Lord John Grey awoke to a familiar Scottish voice. Every inch of him stung or ached or buzzed dully. His eyes were heavy, blurred, as he tried to push and keep them open. Grey failed to make out the exact words floating to his ears from the chair by his bedside, but he listened, allowing the sound to bring him private comfort. Fraser sat with a book open in his lap, big fingers gentle on worn pages, red hair plaited neatly over his ears. Was it Tom Byrd’s handiwork? It certainly looked like it was.
A smile drew the corner of John’s mouth up, and Fraser’s eyes met his. Relief softened the lines between his ruddy brows and Jamie closed the book but kept his finger between the pages to mark his place. Grey recognized it as Hal’s copy of Robinson Crusoe .
“It’s good to see you awake,” Fraser said. “Can I get you anything?”
Just stay, John thought, just keep reading to me. He cursed himself for it, then blamed whatever was in the tonic Doctor Maguire had given him. “No, no thank you, Fraser. It’s good to be awake, though the pain is considerably less when I am not.”
“Aye, I expect so.” Fraser stood and left the book on the chair. “If ye’ll let me help you to sit, I’ll gi’ ye a bit of brandy. Or one of the surgeons left some laudanum if ye dinna mind the dreams.” He held one hand out in front of Grey, the other poised to scoop under his back.
Grey’s mouth opened and shut twice before he managed to speak. “Yes, that would be... Most helpful, thank you.” He laid his hand in Fraser’s. Small, internal wings fluttered against Grey’s ribs. Fraser, as steady and sure as bedrock, helped him to sit.
Keeping hold of Grey’s hand, Jamie piled the pillows up behind him, then with his other hand firmly supporting John’s back, helped him to settle against the pillows. Only after being sure that Grey was secure under his own power did Fraser release his hand and turn away. There was the tinkling sound of a decanter and liquid being poured, and Jamie returned with a glass of brandy. “Do ye think ye can manage on yer own?” He held the glass out to Grey, close enough that he wouldn’t have to reach far.
No, Grey thought. “Yes, I believe so.” He took the glass of brandy and tipped the warm liquid back between his lips. It burned lightly on his tongue and down his throat to his belly. Grey licked away a stray droplet, then cradled the glass against his chest. “Have you happened to hear any news of Twelvetrees?”
Edward Twelvetrees was not the first man John Grey had dueled, though Grey could only hope he would be his last, especially following these atrocious injuries. Grey could only be grateful, however, that he’d managed to affect things so that it was he who had been forced to duel Twelvetrees, rather than Fraser.
Fraser blew out a long breath, retrieving the book and settling himself back into the chair. “Aye. His Grace said he died this morning.” His face bore a neutral expression, eyes fixed on Grey, patient.
Grey blinked. He should have said something, then, but what? He didn’t even know what he felt about what had happened, let alone what to say on the subject. Sure, he’d known it had only been a matter of time. Wounds such as the one Grey had inflicted upon Twelvetrees almost universally resulted in death and yet, the news of Twelvetrees’ death still sobered him. It was never an easy thing, whatever the reason, to be responsible for ending another man’s life. “Oh, well...” He frowned and took another sip of brandy. “Thank you for telling me.”
Jamie gave one of those amazingly expressive Scottish hums. “He wouldna have yielded. Surely ye ken that.”
“No. Perhaps not.” John tried a small smile and straightened up. The motion tugged on his stitches and he winced. “I’m surprised there haven’t been calls for my arrest. Reginald Twelvetrees cannot be pleased. Or have there been, and you’re simply sparing me the bad news?”
“Actually, I was sparing ye the bad news, but it wasna that.” Jamie grimaced. “Nay, news of the duel and the circumstances of it got ‘round. Everyone says ye’re a hero. For defending the Crown against an insidious threat. Or something of the kind.”
“That’s not the reason, I…” John sighed, not convinced of the wisdom in speaking more on the subject of just why he had been willing to duel the man.
Fraser settled himself back in the chair and regarded Grey, those sparkling blue cat eyes impassive. “Aye, I ken that.” He set the book on the arm rest of the chair and laced his fingers together in front of him. “But since ye bring it up, why did ye challenge him? Ye kent he had called me out, ye were there. Did ye no’ believe I could best him?”
Grey shut his eyes. How much of the truth could be said between them now? How much still belonged in the silence that kept them at arms’ length? “Whether he called you out or not, it did not matter. What he said about me, well, it was not your battle to fight.” And bested or not, I could not bear to see you hurt.
“Was it no’? What Twelvetrees said about you he also said about me by association. And do ye mean to imply, My Lord, that slander of a personal nature between men is a more serious offense than treason? I didna take ye as so prideful.”
Did Fraser honestly want the truth? Either way, he would give it to him or some version of the truth. “What’s slander to you is… well, it’s less so to me, but no, no I reckon I owe you the truth for my brother’s dragging you into this in the first place. I challenged him because, on the off chance that luck was on Twelvetrees side that day, I could not bear to watch you die.” Because I think I love you, remained unsaid.
The stomps of small feet and hushed half-whispers of young boys in the hall interrupted them. The door creaked open and a small head peeked into the room, curious eyes under a head of fluffy, fair hair.
Grey held his brandy glass out to Jamie, who hesitantly took it and set it back somewhere behind him. “Come in, Ben.”
“Uncle John!” his eldest nephew burst into the room. “You’re not dead. Mama said you were almost dead.”
“Do I look dead to you?”
Ben’s chin tilted up as if he were considering the possibility that Grey could be dead and not have any of the telltale signs. Then, his attention shifted, “Oh, hello Mr. Fraser.”
Jamie’s entire countenance changed, eyes crinkling at the edges with a smile of sincere joy, unfolding his hands and nodding at the boy. “Good day to you, Your Lordship,” he said, inclining his head in a very serious nod of respect.
Ben peeked at the cover of Fraser’s book. “You were reading Uncle John Robinson Crusoe ? I thought you were reading him Gulliver’s Travels? Or was that yesterday.” His gaze turned to Grey. “He’s been in here the whole time, Uncle. And when I wanted to come in and see you, Mama said no. So I said, ‘Well, that’s not fair. Mr. Fraser gets to stay in there all day’.”
A flush rose in Grey’s cheeks, warm as the brandy he had been drinking. He bit down on the inside of his cheek to temper the smile beckoning at his lips. “Yes, that’s… well…” Thoughtlessly, his eyes flashed to Fraser. It didn’t mean a bloody thing, Grey reminded himself. He’d been down that path with Jamie Fraser before and it had ended disastrously. Whatever strong feelings the Scot conjured up in Grey, Fraser did not return them.
“It wasna all day,” Fraser replied.
Two more heads peeked in through the door—Adam and Henry—and they rushed up to Grey’s bedside, all of them, including Ben, clamoring on beside him.
“Can we see where you were stabbed?” asked Adam.
“I suppose so.” The doctor was meant to return later to change the dressing, so there would be no harm in it. Briefly, Grey flicked his gaze to Jamie, then looked down his own chest. With his uninjured hand, he unbuttoned his nightshirt. It stung as he peeled back the bandage. His nephew's eyes all widened, small eyes filled with excited, boyish wonder.
“Whoa,” Ben said. “You did almost die!”
Grey had to admit the scar was rather impressive, longer than the wound itself would’ve been had it not been for the interference of the surgeon. Not to mention the hideous webbing of black stitches that stretched across it.
“Does it hurt really bad?”
“It’s not terrible,” Grey said. “My itching leg is far more troublesome.”
“I wanna see!” Henry started in on the bed linens, like a mole digging its burrow. When Grey’s other nephew-moles joined in, he found he’d had enough.
“Alright, alright. Just everyone calm down.” Grey threw back the covers, then lifted his nightshirt to reveal the slash across the top of his thigh.
The itching was terrible, but he was glad to have Doctor Maguire’s poultice removed, at least. Though between his three doctors, all with very different thoughts on the manner of his healing, he felt far more like a specimen than a patient.
“You’ve got a big willy, Uncle John,” Adam informed the room thoughtfully.
Fraser snorted in a most unseemly manner, no doubt the result of an effort to stifle an even more unseemly fit of laughter. It failed utterly, the big Scot bracing a fist against his closed lips as if that could physically keep it at bay. It did not. “From the mouths of babes, aye?” he muttered.
Something about the lightness in Fraser’s face encouraged him, perhaps made him a tad bit reckless. “It’s average for a grown man, I’d say, though I believe it’s given fairly general satisfaction.”
Fraser’s snickering was choked off abruptly with a coughing fit. He cleared his throat and recovered his composure. “Why don’t ye tell yer uncle about the new puppies? He hasna heard about them yet.”
“Ah, so little Lucy had her puppies, then.” Grey laughed, thankful for Fraser’s expert ability to change a subject. “How many?”
“Six!” shouted Adam, beaming.
“She had them in the linen closet,” Ben said. “I’d never seen Mrs. Weston so mad, but Cook gave her sherry. We each named one and then we let Mama name one and Mr. Fraser and we saved one for you too, Uncle.”
Grey looked over at Fraser, catching his eye. “Tell me. What did you call your pup, then?”
Jamie met his gaze, one corner of his handsome mouth turning up in the mischievous ghost of a smile. “Corriey. It’s short for Corrieyairack. She’s such a new, wee thing. Seemed fitting, ken.”
“Well, then,” Grey gave Fraser a look and matched the man’s smile. “I imagine our young Corriey shall also be a very brave and gallant protector of women endangered by large, brutish captors.”
“Oh, aye,” Fraser agreed. “She yips like a wee fiend whenever yer brother goes near her.”
The sounds of chattering children moved around John as the boys squirmed playfully in his bed, but their words had faded to the background and his focus had narrowed in on Fraser.
Grey lifted his chin, much like Ben had done. Family trait , he suddenly recognized. “Is that right? Tell me, Fraser, how has the pup taken to you?”
Jamie arched one eyebrow at Grey. “Better than she has to yer brother. She kens my scent and cries for me to pick her up. Aye, she’s a bonny wee lass. Excellent judge of character.”
Adam snuggled into Grey’s side, little chin on his shoulder. He breathed a warm, small breath on his neck. “Uncle, what are you going to name your pup?”
He tucked a loose curl back behind Adam’s tiny ear. The light from the window shone through the delicate skin, the tiny curve becoming a translucent pink. “Well, I don’t know. Is mine a boy or a girl?”
“A boy,” said Henry on his other side, five little toes tucked on Grey’s knee. “We saved you the biggest one.”
“Hmm… big, you say...” He looked to Fraser, then back to his nephews.
Adam nodded. “Uh huh, but he’s always getting in trouble. Getting into the kitchen with Cook and bothering Mrs. Weston. I hope you don’t want a gentler puppy.” A look of dreadful concern crossed Adam’s face. “You… you could have Ben’s.”
“Nuh uh.” Ben glared at his younger brother. “You can have Adam’s.”
Grey laughed, shaking his head. “No, no. It’s alright boys. I don’t mind a troublemaker. As for a name…” Fraser had named his pup after the place they’d met. Fitting, Grey figured, as without their unusual connection, he would’ve never been given a pup to name. He wouldn’t be here either, without Jamie. He thought of Lucy, the spaniel, with her ruddy, silky coat and the way it shone in an afternoon sun. Reddish and wild, despite its captivity, not unlike the plaited hair falling softly over Fraser’s strong neck. And then, Grey thought of the way it felt to look at Jamie Fraser. The way the resulting heat moved beneath his ribs and up to his scalp, down to his thighs and all the way to the bottoms of his feet. “Red,” he said, finally. “I think I’ll name him Red.”
Jamie watched Lord John with his nephews, the boys prattling on with hardly a pause for breath between them. Grey listened as attentively as he could, responding to their rapid fire questions and asking some of his own. Occasionally, one of the boys—Henry usually—would forget to sit still and jostle the bed, causing Grey to wince and press his lips together in a grim line. The first time this had happened, Jamie had made to rise, intending to expel the lads on the spot. But Grey had waved him off, so Jamie settled for clearing his throat in a significant tone and giving the children a hard eye from under a raised brow. The look quelled them immediately, and the shadow of pain passed from John’s face, leaving in its wake only the joy of their company.
The tranquil smile never left Grey’s eyes and he seemed to have forgotten all about his wounds, so long as the boys were still and cuddled up beside him. Jamie’s mind drifted to Lallybroch, to his own nephews and nieces, to the simple and easy joy of children that could seep into a man’s bones. Lord John Grey was not immune to this effect, Jamie was pleased to see. The boys’ chattering faded into the background of Jamie’s attention and his own children came to mind with a pang of longing. He sent up a silent prayer, for Willie’s well-being in his absence, and for the safety of the child Claire had carried with her. Jamie’s heart ached for her and the bairn. But here in this haven of domestic quiet, watching the happiness and love flow freely between his friend and his nephews, his own pain was eased. It wasn’t a cure by any means, but it cooled the burning on his soul.
Fraser rested his chin on his hand, concealing his smile behind his fist. Grey was his friend, and the fear and worry that had been knotted in his guts since Grey had taken that first saber slash to his thigh was finally beginning to relax. The relief of it made Jamie’s eyes burn with tears. It was as if he hadn’t drawn breath at all since John had collapsed in Jamie’s arms and now air filled his lungs for the first time. That would probably warrant some scrutiny in the near future, he thought. In the future, aye, but not now. For now, Jamie would enjoy the simpler pleasure of John’s happiness.
The duchess came through the open door with a rustle of skirts and Fraser rose respectfully. Her Grace planted her fists on her hips as she surveyed the scene on the sickbed. “What are you doing to your poor Uncle John? Out of here at once, the lot of you,” she said to the boys, making shooing motions with her hands. The children bid their uncle farewell and scampered away. Her gaze followed them out the door before she turned her attention to Jamie, still standing. “Oh, do sit down, Captain Fraser,” she said, easing herself onto the mattress next to Grey.
Jamie nodded and returned to his seat.
“What do you have in your hand?” Grey asked.
“Oh these.” Minnie said softly, rifling through a stack of letters. “ Billets-doux . It seems, John, that you have a great many admirers.”
“Oh…” Grey fidgeted beneath the linens. “Oh dear. Why ?”
“You cannot expect to fight so gallantly and not attract the attention of young and excitable women who would simply love the chance to—”
“I can and I most certainly did,” Grey protested. “This didn’t happen after my duel with Nicholls over Caroline Woodward.”
He did what ? Jamie thought. The first time he’d met Lord John, he’d been little more than a lad intent on fighting the infamous Red Jamie for the safety and honor of a woman. Had he not learned his lesson?
The duchess gave Grey a deeply skeptical look, one thin eyebrow arching high. “Yes, it did. But you ran off to Canada so fast that you never had the chance to see them. Hal said not to bother forwarding them but I read them all, of course.”
Jamie couldn’t take the not knowing. “I beg your pardon, Your Grace.” She nodded and Jamie turned his attention to Grey. “Has dueling become so much of a habit for ye, My Lord? Do ye have a death wish I should ken about?”
“I reckon you know quite well, Fraser, of my penchant for defending the honor of innocent women.” He gave Jamie a pointed look beneath a lifted eyebrow. “And not so innocent women. Besides…” He took one of the letters, seal already broken, and flipped it open, clearing his throat. “... this woman seems to find herself quite besotted with me, after all, and who are you, sir, to argue with… ah, yes, Miss Emma Blakely of Hampshire.”
"That depends," Fraser said, returning John's look with interest. "Do ye ken Miss Emma Blakely of Hampshire personally?"
“No, but I assume anyone this intrigued by me must be an excellent judge of character. Hand me another, Minnie.”
She gave Jamie a conspiratory look, then rifled through the letters as if she were in search of one in particular. She handed it to John.
He began to read it aloud. “ I have heard marvelous tales of your gallantry, and even more marvelous tales of your— Christ.” The blush on Grey’s cheeks now was nearly as deep a color as wine. He clutched the letter to his chest as if to protect it from anyone else who may want to indulge themselves in the contents. “Dear God, you didn’t read these, Minnie? Did you?”
She graced Jamie with another playful look, then returned her gaze to her brother-in-law. “Quite, and I considered framing some of them, but as you can see. Most are not appropriate for polite company.”
Grey’s jaw set. “For any company, for that matter. Burn the lot.”
"Nay, dinna stop on my account," Jamie said, a surge of wicked mischief—and a few less savory emotions—rushing through him, making him reckless. "Marvelous tales of what, hmm? Would that be, um… oh aye. Fairly general satisfaction?"
The duchess covered her mouth, shoulders shaking with undisguised laughter.
Grey worried his lip, much the way he would before deciding on a chess move. “Yes, well, what can I say. Tales of greatness do follow the great. It cannot be helped. No matter how humble one tries to be.”
Fraser was saved from answering by the entrance of a footman carrying a large tray laden with two plates and a pot of fragrant coffee. It was just as well, there was no reply that wouldn’t end in disaster. Checkmate.
“Thank you,” the duchess said, taking one of the plates for Grey. “Hal thought you could both benefit from a proper meal.”
The footman offered the second plate to Jamie, who opened his mouth to protest, but Minnie cut him off. “Nonsense, Captain Fraser,” she said. “You have hardly eaten since John came home. And when was the last time you slept somewhere other than that chair, hmm? I insist.”
Jamie accepted the plate with a sheepish nod to the duchess and muttered thanks to the servant.
As they ate their dinners, Minnie chimed back in, “I almost forgot. There was another letter. I didn’t open this one. It looked like business.” She held it out to Grey and he took it. Something unnameable changed his face, though the expression disappeared quickly enough Jamie doubted it had ever been there. Grey handed the letter back to the duchess. “Destroy that one too.”
Chapter 2: Honesty under an Effigy
Jamie watched Lord John duck into the shed, eyes haunted and looking for all the world like he wished he wasn’t in it. He looked around, feeling guilty enough for spying that he wanted to be sure no one saw him. Jamie knew that look, had seen it in the mirror more than once, and his heart hurt to see Grey suffer so. With one more glance about him, Jamie strolled to the shed and stood in the doorway.
Grey sat on a bucket, their fridstool , his head in his hands, shoulder slumped and defeated. Jamie frowned down at his friend, quashing his first instinct, which was to drop to his knees at Grey’s feet and put his arms around him. But that wouldn’t help. He sighed and gripped Grey by both arms and hauled him to his feet. “Come and walk wi’ me,” Jamie said. “It’ll be easier if we’re walking.”
Fraser kept a firm hold of Grey’s right arm with his left hand as he led them into Hyde Park, to keep the man moving, so he wouldn’t be compelled to stop or sink to the ground under a scorched effigy. “Tell me,” Jamie said.
And Grey did. He told Jamie about the spymaster Hubert Bowles and how he’d informed Grey of Twelvetrees’ involvement in uncovering the very Jacobite plot they’d accused him of aiding. Of the error of the court-martial, of the injustice of it all. And most importantly, that Grey had murdered an innocent man, thinking he’d been a traitor to the crown when he’d actually been a spy in its service. Jamie countered each catastrophe with logic and reason. Ye couldna have known. Neither of ye would have yielded in the duel. He died in what he believed to be the performance of his duties. At last, Grey seemed to have run out of words.
“We both ken why ye challenged him,” Fraser said, bringing them to a stop on a deserted knoll. “Ye did it for me, did ye no’? All other things being equal, had I forced his hand to challenge me, would ye still have done the same knowing he wasna a traitor? Bowles or no, would ye still have fought Twelvetrees for me?”
Grey’s chin tilted, eyes turned up to the moonlit sky. “Christ, Fraser. You can’t just ask me questions that could end with your fist breaking my bloody jaw, alright?” He turned his gaze down to his feet, as if all the answers to the world’s problems and his own were hidden somewhere in the boot leather. “It is not fair.”
“If I wanted to beat ye, I had ample opportunity while I watched over ye day and night from the moment I carried ye off that field, eejit.” Jamie let go of Grey’s arm but didn’t put any distance between them. “I’m not trying to start an argument. I meant the question: Would ye still have done the same? ”
“Yes. Of course.” Grey tucked long fingers in his palm, his chest lifting as if making himself slightly larger may offer him some protection. It seemed Grey didn’t entirely believe that, as of now, Jamie meant him no harm. “As much as it is in my power to do so, Jamie Fraser, I will see you safe.”
“Mmhmm. And do ye think that’s an honorable choice?”
Grey worried his bottom lip between his teeth. “I reckon when it comes to you, I find it easier not to care so much about what is honorable.”
“Ye didna answer the question, but for the sake of argument, I’ll take it as a yes.” Jamie tapped the stiff fingers of his right hand against his thigh, considering. A nervous fist clenched the pit of his stomach. The surest route to Grey’s absolution may well be through an admission he wasn’t yet prepared to make, but… fair was fair after all. “False accusation or no, I dinna regret forcing him to challenge me. Aye, sure, I did believe he was a traitor and as such a threat to those I have been responsible for, but that wasna why I did what I did.” Jamie took a breath and an iron grip on his wits. “I couldna challenge him on yer behalf without lending credibility to his slander. But I also couldna see ye endangered by his words.”
Grey’s eyes shifted, wary, perhaps of someone listening in, but as far as Jamie could see, they were alone. “It wasn’t slander, Fraser, you and I both know that. I appreciate the sentiment, more than you know, but you should not have put yourself in danger to protect me from the truth. I know the consequences for,” his voice lowered even farther, “for men like me. I’ve counted the cost more than once. I’m willing to pay with my own life, if it came down to it, but I am not willing to pay with yours.”
Jamie snorted. “I wasna in any danger. I’ve had a sword in my hand since I was big enough to lift one. Ye gave me my life, aye, but it’s still mine.” He narrowed his eyes down at Grey. Counted the cost, he’d said. “But this isna about me, is it? Ye’re thinking of yer...step brother.”
The clench of Grey’s jaw was visible even in the low light. “Well, I try not to think of him often, but it is a valuable reminder of what can so quickly ruin a man. It is not a fate I’d wish on anyone.” His gaze flashed to Jamie, then he looked away with the same speed. “And you made your feelings on the matter quite clear once. So, I do apologize if it surprises me that you would find it in yourself to defend me from my own perversions, as I believe you may have put it.”
It was Jamie’s turn to examine the grass beneath his feet. “Aye, that’s what I said,” he whispered, voice sounding regretful and ashamed to his own ears. He should apologize, maybe explain himself, but no. The damage had been dealt and all the reasons and excuses for his cruel words would mean precious little. He lost his nerve and changed the subject back to the problem at hand. “The point I am trying to lead us to is that we are neither of us blameless in Twelvetrees’ death, and neither is Twelvetrees himself, God rest his soul. Ye made the best choice ye could based on the information that was available to ye at the time. And there is no damnation nor dishonor in that. Regret, aye, for the death of an honorable man. But it is a regret that we share. And there’s the two of us in it. We can bear it.”
Grey stopped walking and looked over at Jamie, blinking as if he were expecting that one of the times his eyes opened, he’d see something different. He spoke, it seemed, only when he was satisfied that that which was before his eyes was truly there. “You need not go back to Helwater.”
Fraser thought of Willie and his blood ran cold. Of course, Grey didn’t know, had no way of knowing, but the thought of leaving his son forever terrified him. “I’m not sure I take yer meaning, My Lord. My freedom isna yers to give, as I understand it.”
“No, I apologize. If It were, you must know you would have always had it. It’s only that, with the service you’ve performed here, I do believe that it could be done. You could have your freedom.”
Jamie locked his emotions deep beneath the surface lest they show. “Aye, I ken that. And I thank ye, My Lord, but no. I dinna wish to leave Helwater.”
Grey frowned, a ripple moving from the edge of his jaw down his neck. He blinked one long blink, then opened his eyes again. “Well, then, you could at least call me John, if we are to share such guilt between us.”
In another time and place, all Jamie would have called him would have been John . The gift of equity and friendship did ease his own feelings of regret for the events of the past weeks, but knowing that he would have to give that back when he returned to Helwater caused a deep ache in his heart. “Thank ye for that as well,” he said softly. He met Grey’s eyes and hoped his own were steady. “But I canna do that either. To be that familiar, that… close. I would find it disagreeable to give it up.”
“And you wouldn’t have to, if you stayed.” Grey fidgeted with a button on his coat, tugging on it as if he were trying to absentmindedly pluck it off and stash it away in his pocket as he often did with a variety of trinkets. More than one unusual item had tumbled from Grey’s pockets when Jamie had carried him after the duel. “May I… may I ask what is at Helwater that is worth your freedom?”
Fraser looked around, feeling helpless and exposed, but they were still quite alone. His bones hurt with the want to tell Grey about Willie. He’d told no one and the secret was beginning to burn a wretched hole in his soul, but for his son he would bear it. “Not what,” he said at last. “Who.”
“Oh…” Grey let out a long breath. “Is there a… do you have a… woman at Helwater?”
His first instinct was to say yes and lie through his teeth. But while he couldn’t, for Willie’s sake, tell him the truth, the man deserved as close to it as he could safely give. Quite surprisingly, Claire came to mind, and their agreement that there was room for some secrets but not lies between them. Part of the truth then. “Not so much, no. But I suppose ye could say there was.” His heart hammered in his chest so loud he was sure Grey could hear it. “It’s for the sake of our child that I wish to stay.”
Grey stopped walking and his bottom lip had dropped open slightly. “You’ve had a child? What of his… or her… mother? Is she… you said ‘was’?” He shook his head. “I hope these questions are not overstepping. Feel free to disregard them. That was simply unexpected news. Congratulations, Fraser. Truly,” he continued on before Jamie could get a word in. “Are you certain that my obtaining your freedom would not be of some benefit to your child? I’m sure between my brother and I, we could secure you a position in London, lodgings even, until you found yourself more stable.” He sighed. “And I’m overstepping again, aren’t I?”
Christ if only that were all possible. To have his son with him, knowing him for who he was. Jamie suddenly realized he would love nothing more than a simple life with WIllie, with John Grey to share in the knowledge of it as a friend. “And I appreciate that as well, My Lord, but no. His place is there and mine is wi’ him.”
“Oh, yes, well then, we should get you back to Helwater and to your son.”
Chapter 3: They Shared A Room
It took several days to travel from London to Lord Dunsany’s estate, but thankfully, there were quite a few inns along the way so John Grey and his travel companions would not have to sleep rough. Tonight’s inn, however, could have been in better condition. It was sunk down at least three feet on one side, and vines clung to the stone in thick tangled patches of green, leaving many of the windows obscured as well. Two dirt-encrusted lanterns hung crooked beside the door, casting a flickering, spotted glow like pox across their skin.
It was not only the slanted foundation that left Grey as uneasy and off-balance as if he were walking the deck of a ship, but the tension and uncertainty in every interaction with Fraser since he’d told Grey of his child.
A green devil skittered under his skin, making him clench his jaw. He had no right to be jealous of the woman Fraser had taken to his bed, the woman he’d filled with enough of himself that new life had sprouted up where he had planted it. And yet… the green devil refused John Grey mercy.
Out of respect for Fraser and care for an innocent child, he would ignore it to the best of his ability.
Grey secured them a room with the innkeeper, but only one room was available for the three of them. Fraser and Tom Byrd ascended the slanted stairs behind him in a cacophony of boot stomps. They carried on down the hall and John used the key he’d been given to open the third door on the right.
Stepping in first, Grey was greeted with the sight of dusty floorboards, a vine-obscured window and a single bed sat awkwardly in the center of the room like an island.
Fraser set his pack on the floor next to the door and his eyes swept the room, clearly engaged in some trigonometric calculations. "Come, wee Byrd," he said to Tom at last. "Help me turn the bedstead and there'll be plenty of room for us on the hearth rug."
Tom nodded and the two of them crossed the few steps to each take hold of the bed frame.
The thought of relegating Fraser to the floor made Grey feel a slight burn of wrong beneath his ribs. He didn’t mind lying beside Tom on the hearth rug to gift Fraser with a comfortable bed before he was consigned to whatever accommodations the Dunsany’s provided him at Helwater. “Fraser, there’s no need for you to sleep on the floor. Offering you the bed is the least I can do after all you’ve done for my brother and I.”
Byrd's eyes went wide and he stared from Grey to Fraser and back again. Fraser's jaw tensed as he nodded at Tom, and together, they lifted the bed. They turned it ninety degrees, leaving a large enough expanse of floor open for a pair of large men to sleep comfortably.
Straightening up, Fraser gave Grey an impassive, though not cold, stare. "I appreciate that. Truly, My Lord. But it would be neither fitting nor proper for ye to sleep on the floor while a convicted traitor lies comfortably in the bed." He brushed past Grey and squatted down by his pack, opening it and rummaging around inside. "I have spent a great many years sleeping in less acceptable conditions and in far less desirable company than you two gentlemen." Fraser stood again, a worn blanket and a cloak in either hand. He passed the blanket to Tom who accepted it. "I'll bide near the fire, sir." When Fraser met Grey's eyes again, there was something like a kind smile on his face.
Grey didn’t know if it was the exhaustion or just frustration at Fraser’s constant inability to allow him to help, to be gracious to him, like accepting a gift from Grey might leave behind some permanent stain, but he fixed Fraser with a grim stare. “Be that as it may, I won’t be sleeping in the bed and if you’re unwilling, Fraser, then…” he gestured to the mattress. “Tom, by all means, take advantage.”
Tom's eyes popped out of his head at that. "Me lord? I don't…" he looked helplessly to Fraser. "Oughtn't you try to talk some sense into him, Captain? I don't think I would sleep a wink knowin' Me Lord is on the cold floor."
Jamie shucked out of his coat, folded it neatly, and laid it on one end of the hearth rug. He looked from Tom to Grey, plainly amused. "Nay, wee Byrd, I ken that's between ye and His Lordship." He lowered himself to the floor near the fire and unbuckled his boots. "But I wish ye luck, Tom. Our Lord John is about as stubborn as any Scot when he's a mind to be." Fraser set his boots neatly aside and laid down, pulling the cloak over his shoulders.
Grey compressed his lips, then slipped out of his own boots and coat and dropped the coat a respectable distance from Fraser’s near the hearth. Fraser bested him often enough that his pride could not handle a loss now. Grey laid down on the floor.
Tom looked to the bed, then back down to Grey, then back to the bed again. “Why, this is… Me Lord. This is simply not proper. Not how it’s done. No, not at all.”
“Would you please stop muttering about manners, Byrd?” Grey yawned. “And just get in the bed.”
Tom frowned, tore off his coat in a most un-Tom Byrd like manner. He kicked off his boots while spreading his coat out on the floor on the side of John not occupied by Jamie Fraser. He crossed his small arms over his chest and stared defiantly at the ceiling.
Jamie glanced over his shoulder at the other two men, all too stubborn for their own good. With a sigh he stood, leaving his cloak on the floor, and went to the bed. There was a rustle of bed clothes, and then the quilt came down over Grey, followed by the pillow, which landed on his chest. Fraser laid back down on the floor and wrapped the cloak around himself, all without so much as a by your leave .
Without a doubt, Jamie Fraser was the most infuriating bastard, Scottish or English, that John Grey had ever set eyes upon. He could not for the life of him just let Grey give him something. If Fraser wanted a damn battle of wills, Grey would oblige him. He thought to hurl the blanket off of him and onto Tom Byrd, but instead, he waved the excess like a flag and let it fall over Jamie. Grey did, however, take the pillow and shove it unceremoniously under Tom’s head, who yelped and then grumbled a series of offended complaints beneath his breath.
Fraser chuckled, damn him directly to hell. "I hope ye dinna take this as an insult, My Lord. But yer stubbornness is unmatched in any Englishman I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I congratulate ye, sir. Good night, gentlemen."
For a moment, Grey felt impending disappointment. Perhaps his victory would not be as sweet as he had hoped. Then he looked over to Jamie beside him, beneath the same quilt as Grey himself, the fabric rising and falling with his deep breaths. Yes, he thought, it was precisely as sweet as he had hoped.
The fire had died down in the night, leaving the morning air cool on Grey's face. Despite that chill, the rest of him felt very warm. From the solid weight of a long arm thrown casually over his chest, to the ankle hooked over his leg, to the firm body of Jamie Fraser mere inches from Grey's side. As if sensing his alertness, Fraser stirred and sighed drowsily, but did not wake.
Grey shut his eyes. This was as close as he’d ever been permitted to be to the man. It didn’t even bother him that Tom was there too, appearing to be in a deep, childlike sleep. Feeling Fraser’s presence, his relaxed and open demeanor in sleep, filled Grey with more warmth than he would have even known with a full-raging hearth. He ached to turn over, move closer, and watch Fraser’s expressions as he slept. Take it all in and hoard it away in his heart where no one could ever take it from him. But Grey stayed still, afraid that even the slightest movement would end their pleasant yet unexpected closeness.
The tempo of Jamie's breathing shifted as he climbed slowly toward consciousness, stretching and flexing his limbs like a very large and contented cat. The result of said stretching was that Fraser's fingers curled against Grey's side, effectively pulling him closer. A frown creased Fraser's brow and he opened his eyes, shattering the illusion.
Startled didn't begin to cover the expression on Fraser's face. Absolute terror lit his eyes. He snatched his arm and leg away as if scalded, pitching backward until he was against the cold hearthstone. The stand of iron tools went skidding across the floor with a horrific clatter. Jamie’s broad chest heaved as he fought to breathe, hands curled into fists and blue eyes staring directly through Grey to some invisible threat.
Tom squeaked, sitting up. The commotion was enough to startle him from even a deep sleep. His thin chest dragged in heavy breaths as he rubbed at his eyes. “Me lord? Captain Fraser? What’s happened? What’s wrong?”
John sat up, his insides cold, broken like shattered glass. He forced his words to be calm and measured. “Nothing,” Grey said. “All’s well. It was only a… rat.”
“A rat, Me Lord?” Tom raised an eyebrow, likely unconvinced that something as mundane as a rat could send Captain Fraser hurtling across the room like that.
“It was rather a large rat, Tom,” Grey replied in a tone he hoped conveyed to his valet the order to drop his line of inquiry entirely.
Fraser blinked, attention drawn back to the surface. With a shudder, he collected himself, blew his breath out in a puff. "Aye," he said, climbing to his feet, his joints popping audibly. "I am sorry to have startled ye, Tom." His gaze flicked to Grey for just a second and then fixed conspicuously anywhere else in the room, shame thinly veiled on his face. "My sincerest apologies, My Lord, for...my outburst."
Grey blinked. Fraser was apologizing, but for his reaction to discovering he’d been holding Grey, not that he’d been holding him.Though, it was likely just to spare John’s feelings. Sometime, between that disastrous night in the barn and now, Fraser had gone from disgust at John’s feelings for him to something that seemed much more akin to pity. He would never forget that evening. The terse words they’d thrown at each other, the rising heat of fury and frustration. The cruel insults Jamie had thrown his way, the insinuation that a man like him had no capacity for love. Then, the sting of his own words—not a threat but a challenge. I tell you sir—were I to take you to my bed—I could make you scream. And by God, I would do it . He found himself suddenly, stupidly, missing the sharpness of Fraser's anger that John could sometimes, in a moment of weakness, allow himself to mistake for passion.
John cleared his throat. “We’d best get on the road. From the clouds, it appears it may rain today.”
It had rained, from midmorning into the afternoon, fat droplets of bitter cold that forced them off the road to seek shelter early. More than once along the way, they had found the road almost completely washed away and they'd had to walk the horses to keep the animals from getting stuck in the mud.
Jamie and Lord John had barely spoken two words to each other since they’d set out that morning, but Jamie kept stealing glances when Grey wasn’t looking. He fought down the shame he felt at his reaction to waking up with the man in his arms. If he was honest with himself, it hadn't been an altogether unpleasant experience, and through the day he found himself longing for the simple warmth of it. But when he'd opened his eyes it hadn't been John Grey he was holding, but Jack Randall.
The memory of Randall's shade made his blood run so cold that he couldn't feel the sting of the rain. Jamie wished that he could extricate the memory of Randall's cruelty from his feelings for Grey, prayed that he wouldn’t find the same blackness in this man whom he’d come to think of as his friend. Grey had spoken to Jamie before of love between men in much the same way Jamie spoke of his love for Claire. Evil men like Randall weren’t capable of love, could be nothing more than the perverted animals they were. But Jamie had known Grey longer than he’d known Randall. And while Randall had taken every opportunity to hurt Jamie, to abuse and terrorize and use him, Lord John had not. Quite the opposite, actually. From the first time they’d met at Carryarick, Grey had proven himself honorable and brave, willing to sacrifice himself for a woman—Claire, of course—who he had believed to be in danger. Even as the governor of Ardsmuir, where misery and cruelty could have so easily been the coin of the realm, he’d demonstrated his capacity for compassion. He’d been kind to Jamie, been kind to his men; he’d shown them mercy if not necessarily lenience. No, Jamie decided, John Grey was no animal.
Jamie had watched Grey’s back as they struggled to lead the horses through the mire. He was smaller of stature than Jamie was, but then most men were. Jamie remembered the solid feel of Grey under his arm, the densely packed muscles of his torso and his legs. He admired the man’s grace of motion now, the fluid way he carried his strong body, the beautiful movements of a lifetime swordsman.
With increasing frequency over the past few months, Fraser had found himself thinking of Grey differently, as more than someone with whom to share good conversation or the occasional game of chess. There was a strange familiarity to the way Jamie had begun to think of Lord John, a fondness or...an affection. Something beyond what he felt for the precious few others he’d called a friend. Jack Randall may have had no capacity for love, but did John Grey? More terrifying, Jamie thought… did he? Had he lost it? Had it gone through the stones with Claire? Had Randall taken it from him along with everything else he’d stolen from Jamie at Wentworth? Or was it his own doing? Had Jamie traded it for the pleasure of being close to Grey, in the joy of their brief but familiar touches?
Back on a relatively solid road, Jamie had mounted his horse, praying in earnest that Jack Randall would rest and leave him be.
