Years later, when Claire looks back on the events leading up to the Rising, she will not think of the cold, or the hunger, or the metallic tang of blood and metal ever-present against the back of her tongue. She will not think about every tragedy she tries to prevent, or the taste of desperation swelling and sticking like silt in her throat, leaving its bloody, godforsaken fingers smeared there for years to come.
She will think of an embrace, delicate as a bird’s egg in its weighty carefulness, that took place just on her other side.
And she will think of how the knowledge of it grounded her to the very earth itself, to its uneven surface and that lone clod of dirt digging into the underside of her scapula.
“Viens maintenant, réveille-le. Fergus. Ce n’est qu’un cauchemar -- ye must open yer eyes, a balaich.”
Claire finds at times that the moments between wakefulness and sleep are felt the most keenly. She is hyper-aware, for example, of the errant clump of dirt left unnoticed underneath her bedroll, that presses into her left shoulder blade. She feels the coolness, the freshness of the air around them bite into her lungs with the growing lucidity of each breath. Sounds are magnified -- the soft, ever-present shhhh of wind over moor, following and surrounding them even in silence; the occasional snap of the near-dead embers of their fire; the shuffle of boot-buckle against fabric, and cloth-against-cloth, close enough that she knows it someplace deep in her heart, but also far away, as if she is outside of her own body, watching things happen. The plaid covering her shoulders is warm, and it pulls her away from the world around her and into herself.
She is still more asleep than alert. There is another rustle, and a murmur, and then the soft baritone of her husband’s voice again -- clogged with sleep, but careful. Deliberate, in the periphery of Claire’s hearing.
“Fergus. Come on now, lad. Réveil.”
She breathes in, and then out. In the cradle of her sharpened, distorted senses, Claire can hear the minute shift of a child’s breath go from sleep to wakefulness. It’s a fragile gasp, watery and small.
Silence, for a moment, such that the distant, echoing wind swells.
“I -- I w-was having a dream?”
“Aye.” Claire cannot see their faces, but she can feel them, close to her, as though in the half-dream state of her they are extensions of herself.
“Oh.” Another breath. “I am --”
“Hush. It wasnae yer fault.” Not a reprimand -- it is too gentle for that, and rasping with its own tangle of unpackaged emotions. She hears the brush of fabric again, and there is an extended pause, like a request for permission. Then, she feels Jamie move, warm against her back, and the faint, quieted sound of soothed tears, muffled through the thick wool of their coats and blankets.
“Shhh shh. N'aie pas peur. Je t’ai. Je t’ai, mon ami.”
In her sombnamlity, she can sense the movement of one of the horses ten steps away, but it takes her a moment to register the wet streak of a tear sliding down her own cheek, escaped from behind her closed lids.
She breathes in again, her lungs filling with clear Scottish air that seems to heal with each molecule absorbed. They will arrive at Lallybroch within the day, she thinks, settling.
She slips back into sleep, fully this time.
Something Claire comes to appreciate about Jenny Fraser Murray very early on in their acquaintance is her ability to acknowledge and address a problem without ever actually doing so. To be sure, this is a skill Jenny employs only when deeming it absolutely necessary, and so more often than not -- and, unerringly, most often with Jamie -- even the most minor of grievances become issues to belligerently sidestep, petty spats and nettling disputes taking the place of actual resolution until eventually and somewhat mystically (and with a lot of intermittent yelling) the original complication is neatly, perfectly dealt with.
Claire has never had siblings, and so does not have anything to compare this against. But this is not the approach Jenny takes when they stumble back through Lallybroch’s gates, scattered pieces only half-knit back together and with a child that does not replace the one lost but is no less precious for it.
The force of the smaller woman’s embrace is crushing. Claire can count the number of times she has been held so fiercely in her lifetime on one hand. Oddly, she does not feel herself balk; she prefers this to talking, she realizes. Or perhaps -- this is a form of it, that is easier than other forms.
Jenny’s dark brows are creased in the middle, and her bright, tack-sharp Fraser eyes are brighter still than usual. Despite the obvious swell of the other woman’s belly, Claire’s breath leaves her in a subconscious bid of relief, and nothing else -- and when her sister-in-law releases her, Claire finds herself offering a small nod of reassurance.
This seems to be the unspoken cue Jenny was looking for; swiftly, with the directed movements of someone who carries the knowing of something deep within her, she turns to where Jamie is standing, shoulders tight against themselves, looking for perhaps the first time almost awkwardly too-tall for the vulnerability his face betrays.
His mending hand hovers, reliably, somewhere behind Claire’s back.
“Jenny,” Jamie starts, and seems to falter. It’s not something he does often. Unbidden, it cements the suspended fragility of the moment.
“I know, a balaich,” says Jenny, very quietly, and pulls Jamie to her.
He has to bend nearly double over at the ribs to fit in her short arms. Claire’s eyes follow his face as it is tucked into the crook of his older sister’s neck, and she can almost feel the creak of bone from where she stands, watching the embrace, tight and gripping and wordless in its offering of care.
Beside her, Fergus’s doe-wide eyes are taking in the new surroundings. Claire’s arm slips around his skinny shoulders and draws him closer to her of its own accord.
“We’ve readied the room for ye both,” Ian says. His voice is as gentle as its owner and his sweet, honest face. He’s already taken one of their bags in hand, and he offers her a steadying look, filled with a deliberate sort of kindness. This family is full of that, Claire thinks, abruptly. The tangibility of the thought disarms her. “Wee Rabbie can help wi’ the bags. It is a blessin’ tae see ye, Claire.”
“And you, as well,” she says, not quite stumbling.
“Aye. Let me take ye upstairs then, lass.”
Then he offers her a small smile that Claire wants impulsively to label restorative. And isn’t it summer? The roses they planted last year will be blooming along the back wall, she thinks.
“Thank you, Ian.” Her words are quiet. She looks down, giving Fergus a small, secretive smile of her own, and the day moves forward.
You’re home again, had said Jenny’s arms, sure and bruising around them.
Lallybroch has been that since the beginning, Claire thinks. Perhaps not the building itself, but the concept of it -- the idea.
It’s a warm day for all that it is summer, and damp, the sort of damp sunshine so attributable to temperate Junes. Around her, the birds twitter. Her skirt is thin, soft linen, and her forearms are bare, and her hair curls in wispy tendrils around her neck, messy in its updo. The green-yellow bustle of her garden, never truly started and now picked up halfway, is familiar and unfamiliar at once. Beyond the wall Claire can hear the chuffing of animals and the faint yell and laughter of children.
Falling back into routine was not something Claire imagined she’d ever want to do. She hasn’t quite, perhaps -- she’s not simply forgotten, or been diverted. But there’s a steadiness to everything that she can’t deny. It grounds her, like the strength of Jenny’s grip around her bendable, softened clavicles, her brittle humeri. Like the memory of Jamie’s arms around Fergus just on her other side, muffled by the middle of the night.
