Jamie Fraser shuts the door behind him, leans against its cool wood, and curses.
“Damn,” he mutters, with no heed to the pain in his shoulder. He is coming up to twenty-four years of age, but he has lived twelve lifetimes’ worth of pain in those short years; what bothers his muscle is nothing to what eats at his heart.
Claire’s tears still dampen the front of his shirt. He can still see the shine of them against the milky pearl of her cheek, her hair curling over her throat and just touching her shoulders and catching every glint of light from the hearth, sable and dark water and oak, hints of gold that echo her eyes. The feel of her, slight and limp and exhausted against his chest and under his arms, imprints onto his muscle and bone. He left her asleep, tired as she is, curled up like a wee child in its trundle, her skin glowing under his gaze.
“Damn,” he says again, his cock half-hard under his kilt.
She’s a contrary woman, with a mouth as foul as any man. The others may take offense, but he likes that about her. He likes the brisk attention to detail, the surly note to her eyes and voice when Dougal gave her orders. Her touch is firm but soothing; she is a rare healer, even if he has no idea how she could have come to be so. And her face –
A glass face, he thinks as he broods against the door, ignoring the ache in his arm. He thinks to hear her breathe in the deep throes of sleep. She has no face for lies. A beautiful woman is often a liar, but not this one.
And if Randall ever did grab hold of her again, she would not survive the day. Not that Dougal or Colum would be any kinder, if less cruel.
His injured arm, splinted and pinioned to his side, twitches. He curls his fingers into a fist against his chest. Perhaps he should sleep outside her room. He promised her not a half-hour past that no harm would come to her, and he meant it. Why he felt the urge to make such a vow, to a woman he knows nothing of, he cannot be sure –
But you ken her well enough, he thinks, shutting his eyes again. The castle air is cool, the spring sunlight of the day no match for lingering winter chill at night. Aye, he knows her. What he knows of her, he cannot place or name; but this woman, Claire, his Sassenach – he knows her.
In the end, he doses for a time, seated by her chamber door. It isn’t until Young Alec comes to find him and bring him to his own chamber, at the request of Mistress FitzGibbons, that he rises and leaves. He hopes Claire’s sleep is a peaceful one, what with the ghosts he senses around her.
Old Alec claims him for the stables, and Jamie is grateful. The man is canny and wry, but kind. Jamie prefers to be outside in any case; he is a man of land, pitching hay and tilling fields.
Here, he aches for Lallybroch. That is a desire he keeps well to himself. There is nothing to do but be content here, for here he will stay until things can be put right.
Claire seems to do well enough, though there is a shifty, shocked gleam to her beautiful golden-dark eyes that he reads as clear as day. He wonders as he watches her from across the Hall whether everyone notes her as much as he does. Dougal’s gaze lingers always, and Jamie clenches his hand into a fist when he sees it. Rupert, too. Colum is a mask when it comes to the lady, but Jamie knows well enough that a widowed stranger cannot remain widowed for long.
They are drawn to each other like metal to true north. She brings him lunch, and he cannot help but spill his tongue to her, remembering how she said nothing of his scars, how she cried in his arms. Vulnerabilities are as currency as good as gold in this world, and she is full of them. He gives her some of his, so that she may have some weapons of her own.
“Ye look overlong at the Sassenach widow,” Old Alec says to him in the stables, his weathered face glinting sharp.
Jamie blinks and does not move a muscle of his face. He learned many years ago that to show the truth of yourself on your face is a death sentence. He will not be so naked to anyone ever again. Alec is a good man, and speaks of Jamie’s father as if he knew him well enough to trust; but Alec is a MacKenzie, and Jamie knows better than to trust any of them farther than he can throw them.
Anyone? the quiet voice that sounds like his father whispers to him. Or is there someone you would show your whole self?
“She is a lady worth lookin’ at,” Jamie says with an easy grin. He picks up a bushel of apples and strides down along the whinnying horses. Claire had brought him lunch for the second day in a row, and sat with him again to watch him eat. She told him it was her duty as his healer – and he did not miss the way her lips hesitated forming the word, and wondered at it – and in return he told her of his outlaw status. He still remembers the press of her fingers at his scalp, the gooseflesh that rippled down his neck. Her touch does strange things to him, as does the sudden appearance of her every day, as if his thoughts when they wander to her call her.
