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One Summer

Chapter Text

 

At age thirty-three and five months, Claire Beauchamp found herself in an unfamiliar yellow wallpapered kitchen doing battle with a window.

In the far northern Scottish Highlands.

The industrious efforts of an unidentified amateur house painter had apparently sealed the window closed under at least half a dozen layers of cigarette-yellow paint (God knows how many years earlier). Clad in a t-shirt and athletic socks, unemployed, and single (none of the above descriptors constituting afflictions as much as symptoms of empowerment, thank you very much), Claire didn’t know if she should push or pull to force the window open. So she did both in turn with no small amount of profanity narrating her efforts.

She just needed a little bit of fresh air.

There had been some small victories at the bed and breakfast (or what she referred to as “the fucking bed and breakfast” instead of “my bed and breakfast”), enough to sustain her into her third full day in the house, anyway. The water in the bed and breakfast had started to run clear only two days earlier, and the memory of her uncharacteristically ebullient dance in the foyer as the chandelier overhead buzzed to life with working electricity was still fresh on her mind.

But the window (the bloody window) was yet another entry on a litany of “structural peculiarities” (a turn of phrase coined by a contractor) inherent in the bed and breakfast. It was (evidently) part of the home’s “natural charm” (again, the bloody contractor).

“‘Charm’ my English arse….” she muttered, squinting longingly at the lush green landscape just beyond the stubborn window. It was an elaborate tease, having all that nature just outside her reach. She could almost feel the cool breeze against her skin, how it would wick sweat from the back of her neck and carry the crisp mountain valley scent into the mildewed house. Through gritted teeth, she hissed, “Come on, you bloody thing!”

The crack started slowly, the fissure initially restrained along an invisible faultline, a weakness in the pane silently waiting and waiting for precisely thatmoment.

The crack grew as she fought more valiantly against the sealed-shut window (her quarrel with the window stemming from pride as much as a need for some fresh air in the musty house). It spread like a lackadaisical fungus until it bloomed into an invasive species.

By the time the crack swallowed the pane in its entirety, Claire was considering just putting a dishcloth-wrapped fist through the bloody thing. Rejecting the inclination, her mind scribbled a mental note to search YouTube for a video on how to repair glass. (She was unsure whether such a thing was even possible. The retinue of home and garden television programs that formed her baseline knowledge for renovating the fucking bed and breakfast had given her no guidance on such a matter.)

Her foot pressed into a cabinet door for some leverage as she gave the window one final push, almost bellowing, “How in the hell did I get here?

And with that, the moisture-softened wood groaned beneath her small hands and relented.

For a moment she stood dumbstruck, eyes closing as she inhaled the crisp air.

Bliss.

The sensation was openness itself. Invigorating and even better than she had imagined.

“You’re not utterly useless, Beauchamp,” she declared as she exhaled, turning off the howling kettle adjacent to the sink. “You have water. You have electricity. You have tea. This is all a modern British woman needs.”

As Claire lifted the strainer from her cup of tea and dropped it into the kitchen sink (a sturdy, farmhouse-style porcelain fixture shockingly devoid of any cosmetic defects, which she assumed meant that said sink concealed some grave plumbing malformation), she ran through the list of things she wanted to accomplish with her Tuesday. When she tore the seal on a box of granola, she was rudely interrupted by the bed and breakfast’s only houseguest (a rotund ball of fur she had taken to calling Adso) launching itself onto the counter.

Despite being quite fat, the cat had a silent, panther-like confidence. Charcoal grey, but for two gleaming yellow-green eyes, Adso had quickly become a surly ally in her renovation project. In the time before she had bequeathed a name upon the animal, Adso had boldly sauntered across the threshold in the dead of night as she wrestled her belongings into the house a few days earlier. With one paw crossing over the other like a feline supermodel, it had a boldness that she could have only wished to feel. She found the feline quite charming, all things considered. Too tired to shoo the beast away that first night, Claire had shared a pouch of tuna with it (courtesy of the motley bag of snacks and twist-top wine purchased at a petrol station).

And so it had been for the following three days.

Just Claire and a gloriously fluffy, maltempered cat of indeterminate sex.

“Well, hello there,” she greeted Adso softly, reaching out to offer a scratch. Adso feinted and haughtily turned a perfectly triangular nose up as if to make clear his position that Claire was his houseguest. This was his royal manor, it seemed.

Only when Claire went for the half-empty tin of wet cat food in the refrigerator (a blessedly operational appliance that had, against all odds, not contained the archaeological specimens of a previous tenant’s foodstuffs) did her feline companion dive gracefully from the counter. As she peeled the lid and exposed the fetid gray flakes (allegedly “white fish and gravy”), Adso began to waltz a gentle, nudging figure-eight along Claire’s calves and shins.

Clicking her tongue, she shook her head. “Such fine company, even if you’re a bit fickle.”

Two days earlier (her first full day at the fucking bed and breakfast which proved to be the most overwhelming day of her life, even considering her first day as a physician), Claire had met Rupert MacKenzie. He was the contractor with the overly-forgiving vocabulary – nattering on about charm and character while her eyes focused with laser precision on the abject decay. MacKenzie came armed with a 4.9 star review on Google and a brogue so deep Claire found herself squinting thoughtfully and nodding in agreement with most of what he said (which wasLord-knows-what).

Her uncharacteristic acquiescence to whatever it was that MacKenzie said came to a screeching halt, however, when he passed her his written estimate.

Seventy-five thousand pounds.

Claire had never known that one could feel the blood draining from her face, but there she was. Learning the physical sensation of her face blanching at the proposal to bring the fucking bed and breakfast up to code. Folding the estimate and giving MacKenzie a curt nod she hoped looked like the gesture of a thoughtful and thrifty businesswoman, Claire said she would certainly ring him when she made her choice.

Knowing full well the amount in her bank account, Claire knew she would nevercall MacKenzie to retain his services.

This was truly going to be a personal effort.

With a handful of dry granola in her belly, Claire fell headlong into Tuesday’s first project.

She started in the living room, singing along to bad pop (crooning with Dolly Parton that she was just a step on the bossman’s ladder, but she’s got dreams he’ll never take away – an apt soundtrack given the end of her position at the London City Hospital). On her hands and knees, she made a game of scrubbing the floors, walls, and moldings (how much filth of unknown origin could she unearth with a rag and a bucket of hot, soapy water?). She moved on to the lounge, a narrow powder room, and a dusty, closet-like bedroom. Engaged in a careful inspection of each room, she mentally cataloged the things that she would need to bring the place from dilapidated, haunted health hazard to acclaimed bed-and-breakfast (though she had no clue if it had ever been acclaimed, let alone presentable).

Nails, a hammer, and an assortment of screwdrivers (because no respectable do-it-yourselfer does not have such items in a kit).

Spackle (to fill the mysterious holes that appeared throughout the second level, like a ghost disgruntled with its empty and distinctly unhauntable habitat had thrown some corporeal punches at the plaster).

A new showerhead (she assumed a hardware shop would sell such a thing, one she hoped would fix the anemic trickle of water and the affliction of having two-temperatures in which to shower – glacier-scaling and hellmouth descent).

A sander (an item she knew existed conceptually, but never imagined owning).

Five hours and a significant amount of grime into her cleaning game, two things interrupted her progress.

The first was the ferocious protest of the muscles in her lower back.

The second was the snarling barbarian of her stomach calling out with a cramping moan for some form of sustenance.

She glanced at her watch and tapped its screen until the music shaking the windows paused. Adso discontinued a careful mid-afternoon bath and shifted to fall dramatically upon a wide beam of pale sunlight painting a creamy triangle on the hardwood floor.

Clambering to her feet, Claire got close to the velvety living room drapes for the first time. With a grimace, she realized that the same sunlight Adso followed in an almost-religious daily pilgrimage across the house had bleached the curtains from what she assumed had once been a formerly glorious color to a shade more akin to pale piss. Inhaling, she shuddered at the realization that the drapes were scented to match.

They would have to come down.

“I don’t have a drill,” she said to no one at all (not even her feline companion bothered to pay attention to the assorted tediums of her day, preferring instead to lick the soft fur surrounding its camouflaged cat junk).

She added an electric drill and assorted bits to her mental shopping list.

Another spasm pulsated deep in her lower back, and she groaned. The sensation, like a pestle grinding away on the mortar of her spine, resulted in the addition of a heating pad and vodka to her list.

Into the silence of the fucking bed and breakfast, she announced, “I’m going to town.”

Adso ignored her entirely.

The drive into Broch Mordha took roughly twenty-two minutes.

(Fourteen minutes of gut-churning hairpin turns on a single-track road. Four minutes of cajoling a group of wandering sheep to “move on, gentlemen” from her open driver’s side window. And four minutes to reverse her way onto the main road after a wrong turn took her up the seemingly endless driveway to someone’s home.)

By the time she arrived at her first stop (a shop declaring it sold hardware “& etc.”), Claire was armed with a mental list of purchases (the ad hoc one that was constructed mainly on how the place looked, rather than how it functioned). With a petrol station sausage roll in one hand, she jotted down what she could remember on the back of a napkin with the other. Her memory spent and the existence of the sausage roll evidenced only by the flakes on her cardigan and leggings, she stuffed her list into her handbag.

It was then, with shoulders squared and mind set to an afternoon of sorting through paint samples, that Claire Beauchamp first met James Fraser.

He was perched atop a ladder, arms suspended overhead and hands occupied with a wrench and some sort of pipe.

“Welcome to Fraser’s,” he said, attempting a smile as he redirected his attention from the pipe. At first Claire only mumbled and cast the source of the greeting a brief glance as she reached into her purse for the napkin. But that single glance was enough for her to realize that the man was well-made in a way that demanded she take a second look. “Ye lookin’ for something specific?”

Uh-huh,’ her mind slurred, have gone fully stupid in her aching, tired body. The rational sliver remaining in her scrambled egg mind implored her to ‘quit imagining the weight of the shop owner on top of you, Beauchamp.”

She cleared her throat and confessed, “A little bit of everything, I’m afraid.”

She wrangled her rain-damp curls into a low bun and scraped her fingers through the particularly intractable ones at her hairline in a hopeless attempt to tame the beast she imagined existed on top of her head.

“I have a bit of beginner’s regret over my decision not to hire a contractor for some projects.”

(There was no need to explain to this man – chief denizen of the Fraser’s Hardware Store Welcoming Committee – that she had limited resources, and it was unlikely that they would stretch to cover remodeling, furnishing, and staffing the fucking bed and breakfast. That even without the contract, the experiment was likely to bankrupt her.)

A look she could only describe as “bemused smirk” crossed the stranger’s face. “Ye’ve stumbled here – to the ends of the earth – for some wee projects?”

“Not quite stumbled, but I’m the new owner of Leoch Manor,” she supplied, entirely unsure of whether her addition would be at all helpful. Did people here know the name of the place, or had they come to refer to the rotted structure as she had (“that fucking bed and breakfast”)?

Before she could ask, the man gave a final crank on the pipe and brought his arms down to rest on the ladder’s shelf.

“New owner?”

He was curious.

And with his direct attention, Claire found herself stunned into silence by the contrast of his loosely waving collar-length red hair with the almost-cerulean slash of eyes set above high cheekbones.

“Hadna heard the place sold. It’s been sitting empty, neglected for ages… when did ye–”

“–it’s… complicated,” she broke in, offering an apologetic smile as she slipped her phone into her back pocket and took a trolley.

“Aye, such things often are.” She said nothing. “They’re complicated, that is.”

He sounded kind, and she had no idea how to respond, so she launched into business. “I’m going to start with the low-hanging fruit. Some easy projects that any enterprising bed-and-breakfast owner can accomplish alone.”

“Ye ken that place’s got significant problems?”

She knew better than most, so she just rolled her eyes, and asked, “Do you have paint?”

“Aye,” he said again, the very corner of his mouth turning up to flash a glimpse of very straight, very white teeth. “I’m a respectable man, and I own this respectable hardware shop. Of course I stock paint.”

Claire’s fingers pulsed around the trolley’s handle; she felt her stomach flip as she nodded.

“I’m Jamie Fraser. Welcome to Broch Mordha.”

She could imagine that his tone (a mildly flirtatious burr accompanied by the sparkling of eyes that practically had the gentle tinkling sound of a distant wind chime) was generally endemic to men in the Highlands, but this man in particular.

“I’m Claire.”

Claire…?” His voice rose in a question at the end. She realized that she’d never heard her name said like that (low, slow, with a penetrating look from beneath a fan of preternaturally-long eyelashes).

“Claire, the owner of Leoch Manor.”

He laughed, the sound rumbling from somewhere deep in his chest, and nodded. “Well, pleasure’s all mine, Claire the-owner-of-Leoch Manor. Let me ken if ye need some help, though I doubt ye’re the type who’ll ask. Ye’ll find that the paint’s in the third aisle from the left.”

Unsure of the reason for her reaction, Claire huffed and swatted the incorrigible tangle of curls away from her face as she took off in the direction of aisle three.

She had barely started to contemplate the merits of eggshell versus washable matte finishes and cozy warm greys versus soothing cool greys when she heard it.

A bellowed set of words she’d never heard (“ifrinn” the only one she felt confident had any consonants at all) and a sharp clatter. But it was the unmistakable sound of crunching bone that sent her stomach to the floor.

Fucking hardware shop owner.

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part II: Dislocated

The scene confronting Claire when she rounded the corner had the surrealistic quality of a Salvador Dali painting.

A newly sentient being capable of utter destruction, the ladder appeared to be primed for an opportunity to kill its erstwhile user. Said user, who had moments earlier been perched on the second to the top rung like the hilltop statue of a city’s patron saint, was on the floor with his head bowed. The ladder from which he had fallen was suspended with three of its four legs in the air. The top rung was precariously balanced against a shelf at least four feet above Claire’s head.

“Fell wi’ my hand out,” Jamie explained stoically, lifting his chin and focusing his attention on her.

Through his shirt she made the quick assessment that he had dislocated his shoulder –the carefully-sculpted cap had melted, shifted down. Notwithstanding this unsettling tableau, he appeared to Claire’s trained eye to be remarkably self-possessed in what must have been immense discomfort.

“I landed with all my weight on the hand, and crunch!, there it went.”

“I heard,” Claire responded, using the outside of her foot to push aside the various tools (ones that her brain attempted in vain to identify before concluding they just didn’t have names) before she went to her knees. She swept a piece of stray hair from his forehead, too concerned to feel even the slightest bit awkward about the sentimentality that made her so forward (all paint swatches and her sundry list of supplies had been long forgotten). “Did you hit your head?”

“My head?” he asked, his face softly twisted in an expression she could only describe was vacancy-meets-pain. “Did we win the game, Sassenach?”

Perplexed (game? Sass-uh-what? was it just that bloody thick accent?), Claire knit her brows together. “What’s that? What game?”

“It’s a concussion joke from my rugby days–”

“–what?” She couldn’t hide her exasperation, and only hardly resisted the urge to poke him in the shoulder (the uninjured one, though, for she was no barbarian). “Being disoriented in time and place isn’t funny in the least, and–”

“–I ken there’s no’ a game, and I ken I fell. And no, Claire-the-Owner-of-Leoch Manor, I didna hit my heid.”

“You’re in pretty good spirits for someone sitting in a pile of shit from their own toolbox with a dislocated shoulder.”

“It’s part of the customer service.”

He moved to stand, and Claire shook her head, raised her hand. “Stop. You’re hurt.”

“Dinna fash yerself wi’ me, it was just a wee tumble,” he started as he smiled and planted one foot flat on the floor. As he started to rise, though, his face seemed to tuck in on itself, contorting into a wince.

“Why don’t you take a wee seat?”

Giving up with a mumble of something nonsensical to Claire’s ears (Gaelic she assumed, based on the indistinct consonants in the slur), Jamie leaned against the counter. Claire snorted (a function of feeling self-righteous and victorious) and reached for his shirt’s top button. “I’m going to see what we’re dealing with, you bloody stubborn Scot.”

He caught her hand with his own (the fingers hot, insistent). “Ye dinna think ‘tis a bit forward for yer first visit to my wee shop?”

“I’m a doctor.” It was the first time she’d identified her profession aloud since quitting her job a little over a month earlier. She ignored her mind’s attempt to force an amendment to the representation (“I mean, I was a doctor… before I walked away from my training program and came here”), and added, “An A&E doctor.”

He had the good grace not to appear surprised by her admission (an affliction from which even some of the most forward-thinking men in her life suffered). “Ye can fix me then.”

It wasn’t a question.

He released her hand, let her set about the business of undoing his shirt.

This kind of thing… misshapen joints… is in my wheelhouse, but–”

“As is bed-and-breakfast renovation apparently.”

“Well, I’ve only ever received a paycheck for one of those things…” Claire’s voice trailed and her eyebrows pinched together as she reached the bottom button. As carefully as she could under the circumstances, she pushed the fabric aside, taking great care not to jostle him. At his hissed intake of breath, she paused and asked, “Are you doing alright?”

“Oh, aye, best damn day of my life.”

Humming, she turned back to her evaluation. The shoulder joint was even more startling without the cover of his shirt. A dreadful hump rose on the right side, and the arm hung at an impossible angle.

Claire found herself holding her breath, counting, as she urged the fabric over his bicep and down.

One.

Sweat had started to dribble down Jamie’s left temple, but he made no sound beyond a muffled groan.

Two.

Yes. Dislocated. The least surprising thing about her week so far.

Three.

“We should get you to a hospital.”

Four.

He shook his head, swallowing hard twice before stating, “How long have ye lived here, Claire?”

Five.

She furrowed her brow, unrolling the shirt cuff from just above his elbow until it hung like a boneless trout at his wrist. “I mean in Broch Mordha,” he clarified.

Six.

The answer was easy and did not require even basic arithmetic. She answered truthfully: “Three and a half days.”

Seven.

She suspected that Jamie wanted to smirk at her, to roll his eyes, but he didn’t. His face remained impassive and impressively devoid of emotion; however, she could tell it took him no small amount of effort not to vocalize some expression of pain. “Well, the nearest hospital is about an hour and thirty-seven minutes out if ye’re a local, and if ye dinna fash yerself wi’ the speed cameras.”

Eight.

“And ye’re no’ a local,” he said like it was a dirty thing, “which means, ye willna even drive the speed limit. It’ll take ye two hours.”

Nine.

Claire shook her head, eyes focused on his shoulder. “Is there someone I can call?”

Ten.

“I’m no’ going to ride in a car –or an ambulance – wi’… this…” he said, his eyes becoming darts. “And I’ll be damned if I call up the ninety-six year old doctor who lives down the road wi’ the seven cats who delivered me thirty years ago tae be dealin’ wi’… this.”

Eleven.

Despite her professional outrage at his suggestion, she took his meaning even in light of his ever-broadening of his accent.

He was going to ask her to fix his shoulder.

Twelve.

And then he did, his tone lowering as he said, “Ye can do it, aye?”

Thirteen.

“Jamie, I shouldn’t–”

Fourteen.

“I asked if ye can do it, no’ if ye think ye should do it.”

She stopped counting then, balled her fists at her side and slipped her purse over her head. “Jesus H. Christ. It’ll hurt like hell.”

“It already hurts–”

“–and a hospital could give you a sedative or something for the pain, and I–”

Whisky.”

“You’re kidding, right? This isn’t the eighteenth century.”

Ignoring her jibe, Jamie explained, “There’s a bottle in my wee office behind the register, just inside the desk.”

“How serendipitous,” she muttered.

She had not realized that the thought lived outside of her head until Jamie amended, “No, it’s Scotland.”

Huffing, not seeing much of a choice in the situation before her (there was no way he should ride in a car for ninety-seven agonizing minutes, whipping around hairpin turns), she rose and went to the office. Though sent by the desk’s owner for a specific purpose, opening it felt intrusive. She attempted to keep her eyes from the personal effects in the drawer (photographs of people she had never met –women, children, posed with him– and places she had never been, a half-empty pack of fossilized chewing gum, receipts for sandwiches, a silver wedding band), and grabbed the bottle of whisky by the neck.

“Did ye find it?” His voice was disembodied from around the corner, sounding a bit desperate for the amber anesthesia in her hand.

“Mmmhmm,” Claire responded, taking one final look at the photographs before pushing the drawer shut so it made a decisive clicking noise. Back at his side only moments later, she twisted the lid from the bottle and held it out from a standing position, one hip cocked out.

“Let’s do it, Sassenach.”

She sized him up one final time as she let her hair down and then secured it into a messy bun at her crown.

“What does that mean?”

“Sassenach?”

“Weel, ye’ll no’ thank me, but it’s kind of a slur really. I dinna mean it to be offensive. Ye’re English. An outlander.”

Lovely,” she mumbled, unable to care. The adrenaline rushing her system had a physical sensation (animating her limbs, flipping the switches in her brain that allowed medical instinct to take over, preparing her system for the brute force that would be required to reduce the dislocation). “This is going to hurt.”

“I figured. ‘Spose I shouldna told ye what ‘Sassenach’ means.”

For the second time, she went to her knees in front of him, ignoring his attempt to get some banter. She inspected his face as though it could clue her in on whether he actually wanted her to fix his shoulder or whether it was only male pride driving his request.

“I won’t do this crouched on the floor next to you. I need you sitting.” She extended her hand. “Can you get to your feet?”

Jamie craddled his elbow gingerly, winced as he sat forward, and gave her the briefest nod.

Nodding, she instructed, “Take my arm with your good hand.”

“Ye’re rather small to be hefting me up–”

“I am, but trust me. I’m significantly stronger than I look. Now… up.”

He firmly grasped her proffered hand, pulling a face as he rose and then exhaling a deep breath.

On his feet and planted on solid ground, she realized Jamie Fraser was Viking tall.

And he possessed as much breadth as he did height, even with one shoulder lamely wilting.

“You’ll let me know if you’re going to vomit from the pain?” she asked expectantly, hooking a foot on the legs of a stool and dragging it close.

Jamie gave her a skeptical look, nodded, and then sat as Claire stripped her cardigan off and draped it across the counter. She stepped forward, feeling the eruption of goosebumps along her nape.

Christ.

Jamie’s breath (warm, humid, staccato on the exhale) permeated Claire’s paper-thin t-shirt (she felt it all the way down to the pink slimy coils of her guts, in the dead space between her ribs).

Something about all of this done in the absence of her armor (well-washed scrubs, a stethoscope, a cadre of nurses trained up more than most physicians, a well-ordered medical record, radiology reports and scans) made her feel reckless, even though she was entirely in control.

What the fuck are you doing, Beauchamp?’ her conscience asked, pressing her closer to the edge of her comfort zone. Her mind was about to beg her to reconsider it all, to tell him to just deal and that she would call an ambulance.

She shook off the feeling, getting as close as she could and taking his arm. It was heavy as lead.

“I have to get the bone of the upper arm at the proper angle before it will slip back into its joint.”

She grunted, pulling his wrist up and elbow in.

“This is the worst part,” she warned her patient, who was doing a remarkable job of remaining silent but for his uneven respiration pattern. She cupped the elbow, ready to whip it upward and in.

His mouth twitched, not quite either a smile or a grimace. “It canna hurt much worse than it does. Get on wi’ it.”

Resetting a shoulder joint was hard work at the best of times, let alone when standing in a hardware store in the middle of nowhere in a country where she never thought she would live. Done on a large man with rapidly-swelling tissue and pulling on the joint, the job was taking all the strength she had. Sweat was pouring down her face, but it only beaded across the equator of his upper lip and traced down the barely-visible vein in his temple. (The bastard.)

Claire steadied herself, thought it best to distract him, and said, “I quit my job by giving my boss the middle finger exactly one month ago today.”

“Oh, aye?” he said through gritted teeth, plainly seeing through her ruse but humoring her nonetheless.

She lifted his arm again, shifted her stance, turned his wrist. “I walked out, same middle finger up, and didn’t answer their calls after that.”

“What ye’re sayin’ is that there was no’ mistaking yer intent, then?”

She hummed, smoothing a hand down his arm. “I only decided to come here, to Broch Mordha, because my uncle left me that fucking bed-and-breakfast in his will. Also, I couldn’t afford my London flat without a job.”

“Ye didna get sacked from yer hospital, did ye?” Tripartite, his voice was equal measures serious (a judge handing down a death sentence), joking (an over-optimistic comedian testing the boundaries of an unknown audience at the beginning of a set), and cloaked (a faceless figure, hiding an unidentified object under the cover of darkness). “I mean, ye’re no’ on the run from a series of medical mistakes, are ye, Claire Owner-of-Leoch Manor?”

“Are you worried, Jamie Fraser, Owner-of-Fraser-Hardware?” She pulled on the joint gently, testing it. “Now would be the time for me to get you back for the concussion joke earlier.”

Suddenly the shoulder gave a soft crunching pop!, and the joint was back in place.

Jamie looked amazed. He put a tentative hand up to explore the expanse of flesh from his throat to his shoulder.

“Ye did it.”

“Don’t sound so shocked,” Claire said, cracking her neck and reaching for the bottle of whisky. She was sweating, but smugly pleased with the results. She raised the bottle in a toast to no one but herself, and took a short draw with her head tipped back. When she lowered the bottle, she realized that she was being closely watched.

“It doesna hurt anymore.”

“We’re still going to the hospital because it will, and it’ll hurt like hell.”

He made a grasping motion with his left hand, only the faintest preview of a pained expression on his face. “Dinna be greedy, lass. I’m the one who’ll be bouncin’ in the car all the way to that wee shanty of a hospital.”

“I’m going to drive you.”

“Ye dinna have to–”

Seeing the apparent necessity of digging in her heels, she did, repeating, “I’m going to drive you.”

Claire, I canna let ye–”

She narrowed her eyes, watched as he attempted (and failed) to cover his right shoulder with his shirt. “That’s a fool’s errand, trying to put that on, I mean.”

“Aye, weel, I’m a verra modest man.”

She snorted at that, trying to keep her mouth from turning up as she said, “I’ll bet you are.”

Chapter Text

ONE SUMMER 
PART III: ENTRYWAY

Claire had accomplished little with her day beyond driving back and forth to a cottage hospital with Jamie Fraser. In what Jamie characterized as a “town,” they had pulled up to a shanty-like red-brick building (“MacQuarie’s Cottage Hospital, NHS Highlands” on the sign posted next to the door).

Claire’s mouth had gone dry.

“We could keep going on to Inverness,” she declared, glancing at Jamie, who appeared to have gone green around the gills in the last twelve or so minutes. He hadn’t said it, but the pain was in the way he held himself in the passenger’s seat (his arm carefully situated on a roll of paper towels in a sling made of his own belt), the set of his jaw (tense, burdened), and his respiratory rate (a tell in even her most composed patients).

Statistically speaking, there was simply no possibility that he would make it another twenty remaining miles without vomiting (and spectacularly, she presumed) across her dashboard.

For his part, Jamie stayed silent but for a delayed, choked “ha!” as he cradled his elbow, wincing as the car ground to a halt.

As much to reassure him as herself, she put the car into park and concluded, “I’m sure this will be perfectly fine.”

It was just a dislocated shoulder, after all.

The “town,” as Jamie put it, appeared to Claire to be no more than a single tree-lined street overlooking a loch so mind-bogglingly beautiful she imagined someone had written a poem about the water’s siren song to passersby to fall fall fall into its depths. It boasted one pub (a painted sign advertising “the only chipper for 10 mi.!”), an ice cream parlor (meets convenience store and tobacco shop), a narrow sidewalk (with sunshine-yellow weeds forcing their way up through cracks), and an inviting bed-and-breakfast (‘fuck them and their braggy façade and storybook wisteria,’ she thought rather mildly). At the center of it all stood a bronze statue of a soldier (World War I or II, she couldn’t tell) watching over a sleepily-babbling fountain.

For its part, the “hospital” had the antiseptic smell so familiar to Claire that it conjured nostalgia-driven sensory memories of late-nights in her medical training program.

(Guzzling coffee and dodging pages to the A&E like she was the District 12 tribute in the Hunger Games.

An addled, sleepy mantra to ‘keep your fingers steady’ as she practiced suturing nasty gashes in various citrus fruits that spritzed bright, acidic juice into the still hospital air.

The reedy sound of Dr. Bain’s directives, a man who she came to hate rather quickly and who eventually forced her resignation.)

It was just as she crossed the threshold of this hospital (MacQuarie’s Cottage), hesitating as she held open the door, that Jamie Fraser proved he could read her like a book.

“I ken ye dinna like the look of it, but ye’ve already done the brutish work of getting me all popped back into a straight line,” he advised.

“I mean, I shouldn’t be skeptical of another trained physician,” she offered, attempting to be professionally charitable as she cast a glance around. The hospital had the same ceiling-mounted limp seafoam-colored curtains that seemed to exist in most NHS facilities, and wheeled stanchions with monitors and blank screens waiting to whirr to life. However, there was nary a single soul in sight. “And it’s clean.”

“And ye’re judging.”

Raising her chin a bit and stepping fully inside, she shook her head. “I’m most certainly not.”

“Ye’ve a glass face,” Jamie began, cracking a smile that somehow masked (if only for a moment) the pain that had finally reached his eyes. “And ye are. Judging.

“I’m not,” she doubled down, striding to the intake desk where the nurse-slash-receptionist looked like she had been waiting her whole life for a moment not to watch the clock.

Behind her back, she heard Jamie mumble “are too,” and she rolled her eyes.

Hours later, in an entirely different entryway (not of a hospital but of her fucking bed-and-breakfast), exhaustion had leached into the marrow of her bones. Despite the chill in the late evening Scottish air, she had started to sweat. It was a disconcerting feeling to be warm under layers of damp clothes in cool air. Unable to bear the feeling of her own skin (tacky to the touch and seemingly merging into a second skin under layers of fabric), she started to strip in her entryway.

Adso, roosted next to a mummified philodendron on a dust-shellacked plant stand, watched the fucking bed-and-breakfast’s hostess with a look that was evenly split between mild disdain and disinterest.

“Not you, too,” Claire grumbled. “I don’t need your judgment.”

Doing her best to yank off the jeans that had become perhaps one-half of one size too small (okay, one whole size – an artefact of the decisively junky turn her day-to-day diet had taken to deal with the emotional labor of unemployment), she commented, “It’s disgusting outside. Cold and rainy, but not that cold.”

Adso lifted a square paw, gave it two delicate licks, and resumed his role as judge, jury, and executioner.

Hopping as she freed her ankles of the jeans, Claire ruefully announced, “Find some other fucking bed-and-breakfast if this is so distasteful.

Adso’s attention turned to the place where the wall curved into the ceiling, and sneezed regally before fixating on something or another (Claire could only presume it was a previous occupant’s disembodied spirit or dust, both of which were probably not in short supply in her new habitat). She had concluded that it was apparently her role to be ignored entirely as she shed her cardigan. When it hit the sun-mottled area rug with a metallic thump!, Claire paused her efforts.

Jamie’s watch.

He had been maneuvering out of his shirt with her assistance (a process she quietly declared herself lucky to witness a second time, even considering the circumstances) when the physician picked the watch up from the exam table and said, “Yer wife can hang on tae it while ye’re gettin’ yer scans.”

“–I’m not–” Claire started, only to be interrupted by a twinkling, burring “many thanks, Sassenach – keep it safe.

Grumbling “bloody Scot,” she had snatched the watch from the unconcerned doctor, her mouth rendered dumb, and resigned herself to going with the flowfor the first time in perhaps the last decade.

“Yer pants can stay on, Mr. Fraser,” the physician declared blandly, focused singularly on his computer screen as Jamie went for his belt with a groan.

Claire caught Jamie’s eye and felt a furious blush erupt into her cheeks at the memory of carefully removing his toolbelt before they left Broch Mordha (the only sound in the world Jamie’s hitching breath before they both apparently just decided not to breathe until her task was accomplished). Well removed from the moment, Jamie had turned into the cat who swallowed the canary (perhaps some distant relation to Adso, with those strangely triangular eyes situated over Viking cheekbones).

Claire wondered just how glass her face was. Maybe he could see the inside the transparent fish bowl of her mind – the image of her small fingers on the buckle. The thought dried her mouth and kept her company until a slicing bit of pain twisted Jamie’s expression. At that, she had slipped the watch into a pocket (Jamie seeing it fit to narrate with “yer wee sweater has pockets” through gritted teeth) and set about tying loose knots at the gown’s back.

Free of the confines of her own pants and cardigan now, Claire stood in her entryway and raised the watch to her nose. She inhaled and frowned immediately. “What the fuck is your problem, Beauchamp, you utter creep?” she muttered, lowering the watch and realizing smelling the timepiece was incrediblyodd.

She slid the watch over her hand, clasped it, and gathered her discarded clothes along with one of the boxes that had been delivered in her absence earlier in the day. The strange intimacy of feeling that connected to an almost perfect stranger made her feel somehow less alone.

“Bed?” she called to Adso as she started up the stairs, turning to find her companion.

The cat was nowhere to be seen.

With no sense of time (day seemed to break earlier and last longer in this part of the world), Claire woke well-rested early the next morning. Only once armed with an arsenal of dirty clothes did she realize the fucking bed-and-breakfastdidn’t have a fucking washing machine. She left the clothes on the kitchen counter, not feeling quite nostalgic enough for a bygone era she had not even lived through to wash them in the sink.

Determined to make some headway on the tasks forgotten in the previous day’s events, and not managing to find the box of her undergarments, she flipped a pair of knickers inside out and donned a pair of leggings and a sweatshirt. “A listthis time,” she declared to herself, drenching her porridge with cream and splashing a bit into a shallow saucer for Adso (who was missing in action, but bound to show up eventually for his morning serving of vittles). “A written one.”

She tapped the pencil eraser’s pink nub against her teeth, wondering how Jamie Fraser was doing the morning after his tumble as she started to jot down a compendium of things to buy and do.

Under one heading, she identified “THINGS TO BUY”:

Washing machine (urgent) Smoke detector x 5

Under another heading, she started to sketch out “THINGS TO DO”:

Carpeting (rip up - stairs, landing, master; wood salvageable underneath?)

As she contemplated what tools she could possibly need to rip up said carpeting (hands? the business end of a hammer? some sort of tool that could serve as a murder weapon in a more sinister alternate reality?), her mind wandered once again to Fraser Hardware and its owner (whose watch was poised carefully next to her bed). The cottage hospital physician had discharged Jamie home with a vague pronouncement of “ice for swelling, tablets for pain, no heavy lifting for six weeks,” and a single amber prescription bottle. She wondered if Jamie was the type who would pay attention.

She absently added to the list, her mind traveling a meandering route from the previous day’s activities to her goals for the day:

Showerhead
Paint (finish: washable matte)
Hammer, nails, screwdriver, screws, drill & bits, bolts (?? what for ??)
Wallpaper remover (vinegar? scraper-thing)

On the prior day’s return trip, Jamie had shared assorted historical tidbits aboutthis place (how it had once been considered the premier bed and breakfast north of Dunrobin Castle and hosted weekly dinners; that it had been owned by his Aunt Jocasta until she married a wealthy American oilman and moved to the plains of North Da-ko-tah or some such place) and himself (he had moved back to the Highlands because he “missed the air, the speed” after chasing accounts across major European cities with his cousin’s wine wholesale business, that he purchased the hardware shop from his godfather).

Even with one of his arms confined to a sling, it was apparent that Jamie Fraser was a born storyteller like most Scots – the kind who spoke as much with gestures as words.

Sighing, she quickly brought her hair into a top knot, adding:

Paint brushes, tarp (is there any floor worth protecting???)
Cleaning supplies (bucket, rags, bleach, vinegar, furniture polish)

The ride home had flown by, the radio turned low (save a low, moany, and offkey rendition of a Radiohead song by Jamie that made her bark laughing in a way she hadn’t laughed in months).

She looked up from her list as Adso landed squarely in the center of the breakfast table, the feline easily dismounting from counter to table with the ease of an Olympic gymnast. Just as she was about to ask what was in her guest’s mouth, it became apparent.

A still-sentient, wiggling, and wounded mouse.

Claire screamed.

Adso dropped the catch onto the shopping list, teasing it uselessly with one muddy paw as blood pulsed from a puncture wound.

“Bastard!” Claire hissed, pushing back from the table, clasping the back of her neck, and blinking hard until she knew her eyes weren’t deceiving her. With one sickening crunch, the awful beast finally executed the poor being. “Bastard.

Her list all but forgotten, Claire endeavored to remember a hand broom, dust pan, and latex gloves (with the specific purpose of rodent removal) as she pulled on a rain jacket.

The drive to Fraser Hardware was appreciably easier without the previous day’s detour (the turn she had mistakenly taken the day before led to the sprawling estate Jamie called home, and the sheep she had harangued to leave the road also belonged to the injured hardware shop denizen), and she pulled into a parking spot next to a hulking pickup only moments after the posted opening time.

Jamie was nowhere in sight, causing her stomach flip with equal parts disappointment and relief.

After helping him into his house the night before, she had given him strict orders in her most doctorly tone to stay at home and rest with ice, ibuprofen, and Netflix, and to ask for help when he needed it. Giving her a once over, his left brow raised and his lips quirked into a smoldering kind of smile. “I live alone, Sassenach,” he’d explained, narrowing his eyes in question, to see if that had been what she had been asking.

It hadn’t been (at least not on purpose anyway).

He held up his left hand. “Ye’ll see I dinna wear a ring, either.”

Against her better judgment, she grabbed the hand and brought it closer.

“What are ye doin’?”

“Seeing if you have a tan line.”

Snorting, he shook his head and drew back his hand. She was taunting him, but something about her tone dispatched a definite seriousness to the question. “So ye saw it?”

“Oh, I saw it,” she confirmed, calling to mind the wedding ring in his desk drawer.

“The ring’s no’ mine per se, but that’s a story for another day, aye?”

Humming, she rocked back on her heels, nodded (per se? what did that mean, for Christ’s sake?). By way of parting instruction, she said, “Don’t overdo it. No heavy lifting. Sling for at least a few days. Call in a favor to a friend tomorrow for work. Don’t go hauling that big Viking body up any ladders.”

“Viking body?” She rolled her eyes, and he relented in their teasing (mentally chastising herself for deigning to get too familiar with him; it was just one summer, after all). “Aye, aye, Dr. Claire-Owner-of-Leoch Manor.”

“Beauchamp.” She tucked a curl behind her ear, letting his keyring slip from her finger into his palm. “Claire Beauchamp.”

“B-E-A-U-C-H-A-M-P?” he spelled, his tone questioning and one auburn eyebrow lifting.

She nodded.

He snorted, questioning the pronunciation as though he were a secret operative catching an inartful spy in a lie about her stolen identity.

She shrugged.

And when he’d thanked her, she thought for a moment that he was going to kiss her, touch her, but he didn’t.

So she went home to strip herself half-naked in her foyer.

And now here she was. Again.

Fraser Hardware.

Notwithstanding the unambiguous directive and the provision of her family name, Jamie greeted her as she walked inside, voice booming, “Welcome back, Claire Owner-of-Leoch Manor.”

“I thought I told you to stay home and watch Netflix.” Her response was immediate, airier than she would have expected in light of his outright defiance of her advice.

She felt like a passenger in her own body as she stepped towards him, tipping her head to the side. Suddenly she could smell everything (her coconut shampoo, the slight hint of berries still staining her lips from breakfast, the powdery, wooded smell of sawdust), see everything more sharply (the light bruise on his cheek – the liar had struck his head apparently, the turn at the corner of his mouth – a smile).

“Weel, I’m a proprietor of but a wee shop.” He shrugged anemically, one shoulder bound up by the sling. “I’m taking it easy, Sassenach. I promise ye that.”

She eyed his toolbelt on the counter, decided to lay off him a bit.

“I dinna ken if I thanked ye last night.”

“You did,” she responded, looking down at the toes of her Converse sneakers as she dug into the pocket of her jeans (the same ones she’d worn the day before) for her mobile (which contained a photograph of the mouse-blood-splattered list). “At least a few times.”

“Och, weel, thank ye again. Truly.”

Offering a smile, she shrugged herself. “It wasn’t a trouble–”

“We tend to watch out for each other up here… this far north… have each other’s backs, ye ken.”

Claire swallowed, the concept of such camaraderie seeming like a lightyear away after the last few months she’d had.

“I’d like to say thank ye–”

“–you have, Jamie–”

“-come over for dinner. Tomorrow night.”

She paused; he did, too. His face was a little stunned, like he was surprised he’d said it (though each syllable was intentional in a way that plainly meant he’d been thinking it).

“I couldn’t possibly,” she breathed (wanting him to insist).

“If ye dinna think it immoral,” he said, his voice swinging into a deep baritone saturated by the hint of something more, “I’d love to have ye. Seven o’clock? I can introduce ye to some of those sheep ye had such nasty words for last night.”

This time, she accepted.

Chapter Text

ONE SUMMER 
PART IV: PIZZA & BEER

Jamie Fraser had a secret, and he wondered what Dr. Claire Beauchamp, Owner-of-Leoch Manor, would think of it.

He had fallen from that ladder (and thus dislocated his shoulder) because he was shifting his weight just so to garner a better view of her arse as she rounded the corner into the paint aisle. His gawking had been shameless, really, but he was pretty certain he’d caught Claire Beauchamp’s eyes lingering on him. In any event, she was beautiful (that head of curls, pouty mouth that so casually released profane frustrations, defiant tip of the head and raising of a chin). And she was beautiful not just because he had spent most of his adult life in Broch Mordha; those years, he’d socialized with the same lasses he’d gone to secondary school with. Watched them marry his mates (and sometimes divorce them). Visited said couples for lowkey dinner parties (usually as the odd single) once they had settled into the quiet, domestic life. Listened to his mam catalog the wish for him: to meet a nice lass, to settle down, to procreate.

No. She was just beautiful, easy, free.

And she knocked.

Claire Beauchamp apparently was no fan of doorbells.

He drifted to the front door in bare feet, the collar of his shirt collar damp from his hasty shower.

“You came,” he breathed before he could stop himself. The door was only half open, but he could tell she had not put on any airs for this dinner.

Slip-on canvas shoes, a t-shirt under an olive jacket, a pair of slim-cut jeans that did a whole hell of a lot for her figure, glasses.

“Of course I came.” Claire tilted her head to the side and held out a butcher paper-wrapped bouquet of wildflowers. “I haven’t found a grocery store, and I worry I am slowly going to starve to death. Accepting your dinner offer is an attempt to delay the inevitable.”

Slipping the bouquet under his arm, he raised an eyebrow and asked to take her jacket (she’d already removed his shirt once, his toolbelt, and then his shirt again, he figured a gentleman would only return the favor).

As Claire nodded, turning her back to him, she failed to resist the urge to doctor him just a little: “You should be in that sling for at least another few days. I thought my instructions were crystal clear.”

He set her bouquet on the entry table and set about what he suddenly realized was an intimate act – his fingers in the folds of fabric that kept out a summer evening’s Scottish wind and mist. He moved closer (too close, he knew), and whispered, “Noted, Dr. Claire Beauchamp, Owner-of-Leoch Manor.”

“You’ll listen then?” With the question, she turned to look over her shoulder, rested her chin on her shoulder.

Leaning in (again too close), he confirmed, “Consider me duly warned. I’m sure I’ll get my arse skelped if I dinna listen.”

Once he had urged the jacket off her shoulders, she turned to face him fully, her eyes narrowed. “Too right. I’m the doctor after all. I’m in charge.”

“Never doubted it, Sassenach.”

She hummed a small, pleased noise, and shed another layer (a fine-knit cardigan). She was near enough that he could see the goosebumps on her forearms, smell the light floral fragrance of her (shampoo? bodywash? detergent? some sort of preternatural womanly smell sweat out through her pores?).

“And lest ye starve yerself to death before ye fix up yer eyesore, there’s a greengrocer in Kirkbridge. Ten minutes east.”

“Noting it, James Fraser, Owner-of-Fraser-Hardware.”

While Claire Beauchamp, Owner-of-Leoch Manor, toed off her shoes (an act he found rather homey and intimate), Jamie Fraser attempted to divert his eyes from the half-elliptical curve of her waist beneath her top. ‘She’s bound to think ye a wee creep,’ he mentally flagellated himself, suspending her body-warmed jacket on a peg next to the door.

“What will you be feeding me?” she asked, her feet bare on his entryway rug.

“No socks?”

She looked down at her feet, wiggled her toes, and groaned. “The fucking-bed-and-breakfast doesn’t have a washing machine, and I can’t find clean socks. I packed to move like my flat was on fire. I don’t have socks, but I have two never-read copies of Pride & Prejudice.”

“I’ve no’ read it.”

Shrugging, she offered to bring him a copy next time she stopped into the hardware shop, and asked, “I suppose there isn’t also an appliance shop with a washer in Kirkbridge alongside this greengrocer?”

Weel, it just so happens that yer friendly neighborhood hardware shop can help ye wi’ a washing machine. I can even get it installed for ye.”

“You do appliances, too?” She raised a single inquisitive eyebrow.

“It’s a small town, Sassenach. I’m a jack of all trades, master of none.”

“I somehow doubt that.”

“That I’m a jack of all trades?”

“No. Something tells me that you have a fair few subjects under your mastery, Jamie Fraser.”

No pause, not even a beat, and then: “Do ye mean to call me master?”

“Master?” she snorted, tone incredulous as though she had heard something truly preposterous (like a sighting of a pig with wings or dog walking on its hind legs). Chuckling to herself, Claire secured her handbag behind on the peg with her jacket and gave him a withering glance over her shoulder. “In your dreams, pal.”

He realized then just how peculiar her eyes were.

Golden eyes.

He’d seen a pair like that once before – on a leopard.

And in the glare of early evening sun through his well-windowed entryway, light danced (slithered, gyrated) across the surface of those peculiar eyes.

For a moment, Jamie felt as though he was pitching forward (toward her, into her). Like the toe of his shoe had caught in a void in the earth, like his mouth was designed to kiss the defiance out of her mouth. Not to make her call him master, but simply to release the feeling building beneath his breastbone.

Want.

Despite the sensation of falling, Jamie (regrettably) found himself well and truly upright.

She tipped her head to the side, and he knew (somehow) that she was studying him just as he was studying her.

He speculated what she saw and if she could feel it.

He wondered if she could feel that their every word was an endless back-and-forth challenge. Feel that he wanted her (the perfect bow of her upper lip between his teeth, the riot of curls spilled across his pillow cases like the map of an unruly burn slicing through untamed countryside, the satellite trajectory of her waist guiding her to bend into his hand as she arched towards his belly). Feel that he would gladly fall off that ladder a hundred times (or more) if it meant that this moment would lead her small fingers to return like a recently lost friend to the line of buttons on his shirt, the buckle of his belt.

His conjecture was interrupted, however, by the particularly vicious growl of his stomach. She laughed (a tinkling, besotted with life kind of sound) at it (at him). The laugh rose her diaphragm, made the light in her eyes somehow prismatic. A blush crept along his cheeks, up the curve of his ear.

“I guess I can ask again,” she doubled down. “What are you feeding me tonight?”

On a breath, he said, “It’s a surprise.”

And it had been. For both of them.

Pizza and beer.

With a basket full of the best produce burped out of his garden over the course of the week, he realized that he had made one grave omission in preparing for their meal.

He hadn’t quite internalized the mechanics of cooking a full meal with one good arm when he had invited her over.

And as such, he’d picked up a pizza (throwing up a single hope and a prayer that the toppings he selected would be non-controversial) and four bottles of beer at the brewery in Kirkbridge.

Her leopard eyes performing their apparent best approximation of a samba, Claire teased him as he opened the cardboard box, accusing him of fraud in his invitation (“you said you’d cook me dinner,” a statement he strenuously denied making). He plucked a hearty piece of mushroom from a slice and popped it into his mouth as he turned to gather plates from the cupboard. When he turned back around she was perched on the countertop and halfway into demolishing a slice.

No worry about choosing the wrong toppings then.

He left the dishes next to the sink and performed an awkward acrobatic routine of perching himself on the counter next to her (a shift of one buttock up and then the other, his arm protected at his side like he was a bird with a broken wing). Settled between his dinner guest and the pizza box, he selected a slice and needlessly explained, “No use in creating the dishes.”

With a full mouth, she hummed a noise suspiciously like “agreed.” They chewed in companionable silence for a few moments before she said, “So tell me about the wedding that goes along with the ring.”

“Ye on a wee fishing expedition, my new Sassenach friend?” He opened one of the beers with an opener attached to his keychain and held it out to her.

She accepted the bottle with a gracious nod, inspected the label, and shrugged before taking a long draw. Then she said, “Friend?”

“Aye, a friend,” he confirmed, taking the bottle from her when she grimaced at the aftertaste. He tasted it himself, thought for a moment. “It’s a verra hoppy beer.”

“It’s fine.” She sounded unconvinced, but took the bottle back from him to take another sip. “And trying to turn me into a beer critic is not going to make me forget that I asked you a question about the ring.”

“It’s no’ my ring. There’s isna a weddin’ to go along wi’ it. I’ve no’ ever been marrit. Havena even been engaged to be marrit.” For a moment he wondered if his mind was playing tricks on him. He found himself contemplating whether Claire, the Owner-of-Leoch Manor, had somehow managed to scoot closer to him. The seam of blank counter space between them seemed to have been carved down by the silent encroachment of her blue denim-cupped thighs like a voiceless migrating flock of birds. “Go fish, Sassenach.”

Claire shifted her weight onto one thigh as she leaned in, reaching across Jamie’s lap for another piece of pizza, her head tilting to avoid a collision with his shoulder as she blindly groped around in the box. Lust won out over instinct to be a gracious host, and he did not help, identified no purpose for an assist. She seemed like an independent woman, after all. One perfectly incapable of finding a grocery store, but able to grab her own piece of pizza. As she sat back, she foraged a stack of three mushrooms from beneath cheese, popped them between her lips, and chewed thoughtfully.

