were an open, half-unpacked orange backpack at the foot of the bed, pieces of clothing strewn carelessly across the room, and a framed photograph on the bedside table.

“I’m sorry, Sassenach,” he said, raking his hand through his hair. “I ne’er really bother keeping my room clean when I’m at training camp somewhere. It doesnae make a lot o’ sense, if ye ask me, what wi’ being in a place just fer a week at most, ken.”

It was obvious that Jamie had had no intention of receiving visitors in his somewhat chaotic accommodation, and he started to criss-cross around the room as he talked nervously, snatching up discarded sportswear here and there and tossing them into a corner.

“Don’t worry about that, I don’t mind,” she assured him with a warm smile. “Is that your mother?” she asked pointing at the picture next to his bed.

“Yes,” he answered with a sad tone as he came up behind her, not quite touching. “She died a couple o’ years ago.”

“I’m sorry, Jamie,” the sincerity audible in her voice as she turned around to comfort him.

“’Tis orite, Claire. Thank ye. Looking at her reminds me o’ why I’m here, why I’m doing this.”

“You still haven’t told me what it is that you and your teammates do,” Claire remarked, trying to steer the subject towards a lighter path.

“We’re no’ real professionals yet, ye ken? We’re the junior cadre training unit. It means they think we’re talented enough tae try once we’re ready tae play wi’ the big lads. If we prove our worth, that is,” he shrugged nonchalantly.

It didn’t escape Claire that he still hadn’t really answered her question. Not wanting to pry into a subject that he apparently didn’t seem to want to get into at this point, she let it go. Instead, she sat down on his bed, not quite knowing how to proceed. The earlier excitement had subsided noticeably, but was still there, simmering under the surface of their skins, waiting to be rekindled by an initiating touch as muffled sounds of the nightlife drifted through the poorly insulated windows.

Jamie seemed to be at a loss as well, restlessly picking things up and setting them down again.

 “Jamie,” she stopped him, voice soft and soothing.

“It’s getting rather late –perhaps we should... go to bed?” she suggested.

At this, his head jerked up and fixed on her with renewed intensity.

“To bed, or to sleep?” a mischievous smile playing on his lips.

“Cocky,” she smirked.

“Weel,....”

“Either way, I won’t be sleeping in this dress. Would you get the zipper in the back, please?” she got up from the bed, turned around and lifted the mass of brown curls off her neck to allow him easier access.

“Ye’ve the loveliest hair, Sassenach,” Jamie noted quietly, almost as if to himself, as he approached her, his hot breath tickling her neck and raising goose bumps.

The pads of Jamie’s fingers grazing her skin softly as he pulled the zipper down did unimaginable things to her. Her breath hitched slightly as she felt the soft chiffon part and expose her back to him.

Jamie wasn’t in a hurry to get her naked, revelling in the almost painfully slow reveal of her flesh, his hands following the fabric as he peeled it from her shoulders and smoothed it down the curve of her hips.

Claire stood there, breathing audibly, waiting for the dress to hit the floor. When it did, she stepped out of it and turned around in an unhurried manner, only a bit self-conscious of her state of undress, wishing she had worn a different pair of underwear, or at least a prettier bra. Nothing to be done about it, now, though, Beauchamp. Cotton would have to do.

Apparently, cotton did just fine – blue eyes had turned so dark with desire that they seemed to be black. Just as Jamie leaned in to kiss her again, she stopped him with a hand flat on his chest, eliciting a tiny whimper of protest from him.

“My turn,” Claire said and moved her hands to his collar, beginning to unbutton the navy-blue shirt covering his broad chest and shoulders. Working her way deliberately from button to button, she mirrored his slow and reverent movements. As she reached the last one and untucked the shirttails from the waistband of his trousers, the tips of her fingers teasing a very sensitive spot just where his skin was still hidden behind way too much cloth, he made a small sound deep in his throat. At that, Claire took a half a step back, without breaking their physical connection, to simply look at him, assessing. He didn’t make a move, didn’t speak, only stared at her, wide-eyed, his chest expanding with the effort to breathe.

“Do you want me, Jamie?” The question was entirely rhetorical. She could see –and feel– that he wanted her– but Claire sensed that he was waiting for her to give permission.

“Oh god, yes,” came the instant reply, the same hunger of her eyes evident in his deep bass, just before he fused his mouth to hers, kissing her for all he was worth. “I want you so much I can scarcely breathe.”

“Then have me,” Claire invited him, a little breathless herself.

And suddenly, things happened in a blur. His mouth and hands were on her, sucking, caressing, cupping, as she was busy to rid him of his trousers, battling with the fly longer than she cared for. Boxer tights and knickers were pulled down, bra unhooked and unceremoniously discarded. Then, she was lifted off the ground, her long legs moved instinctively to wrap around his waist as he carried her to his bed, hands gripping her backside firmly, his arousal evident between them.

The mattress was too soft and slightly bumpy, their combined weight sinking them deeper into the bed than was strictly comfortable as he nestled his body between her legs. The coarse hair on his chest was rubbing against her breasts as he kissed his way up from her sternum to her neck. While they both hadn’t been drinking, there was an undeniably comparable light-headedness that accompanied his tongue tracing the shell of her ear. Jamie seemed to know exactly how she wanted to be touched –and where.

After a few minutes of his hands and lips exploring the terrain of her body, she found that she couldn’t possibly wait any longer. Neither did he, it appeared. He searched for friction, making small movements with his hips, as he held himself above her, his erection pressed tightly between their bellies. Just as that thought had manifested itself in them both, their bodies communicating the need to take the next step, something else occurred to Claire, just in time.

 “Jamie, wait!”

“Wha –?” came the muted response.

Claire found it diffcult to bring out coherent sentences, his tongue made it hard to focus on anything at all but the sensation of warm flesh gliding over her sensitive earlobe.

“We...ah...need protection,” she finally got out.

That got his attention, and he abandoned the attentions he was paying to her neck to grab his wallet from the back pocket of his trousers. Looking through it hurriedly, his ruddy brows set into a small frown, he went on to go through the depths of his backpack, throwing stuff uncaringly into the room. She found the urgency in him at once endearing and agonisingly arousing.

 “Shite, I dinnae have one,” he scratched the back of his head, standing tall and completely unfazed by his nakedness, “do you, by any chance?”

“Actually, I think I do, let me check,” She got up from the bed, and, perusing her purse, she produced a small, square tinfoil package and smiled triumphantly at him. “Think we’re good to go, aye?”

“Aye.”

Claire lay back in the bed again, her hair fanning out on the pillow, breathing audibly with anticipation of his next touch while he had turned the lights down. Despite the now dark room she could see him clearly, the stars providing enough light to see. God, he was beautifully made, and she felt that she wasn’t beyond blushing even at this stage in the proceedings.

Jamie came back to bed and continued where he had left off –paying homage to her body. Calloused hands wandering up and down the curves of her, his mouth leaving hot trails in its wake, while she repaid him in kind. Her fingers ached with need to touch him –here, and there, and everywhere she could reach. She found that he was particularly sensitive at the nape of his neck, even a light graze of a fingernail would send shivers of pleasure down his spine. Sneaking an inquisitive hand between them to finally touch where neither of them had dared to touch until now, she grasped him gently, rubbing the silky skin there in a slow, steady rhythm, causing Jamie to moan loudly into her mouth. Following in her suit, he now was bold enough to venture to her centre as well, fingers probing and finding that she was more than ready for him. That realisation seemed to turn a switch in him, and, searching –and finding– consent in her eyes, he reached over to take the small package from where she had put it on the nightstand, kissing the tip of her nose as he did so. Ripping it open with his teeth, he put the layer of protection on with a practised hand, and settled himself between her thighs, still not quite having found the courage to take the final step.

Being less impaired with hesitancy, Claire took things into her own hands, quite literally, and guided him into her, eyes closing and mouth going slack with the blissful sensation of being filled by Jamie. He gasped, feeling the welcoming warmth of her. For a moment, neither of them moved, revelling at the feel of their connection, they just looked at one another. He adjusted his position slightly, bracing himself on his arms to either side of her head, blue eyes never leaving hers. Then, she arched her back slightly, encouraging him to move. When he finally did, Claire found that she had not been prepared for the sensation he caused in her. Every roll of his hips, every meeting of her pubic bone with his sent bolts of lightning through her synapses, setting her whole being on fire.

She felt the expanse of his back, solid and strong beneath her tingling fingertips, as the muscles worked beneath the skin to hold him above her. Her teeth found purchase in his collarbone as her hands moved to his buttocks and pressed him even closer to her. Panting and moaning reverberated off the walls, as their bodies –slick with perspiration– moved in tandem, meeting again and again, bouncing to a rhythm only they could hear.

It didn’t take long until Claire reached her peak, pushed over the edge by the constant sweet pressure against the bundle of nerves at the apex of her thighs, throwing her head back and toes curling. Not much later, the movement of Jamie’s hips also became erratic, then stilled completely as he lost himself in her, face hovering above her own.

“Oh, god,” he cried out, collapsing on top of her.

Claire’s heart was thumping heavily inside her chest as she felt his deep shuddering breath followed by a sigh of contentment. And then, the weight of him left her, leaving her feeling bereft as he made quick business of disposing the condom into a bin, until he returned to the bed, his breath welcomingly cool on the sweat-drenched skin of her neck.

“You squeak like a mouse when ye come, Sassenach,” he remarked casually, fingers tracing the bumps of her ribs softly.

“And you roar like a stag in rutting season. The face you make comes close, too. Absolutely worth its money,” she tried to hide her amusement.

 “I dinnae ken how exactly a mouse would enjoy herself wi’ a deer, but I’m game tae try.”

“’Game tae try’ indeed, Mister Buck.”

They dissolved in full-bellied laughter, and arranged themselves into a more comfortable position, Claire’s head fitting perfectly into the crook of his shoulder, his lips pressing a soft kiss to her crown. For a while they didn’t speak, merely enjoying the presence of the person next to them, occasionally moving a sticky curl out of the other’s face.

“Can I ask ye something, Claire?”

“Of course,” she replied, snuggling closer.

“Did ye –,” he cleared his throat and continued in a shy voice, “Did ye like it?”

That had come out of the blue. Her brows furrowed as she tried to come up with any reason why he would think any other than her having liked it –very much at that. Had he not noticed how her body had responded to his? How he had roused her, even managed to take her over the finish line? Was he just fishing for compliments? No, he wasn’t the type for that, she could tell.

Realising that he was reading into her silence the wrong way, as he attempted to withdraw from her a bit, she finally spoke to relieve his worry.

“I did like it, Jamie. A lot.”

The answering smile that split his face was so bright it could have easily competed with the glow of the stars.

“That’s good, then.”

“Why are you asking? I mean, you certainly know what to do, alright.”

“Weel,...,” he squirmed a bit, as if trying to escape some discomfort. “The truth is that while I have kissed quite a few lasses, I’ve ne’er made love before,” he admitted in a small voice.

Claire’s mouth fell open. Made love? Never before?

“You’re not seriously telling me that you were... a virgin before we...,” she gestured a bit awkwardly between them.

“Aye, I was,” he confirmed with a nod.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m no’ kidding,” he reiterated and placed a soft kiss on her cheek. “Thank ye, by the way, Claire. I dinnae think it could have been any better.”

“Oh,” she said, completely dumbfounded and flattered. “You’re welcome?”

He just smiled at her, index finger tracing the outline of her mouth.

“You should have told me, you know?”

“What for?”

“Um... I don’t know,” Claire answered truthfully.

“It would have only made things awkward, me being completely inexperienced.”

“Well, it didn’t show at all, Jamie. Seems like you’re a bloody natural. And I’m happy it lived up to your expectations. It certainly fulfilled mine.”

“I’m glad of it,” he said and leaned back into the pillow, slowly drifting off to sleep.

Claire slumbered for some time as well but gave up the attempt after an hour when she still found herself too excited by the afterglow of their joining to follow him into the land of dreams. Instead, she propped herself up and seized the opportunity to fully appreciate his naked form stretched out right next to hers. Jamie, whatever his last name was, was wearing only a smile. And god dammit, he wore it well. Her eyes wandered admiringly over his bold face, strong legs, his chest, and the red hairs trailing down a path to...

“I’m up here, lass”, he smirked knowingly, flexing his abs to break her reverie.

Claire blushed fiercely, not having noticed that he had woken up, knowing all too well where her gaze had fixed upon.

“Enjoying the view, Sassenach?”

“Yes, thank you very much,” she said, trying to sound indifferent, but giving up on it right away. “Have you any idea how hot you are, Jamie?”

He snorted.

“I mean, look at you. You even have that insane ‘V’ thing going on,” she pointed out.

“I’ve got what?” he seemed truly astonished, and looked down at himself, trying to figure out what she was talking about.

“The ‘V’! You know, those sexy lines that sort of point the way down to your ... well, you know...,” she broke off, a bit flustered.

“Cock, ye mean?” he grinned widely.

“Yes.”

“No need tae be sae shy about it, Sassenach. Ye’ve seen mine up close already, no?”

“That line is created where the lower abs and obliques meet. It looks a bit like a V or an arrow pointing down to...,” Claire went on, ignoring him.

“My cock,” he repeated, interrupting with a mischievous smile.

“Yes, your cock,” she agreed, eyes rolling hard.

“Want tae check if it’s really where the arrow’s pointing tae?”

Claire smacked him half-heartedly on the shoulder, laughing with him. “Will you stop that you ridiculous human being!”

“Aye, I will. If ye come here and show me those lines.”

So she did.  With her tongue.

Some time later, in the small hours of the morning, Claire woke to find herself lying completely naked to what was essentially still a stranger, and found that she did not care a bit. She pulled up the blanket to cover them and nestled back into the space that seemed to be made for her, nose nuzzling his neck, and legs intertwining automatically as they fell asleep, arms draped loosely around each other.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 11 – A Beating Heart

It was the day of the 12-week ultrasound. Well, technically, she was already well in the 13th week, but hadn’t been able to get an earlier appointment. Given the fact that she had seen the doctor only three weeks prior to confirm the pregnancy via blood test, it didn’t matter all that much.

Dressed in comfortable leggings and a loose-fitting shirt under a soft, blue cardigan, Claire was seated in Dr. Raymond’s waiting room next to other expectant mothers. 22 was not exactly classified as an early pregnancy, but scanning the room she couldn’t help but feel exceptionally young. Most women were quite a bit older, as well as a lot farther along, and had their spouses or partners with them. Stealing a furtive look at Geillis, who had accompanied her as promised, Claire wondered whether people might mistake the two of them for a couple as well. It really wasn’t an unusual sight nowadays, and the fair-haired woman certainly looked like she belonged at Claire’s right side –back straight with confidence and a self-assured smile on her face– and not like a best friend who had been dragged into this.

When Claire had called to make the appointment for the ultrasound, the practice nurse had asked her to drink around 1L an hour before she came in to see Dr Raymond. ‘It helps lift the uterus so the doctor can get a better view of things,’ she had said. Claire wasn’t inclined to doubt a professional of some 30 odd years and took that instruction seriously –despite the fact that chugging down that amount of liquid when still fighting morning sickness hadn’t been an enjoyable prospect to her. Feeling as if she were about to burst at any second didn’t help much either, and she fidgeted in her seat, trying to relieve her bladder of some pressure.

How much longer? Claire stared at the lazy clock hand making its snail-like journey toward the next digit, willing it to move. Two more changes until her appointment at 11. Next to her, Geillis sat completely unperturbed, mane tamed into a perfectly tight bun, browsing through the brochures. The one about ‘proper nipple care for breastfeeding mothers’ elicited first a smothered chuckle and then an under-her-breath comment how that would be a very educational leaflet for the general male population.

“Miss Beauchamp?” the calm voice interrupted Claire’s daydreaming.

“Yes,” she got to her feet, nudging Geillis with her elbow to follow.

Introducing herself as Glenna Fitzgibbons, the homely nurse led them into a small, dimly lit room. She asked her to lie back on the padded chair, telling her to make herself as comfortable as possible while she put a sheet of paper on Claire’s lap.

“’Tis a big day for ye, dearie,” Missus Fitzgibbons was cheerful as if it were her first time as well. “Ye’ll get tae hear yer babe’s heartbeat fer the first time.”

Claire nodded, thick curls swaying with the motion, but the anxiety knotting her insides prevented her from returning the nurse’s genuine smile.

“And we’ll see if everything’s alright wi’ the wee one – and how many there are, too, o’ course,” she continued her professional small talk. “Ah, and there’s the doctor, my dear.”

The door had opened and a short, squat man entered, his huge, square glasses slightly askew on his nose.

“Everything’s ready for ye, doctor.”

“Thank you, Glenna. Well then, good morning, Miss Beauchamp and –,” he stopped, looking inquisitively at Geillis.

“Geillis Duncan,” Claire jumped in to make the introductions, “my best friend here to support me.”

“Ah, well then,” Raymond shook the blonde woman’s hand and returned to professional matters. “Let’s have a look at your child then, shall we?”

“Yes,” she concurred, her face lighting up.

“Alright. Lift up your top, please,” he instructed. “This will be a bit cold,” Raymond warned her before squirting some jelly onto her belly, but she didn’t mind at all. It really wasn’t that cold, even when he spread it out further over her skin, pressing the wand into her abdomen to find the tiny human sheltered in her womb.

There it was. A bean shaped alien. Her child. Hers and Jamie’s.

Honey eyes followed the images on the screen. Even if she were just a medical student with no personal investment in this, it would have been a breath-taking experience. But this wasn’t professional to her, it was intensely intimate. To see the outline of head and spine of her baby, to see the miniature heart flutter as fast as the wings of a hummingbird.

“Would you like to hear the heartbeat?” it was a rhetoric question. Dr. Raymond turned on the Doppler machine to make the sound heard. The staccato lub lub of her child’s beating heart filled the room gone quiet with awe and wonder. Geillis squeezed her hand reassuringly, commemorating this moment with her.

“As you know, it’s too early yet to determine a gender, but we can see the outline of spine and skull. The heart seems to be doing a proper job, and the kidneys are also functioning,” he informed her as he moved the wand a little from side to side, getting all the angles, taking measures. “Since you are absolutely sure of the date of conception, I would say that this little one is progressing very well, healthy, and on the larger side.”

He indicated to Mrs Fitzgibbons to get the prints ready for her to take home.

“Well, everything seems to be in order, Miss Beauchamp,” he smiled warmly at her, his unprepossessing features brightening.

Claire heard him speak, but she wasn’t listening –not really. Those were technicalities, it didn’t matter how big the foetus was as long as it was healthy. No, what mattered was a tiny heart beating fast, creating the most wonderful music she had ever heard. What mattered was the black and white image of her child as it seemed to smile at her.

What mattered most was the knowledge that this child would be loved.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 12 – Bright Beginnings

The next morning, Claire woke to a sneaky ray of sun shining disgustingly bright through the dusty blinds at just the right angle as to be bothersome, disrupting what could have otherwise been a wonderful sleep-in. As she shifted in bed, trying to evade the light and fall under again, she noticed that her room of movement was rather restricted due to a definitely male form wrapped around her. A large, tan hand dusted with reddish-gold hair was cupping her right breast, the pad of its thumb just shy of the nipple while the other was placed in the curve of her hip, fingers splayed out to buttock and thigh.  She could feel his knees tucked right behind hers, his curly-haired chest to her back, and she didn’t need the growing firmness poking into her lower back to remind her how she had gotten so satisfyingly sore.

Stretching languidly, Claire dislodged the sheet that had been tucked around their sleeping forms, and, feeling the slight chill on her skin in sharp contrast to the furnace at her back, tried to cover her front again.

“Dinnae hide yerself, Claire,” came a low, raspy voice from behind her.

“Hm?”

“Ye’re sae beautiful. Let me look at you a wee longer.”

She turned as much as was possible in his arms to look over her shoulder at him.

“You can’t even see me from back there,” Claire remarked, smiling, “even if your eyes were fully open, Jamie.”

“Aye, I can. I can see everything that matters, Sassenach,” he whispered against the skin of her shoulder.

His hands moved as if to support his claim, eyes still narrowed against the light. He tucked some unruly curls back, brushing over neck and collarbone –a touch so light as wings of butterflies– and went on to trace the curve of shoulder down her sides to the swell of breast and hip. From there, blunt fingers ventured further down to the back of her thigh until they found another exquisitely tender spot in the hollow of her knee that caused Clair’s breath to hitch slightly as he caressed the soft skin there.

Then, his hand slid back up again, squeezed her bottom affectionately, and gave it a quick slap, before jumping up and rushing towards the bathroom.

“If I dinnae pish right now, I’ll explode.”

Snuggling deeper into the bed that smelled of Jamie, herself, and them together, Claire decided to grant her eyes a bit more rest before he returned from his urgent business. He couldn’t have been gone longer than a couple of minutes, but she had indeed dozed off again, hair wild on the pillow, arm across her eyes.

It was with lips parted in a gasp of surprise that she came to again. Claire hadn’t heard him re-enter the room, but she could certainly feel him now –the heat of his body looming over hers, his mouth descending to place hungry kisses at the base of her throat and working its way down. As he reached the valley of her chest, fastening his lips on the tip of her breast, he sucked gently at first, and then more ardently, encouraged by her delighted moans and a hand stroking the back of his head.

“Jamie,” she whispered, her fingers moving deeper into his hair.

Releasing the hardened peak, he tilted his head towards her and spoke softly, “I havena said a proper good morning to ye.”

A chuckle escaped her. Such a bloody sweet one.

The bed was creaking with protest as Jamie shifted his weight further down, taking the sheet with him, muscles bulging in his powerful back as he slid his palms, still a bit moist and cool from washing, down her body, raising goose bumps in their wake. He nudged her knees apart to settle down between them, his mouth busy covering the arch of her ribs and plane of her belly with open-mouthed kisses, leaving her wanting for more – oh god, so much more. No, she really couldn’t tell that he was inexperienced. Every touch of his lips seemed right, every graze of his fingers where she needed them. Jamie set her entire body on fire within a few heartbeats.

When he started to draw lazy circles with his tongue quite a bit lower than her belly button, though, Claire tensed unexpectedly, her grip in his ruddy mop tightening.

 “Jamie, stop!”

“Mmphm?” he continued with the task at hand, moving lower still.

“Don’t,” she persisted, this time actually physically preventing him from going down on her.

“Why?” he straightened up, his hands caressing the sides of her breasts, but she didn’t answer and was unable to meet his gaze.

“Why don’t ye want me tae do that? Ye did it fer me last night,” he reasoned.

“Well,” she began, voice a hoarse with embarrassment, “I ... I haven’t even showered yet. I... what about the smell? What if...?”

Jamie, unable to control the impulse despite her worried expression, burst out laughing, his head flopping onto her stomach, effectively dislodging her grip on his hair, the force of it rattling the bed frame slightly. His shoulders were still shaking a little with hilarity when the tip of his nose touched her lightly, making silent amends. He took a deep breath and looked at her directly, the tips of his ears going pink, but his face was serious.

“I want tae taste ye,” he confessed, “God, I want tae taste ye sae badly –and I want tae watch ye while I’m doing it.”

She swallowed heavily, mightily aroused, cheeks flushed with both, the heat of desire and insecurity about what he was about to do to her.

“D’ye trust me, Claire?”

“Yes,” she breathed.

The wide mouth stretched into a smile, dark blue eyes lighting up with purpose.

“Then lie back and enjoy. If ye dinnae like it, I’ll stop.”

Claire nodded almost imperceptibly, and lay back, trying to relax, but still a bit uneasy.

He lowered his head to where she had stopped him before, eyes fixed on her face, despite the strain on his neck. Slowly, reverently, he placed more kisses between the graceful arch of her hipbones and inched lower with every touch of his mouth on her silky skin. Her stomach clenched in apprehension, her breathing becoming more audible, as Jamie manoeuvred her legs over his shoulders, opening her to him.

The hairs on Claire’s arms stood up straight when she felt his cool breath on her heated flesh. Pausing for a second, Jamie looked at her intently –asking silently for permission again. When it was given, soft, full lips touched her chastely before he dipped out his tongue, tentatively probing, making careful contact with the most intimate part of her. She gasped, eyes widening at the unfamiliar contact.

He had wanted to keep his eyes on her, had wanted to drink her in, had wanted to watch her seeing him take her that way, but now he found he was unable to focus on anything but the alluring sweetness in front of him. His eyes closed, nose nuzzling into the brown curls damp with arousal, the intoxicating scent of her drawing him in like a bee to a flower in bloom.

The short locks of his thick, red hair tickled the velvety skin of her inner thighs almost unbearably, causing her to squirm, trying to get away from the overwhelming sensation of hot, circular movements alternating with straight, sweeping strokes of his tongue.

Sliding hands over the smoothness of her buttocks, unable to resist the urge to squeeze them hard and possessively, one palm found its way up to cup and knead her breast, tweaking and twisting her nipple, while the other rested on her hip, holding her steady.

It was his unadulterated groans against her core that finally allowed Claire to surrender to the exquisite feeling of the flat of his tongue lapping, stroking, and exploring the heat of her. His lips fastening on the centre of her pleasure caused her to arch tightly against him, seeking to increase the friction. Feeling her respond to his intimate kisses, Jamie’s grip on her hip hardened a bit, intensifying his attentions as he continued to moan into her, taking as much as he gave.

Claire was writhing and panting heavily now, hips rocking against his hungry, welcoming mouth instinctively, shame all but forgotten as amber eyes glazed over with need. Slender fingers dug into the bronzed flesh of his shoulder, as she bit her lower lip, struggling to contain the screams of desire. Her other hand threaded into his hair –glowing like fire in the sunrise, auburn mixed with gold, cinnabar, and roan – holding him close to her.

A prideful smile curved his mouth –still busy driving her towards the height of pleasure– delighting in her body’s reaction to him. When he felt her tremble, the heels of her feet pressing hard into his back, he knew she was close. Closing his lips around her most sensitive spot, Jamie sucked –hard– and sent her over the edge.

White light pulsated through her body, as she was fisting the bedsheet and clenching her thighs around his head, her mind spinning out of control. A bloody virgin did that to her?

Claire’s diaphragm worked overtime as she slowly returned from an incredible high.

“Ye taste even better than I imagined,” he declared smugly, the lower half of his face sticky with her arousal, and he licked his lips appreciatively, wiping what he couldn’t catch with his tongue off with his hand.

Having not recovered her sense of coherence yet, Claire was unable to respond in any way but taking his jaw and kissing him fiercely –tasting the lingering echoes of her own completion on his tongue.

Their naked lengths pressed tightly together, Claire was about to repay his kindness with an explorative hand when someone knocked loudly on the door.

“Jamie,” a gravelly, annoyed voice called from outside.

“Shite,” the naked ginger whisper-cursed, getting out of bed with the speed of lightning.

“Wake up,” the bodyless voice bellowed.

“Shite, shite, shite!” Jamie exclaimed quietly, as Claire watched him, covering herself with the sheets. Seeing the confusion in the tense line between her eyebrows, he explained hastily, “We must have o’erslept, I’m late fer training.”

Her mouth formed a silent ‘O’ of understanding, and her shoulders relaxed again.

“JAMIE!” came another shout.

“Enough, dammit!” Jamie called out, pulling up a grey pair of shorts, and fastening it tightly around his waist.

“C’mon ye lazy dolt!” more banging on the door.

“I’ll be out in a minute, go on ahead,” Jamie replied to the disruptor outside the door.

“I have tae go, Sassenach,” he said, the reluctance in his voice mirroring the apologetic look in the dark blue eyes. “Meet me at the little beach bar right next tae the club, aye? Around 8?”

She nodded absentmindedly, her gaze focused on taut muscles disappearing underneath a tight, yellow shirt.

“Can’t wait tae see ye again, mo nighean donn,” he said, and before leaving the room, thought better of it and rushed back to the bed to kiss her softly and caress her cheek.

“Can’t wait to see you, too,” she whispered against his wide mouth, loathe to part with him.

As the door closed behind him, Claire sunk back into the entanglement of sheets and stared at the ceiling, basking in the afterglow. She would have stayed there longer, and been content doing nothing but remembering her encounter with the handsome Scot. But she really couldn’t put off a shower any longer –the smell of her armpits and her general state of muskiness got harder and harder to ignore. On her own, and figuring that no one was likely to storm into the room anytime soon –even the angry voice had not knocked the door down– Claire didn’t bother putting any clothes on as she got out of bed to grab her purse from the floor to have a look at her phone. The screen lit up with an overflow of messages and missed calls, and her face dropped.

21:43:             I saw ye leavin’ wi’ that handsome ginger

21:43               ye’re welcome, by the way

21:50               where did ye go?

22:02               Have a good one fer me, too

22:09               enjoy yerself, hen

22:17               text me later

22:17               I wanna know EVERYTHING, hear?

22:59               hen?

23:30               I’m assuming ye’re having such a great time that ye forgot tae let me know where ye are

23: 42              srsly?

23:43               this isnae funny anymore, Claire

23:44               I’m gettin worrit

00:17               ARE YOU STILL ALIVE??

00:25               If ye’re dead, I swear I’ll kill ye

Reading through the texts and seeing the 10 missed calls, she felt the heavy weight of guilt growl deep in her belly –okay maybe some of it was hunger, too. It didn’t exactly take a genius to tell that Geillis had grown exponentially worried over the course of her messages, and she’d had every right to do so. Claire had been angry at her friend, yes –very angry indeed– for the stunt with her phone, but she was still her best friend, and Claire had done something that had been absolutely careless and rash in hindsight. She’d left with a perfect stranger and hadn’t bothered to tell anyone, or updated Geillis on where she was, who she was with, and whether she was okay or not. Well done, Beauchamp. She slapped her forehead as if trying to hammer some sense into it, inhaled deeply, and squared her shoulders, bracing herself for the task at hand. Claire chose to face the music right away and pushed the green button on the phone screen to connect her call to Geillis. There had been exactly one ring before a furious Scottish voice bombarded her with more or less the same questions that had been the content of the written messages.

“Geillis –,” she tried to get a word in, “GODDAMN Geillis, if you want to know if I’m alright, let me talk, would you?”

“I’m sorry for not texting you, I know it was stupid. Yes, it was also reckless, I know. I’M SORRY,” she reiterated, annoyance at being interrupted growing.

“Look, I went for a walk with Jamie–yes, his name is Jamie – and we ended up... well, I’m at his hotel. I’m going to take a shower now and then I’ll head back to ours.”

“I’ll tell you everything when I see you, alright?”

Disconnecting the call, Claire sighed heavily. She could picture far too well the assault of questions she was going to have to deal with –not to mention the highly irritated friend herself– once she took the first step into their shared room. Deciding not to dwell on things that couldn’t be changed, she got up and made her way into the bathroom.

She turned the shower on –pleasantly surprised that it had decent water pressure and didn’t take much adjusting to find the right temperature– and began to thoroughly rinse her hair. There was something intimate about using his toiletries, the cedar-scented soap gliding over her body reminding her vividly of Jamie’s touch. Focus, Beauchamp. And she would smell like him the whole day, too. There were definitely worse things than that, she decided and continued to scrub her skin vigorously. Little did Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp know that for years to come, the smell of cedar would evoke the memory of an unforgettable night in Madeira.  

Morning routine taken care of as well as was possible with someone else’s bathroom supplies and the lack of a toothbrush, Claire got dressed, managing to put on the red garment with only a little struggle with the back zipper. Having a tall man giving a hand in such matters was a severely underappreciated luxury.

Taking another look around the sparse room, Claire made sure that she would not forget anything –not that she’d had much with her that she could have forgotten– but for some reason she was reluctant to go.

Leaving him her number, that would do, she decided.

Shit. Did no one have a spare bit of paper anymore? There was nothing on the table, nor on the nightstand. Of course not. She wouldn’t go through his backpack, that was far too personal. Dammit. And no pen in sight, either. The days of exchanging phone numbers via scribbling them onto napkins or other handy substitutes were apparently truly long gone. God, she wished she had a business card or something to leave behind, then snorted derisively. Were there still people who left business cards? Unless they owned a respectable business of course, which Claire –obviously– did not.

She exhaled through her nostrils, lips in a tight line, not quite understanding herself why she was so anxious to leave something of herself behind. Sure, they’d had an amazing time together, but the fact that she didn’t have his number –yet! she amended forcefully – didn’t mean anything. ‘Little beach bar right next tae the club’ he had said. Everything is his demeanour had screamed that he wanted to see her again, so why was she so bothered by not having a means to contact him before tonight? She would see him in a matter of a half a day.

Realising that she was standing in the middle of the room, staring stupidly into the void, Claire huffed, deciding that there was really nothing she could do. At least not now. Without Jamie around, there was no way to get a hold on his phone number. And with neither pen nor paper at hand she write hers down for him. Seriously, how cheap must that hotel be if they don’t even supply the usual hotel stationery? If she were a girl that wore lipstick, she could’ve gone all rom-com on him and left her number in huge, messy figures on the bathroom mirror. But then again, she wasn’t that girl, so she left.

All in all, facing Geillis was not as bad as anticipated. Sure, there had been icy glares, a reproachful tantrum, and quite a bit of guilt-tripping, but Claire knew she was in the wrong, so she took it all without complaint.

“God, ye scared the livin’ hell out o’ me, Claire, dinnae ever do that again, d’ye hear?”

“I really am sorry, Gee,” she said and hugged her friend closely to her. “Thanks for looking out for me.”

Claire had been worried that the day would drag on and be spent mostly trying not to lose focus of conversations, reminiscing in experiences of nights past, and comparing the ocean’s colour to a very, very blue pair of eyes. To her surprise, she enjoyed herself better than she had in a long time –with the exception of the previous night. Because she had slept and showered at Jamie’s, she’d missed the departure of the rest of the group, who had gone on a pre-booked wine tasting tour for the whole day. Not being partial to wine or any other alcoholic substances in general, she couldn’t say that she minded having missed that excursion all that much. And some distance from Laoghaire and Geneva also didn’t hurt. Geillis, supportive –and worried–friend that she was had skipped that trip for her sake as well. ‘Nae one –except fer yer special friend– even noticed that ye were gone. Ye should ha’ seen the look on her face when she saw ye leave wi’ that piece o’ candy.’ Instead, the pair of them went on a whale watching boat tour. They didn’t see a single fin of the promised sperm whales, but were delighted when a huge school of dolphins passed them by, sun reflecting off their smooth, spotted skins. After a refreshing lunch, they spent the better part of the afternoon laughing and licking runny ice cream off their hands in the Palheiro Gardens just outside of Funchal.

Dressed in skinny jeans and a loose top, with just a bit of mascara to highlight her eyes, Claire finally found herself seated at the quaint beach bar adjoining the Porto Santo Beach Club half an hour too early. There was little chance she was at the wrong spot, it was the only bar around, all other establishments were either clubs or restaurants.

The bartender prepared her fruit cocktail order and a ginger ale for Jamie. A ginger for the ginger. No one ever said her puns were any good, but she found it hilarious, and thought that if she hadn’t misread him completely, Jamie would, too. She snorted while taking a sip and instantly regretted it. The acidic liquid burned the sensitive tissue of her nasal cavity, and tears as well as juice streamed down her face. Her throat constricted as Claire turned an ugly shade of red, sputtering, trying to free her airways, the beverage making its way still unhindered through her nostrils, and breathing in a painful, laboured manner.

“Careful there, hen,” Geillis patted her on the back, aiding to get the liquid out of her system, “yer ginger laddie might like ye, but I’m no’ sure he’s in it fer the tomato look, aye?”

If Claire hadn’t been occupied with trying to breathe again, she would have punched her friend. Maybe in her pretty face.

“Ye orite?”

Claire wiped her face with the napkin and wheezed a weak “Yes.”

“D’ye mind if I stay wi’ ye until he arrives?”

“Be my guest,” she gestured to the empty stool next to her, “I’m so nervous, I’m glad I don’t have to wait on my own.” Her voice was still a bit hoarse from the fruit acid. “Are the others in the club again?”

Geillis nodded.

“Aye, the whole gang is back there,” she looked at Claire, all fidgety with excitement. “Hit ye bad, then, aye?”

Claire looked deep into her cocktail glass, the curtain of her hair hiding her smile, but it was unmistakeable in her voice. “Yes.”

“Weel, ye deserve some. And it did take yer mind off other things,” Geillis smirked. “Sae I was right tae take yer phone away.”

That did earn her a well-placed slap on her upper arm.

“Fuck off, Duncan,” Claire smiled, ordering a new cocktail and a gin tonic for Geillis who was rubbing her arm dramatically.

Having her best friend to talk to made waiting for Jamie a lot easier –and somewhat more bearable. She had been way too early at their agreed meeting place, so she hadn’t really paid much attention to the time since Geillis’ arrival. The darker it got, though, the harder it became to ignore that her Scot was late –and not fashionably late. ‘Around 8?’ he had said, hadn’t he? Yes, she was sure he had. The ‘around’ part gave a bit of freedom of interpretation, but it was now well past 9 o’clock.

“He’ll show up, dinnae worry,” the blonde tried to reassure her. “I’m sure he has a really good reason he’s late –or he better have,” she amended with a glint in her eye.

After another hour and two drinks respectively, they gave up any pretence of light-hearted conversation, though. There was no denying anymore that he wasn’t going to show. Claire didn’t like to admit it, but she was devastated. It was obvious in the slump of her shoulders, the forced smile, and in the faraway look.

“C’mon, hen, let’s go,” her friend suggested, gesturing to the barkeeper that they wanted to pay.

They left, Geillis arm around her shoulder.

“I honestly didn’t think he’d be the type to do that, Gee.”

“Weel, I cannae say I have the same confidence in men, but from what ye told me aboot him, he really didnae seem tae be an arse,” she agreed.

“No, he really didn’t seem to be...,” Claire trailed off. “I mean he was so bloody sweet. And a virgin for fucks sake!”

“A what?” Geillis’s jaw dropped.

“Oh...um...yeah, did I leave that out earlier?”

“Ye did, hen. I would have remembered that bit fer sure!” she scolded Claire. “Ye said ye had the best sex of yer life and it was wi’ a fuckin’ virgin?” the dumbfounded expression on her friend’s face was priceless.

“Eh...yes, but I didn’t know until after.”

“Fuckin’ hell. What has it come tae if virgins are noo able tae fuck like that?”

“Well, that doesn’t matter now. What does matter is why that bloody not-so-virgin-anymore lad didn’t show up tonight,” Claire said through gritted teeth. She had her pride, after all.

“Then there’s only one thing we can do, aye?”

“There is?” honey eyes narrowed suspiciously at green ones.

“O’ course, ye know where he lives, do ye no’?” Geillis mouth curved to an impish grin.

“Oh,” Claire said, realising what her friend was getting at. She could indeed confront the miscreant. And that’s exactly what she would do. With Geillis at her back she wasn’t afraid of anything.

When they reached the lobby, Claire high on adrenaline and Geillis a bit on gin, the two women walked up to the receptionist and demanded to see the strapping young sportsman with the fiery red hair. The poor employee had no idea who they were talking about, and, overtaxed with dealing with them turned to call his superior for help. A more experienced man entered from a backdoor behind the reception counter, and Claire recognised him as the one who had been on duty last night.

“I don’t know if you remember me, sir, but I stayed here with my friend last night. The tall, red-haired Scotsman. He is part of the junior training cadre?”

The man nodded, and Claire took it as encouragement to continue. “Well, I forgot something in his room, and I can’t seem to get a hold of him, could you help me out, maybe?”

“I’m sorry, Miss –, “ the man began, pushing his glasses up his nose.

“Beauchamp,” Claire interjected helpfully.

“Well, I am terribly sorry, Miss Beauchamp, but – “

“I know you’re technically allowed to – “

“You’re right, I am not allowed to. But it’s not that at all, Miss Beauchamp,” he interrupted, his nose twitching nervously.

“No?”

The rest of the conversation was muted and seemed to take place far, far away. Claire stared, standing rigidly and eyes wide with shock, watching the receptionist’s mouth form words, but not quite comprehending.

A horrific accident.

Had to be flown out.

The whole team left a few hours ago.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 13 – The Story of You

A tote bag filled with samples of prenatal vitamins, coupons, and brochures slung over one shoulder, Claire and Geillis made their way back to their apartment, chatting excitedly. Edinburgh had been fully embraced autumn by now, the leaves of trees and other greenery changed their skins to the most beautiful shades of yellow, red, and orange. Brown leaves crunched underneath their soles, the sound accompanied by the whispered promise of new life resurging in the spring.

When the two friends entered the welcoming warmth of their shared home, their hair was in wild disarray. Small gusts of wind sweeping through the streets had set brown curls and straight mane flying, creating knots and nests and tangles. While that wasn’t out of the ordinary for Claire, it was one of Geillis’ self-professed nightmares. In this moment, however, neither of them cared.

Coats and shoes stripped off, they sat huddled together on the couch, contents of the tote bag laid out on the table, looking at the ultrasound pictures –again.

“I still cannae believe it,” Geillis voice was infused with awe.

“Me neither,” Claire agreed, eyes beaming with joy. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in all my life,” she pronounced quietly, but with unchallenged authority.

“It’s just sae tiny,” the blonde woman traced the shape of the little bean reverently with her index finger.  “A tiny you,” she emphasised, looking at her friend, cheeks dimpled with a bright smile.

“And a tiny Jamie, too,” Claire added in a hushed tone, face cast down, amber eyes fixed on the black and white image in her hand, losing herself in thought for a second or two. Jamie. “What was that, Gee?”

“I said ‘I’ll be right back’, hen!” Geillis called from her room.

Five minutes later, dressed in more comfortable slacks and a burgundy University of Edinburgh jumper, Geillis returned with a square item clutched to her chest.

“Here,” she handed it over to Claire, who sat stunned, blinking slowly.

“Noo I can finally see what it is that makes ye almost piss yerself when I try tae wink at ye,” Geillis lips trembled slightly with the urge to laugh at her friend’s owl-like expression.

“What?”

“Ne’ermind,” the fair woman sauntered into the kitchenette, setting a kettle to boil.

“What is this, Gee?” came the inquiry from behind her back.

“Weel, ye’d have tae open it tae find out, hen,” Geillis smirked over her shoulder.

“No shit, sherlock,” Claire mumbled a bit tersely.

Geillis could hear the rustle of wrapping paper as she prepared two mugs of tea. A strong black blend for her, and a stomach-soothing ginger with a fat dollop of honey for the pregnant woman with an uncanny tendency to upend the contents of her stomach at the most inconvenient of times.

“Geillis, I –,” Claire began, voice breaking only slightly, “I don’t know what to say.”

“Ye dinnae have tae say anythin’,” Geillis reclaimed her spot on the couch, placing the steaming mugs on the table, careful not to set them atop any of the brochures or pictures. “I’ll no’ be lyin’ tae ye, Claire,” Geillis lips pressed together in a thin line, hands wedged between her thighs. “Finding Jamie is no’ gonnae be a walk in the park. But I’ll try,” she promised, squeezing Claire’s hand. “And ‘til we do find him, I thought it’d be nice if we recorded everything in there,” she explained, pointing at the baby book in her friend’s lap, “all yer firsts, all the important steps o’ yer pregnancy. So he kens what he missed. I wanted tae give it tae ye fer yer birthday last week, but then I thought it might be nice tae have something tae put into already,” she indicated the ultrasound pictures on the table with her chin.

Claire stared at the book in her lap. Half photo-album, half diary, it was bound in creamy white cloth and had an artistically rendered calligraphy of a tree on the front. The tree was, naturally, not really growing on its canvas, but somehow it seemed as if the ink was shifting, budding, stretching like a tree in growth. In the middle of it sat the title embedded into the drawing. The Story of You. It was remarkably beautiful in its simplicity. And such a considerate and thoughtful gift that it made Claire’s eyes water with gratitude and longing.

“That’s so much more than I could ask for, Gee, thank you,” Claire hugged her friend tightly to her, platinum hair her tickling her nose, causing her to sneeze violently. “Achooo.”

“Och, that’s how it’s goin’ tae be, then?” her friend leaned away from her, pretending to disgustedly assess the damage.  “Ye’ll cover me in all yer different kinds of bodily discharge? I hate tae tell ye, hen, but I’m drawin’ the line at amniotic fluid,” face set in a grave expression, green eyes bored into honey ones, until both broke, unable to hold the laughter in any longer.

“God, what would I do without you, Geillis?” Claire wiped at her eyes, still glistening with mirth and gratitude.

“Weel, ye’d probably starve, for one thing. Speakin’ o’ which, I’m gonnae get us some food –any particular cravings, Madonna?”

“The green curry from the Nepalese place. Make it extra spicy!”

“Extra spicy it is fer the mother tae be,” her friend confirmed as she got their order ready on the delivery app. “All set, shouldnae be more than 30 minutes,” she informed Claire. “And while we wait, ye can strip down,” Geillis announced as if that was a perfectly normal lunch-time activity for them.

“I beg your bloody pardon?”

“I asked ye tae strip down. Or if ye’re uncomfortable wi’ that, jus’ lift yer cardigan and top sae I can get the whole belly on the picture.”

“What would you want to take a picture of my belly for?”

Fair eyebrows were drawn up high above moss-green eyes. It wasn’t necessary to voice her thought, but she did it anyway. “God, ye can be daft sometimes, woman. Tae document yer progress, o’ course. I’m going tae take one every week, starting noo.”

When Claire didn’t comply, she clarified, “Fer the wee book. Sae, get nekid –at least partially, aye?”

Geillis shooed her to stand in profile in front of the bit of plain white-washed wall that would serve as neutral background for the photos and directed her how high to hold up her shirt, how to stand, and where to place her left hand.

“I feel absolutely ridiculous,” the curly-haired woman moaned, cheeks tinged with embarrassment.

“Aye, maybe so, but ye’ll be thankin’ me later, when ye get tae look at the lot o’ them,” her friend countered, unbothered by the unwilling participant of her artistic endeavour. “Stay jus’ like that, Claire, aye, that’s it. And we’re done. Wasnae sae hard, was it?”

“No, I... I know this is dumb, but I ... ah, I guess I’m just overly self-conscious.”

Geillis emitted a noise that was very similar to what Claire imagined a frog with violent, spurting diarrhoea would sound like.

“Did you just pffffsst me?” Claire gawped at her.

“I did,” Geillis admitted without any trace of remorse. “Look at ye, hen. Ye’re gorgeous, and that wee one isnae even as big as yer pinky yet. Ye’re a good way still from showin’. How could ye possibly feel insecure right noo?”

Claire walked to the kitchen to put her mug into the sink.

“Well, I... knowing that all of this is going to change,” she motioned to her still flat belly, “is really intimidating. It’s... I don’t know, I know it’s stupid.”

“Aye, it is stupid, but ye’re allowed tae be. Ye’re pregnant,” Geillis grinned at her.

“Idiot,” Claire retorted, throwing a dish towel at her best friend, but couldn’t help the smile tucking up the corners of her mouth.

“But ye love me,” Geillis stated, putting the towel back where it belonged.

“I do,” came the immediate response as Claire put a hand on her friend’s back, conveying what she wasn’t able to put into words with the gesture.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 14 – The Search

Two weeks after the ultrasound appointment, Geillis sat cross-legged on her bed, staring once again at the list she’d made, forehead wrinkled in frustration and cursing under her breath. Claire had not been kidding, there really wasn’t much to work with. They had his first name, his country of origin, a rough age group, and knew that he was some sort of athlete. She’d asked the reception clerk that night whether he knew which club they belonged to –‘No’. He’d told her that they hadn’t booked the rooms under a club sponsor but under their individual names, which –of course– he hadn’t been allowed to pass on to her.

Claire hadn’t been much help back then –and little wonder at that. Hearing that your virgin wonder-shag and potential future love interest had gotten hurt so badly in a cycling accident on the mountainside that they had to fly him out before you were able to get his contact information wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that caused normal people to stay level-headed and calm. Hell, it had affected her, even though she hadn’t known him. No, Claire really wasn’t to blame for not changing gears into detective mode right away. Who would’ve guessed that he had gotten her pregnant anyway? They did use contraception, after all. Bloody fucking faulty condoms.

That both of them could recognise him on sight only came in handy when she was able to dig up online club rosters that didn’t only list their members’ names but also had pictures available, or in the unlikely event that he showed up in The Steaming Mug when she got her next coffee fix. Arrrgh. This was so fucking infuriating. She sighed heavily and massaged the bridge of her nose. They’d gone through so many cycling club member lists and their event photos already that her head spun. And still, no hot trail leading towards the baby daddy. Not even a lukewarm anything, really –just stone-cold nothing so far. Not a single one of her connections –neither family nor friends back in Aberdeenshire– had heard anything about it either. Now it was time to look into different possibilities and eventualities, it was time to venture out into pure chance.

I will find ye, ye wily Scot. Her chest thrust out with determination, she rolled her sleeves up and started to dig again.

Another two weeks and still nothing. December had taken hold of the city and shrouded it in long, dark hours. Geillis spirit was similarly dampened –the confidence in her stalking abilities dwindling slowly, but surely. If Claire had taken a photo of him, or the two of them, she could’ve started a ‘does anyone know this man’ campaign or something similar like they did in newspapers sometimes. Wait – that could be it! She banged her door open and rushed into Claire’s room like a storm.

“The newspaper!” she exclaimed as if she’d just found the cure to cancer.

“What?” her curly-haired friend looked up at her, brows drawn tightly together at the interruption of her study session.

“Stop chewin’ that pen, Beauchamp, how often do I have tae tell ye?”

“You don’t get to barge into my room and tell me what not to do, Geillis,” the timbre of Claire’s voice gave her sour mood away, so Geillis chose to get to the point without delay.

“Jamie’s accident. If it was sae bad as fer him tae have been flown out, surely it must ha’ made the local news, aye?”

Golden eyes went round with understanding.

“You’re right, they must have reported something.”

Claire stacked her notes neatly and put them into a drawer to make room on the desk for her laptop –priorities had changed for the moment. It didn’t take long for them to unearth an article from Madeira Weekly and an entry on the Madeira Island News blog since they knew the date they were searching for. Geillis had been right, there had been coverage of the incident. And a few of those were even in English.

19-year-old Scottish national involved in shocking accident

Team of junior athletes from the UK

Hit-and-run car crash victim

Hurled off bike by the impact

Back torn to shreds

Black SUV with unknown licence plate

Transported via emergency aircraft to mainland

Everything they found written about it–that wasn’t in Portuguese– focused on the horrific nature of the hit-and-run and calls for action to find the culprit. There weren’t any details about the victim aside from his age, his nationality, the superficial mention of his being an athlete, and how the accident went down according to his teammates. They didn’t even name him, they just called him the young man or Scottish national –even in the local newspapers was no mention of it. Basically, they were none the wiser. Well, that wasn’t quite true –now they knew that he had been 19 when it happened. It wasn’t much, but it did help narrow things down a little. But the worst of it was that they didn’t even know if he had survived.

“Do you think he’s –,“ Claire swallowed convulsively.

One heartbeat. Two heartbeats.

“I don’t know,” her friend looked at her, green eyes brimming with barely contained emotion. “Must have been one hell o’ a crash...”

“Should we...,” Claire cleared her throat, avoiding her friend’s look, “check for obituaries?”

Another heartbeat. The unheard rhythm of hummingbird wings.

“No,” Geillis answered quietly. “No, I dinnae think sae,” she repeated with more confidence. “They would have made him a martyr or something if he’d died.”

It wasn’t exactly comforting, but at least it made sense –somewhat. Claire closed her eyes tightly in an effort to believe that rather than envisage the other possibility. She hadn’t dared to really look for him for that very reason before she learned of her pregnancy. She had wanted to cling to hope, to not know whether he had died. That way she was able to keep him alive in her thoughts the way she’d last seen him. Dark blue eyes alight with tenderness, lopsided smile directed at her, his touch burnt into the haptic memory of her cheek.

They sat in silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts and battling with their emotions, computer fans whirring softly in the background.

 “Oh.”

“Hm?”

“I just thought of something else, but ye willnae like it a bit, hen,” Geillis remarked, leaning back against the bedframe.

“Out with it, Duncan,” Claire prompted.

“Laoghaire,” her friend stated simply.

“Laoghaire?” confusion rang in the question. “What’s she got do with anything?”

“Weel, she did end up wi’ that lad that was more beard than face.” When Claire still didn’t get her meaning, Geillis sighed dramatically, feigning exasperation, “Ye said he was one of his teammates, no? If she got his phone number, that would be a way tae reach yer ginger man.”

“True –good thinking, Gee,” her mouth curved into a small smile.

“No, ‘tis great thinking, hen. Aboot time this ol’ bugger proved its worth,” she pointed at her own, fair-haired her head.

“But how are we going to do this? I can’t just walk up to her and ask,” Claire pointed out, shoulders tensing at the prospect.

“Technically, ye could. But I see what ye mean. She’s definitely no’ yer biggest fan –and it didnae get any better since she didnae get intae med school while you and I did. Seriously, if looks could kill – “

“Not helpful, Geillis,” Claire interjected, throwing her friend a look that told Geillis she knew exactly how little the other girl liked her.

“I ken. Sorry,” the blonde amended. “Just means we’ll have tae be smart aboot it.”

They would have to tread carefully around Laoghaire Mackenzie –that much was clear.

Head tilted back, amber eyes stared at the ceiling. “Why does everything have to be so bloody difficult?”

Geillis didn’t try to come up with an answer. How could she? What she could do, though, was stand beside her friend, and stroke her curls –and come up with an idea how to get a hold of someone who was not naturally inclined to help them out in any way.

Little did they know that an opportunity to corner Laoghaire would arise completely on its own.

It was a crisp Saturday, only a couple of days before Christmas when Claire rested her cheek against the seat of the toilet, eyes shut against the brightness of the artificial light that was just too bright for her half-awake form. Brown curls stuck to her sweaty forehead, and her sleep shirt clung to her back from the exertion of heaving into the porcelain bowl over and over again. Morning sickness really was the worst part of pregnancy so far. The term itself was deviously deceptive –she’d cry happy tears if it were limited only to the morning hours. It literally lasted all day long sometimes and came when she needed it the least –during an exam, during another appointment with Dr Raymond, or a phone call with Mary. It wasn’t just the normal feeling of nausea everyone gets once in a while, it felt like stomach acid was eating through the walls of her insides. She’d woken up from it every single day since the first ultrasound. And it got set off by the most innocent of smells during the day –and in a split second she was spewing her guts out without any warning sign. The only antidote against it seemed to be sucking on liquorice, and she hated that stuff.  Better of two evils, though.

She’d thought it would be better today and felt foolish for it. It wasn’t any different from other days to her little bean. It hadn’t been impressed into restraint by her anatomy final, nor the fact that roughly ten other people watched her give literally all of herself in aisle 3 of her local grocery store the day before. So where had she got the idiotic notion that it might be better this morning? Hope. It had been hope. But that got as smashed as Jack Randall did last night.

With the semester having ended, and no up-coming exams or assignments left for this term, her friends from undergraduate studies had decided to have a little Christmas party before everyone left for their well-deserved break. When Isobel had sent her and Geillis the details about the get-together, the two friends had been over the moon with the opportunity to mingle with Laoghaire without it being suspicious. It would also have been a wonderful opportunity to tell her closest of friends that she was pregnant. If it hadn’t been for Jonathan ‘Black Jack’ Randall, whose nickname was inspired by a deeply engrained love for that particular brand of scotch whisky, that is.

Things had gone awry almost the second they’d joined their already assembled friends at their table. Since Claire had never really had a taste for alcohol, no one batted an eye when she’d ordered ginger ale, but the fact that the smell of Jack’s third whisky sour that evening seemed to trigger another bout of retching had caused quite the stir. She’d made it to the lavatories in time, followed closely by Isobel. Geillis had chosen to stay behind, thinking it would draw too much unwanted attention otherwise. 

“You still look quite green around the gills, Claire. Are you sure you’re alright?” Isobel asked, handing her another paper towel.

She waved her friend away and nodded. “I’m quite alright, thank you.”

Hazel eyes narrowed a bit, she obviously didn’t buy it, but what was she to do? She couldn’t force Claire to spill the beans if she didn’t want to.

“I’m alright, really,” she tried to sound more cheerful and managed to smile almost genuinely.

“If you say so.”

They left the bathroom and joined the others again, Claire making a remarkable effort to look as if she hadn’t just turned her insides out –and succeeding quite well at that. Munching on pretzels and breathing mainly through her mouth seemed to do the trick and the evening progressed nicely for a while. She received a couple of concerned glances now and then, but as she didn’t show any further signs of explosive sickness, those subsided as well.

The longer the evening went on, the merrier the group got, even Mary seemed to have lost most of her usual inhibitions, flirting with one of the barkeepers, a lock of her dark hair curled around a finger, when she thought no one was looking. It wasn’t until Geillis was finally invested a casual conversation with Laoghaire and Geneva at the other end of the three tables their group occupied that the figurative table turned on her.

“Is it me or are your boobs bigger, Beauchamp?” the drunk posh voice of the eldest Randall cut through the different conversations at the table. Heads turned towards him, expressions varying from bewildered to annoyed.

He sat right across from Claire, staring and pointing at her bosom, despite having trouble to focus on it, a new whisky in hand.

“What did you just say?” she hissed at him.

“I asked if your tits have grown, Claire. A simple question really,” he remarked nonchalantly swirling the amber liquid in his glass like the pretentious connoisseur he would have liked to be.

“Shut it, Jack,” came his brother’s angry reprimand.

“Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed, Frank. They’re absolutely spectacular,” he directed at his younger sibling before returning his attention back to Claire, “Where did you get them done, darling?”

Uneasy murmur went around the table, and Geillis –stuck between bitch and bitchier–was fuming, nostrils flaring with outrage. If he’d been sitting next to her, he’d have lost his ability to procreate right then and there.

“You’d better go, Jack,” Claire advised him, voice steady and deadly serious, “You’re drunk.”

Instead of taking the cue, he leaned in closer over the table, trying to get an even better look at her.

“Or have you been knocked up? Is that why you’re so prickly –“

He didn’t get to finish his sentence, her hand had lashed out and connected with his cheek without conscious thought.

“You’re a fucking bastard, Jonathan Randall,” she grabbed her purse and left without another word.

Outside of the bar, Claire stood for a second –inhaling deeply in an attempt to rid herself of some of the anger that tensed her neck and pulsed in the tiny vein in her temples. She had expected a calming hand to be placed on her shoulder, but it was surprisingly not Geillis’ pale one.

“You forgot your coat, love.”

“Oh, thanks,” she said and took the coat gratefully, only now realising that it was bloody cold out. Cold in December, who would’ve guessed?

“Geillis wanted to walk you home, but I offered to go with you instead,” Isobel explained. “I wanted to leave soon anyway.”

“But you live in the other direction,” Claire pointed out as she began to make her way home.

“It’s a fine night for a walk, though,” came the somewhat enigmatic response as Isobel followed on her heels. After half a minute of silence she asked “Are you okay, love?”

“Yes.”

“What Jack said was so out of place. I’m sorry he put you on the spot like that. I mean, he can be a prick sometimes, but never like that. I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”

“He was right, though,” she said through gritted teeth. “That’s why I slapped him.”

“What?” Isobel stopped and stared at her with wide hazel eyes not quite comprehending.

“He was FUCKING RIGHT!” Claire shouted, enjoying to finally let some of that frustration out of her system. “My breasts are bigger. I did get myself knocked up,” she explained as tears began to spill. And I can’t get a hold of the father was left unsaid –for now.

“Oh, Claire.”

“I wanted to tell you guys tonight,” Claire sniffed, wiping at her face with her sleeve, “but I couldn’t, not like this.”

“I see,” Isobel’s head bobbed in understanding. “Come, I’ll walk you home, love.”

Isobel had kept her company until they reached her front door, not prying into when, where, how, and who it had happened with, letting Claire decide when she was ready to share it with her. Home alone, the first thing she did was to text Geillis she got there alright, and that she was –more or less– okay. She didn’t even lie, then. Slapping Jack Randall and screaming in the streets of Edinburgh had been cathartic to some degree. What she had not been prepared for were the messages that her best friend had sent back.  

            She doesnae have Rupert’s number

            I’m sae sorry, hen

            I’m coming home

She’d gone to the bathroom then, threw up violently, and, with the contents of her stomach, flushed hope down the drain.

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 15 – About a Boy

Claire was absolutely miserable. Her feet were sore, her breasts tender, and the baby had spent the last few weeks with its fat little bottom tucked up under her ribs, kicking frequently and enthusiastically, bruising her in the process. Everything about her felt not quite right anymore. Her skin seemed too thin, stretched beyond its limits and bearing purple marks to prove it. She was at the end of her patience and so bloody tired of being pregnant. She hadn’t really started to show until her third trimester, but when she finally did, her belly had grown exponentially bigger –and fast. The larger her little bean got, the less room her lungs had to expand, with the addition of quite a bit of extra weight on top, she wasn’t able to waddle more than a couple of steps at a time before she was winded.

The hormonal rollercoaster was a bit harder to deal with –being out of milk really wasn’t something that would usually make her break out in tears– but she managed to keep it from interfering too much with study schedules and personal life. Her professors had all been informed about her ‘situation’ of course, and Claire had been pleasantly surprised that most of them had been supportive of her endeavour to continue with her studies despite the added difficulties. Studying medicine in and of itself was a fulltime job with numerous challenges –and being pregnant was certainly not an advantage. But, despite all of that, Claire might at least be lucky in one thing –if her not-so-little-anymore bean stuck to the estimated due date of April the 19th, she would give birth during the spring teaching vacation. That meant she wouldn’t have to arrange an extra-curricular exam date for her finals. Teachers, no matter how sympathetic in theory, were hardly ever responsive to these kind of requests from students. On one such occasion, where she had asked for an extension of a deadline, explaining her circumstances to their pathology lecturer, Claire was sure that her appeal would be rejected immediately. Hildegard de Gascogne, who had a notoriously strict and unforgiving attitude – with a face to match– had proved her wrong, though. When those black beetle-like eyes had narrowed under heavy brows, Claire was sure she would be told off for wasting the woman’s precious time with such irrelevant nonsense. Dr Hildegard, however, saying nothing at first, had dug into her desk drawers for a notepad and began scribbling down notes. Not quite knowing what to do, Claire had sat there, waiting for a gaze, a sharp word –anything really– to give her a clue whether she was expected to leave or stay. Just a moment shy before Claire was about to ask whether she may leave, Hildegard had looked up at her, homely face transformed by a bright smile. She had handed the sheet of paper over to Claire, suggesting that she take a look at the things she had noted down for her. It was a list of people and institutions she could approach –university day care, scholarship programs for mothers, and many more useful bits of advice. ‘We will make sure you got everything you need to finish our program,’ the grey-haired woman had assured her, eyes shining with warmth.

Geillis, keeping her word, was easily the most supportive person in her life. She helped her to stay on top of her studies, and more often than not anticipated and attended to Claire’s needs. On top of all of that, Geillis had faithfully taken a picture of her belly every single week, putting it into the baby book alongside the new ultrasound printouts. The progress of her pregnancy had become spectacularly evident in the past 8 weeks, but the last one at week 39 made Claire’s stomach churn a little. She was horrified how big she had gotten in just a matter of two months. No comparison to the flat plain of her stomach when they’d taken the first photo at the 13 weeks mark. She looked –and felt– as if she’d swallowed a monstrous pumpkin. At least her skin wasn’t orange –thank heaven for small mercies. The colour reminded her of something else, though.

Despite the discouraging results so far, neither Claire nor Geillis had given up on finding Jamie. Eventually, they’d gone through every single official cycling club in Scotland and Northern England and had come to the conclusion that while he had been in a cycling accident, that might still not have been the sport he was professionally involved in. A lot of athletes cycled for training purposes, right? They went on to look at triathlon, then swimming, and when those also didn’t yield anything about the handsome ginger, continued to look into basically every other sport that came to mind that would possibly send a team of junior athletes to an island for training camp. But while their child grew steadily bigger and bigger, there was still no trace of Jamie.

As the days and weeks passed by, and more and more firsts happened, and photographs of her progressing pregnancy were taken, Claire became a bit obsessed about chronicling all of them in the baby book Geillis had gifted her after her first ultrasound. There was a detailed account of when the baby had moved for the very first time. It had been week 20 right during her third appointment with her ob-gyn and had happened completely unexpected. It lasted just for a second. But in that one second she’d gotten the first true sense of her child, and that moment would never, ever leave her. Dr Raymond had asked her whether she wanted to know the gender then, too, but she declined. In that at least, she wanted to stay as ignorant as Jamie. There wasn’t much else she could share with him during that time. So she kept faithful records of everything that she felt he had a right to know and was certain he would want to know once he found out. But it wasn’t just that –it also helped her feel connected to him, feeling his presence there with her and their child.

 

Twice a week she also participated in a Lamaze class that Geillis had talked her into –sometimes accompanied by either Isobel or Mary if her roomie couldn’t make it for some reason. All of her close friends had shown so much support for her, it was genuinely heart-warming. It showed in the way they helped out with cleaning and readying the apartment for her new co-habitant, and in the way they took over her grocery shopping when Claire was incapacitated by nausea. Even though she hadn’t wanted anyone to make a fuss about it, neither Geillis, nor Mary, nor Isobel would budge when it came to throwing her a baby shower. After much discussion, in which she hadn’t really had much to say, Claire had relented. In hindsight, she was glad that she had. It really was a sweet, intimate affair with just the four of them. Onesies had been painted in more or less artistic efforts –Mary’s panda design had elicited quite a few admiring comments. Cake and other snacks had been consumed eagerly, crumbs and icing licked off plates as more small presents were handed over to the expecting mother. What to Expect When You Are Expecting had been wrapped in a soft, creamy baby blanket by Isobel. ‘My cousin said this was her bible when she was pregnant with her first,’ she’d explained. Geillis had presented her with an Audible gift card –an entire year of subscription– saying that Claire would probably need something to ‘keep her sane’ during the hours when the bairn was colicky and she wouldn’t be able to get sleep. At last, after even more cake and tea, loosened waistbands, and crude jokes that were exactly up her alley, Claire excused herself and got up to fetch something from her room. She returned, full lips set in a warm smile, with another present in hand. She put it on the table and made herself comfortable on the sofa again. When she didn’t make a move to open it Mary asked who it was from.

“I bought this one myself,” she said and began to unwrap it. To light came a completely black onesie with white print that read ‘The Godchild’ in reminiscence of the iconic Marlon Brando movies. There were quite a few confused glances until Claire got out another present and handed it over to her best friend. Geillis stared at her, green eyes wide with incomprehension. Geillis had given her so much during the past few months that Claire had felt it was time to give her something back.

“What’s that then, hen?”

“You’d have to open it to find out, Duncan,” she smiled at the memory of a similar conversation just a few months ago, when Geillis had gifted her the baby book that sat now on the table in their living room, waiting for a polaroid of the baby shower to be added to its pages.

The fair-haired woman tore into the wrapping paper, impatience to unearth its hidden secrets edged into her face with small frown, to find a matching black shirt in her size with ‘The Godmother’ on the front. She just looked at Claire, moss-green orbs glistening with unshed tears. There had been no need for words, the tight embrace shared conveyed all that was necessary.

Claire had loved her friends before already, but it was different now. There was a whole new level to their friendship, with no room for doubt. She wasn’t alone in this, they would be with her. And that knowledge gave her so much strength that she couldn’t help the twinkle of happiness in her eyes. And with her happiness, hope had returned as well. She just knew deep in her guts that they would find Jamie.

As many highs as she’d experienced during those months with her unborn child, there had also been a highly uncomfortable situation in the library with Frank. They had met for a joint study session –they made for good partners despite their different subjects– when their conversation had suddenly gone down an unexpected path. ‘A child needs a father figure, Claire,’ he had said in such a patronising and condescending manner that for a second she hadn’t been able to do more than stare at him, mouth slightly open with disbelief. Then she had laughed, which had earned her reprimanding glances from other library occupants, thinking that he must surely be joking. But he hadn’t been. ‘And I guess you’re selflessly nominating yourself for that particular position?’ Claire had inquired, arms crossed, and one brow raised above a golden glare.

That was exactly what he’d had in mind. Absolute incredulity was the only thing that had kept her seated –until he mentioned ‘potential mutual benefits’ of the entire proposition that is. Frank might have been generally a rather subtle man, but he’d spelled out quite clearly what it was he expected from Claire in return for his heroic gesture of rescuing her from ‘an existence of shame and scorn as a single mother with no means to provide for her child’. When he had suggested that she would definitely enjoy herself as well, she slapped him so hard that his ears rang for the rest of the day. Cramming books and notes into her bag, she’d stormed out of the library, followed by curious glances of other students. After that incident, Claire and her friends had formed the unspoken, but unanimous agreement that the Randall brothers would no longer be taking part in their social outings. Poor Alex had to pay the price for his brothers’ impertinence. She didn’t have much time to dwell on ill-mannered, over-privileged English pricks, though.  There lay far more important things ahead of her.

Now that she was approaching her due date, she’d prepared herself as best as she could for her little bean. Geillis had helped her to move things around the apartment to use the space more efficiently. Where her desk had been was now a nursery corner –a small bed, a comfy chair, a changing table. There were nursing pillows, baby blankets, nappies, and so much more stuff than Claire ever thought they could fit into their apartment. The pram stood waiting next to the door, ready for action, and she’d practiced endlessly with Geillis how to properly tie and secure the wrap she would carry her baby around with. Now that everything was ready, there was only one thing left to do – wait.

Just when she thought she couldn’t possibly get any bigger or more uncomfortable, Claire got up in the middle of the night for what she thought would be yet another visit to the loo. She’d had Braxton Hicks contractions on and off the past ten days, so she didn’t really think much of the discomfort that hit her square in the gut as she plopped down ungainly on the toilet seat. It was only when she realised that she was able to breathe much more freely all of a sudden that she noticed the coloured discharge in her underwear. As a med student –and well-read and prepared woman– Claire had had no illusions what was going to happen to her. She knew the drill alright. She wasn’t under the illusion that it was going to be pretty. But having read something is very different from experiencing it first-hand, a notion she fully internalised the moment her water broke. It was weird. Sort of a warm gush that wet her thighs, but not all that spectacular, really.

“Geillis!” Claire called out of the bathroom, pulling her knickers and sleep pants up. She grabbed a towel and put it between her legs, waddling out of the confined room. “GEILLIS!” she shouted again, much louder this time.

As she reached the door to her friend’s bedroom, she could hear a groaned “What?!” in answer.

She opened the door and stuck her head in, “I think the baby’s coming, Gee!”

It was still dark in the room, but regardless of the lack of light, Claire was sure she’d never seen Geillis Duncan wake up and move so quickly as in that moment.

“It’s comin’?! Let’s go then!” her friend jumped up, putting on the first thing she found over her nightshirt, grabbing her phone from the nightstand, bound her mane in a tight bun, and ushered Claire out of her room. “C’mon, Beauchamp, we dinnae have all night, no?”

“Let me get dressed first as well, alright?” Claire gestured down at her own sleepwear and the towel between her legs.                                                                                       

“Oh...,” Geillis realised belatedly that maybe it wasn’t quite as much of a life or death emergency as she had thought. “Right. Go ahead then, I’ll call us an Uber?”

“I think whoever might drive that car wouldn’t really enjoy having a woman with contractions and leaky private parts ruin his backseat,” Claire stated dryly, then continued, “call Dr Raymond and tell him my water broke.”

An ambulance ride and several hours of increasingly more intense contractions later, Claire found herself clad in a flimsy, green hospital gown in the delivery room. Whoever said that giving birth is a beautiful experience is a filthy liar. All those sweet, picture-perfect movie scenarios? Couldn’t be farther from the truth. It looks nothing like that –and is a good deal more painful. You sweat like you’re getting the workout of your life and if you’re lucky, you’re one of those women whose nether parts don’t tear while your body is attempting to squeeze something the size of a watermelon out of a very much not watermelon-sized hole. Giving birth was messy business – it was excruciating, raw, and overwhelming in more than one way. The whole affair seemed more like a pretty severe design flaw in human anatomy rather than a miracle of creation.

As Claire lay curled sideways on her bed, already sick of the sterile hospital smell and writhing in pain, trying to find any position that would bring relief, she tried to picture what the following day would bring. There were no parents to cheer her on. There would be no uncle Lamb twiddling his thumbs in the waiting room humming to himself. Neither was there going to be a nervous young father looking at her with a proud smile and a sparkle in his warm blue eyes. No, she didn’t have all that many people in her life, but those she did have, made more than up for it. Her friends would be waiting for her, excited to welcome her baby into their midst. And she had Geillis, of course. A best friend she often thought she didn’t deserve, the sister that she’d always wanted. A woman who stood beside her through months of emotional outbursts and midnight cravings –not by force, but choice. She really couldn’t ask for more. Claire was happy, she knew was loved. And even though she had no doubt that she could do this without him, screaming and crying through the onslaught of contractions, part of her wished Jamie was there with her. That it was him holding her hand instead of her best friend, sharing the wonder that was the birth of their child. And just for a brief moment, she felt his presence, like a breath of wind sighing into her ear.

Unfortunately, this moment of respite didn’t last long. The waves of contractions were coming closer together and were a lot more intense already. Geillis sat at her left side, her wide forehead creased in concentration as she attempted not to let her own discomfort show –Claire was gripping her hand very, very tightly, the bones grinding together painfully. When it became too much for Geillis, her best friend offered her the little stuffed puffin she had brought with her –intended as a gift for the new-born– in exchange for her hand. Irritated at first, Claire waved the cute toy away, but her friend insisted.

“Use this tae squeeze fer a while. I’m more than happy tae help, but if I’m gonnae be a surgeon, I’ll need my hand in the future, hen,” she smiled tentatively at Claire, not quite sure how a woman in the midst of childbirth would react to her joke.

It did ease some of the tension, though, as Claire snorted with the grace of a hippo and took the puffin from her, squeezing it for all she was worth. Concentrating on that task helped her to focus on something other than the steadily growing pain. The contractions were coming only minutes apart now, and Claire was balling up her fists during each one, crushing the life out of the little puffin. It was then that Claire started to yell and curse at anyone who came into sight. She was in pain and had to take it out on someone, and Geillis came in handy. Jamie, despite lack of presence, was at the receiving end of one or two heartfelt sentiments as well. I'm going to have your balls, Jamie, for knocking me upBloody Scottish virgin.

“Is there anything I can do, Claire?” Geillis asked, looking around the room helplessly.

“How about you have the baby for me?” she hissed out through clenched teeth.

“LOL,” came the blonde’s response.

“Did you just ‘lol’ me, Geillis Duncan?” Claire stared at her best friend, honey eyes wide with amusement as much as pain.

“Weel, it seems I just did, aye,” Geillis confirmed, an answering smile softening the tenseness in her own features.

Claire kept thinking that it couldn’t possibly get any worse, that her uterus and all her muscles would simply be ripped in two if it did, but worse it got.

The transition phase had begun. She knew this was going to be the worst part of it. And it was. It felt like one huge, never-ending loop of pain that sometimes lessened a bit, only to magnify tenfold again. Everything hurt –her insides felt as if about to split, her back spasmed, and even her eyeballs seemed to ache as if in sympathy with the rest of her bruised anatomy. Moaning loudly, she was hunched over the pillows, trying desperately to believe that she could get through this. She just wanted it out. It was unbearable.

“C’mon, hen, ye can do this. Ye only have tae get through the next one,” Geillis cheered her on, her own forehead sprinkled with perspiration. It had been long 17 hours in the delivery room already.

It took another twenty minutes of her screaming, groaning, and panting heavily before the midwife finally gave her the okay to start pushing. Pushing itself was another highly deceptive term. What doctors really mean by that is that you have to do an ab crunch every 20 seconds until the baby moves down to the birth canal, knowing full well that you haven’t done that kind of exercise in around 8 months or so. But ‘push’ she did, despite being almost completely worn out. Claire even fell asleep in between the contractions, a fact that Geillis would never let her forget for the rest of their lives.

Every minute seemed to last eternally, and neither Geillis’ presence nor the little puffin in her hand was able to distract her from the pain anymore.

“I can’t do this,” she gasped in between screams.

“Aye, ye can,” her best friend encouraged her, mopping Claire’s brow again.

Curls were stuck to her face and neck with sweat, and she glared daggers at Geillis, a look that told her where exactly she thought Geillis could stick that piece of wisdom.

“And ye will,” her best friend continued, placing a cool washcloth on Claire’s forehead, “Or ye’ll be pregnant forever, no?”

That was not a possibility she wanted to entertain.

Just when Claire howled in pain yet again, thinking she couldn’t muster any more strength to go on pushing, a small head emerged between her thighs –one blue eye open, ready to take in the strange surroundings. Come on dearie, another push, aye, that’s it. The last contraction made her double over in agony. But another push accompanied by an unearthly groan brought the rest of her child into the world as tears were streaming down her cheeks. After the better part of a full day in labour, Claire was exhausted, but more than ready to meet her child. She was still panting as if she’d just completed a marathon trying to fill her lungs with sweet, sweet oxygen, when a warm, soft weight was put onto her chest. Still attached to her, the baby didn’t cry right away, but the midwife assured her there was nothing wrong. A mighty sneeze sounded through the room, followed by a hearty cry of protest as the experienced practitioner dried and cleaned the child, preparing to cut the cord and deliver the afterbirth.