He knew it the moment Claire awoke in the warm grass, as Alec spoke to him of the Gathering, of Laoghaire. Perhaps it is nothing, but he tracks the change in her breathing, seems to be able to hear the wheels in that clever mind of hers turning. A terrible liar she is, stretching and blinking and pretending not to have heard a word.
God, he likes that clear face of hers.
“A strange lass,” Alec says, moving more slowly but just as efficiently. The musty air darkens his clear gaze. “Stranger still for liking ye, lad.”
“A healer takes care of her patients, does she not?” Jamie says with a shrug. His shoulder still twinges but the stitches hold.
Alec says nothing, but his gaze, even with the one eye, tells volumes. Jamie goes on with his work in silence, and wonders if he should not try to avoid Claire more industriously in the future, for her own sake.
There is something hard and queer that blooms within his chest whenever she is nearby.
Jamie had thought the sensation would fade as time passed. But no – he sees Claire, and wants her. Wants her hands on him for reasons other than wounds and scars, wants to kiss her until she is pliable and soft in his arms; mo duinne, he would call her – he calls her it now, to himself. It is why he is a loose-lipped fool around her. Why, when she is a wee worse for the wear due to the wine, he takes her from the hall and to her chamber, strips off his shirt, and lets her poke and prod at his shoulder. The men look at her when she is fresh with drink, friendly and loose; he likes the pliability of her with wine, but wants no one else to look at her.
He wants to own this woman, as she seems to already own him.
When she touches the lines on his back – lines he will carry to the end of his days, lines that remind him of his father’s death, of Jenny’s disgrace, of all his failings - God, Willie, I’ve failed you and Mother so - he cannot help but sigh. He can hear her thinking, so loud in this empty chamber of hers. She has her uncommonly short hair tied up with yellow ribbons tonight; he remembers curls escaping to touch her bare neck, remembers wanting to undo all the ribbons and thread his fingers in the loose mass of it all and hold her to him. It is a gnawing ache to have her – and he cannot have her.
Her hands flatten on his shoulders as she lingers behind him. They are cool and firm, callused and hardy; she knows danger and blood and hard work, his Sassenach. Her gaze bores holes in his back. He thinks she can see straight through to the walled heart of him, where he knows he loves her.
He must touch her in return. His large hand covers the one of hers that rests on his uninjured shoulder, squeezing. Everything in him yearns to touch and to take, to turn around and ask for her mouth, her hand, her life.
And then, he thinks of her crying in his arms, crying for a life she has so recently lost.
“There’s worse has happened to others, lass,” he says at last, and a quiver runs through her body to his, the points of contact their hands.
His words release her from her struggle. She is a healer once more, brisk and professional, though he hears the thickness of her voice. He longs to see that glass face of hers, the milky pearl of her skin, the uncommon clarity of those hawk eyes. But he does not turn; he reaches for his shirt, for if he sees a hint of longing in her face, he will take it.
He is no robber of women.
“Ye are kind to look after me, Sassenach,” he says near the doorway, the awkwardness stretching out between them.
The light of the hearth washes her in yellow-gold, warming her pale cheeks. She clenches those steady hands of hers at her sides and watches him with fierce intensity, the curls slipping with abandon from her ribbons.
“God knows no one else would,” she mutters in that brash way of hers, and he laughs, grateful for the release. “You get into more bloody messes than anyone else I’ve ever met.”
“Aye, well. Trouble follows me, ye ken?” he murmurs.
She blinks at him, the effects of the Rhenish wine still softening her mouth and her gaze. “I hope not for much longer,” she says quietly, the sincerity on her face unbearable.
“Aye. Me as well,” he says, scratching at the back of his neck. “Ye’ll come to the stables tomorrow, Sassenach? There’s a newborn foal ye might like to visit, if ye have the time.”
Her eyes light up, a slight smile playing at her lovely mouth. Wanting punches him in the gut as she agrees. He slips out from her chamber, grateful that there is no audience to his wicked cockstand under his kilt and the hard flush covering his neck. Lord, how he burns for her.
When his father spoke to him of marriage and love, he never said it would be as painful as a lance to the heart.
Laoghaire catches him unawares, all soft and blonde and with the calculating gaze of a girl who knows her looks.