“Tell me about the project that ye worked on today at yer fuckin’-bed-and-breakfast.”

“Oh. It’s been a day.” It came out as a huff, and she raised an eyebrow before asking, “Are you sure you want to know?”

“Oh, please. Tell me everything.” Christ it felt good to flirt with someone, to want someone. It had been awhile. She chewed the half-slice mouthful she had taken, raised her eyebrows, and handed him her crust (somehow having fallen into an almost painfully intimate knowledge that he would eat them for her). “Give me the play-by-play, down to the quarter-hour.”

She was evidently set to chat because what came next was a rambling treatise of her day’s activities that made him absolutely burn for her. “Well, I spent an hour trying to find underwear and socks in boxes. I wasted three hours scrubbing the limescale from this beautiful claw-foot tub in one of the en suite rooms, only to realize that it’s hopeless. I then spent forty-five minutes trying to round up the interloping cat that’s made my place his home as he ran around the foyer with an actively dying water vole. Finally, I painted for a few aimless hours before I realized that I truly hate the color you sold me, and then I got ready for a few hours by clicking random articles on Wikipedia until I was reading about toast sandwiches, which is a sandwich with a piece of bread as filling, before throwing on clothes that were in my laundry basket and doing my mascara in the rearview mirror.” She took a deep breath, offered an apologetic smile. “Sorry you asked?”

“No, but did ye find yerself underwear? I ken ye didna find socks.”

She blushed almost immediately (a pretty, well-exercised kind of flush) and reached across him for another piece of pizza. Her fingers captured both the crust of a single slice and ringed themselves around the neck of another bottle of beer. She leaned into him then, her arm suspended and her hand filled with the spoils of her reach and her cheeks so pretty. “No comment. Let’s talk about the defective paint you sold me.”

“I only sold ye the paint that ye selected, even though I remember tellin’ ye to get a wee sample to test on the wall.”

“I’m living dangerously this summer,” she mumbled, finally sitting back on the counter fully. “I’m not testing paint, and I’m–”

“–not wearing underwear–”

“I said that I did not have a comment about my knickers.” She was laughing, and she took a long sip of beer, her head tipping back and her lips curled into a smile around the mouth of the bottle. Her lips smacked at the end of the draw, and she sighed a contented sound that said this beer was much closer to her tastes. “My turn. Tell me how a strapping Highlander like yourself hasn’t ended up enfianced to some wide-eyed Highland lass?

Shrugging, he raised a hand to cup the back of his neck and sighed. “Och, weel…. I’ve no’ managed to do much more than a spring fling here or there.”

“Never a summer fling?”

If Jamie Fraser had been a little less secure, his breath would have caught at the comment, his lips failed to engage in response. Instead, he suspected that his cheeks had attempted to match hers – blush blush blush – and he said, “Are ye proposin’ something, lass?”

“Could be–”

And then he was kissing her.

She tasted like tomato and garlic salt, beer and spicy pepperoni.

He was suddenly fiending for her, his eyes closed and his unencumbered hand tangling in the hair at the nape of her neck.

She kissed back, her tongue and sounds surrendering to him.

A sigh, a whimper, the edge of a moan.

With two good arms, he would have lifted her, maneuvered her into his lap until she was wrapped around him. But he was injured so she managed it herself – leaning into him at first, their lips breaking only for a moment as her eyes caught on the arm that he was carefully guarding.

“How did you fall off that ladder anyway?” she asked, breathless and lips glistening from the kiss.

There was room for secrets, but not lies, so he stayed silent.

She positioned her thighs on either side of his, leaned in, and sealed her mouth to his again.

This time, the scent in her hair swirled around, mixing with the lingering hot pizza grease smell and beer. He curved his good hand around one firm, well-formed buttock, urged her closer. She kissed him harder in response, her fists knotting into the front of his shirt as she arched against him. His head banged into the cupboard, but he drew her tighter and realized that he couldn’t be close enough to her in the moment.

He wondered if his veins were designed to contain his blood pressure, his lungs made to work like that.

Roving fingers slipped into the waistband of her jeans, moved along the curve of her hips to her stomach. The flesh he found was warm and trembling and almost violently smooth. With a flattened palm, he breathed her, tasted her, inhaled her. The realization that he wanted her and the offhand suggestion of that summer fling cross pollinated in his chest, bloomed in him, ached deep in his belly, grew as he tasted each note of their dinner on her mouth (the earthiness of the mushrooms, the glossy tang of the cheese, the grainy aftertaste of a too-hoppy beer).

It had been a long time (too long) since he wanted someone (needed someone).

She whispered his name, lowered her hips, left no question that perhaps she wanted him, too.

The moment was broken only when she leaned in, her small shoulder pressing against his broad one, making him yelp into her mouth.

In an instant, Claire was off his lap and standing, barefoot, in front of him. Her reaction had the grace of a leopard and the well-honed concern of a physician thinking about work. She adjusted his mussed shirt, her warm hand on his shoulder and her attention on the lightning-quick jolt of pain in his shoulder rather than about the painful pressure she wrought grinding down on top of him (an apparently very needy man).

“Did I hurt you?” she asked, her small fingers molding around the cap of his shoulder.

“Just a wee pinch,” he admitted, slipping from the counter, turning towards it to hide the obvious evidence of what she has done to him. Silently, he thanked the Lord that one of them was wearing underwear.

“I should go,” she mumbled, giving him a half smile and adjusting her tortoiseshell-framed glasses.

So soon?’ he thought to ask, but just nodded.

“Put that sling on, and I’ll see you tomorrow for a washing machine and better paint.”

And after she was gone (her small feet in her canvas shoes and her narrow shoulders ensconced in the jacket he helped her put on), he touched his lips and smiled at her suggestion.

A summer fling.

Chapter Text

ONE SUMMER
PART V: CROISSANTS & COFFEE

After arriving home from Jamie’s house, Claire drifted up the stairs in a daze. She stripped down to her underwear (a cotton pair cut for a double agent’s life – designed both to protect a body from its clothes and to support the spine in lieu of a back brace) and fell face-first onto her bed. Her mind replayed each moment of her kiss with Jamie in graphic detail - her fingers holding her lower lip and the corners of her mouth feeling stretched into the wide, slashed smile preferred by villains in superhero movies.

He had kissed her.

Or had she kissed him?

She wasn’t entirely sure.

Perhaps the first move had been his.

But she had readily climbed over his legs, purposefully misled him about her lack of knickers (knowing full-well she was wearing the unitard of undergarments), pressed herself down onto him, and –

Tiny paws traversed a line with a supermodel’s catwalk precision up each vertebra before a warm, doughy cat body made a home just over her bra line.

“Adso,” she grumbled. “I was having a moment.”

In response, her feline houseguest began to purr and knead pinpoint biscuit pricks into her bare skin.

Claire closed her eyes, still smiling and enjoying the adrenaline rush from her recklessness with Jamie. Her brazen suggestion fizzed in her very fingertips, buzzed about in her brain: a summer fling. She had let it loose into the universe, and she didn’t regret it. Not a single bit of it.

It had been at least a year since she had any form of male attention. Her last relationship had ended with a bang over eighteen months earlier. And as an epilogue to the twisty-turny thing, Claire had determined (rather firmly over chocolate bars and Freddie Prinze, Jr. movies) that she would not be engaging in the awkward dance of finding a mate in the modern way (Tinder, Bumble, an array of websites masquerading as places to find The One instead of Tonight’s One).

No.

She had shed one fully-formed adult male with a penchant for begging her to marry him each time they walked past the registrar’s office over eighteen months earlier. Frank (a name she declared to Geillis she would not speak out loud ever again) was gone. And after a series of third dates that ended when Claire awkwardly tiptoed out of anonymous, sparsely-decorated bachelor pads with hand-me-down couches shortly before midnight (shoes in hand to be put on in the hallway), Claire committed herself to one year of singlehood.

One year!” a drunken, optimistic, and apparently not-particularly-sexually-frustrated Claire had vowed, self-imposing a dry spell in front of witnesses (Geillis, a few work friends) and brandishing a glass of red wine like a sword.

It was a manifesto. For one year, Claire would create for herself a sex life based on battery-power and the strength of her own two fingers and thumb. She would forego the awkward tango of figuring out whether some lad she swiped right on would qualify to mate with her for life.

Celibacy.

And now.

Fifteen months of nothing later, she had lined up a prime candidate to break the dry spell.

Jamie Fraser.

He was more than just a sentient being with well-formed biceps and a nice smile.

He wore his sexiness like a second skin. Even when he was falling down, busting his shoulder, and ogling her arse (she had figured that out after catching his eye on said body part as he helped her into her jacket), the pizza and beer-wielding hardware shop owner unnerved her. It was easy for him. When she volleyed a bit of flirtation at him, he lobbed it right back, meeting her wit for wit. He seemed intelligent, good-humored, and kind. And she would admit (and not even in a begrudging way) that he did have well-formed biceps and a nice smile to boot.

Claire shifted until she was on her side, spilling Adso from the rather noble perch of her back. She ignored her no-longer-purring companion (who at this point had padded to the end of the bed and was stoic in judgment with back arched as if lifted by a puppeteer’s string) and studied the stack of boxes across from her bed.

If she was going to have a summer fling, then she had to get something done about her bedroom. So she set to work.

The following morning, Claire woke with a start from a positively indecent dream about Jamie Fraser. Her breath was caught in her belly and sweat trickled along the bow of her sternum. In sleep, her mind had created a Jamie Fraser designed for her body’s baser needs. A debauched sort of man (or Man) turned gentleman who made her avocado toast in bed after thoroughly eliminating the lived-in ache wrought by a year of celibacy.

The sun had not untucked itself from its horizon bed, and the cat was on her pillow, staring at her with a disconcertingly intense (and vaguely murderous) gaze. She thought about asking Adso what exactly could possibly be wanting for a kept cat this early and rolling onto her other side, but she was up. Stretching, she checked her phone. She had managed to sleep for roughly three-and-a-half hours.

Rising, she realized (with a shiny primary-school-field-day-gold-medal type of pride) that her labor (cleaning, organizing, perseverating on a certain Scot) had resulted in a clean bedroom. In fact, it almost looked as though a grown woman lived in it. Her clothes had been tucked away into the solidly-built wardrobe in the corner, her laundry corralled into a hamper. The furniture had been polished to gleaming with oil soap and significant elbow grease, and enough dust vacuumed out of the rug that she realized she actually quite liked the pattern.

And on the dresser, next to the vignette of her favorite bottle of perfume and the over-priced berry-scented diptyque candle Geillis gave her every birthday, was a framed black-and-white photograph of her squished between her father and her uncle. It was one of the few she had of either of them – Lamb having always espoused a philosophy that life was for seeing, not documenting, and her father having just not had enough time with his daughter. And next to it all, on a small ceramic tray with a few pairs of earrings and a hopelessly tangled necklace, was Jamie Fraser’s watch.

Her mouth went a bit dry at said timepiece, and she averted her eyes, the lingering unease at having not returned it to him the night before souring in her belly. Perhaps the watch’s continued residence in her bedroom was not an accident occasioned by mere thoughtlessness, but her subconscious’s attempt to guarantee another meeting.

“A run?” she asked Adso, as though she could will the watch’s disappearance by putting it out of her mind. The cat responded by turning its back and settling into the swampy, slightly-damp imprint her sweating body had left in the sheets. She changed into a sports bra, tank, and running tights, and set about a purposeful attempt at compartmentalizing her inadvertent thievery for the day. It was Saturday, after all. She had her weekly jog to take care of (the physician in her incessantly crowed at how little physical activity she got), and then a visit to a certain hardware shop for various needs (new paint, a washing machine, some shameless flirting with her summer fling target).

After locking her front door and dousing her lungs with the first hit of cool Scottish morning air, Claire stretched quickly, donned headphones, and took off to the thumping beat of Geillis’s running playlist. In London, Claire’s weekly run involved a victory lap of sorts. The friends’ jogging routes crossed and they met every Saturday for still-hot almond croissants and lattés. On the fringes of Broch Mordha, Claire found her motivation less clear, but assumed detailing certain quality morning runs for guests was the type of thing that a seasoned owner of a fucking-bed-and-breakfast could do. She slipped her phone into her bra and took off down the long driveway towards the road.

6:00 a.m.

She would return by 7:00, shower and dress, come up with some sort of fancy egg scramble breakfast (another thing she needed to build into her repertoire as a fucking-bed-and-breakfast owner: a series of better-than-palatable breakfast options), and hit the road to the hardware shop by 8:30. Said itinerary would put a cool Claire arriving well after the 8:00 a.m. open and outside the category of ‘obsessive lass counting down the moments until she could see Jamie Fraser again’(though that was precisely where she belonged, she realized).

She was well into the tight-muscled ache of realizing her chosen route had significantly more hills and dips in the road than her homeland when she was practically knocked off her feet by a quick, three-beep blast of a car horn.

Claire stumbled to the side of the road, shielded her eyes from the rising sun at her back as she turned to see what the commotion was.

Jamie Fraser in a pickup.

That was the commotion, and she therefore found herself unusually forgiving.

With her hands on her hips, Claire purposefully straightened her posture (not so much to look haughty, but in a feeble attempt to ward off a side stitch) as she walked to the passenger side of the car. Her heart was thundering along at an impressive mile-a-minute gallop.

“Fancy seein’ ye here, Sassenach,” Jamie greeted her, rolling down the passenger-side window. The car was idling, and he was sitting with a devil-may-care kind of look on his face and his hand resting at 12 o’clock on the steering wheel.

“You do realize that this is the type of approach preferred by serial killers.”

He chuckled, and Claire winced as her side stitch intensified. “It’s Scotland, Claire. There are no serial killers in Scotland.”

“Strictly speaking, I’m not sure that’s entirely true.”

It turned out that it was easy to fall back into this space with him. Flirtation and glittering eyes and talking about nothing at all.

Jamie just shrugged, eyes focusing on the road ahead for a moment before turning to her. “Where are ye headed?”

“Just… down the road and back again. Nowhere, really.” Somehow the statement made her feel silly, as though she was divulging something about herself far deeper than the fact that she was a weekend jogger (not quite a runner). “I try to put a few miles on my trainers every Saturday.”

Claire’s eyes caught an oncoming semi, and she jumped a bit as it passed on the narrow road.

“Do ye want a ride?”

“Back home?”

“Aye, or if ye were goin’ to head into town today, we could make a morning of it. Ye could join me for the coffee that I was planning to drink on my own. Ye should probably ken the bakery well if ye’re tae run yer wee fuckin’-bed-and-breakfast.”

She had no destination in mind when she set out, and certainly not the town, but Claire found herself pulling the door handle. She blushed when she realized the door was locked, felt the flush intensify when he snorted a laugh.

“So are ye sayin’ yes to the proposal?”

She wondered if his inquiry about ‘the proposal’ had some double meaning.

A trip to town? A summer fling?

“Of course. Now let me in, I’m not used to this altitude or the terrain, and I feel a bit like I might be dying.”

Jamie laughed again, tapped the lock, and watched her get into the car with an overt interest that made her blush take on the ready spread of a forest fire (down her neck, across her chest, into her lungs and the linings of other assorted internal organs).

She secured her seatbelt, wrapped her earbuds around her phone, and was awash with the sudden recollection of him kissing her. His hands cupping her arse, the soft bulge of him hardening to half-mast as she moved against him. For a moment they were both caught in an awkward kind of silence before they started to talk over one another–

Thanks again for dinner” melding with “did ye sleep well?” and then “of course, ye’re welcome lass” colliding with “oh fine, you?

In the car of a seasoned driver, Broch Mordha was only a few minutes away. And by the time their trainwreck of words had been cleared to a more companionable small talk, they were in front of the bakery. Claire could smell the yeasty odor of rising dough, the crusty-brown smell of baking bread, and the pungent, too-strong coffee before she even opened the car door. She realized if she was going to make this a daily trip (to stock her fucking-bed-and-breakfast with the finest baked goods), she should perhaps update her running schedule to include more than a leisurely-paced hour-long jog once per week.

As she turned to exit the pickup, Jamie captured her hand. “Dinna get out just yet.”

Claire scrunched up her nose, furrowed her brows. “Serial killer,” she reminded him with a hammering heart, suddenly not sure if she could exist in this bubble with him much longer.


Whatever he had been prepared to say was lost in a laugh that cracked from his lips too quickly, echoed around the cab of his pickup with too much purity. She laughed herself, looking down at her hand in his. And with the ease of someone who had shared more than one kiss with a woman, he took her hand, kissed the back of it, and earnestly said, “Coffee first, then.”

Her stomach did a swan dive off the edge of a cliff as she followed him into the bakery. His hand was a fire pit, and her fingers were positively smoldering in his palm. He had her off-kilter. And she liked it.

“And what do we have here? A lass before 7:00 a.m., Jamie?” The accent was thick enough that Claire had to pause to process each syllable for meaning.

“Dr. Claire Beauchamp, this is Glenna Fitzgibbons,” Jamie offered, interrupting his inspection of the pastry case with a quick glance over his shoulder to her. “Mrs. Fitz owns the wee bakery here, she keeps us Broch Mordhaians all in good spirits. Mrs. Fitz, I found Claire wanderin’ the side of the road aimlessly this mornin’. I decided to bring her along wi’ me. So, she’ll be needin’ some sustenance no doubt.”

So,” the curly-haired bakery shop owner echoed. “Ye were wanderin’, were ye? And a doctor? What kind?”

“I was jogging,” Claire offered lamely.

“Claire is an A&E doctor from the city. She came by ownership of Leoch Manor under some verra mysterious circumstances.” Jamie’s lips quirked into a smile, and he turned back to the case, pressing a forefinger onto the glass. “An almond croissant for me this mornin’. A coffee, no room for cream–”

“I ken just fine what yer coffee order is, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.” Claire rightly sensed that the inquisition into her status as A&E City Doctor had been delayed as Mrs. Fitz launched into Jamie (Jamie with the big name). “Ye’ve been comin’ here since ye were a lad wi’ nae a hair on yer chest and yer baws hadna even dropped, and ye didna have a taste for coffee to boot. I ken fine what ye’ll have. Tuesday to Friday, just coffee. Saturday, almond croissant and coffee.”

“Aye, aye, I’m a verra predictable patron, I ken,” he mumbled, having likely had this conversation ninety times in the preceding ninety days. “For the lass…?”

“Same coffee, chocolate croissant,” Claire managed.

Before she could extract the twenty-pound note she kept tucked into the card pocket affixed to the back of her mobile, Jamie had paid, accepted the white paper bag of pastries, and tilted his head towards the door.

“It was nice to meet you,” Claire said, gathering their paper coffee cups and following Jamie out the door. Mrs. Fitz grumbled something affirmative in response, and they were back out in the cool air.

“She’s a handful, but ye willna have finer bread north of France.”

Claire took a long sip of her coffee and hummed contentedly. Hazelnut. Jamie Fraser drank hazelnut-flavored coffee.

“Ye okay just sittin’ on the wee curb?”

Nodding, Claire lowed herself in what she hoped was a graceful manner to the ground, crossing her legs in front of her. Jamie followed suit and stretched his longer legs out in a way that made her feel utterly tiny next to him.

To distract herself from more tawdry inquiries, Claire asked if Jamie had been coming to the bakery since he was a kid. He confirmed, handing her a large croissant with a snowy veil of powdered sugar drifting onto her leggings.

After a moment in which he studied her face, watched her mouth, he set about explaining that the hardware shop had been his Uncle Murtagh’s place and that after his father had died his uncle took him under his wing. Claire confessed that she had inherited the bed-and-breakfast (the first time she hadn’t used a more colorful descriptive moniker for it) from her uncle, who had raised her. He asked where, and she truthfully responded with a shrug, a powdered sugar-coated “here and there.”

They fell into a comfortable, carbohydrate-friendly silence, near enough to feel the warmth coming off one another.

Feeling bold, she turned to him to study his profile as he sipped the last of his coffee. Other than a viewing of Grease years earlier, she wasn’t sure how a summer fling started. In the movies, it was perhaps a kiss, a touch, a look.

Something about this, though, struck her as requiring a negotiation.

An agreement.

It would be a summer fling and nothing more.

No feelings to be captured and trotted out at some later date as emotional leverage.

Sex (good sex, if she were to wager).

Companionship.

Fun.

Flirtation.

More sex.

An understanding that she didn’t actually intend to live here much into the fall. That her life was somewhere else, her heart inextricably intertwined with her career.

In this story, it was not a kiss, a touch, or a look.

It was a clarification of a moment that had passed, catapulting them together mouths first.

“Last night, when you asked if I was proposing something…” she started, voice trailing.

“Aye, when ye kissed me.” He turned, smirking with a wild abandon.

She laughed, shook her head. “No, you kissed me.”

“If ye get the instant replay, ye’ll definitively find that yer mouth came at mine.”

“You have a tape of last night, serial killer?”

As he shook his head, she let herself momentarily go aglow with the sensation of having bested him in their banter. “Fine,” he conceded as he set his empty coffee cup on the curb and dusted the powdered sugar off of his fingers. “I kissed ye. Happy? But ye’re the one who climbed into my lap and started something.”

Claire hummed, shrugged, watched with singular focus as their pinkie fingers crept towards one another on the sidewalk. “To get back to the point, I wasproposing something last night. If you want… I mean… I’m… single and… Jesus…”

“Are ye asking if I want to roger ye?”

Too enthralled with the nearness of him to be embarrassed (either by the forwardness of her insinuations or the teasing in his tone), she nodded, and then (this time) she kissed him.

It tabled any further negotiation over her forward proposal.

She kissed the corner of his mouth first, then his lips as he turned into her. Their mouths fused. This time, their kiss was slow. Lips seeking permission and her hand flattening against his chest, just above his heart where the sling he was dutifully wearing rested. Sweet almond tongues melding into one another more than arguing. He held her mouth firm to him, his thumb on her chin. Her stomach became a cauldron for a thousand feelings (all white-hot) and began to bubble, the sensation that had resided between her thighs when she woke that morning reigniting. Good God the man could kiss.

His hold on her chin loosened, his hand trailing along her jaw and throat, tracing her collarbones and the neck of her shirt, ghosting over her left breast and thumbing the quick, hard draw of her nipple.

“I want ye, Claire Beauchamp,” he sighed raggedly as he broke apart, a viscous tightrope of saliva connecting their well-kissed mouths. She was floating – her mind too aroused and spinning from caffeine and sugar, the scent of his aftershave lingering above her upper lip, his hand now hovering just above the waistband of her leggings. “I want ye so much I can scarcely breathe. Ye dinna ken what I was like last night…”

Her hand found his knee, curled up along the hard expanse of his inner thigh. “I didn’t want you to kick me out in the morning.”

“I’d no’ have kicked ye out. That’s a one-night stand… not a fling.” His fingers splayed out on her lower belly, rumpled the fabric of her shirt. “I’d probably have tasted ye as ye woke, made ye cry out until ye were fit to fall back asleep.”

Snorting a laugh (her mind a rude motorist swerving from one lane to the other – on the left was uncertainty over whether he was serious and on the right was the stomach-whirling proposition that he did not joke about such things), she kissed his jaw. She wondered if it would be too much to climb onto his lap sitting on the curb in front of his hardware shop.

Before they could broker a next step, their mouths tasted one another, smearing chocolate and almond together.

They broke apart only when a voice called “Uncle Jamie!

“My nephew,” Jamie muttered, rising to his feet. “I canna have this conversation within fifty yards of the lad.”

“Well, I have the memory of an elephant.” Claire accepted his outstretched hand, giving him an unabashed once over. “And you better believe that I won’t let you forget where we’re leaving off.”

Groaning, he shook his head and returned the favor of her once over, his tongue darting out to lick his lips. “I’ll count on it, Sassenach.”

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part VI: SMS

There was precisely one more kiss between them before they parted for the day after the early termination of their curb-side breakfast.

Tucked into the alcove leading into the fucking-bed-and-breakfast’s kitchen, Jamie pressed Claire to the wall and absconded with her breath like a thief jumping bail. The air charged as he kissed her (only after aligning his hips to hers, pinning her to the wall so she could feel each breath he drew and expelled).

Any haze that had existed around the periphery of their relationship had lifted during the kiss they had shared earlier on the curb, in his admission of what he wanted to do to her and the label he had put on it.

Fling.

More than a one-off.

Her fingers wound into his shirt, wrinkled it as his eyes made a meal of her mouth.

And the intention of his touch roaming her everywhere like a multi-armed god (over her fingertips, along the lines of her palms, against her belly and her breasts) felt like a push to an inevitable conclusion.

Towards the kind of thing that generally dwelt only in the annals of history. Reduced to cellulose and set up with bright musical numbers (summer loving, had me a blast, a summer fling that don’t mean a thing, summer nights, a gossipy girlfriend begging for more more more). She needed it. Her heart threatened to burst at the thought of this man (the one with his mouth hovering over hers hers, hands at her waistband, knee knocking her trembling legs apart) stretched above her, pulsing inside of her, wiping away the frustration of the last few months like a hand across a foggy mirror after a shower.

Only then did he kiss her, making her mouth sing.

It was the first time she had been on the receiving end of something that passionate and that needy. He sucked on her full lower lip, mumbled her name, traced the equator of her mouth with his tongue as she sighed.

He had said that he wanted to taste her until she cried.

She could envision herself under him, his tongue lapping at her various pulse points like a saucer of milk for just one summer. Those pulsating places exist on her in an entire constellation of them across her body, places where her arteries would give Jamie a pathway to what he was doing to her heart.

(She cataloged them in an attempt to still her breathing. Her temple. A branch in the path meandering down the lower margin of her jaw. Deep in her throat where he could draw a moan. An upper arm where she was certain she had never been kissed before. Beneath the thin skin of her thin-skinned wrist where she could watch him taste her and would damn her physiology for being such a bad poker player. The soft heat of her inner thigh where her head would fall back of its own accord. The inner part of an ankle that, at least in that moment, somehow felt more intimate that almost all of the preceding options combined.)

Just as she has concluded that she should beg him to touch her, his hand found its way into the waistband of her leggings.

“Just a preview, Claire,” he mumbled. Those five little syllables blended with the cacophony in her ears, and her legs fell open to him for the first time. His palm was flat against her belly, and his voice somehow rising above the tumult in her mind, he asked, “Can I touch ye?”

She whimpered, nodded, steadied herself with her hands on his waist, tasted blood where her teeth sank into her lower lip. He cupped her first, his long fingers melting against the warm curve of her, a single long finger dipping forward to part her. As she balled his shirt into tiny fists, she ground down against him. His maddening finger (about to account for the shredding of her nerves) refused her need for him and instead circled and circled, tested her. She could have sworn he mumbled into her hair (a humid, encouraging that’s it, lass”), and she vaguely recognized her own voice said, “What?

He chuckled then, turning his hand slightly and pressing a thumb just so as one finger obliged (though only to the first knuckle), turned, beckoned her closer to him.

Mind tilting, she opened her eyes, felt a single hot tear streak down her cheek.

“Ye’re wearin’ knickers today, aye?”

“Fuck you,” she ground out, fighting to draw him closer by his shirt, into her orbit (a place she suspected would make this dance end).

“Uncle Jamie?”

“No,” he mumbled, shaking his head and licking his lips. She had known that this was how it would end (not with a champagne pop, but with a dull, aching fizzle), but she did not allow that fact to temper her horrible disappointment that rocketed up from the core to her throat.

“Uncle Jamie?”

Jamie pulled back slightly, shook his head. “I’m going to kill my sister’s bairn.”

He kissed her a final time as his hand slipped from her leggings, his mouth soft and not needy against slackened her lips.

Uncle Jamie?” The teenager did not sound nervous in his search for his ride away from the fucking-bed-and-breakfast so much as annoyed.

Claire relinquished her vice-like grip on his shirt, shook her fingers until blood returned to the knuckles. After a few moments, she found words. “Not if I kill him first.”

“Sorry to leave ye wantin’, but I did just promise a preview, after all.”

Licking her lips (tasting him), Claire attempted a smile. “I’m a modern woman, James Fraser. It’s 2019. I don’t need a man. I have my ways.”

Tease,” he leveled, eyes traveling once down the length of her body and his eyebrow quirking at her feet (one trainer-clad had popped up, like some sort of pre-teen movie fantasy, and was resting flat against the wall).

“You don’t know that.” Lowering her foot, she felt her smile widen (much like what she imagined Adso felt beaming from his chest with his blood puncture-ridden rodent from earlier that week). “Not yet, anyway.”

He cursed under his breath, took the Lord’s name in vain, called her Sassenach again in a way that made the hairs on her forearms stand up.

As he washed his hands in her kitchen sink, she offered to return the favor of dinner (at her place this time), and Jamie agreed, volunteering to pick up a bottle of wine. She noted the twitch in his left ring finger as he dried his hands on his jeans, and she wondered if it meant what she thought it did (that he was thinking, calculating, cataloging).

Young Ian (“my part-time shop helper and nephew,” as Jamie had called him upon their first introduction earlier in the day) bounded into the kitchen with a blinding, teenage innocence. “Yer paint’s all in the front room, Mistress Beauchamp,” he announced, “but yer wee cheetie took off.”

“Don’t worry,” Claire started, offering the boy a smile as she straightened her workout leggings. “Adso can’t be tamed. He’ll be back, probably with some sort of wiggling, half-dead rodent.”

Jamie raised his eyebrows, digging his keys from his back pocket. “Sounds like ye’ve got a charming pet, Ms. Beauchamp.”

“What is it with you Scots calling truly abhorrent things ‘charming?’” She gave a quick once over to the dingy kitchen that Rupert MacKenzie had deemed ‘charming.’ “That extortionate contractor called this…”

(Claire paused on what came next, thought better of her language, pushed aside her usual moniker for Leoch Manor in light of their impressionable company)

“...placecharming,’ too.”

Jamie’s eyes followed Claire’s around the room; she felt his gaze land on her before she was finished assessing a crack in the tile backsplash that she had never managed to notice before. Her cheeks burned at the soft burr of his accent as he said, “All ye’ve got to do is tae look around, put some of the love ye have in ye into this home. Love ye have for anything at all… a sunset, a good book, a warm meal. Take it room-by-room, and it’ll surprise ye, Sassenach.”

Long after her company departed her new home (his fingers had lingered behind her ear as he tucked a curl away and said goodbye when Ian was already halfway out to the pickup), and the dust kicked up by the tires on Jamie’s pickup had settled, the burn remained.

Him.

She washed herself clean of the morning (the alkaline sweat of her jog, the lingering sweetness of the sugar-dusted pastry in the radial and ulnar loops of her fingerprints, the flavor of hazelnuts on her lips), and it was still there. She touched herself until she cried out, her forehead snapping sharply against the wall of the shower as her body greedily sought out the touch of another (Jamie’s). She stood gasping for a moment, her hand still between her thighs as she replayed the morning. The soft sexiness of his face as he’d sought her permission to touch her. The rolling lilt of his voice, encouraging her to know her home and speaking a truth somehow known to him (though he had never had the misfortune of owning a dilapidated, leaking fucking-bed-and-breakfast).

She felt it.

It settled into her bones, made a second life for itself in her marrow. A place for it to dwell and reproduce, become a part of every bit of her being.

But for one summer, she reminded herself.

One summer and nothing more.

Scrubbed clean from her shower and loose-limbed from a mildly-satisfying orgasm (not the one she had wanted by any reasonable measure of sexual satisfaction), Claire donned painting clothes and set about making at least one space in this god-forsaken shanty hers.

“Room-by-room,” she mumbled, standing in the center of her bedroom as she set about her first order of business. She taped off the woodwork and wrestled the bullish bureau filled with her clothes away from the wall like an inept matador. She poured a generous amount of warm grey paint into a tray and started to cover the burgundy walls.

Roughly one wall into her project, a delicate, tremulous meow caught her attention, and she turned. Adso (sans the naked-tailed mammal she had foretold) sat in the doorway with legs askance.

“Where did you sneak off to, then?” Claire asked, dipping her roller in the paint and drawing a wide arc to split the burgundy.

She had ceased to feel even the tiniest shimmering drop of self-consciousness over the fact that she had conversations with her feline houseguest. In fact, Claire had come to a conclusion. As long as her inquiries remained strictly rhetorical and Adso did not answer, such a thing could be chalked up to a charming streak of eccentricity in a solo female owner of a fucking-bed-and-breakfast rather than patent evidence of said owner having lost all her marbles.

When it became apparent that Adso would not answer Claire, thus causing her to question her sanity, she babbled.

About the kiss.

The rush of it, the taste of him on her lips.

That he was good, dammit, and she wanted more.

That he had touched her, driven her mad, made her yearning for him into an uncontrolled burn.

And the biggest confession: that she had left her number for him.

Having not been asked, Claire volunteered, “You don’t know me well, but that’s big for me.”

And it was.

Claire Beauchamp had never handed her number over to a man without at least a one-week-long vetting process with the shrewdest of investigators she knew: Geillis Duncan. Said undertaking usually involved a combination of alcohol, takeout, and Geillis in scrubs with her legs crossed under her laptop like some sort of physician-meets-private investigator. In the friends’ most recent foray into dating CSI, Geillis had performed a post-mortem on the carcass of Claire’s six-month relationship with Frank. With half a bottle of Chilean red on deck, Geillis summoned her primordial powers as a Google sorceress. At her investigation’s conclusion, Geillis declared that while Frank’s Internet presence was “squeaky clean” (no sign of philandering, financial insolvency, or criminal proclivities), she had “nae ever seen a man sae boring, Claire.”

Perseverating on the rather dull “he’s alright”-ness of Frank Randall, Geillis had asked, “Did he take care to wipe his boabie after bedding ye, Claire? Did he carry a wet nap wi’ him for just that purpose?”

Haughtily, Claire had wrenched the laptop away from her friend as she rolled her eyes. She decided not to inform Geillis that the singular instance in which Frank had started to go down on her, he’d asked if she would be willing to “freshen up a touch, love.” She had wrenched away from the gentle suction of his mouth fixed to the northeast of her navel, and asked him to leave her flat. They had never mentioned it again.

This time was different.

There had been no vetting of Jamie Fraser (in the moment she had decided that she had already had her hands on the man’s belt buckle, after all).

As Jamie placed Claire’s order for a washing machine with his appliance supplier (and haggled like an elderly spice trader for an eighty-pound discount), she had filched his mobile. Her sweat glands rebelling at her boldness (slicking her palms and causing her to leave greasy thumbprint smudges on the screen), she surreptitiously tapped in her number, hesitating only briefly before adding the contact name: ‘Claire (Owner-of-the-Fucking-Bed-And-Breakfast).’

With impeccable timing, she had dropped the phone onto a stack of papers, pleased that it landed like a cat (face up, screen black). She was home free even though Jamie had turned to investigate the thudding noise, his brow furrowed as he confirmed once again that it was to be shipped to Leoch Manor, care of Claire Beauchamp.

He had no clue.

A few moments later, Jamie had disconnected the call and announced (with a thunderous clap declaring victory) that Claire would have a washing machine in three-to-five business days, and that he had gotten her “a braw deal.”

She set her paint roller down and stood back to assess her handiwork.

The color was airy but had the depth of a rain-saturated sky preparing to break apart at the seams.

Her phone vibrated in the back pocket of her jeans.

A text from +44 9209 102097.

You were wearing knickers just this morning in your kitchen. Was I being scammed last night?

She snorted, bit her lower lip, and typed: Who is this? Knickers? You must have the wrong number.

A beat. Two. Then three.

Her mobile buzzed, the screen glowing with a new message: You could have just put “Claire” in my phone. I’d have known straight away it was the Sassenach with the worldclass arse and the bed and breakfast.

She let him wait, weaving herself through an obstacle course of open paint cans and her tray of paint to launch herself onto her bed face first. As her fingers hovered, waiting for some sort of divine intervention to guide her to the perfect text to lob back at him, her phone vibrated again: Washer’s 3-to-5 biz days out. Will you be without knickers that entire time?

Claire rolled onto her back, licked her lips, whispered to herself as she typed: This isn’t the type of thing a lady shares. Particularly a lady left to fend for herself by a handsy lad.

He was lightning quick: It was nothing more than a preview, Dr. Claire, Owner-of-Leoch Manor. How do you feel about the main attraction?

She bit down on her lower lip, felt herself warming at the thought (everywhere). She went to type, paused, thought twice, and then posed a question: The main attraction being…?

This time, he hesitated (the anxiety-inducing bubbles of a conversation mate typing and then second guessing appearing and disappearing only to do it over and over again), and her heart picked up steam, hammering relentlessly. Finally, a response: Hand. Mouth. Etcetera. You can tell me what you want, but I think I’m a fairly good detective.

“A palate cleanser. Some fun with a sexy guy,” she said out loud (this time to herself, not to her feline houseguest) as a way to calm her nerves, to staunch the rush of heat to her cheeks.

She rose from bed, stripped out of her painting clothes and into a tank top and a pair of jeans, spritzed a small bit of perfume at her wrists, dragged them down between her breasts.

Her phone vibrated: Claire, did I go too far? I’m sorry. I thought you and I were on the same page…

Shaking her head as if he were able to see her, she bounded down the stairs as she typed: You’re fine. Banter is better than fine. Still at work?

His response was almost immediate: Another hour or so.

She grabbed her car keys from the entryway table, texted him not to worry, but that she had a few things to get done. Behind the wheel of her car and closing the distance between Leoch Manor and Fraser’s Hardware, Claire realized she was well and truly beyond the point of no return.

Her summer fling was going to start that night.

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part VII: Desktop

Claire’s fingers lingered on the ignition, her mind indulging in the quieting effect of the engine’s white-noise whirr. For a moment, she watched Jamie through the window of the hardware shop. He was helping a customer, wrapping bulk twine into small, individually-trimmed bundles as the man stacked other purchases at the counter.

She took the opportunity to wonder what the bloody hell she was doing there. With little more than a prickle of arousal along her sternum and the half-baked desire to see Jamie again, she had driven from the fucking-bed-and-breakfast to Fraser’s Hardware in record time (shaving two minutes off the drive and making precisely zero wrong turns, thank you very much).

And for what?

More banter?

A flirtatious nibble on the lush curve of his mouth?

The wandering, intentioned warmth of the pads of his fingers rudely whipping her into a frenzy in mere moments?

A demand (a request?) that he complete what he’d expertly started and she had clumsily attempted to finish?

And then, the last option occurred to her and made her stomach knot.

Sex?

Is that what she had come here to do?

To fuck Jamie in his hardware shop, to start their summer fling with her body bent over a counter and the coins in the register jingling as he drove into her?

She was about to laugh at the image, but she was instead interrupted by the aggressive vibration of her mobile in the cup holder. She reached for it, lower lip yielding to the worried gnawing of one anxious lateral incisor.

The message: You know I can see you parked out front, right? You may have not noticed this, but the front window is just a big pane of glass.

She looked up from the screen, cheeks suddenly aflame.

He was standing behind the counter, left hand raised, fingers waggling in a childlike wave.

She wondered if he was bringing attention to those dastardly fingers on purpose (the ones he had for the briefest of moments used in a tender, teasing exploration of her body that pushed her beyond the point of no return). The wave seemed like a tease (a G-rated reminder of the PG-13 way he had made her feel in that small alcove adjacent to her kitchen, her lungs suddenly refusing to work as she held her breath, simultaneously willing herself to come and hang on just a bit longer). She somehow knew, in the strip-mined pit of her stomach, that Jamie Fraser, Owner-of-Fraser Hardware, did not do coincidental; he was intentional, and he knew damn well that he was searing her very viscera.

Looking back down at her mobile, she typed what she hoped he would find to be a jaunty, light, flirtatious response: I suppose I should come in, then, so you can tell me all about this “window” business.

She swiped a hand pointlessly over her pulled-back curls, which were somehow well-managed by her hastily-knotted bun, and got out of the car. “Here goes nothing, Beauchamp,” she said, girding herself as she slipped her soft-worn leather handbag across her body.

As she pushed the shop door open, the tinkle of bells spurred the more practical side of her to make an unexpected appearance. It was the part of herself that sacrificed life and love through medical school, that said goodbye to perfectly nice men, and encouraged her to make lists of pros and cons about various life-altering decisions.

And it whispered a certain inalienable truth in her ear: this situation was patently absurd.

As she crossed the threshold of the hardware shop, she realized that it was the first time she had been thinking logically since earlier in the week. When she decided to go home after the impromptu countertop dinner she had shared with Jamie in lieu of walking upstairs to his bedroom (what she had wanted).

“Welcome back.” The burr of his greeting was deep, resonant, and he added, “Dr. Beauchamp.”

Her name on his tongue sent a jolt of electricity traveling up her centerline. “Thanks for the welcome, Mr. Fraser.”

“Aye, it’s always a pleasure.”

And just like that, Claire’s practical side became ephemeral, coursing away from her brain and down her spine and out her body like a teenager slipping down a drain spout after curfew. Her feet, it seemed, shared a mind with the segment of her that was utterly reckless — the bit of her that had texted him, grabbed her car keys, and sent her impulsively (and unthinkingly) hurtling down the road to the hardware shop.

Her next realization was not one of regret so much as acknowledgment that she had gotten herself in deep (the bookend a rather colorful and self-aware internal finger wagging culminating with: “fucking hell, Beauchamp”) .

Claire swallowed, sparing a glance for the customer at the counter who was lost in an academic study of two seemingly indistinguishable versions of the same tool (the name escaped her, and it wasn’t important anyway). The man did not acknowledge Claire’s entrance nor Jamie’s careful inspection of his newest customer. She found his apathy to be a particular blessing given that Jamie’s sparkling lasciviousness had managed to deepen the flush coloring her cheeks, throat, and chest.

“Can I help direct ye to somethin’ in particular while Alec here makes a selection between two verra similar circular saws?”

“I’m just here for the usual, Jamie. I need some paint for my master bath. Perhaps you can help me choose a color? What you chose for my bedroom is perfect.” She caught her (by now) well-gnawed lower lip between her teeth. Still, the man (this Alec) did not look up, spinning one of the boxes and mouthing words as he read.

“Alec, I’ll be right–”

“–aye, go, go, dinna fash yerself wi’ me. Ye’re no’ ever much help.”

Claire’s eyes widened, and she was grateful that her mouth was well-occupied by her teeth. Otherwise, she would have barked an absurd laugh at their present circumstance: an early-evening booty call occasioned by the seed of easy arousal the hardware shop proprietor had planted in her days before.

Jamie stepped out from behind the counter, gave Alec a smile, and followed Claire into the paint aisle. She felt like she lived in that damnedly narrow aisle.

Voice low, and his fingers finding the small of her back, he guided her towards the end of the aisle and asked, “Bedroom’s lookin’ good?”

Without responding Claire turned, cast a quick glance up at the convex mirror above the till to ensure Alec remained well and truly engaged in a side-by-side comparison of the saws, and brought her fingers to the front of Jamie’s shirt. It was a homecoming, really, considering her fingerprints were likely there from earlier in the day.

“I don’t need paint. I have enough paint.”

“Oh? Here to pick something else up, lass?” he asked, eyes narrowed and fixed on her lips.

She wondered if he was picturing what she could do with her mouth as she noticed the heat of him through his shirt, his denim. He smelled just as he had earlier in the alcove (clean, like shampoo and laundry detergent, leather and musk, like from a deodorant that she assumed had a very manly container and resided on his bathroom counter). His lips were parted slightly, and she mused that they looked as welcoming as any invitation she had ever received. The look of him, the quietly manly smell of him made her eyes flutter closed.

Something like that.” Claire realized that she was mumbling, but she could not find it in herself to care. She felt his kiss on the corner of her mouth, inhaled, and drew him closer.

He moved on to her cheek, the center of her forehead, and finally her temple.

“Tell me… what do ye need, Dr. Claire Beauchamp, Owner-of-Leoch Manor?”

Swallowing hard, she opened her eyes. He made her breathless, reckless. She both relished and feared the loss of control. The thought was fleeting, and after a moment she mimicked the pattern he’d drawn with his lips, pretending (hoping) that he had been setting out his preferred route for her to follow across his own face.

The corner of his mouth.

What did she want?

Her answer was simple: “You.”

His cheek.

“I need.”

The center of his forehead (the smile on his face as he tilted his face down to make it possible causing her brain to swan dive into a pool where it swam a leisurely, aimless backstroke).

You.”

His temple (almost).

Just as Jamie was about to marshal a response, his hand having somehow found her waist, Alec called out with a question (it didn’t really matter to her what it was). She was half tempted to shout that the man should bloody well take both of the damn saws and that she would settle up his account with Fraser Hardware using her personal credit card.

“I should get him out of here…” Jamie suggested, voice trailing. From the spark in his eye, the way he assiduously turned his hips to mask his body’s reaction to her, she assumed he was about to let the man walk off with eight hundred quid-worth of power tools.

“You should,” she agreed, loosening her grip on Jamie’s shirt. When he did not step away, she unfastened a single button just below his throat, brushed her lips against the newly-exposed flesh, dragged her knuckles along his stubble-burnished jaw. She marveled at the fact that her fingers were not trembling as she took half a step back. As if their bellies had magnetized without their knowledge, Jamie snapped closer to her, closing the distance she’d only just created. Leaning into her space, he kissed her mouth hastily, incompletely. As he pulled back, she licked her lips, nodded, and explained, “I’ll just be looking for… something.”

“Aye.” He swiped a thumb over her lips, and she fought the urge to score the pad of his delicious, meandering thumb with her teeth. “I’ll be hard-selling a saw that isna meaningfully distinguishable from another saw in price or quality just to get a customer to leave.”

“Go hard,” she mumbled, realizing the double entendre a moment too late, but not before he started to laugh at her.

You,” he said vaguely, shaking his head as he backed down the aisle towards the till and his customer.

For her part, Claire attempted to focus her scattered attention on a towering wall of painting supplies. As she gathered a small handful of brushes for various purposes (natural fiber and acrylic brushes for cutting in - a factoid garnered solely from a do-it-yourself YouTuber’s video) and two more foam paint rollers (she had a number of rooms to finish, after all), she also made an unsuccessful attempt to gather her wits.

Get it together,” she commanded herself aloud, but under her breath.

A few minutes later, she had delved into a comparison of five different angled brushes. It was a process undertaken in the vain attempt to redirect all of her attention from the dull, throbbing ache heating her inner thighs.

But then the unnerving feeling of being watched washed over her.

It was Jamie, looking past his customer at her with the barest hint of a smile on his lips.

It was not like her to be the type to purposefully drop something, but she suddenly became that person without warning, dropping her handful of painting supplies to the floor.

“Oops,” she announced disingenuously, pausing for just a moment to make sure the customer wouldn’t turn. Caught up in a rambling soliloquy about bevel capacity with a patently uninterested Jamie Fraser, it was apparent that Alec was disinterested in the clatter of shop goods or an unknown woman’s exclamation of folly. And so Claire turned, bent at the waist, felt her too-tight jeans draw even closer to her body as she scooped up the brushes and roller. She could hear Jamie’s sigh from across the shop – likely the sound of exasperation to anyone unacquainted with their game. Before her face cracked into a smile, she moved to the end of the aisle and pressed her back to the end cap, thanking the extra order of chips she’d routinely indulged in over the course of her unemployment for making the moment possible.

It seemed as though an entire century had passed before Alec elected to think his purchase over and return in the morning.

And when she stepped out of the aisle, Fraser was flipping the sign hanging on the shop door from “OPEN” to “CLOSED.”

Claire didn’t give herself time to think, and she was on him before he turned. She felt primitive, hips rocking against his, hand slipping into the front of his jeans, her basest sounds rolling up from her belly and out against his throat.

For his part, Jamie gave as good as he got with his hand plumping one breast.

“Ye’re in a load of trouble if ye’re no’ wearin’ knickers,” he groaned as the very tips of her fingers brushed over the base of his cock. “And we canna do that here. Let me explain once and for all this concept of a window, Claire.”

Despite the warning, he groaned when her hand slipped out of his jeans. “Where?” she pled, fingers hooking into his belt loops. Her bun had fallen askance and he reached up, plucking the elastic from her curls. He paused then, his eyes like fire itself as he looked her up and down. “I mean if you want to–”

“Are ye mad, Sassenach? I’ve wanted ye since the first time I saw ye, that plump arse sauntering down the paint aisle like it was made to give me a cockstand.”

“Then…” her voice trailed and she glanced over her shoulder. “Office?”

He confirmed, voice low, molten. “Office.”

With a gentle tug, Claire walked backwards to the office, hoping not to bump into anything and destroy the illusion of absolute mastery of each over each of her moves. In truth, Jamie was right. She was mad.

Because of himFor him.

In the low light of Jamie’s office, he kissed her. Claire responded with her entire body, flattening herself against him like they could melt into one another. She wondered if it would be more than once – if it would become a true fling, if she would be this wild, this desperate each time. His groan broke her out of her speculation. It was an almost angry sound, but based on the way his lips moved up the column of her throat, she knew he was anything but angry. He was needy and insistent in his own way. The sound was a guttural reaction to the strictures of his own self-restraint.

“Don’t hold back,” she mumbled urgently, feeling her body bow towards him as he palmed one breast and reintroduced his hands into the waistband of her jeans. Christ he made her feel positively debauched, though she had the crazed drunk anticipation of a first time.

“Ye want this… a fling.”

Breathily, eyes half-lidded, she said, “We established that this morning.”

