Chapter 1: Kindling
Well, here we go! My first Outlander fanfiction. It was only a matter of time.
Comments & feedback are always, always appreciated. Enjoy! :)
“Look back, hold a torch to light the recesses of the dark.
Listen to the footsteps that echo behind, when you walk alone.
All the time the ghosts flit past and through us, hiding in the future.”
- Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn
~ ~ ~
Claire Randall was lost.
A stream of air parted her lips--a murky cloud cutting through January evening like one of Frank’s paring knives. He’d started collecting them years ago, those knives, back when he began setting all of those silly self-intentions he never followed through on. Expanding my kitchen repertoire will make for a happier and healthier household, Claire, according to my self-help book, declared a ghost occupying her memory. As if that would have fixed things.
Not that it mattered now.
She was lost.
Her hair, restless and tangled, was restrained with a scrap of soiled cotton she’d torn from her t-shirt. She pushed the rogue strands away from her face, willing the paste of her sweat intermingled with two weeks’ woodland dirt to do its job in holding the curls there. Frank wouldn’t have approved, she thought, if he could see her now, ruddy and bruised and mud-plastered. But she rid herself of the thought like wielding a fine-tooth comb with a third of its prongs missing.
Another huff. “Damn it, Claire,” she murmured to absolutely nobody. It was just Claire and the gully, lined with bare trees and frost-tipped clusters of brown grass, a thirsty trickle of water inching its way across the rock. There was probably a stream here once, an offshoot of some larger body of water snaking through the mountains. She knelt down, careful not to shift too much weight onto the sprained ankle, and rummaged through her hiking rucksack in search of her cell phone. It was there, to be sure, under a rolled up sweatshirt, blanket, fire starter kit, and switchblade, but still shattered beyond use from this morning’s mishap. Claire pressed her finger to the power button, then to the home button, and back to the power button, though she knew it was all in vain. “Damn it,” she repeated.
The water answered.
Becoming aware of a bone-deep drought, she sat down and slid her hand along the side of the rucksack for the steel flask she kept tucked into the side pocket. Water. But her hand turned up empty. Frantically, she checked the opposite pocket, but nothing. Her kneeling stance melted into resignation on the rock, and in her head, her husband: You really should have prepared for this, you know. Packed a paper map, or something. Paper maps never failed me.
“You were a bloody history professor, Frank Randall, of course paper maps never failed you,” Claire answered aloud, hoarse. An image greeted her then--like a painting, in its too-saturated colors and sharp corners and hazy impressions. It was of a writing desk drenched in crumbling maps and genealogy charts, land deeds and signatures, all in varying shades of used-tea-bags. Her late husband was there, but something about his likeness wasn’t quite right. I’ve been tracing the Randalls back generations. Pensive. A glass of whisky in hand, rightfully amber in colour but a tinge too yellow. I never knew my great-grandfather, you know, old Frank Randall I. He died in a car accident sometime in the 1960s and the family doesn’t talk about him much. She asked why. The impressionist Frank breathed in an attempt to prove he was real. He was already married when my great-grandmother found out she was pregnant--it was an affair--and died before she could even tell him. There was no use dredging up ghosts. Impressionist Claire placed a hand on his, but her nerve endings failed her, and when she looked down she wasn’t quite sure it was her hand at all. But I tracked him down through records, see. Family documents. He was a history professor like me, and he conducted all of this genealogy research himself. All of the hard work is done for me, practically. Frank rested his whisky glass down on a side table, and though the table was wooden and the glass was glass, the memory made not a single sound, which unnerved Claire in ways she couldn’t describe.
The painting withered away into some sepia backcountry spot in her mind. She blinked in an attempt to rouse herself, though she hadn’t been sleeping.
“Come on, Claire,” she whispered into the gully. Glancing up at the treetops revealed the sun was already dragging low in the sky, and fire was a necessity if she wanted to stay warm overnight. And that she did.
Pulling herself to standing and dragging the flat of a palm across her tacky forehead, Claire contemplated the hefty rucksack and ultimately decided to leave it while she searched the area for kindling; supporting its weight was becoming cumbersome and her ankle was screaming for reprieve.
Unnerved, battered, and approaching exhaustion, Claire limped her way to where the incline of the gully wall was shallowest, lowered herself to all fours, and crawled. Upon cresting the rock face, she was greeted with an entirely new brand of cold. The wind was brutal. She pulled the zipper of her winter coat up another few centimeters, then tried to bury her chin into the collar. “You’ve gotten soft,” she whispered into the fleece lining, reveling in the warmth of her own voice for just a moment. “Five years in the States and it’s like you’ve forgotten what UK cold is.” Overhead, in a race against time or maybe just the moon, the sun cast its departing rays through the spidery canopy of the forest, and Claire knew she had to move.
She found usable kindling easily enough--lucky, she thought, the ground wasn’t yet damp from snowfall--but at the expense of her throbbing ankle. Wood gathered in her arms, she leaned back against a wide tree, sank to the ground, closed her eyes, and breathed.
And realized she wasn’t the only one breathing.
The wolf was on its last legs. A quick examination of its frame from across the clearing told her that it was starving, ribs angular and protruding through mangy fur that glinted silver in moonlit nighttime. Its eyes were darkened with hunger and the hunt, of which Claire knew she was easy prey cowered there against the tree, hungry and dehydrated and wounded. Armed with nothing but a heap of sticks. In another scenario, perhaps she’d stand a chance, but in this time the odds were not tipped in her favor. Still, she lowered the sticks into her lap with imperceptible slowness, and her hands twitched with the prospect of defense. If she could pin it against a tree, maybe, crane its head back until the brittle spine fractured… but the thought, like many things she’d done and conjured up that day, was futile. A whisper that was already a ghost before it could rise to a wail, and she lay in her deathbed. And she knew it.
The wolf’s growl was low and rattling. It shook the bed of earth on which she sat, and it bent moonbeams into angular juts that crossed over one another in an intricate weave of light and darkness. The only markers of time the beating of her heart and the laboured breathing of the creature across the way and the throbbing of her ankle, Claire felt as if the tapestry of the universe had revealed itself to her in that moment, bending across centuries past and centuries yet to come, vulnerable as it was impenetrable, and she knew that this moment would hang and had hung suspended in the Blue Ridge Mountains for all eternity. Her death had been drafted centuries ago by forces she did not understand; it had existed all this time and always would, and her body had always lain there and always would, broken and timeless. That, or it was destined to lay somewhere else, in a bed she didn’t yet know but had always known, in hands she couldn’t yet feel but had always felt.
In the lull of resignation and transcending of time, Claire was human. She counted the strides it would take to make it back to the gully--to her rucksack and the switchblade inside. It would have to be fast. She would have to smother the pain somewhere deep and unreachable. She would have to challenge the Fates so fiercely that they were forced to spare her.
For a moment, the creature in the trees appeared to waver on its feet, and that was enough.
She shot into the trees, feet carrying her step after step, pain ebbing at her vision like a towering ocean wave held at bay. She could hear the wolf scuffling and stumbling, and though it couldn’t be more than a few meters behind, its snarling sounded as if it was reverberating across another mountain range altogether.
The crest was there. The gully was down below.
The edge came sooner than she expected.
With a wail and a sharp crack that seemed to exist in two places at once, Claire tumbled into the gully. Upon impact with the ground, she was sure her soul had left her body; that was the only way to explain the loud, lifeless thud that struck the gully floor but two meters away. She was adrift in space, and that was her motionless form there on the rocks.
And then the ocean wave overcame her, and pain shot up her leg in such a way that surely disembodied souls could never feel, she thought, and it wasn’t her soul that had left her but rather the air that had been knocked from her chest upon impact, and the body next to her was not her own, but that of the dead wolf.
Frank came to her then, two boots materializing before her eyes. Claire had never hallucinated his person before; maybe she was dead after all. “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” she gasped, lungs grasping for oxygen.
The noise of disbelief that came from the person in boots was very unlike Frank. Frank never wore boots, she realized.
Claire turned her face skyward. There, backlit by the angular juts of moonbeams and shrouded in the tapestry of time, stood a coppery flame of a human holding a smoking shotgun.
“What brings ye to North Carolina, Sassenach?”
Chapter 2: Hephaestus
Thank you for all of your kind comments on the first chapter of "Moonbeams." I am without words, truly, it means so much.
