Actions

Work Header

Downhill

Chapter Text

 

 

A heartfelt “FUCK!” echoed off the bathroom tiles, followed by a quick and desperate, but silent What now?

She stole another glance at the offending plastic in her left hand. Nope, still the same outcome. But those cheap tests weren’t all that reliable, were they? Good thing Claire Elisabeth Beauchamp was prepared for this bout of doubt. She’d bought another one in anticipation of a vortex of thought circling around the same thing over and over again, even if she did finally have an answer to the question she hadn’t dared to ask for over 2 weeks. Even better that she had thought not to just use the loo, but peed into a small bowl, so she’d have an easier time with the second test. And the third. Okay, maybe three was a bit excessive. But then again, with that kind of equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat, who wouldn’t want to really make sure? Absolutely making sure would include confirming it with an OBGYN, of course. The tests were really just for her peace of mind. Peace of mind, yeah, so much for that.

She’d entertained the idea of a pregnancy only for a split second or so, and only because the symptoms she’d experienced over the last couple of days went hand in hand with her period being late. Too bloody late. Claire had never been the most diligent in tracking her own cycle, simply because there wasn’t much reason to do so. She always knew roughly when it was supposed to start, but hers just wasn’t one of those cycles that run like a clockwork. Hers was messy – in the figurative sense. And in the literal, too, but then again, whose wasn’t? It’s a bloody business, one’s body ridding itself of the monthly evidence that you had failed –yet again– to conceive. But this time, she hadn’t, apparently –failed, that is.

Here she sat now, staring at the second plastic stick that she’d dipped into her own urine, faced with the increasing unavoidability of the high probability that she might, in fact, have conceived. Which brought her back to her original, heartfelt statement. Fuck. Bloody, goddamn FUCK. Fuck, indeed. That’s what got her into this situation in the first place, hadn’t it?

But how? She snorted at that thought. Good God, Beauchamp, you know bloody well how that happened. And you a medical-student-to-be, too!

She wasn’t going to take a chance on this. Nope, she was going to be sure. And she’d paid for it, so she might as well use it. Ripping the third package open, Claire took out the final stick and dipped it into the bowl of urine. The liquid finally deemed done with and unnecessary for further proceedings, it was unceremoniously sent off with a forceful flush.

There was nothing left to be done in the tiny bathroom. No medical cabinet to be reorganised, no towels to be neatly folded. Now, she could only wait with nothing to distract her. Another 7 minutes passed before she picked up and looked at number three.

Eyes squeezed shut tightly, she dropped her head onto her knees and held onto them, trying to keep the overwhelming urge to vomit at bay. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought that this particular attack of nausea wasn’t due to what the two pink lines on stick number three confirmed, yet again. She was, indeed, pregnant.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“Clai-haaaiire?” a sing-song voice and repeated knocking on the bathroom door finally jerked her out of her stupor. “Are ye in there?”

Shit, Geillis. How late was it? How long had she been in here? “Who else?” she called back.

“I thought the door was maybe stuck again. I didnae want tae break it doon and surprise ye in a compromising situation in case it wasnae stuck after all.” The fat smirk on her best friend’s face was all-too audible.

“How very considerate of you, Geillis”, she replied, her tone the vocal equivalent of an eye-roll.

She stared at the pregnancy test in her hand, then at the two still lying on the bathroom counter. Compromising indeed. Well, there wasn’t much to be done about it now. Stuffing them and the ripped packaging back into the plastic bag, she wrapped it all into a neat, small bundle and stowed it as far back as the cupboard under the sink allowed. That shouldn’t raise too much suspicion, unless Geillis would suddenly feel the urge to rummage through their cleaning supplies. Hell would probably freeze over before that one would lift even one finger to do anything that revolved around cleaning out of her own free will. Thank God for unanimously agreed-upon cleaning plans. That plan was one of the backbones of their successful cohabitation. Taking a deep breath to steady herself before facing the world outside of her head again, Claire opened the groaning bathroom door and had Geillis right up in her personal space.

“Hello there, beautif –,” Geillis began, her smile replaced for a second by a small frown before she continued, “Did ye fancy yer mornin’ parritch on the porcelain throne today, m’lady?”

“What?”

One long, pale finger pointed down. “You took a bowl in there wi’ you.” Claire could feel the heat of embarrassment rise up in her cheeks and tried to cover it with a cough.

“Ehm... I don’t know. I’ve not been feeling all that well today. I probably took it with me when I went for a pee.” Pee. That was her cue to leave this conversation before she said something she didn’t mean to or Geillis caught on that the whiff of urine didn’t come from the loo. Brushing past her roommate, she headed straight for the kitchenette to give the bowl a thorough antiseptic scrub and rinse. Not suspicious at all. 

“You must really be feeling peely-wally, ye didnae even take a spoon wi’ you,” her friend remarked, one fair brow perched in question as much as amusement.

“I guess so.” The warm water was soothing, but didn’t work against the green eyes she knew were boring into her back.

“You alright, hen?” There was a definite tone of worry now.

“Just a bit under the weather I guess,” she said, looking back over her shoulder, trying to reassure her friend with a smile. Geillis didn’t quite seem to believe that but didn’t press further. She knew she’d talk to her eventually.

“Anyhoo, I’m going tae jump intae the shower, dinnae want tae be late fer our first class, aye, Doctor-tae-be Beauchamp?” And with a dramatic flipping of her luscious platinum mane, Geillis turned around and disappeared behind the bathroom door, whistling. That would give Claire some time to get a hold of herself. ‘Looking like this takes an effort, hen’. She smiled at the recollection of her and Geillis’ first ever serious argument. ’Ye cannae jus’ assume that I’d be ready looking like this in five!’ She had not, in fact, had any problem whatsoever with the length of time it had taken Geillis to get ready for their own housewarming party – okay, maybe a tiny problem with that, too – but the major issue had been the lack of hot water for her own ablutions before the guests arrived. Both strong-willed and equipped with a healthy set of lungs, the argument had grown rather loud, but ended quickly in a hug and a compromise. Claire would always have the prerogative first turn in the shower, but Geillis could take as long as she wanted, and as much water as she wanted, too.

A highly confidently sung false version of the chorus to Get Lucky permeated through the bathroom door and her reverie. Glancing at the microwave clock made her jump a little, seeing how late it had gotten, and drop the freshly dried bowl back into the soapy depths of the sink. Shit. Not sparing as much time and thoroughness this time, Claire fished the bowl out again, gave it a superficial dry down and put it on the dish rack.

In her room, Claire double-checked that she had everything she needed for classes (phone, laptop, charger, notebook, pens) before she changed into the outfit she’d put out the night before. High-waisted black jeans paired with a tank top underneath her favourite plaid shirt, and comfy sneakers. Nothing spectacular, but comfortable – and that was her preferred state of being. Another look into her bag to make sure that her charger was really there –it was– since her phone had become irrationally unreliable since the Madeira trip and needed recharging every couple of hours.

One last attempt in front of the full-length mirror to tame her mass of brown curls into something not resembling a bird’s nest, and she was ready. Ready for the first day of classes. The first of many, to be sure. Claire Beauchamp would become a doctor, just as she always wanted. Would she, though? She glanced downward to where her right hand was hovering protectively above her womb. Before her mind could go down that road, she noticed that the singing had stopped and left her room to enquire. “Geillis?” While it took her best friend an hour or more to shower and put a face on, she was a miracle worker when it came to getting dressed. Just as she was about to call a second time, the door to Geillis’ bedroom opened and she came out, sporting a dazzling smile.

“Are ye ready, then, Claire?”

And this time, the answering smile was sincere. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 3 - The Steaming Mug

It turned out that Claire wasn’t quite as ready as she had believed herself to be. Arriving outside the campus gate after a 20 minute walk, her stomach seemed to have knotted itself into a proper fish braid. Ever the observant friend, Geillis picked up on her discomfort, and took hold of her hand.

“It’s going tae be orite, hen. I’m wi’ ye.” What had been meant as an encouraging wink looked so distressingly like an imitation of Mister Bean’s facial car crash comedy at his best, that Claire couldn’t help but double over and burst out laughing, causing more than one of the passers-by to stare at them disapprovingly. Geillis, visibly embarrassed, the tip of her sharp-edged nose a rich pink, as she tried to get her friend to stop hooting, and look like someone who wasn’t friends with a total madwoman, just about to collapse on the path to the campus.

“Will ye bloody stop, Beauchamp?! It wasnae that funny at all!” she hissed, trying to appear nonchalant – and failing miserably.

It didn’t exactly help that the two of them didn’t blend into crowds easily in any case, with Geillis’ natural platinum blonde mane reaching down to her buttocks and Claire’s wild brown curls flying madly around her face, but the fact that they were currently half blocking the path leading onto the campus, wasn’t improving things in that regard.

As reasoning and pleading didn’t produce the desired result, Geillis took matters into her own hands – the matter of the moment being Claire. She grabbed her by the arm and bodily dragged her still shaking form off the path and under a nearby birch tree, out of sight of curious gazes from the freshers group that was just walking up towards the gate.

“God, that was just what I needed right now!” Claire’s mouth curled into a sincere smile as she straightened back up to wipe the moisture from her eyes and cheeks. Her belly was still quivering with the echoes of laughter when she locked eyes with her best friend, standing there with arms crossed, and noticed the tick of her left eye – a clear indication that his particular best friend was about to lose her patience. “I’m sorry, Gee,” Claire said, meaning it, and Geillis’ expression lightened perceptibly after considering whether this apology had been sincere or not, eye tick gone within the blink of an eye.

“Fergiven, hen.” Thankfully not being the sullen or grudge-holding kind, Geillis went straight back to her cheery self. “Sae, since we’re still half an hour early, how aboot we grab a coffee before the lecture?”

Claire nodded.

“But you’ll be paying, Beauchamp!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“That’s ‘aye, ma’am’, for you, d’ye hear?”

“Aye, aye, ma’am!” and the both of them dissolved in laughter, this time, together.

Since their favourite coffee joint was only a five minute walk away, they didn’t have to hurry. They knew it wouldn’t be crowded with students –it never was. A bit too far off campus to be adequately convenient for a quick caffeine fix and a bit shabby-looking, The Steaming Mug didn’t appeal all that much to the general student body. Which was a blessing. Decent coffee served in huge mugs for a good price and no uncomfortable hipster-wannabe furniture making a prolonged stay undesirable, it was the perfect place to plop down into one of the worn leather armchairs and have a chat with a friend, read a book, or tackle the odd essay assignment or two.

They chatted animatedly with their favourite barista Greg, as he got their order ready, Claire dutifully paying and tipping generously. Their exit was marked by the chime of the rusty, old bell above the door. Outside, the sun shone brightly and Claire closed her eyes in bliss as she took a careful sip of the fragrant brew. It tasted different today, and not just because she had ordered her first-ever decaf.

Liquid fortification in hand, and with much less nerves, they made their way back to the campus of the University of Edinburgh. They’d both known the place for some time now, having completed their undergraduates there together while becoming fast friends, but it still felt different today when they stepped over the gated threshold together, hands clasped in support of each other. Today, they’d both be starting their medical studies. There was no need to say out loud how much hard work had gone into achieving this goal. They both knew; both had sacrificed in their own way. But now the day had come, they had taken the first step towards their new life –and it felt amazing.  

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 4 - Revelation

As opposed to the figurative milestone step they had taken together through the gate onto the campus, the introductory lecture had been somewhat anti-climactic. The professor droned on and on about administrational issues and how to successfully write an email –not even kidding. Nothing exciting whatsoever about the prospects they would face in the field of medicine. Geillis rolled her eyes so hard when the poor man tried to tell a joke– and failed–that Claire chuckled, for which she received her other seat neighbour’s scowl and a bossy “Shhhht!”

She threw back a look that said quite plainly what she thought of his admonishing her. Deciding it wasn’t worth either her time or effort, she turned to face the professor again and ignored his knee that kept pushing into her thigh at intervals, hastily scribbling down the more noteworthy points on the PowerPoint slides.

The days passed by in a blur, but without much excitement, except for a rogue toaster that had been replaced with a quirky Star Wars one (‘Now ye can lick yer jam off Darth Vader’s face ev’ry morning!’), as Claire and Geillis settled into their new routine. The cleaning and other chores plan was adapted according to their new schedules, and room was made on the bookshelf to accommodate two identical sets of medical books. For a brief moment they had considered to share, but dismissed the thought as impractical.  It was 17 days into the new semester when Geillis came home to find Claire seated on the sofa, surrounded by books and notebooks, that their domestic bubble was about to burst.

“Orite, I’ve had enough o’ this, Claire,” Geillis announced as she plopped down on the sofa next to her, upsetting the carefully laid-out arrangement of study materials and snacks.

Claire’s nose twitched slightly at the intrusion, but was still buried in her course book as she sucked industriously on a pen during her revision of today’s lecture on biochemistry.

“Wa?”

“Take that pen out of yer mouth, Beauchamp, I cannae understand ye.”

With a heavy sigh that bespoke the trials of living with someone who had very little respect for personal space at times, Claire stopped sucking on the pen and started to worry the push button instead.

“What?”

“I said I cannae understand ye properly if ye’re chewing yer way all through that pen. Ye really shouldnae do that, by the way.”

“I know what you said, Gee. I meant what do you mean with ‘you’ve had enough of this’?”

“Weel, ye’ve been all quiet and often walking around wi’ a face like they announced that Ben and Jerry’s went out of business and ye’d never see a pint of yer Cookie Dough again when ye thought I wasnae looking. But ye havena said a single word tae me yet, and I’m getting’ worrit. So, what's happened that ye cannae even tell me, hen?”

Claire took a steadying breath, trying to put on a brave face and continue to pretend it was nothing– for now.

“And before ye tell me again that ye’re ‘fine’, Claire, I have tae warn ye, that I’m gonna punch you if ye do,” she said, fist raised in mock threat.

“You can’t, Geillis,” Claire said matter-of-factly, finally turning to look at her friend, and putting the pen down in her book to mark the page to return to later.

“O’ course I can! D’ye think I go tae the gym three times a week fer ma face? These babies are deadly!” The fair-haired woman locked eyes with Claire, setting her eyebrows in a way she hoped would approximate a menacing expression, and kissed her biceps affectionately.

Despite everything that was weighing her down–the as of yet unshared secret, the new demands of her studies– Claire laughed so hard that at that ridiculous display that her cheeks went red and her curls bounced wildly.

“First of all, my dear,” she said, regaining her composure and wiping at her eyes, “we both know very well that you go to the gym twice a week, and if it’s for biceps, that may be so, but definitely not your own. I seem to recall a fifteen minute conversation trying to persuade me to come with you to have a look at – what was his name again? Hunkster MacGlutes?” she shook her head, a smile playing on her lips as she said it and thought of the hilarious image Geillis had painted of her latest gym crush. “Second, while I’m positive that, technically, you would be able to punch me, you still can’t.”

Serious confusion was written all over her best friends face. The brows were knitted together, and she’d stopped speaking, lips slightly parted. If there had been any further indication necessary, this would have been it.

“I’m no’ followin’.”

Claire inhaled deeply and sat up straighter, but just couldn’t quite manage to meet Geillis’ eyes when she spoke next.

“Because you’re not supposed to punch pregnant women.”

It took what felt like an eternity to Claire for the meaning of that simple statement to sink in and register with Geillis, whose face went through an extraordinarily comical transformation when it finally did.

She hadn’t said it out loud before, not even when she was alone. Now that she –sort of– had said it, Claire felt a weight lifted off her shoulders that people, also recently unburdened by their secrets, liked to talk about. Apparently there was some wisdom to it.

“Ye’re...”

Another deep inhale before Claire answered, “Yes.”

“...pregnant?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Ye think?”

“Well, I know so, but I still made an appointment with Dr. Raymond to confirm it with a professional.”

“Aye, that’s... verra sensible,” she said, seeming lost in thought for a second. “But my god, Claire, how?!”

Claire snorted.

“How is it that how always seems to be the first question –myself included– even if we all know perfectly well how?”

Geillis rolled her eyes.

“Because ye ken verra well that I’m no asking aboot the particulars of the mechanics of intercourse, or how that led to conception– though it wouldnae came amiss if ye were inclined tae share some details on that specific night, mind– but why ye didnae use contraception, fer god’s sake.”

“We did,” Claire interrupted before her friend could talk herself into a diatribe about how ‘an independent woman cannae rely on a man’ and should never, ever put their trust in those ‘baw-heided buggers’ when it came to not carrying ‘their unwanted spawn’ .

“Oh. Shite.”

“Quite the accurate summary there, Duncan.”

A minute’s silence was broken by Geillis, when she asked “Whose is it?”

“That sounds as if I were jumping everything with a dick, first chance I get,” Claire huffed indignantly.

“I didnae mean it like tha’, and ye ken it well. Sae, who’s the father?”

Claire’s shoulders slumped, ready to admit defeat.

“Oh no. Surely it cannae be...?”

“Yes, it’s Jamie’s.”

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 5 - Revelation Continued

Claire wiped at her mouth, teeth freshly brushed after another unwelcome attack of morning sickness –not that her tiny co-habitant was cooperative enough to keep it strictly to the morning hours– and returned to her spot on the comfy couch. By now, there sat two mugs of tea on the glass table next to her, the aroma of peppermint calming her olfactory nerves immediately. While she was a coffee-junky through and through, Claire also maintained an extensive assortment of loose tea leaves, usually intended to create her own blends depending on her need and fancy, and it wasn’t an unusual sight for her to be found sipping some during late hours. It was the second mug that had earned Geillis a raised eyebrow from Claire.

 “Weel, I usually would ha’ opted for a healthy dram, but it didnae seem appropriate right now. And I didnae want tae rub it in, sae...”

Claire half threw herself at her friend, hugging her tightly.

“Och, I didnae say that my tea was completely virgin, though, aye?” She smiled into Claire’s hair and rubbed her back gently.

They each settled back into their own space, adjusting the pillows just a bit, but stayed close enough for their bodies to touch occasionally, the physical closeness a comfort she didn’t easily share with anyone else.

“Seeing that ye’re quite obviously no’ a virgin anymore –and with proof of it – maybe we should get back tae it, aye?”

Claire swatted her friend’s arm.

“Ha, bloody, ha, Geillis.”

Unperturbed by her roommate’s sarcasm, the fair-haired woman continued pushing the conversation forward.

 “Sae, what ye’re telling me is that the ginger half-god ye met on our Madeira trip is the maker of yer bun, aye?”

“Yes.”

“And ye’re absolutely sure aboot that?”

Claire jumped up, nearly upsetting the still-full mug to shatter on the floor in her frustration, and started pacing up and down their small living room, gesturing wildly with her arms as she did so.

“Yes, I am bloody sure! Jamie’s the only guy I’ve slept with in the last 7 months. And even if there were more, judgement would be the last thing I need right now. Especially not from you, Gee. You’re the one preaching female empowerment and taking our pleasure and what-not-else after all!” She stopped her pacing and, while looming over Geillis, pointed an accusing finger at the still-seated feminist in question.

Geillis simply moved the affronting digit out of her field of vision.

“Weel, I wouldnae be judging ye, even if ye were the hoor of Babylon, but it would ha’ been a lot easier if it wasnae Jamie, aye?”

“You’re not wrong there.” Just as quickly as her temper had flared up, it disappeared again with an exaggerated sigh, but her posture was still rigid as she sat back down and clutched her mug in both hands, staring into the golden liquid as if all the answers could be found at its bottom. Neither of them said anything else for some time, the stretch of silence only being broken by the companionable sounds of tea being slurped.

“Sae, how far along are ye then?” Before Claire could answer, however, Geillis counted back to their Madeira trip and came up with the answer herself, “Around 9 weeks then, aye?”

“Mhm.” Claire confirmed quietly.

“How long have ye known?”

“Since I was walking around with my ‘I’ll never have another pint of Cookie Dough-face’ apparently,” Claire retorted, still a tad annoyed still by her friend’s earlier description.

“Makes sense.”

“At least something does.”

She was staring at the whitewashed wall where they had hung their first jointly-purchased item for their shared flat– a life-sized, skilfully hand-drawn sketch of the human body, one half displaying the bone structure and the other the muscle layers, which they’d studied to prepare for their entrance exam for medical school– when Geillis’ put a hand on her shoulder. Feeling her friend’s supportive squeeze, all of Claire’s emotional dams suddenly broke, tears of unacknowledged fear spilling down over the reddening skin of her cheeks. Somehow she had managed to keep it under wraps until now, not allowing herself to be consumed by the overwhelming weight on her shoulders. But now that the gates were open, she couldn’t pretend any longer.

“God, what am I going to do, Geillis? I’m not ready for this. I can’t be a mother. Not now, not bloody now.” Her breath started to come out in quick, shallow wheezes, while the pressure in her chest heightened with each expansion of her ribcage. “Oh, god.”

“Breathe, Claire.”

“I can’t...,” she gasped for air, her chest feeling unbearably tight, “I...just can’t.”

“Fer fuck’s sake, breathe, woman! One, two, three. That’s it. It’s going tae be orite,” Geillis tried to reassure here, drawing soothing circles on her back and tucking a rebellious curl behind her ear. “Come here, hen, and lay yer heid.”

Claire collapsed against her friend and sobbed into her lap, dark blotches wetting the fabric of Geillis’ jeans.

“It’s–,“ she gasped again, “–not going to be alright!”  

“Aye, ‘tis.”

“How?” she demanded, head turning to look up at her friend, lost amber eyes meeting calm moss-green ones, as her breathing became steadier again. “How am I supposed to finish med school? With a toddler at my heels? I can’t even cook properly for myself, let alone a child!” Her right hand rested unconsciously where the unborn life, the size of a chickpea, lay hidden.

”We’re getting’ a wee bit ahead of ourselves there, don’t ye think?”

“Wha–“

“Ye dinnae have tae cook fer the wee one just yet, no? “

“Guess not,” came the muffled response.

“Listen tae me, Claire,” Geillis said with calm authority.

“Hmph?”

“Ye dinnae have tae learn how tae cook, nor decide anything else just now. I ken that you can be a mother if that’s what ye choose. But there’s nothing ye’ll have tae make up yer mind about right now, either.”

At this, Claire began to weep in earnest. Her frame was shaking from ugly sobs, her chest heaving with the effort not to let all the pain break free at once, and Geillis let her, giving her the time she needed. They sat there on the couch, not speaking, just listening to the quiet sounds of the apartment, occasionally interrupted by Claire’s sniffles. After a while, Claire had no more tears left –for now. She lay there with her head in Geillis lap, calmed by the hand that was still gently stroking her cheek.

“I’m sorry, Gee.”

“For what?”

“Ruining your trousers. They’re all snotty and ...” She sat up and pointed at the mess she’d made.

“Och, nevermind that. I guess someone’ll take over my next laundry duty as thanks,” Geillis replied with a wink that didn’t come even remotely close to being a wink. Claire chuckled softly.

“Your inability to wink cheers me up every time.”

“Happy tae be o’ service, I guess.” Geillis replied, her lips curving into a lopsided smile. “Anyway, we’ll deal wi’ one thing after another, aye?” She wriggled out of her jeans and threw them into the laundry hamper in the bathroom, not bothering to put on anything else in their place before she came back. “Trousers, check.” Claire smiled at her friend’s practical approach to the situation. “Next thing on the agenda– the doctor. When is yer appointment with Dr. Raymond?”

“In two days.”

“What time?”

“I think at 11, why?” Claire rubbed her face in an effort to release some of the tension there.

“Because I’m comin’ wi’ ye, of course!”

“You don’t have to do that, Geillis. I appreciate it, but–“

“I ken I dinnae have tae do it, hen,” Geillis interrupted, “that’s no’ the point. This came as a real shock tae me, and I cannae even begin tae imagine how hard it must be on you then. But whatever ye’ll do, Claire, I’ll be wi’ ye. All the way. Ye’re no’ alone in this, even if we cannae find Jamie. I promise ye that much.”