It was all he needed, apparently, and the walls shook with the force of his office door slamming. She felt like a well-tuned instrument setting the entire orchestra to middle C as his hips pinned her to the back of his office door.

They became a jumble of sounds and limbs, need and lust.

His hands on her breasts, learning by rote how to draw little pleasurable sounds from her (sighs and whimpering gasps, not quite a moan).

Her fingers warring with the button on his jeans, the need to just see him, to touch him, to learn his shape.

His knee knocking her legs further apart, creating a place for her to grind shamelessly against him.

Her mouth sucking on his pulse as if she could draw from him his very life force when he breathed her name and her tongue lapping at him for forgiveness when he hissed.

“Protection?” she breathed, her hand flat against the bulge in his jeans. He tightened his grip on her arse, urged her closer.

“After this morning, I thought we might be… after I dropped Ian off… I stopped… at the chemist.” The pauses, expanding the space between his words, spoke more than the syllables themselves, and he had the grace to appear minorly flustered (at least for a beat or two) before he concluded. “Just in case we… ah… ye ken…”

“Just in case we ended up closing down your shop and finding our way behind a locked door?” she supplied charitably before yanking her top over her head.


“Aye… or if ye showed me yer wee bedroom tomorrow.” He moved closer somehow, the darkening of his eyes banishing any reticence over the just-in-case condom. He toyed with the straps on her bra, running a thumb along the spongy lace. “I’ve been dreamin’ of this, of getting my first look at ye. Of seein’ ye close, once ye were mine–”

“–for the summer,” she interrupted, supplying him with needless, careless clarification of what may have already been a moot point.

A slight smile flicked to his lips, and he nodded agreeably. “Aye, Sassenach. Mine for the summer. I’ve no’ expectations beyond that.”

As she stepped back from him, she could feel the lies take form in her belly and procreate (becoming a two-headed creature made of nothing more than gold dust and arousal). His and hers deceptions, a matching pair. But she couldn’t be bothered by it at the moment. So taking very little care, she slipped one strap of her bralette down, exposing a breast crowned by the puckered pebble of her nipple. Then she let down the other strap, the lace slipping down her abdomen as she unbuttoned her jeans, unzipped them, pushed the denim down her legs.

“No knickers,” she explained stupidly, as though he would be unable to tell that she was now bare as she fought to free her calves and then her ankles.

“Thank Christ for that,” he breathed. The way he took one nipple into his mouth then – powerful, unrelenting – made her head swim.

“Now…” she sighed, arching away. His lips popped free from the globe of her breast with a smack, leaving her nipple arching, hardened, glistening. He did not stop, his lips finding her mouth this time. In a fight to stave off the fountain of laughter that threatened to paint his palette red, she closed her lips to his tongue, retreated. “Your turn. It isn’t much of a summer fling if I’m the only one naked.”

Jamie’s hips lifted, releasing the iron-clad hold he had on her as he chuckled, nodded.

Claire slipped away from the door, running a hand from hip to breast and giving herself a small squeeze, her palm tacky from his saliva on her nipple. He made a noise then that made her feel like she had just gotten off a roguely spinning merry-go-round.

Dizzy. Loose. Gelatinous.

Claire was hardly breathing as her soon-to-be summer fling partner shed his button down shirt, jeans, and rather boring white boxer briefs.

Jamie Fraser was well-formed. She had seen him without a shirt, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise. However, the truth of him that existed concealed behind his utilitarian plaid work shirts and not-quite slim-cut jeans was better than she could have imagined. His body was different from the other men she had been with – the long, lean, academic ones who bought her beers and who retreated when she tried to make things interesting. Jamie was lean, to be sure. But each line of his torso had a terminus into another arc, another parabola of carefully carved flesh. Each space appeared perfectly molded, curved as a handhold made for her alone (shoulder, thigh, hip, pectoral muscles, forearms, biceps).

He looked powerful, predatory.

And when she became brave enough to cast the route of her inspection south – followed the banded musculature framing his hips and the engraved plane of his abdomen, the path of almost-brunette auburn hair – she felt her heart skip.

He was hard, the thick length of him bobbing gently as he removed his shoes and socks and finally kicked his jeans into a puddle.

When he stood, she swallowed hard at the way he paused, studying her as she studied him.

“Condom,” she croaked, the neediness and greed between her legs suddenly stripping her lungs of their capacity to move air.

Jamie nodded, carefully opening his desk drawer, taking out a small box (a scanty three-pack, she recognized dismally), and fumbling to get it open, to tear a single foil-wrapped contraceptive. Averting her attention from the throbbing evidence that he was ready to get on with the business at hand, she reached for him, pushed a stray clump of curls from his forehead, ran a finger along the arch of one eyebrow.

You’re beautiful, she thought to say, but didn’t, nibbling on the inside of her cheek like she was a mouse and it was the most delectable of crumbs.

He chuckled as the rubber emerged from the packet.

And as he pinched the end and began to carefully roll the condom over his length, she found herself turning her back to him, leaning forward and carefully situating her forearms on the desk.

“What in Christ’s name are ye doin’, Sassenach?” he asked, coming up behind her. She tipped her head just enough to look at him through her eyelashes in what she hoped was a coquettish, alluring kind of way.

“Huh?” she asked, suddenly self-conscious, naked and bent at the waist, almost unbelievably turned on.

One large hand traveled along the crescent moon of her left hip, his other nudging the tip of his arousal between her legs suggestively. “I’ve got the deepest appreciation for yer perfect arse, mo nighean donn, but I’ll no’ take ye like this… bent over.” His accent had deepened, broadened, and she found herself impossibly turned on at the rolling of his r’s, the falling away of consonants. He pulled back from her, enough that the delicious prospect of him having only to press forward — to stretch her, to make his home inside of her — disappeared. “At least no’ the first time.”

“Why?” She swallowed, disappointed somehow as she dropped her forehead onto a stack of papers. He ran a hand from the nape of her neck down her spine, and pressed at her lower back. She groaned at her own brazenness as she arched her arse up in response to his touch, realized she loved the quiet, swollen sighs he breathed when she did it.

The length of him bobbed gently against one buttock, and then his arm was around her, urging her up and back until her back was aligned with his front. A hand found her breast; another moved into the space between her legs.

Because I want ye facin’ me. I want to see ye when ye try to say my name. I want to ken if ye close yer eyes when ye moan or if they stay open.”

Oh God. Her knees shook and she sent a prayer up to whoever the patron saint of hardware shop trysts was that he had his arm around her waist.

“Ye’re so ready for me. Slippery. Hot.”

She mumbled her agreement, positioning her head just enough to glance at him. The sound of his fingers working between her thighs coupled with his words and touch made her want to fold herself in half once, twice, three times until she was an origami version of herself, made small in his hands.

He leaned in and took her mouth, fingers working ceaselessly in a way hers had been unable to reproduce in the shower. She reached behind her, fumbling and uncertain until she could test the weight of him in her hand, predict how it would feel when he fed each inch of his cock into her.

Her attempt at fortune telling failed then, as he decisively said, “Turn around.” His damp fingers latched onto her hip, urging her to turn.

As she pivoted, his hands continued their exploration and his mouth fitted to hers with an enthusiasm that made her feel utterly desired, wanton, womanly. He drew back, and just as she was about to protest, he swept an arm across the desk, sending papers, file folders, a calculator, and a coffee mug of writing utensils to the floor. And before she knew it, he was urging her up onto the desk, drawing her close to the edge, and muttering in Gaelic.

He existed in snippets.

An unruly mop of red curls forming a veritable mane atop his head.

Long legs, smoothly muscled and indented perfectly as if pressed from ancient clay.

Reddish-gold fuzz dusting buttocks and thighs, the backs of his hands.

She reached forward, tracing the line of his small, neat ear and the blunt angle of his jaw.

His fingers (pressing, spreading, testing) weren’t enough, and she felt the moan build before she heard it.

A plea.

“Fuck me, Jamie. Fuck me now.”

Somehow she knew that he was all hers then.

The force and speed with which he filled her left no doubt. Any pretense of a tease had passed. Those moments in the alcove, the playful banter in the paint aisle, the gently tapping touch of his fingers as he’d pinned her to the door.

No.

This was something else entirely.

Precise. Focused. Determined.

He took her mouth, his tongue slow despite the urgency in his hips.

“So good, Jamie,” she mumbled, fingers curling around the edge of the desk as he angled her just so. It was as if he knew her anatomy, his vision an x-ray diagnosing the spot deep inside of her that needed him most.

Her mind ascended a winding staircase as his stubble rasped up the length of her throat, covered her cheek. The heaviness of his breath in her ear, his lips curling around the lobe, made her forget her own name. Everything was in his hands, between his lips and her thighs, spread out and bared for his taking. She threaded her hands into his hair, turned his face until their mouths met as he filled her again and again.

“Let me see,” he groaned.

“Huh?”

She started to claw at him, protesting as he pulled out entirely.

“Let me see ye come,” he mumbled, dipping two fingers inside of her quickly. Before she could summon a response (verbal, physiological), he resumed his even, firm thrusts and started to spiral his arousal-wetted fingers just right.

The bliss was swollen, heavy in her core. It had been incrementally built in every single moment they had together. From her morning jog to the moment he first slipped inside of her. She was suddenly aware that there was nowhere else for the feeling to go. She closed her eyes, bit into her lip, felt the long muscles in her legs tense and draw him closer.

Three more, her mind somehow knew. Three more thrusts and it would be over for her.

She wanted it (the frantic, four-alarm pleasure, the blissful cotton-headed afterglow of a finish), but wanted more. To absorb more of him before she stepped off that precipice, felt the wind racing past her as gravity claimed her. She wanted more.

More than three thrusts. More than three condoms.

More. More. More.

And he repeated it then, his fingers picking up intensity between her legs. “Come for me, Sassenach.”

And she did moments later (after three firm, well-placed thrusts).

Claire came crying his name, trembling, clawing down the smooth expanse of his back to cup his arse. Jamie continued to thrust through her climax. After some moments, she found herself able to open her eyes, yearning to see him as the last waves of the delicious orgasm he had coaxed from her receded. His brows were knit together, his head lowered, and eyes fixed on where they were so intimately joined.

“Let me see you come,” she mumbled, cupping his cheek and guiding his chin up until his eyes met hers.

The moan that came from him at her request made her belly clench and her lungs whimper out a lover’s melody, a powerful aftershock pulsating down his length.

He did, his lips capturing hers and going immediately slack, falling open as he breathed the last of his lungs’ oxygen into her awaiting mouth, a stumbling, “mo ghràidh” that was tender, but ultimately meaningless to her ears in its foreignness.

Afterwards, the stretched and limp latex exoskeleton of their sex carefully peeled away, knotted, and discarded to the wastepaper bin, he carefully lifted her from the desk. She contemplated lodging an objection to him bearing her weight with his freshly-injured shoulder, but she was dumb on her own intoxicated, fading arousal.

“I want to hold ye,” he mumbled.

She suddenly realized that there was no good place for this in a hardware shop. The collapsing of two sated bodies into one another – the touching, the quiet words, the tender teasing that leads to a second round. This. The parts of sex that glowed with the serenity of two people (even two committed to no more than s ummer fling) who shared something ancient, who knew one another’s secret places.

Jamie lowered them onto his office chair, chuckling as Claire grumbled, situating her limbs.

“I’ve always wanted to do that,” he sighed, lips ghosting over her temple.

“Start a summer fling with a foul-mouthed English doctor?”

“Aye, ‘twas my New Years resolution. Two-kay-nineteen.” He dropped his mouth, nipped at an earlobe, smiled when she giggled (a noise she had not heard from herself in quite some time). She realized that she quite liked the warmth of Jamie’s breath on her sweat-dampened curls. “No… to clear off my desk like in a movie, make love to a beautiful woman on it.”

Make love. Her heart skipped a beat; her mouth did not. “Like a porno you mean?”

“No!” he protested.

“Name a single legitimate movie where that happens.” He was silent. She added, “Bikini Chain Gang VII is not an appropriate answer.”

“Ye’ve seen that one?”

“Oh, of course, but I missed installments one through six, so…”

“Aye, the plot must’ve been confusing for ye.”

Claire grunted through her laughter, suddenly needing to kiss him. While before their desktop rendezvous his kisses had been hard enough to bruise both their lips, this was slower, tongues moving leisurely and without a destination in mind. Having been introduced to one another’s most intimate parts, the urgency was gone while the burn had intensified. After a time, their mouths parted and they just sat quietly. Their fingertips joined, parted, dancing to meet again and again. One moving, the other seeking. She was reminded of a certain only-child game that she played in the back of Uncle Lamb’s rusted old station wagon, closing one eye and then the other, itsy-bitsy spider with her thumb and forefinger.

“I dinna ken if it’s more awkward to invite ye home to my bed or not to.”

Claire shrugged, relishing the feeling of being small and tucked against his chest.

“Remember. This is Scotland. There’s a bottle of whisky in your desk. Perhaps you could invite me up front for a post-coital dram?”

She felt his smile against her temple when he said, “Would ye like a post-coital dram then, Claire Beauchamp, Owner-of-Leoch Manor? We can use my finest paper cups or drink from the bottle.”

Truthfully, she sighed, “I would love a dram, James Fraser, Owner-of-Fraser Hardware.”

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part VIII: Sunday Sunflowers & Sundresses

When Claire Beauchamp, Owner-of-Leoch Manor, started to come she did so with her golden leopard eyes open, irises molten. It was only once she had cried his name, taken the Lord’s name in vain, and expelled a muffled kind-of-choking noise that the shades of her eyelids wrenched closed, her body bowing taut with the crescendo of her climax.

This was the most explicit memory Jamie Fraser had of taking her on his desk roughly twenty-four hours earlier.

Those eyes, those sounds.

Of course, there was the sense memory of how sliding into her felt like a velvety homecoming, the salt-lick tang of her throat under his tongue, and the bead of sweat that slipped from the soft underside of her chin to tickle his upper lip. Naturally, he felt unadulterated dumb luck that this woman had stumbled into his hardware shop with her sharp tongue and handfuls-upon-handfuls of perfectly-molded derriere, but those eyes, those sounds.

Though she had been the first to strip herself completely bare and proceeded to fold her body in half over his desk, she was the one in control. A dhia was she ever powerful, crudely telling him what she wanted (to fuck her and to do it now), and his fingertips sinking into her flesh (his restraint shaped like the indentations in her thighs and hip). It was as if between her awkward fidgeting parked outside of his shop (watching her indecisively chew her lower lip as he blindly texted) and the moment he turned his back to her to close up shop (damp palms flipping the door sign to “closed”), she had undergone a transformation from utterly endearing to siren.

To him, some things were beyond dispute: she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

On Sunday evening, he rang the doorbell to Leoch Manor and, not hearing any evidence of a bing-bong echo announcing his arrival in the foyer, frowned. For a long moment he fretted over whether to press the doorbell again. On the one hand, it would seem desperate and perhaps a bit insistent to try again if he just hadn’t heard the chime through the front door. But then on the other hand, he didn’t particularly relish the prospect of just standing on her doorstep like an absolute idiot with two condoms tucked into his back pocket, a bottle of wine in one hand, and a posy of wildflowers in the other.

But before he could elect between his two options, Claire opened the door, her hair loose around her shoulders and a small daub of some sort of sauce on one corner of her mouth. “Hi,” she said by way of greeting, taking the neck of the wine bottle firmly into hand and stepping into his chest to seal her lips over his in a chaste, quick kiss. She tasted like sunshine and caprese salad; she smelled like a scrubbed-clean version of the woman whose body he had held in his office the day before. “Welcome back to the fucking-bed-and-breakfast where not even the doorbell works.”

“Were you waiting for me?” It was a tease, but it sounded infinitely more serious than he had intended.

In addition to coming with her eyes half-open and half-closed, Claire Beauchamp tipped her head back when she laughed. Just enough that the light overhead made a halo in her leopard eyes and sparked the pupils with glitter. It was perhaps the damn sexiest thing he had ever seen. “I saw you drive up. Do I need to have a talk with you about windows and how they work?”

As he blushed, he found himself thinking, Oh for Christ’s sake, Fraser. Get it together.

“I went to Kirkbridge today and picked up some supplies to cook for us,” she declared, turning around. It surprised him that he felt enough homey familiarity in this place (with her) to simply follow without an invitation. She turned and looked at him over her shoulder, a smile stretching wide as she chirped, “I hope you eat shrimp and pasta and basil and bread.”

“Are ye trying to carb load me for some sort of physical activity?”

“Oh, you thought dinner was the main event?” she teased, running the tap to fill a jar with water and dropping the flowers into it. For a moment she fluffed the blooms, arranging the buttery petals of an absurdly large sunflower, as she sighed. It was a wistful sound, the arch of one foot traveling up the back of a calf, resting in the ditch of her knee. He was biting his tongue in an attempt not to ask where that sigh was born from when she added, “We’re going to run a half-marathon after we eat.”

Just a half?” he quipped, swallowing back his question. She set the bottle of wine he had brought on the butcher-block island next to two bottles of her own.

You’re the one who only bought three condoms.”

“They’re expensive,” he protested feebly, realizing for the first time that the size of his package (pun not intended) had sent an inadvertent message. She indicated that he should sit on one of the stools; he obliged, continuing, “And it felt a wee bit presumptuous to buy the thirty-six pack.”

Claire plucked a bulbous heirloom tomato from the small basket of produce on the island and inspected its kaleidoscopic flesh for a moment before setting to work slicing it on the cutting board. “I bought a thirty-six pack in Kirkbridge.” He stared, wondered what it was about her that made his body behave like a fifteen year old walking past a Victoria’s Secret window display (floppy cock warming, swelling until he was half-hard and achy). She sucked a bit of tomato juice from her thumb and raised her eyebrows.

“All for me?” he asked, just wanting to see what she had to say despite the fact he had a niggling suspicion of what her answer would be.

She did not dignify the question with a verbal response, only a sleek raise of a single brow before declaring, “You owe me a tenner for your half of it.”

Without rising from his stool, he reached into his back pocket for his wallet and extracted a five-pound note. “Since ye’re a very egalitarian summer fling partner, wi’ yer sensibilities about things, ye can have five. Ye’ll recall that I purchased a three-pack and will need to buy at least one tube of those wee wipes to clean up my desk.”

Claire hummed, and then concluded, “Fair’s fair, I suppose, though I’d think you would take some pride in ownership over the state of that desk after we finished.” She slid the cutting board, knife, and half-sliced tomato towards him. “Here. Slice this.”

She pocketed the proffered five-pound note, gave him a small salute, and turned. Before picking up the knife, he watched the sway of her hips beneath her loose sundress, studied the way her narrow, finely-boned ankles crossed over one another as she bent and opened the oven.

He wondered if she was purposefully trying to make sport of his endurance, his temperance.

“I think you should know that I don’t bake bread,” she declared, pulling a tray from the oven.

“Noted. However, that appears to be a perfectly-cooked loaf of bread.”

“It’s a ruse. The wrapper’s in the bin. I warmed it.”

“Are ye puttin’ on a wee show for me? Tryin’ to make me think that ye’re domestic?”

“Something like that.” She pulled a serrated knife from the cutting block and shrugged. He shifted uncomfortably on the stool, wondering if it would be uncouth to suggest that he lift her dress (to conduct a well-mannered search and rescue mission for her oft-missing knickers). He arranged the tomatoes he had sliced into a sunburst pattern on a plate. She passed him the bread and knife, made a sawing motion with her hand. “You ordered pizza. It’s only fair that you help prep our meal tonight.”

“If the bed-and-breakfast ownership thing doesna work, ye’ll have a braw career running a kitchen.”

She paused at that, a wooden spoon hovering over a pot of whatever aromatic sauce was bubbling away over a low flame. “Well, the backup career is owner of a fucking bed-and-breakfast, so perhaps it’s a backup career for the backup career.”

The way she said it was humorless — soft, even — like the words tumbled from a self-doubting place nestled away inside of her, tucked away from everyone.

“Ye ken that ye can talk to me about… things. I can do more than flirt wi’ ye, better than clearin’ my desk off for ye like I’m a character in a romance novel.”

She paused for a second, looked into her sauce, stirred.

“I can be yer friend, Sassenach. I dinna need to be just yer summer fling.”

Gasp,” she breathed, giving him a scandalized once-over that did nothing to conceal the uncomfortable look in her eyes, the transparency of her glass face.

“In the alternative, I can keep on negotiatin’ wi’ ye over how much I owe ye for condoms.”

She kept her back to him, sank her fingers into her hair, and heaved a shuddering sigh.

“I quit my job because I was directed to do something that could have killed a patient. The doctor… the man… who oversaw the department made it his goal in life to destroy me after. To make sure my reputation was destroyed. To make my life a living hell. He brought me up on false charges with our hospital’s ethics board, like I was the target of some sort of witch hunt.” Jamie rose from the stool with little intention other than going to her. But as the legs of his stool scraped across the flooring, she shook her head, mumbled, “Don’t. Not now.”

“Aye.”

Claire fell silent, rolling her neck as she stirred, and never once turned to him.

“Do ye want me to change the subject?”

Without making an effort to face him, she nodded and replaced the lid on her pot.

He lowered himself back onto the stool, his eyes trained on her even as he resumed cutting the bread. He ached for her just then, to slip his arms around her waist and to know more of her, to take on whatever pain caused her posture to wilt when talking about her previous life. But it wasn’t what she wanted, even if he suspected it was precisely what she needed. Popping a misshapen piece of tomato between his lips, he decided to give her what she wanted.

A change of subject.

A distraction.

Something that was the thing of friends.

And so he quipped, “Ye ken I’d pay ye back for the entire pack of thirty-six, aye?”

She turned in response. The mascara beneath her lower lashes had smudged, but she was grinning. “Yeah?” He could have been simultaneously sustained and destroyed by the look she was giving him. She’d quite intentionally turned her back to him, so he chose not to mention the bulbous, inky tears clinging to her lower lashes (a rock climber scrabbling for purchase on the edge of a cliff). He focused instead on the easy rise of her lips, how her tongue jutted out just a bit between the straight lines of her teeth, like she was trying to physically bite back a laugh.

Yeah.” It sounded like he was mimicking her, and he was. When he rose, she did not say anything. Instead, she watched. He felt her eyes on him as he took his knives to the sink, rinsed them, and washed his hands. He turned back to her. She’d set the spoon down and was leaning against the counter. “Could ye use a distraction?”

“What are you thinking?” she asked. As he stepped towards her, he realized just how thin her sundress was. How when she gulped in the smallest breath, the dress followed the slight concavity of her belly. How the fabric puckered just slightly around the twin rings of her hardened nipples.

“I started somethin’ that I didna finish here in this kitchen yesterday.”

He was near enough to her that he could see the way her throat danced as she swallowed, but not near enough to reach out and touch her. “Are you a quitter, Jamie Fraser?”

Carefully folding the dish towel and laying it on the island, he shook his head. With only two steps, her hips were in his hands, his thumbs inching the dress further and further up. “A Scot doesna quit, let alone a Fraser.”

“I would hate for you to sully what appears to be a very serious matter of family pride.”

“Aye. Verra serious.” Her dress rising became the gate into a walled city, exposing a scrap of black lace between twin towers of curved hipbones and a perfect, slightly off-center pale pink bow beneath the slight indentation of her not-quite-innie, not-quite-outtie navel. “Ye’re wearin’ knickers… barely.”

“I thought you’d like them.”

He kissed the corner of her mouth. “Ye wanted me to see them?”

“I wanted you to take them off of me.”

Slipping one hand between the fabric and her skin, he shook his head. “Maybe later, Sassenach.”

As one hand worked between her thighs to reproduce the lovely little sighs he had found himself quite besotted with after he returned alone to his home the night before, he carefully nudged the top of her dress down beneath her breasts.

“No bra,” he mumbled, equal parts unsurprised and delighted. “Bòidheach.”

“Meaning?” she inquired, a little breathless.

He skated the pads of his fingers around her left breast. “Beautiful,” he responded plainly, voice rumbling up from his belly before he took the highest, pinkest peak of it between his lips.


Claire mewled, sank desperate, clawing fingers into his hair and drew his face closer.

There,’ he thought victoriously, fighting the urge to laugh at the urgency in her grip. ‘There is that sound.

After a time, she ground against his fingers, her head shaking feebly, a gesture he mirrored. He smiled while her mouth dropped, gasped. “I want you inside me.”

No.” He was firm, resolute in it (like her request was contrary to his every moral). “I want to watch ye. Besides… I’m tryin’ to finish what I started. This is what I started.”

And he did finish it, with the countertop cutting into her arse and his mouth swallowing a veritable litany (basil and tomato-flavored renditions of each syllable of his name, profanity, please). Though it was true – he did want to watch her – the circumstances surrounding such restraint convinced him that his trousers were made of lead. He felt the promise of a flutter on the pads of his ring and middle fingers, redoubled his efforts, realized that he wanted nothing more than to watch her eyes widen and snap closed, her pupils blow wide (a primal response coded into the DNA of her pre-human ancestors).

“Right there,” she mumbled as she pulled her mouth from his, dropping her forehead to his shoulder and reaching between them to cover his busy hand with hers.

Sometime later, as she wilted, he threaded an arm around her, drew her close, relished the feeling of her humid breath dampening the shoulder of his t-shirt.

“Are you hungry?” she asked softly sometime later, when her breathing had returned to normal and the hem of her dress had fallen back to half-mast on her thighs.

Famished.” He bent his head to bite her breast softly, then looked up with a grin. “But I need food too.”

Chapter Text

One Summer

Part IX: Caught Out

 

“Adso… no !” Claire shrieked. 

 

Seated in the center of her dining room table and staring at her, the bulbous feline houseguest looked up at Claire with a single stately paw hovering over the bowl of pasta.  The green gaze said, “ Who? Me?

 

Legs decidedly still wobbly from Jamie’s kitchen counter attentions, Claire launched herself at the table.  But before she could round the edge and wrap her hands around the fluffy barbarian’s grey body, Adso dipped the paw deeper into bowl, dug thoughtfully for a moment, and extracted a single, shivering noodle from its depths before leaping to the floor. Claire was sure that she sounded just at least marginally hysterical as she screamed some mangled, jumbled series of curse words at the beast.

 

Jamie started out of the kitchen behind her, the beginning of a question forming on his lips and hands occupied by caprese salad and a carafe of red wine.

 

She turned to him, sighed heavily, and muttered, “Jesus H. Christ .”

 

“What happened?”

 

“I have a cat.”  She thought for a moment and shook her head, deciding on an amendment to the representation.  “Actually, no. The fucking-bed-and-breakfast has a cat.”

 

“Oh aye? A wee cheetie friend?”

 

Hardly .” Claire tilted her head, flared her nostrils, and refrained from telling her summer fling that she had a rather strong inclination to accidentally fling said wee cheetie friend out the window and into the front bushes.  “The wee cheetie your description , not mine – just sank a cat litter-covered paw into our dinner and went fishing for noodles.”

 

She turned to the bowl, drew it to the edge of the table, and looked into the promising pile of beige carbohydrates with an almost romantic longing.  While Adso had not left a gritty cat-litter coating as evidence of the culinary crime committed, a single tuft of gray fur was wedged like an invasive tree growing from a rather perfectly-swirled, olive oil-greased bundle of noodles.

 

Jamie set the plate and bottle on the table and carefully slipped his arms around Claire’s waist.  Absently, she wondered if he could feel the shiver that ran up her spine at the comfortable familiarity of his gesture.  “We have yer lovely salad, the bread ye didna bake yerself, and that cake in the refrigerator–”

 

“I didn’t bake that either ,” she lamented, indulging a dramatic tone as she let her head fall backwards. She briefly registered mild disappointment that if he shivered at the familiarity of her head tipping back to rest on his chest, she was unable to detect such reaction. “I made the pasta and sauce.”

 

“Weel, we can just excavate the bottom – take the top layer off – and wi’ enough sauce mebbe–”

 

“Are you serious ?” She craned her neck, saw that he was decidedly not making a serious suggestion, but continued, “I heard him rooting around in the cat shit pan roughly four minutes ago.”

 

“Ye’re probably right.”  Jamie fell silent, the soft tickle of his breath on the back of her neck. It was from a quiet, lower-than-breath-itself chuckle that made her momentarily forget precisely what they were talking about. God, he smelled good .  She closed her eyes, relishing the rumble of food words germinating in his chest as he said, “Salad, bread, cake. What more could a lad ask for?”

 

With a quirked eyebrow, opened one eye, and gave him a death as serious as any funeral she had ever attended, and decided to challenge him.  “A thirty-six pack of–”

 

“– aye , the condoms–”  

 

“– you’re welcome –”

 

“–we established that ye did a braw job wi’ the condoms, Sassenach–” 

 

“–why thank you , Jamie –” she cooed. The stretching of his name to three syllables made her feel quite sassy indeed before he cleared his throat and again interrupted her.

 

“–and if in light of yer fixation on where yer kitten–”

 

“–Adso–” she supplied, realizing that she had never enjoyed a man interrupting her as much as she did when Jamie Fraser interrupted her with his banter mode turned on full tilt, his hips pressing firmly against her behind.

 

“– aye Adso – if ye want to talk about where his wee paw-hands have been–”

 

He broke for a beat, his firm fingertips doing the flattering work of inching her dress up up up her thighs.

 

“–perhaps we should talk about where my hands–”

 

Claire huffed an unmistakable noise as a sign that she was discontinuing their continued tête-à-tête ( her mind writing a filthy rain check to cash in at a later hour when they had both been fed ) and batted the handful of her dress he’d gathered at her hips. “Let’s eat,” she declared, purposefully popping her arse backwards between his legs as she reached for the bowl of pasta. 

 

The groan he let loose as he lifted a fistful of hair from the back of her neck, and the kiss he left where it had resided in an opaque curtain over the back of her neck, made her warm initially. 

 

But then Jamie went still, quiet.

 

“Is that a tattoo?” he asked, fingertip tracing the Roman numeral V , pressing tenderly on the single period after the character.

 

“Yes.”  

 

“Does it have a meaning?”

 

Licking her lips, she nodded her confirmation, and said, “Yes.”

 

Claire reached back, touched his hand, swallowed as her hair fell to cover her neck again. Sometimes she forgot the ink was there until it was brought up ( a hairdresser lifting curls to convince her not to chop her hair, that bangs aren’t for curly-haired gals; a colleague standing over her shoulder as she charted with a ballpoint pen-speared top knot ) or she was hit by a wave of nostalgia for the times it represented ( a rare emotional sensation she had lied to herself and declared extinct with the vibrating, scraping ache of two diagonal lines and single round dot ).  

 

Reading her like a book for the second time that evening, Jamie gave her a squeeze and stepped back.  “Eating time.”

 

Equal parts eternally grateful and mildly unnerved at his apparent aptitude at seeing right through her, Claire sat and nudged a hissing, disgruntled Adso out from beneath the table with the outside edge of her food.  Ignoring the feline’s discontent at the present situation, she watched as Jamie poured wine for each of them, overfilling the glasses until they sloshed dangerously and giving her a slight shrug as he did it.  

 

“Sláinte,” he toasted, lifting his glass. She echoed the toast, mirroring his gesture.

 

They ate slowly, savoring each other as much as the meal before them, but the conversation stayed light, airy. She needed inconsequential chatter to put aside the thought of the V burning bright just below her hairline. 

 

After their meal, Jamie asked for the full tour. However, it readily became apparent that he knew Leoch Manor infinitely better than Claire.  With the good story-telling that seemed imprinted on the DNA of all Scots, he told her about Hogmanay at his Aunt Jocasta’s bed-and-breakfast ( snitching on his sister – Jenny – for spiking delicate fruit punch with biting whisky and the beating Jenny’d given him in comeuppance ). 

 

Sweeping his hand away from his body ( in much the gut-clenching way he had cleared his desk ), he recounted Aunt Jocasta’s impulsivity with agreeing to marriage ( her penultimate nuptials resulting in her relocation to some booming oil field in a flyover American state ). 

 

Face soft with a somewhat wistful look, he explained that his aunt used berries from the property to make the creamiest, most delicious parritch he’d ever tasted ( a legend with guests, a recipe he could track down ).  When Claire expressed disbelief that berry-producing bushes existed on the property, he took her hand and led her outside.


Talking a mile-a-minute, his thumb stroking the back of her hand, they approached the stone store house at the edge of the property. For the few days she had been in Broch Mordha, the accessory building just kind of loomed there, a three-or-four-minute walk from the main house, without her paying it much attention at all. Faced with it up close, she stopped dead in her tracks, her forehead cinching together as she studied the structure. It really was quite a charming little place – river stone, stoutly curved door, thatched roof that had seen better days. 

 

“Is this part of the B-and-B?”

 

“Aye.”  He gave her a slight tug, laughing as he asked, “Who did ye think it belonged to if it was no’ part of yer fuckin’-bed-and-breakfast ?”

 

“I have no clue.”  She took two quick steps to catch up with his broad gait and unthreaded their fingers. “I have enough on my hands with the fucking-bed-and-breakfast without worrying about some… I don’t know … some satellite building .”

 

Chuckling, Jamie made an affirmative noise.  Behind the building, a knotted gaggle of unruly bushes were fighting their way through metal cages, and they did, consistent with Jamie’s ebullient representation, bear fruit.  Swollen, bumpy raspberries hung from twisted canes, drooping and fat with their own juice ( a glance at Jamie was all it took to picture him young and toothless at his Aunt Jocasta’s bed-and-breakfast, a bowl of the bleeding berries staining his lips and teeth, chin and fingers ).  Overburdened branches with under-ripe gooseberries the size of marbles had invaded the raspberries’ space.

 

As Jamie dipped a hand into the belly of the unruly raspberry bush, Claire indulged a city-gal-goes-country horticulturist fantasy. For a moment, she entertained making the fucking-bed-and-breakfast not just a pitstop on her way to the Next Big Thing . The image was a Disney’s Fantasia-like hallucination in which her fingers magicked the space behind the storehouse into a well-groomed patch of soil that grew fruits, vegetables, and flowers ( produce to cook for guests, flowers to bundle in gingham ribbon and put on the bathroom sink for a little sunshine as she brushed her teeth ). 

 

“Try one,” Jamie said, holding a particularly bloated berry up to her mouth.  Without thinking, she leaned into his fingers, touching his wrist as she bit the berry in half. His face screwed up and he unpursed his lips to ask, “Who in the hell doesna eat the whole berry at once?”

 

She shrugged, gave him the first smile she’d been able to muster since before they ate.  “They’re good.”  

 

After popping the second half of the berry into his mouth, he made an affirmative sound just as a low, rolling groan of thunder in the distance warned the imminent arrival of a storm. 

 

“Did you hear? Yellow warning on the news – a horrible thunderstorm.  The warning is all the way up the middle of the country.” Her words were matter of fact as she tried on the role of an amateur meteorologist, looking out past the looming mountain just beyond what she assumed was her property line.  For a moment, she wondered if she actually owned the mountain and realized she didn’t even know if one could own a mountain.

 

When she turned back, she realized he was moving in on her, his advance far faster than the oncoming storm.  Appreciating the forwardness that pulled her out of the low hum of nostalgia, she smiled and threaded her arms behind his neck.  “I didna ken about the wee warning, but I have a suggestion.”

 

“Tell me.”

 

The Highlands’ evening air answered with a rumble that sounded infinitely closer this time, but she was not sure if it was thunder or her own heart.  Jamie tangled one hand in the back of her hair and then ran the other along her jaw, down her throat, along the soft valley between her breasts, and over the warm curve of her belly. Just as she was about to plead for him to just tell her his suggestion, he said, “Why don’t we try to get caught out in the rain?”

 

Laughing, she shook her head, and opined, “You’ve watched too many movies, Jamie Fraser.”

 

With a shake of his head, he was apparently done talking because he kissed her, surrendering to the fact that she had bested him with her banter. He instead posed a new challenge with his mouth against hers, his tongue probing the soft seal of her lips.  She kissed him back, eyes closed, and hands on his hips. He maneuvered her backwards and she felt her body meet stone. Christ It was like the man was made for doing this to her.  For driving her mad.  Claire smiled into his mouth as he pressed his hips to her, slipped his hand beneath the hem of her dress, and began to knead one almost-bare buttock with absolutely no prologue whatsoever.

 

Like clockwork, the sky cracked then with a boom, rain-bloated clouds clouds no longer able to contain the precipitation percolating within.  Claire let loose a pitch-perfect squeal borne of a scream and a shriek, wriggled herself free from the forward-press of his hips, and grabbed his hand as she started to run. Her dress felt like a spray-painted second skin of viscous slime on her legs and her breasts, and her saturated hair slapped itself to her cheeks and neck in slithering, unmoving ringlets.  

 

She was light on foot, as though she could run forever through the rain as long as their hands were joined.

 

As Claire stepped onto the first step of her fucking bed-and-breakfast with every intention of showing Jamie her bedroom, he pulled her backwards and she ricocheted into his chest.  His fingers and lips scraped at the curls cemented to her skin, with a crashing desperation. His mouth seemed to have made the foregone conclusion that her flesh was the Bermuda Triangle.  The seal of his kiss broke only as she turned to face him, to blink wildly in the rain. When he lifted, she told herself to just breathe, that it wouldn’t be long until they were engaged in some nondescript act that did something about the urgent ache that felt almost like a pain inside of her – in her belly, between her legs, in her chest.

 

Unlike whatever film had led him to ask to get caught out , it wasn’t a graceful act handling their twined-together bodies up the stairs. Nevertheless, his hissed curses ( Gaelic utterances reminded her of their first meeting when she blushingly undid his toolbelt ) and his soft sighs ( sounds of a man aching to recreate the feeling of being buried inside one particular woman ) made her feel utterly wanted, basely wanton. She wanted him to see the bruises he’d left on her hips, to leave a new mark to discover the next time and the next after that.  She did little to hang on as he carried her into the house and let her slip down to her feet with her back against the wall.

 

“Yer thirty-six pack upstairs?” he panted as she unbuttoned his fly and started to scrape at his sopping-wet jeans. A series of mmmmms and hmmmmms stood in for an affirmative answer. In a film, his jeans would have fallen easily off of his body, but she the reality of his rain-soaked clothes forced Claire to declare war.  Breaking apart, Jamie started to mutter to himself (“ mac na galla; siubhail ”), but it did nothing to urge the fabric down his legs.  Eventually, with his jeans finally down, and his fingers working on his shirt, Claire took the opportunity to begin her own denuding process, but was stopped cold as his fingers circled her wrists with two gentle, but unbreakable rings.  “Ye didna let me undress ye last time. I want to do it.”

 

“Then take me to my bedroom.”  It was as plain as she could state her longing for him at the moment.  

 

“Ye ken what’ll happen in yer bedroom.”  He released her wrists and she allowed the saturated sundress flop down, the fabric unwilling to fall flat and bunching at her waist as he again lifted her.

 

“I bought a thirty-six pack of condoms for a reason , Jamie.” 

 

“Aye, ye did.”  And he lifted her, his smirk just wide enough that she could see the straight line of his teeth. 

 

In his arms for a second time, and helpless to do much other than busy her mouth on his jaw, Claire held her hand over the center of Jamie’s well-formed chest. She clinically charted the riotous, aroused rate of his hammering heart, and wondered how much this man had to work out to be, simply put, fit as fuck . She engaged in all manner of speculation about his sweat-slicked, weightlifting form until his foot sank into the soft spot on the fifth stair up. As his body pitched sideways, their shoulders crashing into the wall and a new round of Gaelic erupted from him, she laughed, her hand slapping against the wallpaper to steady herself.

 

Ifrinn. I’m going to fix that stair for ye.”

 

Quite seriously, she wound her fingers into the hair at his nape, cranked his face to redirect his gaze from the stair to her, and muttered, “I’m independent. I can fix it myself.”

 

“Aye, ye keep me around for one purpose only.”  He hitched her higher, pressed his hand into her lower back as he resumed his ascent up the stairs.  

 

Before she drew his lower lip between her teeth, she smiled and said, “Oh, aye .”

 

He found her room with no help, and removed with little fanfare the dress that had been the source of such debate.  The soggy garment fell to the scrubbed-clean wooden floor with a wet pop! , and she stood before him in her most ridiculous knickers, her thumb hooked into the fabric at the hip.  


“I put them on this morning thinking about you and this moment.”

 

“Funny,” he replied, eyes not leaving hers as he carefully urged his damp boxer briefs over the bulge of his cock, down his thighs, and into a discarded wad on the floor. “I thought about ye this morning, too.”

 

The crude implication of his words was not lost on her, and she smiled. “Sounds like something a truly dedicated summer fling would text about, or perhaps make a call to share.”

 

Or … ye ken... just show up to share?”

 

Humming agreement to the proposal, her fingers fell away from the fabric and she gave him an unabashed once over, letting her eyes hold his at the end of all things. “Come show me what you would have done if you came over this morning.”

 

He needed no further encouragement, closing the narrow distance between them with a step and a half.  Unceremoniously, he freed her of the last scrap of her knickers, and then his hands were on her breasts and between her thighs, his mouth on her throat.  Though from his careful sampling of clavicle and breast, his tongue’s tracing of rib and sternum, she knew precisely where he was headed, she trapped his own ribcage between her knees and shook her head.  

 

“Condom,” she panted, feeling giddy on the slippery need he was lazily teasing with one industrious pointer finger. “You... and your kitchen tease…”

 

She gulped air in – too fast, too deep – and as she hiccuped the first in a desperate series of rhythmic little gasps, she muttered, “ Fuck , I want you inside me.”

 

Sheathed, he drove into her with a hiccup-vanquishing intensity, her wrists pinned above her head and his mouth hovering breathlessly over her slackened one. Her world swam – Jamie telling her how good she felt, the warmth of his thumb on the inside of her wrist, the tingling in her tightly-bowed feet as he drove into her and stopped, ground his pelvic bone against her just so .  It didn’t take long to chase the high, and after he had driven her to a pulsing, clawing, keening, orgasm, and finished as he groaned and collapsed against her, Jamie gathered her against his chest.

 

“Good paint color,” he remarked blandly after her heart had finally calmed to its usual resting space. She was fully immersed in the shapes his fingers were tracing along her shoulder blade, eyes were leaden and her brain foggy. She thanked him for recommending the color in the first place.  Just as she drifted off to sleep, she was struck by the fact that this thing was way too deep. 

 

She woke alone, stomach rumbling with hunger.  Too much sex, not enough food.

 

Touching the pillow beside her own, she sighed as she found it cool.

 

“Summer fling,” she mumbled, rolling over and letting her feet find the floor.  “Summer fling, my ass. Watch yourself, Beauchamp.”

 

She plodded to the bathroom, plucking her softest t-shirt from the dresser and a pair of panties with a more generous cut than her earlier fare.  After brushing her teeth, she ran a makeup wipe over her smudged mascara and stared at herself in the mirror.

 

Along the bulb of her clavicle, a hickey bloomed the kind of purple that would ache in the morning.

 

She took three ibuprofen, drank an entire glass of water, and steadied her hands on the vanity.

 

“Get it together. You can’t play house with this man. You’re going to finish this fucking-bed-and-breakfast, and you’re going to go home at the end of the summer.”

 

From the toilet, Adso let out a challenging, frightfully mournful yowl that made her feel like she was going to jump out of her skin.

 

Jesus H. Christ , cat!”

 

Adso blinked at her, unnerved. The spaghetti noodle was on the floor in front of the toilet, looking like the discarded entrails of some sort of long-intestined creature. Shooing Adso off of the toilet, Claire picked the pasta up with a piece of tissue – knowing full well the amount of cat saliva donning the thing by now – and dropped it into the toilet.

 

“We need to work on professional distance with the hardware shop owner.”

 

As if to say, “ Good luck fucking the hardware shop owner and retaining any objectivity ,” Adso lifted a paw and began to lick, wiping behind ears, along crown, and down nose.

 

“You’re no help.  It’ll be fine. I can maintain distance.  Jamie sure can. He’s gone .  Thank God .”

 

Her belly groaned again, and she started off downstairs with the promise of a nutella-smeared banana and some milk straight from the bottle in front of the refrigerator dancing in her head.

 

At the bottom of the stairs she froze.  She could smell it and hear it – sizzling butter, fatty bacon, and earthy cheese.  

 

Rounding the corner into the kitchen, she realized he hadn’t left her.  

 

Jamie Fraser was in her kitchen, singing along to the low hum of music coming from his mobile, making toasted sandwiches in his underpants.

 

Fucking bed-and-breakfast.  Fucking summer fling.



Chapter Text

One Summer
Part X: Netflix & Advil

Twenty-seven cardboard boxes of subway tile and remodeling supplies crowded the manager’s office at Fraser Hardware.

Sitting in his office chair, a ballpoint pen branding an unseen-to-him blue splotch on his lower lip, Jamie Fraser eyed the boxes. The heaped pile of overdue accounts receivable he was supposed to be tracking down (routinely-delinquent customers who called Jamie “lad” and had an “arrangement” with the shop’s previous owner – Jamie’s godfather, Murtagh) had not gotten markedly thinner since he had commenced his stint as an amateur bill collector three hours earlier.

He had other things on his mind.

Claire Beauchamp, Owner-of-Leoch Manor, was chief among them (bony knees and bonnie breasts; full arse and filthy mouth). The memory of being with her (the soft sigh of completion she made when she finally opened her eyes again after he’d taken her), of knowing that he could coax magic from the most sacred parts of her (a single hand going limp between his shoulder blades and trailing down, down, down to rest at his lower back, drawing patterns with a fingertip). The sensation of his body constructing new organs – ones more elemental to survival than a heart or lungs (a faint “that’s good” mumbled as he slipped free of her and gathered her close to his chest in a bed that smelled of her).

Fuck.

Shaking his head, he put himself back to work, thumb underscoring the next name on his list of past due accounts.

MacKenzie, Colum - £1,895 (net 30, shingles + posting & packing, 60 days past due)

His mother’s brother. Of course, no one fails to pay the bills or avoid a phone call like a relative.

Jamie punched the number into his mobile, put it on speaker, and leaned back while it rang.

No answer, a shift in his timbre to Manager Jamie for the trite message (the tonal change an attempt to forget his Uncle Colum’s pointer finger digging deep into his chest, the whisky tobacco hiss of an accusatory “you” when a thirteen-year-old Jamie had been caught kissing the housekeeper’s granddaughter in a broom closet), a neat checkmark in a column to signify a failed attempt to collect.

He turned his gaze to the cardboard boxes – special ordered and paid for by his most reliable customer (Claire’s brow had furrowed when he mentioned purchasing on shop credit to her; she had simply put down a credit card, saying she didn’t get it).

White subway tile (“inspiration straight from Pinterest,” she declared, holding up her phone and tapping her temple with one long, finely-boned finger). Cobalt hexagonal tile (“it seems sexy, moody; you’d like that shower, right?” – spoken in a time well before he knew how the gray paint he’d chosen absorbed the moonlight through her bedroom window). Gray penny tile. Spacers. Grout in three shades of gray (his Fifty Shades joke falling flat, save the rumpled confusion in her forehead). Brass fixtures (her claim that they may fall out of fashion, but she didn’t intend to own the fucking-bed-and-breakfast that long). And one “bonus” box that he had assembled himself with tools from his personal workshop – tile nippers, a motorized mortar mixer, and grout sponge.

The night before, in a toasted sandwich crumb-covered pair of underpants and a t-shirt, Claire had admitted she had developed her construction plan for the bathrooms based on DIY blogs, YouTube, HGTV, and “common sense.” Shrugging her shoulders, she declared she would try her hand at bathroom renovation in the owner’s suite first. He had only barely resisted the urge to kiss that self-reliance out of her mouth, just to see what it tasted like.

While he had spent a fair bit of time cataloging Dr. Claire Beauchamp’s sexiest qualities, chief among them was that confidence. Fixing Leoch Manor would have been a big undertaking for any experienced contractor, let alone a renovation novice. And, from what he was able to tell, she had done a better-than-okay job with her undertakings to date.

Pen dragging an uneven indigo stripe under Gowan, Ned, Jamie dialed his next delinquent customer.

£312 (net 30, misc. purchases, 90 days past due)

Jamie frequently wondered if he would have more timely customers if he adopted the gruff, monosyllabic way of his grisled auld godfather.

Through the seemingly incessant ringing, an alert banner rolled across the top of his screen.

Following “Claire (Owner of the fucking-Bed-and-Breakfast)” were three bulbous, malformed emoji hands clapping, along with a photograph of the messiest demolition site he had ever seen.

For once, he prayed that the miserable old lawyer wouldn’t answer. As quick as his thumbs could type-type-type-delete-type-delete, he shot back a response:

Braw work. Did you do that by hand? I have a demolition hammer I can run by for you with the tile. Might speed the process up a bit. Need cleanup help?

His heart hammered – he could see her typing something in response, but a prickly, “Yes, James?” interrupted his attention.

Hanging up after a short call with Gowan (promising payment and laughing that Jamie could “just find a solicitor! oh wait!” if he didn’t make good on the debt), he tapped the phone screen and read the waiting text:

Yes by hand, yes to hammer, yes to cleanup help.

As he texted back, one index finger flying from letter to letter, he wondered if this was what it felt like to more-than-like someone.

***

Five thousand.

The number of pounds it would cost to renovate one bathroom in the fucking-bed-and-breakfast.

Five.

The number of bathrooms requiring renovation in the fucking-bed-and-breakfast.

And that was twenty-five-thousand reasons that led Claire to spend six-and-a-half hours sitting cross-legged on the floor amidst the detritus wreckage of her second washroom demolition of the day.