He doesn’t love the girl. Aye, she is pretty, but there is nothing to her for him, nothing to tether him to her, to make him want to come back day and night. He knows the difference, now.
He took her beating for her as a kindness, because no one else would do so. When she says she wishes to thank him once more, he thinks it will be another stammering speech, something awkward and sheepish and inelegant. He wishes to save her the trouble, reaches out an arm –
She kisses him as a girl practiced. She kisses him eagerly and all he can think of as he sinks into the window seat and she presses herself against his chest, is Claire.
He burns, but he does not wish to burn like this.
For a moment, he loses himself. He puts a hand to her waist. “Sorcha - “ he breathes, thinking of skin like opals, not rose petals, of curlywig hair and clever firm hands –
“Aye?” Laoghaire says, flushed and breathless. Her lips search for his once more.
The curtains flutter. He catches Claire’s gaze, and immediately feels the hot pit of shame heavy in his belly.
She retreats, and he pushes Laoghaire away.
“No, lass. I dinna need to be thanked so,” he says, looking at the young girl as she stares at him, all limpid eyes and flushed cheeks. “It was a kindness.”
“Jamie – “
“Not now, lass,” he murmurs, taking her small soft hand in his and bringing the back of her hand to his lips for a chaste kiss. “I cannot.”
He takes his leave of the young girl, thinking of Claire’s glass face, of the blush and surprise and something like regret there within. He does not look back at Laoghaire. There is no future there for him, and he will not risk it.
Bearing his scars in public for Dougal’s money gathering and Jacobite sympathies leaves a sour taste in his mouth.
Jamie does as he’s told; he is in little position to do else. When he starts the brawl, he’s at the end of his rope, with no one to speak to of it but Claire – and Claire, he cannot burden. Not with this. The results of his floggings are his cross to bear, and she has her own demons to fight. She treats his wounds and leaves him to Murtagh, her hair spilling from its pins as she retreats.
“A bold lassie,” Murtagh says after a moment.
Jamie blinks, taking his eyes from Claire’s retreating form through the open shed door. Lantern and candlelight from the inn creeps about her, lending her an ethereal look, as if she might disappear.
“Bold enough to swear like a clansman,” he murmurs.
“T’will nae save her from Randall,” Murtagh says in that flat way of his. “He’s looking for her.”
Flexing his bruised fingers, Jamie stares off into the darkening light of the shed. The same throat-clutching hate comes through him as he thinks of Randall, of those floggings, of the Bible in his sporran, of his father’s last breaths.
“How d’ye ken?” he asks, voice low.
Murtagh grunts, low in his throat, his dark hair falling into his eyes. “I hear things.”
“Aye, ye do,” Jamie murmurs. “So why are ye telling me?”
Blinking, Murtagh moves to the open door. “I ken ye, laddie. Ye like the Sassenach lass enough to brave the Gathering for her.”
Jamie says nothing, and Murtagh grunts once more and leaves. Alone in the shed, with the sounds from the inn filtering through the cracks and eaves and windows, Jamie wets his bloody lip, tastes the metallic tang of his own life on his tongue.
No more games.
It is an easy choice to sleep in front of her door, the next time they stop. He’d made her a promise, after all.
Claire called him an iron man, made of resistant metal work and unrelenting. He knows his soul still lives in him, knows he feels – for he feels for her as no one else in his life before – but there is the possibility there, of becoming what she says of him.
His father’s death broke something in him, something begun with Randall’s actions with Jenny. The years in France were full of bloodshed, of war; he has killed more men without remembering their faces, enough to lose sight of the number come confessional. His land – land that should have been Willie’s, God knows – is nothing to him now, a place he cannot return without shame and grief. Survival has been his main concern, with no credence to anything softer.
The way Claire speaks, sometimes, makes him feel as if he is worth more than just a MacKenzie tool or a honed blade. As if he should treat himself better than he does.
He wonders what it would be like to have her with him always – to remind him of his humanity.
On the hard floor outside Claire’s room, Jamie comes awake immediately, his dirk hand raised. He is on his feet and crouched, ready for attack, before he registers Dougal’s presence.
“Oh,” Jamie says, lowering his dirk and rising to his full height. “Early yet, to be up and moving.”