“Ye have a son, Claire,” Geillis whispered into her ear, the awe clearly audible.

A boy, she thought, rolling the idea around in her head. Not the little girl with red curls she’d imagined looking up at her with honey eyes, chubby little arms in a floral sundress. I have a son we do, Jamie. A perfect little boy with fat little cheeks, a tuft of reddish hair, and the bluest eyes she’d ever seen gazing up at her as if she were his whole world. She looked down at him, knowing that she had had a part in the creation of this entirely new person. She knew that he would always be hers. So tiny, and so important. So impossibly small and yet he occupied almost all of her heart already. She was in pain, she was sore, every cell of her body hurt, but she would do it gladly all over again just to experience the simple joy of holding her child.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she whispered against the pink, downy skin of her son’s head cradled against her chest, “William.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 16 – Sorcha

The world was dark, even though there was light.

He remembered the sun warming his skin, reddening the tip of his nose –the one spot he always forgot to protect. He remembered the fresh smell of the mountainside, but they weren’t the familiar scents of heather and lochs. There was hibiscus and tropical shrubbery, a whiff of honey and lilac. No, this was a different mountain, but it still felt like home.

The world was mute, even though there was sound.

The buzz of an annoying wee insect moving in and out of his hearing range, on its hunt for nectar, blood, or pollen. The chatter of friends during breaks. Groaning and panting as they pushed themselves further, faster, longer, higher up the mountain. Tyres screeching too late on the asphalt, the eerie scream of metal being bent into unrecognisable shapes. A whoosh of wind as a body was propelled forward. Shouts of terror. Gears reversing, a motor roaring and turning around. The dull thud when his head hit the ground. And then the click when his lights went out, falling into the abyss.

The world was numb, even though there was pain.

The impact smashing, contusing, abrading. Muscles bruising, tendons ripping, bones breaking. Roughness of gravel scraping, slicing through yellow shirt and pale skin on his back. Open wound contaminated by debris. The taste of dirt and blood on his tongue, a cracked tooth. Sweaty hands trying to be gentle, not daring to move him from the spot.

The world was light, even though it was dark.

A harsh light penetrates the thick fog of unconsciousness. Not the sun, but just as blinding in its intensity. A shadow moves in the periphery of his vision. Everything is blurry. There’s only grey and white. The smell of sterility cut through with the scent of a sharp ointment. Maybe plant-based, maybe synthetically created –who cared? A monitoring system documenting the symphony of his melancholy heartbeat. Tethered by tubes to a bed that was not his own.

Sorcha.

The world was loud, even though it was mute.

He was surrounded by alien sounds. Swishing, whirring, and humming. A relentless beeping noise. The sucking of a vacuum machine. The rustle of fabric as someone moves, a cough to clear an unfamiliar throat. Indistinct murmurs, white noise in his ear, in a language that is not his own. The sound of his own screams translated into nothingness.

Sorcha.

The world was pain, even though it was numb.

A substance was creeping through his arteries, dulling the synapses, disconnecting the neurotransmitters. Then, a tingle on his backside. His blood began to hiss. Rivers of infection winding their path through his flesh, the perspiration of a high fever seeping into the stiff sheets beneath him. A swelling pain spreads, burrowing into every fibre, nestling into each cell, making a home there without being invited to. Blinding pain, so much pain.

Sorcha.

The rising awareness of an excruciating throbbing in his back hauled him slowly out of the darkness, each step sending a bolt of fire through his weakened limbs. He felt the pulsing of infection, the bruised flesh of his shoulder and thigh, the cracked ribs. The abyss was alluring, promising relief, trying to pull him under again, but on he went. For ahead lay something sweeter.

Sorcha. Light.

He was dead. Everything was clouded. Then he saw a golden orb, beckoning him, promising warmth and something more. The centre of gravity, pulling him in. Light lay ahead. That must be it. The tip of a tongue against furry teeth rekindled the faint memory of a more pleasant tang. Salty and sweet, unique. Heaven. The rustle of sheets, pale limbs entwined with bronzed ones. Clouds. The smell of sweat. Nostrils flared in remembrance of his own musk mingled with light. Sorcha.

An explosive cough dispelling the last of the blackness.

Memory rushing back.

He had been mistaken.

He was not dead, after all.

He had to get to her. She was waiting for him.

Sorcha. His Sassenach. Claire.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 17 - Progression

Raising a child was bloody hard business. Everything was different. Her time was no longer her own. There was now a little person who was completely dependent on her –not caring whether she needed a bathroom break or if her nipples were cracked and hurting. Sleep was a luxury, every opportunity to close her eyes was seized with almost as much eagerness as the little bean tried to stuff yet another hazardous item into his mouth. Endless amounts of shit had to be dealt with. Late night colic, boiling fever, and recurrent diaper rashes. Tantrums in public while onlookers threw either pitiful or annoyed glances at them. And then there was the guilt. Guilt for leaving him in day-care, for not making organic baby food from scratch, from not having the energy to take him to the park after a particularly long day. There was also endless worrying and wondering whether Jamie would approve of the decisions she’d made for their child. Would he have cared that William slept in her bed for the first three years? That he was a thumb sucker with an uncanny ability to coax sweets out of his godmother? There were quite a number of things that Claire would openly admit she didn’t enjoy all that much about being a mother. But now, standing here on stage next to her peers in ridiculously billowy robes, receiving her medical degree with only slightly shaking hands, she could not have been happier –or prouder– when her five-year-old son, red curls bouncing up and down with excitement in his front row seat, shouted, “Tha’s my Mama!”

Looking in those dark blue orbs she knew were speckled with gold, Claire relived all those wonderful moments she’d had with William. His small, fuzzy head resting on her shoulder, that intoxicating new-born smell filling her nose. The cute little snore when he fell into a milk coma, or the way he was smiling so innocently in his sleep –just like his father had. The memory of his first true smile, toothless, knowing that he adored her just as much as she did him, made her heart swell with unrivalled joy. Hearing his first words –Mama and no!– and watching those burgeoning linguistic skills develop into an unfiltered honesty when he had declared her attempt at Ratatouille ‘no gud’. Storing his breakfast preferences –porridge with honey and raspberries, thank ye verra much– to memory alongside his favourite bedtime stories and preferred colours for his artistic ventures. Seeing him grow more and more independent, taking his first steps away from her, and yet knowing that she was the person he turned to when he needed to be comforted or had a joke to tell. And God, his laugh! The sounds he made when he giggled and wriggled during one of their tickle fights, kicking her accidentally and almost breaking her nose. Every time she looked at her son, Claire knew all the struggle had been worth it.

Looking over her shoulder, Claire searched for the person who had been there for her and William throughout it all. When her eyes met with moss-green ones, a smile was shared, and silent communication ensued.

Thank you, Gee. She knew she wouldn’t be standing here without her best friend’s unfaltering support.

Ye’re most welcome, hen.

In spite of the challenging circumstances and her own self-doubt, Claire had made it. She’d raised her son on her own, with continued support from Geillis, Mary, and Isobel, and graduated from medical school alongside her best friend without having to take time off.

An hour after the graduation ceremony, she sat with all her closest friends –and William, of course– around their regular table in The Steaming Mug, sandwiches and pastries laid out, glasses with prosecco raised in the graduates’ honour.

“To the new doctors!” Isobel intoned cheerfully, “May you never lose an earring in a patient.”

“Hear, hear!” the group chorused, a chuckle running around the table.

“To us,” Geillis tipped her glass towards Claire and drank deeply, eyes closed in appreciation of the bubbly liquid.

“To friends,” Claire raised her glass to each of them, taking a careful sip, not so keen on the acrid taste as Geillis.

“And may you never meet another Philip Wylie,” Mary added, her mouth set in a knowing smirk.

Geillis erupted in laughter almost choking on the prosecco, Isobel snorted, and Claire couldn’t help her shoulders from shaking at the memory of the most annoying –and handsy– patient she’d ever had to deal with.

“Who is Philip Wylie, Mama?” asked William, stuffing another Danish pastry into his mouth, munching on it with delight.

“He was a rather nasty man I had to take care of during a night shift a long while ago,” Claire explained to her son, handing him a napkin. “You have jam all over your face, Willie.”

Willie licked his mouth industriously, trying to catch the last remnants of the delicious, house-made grape jam, before wiping himself with the offered napkin.

“Is that why ye dinnae want tae meet him again?”

“That’s exactly why,” she confirmed and pointed out a spot on his cheek that was still smeared with jam.

He seemed to consider that answer for a second, and, seemingly satisfied with the explanation, directed his interest elsewhere.

“I’m finished, Mama, can I go help Greg noo?”

Claire exchanged a querying look with her favourite barista behind the counter to gauge whether it was okay with him to watch her offspring for a while, and when she saw the blonde man nod, sent her son off.

“I’m sure he’ll be grateful, lovey. Be careful not to break anything, though,” she added.

“Aye, Mama!” he was already out of his seat and running towards the opening of the counter, where the barista was waiting for him, dishtowel slung casually over his shoulder.

Claire smiled at the familiar scene as Greg hoisted Willie onto a barstool and set him to work on the dirty dishes in the sink while he prepared the orders for other customers. Over the years, the forty-some-year old hipster had evolved from a reliable caffeine dealer to a friend. At first, she had been reluctant to share her story with him –with anyone, really– but the erstwhile barista had proved to be a very observant man and exceptional listener. One night, shortly before closing time, and just before Claire had reached the end of her patience with pharmacology, a plate with a turkey bagel was suddenly put before her. ‘Figured you and the little one could use a bite. Ye’ve been here fer ages,’ he had said simply. Upon her question how he knew she was pregnant, he’d remarked that he couldn’t come up with any other reason why a coffee addict such as herself would suddenly go decaf.  She’d blushed, then, and upon his gentle inquiries told him the whole story over a cup of chai. Since that day, a platonic friendship had blossomed and Claire had spent her time studying more often than not in the quaint coffee shop when Greg was on duty, notes strewn out over her favourite table near the window. After William was born, her son had always been with Claire during those frequent visits –either snuggly tucked in close to her chest in the carrying wrap, or sitting in a highchair, happily squishing potato scones in his small fists. And when there was a lull in the café, Greg would often take over, strapping Willie to his chest, singing to him in a warm, tuneless baritone, as he did the dishes, giving Claire a bit of space to better concentrate on her studying.

Ordering another round of drinks, Claire opting for a coffee this time, the small group friends continued to reminisce and talk about how many things had changed since they’d begun their studies. Willie growing from an almost bald baby to a handsome lad of five, sporting a thick, curly auburn mop, or the trendy silver-grey undercut that had replaced Isobel’s rather conservative hairstyle a year ago. But also things decidedly not hair-related, such as Mary’s not-quite-so-shocking confession that she was seriously involved with a French girl named Louise, or Isobel’s daring decision to defy her parents –and sister– in quitting law school to pursue social studies instead. Yes, things had changed indeed, as had they, but they were still as close as they had been –if not even more so.

“I’m going to miss you guys so much,” Claire blurted out unexpectedly, causing the conversation to halt for a second. “I’m sorry, I know this is supposed to be a happy get together, but...,“ she sniffed, attempting to contain the emotion.

“Och, Claire,” Geillis grabbed her hand and squeezed, her own eyes glistening.

Isobel and Mary looked at her, smiling, but the easy happiness that had marked the occasion just a minute ago was markedly subdued now.

“Why are ye sad, Mama?” Willie asked as he walked up to her, his ruddy brows set in a small frown, holding a cup filled with milk foam and cinnamon.

“I’m not sad, lovey.”

“But ye look as if ye’re aboot tae cry?” Willie tilted his head slightly, assessing her.

“Because I am so happy I might cry,” Claire answered, honey eyes shining with warmth and only a hint of sadness as she caressed his round cheek, “because we have the best of friends.”

“Then ye should be smiling,” he said so matter-of-factly that she snorted, thus diffusing the slight tension around the table.

“Right you are, Willie,” her lips curled up involuntarily. She looked around her table, sharing a genuine smile with each of her friends and raised her coffee to them.

The decision to move away from the people she considered family had not come easy to her. She’d lived in Edinburgh for a long time now, and it was her home –more importantly, it was William’s home. It was where he’d been born, raised, and loved. Where he had his kindergarten friends, Greg, and people he trusted. Isobel, Mary, and his beloved godmother. But it had been a tough five years, juggling first a baby and then a toddler, and now an increasingly independent and explorative boy with night and weekend shifts at the hospital. As long as she had been enrolled at university, there was a bit of wriggle room in accordance with her being a single mother. Now that she was officially no longer a student but a physician of her own right and would have to start her residency soon, she could not count on such leniency anymore, as had been pointed out by the hospital board. ‘We would hate seeing such talent go to waste, but we can’t give out special treatment.’ Not that they hadn’t been right in that, of course, but it made the outlook on her future professional life suddenly a lot bleaker. 48h shifts, weekends, nights, holidays. Early mornings, late nights, and everything in between. Even with Geillis at her side, working a similar job, it would be virtually impossible to maintain a regular family life with her son. Claire knew she would miss too much.

Adding to her ever-growing list of things to worry about, they would need new accommodation as well. Willie, apparently taking after his father in height as well as looks, was growing bigger at an almost alarming rate. Her son definitely needed a proper room of his own now, instead of sharing hers, and she couldn’t possibly spend her nights on the far too small couch any longer. Her back would certainly thank her. The housing situation in Edinburgh wasn’t exactly stellar, though. Too small flats were ridiculously overpriced, or too far out of the city centre to be convenient to reach either her workplace or the schools she had looked at for William. And while living with her best friend and godmother to her child had been mostly smooth sailing these past years –she remembered one particular incident involving finger paint and an open bedroom door– Claire sensed it was time for everyone to have more space to themselves.

The offer for a resident position at the Raigmore Hospital in Inverness had come as a true blessing. The hours in such a small city compared to one of Scotland’s largest were decidedly more appealing to a mother who wished to spend quality time with her child. But choosing those far more family-friendly hours went hand-in-hand with having to say goodbye to the people she loved. In the end, she had made the decision that was best for herself and William, accepting the post in Inverness.

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 18 – Home

A week later, Claire found herself, curls tied in a lazy bun, sitting cross-legged and surrounded by boxes, in the middle of what was going to be their new living room. It was strange to have so much space to fill after living for years in the confined space of a shared two-bedroom apartment.

Watching Willie playing with his new kite –a small bribe that would keep him occupied enough while she sorted things out– in the garden through the French doors, she still couldn’t quite believe that she’d actually gotten this lucky. She’d looked at numerous different properties and rentals and eventually found this endearing, rustic little cottage –that was only marginally above her initially set budget– with a decently sized garden patch on Drummond Road, not too far from the Inverness city centre. As soon as she had clicked through the pictures on the realtor’s website, she knew this was it. Normally not the most spontaneous type –spontaneity was a notoriously scarce commodity as a student and single mother– Claire had packed her son along with her best friend, and driven up the 3 hours to the Highland capital in a rented Fiat 500 to see whether her gut feeling was right –it was.

The house itself was charming all over –from the light-flooded interior to the blossoming ivy climbing the blue garden fence– exuding a warmth that was surprising for a stone building. It was old but very well-kept –a testimony of previous owners who had made a true home here. The cottage was located in a wonderful neighbourhood, not far off the River Ness, with lots of greenery and space to spread out –rather unlike the tourist-cramped streets of Edinburgh. Her new workplace, the Raigmore hospital, was only 2 miles away, and the fact that not only one –but two– excellent primary schools were basically around the corner would have made it already an easy choice for Claire, but the main decisive factor –as per usual– had been her son. Within only a couple of minutes of their touring the property, Willie had set out to explore on his own, venturing into the garden, and making fast friends with their potential new neighbour –a lovely woman in her late fifties named Mrs Graham, who had promptly invited them over for afternoon tea. The prospect of enjoying Mrs Graham’s hospitality –and her sponge cake– on a regular basis in addition to a garden to play in and his own room was more than enough enticement to get William on board. They’d signed the contract the very same day.

Now, Claire had about 10 days before she started her new job, which she hoped was enough time to finish furnishing their new home. Her friends had all come up with her to help with minor renovations and preparations before she and William were able to properly move in. That one squeaky door had been oiled, floors swept, windows cleaned, and walls painted in a warm, creamy-white. Except for Willie’s room, where Greg had shown off his stunning brush-craftsmanship and transformed one wall into an impressive underwater landscape according to Willie’s vision. No need to buy any more National Geographic issues to find more shark images to pin to her wall –well, Claire would still buy them, just because she knew how much her son loved them. Seeing him with a fat smile on his face playing so free from care in the garden, some of the knots in her stomach loosened, the tension from worrying whether her she had made the right move lessening substantially.

Having a three-hour drive back to Edinburgh ahead of them, her friends had to leave earlier than either of them would have liked. Greg left her with a kiss on the cheek and a large bag of her favourite coffee beans, Isobel and Mary had made sure she and Willie were supplied with enough milk and oats for their morning porridge. It was hard to let them go, bidding adieu to what was essentially her family. Seeing off Geillis, was the worst of it, though. Even Willie was in low spirits after they’d explained to him that auntie Gee would not continue to live with them. His dark blue eyes were downcast, and he held on tight to Claire’s trousers, not wanting anyone to see him cry. He was a big lad, after all.

Geillis squatted down in front of him, the sadness of parting edged into her fair face.

“Can ye do me a favour, Willie?” she asked, waiting for him to look at her.

Claire smoothed a hand over his unruly curls, encouraging.

“Mhmphm?” he sniffled, wiping a traitorous drop from his eye.

“Noo that I cannae be there fer yer mam around the clock, I’ll need someone tae take over my duties. And I couldnae think o’ anyone better than you, wee bean. Will ye do that fer me?”

William’s eyes widened, the golden flecks around his irises sparkling. Then he nodded, ruddy brows set in determination. “Aye, I’ll mind her well, auntie.”

“Good lad,” the fair-haired woman smiled at him, her voice almost breaking.

Then, she stood up again, and just looked at Claire, neither woman making a move.

“Oi, hurry up, Duncan,” came Greg’s baritone from the car in the driveway. “We’ve got tae get goin’!”

“Orite, dinnae shite yerself, man,” she flung back. “Guess this is my cue tae go, aye?”

“I guess so,” Claire agreed, honey eyes brimming with tears. They had no excuse to delay the inevitable any longer. She closed the distance between them to hug Geillis fiercely to her, demanding that her best friend had better call her and Willie every single day, and promising that she would ‘ring the second she needed anything’ as Geillis insisted on in turn.

Looking around their new residence, Claire was rather pleased with how much they’d managed to get done in such a short amount of time. Their beds were in place, a couple of cupboards set up, and the most important items for their daily survival –some kitchenware (the ‘porridge pot’, their favourite mugs, some cutlery) and toiletry items (a cute little green toothbrush with a triceratops and a larger one without much décor)– stowed away already. Ha, Geillis should dare tell her again that ‘labellin’ everything wasnae necessary’.  While the major heavy lifting had been handled with the help of her friends, there was still plenty left to do. Merging their old possessions with the new, decorating the place, making it an actual home, and the final positioning of furniture were now up to her –and Willie.  At least Claire didn’t have to worry about finding a place for her son to stay while she was working. The hospital provided childcare services for their employees from 7 to 19 o’clock. And in case she should work later than expected, her new neighbour, Mrs Graham had assured her she’d pick William up, saying that she ‘wouldnae mind havin’ a wee bit o’ company now and again.

While her son, having been cheered up by playing with his new kite again after saying goodbye to Geillis and the others, was still entertained by his garden explorations, Claire was muttering blasphemies under her breath. Trying as she was with all her might to push their new kitchen table into the spot she thought it would do best, that damn thing just wouldn’t cooperate much. Beads of sweat gathered on her temples as she cursed the beauty of her cherry wood acquisition. There were very few occasions when Claire Beauchamp felt she needed a man at her side, but this was certainly one of them. She was perfectly able to decipher even the most confusing building manuals and was a decent hand with a screwdriver, but wrestling with the weight of solid wood on her own made her realise that she was severely lacking in the brute strength department.

The table finally in place, Claire, panting heavily, realised that it was getting late now, despite the deceptive lightness outside –one of the perks of living up so far North and something she and Willie would have to get used to. It had been a long and exhausting day for both of them, and she couldn’t wait to fall into bed. But before she could do that, there were more important matters to attend to.

“Willie, come in – time for supper!” she called through the open French doors.

William Beauchamp was a walking appetite and didn’t need to be told twice when it came to anything food related. He stormed in, kite unceremoniously discarded on the patio, chubby cheeks pink from running.

“Wha’ are we havin’?” a bright, toothy smile lit up his small, round face.

“First you take your shoes off. We’re not losing our manners simply because we live somewhere else now William,” Claire chided. “Particularly not if we just cleaned these floors today.”

“Oh...sorry, Mama,” Willie said in a small voice, conscious of his guilt as he saw the streaks of dirt he’d dragged in behind him.

“We’ll take care of that after we’ve ordered our supper. I’m too knackered to cook anything so I thought we could try one of the delivery services. Chinese or Pizza?”

“Chinese!” he piped excitedly.

“Alright, what sounds better to you? Lucky Bowl or Hong Kong kitchen?”

“The bowl!”

“Bowl it is. Have a look at the menu, will you?”

It was mainly a gesture to have him feel a bit more grown-up, included in her decisions. She knew what he would have anyway –chicken dumplings with garlic sauce and fried bananas. But having grown up in an apartment that was dominated by books –medical, romance, fiction, thrillers, fairy tales– and having been read to since he was born, William already knew his letters and was able to read –slowly– along his bedtime stories sometimes.  

“Do you need help deciding, darling?” Claire asked, one eyebrow arched, when Willie still hadn’t confirmed his usual order.

 “No, I was jus’ wonderin’,” he said absentmindedly, still focused on the menu in front of him.

“About what?” Claire prodded as she continued to unpack the boxes labelled ‘kitchen’.

“Weel, if this one is called ‘Lucky Bowl’ there’s probable an ‘Unlucky Bowl’ too, no?”

Claire chuckled about children logic, putting some plates into one of the kitchen cupboards. “It’s probably not probable. And who knows? There might be.”

“Doesnae matter as long as we get our food from the lucky bowl,” Willie decided, looking up at his mother from under long, russet-colours lashes. “Chicken dumplings and can I maybe have –.“

“Fried bananas? Of course. Get the bath ready while I order, I’ll be right with you.”

Bellies heavy with supper and their evening toilet attended to, Claire tucked her son into bed, admiring once again Greg’s masterpiece as she wiped some of the irritating curls that had escaped her bun behind her ear.

“Good night, lovey,” she kissed her son’s forehead, and turned the bedside lamp off.

“Good night, Mama,” Willie replied drowsily, already halfway gone to sleep.  

Claire hovered in the darkened doorway, unable to tear her gaze from the sleeping form of her son in his very own room. He was smiling. So was she.

“Welcome home, William.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 19 – IRN BRU

After spending some more time furniture hunting, continued delivery-food testing, and exploring the Ness Islands, Claire felt almost completely settled in already. Sure, there were still things to be done, like buying a new jacket and hat for Willie –the wind was far more intense up here than in the Midlothian– and some herbs and vegetable seedlings she planned on growing in the future. But other than that, there wasn’t all that much left to do except for getting used to their new life.

Over the course of the next few days, Claire and Willie set out on remaining errands, mapping the city in the process, and familiarising themselves with their new surroundings. One thing she noticed was that life was a lot less anonymous here –granted, it was still a city, but on a much smaller scale than Edinburgh– and the shop clerk in the bakery around the corner, as well as most of the people living on Drummond Road, already knew them by sight and name and greeted them warmly whenever they passed them by. Geillis would hate this. Her best friend had come from a small town near Aberdeen and had embraced the anonymity of the big city without ever looking back.

Fortified by divinely smelling bacon rolls and freshly ground takeaway coffee and creamy hot chocolate, mother and son set out to have a look at the hospital’s nursery and to register Willie there before she officially started working. While her new workplace was only two miles from the cottage, the bus connection was slightly cumbersome, and having to walk 40 minutes in either direction when she was in a rush wasn’t an appealing prospect –not with a 5-year old at her heel. A bike, then. Only problem with that was that Willie was way too big for a bike seat and didn’t yet know how to ride a bicycle on his own. Claire would have to teach him first and make sure he was ready and confident with it before she could take him on a trafficked road. The idea of her son on a bike didn’t sit all too well with her though. It was far too easy for Claire to conjure up those images from over 5 years ago, when she’d read newspaper articles over Geillis’ shoulder about a bike crash that had virtually cost William his father. ‘Back torn to shreds’. She shuddered at the memory. No, he was alive. She knew he was.

Bureaucracy taken care of and satisfied with the childcare facilities at the hospital, Claire decided to walk half of the way back instead of taking the second bus connection. They still needed to fill their fridge and stock the pantry. And while there was a Tesco three streets down from their house, Claire decided it was a good opportunity to stop at the grocery store Mrs Graham had recommended. It was a bit farther away, but ‘a verra nice walk’, and had almost exclusively regional produce on offer.

A little bell rang, announcing their entrance to the premises to whomever worked inside the shop. It certainly wasn’t a Tesco, that was clear from the warm and welcoming lighting alone. This wasn’t an enterprise that wanted to steer its customers through its internal labyrinth as quickly and efficiently as possible –this was a place for people to chat and linger. Even though nobody seemed to be around just now, Claire noticed after a quick glance around. Probably all still at work, she mused. Well, she certainly didn’t mind the place being deserted just now. That gave her enough space to have a proper look around without being in other people’s way or having to manoeuvre around them to get to the brand of olives she and Willie liked best.

As Claire was taking her sweet time to peruse the fresh fruit and vegetables, eyebrows knitted in concentration trying to decide what to make for supper, Willie got bored, kicking at invisible stones.

“Mama, can I go look at those?” he asked, pointing at an aisle to their right.

“Sure, lovey. You can pick one thing, alright?” she replied, not really needing to look which particular section he wanted to investigate closer, but her eyes followed the indicated direction anyway. 

William’s cheeks dimpled with a brilliant smile before he took off, heading straight towards the chocolates and taffies.

“I said one thing,” she called after him when she heard the all too familiar rustling of candy wrapping paper, then returning her attention back to the produce stalls.

Filling the basket dangling on her arm with wonderfully ripe tomatoes, courgettes, bell peppers, and onions, she mentally went through the ingredient list for her favourite recipe –Ratatouille– index finger tipping her lower lip as she did so.

Claire Beauchamp wasn’t a gifted cook and didn’t enjoy slicing and dicing ingredients very much. But when her son –aged two at the time– had declared her first attempt at that particular dish as unpalatable, her hurt pride hat kicked in. From that moment on, she’d resolved to prove she could be an asset in the kitchen. Nowhere near a Michelin chef, of course, but at least a provider of decent meals. Much the same as with honing her surgical skills, it was the constant repetition and practice that helped her reach that goal. No one had complained about her cooking in a long time.

Mrs Graham had been right, it was a fabulous little store. True, it didn’t have as many different options for oats as Lidl and all the others, but who cared when they had the organic brand she preferred? Just as she decided that she would be frequenting this store regularly in the future, she felt a tug on her skirt.

“Look, Mama,” Willie said excitedly. “Tha’ bevvy is the colour o’ my hair!”

Claire took the soft drink from him and expected the bright orange and blue design, then chortled.

“Are you my little Irn Bru then?” she stroked his untidy hair affectionately.

“Aye!” he grinned broadly at her. “Can I have one?”

Resisting William Beauchamp’s best puppy face was a feat in and of itself, but his mother had had enough practice to not be pulled under its spell that easily.

“No, Willie. There’s too much caffeine in that drink,” Claire explained and handed the can of Irn Bru back to him. “Take it back, will you?”

Not pleased with being denied, Willie shuffled off, small mouth set in a pout, back to where he’d grabbed the can from.

Approaching the check-out counter, Claire found herself face-to-face with a tall, handsome man –glossy black hair and beard liberally streaked with the silver of advanced age. His face was framed by a strong, square jaw, high cheekbones, and a heavy, brindled brow. Claire was absolutely sure she’d never met the man before, but something about him seemed familiar.

“Good day tae ye,” the man greeted with a voice that reminded her of whisky somehow –a bit raspy, but smooth.

“Hello,” Claire replied, setting her basket on the countertop.

“A Sassenach!” he exclaimed, light blue eyes widening in surprise.

Claire paled a little, her shoulders tensed. Sassenach. That word had come as unexpected as a gut shot.

“Excuse me?“ she feigned ignorance of the term, swallowing heavily.

“Och, sorry, lass, it only means Englishperson –,“ the man clarified, not knowing that she knew perfectly well what that particular term meant. Someone had explained it to her almost 6 years ago, after all.

“That’s quite alright,” Claire waved him off. “No, really,” she insisted when the man made to carry on with his apologies.

“Did ye have a good day sae far?” he inquired, smiling politely as he continued to scan and bag her items. “Until now, at least?”

A real chuckle escaped her lips at his attempt to wink, having regained her self-composure again. While Scots Gaelic was spoken only by a handful of people throughout the country, it wasn’t unexpected to encounter one of the few people who did in the highlands. Still, Claire hadn’t quite been prepared for that.

“Oh, yes, thank you. It was a very pleasant day up until now,” she countered, joining in the banter.

“Will that be all, then, lass?” he asked when he had scanned the last item.

“Um, no,” she looked around, curls swinging. “I think my son is still undecided about what treat he’s going to get,” she said, straining her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of Willie’s fiery mop. “Willie!”

Pretending to search for her wallet as they waited, she looked the middle-aged man up and down from the corner of her eye in what she hoped was not blatantly obvious. For the life of her, she just couldn’t pinpoint what it was about him that had struck her as familiar. That would probably annoy her for the rest of the day. Maybe she was just seeing things?

Realising that her stray offspring had still not joined her at the checkout, Claire threw the man an apologising look.

“Dinnae worry about me, I’ve nae other customers jus’ now,” he assured her with a warm smile that deepened the lines of his face. “I hope ye dinnae mind me asking, but what’s an Englishwoman doing sae far up north?”

Before Claire could answer, though, their conversation was interrupted by an ominous hissing sound and a shriek that she would recognise anywhere.

“Willie!” she exclaimed, abandoning her purse and purchases at the counter as she hurried towards the source of the sound.  

Claire stopped dead at the sight that greeted her.

“William. Beauchamp,” she punctuated each syllable, glowering at the mess her son had made. The emptied can still in hand, the boy stood –wet from top to waist– in the middle of an orange pool from which sticky, sugary tendrils were spreading slowly over the floor, creeping under the shelves.

Willie stood, mouth slightly open in shock at his unexpected –and unwanted– shower. He neither moved a muscle nor tore his eyes from his mother’s reprimanding look when a shadow fell over his face.

“I think ye’re in trouble, lad,” stated a whisky voice from behind Claire.

Claire turned around to face the man from behind the counter. Up close, he was even more impressive –even a bit intimidating. There was something different in his face now, an expression she couldn’t quite read. A flicker of recognition? But before she could put a name to it, it was gone, leaving only the good-humoured face behind. 

“God, I am so sorry,” she began to ramble, then, spotting the mop in his hand, made to reach for it. “Let me clean that up!”

“It’s quite orite, lass.”

While the two adults politely argued back and forth who should clean the mess, and how much Claire would have to pay him to recompense him for the spoiled can of Irn Bru –nothing, the man insisted stubbornly– Willie’s initial shock wore off.

“Mama, ye shouldnae be speakin’ tae strangers! Ye always tell me so!” the boy said indignantly, with a credible attempt at a disapproving scowl, despite orange liquid dripping from his curly hair with a mundane splat splat.

Taking in the sight of her son looking like a wet, orange poodle from the waist up, Claire had a hard time keeping the laughter in. A muscle in her cheek twitching with the effort, she succeeded, though.  

“And you’re quite right, Willie. But I’m not, I’m talking to ... uh,” she squinted her eyes, desperately trying to find a name tag on the broad chest but finding none.

“Brian,” he offered helpfully.

“I was talking to Brian here, not a stranger,” Claire threw the man a grateful smile before returning her attention to William.  

“So, he isnae a stranger then?” her son asked, frowning dubiously.

“No, lovey, he isn’t,” she confirmed.

Willie looked between the two adults thoughtfully, processing the new information, while Claire mouthed a silent thank you towards Brian.  “Tha’ means I’m allowed tae talk tae him, too?”

“Yes, darling.”

Having cleaned the sticky mess with a practiced hand, Brian led mother and son back towards the counter to where he had some paper towels to clean young William up –at least as best as possible without a proper shower– and a shirt, that even if it was way too big, was at least dry and not sticky.

“I’m so sorry for the mess,” Claire repeated for the fifth time.

“Dinnae fash, lass. ‘Tis no’ the first time something like this has happened, and it sure willnae be the last time either.”

“Probably,” Claire laughed, relieved. “Oh, I’m Claire, by the way. And my son, William,” she introduced herself with an extended hand.

“Pleased tae meet ye, Claire,” Brian said and took her hand, squeezing. “And you too, young William,” he directed at the still somewhat sticky looking lad.

“Only Mama’s allowed tae call me William,” Willie scolded.

“Oh is that so, Willie? I apologise then,” Brian’s shone brightly with amusement. “Ye’ve got quite the hieland brogue there, my lad,” he said and paused, a quizzical look in his light blue eyes.

“I guess he gets it from his father then, aye?” Brian inquired, his attention focused back on Claire.

Her cheeks coloured with slight embarrassment. “I’m afraid not.”

Before Claire was able to explain any further, Willie chimed in, trying to be helpful, “I dinnae have a father.”

“William,” she scolded, “you know perfectly well that you do.”

“Ah, I see. That’s how it is then, aye?” Brian turned to her, empathy edged into the lines around his warm eyes.

“You do?” she turned to the handsome man again, one eyebrow raised in question.

“Och, I have bairns of my own. It isnae easy taking care o’ children wi’out a partner, whether they left fer some reason or,” he inhaled deeply, steeling himself, “whether they left ye forever.”

Understanding, Claire took his hand, trying to convey her sympathy.

“I’m so sorry, Brian.”

“’Tis orite, lass. It was a long time ago,” the faint shimmer in his eyes was unmistakeable, though.

“Well, I certainly appreciate the general sentiment, but my...umm... ‘situation’ is a bit extraordinary.”

“Oh?” his eyebrows rose questioningly.

“Ehm... well, it’s a rather long story, you see?” Claire shrugged apologetically. “Put that down, Willie, or you’ll clean up the next mess yourself!” An annoyed huff came from somewhere around her hip level.

“A lively one, is he no’?”

“I’m afraid so,” the proud glint in honey eyes betrayed the outward dissatisfaction with her offspring. “Mama loves her little bean, though,” Claire hoisted Willie up on her hip and blew a raspberry on his neck, making him squeal in delight.

“Weel, seeing that I dinnae ha’ any customers, and they’re no’ likely tae show up before the evening rush, how about some tea?”

“Are you sure? I mean, we wouldn’t want to –”

“Aye, that’s perfectly orite, lass. Have ye tried Mrs Crook’s next door yet? The best scones ye’ll find in all o’ Scotland! Come on, my treat, aye?”

“Can we, Mama?” Willie looked at her with such hope that she couldn’t possibly deny him. Covering himself and half an aisle in a spray of Irn Bru was apparently hard work and demanded the immediate replenishing of energy in form of food intake.

“And you’re sure about your shop, Brian?”

“It’ll keep standing wi’out me. And if someone shows up, they’ll see me outside of Mrs Crook’s,” he said.

“Alright, let’s have some scones then,” she smiled at Brian and took Willie’s hand. Before she could reach for the bag with groceries, though, Brian had already taken them.

“I’ll take that for ye,” he said, shooing them out of the store.

The three of them sat down at one of the quaint little table outside under the awning that the café shared with the grocery store. Mrs Crook’s was a lovely little joint that had –as advertised by her new acquaintance– some mean scones. Willie had already polished off a raspberry and a blueberry one when Brian told the proprietor –and apparently close friend– ‘to spoil the wee fiend wi’ ice cream’.

“You seem to come here often,” Claire remarked, taking a careful sip of her tea.

“Aye, I do. Ev’ry day. Me and Agnes have a pact, ken. I’ll let her use the space in front o’ ma shop and she feeds me wi’ scones,” he took an exaggerated bite out of another raspberry scone to emphasise his point. “Best deal I ever made.”

"I could certainly think of worse ones," Claire agreed.

“He seems like a good lad, yer Willie,” Brian observed as the boy disappeared through the shop door behind Mrs Crook .

Claire might have taken insult by the straightforwardness, had it not been a trait that she shared herself. Instead, she found herself liking Brian even more.

"He is."

“He minds me of ma own son a wee bit,” he admitted.

No’ just a bit, if he was being honest with himself. Watching the young woman –Claire– clean her son up, he’d gotten a really good look at the lad. William was a bit chubby, the baby fat still clinging to his bones and round face. There was a fine spread of freckles covering the boy’s nose and cheeks. Dark blue eyes speckled with gold glinted with intelligence and a bit of mischief under russet coloured lashes. With his mop of unruly auburn locks, Brian Fraser found that little William Beauchamp looked very much like his own son had at that age.  

Ah, that’s what it was then, she thought. Brian had been reminded of his own lad when he’d gotten the firste glimpe of Willie -all covered in soda.

The rest of the afternoon was spent talking and making a new friend. Claire and Willie only took their leave when the grocery store attracted some after-work shoppers and Brian had to attend to them. They said their goodbyes, Claire promising to return the borrowed shirt as soon as she had it laundered properly.

“How about ye and wee Willie come over for tea sometime? I cannae quite compete wi’ Agnes’ scones, mind, but I make a decent sponge.”

Claire smiled and Willie's eyes brightened.

“You had us at ‘I make’.”

Chapter Text

 


 

Chapter 20 – Of Fathers and Sons

Weeks passed by in a blur and turned into months. The Scottish highland summer gave way to a crisp autumn and then a cold, snowy winter. And while the sparse hours of daylight were something the small Beauchamp clan had to get accustomed to, the disappearance of the blasted midges was a welcomed upside to it. William wasn’t a squeamish child by any means, but even he exhibited a limited tolerance for playing in the garden while being constantly gnawed at by those minuscule, flying terrors.

During those first months, Claire found that the decision to make the move to Inverness had been exactly right for her and Willie. They regretted the absence of their Edinburgh family, of course –auntie Gee was sorely missed by both of them– but they still talked to her almost every day, and had the fair-haired godmother visit a couple of times, too. Things at work went also really well. While the Raigmore Hospital might not boast as great a number of patients or as extraordinary cases as the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, it was still a very fine institution –with fantastic co-workers. Claire had quickly bonded with Joe Abernathy, a fellow expat, over the question of whether Mr MacInnes needed a new hip transplant– they’d both agreed to give non-surgical treatment a chance first. Having a like-minded, capable orthopaedist to consult and have lunch with was simply a delight. The whole atmosphere in the hospital was different –the nurses neither overworked nor were they overlooked by their superiors, and generally a friendly, supportive vibe, rather than the constant back-stabbing competitiveness that she’d experienced on some of the wards during her time as a student.

Their old friends out of sight but not out of mind, Claire was still very pleased –and a bit surprised, too– how quickly she and Willie had made friends in their new home. William, generally an outgoing child despite showing signs of Claire’s own cautious reserve at times, had had no trouble settling into the childcare group at the hospital and was often invited to and hosting playdates. Another greatly valued addition to their social life was their neighbour, Moira Graham. The old woman –bless her– didn’t just water her plants when they went down to Edinburgh to visit their old gang, she also took it upon her to watch Willie whenever Claire was on call for work and had to leave at a moment’s notice.

The person who had become even more important to her, though, was Brian Fraser –grocery shop proprietor and IRN BRU mess-iah. Her shopping expeditions had quickly evolved into far more than just re-stacking the fridge. When Claire and Willie showed up –usually on Tuesdays and Fridays– Brian would always ask one of his shop lads to take over checkout duties while he and the two Beauchamps went over to Mrs Crook’s for an obligatory scone and hot chocolate fix. Brian was a gentle and cordial man who invited trust simply through his very presence. His capabilities as a reliable handyman also proved to be useful when something needed fixing in her cottage. ‘Ye’ll no’ pay twa hundred pounds fer something I ken how tae do maself perfectly well’. Claire found him to be delightful company to have witty conversations with and realised soon enough that Brian had morphed into a sort of father figure for her. That it was most often he she would turn to for advice. What she cherished most about Brian was his honest affection for wee Mr Irn Bru, as he called William since their first meeting. He showed this fondness for the lad in giving him cycling lessons when Claire was too tired after a hard day at work, or when he spoiled him rotten with ice cream. Just like a real grandfather would.

Quite early on in their acquaintanceship, Claire told Brian an abridged version of how she had ended up as a single mother –how she had unexpectedly fallen for a guy on holiday, meaning to meet up with him again the following day, but that he’d had an accident and that was it. Until she found out she had been carrying Willie. That she had searched for him –unsuccessfully. It was still a slightly touchy subject for her, and she hadn’t known Brian all that well at that point, so she decided to keep it as brief as possible. Not everyone needed to know every single detail about that painful part of her life.

“And then, after we left the beach, ... we um...,” Claire was grasping for words.

Brian smirked knowingly, “Ye didnae talk all that much?”

She blushed furiously in answer, but smiled, nonetheless.

“What about your children, Brian?” she asked to divert the attention from herself.

“My children are both abroad,” he said without much emotion. “Ma daughter’s living in Arizona wi’ her husband and their bairns. They have three, last I counted.”

“Oh, Arizona, how lovely! Quite a change of scenery compared to Scotland, though,” Claire remarked casually.

“Aye, they send me pictures ev’ry week or sae, but it’s way too far fer a father’s liking.”

“I bet. I wouldn’t want to think of being parted from Willie by such a distance,” Claire agreed, brows furrowing with distaste at the mere idea. “What about your son, though? Where did he end up?”

“Oh, ma son, he...,” Brian started, a sad smile deepening the lines of age on his face. “He’s travelling the world, chasing his dreams, ken? We... we dinnae talk much. I wanted something else fer him, and I wasnae happy wi’ the path he chose. We both said more than we meant at the time, I think. But it hasnae been the same since. But Jenny tells me he’s doing verra well,” his lips curved up with pride, but the faraway look in his light blue eyes and the slump of his broad shoulders were hint enough for Claire that this was not a topic that he wanted to elaborate on.

“Oh,” was all that she could think of to say. “I see.”

Fortunately, Willie had broken the awkward silence then, as he’d re-joined them at their table, demanding that Claire should try the new chocolate scone Mrs Crook had given him to test.

Family was quite obviously a loaded subject for both of them, so –by unspoken agreement– they’d avoided the topic with matching commitment from that moment onwards. Until one evening in mid-March, when Brian Fraser’s phone rang, interrupting his daily dose of rugby on the telly.

Holding a bottle of lager in one hand, he picked up the receiver of his landline with the other. He didn’t enjoy smartphones, even if he acknowledged their usefulness in keeping in touch with people over long distances, which was the only reason he’d let his daughter bully him into buying one.

“Aye, Fraser,” he greeted, his voice carrying a note of irritation at the interruption of his evening routine.

“Brian, it’s Claire,” came the response. “If this isn’t a good time, I can–“

The rasp of her usually smooth voice caught his attention immediately, and any trace of annoyance evaporated into the thin air of his small studio apartment.

“Claire? Are ye orite? What’s the matter, lass?” Brian asked, the drowsiness of a long day all but forgotten.

“I,” she began. “I just really need someone to talk to right now and I can’t reach Geillis,” he wasn’t sure, but he thought he’d heard sniffle.

“I’m here, a nighean,” Brian said, his voice gentle. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“I don’t really want to talk on the phone,” this time he was sure it was a sniffle. “Can I meet you somewhere?”

“O’ course. Ye ken where I live, aye?”

“Yes. I’ll be there in ten?”

“I’ll be here.”

As soon as Claire had hung up, Brian began to pace around his apartment, fingers combing nervously through his thick hair, the bottle of lager still in his other hand, but he had no mind to enjoy it right now. What in the Lord’s name was going on? Could it be something to do with Willie? No, she would ha’ said if it were tae do wi’ the bairn.

True to her word, she knocked on his door exactly ten minutes after their phone conversation, and he let her into his home for the first time. Before now, they’d always either got together at Mrs’s crooks café or at the Beauchamp residence since the size of his own place wasn’t exactly well-suited for hosting company.

Opening the door for her, Brian welcomed her in with an outstretched arm signalling her to hand her coat over to him. Stripping the thick, woollen coat off her shoulders, she handed it to him with along with her scarf and a nod of thanks. Shoes left at the door, Brian steered her towards the leather couch, taking note of the tension in her posture as he did so. Christ, she was coiled as tight as a snake. Bound in fear, ready to lash out at the first rustle of unwitting provocation.  

“Sae,” Brian initiated as he put a steaming mug of tea in front of her.

“So,” Claire echoed faintly, hiding her face behind her wild, brown locks.

At a loss, Brian searched the recesses of his mind how to best attempt to coax her into confiding in him. It had been quite some time since he’d had to deal with emotional emergencies such as this. And Claire was clearly agitated –not her usual calm and sharp-witted self. What on earth could have happened to shake her so? Unable to come up with a better idea, he got up again and fetched a bottle from his alcohol cabinet, along with two small, bell-shaped glasses.

Claire finally looked at him, elegant brows lifted in incomprehension, her eyes the same colour as the whisky he poured.

“I thought we could mebbe use somewhat a wee bit stronger than tea,” the corner of her mouth twitched slightly. Taking that as a good sign, Brian continued, “Ye dinnae have tae tell my anything, lass. I’m happy jus’ tae sit here wi’ ye.”

“Thank you,” she breathed in response. There was a hesitation, as if she reconsidered whether this had been a good idea after all. But then Claire reached towards her whisky glass and took a hearty swig, only slightly grimacing at the intensity of the taste. “I don’t know where to begin,” she admitted in a small voice.

“At the start is where people usually begin,” Brian suggested in a tone that he hoped would make her lips curve a bit –they did.

“Not very helpful, Mr Fraser.”

“Weel, how about ye tell me what happened tonight, then?”

A slight tremor ran down the elegant column of her neck as Claire sighed heavily, staring unseeing at the hands in her lap cradling the almost empty whisky glass. Brian reached to refill it, but she stopped him.

“It wasn’t much, really,” she began, her expression apologetic. “All perfectly innocent, to be honest.”

And then Claire told him. That she had taken William over to his first overnight playdate at Tammas MacKenzie’s house. How it had, in fact, been a perfectly innocent –if slightly judgemental– conversation she’d had with Tammas’ mother.

‘Och, ye ken we love having yer wee Willie over. We wouldnae mind watching him more often, if ye wanted tae... weel, ye ken.’

She hadn’t understood at first, and asked Tammas’ mother to clarify.

‘If ye want tae have some time fer yerself, dear. Tae go oot, date a wee bit, find a man. A child needs a father, no?’

That had been it. A simple enough statement, not meant to harm, and yet enough to send her into a downward spiral about her life’s choices and failures.

After almost 6 years of her existence as a single mother, Claire had heard it all, seen it all. The pitiful glances and accusatory whispers. Single working mother. A medical student. The poor lad must never even see her. But for the most part, she’d been able to ignore it, to push it to the back of her mind, because she had people who loved and supported her, and her son was happy. A child needs a father. That statement, though, had triggered an unpleasant memory of a demeaning conversation with Frank Randall. A man whom she’d considered a friend until then. Someone she thought she could trust. Claire was loathe to admit it, but it had been that particular turn of phrase that had been nagging at her ever since. The only thing she couldn’t quiet down in her mind.

“I had no idea how to respond,” Claire recounted in a small voice, saying how she had felt like the literal deer in the headlights. Scared out of her wits and no idea how to escape the unwanted attention. Barely able to keep the tears at bay, she’d made some weak excuse and fled –calling Brian not even five minutes later. And here she was now, sitting on his couch looking as if the weight of the world lay on her shoulders, drinking his whisky.

A child needs a father.

What pained her so wasn’t that she thought Willie wasn’t happy without one. Claire knew he was. No, what tore her heart in two was the knowledge that her son had a father, only that he’d been robbed of him, by her continued ineptitude to locate him.

“It’s just so frustrating, you know?” she wiped her nose on her sleeve. “Being unable to find the father of your child when you can find literally anything and everyone online nowadays.”

The irony of modern life.

“Mhmphm,” Brian made one of those particular Scottish noises to convey his sympathy.

“Geillis and I, we did everything we could think of to find him,” she continued, her eyes pleading, willing him to believe her. “And still,” Claire broke off, sniffling, “And still I feel like I failed him.”

“Who?” Brian asked, astonishment written all over his face.

“Willie,” Claire clarified, draining her glass.

“And how in God’s name would ye come to think that, lass?”

She laughed –a drained, mirthless sound, so unlike her that something cold trickled down Brian’s spine.

“Because of me, he’s had to live without a father. Because I wasn’t able to find him, get a hold of him. Because I wasn’t smart enough to leave my number with the reception clerk before I left. It’s because of me that he doesn’t even have a father who is at least aware of his existence.”

Until now, Claire hadn’t said any of that out loud before. She wasn’t even sure she’d ever consciously thought about it, but there it was. She felt like a failure. The tears came unbidden, salty pearls clinging to her lashes and spilling down her pale face.

“He doesn’t know where he gets it from. He doesn’t know anything about his father except that he was tall and red-headed. That he had a wonderful, genuine smile that would light up his eyes, the same colour as Willie’s. Because that’s all I know, and all I’ll ever be able to tell him. He’ll always get those sad, pitiful glances from his teachers and friends when his father won’t show up for a school play, or for his graduation. And he’ll come to resent the loss of ignorance once he’ll realise that he’s an unusual kid. That he knows nothing about his father.”

Brian offered her his handkerchief and she took it gratefully, her long, nimble fingers brushing his. Lord, she was cold.

“I’m scared, Brian.”

“About what, a nighean?”

“That William will resent me for it when he begins to understand it”, she stared unblinking into the empty glass, “And he’ll be right, too.”

“Aye,” Brian responded, his warm voice sounding strangely distant now.

Claire looked at him then, whisky eyes wide with a fusion of surprise and alarm. She had hoped he might contradict her, reassure her. It hurt that he agreed.

“The lad will ha’ ev’ry right tae begrudge ye,” he went on, light blue eyes fixed on hers, unblinking.

“I know,” came the whispered response as Claire clutched the glass even tighter in her hand.

“He had tae grow up wi’ no love at all. Ne’er been put tae bed by someone wi’ a friendly face, ne’er been read a bedtime story.”

“What...?” her brows pinched together as confusion grew, her belly tightening further at every one of his words.

“Willie had been left all on his own, ne’er cared for. Ne’er been taken tae the park or given his favourite toy. Ne’er had someone love him well enough tae ken his favourite movie or breakfast. Ne’er had someone buy him the shark posters he loved sae well. Ne’er had someone who thought o’ him first, before making decisions.”

“That. Is. Not. True.”

“Is it not?” he asked coolly.

“No! Of course not!” Claire hissed through her teeth, her temper rising.

“Then tell me, Claire, why on earth Willie would e’er hate ye?”

She didn’t respond, couldn’t.

“Do ye honestly think he would resent ye fer doing yer best? That the lack o’ a father would make him suddenly love ye less? Have ye ever seen how that lad looks at ye? He thinks ye hung the moon, fer Christ’s sake!” Brian took a deep breath. “The only person yer son needs, is you, Claire.”

Claire stared at him wide-eyed and pale faced, the whisky glass gripped so tightly Brian thought it might break.

“I ken yer meaning well enough. There’ll be no’ many a day when ye dinnae worry that ye failed them. But this isnae on ye. Ye did what ye could. And from what I’ve seen these past months, Willie’s more than happy wi’ it being jus’ the two of ye.”

“I...,” Claire began, her voice breaking. She cleared her throat, attempting to reign the overwhelming emotion in.

“Och, come ye here, lass,” Brian moved closer to her and drew her into an embrace, the warmth of a fatherly touch instantly calming. Kissing the crown of her curly head, his hand moved in soothing motions on her back. For the first time in years, Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp let herself be openly vulnerable and comforted –and began to cry. All the pent-up frustration and self-doubt were pouring out of her in a cacophony of harsh sobs and laboured breathing.

“Thank you,” Claire’s eyes were still a bit blurry and red from crying, her throat sore, and her skin felt much too tight for her body. But she felt much lighter now.

“Dinnae think anything o’ it, a nighean.” Brian smiled at her, patting her shoulder affectionately as he moved to give her a bit more space again.

"What does that mean? A nighean. You called me that before, I think."

"Och, translates tae 'lass'," he explained, smiling and taking a sip of whisky.

A bit more composed, Claire continued to share her story. How she had never given up hope, even after years of unsuccessful search and failed attempts to unearth Jamie’s whereabouts,. How she still had looked for him. Every single day. Always vigilant, always watchful for that tell-tale flash of bright red. Every fair-skinned man with hair the colour of fire subject to a thorough examination in passing-by. Were the eyes the right colour? Was there a birthmark on his left cheek? Only to be dismissed the second she knew it wasn’t him. In crowds she kept on the lookout for any men that might reach the same impressive height, the same breadth of shoulder.

They sat quietly together for some time, before the silence was broken by a question.

“Sae, now that ye have that out of yer system, why don’t ye tell me more about how ye met that man of yers,” Brian suggested. “If ye think that might help. Ye dinnae ha’ tae o’ course.”

“My man?”

“Willie’s father, I meant. From what ye told me about the circumstances, ye couldnae have known what would happen, aye? And it isnae his fault either. Sometimes life just works in verra strange ways.”

“I guess you’re right,” Brian was glad to see a small smile playing around her lips.

“Go on, then, lass,” he encouraged her, refilling both glasses.

Leaning back into the couch, Brian braced himself for what was surely to be an unusual story, drink in hand.

Claire told him everything, then. And for the first time recounting that story, she had felt completely free. Free of worry how the audience would react to it. Free of crippling self-doubt because she had finally allowed herself to believe that it hadn’t been her fault. Free of obligation to feel sorry for William.

Being so immersed in her own narration, honey eyes focused on distant memory, Claire had mistaken Brian’s silence for rapt attention. The more information she disclosed, the paler he had become, but she hadn’t noticed it in the dim light. When she finished, all colour had left his face, and he was clutching his knee, knuckles straining against the skin.

No, it cannae be.

“Brian? God, are you alright? What’s going on?” the questions came out in a worried rush, but light blue eyes were fixed on the plastered wall, unspeaking. “Speak to me, goddammit!”

“Where?” he asked, his gaze returning to hers.

“What?”

“Where did ye say ye two met?”

“Madeira,” Claire answered, concern etched in her brows, “Why, Brian?”

No, it couldnae be.

True, when he had seen young William the first time, he had almost believed he’d seen a fetch, but to think that it was actually...

His gaze dropped to his lap and he ran one work-worn hand through his fair, as if the gesture would make it less real. He gasped in disbelief. Lord almighty, could it really be true? There was only one way to find out for sure. Suddenly getting up without speaking to her, he walked towards his old desk, and rummaged in one of the drawers.

Finding what he’d been looking for, he stood for a second with his broad back to her. Brian took a deep breath before returning to the couch, where Claire sat, eyes wild with worry and confusion, face framed by a halo of curls. He didn’t sit, though, just looked at her, hesitating. Give it tae her, ye old fool, he thought. Claire took it with shaking hands, neither of them able to meet the other’s eye.

“I ken him.”

Despite rationality, despite people telling her to let it go, deep down, Claire had clung to hope. Clung to the truth in her heart that she would find Jamie again.

Now, sitting on a leather couch that was not her own, in an apartment that wasn’t hers, with a whisky in hand, she found herself shell-shocked, frozen into the cushions, staring at his jubilant, good-humoured face smiling up at her from the photo album.

“Jamie,” she breathed, a finger tracing the outline of his face.

“Aye,” Brian confirmed, then swallowed heavily. “James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser. Ma son.“

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 21 – Downhill

Mustering every ounce of self-control she possessed, Claire looked up –straight into those fathomless blue depths– as she smacked the photograph on the table, got up, and walked out, trying not to let her heartbreak show.  

The door was forced shut with such momentum that it protested with a loud creaking sound. For a second, Claire allowed herself to take a deep breath, eyes closed and brows pinched tightly together. And before she’d even realised it, she had begun to run.

How was this bloody possible?

Claire wiped furiously at her eyes, unable to keep the stinging tears from falling.

Mindlessly rushing past people throwing her bewildered glances, she kept on running, brown curls flying behind her, not knowing –not caring– where she went, as long as it was away from there. Away from him.

Bloody fucking Christ!

The tears just wouldn’t cease, no matter how hard she tried, so she stopped fighting them altogether. Let the pain run free, let it show, who cared?

Claire Beauchamp would never say she’d had it worse in life than others, wouldn’t want pity for the losses she’d gone through, but there was no denying that she had taken her fair share of suffering in her fairly young years.

This, though...

This hurt so much she could feel her heart strain against its seams –a hot, white, blinding pain searing through the valves, pulsating in her veins with each and every pump of blood, ribs cracking under the effort to contain the ache. How much more was she to bear?

This was too much.

Too preoccupied with the effort to breathe, to recover from the blow she’d just been dealt, Claire had not paid any heed to where her feet had been carrying her. The urge to flee too great to care. The stream of tears blurring her vision. Now that her lungs were objecting against the unfamiliar strain, though, she stopped, her hot, laboured breath misting the cool air in front of her.  

Spying a bench down the slope looking out on the River Ness, Claire walked towards it and sank down. Whatever it was that had held her head high –pride in her son, trust in her own abilities, hope– deserted her now. Shoulders slumped, she buried her face in her hands, crying hidden behind a curtain of curls.

Of all the ways she’d expected, dreamed, hoped –this was certainly not how she’d imagined her reunion with Jamie would go down.

How the bloody fuck had it come to this?

 

It began with an unusually early morning. Not really an enthusiast of the small hours of the day, Claire was still used to waking up at somewhat ungodly hours thanks to the unforgiving schedule of a medical student and single mother having to prepare another definitely not-morning-person toddler for kindergarten. This particular instance, though, had nothing to do with either professional or maternal obligations. This time, it was purely nerves.

Tossing and turning most of the night, sleep had eluded her, thoughts running as wild and free as her nest of curls surrounding them. Around 4am she gave up. Wrapping a dressing gown round herself, Claire set some tea to brew. Surely this was nothing a good, strong blend of Earl Grey couldn’t fix. Being up so bloody early, at least she was able to catch up on a bit of reading while she waited for William to stir in his room. But she wasn’t even able to focus on her favourite pastime activity –rereading the same paragraph no less than eight times before she gave up on it. Some time later, when her nerves had already worn precariously thin and she couldn't bear the waiting much longer, the hearty smell of bacon and tomatoes frying in a pan wafting from the kitchen certainly helped enticing her son to leave the snuggly comfort of his bed.  

Belly full and a bag packed with everything Willie would need for the day at the Inverness Aquadome slung over his small shoulder, Claire sent him off with a kiss to the top of his wild, auburn curls, and a reminder to pay heed to Tammas’ mother. Thankfully, Tammas’ mother had been late to pick William up, so there wasn’t much time for Claire to engage with her in conversation –the end of their last one still painfully fresh in her mind. With her son out with friends for the whole day, she had enough time to get ready for her own engagement. Her stomach knotted with anxiety at the prospect of what the day would bring.

Jamie.

She would see Jamie today.

After 6 and a half years.

Not normally one to spend much time worrying about how she dressed as long as it was comfortable, Claire found herself staring into the depths of her opened wardrobe, unable to choose an ensemble. What did one wear when finally meeting the man who had unexpectedly –and unknowingly– fathered your child after years of fruitless search for him? There were dress codes for almost every kind of event, but she was sure that this one might be an exception. In the end, she decided on a pair of form-fitting light grey trousers and a simple white shirt. She didn’t need to impress anyone today. What she needed was to be comfortable while breaking some pretty big news to him.   

An hour or so later, Claire had made herself comfortable in one of the cosy leather-seated booths of The Caledonian. The main breakfast rush long over, and the earliest lunch-goers not yet in sight, she’d decided it would be the perfect choice to meet with Jamie. While it was open all day and served everything from potato scone and bacon sandwiches to a full Sunday roast, it had a distinct pub feel to it with all the wooden furnishings and decorations. It also happened to be Claire’s favourite for a proper Scottish breakfast on a lazy weekend, but she and Willie didn’t frequent it often enough for the staff to recognise them on sight. Perfect meeting ground then – familiar, but with enough space to hide in plain sight. The tables were spread out in the open space in a way that neighbouring patrons wouldn’t have an easy time overhearing other people’s gossip, providing enough privacy for what was surely going to be a rather intimate conversation.

As was her way, Claire had shown up a bit too early. Not knowing what else to do while she waited, she ordered a pot of tea and two cups. Stirring a spoonful of sugar absentmindedly into the scalding liquid, she gazed out of the window, scanning the world outside for a flash of fiery red. Focused on that task, she had failed to notice that someone had approached her table, until a shadow fell over half of her face, and a throat was cleared.

“Claire,” it sounded almost like a deep, raspy sigh.

Slowly, she turned towards the sound, heart pounding frantically against her chest.

After precisely six years and eight months, the moment had finally come.

She was face to face with Jamie again.

He was wearing a navy coat that complimented his eyes and a grey, woollen scarf wound around his muscular neck. Dark blue eyes looking almost slanted above high cheekbones, she noticed that his wide mouth was set in a lopsided smile, just like the last time she’d seen him.  There was quite a bit of scruff covering his face, and his auburn locks –sparked with roan and cinnabar– were a lot longer now, tied back into a sloppy man-bun at the back of his head.  

Realising that he was still waiting for her to reciprocate his greeting, she swallowed her embarrassment of having stared at him so rudely and finally said, “Hello Jamie.”

“May I?” he asked, pointing towards the leather seat opposite her.

“Of course! Please, do sit down,” Claire invited him, mentally chastising herself for being so bloody formal.

As Jamie shrugged out of his coat, she poured him a cup of tea, still steaming slightly.

“Sugar?” she asked politely, attempting to cover her own awkwardness, and thinking desperately how to start a conversation.

Blurting out that he had a son of almost 6 years might have been effective, but not quite the way she wanted to go about it. Claire didn’t want him to run off right away, after all.

“Aye, half a spoon, please.”

“Would you like to order something to eat? They make wonderful sandwiches if you’re hungry.”

“No, I’m good, thank ye. Unless ye want something?” he was about to wave a waiter over when she declined the offer with a shake of her head.

“Ah, no. Not just now, thank you.”

Looking at each other –amber whisky meeting loch-blue– a couple of awkward seconds passed by in which nobody said anything.

“Sae,” he initiated, giving her an opening.

“It’s been a while.”

“Aye,” there was a queerness to his tone that she couldn’t quite interpret.

Jamie took her in, trying to see all the ways in which she’d changed, in which she was still the same. Her curls were as riotous as they had been then, so light a brown as to be almost golden where the morning sunshine hit it through the window to an ebony so dark as to seem black. Her eyes were as bright and warm a honey as he remembered, but they were less open –a bit guarded, perhaps– and framed by one or two small lines. Lines of laughter, he hoped. Comparing her to the image he held dear in his memory, she seemed relatively unchanged, if a bit flustered.

“Ye look well, Claire,” he smiled.

“So do you,” she replied a little breathless, her cheeks pink.

It wasn’t a lie.

He looked phenomenal in his black dress shirt and casual trousers, even though the fabric strained against his muscles in some places. Must be all the training he’s doing. His face was still good-humoured and handsome, but something about it was different. And it wasn’t the scar at the spot where his jawbone connected to the skull. There was something less open about his expression –almost as if he was wearing a mask.

Except for confirming, that yes, she had indeed studied in Edinburgh and become a doctor, Claire managed to politely dodge questions about herself, steering the conversation towards him instead.

“So,” Claire cleared her throat, a trifle unsure how best to proceed. “Alpine skiing, is it?” The conversation with Brian not even a week ago still fresh on her mind.

He nodded, “Aye, Downhill mostly. But I do Super G and a bi’ o’ Giant Slalom as well.”

“I hear you’re doing really well on the circuit?”

“It’s no’ going badly,” Jamie admitted, a hint of pride in his deep voice.

They talked about his life as a professional skier –the downsides, the upsides, and everything on the spectrum between. The adrenaline rush he felt when racing down a mountainside, the endless training hours and meal plans that dictated his life, even on his time off. The stunning places he got to see, the people he met, the joy of coming home for the holidays. How much he loved it.

“I’m glad to hear that, Jamie,” the genuine happiness Claire felt about his success interlaced with a profound sadness of remembered years where any little piece of information about what he was doing would have meant the world to her –and her son.

Apparently, he had picked up the strange blend of emotion in her tone, for he looked at her, head tilted slightly to the right, considering.

“I have tae say I was surprised to hear from ye, Claire,” he stated simply, inviting her to cut all the small-talk and get to why she asked him here. Meanwhile, his fingers began to drum a silent tattoo on his thigh.

“I bet you were.”

What she would have given to be able to see his face when he’d got her message, ruddy brows rising almost to his hairline.

Jamie couldn’t help staring at her elegant fingers as they closed around her cup of tea, his gaze zeroing in on one in particular. No visible tan line. She hadn’t worn a ring in quite some time then –if ever.

“Yer message said ye needed tae talk tae me about something?”

“Yes,” she exhaled.

As Claire was seemingly struggling to get it out, Jamie decided to take action.

“I ken, Claire,” he announced in a low voice, fingers still tapping on his thigh, hidden beneath the table.

Inhaling sharply, honey eyes narrowed slightly, “Know about what?”

“Ye dinnae need tae say it. I ken what ye’re trying tae tell me.”

“You do?” An arched eyebrow challenging him to prove it.

“I ken about yer child,” he said, neither face nor voice giving any emotion away.

Nothing could have prepared her for this.

“What?” A sudden coldness hit her at the core.

“I ken, Claire. About yer child.”

Your child, he had said.

Icy tentacles wound their way through her system.

“And it doesnae matter tae me,” Jamie tried to convey the sentiment in what he hoped was a reassuring tone.

He lowered his gaze, tugging at his collar as if his shirt were suddenly too tight.

“You,” her fingers were gripping the porcelain cup like a vice as she forced the last word out, “know?”

“Aye, I do,” he confirmed, brushing the hair that was too short to be tied back off his forehead. If he had dared to look into her eyes just then, Jamie might have noticed blinding fury warring with utter disdain. “’Tis why I ne’er called, ken.” Still not looking at her, he fiddled with his spoon.

“You. Knew,” her lips were trembling, but her voice remained steady as Claire pronounced each word carefully.

“Aye, but it doesnae matter tae me that ye have a child by another man.”

“All this time, you knew,” she repeated, barely registering what he’d said just now, lost in her emotional reaction.

Jamie mistook her breathlessness for relief and tilted his head up, his blue gaze connecting with hers in cautious hope.

Claire looked at him then. Really looked, golden orbs glowing with anger and hurt, a visible pulse beating beneath the paleness of her skin.  

What had she expected him to be? The same sweet lad with a smile that made her knees go weak? That he had hungered for her touch as much as she had during those sleepless hours of darkness, where the only company she’d had was sheltered in her womb, the size of a grapefruit? That he, too, remembered their shared night in such vivid detail that it roused his body, made his hands move down in a futile attempt to catch the ghost of her caress?

They do say you should never meet your idols, that it would be a guaranteed disappointment when you did. That real people could never live up to your expectation, to the person you’ve imagined them to be. Claire guessed the same must be true for past lovers, then. She swallowed, resentful of her own naivety, of having hoped for too much.

There was not the slightest sign of remorse in the dark blue eyes, the ones her son had inherited. No regret in the way he carried himself. No guilt weighing down his broad shoulders. No shame bending his spine.

Jamie had known she had a child.

A shaky hand rubbed at her chest, trying to ease the pain.

During all that time where she had struggled, flailed, despaired, turned every stone to find him, he had known. And chosen not to reach out. ’Tis why I ne’er called’.

Claire stood up, pulling a square, thick piece of paper out of her purse, “My son,” she stressed in a scathing tone, “is also your son.”  Smacking the photograph onto the table, she turned around and rushed out without so much as a look at him.

Storming out so fast, she didn’t see his eyes widen in shock, or the colour leave his face. The absolute paralysis that had taken hold of him for a solid minute, teaspoon clenched in his big hand. It took an immense effort to pry his fingers loose –and move the picture closer.

Completely overcome, Jamie’s mouth hung slightly open as he took in the Polaroid of Willie, the absolute innocence of childhood captured brilliantly in his dimpled smile –so much like his own. A single tear rolled down his face as he grabbed the table for support, afraid that his legs might give out at any moment.

Staring at it for a second longer, Jamie knew that there was only one thing to do now. He collected his things, left a ten-pound note on the table and hurried after her.

She hadn’t been hard to follow –not with her crazy curls flying behind her like a signpost and his long, well-exercised shanks keeping up easily with her shorter stride. Approaching her was an entirely different story, though. He took another peek at the photograph she’d left behind, gathering courage from it.

Stooping, his red head bent abashedly, Jamie moved cautiously towards her on the bench, as if he were advancing on a skittish horse.

“God, I’ve been a righ’ bastard, Claire. I’m sae sorry. I didnae ken... didnae ken he was mine.” blue eyes looked up tentatively, willing her to turn towards him and see that his apology was sincere.

No reaction. Claire just sat there, staring ahead, lost in her own thoughts, completely ignoring him.

“Claire, will ye no’ let me explain?” his low voice came from behind.

“Whatever it is you have to say, James Fraser, I don’t think I want to hear it. Leave me be,” her words were sharp, but her tone glum.

Ignoring her plea for solitude, Jamie sat down on the bench next to her, careful not to encroach on her personal space, but not wanting to have too much space between them either.

“Aye, I kent that ye’d had a child, Claire, but I didnae ken it was mine... Lord, if I’d only –,” his voice broke on a desperate sound deep in his throat.

“How?” it was a simple question, devoid of all emotion, but at least she was talking to him, not staring blankly ahead, tuning him out like some irritating background noise. “How did you even know?”

“Yer friend, Laoghaire.”

“Laoghaire MacKenzie is not my friend.”

“Aye, that she isnae. Now less than ever, perhaps.”

“What the bloody hell does she have to do with it?” the annoyance clear in tone and wrinkling of her forehead.

“More than ye think. And far more than I care fer,” he spit out, when he registered her murderous expression, he went on without delay. “Ye kent I was in an accident, aye?”

She nodded, answering his question and giving him permission to continue at the same time.

“I wasnae conscious fer a long time. Some weeks, I think. Spent the better part of seven months in the hospital. But as soon as I was myself again –in mind at least– the only thing that occupied my thought was trying tae find a way tae get tae ye,” instead of pausing to let the meaning register with Claire, he hurried on, “I didnae have yer number of course.” At this, she scoffed, unable to contain the frustration of having had to deal with exactly that problem for close to 7 years. Jamie chose to ignore that. “But I kent that Rupert had gone wi’ Laoghaire, and I’d hoped that maybe the two o’ them had –“

“Exchanged phone numbers?” Claire interrupted, brusquely finishing his thought.

“Aye.”

“Well, they didn’t. So how did you,” noticing his gobsmacked expression, she stopped abruptly. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Because they did,” Jamie said through clenched teeth, a muscle in his jaw jerking.

“Did what?” eyebrows pinched together in frustration as her voice rang with confusion.

“Rupert did have her number,” he said simply.

Claire stared at him, neck tense, honey eyes widening as the meaning of his statement sunk in.

“But...”

“Ye asked her, then?”

“Yes, ... no... I mean, I didn’t but Geillis did and...” Claire trailed off, trying to wrap her head around what she’d just heard.

“And she said she didnae?” Jamie probed carefully. “Weel, I dinnae ken what it is that ye’ve done tae that lass, Claire, but it didnae stop there...,” he implied ominously.

His shoulders slumped, and his index and middle finger drummed an inaudible tattoo on his thigh before he spoke again.

“Rupert gave me her number. And I texted her sae soon as I had figured out how tae approach her. Ye might recall that I didnae like her all that much either when we met?” Claire nodded, the memory clear in her mind. “But she was the only way tae get tae ye. Sae I decided tae be verra friendly, no’ give her a reason tae be ... difficult about it.”

Claire snorted with derision.

“Difficult my English arse.”

His lips twitched with amusement.

“Aye, but I only kent yer first name and where it was ye wanted tae study, sae she really was the only way tae reach ye,” he said, Claire knowing all too well how much hope she had put into that particular avenue, and shuddered again, remembering what he had implied.

“I didnae beat around the bush, told her that I needed tae get in touch wi’ you, and asked if she could forward me yer number.  Laoghaire told me that ye werenae the best o’ friends and that she didnae have it,” Jamie looked at her, silently asking to confirm or deny that statement.

“That’s true, at least,”

“Laoghaire claimed that her best friend’s sister was close tae ye and that she’d speak tae her. She was being verra kind and helpful, truth be told,” a declaration that caused Claire to scoff, but she didn’t interrupt him. “Even apologised fer the way she’d behaved towards me at the club in Porto Santo. And wi’ her being all sweet and sympathetic, I believed that that hadnae been who she truly is.”  Another derisive sound emerged from Claire’s throat, but still she held her comments on Laoghaire back for the sake of hearing the whole story.

“We texted fer a bit, only a couple o’ days, mind, while I was waiting fer her tae get me yer number. Couldnae be impolite, I needed her after all,” Jamie explained.

“So you did,” came Claire’s curt reply.

“All that time I was excited like a bairn righ’ before Boxing Day. After months I’d finally get tae see ye... well, no’ see ye again, but at least have some way tae get in touch wi’ you,” a small smile curved his wide mouth at the recollection.

“So what happened?” Claire interjected. “Why didn’t you call or text?”

There was no accusation in her voice, only hurt.

“A couple o’ days later, when I asked her again if she got yer number yet, she ... was suddenly different. Didnae want tae talk all that much anymore, was super busy where she wasnae before. I could tell she was making excuses, and I told her sae. And then,” he broke off, looking at Claire with such open heartbreak in his dark blue eyes that she could feel it rip her own soul in two.

“Then,” he repeated, with a better grip on himself again, “she told me ye were pregnant.” A heavy pause followed. “By someone named Frank.”

Claire’s jaw dropped. If it weren’t for the dire implications of Jamie’s tale, it would’ve looked absolutely comical.

“She said WHAT?” her voice rose so high with incredulity that it sounded eerie to her own ears.

“Aye,” he confirmed what she’d heard. “She told me that she didnae want tae hurt my feelings as I was sae obviously intae ye, but that ye were back taegether wi’ yer ex –Frank. That ye’d broken up a while ago, but that ye got right back taegether after the trip. Apparently seeing ye disappear wi’ me didnae sit all too well wi’ him. That ye were happy and expecting a child.”

He looked at her then, dark blue orbs half hidden underneath oddly coloured lashes, begging her to believe him.

“I don’t know what to say,” was all Claire could think of in that moment.

“I didnae believe her at first,” Jamie said in a low voice, head bent as he grabbed for the phone in his front pocket. “Only when she sent me this,” he swiped on the screen, skimming over the assortment of photos in his gallery until he found the picture he was looking for. Once he had, he handed his phone to Claire.

Speechless, she stared at the screen. There she was, smiling brightly into the camera, undeniably and quite obviously pregnant, holding the ‘Godchild’ onesie over her round belly while Geillis posed next to her with the matching ‘Godmother’ shirt.

“That was my baby shower,” she remembered in a quiet tone. “I didn’t want one in the first place, but Geillis, Mary, and Isobel wouldn’t be talked out of it. But I agreed to it, knowing it would only be the four of us,” Claire smiled at the memory. “I was so happy that day.”

“Aye. I could see that,” Jamie affirmed, the sadness in his voice mirrored in his face, “That’s why I believed her.”

Jamie could easily recall how his heart had split clean in two when he’d seen it.

Claire looked at him, finding his gaze as blurry as her own, engaged in the same war to fight off tears.

“The only thing that could have kept me from you, Claire, was knowing –seeing– that ye were happy wi’ someone else.”

The way he said it healed her wounds as much as it ripped them further open. Something deep inside her made her want to touch him, comfort him, and to seek the same in return. Her hand reached out as if acting on its own volition, fingertips caressing his face, brushing one stray tear away.

“Why did you agree to meet me, then?” she asked, her voice soft now.

The touch of her hand on his cheek had been unexpected.  It was chilled from exposure to late winter temperatures, but it warmed him to his bones, grounding him with her in the moment.

“I thought that... I’d hoped that,” Jamie hesitated, “maybe ye werenae all that happy anymore.” A small smirk played on his lips, as he took the delicate fingers stroking his cheek and interlaced them with his, some of his earlier confidence returning. “I didnae want tae miss an opportunity tae see ye. See how ye were doing.”

“And you didn’t mind that I had a child?” Claire asked, remembering his earlier statement all too clearly – And it doesnae matter tae me. “By another man?”

“No,” the reply was instant, sure.

Jamie looked away from her then, staring down at the River Ness, the seagulls crying above them, but not seeing the beauty that lay in front of him.

“But he isnae,” he affirmed, his warm gaze returning to hers after a heartbeat of silence. “He’s mine. Ours.”