With a chisel in one hand and a mallet in the other, Claire had gone after each piece of tile, every bit of grout. She had disconnected the water to sinks, one tub, and two showers. Squealing victoriously when she wrenched the calcified taps from the clawfoot tub, she held them up like she was Indiana Jones and had found the Lost Ark. Fitted with opera-length rubber gloves, she scrubbed at rusty stains on enamel until all that remained was creamy, clean porcelain.

And when she finally stood she felt every moment of her labor looping tight little fisherman’s knots in her lower back. However, for every pulsating ache, she felt an acute swell of pride beneath her breastbone.

She had accomplished a lot.

Earlier in the day, when she had finished the master bath, she unthinkingly whipped out her mobile to snap a picture of her handiwork– the gleaming tub, mound of unattractive and destroyed beige tile, and pile of dusty pulverized grout – and texted it to Jamie. She only had to chew her lower lip, wishing for the technology to recall the message, for a few moments.

But then an ominous message appeared: Read 15:39.

“Of course you’re the type of guy who has the read receipt on,” she grumbled in response to the technological trail evidencing the fact that Jamie was conducting a real-time autopsy of her efforts. Her pointer finger absently tapped her phone case as she pressed her other hand into the screaming muscles of her lower back.

Just great,’ she thought somewhat morosely, deciding she would create a care plan of vodka cocktail and ibuprofen for her lower back strain. However, to her happy surprise, Jamie Fraser was not only a read-receipt kind-of-guy, he was also not a “and leave them waiting” type.

An offer to help.

And then: Do you have a dumpster?

Flicking the light switch off in the second bathroom, she toddered her way downstairs, wincing with each step and suddenly stricken with the acute awareness that she had nowhere to put the demolition debris. At the landing, Adso was sprawled on his back, front paws aimlessly playing an invisible overhead keyboard. “Of course you never mentioned ordering a dumpster,” Claire grumbled at the chronically disinterested, non-paying feline squatter.

ToolsCleanupSome time with an obscenely sexy Scot in her house. Perhaps those thick thumbs working the knots out of her back until she was ready for something more.

Though her pride dictated a firm declination of his easily-made offer (much as she had declined help for the stair that had moaned its surrender below their aroused, frantic weight the night before), her lower back became mission control, directing her fingers to dispatch a response.

Give me a break. You’re my only friend in Scotland. Bring whisky.

***

It felt like a date.

He made a quick stop by the market – his purchases constituting simple fare for a visit to the home of his summer fling. A bottle of obscenely-expensive Glenturret 2005 (a single malt that reminded him of the imagined taste of her that his dreams had left on his palate – peppery vanilla, red fruits and slick). Though he grabbed and put back a small bouquet, he ultimately concluded that bringing Claire a bunch of flowers on two consecutive days was overkill. He studied the pre-assembled, overpriced cheese and cracker plates for a few minutes, wondering if Claire liked smoky or earthy cheese most, before settling on the most expensive tray that included both.

In his truck, out in front of her house, he cursed his still-damp curls at his nape – a sign of trying too hard, he worried – and checked his breath with a cupped palm over his mouth.

“You’re a goner, James Fraser,” he muttered, balancing the cheese plate on one forearm and taking the bottle of whisky in one hand and the box of tools he’d assembled in the other. He hadn’t realized that the promise of regular sexual activity would make him like this – ready to pounce on a text message, shopping for cheese and crackers and small bundles of seeded grapes, offering to fix up a problematic auld manse.

After shutting the truck’s door with his foot, he looked up at Claire’s fucking-bed-and-and-breakfast, noting absently that the roof was one good storm from making her upper level a soggy disaster.

He did his best approximation of a knock with his elbow, making a mental note to just order a doorbell for her, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

A minute passed.

He tried again, narrowing his eyes and attempting to identify some sign of life through the yellowed-beige lace lining the window panel next to the door.

And then there she was.

A wild nest of curls atop a generously curved, sweatpants-laden body, shuffling feebly into the entryway.

When she opened the door, she looked positively miserable.

“Look at you,” she breathed, her face twisting in a slight grimace as she stepped back to open the door. “You look so nice and so clean. I’m… well… I didn’t shower.”

“Hurting?” he asked, though the pain was evident on her glass face.

After a moment of thoughtful contemplation, she shook her head. “Nope, not hurting. I think they call this dying.”

Chuckling, he set the box of tools, whisky, and cheese plate down in the entryway. “Remodeling’s hard work.” As carefully as possible, he slipped his arms around her, attempted to draw her closer.

“I had plans for you tonight…” she mumbled, a hissing whimper rising from that beguiling, kissable throat. He raised an eyebrow, eyes suddenly captivated by her mouth – the nervous downturn of it and the gentle pulse of her tongue behind her teeth. It was almost as if he had never seen one before. “I should have texted you to rain check this, but I’m not… fit for…”

“Activities?” he supplied, hoping for his own prurient interests in a smashing summer that she would supply some details.

She raised her eyebrows, and though she had a glass face, he wished he could read her every thought with precision rather than intuition. “Right. No activities. We’ll have to make progress on that thirty-six pack–”

“It isna a thirty-six pack after last night–”

“–I know.”

He just chuckled, a hand running up her tensed, knotted back. He studied her then, took stock of the pain that dulled her leopard eyes – a pain that made her look positively knackered. Christ. She was still beautiful like this – lovely in a way that his mind could not yet replicate fully when she wasn’t in his arms, but that he hoped he could recreate by the time the summer was over. A lifetime-worth of fantasies about his summer fling wouldn’t be enough.

“We dinna need to have sex. Like ye said, I’m yer only friend in Scotland.”

She hummed, looked for just a single moment like she may say something that would serve as the skeleton key to knowing everything knowable about her. But she didn’t, shifting. “Anyway – are you going to kiss me hello, you minty-fresh hardware shop-owner, or are you going to fall ill from the putrid scent of me?”

“Ye hardly smell… putrid.” His hands drifted south, gave her arse a gentle squeeze. She certainly didn’t smell good – the usual soft scent of her was gone, replaced by something musky, but not entirely unpleasant. “Ye’ve just got… the ripeness of a hard day’s work.”

Ripeness?” Her eyes narrowed, some sparkle returning to them. “Bloody offensive commentary, but I can’t say that I fault your observation.”

The kiss she got was quick, firm, lip-smacking. He relocated his lips to her forehead, smiled, and then pulled back.

“I’ll get yer tile inside and up the stairs. Go make a nest on the couch. We can find somethin’ to watch on Netflix while we drink this whisky and eat the cheese I brought.”

“No Netflix and chill?” she asked, hobbling back and eyeing the cheese plate skeptically.

“There will be no chill,” he confirmed with a salute. “My hands will no’ stray, though I canna represent that I willna touch ye at least a little.”

As he turned towards the door, making a conscious decision to pretend as though he had not even gone there, he caught something in his peripheral vision. A new expression flashed across her face. The expression was damnedly pretty.

Sixty minutes later, they had torn into the cheese and whisky together while Claire bemoaned her inability to shake Advil straight into her gaping maw. Thirty minutes after that, Claire slipped to the floor clutching a pillow, extended her legs in front of her, and folded herself into a bending stretch until her small hands were flat on the floor between her ankles.

A dhiaa nighean.” If it weren’t for the hollow, aching moan that tore through her, he would have admired the view. As it were, he shifted so one calf was on each side of her narrow ribcage. “Will ye let me try to get some of the knots out?”

She mumbled a vaguely affirmative sound and he started at her shoulders – thumbs working in tandem, shifting her malcontent muscles again and again until she grumbled a relieved sigh.

“Okay?” he asked at the squeak that her posture muffled. He couldn’t see her face, but could see the penetrating grip she had on the pillow. “I dinna ken why a rub feels sae good but terrible all at once.”

“Competing stimuli,” she grumbled, her grip pulsing in the pillow as Jamie’s hands traveled smoothly down her spine and then started on her lower back. “Pressure, pain–”

She inhaled, the intake of breath hissing between teeth he assumed were gritted. He felt the pop! and release of one stubborn bit of her coiled musculature.

“–pleasure, heat, cold. Just depends what feels the nicest at any given time. Right now… pressure.”

His attentions ceased only for a moment as he paused the episode of Downton Abbey they were watching (her choice, a shit-eating grin on her face as though she wanted him to propose something manly, a white flag of surrender waving in his mind before he even thought to protest). As he kneaded his knuckles into the now-familiar, fleshy swell where her lower back met the soft, mushroom-cap curve of her arse, he asked, “Do ye think a hot bath would help ye? Help loosen ye up?”

Bringing herself up ramrod straight, she shifted her position just enough that she didn’t have to try to turn her neck. As though her face were a map to her every ache, he started to massage gently at the base of her spine with a single broad hand. Her toughness faltered only for a moment; a moment where emotion crept in, swirling with the unadulterated pain she was feeling. He found himself praying that he would never see that look again, that she wouldn’t cry as she said, “I tore the fucking bathtubs out this morning.”

“What about a shower then? I think ye’ll feel better if ye get a shower. Ye’re no’ putrid as ye said earlier, but… a nice hot shower, a warm bed, another wee dram, ye may be surprised by how much better ye feel.”

She was a cat, rising to his touch, as he stroked a hand back up her spine to sink his fingers into her curls, to give her a light scratch.

“I’ll even carry ye upstairs. Ye weigh about as much as two of those boxes of tile. I can manage.”

“Are you calling me fat?” He was just about to respond back that he liked her just fine – fat and juicy as a plump wee hen – but her stage production of Feigned Exasperation, a one-woman play, was interrupted by a twist of pain. It manifested in the quick twist of her mouth, and the banter felt dead on his tongue. “I thought you said there’d be no chill.”

“I did.” He stood, smoothed out the creases in his jeans, and extended two hands for her. For a moment he felt like more than a summer fling – wanting to hold her, to help her dry off after her shower, to bring the duvet up to her chin, and to kiss the very tip of her nose as he turned off the light. As if to clear the rioting images of domesticity from his consciousness, he just said, “And I meant it. Every word. Let me help ye upstairs.”

And he did – mean it, help her upstairs.

Though this time, his feet easily missed the pliable, vocal step that had caused him so much trouble the night before.

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part XI: Ben Nevis & Loch Lomond

The Highlands never really descended into a genuine midnight dark. Even in the deepest recesses of the night, a dusky glow lurked at the horizon like pesky metropolitan light pollution, preventing velvet-black from framing the backside of the moon. But the haze of light wasn’t the side effect of urbanization – it was a product of being this far north. To Claire, it always felt like it was shortly before dawn here. Here was the place that she had come to call the end of the earth. And when she woke the morning after her Netflix and Advil date with Fraser – a bit achy, but mostly just exhausted – that dim, distant illumination meant she had no idea what time it was.

After she slammed the first of the day’s ibuprofen dosings, Claire turned to the man slumbering beside her. Jamie was curled up on top of the covers, one foot dangling off the edge of the mattress, a pillow clutched to his chest, and a slim line of drool glistening on his chin. Her heart galloped as she came to the belated realization that she was carrying on whatever this was with not just the sexiest man she had ever been with, but the sexiest man she had ever seen. And he wasn’t just sexy, good in bed, and well-endowed, he was kind and generous. He was thoughtful and helpful – hell, he’d refrained from commenting on her lack of dumpster as he hauled construction debris down the stairs, offering to send an email “to a mate to have one delivered like it was no big deal.

Shaking her head, Claire internally lamented the fact that at some point she would have to face the reality that she needed to find a new job and return to her life.

Those were concerns for another day.

For now, she would concern herself only with the small kindness of wiping the drool off Jamie Fraser’s chin.

With no small amount of effort, she turned and plucked a single tissue from the box on her nightstand. She scooted herself only slightly closer to him before gently dabbing the line of drool and trying not to laugh in the process. Jamie was apparently a light sleeper and woke under her touch, eyes going wide and then narrowing.

His voice was low, grumbly, when he asked, “What on earth are ye doin’, Sassenach?”

“You don’t snore, but you drool.” She gave him one final dab, feeling a little self-conscious suddenly. She added, “I was trying to help.”

Clearing his throat, he adjusted himself until his pillow was wadded up beneath his head.

“How’s yer back doin’? How are ye feelin’?”

“Alright.” It was the truth as she turned fully onto her side with only a slight twinge in her lower back and tucked an arm under her head. She ignored the line of goosebumps those rose beneath the magnetizing fingertip he ran from her wrist to her elbow, and said, “Thanks to my completely platonic friend taking pity on me, helping me get showered, and getting my failing DIY’er corpse tucked in.”

Ye’re welcome.

“So you agree?” Quirking an eyebrow, she reached out to run a fingertip along his stubble-burnished jaw and marveled at just how handsome he looked when he was a little unkempt after a night of sleep. It was the first time she had seen him like this – half-awake, drowsy, near enough for a meticulous inspection.

As he rumpled his eyebrows, she took notice of the gently-etched lines on his forehead that deepened in confusion. “Agree wi’ what?”

“That you’re my platonic friend?”

“Last night, aye, I was.” She hummed as he turned his face and kissed her fingertip, one hand coming to rest gently on the dip of her waist. “But a platonic friend wouldna be worrit about the thirty-four condoms ye have in yer nightstand.”

“Oh, I find myself very concerned about my friends’ sexual health.”

“Do ye now?”

“Occupational hazard, I suppose. You would be surprised at the number of condoms I give out in the A&E. That and my friend Geillis really needs a guardian of some sort.”

“Terrible wee decision maker?”

Nodding, she scooted a little closer, fighting back the grimace that threatened to turn her features.

Changing the subject entirely, Jamie said, “I want to kiss ye, but I’m afraid that we both have the most dreadful morning breath.” She conceded her own unpleasant breath with a shrug as he traced her jawline with a thumb. “And I dinna think ye have it in ye for... more physical pursuits... just now.”

“I mean, I could passively lie here while you fu–”

“–no thank ye. What are ye goin’ to get up to today?”

“I was going to start tiling the master bath today, at least get the tiles laid out with the spacer-things.”

Jamie shook his head, his gaze deepening to a fathomless indigo; the shade would be an impeccable match for the never-fully-darkened Highlands night. “As bonnie as the image of you on yer knees laying flooring or on a ladder tiling a floor-to-ceiling wall is to me, I dinna think that yer Instagram-worthy shower is worth puttin’ another ache in yer back.”

Claire’s dedication to the plan was short-lived. She knew he was right, making a small noise of agreement. “Show me how, then? This weekend? I have other things I can get done around here. I need to know the area, I suppose, if I’m going to own a fucking bed-and-breakfast, right? Figure out the best spots for coffee and lunch, easy hikes and waterfalls, maybe?”

The easy intimacy of his next move sucked all of the oxygen from her lungs, warmed her cheeks to a furious pink. He unbuttoned the top button of her sleep shirt, sank a hand beneath its kelly green folds, and touched her just above her breast. She vaguely wondered if thisthis touch right here, was what it felt like to go hypoxic – a brain deprived of oxygen, a body shutting down.

“Aye, I think that sounds like a braw plan. Find some new things for me, too. I’ll take ye out after I show ye how to tile a wall.”

Her breath hitched.

“Like a date?”

“Aye,” he confirmed, his fingertips tracing the outside of one breast. “Like a date.” His gaze moved up her throat to her mouth, and then his eyes caught hers. “Tell me if this isna okay?”

“No,” she mumbled, letting her palm find the curve of his well-muscled shoulder through his t-shirt. “I mean, yes, not that it isn’t okay, it’s… just yes, I’ll tell you.” 

Huh?” he intoned, smirking in a way that made it apparent he knew full well what he was doing to her.

She exhaled slowly as the pads of his fingers swept the northernmost coastline of one still-soft nipple. Her wits were scattered in a blast pattern across the bedroom floor, and she swallowed to muster the four syllables he was looking for to continue his exploration: “It is okay.”

“Ye ken something, Claire? I’ve lived in Scotland my whole life. Most of it here in Broch Mordha.”

Something she recognized as mmmmmhmmm came from her then, her short, tile-demolition battered fingernails scraping down his biceps.

“I can help ye figure out where to go on yer wee adventure… help ye draw a map.”

He rose up onto his elbow, removed his hand from her sleepshirt, and urged her onto her back. With a leopard’s grace and an eagle’s wingspan, he went to his knees, peeled back the duvet, and reached for one of her ankles.

“Over here, to the east...” he started, planting her right foot flat on the bed and then tapping her knee, “that’s Edinburgh. An anchor for braw Alba.” He moved to the end of the bed and took her other ankle. As he placed her left foot a fair ways apart from the right. “And then over on the west, ye’ve got Glasgow – yer other bonnie knee. They’re no’ but a short train ride apart, an even shorter drive, but ‘tis an entire world of difference in culture and vibe.”

He glanced up at her. As a result, she realized she couldn’t have cared less about Scotland’s great metropolises and their treasures if she tried. Lungs working overtime, she realized she was awash with sensation in places she had not realized could feel – trembling in the whippet-like bones of shins, sweating along the soft inner ditch of her elbows, going dark in her peripheral vision like a wayward Instagram filter.

“Have ye been to Edinburgh, by the way? To Glasgow?”

“Only Edinburgh,” she mumbled as he rose between her legs. His movements were slow, studied.

“Ye keepin’ up? I intend to make ye a map that ye’ll never forget.”

Incapable of anything other than vaguely confirmatory body language, she nodded, her hand lifting from the duvet to twirl meaninglessly in the air, like a royal calling the next commoner to approach the throne with an ordinary man’s grievance.

Good.”

Jamie’s fingers went to her left knee, traced the small scar over her kneecap. Something inside of her wanted him to ask about the silver, serpentine blemish – how it happened, when – and to put a kiss there on that spot of flesh that never tanned. To make a belated overture for her to feel better soon, just so she could whisper that it didn’t hurt, not anymore anyway.

“Ye really should make it a point to go to Glasgow. Shipbuilding town, ye ken? Verra industrial, metropolitan in a way, but lived in. It still seems like everyone kens everyone else’s business, but no’ in an intrusive kind of way. At least it was when I was at the University.”

He paused, one hand on each of her knees and his gaze traveling from one to the other once and then twice before he looked back up to her face.

“If we’re drawin’ our wee map to scale… Glasgow and Edinburgh are a wee bit further apart than this…”

He urged her knees further apart, spread her feet into what would have been a boxer’s readied fighting stance if she were to stand. Her toes curled into the duvet in anticipation of his execution of whatever intention he quite clearly had developed, but she could not quite pinpoint.

“Falkirk’s kind of… here.” He traced from Claire’s knee up her bare thigh, pushed her sleep shirt up, hovered geographically-minded fingertips over the cotton at her hip, and finally tapped her navel. Claire thanked her back for aching enough the night before that she hadn’t bothered with sleep pants or shorts. Leaning forward, Jamie placed the softest, featheriest kiss there above the waistband of her knickers. It painted her insides crimson – her belly and intestines, her heart and lungs, the elliptical boning of each rib. “The wheel, the Kelpies, a chateau…”

His fingers started a Hobbit’s journey north until the tips brushed the deepest curve of her waist, her ribcage bowing to his touch like he was drawing a reverse curtsy from her body.

“Stirling’s braw, too. The castle, there’s a wee auld cemetery.” One fingertip traced a bending trail back down to her navel. “It’s got a beautiful view, winding cobbled roads.”

She wanted to discover what existed just south of what he had designated as Stirling, but she found herself just barely above cheating on her geography lesson, above begging for an answer.

“Is this helpful?” he inquired, ever the supportive tutor. He asked it with such an understated, inquiring tone that had she not seen his smirk, she would have thought it was a genuine question.

Pursing her lips, she nodded, his fingers having a mesmerizing, gravitational pull for her eyes. Having the sexiest man she had ever seen fingerpaint a meandering map across her body was barely a hardship. Fighting the urge to take matters into her own hands despite her achy lower back, she obliged him with a one-word answer: “Very.”

“Oh, good. I’ll keep going. I was thinkin’, Sassenach, ye could put together a wee map of attractions and sights on the way from Glasgow or Edinburgh up here to Leoch Manor. So yer visitors would have somewhere to stop and sightsee on their way north, ye ken.”

As he turned his attention to each button, starting at the bottom, he told her about Cairngorms National Park – the fifty-five munros that lived there like ancient, slumbering giants (victoriously explaining he had bagged all of them in his mid-twenties with his brother-in-law Ian), the endless places to hike and climb and ski, the dark sky park, and Loch an Eilean for a picnic. He had reached the bottom button, and promised to provide more information for her, but that their tour had to move on.

For her part, Claire remained still except for the careful raising of her hands to touch his forearms as he parted the unmoored hems of her sleep shirt.

“Ye have verra fine skin, Sassenach,” he said softly. “Like pearls and opals.” He reached out a finger and very gently traced the line of her jaw. And then her neck. As he reached her collarbone, he said, “Here we are. At yer fuckin-bed-and-breakfast in Broch Mordha. Christ, ye really do have a lot of verra fine skin.”

He leaned in, his right hand dropping anchor to the mattress as he lowered his mouth to her left breast, tongue swirling flat, broad strokes and his lips loose. Uselessly, she whimpered, fingers going to the curls at his nape and tangling there. Just as she was about to beg for something more, his left hand started the lazy work of a single-handed removal of her knickers – one hip down to mid-thigh and making a lopsided spectacle of one hip bone, then the other side made its way down. She decided to help the process, biting back the hiss that rose from her throat when her lower back protested her arch. Rather than removing her knickers, though, he just lowered the fabric to rest below the swell of her arse. Abandoning his pursuit like he had nowhere near enough attention for the multidisciplinary task of tasting her breast and removing her knickers, his hands went to her sides. When he carefully pulled back, his lips made a popping sound as they unsealed from the gathered pucker of her nipple.

“We can call thatright there, Ben Nevis… the King of the Mountains. Or the Queen. Whichever.”

She had a vague thought of calling him King of Men, but suppressed it as he kissed the underside of her breast, mouth trailing to the center of her body.

“‘Tis the mountain with its head in the clouds, Sassenach…”

She tipped her head back as his lips closed over the peak of her other breast. When he pulled back, apparently content that sufficient attention had been paid, he wiped his chin. “I dinna drool just in my sleep.”

“That is cheesy.” With a quirked lip, he recentered himself over her, eyes on her mouth. She added, “You should probably take your shirt off.”

A single eyebrow migrated north. “I dinna need to take off my shirt for what I have planned for ye.”

Her heart became a thunderous steam engine, pumping away in the hollow part of her chest, fingertips touching the rough, ringed collar of his t-shirt. “And what do you have planned, my Summer Fling?”

“I have been thinking about this for awhile now,” he said, with keen anticipation, her parting shot at him a forgotten statement consigned to the bottom of a bargain bin. “Every night, going home to my bed, then having ye on that godforsaken desk. I thought it all out, just what I would do, did I have ye naked and willing, no one hearing, and room enough to serve ye suitably.”

“Well, I’m willing enough,” she mumbled, intrigued and despairing a bit over her morning breath. “And there’s room, certainly. As for naked… I’m getting there.”

“Aye, ye are. Christ, just to see ye like this, spread out beneath me… to feel ye like this...” Morning breath notwithstanding, he gave her a quick kiss. He lowered his eyes, ran a hand down her centerline until it dipped beneath the waistband of her knickers. “Steps one through five are done, and apparently ye’re ready for what comes next.”

“I trust you,” she blurted out, unable to stop herself. If her cheeks had not already been saturated in blotchy tones of pink and red, they would have flushed. It seemed forward, out of place in the natural storytelling progression of whatever it was that they were doing. He gave her a look that she couldn’t place. His face could be as unreadable as hers could be transparent, it seemed. She found herself questioning whether a declaration of trust was the sort of thing that had any place in a summer fling when, before she could quite register what was happening next, her panties were winding their way down her legs – over thighs (identified with reference to motorways) and knees (confirming the locations of Edinburgh and Glasgow), down shins (becoming coastlines traced by thumbs and cotton), and finally feet (lowlands to be explored at a later date).

“Should ye wish to kick yer legs a bit, or make lewd motions wi’ yer hips, I should have no great objection, but I’ll ask that ye mind the fact that I’m about to be face-first, conducting a thorough exploration of what we can call Loch Lomond National Park.”

Her breath caught, and his mouth was moving north from one city (Edinburgh, Glasgow, she could not tell which because her typically handicapped sense of direction had been entirely over-ended) – the inside of a knee and then a thigh, his hand pressing the other city into the duvet to make room for his shoulders. He detoured from the route she desired most, traveling along the ridge of her hipbone and then cutting across to its twin.

“Jamie,” she groaned, touching for a second time the unruly mop of curls atop his head. “Please.”

He scraped teeth down the second hipbone and focused a single, smacking kiss below her navel as one hand came to cup her, cupping her, like he was investigating the ripeness of a late-summer peach at the market. “This… this… is what I was thinking.”

She jerked her hips a bit as one finger sank forward, parting her, relocating itself, and then curling.

“And that is what I meant by a lewd motion wi’ yer hips… ye’re a verra good listener.”

A year seemed to pass, and in that time, Claire found herself completely incapable of internalizing a single word that Jamie said. Another year passed, and his breath was rolling over her in muggy, heavy waves as his morning-lazy fingers worked.

But then – oh then – the slippery, velvet seal of his mouth closed over her, his tongue dragging from the place where his fingers joined them up, up, up, until it felt like the bed had fallen out from beneath her.

As she slapped the duvet and wound the fabric into her fists, it came to her suddenly. The realization that in her years of late-night, indiscriminate, co-ed study group fucks (atop made single mattresses with her breasts threaded through the neck of her shirt), she had never been this person. The recipient of a flat, insistent, warm tongue that belonged to someone truly gifted. The woman made immortal by a man who was good at his craft.

Every curse word she knew slammed against her vocal cords as her hips fought the gravity of his mouth. “I can’t,” she panted eventually, shaking her head as though it would rid her limbs of the sensation that this was too much.

With a steadying hand on her hip, he looked up at her and shook his head. “Trust me.”

His curls tickled her belly and thighs as they lifted to entrap his temples. She vaguely wondered if he could feel her heart hammering with his tongue, if he could taste each pulsing beat, if the organ had migrated and was just within reach of the straight line of teeth he assiduously kept away from her flesh.

Then everything converged, pushing her over the edge.

The sound of him working against her (the same moan that built in his belly before he came coupling seamlessly with the graphic sound of a mouth tasting that last of the summer’s peaches).

The not altogether unpleasant feeling of his chin’s stubble tickling her (a tingle that blurred her body into a mass of indecipherable cells).

The windshield wiper stroke of two fingers against her most sensitive spot (inside, he was crawling inside of her).

For the first time since she’d arrived in Scotland, things went midnight dark. London didn’t exist, she wasn’t unemployed. The fucking-bed-and-breakfast was the only place on earth.

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part XII: Non-Negotiable

In possession of an achy back and glowing cheeks (a testament to the particular skills of one Dr. James Fraser, Professor of Scottish Geography, and two thorough lessons), Claire decided to take a break from the fucking-bed-and-breakfast.

Jamie was sketching a map on a piece of notebook paper. The final destination was a “bonnie wee art gallery” that he loved. It was his first bona fide map, roughed out with a rapidly-browning apple core in his right hand and a dull pencil in the left (the perfect slant of it making Claire wonder if his mother had worked with him on his penmanship).

As he marked an asterisk where she could find “the brawest chipper on the mainland,” Claire declared that she was quite looking forward to replacing the sun-bleached “art” collecting dust on the walls.

Jamie concurred, starring the gallery’s location before declaring, “No offense to my Aunt Jocasta, but this place could use some art that doesna involve funeral urns filled with flowers or grouse-hunting spaniels.”

Taking the completed map, Claire smiled at the script along the top of the page – “Claire’s Map by Jamie.” The possibility of confusing the piece of notebook paper with its neat, masculine writing for anything else was less than zero. Even upon her cursory review, it was a rather complete survey of the northernmost coast of Scotland’s finest gems.

As Claire studied the map Jamie kissed her on the temple and bent over to wrangle his work boots. She glanced up from the map, commeting, “It looks far.”

“It is far.” His eyes were focused on his laces – looping them, tying them with swooping, sure fingers. “But ye’ll like it. I’ve been to that gallery at least a dozen times.”

“Do you have a busy week?” she asked, setting the map aside and taking a bite of her rapidly cooling toast. With a mouthful of carbs, she was only barely able to keep herself from asking him to come along.

“Aye, I’ve got some commitments that are non-negotiable – they can’t be moved.”

It was the first time she had heard this tone from him.

Aloofness.

Distance.

Part of her wanted him to volunteer to come along.

To agree to blow off work and ride along with the windows down.

To become complicit in an impromptu holiday by checking into some small-town accommodations (his left hand signing the registry with his name as her wanderlusting hand threaded into his back pocket).

To take her out to dinner in her favorite dress (a jersey knit thing that looked great even after being wadded up at the bottom of a bag or a hotel room floor), to ask her questions about her life (the kinds of inquiries that would allow her lungs to deflate from telling the story about the end of her job, making her instantly feel lighter, unburdened).

To help deplete their cache of condoms until the pack reached some arbitrary number in the twenties (not fighting the telltale moan of a bed frame beneath an amorous couple and feeling embarrassment only the next morning over breakfast with the owner), to ache between her thighs come their return to Broch Mordha.

But instead of volunteering to be her co-pilot, Jamie kept at his boots and shrugged. “It’s a three-hour drive, but ye can stop on the way up and take a different way back.”

She folded the map in half twice, slipped the page into the breast pocket of her buttoned sleep shirt, and declared that she would make an overnight of it.

He had a chance to speak up, but she did, too.

“Maybe make it two? Ye’ll get a better chance to see things.”

Raising her eyebrows, she wished she could get a better read on him. On his tone, what the tight line of his upper lip meant, on whether she was reading too far into this fling.

Before she could commit herself to any particular course of action, Jamie asked, “Do ye need someone to feed the cheetie?”

Claire glanced to the corner of the kitchen where Adso was crouched and facing the wall. Furrowing her brows, she decided it best not to declare her callous conclusion that whatever exsanguinated animal was likely pinned beneath the cat’s rapt attention was likely food enough.

“I would pay you to stop by and give the cheetie a can of wet food tonight and one in the morning.”

“Ye’ll make me feel like a gigolo if ye start to pay me.”

At that, Claire had the good sense to blush furiously before meeting his eyes and narrowing her own. “It’s not like I’d leave some bills on the nightstand.”

He chuckled at that, smoothing his slim-cut jeans over the top of his boots and beginning a careful process of rolling his button-up shirt over his forearms until it was cuffed at the elbows.

Besides… this morning notwithstanding, I give as good as I get, usually. I generally reciprocate. No need for a monetary transaction.”

Raising his eyebrows, Jamie rose and stepped closer. “If I ever make it down to England, ye’ll have to return the favor. Give me the full tour.”

At that, the piece of paper in her breast pocket seemed to get heavier, take on a new life – a precisely folded paper airplane struggling to fly.

It sounded a little choked when Claire responded with an uneven “you wish.”

She took her own step nearer to him.

“Drive safe, will ye please?”

Adopting his vernacular, she whispered, “Aye.”

In her mind, she added a willowy “but I’ll miss you.”

And when their lips closed in on each other, Claire found herself fully convinced that in a different place, at a different time, this would be the kind of thing that would get her addicted; the kind of thing that would turn into a relationship.

For more than a moment, she indulged the fantasy.

James Fraser with that accent in London making her ears perk up in a pub. The mildly-harassed look she always had about her when she had a long day melting away at the sight of him. Their courtship would be one that occurred in slow motion, culminating in Jamie seeing the most intimate thing about her – that the inside of her flat was mostly barren, devoid of family photographs or things, a bachelorette pad of someone who dedicated her existence to science and others, rather than cultivating a life.

Over time, the space would transform with his help – a photograph here or there, a pair of brown leather house shoes by the front door that were his, a refrigerator with sticky-backed love notes and souvenir magnets from various places they had visited together (a jaunt over to the Tower of London on a lark and not far away from home and his indulgence in a cruise of Loch Ness culminating with a jaunt through the tourist gift shop).

As he deepened the kiss and grumbled a protest about his fuckin’ hardware shop ruining his ideal Tuesday morning, she set the fantasy free from reluctant fingers and reminded herself of reality before chasing the flavor of his mouth.

He lived here.

She lived there.

It was almost as if an entire universe existed in those 620-or-so miles.

Claire left Broch Mordha intent on living out of a single bag for two nights.

She spent two days exploring the area north of the bed-and-breakfast.

She visited castles with unblinking, glassy-eyed deer heads mounted above intricately-carved doors. She followed roped pathways that led her through impressive velvet-curtained salons and into gardens that seemed to stretch limitlessly into misty gray nothing. She rolled her fingers around the circumference of heavy blooms, collecting dew and calling to mind the Latin names for various flora.

Her zig-zagging path through damp grass on the grounds of ruined abbeys and fortresses soaked her jeans from hem to calf. She inspected imposing gothic headstones that stood witness to centuries of Sutherlands, Morgans, and MacKays.

On Jamie’s map, she jotted down the locations she liked the most, allowed herself to envision a useful guide to bed-and-breakfast patrons about the secrets that this part of Scotland held.

In the small bed-and-breakfast that Claire had reserved on a stopover while driving north, she laid on her back with her damp socks and sodden jeans laid out in front of a cozily-crackling fire. After a bit of incoherent and disorienting dozing, she scrolled through the day’s photographs.

She wondered if Jamie would be bored by her short road trip. Visiting places he had seen half a dozen times. Watching her crouch in soil as she cursed, body going unsteady in her assumed position. Perhaps he’d chuckle as she snapped one picture, gave it a look, and retook it until she had half a dozen highly similar photographs of a single flower.

Or perhaps he would light up seeing his boyhood haunts through adult eyes, seeing someone appreciate all of the thoroughly Scottish things that he loved.

She typed a text, chewing her lower lip.

Just about to grab some dinner at this very well-maintained B&B (fuck these elderly show-offs very much). Here’s the day…

And she sent a stream of photographs.

Scottish bluebells, fat and drooping under morning dew.

The drawing room in the castle with its giant, beachball-sized globe and scrolls of paper under glass.

A portrait of a clan chief and his doe-eyed son, both in tartan and furs, a very alert-looking spaniel spread out at their feet with a pile of limp-necked pheasants. Claire added commentary to that particular photo – The kid looks like he knows he’s going to meet an untimely end and haunt this place. Do you agree? Circle one: Yes/Yes?

A clandestine shot of the bed-and-breakfast owners – the woman’s white permanent almost glowing silver under the elaborate foyer chandelier, and the man’s carefully-pressed khaki trousers hitched up well over his waist by suspenders with the Scottish flag on each shoulder. Claire composed and deleted a single comment: Aren’t the two of them the cutest?

Then she decided not to send that particular photograph.

__________________________________________

It was a good thing that Claire had left for a jaunt up the coast.

Jamie didn’t want to explain this to her, at least not yet.

Jenny greeted him at the door, and he realized he was living a life with multiple compartments for the first time in what felt like years. A life separate from his family, from the obligation of helping to raise his nephew. He held his jacket out to his sister, who scoffed at him and rolled her eyes. “Do ye think I’m here to serve ye? Ye’re as daft as ye are handsome.”

Jamie flushed and rolled his own eyes in response. He could usually hold his own, but his sister had a pointed way of making him feel every one of the three years she had on him.

“Where’s Ian?”

At that, the light in her eyes fell like shooting stars plummeting towards earth, losing steam in their fight against the atmosphere. It wasn’t clear to Jamie if they fell because she was thinking about her son or her husband.

“Upstairs.” Her voice was bland, tone low, and eyes glancing up the staircase. “Today’s hard for him.”

Jamie nodded, hanging his coat up on one of the pegs by the front door.

It was hard on all of them.

And if the lad was feeling even a sliver of what had come into existence in Jamie’s chest upon waking alone in his own bed that morning (a throbbing heart attack-like grip pulling him out of bed and to the window, to fumble with the latch and drop his jaw only to groan into the sunrise), it was a miracle he was able to stand on his own two feet.

“I asked what I could do. He just shrugged. He was up cryin’ early this morning, and he wouldna say anythin’ to me. I didna mention it to the lad over breakfast, but I think it means that he needs you, and not his mam.”

“He doesna want to talk about it, Jen. He wants someone to sit adjacent to him and play video games and eat trash wi’ him.” Jamie tilted his head towards the canvas bag of assorted teenager-friendly junk food he’d managed to rustle up before coming over. He knew that Ian’s feelings about the situation would not, and could not, be solved by a few cans of Irn Bru, pulled pork and prawn cocktail crisps, or two oversized bags of disgustingly-soft Jelly Babies, but it wouldn’t hurt his nephew anymore than he already was hurting.

After a moment, Jamie caught his sister’s eyes in the mirror.

Her blue-black hair was cinched back quite severely and she was pale, hollowed out as though her feelings about this day had whittled her already-trim frame to nothing. She looked like a softer version of their father like this – the same high cheekbones and small forehead, connected earlobes and thin upper-lip not painted with her usual red gloss. Most of all, she looked tired, a word he knew better than to ascribe to a woman, let alone a woman thrown backwards through time and back into the throes of her mourning.

“What about you?” he inquired softly. She didn’t have the same knack as their father for going sphinxlike. Jen wore her emotions on her sleeve – she burned hot and hardened when cold, but she was readable. Like a book.

The responsive smile she offered Jamie was weak, lifting only one corner of her mouth like a sleepy drawbridge in dereliction of its duty. “What about me?”

“How are you doing with it?” he clarified, not wanting to argue over whether she knew his meaning damn well.

She paused, her breath hitching as words started to come out of her mouth, the syllables stuttering until she closed her lips and her eyes. She started again. “On the one year anniversary of Ian’s death, I’m still breastfeeding the baby my dead husband put in me. How do you think I’m doing?”

She sounded tough. She was tough. But she wasn’t tough enough for this. No one could be.

When he folded his sister into his arms, she wept almost immediately, deflated against him like a balloon left up after a party for too long, and whispered that she was sorry again and again until he told her to shut up and cry.

It was non-negotiable.

__________________________________________

Claire generally had a battle plan and an arsenal of materials for eating out alone.

A good book – work-related or a novel. Headphones – one earbud in the ear nearest to the path where the waitstaff would be and the other earbud out so she could eavesdrop on the tables near her. A predetermined order committed to memory like gospel. A reservation just before or after the height of the dinner rush.

On the second night of her solo road trip, she left without her armor to visit Jamie’s favorite restaurant.

No book. No headphones. No plan for what to eat or drink. No reservation.

She waited for a table, chatted with her waitress, asked for suggestions on what to order, and ordered accordingly. When Geillis called, Claire silenced her mobile and turned it face down on the table. Sipping a glass of inky red wine, she leaned back in her chair and realized that perhaps she had it made, at least for the time-being.

After having her fill of mussels in a savory sauce that made her fight a baser instinct to lick the plate, she took the long way back to the bed-and-breakfast, marveling at how the dusty rose color of sunset swelled up into dusty gray just beyond the horizon.

After a quick dram with the bed-and-breakfast owners – and a seemingly interminable story about whisky barrels imported from America – Claire settled into bed wearing her coziest pajamas and a mug of tea. She was midway scrolling through the photos she had taken when Geillis texted a simple: Still alive up in my motherland?

Opening the message, Claire tapped out a quick reply: Just barely. On a mini-holiday – I’m exploring a bit to get a better feel of the country. Renovation is worse work than most of what we do in the A&E, including Sword Lady.

Just as she sent the message, an image of the patient they had dubbed Sword Lady came to mind – the gaping wound in her elderly palm occasioned by a blind reach into a golf bag at an antique shop for a putter resulted in grabbing a rusty sword.

Three bubbles populated below the message as Geillis typed her response, but then another text message from another source: Have you found anything worthwhile on your adventure?

Jamie.

Claire chewed on her lower lip, adjusted positions on the bed until she was on her stomach, and switched screens, feeling a wave of excitement surge up her throat like a rising tide.

She responded to Jamie’s message truthfully: Every 20 miles of this country looks different. You gave me some good instructions – I found some good spots, and I at least know the area a bit better. Gallery in the morning, then back to BM. Wish you could have come, though.

She paused to study her reply, finding herself blushing a little at the last part.

Her thumb trembled over the backspace button, which she eventually hit and held down until the final thought disappeared as though it never existed anywhere but her own buzzing brain.

When nothing clever sprang to mind to replace it, she hit send.

Geillis, in the meantime, had dispatched a series of green-faced, queasy-looking emojis at the mention of Sword Lady, and Claire flipped screens right as Jamie responded: Your usage of “BM” is gross and brings to mind bodily functions, etc. Spell it out, Sassenach - Broch Mordha. If I can take time typing “Sassenach,” you can type Broch Mordha.

Smirking, Claire typed Broch Mordha – fighting her own mobile as autocorrect replaced it with “Brochures” twice and “Korda” and then “Mordant” before finally relenting. She studied the resulting message for typos – Broch Mordha, happy? Autocorrect hates it... – and then sent it on its way.

Meanwhile, Geillis had asked what was up, and Claire decided to spill a little.

The act of typing out her summer fling confession and sending it across a country’s border made it seem awkward or tawdry. But it wasn’t, so she started over: I am deep into a summer fling with the owner of Broch Mordha’s hardware shop.

Her phone vibrated three times in rapid succession with texts from Jamie, but she finished: And I think I like him as more than a summer fling, but I need to come HOME, you know?

The three texts from Jamie made her heart pound.

First: You’ll just need to spend more time here until autocorrect corrects Brochures to Broch and Mordant to Mordha.

Second: I wish you were here.

Third: I hope you let me follow through on that date. Tomorrow night.

Claire blushed furiously, not sure what to say in response. Banter? An expression that she wished he was at the bed-and-breakfast with her? That she had precisely that fantasy earlier in the day, how he would carefully unwrap her from her jeans and sweatshirt, make rude comments about how silly her full-length cuddly pajamas were, and debrief the day before just falling asleep pressed against each other. Or perhaps she should just agree to the date?

But then Geillis – her own personal investigator – declared that she had found Jamie Fraser’s Facebook page!

Claire’s gut clenched. She should have known that her description was enough for her sleuthing friend to creep out her summer fling like she was some sort of private investigator. Then Claire’s phone rang. On the other end of the line, Geillis was cackling with glee over her own cleverness. Without greeting, she asked, “Is it true? About the thumbs?”

“Thumbs?” Rolling her eyes, Claire pulled herself up into a sitting position and dragged her handbag up onto the bed with her. “Geilie, what in God’s name are you babbling about?”

“Surely ye know that!” Geillis declared so expressively that Claire could practically see her friend’s gray eyes rolling. “Everyone knows! A man’s thumbs tell ye the size of his cock. Great to get a keek at the toes, too, of course, but those are harder wi’ shoes and all.”

“Oh my god,” Claire groaned, unable to tamp down her secondhand embarrassment despite the fact that Geillis had her smirking in a way that made the bulbs of her cheeks positively ache.

“His Facebook profile wasna even hard to find. Ye should mention to him that he really ought to increase his privacy settings. I can see everything the man’s posted, Claire. Seems politically minded, has a cute nephew and gorgeous sister, seems relatively normal, but I’ll keep reading.”

“You do that.”

“In any event, yon wee fox cub could grab hold of a good-sized hammer in those hands of his. Or a good-sized arse, hm? Like someone I ken.”

“Will you shut up?” Claire chuckled, pulling the hand drawn map from her handbag. “I’m going to go to bed, but I’m going to text you a picture of this map he drew for me.”

“I’ll shut up, but first, tell me. Is he good in bed? Those thumbs I clocked in the pictures… do they tell a story?”

“I’m hanging up now.”

Geillis was midway through a guttural, whining, multisyllabic groan of the word “fine” when Claire ended the call.

After taking a picture of the map, Claire wrote: Look what he made for me. I think I might actually like this boy. Also, thumbs are truly the windows to the cock, in the way that eyes are windows to the soul. Goodnight.

It was only after she hit send that she realized she had never switched screens back over to Geillis’s message.

Her blood ran cold as she saw Jamie responding to the message that most certainly was not meant for him.

And then there it was.

His response.

Four more things, I guess, Sassenach. I’m not a boy. I’m a man. Thank-you-very-much (ha!). Second, I think I might like you, too. Third, are you talking about my cock with one of your girlfriends? Fourth, goodnight to you, too, and sweet dreams.

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part XIII: Same

Jamie Fraser had room in his mind for all sorts of projects.

His hands had assembled the lumber bones into skeletons destined to become framed structures, overlaid it all with the organs and ligaments and flesh to become a home. With a saw and hammer, his capacity to create was limited only by his own supply of lumber and nails. His love affair with making things started early (a birdhouse for his mam at age seven, hands guided by his da), and seemed to live in the space between his bones (a bad day remedied with beer, throbbing bassline, and hands that fabricated projects his mind had not yet conceived).

But this proved to be a problem.

Cooking dinner for one Claire Beauchamp, the owner-of-Leoch Manor.

And the obstacle originated from a single thought banging about in his head.

I think I might actually like this boy.

Focus, Fraser,” he commanded himself firmly, thumb running over a bundle of mint he had snatched from his back garden as he turned to the sauce bubbling away on the low flame of his stovetop.

Even though she wasn’t yet standing in his kitchen (barefeet, loose hair, roaming hands, and bedroom eyes), she was present everywhere.

In the papery connective tissue under his tongue.

In the single fingerless glove she’d left in his truck, smelling faintly of her perfume at the wristband.

In the bloodless, pale moons rising behind the horizon of his nail bed, curving into the soft pink flesh under his fingernails.

In the aisle of the hardware shop, a silver, faded memory like a ghost, thumbing through brushes with her head cocked to the side.

In the prickle of sweat along his hairline from the late afternoon jog he’d taken to get his mind off the thought of her looking at him over her naked shoulder in his office, whispering the contents of the text message into his throat as he hitched one English, milky thigh to his hip.

Following her misfired text, Claire had simultaneously managed to ignore the topic entirely (calling the hardware shop landline, giving a vague introduction of “it’s me, Claire,” and announcing she would be coming over to his place for dinner) and to burrow further into the folded, squishy matter of his brain. Consistent with her profession, she proved herself to be an unrepentant master of the human body. Her primary school admission that she had a crush, completely ignored, tied his entire digestive tract into knots and melted his mind into a Claire-shaped puddle.

I think I might actually like this boy.

He tasted the sauce and grimaced. It was somehow both too herbaceous and too sweet all at once.

Finger running down the list of ingredients in his mam’s precise, schoolteacher-perfect cursive, his eyebrows knit together.

Shallots. Broth. Red wine vinegar. Sugar. Mint.

He’d followed the recipe with an almost religious level of precision, and yet it was an unmitigated disaster — a watery, pale imitation of the one he remembered from when he was a lad (sitting at a table flicking green peas at his sister, his toes only touching the floor if he angled his feet until they cramped, wiping his hand on his trousers after holding his sister’s hand as their da said grace). Jamie realized he was in desperate need of an intervention in more ways than one.

“Fuck,” he mumbled over the simmering pot. Whether his curse was no more than a gentle, vulgar self-admonishment to call his mam and get some help with the sauce or a self-preserving directive to quit focusing on Claire’s vague text, he wasn’t sure.

He adopted the pose of a stoic flamingo (one leg up and bent at the knee, blinking aimlessly) for a long stretch before reaching for his mobile.

One of the things was too far gone for help. The other, well, could potentially be salvaged with a single call.

“Mam,” he said blandly as he reached for a slotted spoon, throwing up a prayer that if he stirred just enough he might be able to rehabilitate his culinary mess. Tapping the spoon twice on the lip of the pan, he admitted, “I need yer help. Yer recipe for the mint sauce isna workin’.”

“Ye didna follow it, then, bhalaich.”

A master of following blueprints, Jamie swore up and down that he followed each of her written directives with the solemnity of a pious man embarking on a religious pilgrimage.

Twenty minutes and a significantly patronizing speech about the care and love required to be a good cook later, Jamie had a lovely bubbling sauce that was a fair imitation of his mother’s. Perhaps it was her step-by-step telephonic instructions that came from the heart in a way that her handwriting just hadn’t captured, he reasoned aloud. With a chuckled “bloody stubborn Frasers,” his mam concluded the call by reiterating her hope that whatever lass was about to try her sauce would love it. And before Jamie could launch into a decidedly anemic protest about how presumptuous she was being, Ellen Fraser had disconnected the call.

It was six thirty-five. If Claire was the on-time sort, he had twenty-five minutes until she arrived. With a vaguely disappointed pang, he realized he hadn’t met up with her enough to know if she was a punctual type, but he assumed she was.

Looking around, he decided that he had enough time for a few final touches around the house. A stroke of a handheld duster across the reclaimed barn wood mantel (a structure he had felled with his father shortly after buying this house). A quick fluffing of pillows on the couch, heart skipping at the thought of Claire over for a Netflix binge (stocking feet and hideous patterned leggings, a bowl of ice cream balanced in her lap, shoving the pillows to the floor as she hollered for him to hurry up). A posy of wildflowers from his back garden dropped into a water glass (a brush of nettles along his forearm caused him to shout “ifrinn” and drop the first collection of flowers to the ground from whence they came). A ninety-second cold shower in which he brushed his teeth, rinsed away the day, and hummed one-half of a pop song that had infested his ear at work earlier in the day (a purposeful attempt to file away the graphic dream he’d had the night before – Claire’s generous curves soaped up and pliable under his hands and his showerhead). A lit pair of tapers in ornate silver candleholders (a present from his mother with an admonition that he needed to transform his place look like less of a bachelor pad if she was to ever have a Fraser grandbaby).