“Randall wants to see her,” Dougal says, his eyes fixed on Jamie’s. He is dressed and ready to ride, despite the earliness of the hour. Grey dawn light has barely began to seep across the floorboards.
Jamie gathers Claire’s traveling cloak, keeping his face utterly still. “She isn’t a spy for him,” he says lowly.
“Ye may not think so, but we’ll ken for sure in a few hours,” Dougal says, hands fixed at his sword belt. “What the hell were ye doing?”
Blinking, Jamie doesn’t reply to that line of inquiry. He knows how Dougal looks at Claire. Whether or not Dougal knows how Jamie looks at her is not something he needs revealed. Vulnerabilities, indeed.
“He will hurt her,” Jamie says instead, his voice quite low and flat. “If he does – “
“Haven’t ye grudge enough, lad?” Dougal interrupts, eying him with a sharp, keen gaze. Jamie can see the wheels turning there, inside his martial mind.
“It is never enough,” Jamie says shortly, and walks down the hall to the stairs. He leaves the cloak with Dougal.
“She must have a dress,” is the first thing Jamie says when Dougal corners him in the dining room of the inn, shouting about marrying Claire.
Blinking, Dougal opens his mouth as if he is primed to yell once more, as the other men chuckle. Ned Gowan is humming to himself, drawing up the contracts. If Jamie looks at them, he may swoon.
“Are ye daft?” Dougal hollers. “I dinnae have time to find the lass a dress!”
“She willnae want to do it,” Jamie argues, his back to the hearth as he cups his hands around his ale. The thought of it pricks his pride, but he knows it has naught to do with him. He remembers the feel of her tears through his shirt, the sharp hard gasps and sobs as she cried in his arms in the castle, mourning her lost husband. It is not of his making, her grief; he will try to ease it as he can. “At least we can make it easier on her. A nice gown. And in a kirk, proper.”
Scowling, Dougal rolls his eyes up to the ceiling. Claire is up there, Jamie thinks, his pulse hammering in his throat even as he keeps his face impassive. Claire is up there, distressed and angry and hurt and confused. All he wants to do is go to her, to soothe her as he has once before.
“Bloody hell, lad, we cannae – “
“And ye’ve got to leave us be for the three days,” Jamie interrupts. “I willnae wed and be hurried into a wedding night in the heather. Ye have no need of me for the other rents, and she must stay near, as to avoid Randall and his men. Leave us be, wed us in a proper kirk, and find her a pretty gown. That’s all I ask.”
His heart hammers against his ribs, his mouth dry, as Dougal regards him. Ned Gowan smiles a bit in his direction, face ruddy in the firelight.
“Ye drive a hard bargain,” Dougal says at last, eyeing Jamie up and down.
Jamie straightens his spine and meets his uncle’s gaze head-on. “Is it done?”
Dougal hesitates just a moment before nodding. “I reckon ye better be finding a gown for Mistress Beauchamp, Rupert, in addition to a padre” he mutters, rising to his feet. “Are ye done, Ned?”
The others stomp away, leaving Jamie alone, bewildered and yet absurdly pleased. All that opal-white skin, the soft of her mouth, the curls of her hair – his, unless she does not want him. His, unless she isn’t pleased by him.
He thinks, though, that she would be. Her face is an open window to her thoughts, and he has seen her linger on him more often than not.
“Sorcha,” he whispers, the feel of her name in the Gaelic soft on his tongue. He likes her contrariness, likes her strangeness – but there is something of light to her, the way she looks upon him. Perhaps without meaning to do so, but she lights him from within.
God, let me do right by her, he prays to himself in the warm sitting room, before Dougal comes to collect him for his interview with his bride. God, let me be enough.
Jamie is never so embarrassed as he is when he must tell Claire his conditions for marrying her. He thinks it makes him seem rather soft-headed. Neither of them are romantic; he knows that well enough from their wedding night.
Still, even after he shows her just how to murder him with his own dirk, if she so desires, there does seem to be something soft about her mouth, those odd golden eyes of hers. With his arm across his eyes, he adjusts the lay of muscle so he can peek at her, watch her tend to the lovely mass of curls with her comb, slip out of her dress to linger in her thin cream-colored shift. He can see the rise of her nipples against the fabric, the shadows between her thighs. She is strangely quiet as she fixes herself for sleep, the apples of her cheeks flushed.