By the time they arrived at the next village, they were soaked through cloaks, coats, waistcoats, shirts, and breeches. Poor wee Byrd was shaking violently when they walked into the next inn and they were famished because it had been too wet to open their provisions.
Once again, only one room could be procured, but they were so cold and drenched and miserable that no one seemed to care in the slightest. The proprietor sent someone ahead of them to build up the fire, carrying with her a tray of whatever savories the kitchen had on hand, along with hot tea and a bottle of brandy. The woman set about hurriedly readying the room and closed the door behind her as she left. Jamie poured a steaming cup of tea and handed it to poor Tom, whose teeth were chattering.
“T-thank you, C-Captain,” Tom barely managed through his shaking.
Across the room, John Grey was stripping off his soaked outer layers, first in his shirtsleeves and then in just his shirt and breeches. He walked over and poured two glasses of brandy and thrust one into Jamie’s hand. The tip of their fingers brushed, sending unnerving sparks through Jamie. It was probably just the cold, the innate search for warmth, he decided.
Grey tipped the brandy back into his mouth, draining half the glass. He shivered. “It’ll be a miracle if none of us catch cold or worse. Tom, you especially, your fingers and lips are practically blue and you’re still dripping on the floor.”
“Yes, Me Lord,” Tom said, setting down his cup of hot tea after another sip. “Quite right.” Then, he eyed Jamie. “Though, I have to say I’m not the only one dripping. We must dry our clothes by the fire, if we don’t want them to be ruined.” Tom removed his clothes down to nothing but his thin shirt and cotton drawers. In this state of undress, Tom Byrd appeared almost impossibly small. He staggered forward, clothes balanced in his arms, he knelt down and laid them out. “You two as well, Captain, Me Lord. I’ll ensure as little damage as possible is done.”
Jamie removed his coat and waistcoat and dragged a chair in front of the fire, which he draped his clothes over. He topped off Tom’s tea, added a little brandy, and brought it to the lad. “Ye need to drink this down. Get ye out of that shirt, put some food on yer belly, and into the bed. I’ll see to this.” Fraser’s tone was firm, but he smiled at Tom to soften it.
Tom Byrd began to protest, but Jamie deposited the tea cup in his hand and dragged him away from his task. “Ye can tell me what to do about the clothes. Dinna fash, wee Byrd. Yer position is secure.”
“But, Captain, Me Lord—” he began but brought the cup, trembling, to his lips at Jamie’s sternly raised eyebrow.
“Jamie is right,” Grey said. “You’re pale as the linens.” He cupped Tom’s forearm with his hand. “And cold as ice. Bloody hell, Tom. I wish you would have spoken up earlier.” Grey led Byrd to the foot of the bed and encouraged him to sit with a firm hand on his shoulder. He returned, moments later, with a plate of food for his valet—bits of sausage, wedges of cheese, and slices of juicy pear. Grey took the now empty cup from Tom’s shaking hand and replaced it with the plate. “Finish that up, then you’ll get under the covers. Fraser and I can sleep on the floor again.”
Tom’s mouth set into a deep frown. “No, m-Me Lord. I can’t p-possibly. I’ll be f-fine on the f-floor.”
“You’re sleeping in the bed, Tom, and that’s an order.”
Still shivering and frowning, Tom looked over his shoulder. “If you insist, at least, there’s room enough for two, Me Lord.”
Grey shook his head, eyes darting to Jamie. “No, no. If anything, Captain Fraser will join you.”
Jamie popped a large bite of sausage into his mouth with his fingers, shaking his head and struggling out of his boots as he chewed. “I was raised in this kind of damp cold, My Lord, and it is dangerous.” He washed the sausage down with a generous pull of brandy, which helped considerably to warm his belly, though he still shivered, twitching ripples over his arms. “If we canna all three fit in the bed, then two of us should sleep by the fire.” Jamie dragged off his soaked stockings and laid them out with the rest of their clothes, the floor drafty and icy beneath his bare feet.
Grey leaned over the bed, head cocked to the side. “It will be tight, but I think we can fit. It may be for the best… to keep warm, that is.” He turned to Jamie and swallowed. “Yes?”
The fire was warm, but only directly in front of it. Fraser looked from the space by the hearth to the bed, and each of his joints seemed to groan at the prospect of sleeping on the floor again. As long as he could manage to keep his wits about him this time, it would be alright. Jamie nodded. “Aye. Aye, ye’re right.” His breeches and shirt were still plastered to his body, his shirt particularly miserable. He dreaded to take it off and expose his back, but Grey and wee Byrd had seen his scars before. He sighed, resigned to the prospect, and pulled his shirt off over his head, water pattering on the floor as he stripped to his drawers.
Grey kept his eyes glued to the floor, shivering. Without looking up, he pulled his own shirt up over his head, the muscles in his back rippling as he did. His chest and back were spotted and striped with scars of their own. “In the bed,” he ordered Tom, who stripped down to his drawers as well, then still shaking, thrust his legs beneath the covers. Grey’s bare feet creaked on the floor as he padded across the wood to slide into the bed beside Tom. There was only about a foot of space remaining on the bed. Jamie would fit, but it would be tight.
Jamie crossed the room and faced the narrow strip of mattress next to Grey. He’d have to lie on his side, else he’d be likely to tumble directly onto the floor, which would defeat the purpose of this entire farce. He perched himself on the bed, the mattress dipping alarmingly under his weight, and shoved his bare legs under the blankets. He was so close to Grey that the loose tendrils of the man’s hair tickled Jamie’s nose. Thinking only that now would be a terrible time to start sneezing, he muttered, “Beg yer pardon, My Lord,” and smoothed Greys hair down his back, then focused on making himself as small as possible.
Grey drew in a sharp breath and a visible tremor wriggled down his body. “That’s alright, Fraser.” He shifted closer to Tom, enough that he could likely rest his chin on the young man’s head if he were so inclined. They were certainly close enough that if Grey wanted to he could rest an arm casually over Byrd’s bare chest, just the way he’d woken up with Jamie’s arm draped over him that morning. “Good night,” Grey said. “To the both of you. Let’s try to rest. We’ve got another long day tomorrow and we can only hope it will not be nearly as wet.”
There were few simple pleasures in this world as delightful as waking slowly with the sun, burrowed snugly in a comfortable bed, skin to warm skin with someone else. Even in miserable conditions, cold and wet and hungry, waking up with Claire curled against him were some of Jamie’s fondest memories.
Jamie did in fact wake slowly with the sun, and he was in fact lying skin to warm skin with Lord John Grey, who had managed to turn in the night. Grey was still asleep, his finely boned cheek pillowed on Jamie’s shoulder, the start of an unbroken line of contact that went all the way to their tangled ankles. Fraser nearly startled but got a grip on his composure in time. No sense in rushing out into the chilly room, after all. And here in the quiet dawn, with no one but himself to hear his thoughts, Jamie indulged in the simple pleasure of nearness and shared vulnerability. It reminded him of so many mornings traveling with Prince Charlie’s doomed army, when he had loathed to leave Claire’s warm side to muster his men on the frosty moors.
A roiling ball of guilt slid into the pit of Jamie’s stomach. How could he possibly conjure Claire’s memory at the same time that he relished the touch of another? Of a man, no less. But no, it wasn’t the same, he assured himself. The three of them had been so miserably cold and wet for so long that it was only natural he should be hesitant to leave the warmth of the bed.
Fraser’s arm had gone numb under Grey’s head and he tried to shift enough to relieve the pressure without waking him. But his attempt to wriggle his arm wriggled other things and Jamie froze. Not only was his own cockstand pressed into Grey’s thigh, but Grey was returning the favor. And from what Jamie could tell, wee Adam hadn’t been exaggerating. Were it not for Tom Byrd snoring lightly on the far side of the bed, Fraser might have let it bide, but it would be best if they could avoid lying about rats from now on. He laid one hand on Grey’s shoulder, squeezing it gently. “My lord,” he whispered. “John.”
Grey let out a soft little noise, eyes fluttering open. They looked at him with such tender softness. “Jamie,” he returned the familiar gesture with the use of his Christian name. “G’morning.”
Jamie had braced himself for a wave of fear and nightmares and ghosts, but it was just John Grey returning his heavy lidded, sleepy stare. “Sorry to wake ye,” he whispered and tilted his chin in the direction of Tom. “I didn’t want to frighten our wee Byrd again, and it might be best if I… well, if I had my arm back.” Jamie cut his eyes down, indicating their proximity.
“Oh, oh dear, yes.” Grey scooted back, unfitting their entwined bodies. He glanced down at himself. “I do apologize for that. If I made you uncomfortable, it was not my intention. Sometimes bodies behave… outside our own control.”
“Dinna fash,” Fraser said with absolute sincerity. “It’s alright.” Lying there, still mere inches away, he could easily make out the distressed creases in Grey’s brow and Jamie was suddenly possessed with the insane urge to press the line flat with his lips. The accompanying recollection of doing just that to Claire when she was worried or upset made him nervous. For just a second, he considered what it would be like to give into the urge and the prospect filled him with something very close to happiness. That frightened the hell out of him. Jamie did his level best to keep the conflicting emotions from his face and gingerly turned to roll out of bed in as controlled a dismount as he could manage.
Their clothes were pretty well dried, and Jamie stepped into his breeches, fastening the flies. He stooped to build the fire back up, and laid out their clothes in neat piles before he pulled his shirt on.
“Tom,” Grey said gently, nudging the small man. “Tom, wake up.”
Byrd startled straight up, blinking, and spouted off a line of nonsensical words that must’ve come straight from whatever dream he was having. He brightened with awareness and relaxed. “Did I just say something?”
Grey glanced over at Jamie, a conspiratorial glint in his eye and laughed.
“Nothing intelligible enough to be embarrassing, wee Byrd,” Jamie said with a grin, peering out the window at the sky as he buttoned his waistcoat. “God willing the weather will hold today and we can make up some lost time.”
Though the weather did hold—mostly—the roads were still muddy. Still, they managed to recover some of their progress from the previous day, pushing past dusk and finding an inn after full dark. After an adequate supper of a kind of chicken and root vegetable potpie, Lord John accepted the key from the innkeeper. Jamie hadn't heard his conversation with the proprietor, so he was unsure if their accomodation was a result of Grey’s unwillingness to be disappointed again or some vastly improbable cosmic joke.
Whatever the reason for it, Fraser and Tom Byrd followed Grey upstairs to their third single room in a row, the sight of the lone bed barely disquieting at this point. They were so exhausted from the long day’s travel that when Grey suggested they all pile into the bed together, even Jamie couldn’t argue. Tom had spoken up to suggest that the three of them take it in turns to endure the middle position, volunteering to do so himself.
For the first time in three mornings, Jamie awoke chilled, wee Byrd’s knee barely touching Jamie’s leg. Lord John was a blazing forge in comparison to his valet and Jamie looked over Tom’s shoulder to watch the gentle rise and fall of his friend’s breathing. Jamie could just make out the pale tip of a scar on Grey’s chest through the open neck of his shirt. He found himself regretful that he’d not looked more closely when they’d slept bare chested the previous night. Even now as friends, so much of their relationship bore the shadow of their social statuses. Tom Byrd’s carefully curated wardrobe notwithstanding, it was always Grey’s fine suits to Jamie’s homespun work shirts, red uniform to shackles. But stripped nearly bare, they’d shared equal misery, equal vulnerability. And Jamie had enjoyed the glimpse of Lord John, fair skin pebbled with gooseflesh, white and pink scars a sharp reminder that he was a damned fierce warrior.
Now, twenty-four long hours removed from the accidental intimacy of the previous morning, Fraser found himself wondering if he could reach over and brush the strand of hair from John’s eyes without waking Tom. Later, when he was back at Helwater and Grey was gone, Jamie would have to figure out what that meant. Had he lost some crucial piece of his soul? Had Jamie endured despair and loneliness for so long that something within him had been tainted or broken? The first morning had been horrific, invaded by a waking nightmare, and a part of Jamie prayed that Grey had recognized it for what it was, realized that Jamie hadn’t recoiled from Grey himself. But yesterday had been… pleasant? Nice? Good. Was he damned for that, for finding joy in the simple touch of another man, even if no one was hurt by it? And on this morning, Jamie Fraser found he very much missed waking up to the touch of Lord John Grey.
The roads were easily passable now that the rains were gone and they made it to the final town in good spirits, the setting sun painting the sparse clouds orange and pink above them. They enjoyed a rather delicious supper of roast lamb and potatoes with rosemary and plenty of wine, retiring with another bottle to share between the three of them. This time Fraser was certain that Grey had only asked for one room. They had successfully navigated the situation at last, and the conversation on the road and over dinner had been easy and enjoyable. And it was Jamie’s turn to take the middle. He would wake up on their last morning together next to Grey.
Tom’s cheeks were flushed with drink as he carefully hung and brushed off their coats, but his feet still looked sure and steady. Packs stacked neatly by the door, Jamie poured out the wine, handing Grey a glass.
Grey took a long drink of the wine, the rich color staining his lips. “We’ll be at Helwater tomorrow. It feels like it’s been quite some time since I’ve been there last.” He breathed out a long breath. His eyes were hazy and warm and he yawned. “So much has happened in the intermittent time. I wonder if it will feel the same.”
“In my experience, such places dinna change much,” Jamie replied, setting his glass on the little table and taking a seat in one of the chairs near the fireplace. “The world could turn inside-out but life at an estate like Helwater would go on without much notice.”
“I reckon our experiences in this area have been rather similar. Young William, though,” John said, casually. “He does bring a sort of new life to the place, despite everything. Helwater may not have changed much, but he will have. Do you get to see him much, Fraser? The young master?”
Jamie took a crushing grip on the swirling mass of panic and pride he felt whenever someone spoke of his son. Quick as lightning, he locked everything safely away, out of sight. “Oh, aye, from time to time,” Fraser answered. “I accompany the family on their outings, on occasion. To mind the horses. And Lord Dunsany brought the wee earl to the stables to introduce him to the horses before I left for London.” Fraser could have gone on for hours about Willie, could have catalogued every single thing he knew of the boy. But Lord John was intelligent and perceptive, and to reveal Willie’s true parentage, even to Grey, could be disastrous, no matter how much Jamie wanted to. He took up his wine instead and sipped it.
Grey yawned again and stretched his shoulders, his muscles and bone rippling beneath his shirt and waistcoat. Those lithe fingers popped open each button down his chest with sharp, thoughtful plucks as if he were playing an instrument. He shrugged out of the garment and laid it over the back of the chair. “I think I’ll have one more glass of wine. Anyone else? Tom? Fraser?”
Tom shook his head and followed it with a quick. “No, Me Lord.”
Jamie was bone-tired, his belly pleasantly full; the wine had relaxed him, and he did long for sleep. But he longed for one more moment in Grey’s company even more. “Aye, thank ye,” Fraser said, trying to fit what little he’d seen of Grey’s body the other day into the flowing white fabric of his shirt in his view now. He cut his eyes away before Grey could notice, staring at a chink in the wall just to Grey’s right, but his peripheral vision was excellent.
“If there’s nothing more I can do for you, Me Lord, might I turn in?” Tom asked. The poor lad looked dead on his feet. Hopefully he hadn’t caught a chill.
“Of course, Tom,” Grey said gently as he poured two glasses of wine. “Please do.”
Tom gave Grey a nod of thanks, then undressed down to his shirt and collapsed into the bed.
Grey handed Jamie his glass, then leaned against the wall, propping a foot against the wainscoting. His hair had come loose from it’s ribbon and his eyes moved warmly to Jamie as he took another long sip. “I think, Fraser, now tell me if I’m wrong,”—his voice was a soft whisper—“but I believe we often had this vintage at our suppers at Ardsmuir. The taste, it… brings me back.”
“Hmm?” Jamie took a sip of his wine and rolled it around on his tongue, found the sweetness of berries and the earthy aroma of distant peat. He swallowed and shook his head. “It is familiar, aye. I think we had something similar. But this was aged in whisky barrels.”
“You truly do have quite the tongue, Fraser… I mean,” he coughed. “Only that, um, you have a mind for… palate.” An awkward, small laugh tumbled from those wine stained lips. “The word I’m looking for is palate . I think I may have had quite enough wine this evening.” Even so, Grey took another sip from his glass.
Jamie laughed and glanced toward Tom. It didn’t sound like he was asleep, but he was tactful enough to make no indication that he’d heard the slip. “It’s alright, My Lord. I kent yer meaning.” He took another drink from his own glass, taking the opportunity to regain his composure. “I was a wine merchant for a time, if ye recall. In Paris, before the rising.”
“Ah, yes, well, it shows.” Grey polished off the glass, then set it back on the tray. “I should retire. I’m rather exhausted.”
Fraser nodded in agreement and covered a yawn with the back of his hand. He hung his own waistcoat and breeches neatly over the chair and slid into the bed next to Tom, leaving as much space for Grey as he could. It wasn’t much space, admittedly, but that could hardly be helped. Besides, Jamie was very much looking forward to sharing a pillow with him.
Grey stood over him, looking down, blinking. He shook his head, subtly, and yet still somehow reminding Jamie of a wet dog. Slowly, Grey rotated until his back faced Jamie, then tugged down his breeches. The candlelight from the nightstand glimmered on the hairs of his pale thighs. He turned around again and that candlelight was on the sharp edge of a stubbled jaw, the hill of his Adam’s apple. Grey blew out the candle and he was lost in the darkness, until the mattress sank beside Jamie and the aroma of wine and spice and male sweat greeted him. They were close, so close, and yet not touching. Given the space on the bed, one false move and Lord John would end up landing on the floor.
This time tomorrow, Jamie would be alone on his narrow pallet in the loft of the Helwater stable, the jagged ends of the straw jabbing into him. And Grey would be in his guest quarters in the house. It might as well be a million miles away. Fraser felt the heat radiating from Grey, fear and regret gripping him that he’d never feel it again. That he’d never, ever have this chance again. Because tomorrow Jamie would be a prisoner again with only his memories to keep him warm. That wouldna do .
Jamie took a breath, inhaled the scent of Lord John, and laid one trembling arm over the man, holding it tense, barely touching him. “Is this… alright?” he whispered after three or four tries to find enough voice for it. Fraser’s heart stopped and he held his breath, petrified that the answer would be no. It was a terrifyingly bold move. But not once in his life had Jamie ever experienced anything wonderful by holding back and playing it safe.
The sound of a broken breath filled the silence. “Y-yes,” Grey replied, his body leaning into Jamie's touch. “Of course it is.”
Jamie’s heart resumed hammering away, almost giving into the temptation to weep. Very slowly he relaxed his arm, settling it around Grey one muscle at a time. He only had to lean forward a tiny bit to bring them close enough to touch, his chest flush against John’s back. Jamie closed his eyes, the soft waves of Grey’s hair brushing his cheek, and indulged in the unmatched pleasure of holding John Grey close to him in the dark. On purpose.
Chapter 4: Secrets Kept
Trigger Warning: This chapter includes non-graphic references to past rape and abuse that occurred in canon. We have endeavored to handle this topic with care and respect.
There are excellent resources available at RAINN.org, including a support hotline for those in the US.
It had been less than twenty-four hours since John Grey had woken up wrapped in Fraser’s embrace and yet, here in his stuffy guest room at Helwater, the events of that night felt lifetimes away.
His prevailing thought had been that he was glad that what had transpired between himself and Fraser had happened, but it was important for him to accept as quickly as possible that such a thing would never happen again.
Still, he missed it already. Those last nights, including the one they’d spent on the floor, had been some of his best in memory. Now, they were but a memory. He slowly undressed as he looked through the window into the thick black of the evening. And if it hadn’t been for a night spent tangled up with Jamie, his thoughts would overwhelmingly be with the request Lord Dunsany had presented him with earlier that evening. A request he’d accepted. To be William Ransom’s guardian in the event of Dunsany’s demise.
This was an important decision. Gravely important. It would change his life dramatically if it were to come to pass, yet he could not tear his thoughts away from Jamie Fraser. Being held by him, even as uncertain and timid as the embrace had been, moved him far more than almost any kiss he’d ever had. How would a kiss from Jamie feel—and no, that was where he must end his ruminating. It would not do to dwell on the impossible.
Grey sternly thought of nothing as he worked open his waistcoat buttons to the sound of rustling leaves outside. The wind maybe, a bird? But then a knock on the dark glass had him gasping, jerking back. He instinctively reached for the blade on the foot of the bed when a flicker of candlelight revealed the would-be intruder’s identity.
“Fraser?” Grey said, bewildered.
"Aye," Jamie said, voice muffled through the glass. "Open the window, I need yer help."
Grey rushed to the window and unlatched it, though his fingers trembled on the brass. What on earth could Fraser want at this time of night? Whatever it was, it clearly wasn’t something he could explain to Lord Dunsany or the man would’ve likely given Fraser permission to come in through the front door. That, or Dunsany would have delivered the information to Grey himself, or sent Grey out to Jamie. “What is it? What are you doing here?”
“Lady Isobel is in danger,” Fraser said, not bothering to climb through the open window. “I need yer help to go an’ get her.” He took one step down the rickety ladder he was perched on before his head popped back up into the window. “Bring a pistol, aye?”
“A pistol?” Grey mumbled, brow furrowed. “Christ.” He threw on his overcoat and shoved his hand into the pocket, feeling the carved handle of his gun. Grey nodded to Jamie, who dropped down out of sight. Grey followed, climbing out of the window with boots balanced on unstable rungs. “When we’re out of earshot, you best tell me what the bloody hell is going on, Fraser.”
A pair of mules waited for them at the bottom of the ladder. Jamie mounted one and tossed the reins of the other to Grey. “Betty told me that lawyer Wilberforce has her. He means to take her over the Scottish border and elope wi’ her, but he’s already married.”
“You cannot be serious? Oh, Isobel. She’ll be ruined.” He thought not only of her reputation, which was of the utmost importance to her future security and happiness, but also of her feelings. It was a dreadful thing to give yourself so completely to another only to find out they had been dishonest with you. Grey forced himself not to think of Percy.
“Aye, she will,” Jamie agreed. They rode in a brooding sort of silence, driving the mules as fast as they would go in the dark night. They stopped once to water the animals and ask after the estate’s gig. Fraser gave Wilberforce’s description to be sure it was the right carriage, and Grey deflected curious inquiries with a discreetly vague story about some unspecified legal matter. The gig had come this way, they discovered, and Grey and Fraser weren’t far behind.
They found the Helwater gig outside of a tavern some way down the road. Grey and Fraser dismounted and tied the mules to a fence post. It wasn’t a large building. It couldn’t have had more than two or three rooms upstairs, and the second story window sills were no more than a foot or so above Fraser’s head.
Rather than barge in asking questions—which would do nothing whatsoever to spare Isobel the scandal of her predicament—the two men circled the tavern quietly, listening. Only one window on the second floor had a light on inside, though the shutters were drawn. The sound of a young woman’s nervous laugh floated down through the cracks. Isobel.
Fraser positioned himself under the window, laced his fingers together and held his hands low like a step. Isobel shrieked and the sound was muffled abruptly. He nodded at Grey. “Go quick and canny, aye? I’ll follow ye.”
Grey stepped onto his interlocked hands and used the extra height to boost himself up to the window. He nudged open the cracked shutter with his shoulder and slung his legs inside, standing up. He pulled the gun out of his pocket and aimed it at Wilberforce, who had his large hands on Isobel’s pale thighs, skirts drawn up.
The lawyer wore only his shirt and gaped at Grey, too surprised or stupid to remove his hand’s from Isobel’s person. The poor girl was shoved on the bed, sobbing and whimpering in fright.
Jamie climbed through the window behind Grey, crossed the room in two long strides and punched Wilberforce in the nose. There was a God-awful crack and the man sprawled to the floor, blood pouring down his face. Fraser glared down at Wilberforce, but spoke to Grey. “How’s the lass?”
Grey hadn’t had the chance to observe closely, but he sat beside Isobel and placed a hand on her arm. “Tell me, are you alright? Has he...?” He didn’t see the tell-tale signs of lost virginity, but it wasn’t always obvious.
Isobel gaped a few times before managing a shaky nod to her head. “W-why are you both h-here?”
“Betty told me what happened, Mistress,” Jamie said, not taking his eyes off Wilberforce, who cowered and wheezed with his back to the door. “We’re here to see ye home safe.”
The solicitor found some vestige of bravado and climbed to his feet, now red-faced with fury and blood from his nose. “You meddling Scotch bastard,” Wilberforce spat. “You would do well to remember your place. You may have saved that little bitch’s maidenhead, but she’ll never survive the scandal.” His eyes cut to a pistol on the dressing table, then to Grey. “And I would have expected more sense from Dunsany’s lapdog.”
Jamie made a growling sound like an enraged wolf and clamped his large hand around Wilberforce’s throat. “Mind yerself, Mr. Wilberforce. Or ye’ll no’ live to see it done.” The lawyer clawed uselessly at Jamie’s left hand, his mouth gaping like a landed fish as Fraser choked off his air supply.
Grey held his own breath, imagining for a swift, inexplicable moment, those heavy hands around his own neck. Fraser was so large, so powerful, the very image of a warrior. Heat rushed down his spine and settled low in his belly.
Wilberforce sputtered, starting to turn blue. Fraser wasn’t letting go. “Fraser,” Grey tried for his attention, but did not get it. “Fraser,” he tried again, with more force. Nothing. “Jamie, if you do this, I can’t protect you.”
With a snarl, Fraser released Wilberforce and stepped away to snatch the pistol from the dresser and tuck it under his belt. He drew his finger across his own throat in a universally threatening gesture, and the solicitor pressed his back flat against the wood, still gasping for breath. Turning on his heel, Fraser returned to the window and slipped gracefully out, boots barely making a sound on the ground below.
“Can you stand?” Grey asked Isobel.
She breathed a tight breath out through her lips, but then managed to push her skirts down around her ankles and sat up beside Grey on the bed. “I’m so humiliated.”
Grey patted her small hand. “Let’s not worry about that now. We need to be going.” He stood and guided the small, trembling woman to her feet and led her to the window.
Isobel stared down at Jamie from the window. "I can't do it."
Jamie held out his arms. "I will catch ye, Mistress, I swear it," Jamie hissed. "’Tis nay far."
With some encouragement—and perhaps a little gentle manhandling from Grey—Isobel swung her feet over the window ledge and dropped into Jamie's waiting arms. Jamie caught her easily and stepped away from the wall, Isobel still cradled in his arms.
Jamie looked rather impressive, standing in the dim moonlight, a woman he’d just rescued swept up into his arms. Like a Greek hero of old. John allowed himself a moment to observe before settling back into the present and making his way through the window, landing easily on his feet in the grass.
Seeing as Isobel had been in such grave danger, it felt wrong to feel the way he was feeling right now. Excited, almost giddy. After they’d come to Helwater, Grey expected the end of these adventures with Fraser. This evening was a stolen moment. He shouldn’t expect or want more. He should be grateful for what he had. And yet, Grey couldn’t help but wish this wouldn’t be the last time.
Jamie returned to the stables after supper before the other grooms. He was in no mood for their usual game of cards and idle humor tonight, preferring instead the company of the horses and his own thoughts. It had been one of those rare days of both hard work and immense joy. Lord Dunsany, continuing Willie’s introduction to the estate’s horses, had brought the boy to the stable in the company of Isobel. Isobel had greeted Jamie with a shy smile that he thought looked both grateful and pleading. But Jamie had bowed to her and when she saw that he would give no indication that anything had been amiss in the past two days, she relaxed.
They had spent an hour or two there, Lord Dunsany leaning heavily on his daughter, while Jamie took Willie from paddock to paddock, letting each of the horses snuff the boy’s hands and hair, learning his scent. The animals’ big, twitching noses had made Willie giggle when they ruffled his hair, and Jamie thought the sound of it might break his heart. When Lord Dunsany, looking rather unwell, had declared it time to go back to the house, Willie had thrown a fit and clung to Jamie’s legs. “No!” he’d cried. “Want stay with Mac!”
“I’m happy to mind him, My Lord, if ye’d like to send for him later,” Jamie had offered.
And just like that, he had been granted the rest of the afternoon with his son, just the two of them and the horses. Willie helped him to saddle the gentlest of the mares, and once perched atop the saddle himself, held tight until Jamie was seated behind him. They’d taken the horse through slow circuits of the exercise yard, Willie chattering on in his excited, nonsensical way. It took all the willpower that Jamie possessed to not bend down and kiss his son’s mop of dark hair, his chest awash with the purest kind of joy and love.
Now, hours later, Jamie still rode on the wings of that euphoria as he brushed the mare they’d ridden. I wish ye could see him, Sassenach, Jamie thought, then followed it up with his customary silent prayer for her safety, and that of the child he would never teach to ride. Jamie’s thoughts drifted then, as they so often did, to Lord John. Christ, if only he could share this joy with him. He almost had, before they’d left London, and then again on the road to Helwater, half a dozen times at least. On that last night, after Grey had drifted off to sleep in Jamie’s arms, he had burned with the need to say it aloud. He could have whispered it into the dark void where no one could see him or hear the confession, except perhaps for John’s heart, tapping gently under Jamie’s palm.
“Mackenzie?” Lord John’s familiar voice interrupted his thoughts. “Mackenzie, are you in here?”
Jamie swallowed down the thrill at the sound of Grey’s voice before he answered. “Aye, My Lord, I am.” He laid the brush aside and came to the stall door, leaning over the side to see Lord John in the lantern light.
Grey took another step closer, his expression serious. “Are you alone? I have a private matter to discuss with you.”
“Nay, the others have no’ returned for the night yet,” Jamie said, coming out of the stall and closing the door behind him. He braced himself for the worst, the ghost of his interrupted thoughts leaving a trail of guilt and worry twisting in his guts. “What is it?”
“I’ve been considering whether or not I should even speak to you about this, but given my agreement with Lord Dunsany, I believe that I must. You see, Fraser, I saw you today with the young master.”
Shit. The guilt and worry evaporated, replaced by panic. Jamie stuffed it down and fixed his features into an expression of rigid neutrality. “Aye. Lord Dunsany took poorly while he and Mistress Isobel were in the stable with William. He left the lad wi’ me.”
“Yes, that I understand, it’s only… now I know why you could not accept my offer to bring your son to London.”
Jamie spoke through clenched teeth. “I’m afraid I dinna take yer meaning, My Lord.”
Grey sighed, dropped his gaze to the floor, then smoothed a hand back over his hair before looking up at Jamie. “I was trying to speak carefully, but it seems it may be best if I am not subtle. William Ransom is your son, Jamie. Anyone with half an eye could see it.”
Christ, this was not at all how Jamie had wanted this to happen. He stood there, staring at Grey for a long time, tapping the stiff fingers of his right hand against his leg. No help for it, then. “We should take a walk,” Jamie said at last. “Before the other grooms return.” He crossed the distance between them in long strides, snatched a lantern from a hook by the door, took Grey by the elbow, and led him outside and away from sight of the house. There was a shed some distance removed from the rest of the outbuildings, and Jamie hastened toward it.
Once inside with the door shut, he set the lantern down on a shelf, releasing Grey’s arm to scrub both hands over his face. “Aye,” he said, his voice muffled by his palms. “Aye, he is.” Jamie dropped his hands to his sides and studied Grey’s face. “What do ye mean to do?”
Grey blinked, eyes widened, as if he’d had a sudden realization. “If you think I would tell anyone, I want to assure you that I won’t.” His lips tipped into a faint smile. “We all have our secrets.”
The ice in Jamie’s veins began to thaw and he let out the breath he’d been holding. “Thank you,” he whispered. “It isna for my sake, but for his, ye understand.” His heart still pounded in his chest, but he could breathe again. “What did ye mean, ‘yer agreement’ with Lord Dunsany?”
“Right, well, it was the reason I approached you about this. I wouldn’t have otherwise. It wouldn’t be my business, but before I knew of William’s true parentage, Lord Dunsany asked me to be William’s guardian in the event of his death, and I agreed to it. Given our complicated history, I felt you should know that.”
Jamie blinked, dozens of competing emotions and thoughts swirling through his mind too fast to catalogue. Relief that such a plan had been made. Regret that Jamie hadn’t trusted John with the complete truth when he had the chance and it had come out like this. Worry that John wasn’t the only person to notice. Fear of what would become of Willie if that was the case. Renewed sadness that he wouldn’t be the one to see him become a man, that his part in the making of that man would soon end. And about the knowledge that it would be Lord John who would take up that mantle, he felt...what? That was an impossibly bewildering tempest. Grey had proven himself an honorable man, and he possessed a unique capacity for kindness. And he truly enjoyed the company of his nephews, and they clearly adored him. No, it wasn’t difficult to imagine Lord John Grey as a father. Rather, it wouldn’t be if it weren’t for….
The ghost of Jack Randall appeared in Jamie’s mind, heard wee Fergus cry out in fear and pain. His right hand ached, stiff fingers twitching at the memory of the day it had been ruined. The same day that he’d seen all too clearly what was in Randall’s soul, had known the utter blackness of it in a horrifically intimate way. He had tried so bloody hard to keep himself closed to Randall while he’d used him, even in those horrible moments when his body had responded. Especially then. Jamie shuddered at the memory of the sludgy, unwilling connection they had made, at the reflection of it he’d seen in himself when the walls in his mind had cracked.
Similarly, lying with Claire when they’d wed had shown Jamie that she held secrets, though her heart was good. But no, he couldn’t bring her into this shed with Grey and Randall’s ghost and whatever was left of Jamie’s own soul. He stepped closer to the lantern until he could feel the heat of the little flame, pressed his hands against his thighs to stop them shaking. He had to know for sure now. For Willie’s sake, Jamie had to know once and for all, beyond a shadow of doubt, if John Grey was the man Jamie so desperately wanted him to be.
“I am grateful that ye told me, My Lord,” Jamie said at last. His jaw hurt and his teeth creaked and he managed to wrestle Jack Randall’s sneering face out of his mind. “Why? Why did ye agree to it?”
“I’ve known the Dunsanys all my life. They’ve been good friends of mine and they’ve lost a son and a daughter now. I wanted to help where I could.”
“And now that ye know William is my son, how does that change things for ye?”
John’s head tilted and he blinked twice. His expression was soft, eyes on Jamie with a warm interest. “To be honest, I’m quite glad of it. I was already fond of the boy and you know, I’m fond of you as well.”
A cold fist squeezed his heart, and Randall’s ghost came back with a vengeance. Jamie met Grey’s eyes, held his gaze, and tried not to think too hard about his words as he spoke them. “Would ye prove it? If I offered ye my body, would ye prove it?”
John stood there, staring, frozen but for his heaving breaths. “My apologies, but I think I may have just had an apoplexy. It sounded like you just offered to let me… and that’s not possible. Christ, Jamie. I don’t know what to say.”
“Aye. I did. Will ye then? And prove to me it’s a matter of the heart and not something... else?”
“I… yes, I mean… I would. I want that. I shall probably want you until the day I die. Under the right circumstances. I’ve… I’ve wanted you in that way for quite some time, but I have to say I’m stunned by your offer after our previous conversations on the matter. What do you mean ‘something else?’ What is it that you think I want from you?”
Jamie’s jaw hurt and his teeth creaked. “I mean why. Why do ye want me?”
“Because I love you, Jamie.”
Terror, rage, revulsion boiled over and came pouring out of him while the image of Jack Randall laughed at him. Jamie drove his fist into the nearest wall and white pain shot through his hand. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Grey flinch. More than anything Jamie wanted to flee, to run until his legs gave out and his lungs burst. But for Willie’s sake he couldn’t. He whirled back to face John, his hands clenched into trembling, aching fists. “Then take me to yer bed, as ye once said, and fucking prove to me that ye ken what love is.”
John frowned. “My dear Jamie.” He reached out as if he were going to touch Jamie’s wrist, then lowered his arm back down to his side. “Someone hurt you, didn’t they? A man?”
Jamie’s shirt stuck to his sweaty back as he warred with his instincts, his need to fight, to escape. The way he had when he’d traded himself for Claire at Wentworth. Furious tears scalded his eyes and he blinked, letting them fall. “Hurt isna the word for what he did.” His arms trembled from the effort of keeping them still, of holding it all in. “There isna word for it in any language I ken for what he did to me. To my family.”
Grey’s jaw tightened, hands curling into fists, then uncurling. Red burned over his cheekbones. He looked as much like he wanted to punch something as Jamie felt. But, then his eyes met Jamie’s, his gaze followed the tracks of Jamie’s tears and the anger in his features softened, warmed. “I want to take you to my bed, Jamie Fraser. I want you under me. I want your body against mine, warm and bare. I want to be inside you and want to hear you say my name when I spill my seed inside you.”
Grey's words struck Jamie like a blow to the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. If it had been any other man but John Grey, anyone else on God's earth, Jamie would be dropping his corpse to the dusty floor. Jamie focused through his tears—God damn them—on John's earnest eyes, ignored the shade of Randall closing in, and let Grey finish, his own hands shaking violently.
“I want all of this more than I could possibly say. I want it with the kind of want that makes me feel as if my bones are going to break from the sheer weight of it. And yet, there are things I want even more.” John took Jamie’s hand and squeezed his fingers. “I want you to be happy. I want you to feel safe. I want you to be free. I want you to see yourself the way I see you. Your goodness, your strength, your intelligence and kindness. I want to see you whole.” Grey laid another hand over Jamie’s. “At Ardsmuir, I believed, however foolishly, that what I wanted for us was part of that, but I was wrong. I want you, all of you, with every part of me and yet, I’m saying no and I’m letting you go because I would rather die than hurt you. I would break my own heart a thousand times before I’d ever break yours. If that’s not love, then maybe you’re right. Maybe two men can’t love each other.”