I have wonderful plans for this story and for our two lovelies here (I spent the entirety of this week planning plot lines and poring over my laptop), and I hope you'll enjoy the ride. :) I'm aiming to post every Friday, but I'm also in a couple of summer online courses for Uni and, like a responsible studious adult, need to balance my time between scribbling about Scotsmen and Real Scholarly Research Paper Writing, but I'll do my best to be consistent!
Enjoy chapter two. :)
When Claire came to, she was acutely aware of two things: the scratchiness of the wool blanket wrapped around her shoulders and the unsightly angle at which her left foot was beginning to stiffen. Against her better judgement, she attempted to move it, and with the resulting pain came a cluster of memories--the gully, the wolf, the copper man. The man.
“I wouldna move that if I were you,” said a voice, wary but firm. The soft Scots accent was as unsettling as it was comforting. Claire’s vision muddled like sediment stirred in water, then settled, swam along chestnut floorboards to find the stranger in question perched in the corner. He was whittling something, his hands bordering on comically large for the small knife they held, but he wasn’t paying much mind to the task at hand. He was looking at her.
“The foot,” he went on. “Broken, I think. It’s best if ye keep still, else you’ll--”
“I know how bones work,” she snapped, attempting to put up a hardened front but failing.
In truth, she felt just as vulnerable now as she did sitting across from the wolf with nothing but a pile of twigs. For a moment, her throbbing ankle was a metronome in 7/8 time, the wool around her shoulders felt like grating wood, splintering into the skin on her arms, and from this distance, the Scot’s eyes were those of the wolf. They shone golden and metallic, and she felt cold. His face could be a snout, if she squinted hard enough, his hair silver.
But Sassenach, he had called her. Wolves don’t speak Scots. The word rang sharp in her memory, had filled up the entire gully. She had challenged the Fates, and they had not only spared her, but sent a messenger of their own, it seemed. “I’m a vet,” she added, resigned.
The mountain man regarded her oddly, raising a brow. “A vet.”
“Yes. An animal doctor.”
“I ken what a veterinarian is,” he retorted, perhaps annoyed with the tinge of annoyance saturating her own voice. She almost felt guilty; he’d killed a wolf for her, after all. But his next words were vaguely amused. “You just don’t seem like one.”
No, not guilty.
“What does that mean?” Claire’s eyes rolled. Her arms intertwined. Her legs attempted to cross one another. Her foot protested the movement.
“Well.” He stood, setting his whittling project down on the mantle of a stone fireplace. It crackled with heat, and he lifted a poker to stoke the flame. His Scots raged broadly: “Ye dinna find your local veterinarian braving the elements and staving off wolves wi’ her bare hands in the middle of the mountains verra often, do ye no?” The expansiveness of him towering and broad-shouldered before the fire, heat collecting on the flat plane of his forehead, brandishing the fire poker in his left fist, face illuminated in a kaleidoscope of orange and cranberry--he looked something akin to Hephaestus at the helm of his forge. Claire’s defensive hackles dissipated for a small moment as she imagined painting him there like that, swirling hues of red and dandelion and umber, and a dab of blue to prevent the copper from turning too yellow.
“You look like ye haven’t bathed in a fortnight, Sassenach,” he added. She remembered that she couldn’t paint. “And all of those twigs in your hair. You strike me as a wee forest nymph more so than a vet. A faerie, maybe, but stronger than that.”
Claire’s eyes narrowed. “I am not a wee forest nymph. Or a faerie.” And she wasn’t. Christ, she’d attempted to knife a wolf for her life. And she’d delivered foals, she’d treated lame horses, she’d shoved her hand up more animals’ backsides than she’d care to admit. She was a veterinarian with a passion for modern medicine, she’d seen death and thwarted it, and she’d found strength in that. And she refused to be labeled a faerie. Or anything remotely wee.
The Scot cast her a sidelong glance as if scattering embers at her feet.
“Christ,” he mused quietly. “I called ye a Sassenach and insulted your personal hygiene habits, and you’re mad about being called a forest nymph.” Lips parted in a smile that launched hot sunlight into the fire. “Aye, they’re quite beautiful, if you believe the lore,” he added, voice softening like melting iron, talking to the flames.
A few beats of silence passed as he arrived at his final conclusion: “Fine, an Amazon, then. A witch if ye like, and anythin’ but a wee one.”
With one hand, he tossed another log onto the fire as if it was made of air. It landed with a hiss, and Claire felt suddenly very conscious of this foreigner’s brute strength and size and her lack thereof. Frank’s voice chastised her and she knew he wanted her to feel like a child done wrong. Just look at the likes of you. You’re sitting in a stranger’s home, entirely defenseless. I didn’t think I had to tell you not to talk to people you don’t know. She imagined him scrutinizing her, pondering the state of her ankle with eyes like acorns. Well, I suppose it’s understandable in this case. Yes, thank you, Frank, for your approval from The Great Beyond. At least ask the necessary questions, Claire.
Bloody hell, she thought. “Where is this, anyway?” she demanded.
The Scotsman looked around as if rediscovering his own house. “Home.”
“Well, Christ, obviously. Where is home?”
He was amused, which aggravated her.
“Don’t I get a question now?” he said, leaning the poker against the stone and his elbow against the mantle.
“Well, you’re just as much a foreigner to me as I am to you, ye ken. Fair is fair.” A picture frame on the mantle caught his attention, and he examined it as if he’d never seen it before. It was too far away for her to do likewise. “What’s your name?”
The Sassenach blinked. “Claire.”
“Just Claire? Nothing more?”
“Fair’s fair.” She smirked slightly, and he groaned like a child who’d just lost his first game of chess. “Where exactly is home?”
“In the Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from where I found ye--which I do have questions about,” a pointed look, “about five miles south. Dinna fash, I’ll take ye wherever you need to go as soon as I’m able. As soon as you’re able.” He nodded at her leg. “Where exactly is home?” he echoed.
She shrugged. “Durham.”
“Oh.” The man grew silent, churning thoughts in his head like coal in flame. He rubbed his chin and turned to an end table bordering the far end of the loveseat, picked up a tattered rag and a large bowl brimming with water, doused the cloth, and skimmed the surface tension with his fingertips. She wondered if they were calloused. “That’s far,” he said. “I dinna ken if or when--”
“If you could just take me to Asheville, maybe, or north to Boone--”
“Aye, that could work, but then--”
“--I’ll catch a bus like I did when I traveled to Boone to start hiking. Or I’ll hitchhike.”
“You can hardly walk, Sassenach. Hitchhiking is dangerous enough already.” Fingertips flicked themselves of water. “You could never know one murderer from the next creep. You canna run.”
He was right. “You’re right,” she croaked. Her pain was a roadblock.
A shrug as he mulled the situation over. Maps and highway routes and snaking mountain lanes swirled through his brain like clouds of road dust. Asheville, Boone, Durham. “If you really want me to, I’ll figure it out and I’ll take ye to Boone, or wherever--I canna and I willna stop you, of course. Or Murtagh can take ye, maybe. Just say the word. But you can also stay here as long as ye like. When the weather breaks for spring I’ll be travelin’ east to some farmer’s markets, and Durham should be an easy detour, should ye like to wait and heal here.”
When the weather breaks for spring. So, what, March? A long time to stay in a stranger’s home.
When the Scotsman advanced toward her with the rag and the water, she flinched, tightening the wool round her shoulders. He stopped in his tracks and visibly weighed his options. With the bowl in one hand and cloth in the other, he was a personified scale, and he looked at Claire like she was a decision he had long since made.
“I won’t hurt ye, Sassenach,” he said softly. “Ye need not be scairt of me. I’m no’ a murderer or a creep. If I was, I would’ve already had my way with ye. But you need to let me tend to ye. You’re filthy, and if we don’t immobilize your foot…”
“Yes, thank you for reminding me,” Claire huffed, but she straightened herself and nodded at him, bidding him come nearer. “But you could just point me to the nearest shower, you know.” She motioned toward the tattered rag. “This isn’t the eighteenth century. Surely you have running water here.” It was as much a question as a jest.