There was no way Claire would have been able to prevent the smile that blossomed on her face, even if she wanted to.

 “Ours,” she echoed, eyes alight with happiness, hand still grasped in his, heart full of hope for the first time in years.

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 22 – Kismet

Brian Fraser was a meticulous man.

He had a mental list of which items in his store needed stocking up (potatoes, onions, some of the candy bars, paper rolls for the receipts), how much of that 16-year old Lagavulin was left in the bottle he only got out for special occasions (an ounce shy of half full), and –even if less impressive– he knew exactly how many grandchildren he had (three). Or at least, he had thought so.

Four.

He had four grandchildren.

Jenny’s bairns. Wee Jamie, Margaret, and Katherine.

And William.

Claire’s.

And Jamie’s.

Willie was such a sweet lad. Brian had already had great affection for him, but realising that they were bound by blood as well... His heart was close to bursting knowing how blessed he was with his grandchildren. And finally having one of his kin so close to home was more than he could have wished for. 

When he had looked at the pictures in his phone again, refilled whisky glass in hand, and seeing Willie’s bright, toothy smile next to the photo album with shots of Jamie, it was almost painfully obvious. The eyes were the exact same shape, the same dark blue colour, even if the lad’s eyes were speckled with golden flecks. The lashes were a bit different, though, Jamie’s were oddly coloured –almost blonde at the roots and dark at the tips. Willie’s were russet. But flipping through the pages of the album, Brian could see what he had not remembered –at this age, his son’s lashes had also been simply russet. God, the hair, too. Although there was a high number of redheads in these parts of the world, there were very few with such an intense shade of red. Not the carroty-type, nor the pale, almost blonde shade. No, theirs was the colour of true fire –not just ginger, but the same lively blend of auburn, cinnabar, roan, copper, and gold.

The cheekbone and jaw beneath the last remnants of William’s baby fat gave testimony to the promising man he would become. Tall, as well. Jamie had surpassed Brian’s own 6”2 on his 17th birthday, and the lad was likely going to stand as tall as his father if you added in his mother’s height.

His mother.

God, Claire.

He’d known, of course, that there was a story behind her situation. Everyone could have guessed that it wasn’t the fairy-tale kind of story, too, just from looking at the circumstances. A single mother that didn’t freely divulge any kind of information about her child’s father didn’t exactly scream ‘happy family’.

But this? What kind of bizarre kismet could have ever come up with something like this?

The steady thump of groceries being put on the checkout counter yanked him out of his musings, his mind returning to the mundane matters at hand. Mechanically, Brian swiped every item over the scanner, packing them into the bag for his customer with an absent-minded smile, as he tried to resist the urge to look at the clock again. But he couldn’t help himself.

It was happening right now. 

He just hoped their meeting would go well.

*****

They sat for a while, fingers still interlaced and squeezing lightly from time to time, while the seagulls performed their poor-man’s opera around them, fighting for the odd piece of edible trash. In this moment, neither of them felt the need to talk, each processing what had just been revealed in their own way.

“His name,” Jamie broke the silence first, his Adam’s apple bobbing heavily as he stared at the photograph in his right hand, “What did you name him?”

“William,” the name was spoken softly, and with pride.

“William,” he tested the name on his tongue, his lips, his heart. “A braw name, that.”

Brushing an errant curl behind her ear, Claire smiled, even though Jamie was still too focused on the photo in his right hand to see it.

He went mute again, but she could tell from the way his throat was working that he wanted to say something. There wasn’t really anything she thought she could say that would make it easier for him. But she tried to encourage him by bumping his shoulder gently with hers.

“How?” he rasped, taking courage to ask from her simple gesture.

It was his turn to ask questions now.

“How what?”

“How did it happen?” Jamie gestured to the photograph with an expression of such earnest innocence and naiveté gracing his features, that Claire had to bite her lip to keep from bursting out laughing, despite the severity of the circumstances. How many times had she been asked that very question when she first found out about her pregnancy?

“I should think that even in the remote backcountry of Scotland kids are taught the basic mechanisms of procreation. Or do you want me to draw you how it’s done?” her lips drew into a small smirk. “If memory serves right, though, you’re quite aware how it works. Or at least one part of your anatomy does,” the latter part was murmured under her breath, but Jamie caught it and his ear tips turned bright pink –and it didn’t have anything to do with the cold.

“I didnae ken all that much at the time,” he countered, going pinker still, “I was a virgin if ye recall. And,” Jamie continued, “and we used protection, did we no’?”

She did, in fact, recall –very well.

“Yes, we did,” Claire sighed, letting go of his hand to rub her palms on her trousers. “But every form of contraception has a failure quota. We’ll never know why it failed, only that it did.”

“Mmphm,” a thoroughly Scottish sound emanated from his throat.

In her long years living in Scotland, Claire had learned that these noises were a language of their own and could encompass more facets of meaning than whole conversations.

“And even if it was a bit of an unwelcome surprise at first, I’m happy that it did,” seeing his puzzlement she clarified, “Fail.”

“Ye are?” his voice rose slightly in surprise at her admission.

“Of course. Otherwise I would have missed out on the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

Claire could see the cogs in his mind working as a line formed between his ruddy brows. Clearly, Jamie wasn’t quite up to speed yet. How could he be? He only just found out that he was a father, and hadn’t really had time to let that sink in. He had neither had the pleasure of welcoming his son into the world, nor see him make his first steps, speak his first words, making friends, laugh, cry, smile –nothing. So, for him, as much as the majority of the population, the failure of contraception didn’t automatically lead the way down to a positive thought.

“I’m speaking of William,” she decided to clear things up before things got awkward again, pointing at the thick, glossy paper still held tightly by his large fingers.

“Ah,” releasing a relieved breath, the line between Jamie’s brows vanished and was replaced with his typical lopsided smile.

Sensing a tenseness creep into their little bubble, Claire got out her phone to show him more pictures of Willie. They were recent ones –a scone party at Mrs Crook’s, his first time on a bike in their driveway, a snapshot of Willie fast asleep like a starfish tangled in a tartan blanket on their couch.

“He’s...,” Jamie’s index finger hovered over the last one, aching to touch, “he’s beautiful, Claire.”

“He is,” she agreed with a dazzling smile. She knew every mother thought their child to be beautiful –and she was no exception– but hearing it from Jamie made her heart swell double in size.  “I’m afraid I don’t have any old pictures of him on my phone, but –,” she stopped herself abruptly, causing the line of quizzical interest between his brows to reappear.

She had more pictures at home. Hundreds of them, thousands –some printed but not yet sorted, some carefully arranged in albums, and a vast quantity on an external hard-drive. And she wanted to show Jamie every single one. Tell him the stories that went with them. Show him everything he’d missed out on. Get him to know his son as well as she did.

He’s smart, and funny, and so kind. He loves chocolate better than crisps, his best friend’s name is Tammas, he isn’t fond of frogs, he loves Geillis fiercely. It’s the stuffed little puffin he needs to get a restful sleep, there’s only one Disney movie he doesn’t like, and there are two ways to get him to brush his teeth and into bed without much fuss.

After so much time spent searching, waiting, hoping, the urge to simply share everything about Willie was threatening to take over the peaceful understanding she had created with Jamie just now. She didn’t want to push too hard, too early. While Jamie certainly seemed eager about his son, she couldn’t know for sure how he would react if she asked for too much, too soon. The day had been overwhelming enough for him already –for both of them– and the last thing she wanted was to scare him off just because she couldn’t reign her own enthusiasm in. Taking a deep breath, Claire decided there was nothing to be lost –only gained– if she took the risk and grabbed the bull by the horns.

“Would you,” Claire began, nervously rubbing her palms on her trousers again, “would you like to meet your son, Jamie?”

The transformation from an expression of slight puzzlement to utter joy was a sight to behold, and Claire’s heart warmed with relief at having had the pleasure to witness it.   

“Oh God, yes!” dark blue eyes shone with hope and giddy excitement.

As Jamie took her fingers in his again, large, calloused thumb drawing a gentle circle on the back of her hand, a shiver ran down her spine.

“Och, ye’re freezing!” misreading her physical reaction, Jamie wrapped his woollen scarf around her neck and pulled her to her feet. “We’ve been sitting here fer ages, nae wonder! I’m sae sorry.”

Insisting that he needed to be sure she was safe –and warm– Jamie walked her all the way home. It was what a gentleman was supposed to do and only partly curiosity, or so he tried to convince himself, to get a glimpse of where she and her –no, their– son lived.

On their way to Claire’s cottage on Drummond Road, they talked, passing other pedestrians hurrying to reach the warmth of their homes, but it was all a bit stiffer than before. Almost as if the lack of physical connection made it harder to talk openly, without reservation. It was still pleasant, though, to be in each other’s company, to just breathe the same cold air that was –for the moment, at least– cleared of misunderstandings.

Although Jamie could hardly wait to meet William, he’d readily agreed with Claire that today would not be a good idea. Having spent the day at the pool, the lad would be exhausted, and quite possibly starved, which tended to make him cranky according to Claire –not the best circumstances to be introduced. And if there was one thing that was of importance to James Fraser right now, it was not to start off the relationship with his son on the wrong foot. That he and Claire needed some time to themselves to digest the day’s discoveries as well sealed the deal on arranging the big meet for another day.

“Well, this is my castle,” Claire indicated with a jerk of her head, curls bouncing. “You’ve brought me right up to the door, just as promised, good sir.”

“’Twas ma pleasure, m’lady,” Jamie answered as he bowed theatrically. “I shall rest easier now, knowing that ye’re safe within yer walls.”

A warm chuckle sounded from Claire’s throat.

“I am fortunate to have such a thoughtful knight to call my friend,” the banter came natural to both of them.

“’Tis my honour,” he replied, a playful smile curving his wide mouth.

Moving a step towards him, Claire took off the grey scarf he’d given her earlier, and, standing on tiptoes, wrapped it around his neck.

“A token of my eternal gratitude, sir,” she could feel her cheeks redden slightly as her fingers accidentally brushed the downy curls at his nape, and hoped that he would attribute the colour to cold rather than whatever it was that had made her blush in the first place.

“Thank ye.”

“So, I’ll see you on Tuesday then? I trust you won’t have trouble finding our place?” one eyebrow arched up in rhetorical question.

“I think it’ll be nae trouble tae find ma way back here, no. Tuesday it is,” his deep voice was reassuring and firm.

They stood a bit awkwardly, not quite knowing how best to say goodbye. A handshake was far too formal, a hug friendly, but also didn’t seem quite right. Putting a hand on his arm, Claire stood on her tiptoes again, leaned in and kissed his stubbled cheek, then stepped back and said, “Goodbye, Jamie.”

She had already walked away and opened her door when Jamie realised that he was still standing unmoving in her driveway. Turning on his booted heel, he buried his face halfway in his scarf, attempting to hide the pinkness there. When he thought himself out of range of vision, Jamie allowed himself to inhale deeply. Honeysuckle filled his nostrils, and in this moment, he could not imagine anything ever smelling better than the scent Claire had left behind in the grey, woollen fabric around his face.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 23 – Once Upon a Tuesday

As the door fell into its lock, Claire leaned her head against the solid wood and released the breath she’d been holding with a heavy sigh. What a day. That was probably the understatement of the century. Well, of the month, at least.

Casting a look around the living room of her home and finding that the world she had left behind had not changed in the slightest bit was hard to reconcile with the inner upheaval that recent revelations had caused. Claire toed off her shoes and slipped out of her coat, putting them into their proper spot next to the entrance, all the while trying to wrap her head around what she had heard and seen today.

Only a few hours before, she had been a bundle of nervous energy, too apprehensive to focus on anything but painting all different kinds of scenarios how her meeting with Jamie would go down. Boy, had she been wrong. When she had set out to face what was likely going to be a difficult conversation in any case, Claire Beauchamp would still never in a million years have expected that kind of level of betrayal. It was an intrigue worthy of a soap-opera –well, those writers probably had to get their inspiration from somewhere. But to think that anyone would really do such a thing. Out of... out of what exactly? If it had been just about Claire herself, she might have understood the pettiness of it all, even if she couldn’t condone it. She would readily admit that they had never warmed up to each other, hadn’t cared for one another a bit, to be frank. In all the years they’d moved in the same circle of friends, she had come to know Laoghaire as a spoiled and vindictive person, deeply jealous of her own accomplishments, but to deliberately rob a child of its father?

Anger. Seething, explosive anger was what Claire knew she should feel right now. And she did –hot adrenaline was pumping through her arteries, shoulders tense, and teeth were clenched, her body was ready to strike out. But she was also strangely numb and cold at the same time. Looking at her hands was like watching herself from a distance. She knew those shaking digits were her own, but everything felt strange, detached. Delayed shock, Claire noted with a professional undertone.

Putting both jittery hands firmly on the countertop of her kitchen, Claire steadied herself as she shut her eyes firmly and took deep breaths, filling her lungs with much needed oxygen. In –1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Out –1, 2, 3, 4, 5. When even the tenth repetition of the breathing exercise had not helped her regain her sense of self, Claire attempted another practice she had learned some years ago from Uncle Lamb. Taking inventory. Moving through the haze that clouded her mind, she pictured the essence that made up her muscles, organs, nervous system, her physical self. Everything still there. Everything still working. Slowly, with a determined shake of her head that sent brown curls flying freely around her face, Claire found a way out of that maze of conflicting thoughts and emotions.

The newfound clarity dictated one thing in particular –she desperately needed to get a grip on herself. A quick glance at the kitchen clock sitting idly on the microwave to her right confirmed her inner timer. Willie would be home in less than two hours. Claire had until then to sort out the worst of it, to be composed enough to face her son without seeming like a mental case. And there was only one person she could talk to about this whole steaming pile of shit who would understand.  

The calling signal had barely gone through when her best friend’s voice greeted her, not bothering with so much as ‘hello’ before firing questions faster than Claire was able to process.

“How did it go? How did he look? Is he still hot? What was he wearing? How did he react? Did he faint? Did ye kiss? Tell me everything!” demanded the clear voice at the other end of the line, excitement palpable even with a couple of hundred miles between them.

Claire sank into the couch, head tilted back to rest on the cushion.

“I hope you’re sitting down, Gee,” the tone of the statement foreboding.

“I cannae sit doon, righ’ noo, hen, tell me,” the clanking and thumping in the background made it clear that Geillis was walking around her flat, too nervous to sit still to receive the answers to her questions.

So Claire did tell her. Everything. From the relatively simple lie that Laoghaire had indeed had Rupert’s number to the devastating consequences of her telling Jamie that Claire had been pregnant with Frank’s –‘of all people!’– child.

For a second, Claire had thought she had lost connection, so unnaturally quiet was Geillis as she patiently listened to the whole tale.

“I’m goin’ tae kill that bitch,” came the matter-of-fact reaction. The menacing message of the declaration was quite at odds with the dry delivery, so much so that Claire thought Geillis might as well have been saying that it was going to rain in Scotland today.  

“You and me both, Gee,” she joined in the general sentiment.  “And from the look of Jamie’s face, I think he might want to as well.”

“I’m serious, I’m goin’ tae kill her. Such a–,” Geillis began, but was stopped by Claire.

“I know. But there’s no point, Geillis. Not that I don’t appreciate you committing a felony for my sake, but remember, we took an oath – ‘do no harm’ and all that stuff.”

Geillis let out a small huff.

“Minor obstacle if ye ask me, hen. I’m goin’ tae break that filthy wee bitch’s neck and–“

“Geillis, really, I don’t want you to do anything about this. Don’t even say anything to her, or to anyone else, for that matter.”

“Whyever no’?” the surprise was evident in her best friend’s voice. “She’s stolen almost 7 years from ye, Claire.”

“I know,” Claire replied in a small voice.

“That bitch is the reason ye had tae do this on yer own, she’s the reason Willie ne’er had a father!”

“I KNOW, Geillis,” exasperation rang in every syllable, “Trust me, I know better than anyone.“

That shut her friend up for a moment.

“Well, ye’re right...,” Geillis admitted, “it’s you that gets tae make a call on this, but,” she continued, “she doesnae deserve yer forgiveness. No’ wi’ what she did tae ye and the wee bean.”

“And what would you have me do?” Claire’s throat was tense as she fought to control the emotion that was threatening to well up.

The question was answered with another silence.

“See? It’s not that easy.  I can’t just wait until she’s pregnant, try to get hold of the father, think of some elaborate, twisted scheme to separate them from one another until her child’s 6 years old.”

“Would serve that meddling besom right, though,” murmured Geillis.

“This is not some sort of ‘an eye for an eye’ situation –we’re not in the Middle Ages. Not that revenge would help anyone. There’s nothing I can do about it,” the frustration poured out of Claire with every word.

“Does it nae bother ye, then?”

“Does it not bother me that because of one spiteful, miserable cunt like Laoghaire MacKenzie my son had to grow up without a father? No, Geillis, I’m perfectly fine with that, didn’t you know?”

The sarcasm cut through the conversation like a knife. Claire could hear Geillis take a deep breath to reign her own temper in before she spoke next.

“Claire, that’s no’ what I meant and ye ken it. What I was tryin’ tae say was if it doesnae bother ye that she can go on wi’ her life wi’out having tae face any consequences fer her actions.”

“Of course, it bothers me, Gee!” there was nothing she could do to prevent the tears from rolling down her face now. “It does bother me that there is nothing I can do about it, because she didn’t do anything that’s prohibited by law. There is nothing, nothing –you hear?! –I can do about it.“

“I’m sorry, hen. I didnae –,” Geillis attempted to apologise.

“No, don’t be. I know you didn’t mean it like that. I know you have my back.”

“Aye, I do,” her friend assured at once, “always.”

A small smile touched Claire’s lips, reminded how grateful she was to have a friend like Geillis Duncan in her life.  

“Let’s just hope that karma does exist and that it will take care of Laoghaire bloody MacKenzie the way it sees fit,” Claire concluded, sniffling and wiping the last tears away.

“That bitch has it coming,” Geillis concurred.

“Indeed,” was all that Claire had to add.

“Orite, noo that we’ve got that matter settled, let’s cut tae the chase,” Geillis opened a new line of conversation.

“What are you talking about?” she asked, bewildered what else could be left to talk about after such a big discovery.

“The man, Claire, the man!” Geillis let out an annoyed huff. “What did he look like, did ye shag him righ’ there on the table?”

“Geillis!” she hissed, being intensely grateful that her best friend wasn’t able to see the redness in her cheeks. The thought of getting into bed with Jamie had not crossed Claire’s mind –more important things had occupied her thoughts. But hearing it now put so bluntly, she would have lied if she claimed not to remember what those large hands felt like on her body.

Interpreting Claire’s silence correctly, Geillis pushed her advantage, “Sae, still hot, aye?”

“For fucks sake, Duncan!” she rolled her eyes in pretend irritation, even knowing that her friend wasn’t able to see her.

The stubble of his scruff had felt wickedly good when she had kissed his cheek in goodbye. Absent-mindedly, her index finger traced the faint tingling echo the feeling had left behind on her lips.

“I cannae help but observe that ye didnae say he isnae hot, hen,” the self-satisfied smirk was all too audible.

“Yes, he’s still hot, Geillis. Happy now?”

“Och, aye, I’m braw, what aboot you, though, Claire? Did he make ye happy or is he goin’ tae at least?”

“Shut it, Duncan,” Claire’s threat would have been that much more effective, if she hadn’t snorted.

Geillis chuckled, knowing that she had struck a nerve, “Ye need a good shag again, hen, and he obviously kens hoo tae please ye already sae –“

“Alright, I think I have to hang up now, Willie will be home soon, and I have to get dinner ready. We’ll talk some other time?” Claire decided it was best to ignore Geillis at this point.

“Sure, hen. We still have tae work oot the last details o’ Willie’s birthday party, no?”

“I almost forgot about that,” Claire chided herself.

“No, ye wouldnae have, sae dinnae beat yerself up aboot it. Have a wee dram or somethin’ tae calm yer nerves. We’ll talk taemorrow.”

“You know, alcohol is not the solution, Gee.”

“I beg tae differ, hen. According tae chemistry, it verra well is a solution,” the fair-haired woman chuckled.

Claire smirked, her spirits considerably lifted.

“Bye, Gee. Talk tomorrow.”

“Love ye, Claire,” the call ended on that earnest sentiment.

Staring at the darkened phone screen for a while, Claire found herself glued to the comfortable couch cushions, severely lacking the motivation to get up to face the real world’s responsibilities again that had the audacity to continue as if nothing life-changing had occurred today.

*****

The next few days passed by in a blur. In a way, Claire was glad that her daily obligations  at work (devising a new plan of action for Gerald Cairn’s chronic knee issues) and as a mother (making sure William wore fresh socks and underwear) didn’t allow her too much time to dwell on the recent chain of events.

And so Tuesday had come without her having lost too much sleep overthinking either, Laoghaire MacKenzie’s intrigue or the fact that her son was about to meet his father for the first time.

Claire was nervous, excited, hopeful when she heard the doorbell –its usual ancient, squeaky ding dong sounding so much more cheerful knowing what, who, waited behind the brightly painted wood.  

“Jamie,” she opened the door with a tentative smile.

“Claire,” he breathed, his own lips curling upwards as he presented her with a lovely wildflower posy.

Touching her elbow lightly, Jamie bent down to kiss her cheek in greeting, his scruff tickling the sensitive skin of her face when she could suddenly feel his muscles tense, as if a current was running through his body. Looking to see what had frozen him in motion, Claire glimpsed Willie’s glowing auburn mop over her shoulder.

She took a step back from Jamie, extricating herself from his grasp to take in the clear-cut lines of his profile, the powerful set of his broad-shouldered frame as he, for the very first time, caught sight of his son.

Standing there on his long Viking legs, devilishly handsome in jeans and plaid shirt, Jamie’s dark blue eyes were fixed on a smaller pair of the same shade, mouth slightly parted in awe. Obviously lost and unsure how to proceed himself, Claire took charge of the introductions.

“This,” Claire said, stepping aside and putting a comforting warm hand on his arm to break the surreal moment, “is William. Willie, this is Jamie.” Honey eyes made contact with dark blue, seeking affirmation that it was alright to go on. When Jamie nodded, she continued without hesitation, “Your father.”

The atmosphere was thick with anticipation, Jamie and Claire were both holding their breath, waiting for William’s reaction.

She had told Willie beforehand, of course, to prepare him for this. Had sat down with him, tea and scones within easy reach, and explained everything as best she could –leaving out the perverted orchestration of misery part. Her son had seemed mildly interested, but not overly excited. He had known he had a father, of course; had known that said father had had an accident, the reason he never got to meet him. He understood the concept of a male parent, the idea of having someone else pick him up from kindergarten than his Mama, but he had never had one.

With the two of them face-to-face all of a sudden, neither knew how the boy would react, and the small, round face gave nothing away.  

“Sae, ye’re my Da?” gold-blue eyes were round with curiosity.

“Aye, I am.”

“Ye’re huge,” Willie stated the obvious without any sense of reservation –as children were wont to do– but he didn’t seem intimidated at all by the giant in front of him. Claire released a relieved breath.

“And ye’re tiny,” Jamie reciprocated.

“How did ye get sae big?”

“Guess because I always ate my neeps ‘n tatties proper, ken?”

The young boy frowned a bit, deciding whether that was a satisfying answer or not, and then reached out a small hand towards the towering stranger, still unperturbed. “I’m William. But most people call me Willie. Mama does, too.”

“It’s verra nice tae meet ye...Willie,” Jamie said, the slight pause before his son’s name was barely noticeable, but still there. “I’m James, but most people call me Jamie.”

Willie nodded, concluding the formality of introductions with a handshake as firm as a five-year-old could possibly manage, and turned to reclaim his spot on the couch, continuing to watch a documentary.

Taking Jamie’s coat, Claire encouraged him to follow and make himself comfortable while she would prepare tea and some snacks. Out of the corner of her eye, she dimly noted how gracefully he moved for a man of his size.

Claire kept to the background, moving quietly around the kitchen, wanting to give them enough space to get to know each other without her interference, or having to rely on her as a buffer or mediator. Still, she was never far, always within earshot should the need of her assistance arise. Or so she tried to convince herself. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the immense pleasure of unobtrusively observing the first coming together of father and son. Her son. But now he wasn’t just her son anymore. Now, he was also his, theirs. A smile blossomed on her lips as she watched Jamie carefully trying to engage Willie in conversation as they watched the documentary together.

From her vantage point behind the kitchen counter, Claire could tell that Jamie wasn’t exactly comfortable in his own skin just now. His posture was stiff, and when his fingers weren’t busy tapping a nervous staccato on his thigh, he was running them through his thick hair. He seemed a bit like a fish out of water, but who could blame him?

Meeting a girl in a Madeiran bar, he probably hadn’t expected anything –or anyone– to come out of their encounter, except for some fun and maybe a long-distance whatever-ship. Now, though, he found himself thrust into a position he might have wanted some time in his future, with the right woman at his side, but had not anticipated at all –confronted with an almost six-year-old miniature version of himself.

While Claire had wondered how it would be for Willie to have a father in his life innumerable times, she’d also tried to envisage how it would affect Jamie’s life. The question how he’d react to unexpected fatherhood had produced a wide array of possible outcomes over the last few years.  As a 19-year-old up-and-coming athlete, she had expected him to be distraught, angry, worried –in denial, even. Becoming a father at such a young age, with no financial means to support his surprise offspring –or the mother for that matter– wasn’t very likely to have caused anything but a dampened, disheartened spirit.

Or maybe he would have welcomed it with open arms, against all odds. Happy to be by her side, at her side. For some time, at least. Not having known him well back then –or at all, truth be told– Jamie had still struck her as the loyal, taking on his responsibilities kind of type, and she’d had a gut feeling that he would have forgone his dreams and aspirations to do what he would’ve deemed the right thing to do. And she was sure it would have led to silent resentment and pent-up frustration that could’ve easily blown up in her face. And Willie’s. So many ‘coulda, woulda, and shoulda’s’. What was done was done. Past things couldn’t be changed, but the present –and the future – could.

Now, at 25, Jamie might have a completely different outlook on fatherhood. Leading the life of a professional skier, he was hardly settled down, but definitely more mature and self-possessed. Maybe even ready to face it head-on? But was it still too much of an inconvenience that somehow needed to be implemented into his schedule and finances? Maybe just finances? What if he didn’t like Willie? What if he just wanted to meet him once, so he could say he’d done that and not feel guilty about it? Or did he truly welcome it? There was the possibility of that, too, of course. And Jamie’s desire to meet his son seemed so earnest...

It was hard to read him, though. His face was as tell-tale as a rock -inscrutable, expressing nothing but a non-committal smile. Claire continued to watch them over a cup of tea long gone cold, noticing how Jamie gradually let his guard down, allowing himself to relax into the conversation with his son as they animatedly discussed Scottish wildlife.

“Puffins!” Willie exclaimed excitedly when Jamie asked what his favourite Scottish animal was. “Mama promised we would go see ‘em fer my birthday!”

Jamie’s head jerked in her direction at that, and she almost spilled the rest of her tea down her front when he caught her staring. He didn’t seem to have noticed, though –his eyes were widened slightly with panic, but she only understood what was going on when he silently mouthed ‘when’ at her.  

Pointing at her phone, Claire indicated that she would send him the date, rather than interrupt the flow of their conversation.

            19th of April, said her text message.

With an almost imperceptible nod, Jamie signalled her that he had seen, turning his full attention back on Willie’s tale about how they had seen Porpoises at Chanonry Point the first week they had moved to Inverness.

Later, after Claire had surrendered her post at the kitchen counter deciding to make use of the time she wouldn’t have to watch or animate Willie to get some neglected chores done, she returned to the living room and joined both redheads with a freshly brewed pot of tea as they were seated on the floor around the coffee table, in the beginning stages of building a card house with a deck of cards Jamie had brought as a gift for his son.

He had thought long and hard in the days leading up to this meeting what he could possibly give the lad –without knowing anything about him save his name– that Willie might enjoy. It had finally struck him when he was sitting in his room, overthinking first-meeting-gifts-for-almost-6-year-olds, as he was playing idly with a deck of cards that accompanied him all over the globe.

Willie chewed his lower lip industriously as he was trying to add yet another level on top of their jointly built creation. She hadn’t thought that this would be an enjoyable task for a young boy still somewhat lacking in both, dexterity and patience, but Jamie insisted that they wouldn’t need the wooden blocks or colouring books, even as the fragile construction collapsed. Instead, he proclaimed himself to be a ‘card deck wizard’ after having ‘spent sae much time wi' them between training runs and bus drives’ and confirmed it with a proud smile and a rather impressive display of his ability with the cards. It was a simple enough trick from an adult perspective, but had captured Willie’s attention successfully.

“How did ye do that?” the boy asked, eyebrows almost drawn up to his hairline.

“Magic,” Jamie answered enigmatically before demonstrating another trick. Willie, spellbound by the show kept asking Jamie how he did it. “I told ye, it’s magic!”

“I ken it’s no’ that!” retorted a pouting Willie, obviously unsatisfied with the answer. “Can ye no’ tell me how ye do it?”

“I’m afraid no, lad. There’s a code of honour involved, ken? I cannae just go ‘round divulging ancient secrets tae everyone the first time I meet them.” For a second Claire thought that he had wanted to say Willie and then changed his mind. It almost seemed as if he was scared to use the name.

“Mmphm.”

Not knowing how to ease the slight tension, Jamie looked pleadingly at Claire. Taking pity on him, she moved over and stood behind Willie, ruffling his red mane affectionately and suggested in a light tone, “Maybe next time?”

The boy narrowed his eyes at that, though Jamie wasn’t sure whether it was a reaction to the hair ruffling or because he didn’t get what he wanted.

Jamie’s initial impression had been that Willie looked like a smaller replication of himself, but seeing mother and son standing side by side he could see that the difference in their colouring was misleading. It wasn’t just the golden specks in Willie’s eyes that the boy had inherited from his maternal side. He had the same pearl-like skin, the same light dusting of freckles on the bridge of his nose and cheeks. Their most striking resemblance, though, was their smile that, if it reached the eyes, made the world around them grow pale in comparison.

“Next time, then,” Willie said and stretched out his hand in invitation for a solemn shake to seal a manly promise.

“Aye, next time,” Jamie promised, swallowing the lump in his throat. So there would be a next time.

The smile that spread across his face melted away the last bit of the carefully maintained mask behind which he hid his thoughts and emotions, the sharp features of his face softened, and for a moment Claire saw the same 19-year-old lad she’d fallen for all those years ago in a bar in Madeira.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 24 – The Story of Us

The hours had flown by, despite Claire’s worries how the meeting might go. The three of them spending the afternoon in their pleasant bubble, getting to know each other while playing games. Willie had even insisted that Jamie stay for dinner –a hastily prepared pasta dish that the two redheads had polished off at an impressive speed. While she was cautious not to be too enthusiastic, she still felt the whole affair had been a success so far.

As Claire waited for Jamie to make his next move on the board –moving his piece dangerously close to one of her own– she noticed from the corner of her eye that Willie was yawning hugely, curly head drooping on his small shoulders. Fortunately, the boy still had enough presence of mind to wipe the drool off his mouth before it pooled onto the coffee table.

“Alright, that’s it, young man, off to bed,” Claire announced with practised authority as she got to her feet, rubbing some feeling back into the leg she’d been sitting on.

Before Willie could even begin to protest, he yawned again, effectively cutting off any argument he might have come up with to extend his bedtime.

Jamie watched, entranced, the small plastic figure still between his index and thumb, as Claire, her hands firmly placed on their son’s back, steered William towards his bedroom, directing him to put on his PJs and to brush his teeth. He felt a bit like an intruder, sitting there unmoving on the rug in front of the couch, his eyes following Claire and Willie’s every move as they went about their business. If someone told him that he would ever find himself wanting to watch anyone brush their teeth, he would have thought them mental. But here he was, desperate to not miss even a single thing about his son. His son. There would have been no way to prevent the smile curving his lips upwards at the thought, even if he wanted to. What a cute little bugger he was.

Not quite knowing what else to do, Jamie got up, stretching his long limbs with a luxurious yawn, thinking that just sitting and waiting there –staring like an oversized red owl– would be the weirder of alternatives. So, he walked towards the room from which Claire’s voice rang –reminding William to leave his socks in the laundry basket and not on the bathroom floor– quietly observing her.

There was an indescribable grace to her as she moved around the room –brown curls bouncing lightly with every step as curtains were drawn shut, things tidied away in passing, and the little plush puffin put on the pillow– so sure of her own place in it. This, Jamie could tell from the confident tilt of her head, the set of her shoulders, was her purpose, her calling. And he felt himself longing for the same, for a place in this. Whatever this was.

When Claire turned around and noticed Jamie standing there, leaning with his shoulder against the doorframe, she seemed startled –for a split second, honey eyes were blown wide in surprise that there was someone else in the room.

“I’m sorry, I just forgot for a minute that we weren’t alone,” she admitted, a slight pinkness tingeing her cheeks.

“I… I didnae mean tae intrude, only –,” he coughed to cover the embarrassment at having been caught staring. “Only I was wondering, ken, if there was anything I could help ye wi’?” Jamie hastily explained, his deep Scottish burr apologetic.

An understanding smile played around her lips as she approached him.

“Thank you, but no. Willie has to get ready for bed by himself. He’s old enough for that. I only make sure that the window is closed before he does. Normally, we read a couple of pages, too, but I think he’s too knackered for that tonight.”

“Ah, sure, whate’er ye say, Claire,” Jamie willingly conceded any authority on such matters to her.

Before either could say anything else, a fiery red mop of hair brushed past them around hip-level into the small bedroom. Willie, having been thoroughly fed and entertained the whole day, had his night-time routine finished in absolute record time.

“And where do you think you’re going?” Claire raised an interrogatory eyebrow at her son.

“Tae bed?” the boy responded with a puzzled expression that reminded Jamie eerily of his sister Jenny. Was this one of his own expressions, then?

“Have you flushed your manners down the toilet, William Beauchamp, or are you not saying goodbye to –,” Claire stopped abruptly, realising that she had wanted to say ‘guest’, but caught herself in time before she continued, “your father?” He wasn’t just a guest, after all. At least she put her hopes in that.

If he noticed her awkward pause, Jamie didn’t comment on it.

“I thought he was goin’ tae read tae me wi’ you?” standing next to his bed in his brontosaurus PJs and with minty breath, Willie looked expectantly from his mother to Jamie.

Claire’s eyes locked on flustered dark blue, simultaneously conveying ‘guess I was wrong about the being too knackered part’ and inviting him with a jerk of her head to take William up on the offer to join them.  

“I’d be happy tae, if ye think I’ll do,” Jamie eagerly accepted, stepping into the room with his hands in the front pockets of his jeans.

Willie made himself comfortable on the propped-up pillow, a sleepy smile fixed firmly into the soft features of his face as Claire picked a book from the shelf. Book in hand, Claire made herself comfortable next to him on the duvet and turned on the bedside lamp, gesturing to Jamie to turn off the big light and sit in the chair next to them.

A rustling of paper was followed by an intake of air. She was preparing herself, Jamie noted curiously and found himself strangely expectant. Claire’s voice was strong, but soft –like the sound of water rushing gently over a rock– as she began to narrate the story of Goodnight, Moon. Jamie could tell she was an experienced storyteller from the way the syllables dripped off her tongue like honey, capturing his attention and wrapping his mind in peaceful serenity.

He had not noticed his eyes closing, only when the silence became too loud to ignore and jerked him out of his dreamy state of mind, did he find that they were shut. He opened them to a blinding sun –only not quite. The light of the bedside lamp had hit her right orb just so that it glowed golden, bright as the sun. A light in the dimness of the room. Sorcha, his pupils dilated widely at the vivid memory of waking up screaming from a sterile darkness some seven years ago.

Just at that moment, Willie emitted a soft snore –a sure sign that the bedtime story had fulfilled its purpose– causing Claire to turn her gaze away from him, the curtain of her hair shielding Jamie’s dumbfounded expression from her.

“Goodnight, Willie,” Claire said, stroking the boy’s hair out of his cherubic face, her voice soft as a whisper.

Claire’s tenderness and the sight of his flesh and blood –softly snoring as he pressed his little puffin tightly to his tiny chest– did something indescribable to Jamie. The closest approximation to the feeling he could come up with was that it was a sensation akin to a large chunk of his heart being carved out, bit by bit, to make enough room to be filled up with moments like this –moments of grace that he knew would stay with him forever.

“Goodnight, Willie,” he breathed.

Still mesmerised by the beauty of the moment, Jamie only realised that Claire had gotten up and turned off the lamp when he felt the warm weight of her hand on his shoulder. ‘Come,’ the gentle squeeze seemed to say. Reluctantly, he tore his gaze away from the sleeping form of his son –away from the little chest moving rhythmically up and down, from the red curls sprawled out over the linen of the pillow.

Moving out of the dark room back into the brightly lit hallway, Jamie threw another glance over his shoulder, catching a last glimpse of his son –smiling innocently in his sleep– before Claire closed the door behind them.

Back in the living room, Jamie stood, a little forlorn but with a dreamy smile on his face, when Claire’s voice broke through his reverie.

“Quite the day, huh?”

His head jerked towards her, dark blue eyes still lost in thought.

“Aye, quite the day,” he agreed, running his hand through his hair.

With William safely tucked into bed and out of sight for the moment, the centre of their focus was gone and they both became hyper-aware of each other’s presence. Now, there was nothing but the two of them –and a slightly awkward tension in the air. There were still so many things left unsaid, so many things to be told, but Jamie was at a loss how to address any of it.  

“Fancy a dram?” Claire blurted out unexpectedly, saving them from a continued embarrassed silence, her hands rubbing nervously against each other.

Despite the fact that Claire never really drank, there was a bottle of a fine whisky sitting untouched in her cupboard –courtesy of befriending a whisky-lover named Brian Fraser. ‘If ye want tae live in the Hielands, a nighean, ye better have a stiff one tae offer a guest. Even if it’s jus’ tae shut ‘em up.’

“Am I a Scot?” Jamie said with a husk of a laugh, releasing a bit of the tension from his shoulders.

“Have a seat, then,” she waved her arm in a loose gesture towards the couch, moving to prepare their drinks.

Jamie did as asked and sank down on the comfortable cushions, head tilted so that he could observe her unobtrusively.

Dark blue eyes watched intently as pale, graceful fingers closed firmly around the round body of the crystal glasses as she put them on the counter. Took in the way her eyebrows furrowed in frustration and the line of her mouth tightened with effort as she was wrestling with the lid of the bottle –emitting a soft grunt of victory when it finally popped free. Watched how her shoulder rolled smoothly under the fabric of her jumper as she poured a generous amount into the glasses. The way her curls swung freely when she turned towards him again, a shy smile playing on her full lips.  

Passing him a glass, Claire’s fingertips touched the back of his hand for the blink of an eye, leaving a tingling sensation in their wake. Jamie stared at the spot where he could still feel the imprint of her unintentional touch. If she had felt anything, she didn’t let it show, though –her face was quite blank, if friendly.

“Since when do ye drink?” Jamie asked, taking an appreciative sip from his glass.

“I don’t, usually,” she began, then, realising what he had said, lifted her eyebrows in genuine surprise, “You still remember that?”

“Aye, I do,” he said, matter-of-factly, and before he could stop himself, added, “there are plenty o’ things I still remember about ye.”

As soon as the words were out, he could feel the heat rising in his cheeks. In an attempt to not let her process what he had implied, he pressed on.

“Weel, what else has changed since I last saw ye?”

“A lot,” she replied, a smirk tugging at the corner of her mouth.

“Except fer the obvious, I meant,” Jamie amended, the heat of embarrassment amplifying –so much so that he opened the first two buttons of his shirt.

For a second he thought that amber eyes had dropped to the bit of skin that showed there, but then her phone pinged, and the moment was broken when she checked who had sent the message.

“Geillis,” she said, showing him the screen. “Can’t wait to know how it went.”

A slow smile spread across his wide mouth.

“Ye’ll have tae thank her fer me someday, aye?”

“For what?” the astonishment rang clear in her question.

“Fer having chosen me tae safeguard yer phone back then.”

It was a simple enough statement, and yet it brought back so many vivid memories. The nagging worry of whether or not she would be accepted into medical school, a meddling friend who had stolen her gateway to getting that answer, fruit cocktails. A walk on the beach, fingers grazing, circling, gripping. A kiss that lead to so much more.  

Jamie was right, both of them had a lot to thank Geillis for. Which reminded her…

“Wait here,” Claire instructed as she put her almost untouched whisky on the table and leapt up from the couch, brown curls flying behind her as she was heading towards what Jamie gathered must be her bedroom.

Straightening his back, he watched with interest as she returned with something clutched to her chest. Her weight sank down into the cushion next to him again, one leg tucked beneath her, the warmth of her closer than before. Now he was able to see that it was a white book she was cradling against her breast, and he leaned slightly towards her, trying to get a better glimpse of it. A book?

Claire closed her eyes and took a deep breath, steeling herself for a moment she had been imagining for years. Then, she lay the book in his lap. Only it wasn’t –a book, that is.

Jamie took a moment to appreciate the artistic calligraphy and the title, an excited energy coursing through his veins as he run his thumb over the linen cover.

He cleared his throat, “Is this what I think it is?”

“Depends on what you think,” Claire replied with a small smile, rubbing her palms on her thighs. “If you think this is a compilation of my pathetic attempts at poetry, then, no. If you think that is a photo album of William, then, you get full marks.”

Carefully, almost gingerly, Jamie opened it.

Claire was chewing her lower lip with apprehension.

First, there was a sheet of empty space. Turning another page, the title of the album was stark in black ink against the thick, creamy paper. The Story of William Beauchamp, it read. Underneath, in less bolder lines stood the boy’s date of birth, his weight, and size. The date of his baptism, place of his birth, as well as the name of his godmother. On the bottom of the page sat two more lines, on the left it said mother –Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp written in a neat hand– but the right line that indicated the father’s name sat vacant. An emptiness that inhabited the loss of 7 years and all that went with it.

Not wanting to waste any more time on dwelling on things he couldn’t change, Jamie turned the page and gasped –a sound of awed incredulity– as he came face to face with a black and white image, the lines not quite clear, but unmistakeable.

“That was the first ultrasound,” Claire’s own breath hitched a little, the memory of hearing the sound of that first heartbeat engrained into every cell of her body.

Jamie didn’t speak, though, as dark blue eyes were darting to and fro, soaking up the images in front of him –one by one.

The ultrasounds from each appointment that Claire had dutifully scheduled and attended told the narrative of how his son’s unborn life had developed steadily in the womb, sheltered beneath his mother’s heart. These were followed by a string of photos showing the external storyline to this progression –the weekly belly profile pictures Geillis had bullied her into.

Lips parted slightly in silent admiration as he took in the changes to the curves of Claire’s body. They were subtle, going from one picture to the next, but the whole extent of it became drastic when he compared the first to the last picture. Where at first there was only the slightest concavity to her otherwise flat stomach noticeable, a roundness the size of an overgrown watermelon had taken residence in the last one. Her breasts had grown even fuller early on, swollen with nourishment for their child.

“Ye look like ye were about tae pop at any time,” he pointed at the last in the series of the pictures, where the skin over her belly seemed stretched beyond its limits.

She swatted his biceps, but chortled, “And I was, that was only 2 days before he finally decided to come out. Took his bloody time about it, too.”

“Was it a difficult birth, then?” his tone was infused with sympathy.

“Not much more difficult than you can imagine pressing something the size of that,” Claire circled the bloated midsection in the shot with a gentle finger, “out of your private parts. It was a normal birth, but it took forever, and I wanted to be quite done with the whole business weeks before.”

A light chuckle sounded from his throat as he turned to the next page and then, he froze.

There, a whole page dedicated to this one shot alone, sat the picture of her baby shower. Round and puffy at almost 8 months pregnant, Jamie could see the glow in honey eyes despite the apparent bodily discomfort. Her hair was loose and wild, curling madly and framing cheeks tinged with a rosy colour. Geillis’ had thrown an arm around her, drawing her friend close while proudly wearing her Godmother shirt, her brilliant smile only outshone by Claire’s. One pearl-skinned hand gripped Geillis’ waist while the other rested on her extended belly, holding the Godchild headlined onesie in place as she laughed. True happiness.

Neither of them voiced their unease, both horribly aware how that one snapshot had caused them both so much pain. It was a beautiful photograph, candid and real –that’s what Claire had loved about it and made it one of her fondest memories. Now, the memory of it was tainted, and she couldn’t quite bear to look at it –so she flipped to the next page.

Stealing a glance at Jamie’s face, Claire had expected to see his mask back in place, shielding any emotions from the outside world. His eyes were wide, though, staring with wonder at the coloured images of their son’s round, new-born face, swaddled in a pale-yellow blanket, slanted eyes closed in the new exhaustion of existence.

Jamie made an inarticulate sound somewhere in the back of his throat, and Claire felt the centre of gravity shifting around them. Instinctively, she scooted closer, their thighs touching at the seams of their trousers.

“Tell me about him,” he requested, his deep voice gentle as one finger was hovering over the apple of Willie’s cheek. “What was he like? What was it he first said when he began tae speak?”

“His first word was ‘Mama’,” Claire recounted, eyes alight with pride, “followed closely by ‘no’.”

“Aye, they learn that one fast,” Jamie chuckled knowingly. Registering her perplexed expression, he hastened to add, “Sae my sister tells me.”

“Ah,” she sounded relieved.

Continuing to look at each page, at each captured moment, Jamie listened attentively to all the stories that went with them.

William’s first birthday, his chubby little face covered in icing and cream after a night of colic and endless screaming that had made mother and son irritable but was forgotten the moment the wean’s eyes had lit up at the sight of the sugary treat. Snaps of a toddler with Geillis at the zoo, fat little fingers sticky with ice cream pointing excitedly at the tiger in the enclosure. A red, curly head bent towards the plush puffin seated to his right –the place of honour– deeply absorbed in a private tea party conversation. Another shot, William in neon green wellies and an oversized raincoat, prepared for torrential rain that had swept over Edinburgh some years ago on the first day of kindergarten. Dimples and a bright, gap-toothed grin dominated another image, auburn curls sticking out in all directions, as Willie was wrapped in a towel after his swimming class. The day they said goodbye to their friends in Edinburgh. An image of a small, shawled boy opening the door of a cosy cottage surrounded by a blue fence.

Reaching the end, Jamie got choked up, his eyes brimming with unshed tears.

Sae much love.

“It’s the story of William. And me, in a way,” she said, her tone higher than usual, “but I’m hoping it will be the story of you, too.”

It seemed to take everything he had to tear his gaze from the album, to raise his eyes to look at her, but he managed.

“Aye,” Jamie breathed, his voice thick with emotion. “The story of us.”

The corners of her lips twitched with a burgeoning smile, as Claire attempted to keep the tears at bay.

“So,” she blinked back one traitorous salty drop, flicking through the pages back to the beginning of the album, “I thought we should add your name here.”

A dark blue gaze followed the long line of her index finger to where it was pointing at. Name of the father. The line that still sat empty, begging to be filled.

Jamie splayed a large hand out over the page, trembling fingers not quite touching the surface, and then he turned and leaned toward her, slowly, with the improbable grace of a tall tree falling. He buried his face in her shoulder and went very quietly and thoroughly to pieces.

For a while, they stayed like that –his chest heaving under the ugly sobs that were wrecking his body while Claire drew soothing patterns on his broad back.

“I dinna ken how tae thank ye properly, Claire –,“ the words were muffled, choked.

“There’s no need to, Jamie. Your name belongs in here as much as mine.”

“That’s no’ what I meant,” he sniffed, straightening up and wiping snot into his shirtsleeve.

“Oh?”

“Fer having kept looking fer me. Fer inviting me intae yer home.” Fer giving me a child, was what he wanted to say, but found that he couldn’t, just now. “I canna even begin tae describe what today meant tae me. Meeting him. I... I dinna ken how tae do this. What I’m trying tae say is,” he broke off and inhaled deeply to brace himself for a new attempt, “I’m grateful tae ye. And I’ll no’ make ye regret letting me intae yer lives. I swear.”

His eyes were blue and serene –like a loch after a rainstorm– and Claire didn’t doubt a single word. Touched by his outburst of emotion, she bridged the distance between them again, cradling his head between her hands. She kissed his cheek, damp and salty. She could feel his heart beating against her ribs, and wanted nothing more than to stay there forever, not moving, not making love, just breathing the same air.

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She kissed his cheek, damp and salty. She could feel his heart beating against her ribs, and wanted nothing more than to stay there forever, not moving, not making love, just breathing the same air.

Chapter 25 – Connectivity

Neither said a word, communicating only through their bodies –brushing, squeezing, holding.  Chest to chest and cheek to cheek they fit each other like two neighbouring pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, anchored in the other’s embrace.

Jamie’s nose twitched a bit as wild curls continued to tickle his nose. He didn’t mind, though. Even if it was inconvenient, nothing as mundane as a bit of hair antagonising the sensitive skin around his nostrils could possibly disrupt this moment. A violent sneeze, though, could.

“ACHOO,” he felt his head involuntarily being drawn back, and then propelled forward with such momentum that his forehead connected painfully with Claire’s nose.

“Bloody fuck!” she cried out as tears were forming at the corner of her eyes, head tilted back.

“God, are ye orite, Claire?” his own pain was instantly forgotten when Jamie became aware of hers.

“I think I’ve broken my nose,” she pinched said appendage between thumb and index finger, face screwed up in pain.

“Nah, ye haven’t,” Jamie released a relieved breath when he got a better look at her. “If ye break yer nose it makes that nasty crunching sound and ye bleed like a pig,” he said with the authority of someone who knew exactly what they were talking about.

Hesitantly releasing her nose from a tight grip, Claire wiped a finger under her nose to test whether what he claimed was true. No blood. Not a single drop, actually. Don’t be such a baby, Beauchamp. She twitched and wrinkled her nose experimentally to see if it was really still in working order. While there was an aching, dull throb, the pain had already lessened substantially. The bone was intact –no fracture there. The cartilaginous tissue also seemed to be in mint condition. 

As Claire finished taking stock of the affected area, she had not expected to be confronted with a grimace. Jamie’s countenance appeared as if he were about to combust –lips were pressed tightly together, blue eyes watering, a muscle in his temple twitching, and his fair skin had turned a vivid shade of scarlet.

“Jamie, are you alright?” she gripped him firmly by the shoulders, switching into full doctor mode –honey eyes moving up and down, quickly assessing, categorising, and running through every possible diagnosis fitting the visible symptoms. Please don’t let him have a heart attack on my couch, she sent a hurried prayer to heaven. Don’t let him have a heart attack, period, she amended.  

Instead of answering her, though, his shoulders began to shake, and the corners of his mouth moved up before he burst into laughter.

“What the –?” Claire began, confusion taking over as eyebrows squished together and eyes blinked rapidly.

Her dumbfounded expression only spurred his laughter on, though.  

“Are you laughing at me?” golden eyes widened with surprise, then narrowed with suspicion.

Jamie had retreated slightly from her on the couch, bent over and still shaking with hilarity.

“I’m sae sorry,” he managed to wheeze out, wiping at his eyes, “ye looked sae much like Mr Bean at his finest wi’ those facial gymnastics ye jus’ performed.”

Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she stared him down as best she could while he was still failing to control his mirth –snorting and hooting like a red owl on too much sugar.

“Are you quite done with that?” Claire said in mock annoyance. Really, she was just glad that he wasn’t about to die on her.

“I cannae help masel’,” Jamie gasped in an attempt to explain himself in between bouts of laughter, “Ye should ha’ seen it. Twas jus’ sae close tae the original, Sassenach.”

And in that exact moment, time stopped.

Sassenach.

Outlander. They had both been, back then. In a bar at Porto Santo beach they had first been strangers, outlanders, and then Jamie and Claire. On the beach, with waves of togetherness lapping gently at their souls, they had become more. A shared legacy linked to that one term of endearment.

His laughter had died away, too, realising the shift in the atmosphere.

Without meaning to her body had moved instinctively closer to his –amber eyes gazing deep into blue, feeling his breath tickle her lips.

Then, her phone went off.

Claire jumped at the unexpected buzzing sound and made a quick grab for it before it could vibrate itself off the coffee table.

Jamie was jolted out the moment by her sudden movement but managed to compose himself enough to form coherent thoughts again.

Who was calling at such a late hour? Was that a male voice?

“Hi, no, I didn’t forget,” she said, her tone low and contrite as Claire hid her face behind a curtain of hair, turned away from him. “Jamie’s still here, I’m going to call you tomorrow, alright? Good, see you tomorrow, then. Bye.”

It had definitely been a male voice.

“Was that…um…,” he fumbled for words, red colour rising above his collar as Jamie raised the whisky to his lips.

She looked at him, one eyebrow arched knowingly, “Was that who?”

“Your…um…,” he could feel the tips of his ears burning with embarrassment as he gripped the crystal in his hand tighter, unable to meet her eyes.

“If that’s your very subtle way of asking whether that was my boyfriend, Jamie Fraser, I have to disappoint you. It was Brian, actually.”

“Who?” a line formed between his ruddy brows, wondering whether he should know a man named Brian that would call her. At night, no less.

“Your father,” she supplied helpfully, suppressing a smirk.

“Oh,” his response was sheepish, but his body stiffened.

“He wanted to know how it went.”

“Did he, now?” his throat tensed with repressed anger as Jamie stared into the amber liquid.

The low electric buzz of a kitchen appliance was the only sound for a solid minute.

“One of you will eventually have to tell me what’s happened between the two of you,” Claire began, taking a careful sip of the whisky and grimacing at the taste. “Not right now,” she clarified with an impatient wave of her hand when he was about to launch into a justification of himself, “but at some point in the near future, I expect to hear the full story. You can’t go on like this if you both want to be part of William’s life. And mine.”

“Mmphm.”

“How wonderfully responsive a people you Highlanders are sometimes,” she shook her head, brown curls swaying with the movement. “Bloody Scot.”

Despite the tension weighing on his shoulders, Jamie smiled at that and reached a tentative hand towards her, brushing a strand of wayward curls out of her face, his fingertips lightly touched the soft skin of her cheek.

“I will tell ye,” he promised, “but no’ taenight. It’s late, I should go, aye?”

“Probably,” she admitted in a low voice as her thoughts were racing wildly. The mere hint of a touch like that shouldn’t feel this good, right?

Jamie downed the last of his whisky, got up, stretched and popped his joints before walking towards the door to put his boots on. Wringing her hands, Claire stood behind him, his coat slung over her arm, ready to be handed over to him.

“Goodnight, then,” she said, attempting to swallow the reappearing nervousness his proximity caused.

“Goodnight, Claire,” he replied, one hand placed lightly, innocently in the curve of her waist as he bent to place a chaste kiss on her cheek, his scruff scraping pleasantly against skin as soft as a peach.

“Goodnight,” she whispered to herself as she watched him disappear down her driveway into the night. Her fingers immediately seeking to catch the lingering sense of his touch.

Then, she realised that she had forgotten to tell him something. Well done, Beauchamp. She stumbled down the cobbled driveway in her house slippers, calling after him. “Jamie!”

Out of the lantern lit darkness sounded his deep bass, “Sassenach? Are ye orite? What’s amiss?”

“Nothing,” she panted slightly, cursing at the pebble that had dug its way into her slipper. “I just forgot to tell you the details of Willie’s birthday party. If you want to c–.”

“O’ course,” he interjected, “I wouldnae miss it fer the world.”

A matching smile spread across both their faces, even if they couldn’t really see it in the sparsely lit street.

“It might be a bit crowded, I’m afraid,” she admitted, fearing he might be put off by that information. “Some of Willie’s playmates, of course, but also all our friends from Edinburgh are coming up.”

“That doesnae bother me at all,” Jamie assured her, his voice sincere.

“Sure?” Claire exhaled, relieved. “That’s good, then. We’ll be happy to see you there, too. It’s Saturday next and starts around 1pm. Does that work for you?”

“I’ll make it work either way.”

“Great, I’m sure we’ll be in touch before then?” her question was infused with more than simple inquisitiveness.

“Ye’re no‘ getting rid o‘ me anytime soon,“ he chuckled, but was dead serious. He would not miss out on any more of his son’s life. Nor Claire’s. His Sassenach.

“Talk soon, then,” she turned around, arms wrapped around herself to shield off the cold night air as she shuffled back to the cottage.

“Aye,” he breathed, the dark misting slightly in front of him.

“Sassenach, wait,” Jamie jogged the few steps to catch up with her again. “What…what should I give the lad fer his birthday? I dinnae…,” he ran a hand through his hair, “I dinnae ken him well enough tae get him something he’d like fer sure.”

The fact that Jamie seemed genuinely worried that Willie might not like whatever he was going to gift him was absolutely endearing to her.

“We should really learn how to communicate everything important while we’re not outside freezing our arses off,” she laughed, squeezing his arm affectionately. “Let’s talk tomorrow about some ideas, alright? I’m happy to help you, but I really need to get into bed, I have to work tomorrow.”

“Oh, aye, I’m sorry,”

“It’s alright, don’t worry. Good night, Jamie,” standing on tiptoes, Claire pecked his cheek and fastened his scarf tighter around his face.

“Night, Claire.”

Having said their last goodbyes for the night, red curls and brown turned away from each other and made their way home –one measured and careful not to stumble, the other in long, confident strides– both smiling.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 26 – Puffin Trip Part I

I’m Really Glad You’re Here

That night, Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp didn’t sleep.  It wasn’t an entirely unusual occurrence that something would rob her of precious hours of rest –be it exam nerves, a teething baby boy squealing with inconsolable pain, or worry over a patient. But it wasn’t either of those reasons this time. Tonight, was one of the few occasions that her heart was simply too full of happiness to find peace in the colourful world of dreams.

Tossing and turning, she tried with all her might to succumb to sleep, tried to partake in that blissful weightlessness where the mind conjures the most fantastical visions while the body recharges its mitochondrial batteries before the next sunrise calls it into action again. But even that sense of tranquil floating in-between, that alluring state of un-consciousness simply couldn’t compete with what Claire had witnessed today –the recovery of the missing piece in her son’s life.

Claire knew she would regret it in the morning, when her alarm would go off at 5:45 –when she had to get herself and a cranky William ready for their day. Breakfast porridge had to be made, a quick coffee brewed, and then she would have to face her colleagues and patients with at least something resembling her usual degree of professionalism.

That damned mind of hers, though, would just not quieten down –replaying the day over and over again. How Jamie’s friendly mask had crumbled for a moment when he had caught the first glimpse of Willie. Father and son beginning to form a tentative bond over their shared love for Scottish wildlife. A noisy family dinner. Building a card house together, testing the waters while competing against each other in boardgames. Light reflecting off identical auburn curls sparked liberally with copper and cinnamon as Jamie joined in their reading-before-bed ritual. Those were moments Claire knew she would be able to recall forever, safely tucked away in her heart’s memory.

But it wasn’t just those flashes of an idyllic family that kept her awake now. It was also the image of Jamie himself, his large body completely at home on her couch –long legs stretched out underneath the coffee table, an arm draped loosely over the back of the sofa– that persisted in showing up behind her closed eyelids. It was the tingling sensation when she had accidentally grazed his hand in offering him the whisky glass. Or that he had recalled she didn’t drink and his admission that he remembered ‘plenty o’ things’ about her. All the different ways he smiled –a smug smirk during a witty comeback, a bright, wide smile when he was observing Willie, and that small, shy curving of his wide mouth when his thoughts were turned inward. How he was laughing with his whole body, shoulders shaking and hooting. The sound he made when he saw the ultrasounds, or the hunger in his eyes when he asked her to tell him everything. Tasting salt on his cheeks when she kissed him there, comforting, the heat of his skin underneath her lips so startingly immediate. The urge to lean into his touch when he had brushed a strand of hair out of her face. How he had innocently called her Sassenach and the word had gone straight down to her core –rekindling a memory of salt and heat and love– and ignited something new alike. The recollection of his large hand at her waist as his scruff teased her cheek, his lips warm and gentle on her skin. It was an endless loop of precious moments, but what really kept her awake was the knowledge that she would see him again. Soon.

And just as she turned around again, in a vain attempt to see whether she might find that elusive land of dreams on the right-hand side of her bed, the screen of her phone glowed softly with an incoming message. With one eye half open Claire risked a look.

Jamie [00:27]: thank ye again for today

Without thinking, Claire grabbed the phone from the nightstand and replied right away, fingertips flying over the virtual keyboard, eyes narrowed to slits against the screen’s brightness.

Claire [00:28]: most welcome

Jamie [00:28]: shite, I didn’t mean to wake ye

Jamie [00:28]: I ken ye said ye had to work

Jamie [00:28]: so sorry about that, sassenach

Claire [00:28]: you didn’t

Claire [00:29]: wake me

Claire [00:29]: I wasn’t asleep yet

Jamie [00:29]: ye sure?

Claire [00:30]: reasonably sure, yes ;-)

Jamie [00:31]: ah, good

Claire [00:31]: I always mute my phone at night

Jamie [00:31]: wouldn’t want to be responsible for you oversleeping

Jamie [00:31]: your patients would probably stone me

Claire [00:32]: but I couldn’t sleep and saw the light

Claire [00:32]: ha, I’m picturing my hip replacement patient charging after you with his walker

Jamie [00:32]: ye couldn’t sleep?

Jamie [00:33]: does that mean I have to watch my back from now on?

Claire [00:33]: no, I was just tossing and turning

Claire [00:33]: you better, mr fraser

Claire [00:34]: why are you still up, though? tell me you didn’t just get home

Jamie [00:34]: no, I got home an hour ago

Jamie [00:34]: but I couldn’t sleep either

Claire [00:35]: why is that?

Jamie [00:35]: still too excited to sleep, I guess

Claire [00:36]: excited?

Jamie [00:36]: I’ve had one of the best days of my life

Claire [00:36]: me too :-)

Jamie [00:36]: :-)

Jamie [00:36]: when do ye get off work?

Claire [00:37]: 3:30 ish

Claire [00:37]: depending on how the surgery goes

Jamie [00:38]: the hip replacement?

Claire [00:38]: the very same

Jamie [00:39]: could you do me a favour?

Claire [00:39]: depends

Jamie [00:40]: could ye not do your best in the surgery?

Claire [00:40]: ? O.o

Jamie [00:40]: give me a fair fighting chance

Jamie [00:41]: if that old bastard is going to chase and stone me, I don’t want to be at a disadvantage

Jamie [00:41]: :-)

Claire [00:41]: you’re an idiot

Claire [00:41]: :p

Jamie [00:42]: I ken

Jamie [00:42]: :-)

Jamie [00:42]: this idiot is going to call ye tomorrow after work then?

Jamie [00:42]: if that’s alright with you?

Claire [00:42]: I shall allow it

Claire [00:43]: this time

Claire [00:43]: ;-)

Jamie [00:43]: m’lady is far too generous

Claire [00:44]: m’lady will give sleep another chance as the cock crows in 5h

Jamie [00:44]: goodnight, then, fair lady

Claire [00:44]: goodknight

Claire [00:45]: ;-)

Jamie [00:45]: hehe. sleep well, Sassenach

Claire [00:45]: you too, Jamie

With a smile edged firmly into the soft lines of her face, Claire fell finally asleep.  

*****

The days that followed passed in a hectic swirl of everyday responsibilities –keeping her home clean, her son fed, her patients content. While there hadn’t been time to organise another meeting with Jamie during the week, he had called every single day before Willie’s bedtime –first talking a couple of minutes to his son alone, then joining in the nightly reading routine via video call. It wasn’t quite the same experience, of course, but it was still lovely to have him there with them, even if it was only on a phone screen. Afterwards, when William was fast asleep and Claire had time for herself, a good book, and a fresh pot of tea before her own bedtime, they had texted each other for hours. More often than not, the book Claire had intended to continue reading that night lay completely disregarded next to her, a bookmark wedged between the pages where she had eventually given up the pretence that she was paying attention to anything other than her phone.

It had started with his call on Wednesday, requesting her help to find a good birthday present for a son he hardly knew. Bouncing ideas off each other for a solid half hour –nothing seeming quite right– while said son was otherwise occupied and didn’t pay attention to his mother’s conversation, Claire had made the careful suggestion that Jamie could join them on what Willie excitedly called ‘the Puffin trip’.

“Ye wouldnae mind me there?”

“Of course not,” she assured him with a smile in her voice.

“But, that was something the two o’ ye wanted tae do fer a while. I dinna want tae impose.”

“Jamie, I invited you, therefore I would not mind your being there,” Claire reasoned.

“If ye’re sure,” his voice was still a bit hesitant, but the wish to spend time with them was much stronger than any inhibitions he might have harboured.

“I am. We are going this Saturday since we’ll have the party next week, and I can’t make a trip like that during the week. Does that work for you?” her question was light, but hopeful.

“Aye, I can make Saturday. Training resumes on Monday, so I have the whole weekend tae maself.”

“Oh, if that’s your last free weekend,” she began but was cut off mid-sentence.

“There’s nothing I’d rather do wi’ ma last vacation days,” Jamie said in a tone that brooked no question of whether he meant it.

“Oh,” her cheeks flushed pink, “that’s lovely.”

To avoid what was about to develop into a moment of awkward silence, Jamie remarked, “Ye havenae told me yet where ye intend tae find the puffins.”

“True,” she coughed as the colour in her face intensified. “I researched a bit and VisitScotland claimed that Lunga, would probably the best option close to us right now.”

“Lunga?” he asked, his deep burr carrying a hint of surprise, “as in off the Isle of Mull?”

“The very one, why?”

“Ye ken that’s o’er four hours by car, Sassenach? Plus twa ferry rides?”

“Ehm…no. I did not. I only checked the miles and didn’t think it would take that long,” Claire admitted in a slightly abashed tone.

“Weel, if ye’re no’ on the big connecting roads, it takes a lot longer tae get through the countryside. I’m used tae being in a car fer sae long, but I think Willie might no’ be such a big fan o’ spending almost 9 hours wi’ no’ much tae do?”

Claire snorted into her phone, “Hell, I’m not even sure I am a big fan of spending so much time in the car in one day. And the little bean sure won’t be, he gets nauseous easily.”

“Like his da, then,” Jamie chuckled.

“I knew he didn’t get that from me,” she chuckled, too. “Wait, does that mean I’m going to be stuck with two men unable to keep their insides in check?”

That prospect certainly wasn’t an enticing one.

“Dinnae fash, Sassenach,” he said, and she could hear his smile, “my wame might be ma weak spot, but I have plenty o’ medication tae tame it. And it doesnae bother me at all when I’m the one who's driving.”

“Good to know.”

“I can hear the cogs turning from way o’er here, Claire,” he joked.

“Well, I was thinking how we should best do this if it’s such a long drive. We will have to take some breaks for Willie, too.”

“Aye, it’ll probably closer tae 5, 5 and a half hours then?”

“That sounds about right. And the daylight hours are still pretty sparse, so that would mean driving most of that time in the dark too,” her earlier excitement was audibly diminished.  

“Sorry, I didnae mean tae crash yer plans.”

“I’d rather know right now and find a solution to that problem than finding myself stuck somewhere in the dark on a single-track road with two whiny passengers.”

The more Claire thought about it, the less appealing the whole endeavour seemed to become. At least until inspiration struck.

“What d’ye mean by two?” his intonation rose in mock affront, “D’ye include me in that assessment?”

“I am,” Claire laughed heartily, “fickle species, men.”

“Mmphm. How on earth do ye women put up wi’ us?”

“Don’t I ask myself the same question every single day? Guess you must have some qualities after all.” Another chuckle travelled through her phone to his. “Anyway,” she continued, resuming a more business-like manner, “how about we make it a weekend trip then? We could spend a night somewhere on Mull and make the drive home on Sunday after breakfast. That way I can be sure my men won’t starve.”

Jamie swallowed. My men, she had said. “Aye,” he breathed. “I’d like that verra much.”

“Perfect.”

“And how do we get there, Sassenach?”

“Well, I asked to borrow Brian’s car for Saturday, but I know he needs it on Sunday, so we would have to find an alternative,” Claire mused, index finger tapping her chin.   

“Let me take care o’ transportation,” Jamie suggested, “and you can find us a place tae stay, aye? That way I can really contribute tae the trip and no’ just be passenger.”

“That’s a wonderful idea, Jamie.”

“Deal, then?”

“Deal,” she agreed happily.

From that phone call onwards, their communication had steadily increased. A quick phone call turned into a lengthy conversation about their favourite Late Night talk show hosts –hers John Oliver, his Stephen Colbert, neither liked Jimmy Kimmel much– and short texts to confirm one detail or another about their ‘puffin trip’ turned into a steady flow of messages running back and forth between them. Texting with Jamie was so much fun. There was an easy intimacy, a seemingly natural banter between the two of them.

This form of secluded communication also gave them the opportunity to build a relationship without the pressure of an external situation forcing them to be mother and father searching for a way to navigate that strange context in which they found themselves. In this, the weight of expectation was lifted off their shoulders. In text, they could be simply Jamie and Claire. And Claire found that she rather liked that.

The weekend trip to Lunga –intended to keep a promise she’d made to her son– was something she was now looking forward to with an excitement that was slightly disconcerting. Saturday morning just couldn’t come fast enough.

*****

When Saturday arrived after a week of late nights spent texting, agreeing to an early start didn’t seem like such a brilliant idea anymore. Claire fought to keep her eyes open while smearing butter and jam on toast. What the hell had she been thinking?

William, who had talked incessantly and enthusiastically about the trip the whole week –hardly able to contain the giddy energy spiked by sense of impending adventure– was not helping much either; small back turned away from his mother’s gentle but insistent coaxing, the auburn mop hid underneath the duvet, thoroughly uncooperative to her endeavour to get him to leave his sanctum. Only the threat of ‘being left behind while his Mama and his plush puffin went to see real puffins without him if he didn’t join them for breakfast now’ was a convincing enough argument for the little boy to get up at last.

“Pffns?” Willie mumbled sleepily as he let himself be led towards the kitchen table, rubbing sleep out of his eyes somewhat unsuccessfully.

“Yes, lovey, puffins,” Claire promised. “Come on, have a bite of toast, you can sleep in the car.”

While her son nibbled on his liberally jam-lathered toast without much enthusiasm, Claire checked for the third time whether she had thought to pack everything necessary –change of clothes, phone charger, raincoat(s), wellies, sandwiches and snacks, sunglasses, reservation details for the Bed and Breakfast. Everything there, same as it had been last night. Just as she was about to consult the kitchen clock for the time, she heard that distinct sound of an engine being cut off, followed by a heavy car door being closed with as much care as the early hour dictated. Had she needed another clue that Jamie was about to knock on her front door besides the fact that she could see his tall form walking up to her house, illuminated from behind by the headlights of the car, the crunching of pebbles underneath his feet would have tipped her off.

She opened the door to reveal an irritatingly bright countenance that showed no sign of having had a too short night –no circles underneath his eyes, no wrinkles from a mussed-up bedsheet. That damn man looked as fresh as a daisy.

“Please tell me you’re not one of those obnoxious morning people?” her tone was light but dripping with open distaste for people who could switch into full-function-mode a second after their alarm went off.

He dismissed the sentiment with a shrug, “Jus’ used tae being up early.”

“How can you possibly look so bloody,” Claire fumbled for the right word, her mind still clouded by residual sleep, then settled on, “human at this ungodly hour then?”

“I’m jus’ used tae weird travelling hours –part o’ the job, ken,” Jamie explained, shrugging, as he followed her invitation to come inside, not bothering to take off his shoes this time. “Are ye quite ready yet?”

“Five minutes, I’m just going to finish my tea if you don’t mind?” At the shake of his head she returned to the still lightly steaming mug on the kitchen counter. “William, did you see who’s here?”

“Wossat?” sounded the sluggish response from a small head perched on the kitchen table, only one eye open.

“I said ‘did you see who’s here’, lovey,” Claire repeated, smoothing his riotous curls with gentle fingers.

“Mornin’, Willie,” Jamie joined them at the kitchen table. From the way his large hand was hovering over the boy’s shoulder, Claire could tell that Jamie would have liked to touch him, too, but was apparently still too timid to initiate physical contact between them.

“Mmphm,” the eye closed as Willie’s breathing became heavy and slow.

“The lad’s definitely no’ a morning person, then?” Jamie’s wide mouth curled into a smile.

“Neither of us is,” Claire affirmed, giving Jamie a side-eye of warning for him to better tuck that information away for future knowledge while clearing the dishes. ”Alright, I think we’re good to go. Would you take Willie?”

“Take him?” dark blue eyes widened with surprise.

Before Jamie could ask, she clarified, “Carry him to the car and strap him in. I’d rather not wake him again.”

“Oh, sure,” he coughed, running a slightly nervous hand through his hair. He’d never carried a bairn before, let alone his son, but Jamie was determined not to let his nerves about such a trivial matter show. Luckily, Claire was too busy readying herself to leave the house to notice his hesitation.

Deciding there wasn’t all that much that could go wrong, Jamie lifted Willie off the chair with a firm grip underneath his armpits, hoisting his son’s skinny frame onto his left hip and holding him close to his own body. William’s round face scrunched up in a small frown as he came into contact with the unfamiliar sensation of stubble against his cheek but settled quickly back into a comfortable position with his curly head tucked into the junction where Jamie’s neck and shoulder met, sighing contentedly.  Jamie eyes closed in bliss at the feeling of hot, wet breath against his neck, the dead weight of his sleeping offspring balanced on his hip, legs dangling around his thighs. When he opened his eyes again, he found that Claire was staring at him –at them– with an unreadable expression. As soon as gold locked on blue, though, it changed. A dazzling smile blossomed on her lips, touching every inch of her face –crinkling her glowing golden eyes and dimpling her left cheek– leaving James Fraser with no doubt that he would gladly do anything to see her smile like that again. The current of silent understanding and appreciation of this between them was only interrupted when Claire spoke.

“I’m really glad you’re here.”

“I’m glad o’ it, too, Sassenach,” Jamie echoed, feeling his lips part in a matching smile.

Another moment passed in which they merely looked at each other, amber losing itself in blue.

“Ready?” she asked then, eyes alight with excitement, still smiling.

“Aye,” he replied, “ready.”

They made their way to the car, Claire balancing the heavy bag on her shoulder and stowing it in the trunk as Jamie stepped carefully, not wanting to jostle his precious cargo too much.

“Did you get the car seat?” Claire asked from behind the black SUV jeep as Jamie caught up with her.

“Aye, I got one like ye described from the rental company in the back. Cost me a small fortune, too, those buggers. Jus’ open the door fer me, aye?” he requested as he shifted Willie’s weight to his other hip. “The lad’s got a good weight on him, ye wouldnae think sae jus’ looking at him.”

“I know,” Claire said in a slightly wistful tone, throwing him a sympathetic look as she came around to open the door for him, “he’s actually getting too heavy for me to carry around.”

Jamie positioned Willie carefully in the seat but let Claire’s sure fingers do the work of securing him in it. With nothing else left to do, they exchanged a look that said let’s go.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 27 – Puffin Trip Part II

All Kinds of Love

The low thrum of the engine roared to life when Jamie turned the key in the ignition, and with it, the radio turned on as well, breaking the quiet of the grey morning hours with the gentle pan flute tunes of What’s Love Got to Do With It.

As Jamie moved to turn it off, Claire’s hand stopped him, the warmth of her touch light on his skin.

“Leave it,” she requested. “I really like that song.”

“Are ye sure? What about the bairn? Will he no’ wake up?” he asked, gesturing to the sleeping boy in the back with a jerk of his head.

“William doesn’t sleep, he hibernates. As long as he has his plush puffin, he can sleep through anything –even a fire alarm," the recollection of that particular memory elicited a snort from her.

As they turned out of her driveway and towards their destination, Claire mouthed silently along to one of Tina Turner’s best-known songs, losing herself in the passion of it until Jamie’s chuckle caught her off-guard, a furious blush rising in her cheeks as she realised where she was and that he had a really good view of her recreating the queen of rock’s facial expressions.

“Dinnae keep quiet on ma account, Sassenach,” he smiled in that lopsided way of his, encouraging her to sing out loud. “I cannae carry a tune tae save ma own life, but I still love singing along.”

Claire coughed, shifting a bit uneasily in her seat, not quite convinced that she would be comfortable singing without inhibition next to anyone really. But when Jamie’s bass began to croon passionately

You must understand though the touch of your hand
Makes my pulse react
That it's only the thrill of boy meeting girl
Opposites attract

demonstrating no reserve at all despite the fact that he was –quite frankly– as dreadful as he had claimed, Claire decided to not give a fuck and joined in, both of them following Tina’s lead as they sang along

It may seem to you that I'm acting confused
When you're close to me
If I tend to look dazed I've read it someplace
I've got cause to be

When the song ended with another hearty belting of ohohhhh what's love got to do, got to do with it, Jamie finished off with a finger-drum solo on the steering wheel. Claire turned to him, smiling brightly, “I’m impressed that you know the full lyrics to that song, Fraser.”

“Who d’ye think put it on the playlist, Sassenach?” he grinned right back at her, as far as was possible with both eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead.

The car drive itself was uneventful but thankfully passed by a lot quicker than Claire had thought it would. Jamie was great company –effortlessly switching between animated conversation and comfortable silence– making the trip along the west coast quite enjoyable, not just because of the scenery. As predicted, Willie had slept through most of it, despite his parents’ enthusiastic musical renditions along the way, and they had to stop only once to quieten their growling bellies with well-deserved sustenance.