She thinks it would be awful if Jenny was being careful around her. Claire likes the immediate return to work, to sensible, straightforward, hard-earned labour under her own quite capable hands. And the garden -- it is June, so perhaps everything is coloured a bit differently. But she feels her feet rest against the ground like they’re at the ledge of something, like if she was allowed -- maybe she’d simply let the grass grow up, into her heart.
The footsteps behind her are heavy but not her husband’s. Claire doesn’t bother wiping her cheeks; the soft breeze is gentle and cool against them, and anyhow -- it’s alright.
Murtagh doesn’t say anything when he sits down.
Claire wonders if he’d care about the name of the ivy that’s been growing along the trellis. She decides to tell him.
“Do you see those right there?” Her voice wavers, but perseveres as she points. “They’re called hydera helix. I think they’ll flower soon, in the fall.” A pause. “After Jenny’s had her baby.”
“They dinnae look like much now,” Murtagh says, in his customarily grumbly tones. Claire feels her throat seize; he has only been back for a few days, after all.
She has missed him.
“They will,” she croaks. “They’ll be quite pretty, actually. Murtagh --”
“I ken, a leannan.” Much quieter than before.
“Do you? I didn’t know you knew much about plants and things. We could’ve had so much to talk about, all this time, and I really never thought that --”
“Jamie told me what happened.” Gently, over her raspy rambling. “‘Tis why I thought ye might be out here, now.”
“I know.” Again, her throat works. “It only -- it only sort of snuck up on me again this morning.”
A deep inhale; she turns finally to look at him. It is the middle of the day, and the sun is in full bloom, and the house is infused with life. She can feel the leaking of her eyes, the spill of each tear over the creased lines of her own skin. Her tears do not carry the encompassing pain they once did. Their depth is another matter -- but for all that she knows Murtagh will likely never be able to truly understand, the weathered, ruddy lines of his face feel safe, just now. Safe enough that she doesn’t need words.
“Lass,” he says, almost as one would say an apology. But he is not apologizing, Claire knows. She nods, to show him just that. Then her face crumples in upon itself, and, as if as an extension of her own weeping, she is drawn into his arms.
She remembers she was seventeen, the last time her uncle held her.
It’s another five minutes before the tears have been spent, noisier than usual but not nearly as unbearable. They are as routine as everything else has become, in a way, and already, she feels steadier. Against her cheek Murtagh’s front smells of woodsmoke and greased leather and unwashed man, and Claire tells him so.
“Tcha,” says Murtagh, sounding unnervingly like Mrs. Fitz.
“Have you bathed since you arrived? There’s a bathtub upstairs, you know.” She sounds resoundingly raw and somewhat pathetic, but Murtagh takes her words as seriously as he is meant to.
“Wee imp. What kind’ve heathen d’ye take me for?”
“Did I say that?” Still bullfrog-like, but she refuses to be anything but stout about it. Her bottom lip remains stubbornly trembling. She will have to find Jamie, she thinks, when she goes back inside. Sometimes, in the last few weeks, he’ll leave her with a soft press of his lips to her forehead, and disappear over the crest of the hill behind Broch Morda for an hour or so without a word. He’s a solitary creature at intervals, she knows, but that is not the same as being alone in something.
“Ye’ve jest a right picky sense of smell,” Murtagh is saying, with tremendous long-suffering in his tone. As though sensing the renewed hitch in her breathing, one of his work-worn hands moves up and down against her back. “‘Tis that proper ninny-nosed English upbringin’ --”
“Oh, you know as well as I do I grew up in dirt caves --”
“Nighean do-chreidsinneach,” he mutters, and she has picked up enough of the language to hiccup herself into some semblance of calm.
“Half of that is an endearment, I think.”
The birds twitter. He has smelled better, but his arms are a solid comfort around her, the surest they have ever been. Then, from inside the house, there is the sound of raised voices.
“-- so perhaps we’ll fancy ourselves masters tae four mules now, as we’ve a crop an’ a half tae work on this entire summer --”
“I dinnae said four, I said one wee beast t’help Ian an’ myself as the damned hand plow snapped in half --”
“And whose fault is that, James Fraser --”
“The hand plow’s!”
“Ye’ll no’ be walkin’ away from me now, this is a continuing discussion -- we have no need fer that animal --”
“We do an’ it’ll be helpin’ Mrs. Croft an’ her husband --”
“I dinnae care one whit fer Mrs. Croft’s husband!”
“As Laird, I say we need the blasted donkey, thank ye and good day, Janet --”
“Laird or no’ I’m still yer elder sister and I will tan yer hide -- Jamie! Oh, he walks away now! Lordly as an earl, then, and may we be baskin’ in donkeys for th’next ten years --!”
Claire is sure the only reason the yelling now fades is that it has simply been relocated to a more distant room in the house. In spite of herself, she feels her lips twitch into a smile against Murtagh’s shirt front.
“Over twenty years I’ve been puttin’ up with this nonsense,” he mutters, into the blessed moment of quietude. Faintly, they hear a door slam.
Murtagh pulls away, and looks down. “Ye’re alright, lass?” he says, quietly.
A swallow. The taste of tears is still fresh in her throat. “I’ll bide.”
“Ye’ll bide. Psht. Ye’ve been spendin’ too much time around the lad.” But his face has softened.
“We should go,” Claire says, wiping at her cheeks with the blunt of her wrist, “and make sure no mules are injured in the resolution of this great and historic debate.”
“Och, aye. Mules,” Murtagh says, even as he presses a worn handkerchief into her free hand. But he does make to get up. Claire’s still smiling as he stands, but feels her lips slacken when Murtagh stops, crouching back down to catch her eye. He hesitates. Then: “Claire -- ye ken that -- that sweet bairn is with the angels, now. An’ her grandparents, they’ll be watchin’ over her.”
If it were from anyone else, she might have bristled. A bird warbles again, somewhere above them in the crofts. From inside the house the argument swells in volume once more; Claire hears Jenny’s voice shout something about the intellectual capacity of a wooden spoon.
Murtagh’s careworn, reliable face is level with hers, idiosyncratically sweet under his severely dramatic eyebrows, and he waits for her, patiently as any parent might.
“I know,” she says, still in her bullfrog’s voice, and means it. They go inside.
Once, in another life, Claire had thought that she would perhaps in time forget the particular beat and rhythm of marching with an army. As with any disquieting memory, it would linger -- drag its fingers along the edges of her subconscious, and spark with life at odd intervals. But it would fade into a muted bad dream, and she would remember only a selection of mundane details that she had carefully curated for herself, to share with children and grandchildren and perhaps use as lessons or glorified fables at her own discretion. The second Great War, after all, was not something simply forgotten. But it could have been set aside, eventually.