Claire stared at the outstretched hand that was offered to her in a solemn promise. She would have cried again if she hadn’t been run completely dry already, almost choking on the emotion that was welling up again at that simple but sweet gesture.

“Thank you.”

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 6 - Vacation Intervention

Island of Madeira, last week of July

Madeira was not what she’d expected. When Geillis told her about the idea to leave the city, the stress of summer-work, and applying for the Edinburgh Medical School behind in exchange for a week of relaxation on a Portuguese island, Claire had been reluctant at first. She thought that it would be too hot, too loud, and too overcrowded with drunk, German tourists for her liking. Despite feeling that it might not be the exactly right place for her to ‘calm her tits and forget about school for a while’, she’d given in to Geillis’ unrelenting nagging, agreeing to join the fray. God, that woman could be persuasive.

Now that she was lying on a wonderfully empty beach, protected by the expansive shade of a palm tree and a layer of sunscreen, she didn’t even mind all that much that the group of friends scattered on towels around her included Laoghaire MacKenzie.

While they had known each other since secondary school they had attended in Glasgow, Claire had always had the impression that the blonde girl didn’t like her very much. There was never any open hostility, no fighting over seating arrangements, no disputes about who should take on which part of the assigned group work. They talked politely when they had to, but they never spoke to each other if not forced into conversation by circumstance. If it were just that, Claire would have probably said that they were rather neutral towards each other, living their separate lives along a road sharing the same goal –becoming a doctor. She couldn’t pinpoint what it was exactly that made her uneasy about the other woman. It was more a general vibe than anything she could articulate. Whenever Claire looked her way, the watery blue eyes seemed to exude an air of intense dislike. Still, she tried to keep it friendly because they moved in the same circle of friends and study groups.

The days had gone by quickly, spent mostly on the beach –swimming, reading, and napping. It had been enjoyably quiet and surprisingly relaxing, despite being in constant company of other people. Claire was used to having Geillis around 24/7, but she hadn’t been sure how much she could take of the others. Mary Hawkins, a very shy and sweet thing, was a dear friend, but she’d never spent more than a day with her. The Randall brothers –three of them– were great company individually, but had a tendency to get a bit much when they were together. Must be the testosterone. And then there was dear Isobel of course. A smart girl with a sharp wit and a kind heart. There was only one thing about Isobel that Claire couldn’t stomach– her refusal to travel without her sister, Geneva, a bratty princess if Claire had ever known one. Because with Geneva, came Laoghaire. The two of them made quite a pair – one fair, the other dark, with long legs and big busts, but definitely lacking in personality. But there was space enough to avoid each other, and Claire did just that, having a great time with the others. Until she remembered that they would be hearing from the admission’s office any day now.  From that moment onwards, Claire wasn’t able to enjoy herself properly anymore. She stared at the too dark screen of her phone, willing it to light up with the notification of a new email, only to panic when it would finally ping, announcing an incoming message. And it was driving Geillis slowly mad.

The same night, when the whole group had gone to a club with live music near Porto Santo Beach for some drinks, her best friend had had enough of her compulsive behaviour when Claire didn’t pay as much attention as she should have to their conversation, her gaze drawn to her phone like a magnet to true north.

“Enough o’ this,” Geillis declared firmly, and snatched up Claire’s phone from the table-top before the curly-haired woman registered what was happening.

“What the bloody hell, Gee?”

“I ken ye’re nervous, hen, we all are, but this is absolutely ridiculous. Ye haven’t been able tae have a proper conversation wi’ anyone the whole day, and ye’re just staring at that stupid phone fer nae reason. They’re no’ going tae send us anything on a weekend.” Claire tried to make a grab for it, but, anticipating the move Geillis moved it out of her reach behind her back. “I mean it Claire ye’re no’ getting this back tonight. We came here to no’ worry about school, and that’s what you’ll do, too, even if I have tae use force.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? Give my phone back this minute!” Claire had jumped up from her seat, hand outstretched in demand.

Moss-green eyes assessed her coolly, as Geillis stood up as well and moved behind her chair.

“If ye want it, come and get it, Beauchamp,” she taunted, wagging the phone. Then, she turned around and bolted quick as lightning into the crowd in front of the stage.

“This isn’t happening, is it?” she turned to Mary and Isobel, still sat at the table, both trying to hide a chuckle.

Claire sprinted after Geillis, but navigating through the throng of people intent on listening to the band and dancing along in close quarters proved to be far more difficult than anticipated. The last thing she saw of her friend as she jostled her way through was a swish of the platinum mane disappearing around a corner.

A minute or two later, Claire found herself slightly sweaty and thoroughly irritated outside of the Porto Santo Beach Club ladies’ bathroom, using the less peopled area to scan the scene for her about-to-be-murdered best friend. She didn’t even have to look for long; the brazen thief already came walking up to her with a definite bounce in her step, face split by a victorious grin.

“Phone,” Claire demanded, “now.”

“I dinnae have it anymore.”

“Come on, it wasn’t funny before, and it isn’t funny now. Give it back to me.”

“I gave it tae someone else.”

There was a beat of deathly silence.

“You what?” Her eyes narrowed to slits as her shoulders tensed.

“I gave it tae someone else,” Geillis repeated, now admitting the probability that her master plan might not have been the smartest choice of action after all.

“Why, for god’s sake?”

“Ye gave me nae choice, hen. Ye were driving everyone– including yerself– crazy.”

“Who?” The colour in her cheeks was rising as was as her voice went cold. "Who did you give it to?"

“I ken ye’re mad at me, but I’m no’ telling ye just yet. Ye need tae get away from that phone fer a while. Ye’ll get it back in an hour, I promise.”

Her friend reached out a hand in consolation towards her, but Claire shrugged the gesture off.

“Fuck off, Geillis.” She turned around and walked away, leaving Geillis standing alone, smile gone from her face now.  

Her gut urged her to get as far away as possible from meddling friends who couldn’t mind their own bloody business, but rationality reminded her that Geillis had the key to their hotel room. And with her phone she had also lost the ability to find her way back there. Bloody, goddamn fuck.

Claire left the club and inhaled deeply, consciously trying to unclench her teeth and loosen up the tension in her shoulders. The reek of piss and hormonal drunkards didn’t much to assuage her wrath, so she began walking down the street lined with clubs and bars until the worst of it had subsided.

When she came back ten minutes later, she didn’t join her friends’ table again. Throwing Geillis a look that could kill, she walked over to the bar instead and sat down heavily with her back turned to her. She was still sulking when suddenly a drink was pushed into her field of vision.

 “If you think I’ll stop being mad at you for buying me a drink, Duncan, think again.”

“Good thing I’m no’ Duncan, then, aye?” The Scots accent didn’t come as a surprise, but the deep bass of it did.

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 7 - Decision

An appointment with an ob-gyn is never an especially fun activity, no matter how sensitive and professional a doctor such as Gregory Raymond might be. Even the fact that Geillis had accompanied her, holding her hand all the way through the examination –and keeping a straight face despite the death grip Claire had of her fingers – didn’t make this particular visit and the conversation about the available options to deal with a probable pregnancy any easier. But the worst part of it all was the waiting. ‘We’ll get in touch with you in two to four days to inform you about the results, Miss Beauchamp’ they had said. It was after the second night without much sleep that she finally got the call.

When it came, it was at a rather inopportune moment, in the middle of one of her morning classes, and she had to leave the lecture hall to take it. Good thing her phone was always set on vibrate when she was on campus. That way she still knew when someone called or texted, but it didn’t disrupt the class. It wasn’t unusual for a student to step outside during a lecture, so nobody batted an eye when Claire got up, and speedily made her exit, climbing over the back of her seat in the last row so as not to disturb anyone on her way out.  

She returned five minutes later, sliding into her seat from the back, awaited by inquiring fair eyebrows and lips drawn tightly together in anticipation. Geillis’ foot was tapping nervously under the table when she made a gesture as if to say Sae? Tell me! Claire swallowed visibly and shared a sad smile with her friend, a pained gaze clouding her honey eyes.

“Shite,” Geillis mouthed quietly as she rubbed Claire’s shoulder to convey her sympathy. “D’ye want tae go, hen? We dinnae have tae sit through this–“.

“No, it’s alright.” She squeezed the hand on her shoulder affectionately and turned to face the lecturer again. Despite her looking straight at the projected slides, Geillis knew that Claire wouldn’t be taking note of anything and kept extra diligent notes for her to copy later.

The rest of the lecture seemed to last half a life-time. Geillis kept throwing her sideways glances, trying to judge how composed her friend really was. It came as a surprise to her as well, but she was calm– unnervingly so. There had been a tiny speck of hope, of course, that the three pregnancy tests had indeed been wrong, but she hadn’t really counted on that. She was a realist and she had had time to digest that news already. What she wasn’t ready for, was the decision she was about to face now. What was she going to do about it? Geillis had the good sense that broaching the subject in public was not an option, so they walked home together in silence.

Reaching the refuge of their apartment, keys left in the bowl next to the door, bags dropped to the floor, both women went straight to their respective rooms, following an early-on-established routine of shedding their clothing and changing into more comfortable wear before doing anything else.  

“Peppermint or chamomile, Claire?” Geillis shouted from the kitchenette as Claire pulled up her sweatpants.

“Peppermint, please!” she called back, finishing dressing.

The scene that greeted her when she entered the cosy living room reminded her eerily of a couple of days before, when she had shared her burden with Geillis, and crumpled to a teary mess in her friend’s lap. Not a moment she was particularly proud of, but it had made her appreciate Geillis even more. Her best friend sat cross-legged on the sofa, inhaling the steam of her freshly made cup of coffee with an expression of pure bliss. Sitting down next to her, Claire added a spoonful of honey to her mug of tea and stirred, gaze turned inward.

“Do ye want tae talk aboot it?” Geillis’ smooth voice called her back from wherever her thoughts had taken her.

She shrugged helplessly.

“I honestly don’t know.”

Geillis didn’t speak, encouraging her silently to take all the time she needed.

“It’s not just that I have to make a decision about... well,” she begged her friend silently to get her meaning, so she wouldn’t have to say it out loud. When she saw Geillis nod in understanding, Claire continued, “It’s also that I have less than two weeks to take it.” She seemed lost, gaze wandering aimlessly around the apartment.

“I hate myself for even considering it, Geillis.” The curtain of her wild curls hid her face as she turned away, but her voice gave the rawness of emotion away.

“Dinnae hate yerself, Claire. Ye have the right tae consider every option available. It’s yer life, no one else’s. Ye’ll be the one who has to live wi’ it, either way. Sae it’s you that’ll get tae make the call.”

 “The problem being that I just don’t know what is right for me,” she responded with a weak smile.

“Mmphm.”

“I never saw myself as a mother, you know? It’s not that I don’t like kids, I do, but they were never really part of how I saw my future.”

“Never?”

“No. I only ever wanted to become a healer. That was pretty much it. I guess I wouldn’t have minded to start a family at one point with the right guy, but that never really seemed important to contemplate.”

“Before now, ye mean?”

“Yes, before now,” she sighed, head hung low.

Geillis patted her head, closing what little distance was left between them on the couch.

“And it’s such bloody ill timing, too,” she began, “I mean, I just got into medical school. That’s going to be hard enough as it is, but having a child at the same time? And being a single mother to boot?”

“Och, Claire.”

“Never mind that I don’t have any family left that would maybe support me with this,” she continued, finally being able to let all her worries roam free. “It’s also a financial issue. How am I supposed to provide for it?”

“Ye have me Claire. I said it before and I meant it. I’d support ye and the bairn wherever I could.”

“I know you mean it Geillis, and I love you for it –so much it hurts – but having a baby around in this apartment?” she asked, gesturing around the confined quarters. “It’s not just the space. It wouldn’t just take over my life, it would impact yours as well, and not in a good way.”

“I ken verra well what it means tae have a bairn around. My mither had seven of them after all,” Geillis insisted. “I mean it Claire, ye’re my family. If ye choose tae have it, I’ll no’ leave ye alone, and if it means that I have tae break my vow ‘tae never ever touch a nappie again’, sae be it!”

Despite her misery, Claire chuckled softly at Geillis’ earnest vow, which the blonde woman emphasised with a dramatic crossing of her heart and intent look.

“I’d never thought you’d be so bloody good at dealing with stuff like this, Gee. No offense,” she added quickly, anxious that her friend might take it the wrong way.

“None taken, hen. Trust me, it’s a lot easier from where I’m sitting.”

“God, I don’t know what to do!” Claire cried, exasperated.

“Weel, I think it comes down to the question o’ whether or no’ ye want that child.”

“But that is the problem!”

“No. I mean, aye, o’ course, but that’s no’ what I meant. What ye’ve been thinking and talking aboot were only circumstances. Strip all o’ that away before ye consider the real question. Would ye want it if ye didnae have tae worry aboot school, finances, or the father? Once ye got that, we can figure out the rest.”

She opened her mouth as if to say something, but closed it again.

“I dinnae expect ye tae come up wi’ that right away, hen. But think aboot it that way: would ye regret not having it later?”

Claire didn’t respond. How could she ever answer that question? It seemed like such an impossible thing to do. She sat there quietly, head leaned back against the cushions, eyes unable to focus on anything for long. Thoughts were racing wildly and incoherently, while Geillis fetched herself another cup of coffee and turned Netflix on. She had said her piece, and now it was up to Claire to reach a decision.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“If you think I’ll stop being mad at you for buying me a drink, Duncan, think again.”

“Good thing I’m no’ Duncan, then, aye?” The Scots accent didn’t come as a surprise, but the deep bass of it did.

 Chapter 8 - Footprints in the Sand

Island of Madeira, Porto Santo Beach Club

Claire turned toward the deep voice, ready to rebuke whoever was daring enough to disturb her quiet seething, and looked up to find herself face to face with the most gorgeous pair of dark blue eyes she had ever seen. They were set in a strong, good-humoured face framed by short, curly red hair, with prominent cheekbones and ruddy brows. A knife-edged nose that was just that tiny bit too long pointed the way down to a wide mouth that seemed fixed in a slightly lopsided smile, which was not even remotely diminished by a crooked canine tooth. He was clean-shaven, but had missed some of the red-golden stubble just above his Adam’s apple. And just like that, all the anger she had built up evaporated into nothingness.

“Ehm...,” she cleared her throat in an attempt to mask the blush that was creeping up on her neck as she stared at luscious lips begging to be kissed. Pull yourself together, Beauchamp! “I guess so.”

 “I’m Jamie,” he stated simply, anticipating her next question. “It seemed like ye could use one.” He pushed the glass of brightly-coloured liquid further into her space.

“Well, thank you, ehm...Jamie, but I don’t drink, so...,” she began lamely, pushing the cocktail back to him.

“Ne’er? And here I was under the impression that humans needed water tae sustain them,” his wide mouth curved with amusement. Before she could counter anything, he continued, still smiling widely, “It’s virgin, dinnae worry, lass.”

“Oh...thank you, then. What is it?”

“Jus’ a fruit cocktail,” he said, settling himself down on the bar stool next to hers, “May I join ye?”

“I think you already did, Jamie.” She smiled invitingly at him.

He chortled.

“Seems I did, aye? I can go if ye –,“ he said, half rising from the stool.

“No!” she interrupted, putting a hand on his shoulder to prevent his leaving, thankful for the dark lighting in the club hiding her reddening cheeks somewhat.

Not letting on what he thought of that display of eagerness for his company, his gaze fixed on her face and he smiled even wider while gesturing to the barkeeper for a refill of his own glass.

“What’s yer name, then, lass?” he asked, turning his body fully towards her.

“Claire,” she answered, extending her hand in polite introduction.

“Pleased tae meet ye, Claire.” He grasped her finely-boned hand in his much larger one and squeezed lightly, sending tiny sparks through her nervous system.

“The pleasure is all mine, Jamie.”

 “Sae, I assume the lass who gave me this was the ominous Duncan?” He pulled a black phone adorned with a unicorn sticker out of his shirt pocket and handed it over to her.

“My phone! Bloody fuck! She actually gave that to you? A fucking stranger?!” Claire was furious, whipping her head around to glare at the back of Geillis’ head across the room, when she realised what she had said. “Oh, sorry, I –“

“’Tis orite, lass. I was a stranger a couple of minutes ago. I didnae take offense,” he assured her, his expression warm and welcoming.

She relaxed at that, and took a sip of the fruit cocktail that sat still untouched on the bar, tiny umbrella and all.

“Sae, who were ye waiting tae hear from sae badly, lass?”

Claire sighed, her shoulder slumped with the frustration and anxiety she’d experienced all day hitting home again.

“The admissions office of the Edinburgh Medical School.”

“Oh,” he said, blinking rapidly.

“Oh?” she repeated, right brow arched slightly, “I guess that’s not what you expected?”

“Um, no. I didnae really expect anything, ye ken. But, ... I have tae admit, I’m really glad ye didnae say ‘my boyfriend’,” his smile spread impossibly wider as his eyes beamed with obvious pleasure.

“Sae ye’ve applied fer med school, aye? In Edinburgh, no less? Impressive!”

“Well...yes. It’s been my dream for as long as I can remember, becoming a doctor, I mean. I always knew that was what I was supposed to be and –” Claire stopped, biting her lip, uncertain whether she would bore him to death if she continued rambling.

“Go on, lass,” Jamie was still smiling, listening to her with rapt attention, leaning in closer to catch everything she said over the loud background noises.

Heartened by his sincere interest, she went on, “And I’ve worked really hard these past years, and –“

“And now that ye’re about tae find out whether ye made it or no’...,” he encouraged her to fill in the rest.

“I’m positively terrified,” she confessed, searching and finding understanding in his eyes.

“I bet ye are. I’d be shitting blue lights if I were ye.”

“Who says I’ve not already done so?” Claire asked, eyebrow raised in challenge.

“Weel, I’d say I’d smell it if ye had –despite the stench in here,” he countered, tapping his nose lightly, “I’ve a verra fine beak, ken?”

She snorted into her cocktail as he reached for his own glass, very pleased with himself to have eased the tension in her narrow shoulders. They nursed their drinks in silence for a moment, enjoying the flavourful taste of pomegranate juice sliced with pineapple, passionfruit, and a dab of salt –the club’s signature virgin cocktail. Claire tucked one of her many unruly strands of curls back behind her ear, when a thought struck her.

“Jamie?”

“At yer service, ma’am,” he raised two fingers in mock salute to his forehead.

“How did you know I was waiting to hear from someone?” Claire asked, honey eyes narrowing with suspicion.

 He averted his gaze, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

“Weel, I’ve been watchin’ ye fer some time since ye came in wi’ yer friends–,“ he cleared his throat.

Claire’s eyes widened at that admission.

“Ehm, I didnae mean that in a creepy way, mind, but...” he tried to downplay it, scraping a hand through his thick red hair.

“It’s alright.”

“Ye sure?”

She nodded.

“Why were you watching me, Jamie?” Her voice sounded much more confident than she felt, even to her own ears.

His ears turned a bright pink, unmistakeable even in the dim light.

“’Coz ye’ve the bonniest eyes I’ve ever seen. Golden, like a great cat. I simply couldnae look away.”

“So why didn’t you approach me earlier?” she was truly curious, taking another sip.

“I didnae think I could compete wi’ wha’ever –or whoever– ye were waitin’ fer. Ye were staring at yer phone as if ye were expecting the Almighty himself tae call.”

“God, I must have looked spectacularly pathetic,” she sighed, rubbing her temple.

“No, not at all. I just... ye seemed a wee riled up and I didnae want tae bother ye,” he said, inhaling deeply as if to steel himself, “and I didnae have the courage, tae be honest. What wi’ ye being surrounded by an army of friends and all. I didnae want tae make a fool of myself.”

Claire looked him up and down at this revelation, appreciating his tall, broad frame, and handsome features, the bright eyes and the charming smile. Then, she shook her head slightly, curls bouncing gently, as if to rid herself of the ridiculousness of his statement.

“Have you ever taken a long hard look at yourself in a mirror, Jamie?”

Confusion was written all over his face. That was certainly not the reaction he’d expected.

“I dinnae get yer meaning?”

He was so tall and broad, perching on that tiny barstool, that his knee and elbow kept bumping into her when he moved to pick up his drink. But Claire couldn’t say she minded that much. His touch was non-intrusive and gentle. She felt that she liked the accidental contact very much.

“You’re easily one of the hottest guys I’ve ever seen, and I’m not the only one who noticed,” she gestured subtly pointing out drooling females throwing him overt glances around the club. “And that’s just the ladies. I’m sure you have a handful of male fans here as well.”

That assessment was true enough, just as she’d said it, a handsome dark man in a neon pink tank top was checking Jamie out discreetly as he was waiting some way down the bar to wait for his drink to be prepared.

He snorted.

“That one could as easily be interested in you, Claire.”

“I doubt it.”

Letting his gaze roam freely over her, Jamie had no problem whatsoever to list all the enticing attributes that any other man –or woman– would find as attractive as he did. It was true that he had noticed her eyes first –those great golden orbs emanating fierce passion and profound gentleness at the same time– but there was much more to her than that. He was sure he could spend hours just watching the colours of her curlywig change without the activity losing interest. She had an athletic build but wasn’t very muscular, the lines of her body softened by the warm curves of hip and bosom. God, what a backside. But most of all, it was the light radiating from her that drew him to her flame. Sorcha, he thought and reached out his fingers to move a wayward curl out of her face.

Thoroughly embarrassed to find that he had touched her so openly without having been invited to do so, he withdrew his hand again quickly, and rubbed it on his thigh.

“Anyhow, what ye’re trying tae say wi’ that is...?”

“That anyone lurking in the shadows of this establishment would have wanted to be noticed by you,” she said, covering his hand with her own. Touching him seemed to ease some of the nervous energy coursing through her veins and replaced it with a different form of excitement.

Jamie’s eyes jerked up to find hers creased with warmth, cheeks dimpled.

“But you’re probably right, I’m not sure I would’ve registered that you were talking to me in the state I was in,” she admitted. “I’m really glad you did come over, now, though.”

“Guess ye’ll have tae thank yer friend Duncan fer it,” he remarked, trying to sound casual, not daring to move a single muscle, fearing he might lose the touch of her hand on his.

Claire sighed dramatically and retracted her hand again in doing so. His fingers twitched slightly with the loss of it.

“I guess so,” she didn’t care to admit that her friend had actually done her a favour by taking her phone away. “And I guess I’m grateful that there wasn’t anyone else to catch your eye,” she added as an afterthought.

“Definitely no’,” he stressed. “I dinnae really like these clubs, and I’m no’ a fan of lasses throwing themselves at lads they dinnae even ken, thinking it’s orite tae grope and touch what isnae theirs tae begin wi’.”

Seeing that she had finished her cocktail, he motioned to her glass asking silently whether she would like another one. She declined the offer with a shake of her head.

“There was one taenight, I swear I was sae close tae call her out on it,” his jaw clenched at the echo of that annoying encounter. “She was all o’er me, and wouldnae take ‘no’ fer an answer, sae I had tae escape tae the men’s room.”

“Poor lad, must be really trying to be so handsome,” she noted, shoulders shaking under the force of her mirth.

“Are ye laughing at me?” his eyes went wide with mock indignation, left hand held over his heart.

“I most certainly am!” she snorted with the grace of an elk.

It didn’t exactly help that he was pouting now. She doubled over, tears beginning to form at the corners of her eyes.

“God, stop that Jamie, please!” she wheezed.

“Only because ye asked sae nicely, lass.”

 “So, you were saying?” she said, aiming for a calm tone, trying to regain her composure.