Jamie just stared open-mouthed at Grey as he finished speaking, let the weight of it settle in. Grey's sincerity was so absolute that Jamie believed every single word. His hand was warm in Grey's, his touch a comforting salve on Jamie's shredded heart. He thought of their last night on the road, of how impossibly good it had felt to hold Grey in his arms, to have meant it. To sleep beside him, with him, only trust and their shirts between them.
But now, Jamie realized, Grey was saying goodbye. And Jamie would never have the chance to hold him again, would never know what the future might be between them.
Jamie took his hand back and closed his mouth, moistening his lips with his tongue. Grey's heart was breaking, he could see it clearly in the man's tragic eyes. No lies, no deceit, nor manipulation, no evil. Just sorrow and loss.
That wouldna do.
Jamie closed the distance between them. Taking hold of Grey's face with both of his hands, Jamie Fraser kissed Lord John. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply through his nose, memorizing everything. The bitter fragrance of angry perspiration. The faint whisper of their barely stubbled chins brushing together. The way the muscles of Grey's jaw felt under his fingers as he parted his lips to admit Jamie's tongue. The earthy sweet taste of the port wine John must have drank after dinner. This canna be the last time, Jamie thought. Please, oh God, dinna let this be the last time. Perhaps his prayer was heresy, but how could it possibly be? How could something so wonderful and pure be a sin?
At last, Jamie pulled back but didn't move his hands away. He opened his eyes and finished committing the experience to memory, just in case. His long fingers had disturbed Grey's hair near his ears, and a few strands fell loose, disheveled and thoroughly beautiful.
John’s eyes were wet with tears. “Tell me, Jamie. Oh God, Jamie, tell me it’s not just me. Tell me you felt what I just felt. If you didn’t, I respect that, but if it’s not the same for you and you kiss me again, I think I’ll die.”
The sound that Jamie made was somewhere between a hysterical sob and joyful laughter, his heart and his head a tempest of confusion. Kissing Grey had felt good, indescribably so and he had no idea what that meant, but it didn’t feel wrong at all. No, it felt right. Jamie couldn’t think of anything else to do, and he smiled at him, his own tears drying on his cheeks. “Aye. If I dinna kiss you again, John, I will die.”
Grey startled forward, smashing their mouths together. It was awkward, and their teeth clashed, but John just laughed against Jamie’s mouth and tried again. That time, he did it right and everything was perfect all over again. Grey’s hands were in Jamie’s hair, tugging on the curls. His enthusiasm nudged Jamie back, one of his legs slotting between both of Jamie’s as he felt the warm, heavy weight of John’s tongue in his mouth.
Jamie wrapped his arms around John, held him close and revelled in the firm strength of his body pressed against him. He did feel safe, sure in the knowledge that John did love him, and loved him freely for his own sake. John wouldn’t break him, would never take his power away.
It hurt to do it, but Jamie leaned away and Grey immediately backed off, impeded only by Jamie’s embrace, which didn’t falter. “I’m sorry, but I canna leave this unsaid. I have said terrible, inexcusable things to ye, particularly in the last year. And I said them out of fear and out of a very old anger that was never truly about you. But you are not him. And he is long dead. That pain that I caused ye was never yer burden to bear. And I am truly sorry. For all of it.”
Grey’s hand settled on Jamie’s cheek and he smoothed a solid thumb over the skin. “Thank you. For telling me that. I want you to know that I don’t expect more from you. I want it all, yes, but whatever we do and don’t do is in your hands.”
Someday, Jamie thought, he’d have to learn that it was always safe to assume the very best from John Grey. He kissed John, no more than a brief peck. “I do want more. I dinna ken how much time I will need. But I ken I do want more with ye. I think I have for some time, but I was afraid. When ye touched my hand in Ardsmuir, I felt something then and it was tempting and frightening.” Jamie smiled at John, the pure sense of relief—and that elusive happiness—making him feel lighter, giddy. “I do verra much enjoy kissing ye, John.”
“Good,” John said, laying his arms around Jamie’s neck, grinning. “Because I plan on kissing you until neither one of us can feel our lips anymore. What do you think about that?”
Jamie didn’t answer. He was too busy kissing the breath out of John.
Chapter 5: Correspondence
Trigger Warning: This chapter includes non-graphic references to past rape and abuse that occurred in canon. We have endeavored to handle this topic with care and respect.
There are excellent resources available at RAINN.org, including a support hotline for those in the US.
Leaving Helwater was one of the hardest things John Grey had ever done. When Jamie had been saddling his horse, he’d grabbed him by the lapels of his overcoat and dragged him behind a stack of hay bales. Of course, Jamie let Grey drag him. He wouldn’t have been able to move Jamie without consent. But he’d gone so easily, eagerly. The memory moved through Grey like a swallow of warm tea.
The feeling of Jamie’s rough, firm lips. The taste of ale on his tongue. The sensation that Jamie was smiling against his mouth. That was the best of it. That Jamie Fraser had been so glad to be kissing him that he was smiling.
As Grey sat alone in London, John’s eyes shut and he lifted his fingers to his mouth thoughtlessly, as if it would help lock the memory in place.
“Me lord,” came Tom Byrd’s voice, startling him. “Apologies, Me Lord, but several letters arrived for you today.”
Grey blinked. “No need to apologize, Tom.” He stood from his arm chair and crossed the room, taking the letters from Tom. “Thank you.”
Tom nodded formally. “Will there be anything else?”
Grey shook his head. “No, you’re free to go.”
Tom turned on the sole of his shoe and left Grey alone once again. He began sorting through the stack. There was one from his friend Harry Quarry, one from his mother, one from the family lawyer, and one… well, he was not quite sure who it was from. Curious, he tore into it and as he began to read, his legs nearly gave out beneath him.
I expect this letter will have arrived in London a few days after you and I pray that it finds you well. Watching you and Wee B. ride away from the estate this morning brought about the most extraordinary rush of emotions that remained with me through the day. I could not sleep because of it, and stole away to Our Shed to write to you by lantern light. Perhaps it makes me a fool, but I feel I will burst if not for the telling of it.
Sadness, of course, that your duties should take you away so soon, and with that sadness a surprising feeling of regret. I cannot regret what passed between us in this very shed, though I admit I would believe it all a dream had you not kissed me goodbye while I was saddling your horses. If it were only a dream, it is one I would think of often and with great fondness.
But it was real, and I think of that often, too. And therein lies the regret—that what passed between us in this shed did not come sooner. It did happen, and though there was such pain and fear at the start of it, the conclusion brought a joy and peace that I have not known in many, many years. I count it—and you—very high indeed on the list of blessings for which I am thankful.
Belonging and the relief of well-placed trust are there as well. You carried away a piece of me, the knowledge of my dearest secret. I know that you will keep it safely guarded. The contentment and happiness associated with the subject of this secret grows with the sharing of it. I am glad that I may share it with you.
I think often of our last night on the road here. I should very much like to lie beside you again. And Our Shed. Dear God, Our Shed. Both are memories that I shall not let grow cold; I hold them often.
By the time Grey had finished reading the letter from Jamie, he was on the floor, tucked between the armchair and the chest of drawers, back pressed to the wall. Stunned didn’t even begin to describe how Jamie’s words had made him feel.
Ever since he’d touched Jamie’s hand in his cold, damp quarters at Ardsmuir, Grey had been trying to mend what he’d broken. And he’d been trying to eradicate his feelings for Jamie Fraser. He’d tried hating him, tried forgiving him, tried forgetting him, tried other men’s bodies and beds. Nothing had worked. Instead, he’d learned to live with a piece of himself torn out, laid at the feet of another, knowing that piece would never be picked up, would never be healed.
It was a constant, chronic pain he’d expected to live with his whole life. Now, it was just gone. He could cry from the relief of it.
Grey reached up, brushed wetness away from his cheeks. He hadn’t realized he’d been crying. The realization made him laugh, which made him cry even harder. And that made him laugh. Christ, if anyone walked in here right now they’d have me carted off.
When he finally pulled himself together, Grey stood from the floor, collected his own piece of parchment, and sat down at a writing desk. He dipped his quill in the dark ink and began to write.
Lady Isobel found Jamie after supper and pressed a sealed envelope into his hand. “This came for you in the afternoon post. Thought you wouldn’t want to make a fuss about it in front of the others.”
Jamie gave the letter a quick glance. There was no return direction, and it was postmarked from London. He shoved it in a pocket. “Aye, thank ye, Mistress.”
London, Jamie realized belatedly. He almost snatched the letter back out and tore into it right there. If it was from London, then it must be from John. He clenched his left fist behind his back to resist the urge.
She smiled. “You’re welcome, Mr. MacKenzie.” Lady Isobel turned as if to leave, but hesitated, looking about her from side to side.
“Something I can do for ye, my lady?” Jamie asked. It was difficult to keep his tone patient and respectful when all he wanted was for her to leave him to his letter.
“Yes. Well, no,” Lady Isobel said. She took a deep breath and drew herself up to her full height, which was not very tall. “I wanted to thank you, Mr. MacKenzie.”
Jamie blinked down at her. “Oh, aye?”
Lady Isobel kept her eyes downcast and off to the side. “Yes, for your... assistance. That evening. And for your... your discretion on the matter.”
Was this really happening now while John’s letter burned a hole in Jamie’s pocket? “I am happy to be of service, my lady,” he replied, bowing.
Lady Isobel nodded. “Good evening, then.” At long last, she turned and strode back toward the house.
Jamie dug the letter out of his pocket and examined the seal. The blue wax bore a thumbprint in lieu of a signet. Jamie slid his index finger under the flap, breaking the seal. Tilting the open envelope toward the nearest light, Jamie squinted at the salutation. My love. He gasped and squeezed the envelope shut, clutching it to his chest. Christ, it was from John.
Which meant that John had gotten his letter. God, why did he send that letter? His hand had shaken the entire time he had spent writing it, terrified. Terrified that he was wrong, about his feelings, perhaps. Wrong for having them. Wrong that John would want to read them. It had been like writing a confession. No, it was a confession. But confessions weren’t always bad. Still, what if John hadn’t wanted to know so much? Part of Jamie had been convinced, absolutely certain, that it had been foolish to write that letter. Putting those words on paper had been one of the most difficult things that Jamie had done in many, many years, but the compulsion to do so had driven him mad.
Christ, what if it had been the wrong thing to say? What if John had written him back to tell him not to write anymore?
Jamie balled the hand not holding John’s letter into a fist and squeezed until his knuckles popped. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was thinking too damn much about a simple matter of the heart. He studied the plainly addressed envelope again, then looked around. This part of the yard appeared to be deserted, but there was always the chance that someone could find him here. He wanted to be safely alone, free from prying, judging eyes.
Jamie shivered. God, would that little building—and the memories it held—ever not make him burn with arousal?
Snatching up the first lantern he saw, he made it to the shed without being stopped, shut the door behind him, and leaned back on it. Partly for support, partly to keep anyone from barging in. Jamie carefully slid the letter out of its envelope and unfolded it to reveal a densely packed page of John’s careful, flowing hand.
I cannot begin to tell you how much your words meant to me. I had come to accept that I would always care for you, always want you, always love you, but that those feelings and desires could never be returned. Though I hated it, I accepted it because you matter to me far more. Having someone any other way than freely and enthusiastically given is far worse and far less than not having them at all. But now, it’s as if the heavens have opened up and I have been blessed beyond reason. Perhaps that’s what I would say, if I were keen to be poetic.
I find that I keep touching my lips, just remembering the feel of you there. Though the truth is I feel you everywhere, which means I miss you everywhere. It’s childish, but I can’t stop imagining you here with me. Sitting across from me at dinner or beside me at the theatre. I understand why you must stay, but God how I wish you were here with me. That you were both here with me.
Just know I’m counting the days until I can see you again. Until I can hold you and kiss you. God knows I will invent an excuse to share a bed with you again and this time, I would ask that you will let me be the one to hold you. As I have said, what we share together is in your hands and I will be grateful for as much or as little as you can give me. Just know that every night since, I’ve dreamed of you. Of us. Of how it would feel to surrender my body entirely to you, as I have surrendered my heart.
My love, John had said. And Yours. Jamie slid down to sit on the floor, his back still against the door, and read the letter again to be sure he wasn't imagining things. And then again, to pull out all the feeling and wishes, the heart of it. Heard John's voice in his head, speaking the words aloud to him. John wrote as he spoke, Jamie thought. Were it not for the pretentious constraints of society, if he felt he could truly speak freely, John would say these words aloud. He wanted Jamie in his life in tangible ways, and he wanted that to include William.
The fourth time that Jamie read it, he extracted all the physical intimacies, the desire. I keep touching my lips. Jamie brought his fingers to his mouth, quite without meaning to, and straightened one leg in front of him and a little to the right. That’s where he’d been standing when he’d first kissed John. He smirked against his fingers and moved his leg farther to the right, the toe of his boot lined up with a wall of shelves. And that’s where John had kissed him back, all passion and fire but completely under control, safe.
Jamie’s hand dropped from his lips to his lap, remembered the feel of John’s strong thigh between his legs, traced the phantom over his breeches. Up, until his thumb brushed his flies. He opened them easily with one hand, the other still holding John’s letter. They would share a bed again, John had said. How would it be, Jamie wondered as he wrapped his hand around his half-hard cock, to be held safe in John’s arms? To lay his head on John’s chest and listen to his heart beating, John’s skin warm against Jamie’s cheek? They could be as clothed or as naked as Jamie liked.
Jamie closed his eyes as he stroked his cock, slowly, teasing, making it last. He called to mind what knowledge he had of John’s body. It wasn’t enough knowledge but God, was he beautifully made. He should have looked that night on the road, shouldn’t have been so afraid. Not dressed then, Jamie decided. He wanted to map out every square inch of lean muscle, listen to the story of every last scar, see it all, perhaps touch some. He tightened his grip on his cock, working it in earnest now.
What would it be like when John surrendered his body entirely to Jamie? How would John be in bed? Would he lead or would he follow? Both, Jamie thought. Would he be tender or fierce?
Both. Jamie was breathing heavily now, gasping with the pleasure of his own touch. Of thoughts of John, his bare skin above him, under him, around him. Would John be quiet, or talkative?
God, both. John would utter reassurances, praise, sweet nothings, all whispered so only Jamie could hear. Fast? Or slow?
“Both,” Jamie hissed, this own hoarse voice fading under the sound of his hand fisting over his cock. “Christ, John,” he gasped as he found his climax, his seed spattering to the floorboards and the leg of his breeches. Jamie let his head fall back against the door, shuddering as he finished.
It had been John’s name on his lips as he came, when he would usually have said “Sassenach.”
Oh. God. Sassenach. Claire. No, oh God, what was he doing? Shame and guilt washed over him, consumed him. Jamie dropped John’s letter on the floor next to him and buried his face in his hands, the pain and remorse twisted his face into a grimace until he broke down, sobbing. “Sassenach,” he whispered through his tears. “I’m so sorry, Claire. Oh, God.”
A man had made Jamie betray Claire like this before, had made Jamie believe he had wanted it, that he wasn’t fit to be her husband anymore. Jack Randall. It had nearly killed him.
The shed seemed to be closing in, the walls too close, the door an impassable barrier. A locked cell between the hell inside and his wife and his clan outside. Jamie couldn’t breathe. He sucked in air that smelled of his own release and gagged. His heart pounded, blood thundering through him, hammering in his ears. Out. Had to get out. Jamie spun and came up on his knees, yanked the door open and crawled out of the shed, gasping and choking and retching. He reached the side of the shed farthest from the house and collapsed into the damp grass. He dug his fingers into the earth, held on for dear life.
Breathe. Claire could have spoken the word, he thought he heard her voice now. Jamie tried to obey, tried to inhale. He choked.
Breathe. He heard it again, this time in John’s voice. Jamie blew out all the air from his lungs, and in a measured inhale, took more in, filled his chest with blessed oxygen.
It wasn’t John who did this to him. Maybe it was Jamie himself. Maybe something was broken in himself. Something Jack Randall had done.
Jamie forced the image of Randall from his mind. He had beat Randall back before, he could do it again.
No. John was not him. He. Was. Not. Him.
I would rather die than hurt you. John’s words echoed in Jamie’s mind as he curled into a ball in the wet grass, weeping into the crook of his elbow.
It would be simpler if Claire were here, he thought. But she wasn’t. Lord, that she may be safe. She and the child.
No, she wasn’t here. But John was here. And John loved Jamie just as surely as Claire had. Claire had been capable of loving two people. She hadn’t loved Jamie any less for it.
“Jesus, John,” Jamie whispered. “Why do ye have to be so close and yet so very far away?”
Tom brought Grey the day’s letters and his heart pounded as he rifled through them. It had been a while since he’d heard from Jamie and the ache of being without him grew stronger by the day.
Had someone asked, he could’ve barely described the rushing feeling of relief he’d felt when he saw the letter he knew had to be from Jamie.
He waited until evening, until he was alone in his room with a glass of wine, to tear into it. He wanted to be able to savor each and every word.
Your letter brings to mind our time in London before the incident with T. The meals we took together, the countless games of chess. Ours has always been a precarious friendship, has it not? But it is one I am pleased to see on firmer ground.
Regarding W., he has learned a few choice phrases that cause his aunt a great deal of distress and he seems intent to exercise them as often as he can. This, of course, causes his aunt to turn a most amusing shade of red. I suspect he heard “bloody fucking hell” from that colorful maid B. and W. enjoys shouting this as loudly as he is able. Personally, I find it entertaining and expect he will tire of it soon enough.
I have been plagued by nightmares for days on end, even coming to me while I’m at my work. I cannot bring myself to put it in a letter, for I fear the writing of it would breathe life into it. I may never be free of him. I apologize, I do not wish to burden you with this.
I find myself looking for you on the road whenever I pass by the gate.
Grey breathed out a slow breath, frowning. He could feel the pain in Jamie’s words. Could tell he was trying to seem brave, in control. Which, of course, he was brave. Remarkably so. Grey hated that Jamie was in so much pain, wished he could help him carry the weight of it. He wouldn’t pretend to know the depth of what Jamie had suffered, but he’d experienced his own suffering. He’d also been raped. He didn’t think about it often, tried not to at least. That didn’t mean he didn’t carry it with him. There had been a time, before, where he’d enjoyed being taken. Hector had done it so well, and Grey had trusted him. Then it had happened. The rape. The rape had happened, and every time since, even with Percy, and even with Stephan, when they’d start to press in and he’d start to give, John would be brought back to that moment. He would feel that same fear and powerlessness. It would often fade away as he found his footing in the present and in the pleasure of a man’s touch. Yet, that brief moment of fear was still enough to usually avoid the position altogether.
Grey shook his head, as if it could break some of those thoughts loose, and he returned his attention to the letter. He loved that Jamie was sharing with him stories of William and he ached at the thought of Jamie watching the road, hoping to see him. He had a few things to attend to this week and next, and one thing the week after, but following that, he would be free to return to Helwater, even if it was earlier than usual. Grey didn’t think Dunsany would mind. He could say he wanted to spend more time with William, as he could someday be named his guardian. That was true. He did want to get to know the boy, Jamie’s son, better. But he also wanted to see Jamie—desperately—and maybe, if it would help, Jamie could speak the words to him he was afraid to write.
Grey picked up a quill to write Jamie back beneath the candlelight. He’d almost written my love again on the parchment, but he would follow Jamie’s lead. He’d be there, but he’d never push.
My dear J.,
I wish I had more than words right now to express my heart to you. For now, words are the tools I have now at my disposal, so I will use them as inadequate as they may be.
You are never a burden to me. I despise that you have been hurt and I wish I could spare you every unhappiness, but know that I am here. Always. I cannot take away your pain or undo it, but I can listen, I can bear witness to the truth of it. Or, if you would prefer, you can never speak another word to me about it. I will support whatever you decide.
W. sounds quite an awful lot like his father.
I’m hoping to make it out to Helwater three weeks from when I’m writing this, so keep your eye on the road for me.
Chapter 6: Master of the Game
Trigger Warning: This chapter includes non-graphic references to past rape and abuse that occurred in canon. We have endeavored to handle this topic with care and respect.
There are excellent resources available at RAINN.org, including a support hotline for those in the US.
Jamie hadn’t written John after his last letter. If John was going to be on the road three weeks after writing, a reply likely wouldn’t have reached him before he left London. Twenty days after the date on John’s letter, Jamie found himself lingering near the estate’s gate, watching the road for a pair of riders. The anticipation began to quiet his demons, though they were never silent. He didn’t know how much, if anything, he wanted to tell John about the night alone in the shed.
The shed. Jamie shuddered. He had thought of it as their shed, hadn’t been able to walk past it without thinking of kissing John, of John kissing him. It had been exciting, wonderful. Now that was tainted and he couldn’t look at it without feeling ashamed and afraid. That wouldna do.
On the twenty-third day, Jamie found an excuse to work near Helwater’s gate, glancing up at the road frequently. His paper-thin excuse had nearly worn out when he spared one last look, and saw two riders approaching from the south. Jamie’s stomach flipped in nervous glee and he shielded his eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun, watching. They were much too far for Jamie to make out their faces, of course. But Jamie would recognize that straight-backed grace in the saddle anywhere. Then the wind shifted and a gust brought him the sound of John’s deep laughter. Jamie couldn’t help but grin at the sound, realized he was laughing like a fool and coughed to cover it before someone noticed he’d lost his mind.
Jamie was waiting to tend to their horses by the time John and Tom Byrd rode into the yard. He’d had sufficient time to collect himself, and he greeted Grey with a smile that was warm and genuine and entirely rational. “It’s good to see ye again so soon, My Lord,” he said, taking the reins from John.
John’s lips twitched into a smile, a ruddy blush on his cheeks. He blinked slowly, then opened his eyes, letting a warm gaze fix on Jamie. “You as well…” He looked around. “...Mr. Fraser. I’m fortunate that I had the opportunity to make time for a visit to… the Dunsanys. I have some business at the house, but later today, I thought maybe we could play a game. I’ve brought my chessboard.”
“Aye, I’d like that,” Jamie answered, his cheeks tight as his polite smile threatened to come unhinged. He passed John’s saddlebags to a footman and turned to lead the horses away. He had to start moving away or he’d start moving closer. “Ye’ll likely find me wi’ the horses.” Jamie gave a quick nod in the direction of the stables. “Just… follow yer nose,” he said, barely managing not to laugh. Eejit.
John smiled and passed the reins to Jamie, his leather gloved fingers grazing the tips of Jamie’s bare ones. He dismounted his horse with his usual control and precision, an expert of his own body. Did John always move like that, Jamie wondered, even during— “I’ll find you as soon as I can. Shouldn’t be more than a few hours,” John said. He stepped closer, not too close, but close enough and whispered. “I’ve brought a bottle of wine. It’s in the saddlebag. If you’d like to open it up, let it breathe for us.” With that, Grey stepped back, arms behind his back.
Jamie gave a short nod and, with a very great effort, tore his eyes away from John, distracting himself by greeting Tom. He clapped the young valet on the shoulder, knocking the man a little off balance. “How do ye fare, Tom?”
“I’m well, thank you, Capta—er, Mr. F—”
“Mac will do, wee Byrd,” Jamie said, taking control of both horses, leading them toward the stables. “I look forward to our game, My Lord.”
It had been difficult to get through these last hours, waiting to see Jamie. Not that he minded the company of the Dunsanys and there was William running around, which he found quite entertaining. It seemed though that the lad had, in fact, moved on from “bloody fucking hell,” just as his father had predicted. Though, John wasn’t sure he’d moved on in the way Jamie or the Dunsanys would’ve preferred.
When little Willie had dropped the wooden trinket he’d been playing with, he’d expressed his deep concern with a gasped, “Oh, Christ.” He said it again, too, no more than a quarter hour later, when he’d stubbed his small toe on a footstool. How Grey had ever thought that child could’ve been sired by anyone other than Jamie Fraser, he didn’t know.
But now, John’s time was his own again and he hurried out past the stables to the pasture where Jamie was running the horses. As he approached, Grey watched the Scot at work. His strong, muscled back rippled beneath the linen of his shirt as he steadied a pitch black mare. His thighs twitched too. And his buttocks. Oh Christ, John thought deliriously. The man was an absolute vision. It required all of Grey’s mental fortitude just to fend off his impending cockstand and Jamie was still yards away.
Fraser caught sight of Grey and nodded to him over the mare’s back. The sun had begun to set and the temperature to drop, though it was still unseasonably warm. “Good evening, My Lord,” he said. “I need to see to her and I’ll be finished for the day. Would ye care to come wi’ me?”
“Yes,” John said, softly. “I would like that very much.” He didn’t try to hide the fondness in his voice. There was no one else around to hear it. No one but himself and Jamie and the horses. And he figured the horses wouldn’t have anything to say about it.
With a click of his tongue, Jamie led the mare to the trough near the barn. “That business ye had wi’ Dunsany,” he began. “Is that the reason ye’re here early? Or a convenient excuse?” His tone was neutral, an honest question then.
“I came to see you, Jamie.” The truth came out before John could manage to stop it. It wasn’t that he wanted to lie, but he worried his honesty could come across as pressure. That was the last thing he wanted.
Jamie cast his eyes down, and perhaps Grey imagined the brief shadow that passed over his expression. But it was gone in an instant and his blue eyes were clear and pleased when he looked back up at John. “I’m glad of it.” Jamie gave Grey’s arm a squeeze as he slipped past him to finish his chores.
The touch gave Grey a start and he drew breath in sharply. He didn’t believe there had been any intent behind the touch, but he felt as if he’d been waiting forever to see Jamie Fraser again. Now that he was here, every look and every touch set him ablaze.
He was so caught up in his own thoughts, and maybe even hopes, for the evening that John barely registered following Jamie through the end of his chores. When Jamie was finished and they were back outside the stables, John asked, “Did you happen to find the wine I brought for us? I’m hoping it will be to your liking.”
“Aye, I did,” Fraser replied. They approached the infamous shed, but rather than go inside, they went to the far side of it, the glow from their lantern leading the way. Grey’s saddlebag was waiting there, and Jamie reached inside, extracted the opened bottle and passed it to Grey. Jamie slung the bag over his shoulder, the chess set rattling dully inside. “I thought we could go by the lake, if that’s alright?”
“The lake sounds perfect.” John glanced around to make sure they were alone. There wasn’t anyone, but even if there was, what he was about to do could be easily explained away, he thought. Grey placed a hand over Jamie’s, firm but still gentle. He squeezed, then stroked those big, calloused fingers.
There was that shadow again—or maybe just a trick of the low light—but then Jamie turned his hand and laced their fingers together and squeezed back.
Grey stepped closer, his voice impossibly low. “I know we can’t, but imagine that we could. If we wouldn’t be seen, would you let me hold your hand as we walked to the lake?”
Jamie turned back to the far side of the shed, tugged Grey along with him. They crashed into each other, chests and lips colliding. It was too fast, over too soon, but the shed didn’t offer much shelter. “I would,” Jamie answered, letting go of Grey’s hand with one last squeeze.
John stood there, blinking, and a smile grew on his face. He could still feel the wetness from Jamie’s lips on his own and he licked it away with his tongue. “We should go now, I think. It’s far more private there.”
Together, they walked, either sharing stories of their time apart or simply moving in companionable silence. Grey kept his hand down by his side, so that occasionally, if they both swung their arms at the right time and in the right way, the back of his hand could brush the back of Jamie’s. When they made it out to the lake, John spotted a flat portion of land between a half-circle of dense trees and just behind a reedy portion of the bank. It would be the closest thing to privacy they could find under the circumstances, the reeds sheltering their lantern from the unlikely view of prying eyes.
They settled in the spot, laying out the chessboard. Then, John sat down the bottle of wine and reached into the saddlebag to remove the glasses he’d had Tom painstakingly wrap. He watched his valet do it and redo it at least three times. “Would you like a glass?” John asked as he unwrapped the fragile drinkware.
Jamie stood up the last of the chess pieces and smiled at the huge length of cloth in John's hands. “Aye, since ye went to so much trouble to carry them all the way from London.”
John laughed awkwardly, then felt a flush of embarrassment, as he considered just how strange it had been for him to bring glasses from London. They’d known each other for years and in so many ways, yet Grey found he still wanted to impress Jamie Fraser. “Is this… is it too much? I am trying. I don’t know what it is about you. I’m not normally like this. I find myself acting very strangely. It’s only that... Christ Jamie, I want so desperately not to do the wrong thing that I reckon I’m being rather… silly.” Dear God why can’t I stop talking? “These are new glasses. I bought them especially for this. I don’t know why. I just wanted to… to have something special. And you do not want to know how much I spent on that bloody wine. Dionysus himself better have squeezed the wine out of those grapes with his own two hands.”
Fraser had been staring at him, watching him ramble on, his mouth slowly stretching in a broad grin. He settled closer to Grey and laid one warm hand against John's cheek, his thumb brushing over his lips. That shut him up. Jamie's eyes followed the path his thumb made, flicked up to John's eyes, and back down to his mouth. There was a flash of pink tongue as Jamie licked his lips, and he rushed forward to stake his claim. Fraser's lips were warm and wet and open and moved against Grey's mouth in a way that stopped time and brought the heavens crashing down around them. Too soon, Jamie pulled away so that their lips made a wet smacking sound that promised infinitely more. He smiled at Grey, a look of astonished amusement on his handsome face, and now that he was so close, Grey could see the dark circles under Jamie's eyes in the low lantern light. "Ye came rushing back here almost two months early because ye kent I wished it. Or just for the sake of seeing me for yerself, but I dinna think that's so different. And ye thought enough about it to do silly things, aye. Ye are an absolute fool, John Grey. But ye're my fool."
If he had to be a fool, he was glad to be Jamie’s. “It would be dishonest to say I had come back so soon merely for your sake—I did so ache to see you—but after what you shared in your last letter, I have been worried about you.”
This time the darkness was unmistakably there and Jamie retreated, suddenly intent on ensuring the chess pieces were all perfectly centered in their spaces. “Dinna fash,” he said, nudging a rook. “I should have waited to write that. I am sorry to have worried ye.”
Grey hesitated, but he reached up and brushed a stray hair away from Jamie’s face. Then he dropped his touch away and poured Jamie a glass of the wine. He gently pressed the drink into Jamie’s hand. “Please, my dear. Is it alright if I call you that here?” John asked. “I consider it a privilege to know your heart enough to know there’s something to worry about. Speak freely, if you would like. I’ll listen without judgement.”
Jamie sighed and took a sip of wine, eyes going wide and nodding appreciatively at the quality. He took another sip, more deliberate this time, the muscles of his jaw working as he rolled it around on his tongue. "It is verra good wine," he said, smiling at Grey in approval tinged with a hint of warm fondness. He laid his free hand on John's, gave it a squeeze. "I dinna wish to sour it with old evil. Let's just play, aye? It'll take my mind off it."
“Of course,” John said, tucking his thumb up and over Jamie’s finger to squeeze. “Whatever you’d like.”
They started into their game with the ease and familiarity of men who played together quite often. Most of the time, their skill was near equally matched, with Jamie favored to win. Today, Grey had captured five of Jamie’s pieces already, including one of his rooks. Jamie had only managed to take a single pawn.
Fraser shook his head and sighed as he studied the board, running one finger down the length of his straight nose. “This is embarrassing,” he muttered. “I haven’t played so poorly in… well it was before I met ye. And it was on purpose.”
“Perhaps I’ve just improved greatly since we’ve last played.” Grey gave him a kind smile, hoping to save Jamie any embarrassment. “I may be a true master of the game soon enough.” He moved a pawn and took one of Jamie’s. Another unexpected blunder on Fraser’s part.
Jamie gave a brief laugh. “Nay. Ye’re good, John, but ye’re no’ that good. But I thank ye for trying to save my pride.” He blew out another sigh, muttered something akin to “fuck it” in German and threw his last bishop away.
“We could…” John licked his lips, unsure if he should say this, but Jamie seemed to be struggling so much. “Distract ourselves another way.” He slowly placed his hand on Jamie’s thigh and smoothed his thumb over the fabric.
For a moment, it looked like Fraser had stopped breathing. He stared down at Grey’s hand, immobile save for the gentle breeze that made his hair quiver. “John…” Jamie swallowed hard, and Grey braced himself for the worst. “Would ye… would ye kiss me?” His voice was unsteady but strong enough to be heard over the nighttime sounds of frogs and crickets in the reeds. “I need...I need to feel ye.”
John didn’t answer with words. He responded with his lips. If Jamie wanted to feel him, he would gladly allow it. Jamie kissed back and Grey’s response to kiss harder, deeper, to find Jamie’s tongue with his own came as naturally as breathing. Grey’s hands slipped to Jamie’s neck, then to his shoulders. Jamie’s hands just as eagerly roamed the safe places above his breeches. Without thought, he scattered the pieces of the chessboard with his legs as he found himself poised over Jamie’s lap, straddling him. The force of John’s desperate kiss pushed Jamie’s head back.
It was like the sudden dousing of a flame. Jamie’s hands went still and he turned his head away. “I’m sorry, John,” he whispered. “I’m… ye’re… I don’t…” He broke off, and looked up at Grey with the most heartbreaking expression of helplessness.
John moved off him. “No, no, please do not apologize. I’m the one who is sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I should’ve known better. I won’t do it again.”
Jamie’s hand shot out, closed on Grey’s hand and held it tight. “No! No, it’s not that. As long as I ken it’s you, it’s alright. Ye’re not him. And I ken that, I do. I am safe with you.” His posture slumped but he kept a death grip on John’s hand. “But I ken too that it’s no’ something that makes sense. It isna something I could make another soul understand.”
“I know that I cannot fully understand what you’ve suffered, love,” he risked the endearment, then continued. “And I won’t pretend I’ve experienced the depth of pain you have. However, there was a time, not long after we first met actually, when I was… violated. I don’t know who he was. I never saw his face. He just grabbed and took me. It was hard and violent and it… it hurt. A great deal.” Grey drew in a deep breath to steady himself, trying not to recall those moments after when he’d had to clean himself up. The seed, the other man’s, and the blood, his own. “The ghost of that faceless, nameless, man is there every time that I am… used in that manner. So much so I almost universally avoid it.”
“Oh, John,” Jamie whispered, and there was no pity in his tone. “I’m sorry. That ye have suffered so. And for assuming that ye couldna understand.” Jamie’s grip relaxed on Grey’s hand but didn’t falter. “It isna more and it isna less and it doesna matter.” He brushed his fingers against Grey’s jaw, sweet and unassuming. “I dinna want ye to ever feel used.”
John leaned into the touch. “Christ, Jamie. You’re a good man. Do you know that? I hope you do. It’s not easy to be honest about these things, but I believe we may be safe to share as we need with each other. How we’re feeling, what feels right or good. What doesn’t. What we’re not yet ready for and what we are. It might help if you could tell me what you think you’re ready for? You can always change your mind. But kissing, for example. It seems you’re alright with that, but not with me on top of you. Do you reckon it’s my being on top that makes you uncomfortable? Would it be better if you moved on top of me? Or is it the closeness altogether?” He let out a breath. Am I talking too much again? “I know these sorts of discussions may not feel particularly romantic, but they may be necessary. And, in a way, there is something, I think, that’s intimate about being so open with another.”
“Christ, man, how do ye get so many words in one breath?” Jamie smiled fondly at him. “Maybe we could start with one question at a time, aye?” He shook his head and the smile faded, fixing his gaze on the toppled chess set. “Nay, it isna that at all. The man who… well his name isna important, he’s dead now. I traded myself to spare my wife the same treatment. I was Red Jamie in those days, ken, and I was meant to hang the next day. And all night he tortured me, ye might say. And there were moments when I… when I gave in.” Jamie looked rather green in the lantern light, but he took a shuddering breath and soldiered on. “And he made me believe I’d betrayed Claire. By giving in. That I’d wanted it.”
Jamie met Grey’s eyes again, his own gone watery but he wasn’t crying. “It isna the closeness and it isna ye being atop me. You are not him. But when I kiss ye, John…” Jamie touched John’s face again, closed his eyes for a moment. “I canna describe the feeling. It’s… ecstasy and poetry and all things good and right in the world. And I dinna want to ever stop. And maybe it’s mad, but… I need time, I think. For my heart and my heed to understand that I could fall in love with ye and not betray Claire to do it. And that what he did to me didna truly cost me my soul.”
John’s mouth dropped open slightly, then he shut his lips. There was so much in what Jamie had said and he’d heard it all, yet the words he managed to find now were only, “You’re… falling in love with me?”
“I… “ Jamie began, looked suddenly like he would bolt like a frightened rabbit, but he held tight to John’s hand. “To be honest, I dinna ken. What I feel for ye isna quite the same as what I felt for Claire, what I truthfully still feel for her. It isna more and it isna less; it’s… different. But it’s good. Christ, it’s so good.” He leaned so that his shoulder bumped into John’s. “So, aye. Perhaps I am starting to fall in love with ye.”
“I should be jealous of Claire. I am, in some ways, but I hope you know it’s not the sort of jealousy that would make me want you to forget her or let her go. I know you couldn’t and wouldn’t. What I’m trying to say is that I wouldn’t want you to, even if you could. Your love for her is a part of you and I want all of you. I understand you may not be able to share all of yourself with me, but I do welcome all of you. I will never dishonor what you had and have with your wife.”
Jamie turned and kissed him, soft and slow. Not chaste, but warm, the fire carefully banked. “Thank ye, John. For understanding. And now ye’re a part of me too.” He let go of John’s hand then, let his touch skim up the sleeve of John’s coat, leaving a trail of gooseflesh in its wake. Jamie’s hand continued up and over his shoulder, his neck, into John’s hair. “And that’s a part I’d verra much like to spend some time exploring.”
Grey shivered. God, he wanted that man to map out every inch of him. “We have time, and I’m yours to explore in whatever way you like. You only have to ask me.”
Fraser kissed him again, his tongue warm and unhurried in John’s mouth, Jamie’s fingers tugging at his neckcloth as he made an interrogative noise.