She did not expect that she’d be living it again, in a parallel universe that was everything and nothing like her memories.
They’ve stopped for the night, halfway on their way to finally meet the Stuart encampment. She’s nowhere near unused to sleeping steps away from large numbers of strange men, but it becomes an irritating reality when there’s a restless thrum under her skin that craves just one purely solitary moment like its opposite is an itchy cloth she has to shed. Blessedly, they have a tent -- leadership bestows its own paltry favours in wartime. And, certainly, circumstances are marginally better than when they were first wed and sleeping in the grass two meters away from Rupert’s snoring, Jamie doing a very bad job of coming up with increasingly transparent lies to cover their continued hunt for privacy.
Still, Claire has to smother at intervals the somewhat overwhelming urge to scream. Not at anything in particular, but simply to let the noise out into the aether.
Jamie’s somewhere outside now, talking strategy with Murtagh. She had stood with them until all of thirty minutes ago, when the lingering ache in her lower back and pelvis became too much, and she needed to go lie down. It was far worse yesterday, on the road -- her bleeding had been obnoxiously heavy, and in the morning just before they broke camp, she had awoken to the sight of Jamie’s concerned face hovering above hers and immediately decided that she’d most certainly been run over by a tank at some point over the course of the night.
“A tank,” Jamie had repeated, the word held carefully in his mouth.
“The world’s biggest fucking carriage,” Claire had groaned. Then, “Today of all fucking days.”
“A horse willnae be verra forgiving,” he had agreed, his wide, sweet mouth pulled back into a sympathetic grimace. Still, he’d hesitated before his next suggestion; she had nothing if not the unerring knowledge that Jamie knew her better than she knew herself. “D’ye wish to ride with the cart, Sassenach? There willnae be a man breathin’ who’ll think less of ye for it --”
“No.” A scowl, at his raised eyebrows. “What I wish is for a bloody paracetamol.” But she’d softened after a moment, despite herself, perhaps this time at his careful attempt to smother the flicker of confusion behind his eyes at yet another unfamiliar word so early in the morning. Pity was not something she carried in droves whilst on her monthly, but it seemed appropriate to bestow, here. “I’ll be fine, Jamie. I will. Just --”
“Aye,” he’d said, and pressed a brief kiss to her brow before easing her upward to her feet. “I have ye. Where’s yer wee box, with the rags?”
Now, she tries to settle back against their bedroll, wondering if there’s a position in all of God’s creation available that won’t make her want to claw her own insides out. Her breasts ache, and her arms are sore, and the discomfort of the sticky damp between her thighs is making her skin itch. The muscles of her chest, finally freed of her stays but cramped with the steadily growing gnaw of anxiety, tighten further. For the thirteenth month in a row, she is suffering through her courses, and not for the first time she feels the ugly twist of guilt at the pit of her throat for the prick of disappointment felt behind her eyes yesterday morning, in all her tank-run-over glory.
It’ll get better once ye’ve had yer first bairn, Jenny had said once, cheerful and well-meaning. Irrationally, Claire is overcome with the impulse to throw a boot at her absent sister-in-law’s sensible head, as if that will solve her long laundry list of grievances.
It has not gotten better, thank you very much.
She’s marching with an army, and the swelling, cloying realization that they will likely all die within the year is finally absorbing itself fully into her bone marrow.
Claire starts, one elbow slamming painfully into the dirt. The wool blanket, so comforting a presence just a moment before, is irritatingly too hot all of a sudden under her perennially cold fingertips.
“Fergus,” she breathes, sagging back against the uncomfortable ground. “Christ, you scared me. I -- what are you doing here? You’re not asleep?”
Fergus hovers under the sagging tent flap, silhouetted by the orange glow of one of the fires outside.
“Non. Murtagh is still up and if I sleep now then he will come back like a great beast with lots of noise, and I will wake up again.”
Claire presses her lips together and raises her eyebrows in a valiant attempt to hold back a smile. Fergus sighs, resigned, slight shoulders slumping and head falling comically backward.
“Milord said you were not feeling votre meillieur. So perhaps I should come and see if you were alright.”
“I’m alright, Fergus.” Claire pushes herself upward on one elbow, careful to keep the blanket high enough that any errant passerby won’t accidentally see her in her shift. Fergus is a different matter entirely, and he watches her now with his too-big, thick-lashed eyes, expectant. “But I’d like it if you kept me company. If you’d not rather be asleep, that is.”
Immediately, he stands straighter, a huge grin splitting his face across.
“I ‘ave no need for sleep,” Fergus tells her seriously, his little chest puffing out with great determination. “I can stay awake with you the whole night, Milady!”
“I certainly hope we shall not be doing that,” Claire says, but shuffles into an awkward sitting position to make room for him beside her as he scrambles enthusiastically into the tent, flap falling closed behind him. “Oh -- boots off, off, not on the blankets -- did you eat enough at supper?”
“Yes, Milady --”
“Are you sure? I won’t have you making a fuss over rations, but I know they’re not the nicest stuff --”
“I had lots of food, Milady,” he says proudly, as though eating a full meal is a skill to boast about. Shoes obediently toed off, he flops down beside her on the bedding, the curly ends of his hair bouncing sweetly. He crosses his legs in front of him, and then looks at her again with that same expectant expression.
“Right,” says Claire, and then flounders a little. The ache in her hips is back, with a bloody vengeance this time. “I -- well. I’m sorry, Fergus, but I must say, I shan’t be very good company right now.”
“That is alright,” Fergus says, with the sort of beguiling honesty that Claire did not think was universally possessed by children until meeting him. “You do not have to be.” He pauses, then cocks his head at her, smiling sweetly.
Abruptly, something about the small movement reminds her of Jamie, and for the second time since Fergus’s arrival she finds herself smothering a large, relieving grin.
“I am glad you’re here,” Claire says, surprised by the undercurrent in her own voice.
Fergus draws his knees up to his chest -- perhaps to hide his widening, bashful smile. “I am glad as well, Milady.”
His rosy cheeks are round and soft above the corners of his mouth. Moonbright doe-eyes shine in the tent’s bad lighting, but, there, at the corners, there’s a heaviness to the movements of his eyelids. It’s late, Claire knows -- it’s late. They’ve been marching all day. He’s barely eleven, after all.
I have no need for sleep, he’d said, and her heart twists suddenly and very sharply. Has he been sleeping, her brave boy?
She swallows back against the sudden tightness of her throat and scoots over, opening her arms and motioning with her chin.
“Come on then -- come here. We’ll simply sit together awhile.”
“Alright!” He moves easily to fit against her side, his soft curly head coming to rest against her shoulder. The cheerful ease with which he seeks her embrace is not something she takes lightly. Slowly, they settle back against the padded ground. “This morning, when we were marching, Kincaid was teaching me the Scottish songs.”