They made it to the observation point at Lunga shortly after 11 o’clock. Having parked their car at the visitor centre and wrapping themselves in windbreakers to ward off the worst of the vicious blasts blowing in from the Atlantic sea, they embarked on the ferry to make their way toward the puffins’ off-shore breeding grounds.

Willie, being well-rested after napping through most of the journey through the beautiful Scottish landscape, was unable to contain his excitement any longer now that they had finally arrived. He grabbed his mother’s hand and dragged her along, Jamie close behind. ‘Can ye no’ walk faster?’ his lower lip stuck out in a pout, exasperated that his parents would not quicken their leisurely pace.

With each step closer to the colony, the noise level around them intensified, swelling to a cacophony of love-drunk birds serenading their chosen mates with pig-like grunts and flicked-back heads, the squeaking demands of hungry chicks sounding from their dark, damp burrows, and growling mating calls that sounded like more like muffled chainsaws than enticing invitations for an amorous tête-à-tête .

Completely unfazed by the racket that surrounded them, Willie was in his element –wide-eyed and eager– he absorbed the mayhem in front of him with scientific fascination. Even though Claire would freely admit that she might be a little biased when it came to her son, she couldn’t help but be awed by how much her little fellow knew about the comical creatures.

“They return in April tae their breeding ground, did ye ken that?” small fingers pointed at a particularly clumsy exemplar making his awkward landfall in the midst of the black-and-white-bodied assemblage.

“Aye, jus’ in time fer yer birthday,” Jamie added, smiling down at his son, receiving a brilliant, gap-toothed grin in return.

Sensing that there was another thread being woven in the tapestry that was father and son creating a bond, Claire kept to the background. She threw in the occasional comment or two, taking advantage of the opportunity to stealthily take some pictures of the two red-heads bent towards each other –excitedly chatting with almost identical conspiratorial smiles on their faces as they observed the puffins that were, quite fittingly, referred to as ‘clowns of the sea’.

“Look, look,” Willie tugged at Jamie’s sleeve, animatedly gesturing at a point not too far off to their right. “A puffling!”

As if on cue, a tiny, feathery thing with black eyes and a minuscule beak, all dark and fluffy, craned its little neck in their direction, calling for its mother.

“And there’s it’s Mam,” Jamie directed their attention to an incoming bird, its colourful beak laden with sandeels. “The record fer the most fish in a puffin’s beak are 61 sandeels. I think this one might no’ have as much but looks like a decent catch tae me.”

An amused smirk tucked at the corners of Claire’s mouth, “Keeping track of puffin records, Fraser?”

“Sure do, Sassenach,” he answered with a boyish grin curving the seam of his lips.

“Whassa Sassenach?” Willie chimed in, his round face tilted upwards with curious interest.

“Och, ehm…,” the tips of Jamie’s ears went bright pink, “it’s a wee term o’ endearment fer yer Mam. It means ‘Outlander’ or ‘Englishperson’.”

“Am I a…,” the boy tested the word carefully on his tongue, “Sassenach, too, then?”

“No, ye’re no’.”

“Why no’?”

“Because ye’re a Scot,” Jamie explained patiently and pointed at his own chest, “like me.”

Small ruddy brows drew together in contemplation, “But if Mama is a Sassenach, and I’m half Mama… I’m a half-Sassenach? A hassenach?”

Unable to contain it any longer, a burst of laughter broke from Claire’s throat. “That’s exactly what you are, lovey –a,” another snort, “…hassenach!”

“Aye, a hassenach, then,” Jamie’s lips pressed tightly together in an attempt to suppress his own laughter, squeezing Willie’s shoulder affectionately.

“Alright, lads,” Claire clapped her hands together, her shoulders still shaking a bit with mirth, “we should go if we want to catch the next ferry.”

Persuaded by the prospect of warm, buttery scones, Willie didn’t protest much as they made their way back to the ferry, leaving the merry puffin chaos behind.  The day had been a total success, that much was obvious for everyone who cared to look –auburn curls bouncing as Willie sucked intently on a lemon drop.

A few feet behind him, Jamie was beaming with paternal pride, “That lad is far too bright fer his own good.”

“He is,” Claire agreed readily, her own voice laced with motherly delight. “But how on earth did you become a bloody puffin expert? Are you a secret ornithologist?”

Dark blue eyes twinkled mischievously, “Nah, I jus’ ken how tae use Google.”

That comment earned him a hard slap on his upper arm. “Smartass.”

“But ye like me jus’ fine,” the rising inflection at the end of the statement left it open to interpretation whether it was a question or not.

Claire looked at the tips of her shoes, a soft smile half-hidden behind a curtain of brown locks.

“I do,” she stated simply, not looking at him.

Jamie didn’t react audibly to her admission, but there was a definite swagger in his step afterwards.

As they continued to walk on the pebbled path to the ferry dock, Jamie mentioned in a casual manner, “I ken another puffin fact.”

“Is that so?” Claire raised a challenging eyebrow.

“Aye.”

“Enlighten me,” the dare was delivered with a playful smile.

“They mate fer life,” Jamie offered, his cheeks pinking slightly underneath the red scruff. “Verra loyal wee creatures, ye ken?”

“Seems like it.”

“What about you, Sassenach?” he inquired nonchalantly, keeping his gaze fixed on the back of Willie’s head, not quite brave enough to meet her piercing glance.

“What about me?” Claire pretended to have no idea what he was getting at.

“I ken ye already have a puffling…,” he cleared his throat, “but have ye also found yer puffin fer life already?”

“Though I promote and support all kinds of love, I can’t say I’m much for inter-species relationships myself,” she deflected in a playful tone. “If what you really wanted to know is if I’m in a serious relationship, though –no.”

He risked a quick glance at her profile, assessing whether it was safe to continue, “Sae ye’re in an unserious one?” 

“You seem overly curious about my relationship status today, Fraser,” Claire remarked, arching an eyebrow in invitation to explain himself.

“Weel,” he rubbed the back of his neck vigorously, “it’s jus’ that I dinnae ken who’s going tae be at Willie’s birthday party next week, and I didnae…I wanted tae be prepared, is all.”

Reasonable enough, Claire thought, but couldn’t dismiss the tiny spark of hope settling in her belly, that maybe –just maybe– there was another motive behind his inquiries into her love life.

“No,” she offered the simple enough truth without further delay. He looked at her then, and for one heartbeat Claire imagined she could see the same hope reflected in his fathomless blue irises. “What about you? Is there a puffy damsel that has managed to secure you as her personal hunter-gatherer slash nest guardian?”

“No,” Jamie released a nervous chuckle, “I’m no’ involved wi’ anyone either. Alpine skiing is no’ exactly the kind o’ lifestyle that comes wi’ a lot o’ female attention.”

“No?”

“No,” he repeated with emphasis and Claire was quietly pleased with that titbit of information.  Then, added teasingly, “Unless ye’re in Austria, o’ course.”

Claire’s face scrunched up in confusion, “I beg your pardon?”

A deep laugh sounded from Jamie’s broad chest, causing William to look back at them before resuming his momentary exploration of a pink shell on the path. 

“Austria is probably the only country where people actually take notice o’ skiers. They have a sort o’ celebrity status there.”

“Really?”

“Aye, I think the love o’ skiing there is maybe similar to the Scots’ love fer single malt.”

“Oh, quite unreasonably passionate then,” she ribbed.

“Aye, maybe so,” his lips jerked into a smile.

They continued strolling down towards the ferry in silence, making way for other people and walking close together –hands, elbows, and shoulders brushing every second step or so. The amiable chatter of other puffin spectators waiting for their return ferry ride could be heard in the distance when Jamie suddenly stopped in his tracks –the cease of the sound of crunching pebbles under his long stride a non-verbal signal for her to stop and look questioningly at him. Before Claire could ask what the matter was, he spoke, his expression disarmingly open and earnest.

“Taeday was…special, Claire. Thank ye fer inviting me along.”

“There’s no need to thank me, Jamie,” she took his hand in hers, marvelling at the familiar feel of it, and squeezed, “I’m glad you got to be here with us.”

Neither got the chance to fully process the thrilling sensation of rough calluses moving against delicate bones, though, as an unsuspecting almost-6-year-old barged into their moment, breaking their physical contact. 

“If ye’re scared o’ the boot ride, Mama, I can hold yer hand, too!” Willie chirped happily, grasping his mother’s right hand. Then, with an assertive glance at his giant of a father, took hold one of the large paws as well. Jamie’s eyes widened at the unexpected touch, then creased into blue triangles of pleasure.

“Higher!” William was squealing with delight as he swung between his parents.

They had almost made it to the dock, still holding hands and smiling goofily, when an elderly couple passed them by and commented what a bonnie wee family they made. Jamie decided to simply play along and thanked them, the colour in his cheeks rising noticeably as he did so.

On the boat –the steady tuck tuck of the ancient engine in their ears, the salty wind whipping their hair about, and a napping Willie sprawled out over his seated parents– downcast blue eyes turned to Claire.

“I’m sorry if I overstepped a boundary back there, but...,” he trailed off, rubbing his neck.

“No, no... that’s quite alright,” it had, in fact, been more than alright for her to hear him claim them as his family, even if it was just to avoid awkwardly explaining the whole convoluted situation of their parenthood to perfect strangers.

“Ye sure? I really didnae mean tae impose or anything.”

“I am sure,” she smiled reassuringly at him, brushing a wayward curl out of William’s sleeping face, producing a sweet smile on the boy’s face. “It’s not like it was wrong. We are a family –even if it’s a tad unconventional one.”

Jamie’s eyes were glinting with affection as he leaned in closer, watching the tender movement of Claire’s hand.

“Aye, we are,” his voice was hoarse with emotion as he reached out hesitantly, the pad of an index finger tracing the apple of his son’s cheek. He hadn’t really expected anything to happen, but when the boy’s lips curved upwards at his touch, Jamie’s heart surged with a love fiercer than anything he had ever known.

*****

A couple of hours later, saturated by mouth-watering steak pies, mash and bangers, and the promised scones, the three of them finally turned into the car park of their bed and breakfast. There was no need to communicate the distribution of roles; while Claire managed their overnight bags and locked the jeep, Jamie –clearly better developed in the muscle department– took charge of carrying a happily-exhausted William, scooping the boy up like it was second nature to him, without any sign of trepidation this time.  

The quaint cottage B&B had come highly recommended by previous guests and was said to have a stunning view of the ocean. While it did make good on that promise, there was another, definitely unexpected surprise waiting for them.

Claire, key in hand and one bag slung over each shoulder, walked ahead and opened the door for Jamie so he could put William down on a bed right away. Not anticipating the huge Scot to freeze in his steps, though, she bumped face first into his solid back, her nose protesting at the impact.  He stood rigid, William still hanging limply in his arms.

“What the…?” she cursed under her breath.

“Ehm,” Jamie coughed, still not moving.

“Are you going to make a move anytime soon, Fraser? These bags are heavy–”

“What kind o’ room did ye book, Claire?” the question sounded queer, but not as much as the fact that he was still blocking the way.  

“What do you mean ‘what kind of room did I book’? irritation was creeping into her tone as she squeezed past him, bags swinging heavily. Then, she realised what he was getting at, “Oh.”

“Aye, it’s…ehm,” Jamie coughed again, flustered, “a wee cosy, no’?”

Cosy’ was not the word Claire would have used to describe the room she found herself in.

It was the singular most blatantly romantic hotel room she had ever set foot in. Not that Claire had participated in a lot of romantic getaways, but still, one had certain preformed notions about such things –in her case, based on movies, mostly. There was a not insignificant number of candles, for one, thick, plush carpets in creamy tones, and some rather explicit –if tasteful– paintings mounted on the wall. An expensive looking golden brocade bedspread complemented the way-too-many pillows on a bed that had been generously decorated with rose petals. All of that could have been overlooked, if it hadn’t been for the fact that it was the only bed available.

“I didn’t book this,” Claire gestured a bit helplessly at the almost offensively romantic interior design. “There must have been a mistake.”

“Aye, probably,” Jamie concurred, but a smirk tugged at the corners of his lips. “But if ye wanted tae share a bed wi’ me, Sassenach, all ye had tae do was ask.”

Claire stared at him open-mouthed, the heat of embarrassment –and something else entirely– blooming in her chest. Deciding the best way to cover her momentary discomposure was to go on the offensive, she deposited their bags on the floor.

“Oh, is that so?” an eyebrow was arched in challenge as twinkling honey eyes fixed on blue. Lowering herself slowly on to the bed of roses, Claire crossed her legs seductively and leaned back on her hands, putting her very feminine features on display, “Why don’t you join me then, Fraser?”

Seeing his Adam’s apple bob forcefully was more gratifying –and arousing– than Claire would have deemed possible. The heat continued to spread through her system as she waited for Jamie to react, hoping her tendency to blush wouldn’t give her away.

It might have been the changing lights outside, but his eyes seemed darker now. And for one agonisingly long second, she had the distinct feeling that if it hadn’t been for Willie still sleeping completely oblivious in his arms, he might have taken her up on her bluff.

“That’s what I thought,” she straightened up again when he still hadn’t moved a muscle except for the slight twitch in his jaw, victorious grin plastered on her fair face. “I’ll go tell the reception clerk that we appreciate their effort, but that we’d rather have the room we booked.”

“Mmphm,” he made a non-committal Scottish noise to mask his flustered state.

Claire grunted slightly as she shifted the bag straps back on to her shoulder. You need to re-evaluate what counts as ‘necessity’ for a daytrip, Beauchamp. She was halfway out of the door when Jamie –having recovered his cool– stopped her with a question.

“Should I stay here wi’ the lad or do ye want me tae come wi’ you?”

“I have no idea how long this is going to take,” Claire grunted as she wrestled a strand of hair out from under one of the straps that was cutting into her shoulder, “you better put him down, your arms must be getting tired. I’ll come and get you once I’ve settled everything.”

“Orite, ye could leave the bags then, mind.”

“Oh,” realising that he had a point, Claire set the bags down again, “you’re quite right.”

“Aye, wonders never cease,” he teased, laying Willie gently on the bed. “We’ll wait here, then.”

“Be back as fast as I can,” Claire promised with a smile over her shoulder.

As Jamie watched the bags bounce against each other at her side, hearing her mutter and curse as she stalked down the hallway towards the reception, he leaned down to his son’s face and whispered, “D’ye ha’ any idea how lucky ye are lad? Ye’ve one hell o’ a mother.”

*****

It had, in fact, not taken longer than a couple of minutes for Claire to take care of the ‘room situation’. She had barely made it to the reception desk, when the clerk already approached her and started to apologise profusely for his mistake –‘Sae sorry, ma’am, I should ha’ realised that it couldnae ha’ been the right room wi’ only the one bed fer you and yer husband and the bairn. That comment had her swallow her frustrated complaint and tinged her cheeks with a rose colour –it had been the second time in one day that someone had mistaken them for a couple. A married one, even. A bit preoccupied with the realisation that this didn’t seem to put her off –rather the contrary, really– she paid only half-attention to the young man’s assurances that they would get breakfast for free for suffering such an inconvenience.

After checking that the new room was indeed what she had booked for the night –it was– Claire made her way back to retrieve her men. The sight that greeted her as she re-entered that sickeningly romantic suite was too sweet to disrupt, though, so she hovered in the doorway for a minute, soaking it up and committing it to memory. Jamie’s large frame was propped against the mountain of pillows, eyes closed in relaxation, flaming curls vivid against the pastel-shaded material, and long shanks outstretched as Willie snuggled into him, small ribcage moving rhythmically up and down. Only the sound of her phone camera caused Jamie to open his eyes, startled.

Claire threw him an apologetic look and whispered, “I couldn’t resist.”

“That’s orite, Sassenach. Did ye get our room sorted, then?” he replied in an equally low voice, smiling.

At her nod, he carefully extricated himself from Willie and got up, stretching himself leisurely.

“Grab the bags and leave the way, aye?” he said, bending his knees to lift his son into his arms again.

*****

Finally finding themselves in the correct lodgings for the night, Claire made quick business of changing William into his jammies and tucking him into bed while Jamie went to take a shower. Only when the boy began to emit soft, impatient grunts, and patted searchingly on the pillow, did she realise that she had forgotten the little plush puffin in her bag, which was currently –and most inconveniently– situated behind closed bathroom doors. While her son did have a rather deep sleep in general, he needed his favourite stuffed companion at his side if it was to stay so.

“Jamie?” she called hesitantly, not daring to raise her voice too much.

There was no response, but she could hear the faint rush of water from the shower. Knocking on the door also didn’t produce an answer –unsurprisingly so. Deciding that it wouldn’t hurt to try, she pushed the handle down, finding that it was indeed unlocked. Claire stood, hand gripping the brass tightly as she weighed her options. Waiting for Jamie to finish his shower meant risking a cranky, reluctant to go back to sleep Willie. On the other hand, barging into the bathroom and potentially violating Jamie’s privacy to get the plushie would ensure a rested version of her son that made a 5 hour journey a very attractive alternative. And if she were quick enough, he might not even notice…

Another grunt from the bed propelled her into action. On impulse, Claire pressed the handle down with care, so as not to make a noise and draw attention to her intrusion. She slipped into the bathroom on quiet toes, feeling rather like a criminal in doing so. While contemplating the possible consequences of either options, she had not noticed that the shower had been turned off. Just as she had recovered her bounty and turned around to make a stealthy exit, Jamie stepped out of the shower cabin. From the corner of her eye she could see him –a fluffy towel wrapped around his waist and droplets of vestigial water clinging to the curly hair on his chest.

Holy mother of all that is good.

“Oh,” blue eyes blew wide at the sight of her.

Claire coughed, glancing helplessly about for an adequate response, and –thankfully– finding it gripped tightly in her left hand. She turned to face him and lifted the little plush puffin in front of her chest, wiggling it.

“I…I forgot the plushie in my bag,” she explained hastily, her cheeks burning with mortification, “I just wanted to grab it real quick and –“

“Mmphm,” Jamie’s cheeks were flushed, the knuckles of his hand turning white where he held the towel in place.

“I’m so sorry, Jamie, I didn’t mean to invade your privacy,” she began to apologise, looking everywhere but his eyes –terrified to find repulsion there– fixing on the mirror behind his back, and gulping.  

“Dinnae fash, Sassenach,” he replied in his usual warm bass, jerking her gaze back from the reflection in the mirror, “ye best get that puffin tae Willie, or yer plan might go tae waste altaegether, no’?”

Realising that he was right, Claire gratefully took that excuse to rush out of the bathroom. She deposited the plush animal right next to William and slid down to the floor, her back resting against the other bed as she watched her son snuggle deeper into the pillows –her mind somewhere else completely.

Jamie emerged from the bathroom not much later, auburn mop curling madly with moisture, clad in an old grey t-shirt and low-hanging tartan pyjama bottoms. Depositing his toiletry bag on the nightstand, he walked around the bed to sit down next to Claire, who was still staring at her sleeping offspring, but not really seeing.

“Puffin crisis averted then, aye?”

The question jolted Claire out of her trance, and she blinked stupidly at him, “Hm? Oh…oh yes, crisis averted, thank Christ!”

He smiled at her, the tightness around his eyes witness to the long day they’d had, “Good.”

“Are you finished in the bathroom?” when Jamie confirmed that he was, she continued, “Alright, then I’ll have a quick shower as well, and then straight to bed.”

Slowly getting to her feet, Claire arched her back and stretched her arms over her head, feeling the exhaustion of the day creep into her own bones as she made her way to take her turn in the bathroom.

Before closing the door behind her, she stuck her face out again and said in a low voice, “Goodnight, Jamie.”

“Goodnight, Sassenach,” he echoed with a lopsided smile and small wave of his hand as he lifted the duvet with the other and slipped into his bed.

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 28 – Puffin Trip Part III

Despite the Pain

In the bathroom, Claire removed her loose-knitted jumper and trousers as if on autopilot, discarding them carelessly on the countertop next to the sink. Stripping off the rest of her clothing in a similar fashion, she stepped into the glass cubicle and turned the shower on.

An involuntary shudder ran down her spine as the cold spray hit her chest and abdomen, travelling in icy rivulets down her body. Fumbling for the knob to regulate the temperature, she sighed with relief when the water became warmer and warmer. The temperature to her satisfaction, Claire lathered up the lavender soap between her dextrous fingers and spread the foamy film over her pale skin in mechanical motions, washing away the invisible debris of a long day.

The hot water did nothing to divert her thoughts from what she had seen just a few minutes ago, though.

At first, when Jamie had entered her field of vision, Claire’s gaze had been inevitably drawn to the chiselled lines of his torso, the tan-coloured buds of his nipples peeking out from a curly thicket of reddish-golden hair, and down to the place where his hip bones disappeared beneath the towel.

The sight had transported her right back to a moonlit hotel room –playful banter, bedsheets tangled around hips, pearls of perspiration gathering between her breasts– all smiling innocence. Happiness. More than once during lonely nights, Claire had conjured up those images to serve her own, single-minded relief. His bulging biceps carrying her to the bed, the powerful trapezius shifting underneath her fingertips as he held himself above her, the pleasure of gripping and squeezing the swell of firm buttocks as he moved his hips into hers. She had teased him about it. The sculpted perfection that was his body. The V lines created by the way his obliques met with his abdominal muscles. In truth, he wasn’t all that different now. A bit broader, perhaps, a bit more filled out –as if he had grown into himself.  Still breathtakingly beautiful.

Then, in an attempt to avoid awkward glances, her eyes had locked on the sight in the mirror, where the expanse of his broad back was on full display. A chaotic criss-cross pattern of mangled skin relaying the horrors of an accident past. Deep welts of angry scar tissue interspersed with fine, silvery lines of well-healed damage were slashing across the pale skin, cutting through birthmarks and freckles alike.  She had gulped her emotion down. ‘Back torn to shreds’ indeed.

Claire had known, of course. Had known, had read about the accident Jamie had been involved in. The one that had caused so much more damage than the twisted scars on his back. But knowing and seeing were two entirely different things. And now that she had seen –did she mind? No. Should she tell him that she had seen? Would he mind that she had? Was he insecure about them? The more she thought about it, the more questions seemed to appear and the less she knew how to answer them. One thing she did know, though, was that she couldn’t hide in the shower forever.

On silent toes and clad in a cotton top and shorts, she crept back into the room. Both her men lay unmoving and breathing the soft, even cadence of sleep. While her son was sprawled out like a starfish, Jamie lay like a tomb figure –straight on his back with hands folded neatly on the flat plane of his stomach as if waiting to be roused from a spellbound slumber by a true love’s kiss.

Claire stood there, bare-footed, between the two queen-sized beds, gaze shifting from one occupant to the other. Seeing William and Jamie now in the same room, auburn curls dark in the night against the white linen of the pillows and snoring gently in tune with each other, made her eyes glisten with moisture. Pale fingers traced the marks of past pain on her own belly, constant reminder of what could have been instead.

If it hadn’t been for the accident, Jamie might have been there to welcome his son into the world, to raise him, to take him to nursery. They might have been happy together –or not. Her own scars were reminders of wistful what-ifs and coulda-beens. Not any longer, though. After catching sight of the amount of distorted skin on Jamie’s back, Claire knew how close a call it must have been. He could have died. Might never even have known of his son, let alone met him. If he bore the scars of his own battle, so be it, they were proof he was still alive. She reached a hand toward him, the movement so slow and reverent as almost to be an act of pious devotion, cupping his cheek, unconsciously trying to reassure herself that he was indeed still there. When the pad of her finger grazed his skin, his lips twitched into a smile. He was still here. With them.

Thank God, she thought and began to cry.

*****

“Oof,” Claire woke with a well-but-not-intentionally-placed foot to her stomach kicking the breath out of her. William wasn’t just a spread-eagle sleeper, he also moved –a lot. During the night she had received several accidental hits against her shin and thigh, and one small, pudgy fist to her mouth. Not emerging from bed every single morning bruised and contused from a rather one-sided battle was definitely one of the perks of keeping separate bedrooms.

As she disentangled herself from the chaos of duvet, sheets, and additional blanket to ward off another kick to a decidedly more sensitive area, a chuckle caught her off-guard. Lifting her sleepy face from the downy pillow, one eye closed against the emerging morning brightness, Claire caught a very blue pair of eyes –crinkled with amusement– staring at her.

For a moment she lost herself in the depth of them –dark and clear like the water of a loch– and found herself transported to another bright morning where she’d woken up to the same eyes smiling at her. She just had enough time to remember the way soft lips had grazed her shoulder when another sound of half-suppressed amusement redirected her attention towards the man from which they stemmed.

“Find the show entertaining, Fraser?” Claire whispered with a raised eyebrow.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasnae fun tae watch,” Jamie replied in a tone just as soft, smiling lopsidedly.  

“I bet it’s fun from over there,” amber eyes narrowed accusingly.

“The lad’s a wee monkey, no?” he sat up, propping his back against the headboard.

“More like a very muscular octopus,” Claire amended, deflecting yet another blow hurled into her general direction, effectively proving her point, “every time you think you’re out of the way of all of his limbs, it seems like he’s growing a new one.”

Jamie chortled, obviously still very much entertained as he watched from his perch Claire struggling to leave the bed without either being hit or waking William.

“Do you want to get ready first?” Claire asked, hiding her yawn behind a hand.

“Hm? Och no, ye can go in first, if ye like. I’d like tae watch a wee longer if ye dinnae mind,” Jamie motioned with his chin towards his son, who had just managed to gather most of the bedding underneath his tummy and stuck his little bottom up in the air while snoring contentedly into his pillow –plush puffin right next to his nose.

“I don’t mind at all,” Claire said more to herself than to him as she stepped into the bathroom, her lips curved into a smile.

*****

Breakfast was a rather quiet affair since there were no other guests with which to do battle over the last strip of bacon or potato scones, and Claire and William demonstrated in a spectacular fashion that they were indeed –as advertised– both decidedly not morning people. Jamie had just helped himself to his second plate of scrambled eggs with a side of square sausage, whistling way too cheerfully when Claire silenced him with a disapproving look over her own bacon roll.

It was only after a second cup of tea that Willie and Claire engaged in more than grunted conversation. Once William had rubbed the last remnant of sleep out of his eyes, he dug into his porridge with avid gusto. A true Scot straight from the book, William Beauchamp enjoyed his parritch in every form –be it scalding hot and sloshy, or lumpy and stone-cold. James Fraser, on the other hand, while just as Scottish and partial to porridge in all its traditional glory, had had quite a bit of experience in how to avoid facing his favourite breakfast dish at its worst. He had, in fact, a recipe how to make even the stalest bowl of porridge palatable again.

“Look ye here, Willie,” Jamie pointed with a large, blunt finger at his own bowl, “if ye dinnae make the bowl full tae begin wi’, ye can always add a wee bit o’ hot milk or cream later. Then mix it up a bit and the parritch becomes smooth again, ye ken?”

Absorbing the life-altering information like a sponge, William’s gold-flecked eyes glowed with eagerness as he imitated his father’s instructions on his own bowl of oats.

“Ha!” succeeding in his attempt to stir the concoction into a satisfactory texture, Willie let out a little cry of triumph, flashing Jamie a dimpled grin. In response, Jamie’s own face came alive with a radiant smile, his eyes brimming with affection and delight.

Claire watched them with a hooded expression over the rim of her mug, the mentholated fumes of peppermint making her eyes water a bit. Or maybe it was seeing father and son like this, face to face, enjoying each other’s company that caused the film of moisture over her amber orbs.

She had known early on that William shared quite a few phenotypical features with the man who fathered him –fiery curls, the dark blue of his slanted eyes, high cheekbones, and a crooked canine tooth. There was a part of her that used to feel a tiny pang of jealousy when she looked at her son and saw so little of herself in him and so much of a man she hardly knew.

As mothers do, Claire had often wondered what kind of man her son would grow into. Would he be tall and broad of shoulder like his father, or short and stocky like Uncle Lamb? Would he be kind? Gentle? Loyal?

Observing them in profile, as they talked animatedly –their red heads bobbing to the same rhythm, lips curling in an almost identical manner, dark blue eyes dancing as they gobbled their breakfast– things didn’t seem quite so unclear anymore. Claire could see fine what would become of William –the projection and promise of the future sitting right across from him. Not a bad prospect at all.  

*****

The return journey was just as pleasant as the drive down to Mull had been, if not more so, since they were all awake this time. Neither was in a hurry to get back home, still basking in the easy companionship of each other. Claire enjoyed the three-ness of them so much that she suggested not going straight back to Inverness, but rather make most of the unusually sunny day on the banks of Loch Linnhe with a picnic.

“A bonnie idea, Sassenach,” Jamie had agreed cheerfully, ruddy brows scrunched as he was focusing on making sure that he was taking the right turn, and muttering under his breath when he realised it had been the wrong exit after all, “Those daft signs dinnae make any sense sometimes.”

Despite finding it exceptionally entertaining that the only born –and bred! as Jamie was always quick to point out– highlander of their little group apparently wasn’t quite as adept at navigating these parts of Scotland as his heritage (and pride) suggested, Claire decided not to tease him too much about it. From the stern lines around his mouth and the pinkness of his ears she could tell he really was embarrassed about his faux pas. So, she turned the radio’s volume up instead, allowing him to blow off some frustration while the both of them made proper fools of themselves while singing –very badly– in front of their son.

Left a good job in the city
Workin' for the man ev'ry night and day
And I never lost one minute of sleepin'
Worryin' 'bout the way things might have been

Even if he had he noticed, Willie couldn’t have cared less about having accidentally taken a detour. The curly-haired boy was thoroughly enjoying himself –strapped into the backseat of the car– being the centre of so much parental attention. He even joined in –as best he could– when his parents lost themselves in the 9-minute version of Proud Mary, moving his shoulders and shaking his red head along to the rhythm.

Big wheel keep on turnin'
Proud Mary keep on burnin'
Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the river
Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the river

“Whos Mary, Mama?” the little boy asked with sincere interest when the song hit the final note, leaning forward as far as his belt allowed, “Do we ken her? And why is she sae proud?”

Jamie’s wide mouth pressed tightly together with the effort to suppress a laugh, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the steering wheel, throwing Claire a sideways look that said, Let’s see how ye answer that, Mama.

“Well,” Claire’s eyebrows furrowed with concentration to conjure up a satisfying answer, “no, lovey. We don’t know Mary. She’s not a real person, you see?”

“She isnae?” small ruddy brows raised up in surprise.

“No, she could be any woman,” Claire went on to explain, looking over her shoulder at her frowning son, “it’s supposed to be empowering, a woman taking charge of her own life.”

“Aye, a woman doesnae need a man,” Jamie chimed in helpfully.

“I ken that fine,” Willie interrupted, still frowning. “Mama also didnae need a man, but why is the song no’ aboot her then?”

“Aye, ye’re quite right, Willie,” Jamie replied, forcefully trying to keep his tone light. Claire could see him swallow, though, “I dinnae ken why they didnae write the song about yer Mam, but they sure should have, no?”

After that, conversation stilled somewhat –mainly because William had a stab at rewriting Proud Mary into Proud Claire but finding that his mother’s name didn’t go as well with the rhythm of the lyrics, fell asleep amidst his efforts, head lolling. While Jamie seemed outwardly calm and collected, the fact that he had his inscrutable mask in place was indication enough for Claire that he was hiding his thoughts.

“Is everything alright, Jamie?” she asked in a soft tone, eyeing him speculatively, trying to find a clue what exactly was going on underneath that handsome auburn manbun of his.

“Aye,” his voice was deep and gentle but lacked some of its usual warmth as Jamie continued to stare straight ahead, his gaze steadily fixed on the narrow road.

“Jamie,” Claire prodded as she put an encouraging hand on his forearm, feeling the tension there, “tell me.”

It seemed as if her touch managed to communicate what her voice had failed to –trust me, it said.

“It’s jus’…,” he began somewhat sheepishly, hiding his gaze beneath long lashes. “When the lad said ye didnae have a man,” Claire bit on her lip to keep her remarks shut inside her mouth and give him the space to talk, “not that I think ye needed one, ye ken? It jus’ hit me… how much…,” he swallowed, “how much I would ha’ liked tae be there. Wi’ him. And you.”

“You’re here with me now,” Claire pointed out, her fingers stroking.

Dark blue eyes lit up as he turned to look at her, taking her fine-boned hand in his, their fingers entwining casually, “Aye, ye’re right. That I am.”

Gaze hidden behind a thick curtain of curly brown, Claire stared with wonder at their linked hands, not quite able to process the tingling warmth that sent her pulse racing and made her cheeks blush. They stayed like that as long as Jamie didn’t need his left hand to shift gears, testing their connection with small movements –a circling thumb, a grazing index. Even when they were no longer touching and had made it to the designated picnic stop, the feeling of connectivity lingered.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 29 – Downpour

It had turned dark by the time they reached the outskirts of Inverness, the lights of the city competing with the soft glow of the stars above.

“D’ye mind if I drop ma stuff off before we return the car? It’s righ’ on our way,” Jamie’s deep voice filled the serene atmosphere of the car. 

“Of course not. I’m curious to see where you’re living anyway.”

“Weel, it’s no’ much tae look at, I was staying wi’ a friend ‘til now, but I moved back tae the centre twa days ago.”

“The way you say ‘centre’ sounds terribly sterile, you know,” Claire remarked in a light but inquisitive tone, inviting him to elaborate.

“And that coming from someone who’s working at the most sterile workplace there is?” Jamie countered, flashing her a slightly crooked smile.

“Let me tell you as someone who has extensive knowledge of how things work behind the scenes, I’m actually not so sure that’s true. The things I’ve witnessed in hospitals, James Fraser, the things I’ve seen,” she shuddered dramatically, earning a resounding laugh.

“That bad, aye?”

“Aye, that bad and worse, Fraser,” Claire rolled the r’s heavily, trying to imitate his broadening Scots accent, coaxing another booming laugh from his chest.

“Ye should stick tae the doctoring, Sassenach,” Jamie’s shoulders were still vibrating with silent amusement, “ye wouldnae be able tae make a living as an impressionist.”

“Damn, so much for plan B,” she chuckled. “So, tell me about that centre of yours. What’s it like?”

“It’s no’ sae bad, really,” Jamie admitted, his tone a little more serious again, “They ha’ all the facilities on site –gym, pool, track, etc. It’s no’ precisely homely, but ye dinnae ha’ tae cook yerself or live out o’ a backpack at least. Vast improvement fer someone like me.”

“I can relate,” Claire’s voice was filled with vivid memory.

“Ye can?” for a second he tore his gaze away from the road, the surprise evident in blue eyes turned black with the absence of light.

“As a matter of fact, yes. Before I turned 14, I accompanied my uncle all over the world. He was an archaeologist,” Claire explained, realising that as she did so that this was the first time in many years that she had told that story, “specialising in ancient mythologies. We spent years in Greece and Egypt, Peru and Bolivia as well, even a couple of months in Norway, but we never spent enough time in one place to settle down. His financers herded him from dig to dig, so we lived out of suitcases most of the time.”

“Ye were hopping all o’er the globe wi’ yer uncle as a child? And yer parents didnae mind that?” the statement was permeated with incredulity at the image of any parent encouraging their child’s upbringing so far away from their loving care.

“I probably wouldn’t have been doing so if they hadn’t died when I was 5,” the reply was soft and matter of fact, with just a hint of sadness.

The realisation hit Jamie like a fist to the gut, making him nauseous. He had seen, had felt the nagging sensation that something was missing, but had attributed that feeling to knowing that he had been missing in the photographic documentation of his son’s first 6 years. But he wasn’t the only one unaccounted for. It was selfish, perhaps, not to have noticed it before. While it was true that there had been friendly faces aplenty in the photos –friends, supporters, a devoted godmother– none were grey-haired or lined with age.

“I’m sae sorry, Claire. I ne’er e’en thought tae ask,” his voice was thick with remorse as Jamie made a grab for her hand and squeezed it in sympathy for her loss.

Appreciative of his gesture, she squeezed back, “It’s quite alright. It wasn’t the most comfortable lifestyle, but it was still a long way better than being sent off to boarding school. Lamb could’ve easily got rid of me, had he wanted to,” swallowing, she continued, “He loved me like a daughter. My dreams were more important to him than his own success. When I told him that I wanted to study medicine, he abandoned his latest commission on a whim and found a teaching position at the university of Glasgow so he could send me to a ‘proper school to get proper education’.”

“He sounds like a fine man, yer uncle. Where is he now? He wasnae in the photo album either, was he?” Jamie tapped his finger on the steering wheel, apprehensive of the answer he already knew.

“Cancer,” was all Claire said. Then, she let go of his hand and turned away, looking out the window as honey eyes were filling with silent tears.

Jamie didn’t say anything, just put a large, warm hand on her thigh.

Not quite ready to be facing him again, Claire lay her hand atop his, acknowledging his voiceless condolences with a squeeze.

Two minutes or so later, he spoke again, his voice low and gentle as the jeep turned off the main road, “Sae, this is it. I’ll be right back, awright?”

“You’re staying here?” Claire hadn’t really paid attention to where they’d been going, and now that she saw where they had ended up, couldn’t contain the surprise in her voice.

“Aye, I am,” Jamie confirmed as he shut off the engine and unfastened his belt, “Why? Is there a problem, Sassenach?”

“Not really, no… but…,” she began, and inhaled deeply before she blurted, “why the hell are you staying at the Inverness Rowing Club, Jamie?”

Amusement flashed across his features, settling into the corners of a smirk, “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Well, you’re absolutely right, of course,” she conceded in a sarcastic kind of way, “and here I was under the misapprehension that you like to stick your poles into snow, not water.”

Jamie snorted, his smirk widening into a grin, “Weel, ye’re no’ wrong there.”

“Oh, am I not?” one elegant eyebrow arched in challenge.

“That smugness doesnae suit ye, Sassenach,” he joked, tilting his head closer towards her. “I ken it says ‘Rowing Club’ but really it’s used by all kind o’ different clubs. It’s the best training facility in a 100-mile radius or more.”

“You could have just said so, you know.”

“Aye, I could ha’, but then I wouldnae ha’ seen yer face,” and before Claire was able to hit him, he was out of the car.

Opening the trunk as soundlessly as possible, Jamie grabbed his overnight bag, slung it over his shoulder, and, light-footed as a deer, jogged along the path towards the main entrance. Claire watched his long legs closing the distance seemingly without any effort, the fabric of his jeans hugging the hard lines of muscle beneath. She gulped. Get a grip, Beauchamp.

A quick look at her phone to distract herself from that very enjoyable view, illuminating her face in the darkness of the parked car, informed Claire that it was already past 9 o’ clock. She could’ve sworn they’d just had breakfast. Time had flown by without her even noticing. Of course, that was generally the nature of weekends – when she had time to tune out all things work related and focus completely on Willie– which always gave way to another Monday far too quickly.

Somehow, though, everything felt brighter with Jamie at their side. The light he radiated could make even a blind man could see how smitten he was with William –eyes alight with pride and awe– it wasn’t just his open affection and interest in the son whose life he wanted to be a part of. Jamie was kind and funny, smart and easy to talk to, always a witty retort at the ready. There was a mischievousness about him that was endearing, and a lightness of atmosphere that made breathing easier. What Claire liked best about James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser, though, was his disarming honesty.

She turned around and whispered softly to her sleeping son, “We could have done a lot worse for your father, hm, lovey?”

Jamie returned not much later, “Sorry it’s taken sae long, the damn lift didnae work. I had tae run up tae the 4th floor.”

Looking him up and down, Claire could for the life of her not detect a single indicator that the man had just been running up and down 4 flights of staircases. There was no sheen of sweat on his forehead, nor irregular heaving of his ribcage, nor blotches underneath his armpits that would have given him away –not a single sign of physical exertion. Bloody athlete, she thought with a mix of admiration and jealousy. 

“Awright,” he settled back into the driver’s seat, “that’s one bag less tae carry.”

The statement jerked out of her silent scrutiny, “What do you mean?”

“Weel, the way I see it, the lad’s no’ going tae be verra helpful once we drop the car off,” Jamie chuckled, indicating the still sleeping form of their son in the backseat, “Looks like I’ll have tae carry him, and I dinnae want ye tae jostle yer twa bags on yer own when I walk ye home.”

“Oh,” Claire said, quite impressed with his anticipatory planning, “you’re quite right. Good thinking, Fraser.”

Still too occupied with reliving the pleasantness of the past two days of family bliss, she hadn’t really thought much beyond dropping the car off, if she was brutally honest. Walking home from the rental car park did seem the most likely option. And Jamie sure was right in his assessment that William didn’t look like he was going to wake up any time soon, drooling slightly on his shirt. And if Willie wasn’t going to walk on his own, he’d be dead weight. Claire would have to manage at least one heavy bag. 

“Exceptional thinking, actually,” she corrected her initial statement under her breath.

“Hm? What was that, Sassenach?”

“Oh, nothing, just talking to myself,” she was glad for the darkness to hide the blush rising in her cheeks.

“My Mam used tae do that, too.”

“She did?”

“Aye,” he confirmed with a smile in his voice, “said e’ry once in a while she needed tae ‘converse wi’ an expert’.”

Claire chuckled knowingly, “Very wise woman, your mother.”

“Aye, she was,” he was still smiling, but his inflection carried a tinge of sadness. Trying to convey her sympathy, Claire mimicked his earlier gesture and rested her hand just above his jeans-clad knee.

The last minutes on the way to the car rental park passed in companionable silence, occasionally broken by a dream-driven grunt of Willie in the back. The jeep successfully handed back, they made their way on foot towards the Beauchamp residence. Jamie carried William –still more asleep than conscious– and one of the bags, while Claire took care of the other. That way, the walk was actually quite pleasant, despite the luggage on their backs and the crisp April night air in their faces.

Just before they reached Drummond Road, though, Claire heard the first tell-tale signs of impending rain –rustling of leaves, and a metallic splitter-splatter rhythm as the first drops landed on car roofs around them.

“Shite,” both exclaimed, simultaneously breaking into a run, trying to reach dry land before the floodgates opened.

Willie, not exactly thrilled by the fact that he was so rudely jostled awake, grunted with impatience as he tried to snuggle back into Jamie’s neck to return to that heavenly equilibrium of sleep. The rain was getting heavier by the second, though, and they were completely soaked before the cottage came into sight.

With shoes that made squelching sounds with every step, a thoroughly disgruntled 6-year-old, and hair plastered to their faces, they had made it to the safety of the little canopy. Fingers slightly stiffened from the sudden cold, Claire was making impatient sounds as she fumbled for her keys.

“Come on, in you get,” she ushered Jamie –still carrying a now sopping wet William– inside. 

The welcoming atmosphere of the cottage warmed them instantly, even if it didn’t do much for their drenched state.

Shoes left to dry on the rack and her coat disposed of on a peg, Claire took William out of Jamie’s arms, grimacing slightly at the wet weight of him, and carried him into the bathroom. With a no-nonsense attitude, she sat him on the edge of the bathtub and instructed her son to lose his clothes and dry himself down while she went to get his pyjamas. Fortunately, the lad didn’t need to be persuaded, wanting to get out of the sticky garments as quickly as possible.

Jamie, bless him, made himself useful in the meantime, setting a kettle to boil. Claire sighed with the promise of liquid warmth as she saw him rooting around her kitchen; a hot cuppa was exactly what she needed after putting Willie to bed and shedding her own wet skin.

William, all dry and toasty again, sporting his new Nessie jammies and a wild cowlick at the top of his unruly head, rubbed his eyes and announced with some importance that he ‘was going tae bed noo’.

“Alright, lovey, off we go,” Claire put her hands on his tiny shoulders, steering him gently in the direction of his bedroom, while casting a ‘and what are you waiting for?’ look over her shoulder at Jamie.

Jamie didn’t need to be told twice, following after them only too willingly, especially after he saw that his son had also looked back, searching for his father’s whereabouts, a tired smile spreading on the round face when he saw the giant Scot only a couple of steps behind.

Tucked into bed, Mr Puff at his side –slightly moist but not disconcertingly so– Claire kissed William goodnight, making the boy squeal as her drenched hair touched his cheek, “Go away, Mama, ye’re all wet!”

“Too wet to kiss my darling goodnight, am I?” Claire was grinning mischievously, then began to pepper her son’s face and shoulders with soppy kisses, shaking drops loose from her hair, making him kick and squirm and laugh at the same time.

“Stop, Mama!” Willie giggled, while trying to escape the onslaught of motherly affection. 

Jamie chuckled at the scene, “Careful lad, ye dinnae want tae rouse a kelpie’s wrath. Better gi’ her what she wants.”

“A kelpie?” the boy stopped wriggling, blue eyes rounding with wonder.

“Weel, she might be. I’ll find out fer ye, awright? Now tae bed, wee man,” Jamie bent down and kissed the top of the small curly head.

“Night,” Willie yawned widely as his head hit the pillow.

“Night, lovey,” Claire said softly, turning off the light.

A hissing screech from the general vicinity of the kitchen announced that the scalding liquid was ready to be put to its purpose.

“Normal or herbal?” she asked, rummaging through her assortment of blends.

“Hm? Och, neither.”

“I have fruit tea as well if you like that better,” she suggested with a wave of her hand at the extensive collection of various teas, “or maybe cocoa?”

“Nothing fer me, thank ye. I think I’d best be on ma way,” Jamie replied, visibly uncomfortable in his drenched attire.

“On your way where exactly?” a small frown appeared between the elegant arches of her eyebrows.

“Eh…home?” his inflection rose as if he wasn’t sure that was the correct answer.

“If you think even for a minute that I’m going to let you walk home in wet clothes, James Fraser,” Claire’s chest puffed as she put on her most commanding doctor voice, “you’re very much mistaken. Particularly not in April.”

“Sae ye’d let me go if it was June, aye?” Jamie countered with a cheeky grin splitting his face.

Thwack. The tea towel hit him right in the face.

“Bloody Scot,” Claire mumbled as she set two mugs of a strong English breakfast blend to steep, making the choice of tea for him.

“Ye do have a nice aim, Sassenach, I’ll gi’ ye that,” she could feel his presence looming warm and solid behind her. How could that man radiate such heat when he was soaked to the bones?

Claire turned to face him, quite aware of his proximity. The man was altogether too close, narrowing her carefully constructed boundary between them faster than she was comfortable with. While they weren’t dripping all over the floor anymore, they were still uncomfortably wet; their clothes were plastered to them, outlining the contours of their bodies in a way that didn’t leave all that much to imagination. She averted her gaze quickly as soon as she realised that she had not-so-subtly been checking him out. Definitely not the worst look for him, she admitted to herself. His auburn tresses had mostly escaped the loose man bun and were sticking in dark tendrils to the skin of his neck and cheeks.

“Ye really do look a bit like a kelpie, ye ken?” Jamie remarked casually, as he took one strand of her damp curls between his fingertips. “

“Like a creature dwelling in the murky depth of lochs? Well, how very charming, Fraser,” Claire crossed her arms in front of her chest, protecting a heart that was beating noticeably faster, “If I look like a drowned horse, you’re the canine equivalent,” Claire smirked, patting him on the head.

A grin curled the wide mouth, but before he was able to reply, a sneeze racked through his body.  

“Alright, Mr Poodle, that’s it. Off to the shower with you.”

“Dinna fash, lass,” he straightened up again, wiping at his nose. “Wet clothes havenae killed anyone yet.”

“Maybe not, but they’re bloody uncomfortable,” and before he could open his mouth to protest again, she continued, “I’m speaking from experience.” She pointed at herself and lifted the soaked fabric from her chest with a wet, sticky sound.

“Ye’ve got a point there,” Jamie admitted, hoping that she hadn’t noticed where his eyes had strayed for a second, “Awright, you win, Sassenach.”

“Good, wouldn’t do to force you.”

“I’d like tae see ye try,” the challenge was issued with a playful glint in his eye.

Not taking the bait, Claire moved towards her bedroom with a slightly triumphant spring in her step, “Be a good poodle and strip down so we can put your clothes in the dryer. I’ll get you something to change into.”

“Eh…,” Jamie cleared his throat, two fingers tapping a nervous tattoo on his thigh, the earlier confidence all but dissipated.

“Is there a problem?” she faced him with an interrogatory eyebrow.

The colour of skin underneath his two-days’ stubble rose considerably, “No’ precisely, no.”

“Then what are you waiting for? You know where the bathroom is,” she turned on her heel and went to fetch something for him to wear.

“Oh, ehm, sure,” he let out the breath he’d been holding, chastising himself for stupid enough to believe Claire would have asked him to strip down in the middle of the kitchen.

Even before he could finish that thought, Claire had returned and pressed her bathrobe into his arms, “It’s going to be a tight fit, but it should help keeping you decent.”

Jamie took one look at the offered robe and returned it to her, “I wouldnae be able tae get e’en one o’ ma arms intae that. D’ye ha’ a blanket maybe?”

“Oh…ehm… sure. Will this do?” Claire pointed at the plaid blanket draped over the couch.

“It’s no ma family tartan, mind, but it’ll do,” he smiled, taking it and making his way toward the bathroom.  

“Oh, and you can use my soap and shampoo, of course,” she added as an afterthought.

“Awright, thank ye, Claire,” his cheeks were still a shade darker than usual, but his tone had resumed its usual calm as he closed the door.

“Don’t forget to put your stuff in the dryer. It’s on your right –use the eco cycle, please!” Claire called through the bathroom door before finally going to change into something dry herself.

Frankly, she would have preferred a hot shower to a quick towel-dry herself, but in the circumstances, she really couldn’t begrudge Jamie that privilege. After all, he didn’t have the luxury of a change of clothes at hand, and quite a way home on foot in the cold dark of the night. There would always be time for a proper soak in the bathtub after he went home, too.

All dry –with the exception of an abundance of brown curls– and definitely more comfortable than before, Claire exited her bedroom clad in her favourite pair of black leggings, thick woollen socks, and her Edinburgh university jumper. Hearing the water in the bathroom still running, she began to rummage through the cabinets of her kitchen in hunt of nourishment to go along with the tea. As she arranged the assorted snacks on a plate, Claire found her mind wandering to the image of a sodden shirt clinging to a very well-formed chest, emphasising the outline of pectoral and abdominal muscles. The knowledge that the same set of muscles was currently only a few feet away, the hot shower stream cascading down the concavities of belly and thighs, didn’t exactly help to distract her from that train of thought.

Suddenly, she froze. Jamie was here. In her shower. Their son fast asleep. They’d be alone. No buffer. Her heart began to race again, and her fingertips tingled with recollection of innocent touches that made her cheeks flush with heat.

Before Claire could work herself into a proper panic, though, the bathroom door opened, and Jamie stepped out, a fine mist of steam behind him, the present image of him efficiently wiping any other from her mind.

Dark blue eyes met whisky ones, both faces a matching shade of pink –his coloured by self-aware embarrassment, hers by the effort to contain the thoughts that his blanket-clad figure conjured without asking her permission.

“I ken I look ridiculous, dinnae fash.”

“Well,” Claire trailed off, gaze sweeping unabashedly up and down his impressive frame. Ridiculous was not the word she would have used to describe his appearance. Tall, broad, and muscular, with the fierce lines of his face, the sprouting scruff of beard, and thick red hair curling freely around his shoulders, Jamie looked a proper Viking descendant. This image was only enhanced by the tartan fabric that was wrapped elaborately around his hips and flipped up to cover his shoulders –kilt-style. He looked fierce and ready for battle, despite the pink and cream tones of the plaid blanket –magnificent, even. Nope, definitely not ridiculous. She coughed, “Rather…eh… dashing, actually.”

“Dashing, is it?” the mischievous glint in his eye returned as he approached her, filching one of the biscuits off the plate and munching on it contentedly.

He was entirely too close. The heat from his shower-warmed skin was radiating off his body and into her bones, settling somewhere altogether uncomfortable. The knowledge that he was naked underneath that pink, woollen layer did not exactly help to keep herself together.

Mustering more confidence than she possessed and hoping that her face wouldn’t give her fake bravado away, Claire looked him up and down, licking her lips, mouth settling into a smirk, she grabbed her mug and the plate with snacks and walked towards the couch without answering him.  

Jamie took a moment to watch Claire making herself comfortable on the couch; admiring the graceful bend of her wrists as she deposited plate and mug on the coffee table, delighting in the way her arse settled into the cushions, one foot tucked beneath its voluminous curve.  

Honey eyes followed his advance closely, almost hypnotised by the swaying movement of his makeshift kilt. The trance was broken, though, when he perched himself close next to her.

“Considering your definite swagger there, I’m guessing you’re not new to the whole kilt-wearing, poodle?” Claire asked, half her face hidden behind the mug as she took a gulp of the restorative brew.

“Are ye going tae keep calling me that?”

“Not unlikely,” she admitted, tapping her index on the rim of her mug.

“O’ all the things ye could ha’ called me,” Jamie sighed and rolled his eyes dramatically, “ye had tae settle on poodle.”

“Tough luck, no one gets to choose their nick name,” Claire gave him a one-shouldered shrug and took a bite off a chocolate biscuit, “trust me, if you had seen yourself earlier, you would agree that it’s an entirely suitable moniker.”

“Mhmphm,” he looked at her meaningfully.

“Got something to say?”

“Ye’re one tae talk about poodles,” he grinned, reaching to pull gently on a lock of her hair, “have ye had a good look at yerself, Sassenach?”

She laughed –a warm, clear sound, “You do have a point there. Not poodle, then.”

“Good,” he smiled.

“So,” she swallowed another bite, “kilts?”

“Weel… I dinnae ken if ye maybe recall, but I did tell ye once my father was verra traditional?” at her nod, he continued, “there’s no’ much tae add then. Kilts are as traditional as it gets, and I had tae learn how tae don one when I was but 5. It’s no’ verra dignified tae get intae, but quite comfortable once ye are.”

It did seem comfortable, the way Jamie reclined on the sofa; his long legs spread slightly apart, covered lightly in reddish-golden fuzz where it wasn’t hidden beneath the pink plaid, and a hot tea mug clasped in his large hand.

“Are you going to tell me what happened between you and Brian?”

Several things happened simultaneously. The large hand lost its grip on the mug. A cry of surprise and a hiss of pain sounded through the quiet of the living room when still hot liquid spilled over chest and lap. Driven by instinct, Jamie jumped up to save his private parts from potential threat, dislodging the blanket from his shoulders.

The immediate danger over, he bent to pick up the mug and put it on the coffee table. Thankfully, there was no collateral damage, just a few stray droplets now and again. It was only when he felt eyes staring into his back, that he realised his cover had been lifted.

She could see it.

*****

Jamie stood, spine straight as a ramrod with his back to her, hands balled into fists at his side, waiting for the gag of revulsion that would surely come.

But it didn’t.

“Jamie,” his name fell from her lips like an incantation.

He closed his eyes, invoking her face as he liked it best –full lips curled into a bright smile, honey eyes creased with laughter, framed by curls that couldn’t be tamed– needing to see it one more time before it would be tinted with that unspoken but ever-present layer of pity that he had come to know so well.

“Jamie,” she repeated softly, the song of a siren calling out to him, “Look at me.”

Every cell in his body screamed, begged him to move, to do as she asked, but he was frozen –eyes squeezed shut, desperately clinging to that image of her before it would surely shatter.

Behind his breastbone the fist-sized muscle was pumping furiously; he could feel the pressure of its beat in his groin, the hollow of his knees, his temples. The rush of blood in his ears was so loud it was deafening.

Deprived of sight and hearing, Jamie hadn’t sensed her approach. When he felt a warm hand on his shoulder, though, blue eyes snapped open.

“Claire, I…,” he swallowed heavily.

She didn’t speak.

A second hand was placed on his other shoulder, where the skin was largely still intact, exuding the same warmth as its twin. Jamie could feel the soft mist of her breath tickle between his shoulder blades. Then, the hands moved, ever so slowly, tracing, mapping every inch of mangled skin –craters and gouges, lines of spiderweb. With every touch on the waxy scar tissue that covered the plain of his back, the tension in the flesh underneath lifted.    

Relaxing into her touch, his fists unclenched. Eyelids fluttered shut again, though not in fear this time; he concentrated on the pleasant prickling sensation pulsating underneath his skin, ignited by every pattern she drew, every line she painted on the uneven canvas of his back.

The hands stopped halfway up at his sides, smooth fingers fanning out over the place where twisted epidermis transitioned into the unmarred skin of his chest. With every inhale, Jamie could feel them there, the soft weight of each fingertip anchoring him to her.

For a moment, she rested her forehead against his back, the silky abundance of curls pressed tightly against him, as she took a steadying breath.

“Jamie,” her voice was muffled against his back, shielded by a curtain of hair. Pale fingers squeezed slightly –the gesture coaxing, encouraging him to trust her.

The place where her head had rested was suddenly left cold and empty as Claire took a step back, waiting.  

Get it over with, he thought, squaring his shoulders.

Then, slowly –as if moving in a large body of water– he finally turned to face her.

Jamie had been ready to face pity. Revulsion. Disgust. A myriad of emotions, neither of which he thought he could stomach to see on that beautiful face of hers. What he had not been prepared for was golden eyes brimming with such unfathomable tenderness that his knees got weak.

Lord, those eyes.

Graceful fingers took hold of his right hand between them, guiding him with her as she sank back down into the cushions. He followed suit with his gaze still locked on hers, knees touching and hands connected in the space between them.  

“Tell me,” the request was as gentle as her touch, “please.”

“Ye,” his throat was unbearably dry, “want tae ken how it happened?”

She nodded.

Jamie looked down at their entwined fingers, taking strength from the connection.

“I dinnae remember much o’ the accident,” his tone was flat and strained as he began to recount the tale that had wrought havoc in his life. The tale that he had never volunteered to anyone who did not need to know.

Her eyes were wide and open, as she listened to the story unfold, squeezing his hands now and again to give him the courage to continue when a particularly horrifying memory passed as a shadow over his face.

Darkness and pain. Waking up surrounded by strangers and a language he did not understand. People clothed in white rushing by his limited field of vision like those time-lapses you see in movies. Surgeries, uncomfortable beds, needles, pads, drainages, IVs, catheters, pressure sores, the frustrating inability to communicate until a translator finally arrived.

“They took you to Morocco?” elegant brows rose in astonishment. “Whatever did they do that for?”

“Weel, I dinnae ken exactly why,” he shrugged it off as something that he had often wondered but never found a satisfying answer to. “I was in a bit o’ a state. Internal bleeding and such. They could only do sae much fer stabilising me on the island, but they werenae able tae deal wi’ all o’ it on their own, sae they had tae fly me out. Marrakesh was o’er 100 kilometres closer than Lisbon, sae… I guess that was the decisive factor.”

“I see.”

“I spent a lot more time in hospitals than I cared fer,” he continued in a matter-of-fact voice, “most o’ which I thought my career was o’er before it e’en began.”

“I can’t imagine what that must have been like.”

“No verra pleasant,” his lips twitched into a tiny smirk and she reciprocated in kind.

“It must have been very lonely,” Claire said, her thumb drawing a comforting pattern on the back of his hand.

“Aye, it was,” Jamie’s shoulders sagged with the memory. “But I didnae really want tae speak wi’ anyone anyway, ye ken. Didnae e’en use the old phone Da brought me on one o’ his visits sae I could talk tae him and Jenny at least.”

“Brian visited and brought you a phone? That was very thoughtful of him,” Claire pointed out, her curiosity about his strained relationship to his father reaching a new peak.

“Mhmphm,” he looked at her, but blue eyes were glazed over with the sheen of someone lost in recollection. “The first months, I was jus’ numb and in pain, if that makes any sense,” his deep timbre still tenser than usual. Her head bobbed slightly in understanding. “After, I was trying tae wrap ma heid around what was going tae happen tae me once ma back and e’rything was healed.” One hand disentangled itself from their knot of fingers to run through his hair as he admitted, “I was fair depressed.”

There really wasn’t much anyone could say in response to that, so Claire conveyed her sympathy through touch, enjoying the feel of his calloused palm against her own.

“I thought o’ ye often, though,” he confessed suddenly, blue eyes dark and unguarded. “I wanted sae badly tae see ye, speak wi’ ye…but…I couldnae bear the thought o’ what ye would say when ye’d see ma back. I…,” he broke off and swallowed, shame edged into the lines around his mouth, “I didnae want ye tae see me differently. I’d rather keep ye in my mind the way I last saw ye.” Half-covered in starchy linen, slightly musky from their joint exertions, a dreamy smile playing on her lips.

“Jamie,” the warmth when she said his name seeped into the strings of his heart, strengthening its beat, “it would not have mattered to me any more than it does now.”

“They…,” Jamie gripped her hands a little tighter before he dared to fully meet her eye, a hopeful glimmer in his own, “the scars dinnae make ye sick?”

The corners of her mouth turned upwards, one hand reaching out to cup his cheek, stroking the ruddy-gold plush that covered his skin, “No.”

Jamie released a sigh that bespoke all the weight he’d been carrying on his shoulders, leaning into her touch.

“I did, too,” Claire offered with the same open vulnerability, “think of you, that is. Every single day, more or less.”

At that admission, he leaned in a little closer. The hand that had been cupping his cheek fell away to nervously rub her thigh.

“E’ry day?” blue eyes were glinting with hopeful wonder.

“Well,” her cheeks flushed pink and she cleared her throat, “initially I was really angry at you.”

“Aye, I can imagine,” Jamie said, lowering his oddly-coloured lashes a bit.

“Yes, well… it looked like you stood me up,” Claire explained, rubbing her thigh more vigorously, “Geillis and I went to your hotel to confront you about it, but then…”

“What then?” he prompted carefully.

“Then the concierge told us roughly what happened. I was left with nothing but the knowledge that you’d been horribly injured. And that you were…gone.” Her chest expanded with an unsteady intake of air before she continued, “For the longest time I didn’t even know whether you had lived or….”

“It’s awright, Sassenach, let it out.” 

“Then, I got my acceptance letter, and I had something else to focus on for a bit at least. Until I…,” she swallowed the lump in her throat with some difficulty.

“Until?” the sound of rain had resumed outside, a rhythmic pelting against the window.

“Until I found out that I was pregnant,” she paused, and Jamie lifted her fingers to his lips. A soft brush of apology for not having been there, a gentle caress of gratitude for having borne him a child.  She continued, her tone palpably lighter, “From then on, well…I had a very vivid reminder that made me think of you.”

Claire told him then, about the decision she had had to face alone. The weeks of agony that had led up to it. How she and Geillis had desperately tried to find him. The lengths to which they had gone –hours spent each day combing through newspapers and the vastness of the internet –all without results. About the birthday she had almost forgotten, and for which her best friend had gifted her The Story of You. The constant vigilance, that never-ending search for a tall, red-headed man with blue eyes, the incessant disappointment when it hadn’t been him –yet again.   

“I feel like such a damn fool fer no’ having reached out tae ye,” Jamie shook his head in self-aimed frustration, pressing her hands tightly together. “I’d convinced maself ye’d fergotten all about me, and I thought…weel, I thought as long as ye’re happy, that wasnae such a bad thing, that I could let ye go. But tae ken that ye searched fer me all that time…,” a tear rolled down the sharp line of his cheekbone.

“I did,” Claire said, her own eyes glistening with emotion as she wiped the wetness off his face.

“But now ye found me, Sassenach. I’m here, and I’ll no’ go away,” his vow was earnest as he touched his forehead to hers.

“Yes,” she breathed, the milky scent of her soap on his skin filling her nostrils as she sank into him, “you’re finally here.”

Jamie’s arms wrapped around her; instinctively drawing Claire even closer against his bare chest, her face nestled against his neck. He kissed her curls and drew a large hand down the bumpy curve of her spine, relief surging through his body. The past was the past. Time to face the future.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 30 – This is Right

When Claire woke, the world as she’d known it had been turned slightly topsy-turvy. For one thing, her pillow was moving. It was a slow but distinct up-and-down motion, which was decidedly unnatural to the general behaviour of pillows. Through sluggish, closed-eyed inspection with an inquisitive hand she discovered that what should have been her pillowcase was, in fact, a rather firm and very warm chest.

In her still sleep-addled mindset, though, it took Claire a while to fully register the meaning of this discovery. It only really hit her when she cracked an eye open to confront the source of whatever was causing the incessant tickling sensation against her left nostril. Instead of being greeted by the familiar scenery of creamy linen and green figures of a digital alarm clock, however, she found herself peering at the pale glow of her own hand splayed out over a fine specimen of hair-covered pectorals.

What the…?

Her body jerked awake at the realisation of where she was. She had fallen asleep on the couch, wedged between the cushions and a massive Scot. A half-naked Scot, no less. Her heart immediately began to beat faster, every pump of blood amplifying the flush of embarrassment on her cleavage and cheeks as the memory of the previous night came rushing back.

They had shared their past burdens with each other, unearthed feelings and fears that had been buried deep inside where no one else could reach. Despite the rawness, despite the vulnerability, despite the exposure of herself, Claire was relieved to have it all out in the open. And when Jamie’s arms had closed around her and cradled her against his heart, whispering Gaelic endearments she didn’t understand into her hair, she had felt safe, protected, whole.

In that moment of emotional connection, being so close to him had felt like the most natural thing in the world—like she belonged right there, in his arms. And even though Claire enjoyed the current physical closeness a lot more than she was ready to admit, the instinctiveness on which she had acted hours ago was now overwhelmed by the return of an anxious mind, and she couldn’t help but feel like she was overstepping a boundary. What would he think when he woke to find her still stuck against his side like a burr to a horse tail?

Cautiously, Claire assessed the situation. Jamie was on his back, perched precariously close to the edge of the sofa with her head nestled into his shoulder—nose in touching distance of the right wing of a graceful collar bone. One of her hands was still resting over his chest while the other had gone numb under her own weight. Innocent enough to look at, even if quite intimate. Peering down, though, a small jolt coursed through her nervous periphery as Claire discovered that her lower half was shamelessly curled around his—one leggings-clad leg hitched up and snug between his kilted thighs, belly pressed so tightly against his side that she could feel the push of his hipbone against a place where it would create delicious friction if she dared to move a muscle.

Fuck.

Squeezing her eyes shut again, she tried to even her breathing. Calm down and think, Beauchamp!

While Claire’s range of motion was rather limited to begin with, the heavy arm draped loosely around her back didn’t exactly help in the matter. How on earth was she to move without rousing him? As if sensing her inner turmoil, the slack grip around her tightened; drawing her even closer, as if to offer the comfort of nearness.

Extricating herself from this situation to recover a minimum of decorum now seemed to have reached a James-Bond-in-a-death-trap kind of difficulty. Although Claire Beauchamp, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, prided herself in her ability to stand for up to 12 hours while bending over an operating table and wielding scalpels with a frightening precision, she had neither the skill nor the cunning of Her Majesty’s most notorious secret agent to escape her present predicament.

The way Claire saw it, she had two options. One, she could rip the plaster off the awkward situation right away—probably sending Jamie crashing to the floor and popping their bubble of intimacy in the process—or…she could…well, stay where she was and enjoy the radiant warmth of his embrace a bit longer.

Deciding that a little self-indulgence surely couldn’t hurt, Claire settled into her not-altogether unpleasurable fate. There were most certainly worse ways to pass the time than lying in Jamie Fraser’s arms.

The darkness of a rain-swept night peered through the French windows, but she could see Jamie clearly enough amidst the dim glow of the kitchen lights. Without fear of being caught in the act, Claire relaxed and allowed herself to openly appreciate him.

Her gaze travelled down the long lines of his athletic build and past the steady heave of his thorax, hard and still like marble under the soft weight of her own flesh. She admired the prominent dips and rises of muscles moulded to perfection for their intended purpose. Even in the utter stillness of sleep, his body exuded the explosive potential of power.

Memory alone of those muscles flexing and shifting against her skin in the throes of passion, the grip of those large hands gentle but insistent on her hips, caused the heat in her cheeks to shift and concentrate uncomfortably low in her belly. To have him so close now; to not have to imagine, but to feel those muscles and hands…she swallowed down the visions of him—of them—that her mind was far too eager to conjure.

Hyper-aware of her every movement, Claire tilted her head carefully back to catch a better glimpse of his profile. He was effortlessly beautiful, even without the usual warmth of dark blue orbs brightening his countenance. The vibrant colour of the long hair framing his face was subdued in the night, but she knew it sparkled like polished copper when the light hit it. Her eyes followed the shadow of stubble from the shell of an incongruously small ear over a high cheekbone to the sharp, angular line of a strong jaw. His wide, sensual mouth was slack with the relaxation of deep sleep.

God, that mouth.

At the mere thought of her lips on his, softly moving, coaxing moans of pleasure from within, a tremor of fierce want ran down her spine, and Jamie stirred slightly. She froze for a fraction of a second, but a quick, fearful glance at his eyes assured her that he was still asleep. She exhaled, relieved.  

The longer she looked at him, the more pronounced her need to touch him grew, and after a while she stopped fighting the urge to reach a finger to his lips. Instantaneously, the corners of his mouth twitched into a small smile, prompting Claire’s heart to swell at the sight. The wire of her bra was digging uncomfortably into her side, but she couldn’t care less—her focus was entirely on him, on that tingling sensation spreading from that tiny point of intentional connection.

In hindsight, Claire could not have explained what kind of strange impulse had driven her to push her luck and start tracing the seam of his mouth. When she did, Jamie’s breath hitched audibly, and she withdrew her hand as if burned, heart hammering in self-conscious embarrassment. With the removal of her touch, though, a small frown appeared between his brows and his eyelids began to flutter. Not knowing what else to do, Claire placed the tip of her index finger back on the arch of his lips, hoping that it would prevent him from waking. For whatever reason, it worked. The movement of his eyes stilled, and the lines of discontent between his brows vanished. The tingling sensation returned with a vengeance and was only intensified as the soft exhalation of Jamie’s contented sigh brushed past her knuckles, knocking the breath out of her.

Bloody hell, Beauchamp, you’re in so much trouble.

And with that realisation freshly imprinted on her heart, Claire happily succumbed to the pull of sleep again.  

*****

She wasn’t sure how much time had passed when she came to again. The misty-grey tinge of the sky could signify anything from pre-dawn to late morning. What Claire was sure of, though, was that she wasn’t going to be the only one awake this time.

Attuned to every change in Jamie’s body after a night spent in such proximity, Claire could feel the tonal shift in his slack muscles that indicated he was slowly reaching a state of consciousness. A frustrated little grunt sounded from his throat—her heart gave a squeeze of sadness—and she shut her eyes tightly, not ready for this to end yet. With an ear pressed just above his armpit, she could pinpoint the exact moment Jamie realised her presence.

There was a sudden clenching of muscle underneath her cheek, a twitch in the arm still wrapped snugly around her, a small gasp of surprise.

Nothing whatsoever happened for about a minute, in which both of them kept very, very still. 

“Claire?” he whispered in a voice velvety with sleep.  

Her stomach clenched and her throat tightened at the prospect of having to leave the warmth of his embrace. “Hm?”

“Are ye awake?”

“Yes,” she replied quietly. There was no point in trying to hide that fact. “You?”

“Aye,” Jamie chuckled softly, the sound floating through her. “Good morning, Sassenach.”

“It’s morning, alright,” Claire agreed with a slight groan, “I’m not so sure yet whether it’s a good one after spending a night on the couch.”

“Did I squash ye?” He sounded endearingly anxious as he attempted to assess her for damage, his head awkwardly angled to see her face.

“Only a bit,” she meant to tease him, but her voice was wavering slightly as she tilted her head up to look at him. He was even closer than when she had secretly touched him during the night. She could make out the tiny golden hairs among the sea of russet stubble, feel the bony protrusion of the right shoulder joint against her temple, smell the warmth of his skin mingled with her own.

Her pulse accelerated, and Claire wondered if Jamie could feel the nervous energy coursing through her as well. She swallowed, mustering every ounce of courage she possessed to meet his gaze. When her eyes connected with his—mere inches apart—her heart performed a series of excited little somersaults.

This, it seemed to say with every beat, this is right.

Jamie didn’t speak; he just looked at her—blue eyes burning into hers. His breath was coming short, mouth slightly parted. The atmosphere around them was charged with something that neither was able to put into words.

It was impossible to determine who moved in first, but that magnetic, irresistible pull towards each other—almost scary in its intensity—compelled both to follow suit without hesitation.

The tip of his nose brushed gently against the ridge of hers, and Claire could feel the tickle of his breath on her lips—raising goose bumps of anticipation all over her body—when reality came crashing down on them in the form of a relentlessly screeching alarm.

“Shit!” The hissed exclamation was testimony to both, frustration of being robbed of a kiss she’d spent half the night imagining and the realisation that she had to get ready for work—now. Awkwardly climbing over the broad Scot, mumbling an unintelligible apology for her clumsiness and almost elbowing him in the jaw, Claire hurried into her bedroom to turn the nasty sound off.

She returned not even 20 seconds later, self-consciously rubbing her arm. Not knowing what else to say, Claire offered the first thing that came to mind, “So sorry about that.”

“’Tis quite awright, Sassenach,” Jamie said, his wide mouth smiling good-naturedly. He had assumed an upright position on the couch, looking at her with a lingering fire that prompted her cheeks to flame. “What time is it, then?”

“5:45.” Her shoulders sagged slightly in resignation at the inevitability of having to get up at such an ungodly hour. “My shift begins at 7:30. I’ll have to wake Willie in about 10 minutes. Would you…would you like to have breakfast with us since you’re already here?”

“Oh…eh…,” he cleared his throat while one hand rubbed the back of his neck.

“You don’t have to, of course,” Claire added hastily, “your clothes should be dry by now, I’ll get them for you.”

Claire had already turned on her heel to fetch his stuff from the bathroom when Jamie realised that she was probably misinterpreting his awkward response as a polite way of refusing her invitation outright. As soon as she re-entered the room, he set her right. “I’d love tae stay and have breakfast wi’ ye, Sassenach, but I dinnae have time,” he explained in a tone he hoped was conveying how much he’d like to stay instead, “I have tae be at the gym fer the morning session in 45 minutes.” Noting the change of expression on her fair face and hoping that he was reading it correctly as similar disappointment to his own that he had to leave, Jamie continued with more confidence, “but if ye have time after work, mebbe I could take the two of ye tae the park?”

“The park?” her question sounded a bit as if the concept of parks was a foreign one.

“Aye, the park,” Jamie confirmed, his mouth widening into a grin, “ye ken, one o’ those green spaces wi’ trees and playgrounds and such things.”

“Bloody smartass,” she retorted with an answering smile, throwing his jeans, t-shirt, and hoodie at him. “Which park do you have in mind, then?”

“There’s a lovely one righ’ between here and the centre—the Whin.”

“Do you mean the one with the pitches and the golf?” her brows scrunched together in thought. She and Willie had been living in Inverness for only a couple of months and she didn’t yet know everything by name, using mostly easily recognisable landmarks to navigate her way through the small city.

“No, that’s a wee farther up, the Whin is in the same areal as Canal park.”

“Names are not going to help here,” Claire pointed out with a helpless little shrug.

“Ye ken the Ness Islands, surely?” At her nod, Jamie went on explaining, “If ye cross the river there, ye’ll end up at the lower end o’ Bught park—that’s the one wi’ the pitches. If ye turn left and follow the road a wee bit, ye’ll end up straight at the Whin.”

“Ah, I think I know which one you’re talking about. There’s that lovely boating pond, right?” she asked, moving into the kitchen to set the electric kettle to boil. “Tea before you go?”

“Aye,” Jamie smiled as he stood—still clad in his makeshift kilt—making a mental note of her apparent excitement about boating ponds, “that’s the one. And no thank ye, I have nae time fer tea.”

“Alright, boating pond park it is.” She turned her back to him while bustling through the kitchen to get breakfast ready. “When should we meet?”

“Ye get off at 3:30, right?” he asked, speedily pulling his boxers and trousers up to make sure he was modest again before dropping the blanket on the couch while Claire was busy retrieving a pot, milk, and oats from the depths of the kitchen cabinets. 

“Ish,” she amended, “it really depends on which patients come in. I can’t leave if I’m in the middle of an examination.”

“O’ course no’. But ye dinnae have a surgery scheduled taeday?”

“Not as far as I’m aware,” she confirmed, throwing a look over her shoulder to see the taut plain of his stomach vanish underneath his t-shirt. The view was distracting enough for her to spill some of the milk. Cursing under her breath, Claire mopped it up before Jamie could notice.

“Good, sae ye should be off around 3:30. I’m no’ entirely sure, but I think ma last compulsory session taeday is around 2:30.” Grabbing his phone to check his diary, Jamie continued, “Aye, last assigned training slot is at 2:30. Doesnae take longer than an hour. We could meet there at 4?”

“That might be a little tight,” Claire half-span to him again, biting her lower lip in thought while keeping one eye on the gently steaming pot, “let’s aim for 4:30?”

The smell of warming milk was wafting from the kitchen as Jamie agreed, “4:30 then,” his eyes gleaming with joyful anticipation of another afternoon spent with his Sassenach and their son. His…family.

“Oh, and where exactly? Is there a good place to meet?”

“Weel, it’s no’ sae big tae begin wi’, but jus’ tae be sure we find each other righ’ away, let’s say at the coffee shop?”