John helped Jamie remove the fabric, then he tilted his neck back in a taut line, allowing the man to investigate as he liked. He dropped his hands back down to the ground. He would let Jamie do as he pleased, let him set the rhythm and the pace.
Jamie’s lips were hot against Grey’s throat, moist enough that when the heat was gone from one point, a rush of coolness immediately took its place. “I have been furious with myself for weeks,” Jamie breathed against John’s ear. “That night on the road from London, the day it rained to shame the devil.” He slid his hand under John’s coat, down the buttons of his waistcoat, not unfastening them, but making each one twitch against John’s torso. Jamie kissed his neck again. “I should have looked. We should have looked at each other.”
“Oh, God. I would give anything to see you, Jamie, if you would allow me. And, you must know you can see me. Tear the clothes from my body for all I care.” Grey shrugged half way out of his coat, letting it pool around his elbows. “I should warn you though, in case this would make you uncomfortable. If we do this, I will not be able to… my prick will be stiff, Jamie. I won’t be able to help it.”
“I dinna mind,” Jamie said and claimed John’s lips again. “I suspect mine will be too,” he said into John’s mouth. “Ye said ye willna hurt me and I believe ye.” One by one Fraser worked the buttons of John’s waistcoat, from top to bottom, a maddeningly slow pace. He tugged at the cuffs of John’s coat so he could pull his hands free of the sleeves, tossing the waistcoat carelessly toward the saddlebag. Jamie rucked up John’s shirt, untucked it, pulled it directly over his head, dropping it with the other discarded garments.
The amber glow from their lantern cast handsome shadows over Jamie’s face. He sat back and—stared was the wrong word—let his eyes wander Grey’s bare torso, up to his hair which felt out of place from the breeze and his shirt, back down. He felt Fraser’s eyes settle for a moment on each scar before moving onto the next. “Christ,” Jamie breathed, his fingers tracing the defined muscles of John’s arms. “Ye are beautifully made.” His touch wandered to the puckered shrapnel scars on his chest.
Heat burned at John’s cheeks. The sight of Jamie looking at him, enjoying looking at him, was nearly too much to bear. “To hear you say that… I can hardly believe I am not dreaming.” Tentatively, he reached forward and tugged on Jamie’s neckcloth. It fell away to his lap. John ran timid fingers down his neck, slid his touch over the hill there, and reveled in the pounding of his pulse. “What would you like? For me to undress you as you’ve done for me? Or would you like to continue with my…” he swallowed. “... breeches?”
“Be my guest,” Jamie said, gesturing to his rough shirt and leather jerkin. “I’d like to feel yer hands on me like that.”
John sprang forward and made quick work of Jamie’s clothes. He’d been waiting so long to see more of Jamie Fraser and now that he had been given permission all his patience washed away. In almost no time at all, Jamie was bare-chested, his skin glinting in the low light. John spread his hands over the hot flesh, slid his touch over the rough ridges of nipple and bones and scar. He felt himself go weak, like his legs were going to give out beneath him. Grey pressed his forehead to Jamie’s naked shoulder and braced himself. “Christ, you’re handsome.”
Jamie’s hand slid up John’s back from the top of his breeches, fingers tripping along each vertebrae, making him shiver. A gentle tug and he’d pulled loose the ribbon binding John’s hair, and it fell around his shoulders. Jamie pinched John’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, brought his face up for a kiss. That fire was still there, a little nearer than before, and Jamie pulled Grey to him, bare chests flush together.
John crushed Jamie’s mouth in a wet kiss and sank his hands into red curls. Grey’s cock was hardening in his breeches, tenting the fabric. If Jamie looked down, he would see it. Evidence of John’s intense arousal, evidence that his body wanted to find its home inside Jamie’s, though, logically, he knew it might not. Likely would not. Jamie pulled him in closer, deepening their kiss, and John felt his cockstand press into Jamie’s belly.
Jamie took hold of both of Grey’s shoulders and gently pushed him away a few inches. “Would ye lie back?” he asked. “And let me look at ye some more?”
Grey swallowed through a tight throat. Perhaps Jamie wanted distance from him after that moment or perhaps he just wanted to see more of his body. Either way, he trusted that Jamie wasn’t scared of him, wasn’t going to run away without explanation. He was happy to let Jamie look anyway.
John did as Jamie asked and laid his body back on the grass, one arm propped behind his head.
Lying down on his side next to him, Jamie held his head up with one hand, and did indeed look. He appraised Grey openly and from the way his eyes lingered and he licked his lips, Jamie did in fact enjoy what he saw. Jamie draped one leg over his and skimmed a thumb over John's nipple. "Is that alright?" he asked.
“Yes,” John said, shivering, nerves alight from the exquisite touch. “You never have to hold back with me. I mean, depending on what you do, I may end up spilling in my breeches. Or having to… find a private moment, if you take my meaning. But my body is yours, Jamie. I trust you with it fully.”
Jamie bent down and kissed John's mouth, then changed course and closed wet lips over his nipple, suckling it with an air of experimentation.
“Jamie.” Grey’s hand flew to those red curls. “That’s… oh… yes.” He bucked up into the touch. “I could die happy from that alone.” Everything with Fraser felt so new, so special. He’d been with plenty of other men, but it felt different with Jamie. Like he’d never been touched before.
“Dinna die on me now, John,” Fraser said with a cheeky grin before going back for more. He flicked his tongue over the sensitive nub this time. His strong hands on either side of John’s ribcage felt possessive.
“God. Your tongue. Where the bloody hell did you learn to do that?” he gasped, all propriety lost to the feeling.
Jamie released John’s nipple and rose up on one hand and knee, swung the other over John and loomed over him. “I like the things ye say when ye ken it doesna matter.” He cut off anything further Grey may have been about to say with a thoroughly confident and entirely thrilling—if brief—kiss. Straightening his arms, Jamie stared down at Grey, head tilted to one side like a rather pleased cat. “And I like to see ye from this angle too.”
Grey’s hand flew to his flies. Through the fabric, he pressed his fingers to the base of his prick to hold off the impending rush. He gasped, chest heaving. A smile turned up one side of his mouth. “I almost embarrassed myself there.” He let out a near-hysterical laugh. “You have no idea the effect you have on me, Jamie Fraser.”
Moving with a careful kind of haste, Jamie sat back in the grass next to Grey. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, worrying his lower lip between his teeth.
“Please don’t apologize. I hope it doesn’t bother you, just how strongly my body reacts to your touch and your voice. Your everything.”
For a gut-wrenching moment, Fraser looked to be considering that carefully. At last he relaxed again. “No,” he said with a small smile. “No, it doesna bother me.” Jamie bent down and gave John a most undignified peck on the nose. He glanced down the length of Grey’s body and back up again. “I could help ye out of those breeches?” he suggested. “And maybe, if ye’d like... I could watch?”
For a moment, Grey thought he just might faint. Then, he nodded shakily. With trembling lips, he said, “Yes” and lifted his hips to ease the way for Jamie to help him.
Jamie hooked his fingers under the sides of Grey’s breeches and pulled, letting John settle back down onto the grass before tugging his boots off. The way clear, Jamie pulled John’s breeches and stockings off, leaving him naked in the grass. All the air left Fraser in a gasp, his slanted eyes roamed John’s body again. He took in all of it, leaving no square inch unexamined. “Christ, John,” he whispered. “Ye truly are remarkable.”
Grey sighed, then slid his hand down his bare body. He wrapped a strong hand around his prick and felt it everywhere. John tugged himself, smooth but strong, eyes on Jamie. “This is what you wanted to watch, yes?”
“Aye,” Jamie said, nodding. He held John’s gaze, only breaking it to watch his hand stroking his cock. One of his own hands rested in his lap, and Grey realized that Jamie was not only hard as well, but he palmed the bulge of his own cockstand through his breeches.
Heat rolled over John as he watched Jamie touching himself. He wished this moment could last. Wanted it to, but it wouldn’t take long. Not with Jamie flushed and staring at him in the flickering light of the lantern. “Jamie, oh Jamie.” His hand sped up naturally. “I don’t think I can hold off much longer. Not when I can look at you like this.”
Jamie’s bare chest rose and fell with his ragged breathing. He’d opened his flies when John wasn’t looking and taken himself in hand. Though Jamie’s stroking hand and the angle of his leg mostly hid it from view, Grey caught a glimpse of the dewy head of Jamie’s prick. “Christ, John.”
The sight made Grey leak and it took enormous willpower not to spill all over his hand. “Are you close, love? I want to find my pleasure while I watch you find yours.”
“Oh, God,” Jamie moaned, his fist moving faster. “Aye. When ye say it like that.” His eyes fell closed, mouth open in a gasp. “Oh, John, I’m there.”
“Yes, Jamie.” Grey sped up his hand and found that white-hot jolt of pleasure as he saw Jamie spurting all over his hand. “God. Yes. Finally!” he shouted, shooting all over his stomach and chest. His vision went black in spots as he tried to find his way back down from the highest he’d ever been in his life.
Jamie panted and shuddered, riding his own wave. He tucked himself back into his breeches but didn’t button the flies, and collapsed onto his side next to Grey. Laying his cheek on his forearm, he smiled, looking rather sated, and watched Grey collect himself. “Yer eyes roll back in yer head. Did ye ken that?”
John turned over and smiled at Jamie, just taking in the smallest details of his face. Memorizing them. “I love that you know what I look like when I finish.” He stroked Jamie’s rough cheek with the back of his hand. “I’d like to just lie here and kiss you for a while. Would that be alright with you?”
“Aye, it would,” Jamie answered and scooted close enough so that their thighs, hips, stomachs touched. His blissful smile faltered, just at one corner, and only for a heartbeat. “And I ken it isna really a bed, but I would like to feel yer arms around me.”
John’s eyes glanced down at the places where their body met. John’s bare thighs, his hips and soft, spent prick pressed to Jamie’s breeches. Where their naked stomachs pressed together, their seed mixed, cooling and drying on their skin. He pressed a soft kiss to Jamie’s mouth, then spoke against Jamie’s lips. “Do you think we’ll be able to pry ourselves apart if it dries this way?”
Jamie chuckled. “We may lose a few layers of skin, but I ken we’ve both had worse injuries.” He kissed John and laughed again. “Probably under dumber circumstances too.” He slid his arm over John’s side, and their lips came together, lazy and slow and entirely luxurious. “Thank you,” he whispered, so low Grey almost didn’t catch it.
When someone said thank you, Grey’s instinct was to say “you’re welcome,” but he stayed silent now. How could the greatest gift he’d ever been given be thanking him? Grey had spent the afternoon saying far too many words. He was tired of talking. So he kissed Jamie Fraser deeply, and let his actions speak for him.
Chapter 7: A Grey Keeps His Promises
“Mac Mac Mac Mac Mac!”
Jamie stuck his head out of the stall where he sat working a stone out of a mare’s hoof. He put his index finger to his lips and patted the air. “Shh, easy now.”
Willie skidded to a halt and clamped one little hand over his mouth. “Srmmf mrrmf,” he whispered, the words entirely muffled by his palm.
“Good lad.” His job done, Jamie released the horse’s ankle and exited the stall, shutting the door behind him. He made a formal bow of greeting to his son, who returned it awkwardly, then thrust his hands into the air.
“Up!” he cried, and Jamie picked him up and swung him onto his hip, looking toward the door of the stable.
“Who is it that’s supposed to be looking after ye, hmm? Did ye run away again?”
John stepped into the stables, smiling. “I haven’t a clue how someone so small can run so quickly.”
Isobel swept in behind him, staying close at John’s side, her gaze dropped down towards Willie.
Jamie bowed as correctly as he could with Willie perched on his hip. “Good afternoon, My Lady. My lord,” he said, his expression carefully polite and neutral. He turned his attention back to Willie and gave him a conspiratorial little grin. “Those new legs have no’ had a chance to grow tired yet, have they, My Wee Lord?”
“We ride, Mac?” Willie asked.
“Not now, I’m afraid, no,” Jamie answered. “The horses are at their supper. You wouldna like to have yer supper interrupted to work, would ye?” Willie stuck out his lower lip but shook his head. “What brings ye out here, My Lord?” Jamie asked John.
“We were just enjoying a walk when this little one saw the stables and took off running,” John said, warmly, gaze just as fond as it lingered briefly on Jamie.
“We were considering a picnic down by the lake. The weather is mild enough and it will likely be the last opportunity this season.” Isobel looked up at John, then touched his arm with her small hand and let it lay there.
Oh, it’s like that, Jamie thought, trying not to glare at Lady Isobel’s hand on John’s arm. Willie squirmed in Jamie’s grasp, and he set him down on the floor. The lad scurried to the stall door and climbed up the boards. He was barely tall enough to peer over the side. “Shall I saddle horses for ye, then, once they’re fed?”
Lady Isobel tore her eyes away from Grey to answer. “No, that’s quite alright, Mr. MacKenzie. It’s a fine day for a walk.”
Willie lost his footing on the door and fell, clinging to the top of it and letting out a frightened whine. “Let go, master Willie,” Jamie said, one hand hovering a few inches behind his back to keep him from cracking his skull on the floor. “It isna far. Ye’ll land on yer feet.”
With another little whine, Willie let go, sliding down the stall door until his feet hit brick. He beamed proudly. “Come with us, Mac.”
Jamie smiled down at his son. “Aye but that isna up to me, is it?”
John gave Jamie a sympathetic look. It wasn’t really up to John and Jamie knew that. Not if they wanted to avoid drawing extra attention to their closeness.
Isobel leaned into John ever so slightly. “Oh, Willie, dear. Don’t pester the man. I’m sure Mr. Mackenzie would rather enjoy some solitude than lunch with us.” The dismissal was polite enough but clearly was a dismissal.
Nothing could have been farther from what Jamie actually wanted, but he squatted down to Willie’s eye level. “Ye must mind yer auntie, aye? I’ll take ye for a ride next time.” It took everything in Jamie not to argue with Lady Isobel. Sometimes he really loathed keeping up appearances.
Willie nodded, his little head drooping in a heart-rending picture of disappointment, and he shuffled to Isobel’s side.
John frowned and mouthed what looked like “I’m sorry” to Jamie as Isobel was saying something to Willie. Isobel slipped her arm around John’s and laid a hand on Willie’s shoulder and they turned to exit. Just then, one of the house servants peeked her head through the door.
“There you are, Lady Isobel. I am sorry to interrupt, but your mother is asking to see you.”
Isobel sighed. “Would you tell her I’ll speak to her later? Lord John and I were taking Willie down to the lake for a picnic.”
“I’m sorry, My Lady, but your mother said it was urgent, and she needed to speak with you. Now. Alone.”
Isobel turned her face up towards John, but she said nothing.
“It’s alright. We’ll just go another time,” John said, patting her arm gently.
Willie sniffed, then gasped, “We not going? I want picnic. You said!”
“We’ll do it another time, Willie,” John repeated in a kind but firm tone, looking down at the boy. “Unless… I could go with him?” he whispered to Isobel.
“You wouldn’t mind?” Isobel asked, sounding quite impressed that John would be willing to watch the boy on his own.
John shook his head. “Of course not. I’d be happy to.”
Wille clapped, spinning back around towards Jamie. “Picnic. Picnic!”
Isobel sighed and slowly dropped her touch away from John, then followed her servant out of the stables and away.
Jamie indulged in a smug grin before clearing his throat and laying a gentle hand on the top of Willie’s head, quieting him. “Aye, ye whirling dervish. Dinna spook the horses.” Feeling a bit like all his wildest dreams were about to come true, Jamie arched one eyebrow at John. “Care for reinforcements?” A very brief but meaningful pause. “My Lord?”
“Oh, you were coming whether you wanted to or not.” John gave Jamie a quick, subtle wink. “In my experience, the young master’s wild enough he’ll need the both of us to keep him in line.”
Jamie chuckled, but cut his eyes toward an interior doorway without turning. We are not alone. “Aye. I’m happy to be of service.”
Willie spun in a circle. “Mac is coming! Wheeeee—”
Jamie gripped his shoulder and turned him toward the door. “Easy now.”
The lad held one dutiful finger up to his lips, giggling, and darted forward to take John’s hand. The sight of his son’s small hand stretched up almost as high as he could reach to cling easily to John’s two fingers made Jamie’s eyes burn and his vision blur. His secret son and his—well, his secret lover, if he were quite honest with himself. It was too close to perfect, and Jamie sent up a silent prayer of thanks for it as he followed them out of the stables.
Jamie stooped to pick up the picnic basket from the bench by the door. “When we get to the lake,” Jamie said in hushed German, “I need you to pinch me to make sure I’m not dreaming.”
John’s cheeks turned pink and he dug his teeth into his bottom lip.
Little fingers wrapped around Jamie’s fingers too, connecting John to Jamie. He lifted his feet up off the ground and kicked wildly. “Swing me. Swing me.”
Willie weighed next to nothing, and with an indulgent laugh, the two men swung him back and forth between them. The boy let out peals of delighted giggles, hanging on for dear life.
“Higher!” Willie squealed.
Jamie laughed. “Nay, ye’ll get stuck in a cloud. Ye dinna want to float away, do ye?” His face hurt from smiling, but he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t remember the last time his heart had felt so light.
They continued on to the lake, with Willie holding their hands, but eventually, Willie complained that his legs were tired. He dropped both their fingers and turned around to face Jamie. He stuck his little arms up in the air. “Up, Mac. Up.”
“Here,” John said, taking the picnic basket from Jamie.
Arms now free, Jamie picked the boy up and carried him against his chest. Now that Willie was in Jamie’s arms, this allowed the men to drift closer together. They were far enough away from the house that it didn’t matter how close they walked and if their arms and shoulders brushed, what would Willie have to say about it?
The sun was bright, but only slightly warm, dulled by the season. They settled down together on a gentle slope overlooking the deep, placid blue of the lake. As soon as John placed the picnic basket on the ground, Willie lifted the lid and dug into it, nearly shoving his entire head inside.
Jamie snatched Willie by the back of his coat and tugged him out of the basket. The boy plopped onto his rear, triumphantly gnawing at an apple. Careful to keep his movements behind Willie's line of sight, Jamie reached across the narrow space and gave John's arm an affectionate squeeze.
John edged closer to Jamie, reaching over him to drag the picnic basket closer. “Are you hungry, Jamie? I believe the cook packed some roast partridge.”
"Aye, well, I was," Jamie answered honestly. He gripped John's hand with his where it rested in the grass, the feeling of John's warm skin sending sparks through his fingers. Willie had gotten a morsel bitten off of the apple and now tore into it with gleeful abandon, juice dripping down his chin.
Jamie's blood had run cold with a vile sort of jealousy when Lady Isobel had taken John's arm and made to go off with what Jamie wished was his own little family, accidental and unorthodox though it was. She was clearly taken with John, likely a result of his heroics the last time he was here. And she could have something with John that Jamie never could—a life in the open. She could touch him how she liked, when she liked, without fear. The thought of John with her, though... it felt like a knife through the belly. But Isobel could never have John's heart, Jamie thought, as he watched the man pull wrapped parcels and dishes from the basket. At least, Jamie was rather certain that was the case.
Switching to German again, Jamie explained, "All I can think about is kissing you. I know we can't, but I want to." He nodded at Willie, still making a valiant mess of his apple. "And about how right this feels, the three of us. Together like this. I know it's impossible, and it doesn't do to dwell on what we can't have. And this," Jamie made a gesture indicating the present. "This is so very, very good and I'm grateful for it. But I don't think I could eat now if I were starving to death."
John gave Jamie’s hand a firm squeeze, then replied in quiet German, “I wish you could kiss me, and I wish I could hold you in my arms.” He sighed. “I do know what you mean when you say it doesn’t do any good to dwell on the impossible. And yet, you’re here, holding my hand. And all I can think is that that was supposed to be impossible too.”
Jamie gave him a warm smile, feeling fit to burst with the rush of happiness he felt. Willie turned to Jamie and grinned, bits of apple and sticky juice all over his face. "Well done, lad," Jamie said. Releasing John's hand, he turned the half eaten apple in his son's hands, presenting a fresh angle of attack. "Dinna eat the seeds though."
The boy held the apple up to Jamie. "Want some, Mac?"
In other circumstances, he would have said yes and taken a bite right from Willie's hands. But that was not how a groom behaved around an earl, no matter how wee. He shook his head. "Nay, My Lord, but thank ye. All yours."
Willie enjoyed several more chomps before setting the apple in a lush patch of grass. “John, you said.”
“What did I say?”
Willie popped up onto his small feet and scurried through the grass around them. He bent down and stood back up with a rock clutched in his apple-sticky hand. “Skip rocks.”
John smiled and nodded, then rose to his feet. “I told Willie I’d teach him to skip rocks on the lake,” he said to Jamie.
"Oh, I see," Jamie said, climbing to his feet. "Let's have a lesson, then."
Willie took off like a shot for the lake. Jamie rushed forward and snatched him up with one big arm around his middle, making the lad screech. "Ye mustn't run so close to the lake. Ye could fall in and get eaten by the waterhorse."
Eyes huge, Willie gawked from Jamie to the lake. "Horses in the water?"
"Oh, aye, maybe," Jamie said. "But a waterhorse isna like the horses in the stables. They are enormous beasts that live deep in the cold lochs of Scotland."
Jamie set Willie back on his feet, and the lad looked up with a furrowed brow. "But we not in Scotland."
"Weel, no. But we are close," Jamie answered. "Do ye want to risk it?" Willie shook his head emphatically and Jamie patted his shoulder. "There's a good lad. Respect the water, aye?"
“Show me the rock you have Willie,” John said.
Willie hesitated, but laid the rock in John’s palm.
“This won’t do, you see, rocks to skip should be as smooth as you can find.” John looked around in the grass, then picked up a smooth, grey stone. He showed it to Willie. “Like this one. See? And then, you simply flick your wrist and let go.” John did just as he described and the flat stone bounced across the placid lake several times before dropping into the depths.
Willie clapped. “Me try. Me try.”
John found another flat stone and placed it in Willie’s hand. He took to fling it into the water, before John grabbed his arm to stop him. “No, Willie.” He laughed. “Not like that.” John took Willie’s hand in his and guided him to flick the stone. It skipped twice before sinking.
“I did it!” Willie shouted. “You try, Mac.”
"Alright then," Jamie said, stooping to pick up a flat rock. "It's been a verra long time since I've done this. Count wi' me?"
Willie nodded and fixed his eyes on the water. Jamie situated the stone in his left hand and let it fly over the water, skipping eight times before it tumbled and sank. "Wow!" Willie gasped, giggling.
John looked over at Jamie with a honeyed warmth in his eyes. “Mac has quite the talent for that.” He stepped closer to Jamie and, in reference to Jamie’s earlier comment, pinched his upper arm, gifting him with a wry smile. All Jamie wanted to do was drag John close and kiss that smile off his face, but of course he couldn’t out in the daylight with Willie right there. So he settled for a little shrug and looked at the ground for another stone, his cheeks warm.
They continued skipping the smooth rocks they found, the glass-smooth water of the lake thoroughly disturbed, until Willie claimed he was hungry again. The three of them settled down in the grass by the picnic basket. Willie chewed on a crusty piece of bread, while John enjoyed some of the partridge and another one of the apples.
Willie had begun to yawn between bites and his big eyes blinked with sleepy slowness. He put down the bread then stumbled over to Jamie and climbed up into his lap. Jamie let the boy settle himself, cradling his small frame in the crook of one arm, feeling as if his heart would burst. He was asleep within a few minutes in that trusting, innocent manner of small children.
“John,” he whispered. “Will ye please look to be sure no one is about?”
Jamie’s eyes were glued to Willie, watching the way his lips twitched, memorizing the gentle rise and fall of his chest. He heard John stir and then he whispered back, “Not a soul.”
Jamie bent down and pressed his lips to Willie’s temple, breathed in deep the smell of him. And then there was not a force on Earth that could have kept his tears from falling. “I’ve… I’ve never kissed my own bairn before,” he said, or tried to say. “Claire’s first was stillborn, born and buried while I was in the Bastille. And she was still carrying the second when…” Lord, that they may be safe, he prayed. “He’s all there is of me in this world and he can never know.” Jamie turned his face so his tears wouldn’t fall on Willie and wake him.
John shuffled over, their sides pressed together. He laid his head on Jamie’s shoulder and let out a long breath. Settling his arm around Jamie, he held him, pressing a kiss, and then another to Jamie’s shoulder as Willie slept in Jamie’s arms.
“Perhaps the last fourteen years were Purgatory,” Jamie whispered. “Because this must be Paradise.” He licked his lips and tasted his own salty tears, swiped at his cheeks with his sleeve. John’s arm was a solid shelter around him, his hand tight on Jamie’s arm. He turned to look at John, breathed in the savory scent of the partridge he’d eaten, and the clean scent of the bergamot oil in his hair. “I ken it’s dangerous,” Jamie whispered. “But if ye kiss me right now, I’ll ken I’ve died and gone to Heaven for certain.”
John brushed Jamie’s jaw with his hand, turning his face towards him. The tips of their noses touched and then John’s mouth was on his.
“I love you,” John said. “You must know that if I could give you this, everyday, always, I would.”
“Aye, and I ken that too,” Jamie answered. He’d stopped weeping.
John swept his fingers through Jamie’s hair. “I do hate to say this, but we will have to return soon. I am sorry.”
Jamie nodded. “You’re right.” He smiled down at Willie, still slumbering away in his arms. “I canna bring myself to wake him though.” Jamie leaned against John for a moment more, closing his eyes and committing every last sensation to memory. Willie, his sleeping body warm and slack in Jamie’s arms. And John, equally warm, solid and strong and his. “Do ye think I’ll see ye again tonight? I dinna want ye to rouse suspicion, but I would verra much like to be with ye, if we can manage it.”
John shivered. “I’ll find a way. For you, Jamie. I will always find a way.”
It had been a wonderful afternoon, one John Grey would not soon forget. He’d hated having to take Willie from Jamie and disappear into the house. Yet, he did quite enjoy holding the sleeping boy in his arms. Jamie’s son. So obviously Jamie’s son, he thought.
Isobel had returned though, finished with whatever business she’d had with Lady Dunsany. She’d taken Willie from him, which left a dull pain in John’s gut. She kissed his cheek, Willie waking in her arms, and blushed. Isobel took several steps away, but then cast a look over her shoulder at him, beaming before ascending the stairs.
John had promised Jamie he’d find a way to see him tonight and he would. He could sneak out to the stables after everyone fell asleep and lead Jamie back out to the lake. Though it would be dreadfully cold. John could sneak Jamie into his rooms through the window. They could simply keep quiet, though that would be far too reckless. Or… no, he had a far better idea. Still, a bold risk but a risk worth it for the possible reward. Besides, he had promised Jamie they would share a bed again.
Grey found Lord Dunsany in his study, sipping brandy and poring over some parchment. He apologized for the interruption, then informed the man that he’d received correspondence and had some unfinished business in regards to the events in Ireland that he would need Mackenzie for tonight.
“Yes, yes. Of course,” Dunsany had said, distracted.
Grey should’ve taken the victory and departed, but instead, he hesitated. He did care for and respect this man. “Are you alright? You seem worried about something.”
“Hmm… oh yes.” Dunsany rubbed his wrinkled forehead. “I’m worried about Isobel.”
“Isobel? What’s happened?”
He frowned. “It’s only that she seems lonely, and I’ve yet to find her a suitor. She’s not… her sister.”
Grey pressed lips together. He did quite like Isobel, and he had not had such warm regard for her sister. “No, she is not.”
“I want just one of my children to find happiness. Is that wrong?” Dunsany shook his head. “Oh, I am sorry for saying so much, Lord John. I have not been sleeping well.”
“No need to apologize. You care much for your children, that has always been abundantly clear. And Isobel, she has a truly kind and beautiful heart. I have no doubt that she will find happiness,” John said. “Again, thank you for allowing me use of your servant.”
He bristled at his own phrasing, before bowing to Lord Dunsany and making his exit. He headed back to the stables, almost immediately. The ride into town was manageable in a few hours, but they’d need to leave soon.
In moments, John was surrounded again by the scent of horses and hay and the sight of Jamie, more handsome than a man had any right to be.
“Do you have a moment, Mr. MacKenzie? I require your assistance.”
Jamie tossed the bale of hay he was carrying onto its stack and brushed his hands off on his breeches. “Aye, of course, My Lord,” he answered, his tone perfectly polite. They weren’t alone then.
“I need you to come with me. Now. If you will. Oh, and we’ll need two of the horses.” His lips tipped into a smile that he promptly hid. “I’ll wait out for you. By the road.” Grey nodded at Jamie, then turned sharply on his boot retaining an air of formality. He hurried outside, then up to the road, where he would wait for Jamie. He could’ve waited to see how Jamie responded, but there were others around and John was a lord. A command was a command, and Jamie would comply. At least, that was how it would appear to the others. Grey had done what he did at Jamie’s behest, and the other man knew that Grey was keeping his promise to him.
It took time to saddle two horses, but soon Jamie rode into view, the reins of John’s mount clutched in one hand. He pulled the horses to a halt and passed over Grey’s reins. “I dinna ken what ye said to whom, but I am impressed.” Fraser kept his lips pressed into a neutral line but his eyes definitely bore a mischievous light.
“Dunsany has always liked me, even since I was a boy. It’s serving me well now,” John said, mounting his horse. “We have business, regarding Ireland, that has not concluded. There’s an inn in town that I believe will be just the place to finish it.”
"Oh, aye?" Jamie replied. "Weel, as long as it's official business, I'm sure Lord Dunsany was happy to oblige."
It had been an easy ride, the weather clear but the temperature dropping steadily. It seemed the unseasonably warm weather was giving way to the coming winter at last and the two men rubbed their hands together briskly to warm their ungloved fingers. John procured them a room and ordered supper to be sent up. Their conversation since departing Helwater had alternated at random between light-hearted nonsense, to serious philosophy, to companionable silence, and occasionally downright bawdy humor. Supper passed in much the same fashion, slipping into one of those comfortable silences as Jamie stacked their empty dishes back on the tray.
“A picnic with Willie, a night away from the estate,” Jamie said. “We’ve been verra bold today, John. I hope it willna cause ye trouble.”
“I do not believe that it will, but you, my love, are worth all the trouble in the world.” John laughed and shook his head. “Jesus, you have turned me into quite the romantic fool, Jamie Fraser.”
Jamie laughed. "Now, I do doubt that." He sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers, feigning serious consideration. "Nay. I think ye were always a romantic fool. Only now ye ken ye may show it." He reached across the table and laid his hand over John's. "Fool or no, I haven't kent such joy as I've felt today in many, many years. Thank ye, John. Truly."
“I am so grateful that I may be able to bring you some joy or comfort. I cannot count the times over the years when I have seen you in pain and wished my touch could comfort you. I knew it could not and God, it left me feeling so powerless.”
“It does now,” Jamie answered for lack of anything better to say. “And I dinna ken if I deserve it, but I’m grateful for it nonetheless.” He poured them each a dram of whisky from the bottle on the supper tray. “I should have said this before, but, weel. Ye were there in that shed and I was…” Jamie shook his head, at a loss for what else to say. “I mean to say that it is also a comfort to me that ye will be Willie’s guardian.”
“I am glad of it. Both that I can be his guardian and that it comforts you. I am so fond of your son, wild as he is.” Grey’s expression grew serious and he worried his lip. “There is something I would like to ask you. You are free, of course, not to share it. But, we’ve never discussed the nature of… by that I mean, how you… how Lady Geneva came to bear your child.”
Jamie took a bracing sip of whisky before answering. “Ye were her friend, John. I dinna think ye really want to hear it.”
“She may have been a friend, as we knew each other since we were young. But I also did know her, what she was like. Even so, Jamie, it would not matter how close we had been. You are what matters to me. I will not pry, but there is nothing you ever need to hide from me.”
Jamie took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh. He’d found so much absolution in the telling of his old scars to Grey. It seemed foolish to hold back now. “It was just before she was to wed Ellesmere. Lady Geneva was... dissatisfied with the match, ye might say.” Jamie fiddled with his whisky glass, spinning it in slow circles over the rough table. “She blackmailed me, coerced me to her bed. She kent my true name and she threatened my family.” Jamie took another drink of whisky before continuing. “Ye ken Lady Geneva died in childbirth, and that Ellesmere died the same day. But did ye ken that I was the one who killed him?”
Grey shot up from the chair and away from the table. He ran a hand over his hair as he stumbled across the rug to the window. He braced himself on the sill as he drew in strained, audible breaths. “I’m trying so hard not to be fucking furious right now.”
Jamie’s heart pounded in his chest. He shouldn’t have said anything. Fool. He should have declined to answer. “I had to do it, John. He kent the bairn wasna his. He was going to kill William.” He wanted to get up, go to John, make it better. But like a coward, he kept his seat. “I canna be sorry for that.”
“No, Christ. Jamie, I’m sorry. I did not mean it that way. Ellesmere met the fate he deserved. You were right to do what you did. Of course you were.” Grey tucked his fingers into his palm. “It’s not you I am angry with. I am trying not to speak or think ill of the dead… and yet...” His face was red, his jaw visibly clenched. “I have tried to be sensible and understanding, Jamie, because God knows this is not about me. And God knows I should just keep my silence, but fuck, fuck. If anyone, ever, touches you without your consent or demands something like that from you ever again, I will kill them.” John stomped over to Jamie at the table, grabbed hold of his waistcoat and pulled him to his feet. “I will tear the beating heart out of their fucking chest, man or woman.”
Jamie stared down at Grey’s fury, dumbfounded. He took John’s hands in his, covering them where they still gripped his waistcoat. “John, Christ, man, would ye take a breath? She was no’ but a lass. Aye, spoilt maybe. I dinna think she kent what she was doing. And if she hadna done it, and if I hadna gone through with it, Willie would no’ be here. She used me, aye. But I canna regret my son.”
“No, I know. I’m sorry. I’m not… entirely certain that was all about Geneva anyway. I just hate that people have tried to use you. You deserve the world and I cannot give it to you nor take away your pain. However, you also do not get to ask me not to protect you or stand up for you or simply be on your side. You are free to ask anything else of me but not that.” John placed a hand on Jamie’s cheek. “You have been alone for a long time, haven’t you? You’re not alone anymore.”
Having absolutely no idea what to say to all that, Jamie wrapped his arms around John, pulled him in tight, and crushed their mouths together. He had been alone for a very long time. He’d had his men in Ardsmuir, but they had been his men. It had been Jamie’s duty to stand up for them, never the other way around. His old life as Laird Broch Tuarach had been much the same, devoted to the service of his tenants. Claire had always been on his side, of course, the strongest woman Jamie had ever met. But she had been gone for fourteen years, and that was a very long time indeed.
At last, Jamie pulled away and swiped his thumb over John’s lips. “I ken I’m no’ alone anymore. And I’m grateful for it. For you.”
Grey kissed him again and everything melted away beyond the way it felt to touch each other, to taste each other. Jamie ended up sat on the small table. Grey’s narrow body between his legs, kissing his mouth, then his jaw before tugging at his neckcloth until John could latch a hot mouth onto his skin there and bite and suck. His hands gripped onto Jamie’s thighs, each finger a point of delicious pressure.
“Christ, John,” Jamie gasped. John’s ferocity might have been frightening if it weren’t for the control that Jamie could sense in him. Grey was a whirlwind, true, but he knew precisely how to wield that energy. Jamie twisted his fingers in John’s hair, growled in annoyance at the ribbon keeping him from running a hand through it, yanked the offending article free and dropped it on the floor. He shoved at John’s coat, tugging awkwardly at his sleeves until it joined the ribbon on the floor. The decadent, dull pain under John’s teeth sent a wave of pleasure through him. “We both need to be out of our clothes and into that bed,” Jamie said, breathless. “I dinna ken yet what I want after that, but I ken I want to feel yer skin on mine.”
John tore at his own clothes like a madman, ripping his linen shirt over his head and kicking his way out of boots and breeches. Then, those same wild hands made short work of Jamie’s clothes, slowing only when he found his way to Jamie’s cotton drawers. “I have not truly seen you before,” John said, licking his lips. He hooked fingers under the waistband and slowly took them to Jamie’s knees, then to his ankles, lowering himself as he did. He was kneeling now at Jamie’s feet and looked up through dark lashes, his hair a devilish mess around his face and shoulders. “You are… marvelous.”
Jamie gave into the urge to smooth John’s wild mane away from his face. He smiled with the knowledge that here, alone, he could give into those innate urges, could touch John however he liked. He was hard, his cock inches from John’s face and the amber firelight from the hearth put his features in beautiful contrast. “I like the view from this angle too,” Jamie said.
John laid a hand on Jamie’s bare thigh. “I know you said you didn’t know what you wanted, but if you’re interested, I’d like to put my mouth on you.” His lips tipped into a knowing smile. “When I’ve done this in the past, it has been met with... general satisfaction.”
“‘General satisfaction?’” Jamie arched an eyebrow at John. “That sounds rather specific to me, but aye.” He paused, let the thought actually make a circuit through his brain. Jamie nodded. “Aye, I’m interested.”
Grey licked his lips, then licked the palm of his hand. He wrapped that wet hand around Jamie’s cock and pumped it. “You’re so warm in my hand. Now how shall you feel in my mouth?” John’s fingers dropped away just to be replaced with a tight mouth, soft lips and wet, teasing tongue. He sank down deep, nose in Jamie’s thatch of red hair, eyes still looking up.
“Dear God in heaven,” Jamie gasped and sank both of his hands into John’s hair, watching him. He couldn’t decide which aspect of the vision was more exciting. John’s lips wrapped around his cock, or that famished heat in his eyes as he stared up at Jamie.
John kept on, swallowing, bobbing his head, and teasing the tip with a clever tongue. He kissed his way down the shaft, then mewled as he brought warm lips to balls, they sank back down over the length as he cupped Jamie and squeezed.
