Two years and six months ago
Claire had lost her job today.
More specifically, she had quit. Or, the hospital had called her bluff and she’d lost. Claire hated an ultimatum, just ask Frank. And look how well that turned out, she thought bitterly over her glass of wine. What she really wanted was a healthy pour of whisky, but Claire couldn’t stomach it these days. It still made her think of Jamie.
She supposed she’d have to add her faith in her intuition to the long list of things she had lost in the past six months. It didn’t hurt as much as losing her uncle, or her relationship, but it hurt just the same. And now that she had no job, what she did she really have left?
The moment her uncle was in the ground, Claire dove back into her work. One of the things that made her such a good doctor was that she could compartmentalize. Sure, she got attached perhaps a bit too much to her patients, but she wasn’t haunted by the people she couldn’t save. She refused to plagued with regrets about running around Scotland while her only family died all alone.
Pretending you’re okay isn’t the same as processing, Uncle Lamb had told her more often than once. We’ll see about that, Claire thought.
And for about a month, it worked. She took so many double shifts that she was the most popular doctor on call. She worked herself so hard that she fell into dreamless unconsciousness the moment she got home just to do it all again the next day. Joe told her he had half a mind to report all her over time to the hospital board, but he knew Claire would never forgive him for it.
As it happened, she didn’t even need Joe to report her. She got into trouble all on her own.
The patient’s name was Graham. He had been fighting an aggressive cancer most of his life and it was becoming clear he wasn’t going to survive his latest relapse. He asked Claire to help him die on his own terms and she responded with a triple dose of morphine. It would have been untraceable if a bloody nurse hadn’t walked in while Claire was still holding the syringe. It was Claire’s word against the nurses once she threw the syringe away, but the damage had been done.
Claire was promoted. Or more accurately, she was given an administrative job far, far away from any patients. She could see the promotion for what it was. Her actions could be defended by being criminally overworked while she was technically within her bereavement leave if she wanted it. If someone sued, it would be her supervisors who were in deep shit, not Claire despite the fact that she’d signed up for the shifts. Better to take care of Claire quietly than risk someone talking.
But Claire was a doctor, and a damn good one. Take that away and what did she even have? Her supervisor didn’t care, apparently. Claire threatened to quit if she wasn’t allowed to keep her job, and they let her. Apparently the Royal London Hospital didn’t look too kindly on their doctors killing patients. Even terminally ill patients in unfathomable pain.
Claire couldn’t say if she would have made the same choice if her circumstances had been different. Even though she thought she’d stand by her choice, she was lucky to have just been fired instead of having her license revoked or being reported to the police. But in her haze of suppressed grief, exhaustion from 100 hour weeks and sudden unemployment, she couldn’t see anything other than the hole she was about to fall into.
And fall she did.
Hard and fast. She barely left her flat, she never turned on the lights, she hadn’t done laundry in at least a month. If it wasn’t for delivery and Joe calling her daily, she probably would have starved to death. Not that she would have minded one bit, all things considered. Claire could probably get a job at a different hospital if she had the energy to actually interview anywhere. Instead, she started to drown in her isolation.
Claire had never really been forced to confront the realities of being an orphan. Her uncle had done a good job of making her feel like she was never alone, and while she never really had friends her own age growing up, she did have acquaintances around the globe. Apparently, none of that mattered now that she was alone in London and her only friend was easy to dodge with his own busy residency.
Then one day, about 3 months after Uncle Lamb’s death, Frank let himself into her flat. She didn’t have it in her to be outraged that he still had a key, it was her own fault for not changing the locks. Instead, she watched as he loaded groceries into her fridge and offered her a latte from the place by his flat that she’d been sorely missing. He didn’t say a word as he straightened up some of the obvious mess and Claire didn’t know how to break the silence.
“I’m going to make you dinner on Friday,” Frank said as he was leaving, “Please try to eat something that isn’t processed before then.”
Claire was too dumbfounded to tell him to go straight to hell.
She did call Joe, who guiltily told her that he was the one to ask Frank to check up on her, “I didn’t tell him to just let himself in, I swear LJ,” he insisted.
Claire didn’t chew him out for that. She hadn’t had anyone in her flat since Frank had broken up with her 6 months before. She was looking at herself from another’s perspective for the first time in months, and Claire didn’t like what she saw.