And just as he determined that the Spotify playlist he’d found by typing “dinner party” made it seem like he was trying too hard, she arrived with a firm knock.

Perhaps it was that she was truly glowing after her two-day break. Maybe seeing her was like coming upon water in a desert. Conceivably, he had gotten himself a bit more besotted in the lead up to her arrival, that indefatigable text message running easy, long-strided laps around his mind. Most likely she was just that beautiful, and he couldn’t stop himself from telling her exactly that, hugging her close, and kissing the top of her head.

“Jamie, you’re crushing me,” she finally mumbled, small fingers working along his sides.

When she pulled back, he studied her face for a moment before kissing her mouth, sucking free from her lips and belly a slight moan. The sound seemed like an unsolicited proclamation that two days’ worth of celibacy had made her ache for him. He broke the seal of their mouths first, sweeping the wet crime of their kiss from her lower lip.

She whispered, “I should disappear more often.”

“Disagree.” The word slurred on his weighty tongue, becoming a monosyllabic proclamation. It felt like staking a claim, settling wild land. With one word, it was decided: Claire Owner-of-Leoch Manor should not disappear more often.

As he lifted his hand to push a wayward chunk of curls from her cheek, she dodged out from beneath his reach, brows furrowed as she said, “Your hand…”

“Aye, yer wee cheetie made quite clear what he thought of me.”

“Oh God,” she groaned, taking him by the wrist and bringing his hand up.

He saw the transformation of the woman he was falling in love with from wind-blown fucking-bed-and-breakfast-owner to fucking-physician, and it made him glow.

I think I might actually like this boy.

Ifrinn, he wanted to say something about that text that she had handily avoided.

“I cleaned it out,” he protested with a hissed breath as she tested the skin around the four even, round puncture marks. “It’s fine.”

“It’s a cat bite. Do you know where that filthy animal’s mouth has been?”

I think I might actually like this boy.

The words reverberated in his mind like a drumbeat. Over and over. He wanted to hear her say it out loud, with his hand in hers. To coax the same words from her mouth, to confirm what her fingers had carelessly typed to whoever it was. To explain to her that he wished she meant the message for him, that he truly did feel the same way. But as she molded herself closer to him, kissed the corner of his mouth, and curved her fingers to his waist, he found his mouth to be a dumb, useless thing. So he kissed her again, tasted cinnamon chewing gum on her tongue with one hand molding to the back of her neck and the other canvassing the small of her back.

He took a step closer, twisting his hand out of her grasp as he leaned in to taste her jaw and then her throat. She protested only mildly, steadying her hands on his chest and mumbling, “Dinner first? I brought our stash, but I’m hungry, and it smells divine in here.”

“I suppose,” he conceded, pulling back and running a hand through his hair. “Ye drive me wild, Sassenach.”

She winked at him then.

Fucking winked.

Had she been any less clear in her intention (the inquiry for dinner and a timid, growling ripple of hunger from her stomach that made her blush), he would have made a declaration that he was falling-in-fucking-love-with-her-thank-you-very-much. And on the tail end of it, he’d have let the entire meal burn as he had her – pressed against the wall of his entryway, jeans pooled around one ankle, and a bare leg hitched up to his waist as he surged madly into her.

Though it was different, what came next was just as delicious as widening the dent in the thirty-six pack of condoms. Over perfectly-sauced lamb, roasted vegetables from his garden, crusty bread from the bakery, and red wine, Claire became animated. She recounted the exploits of her two-day trip. The bed-and-breakfast that gave her so many ideas. The art that had thanklessly ravished her credit limit, but that excited her. The whisky toffee bread pudding with honeycomb ice cream that he just had to try.

After taking another bite of meat and dragging the tines of her fork through the sauce on her plate, she hummed. “This is good, Jamie. Like, restaurant good. Are you sure you cooked it?”

“Aye, wi’ a wee spot o’ help from my mam.” He watched her chew, found himself acutely interested in the path her leopard eyes followed as she chased a fat, charred single brussel sprout across her plate with the flat edge of her knife.

“Can I ask a stupid question?”

“Now, Sassenach, no questions are stupid.”

“Hmmm. You haven’t heard my question.”

“Fine,” he conceded, setting down his wine glass and leaning forward. “Ask me what may be a stupid question.”

“What is it?”

“Ah,” he breathed, looking down at his own plate and then back up at her. “Feòil-uain wi’ my mam’s mint sauce.”

She speared a final bite and chewed thoughtfully before draining her wine, and asking, “And that would be… what in English?”

“Lamb.”

For a moment, she just stared at him and then looked at her plate.

Urged on by her silence, he added an unnecessary clarification. “It’s a Fraser lamb.”

“Like ‘Mary had a’ variety of… lamb?”

“Weel… I dinna ken that this particular lamb ever belonged to Mary. Like I said… it’s a Fraserlamb. Jamie had a little lamb, if ye will.”

“Huh?” She looked up, eyes shiny, wide, and guileless.

“Ye probably said ‘hello’ to the lamb when ye fought yer way up the drive all those days ago.”

“You fed me one of your sheep? One of the ones who just… wander about your property?”

“Ye ate it right up. Have ye no’ ever had lamb?”

“You fed me your wee lamb.”

“Ye seem awfully scandalized about some mutton chops.”

Jamie.”

“I thought ye’d no’ have a problem wi’ a ’ lamb chop considering yer harsh words for my wee flock.”

She blushed, shrugged. “I’m from a city. I guess I don’t do much thinking about where my food comes from.”

Raising an eyebrow, he openly laughed at her then.

When she dropped her linen napkin on top of her plate and leaned back into the belly of her chair, wine glass in hand, he told her she was pretty just to see her blush. She raised her eyebrows and drained the cabernet in her glass.

“I meant it, ye ken,” he said finally, leaning towards her as he refilled her glass. “That text. I meant that I like ye.”

“I meant it, too.” He felt her eyes on him, but couldn’t bring himself to meet them, so he kept pouring until she held up a hand, shook her head, said she didn’t want to get that drunk. Nodding, he set the bottle of wine down as she picked up her glass again. “We’re making a right mess of this summer fling business, aren’t we?”

“Catching feelings, are ye?” he asked, eyes focused on the deep purple liquid roiling about in her overfilled wine glass as she swirled it in slow-motion.

“Yes,” she conceded simply, thumb and forefinger tracing the edge of the table and a small chip in the wood. His entire world stalled out then – his body, the quiet inertia of his life’s clock ticking away as he helped to raise Ian, his pile of past-due client accounts receivable, the slow-roasting spiced plums still in the oven in his kitchen. After a long sip, she asked, “Are you?”

“Aye,” he responded without even a moment’s hesitation, knowing he was digging his own grave. “Ye drive me mad. Ye’re all I can think of.”

She drew her lower lip between her teeth. “I still have every intention of returning to London.”

“I didna doubt that for a second.”

It was true. Jamie had never harbored illusions that Broch Mordha would become her home. He had known all along that London and Claire’s career would someday call her back to finish what she had started. He did not begrudge her for it. Simply put, he could read her. He knew that his life was here, in Broch Mordha with his family and his business, for the foreseeable future.

And hers was somewhere else.

And there was the rub.

The more Jamie had of Claire, the more he needed her. The need was not just a craving; it was the painful awareness of a space inside of him that he hadn’t known was vacant. It seemed one of fate’s cruelest tricks: they had a timer on them. Perhaps she wouldn’t get that fucking-bed-and-breakfast done by autumn, but she would not make Broch Mordha her home. Nor could he ask her to – seeing the need to doctor in her at that sad little hospital, in her touch after he had fallen. It glowed behind a closed door – one she had opened only briefly for him. Tucked away inside of her was a need to return to her life once the wound that made her leave had scabbed over. Likewise, tucked away inside of him was an unshakeable loyalty to his family.

“I willna leave Broch Mordha. I can’t.”

“Understood,” she said simply.

And he could tell that she did understand.

Her facial expression was as readable as always – eyebrows rising quickly and falling, her tongue darting out to wet a lower lip that he imagined tasted like oily brussels sprouts and minty sauce. She was endeavoring to be reckless with him, to let herself feel despite the near certainty of impending distance. And as she rose, her fingers working on the line of buttons on her blouse, he shifted in his seat.

They could live with the pretense that what was happening was a fling. It was safe for both of them to exist in that space. The sex was, simply put, mind-blowing. Claire was enthusiastic and responsive; their bodies and sex drives seemed to have been divinely created for another. But it was the chaste, well-loved moments after that had a strange hold on him. When their damp and sweaty, trembling parts were bared and the raw, panting bits of their insides were exposed to each other. Those moments were as intimate as anything he had ever known. Equally as precious were the moments passed on car rides or couches, perched atop kitchen counters or crouched outside a bakery, planning color schemes or tile layouts.

Just as her shirt parted enough that he could catch a glimpse of the pale, transparent, flesh-colored material of her bra, she whispered, “I’m beginning to feel like I actually belong here. At least for now. Though, I don’t know how I can belong to two places.”

He shook his head, words catching in his throat. He wasn’t sure either.

“Do you want me, Jamie?”

Her voice was husky, inebriated with the prospect of sex, but his mind was elsewhere. “It isna just sex, Claire, and I didna say it because I have some wine on board. I like ye. I’m fairly certain that I’m fallin’ in love wi’ ye.”

“Same,” she whispered, her blouse slipping off her narrow shoulders as she toed off her shoes.

His mouth went dry at the admission, at the knowledge that he should not allow her to fall in love with him just as much as he should not allow himself to fall in love with her.

He realized that the fantasy his brain conjured earlier had come strikingly close to cataloging her physically. But his memory was not nearly as good as the reality of her. The smell of her that carried as the fabric that had covered her fell to the floor. The promise of being able to sink his fingers into her curls. The option of tasting her exposed pulse point just moments away if he were to rise and take three steps towards her.

No.

His imagination was a shoddy substitute for all five senses taking in every bit of her in the flesh.

Then, with one finger, she beckoned him, and in that moment his five senses were promised more than a shimmering hologram of her.

She was falling in love with him.

It felt like a century had passed since he divulged the fact that he was falling in love with her.

It felt like another hundred years had crawled by in the time since she uttered that single word: same.

He asked to hear it again, his lips moving of their own volition as he inquired into her meaning. His entire body felt like he had been seared everywhere by her single syllable – the four chambers of his heart, the arches of his feet, the soft space at the back of his throat.

“I meant that I am falling for you, too.”

He rose, watching her fingers go to the button on her jeans and flick it open.

And when she spoke again, he felt his throat closing. “I’m falling for you, so take me upstairs. Make love to me in your bedroom.”

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part XIV: Toothbrushes & Eyeglasses

Claire hadn’t realized just how much she had missed the weight of another body settling over her own.

The dead weight of an arm (sated and heavy) draped over her waist.

A nosy knee clearing bony pathway between her legs.

A rasping, stubbled chin and throat becoming a perfect cave in which her face could hibernate through the night.

She had missed the gentle movement of another body at rest.

A rising and falling chest madly attempting to regulate its breathing.

A slowing heartbeat melting towards rest after gluttonous serving of a partner.

A full-bodied sigh of completion that seemed to exist from head to toe as one-by-one, muscles went utterly slack.

She had asked him to follow her up the stairs, navigated herself to his bedroom, to make good on her request that he make love to her.

And he had.

With his mouth and his hands, his words and his cock.

And now, in the aftermath, she pulled back from Jamie’s throat just enough to share his pillow. It smelled vaguely woodsy, and like the hair at the nape of his neck (the scent committed to her memory when he’d rolled away from her for protection before making love to her). For what felt like an eternity, they just stared at each other, creating mental records of how long it took their heartbeats to slow and their respiration rates to regularize. They inspected freckles and laugh lines and the shallowed-out divots where frowns allied furrowed eyebrows.

Claire was the first to speak, running her fingertips along the plasticine cap of Jamie’s left lightly-freckled, sun-bronzed shoulder and asking, “How’s your shoulder, by the way?”

“Tender, but manageable.” His hand had been curved over the swell of her arse for what felt like a century. In their post-coital state, she hadn’t even remembered it was there until his touch traveled to span her lower back. “How’s yer wee… what did ye call it?”

“Muscle strain.”

“Aye, how’re ye feelin’?”

Kissing his shoulder and closing her eyes, she said, “Much better.”

In his chest, a sound grumbled low and steady for a moment, like some sort of acknowledgment. She was convinced his sounds – like his voice – had a telling array of tones when he wanted. This one was warm and sincere. “I want to help ye this weekend. Around yer fucking-wee-bed-and-breakfast.”

“You’re helping me now.” It came out whispered, her breath catching as his hand found what had been designated Scotland’s western-most coast (dipping curve of waist, the beginning swell of her breast) just days earlier. His cartographer’s fingers traveled up and up until he was running one rough thumb over a nipple, his eyes watching the contraction of her flesh with a lip between his teeth.

Ignoring her comment, he continued, “Let’s get some bathrooms tiled and some bedrooms painted. I have an extraordinarily steady hand for cutting in along ceilings and trim work.”

“Sounds like teamwork.” She swallowed, wondering what choice in her life had left her in bed with a near-stranger, half in love and falling hard, aroused at the prospect of tiling a bathroom.

“Aye, we make quite a pair, Sassenach.”

Her hand reached between them, found him not quite wanting yet. As his thumb continued its mission of stroking one soft nipple into a peak, she licked her palm in as dainty a manner as possible and set about drawing a lazy pattern between his legs.

“I’m surprisingly handy for someone who does not have any experience whatsoever.”

Christ… I ken ye’re handy…” He grumbled something else under his breath, looking down to where he was rapidly hardening in her hand.

“What was that?” she trilled.

“Nothing. Nothing at all.”

The tone shifted as she whispered that she wanted him again, as if it weren’t abundantly clear by the thick, throbbing she’d contented herself in creating, the slickness smeared at the apex of her thighs.

It doesna stop. The wanting ye. Even when I’ve just left ye, I want ye so much my chest feels tight and my fingers ache with wanting to touch ye again.

“I know,” she whispered, lifting one knee over his hip without any pretense.

“Again?”

“Like this…” She took him in hand, quickly protected them, and nodded.

It was different like this – still in the tawny dawn of their shared confession in his dining room, luxuriating in the delusion that their summer hours were bloated with infinite possibility. Face-to-face on their sides, he pressed into her slowly, like time was indeed limitless. Not just summer, an entire existence. They had nowhere to be, no need to finish. They were meant to join one another, to build and build and build until the end was a soaring, quivering, tip off of a precipice with a blind langing. His lips slightly parted as Claire jerked against him, gasping quietly, like the swell of him cresting in her again and again was itself a delicate completion. For a time, neither chased anything, just watching one another and catching each other’s sounds in the soft-palated butterfly nets of mouths.

The quirk of her lip when he whispered how good she felt, how soft she was and how he needed her mouth, how he felt like God himself when he was inside of her.

The low, prideful chuckle as he shifted his grip on her hips, knocked against a spot inside of her just right to make her cry out, his grunted expletive when he did it again and he caught her eyes on the place of their joining.

When he came, her eyes closed so she could pursue her own completion. She somehow felt the purple bloom in the flesh of his left bicep as she held tight, the hard flesh losing a well-exercised battle against her grip. A cry shaped like the mushrooming love in her chest choked her sounds.

As she came in long, pulsating, shaking gasps, he groaned, “Stay here. Stay with me.”

This time, in the aftermath, their bodies buzzed with such life that their souls had become free-floating things that hovered just above their corporeal forms. With their fingerprints carving spaces in one another’s flesh like handholds for unexpected rough seas, Jamie and Claire stayed entirely silent.

In a body at rest, her mind whirled. His plea tapped on the front of her mind again and again like an insistent branch on a window pane in a storm.

Stay here. Stay with me.

Eventually, she was convinced that he was well and truly asleep. And after testing her hypothesis with a gentle thumb on his lower lip, she breathed, “Ask me to stay. Ask me to try. I will.”

Claire woke with her face against the over-warm curve of one well-defined pectoral muscle.

Jamie was on his back, an arm loosely around her and his mouth fallen half open.

For a moment, she studied him. Then she started to look around his bedroom, remaining as still as possible. In the cloud-soft shelter of Jamie’s bed, Claire could make out silver picture frames on his chest of drawers, but she could not quite see the photograph it contained. She entertained the prospect of taking the pair of black-rimmed glasses from his nightstand to see if she could make out the photograph. Deciding against it, she lifted her head just a little. She could tell that he was fastidious – somehow in the night he’d gathered her clothes from the floor and folded them in a neat pile on her side of the bed. His wristwatch was on the nightstand (the distinctive metallic clunk as his aim misfired the night before when he tossed it, missed the small table, and instead of picking it up, sucked the skin on her hip, above her pubic bone). And at some point, he had wrapped their limp bodies under a cloud-like, clean linen-scented duvet.

Part of her wondered if it would always be like this if she were to stay – Jamie picking up after her a little begrudgingly, her on this side of the bed and him on the other. Perhaps the frame on her dresser at the bed-and-breakfast would join the frame on his dresser, and her own glasses would find a home alongside his.

A century passed there under his duvet.

It was the first weekday morning in a long time – at least since university – that she felt no need to be somewhere else, to be moving, going, doing. More than that, she didn’t want to be anywhere other than nestled against him, listening to his breathing, waiting to hear whatever clever thing he’d lob her way upon waking.

As the sky went dusky behind the gauzy curtains across his room, her knees became wily, rising like the sun in an early attempt to roll on top of him.

“We need to talk,” he grumbled, one eye opening as he caught her by the hip, squeezed, and shook his head. “And though ye look like something I could eat for breakfast, we need not to have sex.”

We weren’t going to have sex,” she proclaimed somewhat haughtily as she started to kiss the center of his chest (humid breath bathing the tattoo of his already-hammering heartbeat beneath his sternum). She brushed hair over one shoulder, looked up at him through her eyelashes. “I was going to describe London to you, with reference to the Tower of London, and send you off to the shop to start your day.”

As he gently urged her up from her southbound trail, it was plain who would set the rules for engagement.

It was Jamie.

Nonetheless, she busied herself attempting an alluring distraction from talking.

A pout (wetted lips, rolling tongue).

A shift (just enough that the duvet left her bare).

An arch (a gymnast’s triumphant landing of a tumbling pass).

A palmed breast (heavy weight filling her hand, giving way to her fingers’ squeeze).

The sound that emerged from his chest (middling between frustration and surrender) made her smile. “The Tower of London, Jamie.” She looked down between them meaningfully, quirking an eyebrow. “Do you catch my meaning?”

“I ken yer meaning fine, Sassenach, and ye’re no’ makin’ this easy.”

It was a study – his eyes roving over her from the top of her head to the place where her thighs had parted and she had settled low on his hips. But instead of acting on whatever instinct had him hardening at the promise of the soft, wet seal of her mouth, he pivoted away. When he turned back, he had his t-shirt in hand.

“And as tempting as yer wee geography lesson is, having ye disappear beneath the duvet for what ye have in mind isna talking.”

“Fine, fine,” she mumbled, somewhat resigned as she withdrew her leg and sat up, gathering the duvet to cover her breasts.

“Ye got all creased sleeping on me.” He paused, inhaled what sounded like a fortifying breath as he looked her up and down. “And ye dinna ken what it took for me to grab that shirt instead of flippin’ ye onto yer belly and–”

“You’d turn down oral? Really?”

“Can ye not mention ‘oral’? Can ye not look at me like that right now? Ifrinn.”

She wiped at her cheek and chin, ruffled her hair. “Sleepy, turned on, creased… is it a good look for me?” she inquired, her voice hoarse from a night of disuse.

“The finest.”

Though blush flooded her cheeks an early-morning pink, she believed that he believed it.

Pulling the shirt over her head, her inquiry muffled by fabric, and knowing full well the answer to the question she was about to ask, she inquired, “What do we need to talk about?”

At that, Jamie snorted. She emerged from the neckline of his over-washed t-shirt and inspected the logo (Fraser Hardware apparently had celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2017).

“Ye’ve got me at a disadvantage. I thought putting ye in some clothes, coverin’ ye up, would make this easier. But wi’ ye in that wee shirt… my shirt… I canna focus on anything but ye makin’ good on what ye were trying to start.”

“So you do like oral.” She wet her lips. “Well…”

Well… last night ye told me that ye were fallin’ in love wi’ me, Claire, but that ye wouldna stay. And we never resolved a single damn thing.”

Her face and body changed at the mere mention of her confession. She could feel the change. Eyes widening. Mouth releasing itself from its sexiest pout and falling a little slack. Shoulders and hips relaxing, she no longer angled herself just so to put her best curves to their primest advantage. Tension faded from the area around her temples and her lips slackened from sexy to listening.

“And I told ye I was fallin’ in love wi’ ye, too, but that I canna leave.”

Her mouth was dry, and she drew the duvet tight around her waist.

When she had faced the clinical peer review committee at the hospital, she’d worn a black suit. It was purchased from Debenhams the night before she was to defend the complaints of patient maltreatment and malpractice Dr. Bain had levied against her. Geillis had held Claire’s hair as she dry heaved – dizzy and angry – into the toilet that morning. Then she put that suit on, and she felt like a conqueror of sorts. Until that moment in bed with Jamie, she had never wished to put the suit on again.

“We’re goin’ to crash and burn – the both of us – if we keep on like this wi’out some… I dinna ken, Claire. Wi’out some understanding.”

Her voice was no more than a whisper as she said, “I know.”

“When yer bed-and-breakfast is finished, I’ll help ye hire someone to care for it, pack up yer awful wee cheetie, and send ye back to wherever ye’ll land wi’ yer job–”

“I can try to find somewhere that’s nearer, Jamie.” The suggestion startled her as it full from her lips fully formed, but she kept going. “Maybe Inverness or Edinburgh. They’re closer. Glasgow must have some space for someone to finish off a last year of training–”

“–aye, maybe–”

He reached out to touch her hair, but she dodged him, drew her legs up to her chest, and leaned back against his headboard with a thumbnail between her teeth.

“You’re truly married to the idea of being here, then,” she said.

His lips tightened almost imperceptibly. She already knew the answer to her question and nodded as her hands fell, resting palms up. She had gotten too close to him, not meaning to, but knowing well and good that it was happening nonetheless. Stamping her feet and saying he was a fling was as good as staring at the sky and asking it not to rain. She had only herself to blame, really.

“I can’t afford not to work, Jamie, and I’m not in a position to be particularly choosy after what happened. I have forty-four thousand pounds of debt from medical school. I have this fucking-bed-and-breakfast that – at least right now – isn’t worth the paper the deed is written on.”

Her chest was closing in. Vision wavering at the edges, she blinked. It was a cruel irony. She had never wanted to try before with a man. She had never wanted a person to inhabit her space after work and ask her about her day, to stand parallel to her and dry dishes as quickly as she could wash them, to exist in the morning as more than an ache between her thighs and a rumpled, empty right-hand side of the bed.

“And… despite all of that…” Her face was warm; she could feel the blush creeping up from beneath the neckline of his t-shirt. “All I want to do is to stay here, Jamie. Just stay. With you and your stupid sheep and my awful cat, and have Saturday morning coffee on the curb with you until Mrs. Fitz knows my coffee order, too, and everyone in town knows that I keep a toothbrush at your house.”

“And yet…” his voice trailed away, apparently knowing that this here what they were doing wasn’t as easy as taking a toothbrush out of its wrapping and dropping it into the cup on his sink. “I ken it isna that easy.”

“Aye, and I have a business here. A family… my nephew… he needs me… “

“I won’t ask you to ask me to stay.” Her mind filled in the blank – but she wanted him to ask her anyway, just so she could say “yes.” To ask her when he wasn’t buried inside of her to the hilt. To ask her when he was just tender with her – outside of those moments where they were so physically intimate. To ask when he was unguarded and perhaps truly falling in love with her and intimate in an entirely different way.

“I havena been entirely honest wi’ ye, mo nighean donn.”

She hadn’t realized she could feel her hair – each strand, their terminus in the tunnel-shaped follicles that burrowed their way through her epidermis. But she felt every one at his statement. Eyes widening, she watched the smooth dip of his throat as he swallowed, the sweep of his hands over bedsheet-mussed auburn curls, the squaring of his shoulders.

“The ring. In the desk. It’s my best friend’s. Ian.”

Claire’s brow furrowed as she drew her knees somehow closer to her chest. The physical act of closing herself was protective, and he didn’t recoil. Tighter and tighter still, she melted the space between her torso and limbs.

“Ian’s da is also called Ian, and I canna leave because of Ian. I promised Ian that I’d no’ go; I owe it to my nephew.”

“I’m going to need more,” she said, feeling the bewildered lines of utter confusion etch paths across her forehead.

“Ian was my best mate. He was a few years older than me. He was married to my sister. And… he passed. Cancer. It was quick.” Jamie snapped, and she just barely fought her instinct to jump, to recoil at the sound. “Doctors found it late. It was early summer, and he was gone by the new year. He gave it to me… the ring to me… the ring ye found. Around Christmas when I was home. Ye see, the hardware shop wasna always mine, sorcha. I was working wi’ my uncle in France at the time. Jared. My uncle’s name is Jared. And I was travelin’ a lot. I had a whole ‘nother life, Claire. Far away from here. I lived with a woman in Paris. I thought that I loved her.”

Claire toyed with the idea of untucking herself just enough that she could reach for his hand. But then he sank his long, well-formed fingers into his hair, focused his eyes on the furthest wall.

“I was home for Christmas and workin’ around the shop wi’ my godfather. Ian showed up. Said for me to give his ring to Ian someday. He looked awful, fresh off chemo. Tired, drawn. Ye see, he had two of ‘em. Rings. He and Jen – my sister – went on a beach vacation just before they found out he wouldna make it, and he lost his wedding band. Ye should’ve seen my sister.”

He chuckled, though Claire could tell that there was no humor in the story given the circumstances. It seemed to be one of those stories that distance would never reanimate. It would have been worth some laughs around a holiday table when Ian was retired and his son was ready to marry for himself. But in the shadow cast by what came next, she knew it would never be funny. Not like it could have been.

“Ye’d have thought he stepped out on her wi’ another lass, no’ lost a ring. After they’d bought a new one, had it inscribed, weel… they found the one I’d kept in my pocket at their wedding.”

Like a vessel moored just off the far end of a pier, Jamie existed faraway, but not quite distant, for a moment. She wondered if he was the kind of thinker who saw his memories, whose recollections were not written out with words like a story. Perhaps he was instead someone who stored people and places in events in a cinematic. Of the flowers in his sister’s bouquet and the whisper-thin scent of acrid smoke from the candles being blown out.

“In any event… it was in a pair of Ian’s shorts. The ring that is.”

“I’m so sorry–”

He interrupted, shaking his head, and saying, “Dinna say ‘I’m sorry.’ I canna hear it again and again.”

“Okay,” she whispered. Jamie swallowed, and Claire unwound herself just enough to reach for him, to touch his cheek. When he turned his mouth into her palm, kissed it, she nodded. “And then what?”

“Aye,” he mumbled, lips dragging down to her pulse point before he sat back against the headboard himself, his hand weaseling under the duvet only to go still on the outside curve of her thigh. “He wanted to be buried in the first ring, and he asked the second to be given to Ian someday. I told him that he couldna quit fighting… that I couldna lose my best mate. He told me never to call what he was going through a fight, and that he was going to rely on me to be the da he couldna be. That was what best friends do, at least in their thirties, ye ken.”

“And Annalise… she couldna see herself here, and I canna blame her for that.” His eyes flicked up to her as he squeezed her leg. “A quiet life in Broch Mordha isna for everyone.”

Claire considered him carefully, considered her options. Something told her that he was not just speaking of Annalise. He meant her, too — the Sassenach whose phone could not type Broch Mordha without autocorrect going into full meltdown mode. She couldn’t lie to him and promise a future when her world existed beyond the four walls of the bed-and-breakfast.

Her calling. 

The debt that existed more and more each day as something tangible, not just a large, unpayable sum of money on a monthly statement from her bank. 

 The need for her hands to busy themselves examining patients, finding the bits that hurt or were sick, and in need of healing.

“We can have a quiet life for now,” she whispered softly. “Together… for the summer.”

“I had the summer with Ian. It wasna enough.”

“It never is,” she whispered softly, her head falling to his shoulder. She had an opportunity with him (to quit running, to have some golden that could rest in the palm of her hand, nestle against her heart). All she had to do was to take it along with the pain it more likely than not threatened. “But we can figure it out.”

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part XV: Renovation & Dresser Drawers

Working in tandem, it took Jamie and Claire three weeks of near-daily weeknight labor, and the ritual sacrifice of two weekends on the altar of home renovation, to complete two bathrooms.

It was well into July. As the days withered and the month disappeared in a ceaseless march towards August, Claire filed away their self-imposed expiration date.

A certain domesticity swept Claire up. It was born of working together. Without any reticence, she allowed daydreams to weave a diaphanous covering over her more pragmatic side. Daydreams involving explicitly homey notions of curating a mutual space.

A home.

Any home.

Even one that would, of necessity, be stripped of all conspicuous personal relics (though she had few), photographed (retouched so as to be portrayed to its finest advantage by minor Photoshop tweaks), and monetized. Even one designed with the specific purpose of inviting strangers inside – strangers who would sleep under hotel-quality linens at a price calculated to be competitive with various local inns and lodges.

Beyond the technicolor daydreams that made Claire’s mind a teasing tilt-a-whirl, she had utterly destroyed two bathrooms with a sledge hammer. She had done so of her own volition, and it meant that there was no shortage of tiling, painting, and plumbing work to be done.

On the first weeknight of their labor, after Jamie told her she’d done a “braw job” with the demolition phase, Claire caught her brazenly self-congratulatory reflection in the bathroom mirror. She was glowing in the kind of way she always thought could be brought about by this serum or that night cream, a rigorous skincare routine (a series of bottles purchased with Geillis’s help that she’d swept with the back of her hand into the rubbish bin before leaving London).

Evidently, Jamie brought lit-from-within radiance out in spades.

It was enough that Geillis, Facetiming her unemployed bed-and-breakfast-owning friend one early morning on her walk from the hospital to the bus, asked what it was that Claire was doing. “New product, pet?” she’d asked. Then with eyes going conspiratorily-wide, she said, “Yer man’s fuckin’ that glow into ye, isn’t ye, the cheeky wee bastard?”

But it wasn’t just sex that put a glow into her cheeks.

It was just him and the way he gave her time. The way he never demanded or took, but instead existed in her space as needed.

It meant that his opinion had come to matter to her.

Of course she wanted to independently understand what needed to be done to make her new business take off and self-pollinate. It could become a profitable crutch until she had returned to her real job, finished her training, and become an attending physician. But the fucking-bed-and-breakfast had suddenly become more than a monetary endeavor.

Claire wanted it to work, not only for herself, but for Jamie, too. She wanted to show herself (an insidious self-doubting corner of her mind) that she could resurrect the long-dead bones of the fucking-bed-and-breakfast and reanimate it into something great. To show him that she was adaptable, and not the type who would categorically eschew Broch Mordha. And she wanted to do it without his oversight, even if he was adjacent to her as she worked (close enough that she could smell the heady, well-worked manliness of his sweat).

Surprisingly, she found herself loving every moment of the renovation.

The way he’d just started to enter the house when he arrived (his voice carrying up the stairs as he dodged around the hissing cat with a Gaelic curse).

The way his footfalls responded to the call of her voice (“master bath” or “guest bath one”).

The work itself (the drawn-tight feeling in her muscles of a job well done).

The breaks taken for ice-cold beers (the way he opened the bottle on the countertop, declaring it’d be their Next Big Thing, and handed it to her, his palm smearing condensation on denim before he tucked a curl behind her ear).

The bone-weary exhaustion at the end of a night of hard work (his shamelessly intimate hand splaying across her bare belly, an unmannered thumb creeping into the waistband of her pajama pants despite the unspoken, but well-negotiated contract of “not tonight” between two aching bodies).

At work and side-by-side, Claire would put the spacers in between cobalt blue tiles while Jamie affixed them to the walls.

She mixed grout as he prepared egg mayo sandwiches.

In tandem, with eggy breath, trowels, and damp sponges, they sometimes chatted about life (Jamie recounting a standoff with Adso when he’d visited with a leftover halibut filet while Claire was touring the north coast, in which both parties had hissed at one another; Claire describing in vivid detail the herb garden she wanted to plant in the kitchen).

Other times, it was the news (the red-hot lava of his empathy after she explained a “pink tax” to him, pleasantly startling her a bit, matched only by his fervor at the mention of an independent Scotland and Brexit).

And, on occasion, they did not say much at all (preferring instead to permit the radio do the talking or to just listen to the even thump of paint rollers on walls, the squish of a fresh color covering faded, tobacco-stained plaster).

Physical contact while working was as an incidental thing at first (fingers colliding in the handoffs of paintbrushes or a tool, a graze of fingerprints while folding a drop cloth). But it changed over time. Touch was an inevitability written into the improbable plotline of their first meeting. The first was occasioned by his tumble from the ladder, a workplace hazard he’d imposed on himself, with his wayward focus on the swollen outline of her arse resulting in her firm touch on his muscle-hardened shoulder, the fabric of his shirt, and the buckle of his toolbelt. Now their touches aspired to be more. So-called “accidents” were anything but mere inadvertencies. His platonic touch made her heart gallop wildly (hips swaying to the only music station to come in that far north of Inverness). The feeling of him that radiated – from his hands, the brush of his front against her back, the aura that radiated out of him beneath his battered jeans and faded t-shirt – made her cotton candy stomach melt, her lower lip beg for his to perch upon it, and her head float three feet above her body.

And then, eventually, after three sexless days, they cut short their Wednesday night of work when one particular dance move caused him to grunt “c’mere, Sassenach.” He had dropped his paint-covered brush onto the canvas drop cloth and gathered her close. When she’d come that night, she just barely resisted the urge to let the confession rip from her throat.

That she wasn’t falling in love with him.

That she loved him.

On Thursday, she worked alone while Jamie attended a parent-teacher conference night about Ian’s summer coursework with his sister.

On Friday, while painting one of the guest bathrooms a nautical navy color, Claire learned that Jamie was profoundly, unrepentantly tone deaf. When she teased him, he chastised her that he was only tone deaf because he had brain damage. He gravely recounted a hazy tale. As a lad, he had apparently been struck by the blunt-end of an axe. Some sort of closed-head injury, he concluded. She’d quieted, apologized for her teasing, and nodded as he responded to her apology (“ye couldna’ve kent, Claire” in the softest, most withdrawn way).

Then, she had proceeded to chew her lower lip with her back to him as she worked.

Nights earlier, as he helped her assemble a guide to the area, Jamie told Claire of the women who disappeared from space and through time. By simply laying a palm on one of the standing stones overlooking the town, they just disappeared. He explained that they sometimes returned – disoriented and telling tales of the past.

In that moment, with Jamie gone quiet over a traumatic brain injury, she wished she could flatten a palm against one such stone and disappear into a time before she’d joked at his expense. She didn’t even bother trying to figure out the neurological damage that would cause one to be tone deaf without some sort of concurrent loss of speech.

But no fewer than three weighted minutes later, Jamie disclosed that he hadn’t truly been struck with an axe. He was just teasing her.

In response, she attacked him with a damp, grout-covered sponge and a string of words so profane that he couldn’t disguise his laughter. As he retaliated, she went for his belt, declaring, “I’m going to strangle you with this, Fraser, and you’re going to like it.”

There on the floor, she had climbed atop him, hissing at him to hurry up as he dug through his wallet for a condom. As she’d ridden him, her hand on his throat, she’d declared that she’d cut his heart out and eat it for breakfast if he dared tease her like that again. Fingers sinking into the part of her hips that rounded out as she sank down over him, he’d smirked and expressed his understanding.

Later, well into the night, they retired to the couch. There, they matched intentional touches like his and hers knick-knacks. Gone was the pretense of accidental or incidental in the construction of the master bath; they became intentional. Jamie’s left hand was busy with popcorn and his right developed a pathological interest in the bony protuberance on the outside of her ankle. Meanwhile, Claire’s investigation was centered on the hypothesis that the curl at the nape of his neck was the sexiest part of his body.

Before they went to bed, Claire declared that the fib about the closed-head injury had seemed realistic because he really was that tone deaf.

The following Friday, they were eating a late-night dinner when Claire declared, “I’m becoming one with the fucking-bed-and-breakfast.”

Jamie had been caught up at the hardware shop, and their plan to fix the traitorous creaking step was foiled. After smacking her thumb with a hammer with a “it’ll be funny in about a decade” kind of intensity, Claire had given herself over to wine. It had been an evangelical-type surrender. As Jamie raised a single, skeptical eyebrow over a piece of well-greased pizza that had wordlessly become a mutual favorite (pepperoni, sausage, mushroom), Claire concluded, “But not in a mad way. Like an existential way. We’re both dilapidated and creaking. As if the fucking bed-and-breakfast is a metaphor for me.”

“Ye’re the bed-and-breakfast, and-”

“–yes, yes, and the bed-and-breakfast is me, Jamie.”

That night, they didn’t work on the bathroom.

Instead, they settled on the floor in front of the fireplace with a deck of cards that Claire had found in a cigar box hidden in the back of a closet. To Jamie’s credit, he did not flinch as the game that had started as rummy devolved into something else entirely with the makeshift, slurred rules she announced with a glass of Argentinian red in hand. When she’d stood with the abrupt declaration that it was time for bed, knocking their two empty bottles down like a prized bowler in the process, he’d risen to steady her and follow her up the stairs.

“This place is going to bankrupt me,” she mumbled, foot sinking into the soft spot on the stairs that had yet to be repaired. Only stripping out of her jeans, Claire climbed into bed and curled against Jamie’s chest as he folded the duvet up over them. He knew the confession came from her inebriation, but she mumbled, “Do you ever just feel helpless?”

Kissing her on the forehead, he whispered, “Aye. I’m a business owner, too. I ken the feeling well.”

Claire just hummed an empathetic noise.

“Ye’ll find a way, though, mo nighean donn.”

It was the last thing she heard before she fell asleep.

Two-and-a-half weeks into their nightly renovation dates, Claire managed to install the master bath faucets and showerhead without Jamie’s help.

“Not bad,” she victoriously declared to no one other than Adso as she turned the brass spigot and water came out of the tap – first cold and then hot. The cat had managed to be underfoot consistently throughout the morning, but was dragging a disinterested paw through the construction dust coating the bathtub once she had something to show for her day’s labor.

She felt like her battle with the painted-shut window in the kitchen had occurred four years before to some other version of herself.

That Friday night, when Jamie finished working at the shop, the pair suspended the frameless shower door. The process managed to draw from Jamie more Gaelic than Claire had heard in her entire trip to Scotland. Once the door protectively enclosed the meticulously-tiled space, Jamie stood back and declared that all that was left for the master bath was “proper accessorizing.”

With her hands on her hips, and almost trembling with excitement, Claire admitted, “I’m proud of this. The bathroom”

“Ye should be, a nighean.” She looked at him over her shoulder, the smile stretched across her face almost aching. “Ye should be proud of yer braw wee bathroom and of yerself.”

“I am, actually,” she declared simply, studying the newly-operational shower. “Proud of myself, that is. Those first few days here, I considered torching the place.”

“For the insurance money?” he inquired. “Seems like a scheme for an unscrupulous lawyer, no’ a doctor.”

“Maybe.” She looked over her shoulder at him, a smirk growing before she even asked, “Want to hear a joke?”

“Anytime.”

“I’m funny.”

“I dinna doubt it. Ye’re known throughout Broch Mordha as our finest joke-telling physician.”

Claire rolled her eyes. “Here we go. What did the father say when his son asked if they were a family of pyromaniacs?”

Attempting to level her with his most serious look, Jamie lowered his voice. “What did he say, Claire?”

“He said,” she began, her hand on the lower hem of her shirt, “‘yes, we arson.’”

A dhia, what a horrible–”

In a single fluid movement, Claire turned and stripped her debris-covered tank top over her head. The maneuver effectively shut him up. With her hands going to the clasp of her bra, she countered, “It’s funny.”

“Are ye getting naked to distract me from yer terrible wee joke?”

“I was hoping it’d inspire you to laugh at my thoughtful play on words, but I suppose….” She let her hands fall away from her unclasped bra, shrugged her shoulders until the straps began a slow, slithering dance down her arms. She rested her hands on her hips after the undergarment had fallen away entirely. “It’s been a few days… and a finished bathroom in need of proper accessorizing only is a thing to be celebrated.”

“My God, look at ye. What did I do to deserve such a–”

“–sexy girlfriend?” (eyelashes beating rapidly, heart even faster at the casual freefall of the word from her lips)

“Ye think ye’re my girlfriend?”

Her lips produced a sound vaguely like mmmmhmmm as she waggled her eyebrows at him.

For his part, Jamie remained relatively stoic, but for the destinationless roaming of his eyes over every bit of her.

Nonetheless, she kept at it. “I think that I’m your girlfriend, yes. One might say I’m your sexygirlfriend, and–”

“–I was going to say cheesy–” (he thumbed his lower lip, eyes deepening to almost-cerulean as he unbuttoned his jeans and allowed them to fall away)

“–but you think that your girlfriend is sexy, too…” (lips drawn like the bow on a Christmas package, smacking apart in a theatrical air kiss, she tried the word again)

Jamie’s laughter was genuine when he stepped out of his jeans, moved towards her, and wrapped his arms around her waist. “We’re disgusting, and I’m going to fuck ye and then scrub ye clean.”

“Sounds promising, but still… say it. Sexy girlfriend.”

“Huh-uh.” His mouth twitched, evidently opposed to the idea as he advanced on her. When he lifted, arms beneath her arse, her body glided up his until she folded at the waist over his shoulder. “Ye’re as unwieldy as a bag of cement.”

“Mmmm, your girlfriend is as unwieldy as a bag of cement,” she giggled as her fists started to pull his shirt up his back. “I like it when you talk construction to me, Jamie Fraser.”

As he started towards the bedroom, he groaned the protest of a man torn between the well-worn pang of a hard day’s work and that same body’s need. As he made towards the bed, she protested the mixture of construction grit with her freshly-laundered bedding.

Dropping her to the mattress, he said he didn’t care. Instead, he instructed her to lie back and open her legs for him.

When they’d only managed to supplement the ache of hard work with the ache of bodies well loved, they showered as they made plans for the next day. Skin well-soaped by their own touch, the sweaty evidence of their labor and joining washed away, they made a plan to take the following weekend off of work. Instead, they’d take his truck to Inverness to pick out furniture and things for proper accessorizing.

They spent their Saturday in the second bathroom, laying penny tile in what Claire claimed was a “charming Pinterest-inspired layout.” After seemingly-endless hours bent over and hand-laying tiles, they gave up for the night. Each joint in Claire’s knees and fingers had started to descend from purgatory to hell, and she said she’d had enough. In the living room that was charmingly without carpet (an effect of an insomnia-induced obsession to get the carpet up), they talked about their days. Jamie recounted the ongoing saga of Alec and the saw. Claire luxuriated in the ability to do laundry with the washing machine that Jamie had installed for her.

She dealt in ibuprofen and he dealt in whisky.

And shortly before nine o’clock, they adjourned to her bedroom.

His staying over had become an unspoken assumption. As he’d taken his socks off with a lung-creaking sigh, his eyes caught the slightly ajar drawer. Her soft, silky things had been relegated to a single, well-mannered pile at the far right. It had been a month of this nightly dance, and the drawer in her bedroom had miraculously gained space.

“Did ye leave this open on purpose?”

Claire had a mouthful of sudsy toothpaste when her eyes went wide. She shook her head, her words a blurry, foamy mess as she declared, “Must’ve been the cat.”

“Awful cheetie.”

She turned, giving him a disinterested lift of her shoulders as she spat into the bathroom sink. “The worst, really.”

“How will ye ever get him to quit going through yer things?”

“Dunno,” she said, shrugging with a mouthful of mouthwash.

“Really, Adso’s no’ only an asshole, the cat’s a wee pervert…” Jamie had plucked a single nude lace thong from the depths of the dresser and was holding it at eye height. “Rooting around his shit pan and then goin’ into yer wee lacy things… lacy things I’ll have ye ken I’ve no’ ever seen.”

Claire exited the bathroom and took vigil over the drawer by Jamie’s side. Having laid the single thong atop the dresser, he apparently was quite interested in the blank space that had been created in the drawer.

“There must be some sort of child lock we can get for this dresser… only a cat lock,” she started. “Add it to the list for Inverness, since you have such a poorly stocked store.”

His voice was light when he said, “I’ll be sure to add cat lock to the list of inventory to keep in stock at the hardware shop.”

“Glad to hear it. Seems like a basic thing…” Her voice trailed away, and then she started again. “So, you know…”

Humming, he looked down as her fingers threaded through his.

“So your things are safe… from Adso… if you want to keep some things in here…”

Oh, Christ, she blushed then.

It was like her face was pathologically unable to regulate itself around him. Not just when they were making progress through the thirty-six pack. Her cheeks warmed every time she took a step with him to something more – more than a fling, a friend, a patron of a local hardware shop. Her lower lip migrated between her teeth, her eyes going comically wide despite her attempt to regulate her expression. There was no doubt that she had the glass face he accused her of having.

“I could keep some things here,” he mumbled, running a thumb along the inside of her wrist. “I wore the same thing to work two days in a row this week.”

Lifting their hands and kissing the back of his, she looked up through her eyelashes at him. “Good thing you’re the boss and don’t notice that kind of thing.”

“Aye, good thing,” he managed.

“My tattoo… the V on the back of my neck. I was thinking about it while you were out here rooting around in my dresser drawer like some sort of panty troll…”

Her tone shifted and her voice trailed as she turned just slightly, lifting the curtain of curls resting just above her shoulders.

“Quentin. It’s a French name. If you trace it back from Latin, it means ‘the fifth.’”

Her fingers found the space where her mind believed the tattoo was. Though it lived with her (on her, in her), it was a brand she’d only seen in a mirror, but never directly with her own eyes.

She lowered her face.

“It’s a roman numeral. Five. For my uncle. His name was Quentin, and he raised me after my parents died. I was five when it happened. When they passed. Then…”

She could feel the warmth of him recentering behind her, and her body melted backwards, though her instinct was to stand straight and stiff as a board.

“When he passed… I needed this somehow. It was an impulse, and I’ve never said I need a physical reminder of someone I love, but I do.”

She let her hair fall over his fingers. He gathered it to the side and pressed a kiss over the small bump of her spine visible just below the small V.

“Thank ye for telling me.”

“You’re the first person I’ve loved since he passed, Jamie.”

Surprisingly, she did not cry with the admission – any of it. That she had lost her parents and her uncle, that she loved him, that he was the first one she’d loved, or that she was the first one of the pair to say it. That it was layered on top of her very intentional and repeated usage of the word “girlfriend” days earlier.

She’d never said it to a man before and meant it.

She hadn’t known the feeling of loving someone along the perimeter of her soul, where it could seep into the usually dry thoughts of the day. That she loved someone; that she was likely loved in equal measure in return.

She hadn’t known the mere thought of loving him could make her smile in unexpected moments. While she reviewed her bank statements (and her accounts’ precariously dwindling balances) or stood on her tiptoes to reach the back of the shelf at the market (where old man MacKenzie kept the freshest eggs according to Jamie).

Instead of running, she doubled down.

“I do love you. I hope you know.”

“I ken that ye love me, Sassenach.” His eyes were light as he paused, studying her face in the mirror. His voice low, somewhat solemn, he added, “It’s been apparent for some time.”

I could know you all my life, I think, and always love you.

“Ye ken that I feel the same for you. I love–”

“–don’t!” she interrupted, turning with her eyebrows knit together in distress. “Don’t say it just because I said it. Don’t choose now… this moment… just because I did.”

“Ye need the spotlight or somethin’? Ye willna be outdone?”

She laughed. “Something like that.”

Adso leapt onto the dresser. The feline eyed Jamie with the usual level of heightened suspicion, as though wholly convinced that the male houseguest was some sort of serial killer in disguise.

“Weel, cat… yer mam… who is my girlfriend… loves me. Ye goin’ to be nice to me now?”

And with a soul-deep, pathological hatred, Adso hissed.

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part XVI: Letters & Mattresses

By the time the first of the Highlands’ lush greens began to begrudgingly adopt thousands of fiery hues that heralded oncoming autumn, Claire stopped using the adjective “fucking” in referencing to the bed-and-breakfast.

It was mid-September, and the fucking-bed-and-breakfast had become Leoch Manor.

Her bed-and-breakfast.

And a lot of things had changed.

Under her hands, and with periodic assists from one Scottish hardware shop owner, the structure that had seemed at first to be a condemnable lost cause had come to look like a place of proper accommodation. In its renewed state, it had become a respite for road-weary Highland travelers seeking to recharge. By God was she ever proud of the transformation, even though no guests had yet penned their names and hometowns in the registry book (a leather journal with gold inscriptions, presented by Jamie upon Claire’s solo completion of the entryway).

The guests’ bathrooms were painted, tiled, stocked with expensive Egyptian cotton hand towels, and smelled strikingly like the two-pound-coin-sized botanical soaps arranged atop each sink. Each bathroom had a tub equipped for even the burliest of men to sink chin-deep in scented, milky water (Jamie had become a guinea pig at Claire’s insistence before she joined him in said water, slipping a thigh on either side of his as she whispered, “for science… for truth in advertising”), and the tile floors would warm on chilly Scottish mornings with the flip of a sleepy patron’s hand.

