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Atonement

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“That’s it!” Jamie moaned, shoving his half-eaten plate of breakfast aside and dropping his fork with a dramatic clatter. “Wedding’s off.” 

Claire threw her head back, shaking with suppressed laughter, trying not to spit out her eggs. “Oh, come on!” she protested thickly. “What did you expect?” She managed, just barely, to swallow down her food, though her cheeks ached with the effort to hold back a grin. “I am a feckin’ sassenach, after all.”

“Aye,” he allowed, gripping his face with both hands, “but I thought ye were at least a lass wi’ taste.” Spreading his fingers, he peered out at her with an expression of utter despair. “Manchester United? Really? Can ye no’ root for Liverpool, at least?”

“Mmm, that would be a no.” She brandished another forkful of eggs, and popped it in her mouth with a flippant shrug. “Man U to the bitter end, love. Take me or leave me.”

Jamie dropped his hands with a long-suffering sigh, feigning deliberation for a moment before he reached over to snatch a piece of bacon off her plate. “It’s a verra good thing,” he murmured, his voice dropping to an almost inaudible register, “that ye’re a goddess in bed. That was almost a dealbreaker, ye ken.”

Claire nodded somberly, making a throaty sound of disdain. “First my lack of appreciation for The Lion King, now this?”

“Exactly.”  

They both cracked then, their eyes crinkled with matching grins. Jamie leaned across the table to kiss her, lingering several beats longer than was strictly respectable in public before he settled back in his own seat.

“Now if ye were a Rangers fan…” He puffed out his cheeks, eyes round with horror, and she snorted a laugh.

“A Celtic boy, I take it?” 

“Oh, aye.” 

His face lit up like a child’s at Christmas, and Claire found herself basking in the glow, watching him with her head tilted in endearment. Jamie practically buzzed with enthusiasm when he was excited about a subject, gesticulating animatedly with his hands and taking on what she could only describe as his storytelling voice — gruff and dramatic, with rolling r’s and an exaggerated Highland accent. She didn’t have to pretend to be engaged when he spoke like this, even when the topic (Celtic football, for instance) would normally cause her eyes to glaze over and her mind to wander.

God, she was just so relieved to see him happy like this again. 

“... but Glasgow’s a three-hour drive, so we canna make every game. We always try tae make it down fer the big ones if we can, though. Ian and I’ve had season tickets since we were twelve, and we havena…” 

The name caught in Claire’s chest like a hook, wrenching her unexpectedly out of the tale. 

For a few beats of stunned, ringing silence, it was as if the oxygen in the room was gone.

As Jamie’s voice began to register again — distant-sounding, describing some long-ago match or other — she finally managed to force in one even breath, then another. She tried her best to make a quick recovery, to mute her reaction before she ruined the moment; dropping her gaze to the tabletop, she brought her coffee mug to her lips to hide as much of her damned glass face as possible.

Ian.

By all accounts, the most easy-going member of the family. 

The kind one. The rational one.

The one who’d agreed that she was a psychopath who was not welcome in his home.

It had been almost too easy to forget the world beyond the little sanctuary she and Jamie had built for themselves in The Bear and Ragged Staff. That was the point of the entire hotel stay, she was well aware; it was escapism, pure and simple. Before they ventured into the lion’s den, they needed this time together, cocooned away from the outside world, to love and explore and talk and just… breathe for a while. 

But with the casual mention of Jamie’s brother-in-law, all the trepidation and the doubt that had been so effectively quelled over the past twelve hours began to roil in her gut again, black as pitch.

Claire quietly set her fork down, her appetite lost.

“We’ll have tae bring ye to a proper match fer yer first time, but definitely no’ a Rangers game straight oot the gate. When I tell ye it’s mental, I mean it can be a literal bloodbath…”

She hummed in vague assent, and prayed that Jamie was engrossed enough in his storytelling not to notice the abrupt change in her demeanor.

A pause, a half-beat of consideration, and of course he saw straight through her. 

“What is it?” 

“Hm?”

She didn’t know why she bothered. There was no sense in denying it; she could feel his eyes on her, studying every tell, every tic. 

“Ye’re thinking so loudly I can hear ye from here.”

Glancing up briefly, she offered a small, apologetic smile. “It’s nothing. I just…” Her voice faltered, and she took a sip of coffee to steady it. “I can’t imagine Ian is going to be very keen to have me join you, is all.”