"Oh, John. Yer mouth—oh God. Ye've a wicked tongue, John Grey." Heat and a divine kind of pleasure coursed through Jamie, curled his toes. For just a moment, an icy thread of guilt and fear tried to worm its way into his thoughts. Guilt that he should find such pleasure in the body of someone who wasn’t Claire, of a man in particular. Fear of the unknown, of what might come next, of doing or saying the wrong thing.
But this was John, he reminded himself. And what Jamie felt for him went so far beyond mere pleasures of the flesh that he could neither name it yet nor be sorry for it. But oh, God, such pleasures. From the looks of him and the sounds he was making, which rivaled Jamie's, John seemed to be enjoying this almost as much as he was. The sight of Lord John on his knees, all but worshipping Jamie's cock, gave him an unexpected rush. An intoxicating feeling of power. He tightened his grip in John's hair, not wishing to hurt the man but wanting him to feel it, wanted him to know the effect he was having. "John," Jamie groaned, enjoying the feel of his name on his lips. He thrust into John's mouth, experimentally, testing the water.
John’s eyes closed for the first time and he groaned around Jamie’s cock, creating delicious vibrations. He clutched his own prick, also for the first time, and began to stroke. He softened, let his jaw go slack, let Jamie press against the supple flesh at the back of his throat.
Jamie murmured a string of oaths in French, accepted the control that John was surrendering, and thrust again. That rush again, the thrill of ecstasy from watching John take Jamie's cock in his mouth, in his throat, relishing it. All that combined with the truly incredible sensation of John's pliable mouth yielding to him… it was so much. "Christ, John. Oh God, I'm so close. Tell me now if ye want me to stop."
John settled back, even softer, even more pliant, if that were possible. He sped up his own touch to his prick and focused his eyes on Jamie’s, watching him intently.
Taking that as a resounding no, Jamie stopped holding back, pressed in and out of John's mouth. The wave hit him and Jamie let out a low growl, holding onto John with a firm grip in his hair as he spilled into his throat. "John!" Jamie hissed, fighting to keep his voice down.
John dropped his own cock, seemingly forgetting his own pleasure. His hands splayed onto Jamie’s thighs, keeping him up. He swallowed easily, then licked him clean with quiet noises. He mumbled gentle endearments as he left fluttering kisses everywhere on Jamie’s softening cock. “The taste of you,” John’s voice had been roughened by the use of his throat. “God, Jamie, like butter and fresh-baked bread.” He laughed quietly to himself, then leaned his forehead on Jamie’s thigh.
Jamie took John's hands and hauled him to his feet and, dragging John tight against his body, kissed him. He slid his tongue into John's mouth, tasting himself there. John's hard prick jabbed into Jamie's hip and Jamie walked them both backward to the bed. "I dinna ken how your cook makes butter, but ye may want to inquire," Jamie said against John's lips. He flipped the bedclothes back and deposited John onto the mattress with a token shove, lying down halfway atop him.
With only a moment's hesitation, Jamie wrapped his hand around John's cock and gave it a slow stroke. "Is this alright?" Jamie asked, suddenly feeling nervous and hating it. "I dinna think I'm ready to... use my mouth... but I want to make ye feel good."
“It’s perfect.” John cupped Jamie’s cheek. “You’re perfect. Your hand on me. So rough,” he said, somewhat deliriously. “I love that it’s rough.” John arched up off the bed, moaning, as Jamie continued his touches. “Oh, yes. Yes, Christ. Right there. I’m right—Jamie,” he cried, and lines of seed striped his chest as John clutched at the bed clothes with one hand and Jamie with the other.
Jamie covered John's mouth with his, muffling his cries and swallowing down all the incredible sounds he made. Slowing his hand and loosening his grip, he felt John shudder beneath him. Everything about John was exciting. The scent of him, of the both of them, the taste of his mouth. The little aftershocks of pleasure that made his body shake had Jamie grinning against John's lips. Releasing John's cock, Jamie smoothed his hand over his thigh, hip, side. "Are ye still with me, John?" he whispered.
“Always.” John looked down at the mess on his chest and smiled. He drew a finger through his seed and held it up to examine. “You taste delicious, Jamie. You know that? I’ve always thought I tasted rather bland.”
Jamie blinked down at John. "It never occurred to me to try it before." On an impulse he took John's hand in his, closed his lips around his finger, and sucked it clean. Jamie let his tongue tease the underside of John's finger before pulling it back out of his mouth with a rather obscene slurping noise. "I canna say that I have much of a palate for seed, but I'm no' so sure I'd call it bland."
“Oh… I reckon you may have just killed me. I never thought this is how I would die, but I’m not complaining.” John laughed. “Love, can you hand me one of the napkins from dinner? I’d like to clean myself up so we can lie down with each other.”
Jamie planted a brief kiss on John's lips before getting up to fetch a napkin. Rather than hand it over though, he cleaned John up himself, collecting every last drop with firm swipes of the cloth. Tossing the napkin carelessly onto the floor, Jamie slid back to John's side and pulled the covers up over them.
John propped himself up on the pillows, then guided Jamie over to him, so Jamie’s head was on his chest where he could hear the slow beat of John’s heart, could rise and fall with his steady breaths. John stroked his fingers through Jamie’s hair and kissed the top of his head. “I told you I’d find a way to hold you while we slept. This time without Tom. Not that I don’t enjoy Tom’s company, but he does make it somewhat difficult to kiss you.” John lifted Jamie’s chin with his fingers and kissed him tenderly.
Their lips moved languidly, unhurried, like they had all the time in the world. Jamie pulled away at last and laid his head on John's chest once again. His skin was warm under Jamie's cheek, John's arms solid and strong around him. Jamie touched his nose to John's skin and inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of him. "I like the way ye smell," he muttered. "Like the oil ye put in yer hair. And the soap Tom uses to wash yer clothes. And woodsmoke." Jamie pressed his nose to the scarred flesh of John's chest, close to his heart and hummed with the enjoyment of it. "And sex." He settled back down, nuzzling his cheek against John's chest. "It's comforting and safe and I could stay here forever."
“Forever,” John whispered back to him, sleepily. “I do like the sound of that.”
Chapter 8: Indecent Proposal
It had been nearly three days since Jamie and John had returned from the “conclusion of their Irish business” and they had hardly seen each other since. Jamie had managed to share lunch with Tom Byrd on the third day. He enjoyed Byrd’s company, listening to the young man ramble in a conspiratorial tone about some inconsequential gossip from London.
They were clearing up their dishes when John came into the kitchen, distressed eyes scanning the room until they landed on Jamie. The air went out of Jamie’s lungs at the sight of him.
“Is something the matter, Me Lord?” Tom asked, standing.
“No, but I must have a private word with Mister... Mackenzie. Are you free to take a walk with me?” Grey asked Jamie.
Jamie nodded his thanks to Tom, who took Jamie’s empty plate from him. “Of course, My Lord.”
They left through the kitchen door, and once they were outside, Jamie found himself lengthening his stride to keep up with John’s pace. “How far do we need to go?” he whispered. “The shed?”
John nodded sharply, then swallowed. He looked pale and his hands were shaking. “I think so.”
They said nothing else to each other until they were in the safety of the shed where they’d shared their first kiss. The same shed where Jamie had read John’s first letter, where he’d… Fraser shook his head to drive away the memory of that sudden, gripping fear and wretched guilt.
“Dunsany has proposed something to me and I… I need to discuss it with you before I give him my answer.” That distressed look had not left John’s eyes, only grown more obvious. “He asked if I would… Jamie, Lord Dunsany has asked if I would marry Isobel.”
John’s words hit Jamie like a blow to the stomach and all the air went out of him in a rush. Fear, anger, and a heaping dose of ugly green jealousy boiled inside of him, tore at his guts, clenched his heart in an iron fist until he thought it would stop altogether. He scrubbed a hand over his jaw and turned away from John without a word. He shouldn’t be surprised, Jamie thought. He knew Lady Isobel was taken with John. And Grey was a friend of the family, and Jamie knew better than most what a good man he was. It was a smart match, John’s involvement with Jamie notwithstanding. Jamie knew that John was also honor-and-duty-bound, almost to a fault.
Fear settled in Jamie’s chest. Fear that this was the end of whatever mad hurricane they’d been swept up in. Because John was bound by his honor and would never engage in infidelity, even if his marriage were nominal. And Jamie couldn’t—wouldn’t—ask him to, ever. Tears burned Jamie’s eyes but he refused to give into them. He’d had enough tears in this damn shed.
Jamie gripped the shelves until his knuckles turned white, the anger coursing through him, hot enough to burn away the fear. Not at John, of course, not even at Dunsany or at Isobel. And if John weren’t such a good man, all of this could be decided without any regard at all for Jamie’s feelings on the matter. And damn it all straight to hell, Jamie was incredibly opposed to the arrangement. John was his and maybe Jamie didn’t exactly know what that meant yet, but if he married Isobel, there would be absolutely no chance for him to figure it out.
Fraser took a deep breath. Then another. At last, he regained his composure as well as he could and turned back to face John. “Oh,” he said, stupidly. He felt as if he’d suddenly forgotten every language he knew and struggled to put words together into a coherent sentence. “What are ye going to tell him?”
“I care for Isobel and there would be benefits to the arrangement, of course. I can see why Lord Dunsany would suggest it.”
But I care for you and I dinna ken if I can stop, Jamie thought. He locked everything down as hard as he could. It wasn’t up to him, after all. He managed a nod, swallowing hard. “Aye, it is an advantageous match.” He drummed the stiff fingers of his right hand against his thigh, waiting for the axe to fall.
“Oh.” John frowned, which drew small lines around his lips. “You think so?”
Not even a little. “Well, ‘tis logical,” Jamie said. “I don’t like it, but I ken it isna really up to me. This is your choice, John.” He took a breath and commended his soul to God. “If this is what ye want, I willna stand in yer way.” He cast his eyes down to the floor. He should stop right there but he couldn’t. “It may break me to let ye go, but if ye ask it of me, I will.”
“Christ, Jamie.” John’s eyes went wide and he was across the shed in almost an instant with a hand on Jamie’s arm. “I don’t want to marry Isobel. I came here to ask your advice on how to tell Dunsany no without offending him. I don’t want to put my guardianship of Willie in jeopardy nor do I want to make things uncomfortable, thus making it difficult for me to visit you. Then you said you thought it was an advantageous match, and I was worried that perhaps you had changed your mind and saw an opportunity to be rid of me.” John shook his head, let out a broken laugh. “What will it take for me to convince you that I love you? That I always have and I always will?”
Relief flooded Jamie and he put both hands on John’s shoulders to steady himself. “Merde, John. I wish ye would have led with that! Jesus, I dinna want to be rid of ye.” His laughter, though brief, was both relieved and rather unhinged. “I was just trying to be brave because I thought that’s what you wanted.” Jamie wrapped his arms around John, pulled him close. “Let me be perfectly clear: I do not want ye to marry Isobel.” He ducked his head to claim John’s lips with a kiss, as hot and possessive as he could make it. “Ye are mine, are ye no’?”
“Yes, yes. I am yours.” Grey trembled and swallowed. “Are you mine, James Fraser?”
“Aye, John Grey, I am,” Jamie answered, nodding. “Body and soul.” He kissed him again.
John was panting, hands gripped into Jamie’s shirt. He looked up at Jamie with naked hunger. “Take me. Please. Right here. Right now.”
With a great effort, Jamie paused. “I thought ye said ye avoid that?”
“I do.” John’s grip tightened, his gaze intent and his voice low and gruff. “And yet all I can think about right now is how it would feel to be split open on your cock.”
“Christ, John,” Jamie hissed. He dropped his hands to John’s hips and yanked him hard against him, both of their stiff cocks jabbing into each other. “I dinna want to hurt ye. I dinna ken how to do it so it doesna hurt. Will ye tell me what to do?”
“It’ll hurt a little. I don’t mind that. But yes, Jamie. I’ll tell you.” John unfastened Jamie’s breeches, then spit into his own hand. He slid the wetness over Jamie’s stiff prick. “It’s better if there’s oil, but this will do.”
Jamie brought their mouths crashing together again and maneuvered John back against the nearest bit of bare wall near the door, a little harder than he intended. “Wait, gi’ me this,” he said, grabbing at one of John’s boots and yanking it off. He made quick work of John’s breeches, shoving them down so he could get at least one leg free. “I want to see yer face,” Jamie said. “The whole time. I want ye to ken it’s me.”
Grey kicked until his other leg was free too, shrugging off his coat, and he was standing there in his shirt and waistcoat. He threw his arms around Jamie’s neck and brought their lips and tongues together. John spoke against Jamie’s wet mouth, “Go slow at first, but other than that you can just take me like you would a woman. I’ll tell you if I need anything, but I’d rather you weren’t gentle.”
“Aye then.” Jamie spit into his own hand and applied it to his prick for good measure. Lifting John off the floor, he braced him against the wall, got John’s legs wrapped around him, and eased him carefully onto his cock. Jamie felt resistance at first and pressed slowly on, watching John’s face intently as he slid all the way in. The inside of John was hot as a forge and tight. God, so tight. “Christ, John,” he gasped. “Talk to me. Are ye alright?”
John smashed their mouths together in a messy kiss and tightened his legs around Jamie, bringing them somehow even closer. “Yes. Bloody hell, Jamie. Fuck. Just. Harder. I want to feel it tomorrow. I want to feel it fucking forever.”
“As ye wish. My lord.” Jamie flashed a devilish grin and kissed John so hard it forced his head back against the wall. His fingers dug into John’s flesh where he held him, pulling back just a few inches, then back in. Jamie kept his thrusts slow and shallow but only at the very start, swept away by the thrill of having John like this, the intense pleasure of it. He pounded into John so hard he thought they might bring the shed down around them. Jamie stopped kissing John, loved the sight of his swollen lips, looked down to see his cock disappearing into his lover.
“And ye are that, are ye no’?” Jamie let go with one hand and yanked off John’s neckcloth, dropping it to the floor. “My lord. Mine.” Jamie latched onto John’s newly exposed throat, sucking, biting. Marking him.
“Yours, Jamie. Yours. Make me yours.” John cried out as he bounced on Jamie’s prick. “So close. Don’t want this to end, but Jesus, Jamie. This is so good. Christ, it’s never been like this before. I didn’t know it could be like this. Oh God. Oh my God!”
Jamie’s orgasm hit him surprisingly fast and he bit down on John’s neck to keep from crying out as he spilled deep into John, his rhythm faltering. His whole body shook with the ecstasy of it.
John had spilled himself between them, leaving them both sticky with his seed. He slipped down Jamie’s legs, and Jamie was no longer inside him. “Jamie,” John said softly and stroked at his hair, tucking loose strands behind his ear. “Tell me what you’re thinking. I know that was… unexpected and we didn’t discuss as much in advance as I’d planned to.”
“I was just thinking that I hope I dinna hurt ye too badly,” Jamie whispered back, laying a tender kiss over the nasty bruise blooming on John’s neck. “I ken I can be a brute.” He wrapped his arms around John, as much to hold him as to find support for his watery knees. “Are ye alright, mo leannan?”
“I am far better than alright. For the record, I do not mind a brute. I, myself, have been known as something of a beast in bed, though I assure you I can tame that side.”
Jamie kissed John’s forehead. “I ken ye can.”
“What does it mean?” John asked. “What you just called me? Mo leannan?”
Jamie smiled, cheeks burning a little with embarrassment. “It means... my lover. Is that alright?”
Fraser fastened his breeches and stooped to pick up John’s, turning them rightside-in before handing them over. He kissed John on the mouth, dipping his tongue between his lips. He just couldn’t get enough of him. “I dinna suppose ye had any divine revelations about what to tell Dunsany while ye were up there?”
“Only if you think I could tell him I plan to run off to France with his groom and his grandson.”
“Nay, I suppose not,” Jamie answered. “Incidentally, I canna go back to France anyway. I was banished for dueling.”
“That does sound like you.” John smiled. “Rome, then? Or have you also managed to anger the Italians?”
Jamie laughed and shook his head. “No’ so far as I ken.” He slid to the floor, reached up for John’s hand and pulled until he sat next to him, their backs propped against the wall. Jamie sighed. “Could we do that? Surely no’.”
“I would. I’ve never felt that way before.” John frowned, his expression growing serious. “I could’ve run away when Percy, my step brother who… was caught with another man. There were extenuating circumstances to that, and I did consider it, not seriously, but I could’ve gone with him to France. Abandoned it all. But I thought of my family. My duties and responsibilities, even of you, and knew I could not. But for you, I’d give up anything, go anywhere.”
Jamie sighed and let his head fall back against the wall with a dull thunk. “But I canna leave Willie. I ken there will be a day that I have nay choice. But I’m no’ ready for that day just yet.”
“Willie was with us, you know. In my little dream there. But you’re right. Willie has a title and will inherit a good deal of money and property. If you asked me to steal off into the night with you and your son, I love you enough to do it, but we may need to find a more reasonable solution. I could... tell Lord Dunsany I had an accident and am unable to have children?”
“Tis an option, I suppose. No’ a verra good one, mind. That might make ye seem less appealing as a suitor but wouldna help with Willie.” Jamie ran circles over John’s hand with his thumb. “Do ye think Dunsany would let ye adopt him outright?”
“Possibly. He’s not in the best health, but it might seem strange that I would want to take Willie in with Dunsany still alive and without Isobel. I’m wondering now if my marrying her was his goal all along. There’s also the complication of Isobel. She is Willie’s aunt but also the closest thing to a mother he’s known. I’m not sure she’d want to let him go. It’s not up to her, of course. But Lord Dunsany may not want to do that to her.”
“True.” Fraser brought John’s hand up and kissed his palm. “I think we’re back to that excuse about the accident. When do ye need to give Dunsany an answer?”
“Tomorrow.” John sighed. “There’s also the truth. Not all of it, of course, but just that I don’t think I’m a good match for Isobel and I appreciate his friendship and hers as well, and that I’m still happy to serve as Willie’s guardian. Trust that he responds well to it.”
“Aye, maybe. I’m sorry ye’re in such a position. I trust ye to handle it with grace. Ye always do.” Jamie reluctantly hauled himself to his feet and offered John a hand. “I should return to work before someone misses me.”
“But if you go, then I’ll miss you,” John said with a quiet laugh as he rose to his feet himself. “Let me know if you change your mind about running away with Willie to Rome.” He leaned up and kissed Jamie softly on the cheek.
Feeling a little foolish for it but not caring one bit, he pressed his lips to the back of John's fingers and made his way quickly back to the stables.
Chapter 9: To Everything a Season
John could not sleep at all that night. He tossed and turned in his bed, each move bringing attention to the delicious tender ache between his legs. Jamie had been inside him. Had taken him roughly and swiftly against the wall. And he had been left to feel the warmth of Jamie Fraser’s seed slipping back out of him, sliding sticky and perfect down his aching thighs. If only he could lay here in the dark and think of nothing but that, of how it had felt to surrender himself so completely to a man he loved with a fierceness and a depth he’d never known before. But there was still the issue of Lady Isobel. He had to reject her father’s offer for her hand in marriage and, if he did or said the wrong thing, he could lose William or lose access to Jamie.
Why did Dunsany have to put him in this position? He’d been pleased, content, with how things were. Of course, he’d noticed a slight change to Isobel’s behavior around him, but they’d always been close and she’d always been the kind to cling physically to him. Lord Dunsany seemed to think that, along with his position, translated to a marriage. Eventually, Grey did manage to fall into a fitful sleep plagued by worries about Dunsany and soothed by the sore reminder that he had earlier been so thoroughly claimed.
The next morning, Tom helped Grey dress. He brushed his hair and tied it up with a velvet ribbon. He was to meet with Dunsany at half past nine, and John still had not decided the precise words to tell the man when rejecting his daughter. God, the foolish situations he so often managed to get himself into.
“He’s ready to see you,” said one of Lord Dunsany’s servants as John scraped the last of his soft boiled egg from its shell.
Grey’s stomach twisted into awful, tight knots as he stood, biting back a hiss from the remaining tenderness. He wiped his lips with the napkin and followed Dunsany’s servant, feeling the weight of every step inside him.
The servant pushed open the door to Dunsany’s study and Grey stepped inside. He saw the older man, standing behind his desk, and to the left was Jamie Fraser. Dear God. Oh dear God.
“Good morning,” Grey managed, somehow, through a tight throat. “I hope I’m not interrupting. If you have business with Mr. Mackenzie, we can discuss our business later.”
Dunsany blinked once, slowly, his lips pressed together in a white line. He directed his servant to leave and shut the door behind him. It closed with a heavy and final thud. “Something has been brought to my attention and it concerns the two of you, so I felt it best to discuss it with both yourself and Mr. Mackenzie present.”
John’s eyes flashed briefly to Jamie, but Jamie stared straight ahead, still as stone.
Dunsany went on, “It seems that last evening, Betty, Isobel’s lady’s maid, informed me that she was alarmed by noises she’d heard in the shed. Would either of you know anything about that?”
John had stopped breathing. Noises. The shed. Oh Christ. Had Betty heard them? They had been reckless and loud. Bloody fucking hell. John tried to speak, but nothing came out. What was there to say?
Jamie's face was still perfectly neutral but John recognized the incredible will he exerted to keep it that way. "Aye, My Lord." He paused, Dunsany's eyes settling on him, waiting. "I have been… involved with one of the maids. I offer my sincerest apologies for my indiscretion. It willna happen again, sir."
Dunsany shook his head. “Betty seemed quite insistent and certain that the voices coming from the shed had both been male, and that she had recognized them as your voices, the both of yours.” A small, sharp laugh fell from Dunsany’s lips. “I had wondered, Lord John, why you had started to visit so often. Why you insisted on checking in on this man. I thought, naively it seems, that you had grown interested in my daughter.”
Think, you fool. Think. “I believe your daughter’s servant was mistaken. It’s admirable that she would come to you to inform you of a… wrongdoing she believed to have taken place, but she is mistaken in what she heard. If I may speak frankly, I would like to say that I don't particularly appreciate being accused of such a thing based entirely on the hearsay of a lady’s maid.”
Lord Dunsany stayed quiet for a moment, seemingly unphased by John’s words. A strange smile twitched at the corner of his mouth, though it disappeared so swiftly that John could not be certain it was ever there. “The law obligates me to turn you into the proper authorities. I imagine you both know the penalty for sodomy.”
Grey’s jaw clenched, his fingers tucking into the palm of his hand, nails digging into the flesh there. He thought of Percy in that damp, ugly prison cell. Thought of the gun Hal had pressed into his hand. Would Hal do the same for him? Visit him, hand him a pistol through the bars to end things and protect the family from scandal. Then, there was Jamie. He could not. Would not. Ever. Let Jamie hang for this. His gaze flicked to the iron poker by the hearth.
“No one would be hanged on the word of a lady’s maid,” John said through his teeth.
"I forced him, Your Lordship," Jamie blurted. "Lord John would never admit it, sir, but I would swear to it." John recalled this very look on Jamie's face. He'd seen it when Jamie had taken responsibility for a bit of tartan in Ardsmuir. Jamie had looked precisely like this when he'd been flogged.
“Mr. Mackenzie is a man of honor. He owes me a debt and is simply trying to repay it. I’ve been coercing him into sexual relations since he was my prisoner at Ardsmuir.” John looked over at Jamie. “I would swear to it as well.”
“Enough.” Lord Dunsany sighed, shaking his head. “Sit.”
Neither of them moved.
“Sit, you bloody fools!”
John exchanged a look with Jamie, but they both slowly gave into Dunsany’s command and fit themselves into the leather chairs facing Dunsany’s desk.
Dunsany sat down himself. “Christ, I’ve never seen two men tripping over each other to see which one of them gets the privilege of being hanged before.” That smile appeared again, but this time, it did not disappear so quickly. “When I was not much older than Isobel, I was introduced to a young man, an apprentice to my father’s lawyer. He was arrogant... infuriating,” there was that smile again, and something unnameable in Dunsany’s eyes. “Uncharacteristically kind, clever, reckless. And remarkably handsome.”
Handsome? Grey sat up straight in his chair, blinking. Had he heard the man correctly?
“I’ve never told anyone this before, but as I doubt either of you will incriminate me, and I have a feeling I am not long for this earth anyway, it would be something of a catharsis to finally speak of him.”
Christ. Grey had heard him correctly.
“We shared everything. I grew closer to him than I’d ever been with anyone. I had never been with a man or considered it much, but when he’d kissed me…” Dunsany’s eyes shut. “It changed me and it felt natural, inevitable, that we would… make love. We had plans to run away. My title, property, all of it. It lost meaning in a world without him. I could no longer imagine it and then… and then, Henry was stricken with smallpox.” Dunsany blinked and a single tear slid down his wrinkled cheek. He wiped it away with the back of his hand. “I watched him die for almost two weeks. So, no, I will not be reporting either of you. However, as Betty and Isobel both know of what happened, I will have to let Mackenzie go, and John it would be best, going forward, if you did not visit often. If Betty thinks I’ve done nothing, we risk her spreading this farther.”
William. If Dunsany let Jamie go, he wouldn’t be able to see his son anymore. “Please. I’ll stay away, but let Mackenzie stay on. This is my fault. Not his. I’m… begging you.” John wasn’t sure he’d ever begged before in his life.
Jamie reached across and touched John's hand. Tears stood in his eyes but he was holding strong. "It's alright," he whispered. "I ken it's time. Perhaps it's for the best, aye?"
It wasn’t for the best. Jamie should be here with his son, and John should be with the both of them. “Jamie,” he said, forgetting to use his false identity. “No.” He turned his attention back to Dunsany. “Tell Betty then, that I admitted to coercing him, please. That I used my station to do it. I think she would believe that. If that means rumors about me are spread, so be it.”
“John.” Dunsany stood from his chair. “Please. I want you, Mackenzie, and your valet out of here by the end of the day.” He sighed and turned his back to them. “That will be all.” Neither of them moved. “Leave.”
Unsure what else to do, John stood and Jamie followed him. Despite the short distance, the walk out of the study felt impossibly long. The walk outside of the house felt even longer. They were both down the steps of the front porch before either of them managed to say anything.
“I… I am so sorry.” John blinked, hoping it would stave off impending tears. “I would not blame you if you hated me.”
"I dinna hate ye, John," Jamie replied, voice low. "I couldna hate ye for loving me, even before when it frightened me." It was foolish for them to speak so plainly in the open, but what difference did it make at this point? Jamie sighed and looked from the house behind them to the stables in the distance. "I only wish I could say goodbye to… but canna risk revealing… and I dinna think I can bear it in any case."
John leaned in, his voice a dark whisper. “We could do it now, Jamie. Take him and run. He’s your son.”
For a long moment, Jamie looked to be considering it, but he shook his head at last. "Nay. I thank ye for being willing to risk everything for me, for us." He cut his eyes to the house, indicating Willie. "But, no. I've lived as an outlaw and I canna force my son to grow up in that life."
John nodded. “I understand. I’ll tell Tom we’re leaving. Do you think you could saddle the horses? Meet us by the road in an hour or so.” He sighed. “I cannot imagine how hard this is for you. Just know that I’m here for you, however you’re feeling. Even if you sometimes feel angry with me, I can bear that too. Alright?”
Jamie managed a brave smile. "I ken that. I'll see ye by the road." He turned away and headed for the stables, head hung low but his back straight. Broken, but still moving.
John shut his eyes and let out a breath, steeling himself as he went in search of Tom. He found him explaining to one of Dunsany’s younger servants the proper way to press a linen shirt.
“Tom, come with me please,” Grey said.
Tom’s eyes met his and John could see him register that something was wrong. “Yes, Me Lord.”
They made their way to John’s room in silence. The whole way Grey could only hope he did not see Isobel or Betty. He breathed out a held breath when they shut the door behind them, having seen no one else along the way.
“What’s wrong, Me Lord?” Tom asked.
“It’s Captain Fraser.” John tried to think of an adequate lie. “He has been dismissed.”
Tom blinked. “Dismissed? For what reason, Me Lord?”
“A disagreement. It doesn’t matter, but we must leave within the hour and return to London to seek a pardon for him. Would you pack up our things? With haste?”
Tom nodded. “Of course.”
As Tom scurried about, John finally felt the weight of it all sink in. He’d been caught having sex with a man. He’d endangered not only his life, but the life of the man he loved. It was only by pure dumb luck that Dunsany had been like them in some way, that he’d understood enough not to seek charges against them. Still, this growing thing between himself and Jamie had lost Jamie the most precious thing in his life, the time he had with his son. Guilt tightened around his throat and squeezed in his chest. He wanted to sit down on the ground, curl into a ball, and just let the years of compounded pain and silence crush down over him, but he couldn’t. Jamie needed him. So he would be there for him.
It didn't take long for Jamie to collect his few belongings and saddle John's horses. He ignored the questions from the other grooms, having no fortitude for a conversation. They soon tired of asking and wandered off, muttering something about leaving him to his brooding under their breath.
As he led the horses to the gate, he heard Willie's voice yelling excitedly. "Mac! Mac Mac Mac!"
Jamie closed his eyes, certain that the sound of his heart shattering was audible for half a mile. But he couldn't show it. He stuffed his despair and anger as far down as it would go, plastered a smile onto his face, and turned to say goodbye to his son.
"Good morning, My Lord," Jamie said as if nothing were amiss, bowing correctly.
Willie skidded to a halt in the grass and returned the gesture of respect in his awkward little way. "Go for a ride?"
Jamie squatted in front of the boy and shook his head. "Nay, I'm afraid not. I have to go now."
"Oh." Willie flashed a carefree grin and Jamie etched the image onto his heart to carry away with him. "When you come back? Go for a ride then?"
He couldn't hold his smile in place. It hurt too much and it wouldn't stay put. "I won't be coming back, wee master Willie."
Willie frowned, his little brow furrowing in the most familiar expression. "No. You came back last time. Mac, we go for a ride when you get back?"
"I ken I did," Jamie said, biting hard on the inside of his cheek to keep from weeping. He tasted copper. "But this time is different. It's forever. I'm sorry, lad."
"No!" Willie wailed. "No, Mac, no!"
Dear Lord, give me strength to walk away, please. "It's alright," Jamie said. He wanted to embrace him, crush Willie to him and tell him he loved him. "I willna forget you, Willie. Ye must be brave for me. Can ye do that?"
Willie shook his head, his little lip coming out and quivering. "But I skip rocks. I help feed the horses! Don't leave, Mac!" He threw his small arms around Jamie's neck, shattering him.
Jamie clung desperately to every last shred of willpower he possessed, kept his tears at bay, and gently pushed Willie back by his small shoulders. He could do this for Willie. He had to. But God, how would he live when it was done? "I must. This is part of life. People will come and go, but our memories of them stay wi' us forever, ken?"
Willie nodded sadly, fat tears sliding down his cheeks, pink from the cold wind.
Jamie whispered, "I will always remember you. I promise, a chuisle." He shouldn't have risked the endearment but no one else at Helwater had the Gaelic. Just once he wanted to claim him as his blood out loud. Jamie nodded toward Willie's nursemaid who stood in the yard less than twenty feet away. "Go on, My Lord. It is almost time for your lunch."
Willie nodded sadly and wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve. "Goodbye, Mac."
Jamie stood and turned his back, unable to watch his son leave for the last time. If he could just make it to the first stop, wait for Tom and John to fall asleep, he could fall apart then. For now all he could do was remind himself over and over, It's for the best. It's for the best.
John and Tom Byrd approached the gate from the house at the same time Jamie did. He didn't acknowledge either of them, just loaded the horses and handed one set of reins to John and the other to Tom.
John looked down at him with intent and serious eyes. “You’re certain you have… everything you would like to bring with you, Fraser?”
"No," he murmured, unable to help himself. "But I have everything that is my own."
Chapter 10: What the English Can Be
They were soaked with freezing rain when they arrived on the doorstep of Argus House. One of Hal’s servants opened the door to let them in, and mere moments later, Hal swept around the corner, mouth dropping open as his eyes fixed on what had to be the rather pathetic sight of three shivering men, miserable and soaked to the bone.
“John,” Hal croaked. “What the bloody hell is going on? Why is Fraser here?”
“Because,” John shivered. “You and I are going to secure him a pardon.”
Hal responded to John with nothing but a cross look before addressing Jamie. “I thought you wanted to return to Helwater.”
Jamie, faring much better than John and Tom in the cold but still blue and drenched, answered, "I was dismissed, Your Grace."
Hal grunted. “Fraser, why don’t you and young Byrd go clean up. I have something to discuss with my brother.”
“Can I at least have a moment to get out of these wet clothes, brother?” John’s teeth chattered.
“No,” Hal said.
Tom and Jamie exchanged a look, but didn’t move.
“It’s alright. You can go on,” John said. “The both of you.”
Jamie raised an eyebrow at John and after another pause, nodded. "Come on, Wee Byrd." Jamie took Tom by the arm and propelled him toward the back stair.
Hal glared at his brother again and dragged him into the drawing room, shutting the door behind him.
“Are you out of your bloody mind?”
“It’s possible. I am freezing to death, which you seem to take no issue with.”
“Must you be so dramatic.” Hal rubbed his face.
John shivered again. Everything hurt and yet he was completely numb at the same time. He said nothing, just leveled a vicious glare at his elder brother.
“You brought a fugitive into my house.”
“Fugitive?” John blinked, still bleary. “He’s a paroled prisoner.”
“Perhaps, but since Dunsany dismissed him, Fraser should be sent to prison until we can sort matters. We can work out the terms of his parole from there. Bringing him here was foolish and you know that.” Hal shook his head. His eyes narrowed, appraising John. “Why did Dunsany dismiss him?”
A knot formed thick in Grey’s throat. “They had a… disagreement.”
Hal raised an eyebrow. “Do better than that.”
“The specifics are none of your concern,” Grey hissed through his teeth.
“You bring a criminal into my house. A man—a Jacobite—charged with treason and you refuse to tell me what he’s done to be dismissed from his indenture after all this time?” Hal said coldly. “And then you expect me to help him without explanation.”
“Let it go, Hal.” John was still shaking, but fury burned hot inside him.
Hal gave him that look again, the disappointed father look he’d perfected over the years since they’d lost theirs and Hal had awkwardly taken up the mantle. “First our stepbrother and now… Christ, John. You are a fool. What will it take for you to see your… nature is hurtling you towards disaster?”
Stepbrother? Nature? And in connection with Jamie? How could Hal possibly know… Grey’s heart hammered so hard he could hear it in his ears. “I don’t know what you’re insinuating.”
Hal turned toward the window, his breath clouded on the glass. “I knew you were reckless, but Fraser? No, I should’ve known. For God’s sake, he told me you fucked him right after I’d summoned him here.”
Grey blinked. “What?”
“I reckon he must’ve been angry enough at you then to give you away.”
“There’s nothing to give away.” Well, there wasn’t. Then.
“Oh, so it was another… how did he put it?... Englishman that had fucked him in the arse.”
The room spun as Grey’s hands trembled with the powerful desire to strike out at something. Jamie had said that? To Hal? “You’re a right prick, you know that?”
“It’s not my prick that’s the problem, brother,” Hal snarled, then shook his head. “Get out of those clothes and let me figure out how to get you out of another fucking mess.”
John stalked out of the drawing room, curtly asked a servant where Jamie and Tom had gone off to, and made his way there.
When he stepped into the room, they were half dressed and Tom was poking at the fire to encourage it. Grey wanted so badly to collapse in Jamie’s arms, but he couldn’t with Tom here. Every night on the way to Argus had made him ache with a desire to hold Jamie that he was too afraid to quench. After what had happened, how could John ever put Jamie in a position to be caught again? He was the one that had suggested sex in that shed after all.
"Christ, John, ye look like ye're about to collapse," Jamie said, starting to move toward John but stopped himself. "Are ye alright?"
“Just need out of these bloody wet clothes. So I can plot a way to kill my brother.”
Tom rose from the hearth and came over to help Grey out of his coat. "You should come stand here by the fire, Me Lord," he said. "At least the ice is melted from your collar."
Jamie pulled a dry shirt over his head. "As a general rule, I'm no' opposed to the idea of murder where yer brother is concerned. But ye seemed rather certain he could help. What's amiss then?"
“Thank you, Tom. Would you mind giving us a minute? I mean once you’re dry and dressed.”
Tom nodded. “Of course, Me Lord. I’ve some dry clothes I can put on now.” He pulled on breeches and a new, dry shirt, leaving John alone with Jamie.
“I still think he might help. He’s just being a massive arse about it. He’s also insinuated that he believes us to be… lovers.”
Jamie blinked at him before removing a fresh suit of clothes for Grey and laying them over a chair to warm by the fire. "Yer brother is quite perceptive. But how would he ken that so quickly?"
Grey yanked his freezing, wet clothes off with strong pulls to relieve his frustration. “He doesn’t ken anything.” Not for certain. He only had whatever it was Jamie had told him and well, whatever Hal thought, that had not been about him. “He’s just assuming and being a prick about it.” John sighed, standing there in nothing but his cotton drawers now. “He brought up Percy like it was my fault that he got caught getting buggered by some German arsehole. I’m sorry. Hal just knows how to make me furious. His issue seems to mostly be with the fact that with your being here he’s harboring a fugitive. That is, until we can secure your pardon.”
Jamie hummed in acknowledgment and handed Grey a warm shirt, their fingers brushing. "Technically, I'm a paroled prisoner in yer custody, am I no'?"
Grey whispered a thanks and pulled on his shirt. “Yes, that’s what I said to him. Though it’s possible my brother thinks you may plan to escape our custody, perhaps using your sexual wiles to vex me. It’s also possible he’s simply angry with me for being as I am and can’t manage to articulate it.”
"Well, I am verra wiley," Jamie said with a grin, passing over Grey's breeches. "And vexing."