“Sounds good to me,” Claire consented, curls swaying as she made a grab for the salt and adding a pinch of it to the milk.

“If ye’re delayed or cannae make it at all, jus’ send me a text, awright?” Jamie requested, approaching her while tying his hair into a sloppy bun at the base of his neck.

Claire snorted. “I should think that’s a basic principle of decency.”

“Aye, that’s true enough.” He stood leaning with his hip against the counter, close enough for her elbow to be grazing his belly as she stirred oats into the bubbling pot.

“Are you sure you can’t stay? I can make more,” she kept her eyes on the pot, in an attempt to keep the resurging tingling sensation contained, following the hypnotic motion of the wooden spoon.

“I’m afraid I really cannae stay,” the regret was audible in his statement, and she looked up, rewarding him with a small, dimpled smile.

“I just…,” she stirred the slowly thickening mass bit more forcefully as her cheeks pinkened slightly, “I already feel awful that you have to rush to your training. Spending a night in such cramped quarters can’t have been restful, and I expect that your sessions are a bit more intense than a regular workout—”

“Only a bit,” he teased, lips curling into a playful smile.

“Well, and to think you’ll have to do it on an empty stomach…”

“Dinnae worry about that, Sassenach.”

Claire let out a little huff of annoyance. “’Dinnae worry’, he says.”

Jamie leaned in a little closer. “Believe me, I havenae spent a better night in years,” he said, eyes shining brightly as he tucked a strand of curls back behind her ear, “and as fer breakfast, I think after this weekend’s indulgences, it willnae hurt me tae miss one meal.”

“If you say so,” she replied—thoroughly unconvinced—adding a little more milk to the thickening porridge.

“Aye, I do. But I really have tae go now, though, or I’ll be late. And coach will be verra vocal aboot it if I am,” he sighed dramatically.

“Would you mind showing yourself out?” Claire asked a bit hesitantly. “I don’t want to leave this unsupervised,” she pointed at the merrily bubbling milk and oats mixture.

“Nae problem at all, m’lady,” Jamie assured, inclining his head formally and whispering into her ear, “Cannae wait tae see ye later.” His lips pressed gently against her temple, lingering that half-second longer for it to be a platonic gesture. 

Blushing fiercely, Clair kept her gaze focused on the pot in front of her, her insides squirming with delight. “I’m looking forward to it too.”

Jamie moved back into the living room, retrieving his phone and the rest of his belongings, and Claire felt immediately bereft of his presence.

“And Sassenach?” he called from behind her back.

“Yes, Fraser?” she looked over her shoulder at him with a raised eyebrow that matched his peculiar tone.

“Ye might want to wake our lad at some point,” he gestured towards Willie’s bedroom with a jerk of his head and a barely contained smug grin plastered on his handsome face as he tied his shoelaces. “If ye dinnae want tae run late as well.”

“Shit,” Claire cursed, turning the cooker on simmer before darting to her son’s bedroom. Hearing the creak of her front door, she realised that she hadn’t even said goodbye. Her head whipped around. “Jamie?” she called after him, anxious to catch him before he was gone.

He stopped in the doorway and turned; blue eyes still creased into triangles of mirth. “Aye?”

“Promise to come back this time, will you?”

Their eyes locked, both seeing the same memory—a bright morning in a non-descriptive hotel room, a rushed goodbye, and a promise to see each other later that was left unfulfilled.

With long strides cutting the distance between them short, Jamie hugged her tightly to him and vowed, “Aye, Sassenach, I promise.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 31 – A Walk in the Park

For the umpteenth time in less than 5 minutes, Jamie had to remind himself to slow down. There was no point in racing to the park; he was already going to be too early. His mouth was dry, and his hands cold with nervous sweat, but the fluttery feeling that had woken him this morning was still residing in his belly and urging him forward.

Faster, closer, move.

To meet Willie. And Claire.

The thought of spending more quality time with his son—whose existence was still a bit of a wonder to him—was enough on its own to brighten his day, no matter how dreich the weather. In the short time Jamie had got to know the lad, he’d instantly developed a deep love for the wee charmer. Every moment in William’s presence added to a paternal pride glowing deep inside his chest—a feeling he’d not known he was capable of.

However, the excited apprehension propelling him forward right now, had more to do with the lad’s mother. Ever attentive and caring, Claire had so far displayed an incredible knack for navigating the uncharted territories of joint parenting and newfound fatherhood—smoothing an even path for him and Willie to form ties as close as their blood suggested. She could have made things difficult—impossible, even—had she wanted to. She’d been a single parent for close to 6 years, and it was apparent to any onlooker that she didn’t need anyone to help her make decisions or raise her son. Nevertheless, she invited Jamie to do just that.

Selflessa selfless woman, Jamie thought, and nothing short o’ amazing

Being around her was as easy and natural as breathing. She was warm, honest, and affectionate—even if a bit guarded at times. As much as he admired her as a mother, Jamie couldn’t help appreciating her as her own independent person. An older, more mature version of the golden-eyed lass he’d fallen in love with at first sight in a noisy and sticky-floored beach club.

Jamie had been a total goner then. What he had not realised, however, was that his image of her had fallen utterly short. He had thought her beautiful, yes, and witty, and smart. Had believed her to be gentle, kind, and tenacious, but…she was…so much more. And now, he had the privilege to get a taste of it—the real Claire.

From the first glimpse of her, early in the grey hours of the morning on their road trip—heavy-lidded and slightly grumpy—to the intimacy of a shared hotel room, her face relaxed in sleep, Jamie had realised that he was hungry to know more. He hoarded everything she was willing to show him, building an intimate treasure of around his heart to replay whenever he felt the need of her. A sheen of sadness in her golden eyes when she had opened up about her family, throat tight with painful memories; the passionate bounce of wild brown curls when she sang wholeheartedly along to his 90s and early 2000s playlist. He noted the different ways she smiled—shyly while admitting that she liked him just fine despite being a smartass, mischievously as she was besting him with a well-placed tease, without restraint when their son had declared himself a hassenach. The reassuring warmth of her hand on his, a squeeze of condolence on his thigh. Honey eyes that shone with relief and tenderness—not repulsion—at the sight of his mangled back.

All those vivid little pieces of Claire had woven themselves into the fabric of his heart. But even those precious, unguarded moments of connectivity paled in comparison to what he had felt this morning.

Peaceful. Safe. Whole.

He had come to with a feeling of distinctive rightness spreading from the centre of his chest that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was an unexpectedly heavy feeling, even if pleasantly warm, and it didn’t make much sense to him—drowsy with sleep as he still was—until he opened his eyes to a fine-boned hand resting over his heart.

Three. He had counted three beats. Three beats that his heart had skipped as everything fell into place.

This. Her. Him.

This is how it’s supposed tae be.

Claire. Whisky eyes glowing; so immediate, so snug against him that it was hard to tell where his body ended and hers began. When she had moved towards him—brown curls tickling his neck—the hope of feelings reciprocated on her lips, he’d felt the walls of his heart stretch with every pump of blood, as if to make room for her there—a home to which only she had the key.

Even hours later, Jamie had to remind himself to breathe whenever those images flooded his mind. It happened during his morning workout as he was lifting weights, and he couldn’t help but feel the solid weight of Claire’s head on his shoulder and the pleasant weight of her arm on his chest instead. At lunch, when his fork hovered over the untouched high-protein meal—something with a lot of beans and too little taste—in front of him, all he could see was the pink curve of her mouth, begging to be kissed.

He couldn’t have resisted the power of those snippets of Claire even if he’d tried—not that he’d tried very hard. So, Jamie had been running around all day with a dopey smile curling the corners of his mouth, dark blue eyes glazed over in dreamy recollection as he went through the motions and exercises almost on autopilot, his body compensating for the absence of his mind.

At some point, he had been yelled at, only realising it when the man in question had been so in his face that the soft spray of spittle on his cheek jerked him out of his reverie. Jamie had wiped it off with the back of his hand—more than a little disgusted—and turned his attention to quivering jowls purple with anger, only to discover that the man’s breath wasn’t exactly a step up from the bodily fluid he’d expectorated.

“Get yer arse aff the rower,” the man had roared, jabbing a stubby finger in the direction of a huge clock at the far end of the gym, accusing Jamie of hogging the rowing machine. “Ye’ve been on it fer half an hour.”

Usually, if someone came at him like that—flaring and vicious like the devil himself—for no good reason at all, Jamie would have had no reservation to tell them where they could stick it. But not today. Today, he couldn’t care less about trivial matters such as external trainers trying to mark their territory—be it with piss or spittle. He’d grabbed his towel, wiped down the seat, apologised for the delay, and walked off, leaving the man staring after him, eyes wide with surprise.

“What was that aboot?” asked a nasal voice from his left, joining him on the way to the exit.

“Hm?”

“Back at the rower, wi’ that purple bawbag,” his teammate Angus prompted.

“Och, that,” Jamie replied nonchalantly, having already dismissed the incident from his thoughts. “He said one o’ his lads had been waiting fer the machine fer too long or something like that.”

“Weel, ye ha’ been on it fer quite a while…”

Jamie shrugged, pushing the door to the locker room open.

His friend looked at him sideways from beneath impressively bushy eyebrows. “Ye’ve been oot o’ it the whole day. Where’s yer heid, man?”

“What d’ye mean?” With a practiced motion, he brushed the loose red hair off his forehead and opened his locker door. The mechanical clang of it swinging open with too much force was barely discernible from the clatter of other athletes moving around them. 

“Weel, ye stayed half an hour on a machine ye absolutely hate when Tryon only assigned ye 15 minutes, ye didnae say a word at lunch when ye usually cannae stop that gob of yers complaining aboot it, and I saw ye running intae at least twa doors—which was hilarious, by the way.”

Jamie heaved a sigh, his ears pinkening a bit. “If ye really need tae know, I spent the night unexpectedly on a couch,” he said bluntly, leaving Angus to deduce whatever he wanted from that.

“Whate’er did ye do that fer?” One bushy eyebrow rose up.

“It wasnae exactly a choice.” Keeping his eyes averted from his friend’s, Jamie busied himself finishing off his Lucozade and stuffing his gym trainers into his bag, not wanting to divulge more information than strictly necessary. “I had a really long drive, and I jus’ fell asleep.”

“Ah, weel,” Angus dismissed the matter for a more exciting topic, “some o’ the lads are goin’ tae The Den later fer a drink, care tae join?”

“I wouldnae count on it, I’m fair tired and no’ really in the mood fer a drink. I’ll jus’ go fer a walk tae clear ma heid a bit,” Jamie declined the offer—having a much better alternative to spend his time—and swung his duffel bag over his shoulder, leaving a pouting Angus behind.

For a moment, Jamie thought he probably should feel guilty about not being entirely honest with his friend, but he didn’t. At first, after having his world turned upside-down by the sudden revelation of fatherhood, he had needed a little time to process the news and catch his breath. He hadn’t known what kind of role he would play—if he would even be allowed to play one. Telling people would have just complicated matters further, he’d reasoned with himself. But now—even though all of it was still rather new, exciting, and slightly terrifying at times—Jamie could no longer pretend that was the reason for keeping Willie and Claire a secret. Truth of the matter was that he simply didn’t want to tell anyone yet. Like with a meadow blanketed in untouched, crisp-white snow, Jamie did not want to share them with anyone unless he had to. He wanted them all to himself.

He’d raced up the four flights of stairs out of both, self-induced punishment for not having given a hundred percent in the training and the desire to not have to talk to anyone else before reaching the sanctity of his room.

A long, hot shower; a good shave; and 30 minutes of trying to find something suitable to wear that wasn’t either too casual or too formal later, Jamie was on his way to the park, dressed in khaki trousers, a blue shirt, an orange jumper, and a navy Barbour coat.

It was a more-than-fine afternoon for Scottish standards—the sky had cleared, and the sun was warming his face. The coffee shop Mac’s came into view as Jamie wondered for the tenth time whether he should have brought flowers. He couldn’t recall a single instance where he had been this nervous—not even during his first world cup race going 80mph.

Another glance at his phone told Jamie that he had more than 20 minutes to spare, and as he was wondering what he should do until then, a movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention. At the sight of brown curls on a bench just to the left, bent towards Willie—absorbed in the task of fastening an uproariously colourful scarf around the little boy’s neck—Jamie’s eyes lit up and his pulse quickened.

Her head turned towards him—curls swaying gently with the motion—as if she could feel his heart calling out to her. And the second those whisky eyes caught sight of him, her face split into a world-stopping smile.

*****

It had been a good day—no, a great day, actually. Claire had woken up in Jamie Fraser’s arms and almost kissed him. And it hadn’t been a dream, even if she felt the need to pinch herself once or twice throughout her shift. Since he’d left this morning, with his handsome face enticingly covered in stubble and the promise to be there later, she had been unable to contain the happiness trying to break free from her body. She had been smiling so much that her risorius muscles were protesting their overuse. At one point, she’d even whistled—a behaviour so atypically and openly cheerful that it had elicited an interrogatory eyebrow from Joe, her favourite colleague.

“Been a good weekend, Beauchamp?” the fellow doctor had asked while they were consulting over the x-ray of a particularly nasty knee injury that warranted a decisive and quick course of action.

“The best,” she’d answered honestly, cheeks pinkening under her friend’s scrutiny.  

Work passed by in a blur of sprained ankles, weak cafeteria tea, sharp antiseptic, and the squeaky feel of rubber gloves. After clocking out, Claire had changed out of her scrubs and into her street wear—a carefully chosen ensemble of flattering black trousers and a creamy knitted jumper under a rainy-grey coat—picked up Willie from the nursery, and made her way to the Whin park faster than a speeding bullet. Despite a brief call with Brian—promising him that they would stop by the shop tomorrow—and a slightly less enthusiastic red-haired boy scuffing his considerably smaller feet along, they arrived much too early.

The weather being lovely as it was, Claire decided that waiting outside was preferable to being stuck at a too-small table while having backpacks accidentally shoved in their face—or worse—by people trying to squeeze past to grab a quick coffee or a sandwich. So, she picked a bench with a good view of the coffee shop for their little stakeout until Jamie arrived.  

They had just sat down, and Claire was adjusting William’s neon-green-and-orange-striped scarf—a present from his godmother—much to the annoyance of the little boy who’d rather have been playing already, when she felt eyes boring into the back of her neck. A pleasant prickling sensation ran down her spine, and even before she turned to look over her shoulder, she knew who it was.

The smile that spread across her face when her eyes confirmed what her heart already knew was as instantaneous and bright as a shower of colourful sparks lighting up the night sky on Hogmanay.

Her eyes were still fixed on the smiling figure of a tall Scot—long hair unbound for once, shining like wildfire in the afternoon sun—as she asked a little distractedly, “What did you say, lovey?”

“I asked if I can I go play noo, Mama,” Willie repeated, glancing back and forth between his mother and the climbing scaffold with excitement dancing in golden-flecked eyes.

“Sure, you can. Say hello to your father first, though.”

“But he’s no’ here.” His attention focused more on the playground than his mother at this point—knees bouncing impatiently—William had failed to notice the approaching shadow of the man in question.

“And what am I then, a ghost?” sounded the gentle rumble from behind the bench.

Willie’s head snapped towards the source of the sound, the open-mouthed expression of surprise on his face at once so endearing and extravagantly comical that Claire couldn’t quite make up her mind whether snorting with laughter or taking a snapshot with her phone was the more appropriate response. Ultimately deciding on neither, she watched as comprehension dawned on the slightly freckled face instead.  

While Jamie had by no means advanced on them in a stealthy manner, he certainly moved with the grace of a big cat, eyes intent on his prey. His sudden appearance seemed to act as the final trigger that unleashed William’s energy into motion. The unruly mop of curlier, closer-cropped fiery hair jumped up, rounded the park bench and threw himself at his father—hugging the large man tight around the middle.

“Oof,” Jamie pretended to stumble at the impact, “e’rything awright there, wee man?” He tried to keep it cool, but his throat was strung tight with emotion at the affectionate gesture.

“Aye.” Willie beamed up at him toothily. “Can I go play noo?”

Jamie looked at Claire—whose eyes were brimming with tenderness at the scene—for approval before he gave his own. “Go ahead, then,” he said, giving his son another squeeze.

William dashed away, scarf flying behind him, and Jamie walked around the bench to join Claire. “Hey,” he greeted her, dark blue eyes glowing as he sat down close to her, his thigh not quite touching hers—eager to be near her, yet too shy to assume such a level of intimacy without being invited.

“Hey,” Claire returned the greeting, her voice somewhat breathy. “You came.”

“I promised I would.”

“You did. And you’re early,” she remarked with a tease stretching her lips into an even wider smile. “Very much so, actually.”

“Weel, so are the twa o’ ye,” Jamie pointed out, then lowered his voice conspiratorially as he leaned in a bit, “I told ye I couldnae wait tae see ye. Took all I had no’ tae run here.”

Claire’s cheeks pinkened with pleasure. “Eager, were you?”

“Aye.” The smile was reflected in his tone.

Lowering her lashes and staring at the hands clasped in her lap, she admitted softly, “Me, too.”

That small confession was all it took to close the last bit of distance between them. Knee to knee, hip to hip, and shoulder to shoulder, they sank into easy conversation while watching their offspring dangle monkey-like from the rungs.

After a while, they fell into companionable silence. Neither felt the need to speak, basking in the simple joy of touch—half innocent and accidental, half careful and intentional—and the sound of children laughing and playing around them.

Claire unbuttoned the top three buttons of her coat, leaned back, and closed her eyes, soaking up the warmth of the late afternoon sun, sighing contentedly. She could feel Jamie doing the same next to her and smiled.

How was it this easy to be with him? she wondered.

“D’ye care fer ice cream, Sassenach?” he broke the silence unexpectedly.

She squinted at him, one-eyed. “Is there any sane person who doesn’t?”

“Probably no’.” She felt the chuckle build before she heard it.

“Sae, if a knight were tae surprise a lady wi’ a cone, which flavour would she be most pleased about, d’ye think?”

“Hm,” she pretended to consider the question in depth—tapping her chin with a finger—both eyes now wide open at the exciting prospect of ice cream in the near future. “I think a lady would be at her most content if a knight presented her with tablet. Though she hath been known to fancy a double serving of tablet as well.”

“A lady hath quite exclusive tastes, it would seem,” Jamie commented with a lopsided smile as he stretched his arms over his head, preparing to get up from his comfortable position.

“A lady knows what she wants,” Claire retorted with a glint in her eye that caused the butterflies in Jamie’s belly to take flight again.

“Awright, if a lady craves tablet, then tablet she shall have.” He bowed respectfully before her, long hair falling over his face. Despite the levity of the moment, all Claire could think of was that she would happily forego her favourite ice cream flavour forever if it meant she could feel the strands of his copper hair between her fingertips instead.

“Sorry, what?” Claire shook her head, trying to focus on their conversation again.

“I asked if ye ken what the lad wants, too, or if I should ask him.”

“It’s usually something fruity. But why don’t you take him with you? That would be easier than carrying three cones on your own.”

“Ye got a point there, Sassenach,” Jamie admitted, turning towards the playground. He put thumb and index finger between his lips and let out an ear-splitting whistle, catching almost all of the kids’—and parents’—attention at once. “Oi, Willie!” he called and beckoned his son to come over.  

Willie came running, rosy-cheeked from the exertion of playing, to ask what the matter was. His round face lit up with delight when Jamie informed him that they would set out on a small adventure of defeating an ice dragon and capturing its treasure to return to the lady of the bench.

“So, I’m to wait here for the honourable knights’ return is what you’re saying?” Claire was eyeing the knights in question and crossing her arms in front of her chest, not quite sure how to feel about being left behind.

 “Aye!” William chirped, happy to have been invited on a manly mission.

“If ye will, m’lady. We shall no’ keep ye waiting fer long,” Jamie promised.

“Off you go then.” She waved them off with a smile, noting that she seemed to be doing an awful lot of that lately as she watched her men walk away—bent on their mission for ice cream, Willie’s hand engulfed in his father’s.

It was such an endearing picture—father and son walking hand in hand, red heads bent towards each other and jesting—that Claire simply had to snap a photo of them. When they disappeared around a corner, she looked at the captured moment again, her heart filling with an unspeakable amount of love at the sight. She pressed the image against her heart, leaned back, and closed her eyes, the sun still shining down on her.

“Are ye dreaming, m’lady?” A deep and gentle voice interrupted her thoughts.

“Maybe I was,” Claire said, slowly opening her eyes against the brightness in her face.

“I bear good news and bring ye the fruits o’ our labour, oh lady o’ the bench.” Jamie sat down and handed her the tablet ice cream. “Here’s yer treasure.”

“I thank thee, good sir. Oh, this is so bloody good.” Claire only half-managed to contain the moan of pleasure at the sweet taste. “What are you having? And where is your squire?”

“Vanilla,” he replied, licking his own cone enthusiastically. “He was promoted tae knight after the successful mission.”

“I would not have put you down as a vanilla kind of guy, Fraser.” Her eyes held a definite mischievous glint. “So, where’s the other knight, then?” Claire chuckled, giving the ice cream another delighted lick.  

“I’ll have ye know that vanilla is a perfectly respectable choice,” Jamie huffed in mock affront, but couldn’t hold it up for long. “D’ye want tae try? It’s insanely good.”

“Yes, please.” Claire nodded, curls bouncing. He held his cone out to her and she happily obliged. “God, you were right, that is insanely good vanilla!”

“That’ll teach ye tae respect vanilla.” After watching Claire Beauchamp’s tongue swirl around his cone, Jamie was intensely grateful that the tips of his ears weren’t showing right now.

“You still haven’t told me of the whereabouts of our son.”

“Weel,” Jamie began to explain, shrugging as if his shirt was a bit too tight at the shoulder, “he was sae excited that he already finished his cone on the way here. I told him he could go righ’ back tae playing—I hope that was awright?”

“Of course.” Her eyes went automatically searching for that tell-tale flash of red amongst the group of children in the playground, and finding it, Claire continued, “I really appreciate your thoughtfulness, but you don’t have to ask my approval about everything, Jamie.”

He rubbed his neck. “I jus’ dinnae want tae mess this up, is all.”

“You won’t.” Claire put her free hand just above his knee in a reassuring gesture.

“How can ye be sure?” he looked at her, insecurity obvious in the tense set of his jaw.  

“The simple fact that you’re asking that very question,” she said, giving his thigh a gentle squeeze. “You’re a good man, James Fraser.”

Jamie swallowed, then grasped her hand in his.

They ate their sugary treats in silence, both focused on the timidly formed connection between them, both smiling into their cones at the rightness of it.  

Finishing the last bite of it, Claire angled her head towards him again. “Ice cream was exactly what this day needed—brilliant idea, Fraser.”

Jamie seemed a bit distracted as he said, “Ye have a wee smear righ’ there.”

“Where?” she asked, wiping her chin aimlessly.

“No, there.” A large finger pointed at the bow of her lips. “May I?”

Not quite able to voice her agreement, Claire simply nodded. Jamie leaned in closer, and Claire could feel the press of his thigh against hers as his thumb brushed ever so gently over the curve of her mouth, intensifying the tingly feeling spreading from their entwined hands.

“There ye go,” he said, blue eyes smiling. “Clean as a whistle.”

Before she even realised what exactly she was doing, Claire had closed her eyes and pressed her lips to his—without any preamble, hesitation, or romantic declaration. The feeling of his mouth, so soft and warm beneath hers, was just right.

For the flutter of a moment, she feared she might have misread the signals, that she had overstepped an invisible line, that he would reject her advances. Before she could retreat, however, Jamie wound his arm around her back and drew her closer to him, his mouth answering the call of rekindled desire willingly.

His lips tasted of sugar and cream, and Claire developed a whole new appreciation for vanilla as her lips moved gently against his. It was a chaste kiss—as dictated by their current surroundings—but with every pump of blood, she could feel the fire of passion spreading throughout her system. His breath was warm on her cheek, and Claire wanted nothing more than to lose herself in him, but she knew they couldn’t. Not here.

She moved a hand to cup his face, fingers grazing gently over the high cheekbone, as she withdrew, the sweet taste of him still tantalisingly close. Her eyes opened to find his still shut, a dreamy smile playing on those soft lips.

A dhia,” Jamie whispered, slowly opening his eyes—looking at her like she was the sun returned after a week of rain. “Sorcha.” His breathing was shallow, but his intention was clear. “Kiss me like that again, would ye?”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

A dhia,” Jamie whispered, slowly opening his eyes—looking at her like she was the sun returned after a week of rain. “Sorcha.” His breathing was shallow, but his intention was clear. “Kiss me like that again, would ye?”

 

Chapter 32 – “We Need to Talk”

“Oh God, yes!” Claire replied ardently, fusing her mouth to his once more, heart leaping excitedly inside her chest. Kissing Jamie Fraser was so much better than either memory or imagination had created. She felt the same barely-restrained desire that was coursing through her body in the urgency of his lips moving against hers, in the way he tried to press his body closer.

For one blissful minute, they had comfortably blocked out their surroundings, attention centred around the taste of lips and warmth of skin. Awareness of where they were penetrated the haze of increasing intimacy, though, when a familiar voice shouted from the playground, “Mamaaa!"

They broke apart—faces flushed and panting slightly—as quickly as two handsy teenagers caught unawares by their parents.

It took every ounce of willpower she possessed to tear her eyes away from the magnetic intensity of Jamie’s gaze. If it hadn’t been for the sound of rapidly approaching footfalls on the dirt-packed path, Claire was sure she would not have been able to escape the drawing power of his dark blue orbs. She cleared her throat and brushed her hair back behind her ear as she turned to face her son, who came to a halt in front of the bench, sending a few pebbles flying.

“What is it, lovey?” Her tone was deceptively calm, but she could still feel her heart hammering against her ribcage. 

Jamie, likewise flustered by William’s sudden interruption of an immensely pleasurable experience, attempted to appear overly interested as well. “Ye awright, Willie?”

“I need a hanky.” The statement was supported by a sniff and a sleeve that had until now obviously been abused as substitute to wipe his dribbling nose.

“Alright—one second.” Claire rummaged in her bag—cursing under her breath about the interior chaos that made it difficult to find anything, yet glad that she had gained another second for the pinkness in her cheeks to subside. “Here.”

Willie took the offered tissue gratefully, emitting a noise like a baby elephant with a congested trunk as he blew his nose. 

Amusement tugged at Jamie’s wide mouth. “Gi’ that here lad,” he said as William made to stuff the crumpled tissue into his pocket, reaching his large hand to take it from his son. “I’ll throw it away fer ye.”

Getting up, Jamie walked towards the nearest bin and disposed of the used handkerchief before returning to where Claire was busy brushing dirt off Willie’s backside—much to the disgruntlement of the little boy.

One hand in his coat pocket and the other running through his thick, auburn hair, Jamie asked a bit timidly, “What d’ye say, shall we head somewhere else? Grab dinner, mebbe?”

Claire glanced up at him, the corners of her mouth curling upwards. “Mind reader, are you? I was just thinking the same thing.”

Blue eyes creased into lines of pleasure as Jamie squatted down to their level. “Weel, where shall we go then?” he directed at Willie, who was still less than enthused about having his jeans-clad bottom cleaned in public.

Transferring the decision about their dinner plans to William was exactly the right move to mollify the pouting redhead. The small, round face lit up, a suggestion already on his lips.

“Pizza!” he exclaimed enthusiastically, ready to leave at once.

“Alright, pizza it is. Zizzi’s?” Claire proposed, knowing quite well that it was her son’s preferred pizza joint, but also looking for Jamie’s agreement.

“Great choice.” Jamie was of the same opinion. “Awright, lead the way, Willie?”

“Aye,” the curly-haired boy replied, eagerness apparent in his tone as he wheeled around and swaggered confidently in the wrong direction.

“William!” Jamie called after him, shoulders slightly shaking with laughter. When his son turned around, he pointed with a long arm in the opposite direction. “Zizzi’s is the other way, lad.”

Willie considered this with a small frown. Shrugging, he set off in the correct direction, his parents a few paces behind.

“No’ the greatest sense o’ direction, our lad, aye?” Jamie noted, amusement glinting in his eyes.

Claire chuckled warmly. “I’m afraid he’s got that from me.”

“Does he now?” His voice was low and close to her ear as he grasped her hand in his, reigniting that spark of touch.

“Yes,” was all Claire managed to say, staring down as her pale hand settled into the familiar curve of his.

“Hurry up,” chided a surprisingly commanding voice ahead of them. “I’m hungry!”

Jamie rubbed his neck, a timid smile playing on his generous mouth. “The wee rascal is going tae interrupt us more often than no’, aye?”

Claire answered him with a smirk, “Welcome to parenthood, Fraser.”

*****

A delightful family dinner—involving the best tiramisu in town, easy conversation, a stolen touch or two beneath the table—and a bedtime story later, Claire and Jamie found themselves happily exhausted, but finally alone.  

An uncharacteristic awkward silence followed them as they left William’s bedroom, neither knowing how best to address the elephant in the room. They stood at the crossroads between living room and kitchen; Claire with her arms crossed in front of her chest, bouncing on the balls of her feet, while Jamie was tapping two fingers nervously on his thigh as he looked around the open space, desperately searching for a reason not to have to leave yet.

It was Claire who offered it to him.

“Would you…,” she began in a higher voice than usual, then cleared her throat. “Would you like to stay for a brew?”

A grateful smile blossomed on his face. “Aye, a cup o’ tea would be grand, thank ye.”

Returning his smile, she casually waved an arm towards the couch. “Make yourself comfortable, then.”

Following her invitation, Jamie relaxed into the cream-coloured cushions, taking pleasure in observing his favourite brown-haired human bustling around the kitchen. Her hands were graceful, almost to the point of delicacy, but they were capable and confident in every movement. He’d had the privilege to see them in action many a time in the past few weeks of getting to know each other—gesticulating animatedly when she talked about something she was passionate about, slicing and dicing vegetables for dinner with a surgeon’s precision, caressing Willie’s cheek with utmost gentleness and pride.

Jamie could still feel the echo of their warmth lingering where she had touched him earlier, wanting nothing more than to feel those hands on him again.   

“What kind of tea would you like?” Claire asked over her shoulder in his general direction.

“Hm?” Jerked out of his daydreaming, the tips of his ears warmed alarmingly, worried that she might know what he’d been thinking. “Och…whate’er ye’re having is fine.”

“You’re an easy guest, Fraser.”

“I aim tae please,” he retorted, matching her playful tone.

“Is that so?” One eyebrow was cocked above curious eyes.

At her approach—two steaming mugs in hand and hips swaying slightly—Jamie straightened up, instantly more alert, his body responding to the proximity of hers.

“Thank ye,” he said in a slightly shaky voice, reaching to take one of the mugs from her.

In the brief instant that their fingers brushed against one another, the atmosphere around them changed as if a switch had been flicked. They shared a look of crackling intensity, and Jamie could feel his chest expanding with the need to touch her, to feel her warmth against his skin again.

Claire’s breathing seemed shallower as well, and he could see the rapid pulse pounding against the luminous skin at the base of her elegant throat. Without breaking their gaze, she deposited her mug on the coffee table, and he did the same with his.

She was near enough for him to appreciate that faint honeysuckle scent that always seemed to surround her, and he licked his lips with cautious hope as she leaned in a little further. The closer Claire came, the harder it was to ignore the rush of adrenaline pulsating through his veins, making his hairs stand on end in excitement.

When their lips met—at once fulfilling and amplifying that indescribable need of connection—Jamie only wanted to let himself be consumed by the heat of her luscious mouth. Encouraged by Claire’s initiation of the kiss, he moved one large hand into her wild curls, cradling her head, the other to her waist. He desperately needed her closer.

Claire was almost in his lap, responding eagerly to the urgent demand of his lips, when she suddenly raised her hand and placed it on his chest. Pushing against him, she used it as a lever to break them apart. As soon as she’d withdrawn, Jamie felt bereft and empty, his lungs deflated as if she’d taken all the oxygen with her.

“Jamie,” Claire panted, her ribcage moving heavily.

“What?” he asked, his breath also coming short. “What is it, Sassenach? Why did ye stop?”

“Jamie, I…” She sat back and looked down; small, tense lines framing her beautiful amber eyes, unable to meet his gaze.

He tried to sit up straight, but the hand on his chest prevented him from doing so, keeping that bit of forced distance between them.  

“I…I think we need to talk.”

His face fell at that ominous statement. ‘We need to talk’ never bode well.

“Now?” He tried to keep his tone light.

A strained chuckle sounded from a throat tight with whatever was gnawing at her. The hand fell away from his chest and Jamie felt another sharp pang of bereavement.

“Yes, I think we need to talk now.”

“Awright.” He shifted uncomfortably, but nodded encouragingly at her, hoping she’d understand it as a signal that he was willing to listen.

Even though she was the one wanting to talk, it seemed that Claire was having a hard time organising her thoughts and finding the right words. Nimble fingers were busy picking at a thread in the soft plaid blanket he’d used as a makeshift-kilt a mere twenty-four hours ago, when she finally began in a tone infused with uncertainty.

“What happened earlier, Jamie…”

“Aye?” His eyes were fixed on her hands. “What d’ye mean?”

“Well…this,” she hinted with a hand gesturing between them. “What happened just now… and in the park.”

“Ah.” A feeling of dread settled in his gut like an iron ball, and his shoulders slumped.

“I mean…” she continued to fumble for the right words to say.

“Sassenach.” Jamie was willing her to meet his eyes again, even though the fear of what he might find there was apparent in the tenseness of his hands—now lying uselessly folded in his lap—but he needed her to see him. He needed her to see that he would do anything she asked, even if it meant ripping his own heart out by the roots.

“Claire,” he breathed. At the use of her given name, her head perked up, golden eyes clouded with worry. “Whate’er it is ye need tae say, dinnae be afraid tae say it.”

“It’s…it’s just…”

“Trust me, I can handle it, e’en if I might no’ like it. I understand if…,” he drew a deep breath, steeling himself for what was about to come over his lips, straining against every instinct he possessed. “If ye dinnae want tae…wi’ me…if ye…felt it was a mistake—”

“No!” she interrupted, eyes widening in minor panic. “That’s not it at all.”

“No?”

“No, I very much want to.”

“Ye do?”

“Yes,” she replied without hesitation. “God, you have no idea how much I want to.”

The iron ball in his belly began dissolving slowly. “What’s the problem then?”

“I….”  An unruly strand of curls was flicked back. “It’s not really a problem.”

“But?” he prodded gently.

“It’s Willie.”

The way he looked at her—ruddy brows scrunched together in a frown—must have made it clear that he wasn’t really following.

“The thing is…” She wrung her hands nervously.

“Aye?”

“You just came into our lives. And I’m so damn happy about that. I…I always wanted William to have a father, and now he finally does. And you’re so much more than I could have hoped for Jamie, you’re…you’re incredible with him. And he loves you, and I love how you are with him.”

There was a warm, fuzzy sort of feeling spreading through his insides at her words.

“And god, I… I want this, I want… you, Jamie. But I want to…I need to make sure that we…that you and I…” a nervous laugh suddenly erupted from her, her eyes flickering down momentarily, “damn, why is this so bloody difficult?”

“If it were too easy, it probably wouldnae be worth it?” he suggested with a tentative smile.

The corners of her mouth twitched slightly. “It isn’t about not trusting you, Jamie. I do—a lot more than is probably wise. But no matter how much I want you, I’m a mother first. And I need to be sure. I can’t risk us not working out and having Willie lose his father over it.”

“Aye, I see.” He gulped, the sensation of that iron ball solidifying in his gut again.

“So…”

“D’ye want me tae leave, then?”

“No.” Claire placed a cautious hand on his thigh, causing an instant tingling sensation. “What I want…,” she said, looking him straight in the eye, a slight tremor running down her throat, “is still you. But…not in front of him. Alright? At least not now.”

“Not in front of Willie, aye.”

“I don’t want him to see until we’re sure.”

“Sure o’?”

“What this is. Between us.”

“Sae what ye’re saying is that ye want me.” Jamie’s heart fluttered with excitement.

“Yes.”

“But that ye’d like tae see where this is going before we let the lad in on it?”

“Yes.”

He felt the anxiety evaporate from his body like water being dried up by the sun.

“And ye’d like tae see what this is between us?”

“Yes,” she repeated, biting down on her lip self-consciously.

“Was that all ye needed tae say?”

“I think so.”

“Good,” Jamie said with an air of a man having found salvation right in front of him. Cupping her face in his large, gentle hands, he closed the distance between them. He could feel her shallow exhalations on his lips. “I’ve been waiting tae do this properly again fer 7 years.”

For the fourth time that day—one that James Fraser would cherish for the rest of his life—their mouths connected. While all three previous kisses had left him jelly-legged and wanting, Jamie had not been prepared for what this one would do to him—or her.  

With all internal and external restrictions removed, Claire responded so fiercely that it took him by complete surprise. Lips were moving hotly against his, teeth nipping, and a teasing tongue requesting entry. Jamie gave it willingly, matching her eagerness to taste the other.

A moan reverberated around them, though it was impossible to tell whether it was his or hers. She was much closer now, her chest pressed into his, and he could feel the hammering of her heart in sync with his own.

Those graceful hands were gliding up and down the bulge of his biceps, the hot mist of her breath mingling with his. She was positively blazing—skin burning underneath his touch—as if she carried the sun inside of her.

Although the heat of Claire’s kiss was scorching him in the most delicious way—and it was more than difficult to think of anything other than the sensations the beautiful woman in his arms created in body and soul—Jamie remembered her request to take it slow. To see what it was between them, and where it was going. So, when she made a move to crawl into his lap, bringing that source of inner fire even closer, he stopped her. It took a monumental effort to break away from the alluring heat of her mouth, and Claire made a small noise of distress at the loss of his lips on hers.

“Claire.” His breathing was laboured, his voice hoarse with desire. “I have nae objections if ye want tae continue, but…if ye want tae take it slow, ye should stop now. I dinnae think I can control maself much longer.” 

Claire looked at him, pupils dilated amidst a sea of molten amber. “Sorry,” she apologised in a soft tone. Her lips were slightly swollen, and a pretty blush was darkening her cheeks.

God, she was beautiful.

“Dinnae apologise fer that.” Jamie swallowed the longing to continue where he’d interrupted them and reached a hand to caress her cheek instead. “I want ye too, Claire.”

She covered his hand with hers and leaned into his touch, but her eyes didn’t stray from his, piercing his soul in a way that should have felt intrusive, but didn’t. Just like that, Jamie’s world had realigned itself, his orbit changed to circle around a new sun.

Sorcha.

And as a dazzling smile spread on those kiss-swollen lips, he could see the same realisation reflected in Claire’s face.

There was no going back.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

She covered his hand with hers and leaned into his touch, but her eyes didn’t stray from his, piercing his soul in a way that should have felt intrusive, but didn’t. Just like that, Jamie’s world had realigned itself, his orbit changed to circle around a new sun. Sorcha. And as a dazzling smile spread on those kiss-swollen lips, he could see the same realisation reflected in Claire’s face.

There was no going back.

Chapter 33 – Feelings and Frustrations

The warmth of Jamie’s palm fell away from her cheek, and Claire felt the loss of it cool on her flushed skin. Before she could reach out to re-establish a physical connection, however, he’d already grasped her hands in his, winding his long, roughened fingers through hers. She looked down, mesmerised by the sight of her digits entwined with his—still so excitingly new and yet so comfortingly familiar.

“Sae, since we finally got that out o’ the way…“ Jamie’s voice was still low, carrying a note of residual yearning.

“Yes?” Whisky eyes darted upwards to meet his gaze again.  

“There’s a verra important question I have tae ask ye.” His expression was serious, but a hint of mischief danced around the dark blue orbs.  

“And what could that be?” She quirked an interrogatory eyebrow.

Jamie cleared his throat importantly, then bowed his head with theatrical deference, keeping his gaze fixed on hers. “Doth the humble knight have the fair lady’s permission tae court her, then?”

A small smile formed on Claire’s lips.

“Thou art most courteous, Sir Vanilla.” She played along willingly, assuming her role in their medieval banter with practised ease. Jamie gave a rather undignified snort at the chosen moniker, but Claire managed to keep a straight face. “The lady shall be delighted to welcome your courtship.”

“I’m glad o’ it.” A teasing thumb circled the centre of her palm as Jamie smiled at her lopsidedly. The undemanding gesture of intimacy was driving her pulse a notch or two up again.

“Me too.”

“In all seriousness, though,” Jamie cleared his throat, meeting her gaze straight on. “I want tae do this properly. Take ye out on dates and such.”

Lowering her lashes, Claire’s smile widened. “I really like the sound of that.”

“Good,” he said. “But…”

“But?”

He shrugged as if trying to rid himself of the nervous tension bubbling under his skin that way. A squeeze of her fingers encouraged him to speak his mind. “Weel, as I said, I want tae take ye out on a date—more than one, preferably. But…wi’out the lad. I mean, I love the wee interrupter, but I’d really like tae spend a bit o’ time alone wi’ ye, if that’s awright?”

It wasn’t the easiest endeavour to keep the chuckle trapped inside, but she managed. He was utterly adorable when he was nervous.

“I’m sure we can work something out along those ends,” Claire assured him, two fingers venturing to explore the tender skin of his wrists and pausing over the steady beat pulsing there.

Jamie inclined his head a bit to the side, auburn hair curling around his shoulders, a dreamy expression gracing his sharp, handsome features.

“What?” she asked, her voice a bit breathy.

“I’m jus’ happy.” The statement rang with absolute truth, causing Claire’s heart to swell with pleasure. “Sitting here wi’ you, holding yer hands. It…feels a bit like a dream.”

“It isn’t a dream, Jamie.” Claire leaned towards him. The aroma of greasy cheese and oregano from a stain he’d obtained during dinner tickled her nose, but she didn’t mind.

Following her lead, Jamie moved closer as well, lips slightly parted. “I dinnae care if it is as long as ye dinnae wake me, aye?”

Their lips met in a sweet, slow kiss. While it did not possess the earlier heat, it created the same warm, tingling sensation, filling every pore of her skin.

They spent some time like that; simply enjoying being together, being able to touch one another. After a while, Claire parted from his mouth with a happy sigh. “I could do this forever, I think.”

“I’m no’ going tae stop ye,” Jamie replied, his eyes sparkling as he pressed his lips to hers again. 

Unable—and unwilling—to resist, she let herself be pulled into the kiss.

“I didn’t think you would, but,” Claire began, putting her index finger on his lips to stop his renewed attempt, “it’s getting rather late. And we both have to get up early.”

Defeated by that unconquerable logic, Jamie’s shoulders slumped and he leaned back a little. “Aye, ye’re right. I hadnae e’en noticed. Time jus’ seems tae fly when I’m around ye.”

“And Willie, o’ course,” he added.

An understanding smile curved the corners of her mouth as she reached to graze her knuckles over his high cheekbone. “I know what you mean.”

“Awright.” Jamie exhaled somewhat forcefully, willing his body into motion. “I should go.”

Claire put a hand on his arm, stopping him mid-rise. “I hope you know that I don’t want to throw you out, Jamie.”

“I ken, Sassenach, dinnae fash.“ He stood smiling and grabbed her hand, pulling her up.  “Wouldnae be verra professional o’ ye tae start snoring during surgery. Nae hard feelings on ma end—I have tae be on top o’ ma own game, as well.”

She walked him to the door, hand clasped in his, reluctant to let go. Jamie shrugged into his coat, and Claire insisted on fastening the woollen scarf around his face—using it to pull his face down to meet her in another kiss.

"What are yer plans fer the rest of this week?” He was rocking on his heels, barely able to contain the giddiness he felt. “When can I take ye out? Are you and Willie free taemorrow afternoon?”

“Whoa, one question after another, Fraser,” Claire laughed, her fingertips trailing up and down the scratchy material. “This week is quite busy. Saturday is Willie’s party, obviously. But we’re going to see each other there.”

The copper head bobbed enthusiastically. “Aye.”

“I’m not sure if we’ll be able to squeeze in a—,” she paused for a brief moment, her cheeks assuming a lovely rosy colour, “—date this week, but next week for sure.”

“I waited seven years, Claire, I can wait a wee bit longer,” Jamie assured her, blue eyes brimming with tenderness.

“I waited too, you know?” Her voice was suddenly tight with emotion, and not knowing what else to do, Claire buried her face in his chest.

“I ken.” Acting on instinct, Jamie wrapped his arms around her, holding her close to him and placing his chin atop the silken mass of her curls. “We can make it ‘til next week, though, aye?”

The chuckle bursting from her frame vibrated against his heart. Claire stretched her neck, angling it upwards to kiss the underside of his jaw. “I think I can make it until then.”

“Good,” he said, his deep voice soothing. “I ken ye have verra little self-control, Sassenach, sae if ye find yersel’ wanting too fiercely, I wouldnae mind if ye sneaked in a kiss or twa afore next week.”

She laughed again, the sound of it warm and clear. “An entirely selfless offer, I’m sure, Fraser.”

“D’ye doubt me?” he asked in mock affront, fingers splayed over the small of her back.

“Isn’t that obvious?”

“May I remind ye that ye called me ‘most virtuous’ only half an hour ago? Ye’re insulting my honour!”

“It was ‘most courteous’,” she protested, waves of laughter still rippling through her body. “You ridiculous human being!”

“But ye still like me jus’ fine.” Jamie took half a step back, wanting to see the amber shine in her eyes.

“I do. More than fine, actually.”

“I like ye more than fine too,” he said, pressing his lips softly to her forehead.

While both would have preferred to delay the goodbye a bit longer, they knew it would only make it harder. So, with another kiss and the promise to see each other soon, Claire closed the door behind his retreating form.

It would be the best night’s sleep she’d had in a long time.

*****

Early next morning, Claire was inhaling the coffee-scented fumes steaming from her favourite mug—a souvenir from Lamb—when her phone vibrated. Across from her, William was adding an almost unhealthy amount of honey to his porridge; but for once, she pretended not to see it, reaching for her phone instead. Her lips stretched into a wide smile when she saw who the sender was.

Jamie [06:08]: tell me

Jamie [06:08]: did it really happen, Sassenach?

Jamie [06:09]: or was I dreaming?

The smile grew wider as golden eyes darted back and forth, scanning the messages. Jamie’s name alone was a more potent stimulant than the high dosage of liquid caffeine in front of her. He smelled better, too.

Claire [06:09]: morning Fraser

Claire [06:09]: what are you talking about? Did you have a nightmare or something?

Claire [06:10]: do you want me to have a look under your bed? ;-)

Her thumbs flew over the keyboard, firing the digital tease off into the ether. She’d barely put her phone back down, taking another sip of the aromatic Peruvian coffee blend, when Jamie’s response lit up the screen.

Jamie [06:11]: you can inspect my bed anytime you want, Sassenach

Claire [06:11]: wouldn't you like that, Fraser :P

Jamie [06:12]: aye, I would

Jamie [06:12]: so…

Claire [06:12]: hm?

Jamie [06:13]: back to the original question

Jamie [06:13]: did it really happen?

Claire’s fingers hovered for a moment with indecision. Looking back at the previous day, she could hardly believe it herself. Even now, she was floating in a dreamlike state, reliving one kiss after another; feeling the fleeting touch of Jamie’s mouth, so soft on hers.

Claire [06:14]: judging from the smile I woke up to, I'd say yes

Claire [06:14]: the hickey is a good indicator, too

Jamie [06:14]: hickey?! O.o

Jamie [06:14]: you wee vixen, I didn’t even come close to your neck!

Claire [06:15]: maybe you should

Jamie [06:15]: …

Jamie [06:15]: Sassenach, if you want me to bite you, all you need to do is ask

Claire [06:15]: consider yourself asked then

God, had she actually just told him she wanted to be bitten? The thought of his teeth lightly grazing and nipping the sensitive skin at her throat sent a tingle of pleasure down her back.

Jamie [06:16]: noted

Claire [06:16]: Jamie?

Jamie [06:16]: aye?

Claire [06:16]: are you still happy about it?

Jamie [06:17]: aye, very happy :-))

Jamie [06:17]: you?

Claire [06:17]: happy doesn’t even come close :-)

Out of the corner of her eye, Claire observed William popping another strawberry into his mouth, chewing industriously.

“Do you want some more, or are you finished lovey?”

“Almost done,” Willie replied somewhat unintelligibly, chubby cheeks bulging with fruit and porridge. “Who’s sending ye messages sae early, Mama?”

“Your father,” Claire answered truthfully, taking a big gulp from the rapidly cooling coffee, one eye still on the screen.

The little boy scratched his nose, seemingly more interested in the remains of his breakfast, and she returned her attention to the major headlines of the day, scrolling through a news app without much enthusiasm.

“Are we goin’ fer pizza wi’ him again?”

The question had come quite out of the blue, causing Claire to swallow her coffee the wrong way. She bent forward, depositing mug and phone on the table, and coughed violently.

“Are ye okay, Mama?” Willie’s slightly concerned voice piped up from across the table.

She waved a dismissive hand at him, making it clear that she was, in fact, quite alright, despite the wheezing noises she made. 

“Do you want to go for pizza with him again?” Claire asked in a hoarse voice, her windpipe stinging painfully from the intrusion.

“Aye.” Willie scooped the last of his porridge onto his spoon. “But it doesnae have tae be pizza.”

Claire chuckled, regretting it immediately as the pain in her throat intensified. “Well, should we invite him for supper tonight, then?”

“Can we?” The keenness glinting in his dark blue eyes created a warm, fuzzy feeling inside Claire’s chest.

“Sure, if you’d like it.”

William nodded, unruly copper curls bouncing.

“Alright, if you’re finished with that,” she jutted her chin in the direction of the empty bowl, “go brush your teeth and I’ll ask if he wants to join us.”

Jumping up from the table and vanishing into the bathroom with astonishing—and rather unusual for such an early hour—speed, Claire half-expected a cloud of dust to materialise behind him.

Grateful for not having to deal with extra amounts of dust—the bookshelves really needed a bit of attention, in that regard—she grabbed her phone, opening the conversation with Jamie and began to type.

Claire [06:23]: are you free tonight?

Claire [06:24]: your son would like you to join us for supper

She’d just put the dishes into the dishwasher when Jamie replied.

Jamie [06:25]: only my son? ;-)

Claire [06:25]: I guess I wouldn’t mind it too much either :P

Jamie [06:26]: you know how to make a man feel wanted

Claire [06:26]: in case there was any doubt…

Claire [06:26]: …I very much want you to come too

Jamie [06:27]: good, I very much want to come

Claire [06:27]: 6 work for you?

Jamie [06:27]: aye, works fine!

Claire [06:28]: alright, I gotta go.

Claire [06:28]: work

Claire [06:28]: see you at 6 then?

Jamie [06:29]: can’t wait!

*****

A bell jingled as Claire pushed her way into Fraser’s Essentials, Willie at her heel, making their entrance known to the proprietor. They were greeted by the usual welcoming atmosphere, and a distinct buttery smell of freshly baked goods that was slightly out of place but strangely familiar.

She grabbed a shopping basket, dangling it from her arm, and went straight for the fresh produce section. It had occurred to Claire more than once in the past few days that their little family outings—her heart performing a happy jig at the thought—included more dietary indulgences than she felt was healthy for either of them; Jamie, in particular, couldn’t possibly continue like this much longer, given how strict his diet as a professional athlete was bound to be. Spoiling William too much also wouldn’t do any of them much good in the long run. So, Claire decided that a light, vegetarian dish was in order for tonight’s supper.

“Mama can—”

Before William could finish the sentence, Claire said, “Yes, you may, lovey. Only one thing though, remember? No sneaking in another, or you’ll get neither. And go say hello to your—”

She caught herself just in time, just before the word grandfather slipped from her tongue. They hadn’t told William yet, wanting to give him time to adjust to the new father-figure first before dropping yet another revelation on him. “Go say hello to Brian first, alright?”

“Aye!” came the enthusiastic reply.

As if on cue, the man in question rounded the corner of the sweets and snacks shelf, pushing a trolley filled with items that needed restocking. When Brian spied them, the eyes under a heavy, brindled brow lit up.

“Weel, look who the tide swept in,” the familiar, smoky voice called, obviously pleased to see them. “How ha’ ye twa been? How was the trip?”

The little boy almost squealed with delight, switching instantly into an excited narration of the weekend’s adventure. Small hands waved enthusiastically as Willie tried to convey the sheer magnitude of the noisy puffin colony. Brian smiled down at Willie, listening attentively and making all the appropriate noises of fascination when called for.

“And then we had pizza. Wi’ extra cheese!” Willie ended his tale, almost out of breath but grinning toothily.

“Seems ye had a great time, then, aye?”

“Aye!”

“D’ye want tae hear a secret, lad?” Brian bent over the trolley towards the auburn mop, whispering exaggeratedly—and quite loudly—behind a big, weathered hand.

William nodded, enthused by the promise of mystery.

“Mrs Crook came o’er jus’ ten minutes ago and left some fresh scones on the counter.” Light blue eyes flicked towards Claire, seeking permission before he continued, “If ye’re quick about it, they might still be warm.”

Golden-flecked eyes widened with excitement, then, without so much as a backward glance at his mother, dashed toward the source of the heavenly aroma.

“I knew that smell was familiar.” Claire turned to the task of checking each vegetable for ripeness with a gentle squeeze before adding them to her basket.

The large man approached her with a warm smile, wiping his hands on the apron around his hips, trolley full of produce abandoned for the moment.

“Aye, Agnes brought some o’er because she was afraid I’d starve otherwise.” Seeing Claire’s questioning look, he clarified, “We got a big delivery taeday. Geordie and I ha’ been working fer hours, and we dinnae seem tae make any progress. I dinnae ha’ time fer a break taeday, no’ e’en fer a hot chocolate wi’ ye and Willie.”

“I’m afraid we don’t have time for that today, either,” Claire replied, her tone sympathetic. “But I wanted to ask you to join us for supper later. If you have time?”

Brian sighed, the broad shoulders sagging a bit. “I wish I could, a nighean, but I dinnae think I’ll be able tae do anything except fall intae bed after all this,” he gestured around the store, “is taken care o’.”

“Of course, I understand.”

For about a minute, they worked quietly side by side; Claire was perusing the different kinds of potatoes on offer, trying to judge by appearance alone which would be best for a simple roast, while Brian restocked the almost empty baskets on the shelves with onions, leeks, and heads of lettuce, a damp sort of rustling filling the air around them.  

Handing her a small sack of pink potatoes that would go well with any dish, Brian cleared his throat. “Sounded like the trip was a great hit then?”

“I guess you could say that,” Claire agreed, hoping the heat rising from beneath her scarf wasn’t too apparent. “It was…” It was difficult to describe, was what it was. Unexpectedly harmonious? Thrilling and comfortable at the same time? Heart-stopping and tender and sweet in so many different ways? Truth be told, Claire hadn’t really had much time to fully process the past few days, with one major emotional event chasing another. The heat rose higher as an image of Jamie’s lips flashed behind her eyes. “…really good. Better than good, actually.”

If Brian saw the flush in her cheeks, he didn’t comment on it. “I’m glad tae hear it.” The note of wistfulness prompted Claire to look straight at him, regardless of the colour in her cheeks. “I missed ye twa.”

“We missed you, too. I’m sorry we haven’t been around as much.”

He waved it off with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I ken, I ken, Claire. Ye dinnae ha’ tae apologise. There were more important matters tae deal wi’.”

“I don’t want you to think you mean any less to us now.” She touched his arm and Brian stopped mid-reach into the trolley, straightening his back.

“Up until now it was just the initial, exciting phase. Everything’s still so new, and Willie and Jamie have to settle into a routine with each other. We’ll be coming as often as we used to, and sooner than you think you’ll be sick of us again,” she ended with a comforting smile.

A large, tanned hand covered hers, squeezing appreciatively. “I dinnae think that could e’er happen. Being sick o’ ye twa.”

Claire’s lips stretched into an even wider smile, golden eyes glowing with affection.

“Anyhow, I wanted to remind you about Saturday. Is it still alright for you to supply the snacks?” Brian nodded, but his expression seemed to darken slightly, the lines on his face deeper. “I thought it would be best if you came a bit earlier—maybe around an hour?—so we can get them all out before the kids arrive.”

“About that, lass…” Brian rubbed his neck, unable to meet her eye, the gesture eerily reminiscent of his red-haired offspring. “I’m happy tae bring the snacks and all, but I dinnae think I should come tae the party.”

“What?! Why ever not?”

“Weel,” he began, then coughed uneasily. “Wi’ Jamie being there and all…I dinnae think it’d be a great idea.”

Claire stared at him, mouth slightly agape. “You’re kidding, right?”

Another cough. “Eh…no. I jus’ dinnae want tae ruin Willie’s party.”

“You wouldn’t ruin it, Brian.”

“I’m no’ sae sure about that.”

“You know Willie wants you there,” Claire insisted, growing slightly frustrated.

“I ken, but—”

“No buts. I understand that you and Jamie have something going on that you two need to resolve,” the look on her face making it abundantly clear that it had better happen soon, “but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be there. Jamie might be his father, but you’re his grandfather. You have as much right to be there.”

Brian opened his mouth to protest, but Claire cut across him.  “So,” she puffed her chest out, and put one fist on her hip, balancing the basket on the other. “I expect you to be there. No excuses. This isn’t about you—or Jamie. This is about my son, and he wants you there. And so do I.”

With more force than necessary, she added a bundle of baby carrots to the mix in her basket, turned around, and stalked towards the dairy aisle. Leaving a mildly stunned Brian behind, she muttered under her breath, “Goddamn bloody stubborn Fraser men. If that’s what I’m going to face with Willie, I’m not looking forward to him hitting puberty.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 34 – Pulling Back Layers

The melodic ding-dong triggered a panicked glance at the microwave, the traitorous device confirming that it was indeed already 6 p.m. Where had that bloody half hour gone? Claire could have sworn she’d been in the bathroom for only the most superficial of scrub-downs.

Even before stepping under the hot spray, she’d known that she would be running late with dinner preparations because of it. The prospect of being a bit late, however, didn’t stand a fighting chance against the urge to freshen up before the broad and very attractive form of James Fraser graced her doorstep. Even though the invitation had been issued by their son, Claire was filled with the same giddy anticipation and wasn’t willing to face the man whose kisses made her heart leap with joy smelling like the long day she’d had.

The only problem was that she wasn’t running just a bit late.

The fact that she wasn’t ready yet grew embarrassingly clear as she took in the open space around her with a sweeping gaze. Toys and crayons lay scrambled around the living room, the laundry basket almost spilling over with overdue washing was mocking her through the open bathroom door, and the ingredients for the meal she was supposed to have ready by now were still residing peacefully in the fridge.

Hell, nothing was ready, Claire realised with a derogatory look at her own reflection in the shiny refrigerator surface. She was barefooted, shower-damp hair clinging to shoulders and neck, and dressed in washed-out jeans and an old t-shirt. And Jamie-goddamn-on-the-dot-punctual-Fraser was already standing outside her door.

She cursed—quietly, but passionately.

“Willie, can you get the door please?” Claire called over her shoulder, the note of nervous apprehension forcefully kept to a minimum, arms laden with carrots, celery, potatoes, and savoy cabbage as she pushed the refrigerator door closed with her hip.

The sound of quick footfalls echoed against the walls, immediately followed by the opening and shutting of the front door, and an unintelligible rumble of what Claire assumed was a cordial greeting. Fruitlessly attempting to bat down her thicket of unruly brown curls into something not resembling a mythological snake-haired figure, she reached for her phone in the docking station, turning the music down.

“Supper’s no’ ready yet,” was the first thing she could make out when William returned to the living room. “Are ye going tae watch telly wi’ me?”

“Let me say hi tae yer Mam first, aye?” Jamie’s deep burr grew louder as Claire washed the superficial layer of dirt off the vegetables, the water a pleasant contrast to the heat rising underneath her skin. With every step that he drew nearer, she could feel the atmosphere change—as if every particle shifted a tiny fraction of an inch to make room for whatever this magnetic force was between them.

The downy hairs on the back of her neck rose as Claire felt him there, looming warm and tall behind her.

“Sassenach,” Jamie said by way of greeting, trying his level best to sound casual while standing like a Greek statue, the kitchen light catching in the fiery colour of his crown.

Celery in hand, she half-turned, meeting his gaze straight on, her own excitement mirrored in deep pools of dark blue. “Fraser.”

His wide mouth curved into a lopsided smile, the desire to be near her clear as day in his eyes, but Jamie seemed unsure how best to approach her—all too conscious of William’s presence on the couch a short distance away. Drying her hands on a dishtowel, Claire crossed the distance between them, grabbed his hand, and pulled him deeper into the open kitchen space, not quite hidden from view, but not in plain sight either.

Another pre-emptory glance towards Willie—who was deeply absorbed in his TV programme—and then Claire was standing on tiptoes, lips pressed against his.

It was only a brief exchange, a transitory sweetness, not meant to be anything but a covert lover’s hello, but it was enough to cause an appreciative noise to erupt from somewhere deep in Jamie’s throat.

“Good e’ening tae ye, too.” The smile was easily discernible in his voice.

Forcing herself to remember that William could barge in at any moment, Claire took a step back, putting as much distance as she could bear between them, and turned back to the task at hand.

“I’m sorry it’s not ready yet. I should have sent you a text or something. Work was brutal today and I got out much later than I thought I would.”

“Dinnae fash, Sassenach. I’ll survive another hour wi’out food.”

She threw him a grateful smile and began to chop away at the savoy cabbage.

Jamie moved beside her, not quite touching, but close enough for her to feel the heat of his body. “Hand me a knife, would ye?”

“Absolutely not, you’re our guest,” Claire protested, not bothering to stop the steady movement of her hands as she looked at him.

“I’d like tae think I’m a bit more than a regular guest,” he said with only a hint of insecurity.

“Of course, you’re not. Not just a regular guest, I mean!” she asserted eagerly, knife hovering over the cutting board. His shoulders straightened with renewed confidence at her fervent response.

“Weel, then. I’ve been around sae often now and ye’ve fed me e’ry single time. It’s about time I pulled ma weight, no?”

A pleased smile spread across her lips. “Well, if you’d rather be dicing greens and vegetables than laze on the couch, then be my guest. I wouldn’t mind having a bit of help.”

“I’m at yer service, put me tae use.”

“Alright, you can dice those,” Claire instructed, pointing a bare elbow at the bundle of carrots as she turned Spotify louder again.

Jamie rolled up his shirtsleeves, grabbed a knife, and another cutting board. “Aye, aye, ma’am.”

A handful of minutes into companionable vegetable chopping, Jamie began to bob his head and hum along spiritedly to the music.

“So…what’s the story there?” Claire asked, setting water to boil in a saucepan. Jamie blinked rapidly, taken by surprise.

“I’m talking about Tina,” she clarified, head jerking towards the source of the music, the raspy timbre of Tina Turner filling the kitchen air. “Knowing the lyrics to Simply the Best? Sure, not difficult and a very well-known song. Same with What’s Love Got to Do with it. I even get Proud Mary, but One of the Living? That’s serious fan stuff, Fraser.”

“Sae ye’re implying…?” He teased, looking at her from underneath oddly coloured lashes. “Am I no’ allowed tae be a fan?”

Claire shrugged, lips pursed in concentration as she measured how many lentils to add the pan. “You just don’t really seem the target audience, to be honest.”

“Dinnae tell me ye’re gender-stereotyping me, Sassenach,” Jamie retorted jovially, the corners of his mouth twitching with amusement. “I’m done wi’ the carrots and celery—what next?”

“The potatoes need to be mashed. You can use the pot in the back,” Claire directed him, starting to stir and puffing an annoying strand of curls out of her face. “And no, I wasn’t trying to insinuate anything, really. I’m just surprised. I can’t remember ever having met fellow fans that were around our age.”

“How did you become a fan o’ hers, then, if ye think it sae unusual?” The expression on his slightly stubbled face was one of interest mixed with something that Claire couldn’t quite interpret.

Pale, well-groomed fingers curved around the spoon handle tightened almost imperceptibly. “Lamb,” she said simply, honey eyes momentarily darkened by the shadow of memory. “It was Uncle Lamb who made me fall in love with her.”

Jamie didn’t respond right away, seemingly having turned inward.

“Fer me it was my Mam,” he stated in a quiet voice, gaze fixed on the steam that was building in the pot.

There seemed to be more, so Claire didn’t speak, giving Jamie room to organise his thoughts should he wish to share them with her. One eye on the merrily bubbling lentils, she reached a hand towards his waist, hoping the closeness would give him comfort.  

“She was an artist, ye ken? Ma Mam, I mean.” Claire nodded, but he didn’t really register it. “She used tae say ‘there’s nothin’ as inspirin’ as Tina, lad—except mebbe yer Da’.”

He smiled then, a blend of sadness and admiration.

“That music was all around me, growing up. E’ry Sunday when I’d walk intae the kitchen, there was Tina and a full Scottish breakfast on the table. E’ry time I’d walk past Mam’s wee studio, I’d hear Tina blasting through the door, and Mam singing along while she painted. She couldnae hold a tune tae save her life, ma Mam, but she didnae care.”

“And,” Jamie began, then swallowed forcefully.

“And?” Claire prompted in a soothing tone, one hand moulded to his waist, feeling the soft fabric of his shirt, while the other kept stirring. It didn’t matter that the lentils would be a bit overcooked.

“And,” he repeated a bit steadier this time, “e’ry time she drove me tae training, she’d put Tina on, playing Proud Mary jus’ before we arrived. Tae let me ken how proud she was o’ me. That she wanted me tae keep on rollin’, no matter what.”

No matter what indeed. No matter how little understanding a father had for his passion, maybe?

“That song…and Tina…it…she means a lot tae me.”

Dinner considered a lesser priority at the moment, Claire left the pan and pot to their own devices and turned fully into Jamie, her hand tightening on his waist. “I understand.”

Claire did understand the pain of losing a loved one all too well; how hard it was to shake off a past that could not be changed but would never be forgotten. Jamie’s arms came around her, fitting her closer against his chest, quietly seeking and receiving solace while the tunes of an entirely different song played in the background.

A rather sinister hissing sound from the cooker top made it abundantly clear, however, that this was not the best time to delve into the matter further.

Blue eyes alert again, Jamie coughed and redirected the conversation towards a lighter topic in an attempt to diffuse the heavy atmosphere. “I dinnae e’en ken what we’re making. Care tae enlighten me?”

“I thought I’d try my hand at Shepherd’s Pie,” Claire said, draining the lentils over the sink, the heat from the water making the tiny hairs bordering her hairline curl madly. “Can you heat up some butter in that frying pan, please?”

“German or Australian?” Jamie inquired with a teasing look over his shoulder as he grabbed the butter from the fridge.

She stared at his boyish grin, brows scrunched in bafflement. “I beg your pardon?”

The grin grew larger. “Shepherd’s pie, ye ken. German shepherd dog or Australian…”

Claire’s mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out as she continued to stare at him, wide-eyed and incredulous. Then, she spluttered with laughter. “That has got to be the worst pun I ever heard, Fraser.”

“Still made ye laugh, though, no?” Jamie inquired, bumping his shoulder gently into hers, quite pleased with himself.

Shaking her head, Claire continued bustling through the kitchen, fetching all the remaining ingredients. Despite focusing on the task of layering the different ingredients in accordance with the recipe, Claire found it rather difficult not to steal a look at him—or two—as they worked companionably elbow to elbow. His mere presence was a distraction.

“Hold up, Sassenach…if we’re making Shepherd’s Pie, where’s the meat?”

“I’m making a vegetarian version.”

Jamie’s jaw dropped comically. “No meat in Shepherd’s Pie? That’s desecration!”

“No meat, and definitely no dogs,” she declared, smiling smugly at him as she shoved the ceramic baking dish into the oven.

*****

“I have tae admit,” Jamie said, ruddy brows drawn together in contemplation as he chewed, “yer meatless version is better than the original, Sassenach.”

“Why, thank you.” Claire’s lips curled into a pleased smile, happiness over a job well done swelling in her chest.

Crossing her arms, she settled back in the chair, savouring the sight of her two men chatting and digging into their second helpings with gusto. She took a deep gulp of her glass, the tart flavour of grape juice flooding her taste buds, and emitted a sigh that bespoke a tiredness that was fulfilling, rather than exhausting.

The sigh caught Jamie’s attention, though, and slanted blue eyes shifted to study her face. “Long day?”

“It was, but a good one.”

“Doctor Joe said Mama saved a life taeday!” Willie joined in the conversation.

“Ye did?” The deep voice carried a note of curious awe.

Heat rose in her cheeks amidst the sudden spotlight of attention. “Well, ehm…I guess you could say that—technically.”

“I hope ye dinnae think me ignorant, but I thought an orthopaedic doesnae really get tae do that verra often?”

“No, we usually don’t,” Claire concurred, smoothing a curly tendril back behind her ear. “It’s not exactly the most dramatic branch in medicine.”

“Sae what happened taeday then?” Jamie asked, long fingers reaching for the salt. 

“I had a standard fracture repair on the table. Broken fibula—nasty break, but not difficult to fix. Every surgery is exciting though. You never know what’s going to happen—how a patient will react to anaesthetics, for instance. Some take it very well, others don’t.”

“I take it this one didnae take it well?”

“Well…no,” she stated simply, shoulders sagging with the weight of recollection of a frantic hour in the operating theatre. Relentless, high-frequency beeping, the smell of blood and sweat, and the collective sigh of relief when it was over. “It wasn’t the anaesthetics. He suffered a pulmonary embolism. It was close, but he made it.”

Picking up on the tightness in her tone, Jamie was about to ask who Doctor Joe was instead of pursuing the current line of conversation, but William cut him to the chase.

“Mama cuts some people tae make ‘em better,” the little boy explained with an air of importance in between eager forkfuls.

That statement seemed to have set another thought into motion. “D’ye do that, too?”

Jamie chuckled softly, red head inclined towards his offspring. “No, lad, I dinnae do that.”

“What d’ye do, then? I havenae seen ye at the hospital.”

“Ye’re right, I dinnae work at the hospital. I’m an alpine skier.”

Willie tilted his head to one side, intelligent eyes considering that piece of new information. “What does an alpine skier do?”

Spurred on by his son’s interest, Jamie launched into an eager account of his profession and what it entailed—endless hours in the gym, early mornings on icy slopes, hours and hours of waiting, and most of all, iron discipline.

“That doesnae sound verra fun. Why d’ye do it?”

“Weel,” Jamie ran a hand through his hair, seemingly a bit at a loss about how to convey his love for the sport to his offspring. “It isnae jus’ tough. There’s plenty that’s verra pleasant about it too.”

“Like what?” William asked, while Claire followed their conversation attentively. She and Jamie hadn’t really talked much about it either, and she was just as curious as her son.

“There’s the people, fer one. Ye get tae meet amazing folk from all o’er the world. And ye visit places ye wouldnae otherwise get tae see—it’s no’ jus’ views of mountains and lakes, though. It’s…” he broke off, trying to find the words to paint the image right, “it’s like a secret world that only exists fer a short while.”

“But the best part are the races.” Jamie’s eyes shone with passion as he spoke, and Claire’s heart warmed at the sight of it. “The rush o’ adrenaline when ye’re about tae race down the slope, when ye cross the finish line and the folk erupt wi’ cheers and applause, no matter whether ye placed first or last.”

“But being last cannae be fun,” Willie interjected, tapping his chin thoughtfully with his fork.

Swallowing his last bite, Jamie patted his stomach and smiled. “Och, winning would make it that wee bit sweeter, I guess. But it’s still a lot o’ fun if ye don’t.”

“Hoo sae?”

“It’s the battle against the mountain, the testing o’ yer own abilities. And most o’ all, it’s the speed.”

“D’ye like going fast then?”

“Aye, I do.”

“Mama always says I shouldnae go too fast on ma bike. She says that’s verra dangerous,” Willie pointed out.

“Weel, it can be dangerous if ye dinnae ken what ye’re doing,” Jamie nodded, agreeing. “But that’s the same fer almost e’ry profession. If yer Mam didnae ken what she was about, being a doctor would be jus’ as dangerous, no?”

Willie seemed to contemplate that over a sip of his juice, then nodded. “Aye, ye’re right. If Mama didnae ken hoo tae cut people right, tha’ would be verra dangerous.”

*****

A lengthy discussion and a compromise of two good-night stories later, Willie was finally asleep, Mr Puff snug against his chest. Jamie closed the door behind him as he followed Claire into the living room.

“Sae, the lad isnae always sae keen tae go tae bed then, aye?”

“No, he isn’t. Welcome to the daily struggle, Fraser,” Claire chuckled softly. “You handled that very well, by the way.”

The tips of his ears went slightly pink under her praise. “Thank ye.”

“Do you want some more water? Or tea? I also still have that whisky.”

“I’m good, thank ye. I dinnae usually drink at all during training. The last time I had something alcoholic was the whisky wi’ ye and…weel,” Jamie smiled at her as he made himself comfortable on the sofa, “the situation called for it, no?”

Claire remembered that particular occasion very vividly, and not just because it had been only a couple of weeks ago. If any day had ever called for a stiff one, it would have been that one—the day that had marked the beginning of Jamie as an integral part of their lives, of them becoming a family.

Amber eyes shone with tenderness, and a hint of something more. “Yes, it did.”

“Come here, Sassenach,” Jamie said, the softness of his tone as much invitation as the arm held out to her.

Claire took the offered hand, entwining her fingers with his, and sank wordlessly into his embrace. With William’s observant gaze removed from the situation, they were finally able to engage in a thorough hello, lips moving urgently, eager to reacquaint themselves with each other.  

“Hi,” she sighed happily into his neck, fingertips skimming along his stubbled jawline.   

He hummed in response, the sound travelling like a balm over her skin, washing away the exhaustion of the day. “Now that’s something I could get easily used tae.”

Wafts of cedar-scented shampoo filled her nostrils as she nuzzled closer into the crook of his neck, copper curls tickling her nose. “Me too. You’ve no idea how hard it was not to kiss you all evening.”

“Is that sae?”

“Mhmm.”

“It wasnae jus’ hard on you, Sassenach.”

“No?” With enormous effort, Claire managed to break away from the temptation of his skin. Propping her head up on her elbow, she met his eyes, honey-gold sparked with curiosity. “You seemed to have yourself well under control.”

“Things are no’ always what they seem.” A large hand found its way to her side, settling warm and heavy on her waist, thumb drawing idle patterns. “Trust me, if Willie hadnae been around…” he trailed off, leaving the suggestion hanging in the air between them.

“What then, Fraser?” she cocked a challenging eyebrow, scooting instinctively closer.  

Jamie’s voice grew husky, the blue of his eyes deep and focused on the woman in front of him. “There’d have been a lot more o’ this,” he said, tilting his face towards hers.

Whether it was the way he licked his lips just before his mouth descended on hers, or how his fingers seemed to fit perfectly into the space between her ribs that caused her heart to gallop and heat spread through her system, Claire couldn’t say. What she could say, however, was that the hissing noise hitting her ear drum was one of pain, not pleasure.

“Sorry.” Somewhat startled, Claire retreated from their kiss. “Did I hurt you?”

“Ah no,” Jamie replied, wide mouth set in a grimace as he reached a tentative hand to the back of his neck, “it’s jus’ that blasted muscle again. It hurt all day. I think I might have pulled it.”

“Why didn’t you say something earlier? Let me have a look.” Professional instinct taking over, she launched into a series of questions, automatically scanning him for signs of injury.

“Because I didnae come here fer a doctor’s appointment,” he said with a little bit of defensiveness creeping into the tight set of his jaw.

Claire let out a small huff of a laugh. “Well, tough luck, Fraser. I am a doctor, even when I’m off the clock. So, get down there and let me have a proper look,” she instructed, pointing at a spot on the carpet between the sofa and the coffee table.

Mumbling something under his breath that sounded a lot like “It doesnae e’en hurt that much,” Jamie obediently followed her order and sat down in front cross-legged of the couch, the stiffness of his movement and the small grunts of obvious discomfort belying his outward bravado. 

“Alright, where exactly does it hurt?” she asked, leaning forward and placing a foot on either side of him on the plush carpet.

Jamie indicated a spot at the juncture where neck met shoulder. “Righ’ there. But it really isnae that bad at all, Sassenach. Ye dinnae have tae—”

“Here?”

“Aye,” he began in a too-casual tone, about to downplay his pain yet again when he suddenly yelped—with pain as much as with surprise—as skilled fingers had discovered the source of it.

Mac...na...galla!” Jamie hissed through clenched teeth as Claire’s fingers continued their professional exploration over his shirt.

“Mhm, I can tell it doesn’t hurt at all, Fraser.”

“O’ course it does if ye’re poking at it,” Jamie muttered somewhat irritably, but made no further effort to pretend he wasn’t hurting.

“Can you try to rotate your right shoulder? Just like that, thank you.”

A bit more probing and examining later, Claire declared that he had—luckily—not pulled a muscle, but got himself some nasty little knots in the deep tissue of his trapezius.

“It’s probably from that damned rower, I always get a bit o’ an ache in ma neck after those sessions. But it’s ne’er been this bad.”

“Have you seen a physio about it?” Jamie shook his head, auburn locks brushing over her fingertips. “Well, then it’s not surprising it got this bad.”

“The ski team cannae afford one during the off-season,” he remarked, lifting his left shoulder in a half-shrug.