“Aye,” he said, kneeling at her side, water at his knees. “Aye, I do. But the shower, well, that hasn’t worked in… going on two years now.” He raised the cloth to her forehead, inflicting a sharp stinging there. She hissed. Hands steady, he didn’t pull back, as gentle as he was. “It’s a large gash,” he murmured, “but we’ll clean it and see if it needs stitching. You were really determined to do damage, it seems, lass.” He pushed a frond of hair back from her forehead, unsticking it from blood that was beginning to harden into plaster. “We’ll clean you up a bit so you’re not sitting here in filth. I’ll see what I can manage with your foot--dinna fash, I’ve plenty of whisky on hand for the pain.”
Claire blinked in disbelief. “Whisky? For pain?”
He nodded. “Surprisingly effective--the medicine of my ancestors, ye ken.” A throaty chuckle. “Whisky, and plants and medicinal herbs and things. I’m the designated healer in this part of the mountains. It’s inconvenient for the folk to travel to a decent doctor in town--verra far, and snowy in winter--and I manage well enough.” His voice took on a tenderness, but there was something dark there too. “My sister and I learned the trade from my mother back in the Highlands before she died, and then when my sister and I came to North Carolina, the folk here needed someone. My sister, well, she’s too busy with the bairns to do much else, and I, well… well, I… I like plants well enough,” he finished awkwardly.
“And bones?” Claire asked, genuinely curious. “How much do you know about anatomy? Not just plants and medicinal herbs and things, but… hard science.”
He raised an umber eyebrow. “A bit.” Ocean eyes glinted. “I may be a bit backwoods, Sassenach, but I’m no uneducated.”
A silence settled between them. Sediment.
Claire’s eyes traveled past his hands, back over the floorboards and into the room. It was a comfortable space, warm and woodsy. She’d been seated spine-to-armest on a small loveseat, foot elevated on a stack of muslin-sheathed pillows. The whittling chair was there in the corner. The fireplace, its mantle overwhelmed with picture frames, marked the end of an animal hide rug. Claire started to wonder where the fur had come from--if it was faux--but the image of the smoking shotgun that had brought the wolf to its demise and the hands brandishing that shotgun quickly curtailed that train of thought. She wondered where the copper man had stashed the weapon. In any case, if he’d wanted to use it or any other measure of hurt against her, he would’ve done so already, she supposed. The wool around her shoulders eased its fighting stance a bit.
He’d moved on to the ears now with soldierlike concentration, so when he spoke it was a preoccupied sound, offhand and quiet, he being focused on the task at hand. “After we’ve had our way with your foot, I’ll draw ye a warm bath in the basin--we use water from the hot spring out back, since the shower doesna work.”
A soldier. Now that was quite the notion, and for some reason she couldn’t help but envision him in an old Highlander kilt, opal-hilted dirk on his hip and a wild glint in his eyes. “And Murtagh brought in some bonnie hares today and as long as Young Ian didn’t help himself to the whole lot of them...” A noise of bemusement, not unlike that which he’d made when he stood between her and the wolf in the gully. It came from the chest, Claire noted. “Nay, we’ll feed ye. And I can’t imagine that fracturing your fibula and engaging wolves in battle is an easy task, whether you’re an Amazon or no, so you can rest, then.”
Claire found that she was already resting and had been for some time, her head leaning into the pressure of the wet rag against her face. The melody of his voice was something akin to a concerto, the Scots fading in and out, prominent at the crescendo and subtle at the diminuendo, and maybe it was her exhaustion or discomfort or the promise of warmth, but she took an odd solace in the thought of lowering herself into a wash basin filled with spring water. Coldly tiled showers be damned. A thousand questions washed ashore as the copper man spoke, but deciding to roll with the outgoing moontide, she asked only one.
“What is your name, soldier?”
“James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser. Jamie, if ye like.”
“That’s far too many names for one person.”
~ ~ ~
The diagnosis: a lateral malleolus fracture, luckily confined to the fibula. Claire knew this because the outside of her foot had swollen, not the inside. If the inside had swollen, it would’ve been a bimalleolar fracture, which--in most cases--required surgery, and if the bones didn’t heal right, the joint alignment would be off. But this was only the fibula and with likely no ligament damage. This would not require surgery. Six weeks healing time.
“Although,” she said to Jamie Fraser, bowl of stewed hare in her lap, orthopedic walking boot strapped around her leg, fork in the air, “if there was ligament damage and you could take an X-ray, you could measure the distance from the fracture to the end of the bone.” The food had improved her mood tenfold, and Content Claire was synonymous with Let’s-Talk-About-Anatomy-It’s-Rather-Interesting-And-Jolly-Good-Fun Claire, even after the gully ordeal. “If the fracture is within four centimeters of the bone’s end, it’s usually safe to treat the injury nonsurgically. As long as there’s no damage to the inner ankle--”
“The tibia,” Jamie interjected simply.
“Oh, he’s a Mountain Man, a Scot, and a good student.” Jamie watched her propel the stew into her rosebud mouth. He was sitting on the floor a meter or so away, and though the loveseat added height to her line of vision, his face was almost level with hers. What a substantial human, she thought. She closed her eyes--partly in the throws of calm, partly because his gaze unnerved her and she preferred to erect walls in the form of eyelids--and sighed. The agony of the fracture had dulled to a distant pulsating ache. “I swear, broken bone aside, I haven’t been this comfortable in weeks.”
The clinking of his fork against ceramic. A swallow. A sip. “I should think so,” Jamie said. Claire parted her eyelids. “You’ve inhaled so much whisky, you should be comfortable for a few weeks yet. You’ve practically drank me dry.” He smirked boyishly. Her throat burned.
“If I know anything about Scotsmen,” she said, feeling warm and not a little bit giddy, “you likely have enough whisky hidden away to supply a small army of Jacobites.” A candle flickered on the mantelpiece then, and for some reason it felt like she had just summoned a squadron of kilted ghosts. She decided to blame the drink.
“Jacobites?” That damned umber eyebrow of his. It kept raising itself, and she couldn’t read it. He lifted whisky to his lips; it was the purest hue of amber she’d ever seen. “You ken the Jacobites?”
“I may be a bit English, Mr. Fraser, but I’m not uneducated.” She lifted whisky to her lips, taunting. “My husband is--was,” she caught herself, and the error fell weightily on her shoulders, “a history professor, after all.”
Jamie’s expression was unreadable. Claire felt like he was repeatedly showering her with embers--like he’d gathered an armful of them from the fire, tucked them into his eyes for safekeeping. “How did you come to be in North Carolina, anyway?” he asked.
Claire told him--what she could, that is. She’d married a man in Oxfordshire six years ago, and five years ago he’d been offered a job at Duke University’s history department. They wanted a fresh start. They moved to Durham. She’d put herself through four years of veterinary school at Duke, passed the national certification exam, and was currently interning at a practice in town with her friend Joe.
“Speaking of which, I’ll need to borrow a phone tomorrow morning so he knows where I am,” Claire continued; she’d been off-grid for a while. She recalled the wooden wash basin filled with spring water (which was indeed as calming as she’d hoped). “If you have one.” A wide whisky-induced yawn. She felt heavy and made a mental note to ask him tomorrow about how he came to be here in the mountains, waiting for her to tumble into his home.
Jamie looked amused. “Aye, Sassenach, I have a phone. The signal is spotty, though, be warned.” He stood, gathering empty bowls of stewed hare and dry whisky glasses. “I’ll show ye to the guest room; it’s small but it’ll do. Tomorrow you can use the phone first thing, and if you want, I can show ye around the herb garden, and where I grow the organic vegetables. Maybe you’d like to see the stables. I have a few horses--there’s a bonnie mare who’s to bear a foal in the spring.”
She was sober.
~ ~ ~
Frank haunted her that night.
It began well enough: they drove a rented camper into the mountains, glistening and rosy as newlyweds, their second honeymoon to celebrate a new life in a new country, and the sunlight danced all around them, waltzing over the ridges and turning the world to honey. They made love in the grass, and it tickled her ankles, and he whispered Mrs. Frank Randall over and over into her hair until they didn’t sound like words anymore. She twisted the rings round her fingers, and the gold band began to burn and the spinning diamond twirled into spinning druids, and suddenly she was on a hilltop very unlike the honeymoon mountains, surrounded by white-clad witches singing a song she didn’t understand, and there were leering stones older than time and a loud buzzing that ate her skull and the second dream began.
