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One Summer

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One Summer 
Part XXV: Evermore & The End

The bell above the front door sounded just as it had in her memory. She was classically conditioned like Pavlov’s dog from that first day when she first walked into Fraser Hardware and saw the shop’s proprietor perched well above her head on a ladder. Her limbs suddenly felt like boggy mush, though her shoulders remained squared.

“Hi,” she said in a low voice that sounded nothing like her own.

“Hi,” Jamie returned, his eyes fixed on hers and going impossibly, infuriatingly dark and unreadable. Jamie’s voice remained low as he told his nephew to take the rest of the day off, and the lad was silent and quick about his exit, mumbling only the quietest of greetings to Claire.

As the back door clicked shut, Jamie broke eye contact with her for just a moment. She took a single step forward, and he stepped closer to the counter, leaning down to brace himself on his palms.

And just like that, they were the centers of one another’s universes again.

“Jamie, I–”

“–I missed ye terribly, a nighean–” he began, his voice cutting her off.

“–I can’t be without you, Jamie. I was looking for you. I went to your house–”

“–I was in London. I wanted to apologize, and you…”

His voice faded.

The softest of smiles touched his lips, and she knew that her own expression matched his, down to the crinkles lining the corners of his eyes. They each had the same thing to say.

You weren’t there. We were ships passing in the night.

“When ye said that ye were home, and I kent ye werena in yer flat… my mind went haywire, shattering into a million pieces. Everything went black. It was like my worst fears were comin’ true. And then, by the time I figured it out… that home is yer wee fuckin’ B and B, well… my phone was in a glass of water, and I–”

Claire looked down and felt her cheeks go waxy, pale. “Your hand.”

“Aye, my hand…” At the mention of it, his face twisted.

She blinked hard, and he looked up at her again. “You haven’t cleaned it properly, have you?”

“Of course not.” His eyes were glazed then, a thick line of tears at his lashes. She knew it had nothing whatsoever to do with his hand.

“Well, let’s get on with it. I suppose you have a First Aid kit.”

“Aye, in the office.”

She dried her hands on her jeans, nodding as she took a step towards the back room.

She poked through the kit’s contents as Jamie washed his hands in the washroom next to his office. She tried to ignore his office chair and his desk – the memory of the start of their summer fling triggering a torrid, cheek-reddening, near-cinematic experience in her mind’s eyes. The recollection of him surging into her there, of holding her after, was like a souvenir of the life she had with him and pretended would only take that one summer. Licking her lips, she did her damnedest to turn her attention back to the task at hand. The kit was fairly well equipped – antiseptic wipes, ointment, broad bandages, sterile gauze, and after he stepped in with his cleaned hand, he sat in front of her in that bloody chair.

As she wiped the constellation of knicks and slits in his hand, he started again.

“I shouldna have let ye walk away, Sassenach. I didna have words to respond to what ye were saying about what Ian said to ye, but I had hands and feet.”

She inhaled and held it, felt her lungs and eyes burn. She tried to focus on the motion of her hands as she wrapped his – over, under, over, under, tuck.

“And I canna tell ye how many nights I’ve rewritten that night in my head. To change the ending. I’ve thought of what would’ve come of us if I’d just taken yer hand, yer arm, stood in front of yer wee car, told ye to stop. Told ye that I’d drive ye back to London instead, that we could talk.”

She snipped a dangling tail of gauze, shaking her head. “Jamie, when I left, I was trying to make it easy for you. After meeting your mother and those kids, I could tell the real estate of your heart and your time are limited. And you always told me that your family, your life is here in Broch Mordha. You committed to Ian, before he died, that you’d be the da he couldn’t. And I couldn’t breathe thinking that I had come between–”

“–aye, ye were… trying to make it easy on me. And I could’ve made it harder for ye to leave and easier for ye to stay all at the same time. If only I’d told ye to stop, to think about what ye were doing. Told ye that I have commitments to my family, but that I have space for ye. I can make room for ye, Claire.”

She hadn’t realized that she had been crying until she hiccuped. Biting down on her lower lip, she carefully nested the small, dull scissors amongst the bandages, gauze, and packets of sterile wipes, closing the kit.