“Oh? Marching songs?”
“Non. All sorts. They are very funny, some of them. But they get things wrong about women’s lady parts.”
Claire successfully hides her snort in the crown of Fergus’s beatific head. “Do they now.”
“Oui! Milady, I think all the men, they should grow up for a little bit in a brothel. Just so they know.”
There’s no helping it this time; her laugh bursts out, loudly, with more attributes of a guffaw than anything else.
“Perhaps that’s not quite the right solution, Fergus,” she manages, then grins down at him when he looks up, eyes wide, “but I do appreciate the sentiment.”
Pleased, he burrows his head back in against her. Already she can feel him relaxing, the angles of his small eleven-year-old limbs softening into slow-growing sleepiness. Her hips still hurt, but not much can be done about that. The delicate weight of Fergus against her is a balm and an anchor at once, and when Claire’s heart twists this time, it is not quite with the same ache.
“Tell me more about these songs,” Claire murmurs. “Perhaps I’ll know a few.”
“Oh, quite. I travelled a lot with some of these men, you know, before Jamie and I got married.” Not wholly willingly, she doesn’t add, but twists that away into the corner of her smile.
“Well,” he says. His voice is softer, and more mumbly. “There was one about a farmer who lost his pig.”
“How terribly inconvenient.”
“He was tres éperdu -- distressed, Milady. In the song, he wails a lot.”
“Was it a prized pig?”
“Non. Just a nuisance. With a funny little tail.”
“I see.” Again, her smile is tucked away into the crown of her child’s head. “And where did this pig go?”
“I think a giant might have ate it,” a long sigh, and a jaw-cracking yawn, “and then the farmer’s daughter --”
“Oh, dear,” says Claire.
“-- she said she would --” Another yawn -- “take the giant as, as, comme son mari. If he spit the pig out.”
“Was he at least a handsome giant?”
“Mmm. Non.” Fergus sighs with his whole self. “I do not know. I would not -- would not want to be his wife.”
“That does sound a rather unfortunate circumstance,” Claire agrees, breathing deeply in and out. Against her ribs, she can feel Fergus’s own breathing slow, and when a moment later the tent flap opens, she twitches her eyebrows sharply at her husband’s bulky silhouette.
Jamie freezes with one foot inside the tent.
“What,” he mouths.
“Quietly,” Claire hisses.
Fergus only snuffles; he’s been completely knocked out, it seems. She watches Jamie move into their little abode, graceful despite his disproportionate size, and start fumbling through all the hasty on-the-road bedtime rituals with a lighter touch than usual. Her own eyelids have become increasingly heavy, but she catalogues the details of his movements with an almost dogged perseverance -- she knows perhaps, somewhere deep in her bones, that soon all they will want to do is collapse fully clothed over hard ground and sleep the blood and dirt and fear of the day away, mindless and numbed.
There is the soft clink and shkk of his belt buckle coming loose and being dropped before his knees hit the barely covered earth. He appears, solid as concrete, beside her.
“He did as I asked, then?”
“Kept me very good company,” Claire says, so softly she might have not spoken at all. In the darkness, she has to imagine the blueness of his eyes, and the cinnamon of his hair. She does so, and allows him to lie beside her, drawing her against him as he goes. It’s careful enough that Fergus only makes a vague murmur in his sleep, and then -- they are settled.
Not haltingly, but with the care of forethought, Jamie whispers, “And you, mo nighean donn?”
“Hmm. Miserable. Better now.”
She feels more than hears his small chuckle; it’s hidden somewhere in the nest of her hair. “Aye. Yer a braw wee thing.”
“Am I?” Her eyes are sliding shut. The blanket over them is still too-hot, but she’s falling asleep anyway.
“Always,” he whispers, one large, warm arm sliding carefully over to cover her achy abdomen. Like her own personal heating pad, Claire thinks, vague, at the periphery of her senses. “Could raze armies wi’ yer courage alone.”
“You do say such ridiculous things,” she breathes, just before sleep takes her. They’ll be fully joining a rebel uprising tomorrow. She can’t see him, but she can sense the shape of his smile against her throat, and, just then, it is enough.
There are times -- most often as she wields scalpel and needle as extensions of the digits in her own hands -- where she feels at once judge, jury, and executioner. It is a feeling that frightens her. Who is she, to determine with the flick of her wrist whether a man lives or dies? Who is she, to try to tempt fate as she has been doing, to cut into the fabric of time with the bloodied surgeon’s knife she has taken up as her weapon and defence at once?
She is a nurse. She has been a nurse since twenty-two. She is a soldier; she is a soldier’s wife. She is a mother, and she wishes desperately to protect the world she holds so dear, and all the lives that pass through it, in the ancient cradle of her bosom.
She is a healer, and perhaps that involves all at once.
Other times, she feels as much a puppet of the ebb and flow of history as anyone else. This is a feeling that frightens her even more.
War is a good distraction. This, Claire accepts. The usefulness and power carried in her fingertips, the stuff that holds their cause together at the seams as autumn fades to bitter winter, is, for all its momentary flashes of discomfort, a good distraction. But in odd moments, the distraction falters, and the resounding echo of a pushed-aside memory is so all-consuming that Claire can only do so much to remain standing on her own two feet.
Then, there are days where it’s only a gentle murmur of a reminder, slipping in and out without leaving much real wreckage in its wake.
“Mmm -- mmm -- you don’t have to -- to take it all off, you know --”
“Do I no’?”
“If you don’t hurry up, I will moan, and then the whole bloody camp will -- oh!”
Jamie’s face is located somewhere close enough to her ear that she hears his smothered, smug laugh, and the following, “Ye were sayin’, mo ghraidh?”
Claire sighs in response, distinctly breathily.
“Hush, Sassenach, or ye’ll wake the whole encampment.”
“You’ll wake the whole encampme -- oh --”
It’s been days -- not a few, but many. Claire’s lost count. At some point along the way, her edges have started to feel frayed, like the pages of the dog-eared copy of Gulliver’s Travels Jamie had spirited away from the Laird’s study at Lallybroch, kept safely in his sporran or tucked under Claire’s medicine box during travel. There’s a book of Catallus poetry, too, which Claire prefers, but that one is far more carefully maintained; Claire is not feeling carefully maintained.
Their little tent is not much for keeping noise smothered, but Claire has long since stopped caring.
She gasps again: at the warm weight of Jamie’s person on top of her, at drag of his nose against her jaw, at the tug of his blunt fingers, tangled in the laces of her stays. Bolstered -- by the exhaustion pinning her limbs to the ground, the new rarity of their laughter joining them in their activities, and an instinct nestled deep, deep within her womb -- Claire lets her hands wander and her other limbs melt into her husband’s keenly-wanted embrace.
