John would never forget that night in the dark woods of Corrieyairack.
He was but a boy, a foolish one at that. He didn’t yet know the world as it truly was, bloody and cruel and far too disappointing. At the time, all he had thought was to make his brother Hal proud, to impress Hector, to prove his courage. He had been wrong to think that long shadows and a small knife would be adequate.
Of course, he’d been caught. He’d struggled all he could; the fear of death suddenly hitting him in the face, but he couldn’t overpower the strong, tall Highlander.
Red Jamie , as he was known at the time, proved a foe worthy of his reputation. He was an impressive man that made John’s eyes widen for more than one reason; fear and shock yes, but admiration also. John was forced to submission and even if he’d vowed to himself to die honorably, no matter the torture the other man might put him through in search of information; in the end he’d sang like a bird, all for the sake of that Englishwoman. He could not bear to see her harmed and his head, filled with tales of chivalry and the honor of heroes had blinded him.
In the end, he’d given in. John might regret that night for years now, but he wasn’t sure he would have acted any differently.
Still, shamed and beaten as he was, the death that he thought certain would follow never came. His enemy had all he wanted from him and yet, he showed mercy and let him live. It had baffled John then and it still did. All he’d heard until that day were gruesome stories of the savagery of the Highlanders, their beastly ways and foul souls.
And then came James Fraser.
So, he made a promise. A debt of honor that plagued him for long after that night, but one that he never thought would materialize before him quite as it did.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
“Society will consist solely of conversations with your officers” Colonel Harry Quarry noted as he showed him around the courtyard of the prison.” And one prisoner” he added, his head nodding some ways off where a group of prisoners were huddled together.
“A prisoner?” John Grey asked. His predecessor had so far only spoken with distaste and scorn of the prisoners and Scotland at large, so the declaration stunned him.
It had been a long time since he’s been in Scotland, and him being here now wasn’t a cause for celebration. He knew the land was harsh and the people harsher.
He’d fought them on the battlefield, after all.
“You’ll have heard of Red Jamie Fraser?” the man turned to him.
At the mention of that name, John’s heart stopped.
“Of course” he said after a moment. But as the Colonel told him of Fraser’s time after the Rising, John barely heard him, his eyes were glued to a man almost unrecognizable since his teens. He had been tall and well-built then as he was now, but that’s where the similarities ended.
Fraser now stood hunched from the weight of his shackles, his auburn hair muted by the falling rain and the dirt, and his face was half hidden by the blanket he had around his shoulders. It was as if a ghost of his past had materialized right in front of him, seeking vengeance and John couldn’t shake off a bad feeling that had blossomed in his mind.
“You’ll need Fraser’s goodwill and cooperation. I had him take supper with me once a week, you might try a similar arrangement” Colonel Quarry advised him. He could tell the man was only trying to help him deal with the unpleasant situation before him, but at the mere mention of facing the Scot, John’s blood boiled with sudden anger and shame.
“I’ll not dine with that—” he exclaimed angrily but then stopped himself. “—prisoner” he spat and turned his back on the crowd in the courtyard.
“As you wish” the other man said and followed him away.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
John had wanted to avoid Fraser, but he knew sooner or later he’d have to speak to him directly. Still, it was hard to keep his head and temper levelled as he stared across the prisoner whose eyes showed no recognition. He declared to him that they’d continue commination in favor of the other prisoners, for Fraser to stand as their spokesperson. The man was dismissed and with a sharp nod from Fraser, he left his office. John huffed out a sigh.
He only hoped that things would smooth over with time. His post here was already far from ideal, he didn’t need any more problems. Or enemies, for that matter.
He tried to make the best of it, getting familiar with the prison itself as well as the people; the guards, the traders that supplied them, even some of the prisoners. John had decided that he’d keep his distance from Fraser and for a time he did, though the man’s fierce presence couldn’t always be ignored. John’s eyes would catch a tall, big shadow or the vibrant auburn of the man’s hair and each time he’d have to force his eyes back into his current task.
When little over a month later, the appearance of an old Scottish man named Duncan Kerr forced him to approach Fraser, it honestly felt like God was mocking him. And this time, he was the one seeking the Scot’s help and cooperation.
However, the sound of a lost treasure and the Crown’s favor at acquiring it sounded far too sweet for him to risk ignoring it.
So, John exhaled deeply and called the guards to summon him.
“I fear I must decline, sir” Fraser said with finality when John told him what he needed of him. It had been expected however, and John was quick to deliver his ultimatum. One passing comment on the heavy and rusting irons on his wrists and Fraser’s retreated form paused immediately.
“Mr. Fraser, if you do what I ask, I will have your irons struck off” John spoke with as much honesty as he could. He knew the man didn’t trust him and he needed him to understand that John was a man of his word. “I understand you’ve been wearing them for three years. I can’t imagine how heavy they must feel“ he added more softly and knew the man would agree to the bargain as soon as he met his eyes.
Later, he cursed himself for thinking that Fraser was as honorable as he once had been, because the man didn’t keep his end of the bargain. John could tell he was hiding something about the gold, and neither threats nor torture would work. He had to approach the matter differently and get the prisoner to trust him.
He found it strange that Fraser had been angered when he’d accused him of immorality, nonetheless it would be up to him to mend their rocky relationship. John was well aware of the sway Fraser had on the rest of the prisoners and if he hoped to keep Ardsmuir under his command, he had to be civil with the Scot. So, he conceded and called James Fraser for supper.
The other man was cold and distant that first night, but he agreed to weekly meetings. Dinner went well after that and although it felt strange to share it with such an unexpected companion, seeing Fraser’s gleeful face over the roasted pheasant had been strangely amusing.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
Their tentative relationship was soon ruined, when a week later, James Fraser escaped during a walk through the moor. John’s mind immediately went to the French gold and he made his men search for hours in hopes of locating him before he went too far. He felt foolish, but he couldn’t help the feeling of betrayal from picking at him.
He snorted to himself at the thought. He shouldn’t have put any faith in the man in the first place, yet somehow, he had.
Three days of searching later, John made his way a little further than the rest of the soldiers, behind the ruins of an old watchtower when a strong hand grasped him from behind and clasped his mouth shut, pushing them both against the stone wall with force. A strong, large hand wrapped itself around his neck like a noose and fear and shock froze him in place.
Then his assailant spoke.
“That’s how it’s done, William Grey, second son of Viscount Melton” James Fraser muttered as he got better hold of him. John tried to draw his sword, but the taller man beat him to it and held it against him with ferocity.
“How long did it take yer comrades to find ye after we tied ye to that tree?” Fraser asked, mirth clear in his voice and John’s eyes widened.
He could hear the smile in his voice. He was suddenly exceedingly aware of the body behind him, of the hands on him and the strength behind them. Slowly, Fraser withdrew his hand from his mouth to let him speak.
“You remembered” was all he could think to say. John had been certain the man didn’t remember of their encounter before Ardsmuir.
“Aye. After ye called me to yer quarters that first day” Fraser answered. “I tend to remember anyone who tries to slit my throat” he added and as if to prove his point, he tightened his hold on John’s throat.
John almost smiled at the irony of his current situation.
“Why did you not speak of it before?” he asked, puzzled.
“I was waiting for the proper occasion” Fraser took a step and released him momentarily as he turned to face him and then pushed John against the wall again. “Why did ye not remind me?” he asked as he tightened his grip on John, sword at hand.
John knew he was in the disadvantage, yet he refused to yield. “I think you know why” he muttered blandly. John still remembered the day he saw his brother’s letter telling him that he’d spared a notorious war criminal on his behalf. John hadn’t been in the right mind to feel shame at that time, right after Culloden, but he felt it later.
“Aye. Lord Melton was an honorable gentleman” Fraser nodded.
“And my family debt to you has been discharged” John said sharply.
“But not your promise”
“Promise?” he asked. His mind went black and he looked to Fraser for answers.
What more did the Scot want of him?
“When last we parted, you vowed…” the man trailed off and released his throat. Fraser stepped back, pointing John’s own sword to his racing heart with the tip lightly landing on his uniform.
John didn’t dare breathe, didn’t dare think.
“Well, sir” Fraser huffed, and after a moment’s pause, stabbed John’s sword into the grassy ground. John blinked back for some time before realization caught up with him.
“Here I am” the prisoner declared and kneeled before him, tired eyes on John.
John carefully stood up from the wall and took his sword.
The man was asking him to kill him.
Fraser closed his eyes and waited.
John placed his sword against the other’s throat lightly, contemplating. He looked upon the man for a second more.
Of course, he couldn’t - wouldn’t - do it. Even if the Scot wished for it.
Fraser cracked his eyes open at the delay, and the look of the man’s blue eyes told John all he needed to. But he refused to give him what he wanted.
“I am not a murderer of unarmed prisoners” John sheathed his sword.
The moment he did, the man’s face broke and kneeling there, he breathed out shakily.
Later, Fraser told him about the dead man’s words, the meaning they held for him and why he had escaped. In the end, it had all been in search of his wife’s memory and the pain and devotion Fraser held for her was clear in the man’s eyes. John knew how hope could leave a man feeling empty and hopeless when one realized it had never been there.
Fraser looked at peace though, or the closest thing to it.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
In the coming months, the two of them fell into a familiar routine and John found himself looking forward to his weekly meetings with Jamie.
They had come to an understanding long ago and now their time together was filled with discussions of literature, politics and rhetoric. John’s heart felt lighter as he heard the Scot tell his stories of his adventures in France, of his various acquaintances and opinions on books.
They’d speak of the prison’s matters with reluctance and then spend hours each night indulging in each other’s company. John realized how much he’d longed to find a like-minded person with whom he could share his thoughts and feel comfort in his company.
Chess was a brilliant idea that Jamie voiced one day as he told him of his matches with the French Minister of Coin. John had been delighted and soon, their weekly meeting consisted of a game or two of chess after dinner.
It was during one such night when he suddenly came to the realization he’d been ignoring for months.
Jamie was contemplating the board before him, eyes half-lidded in thought and as John watched him over a glass of sherry, he felt an absurd urge to lean forward and kiss him.
The thought made him still with shock. Jamie noticed none of it as he made his moved and said something that John completely missed.
Since that night, John’s heart slowly flooded with turmoil. He quickly realized that the leap of happiness and excitement he felt when he saw Jamie wasn’t of pure lust or attraction, because he could feel the tug of love in his heart, the shimmering heat of want inside him.
And here he was, lusting over his prisoner, a man who might as well have been the sword that killed Hector. It felt like he was betraying him, in a way and John did his best to banish the feelings that were trying to swallow him whole.
As time went on however, John couldn’t deny it any longer, couldn’t fight it. His heart ached every time Jamie cast his eyes on him; his cheeks would blush at the mere contact between them and his breath would catch at the sound of the other man’s laughter.
It was a quiet, beautiful night.
John and Jamie had dinner like always, a pheasant that John had shot himself. After, they’d sat down for a game of chess and it was one of few occasions where John had whisky at his disposal, much to Jamie’s delight. They drank glass after glass as the night went on. John slumped back on his seat and let the pleasant tug of the drink lull him to a state of ease.
John lost the first game they played, so he was determined to win the next one.
He’d been planning a certain move for a while now and as he finally made it, his breath caught in anticipation and excitement.
Jamie had been in the middle of a story of his when he suddenly trailed off. He took one look at the board and his brow creased in confusion. He’d had as much to drink as John, though he seemed to fair a little better.
“Why--” Jamie’s eyes raced over each still standing chess piece until sudden realization hit him hard.
He had just lost the game.
“You cunning wee bastard! Where the hell did ye learn that trick?” he exclaimed good-naturedly, and John couldn't hold back a smile at that.