“Ye’re the center of everything. My light. Sorcha.”

“I shouldn’t have walked away,” she whispered, fighting not to be overcome as she let her eyes return to him. His eyes were wide, his lips parted expectantly. She wanted to kiss him, to agree wholeheartedly, but she knew she had one chance to explain, to right the ship. “But you have to understand, Jamie. I’ve been Ian. I’ve been that angry, confused kid with an uncle who meant the entire world, and I chose for the both of us when I walked away. And I–”

His hand found her hip. A lump grew in her throat, and her fingers trembled as she taped the gauze down. “I will never tell ye that ye canna choose for yourself, Claire. Even if it means that ye dinna choose me, but never choose for me again.”

“I choose you,” she whispered, her hands finding his shoulders. Though his flesh was under her hands, she felt power radiating from him. Strength. Weight. She cupped his cheeks, watched the path one tear took as it deigned to escape the outer corner of his right eye. “I choose you, and I choose here. The life that we can make here. Together.”

He leaned forward, his face pressing into her t-shirt, his lips warm through the fabric as he kissed her belly.

Her fingers slipped into his curls, curved to his scalp. “And if you choose me, too, Jamie Fraser. Let’s get handfast.”

She felt his breath stop as he pulled back slightly, his hands going to her lower back. “Handfast?”

“Yes. You and me. If you’ll have me, let’s do it. I promise to be yours alone, and you promise to be mine. We’ll see where this takes us. I don’t know what your prospects are for someone other than the crazy bed-and-breakfast physician, but I promise to be exclusive. To see if we can do this full-time, without the threat of an expiration date. No one can make me feel like this, and I will walk away if you don’t want me. But I…”

“Claire–”

She shook her head, feeling her own tears this time. “I want you to know that I won’t choose for you, but that I choose you. I want you to know that I choose here because I love you. This is home. You help make it my home. Let’s give this a try. So let’s do the handfasting thing… we’ll go to that stupid anvil and promise to try.” <br>

For a moment he was silent, and then his lips quirked into a smile. “What do ye think it is that ye just asked me, a nighean?”

Her brows furrowed, she answered, “Handfasting? It’s… God… it sounds so stupid to say it in another way. Exclusivity.”

He raised an eyebrow, and she felt the boiler in her cheeks release until her cheeks were positively aflame.

She attempted to clarify again. “To go steady.”

At that, he boomed a laugh that not only caused goosebumps to explode on her forearms but made her cheeks swell with a smile. “Ifrinn, Sassenach.”

His laugh was so genuine, exploding up from his chest and reverberating off the contained space of his office, that she couldn’t find it in herself to be annoyed at becoming the butt of a joke she didn’t quite understand. So she pouted in what she hoped was a dramatic, coy way, and demanded, “Let me in on what’s so funny, then.”

“Ye realize that ye just proposed to me. Handfasting… it’s no’ goin’ steady.” Her fingers knotted tighter in his hair. “But the answer’s ‘aye’ all the same, if ye dinna wish to withdraw the question.”

As carefully as possible, Claire leaned forward, pressing one knee on either side of Jamie’s thighs as she settled into his lap. “The question is the same, whether it’s going steady or marrying you.”

“Thank God for that,” he whispered, studying her mouth for half a beat before closing the distance between them.

At first, the kiss was breeze-soft.

Gentle. Tentative.

She wondered if it was even happening. Perhaps this was one of her better dreams (waking while wanting on the edge of a knife, his body disappearing as she woke, the ghosted promise of his hand on her hip or breast leaving her yearning). But then he touched her knee, her cheek.

She melted into him then, feeling the groan of homecoming in his chest beneath her fingertips.

He inhaled her breath, the vibration of their quavering lips slowing as their mouths opened. Claire briefly entertained how different this was from all the frantic, needy moments she had envisioned if they were ever to return to each other. This was urgent, yes, but it was familiar above all else.

The pressure of his tongue and his hands. The scent of his hair and the imprinted shape of his jaw in her memory where it met the soft flesh of his ear lobe.