“Hm,” Claire mused, pale finger tapping at the base of his neck as she thought. “Do you have a hair tie on you?”

“Aye, I do. What fer?” He twisted his head back to hand it to her, causing what Claire assumed was another colourful Gaelic exclamation.

“Stop moving,” she scolded him, fingertips moving along the hardened ridge of muscle. “Because I’m going to tie your hair up and then I’m going to try and release some of the tension.”

“Ye dinnae have tae do that Claire.”

“Jamie,” she said, leaning sideways over his shoulder so he could see her without having to turn his neck, “I know I don’t have to. But I can help you, so please let me do that, alright?”

“Awright then,” Jamie conceded quietly, reluctance melting from his body as a smile spread across his face. 

“Good, so sit still and let me work.”

Careful not to jerk his head too much, Claire wound the copper hair up into a sloppy bun at the top of his head, allowing herself a second to marvel at the silky feel of it.

“Should I no’ take aff ma shirt?”

“Do you think you can take it off?” The question was met with a feeble grunt of frustration and then bashful silence. “That’s what I thought,” Claire said, the smile audible in her voice as she rubbed her hands against each other.  “I’m afraid this is going to hurt.”

Finding the myofascial trigger points wasn’t exactly rocket science, but using the right amount of pressure and holding it until the fascia loosened up was hard work. Her forehead was glistening slightly as she worked her way from one knot to the next, steady and focused. After a while, Jamie exhaled forcefully, and the broad shoulders sagged a bit with physical relief.

“Takes a good deal to make you properly submissive, huh?” Claire joked, moving on to the next spot.

He snorted. “Weel, I guess I take after the Fraser side o’ the family—stubborn as rocks, ye ken?”

“I’ve noticed something of the sort,” she mumbled to herself, puffing another annoying lock of hair out of her face. The mention of other Frasers reminded her of something else, though.

“I invited your father along, by the way.” Despite trying her level best to keep her tone conversational, Claire could sense the shifting tension in the tautness of muscle underneath her palms.

“Tae this?” Jamie asked, aiming for a light tone as well, but he didn’t fool her one bit. “I didnae ken ye were running a massage parlour.”

“No, to supper, actually. I would have told you if he’d accepted the invitation, of course.”

“Oh?” He cleared his throat. “Why did he no’ show?”

“They had a big delivery at the shop, and he said the only thing he’d do was fall into bed after.”

“Ah.”

Claire pretended not to notice that Jamie didn’t seem to want to contribute more than monosyllabic responses to their conversation. “I’d asked him to join us because I wanted to talk about Willie’s party—with both of you.”

“Mmphm?”

“That’s when he told me he wasn’t going to come on Saturday.” She paused, wanting to let that statement sink in, but Jamie didn’t respond, choosing to fiddle with a crayon that lay next to him instead.

“Jamie.” Claire stopped her ministrations momentarily to squeeze his shoulder gently.  “Please, talk to me. I need to know what’s going on between you and your father.”

Long fingers were tapping away at the seam of his trousers. “He doesnae have tae stay away because o’ me.”

“That’s what I told him too—”

“And I wouldnae ruin Willie’s party fer anything.”

“I know you wouldn’t, Jamie. Neither of you would. But…” she began, unsure how best to continue. “But you and your father are both going to be part of Willie’s life—and of mine. You can’t avoid each other forever. You two have to find a way to figure this out.”

“I ken. It’s just…” The broad ribcage heaved a sigh.

“I love ma Da. Truly, I do, but…,” Jamie began tentatively, “I’m no’ saying he wasnae a good father—he was—but he ne’er understood me. Still doesnae, I think. We had a farm—Lallybroch it was called.” Claire sat still, listening while maintaining physical contact. “It wasnae all that big, but big enough tae need plenty o’ hands tae work it, keep it going.”

“He ne’er really said it, but I think since the day I was born he’d had it in mind tae hand the reins tae me once he couldnae do it any longer. He’d got it from his father, who’d got it from his, and sae on. It’s been in the family fer generations.”

“I see,” she said softly, resuming a gentle application of pressure at the base of his neck.

“I didnae mind the work at all, but it wasnae ma dream. I’d had it in ma heid tae become a skier since I saw the 98’ Winter Olympics.”

“Why? What happened there?”

“E’er heard the name Hermann Maier?” he asked.

Claire shook her head, brown curls brushing over her shoulders. “No, can’t say that I have.”

“He’s one o’ the greatest skiers o’ all time,” Jamie explained, stretching one leg out underneath the coffee table. “I’d seen him race once, and I cannae say exactly what it was that fascinated me sae much about him, but since then I was glued tae the telly whene’er a ski race would come on. He made it look like…sae much fun, ye ken?”

Another small moan broke from his lips as Claire worked on a particularly painful spot.

“Da and Jenny wouldnae let me watch it, though, because they found it boring. But Mam kent how much I loved it. Sae she taped the races fer me, and we’d watch them together before I had tae go tae bed.”

“And then came the Olympics, and I was sae excited. I kent he was going tae win the Downhill—he was the best, and he deserved it. Mam stayed up wi’ me late in the night tae watch the race. When he came on, I couldnae sit still on the couch, I was hopping up and down wi’ nerves.”

Claire could hear the fondness in the recounting of that particular memory. “Did he win, then?”

“No, he didnae. He crashed—verra badly. Lost grip in one o’ the turns and went…flying. There’s no other way tae put it. He smashed through two layers o’ safety netting intae the deep snow, tumbling head o’er heels. I thought he was dead.”

The shock of his statement froze the movement of her fingers for a second, but Jamie continued, his voice untroubled, so she relaxed again.

“People thought his Olympics were o’er. That there was no way he would be racing anytime soon again.”

“I’m guessing he did?”

“Aye,” he confirmed, a definite note of admiration in his deep rumble now, “three days later he won the Super-G. And three days after that, he won the Giant Slalom, too. Despite shoulder and knee injuries, he walked away wi’ twa gold medals.”

“Wow,” Claire breathed with similar reverence for such an awesome accomplishment, stirring the soft, tiny curls at the nape of his neck.

“That’s when I kent fer sure I wanted tae be a skier—like Hermann.”

“I see,” she said, continuing to knead his muscles, working her way from knot to knot. “Though I have to say not a lot of people would find inspiration for a sport in such a horrific accident. Nor would a lot of mothers encourage it after seeing that,” Claire added as an afterthought.

The wide back under her fingertips vibrated slightly with a chuckle—the first time since she’d begun the massage that he’d been able to move without hissing with pain.

“Aye, it wasnae verra logical, I’ll grant ye that. But dreams seldom are, no?”

“Usually not.”

“Mam supported me, though, nae matter how silly a dream it was. ’If ye really want something, lad, then ye cannae let anything stop ye’, she said.”

Jamie grew quiet then, flicking a non-existent piece of lint off his thigh, and only the sound of their breathing could be heard as Claire wiped the sweat on her forehead into her shoulder. She thought he might have reached a point where he didn’t want to continue, but then he spoke again, his voice tight with sadness.  

“I sometimes think I might no’ have become sae stubborn about pursuing skiing as a career if she hadnae died sae early. That mebbe I was jus’ hanging on tae that because I wanted tae keep that memory—and that part o’ me and her—alive.”

He swallowed heavily. Claire wanted to say something—anything—to comfort and shelter him, but being there and listening was all she could do right now.

“I jus’…I couldnae let that dream go, and the more Da tried tae pull me away from it, the more stubborn I became about it. I wouldnae budge.”

’Stubborn as rocks’,” Claire repeated.

“Mmphm. And it didnae get better wi’ age,” he added, bowing his head slightly to grant her better access to his neck. “And after ma accident, when Da came tae visit me in Morocco, we didnae talk much, but I kent he wanted me e’en less tae continue.”

“Quite understandable, to be honest.” She’d seen the gauges of marred flesh, the craters left behind in the skin on his back; and she could feel them now their bumpy outlines so vivid under her touch. It was quite understandable why Brian wouldn’t have wanted his son to carry on with that.

“Weel, I’m no’ saying it wasnae understandable. At that point I didnae care about anything anyway.”

“What changed, then? Later, I mean.”

For a moment, Claire thought he might not have heard. She opened her mouth to repeat the question when Jamie answered, speaking past a constriction in his throat.

“When I was finally allowed tae go hame…”

“Mhm?”

“Da had sold Lallybroch—no’ jus’ the agricultural part o’ it; the house, too—wi’out telling me. Jamie’s fingers clamped down over his knee. “Jus’ like that ma hame was gone. Ma room. Mam’s art studio. All o’ it.” His head drooped under the weight of the memory.

‘What was his reason?’ The question sat on the tip of Claire’s tongue, but she kept silent, not wanting to interrupt him.

“We didnae speak fer a whole week tae each other. And after that it was only the bare minimum. I couldnae fergive him fer it. And then I got an offer from a sponsor—and I took it.”

Claire’s fingers had stopped working their magic on his tense muscles, lying warm on the curve of his shoulders. “You didn’t want that last piece of her to slip from you as well.”

“Aye.”

A minute passed in silence.

“Thank you for telling me, Jamie,” she said, wrapping her arms around him, hugging him close and brushing her mouth to his cheek in a tender kiss.

Jamie bent forward and reciprocated the gesture, kissing the knuckles of her right hand softly. Then, his chest expanded with a deep inhale, and he turned his face, nose bumping against hers.   

“Feeling better now?”

“Aye, much better.”

“And how’s the neck?” she asked, reclining on the couch and shaking her hands to ease some of the stiffness there.

Twisting and turning his head experimentally, he looked at her from his spot between her jeans-clad legs, dark blue eyes widening at the realisation that he was able to do so without any twinge of pain. A slow smile began to form on his handsome face. “Ye’re a miracle worker, Claire, it doesnae hurt anymore!”

“It will,” Claire warned with professional authority. “It’s going to be tender for a day or two. Don’t put any strain on that muscle for a week.”

“As ye say, m’lady.” Getting up from the floor, Jamie stretched a bit, a delighted groan erupting from his frame, and reclaimed his spot by her side on the sofa, still smiling. “Are yer fingers hurting, Sassenach?”

“A bit,” she admitted.

“Let me,” he offered, grasping her hand in his, and started to apply gentle pressure with his thumb, moving from her wrist to the tip of her pinkie in slow, circling motions.

“Thank you,” Claire whispered, whisky eyes locking on dark blue ones as she returned his smile.

Thank you for trusting me.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 35 – It Will Be All Right

Around late-morning—two excessively chatty patients, a broken paper towel dispenser, and a spilled cup of too-weak tea into her workday—Claire found herself in the doctor’s lounge for a brief respite, clutching her forehead in a fruitless attempt to ward off a migraine.

“You look like hell, Beauchamp,” the rich, disembodied voice of Joe Abernathy stated in a deadpan observation.

The door shut behind him and Claire groaned in response, waving a weak hand at him without opening her eyes. “Feel like it, too.”

“Had a rough night?”

“I wish. This is just one of the many joys of owning a set of female reproductive organs.”

As long as she could remember, headaches had always been the harbinger of yet another round of hormonal imbalance, accompanied by intense and sudden cravings for salty snacks as well as cramps that sometimes got so bad they made her wish to be pregnant again. It had been years, though, since she’d had a migraine this bad. Somewhere in the back of her mind, lurking behind a wall of crippling pain, Claire suspected that the lack of sleep last night might have played a significant role in that.

“Ah,” Joe replied, knowing and sympathetic, as he settled into the seat to her right. “That time of the month again?”

“Mhm.”

“Anything I can do?”

Touched by the sincerity of his tone, she mustered enough strength to lift her head and pry her eyes open. She snapped them shut tightly again, though, as the harsh hospital light knifed across her retinas and caused her to hiss with pain.

“Go home.”

“I’m fine,” Claire countered, rubbing her temples so savagely that the skin turned pink. “I just need a minute.”

Claire.” It was said with an air of professional rather than friendly assertiveness. “You can’t work like that.”

“I’m fine. Really,” she claimed with a rather obvious lack of conviction as she rose from her seat, opening her eyes slowly this time to adjust to the brightness of the room.

Joe was watching her with a trained physician’s eye, missing neither the tight set of her jaw, nor the faint lines of discomfort between her brows. “Yeah, and I’m the bloody Queen.”

There was a relentless black pain in her head—pounding in hot, blinding flashes from just above her eyebrow, through the orbit of the left eye, to the corner of her mouth. As she took one step towards the sink to fetch herself a glass of water, all breath went out of her, knees buckling, but she caught herself in time.

Joe had jumped up and was at her side in an instant, steadying her with an arm slung around her middle, leading her back to the chair.

“Sit down. I’m going to call you a taxi.” A definite note of concern rang in her colleague’s tone. “No ‘buts’.”

“I need to get Willie.”

“What you need is to get home and sleep,” he amended, fingers flying over his phone screen to order an Uber. “You take care of yourself. I’m going to pick up Willie when I go get Lenny from the nursery and I’ll bring him home later in the evening, alright?”

Too light-headed and weak to protest, Claire nodded and accepted the offer with a feeble attempt at a grateful smile, face as white as the hospital sheets.

“Come on, then.” Joe pulled her up against his side, walking her slowly down to the exit and into the waiting Uber, impressing on the young man behind the steering wheel that he was to make sure Claire got to her door alright.

White and black spots were still whizzing in front of amber eyes as she fell face down onto her bed with a moan, stockinged feet sticking out of plaid pyjama bottoms that she had no recollection of having changed into. 

Wild brown curls blocked every last particle of light that the blinds didn’t keep out as she fell into a dreamless sleep—enveloped by a thick duvet, the scent of cedar-scented detergent, and a haze of pain muffled by a healthy dose of aspirin.

*****

A couple of hours of restorative napping later, Claire was huddled up in a blanket nest on the couch, listening to the soothing background noises of a relaxation video. Sometime earlier, Joe had left her a voicemail, letting her know that he would be bringing Willie home after dinner, giving her not only time to recover, but taking the responsibility of cooking off her shoulders as well. 

Bless you, Joe.

While Claire felt much improved already—if still somewhat sensitive to light and distinctly tender-headed—the prospect of entertaining company in such a state was a daunting one. So, even though it had been a tight victory, reason won the internal debate, and she sent Jamie an apologetic text cancelling their evening plans.

Having thus cleared herself of any responsibilities, she snuggled deeper into the couch, nibbling on her favourite brand of chocolate digestives and looking forward to a few quiet hours until William arrived.

Claire had just dozed off again when the sound of loud knocking startled her upright, blanket wrapped around her like a burrito, curls askew. Fighting her way out of the comfy entanglement, she stumbled hurriedly towards the front door, wondering who on earth it could be.

In his message, Joe had said he’d bring Willie after dinner, so they wouldn’t show before 7 p.m. The possibility that it was already that late was refuted by the light of a weak afternoon sun casting its greyish light through the curtains.

Had Jamie not seen her text?

Her insides had already reached that conclusion before her thoughts caught up, fluttering with excitement as Claire turned the doorknob.

The greeting died on her lips as she took in the large man in front of her. Although the broad shoulders currently filling her door frame were definitely attached to a Fraser, it wasn’t the one she’d expected.

“Hello, a nighean.” the smooth whisky voice broke the moment of surprised silence.

“What are you doing here?” she blurted out, the question sounding a lot ruder than intended.

Brian lifted the bags he was carrying, a tentative smile burgeoning on his wide mouth. “May I come in?”

Taking a step aside, Claire beckoned him in. “Of course.”

Knowing his way around, Brian toed off his shoes and headed straight towards the kitchen.

“What is all that?” she asked, tagging along and trying to peer inside the bags. “Spoils of war?”

He deposited the heavy load on the counter with a chunk, accompanied by the rustle of plastic. “The snacks fer the party.”

Claire’s chest inflated, but Brian held up a hand, effectively stopping her before she could even start to go down that road again.

“Look, a nighean,” he began sheepishly, head slightly bowed as he rubbed the back of his neck. “I didnae like the way we parted yesterday. I’m sorry fer what I said. I mean…I’m no’ sorry fer what I said, but I am sorry. Ye were right.” He cleared his throat, still not looking her in the eyes. “This isnae about Jamie and me, it’s about Willie. And if ye still allow it, I’d verra much like tae come.”

If not exactly a peace offering, it was at least a gesture of goodwill—and a very welcome one at that. A smile dimpled her cheeks as Claire reached out to squeeze his shoulder in affection.

“That was never up for debate, Brian,” she said, the warmth of her tone reassuring enough that Brian finally met her gaze.  

“I’m glad.” Hope and gratitude were sparkling in the gentle orbs as his shoulders visibly relaxed.

Then, he cleared his throat, anxious to leave that touchy subject behind them. “Anyhow, I got all o’ Willie’s favourites here,” he pointed at the bulging bags filled with crisps, pretzels, and a large assortment of sweets. “And I put in those orange biscuits ye like sae much, too.”

“Thank you.”

And there it was again, the image of kindness personified.

The man who took care of all the minor reparations in her home—not because he was asked to, but because he noticed that they needed taking care of. The man who’d taught her son how to ride a bike, who plied them with scones and cakes, who knew which biscuits they each preferred. The man who understood when Claire needed a gentle word of encouragement, and when silence was the best support. The man who’d been part of their family in spirit long before his relation by blood had been discovered.

Seeing him now, his presence warm and comforting in her kitchen, helping her stow away the goodies and snacks he’d brought for his grandson’s birthday, it was almost impossible to reconcile her image of the man who gave so much—so willingly, so selflessly—with the one that Jamie had painted the night before.

Why?

It had been that one question in particular festering in her mind, robbing her of sleep last night. Why had that wonderful, kind man—a good father, by Jamie’s own account—done something so completely out of character? 

“Why did you do it?” Her tone was soft and curious as she watched the weathered hands retrieving a bag of Mackies from the shopping bag stop in mid-air. “Why did you sell Lallybroch without even telling Jamie first?”

The kitchen seemed suddenly devoid of warmth, and an unpleasant shiver ran down her spine.

With great effort, it appeared, Brian set the bag of crisps down and turned slowly to face her. The lines of age seemed edged much deeper into the tanned skin than just a second ago; the silver in his hair more pronounced, the smile gone from eyes and mouth.  

“He’s told ye then?”

It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” she swallowed under his heavy gaze. “He told me last night.”

The broad shoulders drooped, tired of bearing the weight of the past. Claire didn’t think he would answer, his posture still and rigid as he stood with his eyes closed, the seconds ticking away. Perhaps it was that he’d sensed no judgment in her question that moved him to speak, or perhaps it was the fact that he hadn’t been able to tell a soul until now, his heart desperate to share the burden.  

“Before I answer ye, Claire,” Brian said, taking a big, deliberate breath before opening his eyes again, “ye must swear tae me that ye’ll keep it tae yerself. That ye’re no’ going tae tell him. No’ e’er.”

She might have thought his request a tad ridiculous, like something from a movie, if it hadn’t been for the look of steel fixing her in place.

Bracing herself, Claire leaned back against the kitchen counter and nodded. “I won’t tell him.”

Light blue eyes were flicking back and forth, as if the answer how best to begin could be found on the labels of cereals or on the oaken surface of the countertop.

“Ye asked why I sold Lallybroch,” Brian began hesitantly, rubbing his sternum with a work-worn thumb as he stared at a spot somewhere above her left shoulder.

“I didnae want tae sell it. Ma life’s blood was in that place. And no’ jus’ because it had been in ma family since 1702.” He stared down at his hands, finding them as empty and hollow as his voice. “It’s where I married ma wife, and where I laid her tae rest. It’s the place I saw ma children grow up.”

The sadness settled in the centre of her chest, fanning out with every breath she took. “What happened? Why did you have to sell it?”

“Because o’ the accident.” Seeing incomprehension wrinkling her brows, Brian clarified, “Jamie’s accident on Madeira.”

“What? But…but how? I mean, why? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“D’ye have any idea how much that accident cost? I mean, no’ the accident itself, but the medical attention he needed afterwards?”

“He didn’t have insurance?” Amber eyes widened, incredulous.

His lips quirked into a wry smile. “Och aye, he did.”

“Then what…?” The question was left unfinished. “I don’t understand.”

“The thing is that he did ha’ insurance. All o’f the lads from the junior cadre had it, it’s part o’ the package—fer a reason, obviously. It’s no’ exactly the safest profession, e’en if ye’re no’ a professional yet.”

Claire’s gaze was trained on his face, impatient for an explanation.

“The problem was that the insurance only covered European countries’ healthcare institutions. Which wouldnae ha’ been an issue, if they’d flown him tae the Portuguese mainland, but they—”

Her stomach dropped at the realisation. “But they took him to Morocco.”

“Aye.” Brian heaved a sigh. “I dinnae begrudge them the decision tae make fer Marrakesh—it was closer, and he needed more blood transfusions quickly—but insurance didnae cover a single bill from that stay. And he stayed there a long time, Claire.”

“I tried tae get him transferred, but they told me they couldnae do sae in good conscience until his back was healed proper.” He rubbed his hands on his jeans. “I made do fer a while wi’ our savings, sold stock and some o’ the antiquities. But at some point, there was no going back. I had tae sell it.”

“I see.”

A heavy silence fell between them. There was nothing Claire could think of saying that would not sound hollow and platitudinous.

Curiosity was warring with the wish not to be too intrusive, not to overstep a boundary, but she understood somehow that if she didn’t ask now, she’d never know; that Brian wouldn’t ever speak of this again.  

She cleared her throat, forcing the ball of trepidation down. “But why didn’t you tell him you sold it? Why let it be such a shock?”

“I’m no’ a saint, Claire, and I’m no’ going tae pretend I didnae make any mistakes.” His admission was quiet, ripe with regret.

“Aye, I should ha’ told him sooner, but I could barely think about it wi’out wanting tae punch a hole in the wall, let alone speak o’ it. I’m ashamed tae e’en say it but…” his gaze dropped to the floor, knuckles straining against the bronzed skin, “…I was sae…resentful at first. That his silly dream cost me ma livelihood, ma hame. I was sae angry that I couldnae look at him wi’out wanting tae shake him until his teeth rattled.”

“But it wasnae jus’ that.” All colour had drained from his face, the features hardened with remembered pain. “I didnae feel like that anymore when he came back, finally out o’ that damnable hospital. I was jus’ glad tae ha’ him back wi’ me.”

“What was it?” The question was barely audible, her throat tight with emotion at watching Brian struggle to find the right words.     

“If…” he began, his Adam’s apple bobbing heavily, “…if Jamie kent that the last link tae his mother was lost because o’ the accident, he’d ne’er fergive himsel’ fer it. He loved his mother more than anything—it would ha’ crushed him. I…I couldnae do that tae him.”

Claire’s heart squeezed painfully in her chest, understanding all too well the wish to protect one’s child. She wanted to reach out to Brian, to give him some comfort through touch, but he wasn’t done yet.

“He stopped speaking tae me. And I understood—he was angry. We both were. But then…” he rubbed a hand over his mouth, light blue eyes clouded with a myriad of emotions. “He took that damn sponsoring offer wi’out sae much as a word o’ goodbye.”

“He jus’ jumped at the chance tae get himself killed wi’out a second thought, as if that was the only way fer him.”

Her mouth went dry, unable to tear her gaze away from Brian’s face as he continued.

“His heart had stopped twice during transportation—did ye ken that?”

Claire shook her head, the icy shock of that revelation spreading from the middle of her chest to the tips of her toes, to the roots of her hair.  

“Ma wife was gone, ma daughter halfway around the world. And Jamie barely…” his voice cracked, “I couldnae lose Jamie, too. But I did.”

Her heart gave another painful squeeze at the sight of him—a broken man who’d lost so much.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Aye, me too,” he whispered, a sad smile tugging at the corners of the aged mouth. “Dinnae weep, a leannan, it’ll be awright.”

She hadn’t even noticed the solitary tear sliding down her cheek until a large, gentle thumb wiped it away.

“Yes, it will be all right.”

*****

The truth of these words stayed with her long after Brian had left, and William was fast asleep, lingering in the space between each conscious thought.

Even more so when, for the second time that day, Claire opened the door to someone she had not expected—a delivery man handing her a warm paper bag with a smile and an “Enjoy your meal!”

He had turned on his heel and cycled off again, leaving her staring dumbfounded after him, before she’d been able to process any of it. Still bewildered, Claire took the plastic container out, finding a large bowl of soup with a hand-scribbled note attached to it:

I’m sorry I can’t do anything for your head, but here’s something for your wame.

Love,

Jamie

At the sight of that of that one simple word, a swarm of butterflies took flight in her belly, the rush of their wings creating a storm of inexorable tenderness, glowing in her eyes and tingling in her toes.

Having seen the unending kindness of both men, there was no room left for doubt.

It would be all right.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 36 – Da

The days after Jamie and Brian’s revelations passed in a blur, and before Claire knew it, the morning of Willie’s birthday had dawned bright and clear.

William’s birthday.

Her precious, tiny boy was six years old. Well, not so tiny anymore. He’d been growing like a weed lately—the top of his curly head reaching almost to her chest—but she could still remember the day he was born as if it had been yesterday. The downy tuft of copper hair on the crown of his head, slanted eyes impossibly blue as his pudgy little fist had clasped around her thumb. 

Wondering where all that time had gone, Claire stood, gentle rays of early spring light flooding the kitchen and warming her skin as she stared out over the lip of her mug. Reminiscing about birthdays past and the ones yet to come, she was jerked out of her reverie by a sharp tapping against the kitchen window.

Her mouth dropped in an ungainly manner at the unexpected, but most welcome sight.

Geillis, in all her nearly-translucent-pale-skinned glory, was grinning at her through the glass panes, gesticulating to meet at the door.

Claire ran towards the entrance, yanking the door open with her mouth split into ridiculously fat grin.

“Gee!” she squealed, excited to have her best friend close enough to wrap her in a tight embrace. “You’re here!”

“Hen!” Geillis replied with similar bouncy excitement as she returned the bear hug.

“It’s so good to see you.” Amber eyes were glowing with warmth above a wide smile. “But why are you not ringing the doorbe—” she broke off, mouth hanging slightly open as she registered her friend’s appearance.

“What have you done with your hair?”

Geillis strode past Claire into the cottage, a small smirk accompanying her turn back over her shoulder as the sing-song voice explained, “It’s a verra novel thing they do these days, hen. It’s called dyeing.”

Claire rolled her eyes good-naturedly. She’d missed the easy banter.

“D’ye like it? I think it suits me verra well.”

“Yes, it does. It looks amazing.” She closed the door and took Geillis’ jacket as the other woman slipped out of her heeled boots. “But, it’s…quite a change.”

“Weel, that was the plan,” Geillis declared with a smug edge to her tone, gathering her now strawberry blonde mane into a high ponytail. “I wanted tae blend in wi’ yer new crowd, but I wasnae daring enough tae go full ginger.”

Claire snorted, grabbing her abandoned coffee and taking a sip as Geillis helped herself to a mug full of the invigorating brew.

“Bloody hell, you even did your eyebrows?”

“Aye, o’ course,” her friend replied, casually leaning against the kitchen counter. “I did the drapes, carpet, and the kitchen towels as well.”

Spluttering slightly, Claire coughed as a few drops of coffee had gone down the wrong way. “Too much information, Duncan.”

Geillis’s lips curved into a mischievous smile. “There’s nae such thing as too much information, hen.”

“I beg to differ,” Claire muttered as she began to prepare Willie’s favourite breakfast: parritch with raspberries and a dollop of honey. Deciding that it didn’t hurt to spoil her son a bit on his special day, she took out the bacon as well, setting it to fry in a pan.

“Since the others are not with you, I’m guessing you didn’t come up from Edinburgh?”

“No, I came from Glesga.”

“So, you’re still seeing that guy—what was his name again—then?” she asked, retrieving a pot from a cupboard. “Do you want some eggs?”

“No tae the eggs, parritch is enough. His name is Dougal, and aye, I like him fine sae far. Bit intense sometimes, but finally a man who kens hoo tae please a woman,” she said airily, face turned upwards in what seemed to be dreamy recollection.

“Speaking o’ which…” Geillis continued, moss-green eyes directing their sharp interest at Claire, ”…has the big Ginge still got his magic touch?”

Caught off-guard, Claire dropped the pack of oats and cursed, using the distraction to pretend that she didn’t know what her former roommate was getting at. “I beg your pardon?”

“Ye ken ye’re no’ exactly a great actress, hen?” The now-strawberry-blonde leaned against the kitchen counter, crossing her legs.

“Probably the reason I pursued medicine,” Claire shrugged, avoiding her friend’s look as she stirred the oats into the pot.

“Since ye’re trying tae deflect—no’ verra successfully, I might add—I’m guessing nothing…more has happened between the twa o’ ye since we last spoke?”

Pinkness crept up from beneath the collar of Claire’s long-sleeved striped shirt, but she didn’t answer.

“I take it that means I’m right.”

“There wasn’t exactly any time for that, if you need to know, Duncan.”

That seemed to take Geillis by surprise, eyebrows raised above curious emerald orbs. “Hoo can ye no’ have time fer that?”

Claire sighed as she stirred the oats and milk, a slight defensiveness creeping into her shoulders. “With work and his training, and getting everything ready for the party, there wasn’t much time to spend alone. I mean, I already told you we’re taking it slow, and we haven’t even been on a proper date yet.”

She wasn’t yet ready to admit it out loud—not even to her best friend—but even without a real date, the few hours Claire had spent alone with Jamie had easily been the highlight of her week.

Each night, after tucking William into bed, they’d sprawl out on the couch together. Sometimes they’d just talked quietly while revelling in the simple joy of holding each other’s hands; other times they turned on Netflix, only to abandon it after finding more thrilling entertainment in the other’s closeness than on the screen.

Jamie, ever respectful of her wishes, had let her set the pace she needed. He didn’t initiate anything beyond kisses—though those had certainly helped in moving things along—instead only following the precedent she set for what she was comfortable with; a demonstration of restraint even more remarkable for the vivid passion lurking beneath the stormy blue of his eyes.

Each day, they ventured a little bit further—and sometimes an inch or two beneath a hemline—delighting in the careful exploration of silky skin and taut muscles.

Last night, gentle, yet eager touches had slowly manoeuvred them from a seated into a horizontal position, lips to lips and heart to heart.

Lying stretched out next to each other on the couch, they’d kissed languidly as their hands wandered. Quite without thought, Jamie’s leg had moved from its perch between hers further up, causing a jolt of awareness to course through her as his thigh pressed the seam of her trousers into an exquisitely sensitive spot at the apex of her thighs.

“I’m sorry,” he’d apologised quietly, realising that he’d strayed further than intended.

Before he could retreat and resume a less intimate position, however, a slender but strong-fingered hand had stopped him, holding him in place. “Don’t.”

“Are ye sure?”

She’d nodded then, and kissed him, lightly pushing her pelvis down against him as his large hands cupped her backside.

“This okay, too?” The question had been breathless, blue eyes desperate for her to approve.

She’d given her permission wordlessly, covering his hands with hers and prompting him to squeeze—hard. Jamie had obliged only too willingly, keen on kneading the ample flesh and moving her against his thigh in small, rhythmic movements that made his own breath grow shallow.

A moan passed from her to him, trapped between hungry lips.

Feeling bold, Claire’s fingers travelled over half-bared biceps and a muscular waist to the front of his dark blue jeans. She hadn’t yet touched him but was close enough for him to feel the warmth radiating from her fingertips.

“This still okay?” she’d panted, placing her palm over him.

“Aye,” Jamie croaked in response, only just able to keep from bucking into her. Clearing his throat, he tried again, “Aye, more than okay.”

He’d already been halfway ready when Claire began to stroke him through the denim fabric. She was timid at first, scared that she’d somehow forgotten how to please a man in the years lacking such intimacy, but the way Jamie sought the pressure of her caress with his hips helped to overcome that nervousness, and she delighted in the greedy little sounds he made with each of her touches.

They’d fallen into a steady rhythm as they drove each other slowly but surely towards the climax of pleasure, their breathing laboured and eyes clouded with desire.

She’d reached her peak on another delicious roll of her hips against the hard ridge of his quadriceps, and Jamie spilled himself beneath her hand, hidden by the layers that were still between them.

If anyone had told Claire that one of the most arousing sexual encounters she would ever experience were to happen while both participants were fully clothed, she wouldn’t have believed it.

Afterwards, they’d lain quite still as their hearts came down from their high, hands and legs entwined, whisky eyes and sapphire blue smiling at each other.

Claire’s belly quivered at the tantalising memory of his touch, how he’d felt against her, face flushed with heat and longing.

“Sorry, what did you say, Gee?” she asked, trying to push those images to the back of her mind…for now.

For once unaware of her friend’s state of mind, Geillis made a dismissive sound. “I said that a busy week is a minor obstacle if ye ask me. Ye’ll always find the time fer a wee bit o’ horizontal exercise if ye want tae.”

“Well,” Claire blushed a bit deeper as she took the bacon off the cooker, brushing an escaped curl out of her face, “having my period didn’t exactly help, to be honest.”

Geillis chuckled, “Noo, that’s a reason I can accept, hen.”

“Anyhoo,” her willowy friend continued, tightening her ponytail, “tell me again what the exact plan fer taeday is.”

Claire sighed, rolling her shoulder blades to work out some of the lingering apprehension. It was going to be a long day, even if she was looking forward to the celebrations and seeing her friends again.

“First, breakfast.”

Geillis, approving of that point on the agenda, nodded.

“Jamie will come early to help set up the garden for the party. Brian will bring Mrs Crook and the cake she made, plus a couple of folding chairs, so he’ll be here early, too—but I don’t know exactly when. You have to distract Willie when the cake gets here, by the way.”

“Aye, aye, cap’n,” her best friend saluted with two fingers, signalling the mission was in good hands. “I’ll ask him tae show me his kite, or something like that.”

“Great, thanks,” Claire said, taking out three porcelain bowls. “The kids arrive at 1 p.m., and the gang will be here half an hour before that—last I checked in with them. I don’t think it’ll go longer than three hours. Thought we could all head out for dinner maybe, when the kids are gone.”

“Sounds like a plan tae me.” Geillis grabbed the spoon and ladled the porridge into the waiting bowls while Claire pushed the bacon onto a plate.

“D’ye think it’ll go well taeday wi’ Jamie and his father being in the same room?”

Claire would have lied if she’d said she hadn’t thought about that at all. She’d actively tried not to worry too much about it, though. She knew by now that the tensions between father and son were based on love rather than spite, and that gave her hope for the future. While she’d promised Brian that she wouldn’t divulge anything to Jamie, she had not made any such pledges to the father of her child, and maybe a gentle nudge at the right time would lead both men in the direction towards forgiveness and reconciliation.

“I think so. I mean, I know they’re not going to make a scene or anything, but…”

“It’s bound tae get a wee bit awkward, no? Hoo long have they no’ seen each other?”

“Jamie told me they talk about every month on the phone and send some texts, updating each other about the most important things, but they haven’t seen each other in almost a year or so. It’s not like they’re completely estranged or something like that. Just…”

“Aye, jus’ a mountain of misunderstandings and an ocean o’ hurt feelings between them,” Geillis finished for her. Despite all her forwardness and bold manner, her best friend had a distinct empathy that only the people closest to her ever got to appreciate.

Arms laden with porridge, raspberries, bacon, and other items deemed necessary for breakfast, the two women set the table.

With a smile, Claire turned to her best friend. “Would you do the honours, then?”

Geillis’ face split in a blinding grin before she rushed out to wake up her godson.

Pouring herself another coffee, Claire heard an excited, “Auntie Gee!” from her son’s bedroom.

It was going to be a great day.

*****

Breakfast finished and the dishes taken care of, Claire and Geillis were lounging and chatting comfortably on the sofa. Willie, meanwhile, was absorbed in a re-enactment of a monumental toy fight between a hammerhead shark and a stegosaurus in the middle of the living room.

Watching William’s bright hair gleam like fire during a lull in their conversation, Claire’s thoughts inevitably strayed towards the man he’d inherited it from. Her closest friends—her chosen family, the people who’d stuck with her through it all—would meet her son’s father for the first time. Jamie wasn’t just Willie’s father, though. He was…so much more already. She desperately hoped they’d all get along.

As if Geillis had been reading her thoughts, she asked, “Sae, when’s the Viking going tae show? Didn’t ye say he’d be here early?”

Feeling a bit as if she’d been caught red-handed, Claire blushed, but recovered her cool quickly.

“Well, yes, but he has training sessions every single day. He’s cutting them short for today, though. He,” her amber eyes flitted towards the time on her microwave, “should be here soon. Why?”

“Jus’ wanted tae get a good keek at him before the others arrive.”

One eyebrow rose as she fought a smile. While her friend tried to appear nonchalant, Claire knew what lay behind that statement, and she loved her friend madly for it. Geillis had always been fiercely protective of her and William, so it wasn’t surprising that she’d make it her goal to personally vet Jamie before giving him her hard-earned seal of approval.

Thinking that a bit of teasing wouldn’t hurt, Claire asked, “Do I have to remind you that you have seen Jamie before?”

“Sae have the others. Except fer Greg, o’ course. But that was almost seven years ago, hen,” Geillis protested.

“Not to mention the pictures I sent you of Willie with him?”

Geillis shrugged that sound argument off. “Pictures are no’ the same as the real deal.”

Claire was about to call her friend out on her true motives when the doorbell rang.

She stretched her arms over her head and went to get the door, smiling at her friend on the couch. “Guess you’ll have your chance for cross-examination now after all, Duncan.”

A pffft sounded from behind her back, but Claire could feel green eyes watching intently as she turned the doorknob.

Even though she knew who waited behind the door, she couldn’t prevent the sudden quickening of her pulse. As blue eyes and a warm smile came into view, a tender feeling bloomed behind her breastbone.

“Fraser,” she said quietly, eyes sparkling at the sight of him.

“Sassenach,” Jamie returned the greeting, the same warmth evident in his lopsided smile.

Aware of their audience not far in the back, Claire went for a brief, soft kiss to his cheek—a gesture that wouldn’t arouse suspicion in William if he saw, but was intimate enough to make her lips tingle.  

“Come on in.”

“Awright, where’s ma wee birthday man?” Jamie threw the question into the open living room as they entered together, the wee birthday man in question still absorbed in his toy fight.

At the sound of his father’s voice, though, the little boy’s red head whipped around. He jumped up in pure delight, and raced towards Jamie, leaving his toys to fight the battle on their own.

“Da!” Willie launched himself at Jamie with a dimpled grin plastered on his lightly freckled face. 

For a moment, everything seemed to stop. The hands on the clock frozen, birds suspended in flight as the atmosphere around them changed, centring around William and the one word that had triggered the monumental shift.

Above Willie’s head, cheek pressed against his father’s hip, Claire sought Jamie’s eyes. The dark blue irises were blown wide and unfocused, shock and disbelief evident in the slackness of jaw and rigidity of his powerful body.

William sensed it too. “Da?”

That seemed to shake everyone out of it, and Jamie’s face transformed with a smile that came from deep within and made Claire’s heart soar. “Aye?”

“Did ye bring the cake wi’ ye?”

The adults burst out laughing, shaking their heads. Children had definitely different priorities.

Jamie ruffled his son’s hair. “I’m afraid I’m no’ the man wi’ the cake. Jus’ boring auld Da.”

He’d said it warmly and without any emphasis on the novelty of the title that William had so casually bestowed upon him, but Claire could sense the pride and awe rolling off the broad shoulders.

“Let’s get the garden ready fer yer big day, aye? I’m gonna need a strong hand—can ye help me?” 

William’s smile broadened in answer, and whatever else was said was lost on Claire, too happy to take in anything but the sight of father and son in front of her, their smiles so bright they easily outshone the sun.

*****

“God, I missed you guys!” Claire’s eyes misted over at the sight of the rest of her Edinburgh family squeezed into the small entrance hall of her home. With the addition of three more guests, her shoe rack was as crammed with footwear as her heart was with happiness. “Come on in.”

“You’ll meet Brian later, I’m afraid. He’s taking Mrs Crook back home again, she wasn’t feeling well, but still wanted to wish Willie a Happy Birthday in person. He should be back when the kids arrive.”

When Brian had appeared at her doorstep earlier, scones-magician-slash-birthday-cake-creator Agnes Crook and her baked masterpiece in tow, the tension she’d felt when introducing Jamie to her best friend had resurfaced in light of father and son coming face-to-face after almost a year.

While it hadn’t been the warm and eager greeting Claire had hoped for, it was certainly not as bad or cold as it could have been. Looking past William’s shoulder through the French doors, Jamie had made eye contact with his father, his posture stiffening only slightly, holding Brian’s gaze and nodding hello.

At least it hadn’t been necessary to distract Willie while Brian and Mrs Crook slipped in and stowed the cake in the back of the fridge. He’d been too preoccupied pointing out interesting cloud shapes to Jamie.

Although that first sort-of-meeting hadn’t gone down badly, the nervousness had still simmered close to the surface and made a reappearance now that she was ushering her friends into the living room, hoping that they would welcome Jamie quickly into their midst.

“Look who’s here, lovey,” she trilled, unable to conceal the tension in her voice, which earned her a raised eyebrow from Geillis.

Willie made his rounds, hugging each of the new arrivals hello as Claire took charge of the introductions, “Jamie, this is the rest of the gang. Isobel, Mary, and Greg.” Jamie unfolded his long legs and got to his feet, his expression friendly, inviting, despite his towering height.

Taking courage from his mere presence alone, Claire squared her shoulders and met her friends’ curious glances straight on. “Guys, this is…Jamie.”

They hadn’t yet defined what they were to each other. He was William’s father—as was clear to anyone with two functioning eyes—but introducing him as such would have indicated a personal distance that she and Jamie had crossed by miles, if not continents. ‘Boyfriend’ seemed inappropriate for one, because they hadn’t even been out for dinner or a movie yet, and because it was too soon to say anything in front of Willie. Looking from face to face, though, it was clear that her friends understood the significance of the slight pause before his name.

“He’s ma Da,” William chimed in, his round face tilted up, nodding importantly.

Up until today, her son had avoided calling Jamie anything, so the pleasure to hear him claim him now so openly as his father was immense, even though Willie hadn’t addressed Jamie directly this time. Still, the effect on the large Scot didn’t escape Claire’s notice. Sapphire eyes were bright and slightly glossy, the tips of his ears pink, and his mouth was stretched in a smile so wide she thought his face must hurt. It made her chest swell bigger with each breath, even as she briefly wondered when the newness of it would wear off.

“Aye, that’s sae. Wouldnae change it fer the world,” Jamie said, his deep timbre resonant with pride. “It’s really nice tae meet ye all.”

*****

The party was in full swing, shrieks of childish glee echoing throughout the garden as the ‘hospital nursery gang’ celebrated William’s birthday at the top of their lungs. Crisps were strewn around the picnic table, carried away piece by tiny piece by a zealous colony of ants, where Tammas had turned a snack bowl over in his urgent pursuit of Lenny. At the heart of their impromptu play of tag had been the last pack of popping candy, filched from Tammas’ back pocket by the offspring of Claire’s favourite colleague, Joe. The wild chase not only scared off a pair of waxwings, but also sent half-filled cups of juice and pop flying, covering the backs of the poor souls standing too close to the epicentre—Brian and Greg—in a fine, syrupy spray.

Sticky little fingers were grabbing for more snacks than their bellies could hold and left prints all over the surfaces they could reach in their play—including Claire’s favourite pair of high-waisted faded denim jeans, to her regret. While Mary and Isobel’s wardrobe also fell victim to the boisterous little gang’s icky hands, Geillis’ experience as eldest of seven helped to keep her white shirt spotless—until she spilled coffee down her front, at least.

Amidst all the frivolities, there had even been a jousting match. Armed with bubble wands, the kids took it in turns to climb atop Jamie and Greg’s shoulders, doing quite an amiable job of pretending to be war horses, as they fought for kingdom, glory, and bragging rights.

Soap bubbles were floating around, bursting against chins and elbows and treetops, as the more subdued tones of Brian and Isobel’s conversation merged with the shutter noise of Mary’s camera. Meanwhile, Jamie and Willie galloped around the garden on a victory round after besting their last opponent, laughing triumphantly.

It was the best kind of mayhem there was.

The only thing that called everyone to order was the announcement of cake. The rumble quieted down, and everyone’s attention was fixed on Claire as she carried it to the table. Willie’s face lit up when he lay eyes on the cake. It was his all-time favourite: a mouth-watering, dense, chocolatey confection with two thin layers of apricot jam, covered in dark chocolate icing. Atop sat six lit candles arranged in a figure six, flickering merrily as the party broke out into a vociferous rendition of Happy Birthday to You.

As the off-tune singing began to fade out, Brian rose from his seat, surprising everyone slightly by claiming the spotlight.

His lined mouth moved softly as he turned to his grandson, “I hope ye’ll fergi’e an auld man, Willie, tae make ye wait a wee bit longer fer yer well-deserved cake. But there’s a tradition in ma family that I’d verra much like tae pass on tae you.”

William gave his non-verbal assent, copper curls catching the light of the candles with the nodding motion. He sat leaning towards Brian, as curious about what he had to say that couldn’t wait until after the cake as the other onlookers.

“It’s a wee blessing fer yer birthday.”

Smiling, the older man produced a small, black-hilted knife from his belt pocket and held it aloft in front of his heart, closing his eyes as he began to recite,

May there always be work fer yer hands tae do.

May yer purse always hold a coin or two.

May the sun always shine on yer windowpane.

May a rainbow be certain tae follow each rain.

May the hand o’ a friend be always near tae you and

May God fill yer heart wi’ gladness tae cheer you.

His voice was made for oratory, deep and smooth like finely oak-aged whisky, its natural rhythm commanding all attention from the guests, as their eyes remained fixed on the handsomely weathered face.

Moved beyond words, Claire was about to clap when he finished, when Jamie suddenly stood as well, speaking up, following his father’s words in the same poignant tone of voice as he extended the blessing with a hand over his heart,

May ye have the walls against the wind, a roof fer rain, and a long life tae celebrate yer birthdays up tae many hundred years.

Even Geillis jumped in to add a line,

Aye, and may those who love ye, love ye

And those who dinnae love ye,

May God turn their hearts.

And if He doesnae turn their hearts,

May He turn their ankles,

That ye may ken them by their limping.

“Hear, hear!” Claire raised her glass, golden eyes mirroring the smile playing on her full lips.

After the candles had been blown out, she handed her son the knife to make the first cut, helping him to keep his small hand steady as the blade sank into the glazed glory that was Agnes Crook’s version of Sachertorte. Tradition thus quite thoroughly observed, Claire took over to divide the rest into even pieces, handing them out until everyone was attended to.

The room was quiet, save for the lively smacking of lips and groans of delight as bits of icing were scraped off the plates and meticulously licked off forks. Afterwards, Willie wasn’t the only one patting his belly—Greg even went so far as to open the button of his jeans when no one was looking, sighing with relief.

They all sat around the table, mostly quiet and with dreamy contentment on their faces, relaxed into their chairs.

Then, it was finally time for presents.

At that prospect, the kids seemed to overcome their chocolate-induced lethargy, their curiosity spiked when Claire laid the pile of presents out on the coffee table. Eager to find out what their friend had been gifted, they prompted and pointed excitedly at which one William should open first.

“Which one is the book from ye, Mama?” he turned to Claire, dimpled face alight with pleasure.

Claire smiled fondly at her son. It wasn’t a surprise he knew it was a book—she always gifted him one to add to his own little library—but that he still seemed thrilled about it brought her no small amount of pride.

“That one, lovey,” she replied, pointing at the large, rectangular shape wrapped in grass-green paper, his favourite colour.

Willie reached for it, explaining with a proud tilt to his head, “Mama, Da, and I went tae see puffins fer ma birthday last week. That was the real present.”

The mention of the puffin trip triggered a warm feeling at the centre of Claire’s chest, lungs expanding to their fullest with joy.  Seeking Jamie’s gaze across the table, she touched her heart when his eyes locked on hers, and smiled, trusting that he would know how she felt.

An enthusiastic exclamation pulled her out of the silent communication, and she returned her focus to William just as the little boy threw himself at her, eyes creased into small triangles of happiness.

“Thank ye, Mama!”

Apparently, her gut choice of an illustrated book about Great Whites featuring award-winning photographs from nature photographers had been spot-on.

Still smiling, Claire looked down at her son and brushed his curly fringe tenderly out of his face. “You’re welcome, lovey.”

William returned to his seat on the couch and reached for the next present. From his Edinburgh family, he received a small collection of presents—two colouring books, a new set of crayons (the good ones), and multi-coloured handicraft paper. On top of that, Geillis handed him a self-made voucher for a ‘Mama-free’ weekend at his old home, along with the promise of as much ice cream as he could stomach.

An assortment of new toys and favourite sweets were lying around the table, with two presents left to unwrap.

William reached for the thinner one.

“That one’s from me,” Jamie said softly, with a hint of nervousness.

Tearing into the wrapping paper, another book came into view. William stared down at the glossy cover of Discover Scotland’s Wildlife before flicking through it.

“It’s…” Jamie cleared his throat, “…weel, it’s got all the native animals o’ Scotland in there, wi’ the most important information. But there’s always a blank page next tae each one. Ye’re meant tae fill in the blanks wi’ the information about when and where ye saw the animal—ye can add pictures, too.”

Claire’s attention was on Jamie, her heart giving another squeeze at the thoughtfulness of his gift. He didn’t meet her gaze this time, though, seemingly holding a breath as he waited for his son’s reaction.

“Sae,” Willie began, tilting his head over his shoulder to face his giant of a father, “this means we have tae find them all, no?”

Wide lips stretched into an infectious smile as Jamie nodded.

Somewhere to her right, Claire heard Mary whisper something like “Oh my god isn’t that the sweetest?”

“Aye, that’s the plan. We’re gonna find them all taegether. We can take yer Mam as well, if ye like.” Jamie’s eyes flicked briefly towards Claire, letting all his hopes for the future show in that instant.

“We cannae do it wi’out Mama,” Willie declared, looking at his mother, then back at Jamie. “We’d get lost if she doesnae tell us where tae go.”

Claire snorted, and Geillis almost choked on her coke as the others laughed.

“He does have a point, you know?” Claire teased, cocking her head at Jamie, the memory of him taking the wrong turn twice on their way home still clear in her mind.

While Willie’s statement certainly had the desired effect of hilarity, the younger guests didn’t appreciate the delay much.

“Go on, open the last one,” Tammas urged, bringing the focus back on the more important task at hand.

Without much further ado, William opened the last of his presents.

When he retrieved it from the thorough packaging, impressed ooohhhs and adoring aaahhhhs reverberated around the living room.

It was a sporran; hand-made from black seal pelt, studded with an antique lattice cantle, and boasting three interlinked black bovine tassels crowned with polished pewter. It was a remarkable gift, and not just because traditional attire wasn’t exactly a bargain find.

One look at Jamie’s stunned face made it clear that there was more to Brian’s gift than the mere wish to make up for the birthdays he’d missed in the past.

“Wow,” Willie breathed, gold-flecked eyes almost round with admiration. He reached one stubby finger to trace the Celtic knot-patterns. “Is that really fer me?”

“Aye. E’ry Fraser man gets one around yer age,” Brian explained.

Claire’s insides fluttered at the realisation that it was as much a gift steeped in century-old tradition as a rite of passage, an introduction into the Fraser clan.

“But—” William began, a small frown appearing between ruddy brows.

“I ken ye’re a Beauchamp, lad, but ye’re a Fraser jus’ as much.”

Brian spoke with a steady voice, but the gleam of his light blue eyes betrayed the emotion that lay underneath as he caught Jamie’s eye, “Ye’re yer father’s son, there’s nae denying that.”

Jamie held Brian’s gaze with a vacant expression; large, blunt-nailed fingers tapping away at the seam of black jeans serving as the only obvious indicator to his emotional distress. Claire hadn’t seen him like that in a while; Jamie had stopped trying to hide his feelings behind a mask when he was with her.

After the initial excitement of such an unusual present had died down, the other children got antsy, prodding William to try out his new toys with them instead.

*****

To say that the day had been an emotional rollercoaster for Jamie would have been a gross understatement.

He’d barely slept, way too anxious about what the following day would bring. Meeting the people that knew Claire and William best was enough to make a man nervous in his own right. Having to try and gain their approval amidst the chaos of the first of his son’s birthday parties he was able to attend was another matter entirely. The fact that his own father troubles would be in attendance had also curdled his wame, even though the prospect of facing Brian Fraser had seemed slightly less intimidating after getting it all out in his conversation with Claire.

God, Claire.

The sight of her from last night, golden eyes melting with pleasure as he’d worked her slowly against his thigh; her hand, skilled and so eager to return the favour, had brought him to climax faster than he could himself. No, that image certainly hadn’t helped to calm him down, either.

Giving up on sleep sometime around 4:10 in the morning, Jamie had gone down to the gym and worked off the tension as best he could at the boxing sack. Hurtling violent punches at the seasoned leather, sweat dripping from his brows and running down his back, had actually proven effective, and he’d felt a lot more composed—if still nervous—when he rang the doorbell to Number 9 Drummond Road.

Seeing Claire always made Jamie’s heart leap in his chest, even more so when she was smiling just for him. The spot where she’d pressed her soft, full lips to his stubbled cheek was still tingling when they’d entered the living room together. What happened next, however, overshadowed even that moment of by-now-familiar-if-quietly-stolen happiness.

William had called him ‘Da’.

He’d not been prepared for it. Hell, how could he have been? Jamie had known the lad barely a month, and even if he hungered for it to happen eventually, he hadn’t dared believe it would.

The word had hit him like a punch to his solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him as he struggled to disentangle the knot of emotions squeezing his heart.

Once again, Claire had been his anchor; the slightly shocked but bright yellow orbs conveying a sense of security that held him steady in the moment, enabling Jamie to fully appreciate it.

The party had been a total success as far as someone who didn’t have much experience attending birthday parties for six-year-olds could tell. He’d got to know Claire’s friends and found that he liked them very much. Geillis, especially, was a hoot, but Jamie could tell from her covert sideway glances at him that she didn’t fully trust him yet—more than living up to her reputation as the fierce protective godmother he’d heard so much about.

He was riding on a high throughout the whole affair.

Then, the cake happened.

Or rather, what came after the singing. Up until that point, Jamie had successfully avoided spending too much time in close quarters with his father, and the two times he was thrust into conversation with him, he’d managed to keep it civil and light.

The recital of traditional Gaelic blessings, though, had crushed what little emotional distance Jamie had managed to put between himself and Brian Fraser.

If William calling him Da for the first time had been a heart-stopping gut punch in the most wonderful way, this had been a stinging slap to the cheek—not quite as powerful, but leaving an impression nevertheless. He’d heard the verses countless times before: at his and Jenny’s birthday dinners, at his mother’s and father’s, aunts’ and uncles’, too.

His Da had always started out—exactly as he’d done today—and his Mam had always ended with the last line. And before Jamie knew what he was doing, he’d stood up, filling his father’s expectant silence, and gave voice to the line his mother used to say.

May ye have the walls against the wind, a roof fer rain, and a long life tae celebrate yer birthdays up tae many hundred years.

Jamie was immensely grateful for Geillis adding her own bit, which had firmly steered the atmosphere towards hilarity again before he was completely swept up in the nostalgia of the moment.

Thinking that he was safe from another emotional assault, Jamie was proven wrong not much later. He’d pulled himself together again whilst Willie was opening his presents, delighting in seeing his son surrounded by people who knew and loved him so well, in seeing the joy on the round, dimpled face when he’d understood the intention behind Discover Scotland’s Wildlife.  

When William had opened the last gift, Jamie didn’t know at first what to make of it. It was a big gesture, but one he wasn’t able to read. Seeking the answers on his father’s lined face opposite the coffee table, it took all Jamie had to keep his face straight as Brian pronounced his grandson ‘jus’ as much a Fraser as a Beauchamp’.

Meeting the icy blue gaze of his father, Jamie saw the pride and the hurt there as much as the wish to make things right, barely able to hold his own emotion back.

As the presents-induced excitement began to disperse again, the kids testing Willie’s new toys all over the living room, Jamie caught his father’s eye once more, tilting his heads towards the French doors, then stepped outside.

His father joined him less than a minute later, standing next to him, both facing out into the garden.

“Was that…is that?” Jamie began, finding it difficult to get the words past the ball of emotion stuck in his throat.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Brian nod.

“Aye, ‘tis the same as yours. The same as mine,” the deep voice said softly. “I finished it last night. I’m sorry I didnae warn ye aforehand, but I wasnae sure it’d be ready ‘til taeday.”

That explained the bags underneath his eyes, Jamie thought.

“Ye…” Jamie swallowed. “Ye didnae have tae do that.”

A strangled sort of snort erupted on his left. “Aye, I had tae. I…ye had a right tae know, but…” Brian sighed, his shoulders heaving as he angled his face towards his son. “I’m sorry, Jamie.”

They both knew this wasn’t about the sporran.

“Don’t,” Jamie croaked, his throat dry as his eyes began to water, still staring straight ahead. “Dinnae apologise. It wasnae yer fault.”

“Neither was it yers, son.”

He felt his father’s hand atop his shoulder, its weight warm and comforting.

“Da,” Jamie said quietly, twisting around to return the gesture, hoping it would convey the emotion he couldn’t put into words.

“Ye’re his Da?” asked a small voice.

Startled, Jamie and Brian sprang apart, looking down into slanted blue eyes, speckled with gold. Sharing a look, neither man knew quite what to say.

Brian coughed, shifting nervously from foot to foot under William’s scrutiny. “Weel, aye, that’s so.”

“If ye’re his Da,” William gaze shifted from the brindle-haired man towards Jamie, “and he is my Da… that means…”

“He’s yer grandda,” Jamie finished the thought.

“But…” Willie began, his brows knitted in a frown of incomprehension. “But why are ye ne’er taegether then, like you and me, Da?”

He’d hit a nerve.

Jamie took a steadying breath and crouched down to his son’s eye level.

Before he could explain, however, William’s eyes went round, a realisation dawning in the bright sapphire blue of his eyes.

“Were ye gone from his,” a small hand pointed at Brian, “life too because ye had that accident?”

Another direct hit.

“Aye,” both men said simultaneously.

Jamie swallowed, sharing a look with Brian. “Aye, that’s exactly why.”

“But things are going tae change again, now that we have him back,” Brian added, his lips quivering slightly.

“Weel, it’s good that ye’re back noo,” Willie proclaimed. “Dinnae do that again, Da.”

“Aye, verra good,” Jamie replied, chest expanding with love. “I’ll ne’er do it again. I promise.”

*****

Brian left right after the kids had been picked up by their parents, wanting to make sure that Mrs Crook had everything she needed. And after indulging half of the day in indecent amounts of sweets and savoury snacks, neither of the remaining party guests—or hosts, for that matter—felt like going out for dinner anymore. Instead, they spent a quiet evening catching up and getting to know Jamie a bit more while William was breaking in his new crayons under Greg’s guidance.

When it was way after the birthday boy’s regular bedtime, Willie was tucked in by his parents in record time—without the need of a bedtime story, for once—and the Edinburgh gang made to leave for their overnight accommodation down in the city centre.

“Night, you lot,” Claire said warmly, hugging each one of them goodbye. “See you tomorrow at The Caledonian. Half ten.”

Jamie stood half a step behind her, his presence warm and comforting in the chilly evening breeze, smiling. They both looked on as Geillis, Isobel, Mary, and Greg—with the lazy step of having eaten too much, but in good spirits—retreated down the road and out of sight.

Back inside, with William snoring softly in his room and most of the party mess cleared away already, there wasn’t much left for Claire and Jamie to do. They plopped down on the couch close together, her curly head tucked against his shoulder—tired, but happy.

“I saw you talking with your father earlier,” she prompted.

“Mmphm,” Jamie made one of those thoroughly Scottish noises that could mean anything from ‘Keep your nose out of my business’ to ‘Yes, we had a brief heart-to-heart’. If her instinct was right, it was the latter. “He apologised tae me.”

Something akin to relief flooded through her. “That’s a start, isn’t it?”

Jamie was quiet for a moment, then nodded. “Aye, ‘tis.”

“Come here, Sassenach,” Jamie continued, opening his arms in invitation. “Let’s lie down a wee bit. It was a long day.”

She leaned into his embrace without hesitation, grateful for the warm shelter it provided. Stretched out on the couch, they settled against each other, the curve of her back fitting perfectly against the broad planes of his chest. Strong, hairy arms came around her as Jamie put his chin on her shoulder, kissing it through the cotton material.

Though their position was as intimate as the night before, their thoughts were focused on the day that lay behind them. 

“He called me Da,” Jamie blurted out, as if he couldn’t possibly contain it any longer, the awe of today’s developments clearly audible.

The warmth she’d been feeling all day long in her chest intensified.

“You didn’t think he would?” Claire tilted her face back over her shoulder, looking at him attentively.

“I mean,” he paused, hugging her tighter to him. “I hoped fer it, o’ course, but…”

Claire thought she understood. “But you didn’t think it would happen so soon?” It did speak volumes that their son had accepted Jamie for his father after such a short amount of time.

“Aye, that’s it.” His lips quirked into a small smile against her shoulder. “I thought that wi’ me no’ having been part o’ his life until now that it would take a long time ‘til he trusted me enough tae stay.”

“He trusts you,” Claire said tenderly and with conviction, twisting a bit so she could cup his cheek. “As do I.”

Jamie looked at her then, seeing all that she was and all that she would be, the sapphire blue of his eyes brimming with love as one single tear escaped. “I cannae believe how lucky I am, Sassenach.”

“You better believe it, Fraser.” She wiped the tear away with the pad of her thumb. “I have no intention of letting you go anytime soon.”

“Good, I have no intention o’ going anywhere,” he replied, grasping her hand and linking their fingers together as he pressed a soft kiss to her lips.

They’d lain in quiet for a while, just gazing at each other and cherishing this moment of tenderness, when Jamie’s jaw cracked as he tried to stifle a huge yawn.

“It’s been a long day,” Claire stated in a sleepy tone.

“Aye, but a grand one.” This time, he couldn’t suppress the yawn. “Awright, I should probably get goi—"

“Stay,” Claire put her hand on his arm.

“What?” His lips parted in surprise.

Claire averted her gaze, suddenly and unexpectedly bashful, cheeks tinged pink. “Stay with me tonight. I don’t want you to go home.”

Putting an index finger underneath her chin, he tilted her face upwards, searching it for any sign of uncertainty, he asked, “Are ye sure?”

Brown curls brushed against his jaw as she nodded. “We could stay here on the couch. If you don’t mind.”

“Aye.” Jamie’s eyes were alight with pleasure at the unexpected invitation. “I’d love that.”

In answer, a radiant smile spread across Claire’s face, dimpling her cheeks.

She went to shut off the lights and returned quickly to Jamie’s waiting arms with a throw to cover them both for the night. Sighing with contentment and happily exhausted, they snuggled against each other.

Claire was on the verge of sleep, when Jamie’s whisper brushed her ear in the peaceful darkness, “He called me Da.”

Claire groped blindly for his hand and kissed the centre of his palm. “You are his Da. The best I could have wished for.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 37 – A Wonderful Thing

Breakfast was a rumbustious affair with so many participants squeezed around one of the large tables at The Caledonian. Usually, Claire would have opted for one of the leather-seated booths that provided a great view of Inverness’ High Street for people-watching. With the seven of them in attendance and a large Sunday morning buffet on offer, however, the booth would have been an impractical choice—no one wanted to climb over three people just to get another helping of bacon.

Munching on a deliciously fried mushroom, Claire gazed across the table at Jamie. As he was leaning over to his right, listening to Isobel recounting an entertaining work mishap, the light caught the side of his face in a way that enabled her to make out all the different hues in the three to four days of stubble he was sporting. The base colour was a rich auburn, complementing the fiery waves of his hair; but there were darker flashes of roan and russet, contrasting handsomely with a few blonde hairs here and there.

She remembered the pleasant bite of his whiskers against her lips vividly; remembered how her breathing grew shallow when it rasped against the sensitive skin of neck and earlobe. With her heart rate slightly up, Claire gripped her fork tightly, trying to steer her thoughts in a more appropriate direction. Instead of focusing on what she couldn’t have right now, she recalled the last occasion she’d been in the cosy little establishment with Jamie.

It had been a very different setting than today’s. She’d been alone, for one, waiting anxiously for him to arrive. Jamie had been a stranger then, a man she hadn’t seen in close to seven years. While he’d been just as handsome that day, with his black dress shirt and the sloppy man bun, she’d still barely been able to stomach the tea she’d ordered as the plan with which she’d set out lay heavy in her belly.

A rueful smile sat in the corners of her lips, right next to a small daub of brown sauce, as Claire remembered how badly the revelation of his unsuspected fatherhood had gone down. The coldness that had clawed its way through her innards when he’d said that ‘he knew she had a child’; the way he’d tugged at the collar of his shirt and couldn’t meet her eyes; the sound it made when she’d smacked Willie’s photograph on the table and shoved it in his line of view; the sting of wind and tears when she’d fled down to the riverbank.

As if Jamie had sensed her thoughts, he turned his face back towards her. He was still listening to Isobel, nodding and responding in all the appropriate places, but his blue-eyed gaze was now fixed on Claire.

He remembered, too.

She could see it clear as day in his eyes: the regret over how that conversation had started, the gratitude for how it ended; the heartbreak that had shown in the lines on his face when he disclosed the deception that had kept them apart; the first touch of him —his cold, stubbled cheek so immediate under her fingertips; the warmth in the dark-blue gaze as he’d claimed William as his own.

‘He’s mine. Ours.’

A lot had changed in the six weeks since that encounter.

They now sat across from each other with a distinct sense of rightness between them. All the initial trepidation Claire had harboured about him dissipated into non-existence. While there were still issues to be addressed, such as child support and plans for when he was abroad chasing records on mountain slopes, there was no question about whether or not Jamie was going to play a part in his son’s life—or in hers.

The realisation made Claire smile, a gesture that Jamie was only too ready to reciprocate. His fingers seemed to twitch with the urge to touch her, and for a moment she thought he might throw caution to the wind and grasp her hand, but he held himself under tight control and reached for the salt instead.

A small sigh left her throat—something between relief and disappointment—when she felt a long, booted foot nudge hers gently underneath the table. Her heart fluttered, and it took everything she had to not get completely lost in his tender gaze as she returned the secret show of affection. Trying—and failing—to redirect her focus back on the conversation at hand, Claire was mopping up the remainder of her beans with a piece of toast, still staring at the fathomless blue irises gleaming brightly at her from across the table, when a question burst their little bubble.

“Where’s Grandda?”

Completely taken unawares, Claire almost choked on the toast. Jamie looked slightly alarmed, ready to jump over the table to thump her on the back, but relaxed back into his seat at the reassuring wave of her hand. Greg, Geillis, and Mary also glanced at her, making sure she was okay before returning their attention towards Isobel’s story.

“What?” she directed the question at William, her voice slightly croaky. There was still a crumb wedged uncomfortably in her throat. 

“I asked where Grandda is,” Willie repeated in an unperturbed manner, taking in another forkful of eggs.

For once in her life, Claire Beauchamp had no idea what to say to her son.  

“He’s no’ coming taeday, Willie,” Jamie jumped in helpfully.

Golden eyes widened with surprise and darted back towards Jamie.

Pouring himself another glass of water, he looked straight at Claire, amusement edged into the high cheek bones, mouthing, “I’ll tell ye later.”

She nodded dazedly, her gaze flicking between father and son, still stunned by the sudden discovery that she no longer needed to worry how on earth to introduce Brian as grandfather to William after months of spending so much time with the man.

*****

Jamie watched in ravenous fascination as the chef behind the counter crafted eggs, goat cheese, tomatoes, and spring onions into an appetising omelette. Shuffling from foot to foot, his mouth was watering in impatient anticipation when Geillis sidled up to him, handing her own chosen fixings over the counter.

“Nice shirt,” Claire’s willowy best friend remarked with such contrived casualness that it was hard to miss the subtext.

Even without her comment, Jamie was very much aware that he was still wearing the same clothes as yesterday—a plaid shirt tucked into a pair of blue jeans. He would have preferred to change before meeting Claire’s friends again, of course, but there hadn’t been any time for that.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true.

He could have made time for it, but when faced with the choice of either spending more time exploring the sweetness of his Sassenach’s mouth or getting a fresh pair of underpants, the underpants didn’t stand a chance. The memory of waking up to a dawn of golden eyes and spending all morning with Claire in his arms—her warm cheek pressed against his shoulder, silky curls tickling his ear, hot tongues teasing despite their shared morning breath—caused heat to rise from his chest upwards.

He tugged at his collar to loosen the fit a bit, hoping Geillis would interpret the gesture as merely being hot from standing so close to the steamy food. Feeling her eyes boring into his temple, Jamie realised she was waiting for him to respond.

“Thank ye, it’s one o’ ma favourites,” he said, aiming for a similarly casual tone.  

“Would have been ma guess, since ye’re wearing it fer the second day in a row.”

Claire’s assessment of her best friend fresh in his mind— ‘Geillis isn’t one to hold her opinions back’ —he shouldn’t have been surprised that she wasn’t willing to let it go this easily.

Still not meeting her eye, he shrugged and replied, “Weel, that and other reasons, aye.”

Shrewd green eyes fixed on his profile, she seemed to consider him for a moment as if to find the best angle of attack.

“I meant tae get ye alone fer some time, Fraser.”

There was nothing of Claire’s warmth or affection when Geillis called him by his last name.

Certainly no’ holding back, that one, Jamie thought as he turned to face her. He could sense what was coming when he looked down into that determined face.

“Mhmphm?”

“E’en if I didnae ken what was goin’ on between the twa o’ ye, you wearing yesterday’s shirt tells me hoo serious it already is.”

A peculiar mix of emotions built inside him—delight at hearing that Geillis thought that what he and Claire had was as serious as it felt, and worry that she might not approve of it. Her mien wasn’t exactly an encouraging one.

It didn’t seem as if she wanted him to respond, though, as she wasn’t done talking yet.

“From what I’ve seen these days, ye seem like a good man.”

It was clear that this wasn’t what she was getting at, but Jamie thanked her, nevertheless.  

Geillis’ features were still graceful but lacked their usual conviviality as she continued, “But let me tell ye this, Fraser. Good isnae goin’ tae cut it. Ye need tae be a lot more than that. Claire and Willie mean more tae me than anyone else. They’re ma family—mebbe no by blood, but by choice. Ye better make sure ye deserve them, or ye’ll have me tae answer tae.”

There was something incredibly moving about the fierce protectiveness the slender woman in front of him was exhibiting. He’d heard from his Sassenach, of course, how important a part Geillis had played in both Claire’s and his son’s life, but to see that devotion burn in the emerald eyes gave him comfort, even if it didn’t erase the regret that it had been her, not himself, who was there for the most important people in his life.

“Aye, I will,” Jamie vowed, meeting her gaze straight on. “I’d do anything fer them.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, gauging his sincerity. Apparently satisfied with what she saw, her expression transformed with a beatific smile.  

“That’s all I wanted tae hear.”

There was a brief moment of silence, when Jamie decided to seize the opportunity to say something that had been on his mind for a long time.

“Actually, there’s something I’ve been meaning tae tell you, as well.”

Fair eyebrows quirked up in surprise.

“I meant tae thank ye,” Jamie went on. Seeing the small frown deepening, he clarified with a jerk of his head toward the table at the far back. “Fer him.”

With understanding dawning, Geillis smirked in that slightly haughty way of hers. “Wrong address, big man. If ye want tae thank anyone fer the wee bean, it should be Claire, no’ me.”

“I ken,” Jamie replied with a quick look of longing over his shoulder at Claire. “But he likely wouldnae be here wi’out you either. If ye hadnae gi’en me her phone at the club, we wouldnae be standing here taeday.”

The smirk on her face vanished, and for a split second the cool façade broke, showing all the emotion lying beneath.

“I havenae forgotten,” Jamie added, his inflection earnest. “And I’ll ne’er will.”

Taking the finished omelette from the chef with a nod of his head, he turned to Geillis once more.

“Sae, thank ye. Fer ma son—and fer Claire.”

*****

With bellies stuffed to the brim and in high spirits, the gang meandered leisurely along the River Ness towards the quaint bed and breakfast that Geillis, Isobel, Mary, and Greg were staying in.

Willie, who’d discovered the advantages and pleasures of a higher vantage point in the jousting match the previous day, rode on Greg’s shoulders while Claire and Jamie hung a bit behind, engrossed in their own conversation.

“Weel,” Jamie ended his recounting of how their son had found out about his own relation to Brian. “And that was it, really.”

Claire shook her head, chuckling softly. “I always thought William was smart, but my god…that he figured it out that quickly…”

Bumping his elbow companionably into her side, Jamie’s face split in an elated grin. “Aye, we made a good one there.”

“We did,” Claire agreed, whisky eyes twinkling. “And he saved us quite some trouble explaining, too.”

Jamie hummed in agreement. They were walking close enough for their arms to be brushing against each other, unconsciously seeking the other’s nearness.

“Geillis commented earlier that Willie is basically a carbon copy of you.”

“Did she now?” Jamie seemed to grow a foot taller, his deep timbre tinged with pride.

“She most certainly did. ‘Twa fuckin’ peas in a pod’ was the exact wording if I remember correctly.”

There was no denying that William took a bit more after his paternal side when it came to looks. He had the same thick copper waves as Jamie, his gangly, youthful limbs held the promise of similar height and strength, and if it weren’t for the specks of amber in the dark blue of his slanted eyes, they’d be an exact replica of his father’s.

“I hope that’s no’ a bad thing.”

He’d said it in jest, but Claire thought she detected a slight note of uncertainty in there as well.

Jamie was a beautiful man. With the broad set of muscular shoulders, the sinful invitation of a wide, good-humoured mouth, and the clean-cut angles of his face, he commanded the interest of more than one passers-by. But beneath all that lay a soul so kind and pure, it easily surpassed any physical attractiveness.

“No,” Claire replied, eyes creasing with a smile as she tilted her face up to him. “It’s a wonderful thing, really.”

His answering smile was so bright that it stole her breath away.

*****

After Jamie had helped to fit all the overnight bags and rucksacks into the trunk, it was finally time to say goodbye. Mary, Isobel, and Greg were already seated in the car; the latter receiving instructions from Jamie about how best to bypass the traffic caused by an accident near Aviemore. Willie, too, was listening with rapt attention to his father, while Geillis took the chance to pull Claire away from their prying ears.

Oblivious to her best friend’s intent, Claire hugged Geillis close once more. “God, I hate to see you leave so soon. Can’t you stay?”

“I ken, hen,” Geillis replied, sympathetic. “I dinnae want tae go either, but I feel a lot better noo that I’ve seen ye’re in good hands.” There was a mischievous undercurrent in the sing-song voice now. “Big hands.”

Claire drew back a little, amber eyes narrowed in suspicion.   

“Big hands that seem verra capable o’ taking care o’ ye.” The bows of Geillis’ lips curved into a knowing smile as she patted her best friend on the shoulder. Then, she added in an undertone, “Give the sorrel stud a good ride, aye? I think his baws might be as blue as his eyes by noo, though I’m sure they’re jus’ as bonnie.”

Claire flushed furiously and shoved playfully at her best friend’s shoulder. “You’re bloody awful sometimes, Duncan. Grow up!”

“And where’s the fun in that?” Geillis laughed, green eyes crinkled with amusement.

Jamie raised a curious eyebrow at them, but Willie was more enticed by the promise of Mary’s homemade tablet when he visited Edinburgh next weekend than his godmother’s antics.

“Oi, Duncan! Get ye movin’!” called Greg with a definite note of impatience.

“Dinnae pish yerself, man, I’ll be righ’ there!” She tossed her long, strawberry blonde mane over her shoulder, unruffled by the designated driver’s insistence to get going.

Flicking her finger in Greg’s general direction, she leaned in, pressing a peck to Claire’s still pink cheek, whispering, “I like him, hen—he’s a good one. And he’s got it e’en worse than you.”

With that, she turned on her heel, strode over the gravel to the passenger side, and sank into the leather seat.

Still a bit embarrassed and trying to process what Geillis had just said, Claire stood close together with Jamie and William as they waved their friends off, watching the car turn around the corner, and vanish out of sight.

*****

After they’d sent the Edinburgh gang on their way, the three of them spent the rest of the day at Drummond Road, playing board games and finishing off the rest of Mrs Crook’s delicious Sachertorte.

Youthful energy quite depleted by a weekend full of one excitement following another, Willie, yawning all throughout their dinner of halloumi salad, needed no parental persuading to head to bed.

About five minutes after William had ventured into the land of dreams, Claire had changed into a more comfortable ensemble of a cosy, loose-knit jumper and black leggings. Upon re-entering the open space of her living room, she found Jamie reclining with his arms spread out over the back of the couch, eyes closed, two gently steaming mugs on the coffee table.

The calming smell of peppermint permeated the air as she approached the large Scot on quiet feet. His chest was falling and rising steadily with each breath; so slowly, she might have thought him asleep if it hadn’t been for the lopsided smile appearing on his lips, and the large hand reaching out towards her in invitation.   

“How did you know I was here?” Claire asked, grasping his hand as she sank down next to him, hip to hip.  