Perhaps she thinks of her first husband again. Jamie sighs silently, and shifts on the bed to pull at his boots, studiously focused on his feet and not looking at Claire. He wonders how long he will have to battle with the ghost of the man she married first, before she looks at him and sees just Jamie.
“You said – “ she says, and then stops herself.
His shoes fall to the floor with a clunk. He wonders if he should take off his kilt. The awkwardness between them has returned, and he isn’t quite sure how to resolve it again, short of taking her in his arms and kissing her until she is flushed and soft in his arms, as she had been this morning in the heather.
“Aye?” he asks, looking at her when she does not speak.
Claire, with that transparent face of hers, looks utterly bewildered. “Thank you for the dress, I suppose,” she says at last. “It – it made a difference.”
“Oh,” he says, blinking. He scrubs a hand over his scalp, his muscles and joints aching as they always do. “Dinna fash about it, Sassenach.”
She studies him as if she can see right through his skin, see the muscle and bone and the very heart of him. “It has all made a difference, actually,” she says in that precise, blunt way of hers. He has never known a woman quite like her.
“So you’re not running out on me, then?” he teases.
A flash of something anguished appears in her face, but it flickers away as quickly as it comes. She smiles slightly, setting her comb aside and coming to the side of the bed where he lingers.
“What did you call me earlier?” she asks, her hands going to the knots of his kilt. “In the Gaelic?”
“Mo duinne,” he murmurs into her hair, his hands coming to clasp her shoulders.
She looks up at him and smiles, her face soft and unlined. Sometimes she seems so utterly shadowed and haunted, that he thinks she may disappear into the air without a thought. A mystery she remains in some ways, but he wants the time to puzzle her out.
“I like it,” she says softly, pulling his kilt away from his hips. His shirt lingers across his shoulders and arms, but he shrugs out of it easily and pushes back onto the bed, holding out a hand to her.
“Do ye, Sassenach?” he asks, heart light.
She takes his hand and crawls into the bed, the quilts rucked up in their wake. The sounds of the dining room below filter up to them, buffeting them with the comfort of company. One more day to themselves, he thinks with no little amount of sadness. He likes having Claire to himself, likes finding these soft pieces of her she tries to hide with bluster and no small amount of foolish bravery.
Instead of lying down beside him, she sits astride him, utterly surprising him into stillness. His hands settle on her shift-covered thighs as he looks up at him, blinking.
“I do,” she says, amused.
“Well then – “ he says, struggling not to gape like a fish out of water. “What the hell are ye doing?”
Mirth lines every part of her face even as she glows pink in the candlelight. “This wasn’t in the men’s list of helpful suggestions?” she asks, her knees sinking into the mattress as her hands lay flat on his bare chest.
His cock is hard as a stone pillar, nudging at her inner thigh, but she takes no note of it yet. “No. Cannae say it was,” he says, his voice taut.
Her hair spills over her shoulders, catching the light from the candle’s flame, all sable and silver and gold. One slip and shrug of her shoulders, her arms stretched over her head, and she has her shift off and tossed to the floor, that soft and lovely smile spreading across her mouth. “You may do well to pay closer attention to practical experience, rather than the tall tales of other men,” she says teasingly.
Without thought, he reaches up to cup her breasts in his palms, to fill his grasp with her skin. She hums, a low sound in her throat that he’s learning the meaning of. His thumbs graze her nipples and she leans into the touch with a soft sway of her body, one lovely callused hand sliding over his taut belly to grasp his cock.
He swears in Gaelic, his hips arching up without warning. She laughs then, a warm sound that uncurls the awkward tension in his middle. “Jamie,” she murmurs, looking at him from under dark lashes.
One of his hands drops away from her breast to slip between her thighs, to feel the slippery warm wet of her. All the muscles in her seem to unwind as he strokes her, circles the nub at the apex of her aroused flesh with a gentle thumb. Her fingers move over him with grace, her thumb rubbing at the leaking tip of his cock. He can’t help but shudder, rocking into her touch. There is magic in the touch of her skin against his; when he grasps her by the hips and rolls her underneath him, she moans, one of those breathless sounds he loves against his ears.
“Ye are so lovely,” he breathes as he kisses her, his leaking cock pressed to the soft give of her inner thigh. She slides her hands over his back, her palms catching on the raised scars but never hesitating. He kisses her jaw, the slope of her neck, breathing in the heather and moss and smoke of her hair.