“My elder brother Hal taught it to me” he told him as he took a sip of his glass and savored the sweet taste of victory.
“Ah. Lord Melton, you mean” Jamie noted, still smiling.
“Your brother very stubbornly refused to shoot me” the man suddenly mused as he placed his pawns back into their positions. “I wasna inclined to be grateful for the favor at the time” he added and turned his eyes to John.
John blinked a few times, the other man’s words catching up with him.
“You wished to be shot?” he asked him seriously. The memory of the tall, strong man kneeling in the grass came to him in a flash, but he cast it aside.
Jamie’s words resonated with him, half-forgotten from the long years since the Rising.
“I thought I had reason” he simply said.
“What reason was that?” John couldn’t help himself, he had to ask. “I mean no impertinence in asking. It is only--” he took a deep breath “--at the time, I felt similarly” he stated and looked away, his eyes staring into the bright flames of the fireplace. He could feel Jamie’s gaze on him like the fire that burned beside them. At long last, he managed to look back at the Scot.
He saw pain and uncertainty and John thought he might be staring into a mirror.
So John told him.
And once he had begun, he couldn’t for the life of him stop. He felt the sorrow and pain pour out of him as he told Jamie of Hector’s death, of his inability to ever move on. He spoke of the piece of his heart he was missing.
Jamie’s eyes told him he knew the feeling. He seemed to understand the hurt and loneliness.
“Do you find your life greatly burdensome, Mr. Fraser?” John then asked.
Jamie picked his glass up and gave his question some thought.
“Perhaps, not greatly so. I think perhaps the greatest burden lies in caring for those we cannot help. Not in having no one for whom to care. That is… emptiness. But no great burden” he said eventually, and John felt as if the man had stared right into his soul. His heart beat like a fragile bird at the clutches of a raven and for the life of him, John had no wish to be freed from James Fraser’s hands.
He smiled. Perhaps it was the whisky that gave him enough courage to ask. “Your wife, she was a healer you said?”
Jamie chuckled softly and his face turned soft at the memory of her.
Claire, her name was. He spoke it like a blessing and a prayer and John marveled at the heart that Jamie possessed, of love so strong and limitless that made John’s intensify tenfold.
What would it be like to be loved so fiercely, he wondered.
“You cared for her very much, I think” he breathed out with a soft smile. It was plain to see from the way Jamie spoke of her. He revealed to him that John had actually met her, and that it was the Englishwoman he’d spent years cursing.
John was astounded to say the least. Despite himself, he laughed.
Jamie laughed with him at the memories, spoke kindly of that sixteen-year old boy whose honor he had admired. John felt himself sink deeper into that warm feeling that made his head dizzy.
“Ye thought to save her life and her virtue at the risk of yer own. I’ve thought of that now and again, since--” Jamie trailed off, lost in memory. “Since I lost her”
“I see” John’s eyes met the man across him and they sat there, look at each other for a long moment.
It wasn’t a completely conscious decision, when John reached across the chessboard and placed his hand on top of Jamie’s.
“I am sorry for your loss” he spoke sincerely, and Jamie looked at him with sympathy and compassion; pain whose burden was lessened when shared between two people.
Then John’s eyes dropped to their joined hands, like he was seeing it for the first time and mindlessly, he caressed the rough skin of Jamie’s knuckles with his thumb. His hand burned with the warmth of the other man’s and the movement felt huge and deafening to the silent room.
John couldn’t say what had caused it; was it the comfort he so desperately wanted to offer the man, or was it the deep want that burned inside him so completely?
Slowly, he raised his gaze back to Jamie and like waking up from a dream to face reality, his heart proceeded to break as he found the other man staring down as well, his face stricken with revulsion, fear and a slight trembling to his frame.
For a few, endless moments, no one moved, and John was reminded of battlefield after a long battle; deafening in its silence.
“Take yer hand off me” Jamie looked straight at him. “Or I will kill you” he stated with controlled rage.
John obliged slowly, a sinking feeling settling in his stomach.
How foolish he had been. How terribly foolish.
Jamie still looked shaken with emotions too many to distinguish. He stood up from his chair and as he heard him walk away, a single tear fell free from John’s eyes.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
As Jamie practically ran in his haste to escape Grey’s quarters, his head raced with a million thoughts.
The Major had been a fearsome change at first, or so he had thought. And the fact that he was the boy he’d encountered so long ago and whose arm he had broken made him even warier of him. He had no reason to think Lord John Grey didn’t remember him, so he was baffled at the man’s lack of a confrontation.
It took some time, but he came to see that Grey was indeed a good man. He was a man of honor and he wouldn’t let him for a moment question that. Even after his escape, he had expected to see a darker, crueler side of the man but he’d been met with mercy and understanding instead. It was only fair to give back the same respect he had received.
Then, there was the man’s company. It was far better than the previous Warden’s and Jamie often caught himself getting carried away by their conversations and the time he spent in Grey’s company became what he looked forward the most at the end of each week.
Eventually, he truly thought of the man as a companion, a friend even. He could never forget that they were in fact captor and prisoner, but Grey had been exiled to Ardsmuir as much as he had, and the thought was reassuring in a way. There was also the fact that Grey never took advantage of his position and was courteous when he had to. So, before long, he found himself opening up to the younger man, not just with tales of his ventures or discussion of common interests, but of matters he held close to his heart as well. The man had a kind soul, a steady presence that soothed him and comforted him. More than once, he’d found himself comparing him to Claire.
In truth, they had many things in common. Their fiery hearts, their righteousness and stubbornness; but the goodness and gentleness they hid beneath, too. They were all things that had made him fall for his wife; hopelessly and irreversibly.
Now , though, all he felt was vile, as the remembrance of John’s touch upon his hand came to mind.
Jamie had been cruel, he knew; John could have had him restrained, even punished for his threats. But Jamie hadn’t expected something like this at all and his mind had immediately taken him back to the dark cell of Wentworth and Randall’s cruel smile.
He closed his eyes tightly and cast the memories out of his mind, a feeling of betrayal towards the young Englishman.
He would never be able to look up him the same way again, he knew.
And hours later, as he laid down on his cell, his mind still wouldn’t quieten.
He was afraid, he realized.
Afraid of what Grey would do tomorrow, or the day after that, or the week after that.
Jamie would be powerless to stop him and even if he did put up a fight, it would be futile. He knew now that the younger man wanted him and that he had the power to take him if he so willed it.
Jamie didn’t let himself think about the rest of the feelings that seized his heart, he couldn’t make sense of it. Why did his heart ache with sorrow? Why was his stomach tight with spiky nerves that were not fear?
Was the friendship they’d shared such a great loss as to feel it so sharply?
He wished he hadn’t seen Grey’s tear-filled eyes as he had coldly threatened him, or the way his face had been painted with hurt and shame.
As much as he tried, the conflicting feelings inside of him didn’t dissipate. He also grew more and more wary as the days passed and Grey’s call or punishment never came.
Thus, their weekly meetings were reduced to a frosty affair, shared with the bare minimum of conversation that included only the prison’s happenings and the prisoner’s needs. Jamie would scarcely meet the other man’s eyes and Grey’s stayed distant and formal.
Jamie wondered why the man wouldn’t make his move to strike, for he knew it would eventually come; men like him (like Randall ) always did.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
On a cold, snowy day, the prisoners were all taken out of their cells, counted off and sorted off into lines at the courtyard. The soldiers would tell them nothing, but it was obvious that something fundamental was about to happen; the prison was being emptied.
Jamie was shaking to his core with the cold. He was with Murtagh and the others, when one of the soldiers shouted his name. Jamie made no move to stand out, though he was quickly located and taken by the arm, the soldier dragging him away from the rest.
“What’s happening?” Jamie asked him, worried.
“Prison’s closing” the soldier answered curtly. He explained that the prisoners would be removed for the prison to function as a garrison while he guided him through to the main gate and that the current prisoners were to be taken overseas to America where they’d serve their sentences in the form of indenture.
Once they were out the gates, Jamie saw Grey on his horse, giving instructions to some of the other soldiers and tried to make out the man’s orders. He was momentarily distracted, until he saw the soldier promptly tying his shackled hands to a rope on the Major’s horse.
“Where--” he tried to interject, but everyone was running to follow their orders and gave no mind to him. Then, he felt a sudden tug as Grey’s horse began walking away from the prison.
“Where am I being taken?” he shouted to Grey, to the soldiers, but none gave answers. He looked back helplessly only to see Murtagh and Hayes trying to get to him but being led in the opposite direction by the guards.
“Grey?” he called again, but the man didn’t even spare a glance to him and kept riding ahead and away from Ardsmuir.
They traveled, Grey on his horse and Jamie trying to keep up on foot, tied behind the younger man. Jamie was resolute to remain silent throughout the journey and Grey seemed to accept it. All the while, a dozen different scenarios of what his fate would be accompanied him.
He wondered why he should be separated from his fellow prisoners when indenture was as sure a slow death as any. Grey should know it was doubtful he’d survive the trip to the colonies as well as fourteen years of slavery. Then his mind reminded him that he was “Lord” John Grey, and an officer of the Crown. No matter the circumstances of the man’s apparent exile to the Highlands, he was still a man of power. Jamie could probably disappear from the face of the earth and there’d be no one looking into it.
That was a thought that truly scared him.
He thought, perhaps Grey had been waiting for this moment to extract his revenge on him for having denied him and to take what Jamie wouldn’t willingly give. He could keep him locked up anywhere he wished, leave him at his mercy.
As the days drew on however, Grey made no such move and kept a fair distance as they passed the backcountry and spent their nights in filthy inns.
“It’s been three days. You’re going to have to talk to me eventually” was how Grey chose to break the silence, while they were walking on the side of a windy cliff.
Jamie stiffened. He didn’t wish to speak to him any more than he had the day they set out. Still, he couldn’t hide from the inevitable.
“Why was I not sent to the colonies with them?” he decided to be forward and asked the question that troubled him the most. Would Grey finally reveal what his fate was? The thought alone made his stomach seize, yet he had to know. Better that, than dreading each moment in fear of the unknown.
Jamie grunted when Grey made no acknowledgment of his words and pulled the rope he was shackled to against Grey’s saddle to get his attention. The horse stopped after a couple of tugs.
“Why do you keep me here, Grey?” his voice was level and he kept his face equally unreadable. He didn’t want the other man to see any fear.
After a short pause, Grey got down from his horse. Grey thought he heard him exhale deeply, though he had his back turned so he wasn’t sure.
“You are not merely a prisoner, but a convicted traitor, imprisoned at the pleasure of his majesty. Your sentence cannot be commuted without royal approval” Grey explained as he untied the rope Jamie was tied with off his saddle. “His majesty has not seen fit to give that approval” he added formally and stepped near him.
Jamie stilled himself in anticipation. Whatever intentions the Major had, now was the time to show them and Jamie would be damned if he didn’t go down without a fight.
“I couldn’t give you freedom, Fraser. This is the next best I could manage” the words startled the taller man.
None of it answered his questions. What was the man getting at?
“Where am I to go, then?” Jamie stared to the side, refusing to meet his eyes. His agitation was growing by the second and he forced himself to remain still. He saw Grey finally look away and towards the far end where a big estate laid.
As he told him of his arranged servitude to the Lord Dunsany, Jamie listened with half an ear. He knew the man wasn’t lying to him, yet he couldn’t understand it. He could tell lust when he saw it, and it had been clear as day on Grey’s face when he’d laid his hand upon his, that nighta. He knew what the man wanted all too well, and Jamie was aware that he had the means to get it. So why didn’t he?