A sigh escaped her lips as she felt the warmth of his body seep into hers, finally allowed to be near him openly; finally allowed to touch him. Opening his eyes, Jamie’s right arm came around her, holding her close, while the other let go of hers to brush a strand of hair behind her ear, fingertips grazing her cheek.

“I dinnae ken exactly,” he said softly, the pad of his thumb still caressing her cheek. “I jus’ can feel when ye’re near. It’s like…” Jamie broke off, his brow contorting as he tried to come up with an explanation. “It’s no’ like anything at all, I’ve ne’er felt something like this before.”

Claire knew exactly what he meant, even if she couldn’t explain it any better herself. It was as if her inner compass were drawn towards true north whenever he was around. The fact that he seemed to experience the same warmed her to the bone.

“I know exactly what you mean.”

She leaned in and pressed a soft kiss to his lips. Jamie, eager to reconnect and more than willing, reciprocated in kind.

“Lord, I missed being able tae do that.”

Chuckling, Claire tilted her head back a little. “You sound like you’ve had to go without it for a week. It’s been barely 24 hours since we slept on this couch together, Fraser.”

Her heart jumped a little at the memory.

“It sure felt like a week tae me, Sassenach,” Jamie countered with a teasing smile, though his statement rang with truth as well. “Tae be around ye, tae be sae close, but no’ able tae touch or kiss ye…”

“It was a long day for me, too,” Claire admitted, tracing the arch of his upper lip.

“A long weekend,” Jamie amended, nipping gently at her fingertip as his eyes sought hers.

For a while, they simply made up for the time they hadn’t been able to show their affection, quelling the urge to touch velvet skin and rough whiskers, kissing softly, but deeply.  

When they finally broke apart, lips tingling and slightly swollen but with hearts sated, Jamie spoke.

“There was something I wanted tae talk tae ye about, Sassenach.”

He seemed shy all of a sudden—a rather strange change in his demeanour, considering that his hands were currently perched atop her buttocks.

“About what?”

“Weel, now that Willie’s birthday’s o’er, I thought that…mebbe… I wondered if…”

“You wondered whether…?” Claire prompted, squeezing his ribs encouragingly.  

“Would ye…” he fumbled for words, “would ye mebbe…”

“Would I maybe what?” The smile was audible in her question.

“Ye’re enjoying this, aren’t ye?” Jamie asked, his deep bass marked with mock affront.

“Only a bit,” she admitted, propping herself up on an elbow to kiss the tip of his nose. “You were saying?”

He inhaled deeply, bracing himself for a renewed attempt. “Would ye go on a date wi’ me, Claire?”

“Yes.” The word had left her mouth even before he’d finished his question. “Yes, I want to go on a date with you, Jamie.”

The tips of his ears turned pink with delight. “This week, aye?”

“Aye,” Claire mimicked, kissing the tip of his nose once more, then pressed one to his mouth. “I very much want to go on a date with you this week. Tomorrow?”

“Aye, tomorrow.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 38 – Seven Years in the Making

It took Claire exactly one-and-a-half seconds to reach the door after the chime of the doorbell had sounded. She’d already been standing in the entryway, attempting to pat one particularly unruly strand of freely falling curls into submission—ready to leave at a moment’s notice. The thought that she might come across as overly eager had briefly surfaced, but was dismissed just as quickly as it appeared.

She couldn’t help it. There was no way she could possibly wait any longer. After all, this day had been seven years in the making.

She and Jamie were finally going on a date.

The whole day, Claire had been out of it. Grinning and wearing mismatched socks, she kept dropping her pen, her hands jittery with excitement when they weren’t focused on a patient. Three times she had to return to the doctor’s lounge because she forgot to take her coffee with her, thoughts elsewhere. And when it was time to drop off William with Brian, who’d readily agreed to look after his grandson while she and Jamie were out, she had to force herself into a measured step instead of racing towards Fraser’s Essentials.

Claire couldn’t recall the last time she’d been this nervous and excited about something. The level of hopeful anxiety she’d experienced during the days she’d been waiting for her email of admission to study medicine certainly paled in comparison, as did the first time she’d cut into living flesh. The time leading up to William’s birth came pretty close; though that, too, had been a different kind of apprehension.

Then, as she’d absentmindedly stirred a fourth sugar cube into the tea that was supposed to calm her down a bit—rendering the brew literally undrinkable in the process—she remembered.

The feeling of coarse sand that had worked its way stubbornly underneath her toenails and dusted the soles of her feet; a thin, smooth leather strap clinging to the pale skin of her ankles as she perched atop a wonky stool at a beach bar. The choir of seagulls and other maritime birds blending seamlessly into the streams of conversation around her, local tongues and foreign ones alike. The sun already on its way to disappear behind the curve of the world—splashing the horizon with vivid blotches of orange and purple and pink—while Claire nursed her second fruit cocktail, waiting for Jamie to arrive.

Neither the warm evening breeze gently lifting her hair off her back, nor the presence of her best friend had been able to assuage the roiling trepidation that he wasn’t going to show.

Her stomach gave a small twist at the memory. She’d been right, then.

But it didn’t matter anymore. 

Jamie was here now. Standing on the other side of her pale blue door.  

Claire unclenched her fists, pushing back those unwelcome memories to make way for the future, and turned the knob.

A smile dimpled her cheeks as brilliant blue eyes came into view. “Fraser.”

Would she ever tire of seeing him?

As she took Jamie in—the fiery auburn waves brushed to a soft gleam curling around his wide shoulders, toned thighs accentuated nicely by a pair of dark blue slacks, and the slightly heady smell of bergamot issuing from his open collar—her heart jumped a little at the realisation that he’d made an effort to look his best, too.

“Sassenach,” he returned her usual greeting with a smile rivalling her own.

Taking one step towards her, filling the door frame completely, one large hand settled familiarly on her waist as Jamie leaned in to kiss her softly—not on the cheek this time. Being greeted thus was at once unaccustomed and yet so desperately welcome; a novelty that had Claire’s pulse quicken further and respond eagerly.

Eyes closed, she emitted a small noise of distress when his mouth retreated, feeling that the kiss had ended much too quickly. Clasping the lapels of his jacket, Claire sealed her lips over his once more.  

Jamie broke them apart and rested his forehead against hers, his warm breath teasing as he whispered, “I’d love tae stay here and kiss ye until dawn, Claire, but I really want tae take ye out taenight.”

His words swirled around her head, slowly permeating the blissful haze his nearness had enveloped her in. When they finally registered, she opened her eyes again.

Finding herself hard-pressed to resist him when he was this close, Claire let go of his jacket and took half a step back.

“I’m sorry.” There was a rosy tinge to her cheeks as she met his gaze. “I might’ve got a bit carried away.”

“Dinnae apologise fer that,” Jamie said, his deep voice tender and reassuring as his thumb brushed over her cheek. “I like nothing more than kissing ye.”

“Except for taking me out?” Claire ribbed, attempting to steer fantasies of being kissed senseless by Jamie into a less dangerous direction. If they didn’t get out of here soon…

“Weel,” Jamie seized the opportunity to diffuse the sparks between them before they caught fire willingly, his wide mouth curving into a small smirk. “Taenight is all about finding that out, no’?”

She nodded, her smile reflected on his face.

“Shall we, m’lady?”

Grabbing her bag, she laughed at this address and took his offered arm. “We shall.”

They stepped out onto Drummond Road, hands clasped together.

“I hope ye dinnae mind a wee walk?”

With you? she thought. “Not at all.”



“So, where are we going?” Claire asked with a definite spring in her step.

“Ye’ll see it soon enough,” Jamie answered, squeezing her fingers gently.

True to his word, they stopped not even five minutes later, a couple of steps after they had turned on to Church Street, in front of a vibrantly coloured shop front.

“Here we are, m’lady,” Jamie announced with a small bow of his head, copper curls swishing over the collar of his jacket.

Claire stared wide-eyed at the loud yellows and greens and reds embedded squarely into the walls of grey stone buildings in front of her. “Kool Runnings?”

“I ken it doesnae look like much from the outside,” Jamie began, sounding suddenly tense. “But the food is really great. And they dinnae have many tables—it’s verra cosy. No’ a lot o’ people ken about it, sae it’s no’ likely tae be crowded.” The words came rushing out as Jamie ran a hand through his thick mane. “Mebbe it wasnae the best idea tae bring ye here, we could go somewhere more romantic if ye—”

“Jamie,” Claire interrupted his nervous rambling, putting a hand on his arm. “It looks amazing. I’ve never had Jamaican food before; I’d love to try!”

The sincerity in her voice seemed to diffuse the building tension in his shoulders instantly.

“Awright. After you, then,” he said with a smile, leading her inside with one hand resting on the small of her back.

They were greeted by a warm atmosphere suffused with amiable chatter and a delicious concoction of exotic aromas wafting from the kitchen. Just like the outside of the small restaurant, its interior was a lot to take in. Similarly colourful, the walls were covered with a glossy paper—a blue sky, white sands, and large palm trees—creating the illusion of dining on a Caribbean beach rather than in the dreich Scottish Highlands. Jamaican flags, prints of Bob Marley, and postcards were either hung from the wooden ceiling or plastered to the walls with no apparent system or order, giving the whole establishment a slightly chaotic but homely feeling.

‘Cosy’ indeed, Claire mused as she counted eight randomly scattered tables in total. A smile formed on her lips. She felt right at home.

A man in his early forties with smooth, dark skin and a Cheshire-cat grin at the ready walked up to them, greeting them spiritedly.

“I’ll be right with you, friends,” he told them in his charming blend of a Jamaican and Scottish accent as he pointed them to their table.

She looked in fascination at the charismatic figure vanishing behind a door she assumed was leading to the kitchen, then turned to Jamie, who held out his hand to relieve her of his coat. “I love this place already.”

“I’m glad ye do,” Jamie said, sounding significantly more relaxed now as he pulled out a chair for her. “Delroy sure kens how tae make people feel welcome.”

“You know him?” The surprise was clear in the question as Jamie took his own seat across from her.  

“No’ well. He owns the place, and he cooks, but he’s a verra sociable guy—doesnae like tae be stuck in the kitchen all day. Loves talking tae his customers, ye ken? Ye cannae help knowing at least something about him when ye come tae eat here.”

“I see,” she replied, feeling more comfortable by the second, in spite of the rather hard chairback.   

The man in question reappeared at their side, handing them the menu before walking off again to fetch them their order of drinks, exchanging a laugh with a couple seated at the far end of the room.  

Intrigued by the numerous unique choices on offer, Claire only looked up when she felt blue eyes on her.

One elegant eyebrow arched up interrogatively above smiling whisky eyes. “Do I have something on my cheek, Fraser?”

Apparently not even aware that he’d been staring, Jamie blushed but didn’t look away.

“No,” he said, still holding her gaze. “It’s jus’ that…”

“Mhm?” she intoned encouragingly.

“Ye look stunning, is all,” he admitted in a slightly bashful tone.

“Oh.” Claire dropped her eyes briefly, biting her lip as a ridiculous amount of pleasure flooded her. Apparently, the ensemble that Geillis had helped her put together—black high-waisted trousers and a long-sleeved plum-coloured blouse with a modest v-neckline—had the desired effect. “Thank you. You look rather dashing yourself.”

Jamie didn’t reply, but she could see a pleased smile forming on his lips just as the tips of his ears went pink.

Even though she’d already made her choice, Claire went back to perusing the menu, darting a glance over its edge at the beautiful man in front of her.

“D’ye need help deciding, Sassenach?” Jamie asked when he caught her glance, seemingly doing the same thing.

“No.” The answer came swift and sure. “I already know what I want.”



After a waiter had taken their orders of curried goat and jambalaya, they fell into easy conversation.

“So, Geillis gave you a good talking to yesterday, hm?”

The corners of Jamie’s wide mouth curled with amusement. “Ye saw that?”

“Was hard to miss, really.” Claire smirked slightly. “You looked a bit like she had a really good grip on your balls, to be honest.”

“Weel, she as good as threatened tae castrate me if I e’er hurt ye,” he said. Leaning towards her, he whispered with a straight face, “Truth be told, I was fair scairt she’d make sure on that threat right then and there the way she was looking at me.”

Claire knew he’d meant it in jest, but she couldn’t help a small, rueful sigh escape her lips.

“Gee has that effect on people.” She leaned back in her chair, one fingertip tracing the rim of her glass. “I love her to bits, but she has a tendency of being a bit interfering.”

“Did she have tae do that a lot in the past, then? Threatening tae take people’s baws?” He’d said it casually as he topped off his own glass of water again, but Claire sensed the underlying question.

“Not precisely, no,” she began, considering how much she was willing to share.

Her past dating life wasn’t exactly a touchy subject as such—seeing that it had been almost non-existent—but it wasn’t something she divulged freely, either. There was something about Jamie, though, that invited trust in a calm, non-intrusive manner.

“Having a toddler at my heel was an effective man repellent in and of itself,” Claire explained, amber eyes downcast as her gaze turned briefly inward, “but there were a handful of guys who seemed interested enough despite it. But when they got to know Geillis, that was usually the end of it.”

Registering the knitted brows and his slightly dumbfounded expression, she felt the need to clarify.

“I’m not saying she ruined my chances with any of them. She just made them think twice about what they were getting into—what with me working part time and studying around the clock, in addition to William.”

“It’s a lot to deal with.” Claire had always been aware of that, especially so when the hunger for a man’s touch was only temporarily relieved by her own desperate fingers. “And I never wanted to risk bringing someone into Willie’s life who wasn’t going to stay, anyway.”

“Mmphm.” Jamie made one of those thoroughly Scottish noises that conveyed understanding as well as sympathy.

A question flashed in his eyes as his fingers drummed lightly on the side of the table.

“If there’s something you want to know, ask,” Claire suggested, watching him with curiosity.

Smiling somewhat shyly at her bluntness, he replied, “Weel, I dinnae want tae pry.”

“Just get it out,” she demanded, though her tone was gentle.

Jamie was quiet for a moment, seemingly choosing his words with care.

“Sae…” he started, then cleared his throat, beginning anew. “Sae does that mean that there were nae others since you and I…?”

His cheeks flushed with colour as he let the rest of the implication hang in the air between them.

Claire’s lips parted in surprise. Whatever she thought he was going to ask, it hadn’t been that.

Maybe the topic was touchier than she’d believed it to be, because she reacted somewhat brusquely, “I don’t think previous sexual partners are appropriate dinner conversation.”

He flinched slightly at her tone. “I’m sorry, I didnae mean tae—”

Just then, their food arrived, the steaming dishes saving them from continuing the conversation. It was still awkward, though. Neither really knowing how to return to that levity of their earlier conversation, they focused their attention on the mouth-watering food in front of them instead.

Well done, Beauchamp, she chastised herself, the earthy flavour of the curry suddenly bitter against the roof of her mouth. Ruined it the first chance you got.

In their continued silence, the background Reggae music became unbearably loud. Claire’s defensiveness had deflated as quickly as it materialised, and she felt guilt settling in her belly about having snapped at Jamie, especially because she’d invited him to ask in the first place.

Jamie avoided her glance, studying the yellow grains of rice on his plate instead, though his appetite also seemed to have suffered from their exchange. 

“One.” She broke the silence with the quiet admission—a peace offering—gripping her fork tightly. “There was only one.”

She might have thought Jamie hadn’t heard if the scraping of cutlery on porcelain hadn’t stopped.

He tilted his head then, considering her with an unreadable expression.

“How long?” Jamie asked in a voice that was soft but gave nothing away, sapphire eyes trained on hers.

It was difficult to hold his gaze, and even more difficult to answer the question. Claire didn’t quite understand what had unsettled her. Was it that, up until now, she’d managed to shut that part of her life out? Was it the realisation how pathetic it must seem? Or was it the black weight of remembered loneliness that made it hard to breathe now?

Swallowing, she forced the words out past the constriction in her throat, “A bit over three months.”

It hadn’t been a long time in the grand scheme of things.

But it had been long enough to have made her believe he might stay. Long enough to have sparked the hope of introducing him to William at some point. Long enough to drive away the fear she’d always have to do it on her own—life, and all that it had to offer.  

The pain must have shown on her face, because concern sat in the lines between his ruddy brows. She tried to reassure him with a smile, but the corners of her mouth only managed a weak wobble.

Without hesitation, Jamie reached out to her, grasping her hand in his. It was large and warm—an instant comfort. Relief rushed through her at the touch of his skin on hers, the pain instantly lessened.  

For a moment, she focused only on the tingling sensation sparked by their intertwined fingers, taking strength from the connection.

Drawing soothing patterns on the back of her hand with his thumb, Jamie asked quietly, “Did ye love him?”

“No,” Claire said, raising her eyes to meet his, to let him see the truth behind it. “But I liked him. And it hurt.”

“Aye, it does, e’en if ye dinnae love them,” Jamie agreed, a sad, understanding smile lurking in the corners of his mouth.  

For a split second, she could see a similar pain reflected in the depth of his eyes and the tight set of his jaw.  

He answered the question before she could voice it. “There were twa. The first was steaming drunk—and I had one drink too many as well, otherwise it wouldnae have happened—and she got sick when she saw ma back in the morning. It was only the once.”

The food, despite its rich, appetising flavour, was forgotten for the moment.

“The other pretended it didnae bother her, but I could tell it did. She ne’er touched me there—no’ once throughout the summer I was wi’ her.”

Claire clasped his hand tighter, giving him something to hold on to.

“She gave me kindness, though, and fer that, I’m grateful.”

“I’m glad she could give you that,” she said softly, golden eyes warm and tender.

“Aye,” Jamie returned her look with the same tenderness, though there was something else as well. “But that was all she or anyone else could have e’er gi’en me.”

“Why?”

Letting all the vulnerability and hope show as his blue-eyed gaze met hers, he said quietly, “They werenae you.”

A jolt of recognition coursed through Claire.

Heart palpitating madly in her chest, skin pebbled with goose bumps, pupils blown wide, her body confirmed with overwhelming clarity what her heart had known all along—that she felt the same, had done so since the first.

Unconsciously, the pads of her fingers sought the pulse point at his wrists; a touch so chaste and yet so intimate as she felt the beat of his heart pounding to the same rhythm as hers. 



Almost two hours—involving a shared dessert involving fried plantains and vanilla ice cream and animated conversation—later, they walked home, still holding hands. Wrist to wrist, Claire could still feel her heart beating in tune with Jamie’s, the connection unbroken since his declaration.  

It was calm by the River Ness, the current lapping gently at the shore where the first budding daffodils of the year were hiding in the shadow of the progressing night. They stopped halfway and turned to watch the changing lights of the Ness Bridge dance in pink, and green, and yellow over the inky water.

Claire leaned into him, temple against his shoulder. “Beautiful.”

She could feel Jamie shift as he tilted his face to her. “The most beautiful thing I’ve e’er seen.”

The wide mouth was set in a smile, eyes glinting in the light of a streetlamp.

She let go of his hand, raising on her tiptoes to cup his face instead, and pressed a kiss to his lips before she even made the conscious decision to do it.

“Thank you,” Claire whispered, her hands sliding down to rest over his heart, feeling the steady thump against her palms. “Tonight was…special.”

“Aye, it was,” Jamie agreed in a low voice, his hands settling in the curve of her waist.

“I’m sorry it took me se’en years until I made good on ma promise tae meet ye at the beach bar, Sassenach,” he continued, fingers emphasising his apology with a squeeze.  “But taenight, I finally could.”

The realisation hit her at his mention of the seven years apart, of the date that had been set but hadn’t come to pass—then.

She took half a step back, amber eyes wide. “Is that why…is that the reason you chose Kool Runnings?”

Jamie smiled, a little ruefully, but his voice was as warm and steady as the hands splaying out over her sides.  “It was as close as I could get tae the one in Porto Santo.”

If there was anything else he wanted to add, he didn’t get the chance. Claire cut him off by fusing her mouth to his, putting all the emotion that was washing over her into the kiss.

She hoped he understood the message, even if she couldn’t say it out loud yet.

I love you.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

I f there was anything else he wanted to add, he didn’t get the chance. Claire cut him off by fusing her mouth to his, putting all the emotion that was washing over her into the kiss.
She hoped he understood the message, even if she couldn’t say it out loud yet.
I love you .

 

Chapter 39 – Ready

The call signal had barely gone through when the familiar sing-song voice of her best friend picked up.

“Miss us already, hen?”

“Of course, I do,” Claire answered truthfully, sitting down on her bed. “Just wanted to check in on you two—hear what kind of fun you’re having without me.”

“All safe and sound,” Geillis replied, chewing on something crispy. “It wasnae an exciting day. The wee bean napped through most o’ the afternoon—he was fair knackered after the train ride. Good thing ye thought o’ packing Mr Puff, he still sleeps like the deid wi’ it.”

“Good, I’m glad,” she said, meaning it, but there was a slight strain in her voice.

“Are ye awright, hen?” The physical distance between them didn’t lessen her best friend’s acute perception. “I ken it’ll no’ be easy being away from Willie fer this long fer the first time, but ye ken he’s in good hands wi’ me, aye?”

“It’s not that, Gee,” she replied, flinging herself back on the bed. “I mean, yes, it’s that, too, obviously. But right now, it feels more like the days when I was on night shift and he stayed home or at the nursery—or rather, it feels like he’s away on night shift right now and I’m waiting at home. I know that sounds ridiculous—”

“No, it doesnae,” Geillis stopped her. “And if that thought helps ye, hang on tae it. Nae need tae question yerself more 'n necessary.”

Claire sighed audibly, running a hand over her face.

“If this isnae aboot the wee one, I’m guessing it’s aboot the big Ginge?”

She took a long moment to answer. “In a way, yes. It’s about tonight.”

“Ah.” She sounded as if she’d been waiting for the topic to be raised. “Gi’ me a moment.” In the background, Claire could make out something being said, then a door being opened and closed. “Awright, I’m out o’ earshot, and Greg’s watching the bean.”

“Oh, Greg is with you?” Claire asked, a bit surprised and glad for an excuse to move the trajectory of the conversation away from herself. “Did he pick you up from the train station?”

“Aye, he did. He’s sittin’ wi’ Willie and helpin’ him tae repaint ma living room. No’ sure that finger paintin’ was the best idea fer an evening activity, but that’s no’ important right noo,” the other woman replied, steering the conversation firmly back to Claire. “Tell me what’s goin’ on under that curlywig o’ yers.”

Watching a dust particle float by in the weak evening light streaming through the bedroom window, Claire’s chest heaved with another sigh, feeling the nervous tension rise a notch higher.

“Come on, hen, it’s only me,” Geillis said soothingly.

“It’s…it’s just…” Claire fumbled for the right words. Exasperated with her inability to express herself properly she exclaimed angrily, “God!”

“I’m afraid the Almighty is a wee bit busy at the moment, but I’m here tae listen in his place, aye?”

Claire snorted, releasing at least some of the tension from body and mind with the explosive exhalation.

“Well, it’s…I thought I was nervous before the date already, but bloody hell, I feel like…I don’t even know what I feel like!”

“What is it ye’re sae fashed aboot?”

She closed her eyes, trying to organise her thoughts, and took a deep breath. “The way things are going between Jamie and me…it’s pretty intense and so quick and—”

“Mmphm?”

“And tonight, we’re alone—”

“Aye, I’m followin’.” The voice at the other end of the line seemed to have taken on a slightly smirking quality.

“Like alone alone. There’s no one around to…” She made a vague gesture with her hand in the air. “No one around to…you know.”

“Nae one aroond tae do what?” Geillis prompted, the teasing now fully evident in her tone.

“You know perfectly well what I mean, Duncan,” Claire retorted with a slight edge.

“Mebbe I do, mebbe I don’t.” The reply was dripping with amusement. “Let’s pretend I have nae idea—humour me.”

“Why are we friends again?” came Claire’s slightly cross response as she frowned at the ceiling.

“Because as much as I love tae tease ye, I’ll also tell ye what tae wear taenight. Good friendships are all aboot balance, hen.”

“Aha,” she said, not sounding particularly convinced.

“Listen tae me hen,” Geillis tone was more serious now. “I understand that ye’re nervous aboot taenight—I really do. But remember this, aye? Nothing has tae happen if ye dinnae want it tae.”

“I know,” Claire said in a small voice. “The thing is…” she went on, plucking nervously at the corner of one pillow. “I want…I really want things to happen.”

Claire could hear that Geillis was suppressing a chuckle when she asked, “Sae, what’s the problem then?”

“I…” she faltered for a moment, rubbing her nose self-consciously. “I don’t know what to wear, or what to do. How to…you know…”

Swallowing, she continued to lay her thoughts bare. “It’s been so long since…well, since the last time. I just don’t want to mess this up. What if he doesn’t like it?”

What if he doesn’t like me?

Geillis cut her off before she could say any more. “Hen. First off, Jamie—or e’ry man, really—would be lucky tae have ye. Ye’re smart, kind, and gorgeous. And way too humble aboot it, too.”

“You’re only saying that because you’re my friend.”

Best friend,” Geillis emphasised. “And the only reason that I am is because what I said is true.”

“As fer the rest,” the melodic voice continued, “dinnae o’erthink it. Sex isnae a science, people have managed tae do it wi’out instructions since the beginning o’ time. And it’s awright tae ask fer direction if ye’re unsure what tae do. Jus’ pay attention tae him and do what feels righ’ fer both o’ ye, no’ what ye think he might want or expect.”

“Okay,” Claire said, lips curving up in a tiny smile, feeling less anxious already. “Tell me what I should wear then.”

“Weel, if ye want tae lure him tae yer bed, yer best chances would be goin’ nekkid. I’m sure it would blow his mind,” Geillis chuckled.

“If ye want tae be a bit more modest aboot it, though, I’d go wi’ the long-sleeved black wrap dress that ends jus’ above yer knee wi’ the ankle boots—the ones wi’ the wee buckled strap. Black tights are a must! Wear the grey coat fer the way, hair loose, and yer silver bracelet. Oh, and dinnae ferget mascara—that makes yer eyes glow.”

Stunned into silence by the rapid-fire reply, Claire could picture the outfit her best friend had put together without difficulty.

“Are you sure about that dress? It doesn’t exactly scream ‘sexy’, does it?”

“It’s the perfect compromise,” Geillis lectured with some authority on the matter. “It brings oot all yer assets wi’out being obvious aboot it.”

“But—"

“No ‘buts’,” her friend insisted. “Yer arse looks marvellous in that dress. And Fraser’s definitely an arse man.”

“And how would you come by that specific knowledge?”

“Dinnae ferget I spent a weekend aroond the twa o’ ye.”

“We didn’t even come near each other while you guys were around,” Claire bristled with minor indignation.

It had been difficult for both of them, but they’d managed. At least she’d thought so.

Geillis laughed. “Weel, that whole eye-fucking across the room ye twa had goin’ wasnae exactly subtle.”

A scoff sounded from Claire’s end of the conversation as she flicked a piece of lint off the bedspread.

“It also didnae escape ma notice that his eyes were glued tae yer arse whene’er yer back was turned tae him. Most definitely an arse man,” Geillis repeated with unwavering confidence.

“Anyhoo,” her best friend carried on. “Aside from whate’er is or isnae happenin’ taenight, this weekend is as much fer you as it is fer Willie. Make sure you and the big man spend some time taegether wi’out worrying about the bean.”

“Thank you,” Claire said softly, the smile growing wider. “I really appreciate that.”

Phone wedged between shoulder and ear, she glanced at her alarm clock, raising herself back to a sitting position. “I should get ready—Jamie will be here in an hour—hand me over to William, would you?”

“Awright, I’ll do that. And hen?”

“Mhm?”

“Jus’ be yerself. The rest will work out on its own accord, trust me.”



When Jamie had asked her whether she was ‘up fer a bit o’ live music’ Friday night, she hadn’t even taken a second to consider the question. The promise of spending time with the man starring in her dreams—both waking and at night—was the only temptation necessary for Claire to agree to the suggestion.

The additional prospect of musical entertainment alongside such welcome company thrilled her beyond reason, though this excitement had little to do with her being an ardent aficionado of the art form as such. It had, however, everything to do with the fact that Claire had never been to a live performance before—unless you counted the gaggle of snake charmers in the streets of Khan el-Khalili, which she didn’t.

If she hadn’t spent her years in Edinburgh applying soothing cream on nappy rashes or copying surgical notes—too exhausted to even take off her socks at the end of the day—Claire might have made the effort to seek out the up-and-coming artists playing the stages of the Scottish capital. The idea of something as normal as attending a pub gig had seemed unattainable then. Now, passing through the entrance of The Tooth and Claw with Jamie’s hand in hers, it was suddenly within reach.

“Ye’re as bouncy as a wee rubber ball taenight, Sassenach,” Jamie commented with an easy smile curving his mouth. “Are ye excited fer the band, or jus’ happy tae see me?”

Tilting her face up to his, she squeezed his hand and smiled back, “Both.”

The pub was filled with an expectant air—like a beehive before a rainstorm. Staffers were buzzing with activity: darting to and fro between a room in the back and the stage, readying everything for the act to come, and serving glasses overflowing with pale ales and lagers over the counter.

Amidst the din of scraping chairs, arguments about football, and cheers for the weekend, Claire and Jamie managed to secure themselves a small table in a corner to the left of the stage. It was a round, sturdy thing whose smooth wooden surface had darkened with time as much as with stains from spilled drinks.

“I’ll get us the first round,” Jamie said, shrugging out of his jacket and draping it over one of the barstools. “What d’ye want, Sassenach?”

“Cider—non-alcoholic if they have it.”

“I’ll see what I can do, m’lady.” He gave her a quick, courteous bow, and headed over to the bar.

Amber eyes were glued to the back of his head—where gleaming copper strands were tied loosely in a bun—following Jamie as he easily weaved a way through the throng of people vying for the bartenders’ attention. At 6-foot-4 and equipped with a set of wide shoulders, the man already had an innate advantage over the other thirsty patrons. With his black t-shirt and washed-out jeans hugging his athlete’s body almost outrageously snug in places, he really wasn’t playing fair, procuring their drinks barely a minute after he’d taken off his jacket.

“Luck favoured us taenight.” Jamie returned grinning victoriously, holding out two bottles by their neck. “Doth the lady fancy regular or dark berry?”

“Regular, please,” she replied, taking the amber-coloured bottle from him. “Thank you.”

“Good, I wanted the berry,” Jamie said, sinking down on his stool and taking a refreshing gulp.

An amused smile tugged at her lips. “Didn’t take you for a dark-berry-cider guy, Fraser.”

“Weel,” he leaned in so close she could smell the hint of berry on his breath. “I do have a bit o’ a sweet tooth.”

“Is that so?” Claire teased, wetting her lips in anticipation.

“Mmphm,” he hummed in response, eyes closed as his mouth descended to meet hers. 

Parting with a contented sigh, Claire took a sip of her own cider, the tart flavour bursting in tiny bubbles on her tongue.

“So, who are we going to see tonight?” she asked, the excitement resurfacing. “I don’t think you’ve told me.”

“That’s because they usually dinnae announce it beforehand,” Jamie explained, his knee bumping into hers as he shifted his stool to face the stage as well. “But I asked the barman—Caraidean as Gràdhaiche are going tae headline.”

Claire stared at him with a furrowed brow, trying to process the foreign sounds. “Car-i—what?”

Blue eyes crinkled with mirth as Jamie repeated the Gaelic band name, pronouncing it carefully, “Caraidean as Gràdhaiche.”

After four failed attempts at getting the alien combination of vowels and consonants right, Claire admitted defeat with a frustrated huff. “That language is a mouthful.”

Jamie’s chest rippled with laughter, “Ye’re no’ wrong there.”

“What does the name mean?”

Before he could answer, the lights were dimmed, giving the place a torch-lit cavern-like feel. All around them, the chatter began to fade away, everyone turning their attention towards the main attraction of the evening.

Swept up in the change of atmosphere, Claire, too, perked up a little bit straighter in her seat. She was waiting on bated breath for the band to enter the spotlight, when a large hand settled just above her knee—pinkie finger rubbing along the hemline of her dress.

Even though the gesture was by now a familiar one—and still as electrifying as when first initiated—it held a particular thrill, being touched like this in public. While this demonstration of physical closeness didn’t necessarily signify overt ownership of each other, it still insinuated an intimacy that made it clear to everyone who cared to look that these two shared more than just friendship.

Covering his hand with hers, Claire gave it a squeeze and flashed him a smile, teeth gleaming white in the semi-darkness.

Then, a fiddle began to play, the notes emerging quietly and slowly building in intensity, taking a spot right next to centre-stage. One by one, two acoustic guitars, Uilleann pipes, and a Bodhrán arranged themselves in choreographed positions, joining the mellow tune and transforming it into a complex composition of sound. At the very last, a woman entered the small platform, claiming her place at the heart of the melody, raising it to its ultimate peak with a velvet voice that told of sorrows and joys long gone by.

Claire didn’t need to understand the words, she could feel their meaning resonate within her bones. Rendered momentarily speechless by the beauty of the performance, she looked wide-eyed at Jamie, who was tapping his foot along to the beat of the song. 

“Good?” he mouthed at her, ruddy eyebrows raised in question.

A bright smile dimpled her cheeks as she nodded vigorously and returned her focus back on the music, brown curls swinging over her shoulder.

Sometime into the fourth or fifth song—a fast-paced jig narrating the story of a woman named Ealasaid—Claire was no longer able to ignore the soft vibrations beckoning her to move.

“Come on,” she said, raising her voice enough to be heard over the music, grabbing the large hand on her thigh, eyes gleaming like whisky in the dim light. “Let’s dance.”

Jamie shook his head, dipping his mouth towards her ear. “Remember ma singing, Sassenach? I dance e’en worse.”

“I find that hard to believe, Fraser,” she countered, smiling widely and gripping his hand a little tighter. “But if it’s any consolation to you, I’m not much of a dancer either.”

Seeing his unconvinced expression, her eyes narrowed with laughter. “Doesn’t keep me from trying though. Come on.”

With some reluctance, but plainly incapable of resisting the draw of her eyes—her smile, her hips—Jamie let himself be pulled to his feet and onto the floor where other people displayed fewer inhibitions to undulate their bodies in public.

Soon after entering the fray and managing to coax the big Scot into motion, Claire realised that he had not been lying. Where Jamie usually moved with the grace of a big cat, his movements on the dancefloor were stilted and jerky, reminiscent of a new-born foal.  

She was glad though, because it made her feel a lot less self-conscious about her own lack of rhythm. Their eyes met, and Claire could feel the last shyness melt away as they began to twirl and twist around, their bodies moving in tune with each other, rather than to the music. 

It was easy, being with Jamie.

Getting lost in the moment, in the sensation of accidental and intentional touch as brown curls bounced and blue eyes beamed, was as natural as taking the next lungful of air. The wisps of worry that sometimes clouded her head—how Willie would react to the news, how her life might change—seemed to dissolve in his presence as thoroughly as sugar in tea, replaced instead by a reassuring intuition that everything would work out.

When his long, warm fingers gripped hers to spin them clumsily around, Claire shook her limbs and laughed in a most liberating way, letting go of everything else, opening her heart.

“Have I stepped enough on yer toes enough fer now?” Jamie leaned in closer, shouting the question above the roar of the band.

Claire just shook her head, smiling so widely that her cheeks hurt.

Several expeditious renditions of folksy hymns and anthems later, out of breath and still laughing—at each other, with each other—they returned stumbling and bumping against each other to their table, greedily gulping down the remnants of their drinks.

“Ye’re flushed like a wee peach, Sassenach. D’ye want another?” Jamie asked, gesturing at the empty bottle, his other hand already sliding in his back pocket to retrieve his wallet.

Behind her back, the band was still going strong, but in their little corner, she could understand him well enough.

“Yes,” she nodded, her throat parched, needing relief. “But this round is on me. Same again for you?”

“Aye, thank ye.”

Accepting the refreshments from the bartender with a smile, Claire spun around to find blue eyes staring at her from across the room. They had a hungry sort of look about them, stopping her dead in her tracks for an instant as her pulse began to quicken. The steady thrum of blood was tingling under her skin as she approached in slow, measured steps, hips swaying slightly, still held captive by Jamie’s gaze.

Feeling bold, Claire stepped in between his spread thighs. “Here you go.”

Jamie was slightly startled by that move, but his expression shifted quickly to one of eagerness as he straightened his back and accepted the bottle with a thanks, sapphire eyes still trained on hers.

She drank deeply from her own cider, grateful for the cool contrast it provided against the rapidly building heat inside her. His mere proximity was intoxicating—the bulge of hard muscle against her hips, the smell of his cologne, the way the dim lights danced across his cheekbones and lit up his hair. Encased by the perimeter of his powerful legs, a different kind of thirst seemed to become more pronounced between them.

“God, ye look bonnie in that dress,” Jamie said a little hoarsely, left hand closing around her waist, pulling her closer.

Without breaking eye contact, Claire set her half-empty bottle down on the table. Placing her palms just above his knees, she ran them slowly up the length of his thighs, closing the last bit of distance between them.

The large fingers at her waist twitched and his Adam’s apple bobbed heavily as his eyes dropped to her mouth, her cleavage, and lower still. They were groin to groin now, separated only by layers of fabric.  

“Sassenach.” His tone was pleading—for her to stop, to continue, or maybe both.

She kissed him then, full on the mouth and without any reservation, delighting in the sting of his stubble and the groan building in the back of his throat as his other hand found its way to her side. 

A dreamy smile was playing on his lips when she broke away, cheeks flushed with heat.  

The embers now stoked to a living flame, her heart was thundering in her chest, blood pounding in her ears, as the suggestion left her lips. “Let’s get out of here?”

Something flashed in the dark blue depths—Hope, fear, some primal need.

The deep voice was still a bit hoarse, tinged with arousal, but confident. “Aye, let’s.”



Fingers shaking with adrenaline, Claire dropped her key ring twice, cursing under her breath, before she finally managed to push the door to Number 9 Drummond Road open. Jamie followed close behind, shutting the world out behind them.

Inside the cosy cottage, the atmosphere was charged with crackling sexual tension. Now, with plenty of possibility to act on it at hand, it was a lot more real and potent than it had been in either the very public setting of the pub or on the semi-private backseat of the taxi.

Standing with her back to Jamie, Claire could feel her heart beating in her throat as she tried to calm her breathing, slightly overwhelmed by the realisation that what she’d been yearning for was finally about to happen.

Jamie stepped forward, wrapping his arms around her, kissing the top of her head gently.

“Claire,” he whispered into her hair. “I wasnae suddenly going tae jump on ye jus’ because we’re alone taenight.”

Nervous laughter burst from beneath her ribcage as she realised that he had interpreted her silence as fear. “I didn’t think you would.”

His voice was as warm and soothing as the hands on her hips. “Nothing has tae happen if ye dinnae want it tae.”

She turned in his arms, looking up into the face of a man so clearly on the brink of madness with desire, yet still willing to put her needs above his own.  

“We can wait if ye’re no’ ready yet.”

For that statement alone, Claire would have fallen for him if she hadn’t already been in love. 

“No.” She rose on her tiptoes to interrupt him with a kiss. “No, I don’t want to wait. I’m ready. Are you?”

Smiling at her question, Jamie stroked her cheek with his thumb. “I think I was born ready fer you, mo gràidh.”

Amber met sapphire with perfect understanding as Claire took his hand and led him into her bedroom for the very first time.

It was quiet inside—as quiet as such an old house could be—and a pale sickle moon was the only source of light.

She let go of his hand and walked over to a chest of drawers.

“How about candles?” she asked in a low voice, already patting around the surface for the box of matches she’d laid out before leaving the house.

“Aye, candles would be verra nice,” Jamie said, stepping deeper into the heart of her sanctuary.

Claire lit up a match—the tiny flick of light reflecting in her golden eyes—touching it to the wick of a thick-set candle, then lighting another, and another, until the room was bathed in their dim, gentle glow.

Jamie came up behind her, grasping her gently by the shoulders to spin her around. When they were chest to chest again, he cupped her face and lowered his mouth to meet hers in the softest kiss. He tasted of pungent berries and something sweet that was quintessentially him—a combination that proved to be highly addictive.

She reached behind his neck, tangling her fingers in the hair at the base of his skull and working the strands loose from the knot that held them together. With the long auburn waves falling freely around his shoulders, framing his high cheekbones, Jamie looked every bit the Norse marauder. A heritage ingrained in the very marrow of his long, graceful bones.

“The last time I saw ye in a dress, Sassenach…” His voice was deep and somewhat gruff, fingers drifting from her face to her shoulders, down her sides and over the swell of her hips.

“Was the last time you saw all of me,” Claire finished for him, the memory fresh in her mind as well.

“Aye.” The hot mist of his breath tickled her cheek.

Moving a half-step back from him—his fingers refusing to break their connection—she took his hands and guided them to the bow at the front of her dress, giving him unspoken permission.

His eyes searched hers for any sign of uncertainty; finding none, he worked the knot loose, trembling slightly as he did so. Letting gravity play its part, the material fell open, revealing bits of black lace and nylon against creamy skin.

The way Jamie swallowed at the sight raised goose bumps all over her body.

Blunt-fingered hands slipped underneath the cotton fabric, peeling it inch by inch from her shoulders, smoothing it down her arms until it dropped to the floor behind her. Bending down, his hair teased the sensitive skin beneath her collarbones as Jamie pressed his lips just above her heart. The tops of her heaving breasts received similar attention before he sank to his knees, looking up at her like a worshipper at the altar, praying to receive benediction.

Claire gave him such grace willingly, cradling his stubbled jaw and stroking loose strands of copper off his forehead. Large hands moved from her sides to her back, roaming upwards until his fingertips stopped at the clasp of her bra. She nodded, encouraging him to go ahead.

After a bit of insistent manipulation, the tiny hooks sprang free, giving her more space to expand her lungs. She slid it off in a heartbeat, the heat inside her rising to an almost uncomfortable level as Jamie stared unabashedly at her exposed breasts, cupping them, thumbs grazing lightly over their hardened peaks.

Air rushed from her lungs at his touch, wanting—needing—more, but Jamie continued his unhurried task of unveiling her body’s topography. Blue eyes were glued to hers, gleaming with utter admiration, as his palms travelled down again, hooking his index and middle fingers into the elastic band of her tights and knickers, dragging them down painstakingly slowly.  

Claire had to brace herself on his shoulders as his lips—hot and wanting—trailed the slow descent of her remaining garments over the arches of her hip bones, cherishing the silver scars that originated from their last union.

“Jamie,” she whimpered, the sensation of his breath on the most intimate part of her making the blood sing in her ears.  

A muscle in her calf twitched as he lifted her foot to roll off the tights and underwear over her heel, almost buckling when the slight gruff of his beard came in contact with the hyper-sensitive skin at the back of her knee.

Sitting back on his heels, Jamie drank in the now fully naked sight of her. His hands glided up the back of her thighs to palm the fullness of her buttocks.  

“Christ,” he rasped in a voice like gravel against her pubic bone, inhaling her earthy scent. “Ye truly are the most beautiful woman I’ve e’er seen.”

She smiled down at him, her heart expanding at the candour of his words.

“Get up,” she urged softly. “It’s my turn.”

Tilting his head up, Jamie met her amber gaze, smiling lopsidedly.

Bloody hell, that smile.

Trying to ignore how his smile alone was enough to stir her blood, Claire extended a hand to help him get back to his feet, silver bracelet glittering in the candle light. Jamie took it and heaved himself up, a painful crack accompanying the motion. Both seemed startled for a brief moment, but once they realised that it had just been a popping joint, laughter bubbled up between them.

“Are you all right?” Claire asked, mouth set in a wide smile.

“Fine,” he assured her with a throaty chuckle.

“Are you…sure?” She looked at him from under her lashes, though where concern had resided a second ago was now an entirely different emotion. “I could look at it, you know. I’m a doctor after all.”

The playful insinuation to get things back on track wasn’t lost on him, his breath suddenly shallower than before, the smile replaced with a hungry expression.  

He cleared his throat. “Aye. If ye dinnae mind, I’d rather be sure.”

“Show me where it hurts,” she instructed, mischief lining her sensual mouth.

“Here,” Jamie said huskily, pointing at the bow of his lips. She moved in to brush them softly with hers—once, twice, three times for good measure. Then, he gestured at a point underneath his jaw. “Here, too.”

Smiling, Claire nipped the spot he’d indicated with her teeth, causing him to hiss softly, soothing it with a swirl of her tongue.

“Where else?” she asked, mouth slowly moving down the column of his neck.

This time, he grasped her hand, placing it in the centre of his chest where she could feel his heart racing underneath her spread fingertips. “Righ’ here.”

Her hand slid down his front, the lightly woven wool of his shirt soft underneath her palm, until she reached his belt. “I’ll have to take off your shirt to take a closer look. Is that all right?”

Seemingly robbed of speech, Jamie just nodded, the low light of the candles catching the fire in his curls.

Whisky eyes fixed on his, Claire untucked the shirt from his jeans, bunching it up at his sides and sliding it upward. Jamie complied eagerly, raising his arms to aid her. While it was difficult for her to reach that high, she managed to work it over the swell of his biceps and off his head, tossing it carelessly aside. Now shirtless, she could see the way his chest laboured to draw breath.

“Here, you said?” She pressed another kiss over his sternum, his skin burning hot against her mouth, delighted at the feel of coarse curls tickling her face and the slightly musky scent of him.

“Mmphm.” One of those intricate Scottish noises erupted from between his parted lips as her nimble fingers fanned out over the soft rises and falls of his ribs.

“Anywhere else?” she asked, her voice velvety as she flicked her tongue over the slight indentations around his nipples.

“Aye,” He was panting audibly now, his hands hanging uselessly at his sides. “A wee bit lower.”

“Here?” Claire smiled teasingly at him, fingers drawing titillating circles on the delicate skin beneath his navel.

Jamie’s answer died in his throat when she sucked lightly on his collarbone.

“No,” he managed to croak out on his second try, eyes clouded with desire. “No, lower.”

“Please,” he added when she didn’t make a move.

The fingers of her left hand carried on with their teasing as Claire rose on her tiptoes to whisper in his ear, “Show me.”

She could feel the muscles tighten underneath her fingertips, the rush of his ragged breath stirring the downy hair at her temple. His hands fastened around her waist, pulling her close against his front, the evidence of his wanting firm and insistent between them.

“It hurts e’rywhere wi’out you.”

The earnestness of the statement went straight to her core, adding fuel to the fire they had sparked seven years ago. A small but urgent sound rose from somewhere deep down inside her, and suddenly, things moved at the speed of lightning.

Before she could process how exactly she got there, Claire was lying stretched out on the bed with a stark-naked Viking kneeling between her legs, the flame of the candles reflected in his smouldering eyes. If she’d had any room for coherent thought left, she might have appreciated the romantic setting, or the defined outlines of pectoralis major and rectus abdominis stretched taut under his golden skin, but in this moment, nothing but the raw need for him mattered.

Jamie moved over her, kissing his way up to her neck, chest hair rasping pleasantly against the tender skin of belly and breasts. She was trembling with anticipation now, adrenaline pumping furiously through her veins as his weight pressed her deeper into the mattress.

When he spoke, his voice was low and hot in her ear.

“Tell me ye want this as much as I do, Claire.”

“I want you more than my next breath,” she admitted on a shaky exhalation, pupils dilated so wide the gold around it was barely visible.

Wide mouth set in an elated grin, Jamie kissed the top of her nose. The comfortable warmth of his chest lifted off her as he reached to extricate a condom from his wallet, leaving her feeling bereft until he lowered himself back down on her again.

Braced on his forearms on either side of her head—careful to avoid her hair—Jamie aligned his body with hers, blue eyes drowning in a sea of darkened amber as he increased the questioning pressure between her legs.   

Are ye ready? his body seemed to ask once more.

I am ready, hers responded without hesitation.

After years of futile attempts to chase the ghost of a once-in-a-lifetime encounter, each carrying their own scars from their time apart, they finally came back together in the living flesh.

With their fingers and hearts entwined, they rocked slowly against each other—taking time to adapt, adjust, accommodate—until the heat of her enveloped him completely. Her sighs mingled with his moans and the rustle of sheets, creating a song of their very own as whispers of adoration fell from his lips into her mouth; and she cradled them there, in the home she’d made for him between her lungs.

That a man so big, so powerful, could be this gentle undid her.

She’d imagined it differently, truth be told.

Had envisioned a storm of passion, something raw and untamed almost to the point of violence. She hadn't seen them coming at all, these inexorable waves of tenderness. Jamie was like a soothing, steady rainfall on thirsty soil; with each stroke, he poured more and more of himself into her until she was saturated by the gift of his love, accepting and returning it with a keening cry of his name.

Still joined and bathing in the aftermath of climax, the fall of tiny drops on her face roused her enough to pry her heavy-lidded eyes open. Tasting salt on her lips, she startled slightly, realising that it was tears, not sweat, streaking down the handsome face.

“Are you okay?” she asked, gently wiping them from his cheeks. 

“Aye,” he huffed a small laugh, sapphire eyes sparkling behind the sheen of moisture. “Aye, mo gràidh, I am.”

Only when he mimicked her gesture did Claire realise that she was weeping too.

Tears of happiness.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Are you okay?” she asked, gently wiping them from his cheeks. 
"Aye,” he huffed a small laugh, sapphire eyes sparkling behind the sheen of moisture. “Aye, mo gràidh, I am.”
Only when he mimicked her gesture did Claire realise that she was weeping too.
Tears of happiness.

 

Chapter 40 – Light in the Dark

He was dead.

If nothing else, that much seemed clear. At least, it was the only sensible explanation he could come up with for the serenity that filled him from the callus of his big toes to the follicles of his hair.

The cause of his premature passing could have been anything. Jamie had no idea and didn’t really care, though he found it marginally curious that he still had the capacity for thought. Those were fleeting ponderings, however; insignificant considerations in the face of eternity. For that’s what lay before him: heaven personified.

A sleeping angel.

Well, a sleeping angel that flared her nostrils when she snored, but an angel, nevertheless.

Ever since he first saw her entering the pulsing dimness of a Madeiran beach club, Jamie had been aware that he had been blessed by her beauty; the curve of her bones spoke to his own marrow, and those whisky eyes could make him drunk with a glance. Besides, the mad collieshangie of her hair made him laugh.

Now, with both their bodies bearing the tales of loss and love alike from the chasm of time apart, he found that she was even more beautiful.

The moon casting a silver halo around her naked form, she was otherworldly, ethereal. Tendrils of silken hair snaked over shoulder and collarbone, shifting slightly with the gentle fall and rise of slumbering breaths. Bathed in that nightly glow, the curve of her waist swelled into the fullness of hip, tapering off into the arch of a slender calf half-shrouded in the downy bedclothes crumpled at their feet.  

His hands, so rough and unrefined in comparison, ghosted over the outline of her flesh and bones like a sculptor trying to capture the flowing image of beauty before him. Reverently, he traced the angles of cheekbones and jawline, the roundness of breasts and belly, the bony lumps of her wrists and knees; that their shape may seep into his own capable flesh, to conjure them later on the marble canvas of eternal dreams.

He could have been content watching her rest so peacefully, undisturbed by earthly troubles, until the worlds collided and time itself finished its course. He was but a man, though, and temptation itself—nestled between two columns of pearly-white skin—called him by his name.

There, behind the gates to the Garden of Eden, awaited paradise. 

Sheltered in her inner sanctum, the hallowed fruit tasted as sweet and savoury as life itself. The sigh of her awakening underneath his mouth filled his ears with the symphony of afterlife. Wanting so badly to keep that harmony going, he redoubled his worship—the prickle of stubble teasing her gasps higher and higher, lips driving her slowly into a chorus of moans, tongue inciting the reprise of his name.

Spine curved and shoulder blades spread, she arched up from the bed as if to take wing. He couldn’t bear the thought of her ascending and leaving him behind, so he held on tightly, clinging desperately to her hips as her thighs clamped down around his ears. Writhing, she convulsed around him, crying blasphemies into the ether. He would gladly join her in her fall from grace, for he knew he had no life but her.



Claire’s pulse was still racing when Jamie reclaimed his place at her side, mattress dipping slightly beneath his weight.

“Good?” The soft question permeated the haze of slowly ebbing ecstasy as he tucked a stray lock back behind her ear.

Her shoulders vibrated from a shaky chuckle. “Do you really have to ask?”

“Weel…” There was again that hint of endearing shyness in his deep rumble—the same as when he’d asked whether she’d ‘liked it’ the first time they’d made love to each other.  

Rolling to face him, she opened her eyes, searching and finding his in the low light of moonbeams, and kissed his knuckles. “Even better than I remembered.”

A small, pleased sound escaped his lips.

He grasped her by the buttocks—sending a shiver down her spine as thumbs found a resting place in the shallow dimples at the small of her back—and scooted closer until she was pressed against him at full length. Jamie was large and solid, smelling of warm linen and fresh desire as his heart thumped hurriedly against hers. With the bones of his face painted in silvery-white, the evidence of his need for her firm between them, and the residue of her recent pleasure glistening around his mouth, Jamie looked utterly sublime.

Maybe she should have taken more time to appreciate the image of him—still and smiling like a Greek statue in the dimness—but the feel of his skin against hers was feeding the barely subdued flame in her belly, too excited to keep motionless much longer.

She reached between them, palming him with a sure and gentle hand, eliciting an appreciative moan from his chest.  

“How can I want you this much when you’ve just left me?” she asked breathily, the yearning for him boiling hot in her blood.

“I dinnae ken what it is, either,” Jamie said with the same desperation in his voice, large hands kneading the roundness of her backside, “that makes me need ye so.”

An urgent twitch against her palm launched her into motion. Claire could taste herself on the soft lines of his lips as they met halfway in an open-mouthed, sloppy kiss. Too hungry for tenderness, teeth nipped and scraped as tongues explored and teased, amplifying the all-consuming heat rising from her core.

Deft fingers charted the hardened length of him from tip to root, tracing veins and cupping the round softness beneath, delighting in the gasping moans passing from his mouth to hers. He was hot and smooth, yielding willingly to the pressure of her grasp. With each stroke over the silky skin, his eyelids grew heavier, his breath more ragged.

“Oh god, yes.”

Claire could feel the hot gush of air pass over chin and jaw as he drew the sibilant into a lengthy existence against her mouth, sounding like the soft hiss of an enthralled snake. “Jus’ like that.”

As tiny drops dewed beneath her caress, her hand stilled—a loss of friction to which Jamie objected with a pained sort of groan, jerking hips imploring her to continue. She retreated from the hunger of his mouth as well, only aggravating his deprivation.

His hands tightened their hold on her bottom as he peeked at her from beneath hooded eyes, searching for a reason why she’d stopped. “Is…is e’rything awright?”

“Yes.” Claire met his heavy-lidded gaze in the half-dark, gripping him a little firmer. “But get on your back.”

“Wha—?” His brow furrowed with dazed confusion.

“I said ‘get on your back’,” she repeated in a husky whisper, abandoning him momentarily to disentangle herself from his embrace and shimmy down the bed.

Realising what she was up to, Jamie followed her instruction, panting heavily with building anticipation as she ran her hands down his sides, peppering his lower abdomen with an abundance of wet kisses.

Seeing him thus—long limbs stretched out before her, his wanting straining up against his taut belly—only made her burn for him more.

Nails scratching lightly up and down the soft skin of his inner thighs, Claire ran her tongue along the groove underneath his external obliques. Curving down from waist to groin, they created that seductive V line she’d found irresistible from the beginning, leading her towards the epicentre of his need.

Jamie looked at her, his hair fanning out over the pillow in a dark halation, the intensity of his pleading gaze all the incentive she needed. Eyes locked on his, she took hold of him at the base, flicking her hair back over her shoulder as she lowered her face.

As she descended on him, he bit hard on his lower lip, fisting the sheets and pelvis lifting out of its own volition, impatient to meet her mouth.

A dhia,” Jamie choked out in a low-pitched rumble, one hand threading into her hair, cupping the curve of her head gently as soft lips closed around him, welcoming him deep into the heat.

Her tongue darted out to circle the swell of his crown, tasting the slight tang of sleep and previous exertions, fist moving up and down. She took him nice and slow at first, getting acquainted again with the remembered sensation of him filling her that way.  

Then, spurred on by Jamie’s apparent pleasure—groaning and bucking, fingers twitching in her curls—she picked up the pace. Minute by minute, she got more adventurous, scraping her teeth softly over the shaft and hollowing her cheeks as if she could suck his very essence into her, earning herself another satisfying hiss in response.

Her own delight at being able to pleasure him so began to manifest itself in a low hum, triggering a violent shudder in his powerful frame. She could sense the ripple of tension moving through him like a wave even before the fingers in her hair tightened, before his thighs flexed against her breasts.

Jamie came in hot spurts against the back of her throat and let out a smothered cry for the Almighty, followed closely by a reverent chanting of her own name. His lungs were still working overtime when she crawled back up to curl up against his side.

“Good?” she echoed his earlier question with a smile in her voice, twirling a chest hair around a finger.

“Aye,” he laughed, kissing her forehead as he draped an arm around her shoulder. “I thought my heart was going tae burst, though.”

Pride glowing in her chest, she nuzzled into the crook of his shoulder, content just to lie next to him; smelling his skin, breathing the same air.

Legs entangled and sheets drawn up to their middle, they lay quiet, brushing hair out of the other’s face while kissing softly now and again. After a while, their touches grew less frequent; and slowly but surely, Claire slipped towards the edge of sleep, lulled into a boneless relaxation by the sound of his heartbeat.

When he spoke, it was in a voice soft as the murmur of leaves in the wind, his fingers grazing lightly over the arch of her ribs.

“Tae have ye here…”

She was sure he hadn’t meant for her to hear him, so she lay still, trying not to make a sound, not to disturb his moment of believed privacy.

“Tae feel ye next tae me…” His hand drifted lower, resting in the curve of her waist.

The emotion in his voice made her own chest squeeze tight, and even though it pained her not to reach out or offer him the comfort of her touch, Claire didn’t move.

“My Sorcha,” he breathed, dipping his head and softly pressing his lips against hers.

Even if she’d been asleep, the feeling of his gentle mouth would have roused her to wakefulness. She responded with the same tenderness, cradling his cheek.

“Mmphm,” Jamie intoned, lips curved in a smile against hers. “No’ asleep after all, then?”

Feeling a blush creep up from her neck, Claire was glad for the night surrounding them.

“Not quite,” she admitted, trailing a finger down the line of his jaw. “What did that last bit mean? Sorcha?”

“It translates tae ‘light’,” he explained, the sickle moon reflecting in the dark irises as he propped himself up a bit on the pillow.   

“Why did you call me that?”

“It’s yer name in the Gàidhlig,” Jamie offered, but there was something else he wasn’t saying.

Claire could sense his hesitation in the fingers tapping softly against her side, in the way his eyes were turned towards the dark ceiling.

Curiosity piqued, she made an encouraging noise.

He drew a deep breath, as if to steel himself to disclose a secret he hadn’t really intended to share—at least not now.

“After that accident,” he began, and the downy hair on the nape of her neck automatically bristled, “I lived in the shadows o’ ma own heid fer quite some time.”

Her gut clenched with the memory of him touching upon his battle with depression. What wouldn’t Claire have done to have been there for him, to help him find a way out of the abyss.

Yet all she could do was try to soothe him now—drawing aimless patterns on the planes of his chest, being by his side, and listening.

“E’ry morning, I woke up in a dark fog. Throughout the day it got worse, getting thicker and darker wi’ the haze o’ the drugs.”

E’rything hurt—moving, breathing, relieving maself in a plastic tube. And…” he exhaled forcefully, lungs deflating underneath her cheek. “I was sae tired. Sae verra tired. But e’en sleeping hurt.”

There was a long, heavy pause before he spoke again.

“I wanted tae die.”

The words knifed across her heart.

“Jamie—”

“But there was something giving me hope, despite it all,” he continued in a tone that seemed lighter now, as if the admission had lifted a heavy weight off him.  

“What was it?”

She could feel his breath warm on her skin as he turned to look at her. “You.”

“Me?” Her fingers stopped the circling motion.

“Aye.”

Hope was blossoming in her chest as his hand—so large and gentle—cupped her cheek with utmost adoration. “You.”

“I saw ye sae many times,” Jamie whispered, the pad of a finger grazing softly over the shell of her ear, rubbing the soft skin. “When I dreamed sometimes. When I lay in fever. When I was sae afraid and sae lonely I knew I must die. When I needed ye, I would always see ye, smiling, wi’ yer hair curled up about yer face.”

His heart beat slow and steady beneath her palm.

“I saw ye sae many times,” he repeated, a tremor running through him as he lowered his gaze. “And wi’ you, the light returned fer another day.”

Sorcha,” Claire echoed quietly, understanding dawning.

The lines of his face softened as the wide mouth stretched into that lopsided smile she loved so much. “Aye.”

She reached up to trace the arch of his eyebrows, the bones of cheek and temple, the contour of his lips.

“No one has ever made me feel like you do.”

“How?” he asked, voice raspy with a mixture of surprise and curiosity. “How do I make ye feel, mo gràidh?”

She thought of how over the years, she’d been so many different things, to so many different people—'little one’ to her uncle, ‘hen’ to Geillis, ‘Beauchamp’ to superiors, ‘Doctor’ to patients, and ‘Mama’ to Willie.

But here in the dark with him, she had no name.

“Like myself,” she replied, kissing him softly. “Whole.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

How?” he asked, voice raspy with a mixture of surprise and curiosity. “How do I make ye feel, mo gràidh?”
She thought of how over the years, she’d been so many different things, to so many different people—'little one’ to her uncle, ‘hen’ to Geillis, ‘Beauchamp’ to superiors, ‘Doctor’ to patients, and ‘Mama’ to Willie.
But here in the dark with him, she had no name.
Like myself,” she replied, kissing him softly. “Whole.”

 

Chapter 41 – Happy

With eyes half-closed against the encroaching early morning, Claire and Jamie continued where they’d left off. Kissing languidly, their hands roamed over each available surface of skin—exploring peaks and valleys, mapping nooks and crannies—while thoroughly acquainting themselves with the rolling terrain of the other.

While their one night in Madeira had laid the foundations of their intimate relationship, there hadn’t been enough time to establish that physical familiarity of long-term lovers, leaving many a thing yet to learn. Every touch—unhurried, deliberate—catalogued a new texture (the bumpy roughness of elbows, the squishy softness of eyelids), sensation (the shortness of breath and prickling of soles as whiskers scraped over her belly), or reaction (the eager clenching of his buttocks and bucking of hips when her teeth fastened on his neck).

No matter how small, Claire delighted in each new discovery—marking them on her mental image of him—knowing that this time, she would be allowed to revisit; this time, they would not be parted.

A sigh passed through her lips, limbs loose and heavy with contentment.

“Mmphm.” She could feel the similarly satisfied response vibrating beneath her cheek.

“Happy, Fraser?” she asked, twining a wiry chest hair around her finger.

The broad frame underneath her rumbled with a chuckle, rattling her slightly.

“I dinnae think I could describe how I feel right now even if I tried, Sassenach—no’ in jus’ one word.” She smiled against the indentation of his breastbone as he ran his large, warm hand from her scalp down to her back. “But aye, if I had tae choose one, I guess ‘happy’ would do.”

She pressed a soft kiss to his heart, understanding exactly what he meant—one small word wasn’t enough for love.

“Seeing that fine arse o’ yers wedged between ma thighs definitely makes me verra happy,” he offered with a tease in his sleep-tinged bass.

Lifting her face, she cocked a sceptical eyebrow at him. “You can’t even see my arse right now.”

Lying stretched out on top of him—hips nestled neatly between the muscled columns of his legs, chin resting on her forearm—the explosion of her sleep-and-sex-tousled curls made it near impossible for him to catch a glimpse of said body part from his current vantage point.

“But I can feel it,” Jamie countered, mouth stretching into a boyish grin as the big palms emphasised his point with enthusiasm.

“Not quite the same thing, feeling and seeing,” she replied, smoothing a strand of thick auburn silk behind his ear.   

“Mebbe no’, but knowing it’s there is enough tae make a man content.”

Claire huffed a laugh. “Seems Geillis was right about you after all, Fraser.”

That stopped his ministrations momentarily, ruddy brows furrowing. “Aye? And what did she have tae say about me, then?”

The corners of her lips curled upwards. “She told me you are ‘most definitely an arse man’. Have to say I can’t fault her observations right now.”

“Is that sae?” The small crease of concern between his eyebrows vanished as Jamie proceeded to fondle her buttocks. “Weel, ye do have a verra fine backside, Sassenach, but I’m no’ sure I would agree wi’ her.”

“No?”

“I think I’m a Claire man, rather than jus’ an arse man,” he said, stretching his neck to kiss her nose. “All parts o’ ye entice me.”

It was probably the cheesiest thing a man had ever said to her. Had it come from anyone else but Jamie, it would have seemed exaggerated and insincere, and likely would have made her feel embarrassed and put off rather than charmed. Looking down into the ocean blue irises creased with a genuine smile, though, her chest expanded with affection at his words. With each pump of her heart, blood enriched with a tingly feeling spread throughout her body, rushing through the major blood vessels to the tiniest capillaries; pulsing in temples, and armpits, at the apex of her thighs.

“You’ve no idea what you’re doing to me when you say things like that,” she admitted in a husky voice, tracing the bow of his inviting lips with a finger.

“Tell me.” He caught the exploring digit between his teeth, nipping gently, eyes focused on hers.

Giving voice to feelings wasn’t something that came easily to Claire, so she showed him instead. She reached her left arm behind her back, guiding his hand over the swell of her buttocks, down to her centre.

As he encountered the abundant wetness there, Jamie released her index finger from between his teeth and swallowed, pupils blown suddenly wide.  She could feel his arousal grow between them, hard and urgent, his darkened gaze burning into her. Slowly, his hand began to move—rubbing up and down between the pale, fleshy cheeks, fingers dragging an agonisingly delicious path towards where she wanted him most.

When the pad of his middle finger finally reached that sensitive bundle of nerves—circling its perimeter lightly—Claire shuddered with pleasure, eyes closed as she pushed instinctively into his touch. The eager rocking of her hips apparently gave him confidence to make bolder moves, alternating tempo and pressure as he teased, rubbed, and stroked.

Spreading her thighs as wide as the confinement of his legs allowed, she complied willingly when his mouth demanded her attention. Sucking hungrily on his lower lip, biting the soft flesh and soothing it with her tongue, Claire kissed him with all she was worth.

Amidst the heat rising once more between them, it would have been easy to let herself get carried away, losing her head and body to the thrilling sensation his clever fingers strummed up between her thighs, but she wanted him—all of him—and to give all of herself in return.

“Jamie,” she panted, struggling to form words while his hand was still busy driving her skilfully towards the edge. “Slow down.”

His movement slowed, then stopped altogether, a small line of concern appearing between his eyes.

“Why? What’s wrong?” he asked, one warm hand finding its way from her bottom to her shoulder blade—a touch meant to offer comfort rather than instigate.

“Nothing,” Claire assured him, kissing him fervently and effectively forestalling any doubts about whether she might not have liked what he’d been doing. “I just…well, I’d like to...move on to…other things?” she said, raising her eyebrows suggestively.

“Oh.”

The slightly sheepish expression hadn’t really been the reaction she’d anticipated.

“We don’t have to, of course, we can—”

Continue where we stopped, or, you know…let the earth swallow me up, she finished the sentence in her mind, a different kind of heat creeping into her cheeks.

The embarrassment and confusion must have shown, because there was a brief flash of panic in the blue of Jamie’s eyes as he realised that she was interpreting his reaction as reluctance.

“It isnae that I dinnae want tae.” He held her a little tighter to him, as if to prove that he still very much wanted her.

“But?” Claire was curious now, less inclined to follow the urge to withdraw from him, though confusion still had the upper hand.

“I…” he rubbed the bridge of his nose self-consciously. “I didnae bring another condom.”

As the meaning of his statement sank in, amusement overrode all other emotions.

“You,” she began, the corners of her mouth twitching, “brought only the one?”

“Aye, weel…” He writhed a bit under the focus of her amber gaze. The tips of his ears were flushed bright pink by this point. “I had hope fer it tae happen at some point, sae I wanted tae be prepared in case it did.”

Claire sensed a ‘but’ coming.

“I didnae want tae seem presumptuous, though. Ye’d have thought me a terrible lecher if I’d brought a whole pack, no?”

Her ribs protested under the strain of trying to keep the rising hilarity contained, but Claire managed to keep a straight face as she stretched over to her nightstand. Reaching to open the topmost drawer, her breasts rubbed in a most pleasant way over the raspy curls covering his chest.  

“It would seem,” having retrieved what she’d been looking for, Claire sat back on her heels—still between his legs—and dropped it on his stomach, “that if anyone is wanton here, it would be me.”

Eyebrows drawn together from incomprehension, Jamie inched up on the pillow into a half-sitting position. He inspected the square box more closely, the unease melting from his features and breaking into a wide, mischievous grin when he registered what it was.

“A ten-pack, Sassenach?” he asked, blue eyes glinting beneath raised eyebrows. “Had ye planned fer us tae leave the bed at all this weekend?”

“No,” Claire countered in a playful tone, leaning over his chest to snatch the box from him, ripping it open. “Unless you have objections to that, Fraser?”

“None at all.” The humour was suddenly gone from his voice, his eyes fixed on her fingers as she extricated one of the foil packets from the box.

Just like that, with nothing more than a hungry glance, Jamie had stirred up the fire in the pit of her stomach again, consuming all other thought but that of him. Heart beating madly, her blood thrummed with that powerful urge to touch, to connect, to seek that union of body and soul.

“Would you like me to…” She held up the small square between thumb and forefinger, letting the gesture speak for her.

He swallowed, nodding almost imperceptibly as he propped himself against the pillows.

Dark blue eyes intent on hers, tanned fingers twitched against the sheets when Claire grasped him, stroking him to full attention again before tearing the packet open and unrolling the condom from tip to root.

“Come here,” he rasped, drawing her toward him with his gaze as much as with a firm grip on her hips.

The muscles of his abdomen flexed in anticipation as Claire settled her knees to either side of his broad torso, straddling him neatly and sinking down into his lap. Guided by his steady hand, she took him slowly, inch by inch, mouth slack with a moan parting from her lungs as they formed that most intimate of connections.

Thus joined, she leaned in to claim his mouth and heart once more, offering hers in exchange.  By unspoken agreement, the secret of their love sheltered by the curtain of her hair, their bodies started to move in tandem. Teasing and fanning the flame with fingers and tongues, they rode the waves of ignited passion until they were both set ablaze, collapsing with cries as faint as the early morning seagulls waking outside.



It was that, and only that particular ringtone—the Spice Girls’ Wannabe—that could have Claire abandon her blissful little bubble, scrambling hastily out of bed and hurrying into the living room to answer the call.

“Gee?” she puffed slightly into the phone. “What’s up? Everything all right with William?”

“Guid mornin’ tae ye as well, hen,” Geillis chided in a much-too-bright tone of voice for this early on a Saturday. “Dinnae fash, the wee bean’s sparkly as a rainbow. He jus’ sat doon wi’ his breakfast.”

“Oh, good.” Relief settled on her shoulders, pulse slowing again as she padded back into her bedroom. “What is it then?”

“Only callin’ tae check in on ye before we head oot tae the zoo—see hoo yer date went,” Geillis said, the implication behind it more than clear.

“It went well,” Claire offered in an entirely unconvincing attempt at casualness, phone wedged between ear and shoulder as she grabbed something from her wardrobe. She had no desire to have this kind of conversation while being naked. “Very well, actually.”

Geillis sighed with feigned exasperation. “I need more ‘n that. A lot more, hen.”

Loosely tied into a black dressing gown—a mid-thigh long, silky indulgence she had allowed herself after her first full-time paycheque—she reclined against the headboard, feeling significantly more inclined to satisfy her best friend’s curiosity.

“Awright,” Geillis began, apparently in no need of Claire’s input to start her analysis, “since ye’re alone, I’m guessing—”

“Jamie’s just out getting us some fresh pastries,” Claire cut in.

Her statement was followed by half a second of silence in which she could swear she could hear green eyes widen with glee on the other end of the call.  

“Fer the both o’ ye?”

“‘Us’ would include him as well as myself in this scenario.” Claire smiled down at where she and Jamie had lain curled up together barely fifteen minutes ago, plucking a stray copper hair from the crumpled sheets. “So, yes, he’s buying pastries for both of us.”

“Sae the Viking is on the hunt fer yer breakfast.” The delighted smirk was clearly audible as Geillis repeated the new information. “That means…?”

“He stayed the night,” Claire answered the unstated question. “In my bed. With me.”

And?”

“And we slept together.”

“Slept, as in ye counted sheep, or…?”

Claire was sure Geillis was grinning from ear to ear by now—well, so was she.

“We had sex,” she paused, the memory of Jamie’s touch still lingering under her skin. “Truly sensational sex. My god, it was—”

“That good, aye?” Her friend let out a knowing laugh—the kind Claire knew was always accompanied by a tossing of hair over her shoulder.

“—magnetic,” she finished, fingertips drifting absentmindedly over the spot at the base of her neck where Jamie had left his mark.

“Weel, I’m glad the virgin wonder shag hasnae lost his magic—”

“Gee!” Claire hissed, half-laughing. “Do you always have to be so bloody crude?”

Geillis tutted at her in response. “Get yer mind oot o’ the gutter, hen. I was goin’ to say ‘touch’ no’ ‘cock’—though I’m verra glad he still seems tae ken hoo tae use it.”

Claire closed her eyes briefly, shaking her head, mouth still stretched into an elated grin.

“No, he certainly hasn’t forgotten how to use it. Quite the opposite, really,” Claire said more to herself than to her friend, playing with the sash of her robe. “Happy now? Is that enough information?”

“It’ll do fer noo,” Geillis replied smugly. “But the real question is, are you happy?”

Claire didn’t even have to think about it.

“Happier than I’ve ever been.”

“Good, ye deserve tae be.” After a small pause, Geillis carried on with the next point on her agenda. “Sae, are ye twa official noo?”

A small laugh sounded from Claire’s lips as she tucked a lock of hair back behind her ear.

“We haven’t even left the bed yet—well, I haven’t—so we didn’t exactly get ‘round to putting labels on things.”

“Mmphm?” the querying tone sounded from the other end of the line.

“But well, I guess so. I mean, I sure hope—” The doorbell cut through their conversation. “Oh, seems Jamie forgot to take the key with him—I got to go, Gee.”

“Awright, we’ll talk soon enough. Take care, hen.”

“Love you!” Claire chirped before disconnecting the call, dropping her phone on the bed as she rushed towards the entrance, black silk billowing out behind her.

Reaching the door, she opened it with a flourish. “Finally! Did you get the cinnamon ro—” the rest of the word died on her tongue as she registered the man in front of her.

“Was I supposed tae bring some?” the gentle rasp of another Fraser man greeted her.

A bit dazed, Claire stared at Brian’s jeans-clad form, trying to make sense of his appearance at her doorstep. It was only when she noticed the tool case in his weathered hand that things clicked into place.

Bloody fuck!

She’d forgotten.

Her washing machine had been acting up lately—laundering some things too hot and others not at all—which proved enough of a nuisance to make her mention it in passing to Brian. Being the hands-on problem-solver that he was, he’d promptly assured her he’d have a look at it as soon as possible. Really needing that damned thing taken care of before she ran out of clean underwear, they’d agreed on the Saturday after William’s birthday—today.

In light of everything surrounding the big celebration—not to mention the more-than-exciting developments between her and Jamie—however, it had completely slipped Claire’s mind.

Brindled brows shot up almost to a slightly receding hairline when Brian, in turn, took in the sight in front of him. While not exactly indecent, Claire’s dressing gown was showing a lot of bare skin—from the valley between her breasts almost down to her navel.

Suddenly extremely conscious of the fact that she was wearing nothing but skin underneath, Claire drew the robe tighter around her, as if she could cover the embarrassment colouring her cheeks that way.  

“Sorry, a nighean,” Brian said, clearing his throat and quickly averting his face, finding pretend fascination for the pebbles at his feet. “I didnae mean tae intrude. I can come back la—”

“No, no. That would be silly! I just forgot you were coming,” Claire admitted, flustered and half-hiding behind the door. “Give me a second, I’ll be right back, okay?”

Before he could reply, she’d already disappeared, shutting the door in his face, hastening to throw on the first jumper and pair of lounging pants she could find. Catching a glimpse of her phone from the corner of her eye, Claire sent a hurried text to Jamie to give him a fair warning that his father was around.

With that taken care of, she hurried back to Brian, panting slightly as she let him in. “So sorry about that.”

“Dinnae fash, a wee bit o’ waiting ne’er hurt anybody,” he waved it off.

“I meant that I forgot about today.”

“Weel, it’s nothing worth fretting o’er,” Brian said, understanding lining his light blue eyes. “Ye’ve had a lot on yer mind.”

“I did,” Claire replied truthfully, hoping her face didn’t give too much away as she made for the kitchen.

“Do you want something to drink? I was about to make coffee.”

Not quite the truth, Beauchamp.

“I’ll have a look at the washer first, but a coffee would be grand if it’s that fancy one yer friend brought wi’ him from Edinburgh,” Brian smiled at her, toeing off his shoes and heading for the bathroom.

She returned the smile, grabbing the fresh bag of Peruvian beans from her cupboard. “The very one. Greg keeps me well-stocked.”