Two days after the bathrooms were checked off her list, Claire put the finishing touches on the sitting room. At its center was a black and white picture of a coo that Jamie had convinced her was just the right mix of kitsch, country, and chicness. The bovine protector stoically stood on guard over a buttery leather chesterfield. Flanking either side of the sofa was a set of turquoise velvet chairs so sumptuously welcoming that they called out like a sea siren to sink into the depths, to stay for awhile. Bespoke cushions in various Harris tweeds were strategically angled on each seating surface along with chunky-knit ivory throws.

Though she did not fancy herself an interior designer, Claire felt a swell of pride at the result. It wasn’t half bad for an unemployed physician about to put her two hundred thousandth mile on her car. “‘Tis fit to host a royal family’s visit to the countryside,” she declared in an exceedingly exaggerated English accent to Adso. The cat was sitting near enough that Claire wondered if she was carrying around with her the smell of the tuna fish sandwich she had for lunch. Keeping its beastly secrets, Adso only swatted impotently at the fluffy duster that she was holding. When a paw’s worth of half-moon claws caught and tugged, Claire cursed and lamented the loss of “the moment.”

By mid-August, the gardens surrounding the house had been tamed and prepared for spring planting. Long rows of tufted dirt had been tilled in invitation for the next planting season’s vegetables, herbs, and flowers. At the front, she had planted various perennials and bulbs that would withstand the winter and surge out of the ground come spring thaw.

Through it all, Claire had only mildly entertained the notion that she would not be at Leoch Manor to see any of it burp free of the soil.

After a night of debauched pleasure in the potting shed (her hands slamming onto the potting bench with such ferocity that she sent a watering can flying and jar of watering can careening to the ground), Claire had confessed that she yearned for herbs like an addict craves a fix. Jamie was turned away from her with a light sheen of sweat ghosting his lower back, carefully taking care of the slimy exoskeleton of their spent condom. He turned and asked what kinds of herbs. He appeared to take keen interest in her answer as she slipped back into her knickers, smoothed her hair into a ponytail, and bent to pick up the watering can.

Mint. Basil (in no fewer than three varieties for the myriad of things she would use them for). Oregano. Chives. Sage. Rosemary. On and on.

Then, two days later, Jamie had shown up with carved stakes with each herb’s name expertly carved in the wood. “For yer wee herb garden,” he explained before her mouth slid over his, her tongue collapsing through the seam of his lips.

Neither spoke into existence the fact that lingered unsaid between them. It was undeniable as the velvet black night that was swallowing the sunset, the chill that would give autumn its teeth, or the inevitability of time doing its damnedest to disassemble them.

The truth was this, irrevocable and painful as it was:

Someone other than Claire would be responsible for making the garden verdant and swollen with produce and blooms. It wouldn’t be his Sassenach who was dutifully plucking the herbs from the garden for use in the meals served at the bed-and-breakfast. She would be gone.

It was one summer. Nothing more.

By the end of August, the dining room was prepared to host motley groups of previously unacquainted travelers. Claire had a dream in which mismatched folks in hiking boots convening around the hulking table for breakfast. There, the wanderers would share email addresses and swap Instagram handles, talking about their homes on various continents (bragging, listing the must-visit locations, promising to meet up with new acquaintances). They would gush about their visits to Scotland (the light, the mountains, the lochs, the whisky, etcetera) as they pushed the dodgier elements of a full Scottish around stone-wear plates. Then, when asked if they liked the fare, they would look at their well-gnoshed-on eggs, tattie scones, sausages, bacon, mushrooms, and beans before protesting “oh I’m just so full… not another bite” instead of “Jesus Christ what the FUCK is THIS?” over the mounds of haggis and gritty black pudding. She couldn’t blame her hypothetical haggis-rejecting guests. As she’d explained to her aghast lover over breakfast at Broch Mordha’s best – and only – pub, she wasn’t sure she liked haggis.

And then, finally, the guests’ bedrooms were furnished with Leoch Manor’s original bed frames. They were hand-carved oak behemoths (thistles and stags, other beasts and references to Scottish fables). Jamie and Claire refinished them over the course of two weekends (with no scarcity of eighteenth-century fables retold by Jamie with broad gestures as they scrubbed the carvings with oil soap).

After they finished the back-breaking work of reassembling each bed one Sunday, Claire spent the following Monday moving from room to room outfitting each memory foam mattress with downy duvets, colorful tartan throws, fluffy pillows, and spritzes of lavender linen spray. Room after room, she hung pressed white curtains that grazed the floors and the art she’d purchased along the coast. Her fingers traced the frames with a warm familiarity – a familiarity that for months she would not realize was attributable to the feeling of being “home.” Quietly, Claire would say, “I’ve been there.”

And with that final dull observation, the heavy lift of full renovation of the guest-facing portions of the bed-and-breakfast was well and truly complete.

Sure, with a place like Leoch Manor, a thousand little projects lingered.

A creaky board here. A loose floorboard there. A sticky hinge on some rarely used built-in.

It was just the nature of owning a beastly old manse in a swampy, perma-chilled part of the United Kingdom, but it felt like she was victorious at bookending that awful morning in the kitchen with its painted-closed window with something pride-inducing.

Though she had expected celebration at the end (a bottle of Moët had been chilling since Jamie said it felt like they were turning a corner; she had expected to pop it while wearing her fanciest lingerie before christening each guest room with her Scot), there was no energy to be had for frivolity and joy at the accomplishment.

Exhausted, Claire simply stretched her weary body across one of the new mattresses and passed out cold while Adso played with her hair.

She slept like the dead.

When she woke the following morning, she set about finishing up the kitchen. Boxes for new cupboards had been assembled, the floor leveled, and orders placed for new flooring, appliances, and light fixtures.

It was that next afternoon when the letter came.

The ninth of September.

The envelope was battered – as though it had been to some war-torn country and back instead of traveled north from London to Broch Mordha in the Royal Mail’s careful custody and control.

Jamie was hosting her that evening, and he had promised an early dinner of grilled shrimp and herbaceous salad, rubbing mentholated lotion into each of her aching muscles, and a viewing of Braveheart in order to make her a true Scot.

For reasons unknown, the letter compelled Claire out of the common areas of the bed-and-breakfast. It was as if the space had eyes, ears, and mouths to tell the letter’s contents. She held the envelope close to her chest and bounded up the stairs. She was alone, but she nonetheless closed the door to the owner’s suite first, clicking the lock into place.

Then the bedroom.

Then the en suite bathroom.

Behind three locked doors, she sat on the edge of the new bathtub, her shaky hands reaching for the faucet. She needed white noise to drown out her own heart as it ascended to her throat with the ferocity of a hundred wild stallions on the move, the gentle nudging of Adso’s paw against the bathroom door where the cat was trapped and alone.

The envelope slashed a papercut in the fleshy web between her thumb and middle finger.

She did not notice in the moment.

She just started to read.

Dear Dr. Beauchamp:

I am pleased to offer you admission to the Saint Mary’s Regency Hospital medical training program in London to complete your final year of training.

Her heart swelled with the ferocity of a full symphony reaching its highest crescendo in the orchestra hall of her chest.

Pride first (admission to the program). Pain second (London). Dread third (Jamie).

Your qualifications and accomplishments in your chosen course of study are compliments to your dedication as a physician. While the admissions committee discussed at length the circumstances of your departure from London City Hospital, we are confident that you will be a leader in your cohort come the start date of October 3 for the autumn term.

October 3.

Less than one month.

As Claire finished reading the letter, Jamie’s face came to mind. He was so fucking stoic; she wondered if he would have a tell of whatever emotion it was that flooded him at her disclosure.

In place of the silence of the bed-and-breakfast, the sound of a plane engine over a waterfall in a storm roared in her mind, the seamed cap of her skull only barely holding it all in.

She’d submitted her application to Saint Mary’s to finish off her medical training months earlier.

Just after she broke the window and went to the sad little hospital with Jamie.

She had submitted the application before she knew her way around Broch Mordha.

Before Mrs. Fitz knew Claire preferred raspberry jam to lemon curd in her pastries or how she took her coffee.

Before the pizza and the kisses, the careful debauching of her kitchen, and the not-so-careful breaking of her willpower atop Jamie’s desk.

She’d sent it away when she believed in the prospect that whatever they would end up doing would be just fucking (whenever the hell that had been).

Much earlier the night before this very day. When Claire had shaken her head as Jamie started to rise from the bed to leave her and to find a condom. When she’d whispered to him that she trusted him, her hand on his cheek, that she was on birth control. That, if he wanted, he should do it now. And he had, kissing her senseless as they released tandem whimpers into one another’s mouths at the feeling of their skin melting together fully for the first time.

With the letter in hand, she adopted Jamie’s chosen curse - ifrinn.

She screamed it, roared it, cried it until her throat ached, her lungs unable to take more.

Her eyeballs felt hot.

That was her last observation before she closed her eyes, gripped the edge of the sink, and vomited spectacularly down the front of her t-shirt.

She did not cry.

Jamie had said it to her on a Saturday weeks earlier. Back when the application was a forgotten bit of post she’d thoughtlessly abandoned into the ether. The day he said it was etched in her memory with the permanency of one of the carved thistles adorning the beds they had refinished.

A single curl had been caught up in the smear of lip gloss she had hastily applied in Jamie’s truck with one hand on his thigh, steadying herself as she angled her face to the rearview mirror. They were shopping for the last of the fixtures for the bed-and-breakfast and deep into a debate over traditional springs or memory foam to replace the somewhat sad mattress that outfitted the owner’s suite.

Side-by-side on what felt like mattress number seven hundred and twelve, Claire shifted so she had one arm beneath her head as she inquired, “Would you sleep on this mattress?”

The question was posed with the solemnity of a funeral.

The corners of Jamie’s mouth lifted; it was a sincere question, and his answer was truthful. “I’d more than sleep on this mattress, a nighean.”

“Do you mean…” With a masterful level of control, her eyebrows undulated at him and one eye descended into a deep wink that she knew he couldn’t return. “…hanky panky?”

“Of course. This mattress’d be a fine place for…” He attempted a wink, seemed to luxuriate in the crackling of her resulting laughter. His upper lip seemed to shimmer like a glitch in the Matrix as he said, “A fine place for taking ye.”

Taking me?” Her mouth sank deeper into the smirk as she squeezed his hand. “You have the vocabulary of a ninety-two-year-old man.”

“Did I ever tell ye that until I was fourteen I thought that ye… do it… like horses, and–”

Wait,” she interrupted, rolling to her side just to be closer. “What do you mean? Like… artificial insemination?”

The tops of his ears pinked, though he smiled without any indication of embarrassment whatsoever. “No… not making babies. I mean that I thought that a couple fu-makes love–from behind.”

Though she didn’t laugh again, her eyes were a tease as her brows lifted. Her heart thundered to match the tempo with which the lie came to her. “We haven’t actually done that yet–”

“–we’ll no’ talk of the many ways in which I’ve taken ye in a furniture store–” (surely they had made love because her entire body had felt the truth of it, but he had most certainly not engaged in “taking” her from behind)

“–not for lack of me trying to get you to take me from be–” (the double meanings fitting neatly on either side of a page)

“I love ye, ye ken,” he said plainly, apparently giving up the ruse.

He had said it in the same way that one ponders the weather or what will be served for dinner.

It was so matter-of-fact that it caught her off guard.

The words became more adorned in her head with each breathless second that passed.

The vibration of each syllable became saturated color and spilled across her – painting her cheeks, curving her mouth, knitting her eyebrows into a line.

He said, “I love ye so much that I feel like my heart’ll burst wi’ it.”

At war in the center of her was the prize fight between Logic (outfitted in utilitarian black, a ram-rod straight spine) and Heart (an ephemeral glow shrouded in material as light as a cobweb). Her mouth went dry, and she had the sudden sensation that her blood pressure was dropping and her heart rate ascending. She was lightheaded. She was going to pass out or vomit. Oh God, he had finally said it, and she was going to throw up in response. Eventually, she muttered the first thing that came to mind. “We’re in a mess, and that’s what you say.” She blinked, pursed her lips. “Why would you say it? Your ‘heart’ll burst,’ for fuck’s sake, Jamie.”

You said it first! More than four days ago!” It seemed that he couldn’t help himself from breaking the moment, rolling his eyes at her. She wondered if it would always be so between them – her calling him out, his exasperation, the exhilaration of it. “Ye said it first, and ye wouldna let me say it in return. Even though it is true now, and it was just as true then. So ye canna fault me for sayin’ it.”

“You just made it messier.”

For a moment he hummed, his response noncommittal. “Aye, I said it, and ye can ignore it, if ye so choose.”

“Were you able to ignore the fact that I said it?” she demanded, her voice grave, her tone low.

“No more than I could ignore the fact that I ken it’s true, and that I feel the same. That I felt the same that night ye said it to me, but ye wouldna let me say it, and I’ve no’ said it for days now.”

She snorted, rolled onto her back. “What in the hell are we going to do, Jamie?”

“We will figure something out.” His voice was firm. As though it was some sort of answer. Both of them knew that it was not even the roughest sketch of a plan. It was something star-crossed lovers said before one was shotgunning a vial of poison in some back-lit chapel, the wherefore-art-thou balcony moments long forgotten in the desperation to be together somehow or somewhere, even in the afterlife.

“And… what if we don’t?”

He hadn’t answered.

Stupidly, uncontrollably, irrevocably, she had fallen in love. They had treated the eventuality of her having to leave as something remote. They had winked at their hypothetical mess.

And now she had said I love you. And he had, too.

And now she had the letter in her hands.

And now their mess was going to come home to roost.

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part XVII: London & Broch Mordha

With the contents of the letter having permeated the very marrow of her bones, Claire forced her trembling body up from the floor in front of the toilet onto her knees, then lurched onto her feet. Steadied with one hand on the sink, she wiped the outside edge of her index finger under her eyes in an attempt to fix her mascara.

How could she tell Jamie that she had no question in her heart about this? That she would go, that she knew he had to stay, but that she didn’t want to let him go in the process. Surely, she told herself, it won’t kill him while I wordsmith a well-thought announcement.

She hated herself for it, for considering a deception by omission.

She couldn’t do it. Not to him. Not to what they had.

“No,” she promised in a breathy mutter as she finger-combed her hair. She whipped her curls into a ponytail that flipped in a jubilant way that was inconsistent with her mood. Fingers yanking the ponytail in half to tighten the base all the way to her skull, she declared, “You will do this tonight, Claire Beauchamp, you fucking coward.”

She watched her image parrot the words back as her mouth spoke and reached behind her to unlock the bathroom door. Her eyes were puffy, but finally devoid of mascara tracks. She folded the letter in half three times (recalling the time right before they’d had sex the first time when she had wished, in the heat of arousal, that Jamie could fold her in half three times), and tucked it into a box of tampons in the mirrored medicine cabinet over her sink. Though she had every intention of telling Jamie at the end of their night, she took solace in the feeling of security that the letter was tucked into no-man’s land.

“You owe him the truth. You owe it to yourself, too.”

She opened the door after Adso’s desperate donkey-like braying and pawing at the door frame became positively insufferable. The cat came barrelling in with a gut-wrenching meow. Claire chose to interpret the expression of feline discontent as judgment. A cat’s judgment over the fact that she had stuffed the acceptance letter into a box of feminine hygiene products rather than into her back pocket, to have it at the ready to unfold on the counter, to tell the story.

In reality, Adso was most likely annoyed at having been disconnected from his chosen perch for a rather inconvenient eighteen minutes while the human, tolerated as a vehicle for shitty wet cat food, had cried and barfed all over herself about accomplishing a lifelong dream.

In the mirror, Claire squeezed her left cheek and then her right. She marveled at how the pinch did precisely nothing for her color, despite decades of novel and film heroines telling her otherwise. Perhaps it did little for true anguish, she considered morosely.

“One big truth to tell to the summer fling you fucking love, you fool.” She smeared a quick layer of gloss over her lips and smacked them noisily in the mirror. A night without the spectre of imminent departure looming over them sounded like it was just the ticket. She desperately wanted it – one last chance to flirt over wine, to feel him inside of her without the tick-tock expiration date marching on like a death sentence to what they had, to wake in his bed to the smell of cooking breakfast or his sleepy eyes intent on her form. As though she was talking herself up to being a truth-teller, she repeated, “He is kind. He loves you. You love him. He will understand.”

Fuck.

He would understand that she had to go because he was fundamentally good and supportive. He understood that she had worked too hard, sacrificed too much, to let it slip through her fingers this close to the finish line. He would be able to tell from her words, the way she touched his forearm when she said it, how a little distance wouldn’t change – hell, couldn’t change – how she felt for him.

Right?

When she arrived at his house, her mouth went dry.

At the front door, before she was even over the threshold, Jamie was so effusive with joy about the night he’d planned for them. He smelled like seafood and whisky, and he had a towel thrown over his shoulder like some sort of celebrity chef on the television with unforgivably bad sideburns. He declared that he had thrown together his mam’s cranachan for dessert, and that he hoped she liked enough booze in her pudding to make her every breath flammable.

The pallid, truth-telling Claire, who had talked herself up in the mirror (a prize fighter of honesty), was suddenly devoid of a single word about finishing her training, about needing to go to London for herself.

And so she smiled and kissed him, wordless as she tucked his hair behind his ears.

Then kissed him again, as if she could not quite believe her good fortune to have a man who luxuriated in kissing her just as she did him.

As she shed her rain jacket, she mustered a joke about the poor manners of the lamb who had obstructed her path up the drive to his front door.

She absorbed Jamie’s quick swat to her bottom with a high-pitched shriek of pleasure as she spun to grab his arse in comeuppance. As she declared victory over the twin mounds of muscular gluteus maximus, her brain hit pause on the moment at the wayward thought of that bloody letter in her box of tampons.

She wondered if she was about to lose all of this.

You will tell him tonight.

It was a vow.

***

It took three days to move Claire to London.

In the backseat of an Uber, Jamie allowed tears to course down his unshaven face the entire way to Heathrow, his mind replaying each moment from when she told him that she was leaving through their goodbyes on the front stoop of her new flat.

Claire had been quieter than usual the night. In the entryway and on arrival, she had kissed him thoroughly. She had smiled when he joked with her; she squealed riotously when he’d smacked her arse, lobbed mild banter back his way when he flirted with her, and touched him more than was usual for her.

But, ultimately, she was uncharacteristically, cloyingly affectionate that night, her cheek resting on his bicep and her hand on his elbow as they stood over the grill and watched flames lick their seafood a healthy, cartoonish pink. When he finished off his beer, she silently went inside to the kitchen to get him another, her bare shoulders rolled forward and face tilted towards the ground as she turned away from him.

Back in the kitchen, a heaping mound of grilled shrimp on a serving platter, he asked, “What’s goin’ on wi’ ye? Somethin’ ye need to tell me?”

She swallowed, appeared to think for a moment, then shook her head.

Unconvinced, but unwilling to press the matter, his eye contact became unflinching as he uncapped the bottle. He could feel the intensity of his own gaze somehow, and he hoped it didn’t spook her. She looked vaguely like one of the jumpier horses he had trained with his father, and he thought of saying so for a moment. Then the realization hit full in the gut that he had referenced fucking her from behind like a horse, and precisely no woman on planet earth wants to be compared to a horse twice in the span of one summer.

Eventually, she offered, “I’m a touch out of sorts tonight.”

“I’ll say,” he said, watching her leopard eyes dart around the perimeter of the room. He wondered, vaguely, whether she would be less offended by a comparison to a caged leopard than a horse; perhaps he could coax a laugh from her by lobbing a real clunker of an analogy her way.

Then she added, “I’m sorry.”

“I didna say it to get an apology, Sassenach. It’s an observation, because I…” His words hung there, his tongue and mouth stuttering on the I in a way that made him wonder if he was developing a late-in-life speech impediment when it came to her.

“–because you love me?”

“Is that no’ a Celine Dion song? Because You Love Me, I mean.” He warbled an awful, off-key Scottish-meets-French Canadian rendition of the mid-90’s hit that was just terrible enough to make a snort explode from her gut and a small trickle of beer escape her mouth. “But, aye… I love ye,” he agreed, hand raking through his hair as she took a long draw from her own beer bottle.

I-love-you didn’t adorn their combined vocabulary the way that it did the lovers in romantic movies, who allowed the words to infest each moment. They’d said it only a handful of times since those first times (an inadvertent disclosure resulting from a perfectly cooked egg, an unguarded sigh in the twisted sheets of one another’s beds upon waking, a glowing appreciation as a Phillips head screwdriver was passed along with the precision of a nurse assisting in an open-heart surgery). It had been rare. Since she laid it bare in her bedroom, the evening air from her cracked window lifting the hairs on the backs of her forearms to attention. Since the mattress store declaration under fluorescent lights that had been immediately blemished by the realization that they were in an unholy mess together. Jamie and Claire, the pair who had said it and could not take it back, were ones to show it rather than say it, it seemed.

Looking back on that first time he said that he loved her, Jamie realized that he had expected to say it first somewhere that he could use his hands and mouth to drive the message home. To cup her face and draw her close enough to see whatever reaction touched her glass face, her leopard eyes. Perhaps over a picnic, her fingers rolling a single forget-me-not between her fingers as he reached forward to brush crumbs from the white shift dress he loved so much. Perhaps in bed, with her pupils still blown wide from an orgasm, she would be able to taste it on his mouth when he said it. Perhaps still buried inside of her, where he could feel her body flutter at his admission. Perhaps with the imprint of his paint-covered fingers on the belly of her t-shirt as they discussed transforming yet another room of the bed-and-breakfast into a livable, rentable space. But the first time it crossed the threshold of his lips, they had been in that bloody impersonal furniture store, damp from the constant mist that seemed to define their Highland fling.

And then when he looked back on that moment in his kitchen hours after she left, and then again in the back seat of the Uber on the way to Heathrow, he wondered if he had just known somehow from the moment she walked into his house that evening.

That she would leave. That he would not stop her.

That he would smooth back her hair as she was wracked with sobs, her right nostril bearing the fruit of her anguish in the form of a clear snot bubble, and tell her that he knew she had to go.

They had eaten dinner that night, done up the dishes, and retired to his room.

In a desperate rush, she removed her pants and then his (capable hands transformed into appendages as useless as a teenaged virgin as he breathed through his shock at her forwardness). “Please,” she ground out, fingers on his wrists, reanimating him somehow. He relaxed his fingers, shook his fists open, and touched her. Finding her ready, he groaned, parted her gently, and deepened his exploration.

And as she climbed onto his bed moments later, she stayed on her hands and knees, looking at him over her shoulder.

Brow furrowed, rewinding the mental videotape he had made of each awkward highlight of their night, he asked, “Ye’re sure about this?”

Cracking her first wide, genuine smile of the evening, Claire’s eyelids drooped with a kind of sensuality that made him feel like he would never be able to take another woman to his bed. With the most affected Scottish accent she could marshal, she said, “Ye promised that ye would take me from behind… like horses do.”

“Oh Christ,” he muttered, hand reaching out to travel the circumference of the arse that had become a mainstay in each of the fantasies he had entertained since she came into his life (cold showers after dropping her off, face-down dreams on his mattress, holding her as she slept with said arse nestled against his thighs). She winked at him, the minx; it was enough that he could feel a twitch of arousal everywhere – the arches of his feet, the underside of his ribs, the bits of his brain that stored his most primitive and reflexive instincts.

He touched her again, and she mewled, arched like Adso under a rather indulgent pet.

Again, she said, “Please.”

When he drove into her without any further preamble, checking off the last major thing they had not done together, it was with an urgent ferocity. One hand firmly gripped her hip and the other her shoulder. He guided her forward, back, again and again, as he thrust. He could feel the heat of a bruise bloom under the fingers on her arse and loosened his grip infinitesimally. The sounds she made were unlike anything he’d heard from her before – feral, desperate, filthy, involuntarily bursts of vowels. Her language became clouded with obscenities, pleas for him to fuck her, to do it harder, faster, to never stop. She went silent – no more whimpers, no more moans, no sounds to spare – and then she screamed, crying her orgasm out with a plea to God. As she pulsed around him, the upper half of her body melted into the bed, her arms giving way.

He drove himself over the edge with his fingertips sinking into the soft flesh of each of her buttocks, mentally scheduling an apology for the time when his heart rate would regulate itself and his breathing would return to its baseline some number of hours down the line.

From the juddering jump along the line of her spine, he realized only moments later that she was crying.

“Christ, I didna hurt ye, did I, a nighean?” he asked, smoothing her hair over her quaking shoulder. “I’m sorry, I thought that–”

“You didn’t hurt me, and it is exactly what I wanted. You are exactly what I want, and…” She turned, her fingertips slowly relinquishing their hold on his duvet. “And I need to tell you something.”

He would never able to say for certain, but he may have slurred a knowing “uh-huh,” having predicted that she had something to say that night that she had not yet mustered the words or courage to say.

“I was accepted to a new training program. I can’t say ‘no,’ and I’m going back to London.” She said it simply, her face only turned halfway towards his and the sharp blades of her shoulders still glistening with sweat (a place he had once been convinced could sprout wings and carry her away from him, to find something better than this place).

His mind whirled, stumbling backwards to their juvenile declaration that they would just figure something out. The memory of her body still slick on his softening cock, he shivered and blurted, “When?”

“Beginning of the month.”

He felt like he was on one of those carnival slides that he loved when he was a lad – the ones that whip up and down, so steep that he always felt his wame crawl up into his gullet. The slide was the slope of her back when she’d bent over his desk that first time, the look in her eyes then as she turned to face him completely. The slide was the stupid, ill-conceived conviction when he had first touched her that he could control this thing between them. That this would be a summer fling and nothing more.

He swallowed, replaying that first encounter in the hardware shop.

The way she’d wanted to make it impersonal – bent over his desk and coy.

His voice was soft, but firm as the realization dawned on him, and he said, “Ye thought that sex… like this… would somehow turn our relationship back into a fling for ye.”

Her cheeks, already sex pink, flushed deeper. Her glass face betrayed her.

It had seemed simple early on – when they had no labels and a rather certain expiration date.

It had been before all of the nights at the fucking-bed-and-breakfast. Those nights of dinners and painting, post-sunset carpentry and tiling, joint showers with no lascivious intent other than to get clean so they could dip beneath her duvet and just sleep. Those nights of seeing how many octaves her voice could climb as he made her scream, how many octaves his voice could dip as she drew a moan from the center of his spiritual being with a sloppy mouth, curious hand, or urgent slip of her hips. Those nights when he had started to dream of her – of introducing his mam to Claire Owner-of-Leoch Manor, of clearing a space for her in a drawer as she had for him, of relocating to London for her and somehow not feeling guilty for leaving his family behind, of making his favorite dessert from when he was a lad for her.

It was meant to be simple.

But now he loved her.

“For the smartest woman I ken, ye’re a right… eejit sometimes.” He reached for the switch on the lamp at his bedside. She looked almost translucent under the warm glow of the bulb. He touched her shoulder, his thumb smoothing down the goosebumps that erupted there.

“Jamie,” she choked, “I am so sorry that I didn’t tell you first thing.”

The muscles in his jaw were drawn taut. He could feel his expression cranking tighter, closing her out. In the moment, he wanted to be soft for her, to kiss apart the drawn rubberband of her lips and tell her that he was so proud of her, to assure her that it would be just fine.

To be sure, he was proud. He knew the parts of her that buzzed at the prospect of her career, of seeing the hard work pay off. So what bubbled in him wasn’t quite anger, but annoyance. For the first time, he was annoyed by his family obligations. Annoyed at Ian for getting cancer and leaving a son who needed a Da, a wife who needed a partner, a friend who needed to be reckless for once in his fucking life, to chase this canty, crazy bed-and-breakfast owner to London. He was annoyed that he had become a second-rate understudy in the roles Ian had left open. He was annoyed at the universe for introducing him to this fiercely intelligent, funny, sexy being who he couldn’t just fuck and move on from as he had intended.

After what felt like an eternity, he managed, “Dinna be sorry. No’ about this.”

Her face disappeared behind her hand, and she wept. His hand spanned her lower back, drawing her closer until he had her wrapped in a web of limbs – arms around her shoulders, one thigh over her hip. He had held her like this before – arousal torrid in each of his tendons and veins, cock hard, the wet heat of her a tantalizing invitation. But like this, in this moment, he was soft. She was no warmer between her thighs than the slope of her neck where her pulse thrummed, the lower part of her back where the late-summer-meets-early-autumn breeze from his open window hit her. He lifted the corner of the duvet, folded their bodies into its cocoon, and held her like that for what felt like an entire geologic age. He held her until her sobs ebbed into absent crying, until she was hiccuping, and then when she had fallen silent.

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” she whispered after a time.

“London’s no’ but an eighty minute flight from here, and it’s no’ an expensive one.”

By dawn, neither had managed to sleep, but both had said I love you more than once.

The month flew by as they put the finishing touches on the bed-and-breakfast, listed it for reservations starting May 1, 2020, and Claire interviewed a series of caretakers for what she had inadvertently come to call home.

Then, four days before her program was set to begin, they loaded Claire’s car with the sparse belongings that she was going to take to London. The rest she packed in boxes with hastily-scrawled labels and slipped into a locked cabinet in the Leoch Manor owner’s suite. With Adso mewling desperately for release from a cat carrier amongst cardboard boxes, Jamie and Claire made the drive together.

Though the flat seemed perfectly fine by what he adjudged to be Londoners’ standards for living accommodations, Claire lamented that her new place was cramped, that Scotland had ruined her. That the city was claustrophobic, and it made her yearn for space.

And when, on the first night, she stubbed her toe on Adso’s litter box, sending the cat-shit-and-litter equivalent of a white cap wave skittering across her tile floor, she had screamed that she hated it there. A bit stunned at the display, Jamie stepped towards her, hands going dumb as he second-guessed his instinct to hold her. Claire, for her part, had stepped into Jamie’s arms, resting a face on his shoulder.

Eyes darting around the sparsely-decorated flat, he murmured, “Ye can do it for a year. We can do it for a year, and then… we’ll–”

“–figure something out?” she almost cackled, suddenly finding their flippant dismissal of the mess they were in a fine subject for gallows humor.

They spent the short number of days that Jamie had before returning home desperately imprinting themselves on one another. He declared it his intent to make the flat a home for her. The first morning he helped her unpack. The first afternoon they assembled furniture. The first evening they found the darkest corners of the pubs she favored. And the first night he held her wrists to the bed, tasted her throat, and made up for all those days that he had failed to tell her precisely how much he loved her.

Then, on the day that he was to leave, she begged him to let her feel close.

The words coming out like a plea as opposed to a sexual preference.

Her eyes seemed to glaze as she shared precisely how she wanted him.

He found it immeasurably sexy and sad all at once.

Her fingertips ran along the curve of his ear and the length of his throat; he wet his lips. With her fingers going to circle his wrist, she guided his hand along her belly. When she reiterated that she wanted it slow, it seemed to be as much for herself as for him.

“Aye,” he slurred in response, apparently so taken by her that his exigency at having her had become a relic of a long-forgotten time.

He looked her in the eyes as he flattened two long fingers against her. She swallowed, her mouth drifting open, voice choked when she implored him again to make it last.

That last day, they had each other once and then again.

Each was a marathon, but the second was silent, but for gasps and sighs. His fingers on her face, hers resting above the hollow between his pecs where his heart beat, the moment became more tender than either of them had ever known. They had said everything that was left to be said.

After he dressed, and as he packed his toiletries from her bathroom, Claire confessed that at the beginning of the summer, she had envisioned a triumphant return for herself. A night of regaling friends and acquaintances of her time in Scotland. Of the creaky, drafty fucking-bed-and-breakfast not so much bequeathed to her as part of her uncle’s estate, but foisted upon her. Of the loneliness that became a lesson that she was leaving behind up north.

Whispering into his palm, kissing it, and then brushing her lips across his mouth, she confessed that she had never anticipated feeling like this. When Jamie’s phone dinged an urgent bong-bongto announce the arrival of his Uber, he whispered, “Summer’s over, Sassenach.”

“We’ll figure something out,” she muttered. They had run the clock down about as far as possible before he missed the flight to Inverness. Inhaling deeply, Jamie wondered if he would remember her smell when he left, the taste of her along the collar of one of her flimsy tops or the soft underside of her breasts, the bow of her lips. He wondered if it would take minutes or days or weeks or forever to forget that scent, that taste.

She waited until he left to cry.

He texted her. We’ll sort a holiday soon. Summer’s over here, but not if we go far enough south.

She waited until she had replied “okay” to sob.

And then she was alone, and the only part of him remaining was the snapshot he had affixed to her refrigerator and the scent of his shampoo on her rumpled bed sheets.

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part XVIII: British Airways & Kittens

After Jamie left, Claire existed as a zombie for at least two days (reanimated body with dark undereye circles jerking through the activities of daily life, minus insurmountable cravings for human flesh), an unmitigated disaster for two more (waking prone to her alarm and rationing each minute as she questioned whether she truly needed to shower), and then transcended to a new normal (easy walks to and from work, meals consisting of saltines filched from the nursing station and long pulls from the drinking fountain, studying with a highlighter and pen smudged along the outside of her hand like an undiscovered galaxy).

In fact, she managed not to cry about distance over the course of sixteen overnight shifts.

They were on opposite schedules.

As Jamie rose, with the well-rested vigor that just weeks earlier had served her quite well (flipped on her back and marveling through half-lidded at the way his auburn curls fanned across her belly like a forest fire as he mapped a southward trajectory), Claire lurched into her apartment with aching feet and a sometimes heavy heart (having been the bearer of spectacularly shit news to no fewer than three patients one night, she directed Jamie to “just talk at me” in her dark bedroom).

As Claire rose from a fitful sleep, Jamie was getting ready (dinner at his sister’s or a drizzly night in with a good whisky, book, and that bloody pizza she had come to love so much). As she finger-combed a curling balm into her hair or applied deodorant, she would listen to him talk about his day absently, her mind going quiet at the rise-and-fall timbre of his storyteller’s voice (at his voice, her heartbeat going from a steady, lurching march of a tired army to the tympanic backbone of a symphony).

Instead of tears at the conclusions of their calls, Claire let herself be swept away by a current of bodily fluids and contrary patients, ignoring a belly that moaned almost constantly, and quite mournfully, at the fact she had not yet made a good run at filling the refrigerator in her new flat.

Perhaps she hadn’t cried because she hadn’t had the time.

Maybe she had gotten it all out after she melted in place as he left down her street in that bloody Uber.

Maybe she hadn’t eaten anything of any real substance because she was so caught up in work that she wasn’t hungry.

It seemed most credible, however, that she was mourning Jamie –– the distance allowing her to grieve for him in the same way that she had mourned her parents – quietly and reservedly tucking into herself, dissociating her emotions from the things she did to move through her everyday life.

It was ultimately the sight of a pastry that wrecked her – a bloody beautiful, flaky pastry.

Claire had managed to rally just enough energy to visit the market around the corner from her flat. She was committed to gathering a few staples after Geillis called her “Flora MacDonald-level gaunt” at a post-shift coffee date. Claire hadn’t known what the reference meant, but judging by the unattractive tightening of Geillis’s mouth as she said it, Claire assumed her friend had not meant it as a compliment. It was early morning, and Claire was quite sure that she looked like an extra in some C-list film about medical personnel being the first wave infected by some sort of pandemic flu. Her hair was positively wild, her lower lip shredded from concentration as she bore down into a patient’s chest doing CPR, her dark circles deep enough that she wondered if bones of her eye sockets also showed bruised signs of her exhaustion, and her three-sizes-too-large scrub top (one she borrowed after her first was sprayed with vomit and her backup was soaked in the contents of a positively explosive abscess) wadded in a hair tie at her lower back.

Claire realized that she hadn’t had a true meal since two nights earlier when she had woken just before her shift to an Uber Eats driver at her front door. The bored teenager with a giant, boxy black pack had a full-English takeaway breakfast in hand. With a quivering chin and naked legs, she signed for the delivery. The man had fed her at least half a dozen full-Scottish breakfasts over the summer, and apparently he could not be deterred. Maybe she had shed a tear sitting on her couch with the styrofoam container in her lap, but mostly it was because the mushroom skinny dipping in the perfectly-sunny yolk made her warm from head-to-do in an almost-better-than-sex kind of way.

Jamie hadn’t answered her call when she dialed him on the walk to the hospital to thank him, but he did text. She typed her precise thoughts about the mushroom and yolk, added a smiley face, and concluded with an all-caps THANKS followed by an embarrassing series of exclamations. He had responded, “Christ, you’re welcome– it was my goal all along to be compared unfavorably to a mushroom and an egg.” Then another text with a single smiley.

It was the most food that had been in her apartment, so the market seemed a fitting place to be, even though she suspected her scent du jour was a mix of another human’s vomitus and her own body odor. Pushing her trolley lazily down each aisle, she was a gladiator taking a victorious lap around the Colosseum, and she congratulated herself on powering through the almost-supernatural inclination to fall face-down on her mattress for a forty-eight hour nap.

She was up.

She was doing something, and that simple fact was how she intended to justify not leaving her flat until her next night shift began in just over sixty hours.

She selected whatever struck her fancy. Apples that were £3.99 a pound? Why not? There was no price to keep the doctor away, after all! White cheddar curls so highly processed she didn’t doubt the “cheese” was merely a chemical sprayed on styrofoam? Sounded perfect for Netflix. Hard seltzer? In its charming, slim, and unassuming can, she could pretend she wasn’t drinking to staunch the gaping wound right on the surface of her own emotional welfare. Deli cheese speckled curious shades of orange and white? A perfect addition to deli turkey and artisan baguettes. Out-of-season artichokes? She was a smart woman who could Google how to roast the fucking things.

It was then, almost at the check-out line, with her basket of assorted items, that she spotted the unassuming pastry that would break her.

Lofted layers of baked butter-golden carbohydrates, still on trays, with heat radiating from them with such ferocity that they fogged the glass display case. Raspberry jam oozed from the pinprick holes where some baker had ostensibly filled them only moments before, and she was in love.

With Jamie. Fuck. It was like a punch in the mouth.

Opening the case, she felt a pang low in her belly and her eyes begin to burn.

She remembered Jamie showing up at the door to his own bedroom one morning with a bag full of Mrs. Fitz’s finest overfilled confections. She hadn’t even known he’d gone, and as he toed out of his tennis shoes at the threshold, he’d told her it would be rude to stay dressed when she was anything but dressed. They ate adjacent to one another, Jamie snorting that she sounded just as pleased about the pastry as she had the night before. When she’d declared that the pastry was perhaps the finest thing that had ever been in her mouth, he disagreed. “It’s fine, Sassenach,” he said blandly. She recalled with all five senses everything she’d felt when he reached out for her hand as she chewed the last bite, his lips and teeth nibbling on the tips of each of her fingers. He’d mumbled that her fingers tasted like raspberry jam when he kissed them before hitching their hips together, and then she’d been gone.

The imposter London pastries smelled delicious, but they were not the ones she wanted, let alone where she wanted them. She wanted the nonjudgmental gaze of Mrs. Fitz, who knew damn well that Claire would not be sharing the pink paper box of half a dozen flaky raspberry jam-filled confections. Nonetheless, Claire took a single wax paper wrapper and carefully selected the roll that appeared to be the most overfilled, and the most Mrs. Fitz-like, from the bunch.

After checking out, Claire walked back to her flat with a reusable shopping bag emblazoned with FRASER HARDWARE EST. 1957 weighing down one hand and using the other to look at flights to Inverness on her mobile. In her kitchen, she first whipped off her bra through the arm holes of long-sleeve t-shirt and absently scrolled the available flights available for a last-minute booking. One-handed, she wrestled her pastry from her shopping bag and snapped a photo, quickly typing: “I have these, you bring the good coffee. I’m off until Friday. Xx.

She hit send, flagellated herself mentally over the too-squishy “Xx,” and waited a beat.

Nothing.

Finding herself marginally disappointed at the lack of immediate response, Claire ripped open the foil packet of fresh, organic “Salmon & Cheese D’Light” cat treats that had somehow made their way home with her. Since Claire had essentially lassoed a mewling, gyrating Adso at Leoch Manor into a cardboard box exile without allowing the beast any say in his relocation, she had felt a bit bad. She imagined that the transition was not particularly easy for a stray-made-indoor-outdoor-fucking-bed-and-breakfast resident.

As she scraped a small teaspoon of the treats onto the edge of a piece of junk mail, she wondered about surprising Jamie. She had wondered who the first to show up unannounced would be – she had assumed he would. He was quite the soppy mess of a human after all, she thought with a smirk.

If she booked a mid-priced fare to Inverness on Logan Air, she could be in Broch Mordha by late the next afternoon. Though it would be a workday for him, as would the two days following that she could stay, she could visit her lovingly-restored bed-and-breakfast and study. Or maybe she could invade his house and go full housewife. She could envision it – a four-course dinner presented in the sluttieset lingerie she owned, the look of shock on his face (gaping, slurring, “are ye really here, Sassenach?” or some other such greeting that would make her laughter tinkle radiantly before he swept her upstairs like he was Rhett Butler, and she was Scarlett O’Hara), and then spend a few hours reacquainting their mouths to one various body parts (mouths, throats, collarbones, stomachs, thighs until every cell in their bodies hummed a monastic chant).

For a moment, she lost herself in the fantasy of it all, shifting at the pleasant and unexpected heaviness between her legs, but then she recoiled at a waft of whatever odor was emanating from Adso’s treat bag. Coming off her own self-inflicted, and mild, arousal, Claire gagged, and pushed the bag of treats away.

Fuck. The cat.

She could just leave the cat a giant bowl of food and water, and then hope for the best when she traveled to Scotland, right?

“Adso, it’s treat-treat time,” she called, waiting for her feline flatmate (a real freeloader who did not pay rent, pitch in with the dishes, take the rubbish out, and left tumbleweeds of hair rolling around the base of the toilet).

The hand-feeding of treats had become their London ritual. It was their time for a dose of togetherness, though she suspected all affection for the song-and-dance of it was one-sided. Typically, her feline stowaway needed only to hear the crinkle of a foil packet to apparate with the cracking speed of a robe-cloaked member of the Harry Potter wizarding world. With an upturned, snooty, and rather demanding face, the cat would leap onto the counter to butt her hand insistently. The onslaught of affection would be ongoing until Claire stopped plopping morsel after morsel into Adso’s awaiting cat-breath cavern, at which point Adso would disapparate with the same intensity and immediacy that defined the appearance for treats.

Bending at the waist to gather her discarded bra from the floor with a single finger, Claire rounded the corner of her kitchen, clicking her tongue, and calling out for the beast to “come get a fishie fishie treat” (eyes rolling so painfully that she worried they would pop free of her head at the goopy statement). As she made her way down the hall, she catalogued her current stock of lingerie, all of which Jamie had seen. Gathering the bra she had discarded the previous evening at the door to her bathroom, she checked her watch. It was 10:23 a.m. She wondered if she had time to take a quick nap, pop around to some shops before closing, and then get an actual night’s sleep before leaving for Inverness.

From memory, Claire tapped her credit card into the booking app.

And, just as she was about to press submit, she saw it on the center of her bed.

It took a few beats to register what she was seeing, but the tableau was the second thing that had made her cry that day.

A mix of exhausted, surprised, and utterly confused tears rolled down her cheeks..

Adso was curled in a C-shape on the mattress, licking one paw, and nursing three, squashed-headed, closed-eyed, gelatinous-legged kittens in sticky-furred shades of marmalade, fresh cream, and perfect barn-swallow tabby.

“Jesus H. Christ,” she muttered, dropping the bag of cat treats. “You’re a girl?”

The cat looked at her disdainfully as if to say, “I am a woman, not a girl. Now, human, remove the inconvenience of my afterbirth from your duvet, fetch me a fuzzy blanket, and provide me with salmon and cheddar treats.”

Jamie sounded distracted when she called.

“I’m calling to check on that coffee I asked you to bring over,” Claire said, teasing floppy afterbirth of Adso’s labor into a plastic shopping bag with the dull tip of a pencil. Her brow furrowed as she stood, the organ significantly lighter than any human placenta that she had come into contact with in her years of medical training. “I’m going to need the caffeine.”


“Ye ken there’re these contraptions now that allow ye to brew coffee in yer own flat.”

“Ha ha, ha-bloody-ha, you great comedian.” She dropped the soiled pencil into the shopping bag, carefully balancing the phone between her ear and shoulder. “I’m having a real morning here, Jamie. Some empathy please?”

“What are ye doin’?”


She tied off the shopping bag and stood dumbly, staring down at it. Wondering if she could toss it into the rubbish or if she ought to take it into work for disposal with the biomedical waste. “Adso gave birth on my bed, and I’m cleaning it up.”

She looked up from the smear on her duvet, eyes narrowing as she looked out the window. He was eerily quiet.

“I was going to surprise you tomorrow, but I think I should–”

“I’m sorry… what?”

He had plainly only been paying half attention to her, so she huffed, deciding to make him work for it. “Sur-prise. It’s when someone does something that another person isn’t expecting, and–”

“Ye’re a cheetie grannie.”

She rolled her eyes because he was, quite obviously, relishing the teasing of this.

“Do you reckon I can toss a cat placenta in the normal bin?”

He made a sound that made her shrug.

“I must say, havin’ been raised on a wee workin’ farm, wi’ all manner of animals who were in-a-delicate-way,” he started, the sound of the wheels on his chair grating across the tile in a way that gave her a rather full-chested blush at the thought of the way he’d held her in that very chair, “I didna peg Adso for a lass, let alone a pregnant one.”

“Yeah, well, you can’t be as surprised as I was coming home to the miracle of life on my new duvet.”

Snorting, he gave her that much.

They talked well past Claire’s usual night-shift bedtime.

Through the cleaning process.

Through her dinner of a cup of chamomile tea and the raspberry pastry.

Through the news.

Through Claire outfitting and then tucking herself into a makeshift bed on her sofa with a set of clean sheets and a pillow stolen from her bedroom.

All the way through to the moments when her voice got the soft, sleepy, slurred lilt that was so evocative he could almost feel her tucked against his chest at the bed-and-breakfast or in his own bed, her warm breath slowing against the notch between his collarbones after a day of hard work, her curls slipping under his fingertips as he traced them down, her leg meandering its way between his thighs and her ice-cold feet tracing up the back of his calf.

Through a quiet morning without customers coming into his hardware shop.

His heart stuttered at the combination of it all.

“I was going to surprise you,” she whispered shortly after one in the afternoon. “Tomorrow. I was going to come to Inverness and cook for you… you would get home, and I would be naked and waiting with a beef wellington or some such nonsense.”

“Quite the image,” he said a bit regretfully, knowing full well it wouldn’t be one of those phone calls.

“I’d be like June Cleaver, only a burglar version of June because I don’t have a key.”

“June Cleaver never cooked naked,” he deadpanned, closing his eyes on the other end of the line and picturing her on the couch, her infuriatingly, always-cold feet in a pair of fuzzy socks.

“It was there. The sexiness, I mean.” A drowsy pause, a heavy sigh, the sound of fabric on fabric as she rolled over or did something to disturb her bedding. “It’s in the subtext, Jamie. No family’s that happy without some good old fashioned sex.”

He hummed, turned the light on his nightstand off, and wondered if it would be too creepy, too cliché to say that he wasn’t going to hang up. “It’s no’ the apple pie? The wholesome family values?”

“June would never leave a pile of newborn kittens.”

“I’ll leave ye a wee key under the doormat, if ye want, seanmhair. Ye can surprise me anytime ye like.”

“Hummmnuh,” she intoned.

Before they hung up, he asked her how she’d decided to resolve the riddle of where to put the cat afterbirth. When she told him, she smiled slightly at the hitch in his breath and the mildly perturbed sigh that he released. “If you surprise me, James Fraser, I’ll take it out of the freezer.”

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part XIX: Airports & Antigua

Claire wondered if it would feel awkward to see Jamie.

Her palms were tacky as she wiped them on her thighs, praying that the sweat would not leave a mark. Sipping her overpriced airport beer, she replayed the comedy of errors that their long-distance relationship was proving to be.

“That’s an awfully thick jumper for a lass runnin’ off to Antigua.”

She rose automatically at the burring tone of his voice, the toe of her ankle boot catching on one of the barstool’s legs. She hadn’t even managed to swivel her head to get a good look at him before he prevented her fall, his hands (enormous enough to take care of all the rigging-related needs of a Viking ship) around her upper arms.

She swallowed hard when, with eyes narrowing in an appraising way (a forest predator assessing a foolishly fumbling fawn with meaty flanks), he said, “Well, hello.”

“Hello,” she echoed, not sure if she was now fully drawn against his front because he was hugging her close or his body was a magnet that drew her into its equatorial center. If an oncoming tempest of tears had a tone, it saturated her voice as she whispered, “I missed you.” She inhaled, the scent of his tissue paper-thin t-shirt clad chest. The smell of him was as warm as his very flesh.

“I missed ye, too,” he said. His hand was in her curls then, cupping the back of her skull, as though she were a baby with a soft cavern filled with squishy brain matter just beneath his touch. “Ye great cat grannie.”

“Happy New Year,” she mumbled eventually, having allowed herself to get intoxicated by his touch and lose her surroundings. Her heart was pounding so furiously that she was damn sure that he could feel it.

“Happy Hogmanay,” he amended.

It was December 28.

They hadn’t seen each other in person for almost six weeks.

God. It felt as though they had been separated by twenty years, not six weeks.

Her bones ached for him.

Not just for the sex that had defined their early relationship. But his smile under the sheets while they shared stories by the blue-white light of his mobile’s flashflight. His nearness as he put his elbows on the table to lean closer to her over a meal. The warmth of him on a couch next to her during a boring night of Netflix. The smile that rose like early morning sun as she prattled on about herbs or medicine or her bed-and-breakfast. The way his hands painted the air as he told her stories about growing up in Broch Mordha, an idiot customer, or the travel bug that had bitten him when he was nineteen.