“I shall visit you once each quarter, to ensure your welfare” he heard the younger man say and his brow raised slightly.
“Welfare?” he asked with irony plain in his words.
And yet, all he could trace was concern and care as the Major warned him to use a different name and hide his identity. Then, he took out the key and without hesitation, unlocked Jamie’s irons, careful not to touch his bruised skin. They fell unceremoniously to the ground and Jamie rubbed at his wrists, mind blank.
Had he really made such a big mistake in judgement?
He suddenly found himself wondering if his dark past with Randall had clouded his mind, because the man before him still treated him with kindness and respect when he could have dropped the pretense a million times over.
“Why?” he kept eye contact as he passed by Grey and looked to the horizon, where Helwater lay. “Why would you do that for me?” he asked and turned back to face the other man, trying to read him. “I didna let you have your way”
This time, it was Grey who looked away.
“I regret that particular moment of weakness. It was foolish of me” he sounded ashamed, truly regretful. “But I told you about… someone I cared for” then he turned to him, holding his gaze in determination. “And you did the same. You gave me my life all those years ago. Now, I give you yours. I hope you use it well” his eyes were bright with solid honesty and something Jamie didn’t know how to name. But there was nothing cruel about it.
“Your brother discharged that debt” Jamie said carefully, though he knew there was no reason for it.
“For the sake of the family name. I discharge it for the sake of my own” Grey confirmed his suspicions and after a short nod, the younger man huffed a sigh and turned back towards his horse.
“Now Mr. Fraser, let’s be on our way” Jamie could hear the slight smile in Grey’s voice, even if he couldn’t see it.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
It felt strange to live in a room and not a cell shared with another twenty prisoners, to breathe the clear, cold air of the mountains, to be clean and to be able to move more than a few paces each time.
Jamie knew Helwater was still a prison, yet he felt so much freer and his soul had finally found some peace. Working alongside the horses of the estate was a bonus, and one that Jamie couldn’t help but think he owed John Grey for. After all, it was him who had found a place for him here and had recommended him as a groom to Lord Dunsany.
After he finally settled in and got used to life in the English country, Jamie’s thoughts turned to the younger man more and more often. The blind anger towards him had passed and now he felt as though he had wronged him in expecting nothing but cruelty and defilement, especially since he had previously gotten to know the man during the months in Ardsmuir and knew of his kindness. But he had felt such surety that all men who craved others of the same sex would be as perverse and foul hearted as Randall had been. Instead, Grey had treated him with consideration and kindness; so much as to go to lengths to secure Jamie’s welfare. And Jamie in turn had spat at him and cursed him.
Jamie found himself wanting to repair their past friendship and to show Grey that he saw what the man had done for him. Their last encounter had left things tensely, so Jamie spent his days mentally preparing for the Englishman’s return to Helwater.
It was some months into his new life there when Lady Isobel caught him commenting on her sister’s behavior with humor and a smirk. He had taken a liking to the younger sister, right until she mentioned John Grey. Jamie didn’t know what had bothered him about the young girl admiring the other man, but he’d been quick to shot her down with words of cynicism about the military.
“I find him to be a rare and interesting person” she had told him, and Jamie didn’t disagree in her assessment. He had, after all, admired Grey’s very soul and thus had considered him a friend even when their status as Warden and prisoner had been nothing but forbidding such a thing.
What the young lass didn’t know was that he’d never make a good husband, whoever the wife may be. He felt a certain amount of satisfaction at that thought and then stiffened. As he watched the Lady Isobel walk away, he tried to understand where that had come from.
Time seemed to pass quickly, and the time came for Grey’s visit to the Dunsany family. Jamie didn’t know quite what to expect and was surprised to find the Major posed and dismissive of Jamie, as a groom should be. Their eyes did meet however, for just a second, as Jamie took charge of Grey’s horse. The younger man didn’t betray anything though, much to Jamie’s frustration.
Grey didn’t approach him on his own like Jamie had expected, but a little before dark, he found him in the stables - by now deserted - admiring the horses. Jamie knew this might be the only chance he got, so he quietly approached him and set to brushing one of the horses closer to Grey.
“The Dunsanies are pleased with your work” Grey muttered, as if to himself. It was so quiet that Jamie almost missed it.
Jamie huffed a sigh.
“So, even after all these months, you’ve come all this way to Helwater for the sake of my welfare” he asked, not looking away from his work. “Or is it, because ye canna find anyone else to play chess with?” he added with a small smile at the end of it.
He heard a short exhale and it suspiciously sounded like laughter.
“No one suitable” Grey commented with a soft look and a glance to the side. Their eyes met.
Jamie nodded and a long silent moment passed.
“King’s pawn to King Four” Jamie said decisively. At that, there was a pause and Jamie felt frozen in time as he waited.
“King’s Knight to Bishop Three” came then, soft and sudden, like a breath held too long.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
John took to visiting the estate more frequently than once every quarter, and Jamie found that he couldn’t wait for those two or three days each time.
Their tentative and careful friendship slowly began repairing itself and Jamie was reminded of how good it felt to share even a few hours with someone who could truly understand him. Chess, verbal at first and then with a travel-sized board of John’s soon became their habit again and as time passed, Jamie let himself feel comfortable in John’s presence again.
He was always more aware of the other man, for he could not forget how John felt about him; even now, he would catch longing looks or stares from time to time. He chose to let them pass, telling himself they were harmless. He doubted John could completely stop if he asked, and it would be quite awkward to do so.
So, he grew used to the added attention he received and simply reveled in the time they got to spend talking or playing together.
It was late autumn, yet the weather was still holding up, so John had decided they should take advantage of it, so they set out to the small lake a few ways off the estate. The water shone lightly in the sun and the soothing wind caught on the branches of the nearby leaves. They found a set of stones they could sit on and set the chess board on another.
About an hour later, Jamie realized this was one of the few times he was losing a game and there was nothing he could do to turn the tides.
“I havena been beaten into surrender in a long while” he tipped his king into falling as he said it. He was not a man to stall.
A pleased smile was already spreading onto John’s face.
“Well, I might have had some practice while in London. None as good as you, mind you” he joked casually.
“I fear I might be losing my touch” Jamie chuckled as he set his pieces back to their rightful positions. “Or you are getting a lot better. I request a rematch, if I am to save my pride” he added, lacing his voice with mock anger. The air was warm and pleasant on his skin and John looked to be enjoying the day as much as him. For no reason, he felt the urge to smile. He felt light.
“Well, it is getting a bit late for a new game” John said as he looked to the slowly darkening sky. It would soon be time for dinner and John had to attend dinner with his hosts.
“Ye’re right” Jamie conceded, albeit a bit disappointed. John must have noticed it, because his brow creased slightly.
“We should have some time tomorrow if that’s any consolation” he said. “Oh, speaking of which… I brought you some books. Well, you had mentioned that it was hard to find anything other than a Bible in the village and I was recently gifted some volumes I already owned so I thought you’d have better use for them” John said, his voice growing a bit anxious as he tried to speak as quickly as possible. His eyes were suspiciously moving around Jamie, never quite meeting his.
Jamie paused at the words. He suddenly remembered his thoughtless complaints from months ago, when the younger man last visited. Had the man remembered, and on top of that brought him volumes – plural, not even one!?
“Unless, you’ve found some that interest you in the meantime?” he asked when Jamie said nothing, too taken aback with shock, and the Scot felt his cheeks flush.
“I-- no, I havena” he muttered. “Thank ya. I appreciate it, truly” he added after a few moments and to his relief, John seemed appeased and gave him a small smile.
“I shall give them to you tomorrow then” John promised.
For some reason unknown to him, Jamie couldn’t stop thinking about those books.
He didn’t know if it was the sudden gesture or the fact that no one had given him any sort of gift in so long that it made such an impression on his mind.
Jamie was even more astonished to find that each of the five books that John gave him looked to be quite interesting and exactly to his tastes. When the two of them met for a quick round of chess the following day, Jamie’s mind was so preoccupied that he lost again.
John had joked that he must truly be losing his touch and the contented smile he’d given Jamie made him feel a surge of warmth and a tightness inside his heart.
He busied himself reading and then rereading those books in the following months, and each time his hand would trace the solid material of a cover, his thoughts would race to the man who’d given it to him.
He might as well be going insane, because he could not understand the mess that was his heart anymore. How had John Grey become the most important and concrete person in his life? How had he crept into his heart without him knowing?
The way he craved John’s company, how he’d realize again and again what loneliness felt like right after he’d left Helwater. And he could not pretend this was what a good friendship felt like either, because it wasn’t. He knew well enough the familiar twist of his heart; it was similar to what he felt when Claire was back to his side after they’d been separated.
So no, he would not fool himself. Yet, this felt nothing like how he’d loved his Sassenach.
He wanted the man’s company, the comfort he brought him, the way they understood one another. But then, the thought of intimacy made him shiver uncomfortably. It was like he couldn’t decide between loving him and wanting to stay away. He couldn’t blame the other man’s advances either, because John had been nothing short of a gentleman since that incident back in Ardsmuir; he kept a respectful distance and made no move to take advantage of their friendship.
If the Major had been a woman, the answer would be obvious, he thought darkly. How was it possible to feel such a thing for a man?
Nevertheless, Jamie wondered what it would feel like to be touched with gentleness from someone known, someone who cared. This sort of touch, Jamie hadn’t felt since the battle of Culloden and he wasn’t sure if John was the person who could finally let him feel it again.
The longer he searched for answers within himself, the more Jamie stopped thinking of love or desire as something that he could find in a woman, because he realized it wasn’t that way for him. If anything, his one time laying with his sister’s cook - a good and beautiful woman in her own right - had proven him that.
No, it was the soul that Jamie truly fell for; it had been Claire’s fiery heart that he’d yearned for, thus her body became his one and only desire. He didn’t know if it might be the same with John; he still didn’t think he could bear being intimate with a man, even if he found himself wanting the closeness and warmth of him; Jack Randall had forever marked him in more than one way.
He mulled over this matter for a long while, however he felt no closer to settling it by the time John visited again.
It was late winter, and snow kept the estate covered in white more often than not. That meant more work cleaning out the snow and keeping the horses in a good enough state. Jamie was thankful for the distraction from his growing anxiety at having to face what it really was that he felt and what he wanted to do about it.
Then, he saw John riding down the main road and a smile blew over his lips and his heart sped up. He knew he had to do something. They’d need to talk, because Jamie didn’t even know how the younger man felt other than the obvious want he had never tried to hide.
That night, after dinner with the Dunsanies was over, John invited him to his quarters to catch up; they rarely met inside the main house and preferred more neutral places like the stables or the grounds of the estate. For this time of the year however, there was no other choice.
Jamie felt like his stomach was tied in a twisted knot as he slowly walked to the door, then paused. He knew he was safe; he knew there was no reason to doubt John or his actions, Jamie could keep the upper hand if there was any need, either way. He took a deep breath and knocked the door with more confidence than he felt.
“Come in” he heard John call from inside and quickly stepped in. The room only had one room but was spacious and grand in its decor. A fireplace stood in the middle of it, lit with fire cackling softly. John was sitting on an armchair inspecting a few sheets of paper.
“Are ye busy, perhaps?” Jamie hurried to ask. “I can—”
“No, no don’t worry. Come, sit” John stopped him and let the papers down on the small table next to him. “It’s just something Lord Dunsany asked me to look over, there’s no rush” he explained lightly.
Jamie only nodded and took a sit on the armchair on the other side of the small table. He felt stiff and nervous; nothing like how he usually was with the other man.
“Are you alright, Jamie?” he heard John ask and when he turned to face him, he realized he’d been staring blinding into the fire for some time.