She’s caught between a second breathier gasp and a burst of irreverent laughter when she feels the minute hitch in his breathing. One of her hands is pressed against the tautness of his abdomen. Even through the fabric of his shirt her fingers pick up on the slight, tense twitch of muscle.
“Jamie.” The tenseness becomes more deliberate -- he’s gone and come back to her, barely a moment. Claire’s heart has broken too many times at this point for the feeling to overwhelm her. Instead, she says a second time, with more assurance: “Jamie. Love.”
Against her collarbone, he lets out a breathy sort of sound that Claire feels might be a self-deprecating laugh -- he slips those, sometimes, into and out of their daily life, and imagines she doesn’t notice. Claire moves her hands away, one from his stomach and the other from its place splayed against his raised vertebrae, and lets them fall, knuckle-against-plaid, to the ground they are laying upon. Her palms face up. Her fingers are loosened, and still.
She waits for him to lift his head, and when he does, his eyes are squinched shut, but only momentarily.
One at a time he opens them. They carry smudges underneath, but that is from -- everything else, Claire thinks.
“Jamie,” she says again, far more quietly than any of her earlier, indulgent noises -- the ones she knows he revels in so much. She angles her head so that he might better see the truth in her eyes. “Look at me, love. I won’t touch you again until you ask.”
There’s the mumble of something indecipherable and Gaelic against her covered breast as he lets his head drop again, but she feels him breathe deeply, in and out. Then he says,
“I know, Sassenach.”
“Alright.” Whispered, still.
Slowly his breathing evens. Outside the tent, Claire can hear the muffled laughter of some of the men, and the clink of sheathed weaponry and campfire pots. It’s been damp for days, winter-damp now, such that the air is cold but traps itself into her hairline and leaves any hair not tied back stringy, and brittle. Jamie’s curls in turn are thicker and more tangled, and the rare time they can find a moment and some hot water to wash, he spends the whole run of it swearing under his breath as he tries to work the harsh lye soap over his scalp. After a long moment, Claire feels the warm, gentle press of his mouth over the cloth of her half-undone laces. They exhale together.
“Claire,” he says.
As natural as the beating of her own heart, her hands slip back around his neck. She gets a glimpse of the grey-ridged thistle ring he’d given her the day he wed her before her right hand moves into his mussed curls, thumb curling over the shell of his ear. Leaning forward on shirt-covered elbows, Jamie kisses her -- unhurried, and straightforward, as though to ground himself.
His forehead is sticky against hers. She can feel the weakness still held in the deep, unseen sinew of his limbs, very barely trembling with the aftershocks of fear.
“Hmm,” she says, against his mouth, over their harmonizing heartbeats. The pad of her thumb traces a ridge of skull directly behind his earlobe, just over the throb of a pulse. “Problem.”
“I think my hand is stuck in your hair. Your ring got caught.”
His face is so close to hers she can feel the flutter of his fair lashes as he laughs. “Now ye ken how I feel.”
“I thought you liked my hair.” Completely rhetorical; she knows he does. “We are quite a pair, aren’t we?”
Another kiss, to the corner of his chin. “Tell me.”
He looks at her a long moment, then says, without shame, “Can ye hold me, Claire?”
She feels her frayed edges soften and knit themselves together, just a bit.
“Always,” says Claire. She brings her arms down -- the ring only tugs a little -- to circle around his shoulders. His scruffy cheek presses against her bared breastbone.
“Only a moment,” he clarifies.
“Mmmhmm. We don’t have to get up and move until tomorrow. Unless someone dies or is kidnapped or assassinated in the night --”
“Dinnae curse us now, Sassenach.”
“Charles may call on us with another womanly grievance --”
“ -- but I’ll beat him out of this tent myself, Bonnie Prince or not -- or we’re attacked by the British, which is a very real possibility given the circumstances --”
“Claire,” he groans.
“Otherwise,” says Claire, “we are quite at our leisure, my lad.”
Jamie sighs; she feels the fingers of his stiff hand clench over the too-many layers of skirt covering her hip.
“At our leisure in the middle of a war,” he says. “Christ.”
Claire swallows. “I know,” she whispers. Then, “What?” because he’s grinning.
“Fergus may run in.”
“I’ll box his ears.”
“You’ll box his ears.”
“Ye’re so good to me, Claire.” He lifts his head such that his chin presses just slightly uncomfortably against the very top of her left breast. “I will see tae ye, afore the night’s over.”
“Hush,” says Claire, in response to both statements, moving her fingers steadily over his deltoid.
Jamie’s eyes are darker blue than usual in the dimmed orange light of the tent. They sparkle, despite it all. “Ye dinnae think I’ve seen yer face this last week? Ye may die if I don’t.”
“Oof,” she says, and gives his shoulder an aimless swat. Another kiss is pressed to the underside of her jaw.
Then, like the keen prick of a knife to the underside of her heart, she feels suddenly that she would very much like to hold her babe in her arms.
Jamie notices almost immediately.
It’s whispered, over her heart; there’s a level of understanding held implicit in the endearment.
Claire swallows. A tear escapes and slips featherlight down her cheek before she can even account for it, to stain her tangled bush of hair and the worn plaid it rests upon. “I was just thinking of her,” she says, in a quiet voice.
If her hand were closer to his mouth, she thinks that he might have kissed it gently. Below her she feels the barest hitch in his breathing and the dynamic bend of muscle under hand as he makes to move forward, but her palm flattens against the same shoulder she swatted. He pauses. Claire says,
“I -- I would like to keep holding you. If that’s alright.”
“Aye,” says Jamie quietly, after a long moment, looking down at her. “It’s alright, Claire.”
They lie back. Jamie’s head is a comfortable weight against her chest. Claire thinks again about the cradle of her arms, and the sweetness of her husband’s mouth, and every half-baked, scattered scrap of history she remembers, every forgotten location and once-mentioned marshland. They’ll be marching again in two days, and already Claire can feel deep in her combat nurse’s soul the oncoming shortage of food. They’ve not yet suffered real defeat, but she doesn’t think there will be another Prestonpans. She doesn’t think there’s supposed to be.
They are too young to be doing this, is her next sudden, reckless thought. Too young to be fighting this war.
She will be too young, years from now, to fight a different war, and her husband is too young to be fighting everything that has already happened to them, in the past.
She reminds herself that she must find a moment to wash her hair, and shifts to better accommodate the press of Jamie’s temple against her hard-boned sternum, exhaling with the movement.
In the flicker of firelight, Claire is trying to read. The operative word is trying; there is not actually enough light for it. But she is stubbornly flipping through pages, and tracing her fingertips over their smooth-rough surfaces.