“I was hiding for a good quarter hour at least. But my friend Rupert saved me,” he explained. “He came in and said he’d distract her until I could get my stuff and leave. That’s him wi’ her, by the way.” Jamie tilted his head to indicate a stocky-built lad with a well-groomed beard who was deeply immersed in flirting with none other than Laoghaire.

Her laughter didn’t die away completely, but it was now noticeably less. She should have known –that was so like her. Shrugging it off and deciding firmly to concentrate on Jamie instead of wasting her energy on someone she didn’t care for anyway, she turned to him again, smiling.

“Ye ken her, then?” he asked, red eyebrows shooting up almost to his hairline.

“I do. She’s part of our group.”

“Oh, sorry, I didnae mean tae insult yer friend, only –“.

“You didn’t, Laoghaire and I are not friends,” she emphasised. “So you were on your way out?”

“Aye, I was,” he was glad that the unpleasant encounter with the touchy-feely blonde didn’t bite him in the arse just now. If she had been a friend of Claire’s, things might have gotten really awkward just then. “I was just grabbing my jacket and turned tae leave when –imagine my surprise, yer friend Duncan grabbed my arm and told me tae take care of this for an hour, and to NOT let ye have it before then.”

“Seems that you didn’t keep your word,” Claire noted.

“Weel, I never had the chance tae give her my word,” he countered, smirking, “She’d turned on her heel before I’d even understood what had jus’ happened. And then...”

“And then?”

“Then I saw ye stomp out of here, fuming, wi’ yer eyes ablaze.”

“Rather accurate account of what I felt like.”

“Then I had tae wait for ye tae come back, o’ course. I couldnae leave wi’ yer phone after all.”

“Of course not. You couldn’t possibly have returned my phone to Geillis –that’s the name of the meddling bosom, by the way,” Claire blushed, realising that he must have been really interested in her to want to stay despite clingy and overbearing blondes in the vicinity.

“No, that I couldnae have done,” he smiled brightly at her.

Downing the last of his beverage, he darted his tongue out to catch the drop that had escaped his lips, and then set the empty glass on the bar counter.

“’Tis a verra fine night, would ye maybe care for a walk on the beach?” he offered his hand and she took it, jumping up from her seat.

“I’d like that a lot, Jamie.”

Hand in hand and smiling like two goofballs, they exited the building. Claire was so immersed in her conversation with Jamie that she didn’t even think to tell her friends where she was going.

The air outside was exhilaratingly refreshing by comparison to the stuffed interior of the night club, and the pair of them inhaled deeply as they made their way –fingers entwined– towards the ocean. She only came to fully appreciate his height now that he wasn’t crouched on a tiny barstool and was able to stretch his long shanks. Her crown reached just above his shirt-clad shoulder, which provided her with a vantage point to stealthily regard the handsome lines of his profile.

 “Take yer sandals off, Claire,” Jamie instructed, doing the same with his own sneakers. “The sand is sae wonderful between yer toes if it isnae burning the skin right off them.”

They walked for a while, leaving the outlines of their feet in the sand, never losing the connection formed by their fingers, whilst talking of this and that. Conversation with Jamie flowed easily, taking no effort at all. He was both, a born story-teller and an attentive listener, eager to capture her every word.

Reaching an outcrop a mile down the beach from the club, they decided to make themselves comfortable there, perched atop one of the big flat boulders overlooking the sea, the sound of waves rushing inland soundtrack to their conversation.

“So, what is a Scotsman doing so far from home?”

“I could ask ye the same, Sassenach,” he replied smugly.

“Sasse-what?”

“Sassenach,” he repeated helpfully.

“And what’s that?”

“It’s the Gaidhlig, ye ken?”

“I didn’t even know people still spoke that. That doesn’t answer my question, though,” she persisted.

 “My father was verra traditional, ken. It means ‘Outlander’ or ‘English-person’.”

She raised her eyebrow at that. “That doesn’t sound very charming.”

“I didnae mean it as an insult, mind,” he clarified, his ears turning pink.

“No?”

“Definitely no’!”

“Good. Wouldn’t want to have to punch your pretty face,” she slapped his cheek jokingly, the other hand still playing with his. “The ladies might kill me for that blasphemy.”

Jamie acted as if it had been a heavy blow, pretending to fall back theatrically, but then losing his balance and actually falling, and –hands still linked– taking her with him in the process. Laughing at his clumsiness, Claire hadn’t realised that she was lying almost on top of him. As soon as she noticed the firm muscles of his chest move under hers, her cheeks flushed with more than simple embarrassment and she sat up, putting a bit more distance between them again.

Jamie, however, didn’t seem fazed by the impromptu full-on meeting of their bodies; he just smiled at her lopsidedly and reached for her hand again.

 “I would verra much like tae kiss ye, Claire,” he admitted shyly, looking at her from under long lashes, face bathed in moonlight. “May I?”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 9 - Taking Steps 

“Sae ye’re sure, Claire?”

“Yes.” she nodded with conviction, sending her unruly curls to sway around her face with the motion. “I thought about what you said. And I know the circumstances are less than ideal, to be sure, but I want to have the baby.”

“Have ye thought aboot adoption?” came the follow-up inquiry.

“I considered it, but... no. I want to keep it,” she revealed for the first time, a shy smile curling her lips upward.

It had been a harrowing week, but Claire had eventually reached the decision on her own, in the sanctuary of her room without even meaning to. She had not been actively thinking about the situation at all; in fact, she had been at her desk, studying the anatomy 101 flip cards. During a particular tough one – about peripheral proteins – her vision zeroed in on a picture as she tried to come up with the correct answer. It stood there, its wooden frame in a prominent position in the left corner on the table-top, showing herself –aged 10, with sun-kissed skin and a gap-toothed grin – and her uncle Lamb on one of their excursions to Egypt. It was then that the yearning had suddenly hit her. Yearning for someone that was entirely hers again. The thought of a relationship and connection to someone that couldn’t be severed was something that resonated within her more deeply than she had anticipated. It was as frightening as it was elating.

Having been orphaned at a young age, Claire had not had what was generally viewed as a conventional upbringing. Her father’s brother, Lamb Beauchamp, PhD, had taken her on as his responsibility. He had loved her as any surrogate father would, but that hadn’t meant that he altered his life for her. Instead, he took her with him on his travels to dig sites all around the globe, providing as much parental affection and education as a scholar-married-to-his-work possibly could. It had been enough for the little girl with bright honey eyes who was barely able to remember her parents, though, and she had loved her uncle Lamb dearly.

Life, however, can be cruel more than once, and viciously took from her a second time what was most precious to her. Quentin Lambert William Beauchamp of the University of Glasgow had died shortly before her high school graduation, losing his battle against testicular cancer after 13 months of chemo and radiation therapy. He left her a personal letter, a small inheritance set aside for her education, and an old, leather-covered box filled with photographs and other small memorabilia.

Claire took the box that was not often looked at but never forgotten, down from its place on top of her wardrobe, and rummaged through the depths filled with memories. She’d been a chubby child, fat little cheeks inflated with outrage whenever she had been forced to wear something frilly. Her uncle, bless him, had given up on that particular venture early enough. The handful of images alongside her parents illustrated that she’d been a happy girl, always smiling broadly into the camera, no matter if she was pulling her mother’s hair or showing off her favourite teddy. She hadn’t allowed herself to do it until now, but seeing herself next to her parents and uncle, she couldn’t help but picture a child of her own– a girl with Jamie’s red curly hair, her father’s dimples, and her mother’s eyes smiling up at her. It was in that precise moment, that Claire Elisabeth Beauchamp promised to be the mother she would have wanted for herself if her parents had survived.

“I’m glad of it, hen. It’ll be a bonnie bairn wi’ genetics like yours and the elusive ginger’s.” Geillis squeezed her knee in support. “Sae, when’s the wee one coming, then?”

“Dr. Raymond estimated the date of birth to be the 19th of April,” Claire answered, rolling her shoulders to rid herself of the lingering trepidation.

“Orite, then,” Geillis said, face set in a mockingly grave expression, “I guess we’ll have tae do some shopping, aye?” The blonde’s eyes gleamed at the opportunity to spend hours and hours researching the advantages of one pram over another, and buying silly little things no baby could possibly have a real use of.

“But before we get tae the fun part,” she began, then jumped up and crossed the small living room to her bedroom and returned, rummaging in her school bag. “Ah, there’s the little bugger,” she declared triumphantly, as she got hold of her notepad.

Delving into her bag again to fish out a pen as well, Geillis started, “Now that we’re sure that ye’re keeping it, and there’s nae doubt aboot the parentage, we should try tae find the man in question, aye?”

“Aye,” Claire replied, her voice steady and radiating with enthusiasm for the first time in weeks.

While she was still not prepared to be confronted with all aspects that came with her decision, it felt rather good to start somewhere, to take care of things step by bloody step.

“Sae,” Geillis began, “we dinnae have his phone number.”

 “No,” Claire sighed, her enthusiasm deflating slightly at the memory of how things had gone in an entirely unexpected –and unwanted– direction.

“And he doesnae have yers, either,” her friend stated, remembering.

“No,” she repeated. “I’m afraid we don’t have much to work with,” Claire admitted, frowning.

“Then I’ll get a chance tae prove my stalker abilities, aye?” came the spirited reply. “We’ll make a list o’ everything we ken aboot him and see where that gets us. Sae, let’s start wi’ the lad’s name.”

“Well, his name is Jamie –that much is clear at least.”

“D’ye ken his last name?”

Claire shook her head.

“O’ course no’, that would have been way too easy,” Geillis sighed dramatically. 

“Tell me the last time you introduced yourself with your last name, Geillis Duncan” she said a little tersely.

“Fair point, Beauchamp. Orite, what else?”

“He’s Scottish –but you know that. And tall, but you know that, too, and–“ she broke off, a blush creeping up on her neck.

“And?”

“I don’t think what I was going to say would help us find him.”

“Let me be the judge of that, hen.”

She coughed to hide her embarrassment. “Ehm...he’s what you’d call a true ginger.”

One split second of confusion was followed by a spark of recognition glinting in moss-green eyes, and then Geillis erupted in full-bellied laughter. “Sae,” she wheezed, still laughing whole-heartedly, “what ye’re telling me is... that the lad’s carpet... matched his curtains?”

“You could say that, yes.” Claire barely managed to contain the laughter that was bubbling up inside her.

“Weel, then ye’re right, that’s probably no’ going tae help us much, unless he’s an avid hobby actor on Pornhub.” Geillis wiped the tears from her face, assuming her back-to-business manner again. “What else have ye got on him?”

“Only that he’s a junior athlete, and that he was training there with his whole team.”

“Junior, ye say? That means he cannae be older than 22 or so. And assuming that ye didnae bed an underage lad, I’d say our chances are that he was over 18.”

Claire rolled her eyes and crossed her arms in front of her chest.

“Dinnae roll yer eyes at me, hen,” Geillis admonished her. “What sport was it?”

She shrugged helplessly.

“I don’t know. He didn’t tell me anything specific. It seemed a bit of a prickly subject, but since they were on Madeira, I assume maybe something that involves swimming? He did have the build for that,” she surmised.

“Mmphm. Maybe triathlon, then? Weel, we’ll have tae check everything anyhoo just tae be sure.”

The notepad on her thigh had already been filled with a few bullet points and pointers where to start looking online.

“Did he mention a place, or family, mayhap?”

“Only that he lost his mother some years ago and that he was from a small village in the highlands.”

“Sae very specific. What else did ye talk aboot?” Geillis continued her cross-questioning.

“I don’t know, we spent more time on trivial things, enjoying each other’s company. Honestly, I can’t really tell you what we talked about, but it was easy, you know. No awkward pauses, it just felt...right.”

“Disgustingly enviable, that.”

Claire chuckled. “I guess that’s the only enviable thing about my current situation, Gee.”

“True. That, and that ye actually got tae see that verra fine Scottish specimen nekid.”

“Fair enough,” she agreed.

And what a fine sight that had been.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“I would verra much like tae kiss ye, Claire,” he admitted shyly, looking at her from under long lashes, face bathed in moonlight. “May I?”

Chapter 10 – Hot Nights in Madeira

Island of Madeira, Porto Santo Beach

Claire nodded, giving her permission freely –and without any sign of uncertainty. He moved to cup her face with the utmost care, almost as if he were afraid she might break upon impact. She had felt the sparks fly between them all night, but without any real danger of catching fire. Until now, that is. Anticipation had built up into a low, steady hum of excitement coursing through her very essence with each graze of his blunt, yet gentle fingers. But even that had not prepared her for the blaze that he ignited when their lips came together.

He seemed hesitant at first, despite the fire spreading from her mouth through his system, seemingly wanting to gauge her reaction before really engaging her with his lips, but as soon as Jamie felt her eager response, he lost his inhibitions and started to kiss her in earnest. Her lips were soft like velvet and tasted of sunshine and fruit cocktail. Out of their own volition, his hands moved from her cheeks into her hair, relishing in the silky feel of it between his fingertips as he tilted her head just so that he could better access that hungry mouth of hers.

Exploring each other’s mouths with unmatched alacrity, they only broke apart when the need for oxygen forced them to.  

Sighing with pleasure she asked, “Where on earth did you learn to kiss like that?”

“A gentleman doesnae tell, Sassenach,” he smiled brightly at her, the white of his teeth in stark contrast to the dark of the night as she moved in closer, seeking to expand the area of contact.

Once this new connection between their bodies had been formed, Claire found it difficult to part her lips from his –asphyxiation be damned. While she was feeling rather dizzy herself –intoxicated by the heat of him– Jamie was facing a whole different level of deprivation –a not inconsiderable amount of blood had rushed to an entirely inconvenient place further down south. If the hour hadn’t been so late already, she might have noticed the tips of his ears going bright pink with embarrassment as he struggled to shift their bodies into a different position, not wanting to upset her with the rather noticeable reaction to her nearness.  

Claire, still oblivious to his predicament resisted Jamie’s attempt to move her out of between his knees and moved in for another breath-taking kiss. Feeling him tense suddenly, his knees locking her thighs in place, she was about to ask what was going on when she felt the evidence of his wanting press lightly against her abdomen.

“Oh,” she said without much intonation.

For a second she didn’t speak. Her stillness made him fidgety, fearing that she would withdraw from him.

“I’m sae sorry, Claire, truly, I didnae mean tae...,” Jamie stammered, but she stopped him, putting her hand on his mouth.

Claire smiled encouragingly at him, willing him to understand that she wasn’t put off –not by a long shot.

“It’s perfectly alright, Jamie.”

“Ye...ye don’t mind, then?”

She snorted at his innocence.

“I could hardly be more flattered than I am just now.”

His eyes went wide and his jaw dropped in a way that was almost comical.

“Let’s go,” she jumped up, and offered him her hand.

At first he thought he must have misheard, but when he locked eyes with her, he saw the silver moon reflected in golden eyes turned dark with desire, and followed without question.

They walked closely together, sand pleasantly cool underneath their toes, arms around each other’s waist, heads tilted towards another, sharing stories and more kisses as they made their way to – Claire suddenly stopped dead.

“Where exactly are we going, Jamie?” she asked, looking up at him, only now realising that they’d been walking with no real destination in mind except –well, they would get to that part later.

“Oh… I thought...well... that we were headed tae yer hotel,” his inflection rose, marking the statement as a question instead.

Claire chuckled.

“Only if you want to have an audience, my lad.”

“Audience?”

“Geillis,” she stated simply. “Though I’m sure she would really enjoy that.”

He joined in her laughter and drew her even closer to him.

“Weel, then I guess it’ll have tae be mine?”

“I guess so,” she replied, the humour now gone from her voice, “Let’s hurry then.”

Fortunately, the hotel was not far, and they’d made it there still clinging to each other and sharing breath more often than not.

“Sae, this is it,” he opened the door and followed her into the room, turning the lights on, “’tis where I’ve been staying fer two weeks. We usually share a room, but since we’re an odd number and I’m the strongest, I get a room tae myself.”

It was the picture of a generic cheap hotel room. The air inside was stale and the furniture nondescript but practical for a short-term stay. The single bed had been hastily made in the morning before the occupant had left and the only items providing some semblance of individuality were an open, half-unpacked orange backpack at the foot of the bed, pieces of clothing strewn carelessly across the room, and a framed photograph on the bedside table.

“I’m sorry, Sassenach,” he said, raking his hand through his hair. “I ne’er really bother keeping my room clean when I’m at training camp somewhere. It doesnae make a lot o’ sense, if ye ask me, what wi’ being in a place just fer a week at most, ken.”

It was obvious that Jamie had had no intention of receiving visitors in his somewhat chaotic accommodation, and he started to criss-cross around the room as he talked nervously, snatching up discarded sportswear here and there and tossing them into a corner.

“Don’t worry about that, I don’t mind,” she assured him with a warm smile. “Is that your mother?” she asked pointing at the picture next to his bed.

“Yes,” he answered with a sad tone as he came up behind her, not quite touching. “She died a couple o’ years ago.”

“I’m sorry, Jamie,” the sincerity audible in her voice as she turned around to comfort him.

“’Tis orite, Claire. Thank ye. Looking at her reminds me o’ why I’m here, why I’m doing this.”

“You still haven’t told me what it is that you and your teammates do,” Claire remarked, trying to steer the subject towards a lighter path.

“We’re no’ real professionals yet, ye ken? We’re the junior cadre training unit. It means they think we’re talented enough tae try once we’re ready tae play wi’ the big lads. If we prove our worth, that is,” he shrugged nonchalantly.

It didn’t escape Claire that he still hadn’t really answered her question. Not wanting to pry into a subject that he apparently didn’t seem to want to get into at this point, she let it go. Instead, she sat down on his bed, not quite knowing how to proceed. The earlier excitement had subsided noticeably, but was still there, simmering under the surface of their skins, waiting to be rekindled by an initiating touch as muffled sounds of the nightlife drifted through the poorly insulated windows.

Jamie seemed to be at a loss as well, restlessly picking things up and setting them down again.

 “Jamie,” she stopped him, voice soft and soothing.

“It’s getting rather late –perhaps we should... go to bed?” she suggested.

At this, his head jerked up and fixed on her with renewed intensity.

“To bed, or to sleep?” a mischievous smile playing on his lips.

“Cocky,” she smirked.

“Weel,....”

“Either way, I won’t be sleeping in this dress. Would you get the zipper in the back, please?” she got up from the bed, turned around and lifted the mass of brown curls off her neck to allow him easier access.

“Ye’ve the loveliest hair, Sassenach,” Jamie noted quietly, almost as if to himself, as he approached her, his hot breath tickling her neck and raising goose bumps.

The pads of Jamie’s fingers grazing her skin softly as he pulled the zipper down did unimaginable things to her. Her breath hitched slightly as she felt the soft chiffon part and expose her back to him.

Jamie wasn’t in a hurry to get her naked, revelling in the almost painfully slow reveal of her flesh, his hands following the fabric as he peeled it from her shoulders and smoothed it down the curve of her hips.

Claire stood there, breathing audibly, waiting for the dress to hit the floor. When it did, she stepped out of it and turned around in an unhurried manner, only a bit self-conscious of her state of undress, wishing she had worn a different pair of underwear, or at least a prettier bra. Nothing to be done about it, now, though, Beauchamp. Cotton would have to do.

Apparently, cotton did just fine – blue eyes had turned so dark with desire that they seemed to be black. Just as Jamie leaned in to kiss her again, she stopped him with a hand flat on his chest, eliciting a tiny whimper of protest from him.

“My turn,” Claire said and moved her hands to his collar, beginning to unbutton the navy-blue shirt covering his broad chest and shoulders. Working her way deliberately from button to button, she mirrored his slow and reverent movements. As she reached the last one and untucked the shirttails from the waistband of his trousers, the tips of her fingers teasing a very sensitive spot just where his skin was still hidden behind way too much cloth, he made a small sound deep in his throat. At that, Claire took a half a step back, without breaking their physical connection, to simply look at him, assessing. He didn’t make a move, didn’t speak, only stared at her, wide-eyed, his chest expanding with the effort to breathe.

“Do you want me, Jamie?” The question was entirely rhetorical. She could see –and feel– that he wanted her– but Claire sensed that he was waiting for her to give permission.

“Oh god, yes,” came the instant reply, the same hunger of her eyes evident in his deep bass, just before he fused his mouth to hers, kissing her for all he was worth. “I want you so much I can scarcely breathe.”

“Then have me,” Claire invited him, a little breathless herself.

And suddenly, things happened in a blur. His mouth and hands were on her, sucking, caressing, cupping, as she was busy to rid him of his trousers, battling with the fly longer than she cared for. Boxer tights and knickers were pulled down, bra unhooked and unceremoniously discarded. Then, she was lifted off the ground, her long legs moved instinctively to wrap around his waist as he carried her to his bed, hands gripping her backside firmly, his arousal evident between them.

The mattress was too soft and slightly bumpy, their combined weight sinking them deeper into the bed than was strictly comfortable as he nestled his body between her legs. The coarse hair on his chest was rubbing against her breasts as he kissed his way up from her sternum to her neck. While they both hadn’t been drinking, there was an undeniably comparable light-headedness that accompanied his tongue tracing the shell of her ear. Jamie seemed to know exactly how she wanted to be touched –and where.

After a few minutes of his hands and lips exploring the terrain of her body, she found that she couldn’t possibly wait any longer. Neither did he, it appeared. He searched for friction, making small movements with his hips, as he held himself above her, his erection pressed tightly between their bellies. Just as that thought had manifested itself in them both, their bodies communicating the need to take the next step, something else occurred to Claire, just in time.

 “Jamie, wait!”

“Wha –?” came the muted response.

Claire found it diffcult to bring out coherent sentences, his tongue made it hard to focus on anything at all but the sensation of warm flesh gliding over her sensitive earlobe.

“We...ah...need protection,” she finally got out.

That got his attention, and he abandoned the attentions he was paying to her neck to grab his wallet from the back pocket of his trousers. Looking through it hurriedly, his ruddy brows set into a small frown, he went on to go through the depths of his backpack, throwing stuff uncaringly into the room. She found the urgency in him at once endearing and agonisingly arousing.

 “Shite, I dinnae have one,” he scratched the back of his head, standing tall and completely unfazed by his nakedness, “do you, by any chance?”

“Actually, I think I do, let me check,” She got up from the bed, and, perusing her purse, she produced a small, square tinfoil package and smiled triumphantly at him. “Think we’re good to go, aye?”

“Aye.”

Claire lay back in the bed again, her hair fanning out on the pillow, breathing audibly with anticipation of his next touch while he had turned the lights down. Despite the now dark room she could see him clearly, the stars providing enough light to see. God, he was beautifully made, and she felt that she wasn’t beyond blushing even at this stage in the proceedings.

Jamie came back to bed and continued where he had left off –paying homage to her body. Calloused hands wandering up and down the curves of her, his mouth leaving hot trails in its wake, while she repaid him in kind. Her fingers ached with need to touch him –here, and there, and everywhere she could reach. She found that he was particularly sensitive at the nape of his neck, even a light graze of a fingernail would send shivers of pleasure down his spine. Sneaking an inquisitive hand between them to finally touch where neither of them had dared to touch until now, she grasped him gently, rubbing the silky skin there in a slow, steady rhythm, causing Jamie to moan loudly into her mouth. Following in her suit, he now was bold enough to venture to her centre as well, fingers probing and finding that she was more than ready for him. That realisation seemed to turn a switch in him, and, searching –and finding– consent in her eyes, he reached over to take the small package from where she had put it on the nightstand, kissing the tip of her nose as he did so. Ripping it open with his teeth, he put the layer of protection on with a practised hand, and settled himself between her thighs, still not quite having found the courage to take the final step.