“Aye” he nodded slowly, clearing his throat. He really needed to stop being so obviously unsettled.
“Well, will you have some wine?”
“Thank you, no” he couldn’t have any distractions today of all days, even though a drink seemed like a fine idea. John simply nodded at his refusal and settled back.
“So, how have you been? You seem more… tired than the last time I saw you” John remarked worriedly.
Aye, he felt tired. Tired of it all.
“I’ve been struggling with a certain matter. A matter that perhaps ye’ll help me lay to rest” he let on. He tried to decide how to approach the matter, but the words all seemed wrong.
“Of course, anything” the younger man said so wholeheartedly, Jamie almost laughed. Or perhaps he should weep.
John’s tone was just so trusting.
Perhaps he was wrong to question everything they’d built so slowly and carefully. Maybe the answers he’d get wouldn’t be the ones he wanted.
What did he even want ?
“I need ye to tell me” John sat there, patiently waiting with eyes intrigued yet considering. “Tell me, what is it that ye feel for me?” Jamie kept his gaze on the other man, refusing to looking away.
He carefully watched as John’s eyes grew wider, how his lip trembled minutely. The younger man searched his eyes for the reason behind Jamie’s words and Jamie knew he now had that unreadable look on, so John would find nothing. None of the turmoil within.
“Why are you asking now, after all this time?” John finally spoke quietly, but without answering him.
“Is it lust? Is that all this is?” Jamie pursed his lips; he wouldn’t badge. He had to know, otherwise his heart wouldn’t settle down.
If it really was simply Jamie’s body that John wanted, Jamie wouldn’t hate him. He wouldn’t blame him either, though he knew it would leave him with a gaping hole in his heart. But knowing was better than forever speculating and his heart was already plenty broken; one more crack on it shouldn’t matter.
“Jamie” John tried, his face crumbling. “I--I know that it was wrong of me to assume you felt the same, when I took your hand. It was a moment where all sense left me, I was overwhelmed with emotion I couldn’t control” he looked down for a second. “But to sate my desires was never my motive” John stressed each word.
“Then, what was?” Jamie flung it like an accusation, but really, he was just desperate.
“You know what it was” John said after a moment.
At the highlander’s unyielding expression, he sighed.
“Will you truly have me say it?” he sounded ragged, tortured, but Jamie had to hear it.
The younger man huffed a sight, then ran a hand through his face.
“I have loved you for a long time, Jamie” he breathed out “Despite never thinking that I would again”
They stayed silent for a long while, the only sound in the room being the chattering of the fire opposite them. It was both the sweetest sound Jamie had ever heard and the most excruciating silence he’d ever endured.
“You once told me of a… man ye cared for. The one who died at Culloden” Jamie’s voice was low, careful. “Did ye love him?” he asked.
“With all my heart” came the answer immediately, and Jamie knew, truthfully.
“And ye loved again? How? How could ye have let him go?” he fired at John all the questions that had been plaguing him for months but could not find the answers to; he want John would give that to him, to make him understand .
The other man didn’t even seem angry, but did he look pained. Jamie knew he was the cause of it, he could feel the dark memories creeping into the other man’s head. John, instead of answering, got on his feet and moved to the fireplace to take an empty glass and fill it with wine. He took a long sip before he moved back to his armchair and even after he sat, he took some time to think.
“I didn’t. For years, I feared that I’d forget him. That all that I felt for him would burn away with the passing of time until only vague shadows remained” he finally told him. “When I realized I’d fallen for you, I wondered how it was possible for me to do such a thing without betraying him.
But it is, because love takes many forms and I don’t think it’s possible for one to ever be like another” John then looked inside his half empty glass. “There is a different place in my heart for you and a different one for Hector, and you shall never be the same. I have made my peace with that” he stated and took his last sip.
Jamie took a moment to take all what John said in.
It made sense, in a way. Loving a person didn’t erase the love he held for another. And as long as he still had his heart intact, he could fill it all. It was true that love wasn’t the same, like a person could never be the same as another.
Suddenly, he saw it. All the love he’d given to his wife was still there; none of it given to John. What he felt for the man was a thing all on its own, one that could only ever be his; never Claire’s.
“I think I understand now” Jamie muttered into the air, his mind finally clear.
John was owed the truth. Jamie would no longer hide it, not when the other man had opened his heart to him even after he’d prodded at it, mindless of the wounds there.
“I think… I love ye” Jamie felt like a heavy weight lifted when he uttered the words. The room was once again enveloped in silence, but the words remained stark in his mind, echoing.
“Jamie, please, whatever you’re saying—” John’s breath caught. “—please stop this”
“I think I have for some time now. But” he scrambled to find the words for it all, to explain it to him. “I thought I couldn’t have, or shouldn’t, because the mere thought of Claire broke me each time I tried to think of her.
But ye are right, it’s not the same at all”
John looked like he didn’t believe him, like he’d grown a head or two.
“What is the same, is the way I want ye by my side when ye aren’t there. How I feel the happiest I can feel when ye are here” he told him plainly, eyes focused on the younger man, willing him to listen.
“But Jamie, you’re not… inclined to men” John sputtered incredulously. “I can tell aversion when I see it and it was clear on your face at the mere touch of my hand on yours” John’s own words hurt him to say, Jamie could see it. It hurt Jamie to think about that day, to know that it was Jack Randall’s shadow that had crept up on him and made his lash out; still haunting his steps.
“Aye. When I realized ye wanted me that way, I could not bear it at that moment” he admitted. “But, it’s not yer body I want, it’s yer soul”
Jamie could see the emotion heavy on John, unshed tears lingering at the edges of his eyes at the revelation. He felt the urge to wipe at them before they could fall, and then with a start, he realized that John would let him.
Slowly, he reached across the table and his palm took hold of John’s cheek. Ever so slowly, he began tracing his thumb over it in smooth, calming circles. He couldn’t stop the tear from falling, but when he wiped it away, he also saw how John’s lips turned into a small, watery smile and a shuddery little exhale followed.
“I have caused ye much pain” Jamie whispered, regret clear in his voice. “I am sorry”
“Don’t be” the younger man cut him off. He looked to Jamie; saw he wasn’t taking his hand away, saw no trace of ill intent. “Are you sure? About this ?” his eyes moved between them, then landed back on Jamie’s palm that was still holding onto him.
John remained still as stone and let Jamie decide their fate. He trusted him to do so.
“We’ll know soon enough” Jamie answered. With determination, he leaned toward the other man and kissed him.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
In truth, not much changed.
Jamie busied himself with the work in the stables, enjoyed the fresh air and read his books at night.
But then again, things were different; more so than ever. Jamie felt a contentment that had eluded him for years, an easiness of mind he’d missed dearly.
He felt happier than he had been in so long.
It was far from a perfect life, but it was good enough; more than he thought he should have after losing Claire and their child. And a certain Englishman’s presence in it made it all the better.
When John would visit, the two of them would do what they’d always done: chess, talking, walking around the estate. What was new however, were the touches, the warmth of a body considerably closer to him than before. A sense of closeness that only those who shared something deep and intimate could experience by a simple glance or a single word.
While Jamie had been hesitant about those since their first that night, he soon found that he rather enjoyed them; the comfort and simplicity of them. It gave him a peace of mind nothing else did, for it was both intimate yet not unbearably so.
Sometimes, when they’d spend time at John’s quarters, John would inch closer to him on the couch they shared until they lay against each other in a loose embrace. Those moments Jamie absolutely marveled at. John would kiss him then, and it would feel so warm and easy, so simple yet so hard to find.
It was a long time before Jamie was ready to seek out anything more, and John never pushed any further than he knew Jamie to be comfortable with.
Jamie finally did one sunny day when the sky was clear and blue as the water of the lake beside them. They’d been taking a walk among the trees and once under the cover of the thick wood, John had leaned up to give him a quick, little peck. And as the younger man drew back, Jamie decided he hadn’t had enough. He then proceeded to press John up against him, safely hidden behind a large tree, with his arms tight as a vice on the other man’s waist and mouth pressing against his with a ferocity they had not shared before.
It was mind-wrecking.
Jamie pushed his tongue inside John’s mouth and the other man let him in eagerly, letting out a soft moan at the sensation. For a long time, Jamie explored the heat of the other’s mouth with fervor and even though teeth and noses got in the way of it, Jamie felt so alive; the kind of thrill he didn’t want to forget.
He began to seek it out after that, deepening their kisses every chance he got, savored each moment until in time, John let himself do so as well. Jamie liked to claim John’s mouth at any chance, to explore it and abuse it all he liked; groaning as much from John’s clever mouth.
Jamie felt like every time he was reunited with John; their connection grew stronger. He feared that a day would come where their time together wouldn’t be enough. Still, he tried to enjoy every joyful moment that life had to give him, and this was one of them.
It was spring, the weather was finally settling after a fury of snow and frost and Jamie watched the horses ride freely in the fenced field they had for training. He had one of his favorite horses of the Dusnanies, Shadowfax on the rope and was getting him through some trotting exercises. The sun was gently warming his back, chasing the still-lingering cold away and.
“A fine day for a ride, I’d say” he heard a familiar voice call from behind him. Jamie’s smile spread as soon as he heard it and he turned around to catch John’s smile in return. He felt a bubbling feeling in his torso; strong enough to burst through him and blow him away.
“Aye, a bonnie day indeed” he commented, turning back to the white stallion. “I still have work to do, but I hope we’ll have a chance to take a walk before nightfall” he told the man, though John didn’t seem fazed at his refusal.
“How about now?” the younger man asked with a glint in his eyes and Jamie raised an eyebrow. “Well, I arrived a couple of hours ago, so I’ve had my chat with Lord Dunsany and the girls. I informed them that I wished to take advantage of the fine weather to practice my riding” he explained.
Jamie’s breath suddenly caught and he felt his eyes widen; but with glee.
“Of course, they gave me leave to make use of their trained horses as well as their grooms” he smirked.
And just like that, John took Jamie on an escapade to the cross-country around Helwater.
They rode together, sometimes galloping and sometimes enjoying each other’s company at a slower pace. They talked and John told him all about his work in London, while Jamie shared what happenings he’d seen or heard in Helwater.
“We should stop here for a while, let the horses rest and have some water” Jamie proposed when they came upon a stream. They got off and Jamie watched as John led his own horse near the stream. He then proceeded to take a few handfuls of the freezing water as well, splashing some on his face after he’d drunk his fill. Jamie, as if for the first time realized that he looked unexpectedly young, innocent in a way a lad would be; ready to conquer the world.
He looked truly happy and Jamie’s chest seized, warmth spreading through him.
“Jamie?” John called out.
Jamie reached out and his palm enveloped John's face, catching the droplets still on it.
“Thank ye” he said and kissed him.
He could never thank the other man enough for giving him a reason to live when he had none left.
Still, he’d try to repay it with all the love he could give.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
It was later that day, some time after midnight, and they had been together in John quarters; for it had become their habit for the late evenings. It started with Jamie rubbing John’s back in a way Claire had shown him to help ease the muscles and relieve them of tension.
They had been sitting on the large, comfortable couch, when John began letting out the most obscene sounds Jamie had ever heard; both in relief and pain. Of course, Jamie pressed harder on the other man’s back, his hands slithering onto the entire expanse of muscle, the heat and smoothness of which Jamie could feel through the thin fabric of John’s white shirt.
Jamie couldn’t resist leaning down to mouth at John’s exposed nape, couldn’t stop his hands from wandering under John’s shirt to touch the skin of his back and shoulders, skin to skin. Through it all, John let out more soft sounds of pleasure and relief, and Jamie had been having too much fun to think much of it.