To his credit, Jamie didn’t attempt to offer any platitudes or contradict what they both knew to be true. Instead, he sat in silence for a time, rolling the metal cap of the salt shaker between his thumb and forefinger before he set it aside and took her hand. 

“Sassenach…” he began, so softly that she finally lifted her gaze to look at him in earnest.

The raw vulnerability staring back at her made her heart stutter out of rhythm.

When he wanted to, Jamie had the ability to conceal his every thought and emotion behind an impenetrable mask. 

He was choosing to let her in.

And right now, he was just as scared as she was. 

“I meant what I said last night.” His thumb stroked back and forth over her third finger, tracing the invisible band of an engagement ring. “My family will grow to love ye. I believe that wi’ my whole heart, Claire.”

She nodded faintly and waited for him to say more. When he seemed to be struggling to continue, she gave his fingers an encouraging squeeze.

“But?”

A pained glance, then he dropped his gaze back to their joined hands. “But… it may take time. I dinna pretend to ken how long, or… what they might say at the outset.”

“I know that.” Now it was Claire’s turn to stroke the back of his hand, lending what comfort she could. They both sat quietly, listening to the clink of silverware and the din of a dozen indecipherable  conversations around them, until at last she summoned the courage to press on. “The more I think about it, the more I worry that if we… if we do this, if we get married before we get a chance to talk to them… won’t it make it worse?”

Jamie exhaled sharply through his nose. “They dinna have much room to talk. Jenny and Ian eloped while I was off at uni in Paris.”

“Still…”

His grasp tightened. “I willna let our happiness hinge on the whims of my sister, Claire.”

Her mind snagged unhappily on the word choice. It was hardly a whim; Jenny had sincere and frankly righteous reservations about the woman who had upended her family’s lives. Semantics aside, though, it was a solid point, and one that Claire found she didn’t have an argument for. She nodded again, but still couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling in her gut. Their food sat forgotten on the table between them, and Jamie considered her for a moment before opening his arm for her.

“Come here, a ghràidh.”

She went eagerly, slipping around the table and into the booth beside him. Nestled into his side, breathing in the warm musk of his skin, everything felt a little bit more manageable, somehow.

“Ye’re right, ye ken.” Jamie’s lips rested against her temple, the murmured words meant only for her ears. “It will mean an even bigger fight, showin’ up at their doorstep as husband and wife. But either way…” He sighed. “Either way it’s going to be bad. Right now, I’m just praying that my sister doesna say something I willnae be able to forgive.” 

Claire gave a small shake of her head, letting her eyes close. “She has every right to be upset with me, Jamie.”

“Aye, but no’ tae disrespect ye. And she’s done more than her fair share of that already.” The kiss he pressed to her hair was fierce, protective. “I dinna care how upset she is, I willnae stand by and let her drag yer name through the mud.”

“Given what she had to say in her texts,” Claire pointed out, grating her nail absently over the waffle knit of his shirt, “I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet that’s exactly what she’ll do.”

Jamie grunted. “If she’d just hold her damn wheesht long enough to let me get a word in edgeways…”

“And what do you think the chances of that are?”

Beneath her palm, his chest deflated with a deep sigh. “Slim to none,” he answered without an ounce of irony.

A matching sigh did little to relieve the tension in Claire’s own chest. For a while they rested together, vacant-eyed and lost in thought, their fingertips circling in a vague attempt to comfort one another.

It was Jamie who broke the silence this time, shifting so that his cheek rested against the top of her head. “I think ye’ve learnt well enough by now that Fraser tempers run hot, aye? We bicker like cats and dogs, say things in anger we dinna mean. All our lives, Jen and I’ve had these huge, explosive fights, and gone days, sometimes weeks wi’out speaking to one another. So I’m goin’ into this expectin’ that’s what’ll happen, and I want you to be as well, Sassenach. I want ye to be prepared for me to come stormin’ out of that house pure raging, swearin’ up and down that I’ll never speak to my sister again.”

Claire nodded her understanding, but stayed quiet, letting him speak.

“It’s always been a toss-up, which of us caves first and approaches the other to apologize. But this time, the ball’s going tae be completely in her court. I want ye to hear me when I say that she will come around, Sassenach, but like I said, I… I dinna ken how long that will take. Knowing how stubborn Jenny can be, it could verra well be weeks. Months, even.”