Being less impaired with hesitancy, Claire took things into her own hands, quite literally, and guided him into her, eyes closing and mouth going slack with the blissful sensation of being filled by Jamie. He gasped, feeling the welcoming warmth of her. For a moment, neither of them moved, revelling at the feel of their connection, they just looked at one another. He adjusted his position slightly, bracing himself on his arms to either side of her head, blue eyes never leaving hers. Then, she arched her back slightly, encouraging him to move. When he finally did, Claire found that she had not been prepared for the sensation he caused in her. Every roll of his hips, every meeting of her pubic bone with his sent bolts of lightning through her synapses, setting her whole being on fire.

She felt the expanse of his back, solid and strong beneath her tingling fingertips, as the muscles worked beneath the skin to hold him above her. Her teeth found purchase in his collarbone as her hands moved to his buttocks and pressed him even closer to her. Panting and moaning reverberated off the walls, as their bodies –slick with perspiration– moved in tandem, meeting again and again, bouncing to a rhythm only they could hear.

It didn’t take long until Claire reached her peak, pushed over the edge by the constant sweet pressure against the bundle of nerves at the apex of her thighs, throwing her head back and toes curling. Not much later, the movement of Jamie’s hips also became erratic, then stilled completely as he lost himself in her, face hovering above her own.

“Oh, god,” he cried out, collapsing on top of her.

Claire’s heart was thumping heavily inside her chest as she felt his deep shuddering breath followed by a sigh of contentment. And then, the weight of him left her, leaving her feeling bereft as he made quick business of disposing the condom into a bin, until he returned to the bed, his breath welcomingly cool on the sweat-drenched skin of her neck.

“You squeak like a mouse when ye come, Sassenach,” he remarked casually, fingers tracing the bumps of her ribs softly.

“And you roar like a stag in rutting season. The face you make comes close, too. Absolutely worth its money,” she tried to hide her amusement.

 “I dinnae ken how exactly a mouse would enjoy herself wi’ a deer, but I’m game tae try.”

“’Game tae try’ indeed, Mister Buck.”

They dissolved in full-bellied laughter, and arranged themselves into a more comfortable position, Claire’s head fitting perfectly into the crook of his shoulder, his lips pressing a soft kiss to her crown. For a while they didn’t speak, merely enjoying the presence of the person next to them, occasionally moving a sticky curl out of the other’s face.

“Can I ask ye something, Claire?”

“Of course,” she replied, snuggling closer.

“Did ye –,” he cleared his throat and continued in a shy voice, “Did ye like it?”

That had come out of the blue. Her brows furrowed as she tried to come up with any reason why he would think any other than her having liked it –very much at that. Had he not noticed how her body had responded to his? How he had roused her, even managed to take her over the finish line? Was he just fishing for compliments? No, he wasn’t the type for that, she could tell.

Realising that he was reading into her silence the wrong way, as he attempted to withdraw from her a bit, she finally spoke to relieve his worry.

“I did like it, Jamie. A lot.”

The answering smile that split his face was so bright it could have easily competed with the glow of the stars.

“That’s good, then.”

“Why are you asking? I mean, you certainly know what to do, alright.”

“Weel,...,” he squirmed a bit, as if trying to escape some discomfort. “The truth is that while I have kissed quite a few lasses, I’ve ne’er made love before,” he admitted in a small voice.

Claire’s mouth fell open. Made love? Never before?

“You’re not seriously telling me that you were... a virgin before we...,” she gestured a bit awkwardly between them.

“Aye, I was,” he confirmed with a nod.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m no’ kidding,” he reiterated and placed a soft kiss on her cheek. “Thank ye, by the way, Claire. I dinnae think it could have been any better.”

“Oh,” she said, completely dumbfounded and flattered. “You’re welcome?”

He just smiled at her, index finger tracing the outline of her mouth.

“You should have told me, you know?”

“What for?”

“Um... I don’t know,” Claire answered truthfully.

“It would have only made things awkward, me being completely inexperienced.”

“Well, it didn’t show at all, Jamie. Seems like you’re a bloody natural. And I’m happy it lived up to your expectations. It certainly fulfilled mine.”

“I’m glad of it,” he said and leaned back into the pillow, slowly drifting off to sleep.

Claire slumbered for some time as well but gave up the attempt after an hour when she still found herself too excited by the afterglow of their joining to follow him into the land of dreams. Instead, she propped herself up and seized the opportunity to fully appreciate his naked form stretched out right next to hers. Jamie, whatever his last name was, was wearing only a smile. And god dammit, he wore it well. Her eyes wandered admiringly over his bold face, strong legs, his chest, and the red hairs trailing down a path to...

“I’m up here, lass”, he smirked knowingly, flexing his abs to break her reverie.

Claire blushed fiercely, not having noticed that he had woken up, knowing all too well where her gaze had fixed upon.

“Enjoying the view, Sassenach?”

“Yes, thank you very much,” she said, trying to sound indifferent, but giving up on it right away. “Have you any idea how hot you are, Jamie?”

He snorted.

“I mean, look at you. You even have that insane ‘V’ thing going on,” she pointed out.

“I’ve got what?” he seemed truly astonished, and looked down at himself, trying to figure out what she was talking about.

“The ‘V’! You know, those sexy lines that sort of point the way down to your ... well, you know...,” she broke off, a bit flustered.

“Cock, ye mean?” he grinned widely.

“Yes.”

“No need tae be sae shy about it, Sassenach. Ye’ve seen mine up close already, no?”

“That line is created where the lower abs and obliques meet. It looks a bit like a V or an arrow pointing down to...,” Claire went on, ignoring him.

“My cock,” he repeated, interrupting with a mischievous smile.

“Yes, your cock,” she agreed, eyes rolling hard.

“Want tae check if it’s really where the arrow’s pointing tae?”

Claire smacked him half-heartedly on the shoulder, laughing with him. “Will you stop that you ridiculous human being!”

“Aye, I will. If ye come here and show me those lines.”

So she did.  With her tongue.

Some time later, in the small hours of the morning, Claire woke to find herself lying completely naked to what was essentially still a stranger, and found that she did not care a bit. She pulled up the blanket to cover them and nestled back into the space that seemed to be made for her, nose nuzzling his neck, and legs intertwining automatically as they fell asleep, arms draped loosely around each other.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 11 – A Beating Heart

It was the day of the 12-week ultrasound. Well, technically, she was already well in the 13th week, but hadn’t been able to get an earlier appointment. Given the fact that she had seen the doctor only three weeks prior to confirm the pregnancy via blood test, it didn’t matter all that much.

Dressed in comfortable leggings and a loose-fitting shirt under a soft, blue cardigan, Claire was seated in Dr. Raymond’s waiting room next to other expectant mothers. 22 was not exactly classified as an early pregnancy, but scanning the room she couldn’t help but feel exceptionally young. Most women were quite a bit older, as well as a lot farther along, and had their spouses or partners with them. Stealing a furtive look at Geillis, who had accompanied her as promised, Claire wondered whether people might mistake the two of them for a couple as well. It really wasn’t an unusual sight nowadays, and the fair-haired woman certainly looked like she belonged at Claire’s right side –back straight with confidence and a self-assured smile on her face– and not like a best friend who had been dragged into this.

When Claire had called to make the appointment for the ultrasound, the practice nurse had asked her to drink around 1L an hour before she came in to see Dr Raymond. ‘It helps lift the uterus so the doctor can get a better view of things,’ she had said. Claire wasn’t inclined to doubt a professional of some 30 odd years and took that instruction seriously –despite the fact that chugging down that amount of liquid when still fighting morning sickness hadn’t been an enjoyable prospect to her. Feeling as if she were about to burst at any second didn’t help much either, and she fidgeted in her seat, trying to relieve her bladder of some pressure.

How much longer? Claire stared at the lazy clock hand making its snail-like journey toward the next digit, willing it to move. Two more changes until her appointment at 11. Next to her, Geillis sat completely unperturbed, mane tamed into a perfectly tight bun, browsing through the brochures. The one about ‘proper nipple care for breastfeeding mothers’ elicited first a smothered chuckle and then an under-her-breath comment how that would be a very educational leaflet for the general male population.

“Miss Beauchamp?” the calm voice interrupted Claire’s daydreaming.

“Yes,” she got to her feet, nudging Geillis with her elbow to follow.

Introducing herself as Glenna Fitzgibbons, the homely nurse led them into a small, dimly lit room. She asked her to lie back on the padded chair, telling her to make herself as comfortable as possible while she put a sheet of paper on Claire’s lap.

“’Tis a big day for ye, dearie,” Missus Fitzgibbons was cheerful as if it were her first time as well. “Ye’ll get tae hear yer babe’s heartbeat fer the first time.”

Claire nodded, thick curls swaying with the motion, but the anxiety knotting her insides prevented her from returning the nurse’s genuine smile.

“And we’ll see if everything’s alright wi’ the wee one – and how many there are, too, o’ course,” she continued her professional small talk. “Ah, and there’s the doctor, my dear.”

The door had opened and a short, squat man entered, his huge, square glasses slightly askew on his nose.

“Everything’s ready for ye, doctor.”

“Thank you, Glenna. Well then, good morning, Miss Beauchamp and –,” he stopped, looking inquisitively at Geillis.

“Geillis Duncan,” Claire jumped in to make the introductions, “my best friend here to support me.”

“Ah, well then,” Raymond shook the blonde woman’s hand and returned to professional matters. “Let’s have a look at your child then, shall we?”

“Yes,” she concurred, her face lighting up.

“Alright. Lift up your top, please,” he instructed. “This will be a bit cold,” Raymond warned her before squirting some jelly onto her belly, but she didn’t mind at all. It really wasn’t that cold, even when he spread it out further over her skin, pressing the wand into her abdomen to find the tiny human sheltered in her womb.

There it was. A bean shaped alien. Her child. Hers and Jamie’s.

Honey eyes followed the images on the screen. Even if she were just a medical student with no personal investment in this, it would have been a breath-taking experience. But this wasn’t professional to her, it was intensely intimate. To see the outline of head and spine of her baby, to see the miniature heart flutter as fast as the wings of a hummingbird.

“Would you like to hear the heartbeat?” it was a rhetoric question. Dr. Raymond turned on the Doppler machine to make the sound heard. The staccato lub lub of her child’s beating heart filled the room gone quiet with awe and wonder. Geillis squeezed her hand reassuringly, commemorating this moment with her.

“As you know, it’s too early yet to determine a gender, but we can see the outline of spine and skull. The heart seems to be doing a proper job, and the kidneys are also functioning,” he informed her as he moved the wand a little from side to side, getting all the angles, taking measures. “Since you are absolutely sure of the date of conception, I would say that this little one is progressing very well, healthy, and on the larger side.”

He indicated to Mrs Fitzgibbons to get the prints ready for her to take home.

“Well, everything seems to be in order, Miss Beauchamp,” he smiled warmly at her, his unprepossessing features brightening.

Claire heard him speak, but she wasn’t listening –not really. Those were technicalities, it didn’t matter how big the foetus was as long as it was healthy. No, what mattered was a tiny heart beating fast, creating the most wonderful music she had ever heard. What mattered was the black and white image of her child as it seemed to smile at her.

What mattered most was the knowledge that this child would be loved.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 12 – Bright Beginnings

The next morning, Claire woke to a sneaky ray of sun shining disgustingly bright through the dusty blinds at just the right angle as to be bothersome, disrupting what could have otherwise been a wonderful sleep-in. As she shifted in bed, trying to evade the light and fall under again, she noticed that her room of movement was rather restricted due to a definitely male form wrapped around her. A large, tan hand dusted with reddish-gold hair was cupping her right breast, the pad of its thumb just shy of the nipple while the other was placed in the curve of her hip, fingers splayed out to buttock and thigh.  She could feel his knees tucked right behind hers, his curly-haired chest to her back, and she didn’t need the growing firmness poking into her lower back to remind her how she had gotten so satisfyingly sore.

Stretching languidly, Claire dislodged the sheet that had been tucked around their sleeping forms, and, feeling the slight chill on her skin in sharp contrast to the furnace at her back, tried to cover her front again.

“Dinnae hide yerself, Claire,” came a low, raspy voice from behind her.

“Hm?”

“Ye’re sae beautiful. Let me look at you a wee longer.”

She turned as much as was possible in his arms to look over her shoulder at him.

“You can’t even see me from back there,” Claire remarked, smiling, “even if your eyes were fully open, Jamie.”

“Aye, I can. I can see everything that matters, Sassenach,” he whispered against the skin of her shoulder.

His hands moved as if to support his claim, eyes still narrowed against the light. He tucked some unruly curls back, brushing over neck and collarbone –a touch so light as wings of butterflies– and went on to trace the curve of shoulder down her sides to the swell of breast and hip. From there, blunt fingers ventured further down to the back of her thigh until they found another exquisitely tender spot in the hollow of her knee that caused Clair’s breath to hitch slightly as he caressed the soft skin there.

Then, his hand slid back up again, squeezed her bottom affectionately, and gave it a quick slap, before jumping up and rushing towards the bathroom.

“If I dinnae pish right now, I’ll explode.”

Snuggling deeper into the bed that smelled of Jamie, herself, and them together, Claire decided to grant her eyes a bit more rest before he returned from his urgent business. He couldn’t have been gone longer than a couple of minutes, but she had indeed dozed off again, hair wild on the pillow, arm across her eyes.

It was with lips parted in a gasp of surprise that she came to again. Claire hadn’t heard him re-enter the room, but she could certainly feel him now –the heat of his body looming over hers, his mouth descending to place hungry kisses at the base of her throat and working its way down. As he reached the valley of her chest, fastening his lips on the tip of her breast, he sucked gently at first, and then more ardently, encouraged by her delighted moans and a hand stroking the back of his head.

“Jamie,” she whispered, her fingers moving deeper into his hair.

Releasing the hardened peak, he tilted his head towards her and spoke softly, “I havena said a proper good morning to ye.”

A chuckle escaped her. Such a bloody sweet one.

The bed was creaking with protest as Jamie shifted his weight further down, taking the sheet with him, muscles bulging in his powerful back as he slid his palms, still a bit moist and cool from washing, down her body, raising goose bumps in their wake. He nudged her knees apart to settle down between them, his mouth busy covering the arch of her ribs and plane of her belly with open-mouthed kisses, leaving her wanting for more – oh god, so much more. No, she really couldn’t tell that he was inexperienced. Every touch of his lips seemed right, every graze of his fingers where she needed them. Jamie set her entire body on fire within a few heartbeats.

When he started to draw lazy circles with his tongue quite a bit lower than her belly button, though, Claire tensed unexpectedly, her grip in his ruddy mop tightening.

 “Jamie, stop!”

“Mmphm?” he continued with the task at hand, moving lower still.

“Don’t,” she persisted, this time actually physically preventing him from going down on her.

“Why?” he straightened up, his hands caressing the sides of her breasts, but she didn’t answer and was unable to meet his gaze.

“Why don’t ye want me tae do that? Ye did it fer me last night,” he reasoned.

“Well,” she began, voice a hoarse with embarrassment, “I ... I haven’t even showered yet. I... what about the smell? What if...?”

Jamie, unable to control the impulse despite her worried expression, burst out laughing, his head flopping onto her stomach, effectively dislodging her grip on his hair, the force of it rattling the bed frame slightly. His shoulders were still shaking a little with hilarity when the tip of his nose touched her lightly, making silent amends. He took a deep breath and looked at her directly, the tips of his ears going pink, but his face was serious.

“I want tae taste ye,” he confessed, “God, I want tae taste ye sae badly –and I want tae watch ye while I’m doing it.”

She swallowed heavily, mightily aroused, cheeks flushed with both, the heat of desire and insecurity about what he was about to do to her.

“D’ye trust me, Claire?”

“Yes,” she breathed.

The wide mouth stretched into a smile, dark blue eyes lighting up with purpose.

“Then lie back and enjoy. If ye dinnae like it, I’ll stop.”

Claire nodded almost imperceptibly, and lay back, trying to relax, but still a bit uneasy.

He lowered his head to where she had stopped him before, eyes fixed on her face, despite the strain on his neck. Slowly, reverently, he placed more kisses between the graceful arch of her hipbones and inched lower with every touch of his mouth on her silky skin. Her stomach clenched in apprehension, her breathing becoming more audible, as Jamie manoeuvred her legs over his shoulders, opening her to him.

The hairs on Claire’s arms stood up straight when she felt his cool breath on her heated flesh. Pausing for a second, Jamie looked at her intently –asking silently for permission again. When it was given, soft, full lips touched her chastely before he dipped out his tongue, tentatively probing, making careful contact with the most intimate part of her. She gasped, eyes widening at the unfamiliar contact.

He had wanted to keep his eyes on her, had wanted to drink her in, had wanted to watch her seeing him take her that way, but now he found he was unable to focus on anything but the alluring sweetness in front of him. His eyes closed, nose nuzzling into the brown curls damp with arousal, the intoxicating scent of her drawing him in like a bee to a flower in bloom.

The short locks of his thick, red hair tickled the velvety skin of her inner thighs almost unbearably, causing her to squirm, trying to get away from the overwhelming sensation of hot, circular movements alternating with straight, sweeping strokes of his tongue.

Sliding hands over the smoothness of her buttocks, unable to resist the urge to squeeze them hard and possessively, one palm found its way up to cup and knead her breast, tweaking and twisting her nipple, while the other rested on her hip, holding her steady.

It was his unadulterated groans against her core that finally allowed Claire to surrender to the exquisite feeling of the flat of his tongue lapping, stroking, and exploring the heat of her. His lips fastening on the centre of her pleasure caused her to arch tightly against him, seeking to increase the friction. Feeling her respond to his intimate kisses, Jamie’s grip on her hip hardened a bit, intensifying his attentions as he continued to moan into her, taking as much as he gave.

Claire was writhing and panting heavily now, hips rocking against his hungry, welcoming mouth instinctively, shame all but forgotten as amber eyes glazed over with need. Slender fingers dug into the bronzed flesh of his shoulder, as she bit her lower lip, struggling to contain the screams of desire. Her other hand threaded into his hair –glowing like fire in the sunrise, auburn mixed with gold, cinnabar, and roan – holding him close to her.

A prideful smile curved his mouth –still busy driving her towards the height of pleasure– delighting in her body’s reaction to him. When he felt her tremble, the heels of her feet pressing hard into his back, he knew she was close. Closing his lips around her most sensitive spot, Jamie sucked –hard– and sent her over the edge.

White light pulsated through her body, as she was fisting the bedsheet and clenching her thighs around his head, her mind spinning out of control. A bloody virgin did that to her?

Claire’s diaphragm worked overtime as she slowly returned from an incredible high.

“Ye taste even better than I imagined,” he declared smugly, the lower half of his face sticky with her arousal, and he licked his lips appreciatively, wiping what he couldn’t catch with his tongue off with his hand.

Having not recovered her sense of coherence yet, Claire was unable to respond in any way but taking his jaw and kissing him fiercely –tasting the lingering echoes of her own completion on his tongue.

Their naked lengths pressed tightly together, Claire was about to repay his kindness with an explorative hand when someone knocked loudly on the door.

“Jamie,” a gravelly, annoyed voice called from outside.

“Shite,” the naked ginger whisper-cursed, getting out of bed with the speed of lightning.

“Wake up,” the bodyless voice bellowed.

“Shite, shite, shite!” Jamie exclaimed quietly, as Claire watched him, covering herself with the sheets. Seeing the confusion in the tense line between her eyebrows, he explained hastily, “We must have o’erslept, I’m late fer training.”

Her mouth formed a silent ‘O’ of understanding, and her shoulders relaxed again.

“JAMIE!” came another shout.

“Enough, dammit!” Jamie called out, pulling up a grey pair of shorts, and fastening it tightly around his waist.

“C’mon ye lazy dolt!” more banging on the door.

“I’ll be out in a minute, go on ahead,” Jamie replied to the disruptor outside the door.

“I have tae go, Sassenach,” he said, the reluctance in his voice mirroring the apologetic look in the dark blue eyes. “Meet me at the little beach bar right next tae the club, aye? Around 8?”

She nodded absentmindedly, her gaze focused on taut muscles disappearing underneath a tight, yellow shirt.

“Can’t wait tae see ye again, mo nighean donn,” he said, and before leaving the room, thought better of it and rushed back to the bed to kiss her softly and caress her cheek.

“Can’t wait to see you, too,” she whispered against his wide mouth, loathe to part with him.

As the door closed behind him, Claire sunk back into the entanglement of sheets and stared at the ceiling, basking in the afterglow. She would have stayed there longer, and been content doing nothing but remembering her encounter with the handsome Scot. But she really couldn’t put off a shower any longer –the smell of her armpits and her general state of muskiness got harder and harder to ignore. On her own, and figuring that no one was likely to storm into the room anytime soon –even the angry voice had not knocked the door down– Claire didn’t bother putting any clothes on as she got out of bed to grab her purse from the floor to have a look at her phone. The screen lit up with an overflow of messages and missed calls, and her face dropped.

21:43:             I saw ye leavin’ wi’ that handsome ginger

21:43               ye’re welcome, by the way

21:50               where did ye go?

22:02               Have a good one fer me, too

22:09               enjoy yerself, hen

22:17               text me later

22:17               I wanna know EVERYTHING, hear?

22:59               hen?

23:30               I’m assuming ye’re having such a great time that ye forgot tae let me know where ye are

23: 42              srsly?

23:43               this isnae funny anymore, Claire

23:44               I’m gettin worrit

00:17               ARE YOU STILL ALIVE??

00:25               If ye’re dead, I swear I’ll kill ye

Reading through the texts and seeing the 10 missed calls, she felt the heavy weight of guilt growl deep in her belly –okay maybe some of it was hunger, too. It didn’t exactly take a genius to tell that Geillis had grown exponentially worried over the course of her messages, and she’d had every right to do so. Claire had been angry at her friend, yes –very angry indeed– for the stunt with her phone, but she was still her best friend, and Claire had done something that had been absolutely careless and rash in hindsight. She’d left with a perfect stranger and hadn’t bothered to tell anyone, or updated Geillis on where she was, who she was with, and whether she was okay or not. Well done, Beauchamp. She slapped her forehead as if trying to hammer some sense into it, inhaled deeply, and squared her shoulders, bracing herself for the task at hand. Claire chose to face the music right away and pushed the green button on the phone screen to connect her call to Geillis. There had been exactly one ring before a furious Scottish voice bombarded her with more or less the same questions that had been the content of the written messages.

“Geillis –,” she tried to get a word in, “GODDAMN Geillis, if you want to know if I’m alright, let me talk, would you?”

“I’m sorry for not texting you, I know it was stupid. Yes, it was also reckless, I know. I’M SORRY,” she reiterated, annoyance at being interrupted growing.

“Look, I went for a walk with Jamie–yes, his name is Jamie – and we ended up... well, I’m at his hotel. I’m going to take a shower now and then I’ll head back to ours.”

“I’ll tell you everything when I see you, alright?”

Disconnecting the call, Claire sighed heavily. She could picture far too well the assault of questions she was going to have to deal with –not to mention the highly irritated friend herself– once she took the first step into their shared room. Deciding not to dwell on things that couldn’t be changed, she got up and made her way into the bathroom.

She turned the shower on –pleasantly surprised that it had decent water pressure and didn’t take much adjusting to find the right temperature– and began to thoroughly rinse her hair. There was something intimate about using his toiletries, the cedar-scented soap gliding over her body reminding her vividly of Jamie’s touch. Focus, Beauchamp. And she would smell like him the whole day, too. There were definitely worse things than that, she decided and continued to scrub her skin vigorously. Little did Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp know that for years to come, the smell of cedar would evoke the memory of an unforgettable night in Madeira.  

Morning routine taken care of as well as was possible with someone else’s bathroom supplies and the lack of a toothbrush, Claire got dressed, managing to put on the red garment with only a little struggle with the back zipper. Having a tall man giving a hand in such matters was a severely underappreciated luxury.