“Jamie, please,” she whispers, the words piercing him with aching. She trembles as he tongues along the curve of her breast, and then the other, his stubble-covered jaw and the edge of his teeth marking her fine pale skin. He wants to mark her, wants to own his claim to her body, if not her heart. He may never have her heart; but they have this, and respect. Friendship.
He has this, he thinks as he kisses over her belly, breathing in the musk and sweat of her. She is wet and aching for him even as she squirms under his grip on her thighs. His feet and ankles hang over the edge of the bed. He settles between her thighs and spreads her wide, the beauty of her stealing his breath.
“God, Claire,” he whispers, kissing the inside of her right thigh. She quivers and moans under his touch, her hands cupping his scalp in a tight caress.
When he licks her, begins to eat at her with a slow, questing mouth, she shrieks. The sound will go unnoticed down below and he loves it, loves that he can break her open into soft helpless moans and cries as easily as she breaks him. She is the only one – apart from Jenny – who can rip him apart, and she may not know it. He inhales deeply, taking in the sweet musk of her, the salty-sweet taste of her flesh, and licks at her, his thumb stroking and circling her nub until she arches as tight as a bowstring, her body shuddering around him. She cries out his name, the first time she’s done so, her fingers tightly latches into his hair.
She breaks him wide open, he knows it. He kisses over her belly and bites at the swell of her breast as he shifts back up over her body, his hand cupping and stroking over the damp curls of her mound to gentle her.
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” she mutters, eyes shut as he kisses the jumping pulse in her neck. “Jamie – “
He shifts his hand to wrap around her thigh, hitching it over his hip. When he guides himself into her, he feels as if he is come home, as if there could be nothing more wondrous and right than to fill her over and over with the rock of his hips, to feel the press of her nails into his nape as she holds him to her, to kiss her lax mouth deep and wet and warm. Her hair spreads out across the pillows, hints of gold and silver where the light touches it, the curls springy and unruly. Contrary, just like Claire.
He loves her, and it will tear him wide open, should he tell her and she not feel the same.
Later, after they tidy themselves and he tends to the candles, he curls around her in the darkness of their marriage bed, her back pressed to his chest. She is quiet, her breathing slow; but she does not sleep.
“Are ye all right, mo duinne?” he murmurs through her hair into her ear, his voice low and soft.
She runs her hand over his forearm where it lays across her belly, like it belongs. Her touch is cool and settling. “Yes,” she says softly, her voice quite far away. She sounds as if she is in an entirely different time from him, though they share the same bed. “I’m fine, Jamie.”
He’s certain to sound like an idiot if he asks about her welfare again – if she wasn’t physically well, she would tell him right off. She is not afraid to instruct and correct; it’s rather refreshing.
Instead, he brushes her hair aside and kisses the curve of her ear, the soft warm skin behind the lobe. She shivers and tucks closer to him, her feet pressed to his shins. Under the quilts and in the darkness, it is just the two of them. He feels no ghost and no pain.
“I never feel hurt when I am with ye,” he tells her, in a strange moment of honestly.
Her fingers flex over his wrist. “I don’t know that I believe that,” she says, sounding mildly exasperated. “You have a terrible penchant for getting yourself injured.”
“Ye fix me up, Sassenach,” he murmurs with a smile, nuzzling into her hair.
She sighs. “Well, who else? I can’t let you run around bleeding half to death,” she says, voice oddly thick. “Terribly disastrous for both of us.”
Utterly practical, his Claire is. His laugh is a low rumble, vibrating through his chest against her back. She swats at his hand and he holds her closer. He wants to disappear into her tonight, swallow himself whole inside of her.
“I dinna plan on getting injured tonight, unless ye’ve got something else to teach me,” he says mildly, which earns another swat at his arm. “So go to sleep. I’ll keep us both safe.”
“Ridiculous man,” she mutters, but he holds his laughter as she grows limp in his arms, subsuming into sleep. With the quilts tucked about their shoulders, he presses his lips to her shoulder and settles, keeping a firm grip upon her waist.
A damnable thing, to be in love with a woman like this. Jamie drifts asleep wondering just what the hell he’s going to do if she never loves him back.