At any rate, their Catallus is in its original Latin, which she is familiar enough with to still appreciate but not so much that she can truly digest the contents before her. Why Jamie brought the thing along with them, she still doesn’t know; he has half of it memorized anyway. Undoubtedly learned to charm the stockings off the pretty French girls at Université, she’d once teased him, to which he’d responded with severely raised eyebrows and beautifully pinkened ears.
She would have been charmed, Claire had said, stubborn but laughing.
She chews on a thumbnail now and watches Jamie poke at the fire out of the corner of her eye. Early in their marriage -- when they’d first arrived at Lallybroch -- she’d walked into the Laird’s study one day to find him sprawled boyishly on the floor, propped up on his elbows with dusty books lying half-open all around him. The part of her still half-convinced the last few months had been the latter end of a surreal dream had paused in the shadow of the afternoon sunlight filtering into the room, surprised; he had looked as though he was reacquainting himself with old friends.
Who was he, her husband, she had asked herself then. And the swiftly-following, Who am I, then?
Claire thought, then and now, that she knew the answer to the first.
Sighing, she frowns at the fuzzy letters in front of her. It is a well-kept book -- more so than their two, or Murtagh on the fire’s other side, or any of the other men in their care. They are gaunt and rib-showing and exhausted beyond belief. Catallus, and his intimate descriptions of romantic love, remain quite hale and healthy, only a small scuff adorning the bound corner of Jamie’s book.
Abandoning her attempts, Claire takes instead to staring across the campfire.
“Ye’re alright, a nighean?”
Jamie’s voice is a warm, low timbre in the cold of the night. Alright is quite a loaded word, this particular evening.
“Fine,” says Claire. “Just trying to read some erotic poetry.” Then she narrows her eyes; he’s still holding the stick he was using to poke the fire, and there’s an awkwardness to the set of his fingers. “How’s your hand?”
“Erotic poetry,” Jamie mouths, instead of answering. She is sure he must be mouthing to protect their companions’ delicate sensibilities, which is endearing and ridiculous at once.
“Come sit over here -- the light’s terrible so you’ll have to recite some of them for me.”
“Vixen,” Jamie mutters, but comes and joins her dutifully enough.
“Och, I dinnae think any of these are somethin’ wee Mary should overhear.” Jamie nods, carefully, to where little Mary Hawkins is sat on the other side of their tiny camp, watching with rapt -- if slightly tremulous -- attention as Murtagh patiently shows her how to whittle shapes out of a scrap of bracken found on the ground with his dirk. Between them, the firelight crackles, masking the bulk of their purportedly risque conversation.
Claire groans, and lets her head fall to the side, to better catch the fire’s orange glow. She’s always loved firelight. She hasn’t yet qualified why. Jamie will say it’s because her hands and feet are always so cold, and so anything that is heat-giving draws her attention -- like me, he’ll add, eyes twinkling.
Just now, she can feel the steady warmth of him even through the layers of his coat.
“Ye ken she cannae come with us.”
She looks over, confused. “What?”
“We must send her home.” Her husband’s words are low, gentle; meant only for her. Even in the mutable firelight, his expression can only be described as sympathetic. Still, there’s an undercurrent of humour to what he says next: “We cannae keep her, Sassenach.”
Claire frowns. “I never said I wanted to.”
Something twitches at the corner of his mouth. “No?”
“Then what were ye thinkin’ of?”
“If you must know, I was thinking about Rupert’s eye. It could really use some peroxide, but God only knows where and how I’d get my hands on that. Actually, God only knows if he’s still alive, given the last I saw him there was a gaping hole in his face that I only barely managed to wrap back together. Oh --” She snaps the book shut and presses her hands to the sides of her forehead. “Bugger. Shitting hell.”
So much for protecting Mary’s delicate ears.
Claire starts; Jamie’s bad hand has found her knee.
“Claire,” he says.
“So we’re going to just send her over the border alone, to a family who might simply affiance her off again to the next sixty-year-old violent-handed lech in available vicinity?”
At least for this, her voice has the sense to drop down to an almost painfully low register. Against her knee, Jamie’s hand spasms, his grip tightening.
“I dinnae like it any more’n you do, Claire. But she cannae stay with us.”
Murderers. Traitors to the Crown. Penniless, starving outlaws.
Across the fire, their charge does not appear to have heard anything, but Murtagh is watching them carefully from under his bushy, inscrutable brows, canny as always. Beside him, Mary’s narrow shoulders are wrapped in Claire’s arisade, to ward off the cold. Her delicate cheekbones remind Claire of a little bird, whose neck is liable to snap at the slightest wrong movement. She’s holding one of the wood pieces Murtagh worked on, half-done in her small, pale hands.
Hours ago, those same hands held a knife between a man’s ribs.
“She’s only a girl.” She hates how her voice splinters. Guilt is such an odd, unpredictable thing. Judge, jury and executioner, Claire thinks.
“We’ll see to it that she’s safe,” Jamie says, quiet enough to match her.
Originally, Claire had only been trying to read in order to ignore the growling of her stomach; she didn’t eat anything at the Duke’s estate, fraught as the circumstances were, and all the food they did take (steal, like their horses) from the kitchens after can well serve the bedraggled soldiers in their care. Jamie had insisted she and Mary eat something regardless, but she has a feeling he knows that she tucked half of it away to give to Fergus later -- when they find him again.
She watches Jamie now, more openly, tracing with her tired eyes the broad slope of his shoulders and the pensive angle of his brow. Sometimes in off moments she thinks he might be one of those marble statues, of the old Roman generals Uncle Lamb would speak of with a mix of awe and unknowing at once. Other times, he is little more than a boy -- with a big heart, and gentle hands, and that reliable, earth-hewn smile.
We’ll see to it that she’s safe.
It’s not a promise he’ll take lightly; it never is.
She thinks again to that sunny day in the study, when life was awash with naivete and the slowly solidifying threads of their dreams. Claire watched a person get beheaded earlier, and she barely feels a twinge of remorse.
What are we doing, she wants to ask. But the time for that question has long, long since passed.
“Are we terribly romantic fools, do you think?”
If Jamie’s surprised by this turn in conversation, he doesn’t betray it. Instead, he scoots over and pulls her to him, such that her head is fit under his chin and his arms can properly circle around her. There is the most minute of trembles in them -- and they are thinner than usual under his coat, bones and tendons sharp as the still-sharper angles of his brow -- but strong, and warm around her.
“Only me,” he says, with a lightness that Claire’s grateful for. “Ye’re a verra sensible woman, Sassenach.”
“A very sensible woman who reads erotic poetry in the middle of the dark,” Claire agrees, and forgets the register at which she’s speaking; across from them, Mary’s eyes widen to the size of dinner plates.
Murtagh only groans and rolls his eyes.
“I -- I d-didn’t think there was such a thing,” Mary squeaks, over the fire.