Taking another look around the sparse room, Claire made sure that she would not forget anything –not that she’d had much with her that she could have forgotten– but for some reason she was reluctant to go.

Leaving him her number, that would do, she decided.

Shit. Did no one have a spare bit of paper anymore? There was nothing on the table, nor on the nightstand. Of course not. She wouldn’t go through his backpack, that was far too personal. Dammit. And no pen in sight, either. The days of exchanging phone numbers via scribbling them onto napkins or other handy substitutes were apparently truly long gone. God, she wished she had a business card or something to leave behind, then snorted derisively. Were there still people who left business cards? Unless they owned a respectable business of course, which Claire –obviously– did not.

She exhaled through her nostrils, lips in a tight line, not quite understanding herself why she was so anxious to leave something of herself behind. Sure, they’d had an amazing time together, but the fact that she didn’t have his number –yet! she amended forcefully – didn’t mean anything. ‘Little beach bar right next tae the club’ he had said. Everything is his demeanour had screamed that he wanted to see her again, so why was she so bothered by not having a means to contact him before tonight? She would see him in a matter of a half a day.

Realising that she was standing in the middle of the room, staring stupidly into the void, Claire huffed, deciding that there was really nothing she could do. At least not now. Without Jamie around, there was no way to get a hold on his phone number. And with neither pen nor paper at hand she write hers down for him. Seriously, how cheap must that hotel be if they don’t even supply the usual hotel stationery? If she were a girl that wore lipstick, she could’ve gone all rom-com on him and left her number in huge, messy figures on the bathroom mirror. But then again, she wasn’t that girl, so she left.

All in all, facing Geillis was not as bad as anticipated. Sure, there had been icy glares, a reproachful tantrum, and quite a bit of guilt-tripping, but Claire knew she was in the wrong, so she took it all without complaint.

“God, ye scared the livin’ hell out o’ me, Claire, dinnae ever do that again, d’ye hear?”

“I really am sorry, Gee,” she said and hugged her friend closely to her. “Thanks for looking out for me.”

Claire had been worried that the day would drag on and be spent mostly trying not to lose focus of conversations, reminiscing in experiences of nights past, and comparing the ocean’s colour to a very, very blue pair of eyes. To her surprise, she enjoyed herself better than she had in a long time –with the exception of the previous night. Because she had slept and showered at Jamie’s, she’d missed the departure of the rest of the group, who had gone on a pre-booked wine tasting tour for the whole day. Not being partial to wine or any other alcoholic substances in general, she couldn’t say that she minded having missed that excursion all that much. And some distance from Laoghaire and Geneva also didn’t hurt. Geillis, supportive –and worried–friend that she was had skipped that trip for her sake as well. ‘Nae one –except fer yer special friend– even noticed that ye were gone. Ye should ha’ seen the look on her face when she saw ye leave wi’ that piece o’ candy.’ Instead, the pair of them went on a whale watching boat tour. They didn’t see a single fin of the promised sperm whales, but were delighted when a huge school of dolphins passed them by, sun reflecting off their smooth, spotted skins. After a refreshing lunch, they spent the better part of the afternoon laughing and licking runny ice cream off their hands in the Palheiro Gardens just outside of Funchal.

Dressed in skinny jeans and a loose top, with just a bit of mascara to highlight her eyes, Claire finally found herself seated at the quaint beach bar adjoining the Porto Santo Beach Club half an hour too early. There was little chance she was at the wrong spot, it was the only bar around, all other establishments were either clubs or restaurants.

The bartender prepared her fruit cocktail order and a ginger ale for Jamie. A ginger for the ginger. No one ever said her puns were any good, but she found it hilarious, and thought that if she hadn’t misread him completely, Jamie would, too. She snorted while taking a sip and instantly regretted it. The acidic liquid burned the sensitive tissue of her nasal cavity, and tears as well as juice streamed down her face. Her throat constricted as Claire turned an ugly shade of red, sputtering, trying to free her airways, the beverage making its way still unhindered through her nostrils, and breathing in a painful, laboured manner.

“Careful there, hen,” Geillis patted her on the back, aiding to get the liquid out of her system, “yer ginger laddie might like ye, but I’m no’ sure he’s in it fer the tomato look, aye?”

If Claire hadn’t been occupied with trying to breathe again, she would have punched her friend. Maybe in her pretty face.

“Ye orite?”

Claire wiped her face with the napkin and wheezed a weak “Yes.”

“D’ye mind if I stay wi’ ye until he arrives?”

“Be my guest,” she gestured to the empty stool next to her, “I’m so nervous, I’m glad I don’t have to wait on my own.” Her voice was still a bit hoarse from the fruit acid. “Are the others in the club again?”

Geillis nodded.

“Aye, the whole gang is back there,” she looked at Claire, all fidgety with excitement. “Hit ye bad, then, aye?”

Claire looked deep into her cocktail glass, the curtain of her hair hiding her smile, but it was unmistakeable in her voice. “Yes.”

“Weel, ye deserve some. And it did take yer mind off other things,” Geillis smirked. “Sae I was right tae take yer phone away.”

That did earn her a well-placed slap on her upper arm.

“Fuck off, Duncan,” Claire smiled, ordering a new cocktail and a gin tonic for Geillis who was rubbing her arm dramatically.

Having her best friend to talk to made waiting for Jamie a lot easier –and somewhat more bearable. She had been way too early at their agreed meeting place, so she hadn’t really paid much attention to the time since Geillis’ arrival. The darker it got, though, the harder it became to ignore that her Scot was late –and not fashionably late. ‘Around 8?’ he had said, hadn’t he? Yes, she was sure he had. The ‘around’ part gave a bit of freedom of interpretation, but it was now well past 9 o’clock.

“He’ll show up, dinnae worry,” the blonde tried to reassure her. “I’m sure he has a really good reason he’s late –or he better have,” she amended with a glint in her eye.

After another hour and two drinks respectively, they gave up any pretence of light-hearted conversation, though. There was no denying anymore that he wasn’t going to show. Claire didn’t like to admit it, but she was devastated. It was obvious in the slump of her shoulders, the forced smile, and in the faraway look.

“C’mon, hen, let’s go,” her friend suggested, gesturing to the barkeeper that they wanted to pay.

They left, Geillis arm around her shoulder.

“I honestly didn’t think he’d be the type to do that, Gee.”

“Weel, I cannae say I have the same confidence in men, but from what ye told me aboot him, he really didnae seem tae be an arse,” she agreed.

“No, he really didn’t seem to be...,” Claire trailed off. “I mean he was so bloody sweet. And a virgin for fucks sake!”

“A what?” Geillis’s jaw dropped.

“Oh...um...yeah, did I leave that out earlier?”

“Ye did, hen. I would have remembered that bit fer sure!” she scolded Claire. “Ye said ye had the best sex of yer life and it was wi’ a fuckin’ virgin?” the dumbfounded expression on her friend’s face was priceless.

“Eh...yes, but I didn’t know until after.”

“Fuckin’ hell. What has it come tae if virgins are noo able tae fuck like that?”

“Well, that doesn’t matter now. What does matter is why that bloody not-so-virgin-anymore lad didn’t show up tonight,” Claire said through gritted teeth. She had her pride, after all.

“Then there’s only one thing we can do, aye?”

“There is?” honey eyes narrowed suspiciously at green ones.

“O’ course, ye know where he lives, do ye no’?” Geillis mouth curved to an impish grin.

“Oh,” Claire said, realising what her friend was getting at. She could indeed confront the miscreant. And that’s exactly what she would do. With Geillis at her back she wasn’t afraid of anything.

When they reached the lobby, Claire high on adrenaline and Geillis a bit on gin, the two women walked up to the receptionist and demanded to see the strapping young sportsman with the fiery red hair. The poor employee had no idea who they were talking about, and, overtaxed with dealing with them turned to call his superior for help. A more experienced man entered from a backdoor behind the reception counter, and Claire recognised him as the one who had been on duty last night.

“I don’t know if you remember me, sir, but I stayed here with my friend last night. The tall, red-haired Scotsman. He is part of the junior training cadre?”

The man nodded, and Claire took it as encouragement to continue. “Well, I forgot something in his room, and I can’t seem to get a hold of him, could you help me out, maybe?”

“I’m sorry, Miss –, “ the man began, pushing his glasses up his nose.

“Beauchamp,” Claire interjected helpfully.

“Well, I am terribly sorry, Miss Beauchamp, but – “

“I know you’re technically allowed to – “

“You’re right, I am not allowed to. But it’s not that at all, Miss Beauchamp,” he interrupted, his nose twitching nervously.

“No?”

The rest of the conversation was muted and seemed to take place far, far away. Claire stared, standing rigidly and eyes wide with shock, watching the receptionist’s mouth form words, but not quite comprehending.

A horrific accident.

Had to be flown out.

The whole team left a few hours ago.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 13 – The Story of You

A tote bag filled with samples of prenatal vitamins, coupons, and brochures slung over one shoulder, Claire and Geillis made their way back to their apartment, chatting excitedly. Edinburgh had been fully embraced autumn by now, the leaves of trees and other greenery changed their skins to the most beautiful shades of yellow, red, and orange. Brown leaves crunched underneath their soles, the sound accompanied by the whispered promise of new life resurging in the spring.

When the two friends entered the welcoming warmth of their shared home, their hair was in wild disarray. Small gusts of wind sweeping through the streets had set brown curls and straight mane flying, creating knots and nests and tangles. While that wasn’t out of the ordinary for Claire, it was one of Geillis’ self-professed nightmares. In this moment, however, neither of them cared.

Coats and shoes stripped off, they sat huddled together on the couch, contents of the tote bag laid out on the table, looking at the ultrasound pictures –again.

“I still cannae believe it,” Geillis voice was infused with awe.

“Me neither,” Claire agreed, eyes beaming with joy. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in all my life,” she pronounced quietly, but with unchallenged authority.

“It’s just sae tiny,” the blonde woman traced the shape of the little bean reverently with her index finger.  “A tiny you,” she emphasised, looking at her friend, cheeks dimpled with a bright smile.

“And a tiny Jamie, too,” Claire added in a hushed tone, face cast down, amber eyes fixed on the black and white image in her hand, losing herself in thought for a second or two. Jamie. “What was that, Gee?”

“I said ‘I’ll be right back’, hen!” Geillis called from her room.

Five minutes later, dressed in more comfortable slacks and a burgundy University of Edinburgh jumper, Geillis returned with a square item clutched to her chest.

“Here,” she handed it over to Claire, who sat stunned, blinking slowly.

“Noo I can finally see what it is that makes ye almost piss yerself when I try tae wink at ye,” Geillis lips trembled slightly with the urge to laugh at her friend’s owl-like expression.

“What?”

“Ne’ermind,” the fair woman sauntered into the kitchenette, setting a kettle to boil.

“What is this, Gee?” came the inquiry from behind her back.

“Weel, ye’d have tae open it tae find out, hen,” Geillis smirked over her shoulder.

“No shit, sherlock,” Claire mumbled a bit tersely.

Geillis could hear the rustle of wrapping paper as she prepared two mugs of tea. A strong black blend for her, and a stomach-soothing ginger with a fat dollop of honey for the pregnant woman with an uncanny tendency to upend the contents of her stomach at the most inconvenient of times.

“Geillis, I –,” Claire began, voice breaking only slightly, “I don’t know what to say.”

“Ye dinnae have tae say anythin’,” Geillis reclaimed her spot on the couch, placing the steaming mugs on the table, careful not to set them atop any of the brochures or pictures. “I’ll no’ be lyin’ tae ye, Claire,” Geillis lips pressed together in a thin line, hands wedged between her thighs. “Finding Jamie is no’ gonnae be a walk in the park. But I’ll try,” she promised, squeezing Claire’s hand. “And ‘til we do find him, I thought it’d be nice if we recorded everything in there,” she explained, pointing at the baby book in her friend’s lap, “all yer firsts, all the important steps o’ yer pregnancy. So he kens what he missed. I wanted tae give it tae ye fer yer birthday last week, but then I thought it might be nice tae have something tae put into already,” she indicated the ultrasound pictures on the table with her chin.

Claire stared at the book in her lap. Half photo-album, half diary, it was bound in creamy white cloth and had an artistically rendered calligraphy of a tree on the front. The tree was, naturally, not really growing on its canvas, but somehow it seemed as if the ink was shifting, budding, stretching like a tree in growth. In the middle of it sat the title embedded into the drawing. The Story of You. It was remarkably beautiful in its simplicity. And such a considerate and thoughtful gift that it made Claire’s eyes water with gratitude and longing.

“That’s so much more than I could ask for, Gee, thank you,” Claire hugged her friend tightly to her, platinum hair her tickling her nose, causing her to sneeze violently. “Achooo.”

“Och, that’s how it’s goin’ tae be, then?” her friend leaned away from her, pretending to disgustedly assess the damage.  “Ye’ll cover me in all yer different kinds of bodily discharge? I hate tae tell ye, hen, but I’m drawin’ the line at amniotic fluid,” face set in a grave expression, green eyes bored into honey ones, until both broke, unable to hold the laughter in any longer.

“God, what would I do without you, Geillis?” Claire wiped at her eyes, still glistening with mirth and gratitude.

“Weel, ye’d probably starve, for one thing. Speakin’ o’ which, I’m gonnae get us some food –any particular cravings, Madonna?”

“The green curry from the Nepalese place. Make it extra spicy!”

“Extra spicy it is fer the mother tae be,” her friend confirmed as she got their order ready on the delivery app. “All set, shouldnae be more than 30 minutes,” she informed Claire. “And while we wait, ye can strip down,” Geillis announced as if that was a perfectly normal lunch-time activity for them.

“I beg your bloody pardon?”

“I asked ye tae strip down. Or if ye’re uncomfortable wi’ that, jus’ lift yer cardigan and top sae I can get the whole belly on the picture.”

“What would you want to take a picture of my belly for?”

Fair eyebrows were drawn up high above moss-green eyes. It wasn’t necessary to voice her thought, but she did it anyway. “God, ye can be daft sometimes, woman. Tae document yer progress, o’ course. I’m going tae take one every week, starting noo.”

When Claire didn’t comply, she clarified, “Fer the wee book. Sae, get nekid –at least partially, aye?”

Geillis shooed her to stand in profile in front of the bit of plain white-washed wall that would serve as neutral background for the photos and directed her how high to hold up her shirt, how to stand, and where to place her left hand.

“I feel absolutely ridiculous,” the curly-haired woman moaned, cheeks tinged with embarrassment.

“Aye, maybe so, but ye’ll be thankin’ me later, when ye get tae look at the lot o’ them,” her friend countered, unbothered by the unwilling participant of her artistic endeavour. “Stay jus’ like that, Claire, aye, that’s it. And we’re done. Wasnae sae hard, was it?”

“No, I... I know this is dumb, but I ... ah, I guess I’m just overly self-conscious.”

Geillis emitted a noise that was very similar to what Claire imagined a frog with violent, spurting diarrhoea would sound like.

“Did you just pffffsst me?” Claire gawped at her.

“I did,” Geillis admitted without any trace of remorse. “Look at ye, hen. Ye’re gorgeous, and that wee one isnae even as big as yer pinky yet. Ye’re a good way still from showin’. How could ye possibly feel insecure right noo?”

Claire walked to the kitchen to put her mug into the sink.

“Well, I... knowing that all of this is going to change,” she motioned to her still flat belly, “is really intimidating. It’s... I don’t know, I know it’s stupid.”

“Aye, it is stupid, but ye’re allowed tae be. Ye’re pregnant,” Geillis grinned at her.

“Idiot,” Claire retorted, throwing a dish towel at her best friend, but couldn’t help the smile tucking up the corners of her mouth.

“But ye love me,” Geillis stated, putting the towel back where it belonged.

“I do,” came the immediate response as Claire put a hand on her friend’s back, conveying what she wasn’t able to put into words with the gesture.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 14 – The Search

Two weeks after the ultrasound appointment, Geillis sat cross-legged on her bed, staring once again at the list she’d made, forehead wrinkled in frustration and cursing under her breath. Claire had not been kidding, there really wasn’t much to work with. They had his first name, his country of origin, a rough age group, and knew that he was some sort of athlete. She’d asked the reception clerk that night whether he knew which club they belonged to –‘No’. He’d told her that they hadn’t booked the rooms under a club sponsor but under their individual names, which –of course– he hadn’t been allowed to pass on to her.

Claire hadn’t been much help back then –and little wonder at that. Hearing that your virgin wonder-shag and potential future love interest had gotten hurt so badly in a cycling accident on the mountainside that they had to fly him out before you were able to get his contact information wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that caused normal people to stay level-headed and calm. Hell, it had affected her, even though she hadn’t known him. No, Claire really wasn’t to blame for not changing gears into detective mode right away. Who would’ve guessed that he had gotten her pregnant anyway? They did use contraception, after all. Bloody fucking faulty condoms.

That both of them could recognise him on sight only came in handy when she was able to dig up online club rosters that didn’t only list their members’ names but also had pictures available, or in the unlikely event that he showed up in The Steaming Mug when she got her next coffee fix. Arrrgh. This was so fucking infuriating. She sighed heavily and massaged the bridge of her nose. They’d gone through so many cycling club member lists and their event photos already that her head spun. And still, no hot trail leading towards the baby daddy. Not even a lukewarm anything, really –just stone-cold nothing so far. Not a single one of her connections –neither family nor friends back in Aberdeenshire– had heard anything about it either. Now it was time to look into different possibilities and eventualities, it was time to venture out into pure chance.

I will find ye, ye wily Scot. Her chest thrust out with determination, she rolled her sleeves up and started to dig again.

Another two weeks and still nothing. December had taken hold of the city and shrouded it in long, dark hours. Geillis spirit was similarly dampened –the confidence in her stalking abilities dwindling slowly, but surely. If Claire had taken a photo of him, or the two of them, she could’ve started a ‘does anyone know this man’ campaign or something similar like they did in newspapers sometimes. Wait – that could be it! She banged her door open and rushed into Claire’s room like a storm.

“The newspaper!” she exclaimed as if she’d just found the cure to cancer.

“What?” her curly-haired friend looked up at her, brows drawn tightly together at the interruption of her study session.

“Stop chewin’ that pen, Beauchamp, how often do I have tae tell ye?”

“You don’t get to barge into my room and tell me what not to do, Geillis,” the timbre of Claire’s voice gave her sour mood away, so Geillis chose to get to the point without delay.

“Jamie’s accident. If it was sae bad as fer him tae have been flown out, surely it must ha’ made the local news, aye?”

Golden eyes went round with understanding.

“You’re right, they must have reported something.”

Claire stacked her notes neatly and put them into a drawer to make room on the desk for her laptop –priorities had changed for the moment. It didn’t take long for them to unearth an article from Madeira Weekly and an entry on the Madeira Island News blog since they knew the date they were searching for. Geillis had been right, there had been coverage of the incident. And a few of those were even in English.

19-year-old Scottish national involved in shocking accident

Team of junior athletes from the UK

Hit-and-run car crash victim

Hurled off bike by the impact

Back torn to shreds

Black SUV with unknown licence plate

Transported via emergency aircraft to mainland

Everything they found written about it–that wasn’t in Portuguese– focused on the horrific nature of the hit-and-run and calls for action to find the culprit. There weren’t any details about the victim aside from his age, his nationality, the superficial mention of his being an athlete, and how the accident went down according to his teammates. They didn’t even name him, they just called him the young man or Scottish national –even in the local newspapers was no mention of it. Basically, they were none the wiser. Well, that wasn’t quite true –now they knew that he had been 19 when it happened. It wasn’t much, but it did help narrow things down a little. But the worst of it was that they didn’t even know if he had survived.

“Do you think he’s –,“ Claire swallowed convulsively.

One heartbeat. Two heartbeats.

“I don’t know,” her friend looked at her, green eyes brimming with barely contained emotion. “Must have been one hell o’ a crash...”

“Should we...,” Claire cleared her throat, avoiding her friend’s look, “check for obituaries?”

Another heartbeat. The unheard rhythm of hummingbird wings.

“No,” Geillis answered quietly. “No, I dinnae think sae,” she repeated with more confidence. “They would have made him a martyr or something if he’d died.”

It wasn’t exactly comforting, but at least it made sense –somewhat. Claire closed her eyes tightly in an effort to believe that rather than envisage the other possibility. She hadn’t dared to really look for him for that very reason before she learned of her pregnancy. She had wanted to cling to hope, to not know whether he had died. That way she was able to keep him alive in her thoughts the way she’d last seen him. Dark blue eyes alight with tenderness, lopsided smile directed at her, his touch burnt into the haptic memory of her cheek.

They sat in silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts and battling with their emotions, computer fans whirring softly in the background.

 “Oh.”

“Hm?”

“I just thought of something else, but ye willnae like it a bit, hen,” Geillis remarked, leaning back against the bedframe.

“Out with it, Duncan,” Claire prompted.

“Laoghaire,” her friend stated simply.

“Laoghaire?” confusion rang in the question. “What’s she got do with anything?”

“Weel, she did end up wi’ that lad that was more beard than face.” When Claire still didn’t get her meaning, Geillis sighed dramatically, feigning exasperation, “Ye said he was one of his teammates, no? If she got his phone number, that would be a way tae reach yer ginger man.”

“True –good thinking, Gee,” her mouth curved into a small smile.

“No, ‘tis great thinking, hen. Aboot time this ol’ bugger proved its worth,” she pointed at her own, fair-haired her head.

“But how are we going to do this? I can’t just walk up to her and ask,” Claire pointed out, shoulders tensing at the prospect.

“Technically, ye could. But I see what ye mean. She’s definitely no’ yer biggest fan –and it didnae get any better since she didnae get intae med school while you and I did. Seriously, if looks could kill – “

“Not helpful, Geillis,” Claire interjected, throwing her friend a look that told Geillis she knew exactly how little the other girl liked her.

“I ken. Sorry,” the blonde amended. “Just means we’ll have tae be smart aboot it.”

They would have to tread carefully around Laoghaire Mackenzie –that much was clear.

Head tilted back, amber eyes stared at the ceiling. “Why does everything have to be so bloody difficult?”

Geillis didn’t try to come up with an answer. How could she? What she could do, though, was stand beside her friend, and stroke her curls –and come up with an idea how to get a hold of someone who was not naturally inclined to help them out in any way.

Little did they know that an opportunity to corner Laoghaire would arise completely on its own.

It was a crisp Saturday, only a couple of days before Christmas when Claire rested her cheek against the seat of the toilet, eyes shut against the brightness of the artificial light that was just too bright for her half-awake form. Brown curls stuck to her sweaty forehead, and her sleep shirt clung to her back from the exertion of heaving into the porcelain bowl over and over again. Morning sickness really was the worst part of pregnancy so far. The term itself was deviously deceptive –she’d cry happy tears if it were limited only to the morning hours. It literally lasted all day long sometimes and came when she needed it the least –during an exam, during another appointment with Dr Raymond, or a phone call with Mary. It wasn’t just the normal feeling of nausea everyone gets once in a while, it felt like stomach acid was eating through the walls of her insides. She’d woken up from it every single day since the first ultrasound. And it got set off by the most innocent of smells during the day –and in a split second she was spewing her guts out without any warning sign. The only antidote against it seemed to be sucking on liquorice, and she hated that stuff.  Better of two evils, though.

She’d thought it would be better today and felt foolish for it. It wasn’t any different from other days to her little bean. It hadn’t been impressed into restraint by her anatomy final, nor the fact that roughly ten other people watched her give literally all of herself in aisle 3 of her local grocery store the day before. So where had she got the idiotic notion that it might be better this morning? Hope. It had been hope. But that got as smashed as Jack Randall did last night.