Until he maneuvered John’s body to face him and seized his mouth in a long, deep kiss. John’s breaths grew shorter and shorter, and before he knew it, they were pressed up together from shoulder to thigh. Jamie let himself get lost in the feeling, pushed John down on the couch and leaned over him, their mouths never once separating.
“Mmn—"” he heard John whimper, but it was caught off by Jamie’s lips.
John made a strangled sound that made Jamie think he’d hurt him somehow, but then he felt a hot pressure on his thigh that was unmistakable.
He froze completely. Everything is his head became static, his muscles stiffened.
Suddenly, he couldn’t breathe.
He sharply stood up, pushing himself into the far end of the couch, as far as he could get. He had to steady himself on the arm of the couch and focused on breathing, trying to calm himself.
“I-I am so sorry, Jamie” he heard John’s shuffling as he sat up on the couch and somewhat rearranged his clothes. Jamie didn’t dare cast his eyes on him.
A screaming, endless silence passed while Jamie tried to fight off the panic inside him, willing himself to cast aside the trembling he felt under his veins.
“It’s--” he muttered, his voice low and controlled. “It’s alright, John” he finally said. He took a deep, calming breath, then proceeded to let the arm of the couch go and move a little closer to the other man again. He could see John from the corner of his eye, but he didn’t try to get closer.
“You don’t have to stay, if you don’t want to” John told him, and that’s when Jamie looked up to him. The younger man looked worried, ashamed. He looked guilty and Jamie couldn’t stand it. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for things to go so far. I’ll –”
“No” Jamie interrupted him. He was sick of his tortured soul tampering any happiness he tried to build for himself.
“I should be the sorry one” he spat out, felt his lip tremble. “I love ye, I love having you to myself, but--” his voice caught, bitterness burning through him. “This, I canna bring myself to do” he closed his eyes tightly.
“Jamie, we don’t have to” John immediately argued, tone sincere and absolute.
“But you want to”
“Listen to me” the younger man slowly and carefully inched closer and took Jamie’s hand, leaving him enough space and time to reject it if he wanted. “I love you; I want you to be happy and to feel safe. If sharing a bed isn’t something you want to do, it won’t matter to me. This ” he motioned to their joined hands. “is enough. All you give, I will take. Nothing more” he said decisively, squeezing Jamie’s hand.
Jamie was trapped in John’s gaze to the point where he felt his eyes get teary. He tried to smile, but it came out wrong.
“It’s not that I dinna want you. I do” he told him and then laughed to himself. “So how is it that I canna bear to have ye?”
“Jamie” John pleaded. Jamie knew why he couldn’t go through with it, even though the thought of sex, the thought of pleasure and closeness was something he wanted to share with John.
But he needed to tell John why, to make him understand that it was no fault of his.
And for a long while, he tried to organize his thoughts, make them still long enough to let himself speak. John simply kept his hand on his and waited patiently.
“Ye are not the first man I have been… intimate with” Jamie said carefully. “But the previous time, I wasna willing” he said and saw John’s jaw tighten at the words, though he didn’t seem surprised.
“It was before the war. A redcoat” he explained, watched how John’s breath caught lightly. “He would have killed my wife if I didna comply with him”
“I’m so sorry Jamie”
“It’s not even what he did to my body, because it wasna really about sex anyway” suddenly the urge to get it all out was overwhelming him, suffocating him. He shook his head at the violating memories that flooded his mind, because he couldn’t keep it in anymore. “It was what he did to my head, how he got inside and poisoned everything” Jamie’s eyes stung, but his voice was strong and steady.
“It was about control, wasn’t it?” John finished for him.
Jamie’s mess of thoughts stopped abruptly at that. John knew then, he understood.
Why did he understand?
“Years ago, when I was a soldier, another man of the regiment attacked me. That’s what they always want” he simply shrugged.
Jamie immediately felt both relieved to find someone to relate with, but also mortified at the revelation. To think that some bastard had dared violate John, whose youthful face and small figure back during the war were clear as day in Jamie’s mind, was impossible.
Somehow, the younger man didn’t seem haunted by it, at least not the same way that he was. But he shook his head; this wasn’t the point.
“I know it’s not the same with you, John, I know it. Yet I canna bring myself to get so close to those memories, even after all this time”
“ Jamie ” John called his name like a cry of pain. “I will never ask of you anything that you don’t wish to give. I promise you that” the younger man took hold of his shoulder and squeezed tightly.
Jamie felt a tear fall. He nodded, with a real smile this time.
“I ken that” he buried himself in John’s embrace.
And even as they hugged tightly, Jamie felt a little lighter, a little steadier. It felt good to let it all out in the open.
He found it hadn’t be as difficult to say it this time; it was still painful, but it wasn’t as unbearable as it once had been.
Later, when he left John to get some sleep and went to his own bed, he pondered if what had truly been stopping him from leaving this thing in the past and from between him and John had been the unspoken silence he’d kept.
He wasn’t sure, but he felt optimistic.
Jamie smiled as he closed his eyes, mind more at peace than he’d thought was possible considering what had happened mere hours earlier. He hoped this closure would help him move past the barrier he’d put between him and John, wished for it to be so.
John deserved everything, and Jamie wanted to give him everything he had.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
John felt utterly foolish as he rode on, fighting the constant grin that tried to overtake him as his thoughts wondered.
He felt giddy, for God’s sake.
It had been months since he’d looked upon Helwater’s imposing estate, the smoke that flew up to the sky from the chimney along with the morning sun, the familiar trees in a straight line and the lake. This time was no different, though he felt exhilarated at the very thought of seeing Jamie again.
His last visit had taken a grim turn that had ended with Jamie sharing a heavy and dark burden, but John felt like the air had cleared around them now. The next day after that night, they had only briefly spoken before John departed, but he could already tell that Jamie seemed less troubled.
He was glad to see the man find some peace. And he was hoping to add to his happiness with this visit, one that he had planned out especially.
This, unlike most, was not a social call; Lord Dunsany had written him, asking for some help recruiting a handful of new staff and guards for his home. He had wanted John’s expertise to pick the best and John had been happy to oblige.
“I plan to spend the better part of the evening interviewing the candidates that show up, so I will arrange to stay the night at an inn in Kendal” he told Lord Dunsany when he arrived.
“Of course. Truly, Lord John, I could not be more grateful for the help” the old man nodded in gratitude. “I trust no one more than you for this, as I cannot leave even Helwater even for a few hours as it is” Lord Dunsany got back to his desk and his papers and John smiled politely.
“I hope you don’t mind me taking a groom with me for the journey, as to make things easier” John tried to sound as casual as he could at the suggestion. Of course, he needn’t worry, for Lord Dunsany’s eyes shone brightly with eagerness.
“Of course, take whoever you need” he told him, and the John almost ran in his haste to get to the stables.
“I think one of these days, Lord Dunsany will see right through ye” Jamie scoffed lightly as they rode away.
“I don’t understand your meaning, Mr. McKenzie” he shot back with a smirk and sped up, leaving Jamie behind.
They rode for three hours to Kendal, the nearby market town where the Lord of Helwater had put up the announcement that he was looking for strong men to work for him.
Once they arrived, they had a quick lunch at the inn where they secured two rooms. John already felt like a man drunk, filled with energy and excitement at the prospect of the two of them spending some time alone outside of the estate where their relationship was usually contained. He was truly happy to be able to afford this luxury to Jamie, who was still very much a prisoner.
Here, they still had to hide, of course, but here no one knew them, and it was just so easy to step over the lines they wouldn’t normally cross while on Helwater; they could finally be equals in standing.
They did spend most of the evening interviewing people, but still John found himself enjoying the menial task because Jamie was there with him, sometimes commenting on the men or pointing out something he hadn’t considered.
Before long, it was dark outside, and their task was over. John wrote down the names of the men they’d summon tomorrow, and they went back to the inn. They walked through the busy streets of the town, watching as the numerous shops closed up for the day and as the light was lost, the lanterns of the streets were lit. John looked to Jamie, who was walking beside him but close enough that their arms touched as they moved.
He looked beautiful with his flame-red hair tied back and his eyes wandering through the night sky. He had a curious expression, one that made John’s heart seize and flutter.
Then, Jamie’s intelligent eyes fell on him, a light smile coloring his lips. It turned sly as he realized John had been watching him and he tried to suppress the urge to take Jamie’s hand in his right in the middle of the street.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
“Ha! That’s three loses in a single night, John” Jamie exclaimed as he knocked down John’s king. “Perhaps ye’ve had a wee too much whisky” he joked slyly as he finished his own glass.
“I’m perfectly fine, thank you very much” it was true that John was more susceptible to said drink, though he was far from gone for it. He did feel a lightness and pleasant buzz, though and his legs might be pressing a little closer to the other man’s under the table than was appropriate.
“Aye, we should retire for the night. We’ll have to make the journey back tomorrow” the older man suddenly decided and stood up.
Despite John’s objections, Jamie guided him upstairs of the inn where their rooms were. Jamie then insisted on walking John to his own, although the younger man repeatedly told him he was well enough.
But once they closed the door behind them however, John stopped talking.
Jamie all but slammed him against the door and crowded him with his body and mouth. John was surprised at first, but he quickly gave in and soon got lost in the feeling of Jamie’s muscular arms and torso enveloping him. He let his own hands run over Jamie’s sides, frustrated at the layers of clothes between them.
Then he got distracted, because Jamie groaned roughly and when the Scot pressed his hips over John’s, John nearly blacked out.
“Jamie—” he moaned. He tried to push the other man back, to get some distance, anything , but Jamie stood his ground and mindlessly buried his face in John’s neck.
“Jamie, Jamie ” John was breathless, his entire body was on fire and lust was dangerously mixed with the night’s alcohol. He wasn’t sure he could control his desire if Jamie kept this up.
“John” Jamie’s voice was low and almost gruff, immediately sending another wave of lust through his body. Jamie stood back and connected their foreheads together while they tried to catch their breaths.
John was shocked to see the other man’s blown pupils, the hungry set of his jaw.
John’s mouth dried.
“Tell me what to do” the Scot hissed. “I want ye, right now. If ye’ll have me” he added breathlessly.
John froze for a moment, stunted by the other man’s words.
“Are you sure about this?” he had to be certain, even if his mind was telling him to lunge in and stop asking questions. But he had to, for Jamie and for his own conscience.
“I am” Jamie said seriously, resolute. Then, as if to prove his honesty, he made a show of thrusting his entire body against him, erupting in a blaze of blinding pleasure.
And John lost it.
With the help of a well-timed shove, he pushed Jamie back against the wall next to the door they’d been occupying and was on him in moments. He crushed their mouths together and at the same time drove his thigh in the crook of Jamie’s legs. The following moan was music to his ears.
“Agh, you devil!” Jamie muttered when he found enough breath to spare. John smiled menacingly and made sure he didn’t get another breath after that. John held Jamie tightly and kept on thrusting forward as Jamie fell apart right in front of him, his moans getting more and more desperate. His handsome face was scrunched in pleasure and he fluttered his eyes opened and closed.
He looked magnificent.
Before long, they were both panting and sweating, and the friction wasn’t enough.
“Wait, wait” Jamie pushed him back long enough to unlace his pants and John helped him lower them before lunging back in.
John took Jamie in his hand, encircling his erection. He watched Jamie toss his head back against the wall and took the opportunity to kiss his way up and down the man’s throat.
“ Mas e ur toil e ” Jamie whispered in Gaelic and the foreign words Jamie almost never spoke somehow made John feel overwhelmed, like he was burning up from the inside out; yet he didn’t care.