She kissed him back, making a velvety, pleasured sound that had been resting in her anguished belly for weeks. As Jamie’s hands gathered the hem of her t-shirt, her fists wound their way into the fabric between his shoulder blades.

“I can touch you,” she whispered desperately, their teeth clanging together.

“Aye, ye can, and I need to feel ye, too,” he mumbled as she pulled off his shirt and then her own, his lips closing over the cup of her bra. As her hands found his belt buckle, she felt like she was near exploding as he asked, “Are we really… home?”

She swallowed the question, head nodding as he found the button of her jeans. She thought to say ‘yes’ aloud, but her mouth became otherwise occupied again, and it was sweeter than speaking.

She was not sure how she had done it –– lived without this for all those weeks.

The nearness of him.

The language of their bodies – each noun, verb, and adjective that lived in the hardness of him and softness of her.

The promise of weekday mornings and weekend afternoons – home renovations (using a tile saw in tandem and dusty fingerprints), card games, walks (getting caught in the rain, finding a new path), baking and cooking (recipes for the bed-and-breakfast, birthday cakes, anniversary dinners, eggs and sausages and beans on toast for late-night dinners), futzing about in the garden (sunburnt noses, cold showers).

The urgency of this – their bodies finding one another with the sun at various heights over the Highlands, the place where he had been born. The same place where she had been reborn.

The unhurriedness of not having an expiration date on their time together.

No bags to pack, planes to catch, taxis to call.

Just her.

Just him.

He pulled back, drawing a ragged breath as she unfastened the hook between her breasts and shrugged out of her bra. His left hand found her right breast, taking the weight of it in his palm as his thumb swiped over the peak. He kissed her again.

“You’re trembling,” she whispered at the slight shake in his right hand at her waistband. She rose from his lap and leaned back against the desk as he removed one of her socks and then the other, wound her jeans down her legs. “Are you afraid?”

Shaking his head, he looked down between them as she reached out, her hand circling around him and stroking as though she had never touched him before. “Ye make me feel like a virgin, Claire.” Closing his hand around hers, he mumbled, “And I’m sae happy that I can scarcely breathe.”

When he guided himself inside her, their hands helping him home, she braced her weight on his desk.

Suddenly, the meaning of full circle was clear.

This place. This moment.

And when his hand found her lower back, he molded them together so their bodies became seamless. When she called his name at the first slow, almost-imperceptible grind of their hips, she wound an arm around his shoulders.

She felt like she could sob.

She whispered, “Yes. Yes.”

Afterward, with their tired bodies sagging into one another and his hand in her hair, he nuzzled her just so. Her face pressed into his throat, her lips releasing a contented sigh.

“We do things all backward, you and I. We renovate a house together, we break up, we get engaged accidentally because I don’t know what I’m asking…”

“Aye, it was very on-brand for ye, Sassenach… accidentally proposing.” He drew her closer, running a hand down the length of her spine and resting it at her waist. “Ye’re stealing my thunder. If we have bairns someday, there’s no proposal story that’ll beat their mam thinking she was asking their da to go steady and accidentally getting engaged.”

“What a hazard.” She hummed, tracing a scar on his ribs with her fingertip. “Dating a clever Sassenach who only skims the chapter on Highland traditions in her Scotland for Dummies book.”

“Christ I’ve missed ye, Claire. I canna tell ye that I didna miss… what just happened… but more than that… I’ve just missed you. When do ye go back?”

She bit down on her lower lip, fighting a smile. Leaning back, she placed a hand on his stomach. “In a few weeks for exams, and then I’m back. For good.”

She tipped her chin to look up at him and relished the dumbfounded look on his face, the utter confusion.

“Claire… I ken that I told ye that ye canna choose for me, but I dinna want ye to think that I want ye abandon all of yer training, yer education. Yer calling.”

This time she laughed at him, shaking her head before kissing the corner of his mouth. “Dr. Grant? The doctor who you refused to let see to your shoulder? I’m going to take over his practice. I figure we can sort out where we live later, after exams, and I–”

“No,” he interrupted, shaking his head. The word stopped her dead in her tracks, her eyes widening at the firmness in his voice. “We are going to have one life, and I ken where I want to live. Take me home to Leoch Manor.”

So she did.