With the semester having ended, and no up-coming exams or assignments left for this term, her friends from undergraduate studies had decided to have a little Christmas party before everyone left for their well-deserved break. When Isobel had sent her and Geillis the details about the get-together, the two friends had been over the moon with the opportunity to mingle with Laoghaire without it being suspicious. It would also have been a wonderful opportunity to tell her closest of friends that she was pregnant. If it hadn’t been for Jonathan ‘Black Jack’ Randall, whose nickname was inspired by a deeply engrained love for that particular brand of scotch whisky, that is.

Things had gone awry almost the second they’d joined their already assembled friends at their table. Since Claire had never really had a taste for alcohol, no one batted an eye when she’d ordered ginger ale, but the fact that the smell of Jack’s third whisky sour that evening seemed to trigger another bout of retching had caused quite the stir. She’d made it to the lavatories in time, followed closely by Isobel. Geillis had chosen to stay behind, thinking it would draw too much unwanted attention otherwise. 

“You still look quite green around the gills, Claire. Are you sure you’re alright?” Isobel asked, handing her another paper towel.

She waved her friend away and nodded. “I’m quite alright, thank you.”

Hazel eyes narrowed a bit, she obviously didn’t buy it, but what was she to do? She couldn’t force Claire to spill the beans if she didn’t want to.

“I’m alright, really,” she tried to sound more cheerful and managed to smile almost genuinely.

“If you say so.”

They left the bathroom and joined the others again, Claire making a remarkable effort to look as if she hadn’t just turned her insides out –and succeeding quite well at that. Munching on pretzels and breathing mainly through her mouth seemed to do the trick and the evening progressed nicely for a while. She received a couple of concerned glances now and then, but as she didn’t show any further signs of explosive sickness, those subsided as well.

The longer the evening went on, the merrier the group got, even Mary seemed to have lost most of her usual inhibitions, flirting with one of the barkeepers, a lock of her dark hair curled around a finger, when she thought no one was looking. It wasn’t until Geillis was finally invested a casual conversation with Laoghaire and Geneva at the other end of the three tables their group occupied that the figurative table turned on her.

“Is it me or are your boobs bigger, Beauchamp?” the drunk posh voice of the eldest Randall cut through the different conversations at the table. Heads turned towards him, expressions varying from bewildered to annoyed.

He sat right across from Claire, staring and pointing at her bosom, despite having trouble to focus on it, a new whisky in hand.

“What did you just say?” she hissed at him.

“I asked if your tits have grown, Claire. A simple question really,” he remarked nonchalantly swirling the amber liquid in his glass like the pretentious connoisseur he would have liked to be.

“Shut it, Jack,” came his brother’s angry reprimand.

“Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed, Frank. They’re absolutely spectacular,” he directed at his younger sibling before returning his attention back to Claire, “Where did you get them done, darling?”

Uneasy murmur went around the table, and Geillis –stuck between bitch and bitchier–was fuming, nostrils flaring with outrage. If he’d been sitting next to her, he’d have lost his ability to procreate right then and there.

“You’d better go, Jack,” Claire advised him, voice steady and deadly serious, “You’re drunk.”

Instead of taking the cue, he leaned in closer over the table, trying to get an even better look at her.

“Or have you been knocked up? Is that why you’re so prickly –“

He didn’t get to finish his sentence, her hand had lashed out and connected with his cheek without conscious thought.

“You’re a fucking bastard, Jonathan Randall,” she grabbed her purse and left without another word.

Outside of the bar, Claire stood for a second –inhaling deeply in an attempt to rid herself of some of the anger that tensed her neck and pulsed in the tiny vein in her temples. She had expected a calming hand to be placed on her shoulder, but it was surprisingly not Geillis’ pale one.

“You forgot your coat, love.”

“Oh, thanks,” she said and took the coat gratefully, only now realising that it was bloody cold out. Cold in December, who would’ve guessed?

“Geillis wanted to walk you home, but I offered to go with you instead,” Isobel explained. “I wanted to leave soon anyway.”

“But you live in the other direction,” Claire pointed out as she began to make her way home.

“It’s a fine night for a walk, though,” came the somewhat enigmatic response as Isobel followed on her heels. After half a minute of silence she asked “Are you okay, love?”

“Yes.”

“What Jack said was so out of place. I’m sorry he put you on the spot like that. I mean, he can be a prick sometimes, but never like that. I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”

“He was right, though,” she said through gritted teeth. “That’s why I slapped him.”

“What?” Isobel stopped and stared at her with wide hazel eyes not quite comprehending.

“He was FUCKING RIGHT!” Claire shouted, enjoying to finally let some of that frustration out of her system. “My breasts are bigger. I did get myself knocked up,” she explained as tears began to spill. And I can’t get a hold of the father was left unsaid –for now.

“Oh, Claire.”

“I wanted to tell you guys tonight,” Claire sniffed, wiping at her face with her sleeve, “but I couldn’t, not like this.”

“I see,” Isobel’s head bobbed in understanding. “Come, I’ll walk you home, love.”

Isobel had kept her company until they reached her front door, not prying into when, where, how, and who it had happened with, letting Claire decide when she was ready to share it with her. Home alone, the first thing she did was to text Geillis she got there alright, and that she was –more or less– okay. She didn’t even lie, then. Slapping Jack Randall and screaming in the streets of Edinburgh had been cathartic to some degree. What she had not been prepared for were the messages that her best friend had sent back.  

            She doesnae have Rupert’s number

            I’m sae sorry, hen

            I’m coming home

She’d gone to the bathroom then, threw up violently, and, with the contents of her stomach, flushed hope down the drain.

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 15 – About a Boy

Claire was absolutely miserable. Her feet were sore, her breasts tender, and the baby had spent the last few weeks with its fat little bottom tucked up under her ribs, kicking frequently and enthusiastically, bruising her in the process. Everything about her felt not quite right anymore. Her skin seemed too thin, stretched beyond its limits and bearing purple marks to prove it. She was at the end of her patience and so bloody tired of being pregnant. She hadn’t really started to show until her third trimester, but when she finally did, her belly had grown exponentially bigger –and fast. The larger her little bean got, the less room her lungs had to expand, with the addition of quite a bit of extra weight on top, she wasn’t able to waddle more than a couple of steps at a time before she was winded.

The hormonal rollercoaster was a bit harder to deal with –being out of milk really wasn’t something that would usually make her break out in tears– but she managed to keep it from interfering too much with study schedules and personal life. Her professors had all been informed about her ‘situation’ of course, and Claire had been pleasantly surprised that most of them had been supportive of her endeavour to continue with her studies despite the added difficulties. Studying medicine in and of itself was a fulltime job with numerous challenges –and being pregnant was certainly not an advantage. But, despite all of that, Claire might at least be lucky in one thing –if her not-so-little-anymore bean stuck to the estimated due date of April the 19th, she would give birth during the spring teaching vacation. That meant she wouldn’t have to arrange an extra-curricular exam date for her finals. Teachers, no matter how sympathetic in theory, were hardly ever responsive to these kind of requests from students. On one such occasion, where she had asked for an extension of a deadline, explaining her circumstances to their pathology lecturer, Claire was sure that her appeal would be rejected immediately. Hildegard de Gascogne, who had a notoriously strict and unforgiving attitude – with a face to match– had proved her wrong, though. When those black beetle-like eyes had narrowed under heavy brows, Claire was sure she would be told off for wasting the woman’s precious time with such irrelevant nonsense. Dr Hildegard, however, saying nothing at first, had dug into her desk drawers for a notepad and began scribbling down notes. Not quite knowing what to do, Claire had sat there, waiting for a gaze, a sharp word –anything really– to give her a clue whether she was expected to leave or stay. Just a moment shy before Claire was about to ask whether she may leave, Hildegard had looked up at her, homely face transformed by a bright smile. She had handed the sheet of paper over to Claire, suggesting that she take a look at the things she had noted down for her. It was a list of people and institutions she could approach –university day care, scholarship programs for mothers, and many more useful bits of advice. ‘We will make sure you got everything you need to finish our program,’ the grey-haired woman had assured her, eyes shining with warmth.

Geillis, keeping her word, was easily the most supportive person in her life. She helped her to stay on top of her studies, and more often than not anticipated and attended to Claire’s needs. On top of all of that, Geillis had faithfully taken a picture of her belly every single week, putting it into the baby book alongside the new ultrasound printouts. The progress of her pregnancy had become spectacularly evident in the past 8 weeks, but the last one at week 39 made Claire’s stomach churn a little. She was horrified how big she had gotten in just a matter of two months. No comparison to the flat plain of her stomach when they’d taken the first photo at the 13 weeks mark. She looked –and felt– as if she’d swallowed a monstrous pumpkin. At least her skin wasn’t orange –thank heaven for small mercies. The colour reminded her of something else, though.

Despite the discouraging results so far, neither Claire nor Geillis had given up on finding Jamie. Eventually, they’d gone through every single official cycling club in Scotland and Northern England and had come to the conclusion that while he had been in a cycling accident, that might still not have been the sport he was professionally involved in. A lot of athletes cycled for training purposes, right? They went on to look at triathlon, then swimming, and when those also didn’t yield anything about the handsome ginger, continued to look into basically every other sport that came to mind that would possibly send a team of junior athletes to an island for training camp. But while their child grew steadily bigger and bigger, there was still no trace of Jamie.

As the days and weeks passed by, and more and more firsts happened, and photographs of her progressing pregnancy were taken, Claire became a bit obsessed about chronicling all of them in the baby book Geillis had gifted her after her first ultrasound. There was a detailed account of when the baby had moved for the very first time. It had been week 20 right during her third appointment with her ob-gyn and had happened completely unexpected. It lasted just for a second. But in that one second she’d gotten the first true sense of her child, and that moment would never, ever leave her. Dr Raymond had asked her whether she wanted to know the gender then, too, but she declined. In that at least, she wanted to stay as ignorant as Jamie. There wasn’t much else she could share with him during that time. So she kept faithful records of everything that she felt he had a right to know and was certain he would want to know once he found out. But it wasn’t just that –it also helped her feel connected to him, feeling his presence there with her and their child.

 

Twice a week she also participated in a Lamaze class that Geillis had talked her into –sometimes accompanied by either Isobel or Mary if her roomie couldn’t make it for some reason. All of her close friends had shown so much support for her, it was genuinely heart-warming. It showed in the way they helped out with cleaning and readying the apartment for her new co-habitant, and in the way they took over her grocery shopping when Claire was incapacitated by nausea. Even though she hadn’t wanted anyone to make a fuss about it, neither Geillis, nor Mary, nor Isobel would budge when it came to throwing her a baby shower. After much discussion, in which she hadn’t really had much to say, Claire had relented. In hindsight, she was glad that she had. It really was a sweet, intimate affair with just the four of them. Onesies had been painted in more or less artistic efforts –Mary’s panda design had elicited quite a few admiring comments. Cake and other snacks had been consumed eagerly, crumbs and icing licked off plates as more small presents were handed over to the expecting mother. What to Expect When You Are Expecting had been wrapped in a soft, creamy baby blanket by Isobel. ‘My cousin said this was her bible when she was pregnant with her first,’ she’d explained. Geillis had presented her with an Audible gift card –an entire year of subscription– saying that Claire would probably need something to ‘keep her sane’ during the hours when the bairn was colicky and she wouldn’t be able to get sleep. At last, after even more cake and tea, loosened waistbands, and crude jokes that were exactly up her alley, Claire excused herself and got up to fetch something from her room. She returned, full lips set in a warm smile, with another present in hand. She put it on the table and made herself comfortable on the sofa again. When she didn’t make a move to open it Mary asked who it was from.

“I bought this one myself,” she said and began to unwrap it. To light came a completely black onesie with white print that read ‘The Godchild’ in reminiscence of the iconic Marlon Brando movies. There were quite a few confused glances until Claire got out another present and handed it over to her best friend. Geillis stared at her, green eyes wide with incomprehension. Geillis had given her so much during the past few months that Claire had felt it was time to give her something back.

“What’s that then, hen?”

“You’d have to open it to find out, Duncan,” she smiled at the memory of a similar conversation just a few months ago, when Geillis had gifted her the baby book that sat now on the table in their living room, waiting for a polaroid of the baby shower to be added to its pages.

The fair-haired woman tore into the wrapping paper, impatience to unearth its hidden secrets edged into her face with small frown, to find a matching black shirt in her size with ‘The Godmother’ on the front. She just looked at Claire, moss-green orbs glistening with unshed tears. There had been no need for words, the tight embrace shared conveyed all that was necessary.

Claire had loved her friends before already, but it was different now. There was a whole new level to their friendship, with no room for doubt. She wasn’t alone in this, they would be with her. And that knowledge gave her so much strength that she couldn’t help the twinkle of happiness in her eyes. And with her happiness, hope had returned as well. She just knew deep in her guts that they would find Jamie.

As many highs as she’d experienced during those months with her unborn child, there had also been a highly uncomfortable situation in the library with Frank. They had met for a joint study session –they made for good partners despite their different subjects– when their conversation had suddenly gone down an unexpected path. ‘A child needs a father figure, Claire,’ he had said in such a patronising and condescending manner that for a second she hadn’t been able to do more than stare at him, mouth slightly open with disbelief. Then she had laughed, which had earned her reprimanding glances from other library occupants, thinking that he must surely be joking. But he hadn’t been. ‘And I guess you’re selflessly nominating yourself for that particular position?’ Claire had inquired, arms crossed, and one brow raised above a golden glare.

That was exactly what he’d had in mind. Absolute incredulity was the only thing that had kept her seated –until he mentioned ‘potential mutual benefits’ of the entire proposition that is. Frank might have been generally a rather subtle man, but he’d spelled out quite clearly what it was he expected from Claire in return for his heroic gesture of rescuing her from ‘an existence of shame and scorn as a single mother with no means to provide for her child’. When he had suggested that she would definitely enjoy herself as well, she slapped him so hard that his ears rang for the rest of the day. Cramming books and notes into her bag, she’d stormed out of the library, followed by curious glances of other students. After that incident, Claire and her friends had formed the unspoken, but unanimous agreement that the Randall brothers would no longer be taking part in their social outings. Poor Alex had to pay the price for his brothers’ impertinence. She didn’t have much time to dwell on ill-mannered, over-privileged English pricks, though.  There lay far more important things ahead of her.

Now that she was approaching her due date, she’d prepared herself as best as she could for her little bean. Geillis had helped her to move things around the apartment to use the space more efficiently. Where her desk had been was now a nursery corner –a small bed, a comfy chair, a changing table. There were nursing pillows, baby blankets, nappies, and so much more stuff than Claire ever thought they could fit into their apartment. The pram stood waiting next to the door, ready for action, and she’d practiced endlessly with Geillis how to properly tie and secure the wrap she would carry her baby around with. Now that everything was ready, there was only one thing left to do – wait.

Just when she thought she couldn’t possibly get any bigger or more uncomfortable, Claire got up in the middle of the night for what she thought would be yet another visit to the loo. She’d had Braxton Hicks contractions on and off the past ten days, so she didn’t really think much of the discomfort that hit her square in the gut as she plopped down ungainly on the toilet seat. It was only when she realised that she was able to breathe much more freely all of a sudden that she noticed the coloured discharge in her underwear. As a med student –and well-read and prepared woman– Claire had had no illusions what was going to happen to her. She knew the drill alright. She wasn’t under the illusion that it was going to be pretty. But having read something is very different from experiencing it first-hand, a notion she fully internalised the moment her water broke. It was weird. Sort of a warm gush that wet her thighs, but not all that spectacular, really.

“Geillis!” Claire called out of the bathroom, pulling her knickers and sleep pants up. She grabbed a towel and put it between her legs, waddling out of the confined room. “GEILLIS!” she shouted again, much louder this time.

As she reached the door to her friend’s bedroom, she could hear a groaned “What?!” in answer.

She opened the door and stuck her head in, “I think the baby’s coming, Gee!”

It was still dark in the room, but regardless of the lack of light, Claire was sure she’d never seen Geillis Duncan wake up and move so quickly as in that moment.

“It’s comin’?! Let’s go then!” her friend jumped up, putting on the first thing she found over her nightshirt, grabbing her phone from the nightstand, bound her mane in a tight bun, and ushered Claire out of her room. “C’mon, Beauchamp, we dinnae have all night, no?”

“Let me get dressed first as well, alright?” Claire gestured down at her own sleepwear and the towel between her legs.                                                                                       

“Oh...,” Geillis realised belatedly that maybe it wasn’t quite as much of a life or death emergency as she had thought. “Right. Go ahead then, I’ll call us an Uber?”

“I think whoever might drive that car wouldn’t really enjoy having a woman with contractions and leaky private parts ruin his backseat,” Claire stated dryly, then continued, “call Dr Raymond and tell him my water broke.”

An ambulance ride and several hours of increasingly more intense contractions later, Claire found herself clad in a flimsy, green hospital gown in the delivery room. Whoever said that giving birth is a beautiful experience is a filthy liar. All those sweet, picture-perfect movie scenarios? Couldn’t be farther from the truth. It looks nothing like that –and is a good deal more painful. You sweat like you’re getting the workout of your life and if you’re lucky, you’re one of those women whose nether parts don’t tear while your body is attempting to squeeze something the size of a watermelon out of a very much not watermelon-sized hole. Giving birth was messy business – it was excruciating, raw, and overwhelming in more than one way. The whole affair seemed more like a pretty severe design flaw in human anatomy rather than a miracle of creation.

As Claire lay curled sideways on her bed, already sick of the sterile hospital smell and writhing in pain, trying to find any position that would bring relief, she tried to picture what the following day would bring. There were no parents to cheer her on. There would be no uncle Lamb twiddling his thumbs in the waiting room humming to himself. Neither was there going to be a nervous young father looking at her with a proud smile and a sparkle in his warm blue eyes. No, she didn’t have all that many people in her life, but those she did have, made more than up for it. Her friends would be waiting for her, excited to welcome her baby into their midst. And she had Geillis, of course. A best friend she often thought she didn’t deserve, the sister that she’d always wanted. A woman who stood beside her through months of emotional outbursts and midnight cravings –not by force, but choice. She really couldn’t ask for more. Claire was happy, she knew was loved. And even though she had no doubt that she could do this without him, screaming and crying through the onslaught of contractions, part of her wished Jamie was there with her. That it was him holding her hand instead of her best friend, sharing the wonder that was the birth of their child. And just for a brief moment, she felt his presence, like a breath of wind sighing into her ear.

Unfortunately, this moment of respite didn’t last long. The waves of contractions were coming closer together and were a lot more intense already. Geillis sat at her left side, her wide forehead creased in concentration as she attempted not to let her own discomfort show –Claire was gripping her hand very, very tightly, the bones grinding together painfully. When it became too much for Geillis, her best friend offered her the little stuffed puffin she had brought with her –intended as a gift for the new-born– in exchange for her hand. Irritated at first, Claire waved the cute toy away, but her friend insisted.

“Use this tae squeeze fer a while. I’m more than happy tae help, but if I’m gonnae be a surgeon, I’ll need my hand in the future, hen,” she smiled tentatively at Claire, not quite sure how a woman in the midst of childbirth would react to her joke.

It did ease some of the tension, though, as Claire snorted with the grace of a hippo and took the puffin from her, squeezing it for all she was worth. Concentrating on that task helped her to focus on something other than the steadily growing pain. The contractions were coming only minutes apart now, and Claire was balling up her fists during each one, crushing the life out of the little puffin. It was then that Claire started to yell and curse at anyone who came into sight. She was in pain and had to take it out on someone, and Geillis came in handy. Jamie, despite lack of presence, was at the receiving end of one or two heartfelt sentiments as well. I'm going to have your balls, Jamie, for knocking me upBloody Scottish virgin.

“Is there anything I can do, Claire?” Geillis asked, looking around the room helplessly.

“How about you have the baby for me?” she hissed out through clenched teeth.

“LOL,” came the blonde’s response.

“Did you just ‘lol’ me, Geillis Duncan?” Claire stared at her best friend, honey eyes wide with amusement as much as pain.

“Weel, it seems I just did, aye,” Geillis confirmed, an answering smile softening the tenseness in her own features.

Claire kept thinking that it couldn’t possibly get any worse, that her uterus and all her muscles would simply be ripped in two if it did, but worse it got.

The transition phase had begun. She knew this was going to be the worst part of it. And it was. It felt like one huge, never-ending loop of pain that sometimes lessened a bit, only to magnify tenfold again. Everything hurt –her insides felt as if about to split, her back spasmed, and even her eyeballs seemed to ache as if in sympathy with the rest of her bruised anatomy. Moaning loudly, she was hunched over the pillows, trying desperately to believe that she could get through this. She just wanted it out. It was unbearable.

“C’mon, hen, ye can do this. Ye only have tae get through the next one,” Geillis cheered her on, her own forehead sprinkled with perspiration. It had been long 17 hours in the delivery room already.

It took another twenty minutes of her screaming, groaning, and panting heavily before the midwife finally gave her the okay to start pushing. Pushing itself was another highly deceptive term. What doctors really mean by that is that you have to do an ab crunch every 20 seconds until the baby moves down to the birth canal, knowing full well that you haven’t done that kind of exercise in around 8 months or so. But ‘push’ she did, despite being almost completely worn out. Claire even fell asleep in between the contractions, a fact that Geillis would never let her forget for the rest of their lives.

Every minute seemed to last eternally, and neither Geillis’ presence nor the little puffin in her hand was able to distract her from the pain anymore.

“I can’t do this,” she gasped in between screams.

“Aye, ye can,” her best friend encouraged her, mopping Claire’s brow again.

Curls were stuck to her face and neck with sweat, and she glared daggers at Geillis, a look that told her where exactly she thought Geillis could stick that piece of wisdom.

“And ye will,” her best friend continued, placing a cool washcloth on Claire’s forehead, “Or ye’ll be pregnant forever, no?”

That was not a possibility she wanted to entertain.

Just when Claire howled in pain yet again, thinking she couldn’t muster any more strength to go on pushing, a small head emerged between her thighs –one blue eye open, ready to take in the strange surroundings. Come on dearie, another push, aye, that’s it. The last contraction made her double over in agony. But another push accompanied by an unearthly groan brought the rest of her child into the world as tears were streaming down her cheeks. After the better part of a full day in labour, Claire was exhausted, but more than ready to meet her child. She was still panting as if she’d just completed a marathon trying to fill her lungs with sweet, sweet oxygen, when a warm, soft weight was put onto her chest. Still attached to her, the baby didn’t cry right away, but the midwife assured her there was nothing wrong. A mighty sneeze sounded through the room, followed by a hearty cry of protest as the experienced practitioner dried and cleaned the child, preparing to cut the cord and deliver the afterbirth.

“Ye have a son, Claire,” Geillis whispered into her ear, the awe clearly audible.

A boy, she thought, rolling the idea around in her head. Not the little girl with red curls she’d imagined looking up at her with honey eyes, chubby little arms in a floral sundress. I have a son we do, Jamie. A perfect little boy with fat little cheeks, a tuft of reddish hair, and the bluest eyes she’d ever seen gazing up at her as if she were his whole world. She looked down at him, knowing that she had had a part in the creation of this entirely new person. She knew that he would always be hers. So tiny, and so important. So impossibly small and yet he occupied almost all of her heart already. She was in pain, she was sore, every cell of her body hurt, but she would do it gladly all over again just to experience the simple joy of holding her child.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she whispered against the pink, downy skin of her son’s head cradled against her chest, “William.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 16 – Sorcha

The world was dark, even though there was light.

He remembered the sun warming his skin, reddening the tip of his nose –the one spot he always forgot to protect. He remembered the fresh smell of the mountainside, but they weren’t the familiar scents of heather and lochs. There was hibiscus and tropical shrubbery, a whiff of honey and lilac. No, this was a different mountain, but it still felt like home.