All he could think was how to please the man under his hands. And he did, moments later, when with a shout, Jamie reached his climax. John held him, steadying him through it and waited as the larger man sagged momentarily up against him.
John got his handkerchief to wipe his hand clean and after that, they both stood still, gathering themselves.
“Are you alright?” John asked before he dared to take his weight under the other man. Jamie chuckled in that gruff way of his and nodded.
“That isna the way I’d put it, but aye” he said.
John had fantasized many times of having the man he loved in this way, but to experience it was another matter entirely. He could never have anticipated the swell of pleasure it would bring him and he was glad to see that Jamie had enjoyed this; that he had even wanted this in the first place.
He felt like he was in a haze, high on joy and gratification. He was also painfully hard, still fully clothed and sweating, however he gave himself no mind.
Apparently though, Jamie did.
“Let me help ye with that” he slurred and motioned to his trousers. And as much as the prospect delighted him, John feared that perhaps it wasn’t the best idea.
He feared that it might be too much for Jamie and he didn’t want to ruin their night so far. Jamie must have some notion of what went through his head because he turned sour-faced.
“I can bloody well decide if I’m up for it, John” he warned. “Are ye, then?” he challenged.
“You know the bloody answer to that” John conceded and let himself loose.
Jamie’s large palms framed his face and kissed him deeply and slowly. He guided John backwards and he went blindly, until he realized they were heading towards the bed.
“I want ye sprawled under me” Jamie whispered between sloppy kisses and John almost tripped at the words.
The back of his knees hit the bed and with a single push, he fell backwards. Jamie was on him at once, splaying him on the single bed and covering him completely with his own body. Jamie took to kissing him slow and languidly as he took off layer by layer of John’s clothing; first his coat, then his vest and finally his white cotton shirt. He tossed them over the side to the floor and kissed and touched every inch of new milky skin he encountered. John let out a moan when he felt the other man’s hands move lower and grip his hips, his thighs and finally press against his erection.
He almost whimpered at the sensation.
He needed Jamie, right now .
“Patience, a chuisle ” he teased while he slowly unlaced John’s trousers and John finally felt the immense pressure that had been smothering him release and Jamie’s warm hands touching him.
“Do ye like that?” Jamie whispered in his ear, his strokes matching the movements of his mouth on John’s earlobe. John moaned; eyes shut tightly to keep himself from crossing the edge.
He wanted this to last, he wanted it to last forever.
“It’s alright, a chuisle, ye can let go” Jamie said softly and so he did.
He saw a flash of white, like a weightless, pale shift had fallen over him and covered him from the rest of the world. It felt warm, and safe and peaceful.
It felt like a long time later when opened his eyes again. He realized he must have slept, because Jamie was out of the coat he hadn’t bothered to discard when they’d fallen into bed. Now, he laid only in his long white shirt and a grey, scratchy blanket covering both of them from the middle down.
“Hello” John muttered and took in the sight of the man at his side. Something about the way Jamie’s strong form laid against his and the way his red hair lit up from the candles’ flame by the bedside made him think of home.
“Hello” Jamie plastered a warm palm on John’s chest, lightly rubbing at the smooth skin. “Must have been exhausted after all, aye?” he asked with a smile.
How long had John slept? And to think that Jamie had stayed with him the entire time, watching and guarding him.
“I’m quite sorry—” John started, realizing it was not very courteous to just nod off right after sex; their first time at that.
“No, don’t be” Jamie cut him off. “I’m not” it was said with relief, with a soft smile.
“I’m glad” John smiled back.
This tiny room, this crumbed single bed was all John had ever wanted. The man beside him was all he needed to burst with happiness.
“I love you” John said and meant it more than any other time in his life.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
After that night, it was like a dam had broken down between them.
John had never been happier than when he was with Jamie, sharing his whole being with the other man. They stayed up late, curled together on John’s bed; softly talking about the world, life, anything that came to mind. John felt his heart break a little every time he had to say goodbye, but he knew it wasn’t the final one.
He spent his life away from Helwater in a haze, like he was asleep and would only wake when he was finally in Jamie’s arms again. And in Jamie’s arms he felt alive and loved, each time more intense the previous one.
Jamie grew more and more bold upon discovering the virtues of bedding him and John was always happy to oblige the other man. He let Jamie take him, and even if it wasn’t his personal preference in bed, he didn’t regret it; he came undone every single time, after all. Jamie was a very good and considerate lover and he made sure John was left satisfied and well taken care of.
The amount of intimacy was a shock on every occasion and John was left dumbfounded at how big Jamie’s heart was, how gentle he was to those he loved.
John’s visit this time had come along with the company of his brother Hal, as they were both to attend Lady Geneva’s wedding to the Earl of Ellesmere. A bad match, though a reasonable one. The man was extremely rich as well as powerful and old enough to expect a natural death in the next few years, so John understood what had made Lord Dunsany agree to marry her off to him.
So, he left his brother back in the house to amuse himself and went looking for Jamie. He was eager to see him, for his longing had persisted long after their time together months ago.
Now, they sat together on the garden, playing. John was telling Jamie about his plans with the Forty-Sixth regiment, desperately trying to distract the other man from seeing right through his strategy which would either ruin him or win him the game.
Jamie laughed and joked, a brightness and contentment that made his even more handsome than he already was.
“Johnny!” John suddenly heard footsteps and when he looked up, saw his brother Hal on the little path of the garden, joined at the elbows by the Dunsany sisters.
John breathed out a sigh, already dreading the moment they got close enough to spot them.
“It appears my next move will have to wait” he muttered and reluctantly got on his feet. He saw Jamie rise as well and move a little backwards to where John stood.
John had avoided speaking of Jamie to Hal, and he had never openly stated to him what he’d done. He knew it was a matter of time before he found out, since he was as much of a friend of the family as he was, but he was usually too busy to visit Helwater and so John had clung to the possibility that he could hide Jamie from him.
John very deliberately didn’t spare Jamie a glance and walked up to the three, bowing in greeting as they did the same. Hal seemed amused from his talk with the ladies and didn’t seem to notice the Scot at first.
“Colonel Melton, you must remember McKenzie” Geneva immediately pointed out the man, who stood to the side trying to look as inconspicuous as he could. A lost battle, really.
John watched as Hal’s eyes widened and his slight smile faded.
“McKenzie, yes” he said after a moment’s pause and looked to Geneva who was closely watching him in turn. “Although it’s been some time now” he added.
“Aye, we are acquainted, m’lady” Jamie agreed in a low, subdued tone.
“Major Grey was good enough to recommend Mr. McKenzie to us. He’s a master of the horses” Isobel spoke then, turning her glance to John, smiling shyly.
John was grateful for her attempt at keeping things light, but she had no idea how much she was incriminating him. He felt his heart beat out of his chest as he watched Hal’s stare turn to him, his expression unreadable, though John was quite certain he knew his brother’s thoughts.
“If only he were as good with people as he is with horses” Geneva commented with a side glance at Jamie.
“How has your family managed without him?” Isobel asked.
Hal scoffed. “If it were up to me, I would never have let such a man go” he said and looked John in the eye, eyes cold and mouth tight, “But then, I’m not my brother”
The brothers stared down at one another for a few tense moments and John was beyond grateful when finally, Geneva intervened.
They bowed again and as John watched them walk away, apparently heading back to the house, he knew that as soon as Hal found him alone, he’d have a lot of explaining to do. Not that it would pacify his brother, but all he could do was try for the best.
Nevertheless, he was safe for now and slowly felt the tension slowly drift away from his body, though a certain kind of dread remained.
“John?” he felt Jamie’s light touch on his arm. The older man tugged him towards their unfinished game and guided him to his seat.
“It was inevitable, there’s nothing to it” John stated, exhaling. He looked to the other man who was watching him.
“He kens, doesn’t he?”
“Of my inclinations? Yes, he does” John answered. “He won’t do anything though, he would never. But he certainly won’t be happy about it, especially if it involves you”
“Aye, that much was plain to see” Jamie sat at the other stone bench, their chess game ignored.
“You have nothing to worry about, I’ll take care of Hal” he reassured Jamie.
“Dinna fash” the Scot said and reached for his shoulder, squeezing it lightly in comfort. It was only one day, after all, and Hal and him would leave tomorrow for Ellesmere where the wedding was held. Hal would have to let it go and in time, he would wistfully forget about the entire thing, eager to stay out of John’s private interests.
“Are you mad!?” Hal only just refrained from raising his voice the moment they returned from their dinner with the Dunsanies. “Do you understand what you’ve done?” he hissed after he made sure no one else was in the hallway they’d been walking down on.
He had noticed that throughout dinner, Hal had been in a sour mood, so he was expecting an outburst as soon as they were out of earshot of their hosts.
“Don’t be quite so dramatic, Hal” he said calmly. “Mr. Fraser is simply being paroled here and Lord Dunsany is fully aware of his background” he explained in hopes it wouldn’t turn into a full-blown argument.
“So, you brought that man, no, that prisoner here? Say what you like, John, but I see more than you think I do” Hal shot back. “Those past two years you’ve come here more times than all the years before that. Now, don’t tell me it isn’t because of him” he spat, then looked away. John didn’t quite catch his expression; perhaps for the best.
“I check in on him, to ensure his welfare as much as his good behavior here” he said tiredly.
“Oh, for God’s sake, John “Hal scoffed.
“You have nothing to worry about” John said. “I have it well handled, and I spend a lot of time with Isobel, who you know is quite fond of me” he said and walked up the stairs leading to their quarters. Hal followed behind begrudgingly.
They walked silently, though it didn’t last long. John made a mental countdown and was precise almost to the second; he knew Hal’s anger far too well.
“This is beneath you, John. That man is a criminal, he has nothing to offer you and a lot to cost you” John refused to look to his brother. His words were harsh enough and John’s skin was already crawling with uneasiness and irritation.
“Let me worry about that. It’s none of your concern” John spoke lowly, anger boiling. He knew Hal meant well, but they would never see eye to eye; his brother would never truly understand him. His acceptance was nothing but tolerance, and John acknowledged it, was even grateful for it, but he would not hear another word on the matter from Hal. “It’s one night. Tomorrow we shall depart for the wedding and you won’t have to involve yourself with this again” John told him and with a quick bow of his head, stormed off to his room.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
Hal did let it drop after that night, and they never spoke of it again. He had thought the unpleasant incident at the time of Lady Geneva’s wedding over with, only to be slapped in the face with a much crueler truth upon his next visit to Helwater a quarter later.
John had been kept away longer than he’d intended and longed to catch up on the time he lost with Jamie, only to find him closed off, with a troubled expression and short words telling him they needed to talk.
“Geneva found out about my past from your brother” Jamie explained, eyes avoidant and John’s heart leapt at his words, dread making him numb. “She got him drunk, so I’m not sure exactly what he told her, but he must have been sane enough not to mention anything about us ”
John could feel bile rising in his throat and shook his head a little to chase it away.
“I made sure she didn’t know” Jamie quickly reassured him, though neither of them looked reassured in the least.
“What happened?” when John finally found the breath to speak, his voice was low and unsteady.
“She threatened my family, threatened to expose me to her mother and get me in irons” Jamie said lowly. “That woman- she extorted me for her own gain. I couldna refuse” he bit his bottom lip in despair.
“Jamie, what did she do?”
“I dinna wish to give you any excuses, John” Jamie said with conviction. “She had me lay with her, claimed she didna wish her maidenhead to be given to her husband-to-be. And I did” he looked down, guilt-stricken.
John felt his eyes widen, his jaw drop. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing, his mind couldn’t wrap around the words that Jamie had spoken.