“Ye wouldnae want tae ken it,” Jamie says hastily. “‘Tis only for the most dull and prudish of auld married biddies.”
It has an effect, if perhaps not quite the intended: Mary emits two small, quivering laughs, and then starts giggling in earnest. Her usually pale cheeks are flushed with the cold and the firelight in combination, and she looks over gleefully at Murtagh to confirm the falsity of Jamie’s assurance, which, of course, has him turning red and spluttering in turn.
Claire pulls away while they’re distracted.
Jamie’s only watching her, the lines of his face almost inappropriately tender given their situation. Still-teenaged Mary, small and wounded though she may be, is no longer the wide-eyed, worshipful shadow Claire had in Paris.
She covers her husband’s hand with her own over her knee. He knows; he always knows. He holds her, until the fire dies out, and darkness overtakes their little camp.
Claire is dreaming.
In the dream, she is in a house. A flat, more accurately. It looks like the one she and Frank had, just immediately after they were married; it has the bland lace trimming on the drapes, and a suitcase in the corner, and the cherished Persian rug that once belonged to Uncle Lamb, which Claire now misses with that familiar-forgotten twinge of regret. All of this is an odd realization, followed by one odder still: she has not thought of Frank in weeks.
So why is she here, then?
There is a window that opens up in the off-beige wall, and so dream-Claire goes to stand by it. There’s a vase perched at the sill corner.
I never had a vase, Claire thinks.
“I think ‘tis one of Jenny’s,” says her husband, from the other side of the window.
Dream-Claire scowls at him. “No. It’s blue; Jenny hates blue.”
“Aye, that is true,” dream-Jamie agrees. Together, they contemplate the vase. Claire looks up again. He’s dressed like he was on their wedding day, and looking just as handsome. But his eyes are sadder, and when he brings his fingers up to touch the glass, she can see the scars of her own handiwork running knobbed and desperate over his long fingers.
“You lied to me,” dream-Claire says. This earns her a frown; he has only done so once, and that -- that was a broken promise, not a lie.
“Na bruidhinn neoni,” he says, almost like a reflex. “I did not.”
Dream-Claire presses her hand against the window, palm flat. Somewhere behind her, there is a ceiling fan, flapping aimlessly. Also odd; it’s winter, Claire thinks. They don’t need a fan.
“You did,” Claire insists.
Jamie says, “Ye’re no’ alone, Claire.”
“I am,” she says. Her free hand hovers at her hip, then over her stomach. “Jamie, you don’t understand. I am alone. I will be.”
“You won’t.” Mule-headed, she remembers. All Frasers are. The glass is foggy and clear at once. She thinks Jamie might be crying.
She thinks she might be crying.
“I have to break my promise,” she whispers.
Then, like the terrible, horrible words in his note, that day over a year ago: “I’m sorry.”
The dream shifts.
Claire is at the top of a hill. Her fingers are cold, and aching from the bruising grip of his hands on hers, so hard that she feels joints shift and crack. There is wind roaring in her ears.
Not wind, Claire thinks. Terror slices at the pit of her throat. The bone-deep, ancient buzzing bends and twists the periphery of her consciousness, making her very marrow crawl and ache. Around them the hilltop is green and the sky clear, but Claire’s vision is blurred grey; all she sees in colour is the brightness of her husband’s hair, directly in front of her.
They are swaying in their embrace. Claire thinks distantly that she is yelling.
“-- I won’t, I won’t --”
“Claire! I’m begging you, Claire -- you swore to me --”
“No! Do you hear me?! You and God may damn me for breaking my promise but I will not break my vow to you -- “
“No!” The bone-deep thrum continues. She feels bile rise hot in her mouth. Soon there will be cannon fire, echoing in the distance. It is a dream, and so the knife from his belt appears in her white-knuckled hand, but she remembers that she had reached for it, in the moment. She had drawn the dirk, and held it up between them, and broken her promise.
It is not the same blade that bound them in marriage, but it presses against the faint line on her wrist where they were joined that innocuous, fateful day, drawing a drop of scarlet.
“Blood of my blood,” says Claire, words broken apart by sobs. “That is what you are. I will not leave you until you are dead and mouldering in the earth and I have seen it with my own two miserable eyes, do you understand me, James Fraser? I won’t do it. I told you once! You are my husband, and I will have you however I can, always.”
The roar continues, magnified in dreamstate. The fabric of reality bends and shifts. His eyes are not as wild as she remembers them to have been.
“Aye,” he whispers, mouth against her temple. She knows Jamie is crying. She knows she is crying. “Jesus, God, forgive me -- aye.”
The dream goes black.
The voice in her head is distant but razor-close at once. She feels herself floating, no longer anchored by another person’s arms. But her fingers and wrists are still aching -- have they not been let go?
Black fades to grey fades to blurred colour. Her mouth is dry, and tasting of a bad hangover, though Claire knows she hasn’t been drinking. She absolutely cannot have been.
“Ye must wake, mo nighean donn.”
She opens her eyes. Both of her hands are bent, pillowed, under her own neck, at the sort of unnatural angle that should not objectively be painful but is damning in that it cuts off proper blood circulation when you least expect it to. She can smell the musty sweat of sickbed, and the other, sweeter smells of their old room -- the rosewater she once spilled against the tapestry in the corner, and the sage she’d helped Jenny sew into the hems of the pillowcases.
She must have fallen asleep at some point in the morning, she thinks; the light in the bedroom is purple-grey like twilight, with just a streak of receding sunshine.
“You’re real,” Claire says, in a voice like sandpaper.
Jamie’s face is inches from hers. His hair is still tangled, and his skin pale and bruised, but his eyes are open, and alert.
“Havenae gone anywhere jest yet,” he agrees.
It’s been two weeks since the fever broke. She spent three of those days contemplating the reality of his death. Four, wondering if he would ever walk again. And seven, fearing that Redcoats were going to sweep in and raze Lallybroch to the ground, and they no more the capable of running, let alone fighting.
Claire doesn’t want to fight anymore. She wonders if she ever had that choice in the first place.
“Not for lack of bloody trying,” she says, which is somewhat uncharitable of her. His mouth pinches unhappily at the corners. But he doesn’t say anything.
Jamie is not dead, but that is not what gnaws at her now, deep in her belly.
Still -- his stern expression melts away after but a moment, and he turns his head to watch her as Claire moves from her awkward position on unsteady limbs, rising to make her way to the pitcher of water Jenny left in the corner and the basin she’s been using to wash her hands before checking Jamie’s bandages. The room’s air is cool against her bare forearms; the pillow they seemed to have been sharing was damp with overuse and Claire’s fully-clothed nap. Claire remains silent as she moves, and busies herself with the routine automatancy of tending to a patient. For whatever reason her dreams have chucked to the fore of her mind all the godforsaken tastes and colours and feelings of the worst day of her life. Lallybroch was shrouded in darkness by the time she’d arrived, half out of her own mind. She had been barely upright on the horse, Ian had told her. If her mount had been Donas she’d have most certainly been thrown.