The world was mute, even though there was sound.

The buzz of an annoying wee insect moving in and out of his hearing range, on its hunt for nectar, blood, or pollen. The chatter of friends during breaks. Groaning and panting as they pushed themselves further, faster, longer, higher up the mountain. Tyres screeching too late on the asphalt, the eerie scream of metal being bent into unrecognisable shapes. A whoosh of wind as a body was propelled forward. Shouts of terror. Gears reversing, a motor roaring and turning around. The dull thud when his head hit the ground. And then the click when his lights went out, falling into the abyss.

The world was numb, even though there was pain.

The impact smashing, contusing, abrading. Muscles bruising, tendons ripping, bones breaking. Roughness of gravel scraping, slicing through yellow shirt and pale skin on his back. Open wound contaminated by debris. The taste of dirt and blood on his tongue, a cracked tooth. Sweaty hands trying to be gentle, not daring to move him from the spot.

The world was light, even though it was dark.

A harsh light penetrates the thick fog of unconsciousness. Not the sun, but just as blinding in its intensity. A shadow moves in the periphery of his vision. Everything is blurry. There’s only grey and white. The smell of sterility cut through with the scent of a sharp ointment. Maybe plant-based, maybe synthetically created –who cared? A monitoring system documenting the symphony of his melancholy heartbeat. Tethered by tubes to a bed that was not his own.

Sorcha.

The world was loud, even though it was mute.

He was surrounded by alien sounds. Swishing, whirring, and humming. A relentless beeping noise. The sucking of a vacuum machine. The rustle of fabric as someone moves, a cough to clear an unfamiliar throat. Indistinct murmurs, white noise in his ear, in a language that is not his own. The sound of his own screams translated into nothingness.

Sorcha.

The world was pain, even though it was numb.

A substance was creeping through his arteries, dulling the synapses, disconnecting the neurotransmitters. Then, a tingle on his backside. His blood began to hiss. Rivers of infection winding their path through his flesh, the perspiration of a high fever seeping into the stiff sheets beneath him. A swelling pain spreads, burrowing into every fibre, nestling into each cell, making a home there without being invited to. Blinding pain, so much pain.

Sorcha.

The rising awareness of an excruciating throbbing in his back hauled him slowly out of the darkness, each step sending a bolt of fire through his weakened limbs. He felt the pulsing of infection, the bruised flesh of his shoulder and thigh, the cracked ribs. The abyss was alluring, promising relief, trying to pull him under again, but on he went. For ahead lay something sweeter.

Sorcha. Light.

He was dead. Everything was clouded. Then he saw a golden orb, beckoning him, promising warmth and something more. The centre of gravity, pulling him in. Light lay ahead. That must be it. The tip of a tongue against furry teeth rekindled the faint memory of a more pleasant tang. Salty and sweet, unique. Heaven. The rustle of sheets, pale limbs entwined with bronzed ones. Clouds. The smell of sweat. Nostrils flared in remembrance of his own musk mingled with light. Sorcha.

An explosive cough dispelling the last of the blackness.

Memory rushing back.

He had been mistaken.

He was not dead, after all.

He had to get to her. She was waiting for him.

Sorcha. His Sassenach. Claire.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 17 - Progression

Raising a child was bloody hard business. Everything was different. Her time was no longer her own. There was now a little person who was completely dependent on her –not caring whether she needed a bathroom break or if her nipples were cracked and hurting. Sleep was a luxury, every opportunity to close her eyes was seized with almost as much eagerness as the little bean tried to stuff yet another hazardous item into his mouth. Endless amounts of shit had to be dealt with. Late night colic, boiling fever, and recurrent diaper rashes. Tantrums in public while onlookers threw either pitiful or annoyed glances at them. And then there was the guilt. Guilt for leaving him in day-care, for not making organic baby food from scratch, from not having the energy to take him to the park after a particularly long day. There was also endless worrying and wondering whether Jamie would approve of the decisions she’d made for their child. Would he have cared that William slept in her bed for the first three years? That he was a thumb sucker with an uncanny ability to coax sweets out of his godmother? There were quite a number of things that Claire would openly admit she didn’t enjoy all that much about being a mother. But now, standing here on stage next to her peers in ridiculously billowy robes, receiving her medical degree with only slightly shaking hands, she could not have been happier –or prouder– when her five-year-old son, red curls bouncing up and down with excitement in his front row seat, shouted, “Tha’s my Mama!”

Looking in those dark blue orbs she knew were speckled with gold, Claire relived all those wonderful moments she’d had with William. His small, fuzzy head resting on her shoulder, that intoxicating new-born smell filling her nose. The cute little snore when he fell into a milk coma, or the way he was smiling so innocently in his sleep –just like his father had. The memory of his first true smile, toothless, knowing that he adored her just as much as she did him, made her heart swell with unrivalled joy. Hearing his first words –Mama and no!– and watching those burgeoning linguistic skills develop into an unfiltered honesty when he had declared her attempt at Ratatouille ‘no gud’. Storing his breakfast preferences –porridge with honey and raspberries, thank ye verra much– to memory alongside his favourite bedtime stories and preferred colours for his artistic ventures. Seeing him grow more and more independent, taking his first steps away from her, and yet knowing that she was the person he turned to when he needed to be comforted or had a joke to tell. And God, his laugh! The sounds he made when he giggled and wriggled during one of their tickle fights, kicking her accidentally and almost breaking her nose. Every time she looked at her son, Claire knew all the struggle had been worth it.

Looking over her shoulder, Claire searched for the person who had been there for her and William throughout it all. When her eyes met with moss-green ones, a smile was shared, and silent communication ensued.

Thank you, Gee. She knew she wouldn’t be standing here without her best friend’s unfaltering support.

Ye’re most welcome, hen.

In spite of the challenging circumstances and her own self-doubt, Claire had made it. She’d raised her son on her own, with continued support from Geillis, Mary, and Isobel, and graduated from medical school alongside her best friend without having to take time off.

An hour after the graduation ceremony, she sat with all her closest friends –and William, of course– around their regular table in The Steaming Mug, sandwiches and pastries laid out, glasses with prosecco raised in the graduates’ honour.

“To the new doctors!” Isobel intoned cheerfully, “May you never lose an earring in a patient.”

“Hear, hear!” the group chorused, a chuckle running around the table.

“To us,” Geillis tipped her glass towards Claire and drank deeply, eyes closed in appreciation of the bubbly liquid.

“To friends,” Claire raised her glass to each of them, taking a careful sip, not so keen on the acrid taste as Geillis.

“And may you never meet another Philip Wylie,” Mary added, her mouth set in a knowing smirk.

Geillis erupted in laughter almost choking on the prosecco, Isobel snorted, and Claire couldn’t help her shoulders from shaking at the memory of the most annoying –and handsy– patient she’d ever had to deal with.

“Who is Philip Wylie, Mama?” asked William, stuffing another Danish pastry into his mouth, munching on it with delight.

“He was a rather nasty man I had to take care of during a night shift a long while ago,” Claire explained to her son, handing him a napkin. “You have jam all over your face, Willie.”

Willie licked his mouth industriously, trying to catch the last remnants of the delicious, house-made grape jam, before wiping himself with the offered napkin.

“Is that why ye dinnae want tae meet him again?”

“That’s exactly why,” she confirmed and pointed out a spot on his cheek that was still smeared with jam.

He seemed to consider that answer for a second, and, seemingly satisfied with the explanation, directed his interest elsewhere.

“I’m finished, Mama, can I go help Greg noo?”

Claire exchanged a querying look with her favourite barista behind the counter to gauge whether it was okay with him to watch her offspring for a while, and when she saw the blonde man nod, sent her son off.

“I’m sure he’ll be grateful, lovey. Be careful not to break anything, though,” she added.

“Aye, Mama!” he was already out of his seat and running towards the opening of the counter, where the barista was waiting for him, dishtowel slung casually over his shoulder.

Claire smiled at the familiar scene as Greg hoisted Willie onto a barstool and set him to work on the dirty dishes in the sink while he prepared the orders for other customers. Over the years, the forty-some-year old hipster had evolved from a reliable caffeine dealer to a friend. At first, she had been reluctant to share her story with him –with anyone, really– but the erstwhile barista had proved to be a very observant man and exceptional listener. One night, shortly before closing time, and just before Claire had reached the end of her patience with pharmacology, a plate with a turkey bagel was suddenly put before her. ‘Figured you and the little one could use a bite. Ye’ve been here fer ages,’ he had said simply. Upon her question how he knew she was pregnant, he’d remarked that he couldn’t come up with any other reason why a coffee addict such as herself would suddenly go decaf.  She’d blushed, then, and upon his gentle inquiries told him the whole story over a cup of chai. Since that day, a platonic friendship had blossomed and Claire had spent her time studying more often than not in the quaint coffee shop when Greg was on duty, notes strewn out over her favourite table near the window. After William was born, her son had always been with Claire during those frequent visits –either snuggly tucked in close to her chest in the carrying wrap, or sitting in a highchair, happily squishing potato scones in his small fists. And when there was a lull in the café, Greg would often take over, strapping Willie to his chest, singing to him in a warm, tuneless baritone, as he did the dishes, giving Claire a bit of space to better concentrate on her studying.

Ordering another round of drinks, Claire opting for a coffee this time, the small group friends continued to reminisce and talk about how many things had changed since they’d begun their studies. Willie growing from an almost bald baby to a handsome lad of five, sporting a thick, curly auburn mop, or the trendy silver-grey undercut that had replaced Isobel’s rather conservative hairstyle a year ago. But also things decidedly not hair-related, such as Mary’s not-quite-so-shocking confession that she was seriously involved with a French girl named Louise, or Isobel’s daring decision to defy her parents –and sister– in quitting law school to pursue social studies instead. Yes, things had changed indeed, as had they, but they were still as close as they had been –if not even more so.

“I’m going to miss you guys so much,” Claire blurted out unexpectedly, causing the conversation to halt for a second. “I’m sorry, I know this is supposed to be a happy get together, but...,“ she sniffed, attempting to contain the emotion.

“Och, Claire,” Geillis grabbed her hand and squeezed, her own eyes glistening.

Isobel and Mary looked at her, smiling, but the easy happiness that had marked the occasion just a minute ago was markedly subdued now.

“Why are ye sad, Mama?” Willie asked as he walked up to her, his ruddy brows set in a small frown, holding a cup filled with milk foam and cinnamon.

“I’m not sad, lovey.”

“But ye look as if ye’re aboot tae cry?” Willie tilted his head slightly, assessing her.

“Because I am so happy I might cry,” Claire answered, honey eyes shining with warmth and only a hint of sadness as she caressed his round cheek, “because we have the best of friends.”

“Then ye should be smiling,” he said so matter-of-factly that she snorted, thus diffusing the slight tension around the table.

“Right you are, Willie,” her lips curled up involuntarily. She looked around her table, sharing a genuine smile with each of her friends and raised her coffee to them.

The decision to move away from the people she considered family had not come easy to her. She’d lived in Edinburgh for a long time now, and it was her home –more importantly, it was William’s home. It was where he’d been born, raised, and loved. Where he had his kindergarten friends, Greg, and people he trusted. Isobel, Mary, and his beloved godmother. But it had been a tough five years, juggling first a baby and then a toddler, and now an increasingly independent and explorative boy with night and weekend shifts at the hospital. As long as she had been enrolled at university, there was a bit of wriggle room in accordance with her being a single mother. Now that she was officially no longer a student but a physician of her own right and would have to start her residency soon, she could not count on such leniency anymore, as had been pointed out by the hospital board. ‘We would hate seeing such talent go to waste, but we can’t give out special treatment.’ Not that they hadn’t been right in that, of course, but it made the outlook on her future professional life suddenly a lot bleaker. 48h shifts, weekends, nights, holidays. Early mornings, late nights, and everything in between. Even with Geillis at her side, working a similar job, it would be virtually impossible to maintain a regular family life with her son. Claire knew she would miss too much.

Adding to her ever-growing list of things to worry about, they would need new accommodation as well. Willie, apparently taking after his father in height as well as looks, was growing bigger at an almost alarming rate. Her son definitely needed a proper room of his own now, instead of sharing hers, and she couldn’t possibly spend her nights on the far too small couch any longer. Her back would certainly thank her. The housing situation in Edinburgh wasn’t exactly stellar, though. Too small flats were ridiculously overpriced, or too far out of the city centre to be convenient to reach either her workplace or the schools she had looked at for William. And while living with her best friend and godmother to her child had been mostly smooth sailing these past years –she remembered one particular incident involving finger paint and an open bedroom door– Claire sensed it was time for everyone to have more space to themselves.

The offer for a resident position at the Raigmore Hospital in Inverness had come as a true blessing. The hours in such a small city compared to one of Scotland’s largest were decidedly more appealing to a mother who wished to spend quality time with her child. But choosing those far more family-friendly hours went hand-in-hand with having to say goodbye to the people she loved. In the end, she had made the decision that was best for herself and William, accepting the post in Inverness.

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 18 – Home

A week later, Claire found herself, curls tied in a lazy bun, sitting cross-legged and surrounded by boxes, in the middle of what was going to be their new living room. It was strange to have so much space to fill after living for years in the confined space of a shared two-bedroom apartment.

Watching Willie playing with his new kite –a small bribe that would keep him occupied enough while she sorted things out– in the garden through the French doors, she still couldn’t quite believe that she’d actually gotten this lucky. She’d looked at numerous different properties and rentals and eventually found this endearing, rustic little cottage –that was only marginally above her initially set budget– with a decently sized garden patch on Drummond Road, not too far from the Inverness city centre. As soon as she had clicked through the pictures on the realtor’s website, she knew this was it. Normally not the most spontaneous type –spontaneity was a notoriously scarce commodity as a student and single mother– Claire had packed her son along with her best friend, and driven up the 3 hours to the Highland capital in a rented Fiat 500 to see whether her gut feeling was right –it was.

The house itself was charming all over –from the light-flooded interior to the blossoming ivy climbing the blue garden fence– exuding a warmth that was surprising for a stone building. It was old but very well-kept –a testimony of previous owners who had made a true home here. The cottage was located in a wonderful neighbourhood, not far off the River Ness, with lots of greenery and space to spread out –rather unlike the tourist-cramped streets of Edinburgh. Her new workplace, the Raigmore hospital, was only 2 miles away, and the fact that not only one –but two– excellent primary schools were basically around the corner would have made it already an easy choice for Claire, but the main decisive factor –as per usual– had been her son. Within only a couple of minutes of their touring the property, Willie had set out to explore on his own, venturing into the garden, and making fast friends with their potential new neighbour –a lovely woman in her late fifties named Mrs Graham, who had promptly invited them over for afternoon tea. The prospect of enjoying Mrs Graham’s hospitality –and her sponge cake– on a regular basis in addition to a garden to play in and his own room was more than enough enticement to get William on board. They’d signed the contract the very same day.

Now, Claire had about 10 days before she started her new job, which she hoped was enough time to finish furnishing their new home. Her friends had all come up with her to help with minor renovations and preparations before she and William were able to properly move in. That one squeaky door had been oiled, floors swept, windows cleaned, and walls painted in a warm, creamy-white. Except for Willie’s room, where Greg had shown off his stunning brush-craftsmanship and transformed one wall into an impressive underwater landscape according to Willie’s vision. No need to buy any more National Geographic issues to find more shark images to pin to her wall –well, Claire would still buy them, just because she knew how much her son loved them. Seeing him with a fat smile on his face playing so free from care in the garden, some of the knots in her stomach loosened, the tension from worrying whether her she had made the right move lessening substantially.

Having a three-hour drive back to Edinburgh ahead of them, her friends had to leave earlier than either of them would have liked. Greg left her with a kiss on the cheek and a large bag of her favourite coffee beans, Isobel and Mary had made sure she and Willie were supplied with enough milk and oats for their morning porridge. It was hard to let them go, bidding adieu to what was essentially her family. Seeing off Geillis, was the worst of it, though. Even Willie was in low spirits after they’d explained to him that auntie Gee would not continue to live with them. His dark blue eyes were downcast, and he held on tight to Claire’s trousers, not wanting anyone to see him cry. He was a big lad, after all.

Geillis squatted down in front of him, the sadness of parting edged into her fair face.

“Can ye do me a favour, Willie?” she asked, waiting for him to look at her.

Claire smoothed a hand over his unruly curls, encouraging.

“Mhmphm?” he sniffled, wiping a traitorous drop from his eye.

“Noo that I cannae be there fer yer mam around the clock, I’ll need someone tae take over my duties. And I couldnae think o’ anyone better than you, wee bean. Will ye do that fer me?”

William’s eyes widened, the golden flecks around his irises sparkling. Then he nodded, ruddy brows set in determination. “Aye, I’ll mind her well, auntie.”

“Good lad,” the fair-haired woman smiled at him, her voice almost breaking.

Then, she stood up again, and just looked at Claire, neither woman making a move.

“Oi, hurry up, Duncan,” came Greg’s baritone from the car in the driveway. “We’ve got tae get goin’!”

“Orite, dinnae shite yerself, man,” she flung back. “Guess this is my cue tae go, aye?”

“I guess so,” Claire agreed, honey eyes brimming with tears. They had no excuse to delay the inevitable any longer. She closed the distance between them to hug Geillis fiercely to her, demanding that her best friend had better call her and Willie every single day, and promising that she would ‘ring the second she needed anything’ as Geillis insisted on in turn.

Looking around their new residence, Claire was rather pleased with how much they’d managed to get done in such a short amount of time. Their beds were in place, a couple of cupboards set up, and the most important items for their daily survival –some kitchenware (the ‘porridge pot’, their favourite mugs, some cutlery) and toiletry items (a cute little green toothbrush with a triceratops and a larger one without much décor)– stowed away already. Ha, Geillis should dare tell her again that ‘labellin’ everything wasnae necessary’.  While the major heavy lifting had been handled with the help of her friends, there was still plenty left to do. Merging their old possessions with the new, decorating the place, making it an actual home, and the final positioning of furniture were now up to her –and Willie.  At least Claire didn’t have to worry about finding a place for her son to stay while she was working. The hospital provided childcare services for their employees from 7 to 19 o’clock. And in case she should work later than expected, her new neighbour, Mrs Graham had assured her she’d pick William up, saying that she ‘wouldnae mind havin’ a wee bit o’ company now and again.

While her son, having been cheered up by playing with his new kite again after saying goodbye to Geillis and the others, was still entertained by his garden explorations, Claire was muttering blasphemies under her breath. Trying as she was with all her might to push their new kitchen table into the spot she thought it would do best, that damn thing just wouldn’t cooperate much. Beads of sweat gathered on her temples as she cursed the beauty of her cherry wood acquisition. There were very few occasions when Claire Beauchamp felt she needed a man at her side, but this was certainly one of them. She was perfectly able to decipher even the most confusing building manuals and was a decent hand with a screwdriver, but wrestling with the weight of solid wood on her own made her realise that she was severely lacking in the brute strength department.

The table finally in place, Claire, panting heavily, realised that it was getting late now, despite the deceptive lightness outside –one of the perks of living up so far North and something she and Willie would have to get used to. It had been a long and exhausting day for both of them, and she couldn’t wait to fall into bed. But before she could do that, there were more important matters to attend to.

“Willie, come in – time for supper!” she called through the open French doors.

William Beauchamp was a walking appetite and didn’t need to be told twice when it came to anything food related. He stormed in, kite unceremoniously discarded on the patio, chubby cheeks pink from running.

“Wha’ are we havin’?” a bright, toothy smile lit up his small, round face.

“First you take your shoes off. We’re not losing our manners simply because we live somewhere else now William,” Claire chided. “Particularly not if we just cleaned these floors today.”

“Oh...sorry, Mama,” Willie said in a small voice, conscious of his guilt as he saw the streaks of dirt he’d dragged in behind him.

“We’ll take care of that after we’ve ordered our supper. I’m too knackered to cook anything so I thought we could try one of the delivery services. Chinese or Pizza?”

“Chinese!” he piped excitedly.

“Alright, what sounds better to you? Lucky Bowl or Hong Kong kitchen?”

“The bowl!”

“Bowl it is. Have a look at the menu, will you?”

It was mainly a gesture to have him feel a bit more grown-up, included in her decisions. She knew what he would have anyway –chicken dumplings with garlic sauce and fried bananas. But having grown up in an apartment that was dominated by books –medical, romance, fiction, thrillers, fairy tales– and having been read to since he was born, William already knew his letters and was able to read –slowly– along his bedtime stories sometimes.  

“Do you need help deciding, darling?” Claire asked, one eyebrow arched, when Willie still hadn’t confirmed his usual order.

 “No, I was jus’ wonderin’,” he said absentmindedly, still focused on the menu in front of him.

“About what?” Claire prodded as she continued to unpack the boxes labelled ‘kitchen’.

“Weel, if this one is called ‘Lucky Bowl’ there’s probable an ‘Unlucky Bowl’ too, no?”

Claire chuckled about children logic, putting some plates into one of the kitchen cupboards. “It’s probably not probable. And who knows? There might be.”

“Doesnae matter as long as we get our food from the lucky bowl,” Willie decided, looking up at his mother from under long, russet-colours lashes. “Chicken dumplings and can I maybe have –.“

“Fried bananas? Of course. Get the bath ready while I order, I’ll be right with you.”

Bellies heavy with supper and their evening toilet attended to, Claire tucked her son into bed, admiring once again Greg’s masterpiece as she wiped some of the irritating curls that had escaped her bun behind her ear.

“Good night, lovey,” she kissed her son’s forehead, and turned the bedside lamp off.

“Good night, Mama,” Willie replied drowsily, already halfway gone to sleep.  

Claire hovered in the darkened doorway, unable to tear her gaze from the sleeping form of her son in his very own room. He was smiling. So was she.

“Welcome home, William.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 19 – IRN BRU

After spending some more time furniture hunting, continued delivery-food testing, and exploring the Ness Islands, Claire felt almost completely settled in already. Sure, there were still things to be done, like buying a new jacket and hat for Willie –the wind was far more intense up here than in the Midlothian– and some herbs and vegetable seedlings she planned on growing in the future. But other than that, there wasn’t all that much left to do except for getting used to their new life.

Over the course of the next few days, Claire and Willie set out on remaining errands, mapping the city in the process, and familiarising themselves with their new surroundings. One thing she noticed was that life was a lot less anonymous here –granted, it was still a city, but on a much smaller scale than Edinburgh– and the shop clerk in the bakery around the corner, as well as most of the people living on Drummond Road, already knew them by sight and name and greeted them warmly whenever they passed them by. Geillis would hate this. Her best friend had come from a small town near Aberdeen and had embraced the anonymity of the big city without ever looking back.

Fortified by divinely smelling bacon rolls and freshly ground takeaway coffee and creamy hot chocolate, mother and son set out to have a look at the hospital’s nursery and to register Willie there before she officially started working. While her new workplace was only two miles from the cottage, the bus connection was slightly cumbersome, and having to walk 40 minutes in either direction when she was in a rush wasn’t an appealing prospect –not with a 5-year old at her heel. A bike, then. Only problem with that was that Willie was way too big for a bike seat and didn’t yet know how to ride a bicycle on his own. Claire would have to teach him first and make sure he was ready and confident with it before she could take him on a trafficked road. The idea of her son on a bike didn’t sit all too well with her though. It was far too easy for Claire to conjure up those images from over 5 years ago, when she’d read newspaper articles over Geillis’ shoulder about a bike crash that had virtually cost William his father. ‘Back torn to shreds’. She shuddered at the memory. No, he was alive. She knew he was.

Bureaucracy taken care of and satisfied with the childcare facilities at the hospital, Claire decided to walk half of the way back instead of taking the second bus connection. They still needed to fill their fridge and stock the pantry. And while there was a Tesco three streets down from their house, Claire decided it was a good opportunity to stop at the grocery store Mrs Graham had recommended. It was a bit farther away, but ‘a verra nice walk’, and had almost exclusively regional produce on offer.