“Wait, wait. When did this happen? Was I—” he trailed off, dreading at the thought that this had transpired the night he’s spent at Helwater, prior to the wedding, and he’d done nothing to stop it.
“It was after you’d left” Jamie hurried to answer. “Or I wouldva told ye then” he added.
“No- that—” John didn’t wish to seem like he blamed the other man, but his head had apparently stopped working properly. “I-I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you from this” he settled, deep regret flooding him. He was the one who’d brought him here, left him with these people.
He’d grown up with Geneva, for God’s sake.
For a long time, no one spoke, though John barely noticed. It was after Jamie broke it that he saw Jamie’s expectant look.
“Is that it?” the older man asked cautiously.
“You dinna have anything more to say?” Jamie inquired, as if waiting for something. John stared back in confusion for a few moments, his mind blank, before the realization hit him.
“ Jamie ” his voice broke. “It wasn’t your fault! What, you expected me to be angry at you that Geneva coerced you to have sex with her? God, no” he took hold of Jamie’s cheek, bringing their foreheads together. “I’m so sorry, Jamie, that this happened. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there to protect you from it” his eyes searched the other man’s, yet the Scot avoided his eyes still.
John didn’t know how to make things better, how to fix this, but he didn’t know what held Jamie back and made him careful and distant. He was suddenly aware that Jamie had not touched him on his own volition since they’d been alone.
“I— it wasn’t something I wanted, I tried to talker her down—” Jamie spoke hesitantly, then he took deep breath, as if he was condemning himself to the gallows. “But in that moment, despite the shame and anger, I enjoyed myself” Jamie’s bottom lip quivered at his own words and John couldn’t bear it.
He longed to shake the man’s shoulders until he saw sense.
“It was an impossible situation, Jamie, and you’re still a man” he told him, fully confident of his conviction. If nothing else, John knew the man to be the most honest person he’d met.
He trusted him.
“I don’t care if you did, as long as it’s over now and you have no doubts about us ” John told him resolutely.
“ Never, a chuisle ” came all the reassurance he needed from the Scot.
John nodded and wrapped his arms around Jamie’s neck, and finally the other man responded, snaking his own arms around his waist. They stayed still for a time, just breathing in one another.
That night, John was particularly focused on reassuring Jamie with his body, as much as he had done with his words earlier that day. When the Scot reached his room, John grabbed his arms and brought him to the bed, gently pushing him down and laying himself on the expanse of warm muscle. He straddled him, keeping his hands above Jamie’s torso for a long time, content to spoil him with kisses across his chest. He was particularly pleased with himself when his mouth found Jamie’s nipples and nipped at them, resulting in a long groan from the other man.
At some point however, the older man grew impatient and John could feel both their erections nudging against one another. It was no longer enough.
“Take me” he breathed out against Jamie’s ear. He saw how the other man’s breath hitched, felt his hips buckle involuntarily at the words alone.
Jamie’s eyes had blackened, the sea-blue color had been completely replaced by lust.
And John let himself completely in the man’s capable hands.
He writhed at Jamie’s gentle fingers - careful but strong - and panted incessantly when Jamie moved inside him. When he felt Jamie’s release, he was overtaken with such intensity, he couldn’t breathe.
Afterwards, they laid together for hours, until the first rays of the sun began to creep into the horizon. Their bodies were pressed together, with John’s head resting on Jamie’s chest and he could feel every breath that the other took.
It was in that moment that he realized how impossible and how incredible his life had become. To have the man he loved in his arms, to have his love in return.
He dreaded the time when it would all be taken away from him, because he knew life was never that easy.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
The months following were peaceful, almost kind, and Jamie left the incident with Geneva behind and moved on.
Until, six months later, she visited Helwater.
To say that the sight of her round belly - her pregnancy unmistakable at that point - was a shock would be an understatement. Still, he tried to push through the rising panic and dread that crept into his gut, tried to tell himself that the woman must have lain with her new husband many more times than the single night they shared.
It worked for a while, though the thoughts never truly left his mind. She didn’t come to Helwater again before her child would be born and so Jamie’s worries buried themselves in the back of his mind; right until Lady Isobel nearly knocked down his door shouting for him to prepare the carriage and accompany her and her family to Ellesmere, where Lady Geneva was in distress.
He could see the anxiety plainly written into each of their faces as they hurried into the carriage and tried his best to hide his own discomfort. They made the trip in little over half the usual time and the Dunsany family burst out and ran inside the house as soon as the horses stopped.
Jamie stayed behind to guide the horses to the stables, but after that was quickly shown inside as well. He tried hard to stand still and calm as he waited. Hours passed before he saw one of the midwives walk down the hallway he’d been sitting at.
He quickly approached her.
“How is Lady Geneva?”
“She’s still got the bleeding” she shot a look to him, though she didn’t look alarmed at the statement. Jamie took that to mean she was doing well.
“And the child?” he trailed off after a short pause.
“Oh, he’s a fine healthy boy” she smiled and turned to ascend the stairs leading to her mistress's bedroom.
Well, that was good. Jamie almost smiled, then caught himself. It wouldn’t be any of his business and so he cast aside any more thoughts of the matter.
The wait lasted the entire night, and Jamie diligently stood close to the chambers where the family was, as if guarding it. He saw servants and midwives come and go, tried to ask of news whenever he could, but there wasn’t much.
He could hear the birds sing outside and colors of orange and yellow had begun to paint the sky. He had taken to passing along the long corridors to pass the time, and just as he walked back towards the main part of the house, he heard muffled crying.
To Jamie’s surprise, it wasn’t the baby, but a woman’s sobs. He stopped, searching to see where it came from.
It was then that he saw Lady Isobel. Immediately and without thinking, he stepped closer.
“You alright, my lady?” he called when he drew near her.
“My sister is dead” the young woman said, and Jamie froze. And that’s where the nightmare began.
Later, after it was all over and Jamie was back at Helwater, he could barely piece out the memories of everything that happened. In his mind, there was only the sound of a gun and the beautiful face of his son.
His heart ached with both love and hurt and he longed for John more than he ever had; wished the younger man was in front of him so Jamie could hide away in his embrace, to feel his gentle, soothing touch.
He desperately, hopelessly wished to hear John’s voice.
Instead, he closed his eyes and tried to find sleep through the mess of his thoughts and the biting cold.
When John came, it was but a week after, for Geneva’s funeral.
The Dunsanies were devastated, each one fighting to overcome the unbearable pain of loss, so Jamie wasn’t surprised that John didn’t seek his out before nightfall.
Perhaps he’d speak with him tomorrow, he thought, as he made his way to the family’s little church, where he knew Geneva’s body waited to be buried.
He wished to give whatever solace he could, as well as ask for any forgiveness of the lass. It was his last chance of doing so, and then he’d have to talk to John.
In truth, he dreaded it. It all still felt like a dream, not reality, and to share the secret of his son’s identity would make it the harsh, painful truth.
He loved the boy since the moment he laid eyes on him, that night, over Elsmere’s body. He always would. But he could never reveal that truth to anyone other than John.
Now, he found himself on the freezing, stone floor of the little church, giving his respects to a woman he had disliked until her death.
The mother of his son.
That thought brought his mind to his other child, Claire’s child. It was as painful as ever to think of them, now doubled with thoughts of another child who he would never call son, who would never call him father.
He couldn’t change the past, however so he resolutely kept his thoughts on prayers for the dead, standing vigil for the young woman. He soon lost feeling in his legs from kneeling and his breath grew frosty, but he wouldn’t move until sunrise.
Suddenly, he heard footsteps. He had been so deep in prayer that he only registered the sounds once they had already reached the opening of the church, but there were no lit candles and although is eyes had gotten long used to the darkness, the distant candlelight he could see was moving brightly in a way that he couldn’t tell exactly where it was.
He felt a sudden, rough shove and, yes, that’s where they were. He moved aside to avoid getting stepped on and heard a yelp from above him. It was a familiar voice.
“Jamie?” he heard the familiar way the man spoke his name, though now it was laced with surprise more than anything else. “What on earth are you doing on the ground in pitch dark?” he asked incredulously.
He carefully drew closer, mindful not to step on Jamie again.
“I’m standing vigil”, Jamie said after a time.
“For Geneva” John muttered. He didn’t sound surprised anymore and Jamie wondered what had made John come here. He knew the other man wasn’t particularly religious nor had he reason to come to Geneva’s coffin this late at night.
John, as if he picked up on his thoughts, sighed.
“I couldn’t sleep” he said. “I kept thinking of her. Though not as she was shortly before her death, God knows I wouldn’t think very kindly of her if I tried that” he snorted without humor. “I remembered all the time I spent here with her and her siblings when I was a child. It’s quite foolish, I know”
“She’d been your friend” Jamie whispered. He couldn’t imagine it when he tried; John being a mere boy and playing with the Dunsany children. Imagining Geneva as a carefree child was even more unthinkable. “And I had a part in her death” Jamie told the darkness. Not that John didn’t know, he was sure it was an easy assumption to make.
“No, you didn’t” the younger man said sternly. “What I heard was that you had a part in saving her son, however”
“My son” Jamie admitted.
John nodded, though his lips were pursed tightly. Of course, he’d already known.
Jamie looked away.
“He is” John agreed in a flat voice. Jamie thought he might say something more, but John only laced his fingers on Jamie’s hair and wrapped his arms around him wordlessly. Jamie brought his arms around the man’s waist, holding him tight.
He didn’t let go for a long time, and when he did, it was to let John sit by him on the floor. They huddled there in silence; Jamie went back to his prayers, while John stood guard over him like a stone knight statue for the rest of the night.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
Jamie earned his freedom when he saved William’s life.
It was funny to think of it, when Willie was also the very same reason he would not leave Helwater no matter what. Jamie vowed to stand by him, even if it couldn’t be as a father. Instead, he’d watch him grow and he’d protect him from anything.
For much too long, Jamie saw no glimpse of the small boy. He was always safely tucked inside the main house and Jamie was not allowed to enter it, even though he knew it by heart now, after so many nights of sneaking into John’s rooms. Still, he could not go near the young earl for almost three years.
He had John tell him all he could of the boy when he visited and saw him, and the younger man would describe to him how the boy looked, sharing all the stories the Dunsanies had told him and the trouble he caused.
Jamie, like a drowning man, would cling to the words like a lifeline and take in the information carefully, to keep it all clear in his mind.
It was some months after William’s third birthday that his grandfather brought him to stables. Lord Dunsany wished for him to get familiar with the horses from a young age and Jamie’s heart fluttered at the thought of him coming here more often.
The boy had grown so much, yet he was still so small; Jamie couldn’t believe it.
And when Jamie held him in his arms and put him on his shoulders, he could feel his heart break out of his chest with happiness.
Willie came to the stables from time to time after that, each day a treasure in Jamie’s mind. He was spoiled and stubborn and rash, but the boy loved the horses as much as he did and together, they spent hours tending to them as Willie helped him feed them, clean them or walk them.
Willie slowly got to know him and one day, he called him ‘Mac’. Jamie smiled at him and took on the name like a badge of honor.
But his time with his son and John together was even more precious.
The other man would visit Willie during his riding lessons and more often than not, he’d end up disrupting it in favor of a walk around the grounds - just the three of them, he’s say to Willie and wink - or a picnic by the lake.
Jamie would then smile and laugh freely, feeling lighter than he ever thought he would, so far from his home and previous life.
As the years went by, John gradually began visiting more often, no longer under the guise of checking on his welfare, since Jamie wasn’t paroled anymore. He had been pleased at first, bursting with happiness.
Until John told him how he had been justifying them.