Driven by an instinctual pull, Grey leaned in. He thought to capture the man’s mouth in a kiss. He almost did. They hadn’t kissed since that day, but then he pulled away at the last second, turning his back to Jamie. He needed to stop putting Jamie in danger.
"I'm sorry, John," Jamie murmured. "For… so much. For what happened at Helwater. For being the cause of strife between ye and yer brother."
“You don’t need to apologize. Ever. I’m responsible for what happened. I dragged you into this… life. You had never... You’d been safe from the consequences of this. And if it wasn’t for me, you still would be. I don’t want to see you hurt anymore because of me. I’ve done enough. Broken enough.” He ran a hand over his face and tried to stifle a sob he didn’t expect.
Jamie came around to stand in front of Grey, took his hand away from his face and held it, laying his other palm on Grey's cheek. "As I recall, ye tried to let me go. And then I kissed ye. And, as I recall, ye promised to never make me do anything I dinna want to do. And ye have no'. Ye canna drag me anywhere, John Grey. I'm here because I want to be. Ye freed me, John. From the fear that controlled me, that made me angry whenever I was around ye. I willna ask ye not to be on my side. But ye willna ask me to blame ye for what isna yer fault."
“I love you, Jamie.” He took the man’s hand in his and squeezed. “Whatever happens, we’re in it together, then.”
"Aye. We can manage it, the two of us." Jamie ran his thumb over John's knuckles. "I think I will die if I go another day without kissing ye. But I'm afraid if I start now I willna be able to stop."
Grey took Jamie’s hand into his. He kissed the tip of his thumb, sucking it gently into his mouth, then worked his way down with gentle kisses until he pressed his open mouth to the salty palm of Jamie’s hand. Grey let his hand go and looked up at Jamie. “I’m of half a mind to let you kiss me and not stop, just take me again right here. If my brother overheard us, he would deserve it.”
Jamie closed his eyes and shivered. "Christ, John, yer mouth," he whispered. "Aye he might deserve it, but I dinna think that would help our situation much."
“Fine.” John sighed. “But do you think you can contain your passions for me enough that I could at least give you one kiss? Or am I just far too seductive for you to resist?”
"Oh ye are," Jamie answered, smiling but sincere. "But I'll risk it." He brought their mouths together, a tender drag of his lips against John's. It turned quickly into something more heated, Jamie opening to admit Grey's tongue. Both of them sighed with relief from it, melting together. And far too soon, Jamie's strong hands closed on Grey's upper arms and pushed him back, looking for all the world like it was the last thing he wanted to do. "We'd best get dressed and face the music, aye?"
“Or we lock and bolt the door, tangle ourselves up in the bed, and just sleep together. I’m still freezing and exhausted. Any further lecture from Lord Melton can wait until later.”
Eventually, they were summoned to the duke’s study where he stood by the window, arms crossed over his chest. Jamie actually looked to see if he could see steam coming out of Pardloe's ears. Jamie shut the door behind them and joined John, standing on his left.
The duke let out a harsh breath through his nose. “I see you two have successfully dried off.”
John took a step forward with impatient swiftness. “We should make an official inquiry in the morning into his pardon. He’s stayed here before in our custody. It shouldn’t be an issue.”
Melton took a step towards John as well, but his movement was heavy and measured in visible contrast to his younger brother. “He had not been dismissed from his indenture. That will have to be looked into if he is to receive a pardon, so you may want to be comfortable with whatever happened at Helwater being revealed.” The duke turned to his brother and spoke through gritted teeth. “Are you comfortable with that?”
Grey’s cheeks burned red as hot coals. “Dunsany didn’t need his services anymore. It’s that simple. He’ll tell you as much.”
“Perhaps, but if the questioning were to extend beyond Dunsany, would that remain true?” Now, the duke turned to face Jamie. “My brother is often a fool, but I do not believe the same to be true of you, Mr. Fraser. Tell me now. Is there anything regarding the reason for your dismissal that may be uncovered in an inquiry at Helwater that you wish would remain private?”
It was difficult not to look at John, but Jamie knew that if he did, he’d give it all away. They agreed to be in this together, but that didn’t mean that Jamie had to incriminate John with his answer. “A maid at Helwater made false accusations regarding the… nature of my friendship with Lord John. Lord Dunsany agreed that she was mistaken. But that my dismissal was necessary to avoid further suspicion and gossip among the household.”
The duke’s jaw clenched. “Perhaps you’re more of a fool than I thought. Or perhaps, my brother has overestimated the depth of your feelings for him, if you are so willing to risk not only his reputation but his life for the chance to improve your lot in life.”
“Don’t speak to him like that,” John snarled. “I don’t care who the bloody hell you think you are!”
“With all due respect, Your Grace,” Jamie said, quite calmly under the circumstances. “I believe that you are already aware that I attempted to draw public attention away from your brother once this year. What makes ye think I would not do so again? His Lordship has always treated me well and fairly. I have no’ cared for my own ‘lot in life’ in more than ten years. What could I possibly stand to gain from all this? What benefit does yer brother’s death serve me?”
“Fine. If this is how you both want it...” The duke turned to John. “I have tried. God knows I have tried to protect you from yourself, ever since you were barely more than a boy. I’m tired. I’ll allow you to seek a pardon for Fraser. I will not stand in your way. I’ll even provide a good word, but until that pardon is secured, he is not welcome in my home.”
It was better than they could have hoped for under the circumstances, and Jamie knew it. He also knew that he should keep his mouth shut, should let Pardloe have his little victory of authority over John. He should let it all play out and go as canny as he could. Jamie knew all of this, and yet, Melton’s words had him seeing red.
“And what exactly have ye spent all this time protecting him from, Your Grace?” Jamie’s hands balled into fists at his sides. “From himself, ye say. Would that be his unfailing kindness? Or his belief that the responsibility of his office is to do everything in his power to leave this damned world better than he found it? Or perhaps it’s his unwillingness to give up on lost causes even after he’s been ordered to, a trait I have witnessed ye exploit firsthand, I might add.” Jamie paused for a heartbeat and lowered his voice to what must have sounded like a rather menacing pitch. “Or could it be, Your Grace, that yer brother’s capacity for love is so great, even for a Jacobite traitor and fucking Papist such as myself, that it frightens ye, law or no? Were yer situations reversed, and it was you standing before him with a man who loved ye as much as I love him, John would never give up on you. Not ever. And if ye’re so willing to give up on him because ye canna find it within yerself to believe in the goodness of his heart with every fiber of yer being… Well then, Your Grace. You dinna deserve him.” Jamie’s heart pounded, realizing exactly what he’d just said, and that he meant every word. He was terrified to look at John, to see pain or rejection on his face. It wasn’t how Jamie had wanted to say that he was in love with him, and this was absolutely the worst possible time to have done it. But now that it was out there, he found he wouldn’t have taken it back even if he could.
John’s eyes went wide, bright despite the circumstances. “Oh, Jamie.” He sounded breathless.
The veins in Melton’s forehead visibly popped under his skin, and when he breathed in, he made a tight, pained whistling sound. He had been in control for this entire conversation, yet suddenly looked positively unhinged. “The both of you have lost all sense of reason. The world is as it is, and if you want to insult me because I have not succumbed to the childish belief that it will change simply because I wish it so, go ahead. I know what I have been protecting my brother from and so do you,” he seethed. “I have been protecting my brother from the fact that he’s a fucking sodomite and the law would see him hanged.” The duke’s eyes went big and white, and he drew in another wheezing breath. It was clear he had never said that before in his life, never even to John, and he hadn’t ever imagined saying it, hadn’t meant to say it now. But there it was, laid out.
John simply stood there, staring at his brother, still as stone.
A knock at the door made them all jump.
“Come in,” Melton managed, voice cracking, like he was little more than a lad.
The door opened to reveal a meek-looking servant with a mop of fair hair. “Your Grace, they’re here.”
“Who’s here?” John asked through his teeth.
“Guards,” the duke said flatly, not looking at either one of them. “From the Tower of London.”
“What?” John squawked.
Jamie’s heart pounded in his ears, his stomach flipping and knotted. The fucking Tower of London. God. Oh Christ, Pardloe meant to have his parole revoked. Shit. Years of living as Red Jamie, as a fugitive, had taught him how to hide. But this wasn’t the Highlands, this was bloody London. And even if he could have escaped—not fucking likely—he couldn’t leave John. Not after what he’d just broken. Oh God, John.
Jamie whirled to face John, a million things to say and not enough time or words for any of them. “John, I’m… I’m sorry. I shouldna have said what I said. I meant every word but, still. I shouldna said it, not here.” The damage was done. Fuck that wheezing bastard Pardloe and his tower guards. Jamie grabbed John’s hands and ignored the duke gasping like a landed fish. “I ken we said we were in it together, but I can’t. I canna see ye hanged, John. I’m sorry.”
John burst forward and crashed his mouth into Jamie’s. Their teeth clacked, and their lips met with an explosive, desperate force. “I love you too,” he said against Jamie’s lips, hands clasped to Jamie’s face. “I’ll see you free or die trying.”
“Ye already freed me. Remember that,” Jamie said, trying for a smile and failing miserably.
A sound at the door sent John tearing back from Jamie, drawing in big, desperate breaths.
Jamie rubbed at his bare wrists, feeling the phantom weight of irons there, terrified to feel them again. He took two steps away from John but couldn’t take his eyes off the man because when he did he’d be gone forever. Jamie silently mouthed the words I love you, prayed that John understood.
And then the door opened and all Jamie could hear was the sound of their boots on the wooden floor and the ringing thunder of his own heart. Rough hands grabbed him on both sides, forced his arms out in front. The scratching abrasion of rough rope too tight around his wrists. And as they dragged him from the study and toward the door, Jamie lost sight of John whose hands had curled into fists at his sides.
Chapter 11: Rock Bottom
Trigger Warning: This chapter contains a brief reference to suicidal thoughts. We have endeavored to handle this topic with care and respect.
There are excellent resources available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline as well as a support line for those in the US.
Collage created by Ash.
The carriage ride to the Tower of London was miserably cold, but Jamie's neck cloth was drenched with his sweat. The rope that bound his wrists chafed terribly, the rough fibers digging into his skin. It was an old rope, he could tell, and it had no give at all. Had the rope they used to hang his grandsire there been so well-stretched? Would the rope they used to hang him be in the same condition? As heavy as Jamie was, would it matter?
Would John be there, watching? He couldn’t decide if that would be better or worse, for either of them. It would be a comfort to know that he wasn’t alone. But if John did something rash and dangerous…
Worse, Jamie decided. For John’s sake, he could suffer a lonely death.
The tower came into view, the keep a horrific edifice, ghostly through the haze of freezing rain. Jamie’s wame knotted and curdled and he retched.
“Oi, don’t you be sick in here,” scolded one of the guards. They had been silent until now.
Jamie swallowed hard, tasting bile, and clung to the last of his dignity. He had been imprisoned before, he could do so again. He had given himself for the people he loved before, he could do it again. There was no Jack Randall here, or so he hoped. A cold cell for a time, and then the noose. Dying was the easy part. For John and for Willie, he could bear it.
Aye, he could bear it. But he very, very much did not want to.
The sound of the carriage wheels changed as they crossed the moat and passed through the gate. The carriage stopped, and the guards dragged and shoved him roughly into the freezing rain, struggling to maintain his balance with his hands bound so tightly in front of him.
Jamie looked up at the tower, grey and white and horrible. Mary, Michael, and Bride, he prayed. God help me. Dear Lord, grant me strength to bear it again. It was as much a reflex as the desperate plea of a damned man. Jamie’s own feelings on the matter of sin as they concerned his relationship with John notwithstanding, as he stared up at what might as well be the very gates of hell, Jamie didn’t expect an answer.
He was soaked within a minute of being outside in the abysmally cold rain. The inside of the tower was little improvement to the weather. He was brought to a clerk at a desk, who asked his name. “James Alexander Malcom McKenzie Fraser,” he answered. It brought to mind the day he’d met Lord Melton, after Culloden, of the cottage that reeked of fearful blood and death and dying. The clerk wrote his name in a ledger, noted his status as a convicted traitor, and the guards led him away. The guards said something else to the clerk, but Jamie couldn’t hear it over the sound of his own cold blood in his ears.
The Tower of London was not a very crowded prison. It was nearly silent, in fact, as far as prisons went. That made the trek through the dim and winding stone corridors all the more eerie.
The guards brought him to an arched doorway, the door made of iron bars that anchored well into the stone. Another guard waited for them. His keys jangled and Jamie felt the metallic scrape of the key working open the locks clawing at his breastbone. The screeching of the hinges picked at his nerves in the back of his neck. The guards holding Jamie shoved him through the open cell door and spun him around so that he looked back out into the dim corridor.
He heard them before he saw the newest guard. The clanking chains. Oh no. Oh, dear God, no. Please. Jamie had spent more than three years in irons at Ardsmuir. And for every one of those more than a thousand days, he’d lived in pain. Pain from the iron biting into his flesh, tearing his skin from his bones. Pain of restricted movement that made his graceful body clumsy and heavy. Pain of shame for the sound they made whenever he moved, the chains rattling and scraping and heralding the presence of a traitor and a murderer. John had been the one to order them removed at long last, whatever his reason had been at the time. But John wasn't here, thank God, because surely he’d be in them too. And John wouldn't be able to end his misery this time.
Jamie's hands shook as the guard clapped the manacles around his wrists, pinching the thin skin over his veins. The same guard stooped to close fetters around his ankles. Then the guards' footsteps retreated through the arched doorway. The hinges wailed. The iron door slammed shut, the locks scraping. The guards left, and Jamie was plunged into a silence so deafening that his ears rang.
The cell was cold. Jamie could see his breath through the light of the narrow slits cut into the stone across the corridor. He turned a slow circle, his chains oppressively loud. The cell was equipped with a narrow wooden bench that would serve as both seat and bed. A battered utensil sat in the far corner.
Jamie let out a long sigh and sank onto the bench, holding his head in his hands, the chains rattling. Would John have time to petition for his pardon? Would Pardloe even let him try after their insane demonstration in the duke's study? Doubtful.
So he would hang then, the question was only when. Whether for treason or for sodomy, it didn't matter. Both charges were true, after all. Jamie looked down at his irons. How much worse would hell be? Dear Lord, he prayed. I ken it's blasphemy. I ken I'm damned. But I canna be sorry for loving him. Please let me understand. Lord, Ye gave me Claire and I wasna perfect, but I loved her as well as I kent how. And now Ye've given me John. And I love him too. Show me why, Lord, please. Why is this love a sin?
The knuckles on Grey’s right hand ached, raw and blood-crusted. He tried to flex them, but it caused a stab of excruciating pain, despite the several drams of whisky he’d consumed attempting to dull it.
He’d never been in this establishment before. It wasn’t the type of place he’d normally frequent, nor was it patronized by people of his own social class. The scuffed floorboards creaked with each boot step, and the air smelled of ripe sweat, piss, and vomit. He didn’t care. Couldn’t care.
This crumbling, hideous tavern filled with a motley assortment of crusty men and buxom women spilling out of too-tight bodices was Buckingham Palace compared to where Jamie was now. Where Hal—fucking Hal—had sent him.
Grey stretched his aching knuckles again, seeking out the pain, the reminder that he’d finally done what he hadn’t realized he’d wanted to do for so long.
This was for the time you dragged me onto a bloody battlefield to see the ruined corpse of my first love.
He clenched his fist again, feeling the hot sparks of agony.
This was for all the times you told me to move past it.
He touched the tender, open cuts with his uninjured hand.
This was for the time you put a pistol in my hand and told me to tell our stepbrother, my lover, to shoot himself to save our family shame.
Grey had pulled his arm back, had planned to bring a final crushing blow down onto his brother’s face. But he’d already felt his nose crack, a tooth loosen, his skin split. John didn’t hit Hal for Jamie because if he had, he would have killed him.
John ordered another dram of whisky and finished it off in two swallows. He ordered another after that and managed that one in a single, long drink. His head spun, like a musket ball shot from a scarred gunbarrel. He wanted another drink. Maybe this one would make him pass out right here on the floor. These bastards would probably rob him. Hell, they were probably going to rob him anyway. He didn’t care.
Wobbling, Grey stood, knocking his chair to the ground. He shoved his hand into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins, more than enough to pay for the drinks. He stumbled to the door, and when he made it outside under the dark cloak of the night sky unmolested, he was surprised and almost disappointed. John was itching for another fight. Itching for the dark release he could find in the pain of combat. If he did end up dead, at least it wouldn’t hurt anymore.
He stumbled on a loose rock and fell to his knees. He groaned and sat at the edge of the road, his mind like a nest of buzzing wasps between his ears. John wanted to die, but then who would even try to get Jamie out of the tower? Certainly not Hal. To hell with Hal anyway.
Grey had no idea how long he sat there at the edge of the road waiting for... something. To black out. To get mugged. To wake up from this nightmare. To something. Anything. Then, a slender figure settled down in the road beside him. Grey was too tired to look up and see who it was, so he continued to stare down at the mound of rat droppings settled on the cobblestones.
“This is not a proper place for you, Me Lord.”
“You shouldn’t be here, Tom,” Grey slurred, unable to lift his head. “It’s my fault. All my fault.”
Byrd laid a hand on John’s arm, a solid anchor in the choppy sea of his intoxication and his sickening, blood-curdling rage. “Let us return to Argus House and once you’re sober we can discuss it, yes?”
Tom supported Grey’s arm in an attempt to pry him like a loose floorboard from the damp cold ground. Grey did not budge. He could not. Would not. Ever. Go back to Argus House.
“No,” he mumbled wearily.
The pressure on his arm did not let up. It kept trying to move him, and he wouldn’t move. He wouldn’t. Without thought, Grey shoved hard to get the insistent pressure away. There was a thud, then a gasped squeal. Tom was spread out on the road, a fresh red welt on his cheek obvious in the wavering lantern light.
“Christ, Tom,” John slurred, still so bloody drunk. “I didn’t mean to. Are you… alright? I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Just leave me. Please.”
Tom hissed as he crawled back to his knees. He rubbed at the redness on his cheek. “I will not leave you, Me Lord. If you will not go back to Argus House, then I will stay here with you.”
Grey shook his head. “I’m so drunk, Tom. I didn’t mean to… God, what am I going to do? I can’t let this happen, but it’s already happened and I… I’m so tired of losing the men I love.” Even in his drunkenness, John realized what he’d said. Fear moved through him on reflex alone, then he let it go. What was there to fear or to lose now when he had already lost everything?
“Me lord, you will get Captain Fraser from the Tower. I know you will.”
John lifted his head to look up at the two Tom Byrds looking back at him. “Did you hear me? I said—”
“Yes, Me Lord. I heard you and you shouldn’t speak of such things out here,” he whispered.
“What difference does it make?”
The two, now occasionally three, Toms frowned at him. “It makes quite a great deal of difference to me, Me Lord.”
“I’m sure Hal will keep you on if his brother gets hanged for sodomy.”
“Stop it,” Tom barked. He’d never heard a tone like that from his valet. “Get up. We can discuss this when you’re sober, but we will not discuss it in the middle of the street. I don’t care about my position, Me Lord. I care about you. So I will help you stand, and we do not have to go back to your brother’s, but we will get a room and dry you out, goddammit.”
John wasn’t sure if he’d ever heard Tom Byrd swear and certainly not at his employer. Still, it wasn’t a tone an intoxicated John could refuse, so he allowed Byrd to guide him to his feet. Grey hobbled alongside his valet for a block or two, letting Byrd fish coins from his pocket to pay for a room. Once they were inside, Tom shoved Grey onto a chair and plied him with big sips of water he didn’t want.
“There’s only one of you now, Tom,” Grey said, a bit dreamily.
Tom gave him the sort of disapproving look he normally reserved for destroyed garments. “Perhaps we should finish the conversation you were earlier trying to proclaim to half of London.”
“I like cock.” Oh. Well, apparently I’m still sotted.
Tom Byrd just stood there looking down at John in the chair, blinking. “I’ve gathered that, Me Lord.”
“I wash your clothing. I notice when there is seed in places you couldn’t possibly manage on your own.” He frowned, but soft, sad, rather than disapproving. “And I’ve seen the way you look at Captain Fraser. The way he looks at you. I’ve also seen the two of you embracing in your sleep. Quite bold while I’m lying beside you, Me Lord.”
Grey rubbed his face. His hand still fucking hurt. He’d clearly broken some bones, likely both his own and his brother’s. “I reckon Hal’s right. I’ve been foolish, and I didn’t only endanger myself but Jamie. I’m the reason he got dismissed. Betty, Isobel’s maid, overheard us… together.”
“I wondered if that was not the case. Is that why the Captain is in the Tower?”
Grey shook his head. “No, or I’d be in there with him, wouldn’t I? No, Hal just sent him there to… punish me,” Grey admitted. “He did it to punish me, and I hate him for it.”
“May I speak freely, Me Lord?”
Groaning, John leaned back in the arm chair. “At this point, why the devil not?” he shrugged.
“You may want to make some temporary peace with your brother. I reckon you know this, but it may help to hear it from someone else, Me Lord. Captain Fraser may still see a pardon, but that would be more likely if he had both your support and the support of His Grace.”
“I’m still far too drunk, Tom, to listen to you talk sense.”
“Then let’s get you to bed.”
Tom leaned over John to help him from his chair, and John reached up to stroke a finger over the red mark he’d left on Tom’s face.
“I’m sorry, Tom. There’s no excuse. I would understand if you want to leave my employ.”
“You’re right.” Byrd’s small lips curled up into a smile as he pulled John to his feet. “You are still far too drunk.”
It took a week before John managed to visit Jamie at the Tower of London. He’d had to manage it without any help from the Duke of Pardloe. Not that he’d ask for help. He didn’t trust his brother anymore. It was his trust of Hal that had landed Jamie in this situation in the first place. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Grey was willing to use his brother if it’s what he had to do to see Jamie free, but trust him? No. Never.
He’d seen the Tower many times in passing. Most of the time he didn’t think much of it beyond the dark shadow it cast on the street, but other times, when there were bodies hanging from the gallows, limp and swinging, he couldn’t help but think about it. He’d struggle not to imagine himself there. Not to imagine that long walk and the creak of planks under his boots. It wasn’t so much the dying he was afraid of, but if John were ever to be hanged, there was a very likely crime that he would be hanged for. A crime he was not innocent of.
Grey gave his names and rank to the guards and they allowed him onto the grounds. Each step felt heavy. He imagined them the way Jamie would’ve experienced them, with crushing fear and dread. There was a buzzing in his ears and he could barely feel his legs beneath him as he pushed forward on instinct. The only thing driving him was the desire to see Jamie’s face, to let him know he would never stop fighting for his freedom.
A caw of a raven made Grey tense and draw in a sharp breath. The corvid perched on a crooked gallow, jabbing its beak into the wood in search of grubs. A shiver ran the length of Grey’s spine, like thousands of tiny, skittering legs. Another guard unlocked the massive door to the tower and led John inside.
The horrid stench made bile burn in his throat and memories of Ardsmuir crashed against him like an ice-cold wave.
“Fraser’s just through there, Colonel.”
“Thank you,” Grey said, cold and professional.
The guard pried open a massive iron door and it scraped horribly on the stone floor. John stepped through it.
“I’ll be just out here when you’re ready to leave,” the guard said, then let the door shut behind him with a sudden, nauseating thud.
John walked down the rest of the corridor alone, then he stopped and turned towards the bars.
Jamie lay on his side on the stone floor of the cell. He had a narrow wooden bench shoved up against one wall, but it looked to be too small for even Grey himself to lie on. Jamie’s face was pale, brow furrowed in misery. A narrow sliver of hazy light fell across his face, broken by shadows from the barred door. Grey could make out a grimy sheen of sickly sweat, disturbingly at odds with the violent shivers that wracked Jamie’s frame. His chin bore a week’s worth of beard. He hated letting his beard grow like that, said it made him itch. The worst of it though… Jamie's arms stretched awkwardly in front of him, wrists in irons, chained to shackles on his ankles. A rat pillaged an untouched plate of hardtack, the grimy cup of water unmolested even by the rat. If Jamie heard Grey’s approaching footsteps, he gave no indication.
“Love,” he whispered, quietly, stupidly. Then, “Jamie.” Grey wrapped his pained hand around a cold iron bar. “I’m here.”
It was impossible to tell if it was Grey’s words or his body blocking the light that fell over Jamie’s sunken eyes had prompted him to stir. A hard shudder made his body clench and he groaned. “John?” he croaked, his voice raspy and crackling from disuse. Jamie groaned, and shook his head slowly, as if tossing off a dream. Finally he opened his eyes, squinting through the dim cell. “Why—” he coughed, a violent, wet sound, and Grey found himself looking at his lips for blood. There was none. “Why are ye here, mo leannan?” Jamie’s voice was at least clear now and sounded less painful. He struggled to sit, his chains rattling and scraping against each other and the stone floor.
“I had to see you.” His injured hand was bandaged and he hissed as he accidentally flexed his hand on the bar. “And tell you I’m doing everything in my power to secure you a pardon. I won’t leave you in here. No matter what I have to do.”
Jamie made one of his Scottish grunts of acknowledgement, then a less specific groan of pain and effort as he dragged himself to his feet, struggling with the chains. Finally standing, if not exactly upright, Jamie breathed hard through his nose, lips clamped into a tight line. It was more than disconcerting to see him so outwardly affected by pain. Either it was very bad or he’d stopped caring. He hobbled to the door, resting his hands between the bars Grey held onto. “That sounds ominous,” he said through chattering teeth. “I mind what we promised, John, but Willie still needs ye. Dinna do anything foolish.” He took a shaky breath, blew it out again. “I canna imagine yer brother is inclined to help. Not after the bloody mess I made in his study.” Jamie narrowed his eyes at Grey’s bandaged hand. “Speaking of bloody messes. What happened to ye?”
The reminder of his responsibility towards Willie left Grey with a new guilt. It wasn’t that he had forgotten, only that he had been singularly focused on saving Jamie from this dreadful place. He glanced down briefly at his injured hands. “If you think my hands are a bloody mess, you should see my brother’s face.” John sighed. “If the duke is not inclined to help us, it would be my fault, not yours.”
It took a moment for that to register, Jamie’s ruddy brows drawing together, then giving way to a broad grin. He laughed, a truly ghastly sound, and suffered through a coughing fit. When he recovered, Jamie was still grinning. “Ye beat yer brother? Christ, I’m proud of ye, mo leannan. Please tell me ye broke that obnoxious nose of his. Because if ye did, I can die happy.”
John almost laughed. He couldn’t in a place like this, not with Jamie in irons before him, but he almost did. “According to my mother, yes. I haven’t spoken to Hal since, but from what I’ve been told, I broke his nose, dislocated his jaw and knocked out two of his bottom teeth. Not to mention, gave him two black eyes.” John frowned. “I should probably feel guilty, but it was a long time coming. I am sorry though, if his bitterness at me hurts your chances of a pardon. Still, I will find a way to save you and be there for Willie if the time comes. I give you my word, and I believe I told you once that a Grey does not forget his obligations.”
“Aye, ye did,” Jamie answered, stretching out his index finger to stroke Grey’s unbandaged hand. “And I’m sorry that I wasna there to see ye give him the beating he deserved.” Leaning his forehead against the bars, he sighed, warm breath puffing in a cloud between them. After a pause he said, “There was a time I was happy to die. Yer brother botched that for me. And then so did you, if I recall. And now I’m no’ too keen on the prospect—that is yer fault, ken. But it’s the waiting that is worse.”
Did he think…? “Jamie, Christ. You’re not here to be hanged. Oh, my love, is that what you’ve been thinking? Hal, the sodding prick, didn’t send you here to be hanged. Just to await your pardon and, I’m rather certain, in an attempt to teach me a lesson.” He put on a smile. “I did not learn it, if you were wondering. I’m not certain what will happen if the pardon is not secured, but no new charges have been brought against you. For now, I’m so sorry, but it’s simply waiting.”
All the wind went out of Jamie and he sagged against the door. For a terrifying moment, Grey thought he would collapse, but his fettered hands gripped tight to the bars, still strong. “Thank God,” he breathed. “I dinna enjoy the waiting, but at least I’m no’ waiting for the noose.” Jamie managed a smile that Grey thought was mostly mere bravado. “Our story was just getting interesting. I’d hate for it to end at the gallows so soon.”
“I have every intention of our story ending when we are both old and gray-haired.” John touched Jamie’s wrist near the shackles. If only he could order them stricken off, like he’d done the last time Jamie had been in them. He could try though. “I’ll see what I can do about getting these removed. Oh and our wee Byrd knows. Says he figured it out from my dirty laundry. He’s fine with it.”
“Christ,” Jamie muttered. “Is there anyone who doesna ken?”
“My mother doesn’t.” John blinked. “I don’t think she knows. She did mention how sweet and handsome you were the last time we talked so anything is possible. And Harry. I reckon he may suspect about me, but not about you… or us.”
Jamie’s smile faded away. “I ken ye must go, John. I’m glad ye came. I am sorry I canna… say what I truly want to, but… I’m thinking of the shed.”
“Good,” Grey said and brushed Jamie’s hand with a still tender finger. “You think of that, and I think of where we’ll go next.”
Chapter 12: To Turn Outlaw
The rich scent of Dutch cake filled Grey’s mother’s home. He’d spent the afternoon pacing the floor of the parlor, shoving the bites in one after the other to calm his nerves.
Jamie had already been locked up in the Tower of London for two weeks. After a week of insistent pestering plus one carefully placed bribe, John had, in fact, managed to have Jamie freed of the shackles. Unfortunately, so far bribes, flattery, and the occasional threat had been entirely ineffective in speeding up the process to secure Jamie’s pardon.
“For God’s sake, man,” Harry Quarry snapped. “You’re pacing so fast you’ll set your mother’s rug on fire.”
Grey stopped just long enough to shove another bite of Dutch cake in his mouth and glare at Quarry from his position by the window. “Perhaps you could contribute something to the cause other than clever jests.”
Quarry sighed, his expression softening into the sort of patience reserved for the utterly unhinged. “I’ve cashed in every favor I have, but they take time, John. I don’t have the same connections as Pardloe.”
The only connection of Hal’s John cared about was the connection between his fist and his brother’s face. That wouldn’t do to say aloud in front of his mother or Hal’s wife so he just shoved another piece of Dutch cake in his mouth.
“You sent certified copies of the court-martial records. But it does seem to be taking a terribly long time, doesn't it?” Grey’s mother said, her tone placating, but to her credit without condescension. “I know it’s dreadful to think about that nice young man locked away in the Tower, John dear. Please, come sit down and have some tea.” She poured half a cup of fragrant tea and then topped it off with good brandy and set this in front of the empty chair to her right.
John looked down at the tea. Ever since Jamie’s imprisonment, his mother had been stuffing him full of tea, pastries and expensive liquor. He shuffled over to the chair and sank down into it, taking a sip. “Thank you, mother.” John looked out at everyone in the parlor. His mother standing beside him; Quarry thumbing through papers on the settee; Tom sprawled on the floor in the far corner, stitching buttons onto things John wasn’t even convinced needed buttons; and Minnie sat across from John beside a stack of law books they’d dug out from the library. Of all the people who’d come to help, Minnie was the biggest surprise. Sure, she’d always enjoyed Jamie’s company, but John had wrecked her husband’s face and was, currently, refusing to speak to Hal. He reckoned she was simply good enough of a person to not hold John’s indiscretions against Jamie. Not that John would call what he did an indiscretion. He would call it justice.
“Anything of interest in those books, Minnie?” John asked, hoping he didn’t sound as desperate as he currently felt.
Minnie pursed her lips, tapping out a soft staccato on the open book in front of her. She tilted her head to the side in a graceful approximation of a shrug. “Well, not precisely, no.”
“Do I detect a ‘however?’” Quarry muttered without looking up.
The duchess sighed. “From what I can tell, you’ve done everything in your power to secure Captain Fraser’s pardon. And his release.” She shut the tome with a thud and picked up another, smaller book from the stack, flipping through it. “No Jacobites have been executed for treason in ten years. Be that as it may, there’s nothing else to do that’s… precisely above-board.” Apparently finding what she was looking for, she nodded to herself and sat back in her high-backed chair. Minnie took a dainty sip of her tea and eyed Grey over the rim of her cup.
John tensed in his chair. He’d known since Jamie was dragged out of Hal’s study that it was always possible that a pardon might not go through and that his freedom might only be secured through illegal means. Especially if there was any truth to what Hal had said about inquiries being made at Helwater, regarding Jamie’s dismissal. If there was even a whiff of rumor that Jamie was a “sodomite,” it could destroy his chances for a pardon or even bring new charges, though John thought that was unlikely.
But if John had to break Jamie out of prison and go on the run with him, it wouldn’t have been the first time John had done something like it. However, the prison Percy had been in wasn’t as well-guarded as the Tower of London.
“Mother, you should leave,” Grey said. “As well as anyone else who would rather remain innocent of the following conversation.”
Quarry straightened, letting the papers fall still and silent in his lap. He stared from Grey to Minnie to Grey’s mother, eyebrows raised in rapt curiosity. He didn’t move.
Benedicta blinked at Grey, a rather ferocious smile brightening her face. “Not on your life, John. I haven’t played an active role in a good old-fashioned coups in ages.”
“Mother.” He gave her a disapproving look. “Fine, but if you plan on staying, whatever coups we devise must be foolproof. I will not be responsible for seeing you in irons as well.” He sighed. “Harry, you and I were both governors of prisons. Any preliminary thoughts on how one might escape?”
“Well,” Harry began, scratching the back of his neck. “Prisoners are least secure in transit. But I never had an escape at Ardsmuir. How did Fraser get out when you were there?”
“You mean he’s escaped from prison before?” Benedicta asked, expression entranced and delighted. “My, how daring and impetuous.”
He gave his mother a look. “If you’re not careful, Mother, Stepfather may find himself quite jealous of Fraser.” John turned his attention to Harry, frowning. “He… ran away. When he and the other men were out collecting food.”
Quarry spread his hands wide. “Precisely. In transit. So, if we can get them to move Fraser…?”
“What reason could there be to move him?” Grey said. “We could secure him another indenture and he could escape on his way there or from there? Though I’m not sure who would accept a Jacobite traitor who’d just been dismissed from his last indenture or if after being dismissed he’d be allowed another. Could be an avenue worth exploring though. Do we know of anyone who we could ask?”
“You mean who wouldn’t take it personally that their servant vanished before you even brought his papers?” Quarry shook his head. “Not that I can think of.”
“Are you gentlemen interested in learning from history?” Minnie interjected, setting her teacup on its saucer with a little clink of the fine china. “Or would you like to continue along to the part where you repeat its blunders?”
“Please, Minnie. If you have an idea or history does. Do share with the rest of us,” Grey said.
“The Tower of London has always had its fair share of… well, weak points, you might say. One of which is that some prisoners, depending on their status and wealth, are afforded additional luxuries that one would not find in prisons like Ardsmuir.” Minnie picked up the open book and passed it to Grey, tapping at a paragraph with one finger. “Consider the 5th Earl of Nithsdale. He was imprisoned in the Tower for treason after the first rising. In 1716, his wife, her maid, and her friends paid the Earl a visit, smuggling him out dressed as a woman.” Minnie refilled her tea and sat back again to sip from the steaming cup.
“A disguise could work, Me Lord, though I am not certain dressing as a woman would be the best disguise for Fraser,” Tom said. “He’s a very large man and we would have to sew him a custom gown as a borrowed one would not fit. Also, his height is unusual even for a man. A woman of that height would draw a great deal of attention, which I presume we do not want.”
Tom was right. Joseph Trevelyan, the man who’d once been betrothed to his cousin Olivia and employed Tom’s brother, had not been a small man and had used a woman’s gown and wig as a disguise to sneak around with a married woman. But Trevelyan hadn’t been trying to look like a woman, he’d been trying to look like a man wearing a dress. This would not be helpful in their case. “What of a different disguise? A guard maybe? That we could sneak in? Then there would only be the issue of getting him out of the cell itself.”
Minnie shrugged, uncertain. “Perhaps. Actually…” she tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I might know someone who could help with that.”
Quarry snorted. “You know a Tower guard?”
Minerva pushed her shoulders back and spoke to Harry without really looking at him. “I did not say that. I meant that I know someone who might be able to obtain the disguise.” She gave Tom a knowing smile. “It would likely need to be altered.”
Tom perked up at that. “Oh yes, Your Grace. I could make alterations easily if we can acquire something close in nature.”
There was a knock at the door, the rapid-fire inquiries of who’s there and what do they want and suddenly, before Grey could really put it all together, Hal was in the doorway, bruises and cuts still healing on his face.
A wave of cold fury rushed over him again and it was only his mother and Minnie’s presence that kept Grey from lunging at his brother and opening up those wounds all over again.
“What are you doing here?” John sneered, a consolation for not being able to break his nose in the other direction.
“This is my mother’s home and also my wife is here. Hello, Minnie dear,” he said with a smile stretching out his split lip.
Minerva glanced up at Hal, looking most unimpressed. She didn’t often act like a duchess, but this was definitely Her Grace. “Hmm.” She closed the last remaining open book in front of her.
“We’re quite engaged just now, Harold,” Benedicta said. “Shall I call on you later?”
The duke gave John a narrow-eyed glare, ignoring his wife. He walked to the tray of Dutch cakes and reached out for one.
Benedicta swatted at Hal’s hand. “Those are for John. You’ll spoil your dinner.”
“For God’s sake, Mother,” Hal spat. “He’s managed to turn you against me too?
“He did no such thing,” their mother countered. “You did that all on your own. Sending that charming, handsome Scotsman to the Tower and having him put in irons. After all he did for you and John. And just look at John’s poor hand.”
“My hand is still rather sore,” John said, flexing his fingers.