The nightmare was fathomless. Frank’s voice was all around her, tearing at her limbs and dousing her with holy water that labeled her a witch and burned and bore into her being like a parasite, burrowing and gouging and sending her into the wintry earth, deeper and deeper ‘til the dirt turned to brine and she was flailing and floundering in an ever-rising ocean, and she screamed for Frank until the words turned to choking, and she was raising something over her head. It had come from the inmost part of her and it couldn’t breathe and she was carrying it for Frank, whom she loved but whose face she couldn’t remember, and as she finally began to break through to the surface it slipped from her hands and sank back into the depths. It was lost.
She was awake.
Sweating and breathless, Claire grabbed the bedside crutches Jamie had provided (My friend Ian’s, after they amputated his leg and before his prosthetic was finished, he’d said).
She needed to visit the stables. She needed to see the mare.
The hour was late, but Jamie was still in the living room reading, having claimed the loveseat spot where she’d sat earlier. He peered over the top of his book. “Claire?”
“I need to see the mare,” she whispered, trembling.
He nodded slowly, processed her words, then scrambled to his feet. They walked out into the nighttime, Jamie one step ahead but also one step behind, his hand ready to catch her should she fall. The night was frigid and the world barren, the wind lashing at her hands and her thighs and her broken bone and her empty stomach.
The mare was bonnie, as Jamie had said, and abundant with child. The stomach bulged and inside was a spirit.
For as long as her body would allow it, Claire stood there shivering against a crutch, hay grating her exposed ankle. She didn’t notice the wool being wrapped around her shoulders, or the gentle latching of the barn door that trapped inside what little warmth January could provide.
Her heart churned, conjuring up images of eyes like acorns, quicksand honey in dead grass, wolves in copper moonlight, fires and forges, vacant nurseries and a cold child who would never have a name.
Chapter 3: Breakfast
1. Yes, I changed my pseud. :') I'd been writing under Ye Olde "Spring Awakening"-themed pseud, and I just felt like I needed rebranding. And also because:
2. I created my very first Tumblr (!) with the purpose of documenting the process of writing this fic (which is slowly but surely becoming my life) and being able to better interact with others in the fandom and readers, too, if you so wish. I thought it'd be fun to post sneak peeks and things as I write throughout the week. :) If you want to find me on there, it's https://apostlespoons.tumblr.com
3. If you want to read past this point and continue onto the fic, obviously I can't stop you, because I understand that y'all are here for JamiexClaire fanfiction and maybe this is a form of escapism for you; I know it sometimes is for me. But I also think that I have a platform here, albeit a small one, and so I have a moral responsibility to use it if I can.
"Outlander" is not only a love story, but also a story about fighting for what is right--for your family, for your people, for justice, even if the fight for justice is branded as unjust by those who have traditionally held power.
Everything happening in the United States (and around the world, for that matter) has been weighing heavily on my heart, and I had a very difficult time finding it within myself to write this chapter. I almost felt like I shouldn't post. But the decision I ultimately arrived at was that to not post at all while also not acknowledging why would be extraordinarily tone-deaf, and it would weigh just as heavily on me to post and not say anything whatsoever, especially considering the activism I try to employ in my life off AO3. Especially because today is Breonna Taylor's birthday, and had she not been killed, she would have been 27 years old.
If you are a person of color, I hear you. I am listening. I am donating to your causes monthly, I am trying to amplify your community's voices, I am reading your literature, I am having difficult conversations, I am really trying to better myself and my understanding even though I know I will never fully be able to understand. If you're reading this and you're not a person of color, I implore you to make similar efforts.
Here are things you can do for Breonna Taylor today, on her birthday: http://bit.ly/BirthdayForBreonna
Other ways you can help: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co
That said, I hope this little slice of Claire and Jamie's world brings you some semblance of peace today. Enjoy the chapter.
The rustling reverberated through Claire’s morning like a snare drum.
She sat up abruptly, and for a sleep-laden moment she forgot what and where and who she was. She was a nymph in the hay, she was a faerie with woolen wings, she was a wine-stained lady in a rosehip gown.
No, she was plain Claire Randall.
The rustling was not a snare, but a gawky boy with a pitchfork. “I’m sorry to wake you,” he apologized, timid. “I tried to be quiet, but I was just… I have to care for the horses in the mornings, and if I’m not back in time for breakfast, Ma will have my hide.”
Claire blinked. “No, I… It’s okay.” She felt the wakeful part of her soul return to her slowly; it had been several steps behind, a hand between her shoulder blades, keeping her upright even as the drowsiness weighed heavy in her bones.
He was made in the image of Jamie Fraser, this boy, and though he couldn’t have been more than twelve years old, she recognized it in the sky-skimming cheekbones beginning to surface on his face and the strawberries in his hair and the sea in his eyes.
“I am called Ian Murray, ma’am,” he said, standing to attention. “First-born son of Ian and Janet.” He bowed like a knight announcing himself at court, which was more than a little amusing, Claire thought, considering he barely cleared the height of the pitchfork. She smiled involuntarily. Not Jamie’s then, she thought.
“It is lovely to make your acquaintance, Sir Ian Murray. I’m Claire.” She brushed hay from her lap and tried to stand, intending to manage a wobbling one-legged curtsy.
He saw her plight and nobly offered her a hand. “You may call me Young Ian, Miss Claire, so as not to confuse me with my father.”
Young Ian. Jamie had mentioned the boy the night before, hadn’t he?
Ian fetched the crutches from where they’d been leaning against the stall. Claire accepted them graciously. “Those are his, you know, Miss Claire,” he said. Puzzle pieces clicked together in her head. My friend Ian’s, Jamie had said, after they amputated his leg and before his prosthetic was finished. Young Ian’s father, Jamie’s friend Ian, the one-legged man--they were all the same.
Claire didn’t know what to say, but it seemed Young Ian had meant the comment as a childlike matter of fact as opposed to a conversation piece, so she only said, “You can just call me Claire.”
He smiled, toothy. “Aye. Claire.”
Young Ian’s voice was small and odd, mostly Scottish in its vowels but obviously affected by his time in the United States. But odd as the little voice was, her bones knew in several years it would command a room; he would gather his young spirit and, after an unlikely adventure or two, stow it away somewhere, and it would undergo a metamorphosis into stoic, respected silence. Yes, he would grow and change, but his hair would always be the color of strawberries, and his face the round of a peach.
He’d returned to shoveling hay into the horse stalls. Catching her looking at him, he nodded at the mare. “You’ve met Bonnie?”
Claire felt like she was seeing the horse for the first time. “Oh. Yes, yes, I suppose I have. Bonnie, you say?” She was strong, to be sure. Muscles weaved thick underneath a bay coat, neck elegantly arched and withers high. She looked to be standing on clouds, white feathering around her hooves, and her muzzle was dusted alabaster like a snow bank. “Well,” Claire said, “I suppose she’s certainly earned that name.” Her flat hand raised itself to Bonnie’s wide muzzle, and Bonnie’s eyes blinked big roasted chestnuts. “A Clydesdale, yes?”
Ian’s eyes brightened. “Yes!” He set the pitchfork against a bale of hay and bounced to Claire’s side. Bonnie nuzzled Young Ian’s peach round face and huffed, instantly drawing a smile from his lips. He giggled. “Clydesdales are from Scotland, the valley of the River Clyde in Lanarkshire. They’re good for farming, but mostly people use them as carriage horses now.”
“Do you know a lot about horses, then?” asked Claire.
Ian nodded furiously. “Oh, aye. Uncle Jamie teaches me all about them--how to care for them, of course, and the history of them too. He’s verra passionate about horses, especially Bonnie here. Says having a Clydesdale is like having a wee piece of Scotland with you.” Bonnie huffed in indignation. Claire locked eyes with the mare, chestnuts roasting over whisky.
“She’s anything but wee,” Claire murmured, stroking the soft muzzle. Absentmindedly she asked, “Where is Jamie this morning? Do you know?”
The subject of Young Ian’s uncle seemed to act as a cue to resume responsibilities, and the boy separated himself from Bonnie to begin refilling buckets with drinking water for the stalls. He shrugged. “He was sound asleep on the ground outside when I came in.”
“On the ground outside? Why on earth would he do that? It was freezing last night.”
Ian shrugged, and his Scots wedged its way into his words. “I dinna ken. He didna hear me when I came inside.” He turned sheepish. “If you wake him, though, Miss--Claire--would you tell him I’m sorry for yesterday?” Feigning business, he turned his back to her, ears bright red, and she knew not to ask.