Small mercies, Claire had thought, and promptly thrown up all over her brother-in-law’s boots.
The night had been as bloody and terrible as the day it followed, in a manner of speaking. In the morning Claire awoke and begged Jenny and Ian with tears tearing at her throat to hide a scrap of their tartan, bury three of their most cherished books, and tell Lallybroch’s tenants to gather as much non-perishable food as physically possible and find a hiding spot for it in the woods.
Four days later, Jamie had been given back to her.
Her hands fumble now, with the washcloth and her own skirts. They keep throbbing though there are no marks on them to show injury.
She waits for his fully-body sigh from his place on the bed, and when it comes, she slides one set of sore fingers over to touch his clammy forehead.
“Your fever’s not returned,” Claire says, though that much was obvious without her checking. “No sign of renewed infection, otherwise. I’ll change the dressing later tonight.”
He mutters something under his breath. It’s too low for Claire to catch and more than likely in Gaelic.
“How are you feeling?” she asks, ignoring it.
“About as weak as a blade of grass, an’ more useless still.”
“Rather sturdy stuff, grass is. Bounces back quite quickly. And it’s terribly important for keeping livestock around -- people’s livelihoods, you know.”
“I cannae take a pish wi’out ye helpin’ me, Claire. I’m allowed tae be a wee bit unhappy.”
“Could be worse. You could be dead.”
She thinks suddenly of the darkness of his blood covering her, she and Jenny and Ian hauling him together upstairs, the slick feeling of mangled flesh and bone under her fingernails. Two centimeters away and whatever Redcoat’s bayonet responsible would have torn the femoral artery. This was a thought she’d had then, with vague, clinical detachment.
She’d made her choice, regardless of that. She is half expecting for Jamie to say something about God’s plan not being quite what they thought it would be, but he’s been silent on that front so far. Possibly due to blood loss. But she thinks she might hit him if he does bring it up.
“I love you,” Claire says, the words leaping out from somewhere deep in her chest.
“Claire,” he says again, much softer this time. There is an apology in his tone.
Claire sits down, jerky. “I have to tell you something,” she adds.
It’s frozen her, the need to express that out loud. Her whole person trembles. One of her hands, weak as it is, grips the bedding so hard it’s painful.
She’s been fatigued for days, and each time she thinks of the possibility of having left him she’s overwhelmed with a paralyzing sort of nausea. She looks over at him, her crows’ leg arms held close to herself. She feels thin and drawn and stretched all over, and all the worst for the knowledge of it.
Jamie’s watching her with unbearable tenderness in his bright blue eyes.
“Ye ken,” he says, in a whisper. “I may be the most selfish man alive. Even now, I -- I cannae try tae send ye away again. I cannae bring myself to.”
“What do you mean?” she says, voice hoarse.
“I know, Claire,” he says. The words warble, and there’s a thread of vulnerable, barely-there hope underneath them.
She stares at him. If she was still holding the basin she would have dropped it with a clatter.
“You can’t know,” she says, a little bit dumbly. Jamie frowns, just slightly, as though she’s said something foolish.
“Yes, I can.”
“No you can’t.”
“Aye, I -- unless this is about somethin’ else --”
“It’s not about anything.”
“Ye just said --”
“But you can’t possibly know! I barely know.”
“Ye’ve no’ been a day late in yer courses since ye first took me into your bed, Sassenach. Ye cannae think I’d no’ --”
Dimly, Claire is aware that her throat is tightening and clogging up, but her voice does not seem to agree, and comes out more or less sensibly, as though it’s detached from her body. All of the tremulous uncertainty of a moment ago is gone: it is just the two of them, in this room that is their own, time and space and history be damned, and he is being ridiculous.
“You kept track?”
Jamie pushes himself upward on wobbly elbows in a paltry bid to better defend himself.
“As any sensible man might, aye --”
“That is not what I meant and you know it, James Fraser --”
“ -- in April, I thought -- but Jenny said yesterday that it was May third, an’ --”
“May the third! You’ve spent the past weeks riddled with fever and sporting a nearly-amputated leg --”
“Och, Claire --”
“And you -- you --”
“I’m injured, Sassenach, I’m no’ blind --”
“Aye,” he says, and he’s laughing now, though she can see tears gather and spill down his splotchy, unshaven cheeks. “Ye’ve spent half yer time ‘round my sickbed in naught but yer shift, an’ I can attest tha’ yer arse has gotten even bonnier than it usually is, praise God -- oof, ow! Keep yer wee kitten nails t’yerself!”
She pinches him a few more times, despite his protests. Her own tears are streaming shamelessly down her cheeks. She thinks she might be choking with it -- with all the feeling. The bittersweet, half-strangled sliver of hope, piercing its way through the sludge of fear.
“You -- you bloody, insufferable --”
“Mo ghraidh --”
And Claire breaks down completely, sinking onto the bed, shoulders wracked with sobs.
She’s a terrible healer, she thinks, collapsing on a gravely-injured man like this. Jamie doesn’t seem to mind; he pulls her to him, not quite holding her -- his hands come up to press in half-formed, incoherent shapes over her jaw and cheek and temple, and their foreheads fall together with a dull thud that she doesn’t really feel.
“Claire,” he says. “Claire -- Claire.” Only it is as though he’s praying.
They sit there for what feels like hours.
Likely it is only minutes; when Claire comes to herself again, the light from outside is still in their bedroom, purple-grey in its twilight. She can hear distant noises in the house below -- Jenny yelling something vague about Maggie’s singed frock, Mrs. Crook rattling from room to room, the scattered young-boy footsteps of Fergus and Rabbie up and down stairs. A dog barks outside the window, in the courtyard somewhere. But there’s a strung-out desperation throughout all of Broch Morda that takes root more and more each day.
History has encroached itself, slowly but surely, on the perimeter of Lallybroch.
She gathers herself with a shuddering gasp.
Perhaps they can run away, to Italy, she thinks. Or maybe they’ll live in the woods.
Claire doesn’t mind rekindling her reputation as a witch.
They look at each other, silent and shaking, for a very long moment.
“If I’d known before,” she says. Her trachea trembles with force of suppression. “If I’d known, Jamie, I’d have --”
“I know,” says Jamie. She can feel his hands trembling, so hard that it reaches his shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Claire -- I’m so --”
She moves forward, forehead against his again, but deliberate this time. Carefully, she takes his hands from where they frame her face and brings them around her, then puts her own around him. She says,
“We are together,” in a joy-splintered voice, “and we are whole. And everything else can quite frankly go to hell.”
When he laughs, she feels it reverberate through her whole body: an acceptance of life.