Or longer, the dubious voice in her head amended. Years... decades. Her ear rested close enough to Jamie’s throat that she could actually hear his pained swallow, and she wondered if he’d had the same thought.

“And if it comes to that, I…” Very slowly, he eased her up, and she lifted her gaze to find that his face was still open, so excruciatingly vulnerable that he looked like he might cry. 

“I’m going to need you,” he rasped, brushing his thumb delicately over her cheek. “It’ll be… hard. I think. Being away from them on… birthdays… holidays and the like.”

Filling her lungs with a breath so deep they ached, Claire tried her best to wrestle down the compulsory refrain of my fault, Jesus H. Christ, it’s all my fault, and listen instead to the words of the man she loved.

Jamie was trusting her. With his vulnerability, his pain. Trusting that she was still strong enough to hold him, to heal him… to be his comfort when he was hurting. If there was any force in the world strong enough to overpower her guilt, it was the bone-deep, primal instinct to do just that. 

Eyes locked resolutely on his, she reached up to cradle his face in her hands.

“I’m here,” she whispered, nodding once. “I’ve got you.”

  He let out a soft breath through his nose, closing heavy-lidded eyes as she leaned in to kiss him. Claire watched him the entire time, holding steady, so when his lashes parted again, their eyes met and held each other in mutual, unspeakable love.

“Thank you.” Very gently, she skimmed her fingertips over his stubbled cheeks, his temples, back into the auburn ringlets still damp from their bath. “For being honest with me. I know I… wasn’t in good shape when you found me at my flat, but I don’t want you to think I’m… fragile, somehow, or…”

“Nah.” Jamie’s features were tender, but a mischievous, teasing glint had returned to his eye. “Dinna think anyone would ever make that mistake, Sassenach, least of all me. I’ve been on the receivin’ end of yer Velvet Hammer side too many times fer that.” He clenched both eyes in his terrible excuse for a wink, and she gave a watery laugh.

“Truly, though…”

“I ken,” he whispered. Now it was his turn to lean in and kiss her, slowly, tenderly. When they parted, he stayed close, resting his forehead against hers. “We’ve both seen one another at our worst, Claire. Doesna mean I think ye’re helpless any more than you think I am, havin’ seen me when I couldna even wipe my own arse, hm?”

She hummed in agreement, then touched her lips to his again, and again, reveling in the closeness, the intimacy she’d craved for so long it seemed she simply couldn’t get her fill of him. 

“I want to be your partner, Jamie,” she murmured against his mouth. “Your equal. Promise me.”

“Aye, mo nighean donn.” His smile grew with each subsequent kiss until he was positively beaming. “Get me to the nearest altar, and I’ll swear it before God Himself.”

 




His mam’s wedding ring was at Lallybroch. 

Unfortunate, but there was nothing to be done about it. Jamie promised himself, privately, that he’d have it refitted for his Sassenach and engraved for one of their anniversaries. While a small part of him mourned the fact that he wouldn’t be able to give her the heirloom on their wedding day, it felt right that he and Claire should pick out their own rings together.

From the very beginning, after all, it had always been just the two of them. 

After nearly an hour of uninspired browsing at the nearest chain diamond store, they’d ventured into a small antique shop at Claire’s suggestion. 

He could hear her elated intake of breath from clear across the room when she found it.

A wee silver band, a century old at least, with interlacing Trinity knots bound at each link with a delicate Scottish thistle. 

A perfect fit.

Claire held her hand up to show him, but he was unable to tear his eyes from her face, so radiant with joy that his heart swelled to aching. 

Finding a simple silver band to match was easy enough, though he’d barely had time to reach back into his pocket for his wallet before Claire had procured her own debit card and handed it to the cashier for both rings. 

“Sassenach—”

“Partners,” she reminded him, eyebrows and chin raised in challenge. 

Seeing the fire and defiance and sheer pigheaded stubbornness return to her whisky eyes, Jamie was almost too relieved to grouse.

Almost.

He’d thought to offer, in the interest of egalitarianism, to pay for her wedding dress, at least. But after a bit of quiet discussion, fingers entwined and relieved smiles spreading across their faces, they’d ultimately decided that they would be married just as they were: in a soft grey jumper and comfortable jeans, a waffle-knit henley and leather jacket and the beanie she insisted he wear to keep his head warm.