“Yes… yes, of course.” She bid Bonnie good-bye and made for the door. At the threshold she turned and was compelled to ask, and she felt like the child now, “Do… do you think I could come back and visit you and Bonnie sometime? I would like to hear more about the history of Clydesdales, if you would be so kind as to teach me.”
She felt Young Ian’s joy before she saw it. It radiated from his demeanor like newly-sprouted dandelions. “Yes! Come tomorrow,” he said. “She likes apples a lot. You can feed her.”
Claire smiled. Bonnie snorted and descended into a bucket of water.
As she crossed the threshold into morning, she was struck by the bizarre realization that, in a very unchildlike manner, Young Ian had not questioned her nest in the hay, nor her broken ankle, nor her very presence on Jamie Fraser’s property. Like he was expecting her.
Slumped in the grass against the front of the barn, Jamie was a soldier asleep at his post. In the young light of daytime, his hair was blood orange, his face soft ivory. It was the clearest impression of him she’d gotten thus far, having been moving through darkness and dimness and the fog of her nightmares up ‘til this point.
Claire disrupted the peace.
“Are you mad!”
Jamie jolted to attention, tense. The wakeful part of his soul had refused to take a leave of absence even in slumber, it appeared; his under-eyes drooped with shadow.
“Why the devil did you sleep outside?”
The Scot looked up at her. “Why the devil did you sleep in the stables?”
“You could have frozen to death.”
“If I ever froze to death in balmy North Carolina,” he said with a smirk, “my ancestors would roll in their snowy graves on Culloden Field, and I’d be the laughingstock of the afterlife.” His eyes glinted like mica. “Nay, dinna fash, I willna let that happen, Sassenach. I value my dignity far too much.” He rose to his feet, and Claire was once again smaller.
“Still,” she persisted, “it’s January.”
“Och, practically February, and February is practically March, which is practically April, which is practically summer.” He stood, dusting grass from his pants. “Anyway, you looked like you’d seen a ghost last night. I wasna going to leave ye.”
I had seen a ghost, she thought--one so real, she was almost scared to look anywhere but Jamie’s face should the impression of Frank be lurking in her peripheral. “You could’ve come inside,” she insisted weakly. “It’s your property, after all.”
Jamie shuffled a bit. Rubbed the coppery stubble dusting his chin--like faerie dust or the sheen of a freshly minted penny, when the sun greeted it. Claire inhaled, wondering if he smelled like pennies, too, but she was too far away.
“You were warring with something in your head,” he said. “It wasna my fight, but that doesna mean I couldn’t play sentry. Just in case.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but Jamie had moved on. “Come,” he stepped forward onto the path leading toward the house. “It’s already almost eight o’clock, I reckon, according to the sun.” Claire looked skyward and followed.
The night before, she had been unable to see the world. It had been concealed in a shadow like molasses she couldn’t swim through, her only life ring the tall brick-red barn at the end of her footsteps and the mare that stood inside of it, and the foal that slept inside of the mare. But this world in the light of morning was something else entirely. The long footpath back to Jamie’s house weaved through a vast yard peppered with tall bare trees and wide spaces of dulled grass and plots of dirt where things had yet to grow.
A small pen of chickens and a coop marked the halfway point; Jamie had built a greenhouse-like sunroom along the side, and the birds still huddled inside peered out at them with questions. “It gives them more space to roam in winter, should they not want to go outside,” Jamie explained. “They dinna like the snow.”
“I hadn’t pegged you for a bird fanatic.” Claire was practically wheezing from trying to match Jamie’s long strides.
“Aye, well, ‘fanatic’ is a strong word. They’re awfully annoying, truthfully. Painful, sometimes.” Jamie closed his eyes and rubbed his neck, as if reliving a past confrontation. “But we kept a few and Scotland, so I ken how to care for them, and there’s nothing like fresh eggs in the morning.” He scrutinized her reddened face. “Would ye like to sit for a moment?”
Claire wiped a hand across her damp forehead. “No,” she said. “No, it’s fine. This is just… harder than it looks. The crutches, I mean. They’re a little tall for me.”
Jamie nodded earnestly. Blinked like a solemn red owl. “I can slow down.”
“I can keep up.”
A smile crossed his face. “Of course you can,” he said, then turned his attention back to the footpath and briskly continued on toward the house. Claire was certain he’d tripled his speed.
“Bloody Scot,” she mumbled, and followed with what little grace she could manage.
The house wasn’t very big, she mused as she drew nearer. In fact, it felt more like a woodland cottage than anything.
The exterior was paneled and eggshell white, topped with shingles that looked like a mess of old pennies, some aged more than others and consequentially of a deeper rust. The windows creeping up the side were tall and framed by massive bundles of ivy; there were some that struck her as out-of-place, as if they’d been added as an afterthought or perhaps were truer to the interior flair than to the exterior--a round porthole window toward the top of the house, namely, which Claire assumed looked into an attic. Above the porthole window, the roof sloped up into a beautiful brick chimney, and solar panels had been placed there on the penny-shingles. To the right of the house stood a small greenhouse (it really did look rather like the chickens’ sunroom).
Behind it all, the Blue Ridge Mountains had been painted in the background and far into the distance they drew an undulating line halving the sky.
Jamie stood waiting on a sagging blue porch dotted with flowerless pots. “I thought you said you could keep up, Sassenach?”
Claire huffed and hopped up the steps.
~ ~ ~
Breakfast was bread that Jamie had baked the morning prior, fresh yoghurt, a colorful assortment of winter fruits--apple, clementine, pear, and tangerine--canned jams, and eggs Jamie boiled to be soft and yolky.
While she’d waited on the eggs, she’d taken stock of the kitchen. Dried herbs spilled over cabinet tops and were strung up in the corner where sunlight couldn’t reach. They’d been tied in bundles with twine. On the wall hung wicker baskets and cast iron skillets, woven cotton bags holding lemons and silver kettles. What little countertop space there was had been overtaken by rolling pins and wooden spoons, crumpled tea towels, casserole dishes, lingering heaps of flour, and mortars and pestles of various sizes. Jamie Fraser lived in his kitchen, it seemed.
“Thank you,” Claire said as he poured sharp coffee into her mug and nudged a sugar bowl in her direction. It was the first time she’d thanked him, she realized, for anything, and she almost felt guilty for the overdue gratitude.
Jamie shrugged. “It’s nothing,” he said.
They ate in silence for the most part, the growling of Claire’s stomach occupying her thoughts more so than any conversation she could have started. Her mind wandered far and wide, wondering about Frank and what eating was like in the afterlife--if he could eat at all, if he was eternally hungry with no way to quell it, and she left a bite of apple on her plate for him, just in case.
It’s not that she saw ghosts; she only heard them. And ghosts wasn’t even plural, really--she only heard the one. And hearing, she thought, was an odd way to describe it. When Frank spoke to her, it was in memories--like a distant past and person she could grasp through a lingering fog. She knew there were no walking phantoms, not literally, but even so, there was a part of her that wondered where he was or if he could see her, if he could hear her swallow the coffee and chew the bread.
“It’s quite good,” Claire said, filling the silence, holding her second slab of wheat in one hand and a strawberry jam-coated knife in the other.
“You’re a bad liar, Sassenach,” Jamie jested. “Your face is like glass.”
“You misread me, sir.” She slathered the slice with jam. “It really is good. I’ve never had it homemade like this.”
“No. My uncle and I traveled around a lot when I was young, and he was often too busy digging up artifacts to pay much mind to the kitchen, and now… you know, the United States isn’t very well-known for its bread.”
Jamie chuckled in that throaty Scot way. “That it isn’t,” he hummed. “I dock points from them for it.”
He asked about her uncle. She told him, but not everything, taking care to omit her parents’ deaths that had placed her in Uncle Lamb’s care in the first place. Uncle Lamb had been an archaeologist and a scholar, and he’d treated Claire like one, as well, even though in the early days she could barely clear the height of the shovels they’d brandished.
In return ( Fair’s fair ), Jamie told her about his sister Jenny who lived over the ridge with the Ians. She was stubborn--maybe even more so than him, Jamie mused--and strong. The strongest woman he’d ever known, he said. “If giants were real, she would send them sprawling.” He was on his third egg. “And if the devil himself reached up from the fiery pits of hell to wrap his hands around the people she loves, Janet would send him right back where he came from, put him behind bars and declare herself the ruler of the underworld. But don’t get me wrong,” a mid-sentence bite, then a swallow, “she would free the wrongfully judged first thing, and rehabilitate the rest. Wi’ an iron fist, though.” He smiled.