Hal’s face turned a hot red. “Pardon me for attempting to find a sensible solution. There is value in being driven by logic rather than by emotion and sentiment. Something that seems to escape the lot of you. Mother and Minnie, I understand. Byrd has little say in the matter, but you, Quarry, I am surprised at you.”
"Is that right?" Quarry replied. "How long have we been friends, hmm? Twenty? Almost twenty-five years? When did you become such an old stick in the mud? The Hal I know would chase a woman he's met exactly once to Paris and kidnap her from under her father's nose to marry her."
Minnie indulged in a small, wistful smile out of view of her husband, but said nothing.
Harry made a gesture that encompassed Hal's battered face. "I don't know this Hal at all. So of course I'm helping." He angled a finger up at Hal. "And you apologize to Tom. Logic or not, that was rude."
Hal’s jaw clenched, then he looked at Byrd and said nothing. His eyes, still surrounded by sullen purple, focused in on John. “If this is how you all want to behave, I’ve realized there is nothing I can do to stop you. So I’ll leave you all to whatever criminal conspiracy you’re clearly trying to cook up, and return to Argus House. Where I will be when it ultimately fails and you come crawling back to me for help.” He picked up one of the Dutch cakes with a deft move his mother could not stop. “And I think I will have one of these, Mother. Now, good day.” He popped the small cake in his mouth and strode back out of the parlor.
Why the devil did Hal even come? Just to try and peel off some of John’s support? To wave his broken face around in front of everyone in search of sympathy? Well, it had seemed he’d found none. Not from Mother and not from his wife. Maybe he’d just come by in hopes of learning their plan so that he could thwart it. It seemed Hal was trying to play the hero, the villain, and the victim in this situation and John was damn tired of it.
With Hal gone, John turned his attention back to the task at hand. “Minnie, tell me. Who do you know that you think can help get us a uniform?”
Weeks passed without word about Jamie’s pardon and Grey slept little more than a few hours a night. He struggled to sleep in the warm, comfortable bed in his mother’s house when he knew Jamie was suffering on the cold damp stones at the Tower of London. Eventually, Grey gave up trying and slept on the floor. He would give anything in his power to trade places with him. If that was an option, if he could go before the magistrate and offer to have Jamie’s sentence laid on his shoulders instead, he would do it. Yet, that wasn’t possible, so he was left waiting for a pardon he was becoming less and less certain would ever be granted and plotting an escape with his best friend, his aging mother, his sister-in-law, and his fucking valet. Poor Tom Byrd couldn’t have guessed that in several years’ time his services would be used for something like this.
Right now, Byrd was sat on the bench nestled up against the large window, letting out the seams in a uniform stolen from a local theatre’s latest production. Thank Christ, Minnie had friends everywhere. It had been her friends that had helped Percy disappear and now it was her friend that would provide the means to Jamie’s possible escape. All Minnie would have to do is hide the uniform under her skirts during a visit to Jamie. His mother offered to do it more than once, saying that an older woman would be the least suspicious, but that was a step too far, even given John’s desperation.
John rose and poured himself a glass of brandy. He drank it, leaning against the wall. “Tom, would you mind if I asked you something personal?”
“Not at all, Me Lord,” his valet answered, squinting at his work.
“I understand that you’re young, but have you ever… loved someone? I don’t mean the way you would love your brothers or even a friend, but… do you take my meaning, Tom?”
Tom blew his breath out through his nose, considering the question carefully. He turned the jacket in his hand and carefully attacked the seams from a different angle. “I thought so, once. May I ask you a question, Me Lord?”
“Of course, Tom,” John said, both interested and curious. Tom didn’t often inquire things of him, not seeing it as his place. “Anything.”
“The kind of love you’re talking about, do you think you have to be a certain age to feel it?” Tom didn’t look up from the stitches, either to make the conversation less awkward or out of fear of losing the light.
“No, no I don’t. I only meant that you may not have had as long to find someone that you felt that way for, but… no. I loved once and deeply, when I was quite a few years younger than you. He was... killed. At Culloden.” John’s hand still hurt where a bone had likely been broken and moved his finger, making light glimmer on Hector’s ring. “You’re under no obligation to answer this, but who were they? The one you thought you might love?”
“I’d rather not say who.” Tom turned the jacket inside-out and reached for his small scissors, trimming frayed ends of thread. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a kinder person, woman or man.” A sweet smile crept over his lips. “And he made me laugh, even when I know I shouldn’t have. Handsome. And I still care for him, but… it wasn’t meant to be.” Tom paused then and met Grey’s eyes. “I think it was just an infatuation. And when I saw him fall in love with someone else, I knew it was different.” He gave a brief shake of his head, as if to clear away some thought he hadn’t expected, and returned to work on the jacket. “I think maybe I’m not making sense, Me Lord.”
Grey blinked twice, letting Tom’s words float over him, then sink in. Tom had said he and had said he was handsome. He hadn’t known Tom was like him, hadn’t much suspected, though honestly he’d given it little thought. It did make him curious though, who his valet meant? Who he’d watched fall in love with someone else? You, Grey thought. He could mean… you. John looked at Tom, pondered for a moment, then dismissed it.
“You make a great deal of sense, Tom, and I thank you for sharing that with me. I know it’s not something we normally get to talk about,” Grey said. “Also, if you ever… meet someone or want to… I reckon you already could be, though I’m not sure when I’d have given you the time… but men like us need to be careful, Tom. Far more careful than Captain Fraser and I were at Helwater. I need you safe, Byrd. Do you understand?”
Tom looked back up at Grey and nodded. “I do, Me Lord. If you don’t mind my asking, why did you want to know if I’d ever been in love before?”
John had given this a great deal of thought, especially in regards to William. What Jamie would likely want him to do if he had to escape prison, would be to stay here to be Willie’s guardian in the event of Lord Dunsany’s death, but John would have to find another way, even though he’d yet to do so. “Because I thought maybe it would help you understand… if Jamie escapes, he’ll have to go on the run and I’ll be going with him. I cannot be apart from him. I won’t be. But it would likely be best if you did not go with us, for your own sake. You could be charged. Imprisoned, most likely, but hanging would not be out of the question for aiding the escape of a traitor. I’ve spoken with my stepfather and he would be willing to take you on.”
“With all do respect, Me Lord. No. I understand the risks. All of them. Where you go, I go. Respectable gentlemen or outlaws in exile makes no difference to me. Besides,” Tom said, grinning and pointing the handle of his scissors at Grey. “You need me. Captain Fraser or no.”
“That, my dear Byrd. I will not disagree with.” Grey smiled, his chest filled with a comfortable warmth he hadn’t felt since Jamie had been sent to that dreadful place. “And I thank you.”
Two more weeks passed without word and Grey missed Jamie more than he ever imagined possible. He’d gone far longer than that without seeing the man, but not since he could hold him and kiss him. Not since his words and his body could bring the comfort Jamie Fraser needed and deserved.
He couldn’t wait anymore.
Minnie had an appointment to visit the Tower today under an assumed name. She planned to smuggle the makeshift guard’s uniform under her skirts and pass them off to Jamie. He would hide them under his clothes until the guard Harry bribed “accidentally” left Jamie’s cell open, and Jamie would escape when John and Tom set fire to the courtyard, while wearing disguises also pilfered from a local theatre.
Grey had finished a very large lunch that his mother’s cook had whipped up. It might be the last good meal he’d have for a while, if they were to be on the run.
Minnie would be leaving in less than two hours’ time, and then their plan would be set in motion. John hated that this was the way it had to go, especially given what it could mean for William, but at this point, he wasn’t sure what else to do.
He wandered into the parlor where everyone else had already collected. His mother, who was admiring Tom’s handiwork on the stolen uniform and Harry, who was in a spirited debate with Minnie over… Grey honestly had no idea what they were going on about. He would miss them. His mother and Minnie, his nephews who he hadn’t seen in weeks, and Harry Quarry with his awful lewd poetry. Tom, at least, would be going with them. But he would miss it. London and the Beefsteak and the life he’d built here. Still, it was an easy decision to make, to trade it all to be with the man he loved.
Tom stuffed the uniform under his arm and walked over to Minnie. He lowered himself to one knee on her right side and set the small stack of bundles down on the floor. “If you’ll permit me, Your Grace?” Tom asked, indicating Minnie’s skirts.
“Yes, of course,” she answered, lifting her skirt enough that the hem left the floor.
Tom reached under her skirts, feeling along the inside of the fabric, as professional as one could be under the circumstances. “I sewed buttons on the inside of one of the layers,” he explained. “I spaced them so that your skirt doesn’t hang too uneven, Your Grace. Aha, there we are.” Leaving one hand halfway up Minnie’s skirt—still modest enough for the circumstances—Tom took up the first bundle and dragged it up, presumably to the buttons.
After a few moments of fiddling and rustling under Minnie’s skirts, Tom extracted himself and knee-walked to her other side and began the process again. “I beg pardon, Your Grace, I can’t seem to find the third button on this side.” His arm disappeared to the shoulder as Tom strove to accomplish his mission while keeping the duchess decent.
“Is there a particular reason why wee Byrd has crawled halfway up Her Grace’s gown?”
Jamie. No one had heard him come in. He wore the same clothes John had last seen him in, of course, probably ruined at this point, but he held a thick woolen blanket wrapped around his shoulders, snow still clinging to it. He was ghastly pale, malnourished, still rather blue, but not shivering at least. His fiery beard was long and looked miserable. The flesh under his eyes was swollen and purple. But those blue eyes landed on John and the life returned to them.
In shock, John stumbled forward. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He was afraid to believe his eyes. “Jamie… is that…?” Of course it was him, but… “How are you here? I don’t understand.”
“Yer brother fetched me,” Jamie answered and looked back to the open parlor door.
“Hal?” John blinked in disbelief. “What the devil?”
“After everything I’ve done for you. To protect you, to help you, since you were a boy and you still don’t trust me?” Hal shook his head. “Though I’m sure whatever plan you’ve invented that involves your valet up my wife’s skirt was destined for great success.”
Startled, as if he’d forgotten entirely what he was doing, Tom jumped back, settling Minnie’s skirts back into their proper place. “My apologies, Your Grace,” he muttered, cheeks burning.
John’s mind was spinning too quickly and Jamie Fraser was too close for him to think clearly enough to spar with his brother. “I…” he blinked, then let out a half-mad laugh. “You have your pardon?”
Jamie nodded, flashing a relieved sort of smile. “Aye, I do. It came through this morning. His Grace brought it straight to the Tower and arranged for my release.”
Every fiber of his being screamed for him to grab Jamie and crush his mouth in a hot, wet kiss, goddamn it all. He doubted anyone here would turn him in, but he still wouldn’t take the chance and he also did not want to give his poor mother an apoplexy. Though if anyone here would understand the desire to kiss Jamie Fraser, he imagined it would be her.
They just stood there, he and Jamie, looking at each other.
Tom cleared his throat as he dusted something from his breeches. “I beg your pardon, Me Lord. But I was thinking the captain may appreciate a bath after these past weeks in that awful place, yes?”
Jamie’s eyes closed and he swayed on his feet but kept his balance. “Aye, Tom. Bless ye for thinking it.” He scratched at his coarse beard. “A razor wouldna go amiss either.”
The dowager countess had proclaimed Jamie far too thin and called for a tray of whatever the kitchen had on hand while Tom Byrd disappeared to arrange a bath for him. He had been starving, of course, but couldn’t manage more than a pear and a few bites of cheese, drinking cup after cup of hot tea to fill in the cold, empty spaces. John had barely strayed more than two feet from his side, and all Jamie wanted to do was collapse into his arms and be held there, safe and warm and loved.
Then Tom came back to fetch Jamie, and led him to a guest room, John hovering a pace behind him on the stair. The room was warm, the hearth blazing, the reflection of the flames shimmering along a bright copper tub full of steaming water. Tom had laid out a razor, shaving soap, and fresh clothes, linen towels and blankets piled high in a chair. Jamie could have wept at the sight.
But then Tom had discreetly excused himself and shut the door behind him, leaving Jamie and John alone.
John abruptly barreled into Jamie, face pressed into his chest, arms wrapped around him. “Jamie,” he muttered, his hands fisting Jamie’s coat. “You’re here. You’re… oh God, Jamie. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He let out a breath that shuddered his whole small body. “I missed you.”
Jamie crushed John to him, clung to him. John was warm and solid and blessedly here. He buried his face in John's hair, breathed in deep the smell of him. "Oh, mo leannan, stop apologizing and kiss me."
A small smile curled onto John’s lips as his eyes lifted to meet Jamie’s. Then, that firm warm mouth landed on his, tasting of sherry and ginger. John’s mouth opened, not simply permitting entrance, or asking for it. Jamie could sense that John was begging for it. He understood the impulse, if John had felt anything like Jamie had over these last weeks and he believed firmly that he had. Jamie fit his tongue between John’s lips and let him suckle it softly.
John pulled away, just enough to draw in a slow, deep breath. He said nothing, but began to undress Jamie with touches so tender and so reverent, Jamie felt himself weakening at the knees, soft as warm pudding.
His ragged clothes lay in a heap beside him and Jamie stood naked, sweat-soaked and grimy before John’s clean, regal perfection. Smooth and cool as a chess piece.
John swept gentle fingers over Jamie’s scruffy cheek, then guided him with the utmost care into the warm comfort of the bath.
Jamie groaned as he sank into the water, the heat making his skin tingle and his stiff joints and sore muscles melt into a blissful numbness. John's hands hardly left Jamie's body, the strong connection anchoring him. Weeks he had spent in that frigid cell, sleeping fitfully on the damp stone floor. The last person who had touched him, other than the Tower guards who had shoved him roughly through the tower of London and into his cell—had been John. It had been a very long several weeks and to have his hands on him now, tender and loving, caring for him, was the sweetest relief Jamie could remember.
John ran a thumb over his nipple, making slow circles until the flesh stood up under his touch. His fingers drifted down into the water and settled low on his belly. Grey leaned down and whispered in Jamie’s ear. “Would you like me to touch you?”
Jamie gasped, shuddering. "Christ, aye." He found John's hand and tangled their fingers together. "But I need the feel of the prison washed away first. Old ghosts. I ken I'm safe with ye, John. But still I canna bear it."
“Of course.” John brushed away a loose strand of hair on Jamie’s forehead, then kissed him there. “All I want is to bring you comfort. I’ll see you clean and shaved, then dressed in the clothes Tom’s brought so you can sleep.”
Jamie leaned into John's touch. "Ye are a great comfort to me, mo leannan." He lifted a hand out of the water, took hold of Grey's chin, and kissed him. It was like coming home. "I love ye, John."
John took a moment to let the words sink in. It was the first time he’d heard them since that awful day when Jamie had been dragged away to the tower. Then he responded as he always knew he would. “I love you too.”
John finished helping Jamie bathe, then as gentle as a dove, washed the oil and grime from his hair. He guided Jamie out of the bath and dried him off, a limb at a time with the towels Tom had left. He handed Jamie one of the shirts and a pair of woolen socks. “Put those on, love, and keep warm.”
The fire had started to dwindle so John tossed in another log. Then, he dragged a chair over by the razor and shaving soap and directed Jamie to sit. With sure and steady hands, John shaved Jamie’s beard, freeing him of the scraggly layers. Jamie looked in the mirror, relieved to see himself again. When John finished with the shave, he left a soft kiss on Jamie’s lips, then an even softer one on the tip of his nose.
He took Jamie by the hand and led him silently to the bed. “Sit. Get under the quilts,” John ordered. Jamie did as he was told, too tired to do much else, not that he wanted to. John brought over even more blankets and laid them out over Jamie. Then, he grabbed a brush, another towel, and a bottle of oil.
“Sit up,” John said, kicking off his boots. Still fully dressed, he slipped in behind Jamie, stretching out his legs on each side of him
In the cradle of John Grey’s thighs, Jamie relaxed. Grey squeezed the excess water from Jamie’s curls, then brushed through them gently, squeezed again, and then dabbed a fresh lemon oil into the strands, brushing that through. All the while, John showered him in kisses and small murmurs of affection.
“Tell me, how are you feeling now?” John asked.
The fire crackled in the hearth, the glow warm and comfortable on his face. It had been weeks without the benefit of fire. His bones ached from being so cold for so long, but it didn't matter, none of it mattered now that he was with John. Jamie rested both of his hands on John's thighs, feeling secure in the solid strength of the muscles there. "Human," Jamie answered. "Safe." He captured John's arm in one hand and dragged it over his shoulder to plant slow kisses from the wrist to the inside of his elbow. "Loved." Jamie let out a sigh at the simple pleasure of being wrapped in John's arms. "Warm. A hundred thousand miles from the Tower.”
He turned and stroked John’s cheek with one hand, drawing him in for a kiss, slow and open and wanting. Jamie inhaled the scent of him, the scent that was beginning to smell like tenderness and refuge. “If we’re quiet… is it safe? I need ye, John. If I can have ye.”
“It’s safe,” John said, kissing Jamie again. With strong hands and the guidance of his thighs, he turned Jamie over so they were face to face, John beneath him. John leaned up, still kissing Jamie, until he was on his knees. Still not taking his mouth from Jamie’s, John shrugged out of his coat and attacked the buttons of his waistcoat with frantic hands.
Jamie closed his hands over John’s, stilling them. “Let me, aye?” he said against his lips. “Slow down,” he whispered. He waited until John nodded and moved his hands away before taking over, working each of his waistcoat buttons one at a time. “I dinna want to fuck ye, John,” Jamie said, sliding the waistcoat off his shoulders and tossing it aside. “I want to make love to ye. And I want it to take all night.”
John’s head tilted slightly to the side and slowly, so slowly, a smile pulled wide his mouth and lit up his face. He captured Jamie’s mouth in a kiss that dragged his evening stubble over Jamie’s fresh-shaven cheeks. As they kissed, John worked the shirt Jamie had put on not long ago back up and over his head, discarding it on the floor. Grey hovered his hand over Jamie’s chest, right over his heart, before gently laying his hot palm against the skin. Grey’s eyes shut and he took Jamie’s hand in his, pulling it to his own chest, laying Jamie’s large hand so he could feel the rabbit-thump of Grey’s heart.
“I feel ye, mo leannan,” Jamie whispered, laying featherlight kisses over each of John’s closed eyes. He rucked up John’s shirt with his free hand, the sleeves still damp from the bathwater, pulling it up and off. Running his hands over John’s chest, Jamie’s eyes followed his hands, looking for changes. New scars? No. Good. Old ones fading? Some. Also good. He laid John back against the pillows with a gentle push on his shoulders. Straddling his hips, Jamie peppered John’s chest with kisses, lingering over his heart, feeling it beating against his lips. “Ye’re breathtaking,” he whispered, swirling his tongue over one of John’s nipples.
John released a sleepy sigh, then sank his fingers into Jamie’s curls and gripped them possessively. “Love when you kiss me there. Feels… remarkable.” John squirmed beneath Jamie. “Would you help me out of my breeches? I feel as if my cock will burst the buttons and I’d rather not listen to Tom complain about it in the morning.”
Closing his lips around John’s nipple and suckling gently, he hummed in assent and let his own stiff prick drag across the hard bulge in John’s breeches. Jamie worked open John’s flies with the deft fingers of his left hand and dragged them down and off, tossing them carelessly on the floor. He sat back on his knees and indulged in the simple pleasure of just enjoying the sight of John laid out for him. Strong and powerful and perfect for all his scars and imperfections. Settling himself to lie between John’s legs, Jamie rested his head on his thigh, mere inches from his prick, letting his breath ghost over the sensitive flesh there. He worked his arm underneath John’s leg, improving the angle, stroked the fingers of his other hand lightly down his cock before taking the head of it into his mouth. Jamie closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose, that safe-John-scent stronger here, chasing away the flutter of nervousness. He took in a few more inches, and savored the comforting weight of John’s cock on his tongue.
“Jamie!” John cried out, then threw a hand over his mouth. “Christ,” he mumbled through his flesh. “I never thought… oh, that you would ever. My God.” Jamie could feel
the man’s tight thighs aching with the strain of not thrusting deeper into his mouth the way his body obviously naturally craved. He dropped his hand away from his mouth. “Careful or this certainly won’t last all night.”
Jamie wrapped both of his arms tight around John's hips, clinging to him. He'd had no plan when he'd laid down and put his mouth on John. Just the overwhelming desire to taste him and feel the silky hardness in his mouth. Intimate closeness, trust, comfort, that’s what he found here. Jamie closed his eyes and sighed, content and rather drowsy, though he didn’t think he’d actually fall asleep. He had no idea how to ask John for what he needed, didn’t know the words for it, but trusted their bodies to understand each other.
John stroked a hand through his hair. “I’m right here. I’m never going anywhere again. Never.” It sounded like a promise, but Jamie understood what it really was. A wish. Jamie had the same one. “I love your mouth on me, just keeping me there, keeping me warm between your lips.”
Time lost meaning for Jamie, adrift between John’s legs, John’s hands stroking his hair, his cock in Jamie’s mouth. He could have laid there motionless for minutes, hours, it didn’t matter. It was long enough that his own arousal had ebbed and begun to return again. Jamie stirred, and suckled on John’s prick, his head otherwise still and nuzzled to his thigh.
John let out a soft groan. “You must like that,” he said softly. “My prick in your mouth.” It was said without menace or cruelty. Said without even a hint of condescension. John sounded grateful and glad. “I must say I quite like it myself. I feel… at home… inside you.” Grey drew in a sharp breath. “I didn’t mean… I only meant your mouth… not that I wouldn’t. Christ, I do blather sometimes. You still make me nervous.”
Jamie pulled off of John’s cock, giving the head one strong suck as he did so. Turning, he pressed a kiss to the inside of John’s thigh. “It’s alright, mo leannan,” he said. “I had a great deal of time to think, these past weeks. And to pray. And I came to a number of conclusions. One of which is that I love ye and I wish to show ye that in all the ways my body can. Another is that I trust ye to be a patient tutor.” Lifting his head, Jamie looked up at John as he kissed a line from his mid-thigh to the coarse hair at the base of his prick. “The rest of them I can tell ye later.” Jamie licked him, his tongue flat along the underside of John’s cock, from root to tip, sucking the first few inches into his mouth again.
“It seems you don’t need much tutoring. You’re quite a natural expert in this field.” John gulped. “Quite too much of an expert, I would say. You’re tempting a mouth full of my seed.” A trembling hand skirted across Jamie’s cheek, then over the bow of his lip. “Would you swallow, love? If I asked you to.”
Would he? Jamie considered that while he slid his lips up and down John’s cock. He didn’t think he could take as much of John into his mouth as John had taken Jamie that night in the inn, but perhaps that would come with practice. Jamie had tasted his seed already and it wasn’t so bad. He nodded then, grinning a little because John’s prick was still in his mouth when he did.
“Is that how you want it tonight? My release in your mouth and then warm in your belly?” John said breathlessly. “Or do you want me on your prick again? I haven’t stopped thinking of it since. Or… I could—would you permit me to see you there—I haven’t and I… would like to, and to touch. Not inside though, not until I’m certain you are ready for it. But it can feel good just to be stroked there, Jamie. And, and kissed there.”
The effect he was having on John was intoxicating. To feel his strong muscles beneath him, fighting to let Jamie stay in control. Babbling on in that hoarse, thoroughly desperate tone, to be the cause of that made Jamie feel powerful, of all the silly things. He reached out with one long arm and put his four fingers over John’s lips, quieting him, and sucking harder, faster, making his point. This is what I want.
“Dear God,” John squealed, legs kicking. His hand fastened on the back of Jamie’s head, and bit into his wrist letting out a wild rush of muffled curses in at least three different languages, then finally, “Jamie. Oh, Jamie.” And John flooded Jamie’s mouth with his release.
It startled him, but Jamie took a breath through his nose, and swallowed it down, thick and salty-sweet. He sucked and licked John clean, before crawling over him, bracketing his lover's body between his arms and legs. Jamie bent and claimed his mouth with a kiss, his tongue slipping between his lips. Then he stopped but didn’t pull away, their lips brushing as he whispered, “You, My Lord, are not capable of being quiet.” Jamie kissed him again. “Do ye still think ye taste bland?”
“Nothing is bland on your lips, Fraser.” His lips turned up at the corner. “But speaking of my inability to keep quiet, you don’t think my mother overheard that do you?” He cringed. “We are in her house, after all.”
Jamie chuckled. “If she did, breakfast will be verra awkward.” He settled on his side next to John, one leg hooked over John’s, growing serious. “Does she ken about us, do ye think?”
“I… don’t know. My mother is an observant woman, but I don’t know if she could imagine it. That her son could be… like we are. Or like I am. I know it is different for you.”
“Well ye said wee Byrd kens it,” Jamie said, laying his head on John’s chest. “And I ken yer brother does. Which means the duchess does. And that was Colonel Quarry trying not to watch Tom climb under the duchess’s skirt, was it no’?” He planted a kiss on the puckered scar near John’s heart. “I think my mother would have kent about me, an’ she’d been alive to see it.” Jamie yawned. “We could lie here for an hour or two and if soldiers dinna break the door down, we’ll ken we’re safe.”
“Even if they don’t know yet and they discover us, I don’t believe there will be soldiers at the door. All of them, from my mother to Harry, were willing to commit criminal acts in your defense. You simply cannot help but inspire loyalty wherever you go. Though…” he smirked at Jamie. “I think you’ve inspired something less virtuous as well in the dowager countess.”
Jamie laughed, exhaustion overtaking him. “Oh, aye. I danced wi’ yer mother at that musicale she hosted. While we were waiting for the court-martial. She was rather taken wi’ me as I recall.” Jamie yawned again. “She tittered like a lass when I kissed her hand.” Another yawn. “But I think maybe they were all willing to turn outlaws for you, John. Ye’re worth that kind of love and loyal devotion too, ken?”
“Then, let’s count on that devotion tonight, and sleep. In the morning, we’ll see what cook’s made for breakfast.”
Chapter 13: Always a Bed
(1) Trigger Warning: This chapter includes non-graphic references to past rape and abuse that occurred in canon. We have endeavored to handle this topic with care and respect.
(2) Trigger Warning: This chapter includes a depiction of a panic attack from the perspective of the character experiencing it that some readers may find disturbing. We have also endeavored to handle this topic with care and respect.
There are excellent mental health resources available from SAMHSA.gov, including a support hotline for those in the US.
John Grey woke up in his mother’s house, wrapped in Jamie Fraser’s arms. No one had come in the night to bother them or shout or condemn. Jamie was breathing slowly above him, his relaxed softness evidence that the man was still sleeping. He was awakened, however, by a knock at the door.
Old fear knotted like rope beneath his ribs, but then he heard, “It’s only me, Me Lord.”
“Come in, Tom,” John said.
Tom slipped in through the door with a fresh set of clothes for John and shut it quickly behind him. “Hello Me Lord, Captain Fraser, did you both sleep well?”
Jamie stirred and opened his eyes, quickly alert in that manner of soldiers. His blue eyes went wide for a moment as he looked from John in the bed next to him to Tom, then relaxed. "Aye, Tom. Thank ye for your kindness."
“You’re welcome, Captain. However, the real kindness I paid you was not letting Colonel Quarry listen in with a cup to your door last night.”
John felt instantly feverish, mouth gaping though he could not think of what to say. Only that when he saw Quarry again, he might have to challenge him to a duel.
“Now, I’ll help you get dressed,” Tom said. “The both of you, if you’d like. The dowager countess expects you for breakfast soon. She’s been quite insistent on it the last half hour.”
John looked up to Jamie, who looked far more calm than John felt. “She… is she aware we slept… well… here… together.”
Tom laid out both sets of their clothes with his usual artful precision. He glanced over at them and sighed. “You are… well, frankly, Me Lord, you are not quiet.”
All the blood left Grey’s body in a sudden rush and he was floating, dumbly, suddenly stricken. Jamie Fraser truly made him lose all sense.
"I'm going to have to start covering yer mouth," Jamie murmured and gave John's hand a squeeze under the quilt. If Tom heard, he was too discreet to say anything. "And how is the dowager countess's mood this morning, Tom? Other than impatient for breakfast."
“I can’t quite say, Captain. I’m uncertain how she feels, though I would say she doesn’t seem angry. If anything, worried. Concerned, perhaps. I know she’s eager to speak with the both of you.”
John forced himself out of bed, limbs heavy. With their boldness, Grey knew this conversation would come and he truly did not know what it would hold. If Jamie was with him though, he could survive it. “Come on, Fraser. Best not to keep my mother waiting. I don’t need her to be able to add tardiness to my growing list of crimes.”
Tom helped them dress with swift professionalism before sending them on their way. Still, in the quiet and empty shelter of the hallway, John squeezed Jamie’s hand, fingers threaded together. He tried to take another step forward and found he could not. “Jamie… why can’t I move? Something’s wrong. There is something wrong with my legs. Oh God, I think I may have an… affliction.”
Jamie took a deep breath. “Well, there’s always Rome.” He took a step but aborted when Grey didn’t follow. “I could throw ye over my shoulder and carry ye if ye think it’ll help.”
“Do that… another time, will you? Preferably towards the bed.” John shut his eyes and let out a shaky breath between his lips, then looked up at Jamie, a shock of cold fear freezing his gut. “I… how do I do this? She’s my mother, Jamie. What if I… disgust her?”
Jamie gave his fingers a tight squeeze. “First, we’ll no’ jump to any conclusions. Second, we’ll no’ act like anything is amiss, ken? And if she’s disgusted… we’ll handle it, aye? Together. Like everything.”
“John,” came his mother’s voice in the hall.
Grey dropped Jamie’s hand immediately. Her eyes dropped down, clearly having noticed.
Her gown swept as she strode toward them both. John’s heart was hammering in his chest, but then suddenly, his mother’s arms were around him and she was holding him to her like she hadn’t done since he was a young child. “You could never disgust me,” she said quietly against his ear. Then, she pulled back and put her hands on either side of his face. “Look at me, John William. You are my child, you came from me, and I do not believe that the love that I have for you could be revoked by even the most despicable crime.”
The word ‘crime’ made Grey flinch. So his mother loved him despite his perversions as she would almost certainly see them. Because the strength of a mother’s love could overlook anything, even something as horrendous as—
“But you, my sweet boy, have nothing to be ashamed of. Will I worry? Yes. Does it scare me? Of course, it does. But love is rare, and I believe there is no greater crime than to be given love, in whatever form it comes, and reject it.”
It was only the brush of his mother’s thumb on his cheek that made John realize he’d started to cry. He flushed with embarrassment, but the feeling quickly ebbed. What did he have to be ashamed of here, in the presence of the two people who loved him most?
His mother drew in her own steadying breath before patting John on the shoulders. “Besides, Captain Fraser is quite dashing, is he not?” She turned on her heel and focused sharply on Jamie. “You’ll treat my son well, you hear me?”
Jamie’s eyes were wide as dinner plates, mouth ajar. But when Benedicta turned that steely gaze on him, he promptly shut it with an audible click of his teeth. He recovered though, and gave her a deep bow. “Aye, Your Grace. Ye have my word. And may yours be the blade that pierces my heart should I ever break it.”
She tucked an arm into Jamie’s, then looked over her shoulder at John. “Come on, boys. It’s time to eat. I won’t leave you two to get scrawny. Oh and everyone’s downstairs in the dining room. I’ve told them to behave, but Quarry is quite beyond anyone’s control, I do think.”
Jamie and John entered the dining room to a whistle and a round of applause from Harry Quarry. Minnie elbowed and shushed him, John shot him a glare, and Hal looked like he wanted to fling himself off the nearest bridge. The small thrill of pleasure John felt from the idea that Hal was being tortured by his relationship with Fraser suggested that he was not over his frustration at the duke. Though he was grateful he’d helped with the pardon. But not overly grateful and he wouldn’t be.
They spent the morning at the table of the dowager countess dining on sausages, fresh eggs, and buttered toast. They drank coffee with dashes of milk and dainty sugar cubes, and if he had his ankle locked around Jamie Fraser’s the whole time, nobody there would say a word about it.
After breakfast, Jamie was dragged into a conversation with Minnie and Grey’s mother. John didn’t see him until later that morning, when he found him looking through the bookshelves in the library.
“There you are, love.” John came up behind Jamie, wrapping his arms around his waist. “Find anything interesting to read?”
Jamie rested one arm over both of John’s around his middle. “All books are interesting, if you know what to look for.” He sighed, lips pursed in a melancholy sort of way. “But have I found anything that speaks to me now? Nay.”
John pressed on Jamie’s waist, turning the man to face him. “What about me?” he said, voice dark and husky. “Do I speak to you?”
“Hmm. I could read ye over and over again and never tire of it.” Jamie rested his arms on Grey’s shoulders, bent down and kissed him briefly. “How do ye fare, mo leannan?”
“I feel like I’m in a dream, not to put too dramatic a point on it.” Grey smiled. He could not help it. “How are you feeling? I can’t imagine how horrendous this last month has been. Is there anything you need? Or want? Whatever it is in my power to give you, I will.”
Jamie let out a short, rueful laugh. “Not even my worst month, in the grand scheme of things. I am happy, dinna fash.” He traced a thumb over Grey’s bottom lip, absently. “I was just thinking of Lallybroch. Of my family. They’re usually on my mind this time of year, with Christmas in a month.”
“Your happiness is everything to me, Jamie. I know it’s been a very long time since you’ve been able to visit your family.” Grey let out a breath. He didn’t want Jamie to go, but he couldn’t keep him from his family and he wasn’t sure Jamie would want to bring home his male English lover, even though they’d obscure that fact. “Would you want to go home and visit your family for a while? I would miss you greatly, but I would understand.”
“It has been many years. With Willie… where he is… I would gi’ almost anything to see my sister and her bairns.” Jamie’s brow creased in confusion. “But I dinna understand. Why would I miss ye? Would ye not want to come wi’ me?”
“Of course, I would. I just did not know if I would be welcome. I’m your former jailer, not to mention a colonel is His Majesty’s Army, though I have been thinking of resigning my commission.”
Jamie’s frown deepened at that. “Ye have? But why?”
“I’m grateful that Hal secured your pardon, but I feel as if my trust in him has been irrevocably broken… he makes decisions for me based on what he thinks is best and doesn’t take into account my opinion on the matter. I no longer feel comfortable with him as my commanding officer.”
Jamie’s fingers played idly with the ends of Grey’s hair. “Aye, I can understand that. I canna imagine he’d let ye stay long where he kens I am.”
“No, and I’ll be damned if I let him take you from me again.”
“Then I dinna suppose ye’ll need to ask him for leave to come wi’ me to Scotland.” There was something warm and dreamy in Jamie’s eyes as he smiled down at Grey.
John let out a nervous breath. “You’re certain you’d want me to accompany you to your home?” Grey found he desperately wanted to go and see the lands that had been integral in the upbringing of the man he loved.
Jamie’s handsome face warmed with a smile. “Of course I would. I think my brother-in-law would like ye. And my sister.” Jamie winced. “Aye, weel, Ian would at any rate. Jenny… could be persuaded. She’s my older sister, ken. And she’s been the mistress of Lallybroch since we were bairns.”
“It’s settled, then? We go to Lallybroch. Tom as well?”
Jamie chuckled. “I dinna think we could keep Tom from going if we wanted to.”
Jamie, John, and Tom Byrd left London bound north for the Scottish border within the week, which was all the time they needed to equip themselves for the long journey into increasingly cold weather. They covered as much ground as they could during the day, hoping to get ahead of as much snow as possible.
They shared a room, always a bed. With Tom comfortably ensconced in his own room, Jamie and John tumbled naked into their nightly refuge, a tangle of bare limbs and passion. When a storm caught them one afternoon and they staggered into their rooms drenched and freezing, Jamie and John undressed by the hearth to warm themselves. And as the blazing fire thawed their extremities, Jamie took John from behind, well-oiled and rough, while John braced himself against the mantel, his cries muffled into Jamie’s palm clamped tight over his mouth.
When they had to sleep rough, they built their fire off the road and the three of them slept huddled close together to stay warm, wrapped tightly in cloaks and blankets. Twelve days in, the snow came and forced them off the road before dusk. They acquired shelter for their horses and the last two rooms in the nearest hamlet, passing the evening in friendly conversation as they took supper and drank their fill by the fire. When Tom began to yawn, they said their good nights and staggered upstairs, Jamie locking them safely away in their private hideaway.
John tugged his neck cloth off and stretched out the muscles there. “This might be our last night together for a while. We’ll want to room separately at your family’s house? Unless there are not enough rooms and that would be a convenient excuse. I will be glad to get off the road and I am thrilled to meet your family, but I will miss having you in my arms every night.”
“I’m no’ sure. Lallybroch is no’ so large as Helwater, but it’s nay croft. I’ve no’ been there in eight years.” Jamie tugged his coat off and draped it over a chair, pulling John into his arms near the hearth. “We’ll manage to find time to ourselves, even if we have to sneak off to the broch.” He kissed John’s forehead. “We can always insist on no’ putting one of the bairns out of their beds. In any case, there’s still a few days left on the road, but most of that will be sleeping rough. So ye’ll still have me in yer arms. Ye’ll just also have wee Byrd,” Jamie chuckled and pushed John’s coat off his shoulders.
“I’m much too small and you’re far too large, Jamie. I can’t fit anyone else in my arms.” John laughed, then brushed his lips against Jamie’s cheek. John breathed hot as the hearth in his ear as his fingers worked open his waistcoat, then slid under his shirt to his bare stomach. “I say as this is our last night of certain privacy. We take advantage of it.” John brought his hips towards Jamie, his hardness firm and obvious.
Jamie shivered and hummed against John’s lips, kissing him as he plucked his waistcoat buttons open and let the garment fall. “Ye read my mind, mo leannan.”
John’s lip tilted up into a teasing smile, then he stepped back from Jamie’s embrace to remove the clothes from his body, slowly revealing new portions of skin until he was standing naked and pale, the firelight glinting off the dark hair on his legs and chest and the nest of it around his prick. He just stood there, looking at Jamie and biting his lip.