Just Jamie and Claire.

Although, she had joked with a smirk, perhaps it would have been more fitting if they’d worn scrubs and a hospital gown, respectively.

He’d covered her smart wee mouth with his own, and swung his jacket around her shoulders as they headed back out to the rental car.

They were well and truly flying by the seat of their pants; sitting side by side in the front seat, they both scrolled through their mobiles, Googling different venues where they could be married. Every once in a while, one of them would make an excited noise and hold up their screen for the other to look, only to find that they were both looking at the same link more often than not. 

“This one is beautiful… look at the bridge over the little waterfall!”

“Aye, it’s bonny.” A quick check of his weather app, unfortunately, made Jamie scrunch his nose. “S’posed to rain on and off starting at 2:00, though.”

“Damn. Alright, indoor venues only then. Do you want to just… go to a registry office?”

He tipped his head from side to side noncommittally. “We could. If that winds up being our best option, I’m no’ opposed. I just… was hopin’ for something a bit more…”

“Romantic?” Claire offered.

He flashed a smile at her, and she returned it. “Aye.”

They returned to their searches for a while, the only sound the rumble of the engine and the heating vents, before suddenly Claire hissed out, “Oh, fuck.”

“What?”

She kept reading for a moment, too engrossed to answer him, before barking again, “Fuck! We can’t get married today!”

“Why not?!”

Flopping back against the seat in dismay, she passed her mobile over for him to read. “We have to submit our paperwork to the registrar at least twenty-nine days in advance. That’s fucking bollocks! I thought we could at least just show up at Gretna Green and have them do it, but they won’t, not without a month’s notice.”

Jamie read the same information she had, then double-checked the law on a few different sites on his own mobile. “Dammit!” he growled, tossing his phone into the cup holder with a hollow thud. “What century is this, needin’ the feckin’ banns to be read before we can be wed? That’s no’ the way it works in the films!”

A few beats of silence passed before Claire snorted, then threw her head back laughing. 

Jamie looked over at her in surprise, then burst into laughter as well, pressing his fist to his forehead and then doubling forward over the steering wheel.

“Oh God,” his Sassenach wheezed, wiping tears from her eyes as he slumped over against her shoulder. “Oh help. ‘That’s not the way it works in the films.’ We really are a pair, you and I. We didn’t even look!”

Still hiccupping helplessly, Jamie wiped his own watering eyes on her jumper, then kissed the cap of her shoulder. “I’m sorry, mo chridhe. I never would have gotten our hopes up if I’d known we couldna—”

Claire silenced him with her lips. 

“It’s alright,” she murmured as they parted, rubbing the tip of her nose against his. “Neither of us knew.” 

Slower this time, more deliberate, their mouths met, open and seeking. 

For as long as he lived, Jamie swore he would never grow tired of the hungry sound she made when his tongue swirled against hers. 

It wasn’t even a conscious choice to slide his hands up beneath her jumper, craving the feel of that impossibly soft skin. Cursing the console between them, he drew her as close as he could, demonstrating with each pulse of his tongue what he wished he could be doing to her. The fingers of his left hand began to drift south on instinct, slipping beneath the waistband of her jeans in search of her perfect round—

Click-click, BEEP!

The unlocking chirp of the car parked directly next to them made them both scramble apart like a pair of miscreant teenagers. A middle-aged woman approached, grim-faced and stern. Claire pursed her lips, blushing furiously and feigning a strong interest in her fingernail while Jamie shifted in his suddenly too-tight jeans, waiting until their unintended audience climbed into the car beside them and drove off. Another moment, and he put their own bloody car into gear, trying his damndest not to burst into laughter again.

Christ, he couldn’t believe he had to wait twenty-nine days to marry this wom—

And then it hit him. 

Eyes wide, he slammed on the brakes, shifted the car back into drive again, and parked them right back in the same spot they’d just backed out of. 

“Jamie, what on earth—?”

“I’ve got it. I think I’ve got it!” Plucking his mobile out of the cup holder, he began to Google in a frenzy. Claire watched him with an expectant expression, eyebrows raised, until at last a triumphant grin split his face. 

“What would ye say to a wee road trip, mo nighean donn?”