Claire tried to imagine Jenny Fraser, dark-haired and wild-eyed and stern, clutching infant Ian to her breast with an unspeakable tenderness. In her mind, Jenny was dressed in eighteenth-century skirts, a plaid around her shoulders and gloves around her hands. She couldn’t explain the image, but it was a powerful one and it warmed her.
“I met Ian,” Claire offered, taking a sip of coffee. It washed away any remnants of sleep. “Young Ian, that is.”
“He said he was sorry about what happened yesterday?”
Jamie finished off his yoghurt, his spoon rattling against glass.
“What happened yesterday?” she persisted.
His eyes were dark. “His dog ate one of my chickens.”
Claire began to laugh, incredulous; the sentence struck her as hilariously outrageous. And the whole situation did, too, when she really thought about it--her wandering lost in the forest, escaping the clutches of a wolf, her being here, sitting across from a rugged, ruddy Scot who lived in the mountains of North Carolina and bathed in wooden wash basins and had built a greenhouse for his pet chickens and slept outside of barns, his curly red hair defying all laws of gravity and his faerie dust stubble defying all laws of light refraction and the corner of his mouth stained with egg yolk, and he was staring at her with all of the sternness in the world. And little Ian’s dog had eaten one of Jamie’s chickens. It wasn’t funny, but also it really was.
“It isna funny,” he deadpanned.
Collect yourself Claire, Christ. Frank’s first interruption of the day.
Claire cleared her throat, stifling the laughter. “Of course it isn’t.” Change the subject, Claire. You’re being rude. “Young Ian told me about Bonnie. Apparently having a Clydesdale is like having a piece of Scotland with you.” Over the brim of her mug, her eyes locked with his.
Jamie stood then, chair legs scraping the wooden floor. He took his empty plate and dirtied utensils to the sink, and his back was to her. He didn’t turn on the sink at first, just stood there staring out a window at the bare branches of trees and the flower bushes that had yet to bloom. When he spoke his words were curt. “Aye. ‘Tis.” And she knew that he knew what she was about to ask. And she knew he wasn’t prepared to answer.
She asked anyway.
“How did you end up here, in North Carolina? It seems rather… off-grid.”
The water came alive in the house. She could hear it racing through pipes, snaking through walls, slicing through the faucet into the sink and onto the ceramic Jamie had placed there. Furiously he began scrubbing drops of egg yolk that had already begun to cool and thicken on the plate. Claire watched him carefully, the way his shoulders carried tension under the pine-green wool of his sweater, the way his head locked, tilted ever so slightly toward the sink basin as if he were trying to see past something she couldn’t see at all. She wished she could. Or maybe she didn't.
The water screeched to a halt. Jamie snatched a tea towel from the counter, spun around, leaned back against the countertop and began drying the plate. His shoulders loosened a bit when he looked at her, but his eyes were probing. Questioning. She didn’t know what he was asking, but she did know what he wasn’t asking; in the style of his small strawberry-haired protégé, Jamie had not asked a single question about the ghosts that had haunted her the night before. Maybe he already knew, somehow. Maybe he didn’t want to know. Maybe he didn’t care.
Finally, he said, “Don’t you have a phone call to make?”
~ ~ ~
The signal was indeed spotty, as Jamie had said. It took three times for the call to go through, and even then, Joe’s voice on the other end was distant--as if he belonged to another world.
“You’re meaning to tell me you’ve been abducted by a six-foot-four Scottish man who lives in a shed in the mountains?”
Claire shook her head, though he couldn’t see her. “The word I used was ‘cottage,’ actually. Just… a small house. But not too small. It’s quaint.”
“No, I’ve a broken ankle.” She twirled the phone cord tight around her fingers and wondered why Jamie still used a corded phone. From where she stood in the kitchen, she had a clear view of the window looking out into the backyard; it was cracked open to let crisp air filter through the house. Outside, Jamie was advancing toward the greenhouse with a large bag of potting soil.
Joe sounded exasperated. “If you don’t call me every couple of days to check in... This guy could be an axe murderer, Claire Elizabeth.” He was the only one who used her middle name. “And he’s probably faking the Scottish accent.”
Jamie had begun kicking a rock around in the dirt, and she could only imagine the commentary running through his brain. James Fraser with the ball, he leaves one--he leaves two for dead. Takes on three, takes on four, and he trips and plummets to the ground. Potting soil and all. Claire smirked. “I’ll call to check in, Joe, I promise.”
Doused in soil, Jame flopped back onto the earth helplessly, and through the parted window she heard him rumble in the thickest Scots she’d ever heard: “Yer aff yer heid ya dunderheid.”
Claire held the receiver close. “But the accent is most certainly not fake.”
Chapter 4: Disco Fever
Hello hallo servus ciao hola bonjour !
I hope you're all well. Thank you endlessly for all of your comments on the previous chapter(s). I'm so bad at responding to them in a timely manner, but I do read all of them as they come in and your words mean so much. <3
By the time Claire bid Joe goodbye and placed the phone back on its receiver, Jamie had vanished into the depths of his greenhouse.
The physician within: stay inside, ankle raised, rest for a day or two. Stop hobbling around. Give it time.
If there was one thing Claire knew she excelled at, it was giving medical advice--but following it? Well, she never claimed to be good at that. Besides, once she made it to the greenhouse, she could sit.
It was a small glass castle.
A damp heat greeted her at the door, thickening the air from above and warming the soles of her feet from below. The floor was a tapestry of diamond tiles in hues of lead and rust. Wooden shelves stretched around the entire perimeter, overflowing with greenery and rows of seedlings. Claire recognized a few of the plants--basil and parsley, the common kitchen strains--but likewise there were many she didn’t know by name. Overhead, rubbery green petals as big as banana leaves overlapped one another in a lush knit, orange flowers smiled through the foliage, and long chartreuse fronds danced a sort of waltz in a breeze generated by small ceiling fans. If she leaned close enough, she could spot lingering dew magnifying plant veins like tiny wet spectacles. The moisture tickled her nose, and faintly, the sharpness of mint.
Her mind wandered to Frank, wondering if he could smell the mint in the same way she could.
To what extent had he lost all human senses in death? Claire mulled it over. Perhaps the afterlife was sensory overload--a utopia swelling with memories as Frank experienced them, senses and all. Sight would be a given, would it not? But then, we’re talking about the afterlife, Claire, she thought. Nothing is a given. But smell, sound, touch--what of those? Was facing the brutal reality that you’re no longer human by passively reliving memories an inescapable part of ghosting about?
If that was the case, Claire wondered what memories Frank relived, and if he had a say in it all--if he got to choose the visions and the smells and the tastes and the sounds. She wondered if he chose Durham and the city and the university, the rifling of paper and the smell of history and its artifacts. Maybe he chose England, bread and butter pudding and the misty countryside. Maybe he chose the Blue Ridge Mountains and the time they’d spent there upon arriving in North Carolina years ago, sprigs of lavender and the old blue camper.
~ ~ ~
The camper was large and violently turquoise. When Frank pulled into the driveway, Claire frowned. “What in the bloody hell is that?” she exclaimed.
Frank laughed. In later years, his smile would strike her as foreign and unnatural and forced--as if he’d never been capable of it. But now, grinning at her from behind the wheel, Claire felt her heart soften.
“It’s monstrous, is it not?” Frank called. “Come take a look, darling. It’s the most American thing I’ve ever seen.”
He wasn’t wrong. It was straight out of the late 1960s, she figured, and though it appeared just a few kilometers--or miles, she supposed--away from sputtering out, she’d always been drawn to the retro aesthetic. Claire hopped off the front porch and crossed the lawn.
Frank’s face, finely boned but strong, was flushed red with excitement, and his cupid’s bow glistened with perspiration. He donned a flannel and a crisp Duke University ball cap that he’d just bought from the campus bookstore.
“ You look like the most American thing I’ve ever seen,” Claire teased. Frank stuck out his tongue at her like a child, and she climbed inside.