She didn’t call him to cancel, or change the locks. Instead, Claire washed her hair and cleaned her flat. She opened the windows and put on something other than sweatpants.
She hated that it was because of Frank that she felt a little human again, but that hatred was the first thing she’d felt in a very long time.
True to his word, he made Claire dinner on Friday. And the Friday after that. The week after that, dinner turned into dinner and drinks, then dinner and drinks at a restaurant before dropping her back off at her flat. Claire could see the trap she was about to fall into, but she couldn’t stop it.
She was so alone.
And Frank loved her. God, Claire knew that Frank loved her even if it was clear he didn’t really understand her. It wasn’t his fault that she was so fundamentally different from him. She hadn’t been raised to be the girlfriend he wanted, but she was learning how to lean on other people. And Frank was there to catch her the next time she fell. He was so patient with her, and it was so comfortable.
Maybe there was something to be said for being comfortable. Claire wasn’t inexperienced by any means, but the only people she’d been deeply romantically attracted to were Frank and Jamie. And Jamie… Jamie made her feel things that scared her. It had been one bloody night and they hadn’t even had sex and he’d broken her heart. If maybe Claire didn’t feel that all-consuming heat for Frank… she could see the appeal of being safe.
She knew their problems weren’t solved, but she didn’t have the energy to solve them and Frank didn’t make any move to. Instead, they just sort of fell right back into it.
When Frank gave her a key to his flat and asked her to move in 5 months after that first dinner, she said yes. She was hesitant, but she said yes. Apparently “Don’t bother coming back” meant something very different to Frank than it had to her. He shouldn’t have said that, he freely admitted it, but he had been very hurt. Claire knew she had been wrong to hide the internship from him, and she had hopped into bed with the first man who showed her any interest the same day she had broken up with Frank. She didn’t want to be that kind of woman. So she and Frank got back together, and things were looking up for a while.
With Frank and Joe’s encouragement, Claire practically begged for her old job back, and by some miracle she got it. Maybe her supervisor figured six months had made her considerably more stable. Maybe he was just short staffed. Either way, Claire was back in the emergency room. Even if she was being watched like a hawk, for about a year that was enough.
Then Frank proposed and Claire couldn’t think of any reason to say no, so she said yes. She figured he just wanted the commitment from her and wasn’t in any real rush to get married.
She was wrong. Frank didn’t want to waste any time and Claire was apathetic to wedding planning at best. Her excuse was she wanted to be better established in her career before getting married and starting a family, but that excuse wore thin after a few months.
Claire was getting better, but she was still far from the devoted little girlfriend Frank seemed to want. Maybe he thought she’d make a better devoted little wife and mother. He started working longer hours and Claire got more frustrated with her own career. She had set her sights on the head of surgery when she’d first landed her job. It was clear now that was never going to happen in London. She was never the favorite even before her leave of absence. She was too outspoken and independent to be put in charge of anything, she knew plenty of other doctors who went their whole careers on the sidelines for the same reason.
The Edinburgh job practically fell into her lap at the perfect time.
Claire wasn’t friends with Geillis Duncan by any means, but they had a professional relationship. Geillis was a leading obstetrician in Scotland and Claire called her semi regularly for her professional opinion, and Geillis came to her in turn with any difficult cases. The closest they’d gotten to a real friendship was when Geillis sent Jenny’s wedding invitation. Claire meant to send a response, she really had, but what was there to say more than two years later? Sorry I ghosted you, but I was catatonically depressed? Instead, Claire let her own engagement slip and then told Geillis not to pass any information about her to Jenny or Ian. She was sure Geillis would do it anyways, but at least Claire tried.
There was very little keeping her in London when Geillis asked Claire to interview for the job. There was really only Frank, and even if Claire wanted a life with him, she refused to give up her career for him. Her career was dead in London, that was clear with every opportunity that seemed just out of reach, and she told Frank she was leaving with a kiss and promise to talk later.
She supposed he’d follow her to Edinburgh if she got the job. God knew he was successful enough in his own field to find a job somewhere in Scotland (he reminded her of it often enough). And if he didn’t… Claire would deal with that bridge when she got to it. There was still no guarantee that she would even get it, so why tear everything apart for no reason?
But as she and Joe threw practice interview questions back and forth, she couldn’t shake the feeling that this trip was going to change her life
Leave it to a bloody Scot to find a fight everywhere he went.