“Ye have some great friends, a nighean,” he called over his shoulder as he settled down to inspect the malfunctioning appliance.

“I do.” The smile on her lips grew wider.

Not just great friends, Claire thought, watching Brian with a fond expression through the open bathroom door.

It only took around twenty minutes of jovial whistling, interspersed with a pained hiss that was followed by what sounded like one or two choice Gaelic curses, until Brian had found and rectified the problem.

“Should gi’ ye nae more trouble,” he announced with his chest slightly puffed out, accepting the offered mug with a grateful nod.

“Thank you so much. I’m glad I don’t have to get a new one,” Claire replied somewhat distractedly, eyes darting once more to the yellow figures on the microwave.

Jamie had been gone for almost an hour now. How long could it take to buy some pastries? Was he hiding in the bushes waiting for Brian to leave?

Just as she reached the conclusion that the latter was the most likely explanation, Brian’s whisky voice jerked her out of her thoughts. 

“Do I ken him?”

Claire looked at him wide-eyed with momentary confusion. “I beg your pardon?”

“Do I ken the lucky lad ye’re thinking o’ right now, who—I’m guessing—was the one ye were expecting wi’ cinnamon rolls when ye opened the door tae me?”

He’d said it so casually, conversationally, leaning with his hip against the kitchen counter, that only the question itself betrayed his curiosity.

She coughed, using it as an excuse to turn slightly away from his light blue gaze. “What gave me away?”

“Weel,” Brian smiled in a fatherly fashion, “I’ve kent ye fer a while now, and I’ve ne’er seen ye like this before. Ye look verra happy.”

A smile formed on her lips at his assessment, but Claire immediately pulled herself together before facing him again. “Do I normally not look happy?”

“Not like this, no,” came the honest reply.

“Oh,” she said in a quiet voice, lowering her lashes, feeling warmth blooming in her chest and cheeks.  

Brian saved her from saying anything further on the matter. “Ye dinnae ha’ tae tell me, a nighean. I’m happy enough seeing ye like this.”

Just then, as Claire reached to squeeze his arm to convey her gratitude and affection, the entrance door opened, and Jamie’s voice called out.

“Sassenach?” Her hand wavered mid-motion, feeling the heat of self-consciousness resurface once more under her skin. “Sorry it took sae long, I had tae wait until the rolls were out o’ the oven.”

“We’re in the kitchen,” she called in a slightly nervous pitch as she felt Brian’s eyes on her, praying Jamie would take notice of the emphasis on ‘we’.

“I hope ye’re still naked, because—”

Whatever Jamie had wanted to say never made it past his lips. He’d frozen with an almost comically shocked expression upon seeing his father lounging comfortably in the kitchen.

“Morning, son.” Amusement twinkled brightly in Brian’s eyes.

“Da,” Jamie croaked, still staring stupidly at the unexpected scene in front of him, the mouth-watering aroma of fresh cinnamon and vanilla wafting from the bag he carried.  

Before the silence could stretch, Claire jumped in, despite feeling mighty awkward herself. “Your father helped me fix the washing machine.”

That seemed to shake Jamie out of it.

“Ah.” He cleared his throat and, still a bit lost at what to do now, looked imploringly at Claire for guidance.

Brian beat them to it, though.

“Weel, I’ll leave ye twa tae it,” he said, one corner of his wizened mouth lifted in a slight smirk as he set the mug down into the sink.

“Are you sure you have to go already?” Claire asked, though even she could tell her invitation lacked conviction. “We have enough for three.”

“Thank ye, but no—I had plenty already. And Geordie will be waiting fer me, sae...” He pushed himself off the counter, patted Claire’s shoulder in goodbye and headed for the door. “I’ll see maself out.”

When he passed his son, who was still standing rooted to the spot between the living room and entrance hall, Brian leaned in, whispering something into his ear that caused Jamie to nod, a slow smile spreading on his lips.

As the door fell into its lock behind the older Fraser, sapphire blue met dark honey, sharing a look and bursting into laughter.

“I guess you didn’t see the text I sent you?” Claire asked, shoulders still shaking lightly.

He chuckled, the pinkness in his ears fading but nonetheless visible. “I must have left it on mute.”

“What did he say to you?” The echo of amusement was framing her eyes and mouth as she grabbed another mug from the cupboard. “Do you want coffee or tea?”

“Tea, thank ye,” Jamie said, setting the bag of baked goods on the kitchen table with a papery rustle.

Approaching her from behind, seemingly unable—or unwilling—to keep his hands from her for another second, he wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her close against him, and inhaled the sleepy scent of her curls.

“He told me I’d won the jackpot,” he mumbled against her scalp, heart beating steadily against her back, “and that he’d have ma hide if I didn’t make sure tae deserve ye.”

Pale, long-fingered hands automatically went to cover his as they swayed slightly on the spot, delighting in the other’s closeness, surrounded by the faint fragrance of steeping tea leaves.  

“Shouldn’t that have gone the other way ‘round? Me being given the talking to?”

“Mmphm, mebbe so.”

“But?” she prompted.

“But I cannae say I care verra much right now,” Jamie said in a low voice, fingers gliding over her sides and belly. “God, I missed ye.”

Her insides fluttered with delight.

“I missed you too,” Claire replied, pivoting in his arms, winding her fingers around his neck and kissing him softly.

“I’m sorry, though.” Jamie’s tone was regretful as he tucked her head underneath his chin, hands splayed out over her lower back. “I ken ye didnae want anyone tae know sae soon, but I guess it’s out now.”

“Hope ye dinnae mind too much?” he added, sounding a bit anxious, strands of his loose hair tickling her nose.

”Not at all,” she said, burying deeper into his warmth and finding that she meant every word. “Quite happy, actually.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“I’m sorry, though.” Jamie’s tone was regretful as he tucked her head underneath his chin, hands splayed out over her lower back. “I ken ye didnae want anyone tae know sae soon, but I guess it’s out now.”
"Hope ye dinnae mind too much?” he added, sounding a bit anxious, strands of his loose hair tickling her nose.
”Not at all,” she said, burying deeper into his warmth and finding that she meant every word. “Quite happy, actually.”

Chapter 42 – Sure

Time, in all its inexorable nature, was an astounding thing really. Fluid and ever-changing like the course of a river, it bent and curved and twisted, escaping any kind of straightforward definition. Its currents were varied and manifold, sometimes treacherous, as they wound their way through the fabric of life. Leaving marks on earth and flesh alike, joys could be rushed down waterfalls of minutes as sorrows trickled away in years.

Claire could feel the truth of that inherent conundrum embodied in the expanse of marred skin beneath her fingertips. There, in the deeper gouges lingered the hours that felt sluggish to the point of standing still, dragging from one heartbeat to the next. Here, in the slight raises and light webbing remained those afternoons which passed seemingly within the blink of an eye. In between that chaos created by seven years—in the edges and stretches of recovered skin—sat the promise of healing that gave life to hope of a joint future.

“My god, you are beautiful,” she whispered into the peaceful quiet of an early afternoon, fingers trailing up and down his naked back.

“If you say so,” came the soft response, blue eyes smiling at her.  

“You don’t believe me?” Her hand came to a stop in the shallow valley just above his tailbone. “I meant it when I said they don’t bother me.”

“That’s no’ what I meant,” Jamie replied, reaching to brush a lock of hair out of her face, thumb grazing gently over her cheek. “I meant—if ye say it, then it must be true. You make it true.”

An answering smile on her lips, Claire nuzzled into the coarse whorls on his chest, inhaling the warm scent of his skin. Jamie settled his chin atop her curls, one hand tracing the groove of her spine, the other resting on her hip.

“D’ye ken that this is the first time since the accident that I didnae once think o’ ma back, Sassenach?” he said, the wonder at this realisation clear in his voice. “Lying here in yer arms, I dinnae ha’ a care in the world. All ma wounds are healed, all the scars fergotten.”

“Then I will keep you here forever,” Claire said, tightening her embrace and sealing the promise with a kiss to his heart.

“Fore’er is a verra long time, mo gràidh.”

“I know.”



Having spent a not inconsiderable part of the last 24 hours horizontally, the momentary change in position was as welcome as the fresh spring air in her face. No matter how enjoyable it was to put a dent into that 10-pack of condoms with Jamie, her body just wasn’t used to the exercise, and stretching those pleasurably sore limbs had soon become a necessity. A necessity all the more delightful for the large fingers curved proprietorially around her waist as they ambled alongside the River Ness.

Passing through Whin Park, the large Scot directed her attention ahead. “Want some ice cream, Sassenach?”

“Always.”

“Tablet?”

“Probably.” Claire lengthened her stride a little, taste buds buzzing in anticipation of the sugary treat. “Though I was thinking maybe—"

Double tablet?” Jamie suggested with a grin, squeezing her side as he made a beeline towards the busy little kiosk.

The corners of her mouth lifted in a beaming smile. “Remember that, do you?”

Jamie stopped in the middle of the cobbled path, looking down at her with earnest affection. “D’ye think I could ferget anything about that day, Sassenach?”

Eyes wide and glowing, warmth radiated throughout her body at his words. Here, on a similarly sunny afternoon in this very park, they’d created a memory together she wasn’t likely to forget, either. Just back there, on one of those little wooden benches looking out onto the playground, Claire had thrown caution into the Highland wind, following her heart as she kissed the vanilla flavour right off Jamie’s mouth.

It had been the first kiss they’d shared since Madeira, the first since he’d come back into her life. It had also been the first of many kisses since, and the first in a series she hoped would never end.

My god, had it really been only two weeks since then?

“I remember e’ry moment, e’ry second o’ it,” Jamie said softly, auburn hair glinting in the low sun, fingers caressing her cheek. “And e’rything since.”

The conversation where she’d admitted that she wanted to see what it was between them. The night of William’s birthday when Claire had asked him to stay with her, and they’d fallen asleep together on the couch—on purpose, not by accident. Stolen touches—a warm hand on a shoulder, the brushing of thigh and hip in passing—and longing glances across rooms and tables. A spicy Jamaican beach bar dinner, where Jamie had brought their past to a full circle. And last night, of course—and everything else that had set into motion.

Claire saw the gift in his admission and returned it, setting her mouth to his, “So do I.”



Nothing compared to being kissed by Claire Beauchamp. The way her lips moved over his—whether gentle like a butterfly or demanding like a vixen—made the skies sing and his heart dance in his chest. Whenever her mouth connected with his, she offered not only her body, but her soul along with it. It was a gift Jamie cherished beyond anything else, and made him want to lay his heart down at her feet.

It was that urge more than his growing awareness of their surroundings—the general cacophony of children at play, people mumbling angrily as they stepped around them—that compelled him to move this elsewhere, away from prying eyes and ears. Breaking away from the sweetness that was Claire’s mouth, however, was not something easily accomplished. In fact, it went completely against his nature. Every cell in his body was recoiling at the idea, as if without her, he was no longer whole.

“Sassenach,” he said, his voice slightly shaky. The sight of her—cheeks flushed, eyes half-closed—made it all the more difficult to resist.

“Mhm?” she hummed in response, her expression both happy and a little befuddled.

“Come.” Grasping her hand, Jamie stepped off the path and pulled her after him.

“Where are we going?”

“Jus’ up ahead.”

“Didn’t we want to get ice cream?”

The question was laced with the kind of confusion Jamie knew was accompanied with a furrowed brow and pursed lips; a look he found particularly endearing on her, especially since he was now allowed to simply kiss the frown away.

“Aye, we’ll get tae that soon,” Jamie promised, even though ice cream was about the farthest thing from his mind right now.

That most recent kiss—conveying so much affection, and for all the world to see—had shifted his focus back towards a conversation he desperately wanted to have. He’d been thinking of it since this morning, when he’d unwittingly disclosed his and Claire’s newfound dating status to his father.

She’d said she didn’t mind Brian Fraser knowing, but the words from an earlier conversation still echoed in his ear. Claire had asked him to wait. Wait until they were sure what they were to each other before letting anyone in on it—especially William.

“Sit wi’ me?” Jamie asked, nodding towards the solitary bench, half-screened by low-hanging branches of blackthorn trees.

He watched her confusion give way to amusement as she followed his invitation. Tipping her head back, she took in the canopy of tiny, snow-white blossoms above.

“This is beautiful.”

“Aye,” he agreed, though he had no eyes for their surroundings.

With that typical clean, sweet smell of honeysuckle clinging to her skin, her hair all wild and loose in the soft breeze, and those bright amber eyes competing against the sun, Claire looked as if she’d sprung from the earth right there. A pale-skinned fairy glowing amidst columns of smooth bark and greening shrubs.

Only when he felt the expectant weight of her gaze on him, did he realise she’d said something.

“Sorry, what?”

She chuckled, a warm, rich sound. “I asked why we made this little detour, Fraser.”  

Jamie rolled his shoulders, his shirt suddenly feeling a bit too tight. Where tae begin? How tae begin?

“I took ye here because…” He took a deep breath. Why was this sae much more difficult tae say out loud? “Because there’s something I want…there’s something I need tae say.”

There, he’d done it.

Had said the words that rarely bode well, no matter how light and casual a tone he’d been aiming for. The shift in atmosphere was palpable—the mirth dropping from Claire’s face as she sat a little more upright. Instinctively, he reached for her hand, the tension fortunately lessening with the connection.

“I ken this—” Jamie began, motioning with his other indicating the two of them, “—has all gone verra fast.”

He dropped his eyes to where her hand lay in his, motionless, but warm and comforting.   

“A lot faster than ye probably wanted. I want ye tae know that I heard ye when ye said that ye need tae be sure afore we tell anyone. And I ken it’s probably way too soon fer me tae say this, but…” Jamie took another deep breath, lifting his gaze to hers. “I am sure, Claire. I kent it the first moment I saw ye—I…I want tae be a part o’ yer future.” And yer present.

“If ye’ll let me,” he added, rubbing his thumb over the back of her hand.

Jamie was met with a moment of silence that made his chest draw tight, something he couldn’t put into words flashing in the amber depths across from him. Even though his pulse was racing, he took courage from the fact that she hadn’t let go of his hand.

“I didnae mean tae put ye on the spot,” he forged on, too strung up to wait for her to respond. “I…ye dinnae ha’ tae say anything right n—”

“I’m just trying to sort out how to say it.”

Swallowing, Jamie cursed himself for ambushing her with this, for putting that kind of pressure on her. What had he been thinking? She’d said from the beginning she needed to take things slow, and here he was—

“You know,” Claire’s voice jerked him out of his spiralling thoughts. “I worried a lot about whether I made the right decision accepting the post up here.”

“Aye?” Without a clue where she was going with this, but not wanting to push her any further, Jamie simply regarded her with a mixture of confusion and interest.

She had a faraway look on her face as she spoke. “I spent weeks—months, really—debating whether I was making the right choice.”

“I never had parents who I could turn to for guidance, and the man who’d raised me was gone, too. Was having a steady schedule and free weekends really worth leaving our only family behind?”

That hit him straight in the gut. Our only family…Geillis, Greg, Isobel, and Mary, she meant.

Claire turned her palm, gripping his fingers a little tighter. “Our only family until now.”

“I’ve always been a thinker and planner,” she continued in a steady, level tone, curls stirring softly in the wind. “Even more so since I’ve had William. I mean it wasn’t just me anymore…I had to think of what was best for my baby.”

Jamie nodded, circling her thumb with his.

“So, I tried to make the smart, safe choices—didn’t take risks. And even then, I second-guessed a lot of my decisions. Maybe that’s what motherhood is: worrying all the time—whether you’re doing it right, whether you did the best you could.”

“Claire…”

“What I’m trying to say is…” she said, looking down at their entwined fingers. “I worry—a lot. And I doubt myself even more. I have a hard time listening to my gut.”

“When you came back into my life, I…my god, I couldn’t have been happier, Jamie.” A nervous chuckle dimpled her cheeks. “But I was so bloody scared, too. What it would mean for Willie…and…well, for me.”

Then, her eyes met his straight-on, the golden colour warming him from head to toe. “I might not have known right away, but I do now. I am sure. I want you to be part of my life, and…” she bit her lip, “…and I want to be part of yours.”

Relief surged through him like a tidal wave, washing away every last bit of tension.

“As long as ye’ll ha’ me, Sassenach,” Jamie said softly, brushing his knuckles over her cheek, “I’ll be yers.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Then, her eyes met his straight-on, the golden colour warming him from head to toe. “I might not have known right away, but I do now. I am sure. I want you to be part of my life, and…” she bit her lip, “…and I want to be part of yours.”
Relief surged through him like a tidal wave, washing away every last bit of tension.
“As long as ye’ll ha’ me, Sassenach,” Jamie said softly, brushing his knuckles over her cheek, “I’ll be yers.”

 

Chapter 43 – Announcements

“Thank ye fer granting me shelter,” Geillis said across the kitchen counter, a mug of freshly brewed coffee clasped in her hands. “Cannae say I fancy waitin’ at the train station, e’en if the weather seems tae be holdin’ up.”

Through the windows, the skies were painted in blueish greys, trees swaying in a stiffening breeze; but so far it hadn’t even so much as mizzled—a fact that Jamie and William used to their full advantage as they took turns steering the bright yellow kite.

“You wouldn’t be the first stray we fed and watered,” Claire teased, tearing her gaze away from the garden to drizzle the vinaigrette over the salad. “And I certainly don’t mind having a couple of hours with you—I just wish it were under different circumstances.”

“Weel, that’s ScotRail fer ye,” her best friend replied, accepting her fate with a shrug. “The only thing ye can count on is that they’re goin’ tae let ye doon. I’m jus’ glad that feckin’ train made it up tae Inverness in the first place.”

“Me, too,” Claire said, puffing an annoying curl out of her face. “Can you set the table? I think the lasagne is almost done.”

“Sure.” Setting down her coffee, Geillis made to grab plates and cutlery. “Hoo many people are ye expecting fer dinner, exactly?”

“Just the four of us—why?”

“Because from what I can see, ye’re tryin’ tae feed ten.” Geillis jutted her chin at the oven, where the parmesan crust was turning a mouth-watering, crispy gold. “I’m callin’ dibs on a corner piece, by the way.”

“If you think William is a walking stomach, you haven’t yet seen the amounts of food Jamie can devour.” Her lips curled upward, remembering the first time she’d watched, jaw hanging open in disbelief, as the giant of a man had made short work of three servings of ratatouille—avec dessert. “Seriously, he’s like a blue whale gulping krill, and we haven’t had anything since—” Claire broke off, blushing as she realised that she’d said more than intended.

“Mmphm?” Even without looking, Claire could sense green eyes gleaming with a smirk.

“Well, we just…we haven’t had much time to eat today, we—”

“Had other things on yer minds?” Geillis finished for her, throwing an impish look over her narrow shoulder. “I figured ye might’ve used the time afore the wee bean came home tae fit in another round or twa o’ that—what did ye call it? ‘Truly sensational sex’? Or was it ‘magnetic’?”

“Both,” Claire admitted, her whole body tingling with the memory of all those intimate moments she’d shared with Jamie over the past few days.

“Nae need tae get all red-cheeks on me, hen, I verra much approve. That’s what the weekend was fer—on yer end, at least.”

“Thanks again, Gee,” she said, turning towards her best friend. “This weekend was…it was everything.”

A smile formed on those pink lips; though for once, there wasn’t even the faintest trace of smugness or teasing. “Ma pleasure.”

“Sae,” Geillis continued, grabbing her mug and taking a large gulp. “Since the weekend was such a success and the twa o’ ye were holdin’ hands and makin’ heart eyes at each other at the station, ma guess would be that ye covered the ‘bein’ official’ conversation by noo?”

“Yes.” Now it was Claire’s turn to smile, a warm feeling spreading out from her chest. “Yes, we did cover that.”

Geillis looped an arm around her waist in a side-hug. “I’m truly happy fer ye.”

“Thank you, Gee,” Claire said, returning the gesture.

“Are ye plannin’ tae tell the wee bean, then?”

As if on cue, a squeal of delight sounded from the garden—followed by a much deeper laugh that did funny things to Claire’s insides—where Willie was dangling from his father’s shoulders, sack-of-potatoes-style.

“We haven’t quite figured that out yet.” Forehead wrinkled with faint lines of worry, her gaze was fixed on the sight that was slowly melting her heart. Father and son, blue-eyed and all bright smiles, playing as if they’d been doing that forever, not just six weeks. Geillis, too, was looking at the image that was still so new and yet so right in every sense of the word.

“Ye’ll find the righ’ way,” she said softly, putting a hand on Claire’s shoulder. “Jus’ be honest wi’ him.”

Nodding, Claire took a deep breath and looked around the kitchen. Everything was ready. “I think we’re good to go. Let’s call them in.”



The right way to tell Willie had indeed come about; albeit a lot sooner than expected, and in a way neither Jamie nor Claire had anticipated. Wanting to give their son a bit of time to settle back into his routine before bulldozing him with yet another major new development, they’d agreed not to tell him right after coming home. William, however, had thwarted their well-meant plan in a quiet, but spectacular manner.

Nestled on the couch together, they’d been in the middle of Dancing with the Birds, a colourful documentary about avian courtship rituals, when it happened. Lulled into a deep relaxation by David Attenborough’s narration, Jamie had let a yawn loose—the jaw-unhinging kind his Sassenach called a caveman yawn—that was followed by a smaller, but no less impressive one.

“All right, that’s it for today,” Claire announced when the yawn-fest reached a level that made her own eyelids droop. It had been an exciting but exhausting weekend for all of them.

“Wha’? No! I’m no’—” William began, interrupting his protestations with another gaping yawn, “—I’m no’ tired at all, Mama.”

“Mhm, I can see that.”

“Ye want tae finish watchin’ it too, righ’, Da?” his son implored, gold-flecked puppy eyes tugging forcefully at Jamie’s heartstrings.

Even though it was difficult not to give in, Jamie shook his head. “We can do that taemorrow, lad.”

“Come on, lovey,” Claire said, rising from the couch and working some feeling back into the calf she’d been sitting on. “Get changed and brush your teeth if you want a story before bed.”

William didn’t move, though, eyes darting back and forth in search for an argument good enough to sway his parents. Unable to find one, he seemed to decide on a different course of action—a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.

“If I have tae go tae bed,” he pouted, arms crossed in front of his small chest. “Da has tae go as well. He started it.”

Turning towards Jamie, the corners of Claire’s mouth quivered with a barely restrained smile, whisky eyes twinkling. “Well, maybe Da should be going to bed as well, then.”

“Thanks fer throwing me under the bus, wee man.” A half-snort-half-chuckle slipped from between his lips. “I guess that’s ma cue tae go then, aye?” Jamie said, winking at Claire as he extended his arms over his head in a stretch.

Willie’s eyes grew large.

“No, I dinnae want ye tae go!” he said, jumping up and curling two short fingers around one of Jamie’s belt loops. “Ye can stay here, righ’ Mama?”

The expression currently dominating his Sassenach’s face was likely mirrored on his own. Stunned into open-mouthed silence, she was wearing that same mixture of delighted disbelief he felt surging through his bloodstream as she looked at their son, wide-eyed and unblinking. Jamie had witnessed her like this only once before—when William had called him Da for the very first time.

Had it really only been a week?

To Jamie, it felt like a lifetime had passed since then. A glorious, wonderful lifetime with one high chasing another.

“Mama?”

“Hm? Oh…” Jamie had no idea how Claire did it, but he was, once again, suitably impressed when she managed to pull herself together with a mere shake of her head. His own heart was still galloping at breakneck speed in his chest, his mouth dry, and his hand clammy where it came to rest on Willie’s shoulder. “Is that what you want, lovey?”

“Aye!”

“Well, then.” His stomach performed an excited flip when he felt that warm, golden gaze shift back towards him. “Would you like to stay the night with us, Jamie?”

Was this really happening?

If the expectant smiles directed at him were anything to go by, Jamie wasn’t dreaming.

“I’d like nothing more.”



To an objective observer, the scene unfolding in front of her wasn’t likely of much interest or import. Just two curly redheads bent over the sink and spitting out in unison, engaged in a mundane nightly ritual. To Claire, however, watching William and Jamie interact this way was so much more than that. Shuffling around each other—grabbing a towel, reaching for a hairbrush, laughing at nothing in particular—signified yet another milestone in their deepening relationship.

After over six years of fruitless searching, Claire had almost given up hope that her son would ever have something like this; that she, too, might have something like this. As those ocean-blue eyes met hers in the mirror, creasing with a smile, she realised that the yearning of those past years was completely gone—in its place a warm, quiet peacefulness. Jamie was here. All was right with the world, and Claire wanted nothing more than for this feeling to last forever.

“I love you.” The words, so heavy in meaning, tumbled featherlight from her lips into the space between them.

The muscles of his back rippled smoothly underneath the tight shirt as Jamie straightened up. In the mirror, Claire could see him blink repeatedly, as if trying to wake himself from a dream.

Half-turning, he opened his mouth to say something, but Willie beat him to it, breaking the heartbeat of silence.

“Love ye too, Mama,” Willie said, throwing his arms around her hips. The sudden motion pulling her focus from Jamie, she looked down to find her darling boy beaming toothily up at her.

“Is that why you’re abusing me as a towel?” Her smile matching his, Claire smoothed the soft curls off his forehead. Willie’s grin only grew wider. “Come on, time for bed,” she said, unhooking his still slightly moist hands from her backside and steering him out of the bathroom.

“Are you coming, Da?” she asked over her shoulder, lips curled in a shy smile, realising that Jamie was still rooted to the spot.

“Aye…” The reply came instantly, but it took another second before he moved. “Aye, o’ course.”

Excitement at the spontaneous sleepover was bubbling out of Willie all the way to his bed. Just before reaching it, though, he suddenly stopped in his tracks as if he’d hit a brick wall, and Claire just about managed not to bump into him and knock him over. Before she could ask what the matter was, he spun around, eyes round with realisation as he addressed Jamie.

“Ye’re too big fer ma bed.”

“Weel, aye, that’s sae, but I hadnae been planning on—”

William pronounced his solution before Jamie could finish his objection to the original plan. “Ye’ll sleep wi’ Mama.”

“—sleeping in…I beg yer pardon?”

Seeing that Jamie was a bit at a loss with the way he raked his hand through his hair, Claire decided to step in, “Willie, you can’t just offer my bed to someone else, even if it is your father.”

“Why no’?”

She drew the comforter back and gestured for him to climb in, sitting down beside him while he settled himself against his pillow, Mr Puff snuggled against his chest.  

“A bed is a very private space,” Claire explained, glad to feel Jamie’s warmth against her leg as he sank to the floor next to them. “Inviting someone into that place means that you share a deep connection with that person.”

“When two adults are sleeping in the same bed…well, that’s usually when they’re more than friends, you know? That they’re in a relationship with each other—like uncle Joe and his wife, or Tammas’ parents.”

“Oh.” Willie’s brows scrunched together as he digested that new information. “Like when they’re holding hands and kissing, too?”

“Yes, that too.”

“And…ye dinnae want tha’?”

Grateful for the dimness of the bedside lamp, Claire cleared her throat. “Well, I do, actually. Would you…would you be okay if your father and I did that?”

“Kissing and holding hands?”

“Yes,” she confirmed, reaching for Jamie’s hand. “That, and…sharing a bed once in a while.”

The statement was followed by a brief pause, gold-blue eyes looking back and forth between his parents, homing in on where their fingers were now entwined and resting on her thigh.

“Only…only if you want it too, Mama.”

“I would want that very much, lovey.”

“Sae do I,” Jamie added, his voice deep but soft. “And ye’re sure ye’d be okay wi’ all that, wee man?”

“Aye,” Willie nodded, lowering his lashes as the exhaustion of the day finally caught up with him. “Can I have ma story noo, please?”



The fatigue from a weekend with little rest clinging to their bones, Claire and Jamie found themselves in bed not long after William had drifted off to sleep. With only the dim glow from a half-concealed waxing moon peeking through the curtains, it was hard to make out anything beyond outlines in the dark. The whisper of movement and the smell of a warm, clean body, however, was enough to guide her hand towards its intended destination.

“Well,” Claire said, fingers fanning out over his breastbone. “I guess that was that?”

She could feel the soft vibrations of the chuckle before she heard it. “Aye, that was that.”

Though the question had been of a rhetorical nature, she was still delighted that the man who’d answered it was in her bed—with William’s blessing, no less.

“Does it…” Jamie moved a bit closer on the pillow, one large hand cupping her neck, the pad of his thumb tracing the line of her jaw. “Does it feel strange tae ye?”

Instinctively, Claire migrated towards his warmth until skin touched skin. “Does what feel strange?”

“Lying here wi’ me, wi’ Willie in the other room.”

“A bit,” she admitted, fingers trailing the arch of his collarbone. “You?”

“Aye, it is a wee bit strange.”

“I’m sure we’ll get used to it.” If her nearness was as intoxicating to him as his to her, Claire thought it wasn’t going to take them long to overcome that inhibition. For now, though, she was content to be just talking.

“I’m glad it’s out in the open now, though,” she murmured against the skin of his shoulder, releasing a sigh and all the worry she’d been carrying with it.

“Me too, Sassenach.”

If Jamie had sensed that she wasn’t just talking about William, he didn’t let on until a while later, when his caressing exploration suddenly faltered. She might have thought this stillness a sign of sleep, but his hand had not sagged with the heavy pull of unconsciousness.

“I can hear you thinking, Fraser.”

“Can ye now?” Claire could hear the smile in his voice as his fingers resumed the path they’d been travelling.

“Tell me.”

“Weel it’s…” Jamie let out a small sigh, and shifted a bit, the mattress dipping slightly with the movement. When nothing more was forthcoming, she prodded him gently in the ribs. He took her hand and kissed her knuckles, interlacing their fingers. “I was only wondering…”

“Wondering what?”  

“Did ye mean it?” he asked softly, and she could feel his eyes on her in the dark. “Earlier…in the bathroom. Did ye mean what ye said?”

“I did,” Claire replied without hesitation or ambiguity, warmth blooming in her chest.

“Good,” Jamie said, tilting her chin up to meet his lips in a tender kiss. “Because I love ye too, Claire.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“Did ye mean it?” he asked softly, and she could feel his eyes on her in the dark. “Earlier…in the bathroom. Did ye mean what ye said?”
“I did,” Claire replied without hesitation or ambiguity, warmth blooming in her chest.
"Good,” Jamie said, tilting her chin up to meet his lips in a tender kiss. “Because I love ye too, Claire.”

 

Chapter 44 – Gratitude

Claire Beauchamp was a woman of science—by nature as much as by profession. After thousands of hours of studying and analysing, of dissecting and mending the human body, her understanding of its wondrous adaptability as well as its limitations went far beyond the average.

And even though she knew that it was physically impossible, in this very moment, logic and reason went flying out the window, overruled by the unfounded conviction that the only thing keeping her from floating on cloud nine was the solid weight of Jamie’s arm around her middle.

There had been trying times aplenty in her life—whether it was dealing with pressures and people, or with loss and heartache and yearning. She’d taken those in stride, though, making the best of the messy hand of cards with which she’d been dealt. Bolstered by the beauty and kindness that surrounded her, she always tried to fill her present with dimpled smiles and full-bellied laughter. As precious moments accumulated, past bruises eventually faded into memory, giving way to happiness.

And she had been happy with her life—truly and contentedly so. She had friends that were closer to her than family, a calling that gave her pride and a sense of accomplishment, and a little copper-haired boy who made her days brighter by his mere existence.

But even that happiness, however absolute it may have been at the time, paled in comparison to what she was feeling now.

The muscles in her cheeks were hurting from a smile that seemed to have become a permanent fixture on her face, and there was a distinct soreness in other places that reminded her with every slight movement of the man that had inflicted this not unpleasant sensation. Scalp tingling, the very pores of her skin were brimming over with excitement at the nearness of his sleeping figure. The blood in her veins was singing his name, and every breath of air was that much sweeter as her nose and lungs filled up with his warm, woodsy scent.

Giddy with love and drunk on his proximity, Claire was simply unable to find sleep. Well, not that she’d been trying very hard. But how could she? How could she possibly shut her eyes when the source of such delirious joy lay within reach?

Even as she listened to his steady breathing, she felt the need to pinch herself, to remind herself that this wasn’t a dream. Jamie was hers now. Hers to touch, to cherish, to love.

Forever, she hoped.

It wasn’t just Jamie, though. Him officially being her boyfriend now—the thought alone made her chest glow—obviously played a major part in it, but it was everything on top of that very intimate development that created this all-encompassing bliss. It was Geillis giving her best-friend-fer-life-who-kens-ye-better-than-anyone-and-only-wants-the-best-fer-ye approval. It was the fact that it had gone down so smoothly with William; that their little boy had not only welcomed but invited their coming together as more than just his parents. Above all, it was the realisation that Claire didn’t have to choose, that she could have it all.

How on earth did I get this lucky? she wondered, fingertips grazing over his temple and cheekbone, delighting in the prickle of stubble against her skin.

“I dinnae ken, Sassenach,” the gentle voice jolted her out of her apparently not quite silent adoration. “But I was wondering the same thing jus’ now.”

“Oh, sorry, did I—”

“No, ye didnae wake me.” Jamie took hold of her hand, pressing a kiss to the centre of her palm, causing the slumbering butterflies in her belly to stir.

“You sure?”

“Aye.” She could feel his smile against the base of her thumb and her own stretching wider.

“What kept you awake then?” Claire asked, sounding only a bit breathless as his tongue dipped out—a warm, teasing touch. “Pillow too soft?”

“No, it’s…” soft lips moved slowly over the sensitive skin at her wrist and sucked gently at her pulse point. Wings unfurled, the swarm of butterflies prepared to take flight.

When Jamie didn’t elaborate further, she made an interrogatory sound, encouraging him to speak his mind.

“Ye’re going tae laugh at me if I tell ye.”

Tangling her fingers in the smooth silk of his hair, she said, “I promise I won’t laugh.”

His mouth drew away, and with the loss of that touch, the night air suddenly felt a lot colder on her flushed skin.

“It’s like…” he began, and even though it was still too dark to see anything but blurred outlines, Claire knew that his forehead was set in a small frown as he sought to find the right words. “I jus’ seem tae ken when ye’re awake…”

“How so?”

Jamie made a small, happy sound when the pad of her thumb brushed over his ear, leaning into the caress.  

“Weel, it sounds sae silly saying it out loud, but it feels like…” There was a soft rustle as he shifted his head on the pillow. “It feels like ma heart is lonely and calls fer yers tae keep it company.”

“That…that doesn’t sound silly at all.”

“No?” He sounded equal parts pleased and relieved.

“No,” she reiterated softly. Chest tight with welling emotion, her fingers followed the contours of his face from ear to jaw over chin, down to the hollow of his throat, where she could feel the steady thump of the heart in question. Her own leaped at the contact, as if sensing the nearness of its mate. “And how could I not love a man who says such things?” And means them.

Slipping his arms around her, Jamie pulled her against his chest and whispered, “I cannae say, but I’m verra grateful ye do, mo chridhe.”

And while outside the misty purples and dawning pinks of an encroaching Monday began to push the weekend into oblivion, the world inside shrunk to this one moment; to the connection of eager mouths and hungry hands, to velvety sounds and needy skin, as their hearts and bodies came together once more.



Stopping by Fraser’s Essentials was, on the whole, a pleasurable experience for Claire. While it was obviously not as relaxing as a good soak in the tub after a long workday, the little grocery store always managed to take off the edge of what was often a hectic and stressful chore. The friendly colours and earthy smell of fresh produce contributed to that easy-going, affable atmosphere, but it was the reliable smile of its proprietor that made her feel so at ease.

Conversations with Brian Fraser had been something she looked forward to even before the man had consolidated his position in her and William’s life. It was difficult to pinpoint what it was exactly, but something about the sound of his smooth, aged-whisky voice managed to soothe her even on the most frazzled of days. Today, though, the prospect of meeting his piercing blue gaze had her heart beating in her throat.

Calm down, Beauchamp, Claire told herself as she pushed the trolley into the aisle with tinned goods. He already knows. Well, sort of, at least.

The only thing Brian knew for certain was that she and Jamie had spent a night together that had involved some degree of nakedness on both sides. However, seeing that he’d told Jamie that he’d ‘won the jackpot’ and that ‘he better make sure tae deserve Claire’, the older man had obviously drawn his own—rather accurate—conclusions from it.  

Everything about his behaviour during that short Saturday morning encounter pointed towards Brian approving of it, so there really wasn’t a sensible reason to be this nervous about telling him that she and Jamie were officially a couple now. Still, Claire felt like she was transported back to a mortified teenage version of herself, when, after starting to go out with a classmate, her less than enthused uncle-turned-parent had sat her down to talk contraceptive devices and safer sex. While Claire was no longer a shy sixteen-year-old, she just couldn’t seem to shake the nerves of facing the same kind of embarrassment with the man who was, at heart, so very much like Quentin Lambert William Beauchamp.

“Ye ken that it willnae hop intae yer trolley on its own, aye?”

Startled by the good-natured quip, Claire whipped around. “Bloody hell,” she said. “You move like a bloody cat.”

“I think it’s got more tae do wi’ ye being away wi’ the fairies.” A small smirk was playing around his lips. “I called yer name afore I came o’er, but ye didnae seem tae hear me. See anything particularly interesting there?” Brian asked, tilting his head towards the grains selection.

“I was just wondering which rice would be best to use for risotto.” And thinking about boyfriends and protective parents.

One heavy brow rose, barely contained amusement tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Weel, I’m no’ an expert, but I’d say the one that says ‘risotti’ wouldnae be the worst bet.”

“Oh…eh…well, you’re probably right there,” she laughed—a nervous, high-pitched sound. Adding two packets to her growing assortment of groceries, Claire was glad for once that her mad riot of curls shielded half of her face.

“Are ye awright, a nighean? Ye seem a wee bit…off.”

“Hm? Sure! I’m good. Everything’s good,” she said, reaching up the shelf to grab some sun-dried tomatoes and olives, only partly because she needed them.

“Mmphm.” Brian, obviously not buying it with the way his eyes moved over her, thankfully didn’t push the matter. “Where did ye leave wee Mister IRN BRU? Wasn’t he supposed tae come hame from his big adventure yesterday?”

Grateful for the change of topic, Claire turned to face him and explained readily, “He’s in a bit of a mood today—apparently one of the other kids took the muffin he wanted—and he’s been sulking all the way from the hospital. I didn’t want to have to handle that grump while doing the shopping—” or while telling you the news, “—so I left him with Mrs Crook and a fresh blueberry scone.”

“Ah, weel, I’m sure that’ll do the trick. Agnes’ scones can work pure magic on a lad’s heart. And I’ve yet tae see the day when our Willie leaves that café wi’out a smile on his face, aye?”

“Aye,” Claire echoed with a smile that reached her eyes and heart. Our Willie, indeed. She couldn’t have asked for a better gateway to say what she came to say. “Eh, Brian?”

“Mmphm?”

“There’s something I need to tell you,” Claire said, her voice steady as she held his gaze.

“Ah?” She was met with an expectant look. “Is what ye’re having tae say mebbe related tae Saturday?”

“It is, actually,” she admitted, her cheeks turning slightly pink under his undivided attention. “It’s, well…it’s just that—"

“It’s jus’ that ye and Jamie are taegether now, aye?” he supplied, a smile blossoming on his good-humoured face. “I already ken, a leannan. And I’m verra glad fer ye both.”

“—Jamie and I, we—” she halted, brows furrowing when she realised what he’d said. “You know? But how?”

A warm laugh burst from the tall man’s frame. “Ye mean apart from what I’ve seen in the past few weeks and twa days ago? Jamie told me first thing this morning.”

That came as a surprise—and not an unwelcome one.

“He called you?”

Brian shook his head. “No, he came here jus’ afore I opened. Gave me a bit o’ a start seeing him sitting there on the front step.”

“Oh?”

“Weel,” he broke off, nodding at a customer in greeting and waiting until the man was out of earshot. “He’s ne’er been tae the shop until now, sae I was fair surprised tae see him there. Had me quite worrit fer a second, looking like a lost pup, but then…then he told me why he was there and…” Light blue eyes were shining with longing and affection. “I cannae tell ye what it meant tae me, Jamie coming tae tell me about ye twa and…” he swallowed, his voice suddenly thick with pent-up emotion as he looked down his long, straight nose at her. “Ye already gave me a grandson, a leannan. But now ye’ve gi’en me ma son back as well. I ne’er thought—”

“That’s not just because of me and William. I hope you know that, Brian,” Claire said, fondness evident in both tone and smile as she gave the large, rough-knuckled hand a squeeze. “He would have forgiven you on his own account. We just gave him a little push to do it sooner rather than later.”

Brian’s expression went soft and tender. “I’m jus’ glad he found ye, Claire. He seems…” he ran a weathered hand through his thick, silver-streaked hair. “I ken it’s been only a short time, and I may no’ be the greatest judge o’ it, but he seems different—verra, verra happy. And that’s all I e’er wanted fer him. What I want fer you as well. And fer Willie.”

“That’s… thank you,” she said, squeezing his fingers once more, hoping that the gesture would convey her feelings better than her words. “If it weren’t for you, I’d still be looking for him.”

“What did ye say?” Brian chuckled, echoing her earlier sentiment, “It would ha’ happened eventually, I only helped tae make it happen sooner rather than later.”

The sound of the door opening again and again in rapid succession, admitting several new customers into the shop, burst their little bubble of privacy.

“Weel, either way,” Brian said, gracing her with another of his signature smiles. “I’m verra glad ye came by taeday. Saves me a call, too.”

“Oh? Did you need something?” she asked, pushing the trolley further down the aisle, the elder Fraser at her side.

“Jus’ wanted tae invite ye o’er fer dinner at ma place on Thursday.”

“Thursday won’t work, I’m afraid—"

“Aye, Jamie said ye were going out wi’ Rupert and a couple o’ others.”

“Yes, we are,” Claire confirmed, excited that she was going to meet Jamie’s friends and teammates.

“Sae I thought mebbe Friday or Saturday instead? Jamie didnae ken whether ye’d anything planned already, sae he suggested I’d ask ye.”

“No, I haven’t got anything planned. And dinner sounds lovely,” Claire replied enthusiastically. “I’ll talk to Jamie tonight and we’ll let you know which day, all right?”

“That’d be grand, because I need a day or sae tae prepare the haggis proper.”

“Haggis? Are we celebrating anything?”

“Did he no’ tell ye?”

It was his tone of surprise more than the small frown that had settled between the thick, brindled eyebrows that caught her attention. “Tell me what, exactly?”

“I’m no’ sure if it’s ma place tae say…”

Claire stopped, one hand on the trolley and the other on her hip. “I’m going to find out either way, but I’d rather know right now.”

“Aye, ye’re probably right,” Brian conceded, rolling his broad shoulders. “It’s no like it’s a secret anyway.”

“So?”

“Thursday is Jamie’s birthday.”

“Oh.” Guilt reared its head for a moment—that they’d exchanged I love you’s before knowing such basic information about the other—but she pushed it down again, squashing the seed of doubt that they were moving too fast before it could take root. Just because their relationship developed in unconventional ways didn’t mean that it wasn’t right, and the things she did know about Jamie mattered more than the date of his birth. “Well, that is a very good reason for haggis I’d say.”

“Aye.” His features softened with a smile. “And it’ll be the first in a long while that I actually get tae make fer him. It used tae be his favourite, sae Ellen and I—his mam, I mean—we always made it fer his birthday.”

He tried to blink it away, but Claire had seen the pain and longing shining behind the light blue of his eyes. “Then I’ll help you make it the bloody best one he’s ever had.”

Before she even realised that Brian had moved, Claire found herself engulfed in a rib-crushing bear hug. “Thank ye, a leannan.”

“My pleasure,” she said, meaning it.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

He tried to blink it away, but Claire had seen the pain and longing shining behind the light blue of his eyes. “Then I’ll help you make it the bloody best one he’s ever had.”
Before she even realised that Brian had moved, Claire found herself engulfed in a rib-crushing bear hug. “Thank ye, a leannan.”
"My pleasure,” she said, meaning it.

 

Chapter 45 – Communication

Claire sighed, rubbing at her temples. “Is it me, or is it taking longer and longer for William to fall asleep these days?”

“You tell me,” Jamie chuckled, making his way over from the kitchen, carrying two mugs. “I cannae believe the wee chatterbox tried tae make us read him another story. I had trouble keeping ma eyes open halfway through the second one already. Here,” he said, holding out a mug for her.

“Yeah, me too. Thank you.”

Lavender scented fumes greeted her as she dipped her face down to blow on the gently steaming tea. She took a sip, tasting the half-spoonful of honey, warmth blooming inside of her. Spreading in tingly tendrils out from her chest to the tips of her fingers and toes, it had little to do with the hot, fragrant liquid clasped in her hands, and everything with James Fraser knowing exactly how she liked her tea without having to ask.

“It’s probably jus’ all the excitement, no?” he said, claiming his spot beside her on the couch.

Instinctively, her whole body angled towards him. “Either that, or auntie Gee has fed him enough sugar for a year.”

“Aye, or that.” Jamie smiled in that lopsided way of his and gathered her legs into his lap.

They fell into companionable silence, each sipping their brew. One hand resting on her knee and his head back against the sofa, Jamie’s gaze was fixed on William’s closed bedroom door.

After a minute or two of admiring his scruffy profile, Claire spoke, “Penny for your thoughts, Fraser.”

“I’m no’ sure they’re worth a penny, but…” he replied, turning his face towards her, and giving her knee a squeeze.

“Mhm?”

“Weel,” he set his mug down and ran a hand through his hair. “I was jus’ wondering if…if it would mebbe make sense tae extend Willie’s bedtime a wee bit.”

“Oh.” How did that man just keep on surprising her? “Why?”

“No’ by much, mind. But I thought that it might help tae tire him out a wee bit more afore we put him tae bed. As much as I’d love tae read tae him o’er an hour each day, I ken it willnae be possible in the long run—for either o’ us, I think.”

“I dinnae want him tae get used tae…I jus’ dinnae want him tae be disappointed when I cannae do it anymore, is all.” When I’m abroad, or in a different time zone, Claire filled in the mental blanks, her heart giving a painful little squeeze at the thought. “But it’s probably a stupid i—”

Tea put aside, she’d straddled him and pressed her lips to his before he could finish his sentence. As always, Jamie responded eagerly, large hands finding the curve of her waist and pulling her closer as his mouth answered the call of hers.

“No’ that I’m complaining, mind,” he said a bit later, lips as pink and swollen as hers, looking up at Claire with curious eyes, “but what was that fer?”

“Several reasons,” she replied, smiling as she brushed a loose strand of hair out of his face.

“Aye?” Jamie mimicked the gesture, tucking some wild brown curls behind her ear. “Care tae fill me in?”

“First and most important one—to shut you up.”

That earned her an impish grin and retribution in the form of a soft slap to her bottom that sent a pleasant shiver down her spine. “‘Shut me up’, is it, Sassenach?”

“Yes.” Claire laughed and retaliated by scraping her teeth along his chin and nipping the soft skin at the hinge of his jaw, eliciting a most satisfying groan from him. “Is it working, Fraser?”

“Not at all.”

“No?” she could feel him grow hard beneath her as she moved further up, biting his earlobe and teasing the malleable flesh with her tongue.

“No,” he repeated, sounding a bit choked.

“Well, if my efforts are wasted…”

“Awright, ye win,” Jamie conceded before she could slide off his lap, his grip tightening on her backside. “Now come back here and bite me some more, Sassenach.”

It didn’t take more than that hungry demand to flip the switch from playfulness to heated urgency. Overeager fingers flew to the hems of shirts, pulling cotton over heads and discarding it without a care, and fumbled with buttons in their desperate quest to feel skin on skin.

“Bed?” Jamie asked gruffly, sprouts of stubble scratching delightfully against her throat as the clasp of her bra finally sprang free.

“No,” came her husky reply, fingers working their way past the elastic of his boxer briefs. “Can’t wait that long. Condom?”

“Wallet,” he panted, mouth and hands setting to explore the creamy allure of her breasts. “Left back pocket—can ye reach?”

It took a bit of awkward manoeuvring, especially because Jamie was reluctant to stop either sucking her nipple or slackening his appreciative hold on her bottom, but she managed to retrieve it quickly enough.

“Get these off,” Claire tugged at his jeans.

“Yers as well.”

They rid themselves of their remaining clothing in record time; and with a little more scrambling and rearranging of limbs, Claire reclaimed her position on top of him, digging her nails into his shoulders. Quivering with need, she sank down into Jamie’s lap, guided by his steady grip.

Mouths slack and eyes wide with wonder, sun and ocean came together, creating an explosion of colourful emotions, each wave wilder and more intense than the one before. From then onwards, no more words were necessary, their bodies taking over to guide them towards another joint horizon.



Heavy-limbed with post-coital bliss, they lay smiling in each other’s arms, covered by a soft tartan blanket and the peaceful quiet of a still young night.

“Weel,” the vibrations of Jamie’s chuckle resonated against her breasts where they were pressed against his chest. “That was one verra effective way tae shut me up, I’ll gi’ ye that, Sassenach.”

“I’ll remember that for future purposes, then, Fraser,” Claire teased, planting a soft kiss to his Adam’s apple.

“Ye havenae told me why ye wanted tae shut me up in the first place.”

Nestling into his shoulder, she tipped his face down to hers. “Because you were trying to talk yourself down again.”

“When you were talking about extending Willie’s bedtime,” she clarified, seeing his confused expression. “You were about to say that it was a stupid idea—and it wasn’t. Far from it.” Jamie’s ruddy brows wrinkled with something that looked like doubtfulness. “I’m being serious. I think we should give it a try. Let him clean up his toys, or give him some other small responsibility, and if he takes care of it, he can stay up a bit longer.”

“Sounds like a good plan tae me, Sassenach,” Jamie said, thumb grazing over her cheek.

Claire lowered her lashes, exhaling contentedly.

“Awright then,” he continued in a soft burr, moving from her cheek to toy with the downy hair at the nape of her neck. “That was one reason. Ye said ye had several.”

“You’re not letting this go, are you?”

“No,” Jamie returned her smile with a lopsided grin. “Sae?”

“It was just…well, you were being so…so you.”

“What d’ye mean?”

“Well, starting with getting my tea just right—"

“But that’s nothing, Sassenach—” Jamie tried to cut in, but she silenced him with a finger.

“You’re doing it again,” Claire pointed out, tapping his lip softly. “It’s not nothing. It’s attentive and very sweet. And I really appreciate it.”

He huffed in disagreement, mumbling something that sounded a lot like e’ry man should ken how his woman drinks her tea, but let her continue without any further interjections.

“But mainly it was that you were thinking about Willie, you know? I mean, not just in the here and now, or what to do next week, but that you’re already thinking in the long run and trying to make plans for when you’re…and, well, I…” she ran her fingers along his temple, the same warm feeling that had made her kiss him surging inside her belly again. “Well, I just…I think it finally sunk in that my baby has a real father now. One that’s going to stick with us ‘til the end.”

“Claire,” Jamie intoned softly, blue eyes glazed over with emotion as he stroked her cheek.  

“And the last reason,” she whispered, moving closer, “is because I bloody love you.”



Content to do nothing but exist in the same space, Claire and Jamie were still nestled together on the couch, wrapped in the warmth of skin and softness of touch, when the urgent vibrations of a phone rumbled on the coffee table.

Since the ruckus against the hardwood was impossible to ignore, Claire disentangled herself reluctantly from Jamie’s embrace and reached to mute it.

“Fuck,” she hissed quietly, clambering into an upright position as she caught a glance of the name of the caller she’d just missed.

“What is it, Sassenach?”

“That was your father. I forgot that I was supposed to ask which day you’d want to go for dinner at his place. I told him I’d talk to you and tell him tonight.”

“Weel, the day’s no’ o’er yet,” Jamie said, the cushions shifting with his weight as he moved to circle his arms around her waist. “We’ll just decide now and ye can ring him righ’ back, aye?”

“Okay,” she replied with a smile in her voice, leaning back against his chest. “Friday or Saturday then?”

“I dinnae mind either, really.” Perching his chin on her shoulder, his fingers began to draw aimless patterns on her bare belly. “Whate’er works best fer ye. Saturday mebbe? Then ye wouldnae ha’ a day o’ work behind ye.”

Delighted at yet another demonstration of his thoughtfulness, Claire brushed a brief kiss to his stubbled chin. “Saturday it is.”

“Awright,” Jamie yawned luxuriously and stretched his long limbs before getting to his feet and pulling his boxer briefs up over his legs. “I’m going tae take a pish while ye call him.”

Claire nodded, waiting for the call to go through while enjoying the retreat of his finely shaped backside out of the corner of her eye. What she hadn’t mentioned to Jamie was that choosing Saturday inadvertently made things a lot easier for her. Now, she would have the whole day to help Brian prepare the surprise haggis feast. The only thing left to figure out was how to keep Jamie in the dark about it.

She’d just hung up on the elder Fraser with a, “Perfect, will do,” and a conspiratorial smile, when the bathroom door opened again, revealing an outrageously handsome sight. Copper curls unbound and thoroughly dishevelled from their earlier activities, Jamie struck a mouth-watering figure, not least of all because of the small love bite she’d left beneath his collar bone. From there, her gaze travelled down his toned chest, following the dark auburn trail of wiry hair to the waistband of his midnight blue boxers.

“Ma eyes are up here, Sassenach,” Jamie teased, his wide mouth set in a flirty smirk as he made his way over.

“Oh, I know,” she retorted smugly. “They complement the colour of your underwear very well.”

He snorted, then halted in his steps, his smile turning into a small frown as he did so. “Why on earth did ye put yer clothes back on?”

“You put on underwear as well, Fraser,” Claire pointed out, one eyebrow arched.

“Aye, but I only did it in case Willie came barging in. What’s yer excuse?”

She leaned into his warmth as soon as he was beside her again. “I didn’t want to be naked when calling Brian.”

His deep bass was dripping with amusement. “Why? D’ye think he can hear it when ye’re in the alltaegether?”

“No, you bloody smartass,” she pinched his cheek playfully. “It just…feels a bit awkward having sex with his son—"

“Having sex wi’ me is awkward, is it?” he flashed his teeth in a wide grin. “That wasnae the impression I had when ye ro—"

“You’re impossible,” Claire cut him off, laughing as she pressed a hand over his mouth. “You know what I meant.”

“Aye,” he nipped at her fingers, then kissed them. “E’rything set then fer Saturday?”

“Yes, Brian wants us to be there at 5 p.m. sharp. Or we won’t get pudding.”

“Ah, we cannae ha’ that, no?” Jamie pulled her sideways into his lap.

“Not if we want to avoid William getting his grump on. Speaking of your father, though…” she twisted around a bit, settling into a more comfortable position. “I have a bone to pick with you, Fraser.”

“Aye?” He shifted underneath her, holding her thigh a little tighter. “Are ye mad then?”

“Well, I’m not exactly happy about it,” she admitted, but her tone was gracious as she smoothed out the faint lines of worry that had appeared between his brows. “But not mad, no.”

“I’m sorry I didnae ask ye first, but—”

“Why would you have to ask me first?”

“Weel, I ken how close the twa o’ ye are, and I thought mebbe ye’d wanted tae do it taegether, but…it was something I felt I had tae do on ma own. I cannae really explain why, but—” His frown returned when he saw the look of amused bewilderment on her face. “Why are ye looking at me like that?”

“Because I’m trying to figure out whether you’re seriously worried about me being mad at you for telling your father about us.” Even as she said it, her lips curled upward. “I wasn’t talking about that.”

“Ye dinnae mind then?”

“Of course not,” Claire said, caressing his cheek with her thumb. “Why would I? It was your news to tell, really. And I’m glad you did. He was incredibly happy about it.”

“Weel, sae was I.” A huge smile lit up his eyes, causing her heart to flutter against her ribcage.

“But if ye’re no’ mad at me fer that, what’s this ‘bone picking’ about then?”

“Thursday,” she said simply, giving him an expectant look.

“Aye? I dinnae see what the—" His mouth dropped open, forming a little O as realisation hit.

“Remember that now, do you?”

Jamie cleared his throat, guilt rising pink in his cheeks and the tips of his ears.

“Why didn’t you tell me it was your birthday, you bloody man?” Claire quipped, though a serious undertone remained.

“Honestly? I jus’ fergot,” he offered with a sheepish but sincere smile. “It isnae really important tae me in the first place, and e’rytime I meant tae tell ye, something more important came up, and…” Looking at her from under his long, oddly-coloured lashes, Jamie squeezed her thigh as if to emphasise the point he was going to make, “…I had more pleasant things on ma mind, aye?”

“Well, that may be so, Fraser.” she said, golden eyes moving over Jamie’s face, absorbing all the enticing bits that made it so hard to concentrate when he was around: the little cowlick curling stubbornly off his forehead, beckoning to be twirled around her finger; sprouting whiskers, rough and plush and multicoloured against her skin; the smiling curve of his mouth, an invitation to lose herself in his kiss. “But promise me you’ll make an effort not to let them distract you from telling me those kinds of things, okay?”

“Aye, I promise, Sassenach,” Jamie said softly, his hand warm and comforting at the small of her back. “I didnae mean anything by no’ telling ye.”

“I know.”

“I love ye, Claire.”

Leaning her forehead against his, Claire closed her eyes and breathed his words in. “Let’s go to bed then.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Aye, I promise, Sassenach,” Jamie said softly, his hand warm and comforting at the small of her back. “I didnae mean anything by no’ telling ye.”
"I know.”
“I love ye, Claire.”
Leaning her forehead against his, Claire closed her eyes and breathed his words in. “Let’s go to bed then.”

 

Chapter 46 – Past, Present, and Future

Jamie hadn’t been lying when he told his Sassenach that he generally didn’t care much for his birthday. It was a day much like any other, really. Up at cockcrow, he’d break into the first sweat of the day out on the track, lungs burning with the cold morning air as he did lap after solitary lap. Changed into dry, loose-fitting indoor gear, he’d wolf down breakfast—better not to have that decidedly unsatisfying taste linger on his tongue longer than necessary—before heading down to the gym.

Equipped with endless amounts of fitness-enhancing machinery—some of which were eerily reminiscent of torture devices—and more testosterone than should be legal in such a confined, windowless space, Jamie would be dripping from exertion a mere fifteen minutes into his second workout. Feeling the pull on his muscles, the strain on tendons and joints as he lifted and heaved and bent and pushed, he’d keep his focus on the upbeat music in his ears, rigorously working his way through the assigned motions until it was time for a break or supper.

Every day was an orchestrated cycle of training blocks interspersed with the intake of more or less strictly adhered to meal plan options. The only signs that marked his birthday as an out of the ordinary occasion were a transatlantic phone call with his sister, a much briefer—and tenser—one with his father, and an increase in shoulder thumping from friends, coaches, and other athletes as Jamie went about his routine.

Needless to say, Jamie hadn’t always been indifferent to his birthday.

Spending a day with friends, being treated with favourite desserts, and unpacking presents had been a prospect that he used to look forward to with the same gleeful anticipation as the next lad. In fact, it had been that particular excitement that had him, year after year, resist the pull of sleep and sneak barefooted through the old castle halls in search of his birthday bounty, the worn carpet his trusted accomplice as it swallowed the footfalls of his juvenile transgression.

Surrounded by the succulent aroma of fried bacon and Lorne sausages, not even the repeated failure to locate the whereabouts of his parents’ hidden treasury could put a damper on his mood—or appetite. Blazing through the meal faster than a cackle of hyenas, with unsavoury table manners to match, Jamie would stare down each of his family members in turn, willing them to empty their plates faster. A tactic that had never once worked, and generally led to a stomped-on toe from his sister, and a telling off by his mother.

“Jus’ because ye eat like a rabid she-wolf wi ‘a litter o’ pups at her teat doesnae mean that the rest o’ us will. I willnae ha’ ye hurry us through breakfast, birthday or no’. Sae sit yer ruddy arse down, a Sheumas, or go and make yersel’ useful in the barn.”

It hadn’t helped his cause a bit to point out that sending a wolf to tend to sheep wasn’t exactly a sensible course of action. After the flock was fed and watered, though, and Jamie returned to the house with less knee-bouncing energy, things would finally go his way.

Depending on the graciousness of the Highland weather, the days would be spent in different ways. Usually, it had been passed tucked up inside the comforting stone walls, stuffing his face with cocoa and buttery biscuits whilst watching the latest Disney VHS release with his friends. But whenever the sun had peeked from behind the stubborn curtain of clouds, they had chased each other around the shallow loch at the far end of the property—mindless of the freezing spray turning their lips and fingertips bluer than the bell-shaped blossoms fringing the muddy banks.

Evenings, however, were a family-only affair. Then, even Jenny, who was generally too worldly ‘tae play around wi’ snot-nosed bairns’, would stop rolling her eyes long enough to enjoy the celebratory dinner. Made from ingredients harvested entirely from their own lands and served with his mother’s grey-eyed smile, nothing ever tasted as grand as the joy of that first forkful of haggis.

After Ellen Fraser had passed away, though, birthdays just weren’t the same anymore, no matter how hard his father tried to fill the void she’d left behind. Her absence was too loud to be drowned out by the sad melody of cutlery on the good Family china. The dish Jamie had loved so much had become a bland memorial of that day. A bookmark in the story of his life, creased between an organ-crushing grief and the memory of his mother’s body collapsed in the middle of that stone-walled kitchen. He would always struggle with the irony that her death had occurred in the place where she’d nurtured her family’s needs—an art form of a different kind.

As the years went by and the dull ache of grief still laced itself tightly around his heart whenever the first of May approached, Jamie had come to the conclusion that he’d likely never regain anything akin to joy in relation to his birthday again.

These past weeks however, during which his life had been turned upside-down and left to right and head over heels in the best possible way, led him to believe he might have been wrong after all.

He’d first felt the shift—an ever so slight realignment in the marrow of his bones—early on in his unexpected reacquaintance with one Claire Beauchamp. His believed-to-be-lost Sassenach. Deep down, he knew it had taken only one look. One brief glimpse into those deep golden eyes had been enough for that grey emptiness to begin to lose its unrelenting hold on him. Slowly, grudgingly, it retreated; growing fainter and fainter, like evaporating mist under the radiance of a new-born sun. And even though the shadow of his mother’s absence would never be cast out entirely, the space it used to inhabit was now filled with every colour of possibility.



The certainty in the attitude shift toward his birthday fully asserted itself in the wee hours of Thursday morning, when Jamie woke to a lapwing’s persistent mating call and a potent feeling he hadn’t linked to this day in a very long time. He had, however, come to associate it with the incredible woman currently taking up most of the bed. It pumped through his veins, burning like fever beneath his skin, and played the sweetest of songs along his heartstrings.

Excitement.

He was giddy; impatient to seize the day and all it would bring. But first…

Rousing to wakefulness under his tender advances, Claire made a soft, heady sound that zipped down to his cock like a lightning bolt.

“Morning, Fraser.” The fingers of her left hand found their favourite resting place at the nape of his neck, playing with the silky locks and drawing small circles that caused goosebumps to erupt all over his body.  

“Mmphm,” Jamie hummed in response, his palms squeezing her breasts in greeting. Deepening the kiss, he rubbed his thumbs over the hardened peaks, feeling a surge of pride at being able to coax noises like that from her lips.

“How’s the birthday lad?” she asked against his mouth, her voice raspy with arousal as much as sleep.

He found it rather difficult to form a coherent sentence as her other hand snaked between them—seeking, and finding. Eyes heavy-lidded with contentment, he groaned as those clever fingers began to move exactly right. “Verra, verra good jus’ now.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Ready to celebrate, then?”

“Ye’ve nae idea how ready, Sassenach,” he mumbled, inhaling that delicate honeysuckle scent as his lips moved along her throat, eager to taste more of her creamy skin.

Her laugh was soft but sounded clear as a bell, making his heart swell as it reverberated through his chest.

“I think I might have an idea” Claire whispered into his ear, stressing her point with a firm little squeeze. Mindful of their son snoozing only a wall away, he sank his teeth into her shoulder, stifling the guttural sound wanting to break free.

If seduction was what she had on her mind, she was succeeding nicely. With her hand around his cock, her body pressed close, and those soft, wet sounds of trailing kisses in his ears, every atom of his being stood to her attention.

“How about you, Sassenach?” The question came out gruff, as if speaking through gravel clogging his throat. His own fingers were roaming, gripping, fondling as they travelled down to find their way between her thighs. He swallowed heavily, the muscles in his belly contracting in anticipation at the wetness coating his fingertips. “Seems like ye’re quite ready fer a wee celebration yersel’.”

A muffled, “Mhm,” against the hinge of his jaw and a brief flex of her fingers were the only reactions he received, but it was all the encouragement Jamie needed.

Grasping the back of her knee, he lifted her leg and hitched it over his thigh, granting himself easier access. Though the temptation to dive into the offered heat right away was near overwhelming, he managed to hold himself in check, exploring with his fingers instead.

Her breath hitched at that first shallow plunge, and for a second her hand’s rhythm faltered, mouth stilling in its caress below his ear as she adjusted to the welcome intrusion. Claire recovered quickly, though, picking up where she’d left off with redoubled intensity as he set his own pace.

While her touch was enough to make his knees all weak and rubbery, it was the sounds that came with her own heightening pleasure that drove him to the brink of madness. A sigh of delight when he rasped his whiskers over her collarbone. That impatient little whimper, urging him to delve deeper, to discover that treasured spot of exultation as she tilted her pelvis just so. The deep moan that echoed in his own lungs when the pad of his thumb found the perfect combination of tempo and pressure.

Jamie wanted all of them. He wanted to hear and swallow every throaty melody, every single pitchy tone and low note; to commit that unique symphony to memory in mind and flesh.

“Gi’ me yer mouth, Sassenach.” It was more plea than demand, but Claire followed suit without question—teeth clashing against his with bruising passion as hungry lips reclaimed what was entirely hers already.

Focused on the tight-squeezing sensation against the crown of his cock, immersed in the taste of her tongue, Jamie could feel a white light begin to rise inside him. He closed his eyes against its blinding brightness, trying to hold out a little longer.

And then, there it was. That tell-tale gasp of surprise and the slight but distinct flutter against his index and middle finger that made his balls draw up and tighten further. His chest was heaving, hair sticking to his forehead as he fought to ward off impending bliss. He couldn’t let go. Not quite yet. There was one more sound he longed to hear.

“Come fer me, mo ghràidh,” he panted into her open mouth, breaths of desire mingling as he increased the pace of his thrusts.   

There was a sudden flurry of sheets and the squeaky protest of a mattress that hadn’t been prepared for such an explosive movement. Then, Jamie was stretched flat on his back, the woman he loved astride his thighs, hands perched on his chest. Even in the dim twilight, her whisky eyes were glowing, drawing him in, engulfing him in the dazzling brilliance of her adoration as she rose above him like the morning star at her back.

Spine arched and head thrown back, she gave him the ultimate gift: a hoarse cry of his name and the knowledge that she was his, and his alone.



Heart pounding in a staccato rhythm against his ribs, Jamie hadn’t quite come down from his endorphin-induced high yet when Claire made to move off him.

Squinting, he held her in place, not missing the opportunity to give her arse the attention it deserved.  “Where d’ye think ye’re going?”

“Make an educated guess, Fraser.” Lips curved into a teasing smile, she bent down and placed a feathery kiss to his breastbone, her curls tickling the sensitive area around his nipples.

Sighing in both defeat and satisfaction, he let his palms fall away, settling back against the pillows. Letting go of that physical connection after making love to her was always the hardest part. Try as he might, nothing could ever prepare Jamie for that biting air of separation afterwards. Slicing through his skin like ravenous teeth, the lack of her body against his was an ache so acute that it put even the remembered pain of the delta of scars on his back to shame.

Despite every nerve ending in his body longing for her to return to his arms, there was still enjoyment to be found. He watched with an eager eye how the elegant groove of her spine straightened and the shallow dimples at its base vanished as she rose from the bed, drinking in the raw glory of voluptuous curves thus revealed. With veins shimmering in gentle blue and tender purple through the surface of milky-white skin at the back of her knees, she looked as if carved from marble in the low morning light.

Claire was neither cold nor still as stone, though. Filled with the quiet vibrancy of a flower in the rain, she was as live and nurturing as the smile she flashed in his direction when she slipped into that flimsy silk dressing gown and out of the room.

Another sigh expelled from his lungs, Jamie closed his eyes. Muscles lax with repletion, he listened to the final chords of their bedroom hymn still resonating in his bones. He’d been sharing a bed with his Sassenach for less than a week, but they’d more than tried to make up for the time lost between them.

They’d come together every morning and night since then; tender and passionate, or frenzied and rough. He could call up each and every image they’d created together with ease: Claire stretched out in front of him, underneath him, beside him, eager to meet and satiate his hunger with open-mouthed kisses when he came to her a starving man; golden eyes glinting with pride as her throat worked to receive all of him; her hair, cascading freely over her shoulders like rivers of silk as her thighs wrapped tightly around him, driving them forward, quelling their thirst for completion.

Every encounter felt like a new pinnacle, a new revelation.

Something about this time had felt different, though. More immediate, more intimate somehow. Pinpointing what had caused that difference, however, was an entirely different matter. It had taken noticeably less time than usual for both of them to make it over the finish line, that was for sure. While Jamie wasn’t exactly proud of barely outlasting a soft-boiled egg, the crackling intensity of that orgasm more than compensated for the brevity of the act itself. In fact, it had been so mind-blowingly good that he was quite convinced he’d never come as fast or as hard as this before. Birthday exhilaration might have added a wee bit of extra excitement to the whole affair, but he very much doubted that was all there was to it.

One arm folded behind his head, he revisited it in his mind’s eye, trying to get to the bottom of that enticing riddle. Replaying every moment, every movement, every touch, however, caused a rather noticeable redirection of blood flow again. He’d just put his phone back down, the white figures of the digital clock supporting his optimistic prediction that they had enough time for another round before breakfast, when a mad flutter in his chest alerted him to Claire’s return even before he registered the widening sliver of artificial light.

The flirty invitation for her to join him died on his lips the instant he took in her face. Bare-legged and brown mane untamed, gone was any trace of teasing, gone its usual warmth. In its place was a rigid mask, silent terror edged into faint lines around eyes and mouth.

“Sassenach?” His heart felt hollow, its beat frantic but empty as worry sank its talons deep into his lungs and deflated every other thought but that of drawing her into his arms and shielding her from whatever put that look on her face. “What’s wrong?”

She didn’t seem to hear him at first, staring straight ahead, honey eyes clouded with panic.

“I’m so bloody stupid,” she finally said, her voice weak and unrecognisably tinny.

He was out of bed and at her side faster than a steeplechaser, enfolding her in a tight embrace, running one hand down her silk-covered back.

“What’s amiss, then, mo ghràidh?”

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she repeated the mantra of curses, burying her face in the crook of his neck, shoulders trembling slightly. “So bloody goddamn stupid.”

“Tell me what happened, Claire,” Jamie pleaded, his insides twisting painfully at seeing her so distraught. “Ye’re scaring me.”

“We…” She took a deep breath and swallowed. “We didn’t use a condom, Jamie.”

It took half a second to digest her meaning, but when it sank in, his head snapped towards the bedside table where the crumpled remains of a condom wrapper lay in all its unassuming innocence. His mouth went as dry as desert sand at the realisation that it was the one from last night, not this morning. The elation of that moment evaporated like a mirage, but at least the mystery of what had felt so different was now solved.

The anger left him in a choked hiss.

How could he have been so selfish? So reckless? The thought of a condom hadn’t crossed his mind for even a nanosecond until now. Shame and crippling guilt for putting her in such a position without batting an eye settled in his wame like a nest of writhing snakes. It took only once, after all—they both knew that better than anyone. And back then, they had used protection.

Her body melted against his, and—Christ, was that a sob?

“Claire.” Desperation dripped from every syllable as he clung tighter to her, nose pressed into the riot of curls atop her head. “What do ye need me tae do?”

She took another deep breath, her chest pressing into his, then finally looked up at him. Although her eyes were still troubled, at least she wasn’t crying.

“Tell me,” he urged softly, one thumb brushing over her cheek. “Tell me what I can do righ’ now.”

Her eyes darted back and forth between two choices Jamie couldn’t see, settling on one of them.

Levonelle,” Claire said, conviction returning to her voice as she nodded. “I need Levonelle. The sooner, the better. Efficiency rate is best when you take it right away. I could get it at the hospital but—"

“Aye, I see.” He understood all too well. While working at the epicentre of pharmaceutical brilliance had its advantages in most circumstances, it also came with an efficient grapevine of close-knit co-workers. And getting a morning-after pill was definitely not a subject anyone wanted to be broadcast amongst colleagues.  

“Boots and Tesco are no’ open yet, but there’s always a local duty pharmacy.” Jamie didn’t let go of her as he made a grab for his phone, pulling up Google Maps. “Aye, there it is. Lochardil on Morven Road—that’s no’ far at all. If I take yer bike, I shouldnae be longer than ten minutes.”

“Okay, do you…should I…should I come with?”

It pained him to say no, to leave her alone like this, but he knew he’d be faster on his own. And fast was what they needed right now.

“I’ll be back before ye know it, Claire,” he promised, cupping her face and sealing his lips tenderly over hers.

Jamie covered the half mile to and back in a time that would have made even Coach Tryon shut his gob for once, returning with pit stains and a small plastic bag dangling from his wrist. Claire, now in her new favourite comfy ensemble—a pair of green sweats and the band t-shirt she bought after the Caraidean as Gràdhaiche gig they’d attended on Friday—seemed a lot more composed, if still tense.

Taking the small pack from him with a mumbled, “Thank you,” she padded into the kitchen and tore into it without much ceremony. Unsure how else to make himself useful, Jamie grabbed orange juice from the fridge and poured her a glass while she read through the instruction leaflet, brows knotted with concentration.

Claire swallowed the pill, washing it down with the whole glass of juice. Turning her back to him, she stood staring down the drain, shoulders slumped, knuckles pressing white against the skin. Hovering two feet behind her, Jamie’s fingers itched to reach out to her, to close the gulf that had suddenly sprung up between them, but he didn’t know how.

Silence stretched around them, charged with a painful hesitancy on both sides.

“D’ye want…” Jamie took the first step, knees shaking as he tried to force words out that went completely against his instincts. “D’ye want me tae go?”

She whipped around, eyes wide with a different kind of fear. “No!”

“No?” Hope sparked in his chest.

“No,” she repeated, rubbing her arms as if cold. “You leaving is the last thing I want right now.”

Instant relief flooded him, and he let the breath he’d been holding out in a rush, closing the distance between them and crushing her against his chest. “Thank Christ.”

Her arms wound around him, holding on just as tightly as he did. “Sorry for freaking out on you, I was just so…”

“It’s awright, Sassenach,” Jamie cooed, swaying a bit as he stroked her back. “Ye had e’ry right tae freak out.”

“It’s just…that’s never happened to me before—just…just forgetting, I mean.”

“Listen tae me, Claire.” He lifted her chin up, looking deep into those whisky eyes. “I won’t let ye beat yersel’ up about this. Ye’re allowed tae make mistakes.”

“I should know better, though, being a doc—”

“Aye, but ye’re a person, no’ a robot. And it’s no’ just on you. We’re in this taegether, and it was as much ma fault as it was yers.”

“I know, but…I’m still sorry.”

“Fer what exactly? I told ye it’s—"

“Well, for…” she started, blushing under his inquisitive gaze. “For reacting as if pregnancy would be the worst thing possible.”

Jamie wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “What are ye saying?”

“That…well, that…”

Feeling the rapid beat of her heart against his chest, his own picked up. “Aye?”

She closed her eyes, teeth digging into her lower lip. When she gazed up at him again, it was with a tentative resolve. 

“I don’t mind the idea at all…I mean, I…I can see having another child with you, Jamie.”

For a moment, his world turned in on itself, and Jamie almost missed the rest she of what she was saying.

“Just…just not yet. Not now. I know we’ve only been together a week,” Claire hastened to add, her cheeks burning with a darker colour now, “and it’s way too soon to be even talking about that, but given what happened today, I…well, I thought you should know that…well, in case you’d maybe…or…not.”

He stood rooted to the spot, struggling to process, disbelief warring with cautious elation. She didn’t mind the idea? Could see having another child? With him?

“Jamie.”

“Mmphm?”

“Say something?”

It was the underlying plea in her voice that jerked him back to the present. Caught up in his own head, Jamie hadn’t noticed that he’d been silent long enough for her to withdraw slightly, looking like a fawn hiding in the undergrowth.

“Claire,” he intoned softly, willing her to meet his eyes once more. When she did, it almost broke him to see those golden eyes swimming with an anxious kind of sadness. Cradling her face, he poured everything he felt into his words. “I want as many bairns wi’ ye as ye’d be willing tae gi’ me.”

Her lips quivered with a hopeful smile when his meaning registered, tiny drops of moisture gathering on her lower lash line.

“But no’ righ’ away, either,” Jamie added, dropping a kiss to her forehead. “I’m no’ ready tae share ye wi’ anyone else yet. We can ha’ them when we’re both ready, aye?”

“Aye,” she echoed, her hands coming to rest above his breastbone.

Forehead to forehead, he simply held her close, basking in the knowledge that each successive heartbeat, each additional breath was in anticipation of something more.

Not an if but a when.

Something they both wanted.

A future.