The interior was slightly more up-to-date than the exterior, but its small eccentricities kept it dated: the beaded curtain shielding the mattress at the rear, chartreuse and orange pillows resting on the duvet and the long upholstered bench. There was a small kitchenette and overhead storage bins drowning in faded stickers, her favorites of which were the scratch-and-sniffs, and ones that said ‘Disco Fever’ and ‘Make Love Not War.’
“You didn’t buy this,” Claire said in disbelief, staring at a scratch-and-sniff red apple sticker. She reached to scratch it, though she doubted it still smelled like anything.
Frank made a British noise that translated to Don’t be ridiculous, appeared behind her like a phantom, and wrapped slender arms round her waist. Together the two of them occupied nearly the entire width of the vehicle.
“Of course I didn’t,” he murmured into Claire’s ear, warm breath tickling her neck. She squirmed, which only served for him to hold her tighter. “I only rented it.” A kiss planted itself on her skin, and she sunk into her husband’s embrace.
Her husband. It had been over a year since their marriage, but sometimes the label still struck her as a surprise. Maybe it was just the transatlantic move they’d made a mere couple of months ago and all of the newness that accompanied it, but the entire marriage felt so fetal. Unreal.
“Oh, also, I brought you something!” Frank lit up with realization and released her to slide over to the passenger seat. He revealed a small cluster of lavender, clipped neatly and bundled together with ivory ribbon. “There was a greenhouse on my way home,” her husband explained. “And I also got...” A small package of mint seeds, for planting in the windowsill garden she’d talked about starting for so long--right off the kitchen, the smells of mint and basil and parsley sharp, fresh, and wafting through a parted window. “I know you love mint,” Frank finished.
She gawked at him, took the small purse of seeds and the flowers and inhaled; it was a cultivated smell, tranquil and sweet, and as it expanded within her she felt as though something inside was rousing from sleep. He’d never brought her flowers before. He never would again, though she didn’t know it then.
“I thought,” Frank went on, fingering one of Claire’s infamously wild brown curls, pressing it to his lips and then bringing his hands to her still-flat stomach, “we could go away for a week. Just you and I in this obnoxiously American RV, driving into the Blue Ridge Mountains and enjoying each other, wholly.” His voice was savory and his hands traveled downward. “Free of distraction.”
Claire hummed, and he spun her around. There was a gleam in his dark eyes, and she felt like warm chestnuts were roasting over a flame within her, trembling with heat. She placed a hand on his cheek and drank in the elegant lines of his face like port wine--the dark brows, the firm jaw. “Like a second honeymoon,” she mused quietly, removing the university ball cap from his tousled hair and placing it on the counter, “to celebrate a new, very American life. With you.” Her fingers wove into his hair. His breath hitched.
Frank looked past her at something on one of the overhead bins. “ Make Love Not War ,” he read aloud from the sticker. “Who am I to argue?”
Claire pressed herself into him and felt him there, real as ever. She shrugged, smirked, and pulled him toward the rear of the RV by the belt loops. “A second honeymoon implies a second consummation, does it not, Professor Randall?”
Two days later, they were rambling west along the highway into a great unknown.
At a roadside store they stopped to buy stickers of their own, but the only ones were Smokey Bear stickers warning of forest fires. They bought one anyway and affixed it next to the scratch-and-sniff apple, which Claire confirmed no longer smelled like apple.
~ ~ ~
Claire wondered if Frank chose to relive that memory in death. She wondered if he’d chosen her.
She tried to ask, but he was seemingly absent this morning, buried beneath the soil of Jamie’s glass castle.
Claire inhaled, trying to rid her nose of the lavender haunting it, and was greeted again with all things green. The scent was earthy and rare. You couldn’t find this in the city, Claire thought, nor in the wilderness. This was an aroma that was cultivated, cared for, raised and nourished from infancy like a child.
Once, she’d read that mothers could smell the downy crowns of their babies’ heads and recognize something familiar there--something sweet and living. Of course, Claire had never known that for herself, but maybe it was like that with plants, too.
Again she breathed deep and long and held the sweet earth in her lungs. Yes, this was living. This was okay. Beautiful, even.
From above, a fine mist rained down on her head. Instinctively, Claire drew back and yelped in surprise. Blinked. And leaned back into the mist, welcoming it.
It stopped as suddenly as it had started. “I’ll be changing the irrigation system to a drip one soon,” hummed a voice from deep inside the greenhouse--somewhere behind a cluster of hanging plants, Claire thought.
She’d almost forgotten he was there. She licked water from her lips and was reminded of how thirsty she was.
The Scotsman parted the foliage. “It’s better for the plants, ye ken. Feeds the water directly to the root, keeping the leaves dry an’ staving off disease.” His pine sweater was still dusted with potting soil from the earlier mishap she’d witnessed through the kitchen window, and moisture had gathered on his upper lip. “Wastes less water, too,” he added.
Claire nodded. Jamie’s eyes traveled down her leg. He turned wordlessly to fetch a stool from the corner, and as she sat he regarded her warily--no doubt the bristly atmosphere from breakfast lingered in the forefront of his mind.
A silence fell.
In an effort to diffuse any enduring tension, Claire motioned toward small partitioned squares of dirt lining the shelves, some of which had been disturbed by budding nursery plants, some of which were already thriving in the throes of winter, and most of which remained sparse. “What are all of these, then?” she asked.
At her question, weight seemed to shed from Jamie’s shoulders along with the potting soil, which he attempted to brush off. “My wee seedlings.” A fondness she hadn’t yet seen crossed his face, and he wiped a hand along his upper lip, leaving behind a smudge of dirt. “I take the herbs wi’ me to the markets in the springtime and summer, and I sell them to people here on the ridge. They call on me for them, too. It’s a long way to the nearest Walgreens, ye ken.” Jamie’s fingertips skimmed the soil, feeling for moisture.
“You’re a traveling medicine man?” Claire asked, a trace of incredulity creeping into her voice. When she gave it a second thought, though, it wasn’t an entirely surprising notion.
“Aye.” Jamie nodded, still directing his attention toward the plants, searching for something. She wasn’t sure for what, exactly. “I told ye I’m no’ uneducated.” He smiled at the greenery. His eyes returned to hers and held them steadily. The tension in the kitchen seemed far away. “Yesterday, when I tended ye, the rag was steeped in Saracens’ consound and mint. The Saracens’ consound is a bonnie flower, all yellow like marigolds, but the leaves are the useful part. It’ll soothe irritation and clean lacerations and sores. Mint--well, ye ken mint, I’m sure.”
“I do ken mint.” Claire smiled, just a bit. “And here?”
He brightened and leaned into a small shaft of light. “Rosemary for stimulating the nervous and circulatory systems, stress relief and healthy urine production.” He pointed. “Thyme for colds and flu. St. Joseph’s Wort--basil--is verra useful. It contains a chemical compound called eugenol, like you get from clove oil and bay leaves, and it can be used for antibacterial and anti-inflammatory purposes.” Claire leaned forward on the stool to smell; in the muddle of plant scents, the basil was distinct and sharp.
“Dill,” Jamie continued, “contains the same compound, but is used more for heartburn and whatnot. Catnip has been used in teas and such since the 1730s--it’s not just for wee kitties. Agrimony for sore throat, and for, ah,” a sidelong glance, “menstrual discomfort.”
Jamie went on and on, row by row. Many of the plants’ introductions were accompanied with anecdotal tales. The jasmine, for instance, had been paired with rose, hyacinth, lily of the valley, and ragweed to create a rather potent perfume for a woman called Louise.
“She read it in a fancy botanical magazine once,” Jamie said. “She’s verra uppity about things like that--you’d think she was a French aristocrat, the way she is sometimes. I think she thinks she is one. Anyhow. That’s how I discovered I have a ragin’ hyacinth allergy.” He sneezed for an entire week straight and thrusted all of his hyacinth plants upon Murtagh. “Of course he hasna use for them. He hates them, really, them being the gaudy purple flowers they are.”
Murtagh, apparently, was Jamie’s godfather who lived nearby (a family unit, these Frasers from Scotland). The way Jamie described him, he was small but lumbering, stalwart and braw, with a beard that would make any ancient Highlander proud; Claire couldn’t help but picture Murtagh as unkempt and somewhat apelike, a hunted hare in his fist. Apparently he’d taught Jamie the art of sword fighting, and for some reason this didn’t strike her as any more surprising than Jamie being a mountainside medicine man did.