Claire was fuming the whole way home and she couldn’t even seethe properly because she was practically carrying two people. She was the one who had made Joe drink for her, but she couldn’t believe how badly he was holding his liquor. Jamie was making a valiant effort to stand on his own two feet, but he was leaning on Claire heavily. It was unreasonable for Claire to blame him for that, not when she knew how much pain he must be in. He hadn’t exactly dislocated his own shoulder, but she blamed him anyways. He had thrown the first punch, and now her night was ruined.
It was already ruined, she thought reasonably. It was ruined the moment Jamie had walked through the door. She had somehow managed to patch things up with Ian, and even Jenny was warming back up to her, but that didn’t mean she wanted anything to do with him.
She was shocked as anything when Ian showed up at her hotel. Claire hadn’t really expected anyone to show up at all, if she was being honest. Jenny was fiercely loyal and she was slow to forgive when she’d been betrayed. Claire hadn’t really considered how much she’d hurt Jenny by disappearing. Sure, she felt guilty, and she missed her friend, but it had been one night after four years.
She didn’t think Jenny would be sick with worry, or that she wanted Claire to be in her wedding, not just in attendance. Ian had informed her of both of those things.
“Claire, I canna even imagine what losing yer uncle was like,” Ian said as tears sprang to Claire’s eyes, “But ye were like a sister to us in Glasgow, and it seemed like fate that we met again. And for ye to just leave, I dinna understand it...”
“There is a little bit more,” Claire admitted. She hadn’t intended to tell anyone she had hooked up with Jamie. It didn’t seem like Jenny’s business, and what if he was still with Laoghaire? Claire thought it was unlikely that Jamie would want to be with someone so young and possessive, but then again, she didn’t really know him at all. She didn’t want to stir the pot unnecessarily, but she couldn’t leave Ian with the unsatisfying lie. She stayed as vague as possible, saying that she and Jamie kissed and she regretted it the next day (true, even if it wasn’t the whole truth). She had always intended to tell Jenny something, but then she left Edinburgh and well… she hadn’t been able to do much of anything, let alone apologize to someone she loved.
Ian had forgiven her, but he wasn’t really the one Claire was worried about. By some miracle, he had convinced Jenny to hear her out.
“I am only here out of curiosity and Ian wouldna tell me himself,” Jenny said without saying hello, “So talk, Beauchamp.” And talk she did, giving a lot more detail than she gave Ian but managing to leave out Jamie altogether. Of course, she noticed.
“I sense truth in what yer saying,” she said when Claire was done, “But not the whole truth. What aren’t ye telling me, Claire?”
“Please, Jenny,” Claire begged. She had started crying almost the moment she started speaking and she felt pathetic compared to Jenny’s cold demeanor, “It is embarrassing and it’s not an important part of the story.”
“Is it about Jamie?” she asked, and Claire froze. Had Ian told her? Had Jamie? “Dinna bother answering, I can see it in yer eyes. I’ll leave whatever it is with my brother between ye and him, but Claire, ye have to ken how worried I was.”
“I honestly thought ye were dead, I couldna thing of any other explanation,” Jenny continued, her mask slipping for the first time. Claire wrapped her arms around the other woman without thinking about it. After a stiff moment, Jenny hugged her back, and Claire felt okay for the first time in a long time.
And now here she was, carrying the one person she hadn’t wanted to talk to tonight. Mercifully, the hotel was just around the corner and soon they were outside her room. She and Joe had opted for two rooms connected by a door instead of just sharing. Getting Joe’s room key from him wasn’t going to work in his current state, so Claire just let everyone into her room, thinking she could put Jamie and Joe to bed in the room through the adjoining door and she’d be left in peace.
Of course, Joe Abernathy, apparently the worst drinker on the planet, managed to get in his own room while Claire was distracted checking Jamie’s arm and lock the door behind him.
“Fucking hell,” Claire cursed as she knocked. But it was no use, Joe was either already asleep or too far gone to hear her. She whipped back around to Jamie as if it was his fault and continued examining his arm perhaps less gently than she could have.
“Claire?” Jamie said after a particularly hard prod. Jamie was sitting on the chair next to Claire’s bed and she was standing between his legs taking great care not to touch him anywhere other than his injured shoulder, “Is it really the worst thing in the world to speak to me?”
“Yes,” she said absentmindedly before silently cursing herself. She had issues holding her tongue normally and especially when she was working, “Stay still.”