“I have been spending more time with Lady Isobel” John’s eyes looked worried. “Keeping her company, mostly. Sometimes with Willie as well. But” he paused “I think I shall begin courting her”
Jamie had been struck dumb. He thought he must have heard wrong.
“It’s the only way I can think of to stay by your side and Willie’s. To freely come here whenever I can without having to make up an excuse for it” “But I wouldn’t make any such moves before you knew”
“With a woman? How?”
John abruptly laughed.
“I think I’ve told you of my past experiences with the fairer sex, I shall make an adequate husband to her. And Isobel is a good person, a good mother to William” he explained.
Jamie’s eyes stayed on the other man, heart racing. He knew John was right, of course he was.
That he would do something like that for him was also no surprise to him. Jamie hated it, nonetheless.
“I understand” he nodded; lips pursed. He would not express the discomfort he felt, the jealousy. It would be futile to do so, because he knew John wasn’t to blame; he’d be the one to sacrifice the most in this.
Their life together had always been complicated, always been secret. It should not surprise him to learn that in time he’d be the equivalent of a mistress. But he’d damn his pride when the alternative was losing John.
He’d accepted it and did his best to forget it.
So, when Jamie had to go through the days and weeks away from his son and the man he loved, he’d cling to the memories of true happiness he’d somehow been given. His favorite was always that summer night when John had stolen Willie away from his bed, woken up Jamie and together they walked across the lake of Helwater. They’d found an open field there with fresh, green grass and light bugs.
John had laid down on the field and had dragged Willie with him, tucking him under his shoulder. Jamie had reluctantly followed and together they’d watched the stars.
“This is the Ursa Major and that right there is Orion’s belt, do you see it?” John’s voice rang out in the cool night as he showed him and the little boy of the constellations in the sky.
Willie looked to the sky, counting the stars with glee in his eyes and a light stronger than the far away orbs. John’s smile was huge, and his wondrous eyes were wide with wonder. Jamie watched them instead of the stars, because he knew that they were more precious.
He could look upon the stars every night, but this , this was like a supernova seen once in a century.
Miss it and you’d never look upon it again.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
John found Jamie in the stables and sent away the other groom that had been feeding the horses with short, curt words.
“You’re truly meaning to leave” he said, because he couldn’t think of anything else. His head was blank, and a numbness was beginning to spread through his entire body.
Jamie had been wringing hay for the horses and he didn’t pause on his work.
“Aye” Jamie didn’t turn to face him either. Perhaps it was better this way.
“Soon, I suppose” the Scot answered absently. “You think I shouldna?”
The question almost made him laugh. It also made him want to punch himself.
“No, you are right to. It won’t be long before others start to see the resemblance; or at least take it seriously. Not to mention Willie himself” he told him truthfully. He knew Jamie’s mind the moment he'd met his eyes and seen the deep sadness in them.
People had begun to notice the similarities between the young earl and his favorite groom, they both knew this was long coming. And there was a difference between what John wanted Jamie to do and what he thought Jamie should do.
Of course, it wouldn’t matter what he wanted; or what Jamie wanted, for that matter.
Silence spread between them as Jamie finished bringing hay into the last horse’s box.
“I know what this means” Jamie said and let the rake on the wall. “ For us . But I canna risk it”
“I know. I wouldn’t ask you to” John told him.
Jamie had sounded distraught, like there had been a choice in the matter at all.
“I ken it” Jamie took one of his hands in his palms and squeezed. “I’m sorry”
John shook his hand, not wanting to hear it.
“It will be alright. I’ll take good care of Willie” he promised. He’d marry Isobel to make sure of it, though he didn’t say so to Jamie. Besides, he must already know.
Still, at the reassurance, Jamie’s face softened and despite everything, he smiled.
“I have no doubt of that. I couldna ask for a better man to raise my son” he said proudly.
“Our son” Jamie added after a moment.
John couldn’t help smiling in return, though he knew it was a sad one.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
“Where will you go?” John asked while he watched the other man pack.
It was late afternoon and the sunlight through the windows painted Jamie in a golden, fiery light. His hair looked like it was set ablaze and John couldn’t stop staring at it.
“Lallybroch” Jamie said simply. “I dinna ken what awaits me there, but I do wish to see my family again. I fear I willna be able to recognize my nephews” he chuckled under his breath and turned back to his packing. His packing consisted of a small, leather bag in which he put his few possessions.
At least it would be easier to travel light.
“You will write to me, when you reach Lallybroch?” John spoke out of the blue. “To know that you’re safe” he added.
Jamie stopped folding an old raggedy shirt and looked at him.
“I will” the older man put the shirt in his bag and then closed it firmly. “It’s almost dinner time. I will see you tonight?”
John looked outside to see that the sun had almost set.
“I’ll be waiting for you” he nodded and rose.
He couldn’t focus on any conversation, any taste of the dinner he ate, any of drink. He only had eyes for the clock on the wall opposite him, ticking time away.
And he waited.
Blessedly, midnight came, even after what felt like a century, and the slide of the door made him look away from the view of the window.
He had been staring at the dark for some time now. Now, he watched Jamie silently walk inside and carefully close the door of his rooms.
“Is everything packed?”
“Not much to pack, but aye” Jamie snorted, but it was flat.
“When will you be departing?” John asked.
“Then, we haven’t much time” John declared and lunged at him.
His hands shook as he grasped Jamie’s arms and brought them close. He crushed his mouth against his and closed his eyes, breathing in shakily.
“ Tha mi duilich feumaidh mi falbh, a chuisle ” Jamie mouthed between kisses, the strings of words bittersweet to his ears. “ Tha mi duilich ”
“Please, Jamie” he couldn’t keep the anguish out of his voice anymore. “I want you, I need you” he moaned and realized how desperatly he did. He had to have him close, to feel his heartbeat and his warmth envelop him.
Jamie seemed to be of a similar mind, because he didn’t waste any time guiding them to the bed. They kissed feverishly, hands going everywhere frantically in order to touch all they could find.
“John” Jamie pulled back and waited until their eyes met. “If this is our last night together, I wish for no regrets” he said. John saw the hunger in the other man’s eyes.
Truly, he would have done anything the man asked at that moment.
“I want ye to take me”
The proclamation made his heart stop and he was quite sure his mouth was hanging open.
He blinked once.
“Jamie, are you—”
“I’m sure” he told him firmly. “I want it. And I dinna want to be forever haunted by some ghost of the past” he spoke softly, his eyes closing for a moment before they turned back to him.
John pushed himself back a little so he could sit up.
“You truly don’t have to, I don’t want you to force yourself” he looked Jamie hard in the eyes as he spoke. If the other man was only suggesting this because they would be parting, John wouldn’t go through with it. Jamie had never been on the receiving end in the time they’d been together for a reason.
“I ken it will be you. I want it to be you ” he told him. “Even if I dinna like it, I’ll ken what it’s like with someone I chose, someone I ken will never turn it against me” he sounded certain, like he’d made up his mind a long time ago.
John had fantasized from time to time of such a moment, back when he thought Jamie could never love him back.
Not after, though. He was happy as they were and even if he didn’t like to be taken by others, it was different with Jamie. He was willing to give up his control to the man, because he knew Jamie would never abuse it.
And to be given so much power spoke volumes of how the Scot felt. John knew what lurked in the corners of Jamie’s mind and he wanted to help him put that to rest.
“Alright” he said and kissed him breathless, feeling a smile press against his. They stepped back from each other to quickly get undressed and collided the moment they were off.
John pushed Jamie back until he had him under him, then pinned him there with a devilish smile.
“Lay back” he said and took the man’s growing erection in his hand. Jamie groaned at the contact and shut his eyes in pleasure. John took some oil from the nightstand, rubbed it into his hand and used it on Jamie’s prick for a while. Gradually, his hand moved lower and he carefully and slowly started opening him up.
At the first prod, Jamie had sucked in a short breath and stilled, and John himself stopped. His hands rubbed slowly and gently around his inner thighs and only when Jamie had taken a moment and nodded at him did he go back to it. After some encouraging and John’s mouth at him, Jamie relaxed again and soon grew used to the sensation of John’s long fingers.
Soon, John could feel the vibrations of Jamie’s moans around him and loved every moment of it. He kissed him eagerly and muttered softly to him.
By the time he felt that the other man was ready, Jamie was writhing under him, sweat dripping from both of them. The Scot’s obscene moans were driving him crazy and he quickly prepared himself.
“Jamie” he panted. “I’m ready for you. Do you still—?”
“Just fuck me, goddamn it” the other man cut him off, voice hoarse and desperate.
John didn’t need to be told twice. And when he finally pushed through, it was like his mind was blown to pieces.
He fitted his body over Jamie and closed the distance between the two and catching Jamie’s mouth in an open-mouthed kiss.
He would happily die here, with no regrets indeed.
“ John ” Jamie sounded like he was coming apart. So was John.
Neither of them lasted long and when John tried to angle his thrusts just so, he heard Jamie scream with surprised pleasure as he climaxed. John felt the tightness of the body underneath him and followed right after.
They laid together for a long time afterwards, putting themselves back together. John moved to Jamie’s side and draped one hand over his naked chest.
The other man looked asleep or close to it, and John didn’t want to disturb his peace.
He found that his own mind was at peace, despite the terrible day he knew awaited him. Right this moment though, it didn’t matter, and he wouldn’t tarnish any time he still had at Jamie’s side.
He smiled instead, which caught Jamie’s attention. The Scot turned his body to face the younger man, taking him into his arms.
“ Tapadh leit , a chuisle ” Jamie spoke against his temple and his lips caught the short strands there.
John let the foreign words twirl around in the darkened room, leaving echoes behind.
He looked up. “I wish I knew what you said” he whispered absently.
Jamie laughed quietly.
“I have no regrets” he said. “No regrets at all when it comes to you. I’m thankful for that” Jamie tightened his hold on John’s back, burying his face on his hair.
John meant to agree, but he found that his eyes had closed, and his body wouldn’t move an inch.
He lost himself to sleep, the peace he felt drowning under it with him.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━
When John opened his eyes to see it was nearing dawn, he was nearly brought to tears.
He slept like no other time that night, mind and heart both in ignorant bliss.
Now, he had to face the mindless disarray that swallowed him whole; he simply couldn’t bear the thought that he might never see Jamie again, he just couldn’t. He was John’s greatest love and he knew that he would never be able to move past it. What he felt for the other man had only grown since he’d first realized just how deeply he held him in his heart.
It felt like a hand was ripping out at his heart, clawing at it until it was no more than a carcass of blood, and all he could do was hold Jamie’s sleeping form tightly and bury his face on the sheets, willing the tears away.
Now, his eyes were dry and tired as he watched the pale morning out the window before turning his head to Jamie, who had started to stir.
“Hmm” the other man muttered unintelligibly. “John?” he called out; voice heavy with sleep.
“Yes, my love?” John supported his weight under his elbow and lowered himself over Jamie, kissing him lightly everywhere he could find.
He still felt pain and despair, but now was the time to hide them away. He wouldn’t break down until Jamie was well on his way, he promised himself.
“Let me” Jamie said roughly and pushed him back onto the bed. He put both his palms on each side of John’s face and kissed him deeply, slow and desperate and he knew the other man felt the same. It was both reassurance and a burden.
“Do you feel well?” John asked him.
Instead of an answer, Jamie kissed him harder.
“I love you” Jamie said. His breaths were sallow, his eyes tightly closed.
“I love you, too”
“ Tha mo ghion ort” Jamie muttered into his mouth.
John wondered what it meant, though he was certain it would only hurt more if he knew.
So he didn’t ask.
━━ •✵••❈••✵• ━━