The sight of him made Jamie's mouth go dry. "Ye look like a Greek god like that. All gold by the fire." Jamie went to John and took one of his hands in his and, bringing it to his lips, laid featherlight kisses on the inside of his wrist. "An' I'm overcome with a powerful urge to worship ye." He continued kissing up John’s arm, alternating between those fluttering brushes of his lips to sucking and nibbling gently at his flesh.
“Christ, Jamie.” John’s hand sank into his curls and tugged, pulling their mouths together. He filled Jamie’s mouth with his tongue, wrapping his naked body around Jamie’s clothed one. John tugged on his hair again, exposing his neck. John bit and sucked the flesh there. It would likely leave bruises. “You are the one who should be worshipped.” John slid his hand down Jamie’s trembling back and settled just below the crest of his buttocks. Even with everything they’d done, there had been an unspoken agreement not to touch Jamie there. Tonight, however, John’s fingers kept moving down until his hands were settled on the muscles there in a solid grip. “Is that alright?” John whispered, low and gruff.
Jamie took a breath, unsure himself if it sounded unsteady as a result of arousal or nervousness. But everything with John felt good. Desire then, he decided. "Aye. It is."
John’s hands stayed firm there, kneading. “You feel so… strong. You have firm muscles everywhere. It seems impossible.” One hand slid around to the flies of his breeches and pulled them open. John tugged them down, leaving his cockstand bared to John and the roaring fire behind him. However, John didn’t reach for Jamie’s prick. He slid those talented hands back to where they had begun, only this time there was no fabric between the rough skin of John’s hands and the soft flesh of Jamie’s arse.
Feeling oddly exposed, Jamie laid a hand on John’s shoulder, anchoring himself. The dizzy feeling of vulnerability eased.
John wrapped his hand around them both and slid his touch. Between John’s hand and his prick, the friction was delicious, knee-buckling. John’s other hand stayed on Jamie’s buttocks where it squeezed and pet and explored. A finger moved to the cleft of his arse and dropped down between, only a few inches. Suddenly, both of John’s hands left him, they were on his shoulders turning him around. John pulled Jamie’s waist coat off, tossing it near the stack of firewood, then he guided the thin shirt up over his head, exposing Jamie’s back and the scars on them to John’s gaze. He’d seen them several times before, but now he was looking and dropping wet kisses down his spine.
Behind him, Jamie heard John’s knees hit the rug, then felt lips on his buttock and a tongue laving at his skin. One hand—John’s hand—landed on one arse cheek and the other hand fell upon the other and spread. A gust of warmth from either the hearth or John’s breath caressed him where he had not been touched by another since—
Panic gripped Jamie in a sudden vise, sent him whirling around and backing away from John. His heart thundered in his ears, terror squeezing the air from his chest, not letting any back in. He was shaking, a cold sweat breaking out over his body and he brought his hands up in a defensive reflex. John. It’s John. Only John. Jamie repeated his name in his mind over and over, begging his body to remember this is John, not him. He was looking right at him, the man he trusted more than anyone else in the world and his terror was stupid and irrational and it infuriated him.
It’s John, it’s John, it’s John. The rigid coldness of a wall pressed against his back and he gasped, trapped, desperate for a full breath but he couldn’t manage it. Christ, he was going to suffocate. It wasn’t until he noticed that his mouth was dry that Jamie realized he’d actually been saying John’s name aloud.
“That’s right,” John said calmly, standing to his feet. He put his hands up as if to remind Jamie that he was not a threat. His voice was distant, muffled by the sound of the blood rushing in Jamie’s ears. “It’s only me. I understand, I do. Just try to remember I will not hurt you. Can you try to breathe for me, love?” He did not move forward, though he did keep his worried eyes on Jamie.
Just breathe, fool. Why couldn’t he? Jamie was dizzy, lightheaded. Why was the fire in the hearth so loud, the smell of peat smoke so strong? Had they shut the flue? He was sure he would collapse, his knees shaking, wanting to buckle. But all he needed was air. His lungs were burning, surely they must be empty. How could he still be alive if they were? Jamie pressed his back hard against the wall and slid down it to the floor. It was mortifying, insane, Christ, he had gone mad, surely. He wanted to cover his face, hide his shame, but then he couldn’t see if he did that and the mere thought of blindness, not being able to see the threat was terrifying too. Finally, between the cold floor beneath him, the cold wall behind him, and John’s calm voice in front of him, Jamie was able to exhale as hard as he could and take a shaking breath.
“That’s it, Jamie. Simply keep trying to breathe,” John said, tugging his breeches back on, then swiftly stuffing himself back into his shirt. He walked over to the bed and tugged the quilt off. “I’m going to walk closer now and hand this to you so you can cover up.” He pointed to a spot near the hearth. “Then I will walk right back here. I will not touch you. Yes? You can say no.”
Jamie managed a nod, still trying to ease more blessed air into his lungs. Christ, collect yerself, ye damnable eejit. He scrubbed at his face with one hand, found it wet with ridiculous tears. Perhaps this was his penance, to be unable to stand for the man he loved to touch him. An angry growl tore from his throat. "No that doesna make any fucking sense either," Jamie muttered.
From a good distance, John extended his arm with the quilt held out to Jamie, who took it and hugged it against him. Just as he said he would do, John retreated to the spot by the fire. “What doesn’t make any sense?” he asked.
Jamie wrapped the quilt around his middle, finally catching his breath. "That I should be damned to recoil from ye but only sometimes." With the quilt covering him, he felt safe enough to cover his face, to hide his shameful tears. "Nay, if it isna God's wrath," he said, voice muffled by his palms. "Then I'm just a broken fool."
“Oh, love. You’re not broken. You’re the most wonderful and remarkable man I’ve ever known. You were hurt, but you are not broken. I reckon we’re not always going to know beforehand what will bring you back to that place, to… him. But we’ll work together to avoid those things. But if we happen upon them accidentally, then we stop until you feel better, then we try something else.” John sat down by the hearth and gave him a gentle smile, but there was no pity or judgement in it. “If there are things you need time to be ready for, then we wait. If there are things you are ready for one day and not the next, then we face that as it comes. If there are things you will never be ready for, no matter what they are, we will not do them.”
Jamie sighed and dropped his hands into his lap, his head resting back against the wall. His arms and legs trembled with exhaustion, the large muscles of his thighs twitching. All he wanted was to lie down and sleep for a very long time, to feel close to John and therefore safe. "For a time he haunted the bed I shared with Claire and now he's haunting ours and I'm done wi' him." Dragging himself to his feet, Jamie wrapped the blanket around his shoulders and went to John, sinking onto the floor next to him. He laid his head in John's lap, facing toward him, his back to the room, John’s shirt brushing against his nose. The comforting scent of John enveloped him, the smell of the horses still clinging to his breeches, all of it feeling like safety. He melted into John’s touch and curled up on the hearth rug, the phantom of Wentworth and Jack Randall fading away. "Thank ye, John. For always being patient and kind. For loving me so."
John stroked Jamie’s hair and smiled down at him. “Loving you comes easily to me, Jamie Fraser.”
Chapter 14: Hogmanay for Heretics
It took most of another week to cross into the border of Jamie’s family land. It was rocky and steep, and the snow only grew thicker as they continued north. The moors and forests soon began to feel familiar again. Jamie noticed game trails that had moved, some that had not, the trees that had grown in eight years, the highland rock that stood eternal. They made camp under an outcropping of stone and hobbled the horses a comfortable distance from their fire. Someone from Lallybroch would probably spot it, he thought, and they’d be met well before they reached the dooryard. The three of them huddled together under a pile of blankets, as shielded from the wind as they could be. Tom curled up next to John and fell asleep while John snuggled under Jamie’s protective arm and dozed against his chest.
Jamie couldn’t sleep, of course. Four, maybe five hours of riding remained, till he saw his family again. Nearly three weeks they’d been on the road, and Jamie still hadn’t figured out how he would explain John and wee Byrd. He had written to his sister since John had arranged for Dunsany to allow him to do so, and he had mentioned John, of course. She knew that he had secured Jamie’s parole and his indenture at Helwater, but knew nothing of the events of the past couple of months. Jenny was a shrewdly intelligent woman and she would have questions. Probably a lot of them.
John sighed in his sleep and Jamie ran his fingers lightly over his hair. Some of the walls inside Lallybroch bore saber slashes, made by English soldiers over the years. Ian had left them, Jamie knew, to show the children what the English are capable of. And Jamie was about to bring two of them into their home. They’d likely know John for a soldier immediately, and it wouldn’t matter that he’d resigned his commission. Jamie yawned and rested his cheek on the top of John’s head, closing his eyes. He’d just have to trust that Jenny would give John a chance to prove that he’s not like the English who left the gouges in the walls of her home.
They had ridden about two hours the following morning when they crested a hill and the stones of Broch Tuarach came into view. Jamie found himself relieved that the tower still stood, as unchanged as weathered stone could be in the highlands. The house lay in the distance, smoke from the chimneys rising into the greyish blue sky like masts on a ship.
“There ‘tis,” Jamie said. “That’s Lallybroch.”
“It’s quite remarkably beautiful,” John said, looking over at Jamie from his mount. A gentle smile turned up the corners of his lips and lit his eyes with a soft glow. “I cannot wait to see more of your home and of your family. I’d like to make sure I’m well informed before I make their acquaintance. There’s your sister, Jenny. Her husband, Ian Murray. Their children Jamie, Maggie, Young Ian… there are more, yes? And some grandchildren?”
Jamie smiled, both to think about his large family and that John was so genuinely interested. "Aye, young Jamie and his wife, newly wed. Three girls, Maggie, Kitty, and Janet. And Ian and Jenny's youngest boys Michael and wee Ian. Michael and Janet are twins. I dinna ken any grandchildren yet. There's also Fergus, he's still there." Jamie paused. How to explain Fergus? "Jenny took him in just before Culloden and cared for him when...I couldna. After I lost Claire."
John gave him an inscrutable look over his shoulder. “You don’t have a son I don’t know about, do you?”
Jamie winced. "Not precisely, no. I adopted him in Paris. Sort of." He chuckled at John's raised eyebrow. "I caught him trying to pick my pockets at a brothel. It's a long story."
“You’ll have to tell me it all sometime. I look forward to meeting him. I look forward to meeting all of them.” John glanced back at Tom. “Tell us, Byrd. What do you think of Scotland so far?”
“It’s wet, me lord.” Tom shivered atop his horse. “And quite cold. I have to say I will be glad to find myself by a fire.”
"Aye. That we will find," Jamie answered. Fat, wet snowflakes fell, soaking their cloaks and clinging to their hair.
They rode on, and as Jamie had predicted, soon made out the shape of a lone rider making his way up the hill. It was a young man with dark hair, the silver gleam of a hook on one hand. Fergus.
As they drew closer, Fergus reined up, still quite some distance away. "Milord?" he called.
"Oui, mon fils," Jamie called.
"We did not know you were coming," Fergus replied. "Who is that with you?"
"Friends," Jamie answered, dismounting and going to embrace Fergus. "It is good to see ye." He was still quite thin, but so well filled out that Jamie hardly recognized him. As he held him, though, Jamie couldn't help but remember Fergus as the youth he had left behind when he was taken to Ardsmuir. Jamie held him at arm's length, looking him over, his face sore from smiling so much. "Look at ye, mon fils. Ye were nay but a skinny thing when last I saw ye. Christ, ye've grown."
A grin spread across Fergus's handsome face. "It is good that you have come home, Milord. I am very glad to see you again."
Jamie turned and nodded at John and Tom in turn. "This is my friend Lord John Grey. And Tom Byrd. Lord John, this is Fergus."
Fergus bowed correctly. "Welcome to Lallybroch, Lord John."
“Thank you,” John said, dismounting as well. “I am quite pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Behind them, Tom Byrd also dismounted. Reins in hand, he approached them all. He stayed near to John’s side, eyeing Fergus. Tom never had been one to trust the French, though he did seem to find them easier to tolerate than the Germans.
Fergus smiled at Tom and bowed to him as well, eyes alight. "And welcome to you as well, Monsieur Byrd."
Tom’s cheeks flushed and he pressed his lips together, pulling back his shoulders. He cleared his throat. “You as well, Mister… well, I do not believe I was informed of your last name, sir.”
"Please, just call me Fergus," the young man answered in a Parisian accent, swinging back up into his saddle.
“Fergus,” Tom fit his mouth around the name. “You may call me Tom as well,” he said, though he did not sound particularly comfortable with that concept.
They remounted their horses and kept trudging on toward the house, the snow only falling harder while Fergus filled Jamie in on the latest news from Lallybroch. As they came into the door yard, they were met by the barking and baying of dogs. The ruckus alerted the house, and before they had a chance to unload the horses, the front door opened.
"Fergus, who was—" Jenny froze, stared at Jamie with her mouth agape. She crossed herself and came down the steps. "Jamie? Praise the Lord! Ye've come home to us then?"
Jamie swept his sister into an embrace, held her small frame in his big arms. "Aye. I've brought friends. I hope you dinna mind"
Jenny regained her feet and waved off his concern. "Nay, no' at all. Ye ken we have room. It may be cozy, but we can make do."
Jamie introduced John and Tom to his sister and her eyes went wide. "Lord John, ye say? The soldier ye wrote me about?" Her elegantly arched brow might as well have been a warning beacon to Jamie, but he hoped it was lost on John.
“No’ anymore,” Jamie replied. “He’s resigned his commission.”
“It’s an honor to meet you Mrs. Murray. Your brother has told me so much about you and your children. I appreciate your hospitality in allowing my valet and I to stay here with your family.” He bowed to her in a formal greeting that betrayed his station.
Jenny’s lips pursed and her back straightened, sending another look Jamie’s way. “Weel, come along then before we all freeze our arses off, aye?”
Lallybroch bustled with Jamie’s family, their servants, and the tenants from his land. The cacophony of Scottish voices echoed off the stone, surrounding John in the new and unfamiliar. He was glad to be here, to meet these people and know this part of Jamie, but the difference from his normal life was acute. It made him think of how Jamie must’ve felt in these years since Ardsmuir in a land that was not his own, surrounded by people who were not his own. But John had chosen to be here, wanted to be here. And Jamie was here. John would follow Jamie anywhere.
As Jenny had said, the house was packed, and thus Jamie and John were relegated to the same room. There was only one bed, so she offered to have stacks of quilts and furs brought up for a pallet on the floor, but Jamie casually said not to worry herself with it. They’d been sharing beds in inns during their travels and had grown accustomed to it. That first night at Lallybroch, John had been lying in bed, reading. Jamie took the book from his hand, set it on the end table and nestled onto his chest. The next morning, they awoke early and John accompanied Jamie on a hunt. It took several cold, wet hours, but eventually they returned to Lallybroch with a boar large enough for the Hogmanay celebration Jenny was planning.
The following days were spent in preparations for Hogmanay. The house vibrated with festive energy as boughs of evergreen and dried berries were hung and wreaths were fashioned for the windows and the doors. Grey and Jamie spent their time drinking Scottish whisky or hunting or reading. Jenny would also often send one or the other out to do tasks like the mending of fences or the chopping of wood. He tried to keep these activities secret from Tom who would scramble to do it for him. “Me lord, you shouldn’t be… it’s beneath your position,” he would say until Jamie’s Fergus would come along and drag him off. No one could distract or fluster Tom Byrd like Fergus anyway. He was always red as ripe apples around him.
Grey and Jamie were always well-worn at the end of the day. They’d yet to do anything carnal beneath Jamie’s sister’s roof, but they would kiss each other good night and drift to sleep in the other’s arms. Once or twice, they’d gone far enough into the trees that Jamie had ventured to kiss him deep and open-mouthed.
Tonight, however, was Jenny’s Hogmanay celebration. She kept them far too busy for any secret meetings in the woods. But the guests had begun to arrive and Tom had dressed John in fine red velvet and Jamie was looking remarkable in well-tailored green wool with a crisp white neckcloth, his red hair plaited and tied with a ribbon the same red velvet as Grey’s coat. He fought a strong urge to shove Jamie into their room and tear those clothes off.
As John stood amongst the swirl of guests, Highland men and women dressed in their absolute best, he breathed in the scent of roasted boar, of onions and chestnuts and woodsy herbs. The music from a playful fiddle imbued the already warm atmosphere with a joyful excitement.
“Ye lied to me, John Grey,” came Jamie’s voice from behind him. He could hear the impish grin in his tone before he turned around to find it lighting Jamie’s face. “Ye told me red wasna yer color.” Jamie spoke so low that Grey had to strain to hear him. “But it is.”
Grey could not help the smile that blossomed on his face, though everyone tonight seemed happy. He did not have to hide his own happiness. He responded with a voice just as low as Jamie’s. “I reckon you may be biased on the particular subject of how I look.”
“Aye, that may be. Any color suits ye. Whether ye’re wearing it or… not.” Jamie’s attention abruptly diverted to an approaching guest, who greeted him warmly.
As Jamie spoke with another, Grey went off to find himself a drink. He procured a glass of claret and sipped it slowly, watching the dancing in front of him. A young Scottish woman with black hair and big, blue eyes approached him, blue skirts sweeping across the floor like a broom.
“A handsome man like ye should no’ be standing ‘round at a party, English or no’.” She smiled and held out her small hand. “Care to dance, My Lord?” she asked.
He did not know her name, though she seemed to know his title. He felt it rude to decline, so he set down his glass of claret and took her hand to join their dancing. He asked her name out of politeness and she replied, “Miss Aileen Cockburn, My Lord.”
They kept making small talk, but he barely registered a word, his attention entirely consumed with Jamie, especially as he departed from the man he’d been speaking to and was swept onto the dance floor by a small, blond woman, whom he appeared to be acquainted with.
Tone-deaf or not, Jamie had excellent rhythm and moved with a grace that should have been entirely at odds with his stature. He was confident on his feet, and—as he appeared when fighting or hunting—it was clear that Jamie was acutely aware of his body and how it moved. The blond woman nodded toward a corner and steered them in that direction, stopping next to two young girls. The resemblance was so striking that Grey had no doubt these were the woman’s daughters. Jamie met them, smiling broadly, saying something Grey could not make out. Then he bowed low to the younger of the girls, making her a gallant leg. She giggled and took Jamie’s hand, following him onto the dancefloor, both of them laughing. The woman watched, a dreamy expression on her face. Yes, she knew Jamie. And she wanted him.
Something ugly and dark swirled up inside Grey. Jamie’s dead wife was one thing, but this was entirely another. “Excuse me,” he said to Miss Cockburn, and abandoned her on the dance floor. He strode across the floor and back to his glass of claret, which he finished off promptly. He would’ve gone in search of something stronger, but he did not want to lose sight of either Jamie or the woman staring at him like she thought she could have him. She could not. He would not bloody allow it.
Jamie’s dance finished with the daughter and when it did, Grey set down his glass again and walked right up to Jamie and this woman and introduced himself. If he was standing too close to Jamie while he did it, then that was the fault of the alcohol.
“Please, Lord John, allow me to introduce Mrs. Laoghaire MacKimmie,” Jamie said formally. “And her daughters Marsali and wee Joanie,” he added, laying a hand on the girls’ shoulders in turn.
Mrs. MacKimmie gasped in a most unladylike fashion and swatted Jamie in the center of his chest and then left her hand there. “Nay, Jamie Fraser, none of that missus nonsense. I ken yer sister told ye it’s MacKenzie again.” She addressed Grey, still clinging to Jamie. “I’ve been a widow for several years now.” She fiddled with the ends of Jamie’s hair for a moment and smiled up at him like the cat who got the cream. “I’ve always felt more like a MacKenzie anyway.”
Jamie’s a MacKenzie, Grey thought, at least his mother was. Her insinuation was not lost on John, nor was her hand on Jamie’s hair. He felt an utterly bizarre desire to grasp Jamie by the arm and yank him away from this woman. His insides clenched. How did he stake his claim without giving either of them away? He inched closer to Jamie, putting a hand on his shoulder. Perfectly common masculine behavior, he told himself. Then, he turned a poison smile towards Mrs. MacKimmie. “This evening may be an excellent time, then, for you to find yourself a husband, would it not? You should dance. There are quite a few unattached men here this evening.”
“Right you are,” Mrs. MacKimmie agreed and grabbed Jamie’s hand again, turning a determined look up at him. “Shall we then?” She started tugging Jamie away from Grey.
“Aye, weel...” Jamie hesitated, then his eyes landed on young Marsali. He snatched up her hand with his other one, making the girl stumble and laugh as he pulled her along, leaving Grey alone with Joanie.
Grey was dizzy, furiously so. He could barely feel his own legs and all the while, knowing he was being ridiculous, he still could not manage to shake the growing sense of loss and dread.
“My Lord?” came the little girl’s small, unsure voice. “How do ye ken Mr. Fraser?”
He could not give her the truth or at least not the full truth, so he said, “He was employed for some time by a friend, where we began an acquaintanceship.” Grey looked down at Joanie, a thought forming in his mind. “Do Mr. Fraser and your mother know each other well?”
Joanie nodded. “Oh, aye. Since they were young. Mother told me that Mr. Fraser even took a beating for her once. He is a verra gallant man.”
Grey’s throat felt even tighter now as he pressed his lips together watching Jamie spin Mrs. MacKimmie and her eldest daughter about on the dance floor.
“If you’ll excuse me, Miss MacKimmie,” Grey said with forced politeness, then turned on his heel and left. He could not stomach the music and the laughter and watching Jamie smile and dance with a woman who’d take Jamie from him, if she could. Could she? John thought despondently. Perhaps.
Without realizing where he was headed, Grey found himself in the kitchen and then into the ale. He drank a tankard full, wondering if Jamie would come looking for him. When he didn’t show up, Grey poured another. Waited. No one came. So he drank another and another until he was near sick from it. Until the music stopped and the chatter of the house quieted. He heard footsteps and even in his intoxicated state, his stomach thrilled with the hope that it was Jamie finally having come looking for him. But it wasn’t Jamie. It was Jenny’s husband, Ian.
Ian eased himself into the chair opposite Grey, using his hand to arrange his wooden leg to a more comfortable angle. He filled his own mug and they drank in silence for a short time. “I ken ye’ve not been entirely honest wi’ me, Lord John.”
Grey stiffened, nerves lighting through him. “I’m not sure what you mean,” he said, taking a sip in hopes it would make him seem unaffected by Ian’s accusation.
"Weel, I dinna mean to say that I think ye've lied," Ian clarified. "Only that I ken there's something you're hiding. Something related to Jamie, I suspect." He fixed Grey with a hard stare that his kind eyes seemed unaccustomed to.
Grey sat back in his chair. “If there’s anything you want to know about your brother-in-law, I’d suggest speaking to him about it and, if you’re not willing to do that, letting it go.”
“Ah, ye see, that’s the rub, is it no’?” Ian took a long drink. “I’ve seen the way ye look at my brother when ye dinna think anyone is watching. But more importantly, I’ve seen the way Jamie looks at you, Lord John. It brings to mind the way he looked at his wife, God rest her soul. But there’s something more there too, ken. Something… perhaps worried. Or confused. But no less desperate.” Ian rested his arm on the narrow table between them and leaned forward to lower his voice further. “I ken that ye were the governor at the prison. And I ken that ye secured Jamie’s parole and kept him in England when the other prisoners were transported to the colonies.” He tapped his fingers against the table. “Now I dinna ken exactly how or why ye’ve done it, but I ken that ye’ve managed to tempt Jamie away from his faith. And I ken that ye’re trying to lure him away from his family. My brother isna made to be a heretic, Lord John. Whatever ye’re about willna work.”
John just shook his head, already affected by the ale and claret for lack of food in his belly. “Lure him away from his family? Is he not here with his family for the first time in years? And, as for his faith, I can’t possibly fathom what would make you think that.” He did not know this man, not well enough to give himself or Jamie away to him by confirming Ian’s suspicions.
Ian narrowed his eyes at Grey, sizing him up. “Ye’re going to make me be blunt. Aye, then.” Glancing around, probably to be sure they weren’t overheard, Ian went on in a hushed tone. “Jamie and I grew up together. I’ve walked wi’ him through every impossible path save the time he was with ye. I ken how completely broken he was when he lost his wife. I watched him die with the grief of it, because no man could have kent that pain and lived. I mind what it was like to look into his eyes and see absolutely nothing. And I ken how Jamie was when she was here and he found comfort in her touch and pleasure in her bed.” Ian pointed his index finger over Grey’s shoulder toward the parlor door. “He looked like that. Ye’ve lured or coerced him into a life of sin and perversion, have ye no’? But what I dinna ken is why. Why have ye damned my brother to burn in hell?”
Grey’s mouth opened and he expected words to come out. A rebuttal, a laugh, something to either throw Ian off the scent he’d so obviously picked up or argue him down with logic. But this wasn’t an argument based in logic. It was one based in faith and superstition and fear. Was there arguing with that? He didn’t think so. Grey never thought much of hell and he didn’t think who he was would damn him to it anyway. But Jamie did, didn’t he? He would believe just what Ian was saying here. Was that how Jamie saw him as well? As a devil who’d lured him to perversion and dragged him along with him to hell? Say something, he prompted himself, but couldn't manage it. He just stared back at Ian.
“Just for yer own satisfaction then?” Ian scoffed and shook his head. “Bloody English. Weel, whatever it is ye think ye have wi’ him, ye’re wrong. I told ye he isna made to be a heretic. Let him find his way back to God, aye?” Ian braced himself on his walking stick and heaved himself to his feet, leaving Grey alone.
Grey sat for a while, unsure of how long. A wave of rage crashed over him and he threw his empty tankard at the wall. Then, he stood to his feet and stomped out of the kitchen and upstairs to their room, slamming the door behind him. He let out a long stream of curses, many of which would likely have damned him had he not already been according to Ian-fucking-Murray. But was the bastard, right? Could he be? Grey thought of Jamie and the MacKimmie woman earlier that evening. Unlike Grey, Jamie had a choice. Could find equal love and companionship with women. And if Ian knew, which he clearly did, then Jamie’s choice would likely become his family or Grey… or even his family and God or Grey.
Not breathing, John stumbled toward the chest of drawers Tom had neatly packed with his clothes and pulled the top drawer open. He wildly started yanking his belongings out and shoving them into one of the bags they’d traveled with. John couldn’t breathe. He had to get out of here. What had he done? What had he fucking done? He just had to get his things and fetch Tom and they could leave.
The door opened and Jamie stepped inside, shutting it behind him. “John? I saw ye come up here like ye were on fire.” He stared at Grey, still stuffing things into bags. “Did something happen?” Taking a few more tentative steps, Jamie laid his hand on Grey’s arm. “What’s amiss, mo leannan?”
Grey grabbed another article of clothing from the drawer and shoved it into the bag. “How was your evening with Mrs. MacKimmie?” he said flatly.
“Laoghaire? It was nice to hear news from the MacKenzies. And her daughters are bonnie.” Jamie furrowed his brow. “I am sorry, John. I didna mean to abandon ye like that.” He latched onto Grey’s arm and hauled him away from the chest of drawers. “Would ye stop that and tell me what the devil has gotten into ye?”
Grey tore away from Jamie’s touch, not able to bear it. “The problem is that, well, at least according to Ian Murray, it’s the devil that's gotten into you. Well, not into you,” Grey said, still drunk. “But he wouldn’t know that, would he?” He strode back over the drawer to grab more clothes. How quickly would Tom be able to pack his things, John wondered.
Jamie narrowed his eyes, anger beginning to burn behind them. “Did Ian say something to ye? What would he no’ ken? John, damn it, stop that. Ye’re no’ making sense.” He wasn’t exactly shouting, but he’d raised his voice. This time Jamie got both his hands on Grey and held him in place, fingers digging into his biceps painfully.
“That hurts,” John spat, trying to pull away again. Jamie didn’t let him go but he did loosen his grip. “Your brother-in-law thought it prudent to ask me why I was damning you to hell.”
Jamie’s mouth fell open. “Why would he ask that?”
“He’s figured it out, somehow, then, hasn’t he? That I’m a sodomite and I’ve somehow bewitched you into my life of perversion. Oh… how did he put it? Lured or coerced you into a life of sin and perversion.” Grey breathed harshly through his teeth. “Now, let me go.”
Jamie drew back like Grey had slapped him, loosening his grip enough for Grey to snatch his arms away. “Ye dinna try to leave London when Twelvetrees called ye that. So why now? I ken there’s more to it, so tell me. And where did ye think ye’d go with two feet of snow on the ground, hmm? Ye’d be dead in three days, if no’ sooner.”
Of course Jamie was right, but Grey didn’t want to hear it. “I saw you tonight with Mrs. MacKimmie and her girls and then… I couldn’t watch it anymore so I went to the bloody kitchen and I drank waiting for you to come find me, which you never did and that’s fine. It’s fine because I’m not a child. But then Ian showed up and he said something to me and I remembered that woman and her daughters and I can’t help but think maybe he’s right.”
“Christ, Laoghaire, not this again,” Jamie muttered, scrubbing his hands over his face. “She’s been infatuated wi’ me since she was a lass. Ye dinna need to be jealous of that meddling wee woman. What else did Ian say to ye? I’ll deal wi’ him myself.”
“It’s not about her, goddammit!” John barked. “Tell me, if you think Ian’s right. Do you think what we do together is perversion? Do you think it damns you? Because you have a choice here, Jamie Fraser, that I do not have.”
“And what choice do ye think I have, John?” Jamie bit back. “Do ye think I sought this out? That I chose to never see my son again?” His voice rose as he went on, still not precisely shouting, but beginning to boil over. “To then spend over a month in the fucking Tower of London and then to hide my heart from my own family under the very roof my father built wi’ his own hands? Does that sound like something I chose?”
“No…” John clenched his jaw. “You chose me and you’ve paid for it. Over and over since the moment you did. You could love a woman, Jamie. Perhaps not Laoghaire but another woman, yes?”
“Aye, maybe ye’re right. Maybe I could love a woman. I have before. But I didna choose to fall in love wi’ ye, that wasna up to me. I chose to accept it, aye, that’s true. And I have paid for it, that’s true too, and I’ll keep paying for it. But I keep choosing you, do I no’?”
“You do and how can I claim to love you and let you keep losing things for me?”
“Because those are things you canna control and because it’s worth it!” Jamie did shout then, looked at the door with a furious exhale through his nose, like a bull. He went on more quietly but with no less passion. “It wasna yer fault that I was dismissed. But it was Dunsany’s respect for ye that kept us both out of the noose. And it wasna yer fault I went to the Tower. That was yer brother’s judgement and choices I made long before I broke yer arm at Corrieyairack. And I have kept secrets from my sister before and I’ll do it again. It’s no’ the secrets, do ye see? It’s that I canna show them how wonderful it is that ye love me so. And it’s no’ yer fault that they couldna understand.” Jamie made a gesture with the index finger of his left hand that encompassed the space between them. “This, what it is between us. Is it no’ worth it to ye, John? Is it no’ good enough that ye’d leave me because I might be able to love some hypothetical woman that I dinna even want?”
“Jamie, what we have is worth everything to me. Everything. There is not a price I would be unwilling to pay to have you. Though you must understand why I want to protect you. Ian says that you are not meant to be a heretic and I am inclined to agree with him. At least, what happens when you grow to resent me for everything you’ve lost or may lose to be with me? And I’ll ask you again as it seems you are avoiding an answer. Do you think that I have damned you to hell? And even if you do not believe it, does your faith not say it’s so? If you were to ask a priest, what would he tell you is the price for taking me to your bed?”
“I dinna ken!” Jamie shouted again, then collected himself, still fuming. “I dinna ken if I’m damned or no’, but I do ken that if I am it isna yer doing, tis my own. I told ye I had weeks in the Tower of London to think and to pray. What do ye think I was praying about, hmm? What we do together, John Grey, perversion or no, is it love between us?”
“You know I love you. Christ, Jamie. There is not a devil nor god I would not fight for you, but this is not about me. It’s about you. I will not have you resent me nor throw me aside when you change your mind and decide I am not worth the price of your soul.”
“Jesus Christ, would ye stop trying to leave me and just listen?” Jamie clenched his hands into fists, then relaxed them at his sides. “Everything I believe tells me that love, in all its forms, comes from God. Ye’re a logical man. Does it make any sense for God to give us a love that it’s a sin to accept? Any fucking sense at all?”
“No, it doesn’t make any fucking sense at all, Jamie. Yet that’s what the pope and the priests and your damned brother all seem to—”
“I do not care what Ian Murray thinks and I dinna plan to ask the pope a damn thing about it,” Jamie snapped. “But no, it makes no sense. So no, I dinna believe what we do, how we love each other, is a perversion or a sin. I used to think so, aye, I admit that. And it frightened me. But I canna believe that the love I feel for ye, as enormous as it is, could have come from anywhere other than God Almighty. And if that is so, then it is a far more dire sin to deny the gift.” Jamie closed the distance between them, put his hands on either side of Grey’s face, holding his gaze. “And if I am wrong, and it is sin, I dinna care. I love you, John Grey, every part of you. With every part of me, damned or no’.”
John was certain he’d held his breath that entire time. The words, each one of them, still too good to be true. Too perfect to believe. And John still could not manage to breathe. Instead, he stood there, trembling and dizzy and desperate to believe Jamie.
He grabbed onto the green wool of Jamie’s coat, to keep the man near him or to hold himself up, he wasn’t sure. “I need you to show me,” his voice came out as broken as glass. “Show me that you love me. Show me that you do not believe it to be perversion. Or sin. Show me that if it is, you do not care. That you would be damned for me.” John tugged on Jamie’s coat, still vibrating with anger and with fear. “Prove it, you infuriating bloody fucking Scot.”
Jamie crashed their mouths together, passionately, desperately, kissed the air completely out of him so when he pulled away they were both gasping for breath. He spun Grey around and shoved him, bending him over the bed still piled high with his attempted escape. His rough hands gripped Grey’s breeches and tore them down to his knees, fly buttons scattering. Digging his strong fingers into the meat of Grey’s ass, Jamie leaned over his back and jabbed his cockstand against him. “This arse is worth it, do ye hear me? Because it’s you.” Jamie spat, then the blunt head of his prick pressed against Grey’s hole, pushed in slowly. He could feel Jamie’s thighs trembling behind him, felt his fight to keep himself composed. “It is worth it to me. I will gladly trade an eternity in hell to love yer body with mine just one time.” Jamie’s hands were on Grey’s hips, fingers digging bruises into his flesh, and he held him there, the two of them joined tight together.
Grey bit into his own strewn clothes, mad with want and the feeling of being opened and stretched and taken so thoroughly. He pushed back against Jamie’s thighs, seeking to bring him even deeper. He’d never wanted the way he wanted Jamie Fraser and he knew he never would again. They could go to hell. Let the devil watch them do this.
Jamie began to move, sliding almost all the way out of Grey and pushing back in, slow and careful only at first. "Christ, John, it's heaven inside ye." He thrust hard and fast into him, brutish and possessive and demanding. "Can ye feel it, mo leannan?" Jamie gasped. "Can ye feel that I mean it when I say I love ye body and soul?"
“Yes! God, yes!” John shouted, aching and wanting and falling to pieces on Jamie’s cock. “But harder. I need you. Don’t stop. Don’t stop showing me, Jamie. Don’t ever let me forget. You’re mine. Mine, Jamie Fraser. Whatever it costs us, do you hear me?”
Jamie pounded into him, relentless. “Anything, oh, John. Never,” he growled. “Never stop.” He bent forward, wrapped an arm around John’s middle, and hauled him up, Jamie’s strong arm holding him clutched against his chest. Jamie’s lips were on his ear, kissing and sucking on his earlobe, panting hot breath over his skin. “And ye are mine, John Grey. Dinna ever forget ye belong to me, understand?” He tore Grey’s neckcloth free and sank his teeth into the side of his neck, biting and sucking a deliciously painful mark into his flesh.
“Yours,” Grey said. “Take me. All of—“
A cold rush of water splashed over them like sharp, shocking blades.
Grey yelped and spat out a curse, still spread open on Jamie’s prick as he looked up to see Jenny Murray standing there, glaring with an empty bucket in her arms.
“Jesus, Mary, and Bride, Janet Murray, have ye lost yer mind?” Jamie gasped, sputtering and shivering.
Jenny’s eyes went round. “Have I lost my mind? Do ye hear yerself? Do ye see yerself? And in our father’s house! He and Mam are both rolling in their graves right now. Saints preserve us, I never thought I’d see the day. Aren’t ye ashamed of yerself?”
Jamie’s voice was steady and confident when he said, “No. Not at all.”
His sister glared daggers at him. “Ye listen to me right now, James Alexander Malcom MacKenzie Fraser. Take yer cock out of that Englishman’s arse. Clean up this mess. Then take yer stubborn heed up to that boneyard and tell Da what ye’ve been doing.” Jenny shook her head. “May God have mercy on ye both.” Then she turned, still carrying the empty bucket, and left, closing the door behind her.
Jamie laid a hand on Grey’s back, tender and kind. “Are ye alright, John?” he whispered.
Grey wasn’t sure if he was alright or not so he directed his attention toward Jamie. “Are you? She’s your sister. Her judgement would surely sting you more than it would me.”
"Aye," Jamie said with a sigh. "She's been furious wi' me before and it'll no' be the last time." He pulled himself out of John and tugged his ruined breeches back up for him. "She's afraid, that's all."
“Perhaps we should introduce her to Hal.” John let out an awkward laugh. “I can’t believe your sister saw me getting buggered. Christ.” He sighed. “Will you do as she said? Go tell your father the sins you’ve been committing with me?”
Jamie shrugged. "Nay. There are no sins to confess." He wrapped an arm around Grey and kissed him. "But I'll introduce ye, if ye'd like."
“I would like that very much,” Grey said and kissed him back.