“Claire?” Jamie tried again. She was doing a valiant job of ignoring the way his pain stricken, puppy dog eyes were staring up at her. She had fallen for those eyes once, she wasn’t going to do it again.
“Stay still,” Claire scolded. She knew she was being unreasonable, but Jamie had hurt her. In the wake of everything that happened in Edinburgh, it shouldn’t hurt her still. But it did. It wasn’t like Claire to fall for someone the moment she met them, it wasn’t like Claire to fall for someone at all, but she had and then she’d found out she’d entirely misjudged him. It was a big reason she had just fallen back into her safe and predictable relationship with Frank. It was the reason she’d done a lot of things.
Interviewing for this job was the first real risk she’d taken in years. Because what if her intuition was wrong and she found herself free falling again? Of course, Jamie didn’t need to hear all that. Instead, she could just keep her head down and get out of this night unharmed. That was proving difficult when he wouldn’t just bloody leave her alone. And every time her eyes drifted up and met his, the same bolt of electricity and desire shot through her as three years ago.
“Can I ask ye just one thing?”
“If you must,” she sighed.
“What ye said about Laoghaire…” he began and Claire froze.
“Of course that’s the thing you picked up on. Not that I wanted you to leave me alone, but that I knew about your bloody girlfriend.” She punctuated her sentence by tightening the sling and she got some morbid satisfaction at Jamie’s wince.
“Laoghaire isna my girlfriend,” he said simply after the pain faded.
“Maybe not now-”
“Not since I was 19, Sassenach, long before I met ye,” Jamie replied. He was looking at her almost expectantly, like he was about to get the answer to a riddle he’d been trying to solve for years. Maybe he was. Maybe James Fraser had been thinking about Claire just as much as she’d thought about him. Claire couldn’t have looked away from him even if she wanted to, his eyes were holding her steady in front of him.
“Sassenach…” Jamie said slowly, as if afraid that she would bolt. Maybe she would. There were still so many things going through her mind. She tried not to think of Laoghaire, but she couldn’t puzzle out why she’d tell Claire she was Jamie’s girlfriend if she wasn’t. But now that Jamie had denied it, she knew deep down that he was telling the truth, “I dinna ken what happened with Laoghaire, but I havena liked another woman in a verra long time. Not since I kissed ye, if I’m being honest.”
“Oh,” Claire let out the word like a breath. His words took a weight off of her shoulders that she’d been carrying for years. There was a euphoria that came with the sudden absence of pain, and Claire was dizzy with it. Jamie wasn’t a cheater. And he wasn’t a liar. Which meant that she hadn’t imagined the electricity between them three years ago and she wasn’t imagining it now.
The energy of him was stronger than when she’d last been alone with him. He had been 21 and just starting university while she had already been a doctor. But now… Jamie Fraser was a boy no longer. He was every inch a man. And now that Claire wasn’t angry at him, she was very aware of how they were nearly pressed together. At some point, Jamie’s good arm had drifted up and he was now gripping her hip as she drifted closer between his legs.
“Do ye think about that night?” Jamie asked with a slight hesitancy. He was looking at her so tenderly, but he was nervous, she realized. He didn’t wait for an answer before he continued, “I wonder what would have happened if ye had stayed all the time. I wanted ye so much, Claire.”
“Wanted,” Claire repeated, the past tense sobering her up a bit.
“Want. I want ye still,” he amended. He gave her hip a squeeze for emphasis. His arms were so long and toned be was holding her almost fully with just the uninjured one. In response, Claire’s hands drifted to Jamie’s shoulders. She was unbelievably gentle now. Even sitting, he was nearly as tall as her. If would have been so easy for her to lean down and connect their lips together. She was tempted, so very tempted, but there was still so much to sort out.
Not least of which was the ring on her finger, she realized with a start as it caught the light and sparkled as she moved. Claire pulled her hands away as if Jamie’s skin had burned her. Perhaps it had, she thought absentmindedly. If she thought her mind was a mess before, it was a chaos of Jamie and Frank and arousal and confusion now. She ran a hand through her unruly curls as she turned away from Jamie.
“Claire?” Jamie asked, the hurt and confusion not even masked.
What Claire would have even said, she didn’t know, but she was interrupted by her phone ringing. Grateful for the excuse to get some air from Jamie, Claire practically lunged for her purse and grabbed her phone. She didn’t even look to see who it was before she answered.