They had seen each other in the flesh precisely twice since she left Leoch Manor behind.

The first time, Jamie showed up unannounced. It had been within days of Adso quadrupling the number of cats in Claire’s cramped London flat. Numb arsed and prurient of thought, he waited on the front steps for Claire to come home after her overnight shift.

As she trudged up the first set of stairs, she paused. It took her a moment, and then she screamed his name, pulling one earbud out. When they connected, he felt like he was taking a hit from the thickest-headed rugby player in a match between arch rivals. Setting aside the bruising feeling her skull sent vibrating through his ribs, he yearned for the breathless feeling never to end.

She let her bag drop to the floor, kissed his jaw, exhaled like she had been holding a breath for a year.

“It’s you.”

Smoothing the pad of his thumb down the bridge of her nose, he agreed, “It’s me.”

In the entryway of her flat, she’d dispensed with small talk, pressed his back against the wall, touched him urgently through rough denim, kissed her way down his throat, and managed to shimmy free of her scrub pants. They made it to the couch they’d purchased at IKEA and assembled together, where Claire whipped her top and bra off over her head. Slack-jawed at what appeared to be one of those magical, womanly moves that made him feel like quite a pre-teen idiot for having ever struggled to unclip a bra clasp, he was barely aware that she had freed him from his trousers.

“Ye’re magic,” he groaned as she put one knee on either side of his thighs, her small hand cupping and stroking. Ducking, he leaned forward to taste the soft-peaked mounds of her breasts. He kissed the silken place at the base of her throat –– the place where the water seemed to go opalescent under creamy bubbles any time he was lucky enough to shower with her.

And when she whispered that she wanted – no needed – him inside of her, drenching his cock with her molten heat, his brain felt like it was curdling.

He panted for her to give him her mouth, how good she felt, how it felt like her arse grew under his hands when she sank nearer to him than he’d believed was humanly possible.

He managed to survive her precise grinding for exactly nineteen seconds, and one plea to slow down, before he exploded with a groan, his fingertips sinking into her hips.

Immediately, with his jaw more-or-less on the ground, he brought a hand to her belly to still her, though she was the finest, carved from marble, denuded Greek goddess above him.

It was the first time she had gone vacant on him – no emotion, feeling, sensation on her face.

“Claire…” he breathed.

She was completely still, eyes wide.

He tried again. “I’m–”

And when she laughed, eyes glittering and nose making perhaps the most precious, scrubbed-pink piggy-snorting sound of bemusement that he’d ever heard, he laughed, too.

A full, hearty laugh. One that he saved for her.

“You’ve never come that fast,” she wheezed between laughs, her words broken apart by her own breathlessness. He groaned as she lifted off of him, her hands using his chest for leverage. “I love you.”

Had he not just ejaculated prematurely into the woman he had missed beyond measure, he would have called this moment – the sincerity of her smile, the creases at the corners of her eyes – one of the best in his life.

“Stamina of a teenager. Ye just got the early James Fraser sexual experience.”

She kissed his cheek, rolled her eyes, and duck-walked towards the bathroom. Over her shoulder, she called, “You’ve been masturbating too much without me.”

“I missed ye,” he called, lifting himself from the couch and following her path down the hallway. She was running the shower when he found her, hair tied back in a sloppy bun at the base of her skull and hand testing the temperature. Palming one of her breasts companionably, he said, “I’m sorry, and I’ll make it up to ye, and I’ll slow down the self-love a bit before I see ye next.”

She turned to look at him over her shoulder, giving him her most alluring look. “I know you will… make it up to me, that is.”

And he did.

With his knees becoming engraved with the uniform square tiles, and the crown of his head receiving an almost-royal knighting by her hand in his hair, he made good on the promise. She wilted down the wall at the end of all things, her body following the same leisurely pace as a thatch of foam, scented like a mix of his and hers shampoo, sliding down the tile. Come-drunk and exhausted from her workday, she slumbered naked against Jamie’s side.

It was two in the afternoon, and he couldn’t sleep.

By the time she woke to get ready to go back to work, he had napped for a bit, extricated himself from the warm heat of her limbs (draped over him with the weight of a leaden curtains), and disappeared.

The rest of their time had been an unmitigated disaster. Claire was kept late after her Saturday overnight. She made it five minutes into an episode of Fleabag before going entirely comatose.

Jamie had woken with a low-grade fever and a cement-in-head-level congestion on Sunday. They slept hard into the morning, fingertips touching. In a feat of illogical thought, a rather self-contradictory Jamie had resisted admitting he was sick (“I’m fine,” mumbled over a mouthful of thermometer that kept rising, seemingly never going to beep its conclusion) and simultaneously declared that he did not want to infect Claire (“I dinna want ye ill, mo nighean don” when she had leaned in to kiss him before bed).

By the time Claire returned Jamie to Heathrow on Sunday evening, he was a sniffling, aching mess, and wrapped in one-too-many-layers for the weather.

“You’re in a bad way,” she whispered, as she kissed his cheek goodbye. “I’m sorry to return you worse than I found you.”

Save that first nineteen seconds on the couch, and nine minutes in the shower, Jamie’s two-day London holiday was a sexless affair.

The second time, Claire had gone to Broch Mordha.

In their first not-quite-argument-wait-is-it-an-argument-are-you-mad-at-me long distance hiccup, Claire had resisted Jamie’s proposal to visit her in London.

She told him that she was exhausted from a stretch of overnights. She had to study for some oral exams. She did not appreciate his flippant, uncouth humor at the phrase “oral exams.” Her flat was a mess (a wine glass growing a surefire antibiotic cure to a world’s resistance to penicillin). She was up to the placebo pills in her birth control packet (a reunion with a shedding uterus not a particularly appealing prospect). She didn’t have time to entertain him or babysit.

Oh fuck.

She hadn’t meant the last one, though she truly did not have time.

The line had gone quiet. She wondered if he was still breathing.

She apologized; he said it was okay, he understood. He said it in that way people have when they most certainly do not understand, when it is absolutely not okay.

The blueprint for her life had become dedicated to finishing this program, but a not insignificant portion of the support structure to making it through had become him.

His phone calls.

His promise to be there at the end.

His messages in the middle of the day that he was thinking about her.

Jamie.

That fucking bed-and-breakfast.

So she gathered up her things, telling herself she could carve out some time to study at the bed-and-breakfast while he worked, popped the placebos out of the small packet of birth control and into the toilet, paid a £90 round-trip fare to Inverness, and said a prayer that a surprise trip of her own could suture back together the rip she’d put into their flesh over the phone.

The next morning she fixed her hair, donned expensive, hot pink let-me-fuck-my-way-to-absolution lace under a soft, off-the-shoulder jumper, ripped jeans, and heels he had never seen her wear, but had said he would like to inspect while they were on his shoulders, and made her way to the airport.

Once at his house, she contemplated just opening the door, but she instead rang the bell.

It took him longer than usual to get to the door, and his face blanched at the sight of her.

“Jenny took a last minute trip to Edinburgh for the weekend,” he burped out before greeting her, looking over his shoulder before turning to look her up and down. “I’ve got the kids, bairn and all, and…”

Her smile faltered only slightly as she attempted not to turn her face into a full matinee showing her disappointment. She lifted the edge of her sweater up over her shoulder, covering her bra strap. Though she knew her face was a lie detector – something almost objective to him, in the way that a blood test was to her – she schooled her expression to look unbothered. After her minor meltdown on the phone, she gave herself a mental slap on the wrist. She had no right to be disappointed that his family was at his house.

“Ye should come in… I’m makin’ Play-Doh wi’ the we’en. The older kids are… somewhere. Video games probably. Screaming ‘fuck’ into their wee headset things, hopin’ that I dinna hear. I always do, but I canna be bothered to be a disciplinarian. I can make ye a cuppa, and maybe sneak away during the morning nap to kiss ye senseless.”

He was rambling. Her heart fluttered as he babbled on and on; she nodded. “Tea, yes.”

They had a full morning together.

Concocting floury clay in all colors of the rainbow, mashing said clay together (a pen of unsettlingly turd-brown coos and dinosaurs taking residence on the kitchen table), dancing in front of the television (Jamie leading the charge and going loose boned as he flailed his arms to the song about a family of sharks), and stealing a kiss that was just enough after their day. Young Jamie and Ian were in the dining room arguing over whether Star Wars should be watched prequels first or not over the baby’s babbling. She slipped her hands into the back pocket of his jeans, not wanting to say goodnight, but knowing it was time to leave.

“I need to say sorry,” she whispered. “For that phone call. I was horrid.”

His eyes widened. “I do, too.”

Her face scrunched; his eyebrows went up.

“I wasna bein’ verra supportive, pushin’ ye to let me come down.”

She shook her head, fighting the urge to laugh. Her sweater fell down one shaking shoulder; Jamie slipped a finger under the lace, lifting, like he was testing the weight of the breast he would not see, could not taste. Her stomach tightened, a mix of arousal and disappointment, and she licked her lips. “I need to make time if we’re going to make this work.”

He nodded, lifting the strap again. His eyes were on hers, it was like his fiddling with the bra strap had become a tick in lieu of his usual finger-on-thigh flutter. She couldn’t say that she minded.

At the end of all things, she made her way to her empty bed-and-breakfast. She was exhausted, and she never did manage to crack a book.

The next day, she studied while Jamie worked. When he picked the kids up from school, he called Claire to join them for cheesy toasted sandwiches and soup. After the dishwasher was humming, Jamie and Claire tangled themselves on the couch while Jenny’s youngest played with her feet on the floor. As Jamie had predicted, the elder boys retreated upstairs to bellow four-letter words into their headsets. With Jamie’s laptop on her thighs, they set about matching schedules.

Hogmanay. It looked like the best bet, since she would work on Christmas Eve and Day.

“But no’ here… I’ve had enough of the U.K. Let’s chase summer.”

The mere mention of a holiday had her salivating.

And then came the furious search for something affordable, not too far away, with a predicted temperature that would make endless swaths of white-sand beach scald the bonnie bottoms of their feet.

Antigua.

She had been seduced by it while Jamie’s hand splayed across her lower back in a limp-fingered massage that she didn’t even want to evolve into something more.

Turning the screen towards him, and shifting her position, Claire said it in a full-breathed kind of way, each syllable becoming seductive.

“Antigua,” he echoed, not sure he had ever said the name of the island nation aloud.

Turquoise waters, sunshine, a bubble-gum-pink all-inclusive cottage with a walkout to the beach, a long flight, though not one that was not punishingly long, and a price tag that didn’t make her nauseated at the prospect of opening her credit card bill.

“I did say that if we go far enough south…”

Her jaw absorbed his kiss; the bridge of his nose absorbed her nod.

They booked the tickets, but the high was short-lived. After a round of I-have-to-go-no-just-a-few-minutes-more, Claire was pushing the limits of her ability to make the drive to Inverness and board her flight back to London. On the front step, his hands cupped her cheeks and he stared, eyes swimming. Her mouth went too dry to tell him to stop, that it would be okay. “A few weeks,” she whispered, “and we’ll chase down our summer.”

She did not look back as she drove away. By the time she reached Inverness, the neck of her sweater was saturated by tears.

And here they were, a few short weeks later, in criminally overpriced airport pub.

Jamie slapped some bills down to pay for Claire’s drink, muttering about extortion, and then took her hand.

“Let’s get a proper meal before the flight. Somewhere dark, where I can tell ye all the dirty things I’m goin’ to do to ye. I canna wait to see what ye look like wi’ some tanlines.”

Claire sank her fingers into his curls when she kissed him, praising whatever deity dwelt in the sky or cosmos or wherever that Jamie apparently hadn’t bothered to make a pitstop at the barber.

As they walked down the terminal, hands intertwined, Jamie asked, “Did ye check a bag?”

She shook her head, tipping her head down to the small rolling case. “I’m an easy keeper for these next five nights.” He hummed. She elaborated, “Bikinis, sundresses, SPF 50, birth control, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste. You?”

“Aye… stuffed to the brim wi’ birth control and bikinis.” She cranked her fingers tighter at his nape, attempted to draw him down to her mouth.


“Smart ass.”

He stopped, their joined hands like a clothesline as she was whipped back to face him. It was a slur as he murmured, “C’mere.”

She blushed then, a rosy pink, her eyes going wide.

He palmed her bottom, lifted, relished the squeal and the horrified looks of an elderly couple just down the way.

They were apparently playful on their way to Antigua, and the thought gave her a thrill.

Claire slept through the seven-hour flight, her face plastered to Jamie’s bicep, and her agape mouth pulsing a steady stream of drool onto his skin. When they arrived, the disorientation animating her slow movements, as well as the pink-cheeked realization about the state of his t-shirt, made him laugh so hard that tears pricked his eyes.

Time ceased to exist there on the endless beaches.

Paradise,” she breathed more than once while they shared a lounger on the beach, his sun-warmed broad hand splayed across the curve of her waist.

Sunshine carved deep pink-brown triangles along Claire’s hardly-covered bottom and the tops of her breasts.

The late afternoons made her glow. Sleepy and slow as she undid one tie on her swimsuit, she beckoned Jamie to follow her into their small private pool.

They made love at night atop the covers, tipsy on piña coladas and filled with fresh-caught seafood. Each move was slow and languid in that neon cottage, each measured thrust drawing the base of him to the summit of her. With the doors flung open, she came apart loudly, abandoning any sense of propriety she had over neighbors or who could hear. To Jamie, the sounds she made encouraged the starlight to become brighter, eternal.

They drank coffee with cumulus blooms of fresh cream. They gorged themselves on fresh mango. Walking hand-in-hand down the beach, they made plans that thrived on fanciful understandings of time and place, a romanticized notion of how they would make all of this work, but it was a holiday, and that was what holidays were for.

They visited the small town adjacent to their resort. Jamie was across the way in a pub eating an order of messy cheese-covered chips and swilling a rum cocktail of some sort while she poked around some shops. Then she saw it.

Island Tattoo.

She did it on an impulse, heart hammering wildly as she counted out the still-unfamiliar currency.

Afterwards, she looked at her bandaged wrist, and though she wondered if she had placed her new brand where a bracelet or watch would conceal it, she did not regret it.

Sidling up to him on a stool, she placed her hand on the bar.

“What happened?” So he had noticed the bandage immediately, his fingers finding the perimeter of the white gauze. “Are ye hurt, Claire?”

With her lip caught, she shook her head, her hand coming to the back of her neck as she reached for his beer. “Remember I told you that I got that V tattoo for Lamb… the only person I loved?”

She lifted the edge of the tape securing the gauze to her right wrist.

It was small. Smaller than a one-pound coin, but large enough to be clear and unmistakable.

The bulbous head of a prickly Scottish thistle, outlined in thin black ink and surrounded by an angry, puffy swelling.

“A dhia, mo ghràidh.”

He took her hand, pulled her to her feet, and tugged her out the door of the pub.

Thirty minutes later, he had the black outline of an English rose on his left wrist.

“So when I hold yer hand, they’re near,” he explained, face completely unbothered as the tattoo machine first carved a line into his tanned flesh.

In the afternoons, Claire paid half-attention to the well-worn paperback she found in the resort’s free library. With a straw hat tilted low and casting a speckled shadow her face, Jamie let himself pretend that they could stay in the moment forever, one day for each of the million freckles that had seemingly popped up on her nose and his shoulders over the course of one afternoon. Later, Claire counted the freckles on his shoulder as he soothed aloe vera over her slightly-burned collarbones. As she lamented how he was a bloody tanned redhead while she was a lobster bisque brunette, he cackled at her.

“Ye are. Ye’re my lobster, Sassenach,” he agreed, smearing a glob of green goo on her belly. He drew a heart in the gel, and she drew him to her mouth by his ears.

On their last evening, they situated themselves on the hammock outside their cottage. Jamie kept one foot on the ground, moving them back and forth languidly. With the length of her body pressed against his, they told each other stories.

About Lamb (getting the news he had passed and laughing hysterically on the floor of her university, not crying until she received a call that his ashes were ready), Jamie’s lips pressed to the V etched along the back of her neck.

About Ian (eating freeze-dried camping food as they bagged the last munro, not knowing cancer was consuming Ian’s insides), Claire’s thumb tracing the bones on the inside of Jamie’s wrist that felt too delicate for the powerful arms that were wrapped around her.

About how she felt guilty for not missing her parents (a singular memory of a birthday cake, but Lamb’s face being more prominent than her mum or her father), Jamie’s steady breathing a metronome to keep her from panic.

“Can you miss something you never had?” she asked quietly after a beat, feeling dizzy having had her eyes closed. She felt like the hammock was swinging in a wild arc – up then down, side to side – though it was an entirely mannerly sway.

His lips pressed to the back of her head, and his voice low, Jamie said, “I dinna ken.”

He stopped moving his foot; they slowly returned to a weightless suspension. Jamie drew his foot up, tucked his ankle between hers.

“We need to see each other more,” she mumbled after a time, wondering if they could just sleep in the hammock until morning, if their bags would pack themselves if she wished hard enough, eyes cinched shut against the certainty of being separated again. “We need to be realistic about our time. We need to be intentional.”

“We need a blueprint.”

She hummed. “Every other week… let’s see one another. I’ll come to you on my days off. You come to me on yours?”

“We’ve said that before.”

She didn’t mean her voice to be sharp, but it was, when she said, “Then we need to try harder. Do better. We need to quit waiting for schedules to align. I need to get over this notion that we need to entertain one another. I don’t think you’re offended by me studying, just as I understand that you have to leave and go to work.”

Hushing her quietly, he nodded, knotting his fingers into the hem of her sundress. “We’ll try.”

“My days off and your days off aren’t the same… hardly ever.” She opened her eyes, felt her insides swim, and cast her gaze up to the clear blue-black night sky. “Not even twice since October…”

“…it isna enough. It’s no’ ever goin’ to be enough.”

“Some summer fling.”

Jamie hummed. The hammock resumed its gentle sway. “I think that we’re goin’ steady, a nighean.”

She whispered something that she wasn’t sure he heard over the lapping of waves on the beach. It was a whispered “I’ll try harder.” She lost the words in her own mind over the hammering of her heart.

In that moment, this thing between them – the love she felt, the all-consuming need to make it work, the bright light of hope that they could – had never seemed more real.

As she intertwined their fingers together, she looked down at their wrists.

Jamie had been right.

The ink aligned perfectly – petals and thistle – when their hands were joined.

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part XX: Sawny & Ellen

Sunday.

Jamie wasn’t sure if he would ever be able to get off of his back.

That last moment, watching her measured steps as she walked down his front drive with her posture drawn tight, had almost killed him.

Somehow, he made it upstairs, crawled into bed with his shoes still on, and pulled the duvet up under his chin.

He had been through a battle with her, taken her blow, perhaps landed one or two himself, and retreated before either could take a kill shot.

Claire Beauchamp.

“I…” she had said, voice fading.

“Goodbye,” he finished for her.

The only woman who he had ever loved (without the connection of blood) was gone.

Something about this goodbye (wind whipping over her shoulders like it was carving worn slopes into steel) convinced him it wasn’t a farewell for only a week or two.

Not even for a month.

There would be no more texts stolen between his customers or her patients (plans for more calls, a frank accounting of their lascivious intents for a weekend together, boring play-by-plays of an afternoon of errands), goofy early-morning selfies of her in her towel (winking dramatically to rub in his own inadequacies, a line of hastily-applied moisturizer along the curve of her jaw), or long, late-night phone calls devolving into panting pleas to finish together (his and hers hands attempting one another’s jobs by instinct, a poor man’s stand-in for what they wanted).

There would be no more weekends lived out of the confines of a carry-on bag or using bad airport coffee at Heathrow or Inverness to stave off the sleepy ache of a body rising too early.

There would be no more mornings of waking with her turned to the color of lemon sorbet by early-morning sun, or long afternoons of making love to her on a bed littered with her various papers and texts, of making up stupid anatomy games to turn her attention from her studies.

She was gone.

She had arrived two days earlier, on Friday.

They had been making good on their promise to try harder.

The first weekend of every month, Jamie flew to London (pocket a few hundred pounds lighter from paying bribes to his “grizzled auld godfather” to keep watch over the hardware shop). At some point during the third week of every month, and depending on when she had days off, Claire jetted off to Inverness (iPad swollen with materials to review and digital versions of textbooks and treatises).

Then, together and against the backdrop of whatever landscape was their home for the moment, they settled into a pattern of domesticity.

Her tea (so hot it made his palms tingle). His sofa.

His eggs (extra runny). Her dining table.

They unearthed new parts of each other in the insignificant little arguments had by all couples (who left the window over the toilet open before they went to the cinema, political squabbles between two lovers closer to one another on the political spectrum than either candidate they endorsed, whether folding the page over in a book was an act of barbarism or utilitarianism).

They secretly relished the thrill of what came next – a furious fuck (fingernails and flesh, teeth and hips, driving away any memory of a testy disagreement) or apology-seeking love making (lips and hands, eyes and sounds, an easy, reverent rhythm).

Saying goodbye was, of course, also part of their new normal, but it felt more like ‘see you soon’ than a death warrant.

On Friday night, before their fall and Claire’s walk down his driveway, they had been in the bed-and-breakfast’s study.

Jamie’s hand moved carefully along the meandering wood grain of a bookshelf. A little drunk on the wine that he had poured with a too-generous hand, Claire crouched down and threaded an arm through his elbow. He seemed to split with a smile as the sound went hollow under his intently-wrapping fingers. For a moment, she allowed speculation to run galloping through her – that his search would turn up the answer to her current financial quandary (a meticulously renovated bed-and-breakfast sucking money off of her like it a tumor on her checking account as it laid dormant in the off-season, two sets of utility bills, a relationship that required nurturing with frequent plane trips, a student loan with multiple digits before the comma). Using a single fingertip, he popped a loose board up, traced the seam of his lips with the tip of his tongue, and narrowed his eyes.

“Looking for the Loch Arkaig treasure?” she asked, feeling a little smug over her knowledge of the missing Jacobite Spanish gold (a Scotland tour book, wildly inebriated, alone in her too-narrow London bathtub to soothe the ache of missing him).

Loch,” Jamie grunted. “Pronounce it like a Scot, if ye’re to say it at all, Sassenach.”

She tried it again, her garbled voice making him laugh before he extracted his prize from the space behind the board – a fist-sized snake carved from wood.

“Sawny,” he explained, turning the battered serpent over in his fingers to show Claire the back. “Mo bràthair.”

“What’s that?” she breathed, inquiring in equal measure about Sawny and the bit of Gaelic he’d used.

“My brother carved him.”

She rested her head on his shoulder, feeling a bit like she was doing a drunken, sloppy breaststroke through the causeways of her own body. She knew precisely how she’d gotten this tipsy. He had a design on it, allowing her to be too generous, too homey, too in love.

“He was five years older than me.”

Against her better judgment (she’d heard tale of the sister, never brother), she grabbed onto a single word, echoing, “Was?”

“He passed.” Jamie’s fingers tightened around the unmoving serpent. “William. His name was William. We called him Will.”

Saying ‘I’m sorry’ did not feel like enough, so Claire allowed herself to draw closer to him, and she asked what Will was like.

Jamie turned to study her for just a moment. She could tell that he had not expected her to inquire further, to pry at the closed off bits of him like that loose floorboard. At that moment, she had never felt quite so distant from him. Heat colored her from fingertip to forehead like an embarrassed paint-by-numbers, the deepest shade in her cheeks and neck.

Then, she whispered her useless apology, said she didn’t mean to pry.

His voice was soft as he said, “Ye’re no’ pryin’.”

She realized that she was in love with someone whose history she hardly knew.

Jamie made a low noise, deep in his chest, leaning forward as he returned Sawny to sit perfectly within the Sawny-shaped dust outline on the floorboard (a detective’s investigation of lost childhood). With a low voice, wiping dust on his jeans, he said, “It’s just no’ a story for two drunk lovers.”

Wrinkling her nose, running a hand up his spine, she asked, “You aren’t going to take it?”

“Nah,” he said. “Sawny has a safe home here at Leoch Manor. Lots of memories here, ye ken?”

The board fit back into place easier than it had come off, she realized.

Jamie’s face was different as he turned, the softness gone.

As he’d lifted her, her mind purposefully set aside the look in his eyes as he closed Sawny back behind the baseboards.

They spent Saturday at his place.

Claire named his sheep, apologized for having eaten one of their brethren the summer before, patted their heads like they were dogs.

Jamie chopped wood while she sat on the front steps, half responding to a slate of emails on his iPad and half watching the way his body turned and flexed.

They made a meal at each other’s side and ate cross-legged on the floor in front of his fireplace.

They made out, laughing like teenagers.

They returned to Leoch Manor late in the evening and fell asleep fully clothed (layers lost in the night as one woke needing, the other wanting, both finding comfort in heat). Jamie’s dead brother remained between them, those moments crouching in the study entirely unspoken, and the lack of any backstory made her undeniably curious.

And then came Sunday.

At some unknown mid-morning hour, Claire had sighed, “God, I love you.”

Her finger traced a lone finger down the stubbled line of his jaw. It was brown sugar under her sleep-warm fingertips.

The military-precise cadence of his breathing shifted, and she knew he was awake. She had woken wanting him (the taste of his mouth sighing as her body accepted him, the heavy fullness of those first moments where he would be so slow, the coordinated movement, their releases like a reward for their efforts). It made her feel heavy and needy. Barely made a sound as he captured her wrist and pulled her closer. Firmly nestled against Jamie’s chest, the slightest of smiles crept onto her lips as he made a low, Scottish sound deep in his chest.

Contentment.

She felt warm everywhere, knew all she would have to do was slip her hand under the duvet or make the right noise or nudge at his knees with her own. He grumbled, “I love ye, too, but ye canna get up yet. I willna allow it.”

She closed her eyes, tried to ignore the feeling still growing in her belly, but she couldn’t sleep.

“I had the most interesting dream about ye, a nighean,” he intoned on her flesh. The rumble of his voice indicated that he was apparently taken by the same affliction. One hand found her knee, the other her ribcage. She felt the hardening curve of him brush her gently. A thumb flattened goosebumps on the outermost swell of her bare breast before finding the hardening arch of her nipple.

A groan, a tittered laugh.

His tongue lapped at her ear lobe.

A gasp.

“Let me see if ye’re as warm, as wet, as I remember from my dreams.”

Just as she parted her knees to make way for his fingers, the doorbell bonged to cover the rising giggle that was brewing in her belly.

For a moment, she let herself live in suspended disbelief at the horrid timing.

Her laughter died where it was born as his finger probed into her, and her tongue darted out to wet her own fingers, designs on slipping a hand down the plane of his bare torso. Her fingers found wiry hair below his navel, her shoulder falling so she could reach his cock, and she mumbled, “Was that the… doorbell?”

And then again, unmistakably, the doorbell bonged. She tilted her hips, his fingertips skating along the line of her and making their way out from between her legs.

And then he cursed, sitting up and knocking Claire’s head sideways. “My mother!”

Claire clutched her nose, grimacing as she scrambled to get her legs beneath her so she was sitting upright. He stopped immediately, slurring, “Christ, have I hurt ye, Claire?”

Blinking away tears, she could see his face, hovering anxiously over her. “No,” she said stupidly. “Your mother?”

“Aye… are ye hurt, though?”

“Your head… it’s… like… the missing link in evolution.” She blinked hard against a simmering swell of tears – not so much from pain, but from the shock reverberating through her sinuses at the sharp crack of his large, red head. A morning haze of confusion, fading arousal, and pain blurred her vision. “My nose is broken, I think.”

He lowered himself back to rest on his elbows, traced the long lines of her fingers where they clutched the bridge of her nose. The doorbell rang again, but Jamie’s haste was gone. His voice was soft, low, filled with humor as he said, “No it isn’t. When ye break yer nose it makes a nasty crunching sound, and ye bleed like a pig.”

Nuzzling his nose into the cage of her fingertips, he pressed his lips to the very tip of her nose.

“Some A&E doctor, hm? Can’t even identify my own not-broken nose.” she grumbled, tilting her head just so their mouths met, with no large amount of urgency. Time knit itself back together just as her hand started to take on a mind of its own. “Wait. Your mother?”

The bell bonged a third time, and he groaned, pulling back and throwing his legs over the edge of the bed. “Ye’re goin’ to kill me, a nighean,” he mumbled, slipping a pair of pajama pants up over the half-hardened line of his cock and tying them tight at his hips. “I forgot to tell ye that she was comin’ by… somethin’ about…”

He was texting furiously, probably his mother telling her to ‘haud yer wheesht with the doorbell’ or something equally-Scottish.

“–and she’s early.”

Jamie ran a hand through his hair, and she suddenly cursed her own appearance in the mirror above her dresser. All it took Jamie not to look like he spent half the night on his back getting fucked was a hand through his hair. Claire on the other hand…

“Something about what, Jamie?” Claire asked, still stunned with her fingers charting the territory of her tender nose as she implored him to finish his previous though.

“Aye, aye… something about how she kent Leoch Manor’s beef Wellington recipe. Her sister’s recipe, adapted from their mam’s recipe… and she wants to teach ye how to make it…”

He slipped into a long-sleeved shirt, his back going cat-like, and the impossibly well-cut lines of his hips disappearing behind fabric. It occurred to her that she should be at least vaguely annoyed by not getting even the barest hint that Jamie’s mother would be joining their Saturday.

He palmed the front of his pajama pants, mumbling, “Go down… yer mam is here, lad.”

Torn between asking what the hell beef Wellington had to do with this moment and laughing at his attempts to tame his cock, Claire stayed quiet.

Then he said, “I think beef Wellington’s a ploy to meet you.”

“She knows about me?”

It struck her as a stupid question the moment it was out of her mouth. His mother was showing up at Leoch Manor at 9 a.m. on a Saturday to teach the new owner how to make beef Wellington. Of course Ellen Fraser knew, but Claire bit down on her lip anyway.

Jamie paused, narrowed his eyes.

“Of course my mam knows about ye. She kens everything about ye, save how good it feels to be buried inside of ye, how bonnie yer arse looks when I take ye on yer knees, and how I canna even look at my desk wi’out my cock twitchin’ like I’m sixteen.”

In an almost impossible feat, Jamie’s eyes narrowed further, but she could still see the blue ocean swell beneath his lashes.

“So she kens the most important stuff, but she doesna ken necessarily the fun stuff.”

Any hint of annoyance at him failing to mention this the day before (in the roughly ninety minutes of conversation they’d had between a hello fuck on the stairs and a subsequent ‘I’ve missed you’ act of lovemaking atop her duvet) faded away.

And thus began the Saturday that Claire met Ellen Fraser.

Jamie went downstairs first.

Claire had one pair of jeans, one sweater, and a veritable treasure trove of lingerie with her for the weekend. The idea of a bra-and-knickers fashion show that occurred in various acts over over the course of their long weekend together, had seemed appropriate as she threw things into a duffle bag after work on her way to the airport. But now, with the suspiciously milky splotch on the back of her sweater (not what it looked to be), had her desiring full-body-coverage and she reaching for Jamie’s t-shirt.

Normally, Claire considered herself quite self-possessed, but meeting her boyfriend’s mother wearing his clothes, and smelling like the hulking Viking battle shield of his body, was not something even the steeliest of nerves could prepare her for.

Walking down the stairs in bare feet, she could hear them. Jamie’s accent was somehow broader with his mam, the turns of phrase that he used less carefully curated to draw “huh?” from her Sassenach mouth. Ellen commented how beautiful Leoch Manor looked, what a nice job he’d done. Jamie’s blush was evident from his tone alone as he admitted that Claire did most of it, that she should save her praise for the homeowner.

And then Ellen Fraser popped her head around the corner.

“I’m Ellen… Jamie’s mam,” Ellen said, as if she could have been anyone else standing in Claire’s entryway on a Saturday morning.

Claire, for her part, had been basically stunned into silence. Ellen’s heavily-accented tone was not cloaked in the knowing distaste of a mother who knew her son was bedding a summer fling who wouldn’t make it to the next holiday.

Instead, Ellen was warm, perhaps mildly bemused, by the situation. “Ye must be Claire.”

When Claire did not respond, Jamie chuckled, slipping a too-casual arm around her waist, fingertips sinking into her hip as he drew her to his side. “Aye, this is my Sassenach.”

Though Jamie was similarly dressed in rumpled pajamas, Claire had never felt more naked as she watched Ellen hang her belongings on the hooks by the door.

“I told Jamie I’d stop by to help ye learn how to make a proper traditional meal for yer bed-and-breakfast.” Smoothing her emerald-green scarf down the arm of her trench, Ellen turned with a smile. In a game of Match the Child to the Wellspring of its DNA, Claire would have put Jamie and Ellen Fraser together every time (strikingly tall, Viking-vintage bones, cat eyes), though her sleek copper hair appeared a bit more sun-touched than Jamie’s cinnamon curls. She had the kind of braid that Claire lusted for – loose, easy, resting over a shoulder without an awkward curve. “And ye shouldna call the lass a ‘Sassenach,’ James. It’s no’ the kindest of nicknames. I raised ye better.”

Ellen was instantly likable, but her son had stolen basically every word from Claire’s vocabulary roughly eight minutes earlier, urging her towards a pre-dawn frenzy only to leave her wanting with the promise for more later on.

Or perhaps it was that she had never really spent time with a boyfriend’s parents. Fuming mad that he had joked about a quickie marriage, she had one rather distant lunch with Frank’s parents in a café. And that was the extent of it. She had never made it here, to this point, where she could learn where the bits she loved had a genetic and well-nurtured home.

“Ye’re a bonnie one, Claire. Verra naturally pretty, and I hear that ye’re smart. Smarter than my lad, he says.”

Jamie went pink at the tips of his ears as he looked down at Claire. She decided to give him a bewildered look. For failing to tell her this particularly-important agenda item for their day, she would pinch him in the barely-pinchable space beneath his ribcage later.

As Ellen disappeared around the corners, Claire tucked a curl behind Jamie’s flushed ear and he brushed a curl off of her blush-hot cheek.

“I could kill you right now for not warning me about this.” From the sounds of things, Ellen was already in the kitchen, pulling various boxes and paper packages of ingredients out of a reusable shopping bag.

“Ye have my deepest apologies, a commitment to finish what I started earlier, and my sincerest thanks for plastering on a smile,” he mumbled, giving her a quick squeeze. “I did forget, but… it’s a good story, aye? Maybe we’ll have fun?”

She could not help but to smile.

And after the lingering surprise at the sight of their unplanned visitor passed, Claire realized that Ellen Fraser was apparently unbothered by the sight of her son’s obviously well-loved partner. Claire felt her limbs slackening, her smile becoming less plastered and more genuine with each story Ellen told, Jamie’s laughter an accompanying back track.

She was relaxing.

By noon – clothes reeking of garlic and shallots, fingers imprinted with the aroma of fresh sage and green peppercorns – Claire realized that she liked Ellen Fraser, and she had a sneaking suspicion that the feeling may be mutual.

They ate beef Wellington (as delicious as Jamie had previewed) and chatted well into the afternoon.

And when Ellen Fraser left, she invited them both to dinner on Sunday night and gave Claire the kind of hug that made the entire world stand still.

Long after she left, Claire could feel Ellen’s arms around her. And though Claire had never been the sentimental type, she realized with an electric pang in her belly that she hadn’t hugged another woman in years. Geillis wasn’t much for physical touch – her chosen method for conveying affection was the softening of a pointed barb with the lift of an eyebrow or the corner of her mouth. And before that, well, Claire couldn’t even say.

Jamie touched her shoulder, and Claire felt her soul leap a mile out of her body. He lowered a cup of tea down over the back of the couch, mumbling, “Och, sorry, Sassenach.”

“I loved today,” she whispered. Jamie rounded the couch and sat next to her, lifting the corner of her blanket and bringing himself close to her side. “I loved her. And I love you. I do.”

A little over twenty-four hours later, in an airplane circling Heathrow, waiting for a runway for landing, Claire had her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands. She was convinced she would never be warm again. Her bloody eyes would not quit leaking, even though her lungs had, over thirty minutes earlier, given up on their need to sob in the plane lavatory with a choked wail into her fist.

She wished that she had known what Sunday dinner at Ellen Fraser’s home would hold for the two for them, how every bit of her world could feel like it was at once iced over and on fire.

She had looked at Jamie in her rearview mirror. He had been watching, but then he ran a hand through his hair, turned, and went back into the house as she drove away.

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part XXI: Dice & Doorknobs

Week one, post-breakup, was ground zero.

The breakup had become an invasive tumor in unexpected places she had never thought much about.

It was in the cuticle of her nails (chewed raw by unoccupied teeth).

The follicles of her hair (unscrubbed, pulled back from her face into the same ponytail for three days straight).

The spaces between her toes (his sneaky drunk Antigua tongue snaking between two, making her squeal, equatorially dividing her brain into hemispheres of horror and delight).

During her morning shift (seven heavy days having passed, the feeling of a lost year), a patient reeking of stale cigarettes and cheap beer made an inquiry that tied her stomach into knots.

“Wot’s that meant to be then?” The question came as his index finger (darkened from a substance unknown, clammy, insistent, prying) touched the thistle on her wrist.

The question took her breath away – the syllables crashing about in her brain as she tried to make sense of it, fumbled for an answer. The feel of his finger on what was publicly very plain, but felt like a part of her as intimate as the parts of her that she had convinced herself would be saved for Jamie only, that now belonged only to her (aching, raw, tender).

Claire pressed the pad of her thumb into the healed brand at her wrist (tucked under a pillow each night, the evidence of her loss concealed), rubbing at her flesh as though it would reverse time to that moment.

To the choice to make Scotland a part of her body forever. To the choice to give herself completely to James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser. To the moment when, standing in front of a luxury hotel mirror in Antigua with new, raw tattoos exposed to the air, he had picked up the tube of ointment they had been sharing and looked at it. “Yer blood’s on it…” He daubed some ointment onto the tip of his finger then picked up the blood, letting them mix. In the soupy morass of her toothpaste-filled mouth, something like “what’re you doing?” wanted to come out, but then he smeared the daub over his own freshly-inked skin. “Blood of my blood, a nighean.”

When she’d laughed, spitting her minty mouthful into the sink, she told him he had gone absolutely mental.

He had agreed, picked her up under her thighs, and carried her to the bed.

Until that point, Claire had thought that the sexual encounters between the two had run the entire gamut. Frenzied quickies (the driver’s seat of a car leaned back, tucked away in a parking lot, knickers to the side, his cock threaded through a hastily-opened zipper). Reckless fucking (his office and the hospital on-call room, a seaside cabana in Antigua with a stray piece of pineapple painting trails along her inner thighs). Playful shagging (wrestling matches for a remote on the floor of his house, gratitude for Jamie’s thoughtfulness in emptying Adso’s litter pan despite his horrible gag reflex, his discovery of “that drawer” that every single, millennial woman over a certain age had). Mediocre get-it-done sex (pro forma efforts to arouse one another, even thrusts, morning-breath mouths chasing each other and never connecting, her sleep shirt above her breasts, described by the word “nice”). Tender making love (not just connecting – aligning and melding, velvet melting into steel, a sound that originated from the belly of one felt in the chest of another).

But that night was different.

His words repeated over and over again (from his lips, her mind, their limbs) as he moved inside of her – blood of my blood, blood of my blood, blood of my blood. It did more to her than the triplet brain chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin) could marshal.

Now this man in her A&E – this prying, awful man – had touched her there on that skin that no longer felt like her own, but felt so intimate.

Again, she wished for time to reverse. Not to lose the memory of the tattoo or the time that she and Jamie had spent together after (hands twined, ointment slippery wrists joined, fingers as invasive species designed to consume another), but to the moment her patient had dared to take away something from her that he did not understand (could not understand, that lived baked into not indulged his instinct to be a thief, not to take something that did not belong to him). Claire wondered how many times she would be made to feel this pain (worse than the needles that carved a thistle into her skin) over the tattoo. She pressed harder, wondering if her eyes were actually watering or if it was just a sensation she felt.

“It’s private,” she retorted abruptly, clicking the cap onto her pen and snapping her tablet closed. “That ankle will heal nicely. Rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Nurse’ll be by with written instructions. Good luck to you, Mr. Abernathy.”

Outside the room, she tucked an errant curl behind her ear and started to walk.

‘Faster,’ her brain commanded. ‘Faster.’

As though each step would cauterize one of the thousand bleeding wounds making her flesh gape, she flew down the hallway.

She had no destination in mind, no idea how long she would disappear.

Her breath came in gasping spurts as she rounded the corner, slipping her stethoscope from her neck and picking up the pace.

She made it to the remotest reach of the hospital (a dimly-lit exit sign above the emergency-only barrier to the outdoors), and she shut herself into the single-stall bathroom.

The tears didn’t fall until she had melted to the floor.

_____________

“You’re a cheater!” Claire exclaimed, slapping a hand onto the table, the ice in her mason jar clinking wildly against the glass.

“I’m not a cheater!” Jamie declared in response, smirking as though her exclaimed accusation warranted laughter.

“You are! I’m not blind!”

“Two things, Sassenach.” Jamie leaned forward onto his elbows. “First, how do ye cheat at a game of dice. Inspect them, ye canny thing. Second…” his voice pitched low, and his eyes cast down the v-neck of her sweater, “ye’re sexy as hell when ye’re fired up.”

Claire just made a sound, emptying her glass and sitting back in her chair.

Jamie scooped the six dice off of the table and back into his hand, let them rattle about in his palm, and then held his hand out to her. One eyebrow quirked as he asked, “Blow?”

“You should reconsider, quite seriously, the look you’re giving me.”

“Ye dinna want me to get lucky, as they say?”

“Are we talking about the game still?” Claire leaned back, crossing her legs and offering her most serious look.

“I’m no’ ever just talking about what we’re talking about when I’m wi’ ye.”

Instead of giving in to his statement (equal parts lurking indecency and abject tenderness), she raised her chin and inspected her scorecard, declaring, “I’m keeping all of the luck I have for myself, thanks very much.”

_________

The knock started as a soft, four-beat tappa-rap-tap-tap, but then Geillis declared, “I ken ye’re on that floor, and ye’ll likely get sicker than a dog for it.”

Claire dipped her chin into the neckline of the t-shirt she wore under her scrubs, wiping her eyes carefully. She rose into a crouch and flipped the lock open, flopping back to the floor as Geillis entered.

Her friend silently pulled four paper towels from the dispenser before lowering herself to the floor. “Ye mournin’ yer Scot still?”

Snuffling, Claire accepted the paper towels but leaned forward to rest her forehead against her knees instead of saying anything. Geillis’s hand was warm when it cupped Claire’s shoulder, but the gesture made Claire feel like she could jump out of her skin at the contact.

Quietly, Claire said, “I can’t go back there. I can’t be near him again and not have him.”

Geillis’s thumb was making round, warm circles on Claire’s shoulder. Vaguely, Claire recalled that Geillis had done the same thing after she broke up with Frank. That same offering of comfort had achieved its purpose then. This time, however, a strip-mined wasteland filled the spaces between her ribs and the length of her esophagus.

No words, no touch would help.

Claire drank until she was drunk that night, her tongue darting out to taste the last tinge of amber smoke from the rim of her tumbler. Geillis helped pull Claire’s boots off before tucking her into bed. When Claire started to wretch each drop into the toilet at some ungodly hour, Geillis brought her water and a fresh t-shirt. Sober, and feeling as though an ax was carving Jamie’s name into her skull, Claire lifted her head. “I need to sell the fucking-bed-and-breakfast.”

_________

Ellen Fraser was in the kitchen as Jamie and Claire wrapped up their game of dice (no winner declared, accusations of cheating lobbed by both players, glinting eyes speaking of comeuppance to be had after a night of foreplay by eye contact). An hour earlier, Ellen declared that neither her son nor his “bonnie lass” was allowed to interfere in dinner preparations. She had closed the door to the kitchen, dropped the lock into place, and the pair had realized their efforts would be in vain.

When Jamie disappeared to the toilet with a lingering kiss to the crown of Claire’s head, she crossed her legs, wondering if the beaming feeling of family was catching as she sipped the last of her drink.

And that’s when he appeared.

Jamie’s nephew – the one they all jokingly called Young Jamie in a way that made the boy’s Fraser-blue cat eyes roll like directionless marbles. Small, and utterly tousled in body and dress, the boy was swimming in a BROCH MORDHA RUGGERS t-shirt.

“Hi there,” Claire said, sitting forward and feeling her lips curl into what she hoped was the type of smile that an adult should offer a child. “Do you remember me? I’m-”

“I ken who ye are.” The boy’s eyes narrowed, his arms crossing over his belly (as if to conceal the hollowed-out lankiness of pre-teen years). “Ye’re Claire Beauchamp, and I met ye already. Do ye remember me?”

She paused for a moment, eyebrows knitting together at the boy’s tone. “Of course I remem-”

“I’m thirteen. I’m no’ a bairn, and ye dinna have to talk to me like I’m we’en.”

“Of course not… I didn’t mean-”

“I ken why my uncle’s no’ around anymore, Claire.”

Claire felt her mouth go dry – at his words, at the defiance masking something else (a perfect mask manufactured in concert by the indomitable Fraser DNA and the James Fraser nurturing). One hand curled around the arm on her chair and the other curled into the fabric of her wool sock.

“He’s marrit to his mobile; he isna here anymore.”

“Jamie,” Claire started. In that moment, Claire finally appreciated that it was a shared name (on birth certificates, in the marrow of each) for a shared life. She swallowed. The boy’s eyes somehow managed to narrow even further. Though he was young, she could see the Viking stock in him swell right along with the hurt.

“I dinna have a da. Ye ken what it’s like to no’ have a da?”

Claire’s heart hammered, her mind screaming, “Yes, yes I do, I know it so intimately that sometimes I wonder if I ever had one.”

But the look on the boy’s face made her feel like the eel-slippery bits of her digestive tract had been tossed on a fire. She couldn’t speak – her brain, mouth, and heart not only counselled against it, but refused it.

She thought back to Ellen and to cooking the beef Wellington with half-full glasses of full-bodied, drier-than-the-Sahara Bordeaux that formed the base of the sauce.

She thought back to the quiet tears she’d let slip after the woman had left. How it felt like a friendwas walking away. Even at that moment, with Jamie’s nephew standing there, Claire could recall the feeling of Jamie’s thumbs on her cheeks. They had brushed away each tear. She had confessed to liking his mam, and he couldn’t wipe the smile from his face. He had kissed her, full on the mouth, and she let herself fall asleep that night thinking that maybe (just maybe), she could have a family. That she could be a part of a family. This family.

“Jamie, I know he’s been coming to London a lot, but it’s temporary. And I-”

“Ye ken that he quit because of ye,” Jamie continued. “Quit coaching my team. Now I have to ride with Rabbie MacNab’s mam.”

Suddenly the ephemerality of it all (their attempt at more than one summer) was not lost on her. It was as though their love story had written itself in only one day, but the scratching out of it would be something the blunt pencil eraser of her mind would be attempting to blur into obscurity for the rest of her lifetime.

Something shifted in her stomach. Looking back, she would realize it was the first bit of her viscera to be razed in what would become their fight.

_________

Claire sat alone in the hospital cafeteria.

Being old hat at the rigors of a training program, she had become quite accustomed to standing meals (saltines, juice from the patients’ refrigerator, the taste of hand sanitizer on her fingertips as her pager rattled at her belt).

As she pushed the slices of cucumber and tomatoes she had taken from the salad line, it showed up. A text message from James Fraser.

You can’t possibly be serious about selling LM.

The words reverberated from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. God, she had been hollowed out.

She chewed her lower lip, contemplated responding, and thought better of it.

Her heart was bleeding inside of her, and she yearned to ask him if they could go back to Antigua. Back to the place where he traced the tanlines on her hips with his mouth, scoring her inner thigh with his teeth with a devil-may-care grin raising his lips and crinkling the corners of his eyes. Back to the night when she had woken as he talked to her in her sleep, his fingers tracing curls on the stark pillow. She wanted to tell him that maybe sometimes she was lost and broken, that she was mostly treading water without him. That his message was a morsel, but she needed a full meal.

She started to type, deleted the message.

And by the time she thought of something to say, her pager was alive (screeching, vibrating, pulsing on her waistband).

By the time she got home – aching, exhausted, mind filled with a low-frequency buzz – he had texted again.

Nevermind.

_________

They had one hour after dinner.

Coming up behind her, Jamie’s hands roved up her sides, slipped beneath the hem of her jumper to brush his palms over her stomach. Her eyes closed as one hand went to deal with the button on her jeans and her other snaked behind her to take stock of the bulge pressing insistently against his fly.

It felt like cheating – to know what she needed to say, what she had to ask, knowing that this may be the last time.

But she nevertheless asked Jamie to make love to her, her voice holding an earnestness that quirked his eyebrows.

They made it to a guest room (fumbling, tearing, mouths ravenous). It was a place they had christened at least twice before, and the feeling of her legs wrapped around his waist, drawing him closer, was so familiar that it felt more like a memory than a physical sensation. Her lower back became a basin into which the sweat slipping down her spine could collect.

Then, after, she asked what had been lingering in her mind from the moment she had spoken to his nephew. “Tell me about rugby.”

Jamie hummed, a contented hand curling around her shoulder. “My brother… Willie… played.”

She hadn’t expected that. She had expected the story to start sometime in the recent past. With Young Jamie.

“My da taught him. Willie died in a car accident on the way to a match. After his funeral, I moved into his closet. Slept there for weeks. I didna ken then what death was; I just kent that I didna have him anymore.”