“You’ll meet him soon enough,” Jamie said. He was on all fours underneath a shelf, fiddling with something--one of the water pipes, perhaps. She couldn’t see anything but the tip of his boot. “He brings around beasts for dinner and we trade.”
“What do you give him in return?” Claire asked, craning her neck to try and catch a glimpse of him there. A jean cuff was all she could manage.
“Oh, fresh jams, eggs, herbs. Produce, once things start growing. Sometimes I bake him bread since he canna bake to save his life, the old clot-heid. Or I cook what he brings me and we dine together.”
“It sounds like he gets a lot from you.”
“Aye. But hunting is time-consuming labour, and I haven’t the time to do it for myself anymore.” There was a bang and a metallic squeal from underneath the shelf. Jamie didn’t acknowledge it, but she watched his foot jerk in surprise. “Besides,” he said, “I enjoy the baking an’ the growing, especially if it brings a bit of ease to someone. Although,” amusement crept into his voice, and he grew quieter, “sometimes I do feel like my mother.”
Another squeal, like metal churning against metal.
“Do you miss it?” Claire asked.
“The hunting. Do you miss it?”
“I havena been hunting in North Carolina.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
A shrill squeal erupted from beneath the shelf. “Christ!” Jamie sputtered, and it sounded like he was speaking into water. A thump against wood shook the entire shelf, and what plants were growing quivered with the force of the impact. Graceful as a jungle cat, he slid back out from under the shelf grimacing and rubbing his head, the front of his sweater soaking wet. He was trailed by a stream of water. “Hand me the wrench behind you, will ye, Sassenach?” A finger pointed to the tool in question.
Claire obliged quickly, and he disappeared once more underneath the shelf. She huffed, wishing she could see his face instead of the hem of his pants and the scuffed heel of his shoe.
There was a methodical squeaking, steadfast and efficient, and the water burst was resolved as quickly as it had detonated. “These pipes are old as dirt,” Jamie mumbled. He appeared on the ground in front of her, waterlogged and soil-smeared and red with frustration, his cinnamon hair sticking up in every direction. She stifled a laugh at the sight of him.
“Do you miss it?” she repeated.
He looked up at her with something like disbelief. “You ask a lot of questions, Sassenach.”
“Why do you call me that?”
“It’s what ye are, is it no?”
“You’re just as much an outlander here as I am.”
Jamie sighed in acquiescence. “I miss it, yes, but also I don’t.”
He cast her a sharp glance which evolved into roaming contemplation, and she knew he was asking himself how much he should divulge. She wondered if it had something to do with the conversation in the kitchen and how he had practically reeled away from her when she began probing. The more she thought about that interaction, the more it frustrated her; he had asked her about her past, after all, and she had obliged, even if the version she gave him was censored.
Finally Jamie settled on: “I havena been hunting since I lived in Scotland. I used to go wi’ Ian and Murtagh in the Highlands and it always felt like a band of brothers venturing off into the wild together, bringing back the hunt like… I don’t know, like the old days of the Clans. But that was then, and that’s no more, and now I’m here. It was a different life. So I suppose I miss it, how it was, but I dinna wish I could have it again here and now. I wish to leave the memory where it was because it…it feels sacred, ye ken. It’s something I want to preserve, and Ian...well I told ye he lost his leg. He’s not...” Jamie disguised his emotions well, but Claire felt as if he was warring with something internally. She could feel the thoughts turning over in his head, even as his eyes held hers steadily.
“It’s not the same,” Jamie finished. “So I miss it. But I also don’t.”
Claire blinked. It was more than she expected from him, admittedly, even as sanitized as the explanation likely was, but she understood. Some memories required careful preserving. Some memories shouldn’t be touched. She resolved not to pry further unless Jamie invited her to, just as he’d done, she realized, regarding her night in the stables and the brief mention of Frank existing solely in the past tense.
Her mouth opened to speak, and the words that came out were a surprise even to her. “You look like a hedgehog.”
The laugh, sudden and unexpected, transformed Jamie’s face into summertime. He ran a hand over his spiky hair. “Aye. I imagine I do.”
~ ~ ~
The day took on a lull, Jamie filling the space between them with herbology and stories as he moved lithely through the greenhouse, tending to plants and repotting those whose roots had outgrown their homes. He danced through tales of blight and growth, family and strangers, wasting no opportunity to insert textbook anecdotes about various plants and their medicinal uses.
He was an animated storyteller; his hands seemed to move independently of the man who wielded them, his slanted eyes brightening and dimming with the curve of his smile and the boom of his laughter, which unhinged as the hours wore on. Yes, it was rather like a dance--a dance in which he endlessly skirted around how and why, exactly, he had left Scotland, even as he spoke about the Highlands’ hills and thistle and other plants which grew there. But she had vowed to not pry, and Claire Randall kept her vows.
On the stool, she was mostly silent but receptive, and she didn’t mind the manner in which he took to the greenhouse floor like a stage. When she did elect to speak, it was usually to extract even more herbology from Jamie’s brain; it was objectively rather interesting, and the way in which he enthused about greenery was magnetically childlike.
By lunchtime, Claire was sleepily riding the tide of his voice like an optimistic sailor on calm waters. So calm, in fact, that she was beginning to doze in the middle of a story about Young Ian and this one time he tried to run away from home on a horse.
“Sassenach.” Jamie’s voice was tentative and came at her from a distance. Then again, louder: “Sassenach!”
Claire’s eyelids jolted open and she sat up straight, trying to give the impression she’d been wakeful and alert the entire time. Jamie’s face was near hers, and he was grinning.
“You’d think ye’ve no’ slept in a week,” he said.
“It feels like I haven’t,” she admitted. Her limbs were heavy with the heat of the greenhouse.
“Och aye,” he said and held out a hand. “We’ll get ye some food, and ye can rest. No doubt you’re still tired from yesterday’s,” he searched for a fitting noun, “escapades. And I think I can manage a few hours wi’out your company.” She was too groggy to discern if he’d meant that as an insult, a mere jest, or simply a matter of fact, so she decided to pay it little mind.
Jamie was a man of his word. Claire was fed and set down onto the living room loveseat, foot elevated on a stack of pillows.
Instead of counting sheep, she watched him start another fire atop the remnants of last night's; she counted shoulder blades. Left scapula, right scapula as he moved to lift wood and tossed it into dark spaces and set them aflame. She wondered what his skin looked like beneath the sweater. His sweater was the color of basil leaves. Left scapula, right scapula. Were the shoulders smooth? Untouched? Or were they scarred? Left scapula. Right scapula. She felt like they were scarred. Left. Right. And she couldn’t explain why. Left.
And suddenly he was at her side with a steaming cup of tea.
“Sorry, Sassenach, I didn’t realize you were already asleep,” he apologized. He almost looked embarrassed, as if he’d been caught staring.
Claire shook her head. “No, no it’s okay. I wasn't. I’m,” a yawn, “sorry. I think yesterday was just a lot and then last night I didn’t sleep much and.” She cut short her own words. About last night, Sassenach. All he had to do was ask. Why were ye in the stables? What haunts ye, lass? In this sleep-laden state she just might’ve answered. Just maybe. But likely not.
Jamie offered her a smile, and rested the tea on the ground next to her so she could easily reach for it without twisting around, if she wanted. “Dinna fash,” he reassured her. “I understand--my storytelling exhausts even the most steadfast of men.”
Claire snorted. “What about Amazons?”
Jamie raised an umber eyebrow. “Aye, even the strongest of Amazons. Apparently.” He draped a quilt across her. “While you nap like a wee bairn--”
“I’m not a wee bairn.”
“While you nap like a fat bairn,” he amended, and Claire had just enough energy to whack him in the arm, “I’ll be outside, if you need me. I’ve something bonnie to show ye later, also, so don’t sleep too long.”
“Och, it’s nothing.”
“Except it’s not," she countered. "It’s something.” Jamie seemed to melt into the background then, glistening and crackling in the dead of winter. He was a glowing orb atop a silver candlestick. He was thistle in the Highlands, he was an opal-hilted blade and a stag brooch. He was a waltzing orange flower in a glass castle. He was parsley, he was basil, he was spearmint, he was a red apple drunk on liquid caramel. He was a forest fire.
Left scapula, right scapula. Left. Right.
Jamie, from somewhere far away and far too close: Caidil gu math. Sleep well.
And she did.