“Hello, darling. How was the interview?” Frank drawled from what might as well have been a million miles away. Guilt sank down heavy in her stomach so suddenly that it made her nauseous
She and Frank hadn’t talked in the three days between when she left London and her first interview. Instead of her panicking over the lack of contact, she had walked into her interview with nothing weighing on her other than wanting the job. He had called her after, though. He’d been quiet, but had still congratulated her when she said it went well. She thought maybe they were turning a corner, but then he did the same thing again. Claire hadn’t heard from him since that night and she hadn’t even thought of him before going into her second interview yesterday.
“I don’t know yet,” she said once her mind started working again. One hand was still in her hair nervously trying to untangle a curl in vain, “They haven’t called me for the third, but I thought it went well enough.”
“‘Well enough’ is Claire speak for bloody brilliant,” Frank replied, and something in her heart untightened a little at the teasing lilt in his voice, “You are the most humble person with a doctorate I know.”
“That’s because doctors of medicine are decidedly less condescending than PhDs,” she teased right back and was met with a few minutes of tense silence. Claire didn’t think much of Frank’s co-workers, and it was always hit or miss if her jokes about them would land. This one was a miss, it seemed.
“I expected you to call hours ago,” Frank said finally. Claire bit back a comment on how he could’ve called her at any point in the last two days, but there was no point in having that fight right now.
“I was…” Claire struggled to find the right words as she gave a backwards glance at Jamie. He was eyeing her with a look she couldn’t even begin to decipher even if she wanted to. She settled on, “Indisposed.”
“I connected with some friends from when I studied in Glasgow.”
“Christ, that’s what? 6 years ago?”
“7,” Claire corrected, “Jenny owns a tavern now. That’s where we were.”
“Well,” Frank said with thinly veiled annoyance, “I’m glad you’re having fun with your friends. I’ll let you get some sleep since it’s late. Goodnight, Claire.”
“I love you, too,” Claire said haughtily as Frank hung up on her. It wasn’t until she turned back around that she realized Jamie was still in the room.
Shit. What was she doing? It’s clear she and Frank were in a rough patch, but she certainly wasn’t a cheater and she wasn’t about to lead Jamie on. From this distance, Claire could see what rough shape Jamie was in. His arm was angry and swollen and he was swaying even though he was sitting. He winced with every small movement and he looked like he was going to either fall asleep or pass out at any moment. Maybe she should have taken him to the hospital just so she could have gotten him some pain killers?
The spell they had been under was broken now. Jamie didn’t have the same “glass face” that Claire did, so he was harder to read, but he seemed to be thinking very much the same thing as she was.
It was clear that whatever could have happened between them was over with the way Jamie’s eyes were trained on Claire toying with her engagement ring. She crossed her arms self-consciously so it was no longer in view.
“It’s late,” Claire said finally, “And you’re clearly in pain. We should go to bed.”
To bed, or to sleep? Was his response the last time she’d said something like that. She fought back the smile playing on her lips at the memory.
“Don’t,” she said as she turned away again. It was too overwhelming to look directly at him, “It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters!”
“No, it doesn’t,” Claire said with more certainty than she felt. The fire that had just been in her had turned ice cold, “I am engaged. To a man I love. To a man I actually know.”
Jamie looked for a moment like he was going to argue, but whatever was written on Claire’s face shut him up more than her words did. Good.
Maybe it wasn’t fair of her to be acting this way, but her life and relationship were complicated enough without adding James Fraser to the mix. Questions of what if had haunted Claire for three years, and enough was enough. She’d gotten enough of an answer tonight. She and Jamie were still undeniably attracted to each other, but Claire was too old to be a slave to her lust.
“You take the bed. I’m going to take a shower,” Claire began as she got a change of clothes, “Don’t get any noble ideas about taking the couch. I will wake you up and move you.” Without another word, Claire turned back to the bathroom. Hopefully Jamie would be asleep when she got out and she could be left to sort through her thoughts alone. Well, as alone as she could be with a massive Scot 10 feet away from her.
“Claire,” Jamie called just before she shut the door. Against her better judgement, Claire turned back to him. There were a million unspoken things in his eyes but he said none of them, “Goodnight, Sassenach.”
“Goodnight, Jamie,” her voice softened at the nickname before she could help it. Claire tore her eyes away from him and closed the door on him, and the possibility of anything happening between them. At least for tonight.