She shifted so she could see him, reached for the t-shirt that he had stripped from her and tossed on his nightstand. His hand slipped away, and he groaned a little as she sat up. “Do ye really have to put that on?”

She quirked a slight smile and shrugged. “Did you play?”

“Aye.”

And then the story unraveled from his storyteller lips.

Jenny as a stand-in parent until their Da emerged from the fog.

Jamie in Willie’s rugby boots, picking the dirt out of the cleats into neat piles on the floor of Willie’s closet.

How Jamie’s father had returned to the family then, though his mother took longer.

The early-morning father-son practices (dew, dusk, sweat, blood, bruises, Mrs. Fitz’s almond croissants on Saturday mornings).

Claire’s guts churned, her fingers knotted in the hem of the shirt.

“And Young Jamie? The Broch Mordha Ruggers shirt?”

“Ah,” Jamie chuckled. “That one’s mine. He knicked it one time when he stayed here. He’s a braw player. I used to coach him for a bit starting when Ian was sick. The three of us would go to the games… at least while Ian was well enough to go.”

Suspicion tasted like bile. There was something to Young Jamie’s accusation. With a tongue that felt like driftwood in her mouth, she whispered, “Used to coach? Why did you stop?”

For a moment, his eyes were lie detectors. The peak of a half-truth spiked from the oceanic depths, and then the Fraser mask fell. The story was rewriting itself (for him, for her) in his pupils. The excavator in her stomach carved another layer.

“Life changes,” he offered vaguely.

She could picture every conversation between uncle and nephew over almond croissants in the front seat of Jamie’s truck. She could feel the powdered sugar from Mrs. Fitz’s lovingly-babied, oven-hot pastries on her fingertips. She could smell Jamie’s hazelnut coffee and the fruity tang of Young Jamie’s juice. She could imagine an entire world of knowledge Ian had left wanting in his son – how Jamie felt duty-bound to stand in for a father where he could. How he had committed to doing for Young Jamie what his father had done for him after Willie had passed.

A pastime. A distraction. A hobby.

“He mentioned having to ride with Rabbie MacNab.”

Snorting, Jamie reached to the floor and swiped his own t-shirt. “Canna blame the lad. The MacNabs are a wee bit strange.”

Claire couldn’t look at him, so she rose and went to the bathroom.

As she stepped into the shower, his hand found her shoulder. “Did I say something wrong?”

“Of course not.” In a move that could have been interpreted as inadvertent (she thought), she shrugged his touch away. “I just need to get ready to go. We live in airplanes, you and I.”

He stepped back, leaned against his bathroom sink. She pulled the frosted glass door closed behind her. He was gone when she got out of the shower.

Later, in the kitchen with towel dried hair and her wheeled suitcase at her side, Claire asked, “Did you quit coaching rugby for me?”

“What?” Jamie was perched on the edge of the kitchen counter, his ankles crossed in front of him and his iPad in hand.

“I asked if you quit coaching Young Jamie’s rugby team because of me.”

His brow furrowed. “It’s been time for me to step back from that for a while, a nighean. He’s getting older. They have a former national team member coaching them now. I’m a fair player, but I’m no national team member.”

She had her keys in her hand, and when she tightened her fist around them, the teeth on the key to her flat (home, London) dug into her palm. “Jamie thinks that you quit because of me.”

“Jamie is a child, Claire.” Her Jamie slid off of the counter, his feet making a soft thwap on the tiled floor. Somehow he felt like a giant to her, like his movements should be louder, should shake the earth. “He doesna ken what he’s saying, and it isna because of you.”

“You’re a liar,” she countered, shaking her head. “And a bad one at that.”

Fine.” He closed the cover on his iPad, tucked it back into his work bag, and started across the room to her. “Fine, I lied. I did quit. I canna be two places at once, and being gone from practices and matches twice a month isna responsible.”

“The national team member?” she asked quietly. “Is that made up?”

“Of course it isn’t,” he muttered, taking a step to close the distance between them. She took a step back.

“You promised Ian.”

He raked a hand through his hair. “I didna promise Ian to give up my entire life for his bairns, as much as I love them.”

She felt the tears burning hot in her eyes. “What happens at the end of all of this, Jamie? Huh? You said last night that we only had a few more months of this. That is such foolishly blind optimism that it makes my stomach turn-”

“Lovin’ ye isna foolish, and I’m no’ blind, I–”

An adamant shake of her head (her hair snakes, her eyes amber, a Gorgon sent to ruin him) was enough to silence him. “I’m in London now. Who knows where I’ll be in six months. Wales? Some clinic in a small town that neither of us has heard of? Somewhere that’s a three-hour drive from an airport? We can’t live like this… in airports and on planes and in rental cars.”

For a moment, Jamie’s eyes appeared to swim, but then he turned to stone before his Medusa.

His shoulders lifted, squared, as though he was being drawn towards the atmosphere by a silvery cosmic string. He became marble before her eyes, a man on the brink of collapse retreating into himself as he donned his armor. His hands came out of his pockets, and the tension in them released. The calm before an indomitable storm. The process of it had fingers – it strangled her, then doubled down and squeezed tighter. She tried to inhale, her breath catching. He had transformed himself into a soldier.

Then he said the words that he had prepared himself to say.

“Are ye endin’ things, Claire?”

A skipped beat.

It was something that she had read about in overwrought books about love, but had never trulyexperienced in response to something someone she loved said or did.

She would have thought that it would take a tremendous amount of thought to say “yes” to such a question from his mouth, but it didn’t. Her need to preserve for him the family he had created – after losing Willie, his Da, his best friend – was too great, even if he would hate her for it.

So she said it.

She said it clearly and only once.

“Yes.”

With shaking hands, she pulled her coat off the back of the chair. It was the same chair where he had been sitting two nights earlier when she had snuck up on him, slipped her arms around his shoulders, kissed his neck, and whispered that she loved him into the aftershave musk of his throat. She had blood on the cuff of her jumper now, and she tucked the fabric under her fist as she slipped into her jacket.

Jamie said nothing.

He followed her to the door.

Her heart was a metronome - tick-ticking at a rate five times her gait. She hesitated at the front door when it was locked. His large hand snaked around her, unlocked it for her. She turned the knob.

“I…” she had said, voice fading.

“Goodbye,” he finished for her.

It was only after the door of her rental car slammed close that she realized the only man who she had ever loved was gone.

With her head in Geillis’s toilet, she sobbed that Jamie had unlocked the door, but she had turned the knob.

Chapter Text

One Summer 

Part XXII: Tears & Truth

Jamie rose from his mussed bed shortly before the late-night hours of Sunday harkened another Monday without her.

It had been three weeks to the day that Jamie had allowed Claire to walk away from him (no fight, five senses creating a memory bank to later tease, harass, and shame him). He had done nothing to stop her from walking away, and that fact made Sundays a Groundhog’s Day of the most disappointing, frustrating, painful day of his life.

It had been twenty-one days since Claire had made her way down his driveway.

He was, by the third week, well accustomed to the feeling of walking guts-first into a buzz saw each time he thought of her.

And he thought of her more or less constantly.

One night, alone and a bit worse for wear with drink, he had wondered if he was the type of man who would take his nephew’s shirt in fists, demanding that the little fucker (his mind’s new stand-in for the lad’s name) tell him everything.

Every word young Jamie had spoken to Claire.

How her eyes had changed.

What she said or did in response in response.

Every imagined sleight, Jamie missing opportunities to be a stand-in father.

Why it aggrieved the lad, why it was so fucking important that Jamiewatch him at every bloody rugby practice.

Each reason that his nephew felt entitled not just to time, but Jamie’s very life.

He wanted to ask if being present for the boy was a definable sentence (until he reached eighteen? sixteen? something later? until there was a lass and his family became a source of embarrassment?). Was it the type of countdown that he could etch into the wall of the prison cell that had become his life?

No, Jamie decided. He wasn’t the type of man to take after a child (wielding words as swords, fists as clubs, manipulation as canon fodder), let alone a hurting child who had lost everything.

Jamie also knew that he wasn’t a man who would walk away from his commitments (family, business, heritage), and he wasn’t one to ask the woman he loved to walk away from hers (a calling and an obligation).

And yet, he found himself needing distance to let the blunt slice of what young Jamie had said to Claire dissipate. The need was ugly, and the only name he had for it was bitterness. It was a cocktail of a feeling – expertly crafted with equal parts love (selfless, sacrificing), duty (Ian’s last weeks, eyes seeming paler, a bond solidified with a nod), and longing for the things that were newly familiar to him (Claire, Leoch Manor, even her bloody arsehole cat).

He hadn’t told a single soul that Claire was gone for good, even though he wanted to tell someone about this feeling he had that felt too large for his body. It was an almost inhuman longing –– to find somewhere to direct all of the poison he had inside over his non-decision to stand still and watch her leave.

He wanted to be angry at someone other than himself, to scream that he missed Claire even in the moments that he was not actively thinking of her (leopard eyes teasing him, blushing cheeks, wickedly clever tongue and foul vocabulary, just her).

He wanted someone to shake him out of his sense of duty when he explained how she had a spell over him like some sort of fearsome white witch – magicking each part of his brain whir to life like a long-neglected machine with each comeback (taunts directed at her only to be volleyed back again, the line of her hips that his mouth and hands had declared to be the coasts of his favorite country on earth – his home – that made him so hard he had to adjust his position on the chair).

And when all of it became too much, and he found himself awake at ungodly hours of the night, he ran. He ran until his lungs ached and burned at the absence of every bit of her. It was as though one of his own limbs had up and left him in the night. He ran like he could outrun the feeling of missing her.

On this, the third Sunday, he pulled a pair of sweatpants over his hips and a sweatshirt over his head, toed into the battered trainers at his front door, and he ran.

He ran hard.

Of late, he never had a destination in mind for his runs. His body was pre-programmed to one spot, as though his feet were on a one-way track for each mindless mile. He slowed at the high rise that loomed above the mist in the low part of the valley. A place where everything was silent and the air around him tasted fern-green and clean.

He ran until the stitch in his side felt like a meat hook threading a chain between each of his ribs, pulling as though it would tear him apart.

He slowed, bent at the waist and gagged as his feet ground to a stop on the damp trail. He blinked hard, told himself to look, and then raised his eyes.

In the almost-dusk of Highland midnight, he could see Leoch Manor in the distance – tucked down off the main road over the rickety eight-tie bridge that crossed the narrowed, roaring pulse of the spring that bisected Claire’s property.

For a moment, his fingers pitter-pattered a senseless pattern on his outer thigh. He wondered if she had returned since he last saw her, if she was there at that very moment. The thought of her being so near, yet seemingly untouchable, was worse than the thought of her in London. Squinting, he noted that things appeared to be quiet at her fucking-bed-and-breakfast – the windows dark, the chimney not burping purple-gray fire smoke, the window shades pulled shut.

Though, given the hour, his observations hardly meant anything.

“I shouldn’t have let ye leave,” he said.

As he turned, beginning a jog back home, he muttered, “Ye’ve gone and fucked this one up, Fraser.”

In the shower, the afternoon played on a loop.

His mam’s insistence that he pop by Jenny’s for Sunday roast with the entire family (a sneak invitation attack in his hardware shop, the guilt-inducing curve of her eyebrows, the question of how he expected to be a laird if he never showed up). How, when his mam asked if Claire was free for Sunday roast, he told what somehow felt like a complete fabrication and a non-lie (Claire was too busy to come).

How his mouth had twitched in an effort to stop himself from screaming or spitting out that he had, since the moment when he let her walk away, found himself resenting young Jamie.

How Jenny had stood on her front steps as he got out of his truck and jokingly accused him of forgetting about them (utterly harassed with a red-faced baby hitched to her hip, scoop neck of her t-shirt contorted in the fisted in the hand of said pissed off baby, chunks of pin-straight hair falling from low bun).

The way he had put together his best devil-may-care smirk as he shook his head and lied through his teeth (a busy few weeks, lots going on, quarter-end financial reports at the hardware shop).

The acid-heavy flip of his ulcerated stomach at the sight of his nephews doing their schoolwork in the front room.

How a normal conversation had somehow spiraled into young Jamie’s accusation that Ian got all of the attention because he worked in Uncle Jamie’s shop.

Jamie telling young Jamie to knock it off, and the boy volleying back that Jamie wasn’t his father.

Jamie hissing that he knew damn well that he wasn’t the lad’s father, and Jenny putting a hand on her brother’s shoulder as she told her son to apologize immediately.

The way Ian rose, looking more like his father and a man than Jamie had ever seen, took Kitty, and retreated (hazy premonition of an argument animating his movements).

The hot, pre-teen tears that boiled over the young Jamie’s lower lid (anger, frustration, limited vocabulary to express something so big, so painful that it took his breath away).

How young Jamie became more serpent than child when he hissed that nothing had been the same since that English bitch had come around.

The way Jamie would forever second guess the type of man he was as his fists balled at his sides at the word ‘bitch.’

How the long muscles in his thighs twitched and pulled, yearning to bring him to his feet so he could show the kid that if he was going to hurl accusations like a man, he better be prepared to fight like a man.

How his mouth had been poised to spit his own venom, only to be interrupted when Jenny was the first to rise.

His sister had balled her linen napkin up, thrown it on the table, and squared her slight build in a way that was quite imposing (a parent’s boxing stance, calling insolence to meet its reckoning).

“Listen to me, ye clotheid. I’ve let ye get away wi’ that mouth for far too long, and ye willna do it to yer uncle.”

“Or what?” young Jamie spit, having reached that place where the words can’t stay in, even if you wanted them to. “He promised me, and she changed him–”

“Yer uncle has just as much a right to be wi’ a woman as I have to be wi’ someone now that yer da’s gone.”

Everything went silent.

And then, young Jamie’s voice went soft. “He’s goin’ to leave us for London, ye ken. He’s there all the time. He’s goin’ to marry her and leave us.”

The enraged flare that had shot down Jamie’s throat, lighting embers in his belly, glowed a little less bright when he saw helplessness pooling in the boy’s eyes. He knew what it was to feel as though you were hanging from a ledge by the tips of your fingers. What it felt like to not have the words to say that you were hurting and terrified, to say nothing of having the stones to pluck up the wherewithal to say them.

“Yer uncle has taken on more than his fair share of our problems since yer da died, and-

“–wait–” Jamie started.

“I’m talking to my son,” she cut him off, finger pressing a firm divot into his shoulder so deep that it actually smarted and her eyes not straying to him for even a fraction of a second.

Shifting on his feet, Jamie was suddenly plagued with images of Ian in those last days. He couldn’t move. The image of Ian, wearing a knit cap in July with a bounty of whisky at his feet, refused to leave his mind. It made his heart hammer hard enough that Jamie could feel it in the tympanic hollow space of his lungs (car defroster spitting torrid air at them, driving to find every passable distillery in a hundred-mile radius, Ian explaining Jenny’d need his picks when he was gone, Jamie frowning when Ian said to include their whisky Odyssey in his eulogy, including it, hating it).

Somehow, Jenny managed to make it sound like two full sentences when she snapped, “Sit. Down.”

As though he were the one taking the tongue lashing, Jamie did as he was told, glancing at young Jamie before taking a long sip of his after-dinner dram.

“Ye ken the man’s hopelessly honor bound – to that bloody hardware shop, to this family, to Broch Mordha,” Jenny continued, her tone making him wonder for the first time if he wasn’t a complete fool for all of it. His priorities. His sense of loyalty. His feeling that he was stuck here, weighted down by something far bigger than himself. “And it isna because he doesna deserve a life. It’s because the man’s a fool. Ye expect him to be yer da, and he never will be.”

“Mam, I–”

“Both of ye -- ye’re James Frasers to the bloody core of ye. If ye interrupt me again, James Alexander Gordon Fraser Murray, ye’ll get a slap across yer arse like ye’ve never felt.” This time, she did look at her brother. “And you. What if I fell in love? Married? Found a stepfather for these bairns? What if he lived in London? Would ye ask me to stay here? What would you do then, ye fool?”

She turned to young Jamie, her arms crossing over her narrow stomach and her eyes narrowing. He had never seen his sister look so much like their father – dark, sharp, demanding unquestioning acceptance of what she was about to tell him.

“Yer uncle made a promise to Ian, and he’s served us well this past year. But dinna think for a fuckin’ second that he is somehow required to wait around here for us. Because, a year out from losing Ian… yer Da... I ken that if I fall in love, I willna hesitate for him.”

She turned to Jamie.

“Do ye hear me, James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser?”

She narrowed her eyes, reaching for her own dram and draining it.

“I willna wait for ye, so ye damn well better no’ wait for me.”

The silence seemed unending as they cleared the table.

When Ellen went to check on Ian and Kitty, and young Jamie disappeared to the study with his metaphorical tail tucked between his legs, Jenny turned to her brother. The smile she offered was a little bit weak, nothing like the fearsome being that had risen like mother earth herself to set her son straight. She tucked her hair behind her ears as she crouched, opening the liquor cupboard and extracting a bottle from its depths and inspecting the label at arms length.

“My boys’ll have to start knicking some of this if we’re ever going to make it through.”

Jamie let a small laugh escape, one that was half-humor and half-misery.

After taking the bottle from his sister, he poured two doubles.

Jenny raised her glass, declaring, “To pumping and dumping.” Jamie opened his eyes, swallowing and reaching for the bottle. She shot a side-eyed glance to the corner of the room where her youngest slumbered, mouth agape. “And the day my daughter allows my breasts and wame to again be my own.”

.

Rolling his eyes at the toast, Jamie raised his own glass and declared, “May I never see yer breasts. Slàinte mhaith.”

Before he could touch the glass to his lips, Jenny caught his wrist. “Or… ye should perhaps toast to yer great love?”

Jamie could have sworn that some ancient god-of-mischief had plucked stars from the skies and dropped them into his sister’s eyes. She was plotting – searching out some gossip. Surprisingly, he found that he loved and hated her for it. He took a long drink and paused for a moment, tongue darting out to taste the whisky on his lips (Glenlivet 15 year, beloved by Ian, a just-fine choice to Jamie, purchased probably as a jaunty final middle finger from his best friend).

“We dinna need to talk about what hap-”

“–I’m no’ goin’ to talk about my hooligan of a son, but we need to figure out something that will bring you back ‘round out of this mopey-”

“–Janet, she-”

“–I take it she broke up wi’ ye–”

“–she left me, Jenny, wi’out barely a goodbye–”

“–and it doesna matter because ye plainly love the lass, James–”

“Of course I do. Her face is my heart, and the love of her is my soul.”

Jenny fell silent for a moment, her fingers tracing the etchings on the cut crystal. “I havena met the lass, but to see ye talk of her… usin’ yer bad poetry when ye speak of her...” Jenny caught the expression on her brother’s face and paused, her own countenance softening. “Ye miss her.”

Obviously,” he muttered, draining the last of the Glenlivet down his throat and reaching for the bottle, trying to ignore the sentimentality-inducing note dangling from the bottleneck.

Jamie wished he could unbind time and lay claim to the sapling that represented the end of Claire’s training into the palm to see where she would end up. As he picked at the label on the bottle, a sense of dread filled him. Maybe the separation would be more than a year – perhaps the economy would put her somewhere even further away than London, maybe coming closer would never even be a possibility for them. Jamie hazarded a glance at his sister then focused his gaze back on the label.

“Jenny, I miss her, and I love her.”

“Any fool could see that one, brathair.” The words were as sharp as a whip cracking him across the face. “Ye introduced her to mam.”

Mam didna ask, and I think it was more than that quite close to the start.”

Jenny almost barked then, her laughter like a whip. “Did ye tell her how ye met? Let me tell ye… young Ian, yer wee shop hand… he isna so blind that he didna ken what ye two were up to. Said he was at her house and saw ye kissin’ the lass, said ye looked guilty as sin when he found ye. Thought he’d blush himself straight away to an early grave, the poor lad.”

“What’s yer point?”

Pouring another dram for each of them, she raised one sylphlike eyebrow. “That ye fell in love wi’ yer wee summer fling, and I willna ever let ye live it down if ye’re able to make this right.”

Ifrinn,” Jamie groaned, wanting nothing more than an early grave for himself and to have reason for her to tease him over it forever.

And then the memory of that first night came – when they had kissed, pizza-greased tongues meeting, swallowing her smallest sounds, learning the curve of her hip.

“Ye heard me tell young Jamie that I willna wait for ye, and it’s true. My Ian was my soulmate, but he told me to try to find someone to make me happy,” she said it like a confession. Jamie realized suddenly, with a pang, that Jenny had removed her wedding ring at some unknown point in the past. With the tip of her thumb, she was tracing the slight indent where it had resided. “And ye better no’ wait for us, James Fraser.”

Standing in the shower, hours later, Jamie repeated the admonition.

“Ye better no’ wait for them.”

Turning the tap off, he reached for a towel, and decided he wouldn’t wait.

Not for them, not for anybody.

Chapter Text

One Summer
Part XXIII: Chip Stands & Second Chances

The Inverness Airport marketed itself as the gateway to the Highlands.

After deplaning following a brief flight from London (ears having barely ceased their popping from takeoff by the time they landed), Claire inhaled. The airport smelled like every other airport, but with the notable addition of the best chips she’d ever eaten in her life (his lip-smacking incredulity that the wee airport had her favorite chips, his chuckled disappointment in her bad taste). The airport was small (two gates, ten check-in desks), but no less bedecked in the Harris Tweed in a kaleidoscopic assortment of colors, coo stuffies with fuzzy ginger beards, thistle-emblazoned beauty products, and whisky of varying qualities to taunt travelers. It was the kind of spot where one could land, gather a checked case, hire a car, and be gone within fifteen minutes of landing, and she appreciated that wholly as she made a dash for the toilets.

After splashing some water on her sleep-creased face, Claire wandered back towards the gates. Her stomach ached with hunger, and the idea of hitting the road to Broch Mordha without something to eat for the ride only magnified the pang. She queued up behind what appeared to be a school group from London – a chattering, mildly disinterested crew – and dug through her purse for a handful of coins to purchase her bounty.

As the gate agent announced that Logan Air flight 2221 (“to rainy London Gatwick”) was finishing its final boarding, the school group dispersed, and Claire found herself at the front of the queue. As one student giving up the wait for chips knocked her firmly in the shoulder and turned to the gate, Claire’s handful of coins scattered. “Bloody hell,” she muttered to the kiosk attendant, who shrugged rather blandly. Engaging in a veritable tsunami of furious cursing, Claire went to her knees and began sweeping the coins from the dusty floor into her palm.

At that moment, fate proved itself to be a funny thing to no one in particular.

However, this was an observation that would miss Claire Beauchamp entirely. From her vantage point – on her hands and knees, telling herself that her chips (saturated to the point of sogginess with malt vinegar) would be worth whatever it was that was so sticky on the floor – she was blind to it.

And it was not an observation that any person could make, really, given that no one else keyed into the fucking bed-and-breakfast owner’s particular circumstances.

But it was at precisely that moment, when Claire was tucked out of sight scooping coins into her hand, that James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser barreled towards his soon-to-depart flight to London-Gatwick to make his Grand Gesture.


 

Claire stood, tugging her sweatshirt back into place and clapping the coins onto the counter.

When she announced her order for the largest serving of the finest chips in the whole of the United Kingdom, a very none-the-wiser James Fraser was walking down the jetway to his flight, and he was well out of earshot of the order.

“Biggest order you have, make them extra salty, fry them twice.” As she paid, she smiled slightly. “They’re my favorite. Weird. I know.”

***

Life went on, Claire realized as she passed the familiar, darkened landscape lining the drive to Broch Mordha.

Every day, things kept going, even without her eyes meeting Jamie’s over a hand of cards or without him under her duvet (a big toe’s morning tracing game, a morning breath smile, and an “aye, Sassenach, I’m awake”). Her heart kept beating, even without the full-system shock of that first moment of joining (deep in the night, well after midnight, body craving the sensation of being utterly worn out by him). And, as she pulled over the bridge and stopped in front of her bed-and-breakfast, she realized that the walls of her establishment still stood without the promise of his carpenter’s hands. Even after it felt like their joined hands had carved her own beating heart out of her chest with a rusty blade.

In the entryway, dropping her keys into the small ceramic bowl where she caught all forms of miscellany, Claire looked in the mirror. She realized that she no longer looked utterly haunted. Brushing a curl off of her cheek, she raised her eyebrows. Quite dramatically, she entertained the notion that the ghost of all her memories with Jamie dwelled inside her deflated organs.

“So macabre, you fool,” she muttered. After absently checking the empty-but-for condiments refrigerator, she settled into the front room, not bothering to remove her shoes as she kicked her feet up on the sofa. Her course of training was nearly complete, and in four short weeks, she would be sitting for what she hoped would be her life’s last examination. Until then, she had a blank slate. No obligations other than to learn again the terminology for the things she knew by instinct and used every day over and over again.

She hadn’t told Jamie she was returning to Broch Mordha.

It didn’t take long for her mind to turn to the possibilities to fix things in those four weeks.

She hadn’t spoken to Jamie since that horrible Sunday.

She had typed, and deleted, what felt like a thousand text messages.

A few apologies (genuine to passive-aggressive and blame-shifting).

A few mere journal-type expositions (her day, what she was eating, so-and-so said this-or-that and isn’t that ridiculous?).

A few admissions (“Christ, I miss you”).

A few accusations (“you let me walk away” deleted as she realized she was the one who started walking).

She would give herself one week, she decided.

One week to just be without the pressure of learning.

Seven days as a pressure valve to center herself, to undergo the transformation from actual physician to spongy test-taking flashcard writer.

Unable to face the prospect of sleeping in her own bedroom – the duvet covering sheets where they had been together in the days before things went so spectacularly wrong (laughed, slept, made love, fucked) – she slept on one of the unfamiliar mattresses in the guest room.

She rose early the following morning, the protracted dream of a Jamie she did not know (shouting, pleading, imploring her to stay) coming to a halt as he slammed a door in her face. Needing something to occupy her time, and distract her from how near he was, Claire organized the pantry (fingers lingering on labels of things he must have purchased), took a walk to the satellite building at the edge of the property (memories rushing back of berries, wet clothes, his hands under her thighs), and sorted through the stack of mail that had piled up at the base of the slot in the entryway (junk, bills and more bills with DELINQUENT stamped across the front, more junk).

She opened one envelope marked “TOURIST BOARD.” The paper inside declared that Ms. Claire Beauchamp had passed all necessary checks and the fucking-bed-and-breakfast was fit for all manner of Highland visitors. Leoch Manor would open for business around the same time she would begin the seemingly interminable wait for her exam results.

A white light of pride beamed up the centerline of her body as she re-read the letter.

After finding a cheap frame tucked away in the furthest depths of one bedroom door (eyes studied in their effort not to touch the drawer he had left in her room), she set about hanging up her license with two nails between her teeth. Her hand wavered as she glanced down at the picture frame stuffed firmly into her armpit.

She felt a pang, wishing she could call Jamie under the pretense of needing a steady hand.

“Fuck,” she muttered under her breath as the ruler quivered and her pencil dot landed on the fresh paint about half-an-inch lower than the guiding mark she had pressed into the plaster on the other side.

She didn’t need him, but she wanted him.

She knocked a nail into the wall, smirking and thinking to herself, ‘Claire Beauchamp, Doctor and Licensed Purveyor of a Fucking-Bed-and-Breakfast.’

She had to get over this, too, if she wanted to succeed. She had to find a way past the pang that she could not quite define, but she suspected contained a hearty dose of loneliness, pride, heartache, singleness, and regret.

Later in the afternoon, in front of a not-quite roaring fire, she raked her hair back and took a long sip from her glass of whisky. She hadn’t quite developed a taste for the nation’s most-treasured drink yet, despite Jamie’s desperate meddling with her palate (disappointed eyes at the slightest grimace, asking her if she could taste the honeyed notes in what he termed a ‘mild’ Oban blend, kissing her cheek and saying they’d find something to fit her just right). Though she did not crave whisky the way she did a good glass of wine or smart, herby craft cocktail, it reminded her of him. It brought to mind the feel of his lips on the line of her neck after dinner or just him, all in a way that didn’t leave her feeling aching and looking haunted.

Sitting on the couch, her legs crossed at the ankle and feet clad in her fuzziest socks and framing the fire, she felt utterly alone.

After the warmth from her dram wore off late in the day, She drove to Inverness for supplies.

Greens and tomatoes for salads. Popcorn kernels and coconut oil for late-night noshing. Frozen meals with pictures of fat, loopy pastas on the front that she knew would look drab and beige in her bowls. Wine to drink out of the oversized glasses he had helped her pick out in Inverness the weekend he told her that he loved her.

Before she knew it, she had turned south instead of west.

It was as if some part of her brain responsible for baser human functions – regulating breathing and body temperature, digestion, the growth of her fingernails – took over. By instinct, she turned again and pulled all the way up Jamie’s unpaved drive.

She stopped her car at the edge of the path that led to his front door.

Fuck,” she muttered, gripping the wheel and leaning forward, as if she would see more if she just tried hard enough. The sheep weren’t roaming aimlessly across the lawn or the drive, and their pen appeared quite securely fastened.

After parking, undoing her seatbelt, and turning off the ignition, she got out of her car. Following a moment’s hesitation, she started to walk. As her feet carried her to the door, it was as if all her planning – moving on with her life, letting him reset his own life to its center – meant nothing. It had only taken the short drive up to his front door to prepare herself to eat some crow and apologize.

To apologize for walking away too easily.

For not turning around when the spark of morning-after light in his eyes faded away.

For not giving him a chance to process - she was not quite sure what she expected, really.

As she climbed the front steps, she realized that she had no clue what she would say when he answered the door.

“It’s me. Claire,” she muttered, trying out words that she knew she wouldn’t fuck up. The blinds were drawn, the front mat squared off, straight in front of the cheerfully-painted door. Everything, save her thunderous heart, was silent. She tried another word. “Hi.”

She took one final step forward, dried her tacky palms on her thighs, and knocked with one hand as she pressed the bell with her other. At first her efforts were mild, and then they grew more frantic. With one final knock – a hollow rap-tap-tap - she let her hand fall. For the first time, she looked towards the spot where Jamie usually parked. It was empty, save the slight oily slick on the gravel. Pursing her lips, she shook her head.

As she started back down the path to her car, she muttered, “You’re a bloody mad woman, Beauchamp.”

She supposed that Jamie was at the hardware shop. For a moment, she entertained the notion of going there, pulling her car into a spot out front just to see if he would notice her, to see if he would text her something about still being able to see through the windows like their separation had not caused even a hiccup in their ability to bandy flirtatious looks and words back and forth.  

She thought about making her way inside the hardware shop, and finally saying “sorry.” And meaning it, hoping that he would say it back.

She put her car in reverse, made a wide-arcing three-point turn, and headed towards home.

******

Jamie looked up at the window to Claire’s flat, wondering how long he could wait before some well-meaning neighbor would call him into the police as a prowler.

Having touched down in London shortly after 11:00 p.m. the night before, and not wanting to appear like a maniac in the middle of the night, Jamie had stayed the night in some mangy airport hotel. He hadn’t slept, just laid in bed staring at the ceiling and trying out things to say to her. On a rather long, traffic-congested early-morning taxi to her neighborhood, he had planned everything for the thousandth time.

His apology.

For not reaching out to grab her hand when he saw the fathomless emptiness in her eyes as she told him what his nephew had said.

For not making damn clear that she was a priority, that he would wait for her until the day he died if that’s what it took.

For not making good and god damned clear to her that, while his family was important, she had become his family, too.

For not making damn clear that the same selflessness that made her beautiful was horribly misplaced if she thought she needed to step away so young Jamie would be okay.

As he climbed out from the back seat of the taxi, he noted with a sinking feeling that each of her three windows were cast in darkness.

He stood, still as a statue on the sidewalk, his phone a burden weighing down his hand.

Having made the trip, he realized that he had no idea what Claire’s schedule was like.

Maybe she was sleeping through the morning in her flat, oblivious to his well-mannered finger pressing three staccato briiing-pause-briiing-pause-briiing at her front door.

Maybe she was at the hospital, deep into a shift.

Maybe she was somewhere else entirely, a thought that had not even occurred to him

He looked at his mobile’s screen, at the picture of her blinking through a pint glass with a screwed up face and dramatically winking eye.

The picture had been taken on the day that he told her he loved her, but before he confessed it. He had taken her out for a chipper and a beer in the city. She was frizzy from the rain, free of makeup with the exception of the slight shadow of blurred mascara under her eyes. She’d looked at him through the empty glass and protested how terrible she claimed she looked, as he snapped a photograph. Her face contorted, her eyes narrowing and creasing at the corners. She had plucked the phone from his hands to look at the photograph. Rolling her eyes, she passed it back.

“Not a born photographer, are you, James Fraser?”

He snorted into his glass as he slipped the phone into his pocket. “And you, my Sassenach?” He shook another bit of vinegar onto their shared chips, eyes not leaving her. “What were you born for? To be lady of Leoch Manoror to sleep in the fields like a gypsy? To be a healer, or a trophy husband’s wife or a hardware shop owner’s lady?”

She took one particularly soggy chunk, waggling it at him. “I was born for you, and probably the healer bit as well.”

As she chewed, she flipped her hand over on the table, palm up. It was an invitation that he gladly accepted, slipping his fingers into hers.

That night, when she was long asleep, any of the world’s worries seemingly buffed off of her face, he set the image of her as the wallpaper on his phone.

Now, sitting in front of her flat, he typed a message and swallowed hard.

Where are you? I’d like to talk.

His heart pounded as he waited for a response. Anything at all. He swallowed hard, cinched his eyes, and when his mobile vibrated, he looked.

Why now?

The message seemed clipped. He had expected his hands to go damp with nerves at her response, but they didn’t.

Because I need to. Where are you?

The three bubbles indicating that she was typing a response flashed across the screen and then stopped in maddeningly slow, blinking bursts. She was taking her time.

After roughly a minute, he received one syllable in response:

Home.

He looked up at the window, narrowing his eyes.

Another message.

At my desk & holding the line to talk to a banker. Serious mixup with my debit card. Give me a few?

There was no way that Claire Beauchamp was home, and he could see her desk through the window – the lacy fronds of the fern he’d purchased the weekend she moved in, the still velvet curtains, the empty upholstered chair where she would have been sitting.

Putting his phone on airplane mode, he sighed and rose from the front stoop.

He had all the answers he needed.

******

As far as mornings went, Monday mornings were utter bullshit.

After her early morning trip to the market and half-baked attempt to talk to Jamie, Claire came home to an utter disaster.

Apparently, her bank had bounced the automatic gas and electric payment.

For the preceding six months.

And a very stern man in a blue jumpsuit was toe-tapping in the front entryway as though he could not wait to fulfill his life’s mission of turning off her power. He had agreed to wait for ten minutes after she begged him to just let her try before he cut off the fucking bed-and-breakfast’s power.

And then it came.

A text message from Jamie.

Her heart hammered at the sight of his name on the screen. She wondered if he had been watching all along, seen her hesitate and squint up at his windows. For some reason, the thought unnerved her, that perhaps he had listened to the increasingly frantic staccato hammering on his door, known what it was taking out of her.

Why now?

She sent it, and immediately hated the message and the instinct that caused her to fire it off without thinking.

Before she could muster up some half-hearted message to soften its blow, he had responded again.

Because I need to. Where are you?

He needed to.

The bloody Scot.

It took her at least four times to get the right answer out to his simple question.

Though she had no clue what his tone would be if he spoke the question aloud, she could hear the timbre of his voice, the deeply accented rise of the last word when he inquired, “Where are ye?

Her thumbs trembled as she worked out a response.

First – LM.

It wasn’t enough, and she deleted it, shaking her head.

Second – The fucking bed-and-breakfast.

It was too flippant to be her first message after the silence.

And then it came to her, a bit of truth that would connect them and that she was almost certain he would understand. It was a message that would make clear every intention that she had in her heart for coming back to him.

Home.

Send.

She waited, swiping back to the call. Jamie responded, asking to see her. Her eyes burned beneath tears, the customer service agent coming back on the line as she typed.

Fuck,” she muttered, begging for just a moment as she typed to Jamie.

“Ma’am? I have a confirmation number for ye to give the technician.”

Claire pressed send, asking Jamie to hold for just a moment as she fumbled for a pen. She could hear the man in the entryway huffing, puffing, and shifting around in his bloody utility belt.

She scrawled the number, and turned to her mobile.

I’m looking at your flat, and you’re not home.

Chapter Text

One Summer Part XXIV: Petrol Stations & Clinics

As though she were boiling the perfectly spoonable egg, it took five minutes for Claire to figure out that Jamie had turned his phone off (five unanswered text messages, one thumbnail bitten to the quick, a voicemail punctuated by nervous laughter). It took her another three minutes of her logical mind wrangling with the facts to become convinced that he had thought she was lying. He had not seen her banging uselessly on his door that morning, and their four-week separation was enough that he had not understood (telepathically or otherwise) that home was here.

Broch Mordha.

Leoch Manor.

The sloping curb in front of his hardware shop, their hands warmed by hazelnut coffees, and tongues sweetened by sticky pastries.

Her bed, his bed. Dedicated dresser drawers in one another’s bureaus.

“Fuck,” she hissed as she touched the back of her neck. Molten heat rose from beneath her collar. It was almost enough to blister the tips of her fingers. She bit into her lip.

She texted again: I’m in Scotland, you fool. Home... at Leoch Manor.

Her eyes burned, not knowing if her mild jab was too much for the moment (fool – the term she cackled when his mouth unexpectedly closed over her bellybutton one lazy afternoon to blow a raspberry). Perhaps it went too far, even given the level of intimacy that lingers between two lovers long after they do not share one another’s bed.

Chewing on a fingernail, she looked up flights from London to Inverness, plotted their arrival times with how long it would take her to get there, and drove hard, hands whipping around the steering wheel as she navigated the twisting, narrowed roads of her adopted homeland.

Three arrivals.

She sat at the sole exit for arrivals, a styrofoam cup of tea going cool in her hands.

Shortly before 2:00 p.m., the first flight touched down.

Resting her cup on the bench, she stood and scanned each face in the crowd that swelled out of the doors.

She tried not to feel disappointed as she sat back down, watching the last few stragglers make their way out into the airport (businessmen with loosened ties and rolling overnight bags, harassed looking mothers hand-in-hand with pink-faced children, and end-of-trip flight crewmembers). Moving the cup of room-temperature tea to the floor, she rang his mobile, fingers sinking into her belly when it immediately tipped her call over to his voicemail greeting.

It’s me,’ she thought to say, but the mailbox was full.

The second flight touched down at half four.

The crowd was smaller this time, but his hulking, red frame was not amongst the surge of arriving passengers.

“It’ll be just fine,” she mumbled to herself, unconvinced as she dropped the untouched tea into the bin and made her way to the toilets. To no one at all, she said, “There’s one more flight today.”

After locking herself into the stall, she sat on the toilet seat and dropped her face into her hands.

The hours crawled by with more tea – this time guzzled until her bladder swelled and her stock of tears were replenished for a good early evening solo cry into the heels of her hands.

And then, at a quarter to nine, the final arrival from London to Inverness touched down.

Her eyes were as bleary from tears as they were from staring at a small crack in the tile in front of her bench, and her mind was running the emotional equivalent of three full marathons.

This time, she didn’t stand.

She leaned forward, scanning each person coming through the mechanical doors.

She waited until the crowd was gone, making a conscious effort not to hold her breath.

She waited for half an hour until the last stragglers had gone.

And then the man from the chip kiosk made his way out along with the bookshop attendant, a few other airport employees, and a uniform-clad security guard secured the exit doors.

She rose and made her way to the car.

*****

In a dream, Jamie saw his hardware shop.

It was for sale, a white flag was mounted out front and whipping in the wind. His uncle stood inside Mrs. Fitz’s bakery, shaking his head and running fingers through his beard. Jamie’s nephews were standing next to him, eyes averted and small white flags in their hands.

His body turned, separated from his sleep-addled mind. He was on a battlefield, his hand broken and useless, paralyzed in a puddle of water that he could feel but not see. A rabbit, a rounded softball-sized thing, sniffed clover, entirely unthreatened by the man laying there.

“Call me.”

His head moved, lolling over to one side.

Her body moved like it was pliable, barely contained by diaphanous gauze; she was backlit. Her hair was loose.

“I overreacted.”

“Yes,” she said simply. “Think, Jamie.”

He tried to ask about what, but his lips wouldn’t move. Her arms crossed over her stomach. She was near enough that he could reach out, touch some part of her (ankle, foot, knee, he didn’t care). Her mouth moved, but he didn’t hear the words.

He didn’t have to.

Home, you fool.”

He woke with the words on his lips, his hand aching.

It was then that he realized his dream – the aching, the broken hand, the puddle – was a stand in for one hell of a mess.

A broken glass. Blood running down the back of his hand. His mobile in the glass of water he had drawn from the tap before bed.

Claire was at Leoch Manor.

She was home.

And now his phone was destroyed.

He looked at the clock on his nightstand.

4:00 a.m.

He reached for the yellowed hotel-provided landline and picked up the receiver.

He listened to the dial tone for a minute, trying to remember Claire’s number but coming up with only the last two digits (a bawdy cackle one day when he’d realized they were a six and a nine, and then swallowing her shrieks as they went for a tribute of sorts to the number).

He rose from the bed, rinsed his hand, shoved the few belongings he had with him back into his bag, and quickly made his way to the hotel’s front desk. After rigging up a makeshift wrap using a first aid kid handed to him by a rather horrified-looking night attendant, he made his way to the airport to find the fastest route back to Scotland.

*****

At the sound of her phone jangling on the hotel nightstand, Claire woke from a dreamless sleep.

She felt like an idiot.

She wasn’t sure what she had expected by coming to Inverness.

That Jamie would do what exactly?

Walk out of the arrivals exit, see her, and pause? Drop his bag, head shaking and eyes filling with tears as he registered her presence? That she would run, her face breaking into a smile as she took one gazelle-like leap into his arms before wrapping herself around him like a fucking baby koala?

“You’ve watched one too many rom coms, Beauchamp,” she muttered to herself, scrubbing a hand over her face.

She checked her phone.

Nothing.

No texts, no calls, no emails.

Eyes trained on the thin line of daylight peeking through her drawn curtains, she whispered, “It’s time to go home.”

*****

When curled around the steering wheel on her way back to Broch Mordha, Claire’s fingers had a heartbeat. At her wrist, the thrum of her veins pulsed just off of the beat of the song on the radio (one she hadn’t heard before; one he would love).

She would have thought that all of those feelings from the early days of their breakup would come barreling back on the drive.

The emptiness.

The desperation.

The loneliness.

The devastation.

But she was an empty vessel.

One from which no tears would fall, no sound would be made.

But she was outside of her own body, hands somehow still attached to her body and guiding her car towards the place she had called “home.” Adopting Jamie’s speed, it was entirely beyond her that her hands had been conditioned to carry her from Inverness to Broch Mordha by rote.

Her mouth dry, she pulled into a petrol station just outside of Broch Mordha to top off her tank.

As she rummaged through her handbag for her free-floating credit card, the attendant and an elderly customer continued on their conversation.

She caught snippets.

“–retirin’, next few weeks… he must be nearin’ a hundred...”

–a receipt for her chips (the way she teased him about the face he made at malt vinegar as a condiment), a single stick of chewing gum (flaking, petrified, covered in lint)–

“–man delivered the entire town; I dinna ken anyone under the age of seventy the man hasna brought into the world–”

–two pens without caps (a Picasso etched into the pale tan lining of her purse), her mobile (taunting ten percent of battery life, though it was a silent creature, in any event)–

“–and perhaps Claire here could help.”

She looked up, brow furrowed, one hand in her back pocket and the other still submerged in the depths of her purse. Her fingers closed around the card. She intoned a very slurred, “Huh?”

She didn’t recognize either the attendant or the customer, but she knew the renovation of the fucking bed-and-breakfast had been a storied thing in Mrs. Fitz’s shop, Jamie’s shop, the barber shop, the pub, and apparently the petrol station, too,

“Have ye no’ heard?”

She slipped her card into the reader, pulling one of the uncapped pens from her bag to sign the receipt. “I haven’t. Heard what?”

“Dr. Grant is closin’ shop, movin’ to Edinburgh to live wi’ his daughter. Glaucoma or some such.”

Claire’s heart thundered, and the small exhalation she made sounded like a question. “Oh?”

“We’ve no’ had good care in Broch Mordha in years. The man means well, but I dinna ken a soul in town who’d go to the lèigh for more than a wee cut or prescription. From the sounds of it, ye’re a braw physician.”

The check mark and wavered line she penned on the signature line of receipt looked nothing like Claire Beauchamp. Curiously, Claire Beauchamp didn’t feel like Claire Beauchamp in that moment. She gathered the bottle of sparkling water and crisps she’d plucked from a rather inviting display and dropped them into her purse.

“The clinic’s wee, but the town would appreciate it.”

Her upper lip quivered. “Where exactly is it?” At their somewhat astonished faces, she added, “Still a bit new to town.”

Walking to her car with an earthquake in her brain, Claire suddenly felt everything again.

But this time, the void was filling.

Anticipation.

Hope.

Five minutes later, she pulled in front of the well-worn, three-room clinic. A man, who looked surprisingly fit for one rapidly approaching the one-century mark, was out front pruning back an eruption of pale lilac rhododendron encroaching on the walk up to the clinic.

As she stepped out, fingers quivering around the door, she called, “Dr. Grant?”

“Dr. Beauchamp,” he called back. “Come on in for a dram. I was hoping ye’d find a spot of time to pop by.”

*****

Rising onto his tiptoes and peering through the open curtains, Jamie felt like an utter creep.

There was no sign of her car in either the front drive or the small patch of gravel to the side.

Her laptop was on the desk in a sea of paper, and the lamp was still on.

His wandering fingers overcame the side of his brain that was well accustomed with trespassing laws, and he tested the door knob.

Locked.

He returned to his car, dug in the center console for a piece of paper, and uncapped a pen with his teeth.

C –

I was an idiot.

You aren’t here...home,

but I want to talk.

We need to talk.

Long story -

destroyed phone, please call.

His hand hovered as he contemplated how he would sign the note.

The hesitation was borne not from confusion, but a desire not to spook Claire more than he had when she left after telling him about Ian.

And then he muttered, “Fuck it.”

And he wrote what he wanted because he knew deep down that he had only one life for her and one chance to take that life and make it his own, and he wasn’t going to mess it up.

I love you.

J

After checking his phone one more time, he drove towards town to check on the hardware shop.

*****

Dr. Grant’s cottage-turned-clinic was not as dilapidated as the bed-and-breakfast had been when she first arrived in Broch Mordha, but only by a hair.

Across their bellies, the waiting room chairs had a crackled vinyl patina that barely contained the yellowing foam within. The computer that roared to life beneath Dr. Grant’s pointer-finger-only typing emitted a gentle puff of dust that Claire imagined had taken up residence shortly after the machine was purchased in 1994. But the walls were scrubbed, the equipment clean, and the photographs of the hundreds of babies he’d delivered on the walls of his office made her heart soar.

It was a project, to be sure, but it was perfect.

“I’m ready to pass this place along to someone,” he said, eyes narrowing at the screen as he pulled up the transition plan he had put together for his retirement. “And my patients would surely be served by the physician James Fraser has been gloating is a braw wee thing.”

In the moment, Claire didn’t have enough wits about her to blush.

It took ninety minutes for her post-training plan to be firmly in place.

As she crossed the bridge into town, with the image of a loaf of Mrs. Fitz’s finest ciabatta slathered in creamy goat cheese and slabs of the heirloom tomato she had been saving on her kitchen counter, Claire’s breath was stolen by the sight of a truck.

The only pickup she had ever seen in Scotland.

It was back, dusty, and the windows were cracked despite the gray storm brewing on the horizon.

It was parked in front of the hardware shop.

She maneuvered her own car into the parking spot next to the truck, knowing full well that she was taking up at least one and a half parking spots. But she couldn’t bring herself to care. Her mind was some sort of celestial equine being, galloping a million miles an hour for just a minute.

Before the questions came to mind (what she would say, how he would respond, if she had a chance in hell), she had an image of them.

The earlier reunion thoughts involved hugging – holding him so tightly that he sighed, being held by him with such a force that she whimpered with the slightly discomforting feeling of home or kissing him full on the mouth, winding her legs around his waist.

This time, she had a simple thought. One hand resting on his forearm as she tucked her face into his throat, her thumb traveling a well-known path along the humid, creased inside of his elbow as his breath lifted the hair at her temple.

Breathing.

For the first time in weeks and getting enough oxygen.

Her reptile brain put her own car into park, killed the ignition, opened the door, and stepped out.

She stood for a moment and just stared at him.

He was behind the counter, one hand on his hip and the other in the cinnabar curls at his nape. He was worriedly looking at a laptop screen while his nephew Jamie gesticulated wildly next to him.

Claire slipped her phone from her pocket as he looked up and over at her. At first his face remained stoic, and then his eyes widened. Time passed – enough that kings could mount legions and the world could heal itself from the scourge of humanity.

She opened her text messages and began to type, her eyes burning, her gut needing to believe in the ideal her mind had conjured up.

To feel his forearm, that elbow, an exhale and the gentle lift of her curls.

She looked up again.

He was staring.

She hit send.

*****

The screen on Jamie’s phone lit up and a message bonged its arrival.

+44 8017 32369

You know I can see you standing there staring at me, right? You told me once that the shop window is one big see-through pane. Still is, my lad.

Chapter Text

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.