A little bell rang, announcing their entrance to the premises to whomever worked inside the shop. It certainly wasn’t a Tesco, that was clear from the warm and welcoming lighting alone. This wasn’t an enterprise that wanted to steer its customers through its internal labyrinth as quickly and efficiently as possible –this was a place for people to chat and linger. Even though nobody seemed to be around just now, Claire noticed after a quick glance around. Probably all still at work, she mused. Well, she certainly didn’t mind the place being deserted just now. That gave her enough space to have a proper look around without being in other people’s way or having to manoeuvre around them to get to the brand of olives she and Willie liked best.

As Claire was taking her sweet time to peruse the fresh fruit and vegetables, eyebrows knitted in concentration trying to decide what to make for supper, Willie got bored, kicking at invisible stones.

“Mama, can I go look at those?” he asked, pointing at an aisle to their right.

“Sure, lovey. You can pick one thing, alright?” she replied, not really needing to look which particular section he wanted to investigate closer, but her eyes followed the indicated direction anyway. 

William’s cheeks dimpled with a brilliant smile before he took off, heading straight towards the chocolates and taffies.

“I said one thing,” she called after him when she heard the all too familiar rustling of candy wrapping paper, then returning her attention back to the produce stalls.

Filling the basket dangling on her arm with wonderfully ripe tomatoes, courgettes, bell peppers, and onions, she mentally went through the ingredient list for her favourite recipe –Ratatouille– index finger tipping her lower lip as she did so.

Claire Beauchamp wasn’t a gifted cook and didn’t enjoy slicing and dicing ingredients very much. But when her son –aged two at the time– had declared her first attempt at that particular dish as unpalatable, her hurt pride hat kicked in. From that moment on, she’d resolved to prove she could be an asset in the kitchen. Nowhere near a Michelin chef, of course, but at least a provider of decent meals. Much the same as with honing her surgical skills, it was the constant repetition and practice that helped her reach that goal. No one had complained about her cooking in a long time.

Mrs Graham had been right, it was a fabulous little store. True, it didn’t have as many different options for oats as Lidl and all the others, but who cared when they had the organic brand she preferred? Just as she decided that she would be frequenting this store regularly in the future, she felt a tug on her skirt.

“Look, Mama,” Willie said excitedly. “Tha’ bevvy is the colour o’ my hair!”

Claire took the soft drink from him and expected the bright orange and blue design, then chortled.

“Are you my little Irn Bru then?” she stroked his untidy hair affectionately.

“Aye!” he grinned broadly at her. “Can I have one?”

Resisting William Beauchamp’s best puppy face was a feat in and of itself, but his mother had had enough practice to not be pulled under its spell that easily.

“No, Willie. There’s too much caffeine in that drink,” Claire explained and handed the can of Irn Bru back to him. “Take it back, will you?”

Not pleased with being denied, Willie shuffled off, small mouth set in a pout, back to where he’d grabbed the can from.

Approaching the check-out counter, Claire found herself face-to-face with a tall, handsome man –glossy black hair and beard liberally streaked with the silver of advanced age. His face was framed by a strong, square jaw, high cheekbones, and a heavy, brindled brow. Claire was absolutely sure she’d never met the man before, but something about him seemed familiar.

“Good day tae ye,” the man greeted with a voice that reminded her of whisky somehow –a bit raspy, but smooth.

“Hello,” Claire replied, setting her basket on the countertop.

“A Sassenach!” he exclaimed, light blue eyes widening in surprise.

Claire paled a little, her shoulders tensed. Sassenach. That word had come as unexpected as a gut shot.

“Excuse me?“ she feigned ignorance of the term, swallowing heavily.

“Och, sorry, lass, it only means Englishperson –,“ the man clarified, not knowing that she knew perfectly well what that particular term meant. Someone had explained it to her almost 6 years ago, after all.

“That’s quite alright,” Claire waved him off. “No, really,” she insisted when the man made to carry on with his apologies.

“Did ye have a good day sae far?” he inquired, smiling politely as he continued to scan and bag her items. “Until now, at least?”

A real chuckle escaped her lips at his attempt to wink, having regained her self-composure again. While Scots Gaelic was spoken only by a handful of people throughout the country, it wasn’t unexpected to encounter one of the few people who did in the highlands. Still, Claire hadn’t quite been prepared for that.

“Oh, yes, thank you. It was a very pleasant day up until now,” she countered, joining in the banter.

“Will that be all, then, lass?” he asked when he had scanned the last item.

“Um, no,” she looked around, curls swinging. “I think my son is still undecided about what treat he’s going to get,” she said, straining her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of Willie’s fiery mop. “Willie!”

Pretending to search for her wallet as they waited, she looked the middle-aged man up and down from the corner of her eye in what she hoped was not blatantly obvious. For the life of her, she just couldn’t pinpoint what it was about him that had struck her as familiar. That would probably annoy her for the rest of the day. Maybe she was just seeing things?

Realising that her stray offspring had still not joined her at the checkout, Claire threw the man an apologising look.

“Dinnae worry about me, I’ve nae other customers jus’ now,” he assured her with a warm smile that deepened the lines of his face. “I hope ye dinnae mind me asking, but what’s an Englishwoman doing sae far up north?”

Before Claire could answer, though, their conversation was interrupted by an ominous hissing sound and a shriek that she would recognise anywhere.

“Willie!” she exclaimed, abandoning her purse and purchases at the counter as she hurried towards the source of the sound.  

Claire stopped dead at the sight that greeted her.

“William. Beauchamp,” she punctuated each syllable, glowering at the mess her son had made. The emptied can still in hand, the boy stood –wet from top to waist– in the middle of an orange pool from which sticky, sugary tendrils were spreading slowly over the floor, creeping under the shelves.

Willie stood, mouth slightly open in shock at his unexpected –and unwanted– shower. He neither moved a muscle nor tore his eyes from his mother’s reprimanding look when a shadow fell over his face.

“I think ye’re in trouble, lad,” stated a whisky voice from behind Claire.

Claire turned around to face the man from behind the counter. Up close, he was even more impressive –even a bit intimidating. There was something different in his face now, an expression she couldn’t quite read. A flicker of recognition? But before she could put a name to it, it was gone, leaving only the good-humoured face behind. 

“God, I am so sorry,” she began to ramble, then, spotting the mop in his hand, made to reach for it. “Let me clean that up!”

“It’s quite orite, lass.”

While the two adults politely argued back and forth who should clean the mess, and how much Claire would have to pay him to recompense him for the spoiled can of Irn Bru –nothing, the man insisted stubbornly– Willie’s initial shock wore off.

“Mama, ye shouldnae be speakin’ tae strangers! Ye always tell me so!” the boy said indignantly, with a credible attempt at a disapproving scowl, despite orange liquid dripping from his curly hair with a mundane splat splat.

Taking in the sight of her son looking like a wet, orange poodle from the waist up, Claire had a hard time keeping the laughter in. A muscle in her cheek twitching with the effort, she succeeded, though.  

“And you’re quite right, Willie. But I’m not, I’m talking to ... uh,” she squinted her eyes, desperately trying to find a name tag on the broad chest but finding none.

“Brian,” he offered helpfully.

“I was talking to Brian here, not a stranger,” Claire threw the man a grateful smile before returning her attention to William.  

“So, he isnae a stranger then?” her son asked, frowning dubiously.

“No, lovey, he isn’t,” she confirmed.

Willie looked between the two adults thoughtfully, processing the new information, while Claire mouthed a silent thank you towards Brian.  “Tha’ means I’m allowed tae talk tae him, too?”

“Yes, darling.”

Having cleaned the sticky mess with a practiced hand, Brian led mother and son back towards the counter to where he had some paper towels to clean young William up –at least as best as possible without a proper shower– and a shirt, that even if it was way too big, was at least dry and not sticky.

“I’m so sorry for the mess,” Claire repeated for the fifth time.

“Dinnae fash, lass. ‘Tis no’ the first time something like this has happened, and it sure willnae be the last time either.”

“Probably,” Claire laughed, relieved. “Oh, I’m Claire, by the way. And my son, William,” she introduced herself with an extended hand.

“Pleased tae meet ye, Claire,” Brian said and took her hand, squeezing. “And you too, young William,” he directed at the still somewhat sticky looking lad.

“Only Mama’s allowed tae call me William,” Willie scolded.

“Oh is that so, Willie? I apologise then,” Brian’s shone brightly with amusement. “Ye’ve got quite the hieland brogue there, my lad,” he said and paused, a quizzical look in his light blue eyes.

“I guess he gets it from his father then, aye?” Brian inquired, his attention focused back on Claire.

Her cheeks coloured with slight embarrassment. “I’m afraid not.”

Before Claire was able to explain any further, Willie chimed in, trying to be helpful, “I dinnae have a father.”

“William,” she scolded, “you know perfectly well that you do.”

“Ah, I see. That’s how it is then, aye?” Brian turned to her, empathy edged into the lines around his warm eyes.

“You do?” she turned to the handsome man again, one eyebrow raised in question.

“Och, I have bairns of my own. It isnae easy taking care o’ children wi’out a partner, whether they left fer some reason or,” he inhaled deeply, steeling himself, “whether they left ye forever.”

Understanding, Claire took his hand, trying to convey her sympathy.

“I’m so sorry, Brian.”

“’Tis orite, lass. It was a long time ago,” the faint shimmer in his eyes was unmistakeable, though.

“Well, I certainly appreciate the general sentiment, but my...umm... ‘situation’ is a bit extraordinary.”

“Oh?” his eyebrows rose questioningly.

“Ehm... well, it’s a rather long story, you see?” Claire shrugged apologetically. “Put that down, Willie, or you’ll clean up the next mess yourself!” An annoyed huff came from somewhere around her hip level.

“A lively one, is he no’?”

“I’m afraid so,” the proud glint in honey eyes betrayed the outward dissatisfaction with her offspring. “Mama loves her little bean, though,” Claire hoisted Willie up on her hip and blew a raspberry on his neck, making him squeal in delight.

“Weel, seeing that I dinnae ha’ any customers, and they’re no’ likely tae show up before the evening rush, how about some tea?”

“Are you sure? I mean, we wouldn’t want to –”

“Aye, that’s perfectly orite, lass. Have ye tried Mrs Crook’s next door yet? The best scones ye’ll find in all o’ Scotland! Come on, my treat, aye?”

“Can we, Mama?” Willie looked at her with such hope that she couldn’t possibly deny him. Covering himself and half an aisle in a spray of Irn Bru was apparently hard work and demanded the immediate replenishing of energy in form of food intake.

“And you’re sure about your shop, Brian?”

“It’ll keep standing wi’out me. And if someone shows up, they’ll see me outside of Mrs Crook’s,” he said.

“Alright, let’s have some scones then,” she smiled at Brian and took Willie’s hand. Before she could reach for the bag with groceries, though, Brian had already taken them.

“I’ll take that for ye,” he said, shooing them out of the store.

The three of them sat down at one of the quaint little table outside under the awning that the café shared with the grocery store. Mrs Crook’s was a lovely little joint that had –as advertised by her new acquaintance– some mean scones. Willie had already polished off a raspberry and a blueberry one when Brian told the proprietor –and apparently close friend– ‘to spoil the wee fiend wi’ ice cream’.

“You seem to come here often,” Claire remarked, taking a careful sip of her tea.

“Aye, I do. Ev’ry day. Me and Agnes have a pact, ken. I’ll let her use the space in front o’ ma shop and she feeds me wi’ scones,” he took an exaggerated bite out of another raspberry scone to emphasise his point. “Best deal I ever made.”

"I could certainly think of worse ones," Claire agreed.

“He seems like a good lad, yer Willie,” Brian observed as the boy disappeared through the shop door behind Mrs Crook .

Claire might have taken insult by the straightforwardness, had it not been a trait that she shared herself. Instead, she found herself liking Brian even more.

"He is."

“He minds me of ma own son a wee bit,” he admitted.

No’ just a bit, if he was being honest with himself. Watching the young woman –Claire– clean her son up, he’d gotten a really good look at the lad. William was a bit chubby, the baby fat still clinging to his bones and round face. There was a fine spread of freckles covering the boy’s nose and cheeks. Dark blue eyes speckled with gold glinted with intelligence and a bit of mischief under russet coloured lashes. With his mop of unruly auburn locks, Brian Fraser found that little William Beauchamp looked very much like his own son had at that age.  

Ah, that’s what it was then, she thought. Brian had been reminded of his own lad when he’d gotten the firste glimpe of Willie -all covered in soda.

The rest of the afternoon was spent talking and making a new friend. Claire and Willie only took their leave when the grocery store attracted some after-work shoppers and Brian had to attend to them. They said their goodbyes, Claire promising to return the borrowed shirt as soon as she had it laundered properly.

“How about ye and wee Willie come over for tea sometime? I cannae quite compete wi’ Agnes’ scones, mind, but I make a decent sponge.”

Claire smiled and Willie's eyes brightened.

“You had us at ‘I make’.”

Chapter Text

 


 

Chapter 20 – Of Fathers and Sons

Weeks passed by in a blur and turned into months. The Scottish highland summer gave way to a crisp autumn and then a cold, snowy winter. And while the sparse hours of daylight were something the small Beauchamp clan had to get accustomed to, the disappearance of the blasted midges was a welcomed upside to it. William wasn’t a squeamish child by any means, but even he exhibited a limited tolerance for playing in the garden while being constantly gnawed at by those minuscule, flying terrors.

During those first months, Claire found that the decision to make the move to Inverness had been exactly right for her and Willie. They regretted the absence of their Edinburgh family, of course –auntie Gee was sorely missed by both of them– but they still talked to her almost every day, and had the fair-haired godmother visit a couple of times, too. Things at work went also really well. While the Raigmore Hospital might not boast as great a number of patients or as extraordinary cases as the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, it was still a very fine institution –with fantastic co-workers. Claire had quickly bonded with Joe Abernathy, a fellow expat, over the question of whether Mr MacInnes needed a new hip transplant– they’d both agreed to give non-surgical treatment a chance first. Having a like-minded, capable orthopaedist to consult and have lunch with was simply a delight. The whole atmosphere in the hospital was different –the nurses neither overworked nor were they overlooked by their superiors, and generally a friendly, supportive vibe, rather than the constant back-stabbing competitiveness that she’d experienced on some of the wards during her time as a student.

Their old friends out of sight but not out of mind, Claire was still very pleased –and a bit surprised, too– how quickly she and Willie had made friends in their new home. William, generally an outgoing child despite showing signs of Claire’s own cautious reserve at times, had had no trouble settling into the childcare group at the hospital and was often invited to and hosting playdates. Another greatly valued addition to their social life was their neighbour, Moira Graham. The old woman –bless her– didn’t just water her plants when they went down to Edinburgh to visit their old gang, she also took it upon her to watch Willie whenever Claire was on call for work and had to leave at a moment’s notice.

The person who had become even more important to her, though, was Brian Fraser –grocery shop proprietor and IRN BRU mess-iah. Her shopping expeditions had quickly evolved into far more than just re-stacking the fridge. When Claire and Willie showed up –usually on Tuesdays and Fridays– Brian would always ask one of his shop lads to take over checkout duties while he and the two Beauchamps went over to Mrs Crook’s for an obligatory scone and hot chocolate fix. Brian was a gentle and cordial man who invited trust simply through his very presence. His capabilities as a reliable handyman also proved to be useful when something needed fixing in her cottage. ‘Ye’ll no’ pay twa hundred pounds fer something I ken how tae do maself perfectly well’. Claire found him to be delightful company to have witty conversations with and realised soon enough that Brian had morphed into a sort of father figure for her. That it was most often he she would turn to for advice. What she cherished most about Brian was his honest affection for wee Mr Irn Bru, as he called William since their first meeting. He showed this fondness for the lad in giving him cycling lessons when Claire was too tired after a hard day at work, or when he spoiled him rotten with ice cream. Just like a real grandfather would.

Quite early on in their acquaintanceship, Claire told Brian an abridged version of how she had ended up as a single mother –how she had unexpectedly fallen for a guy on holiday, meaning to meet up with him again the following day, but that he’d had an accident and that was it. Until she found out she had been carrying Willie. That she had searched for him –unsuccessfully. It was still a slightly touchy subject for her, and she hadn’t known Brian all that well at that point, so she decided to keep it as brief as possible. Not everyone needed to know every single detail about that painful part of her life.

“And then, after we left the beach, ... we um...,” Claire was grasping for words.

Brian smirked knowingly, “Ye didnae talk all that much?”

She blushed furiously in answer, but smiled, nonetheless.

“What about your children, Brian?” she asked to divert the attention from herself.

“My children are both abroad,” he said without much emotion. “Ma daughter’s living in Arizona wi’ her husband and their bairns. They have three, last I counted.”

“Oh, Arizona, how lovely! Quite a change of scenery compared to Scotland, though,” Claire remarked casually.

“Aye, they send me pictures ev’ry week or sae, but it’s way too far fer a father’s liking.”

“I bet. I wouldn’t want to think of being parted from Willie by such a distance,” Claire agreed, brows furrowing with distaste at the mere idea. “What about your son, though? Where did he end up?”

“Oh, ma son, he...,” Brian started, a sad smile deepening the lines of age on his face. “He’s travelling the world, chasing his dreams, ken? We... we dinnae talk much. I wanted something else fer him, and I wasnae happy wi’ the path he chose. We both said more than we meant at the time, I think. But it hasnae been the same since. But Jenny tells me he’s doing verra well,” his lips curved up with pride, but the faraway look in his light blue eyes and the slump of his broad shoulders were hint enough for Claire that this was not a topic that he wanted to elaborate on.

“Oh,” was all that she could think of to say. “I see.”

Fortunately, Willie had broken the awkward silence then, as he’d re-joined them at their table, demanding that Claire should try the new chocolate scone Mrs Crook had given him to test.

Family was quite obviously a loaded subject for both of them, so –by unspoken agreement– they’d avoided the topic with matching commitment from that moment onwards. Until one evening in mid-March, when Brian Fraser’s phone rang, interrupting his daily dose of rugby on the telly.

Holding a bottle of lager in one hand, he picked up the receiver of his landline with the other. He didn’t enjoy smartphones, even if he acknowledged their usefulness in keeping in touch with people over long distances, which was the only reason he’d let his daughter bully him into buying one.

“Aye, Fraser,” he greeted, his voice carrying a note of irritation at the interruption of his evening routine.

“Brian, it’s Claire,” came the response. “If this isn’t a good time, I can–“

The rasp of her usually smooth voice caught his attention immediately, and any trace of annoyance evaporated into the thin air of his small studio apartment.

“Claire? Are ye orite? What’s the matter, lass?” Brian asked, the drowsiness of a long day all but forgotten.

“I,” she began. “I just really need someone to talk to right now and I can’t reach Geillis,” he wasn’t sure, but he thought he’d heard sniffle.

“I’m here, a nighean,” Brian said, his voice gentle. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“I don’t really want to talk on the phone,” this time he was sure it was a sniffle. “Can I meet you somewhere?”

“O’ course. Ye ken where I live, aye?”

“Yes. I’ll be there in ten?”

“I’ll be here.”

As soon as Claire had hung up, Brian began to pace around his apartment, fingers combing nervously through his thick hair, the bottle of lager still in his other hand, but he had no mind to enjoy it right now. What in the Lord’s name was going on? Could it be something to do with Willie? No, she would ha’ said if it were tae do wi’ the bairn.

True to her word, she knocked on his door exactly ten minutes after their phone conversation, and he let her into his home for the first time. Before now, they’d always either got together at Mrs’s crooks café or at the Beauchamp residence since the size of his own place wasn’t exactly well-suited for hosting company.

Opening the door for her, Brian welcomed her in with an outstretched arm signalling her to hand her coat over to him. Stripping the thick, woollen coat off her shoulders, she handed it to him with along with her scarf and a nod of thanks. Shoes left at the door, Brian steered her towards the leather couch, taking note of the tension in her posture as he did so. Christ, she was coiled as tight as a snake. Bound in fear, ready to lash out at the first rustle of unwitting provocation.  

“Sae,” Brian initiated as he put a steaming mug of tea in front of her.

“So,” Claire echoed faintly, hiding her face behind her wild, brown locks.

At a loss, Brian searched the recesses of his mind how to best attempt to coax her into confiding in him. It had been quite some time since he’d had to deal with emotional emergencies such as this. And Claire was clearly agitated –not her usual calm and sharp-witted self. What on earth could have happened to shake her so? Unable to come up with a better idea, he got up again and fetched a bottle from his alcohol cabinet, along with two small, bell-shaped glasses.

Claire finally looked at him, elegant brows lifted in incomprehension, her eyes the same colour as the whisky he poured.

“I thought we could mebbe use somewhat a wee bit stronger than tea,” the corner of her mouth twitched slightly. Taking that as a good sign, Brian continued, “Ye dinnae have tae tell my anything, lass. I’m happy jus’ tae sit here wi’ ye.”

“Thank you,” she breathed in response. There was a hesitation, as if she reconsidered whether this had been a good idea after all. But then Claire reached towards her whisky glass and took a hearty swig, only slightly grimacing at the intensity of the taste. “I don’t know where to begin,” she admitted in a small voice.

“At the start is where people usually begin,” Brian suggested in a tone that he hoped would make her lips curve a bit –they did.

“Not very helpful, Mr Fraser.”

“Weel, how about ye tell me what happened tonight, then?”

A slight tremor ran down the elegant column of her neck as Claire sighed heavily, staring unseeing at the hands in her lap cradling the almost empty whisky glass. Brian reached to refill it, but she stopped him.

“It wasn’t much, really,” she began, her expression apologetic. “All perfectly innocent, to be honest.”

And then Claire told him. That she had taken William over to his first overnight playdate at Tammas MacKenzie’s house. How it had, in fact, been a perfectly innocent –if slightly judgemental– conversation she’d had with Tammas’ mother.

‘Och, ye ken we love having yer wee Willie over. We wouldnae mind watching him more often, if ye wanted tae... weel, ye ken.’

She hadn’t understood at first, and asked Tammas’ mother to clarify.

‘If ye want tae have some time fer yerself, dear. Tae go oot, date a wee bit, find a man. A child needs a father, no?’

That had been it. A simple enough statement, not meant to harm, and yet enough to send her into a downward spiral about her life’s choices and failures.

After almost 6 years of her existence as a single mother, Claire had heard it all, seen it all. The pitiful glances and accusatory whispers. Single working mother. A medical student. The poor lad must never even see her. But for the most part, she’d been able to ignore it, to push it to the back of her mind, because she had people who loved and supported her, and her son was happy. A child needs a father. That statement, though, had triggered an unpleasant memory of a demeaning conversation with Frank Randall. A man whom she’d considered a friend until then. Someone she thought she could trust. Claire was loathe to admit it, but it had been that particular turn of phrase that had been nagging at her ever since. The only thing she couldn’t quiet down in her mind.

“I had no idea how to respond,” Claire recounted in a small voice, saying how she had felt like the literal deer in the headlights. Scared out of her wits and no idea how to escape the unwanted attention. Barely able to keep the tears at bay, she’d made some weak excuse and fled –calling Brian not even five minutes later. And here she was now, sitting on his couch looking as if the weight of the world lay on her shoulders, drinking his whisky.

A child needs a father.

What pained her so wasn’t that she thought Willie wasn’t happy without one. Claire knew he was. No, what tore her heart in two was the knowledge that her son had a father, only that he’d been robbed of him, by her continued ineptitude to locate him.

“It’s just so frustrating, you know?” she wiped her nose on her sleeve. “Being unable to find the father of your child when you can find literally anything and everyone online nowadays.”

The irony of modern life.

“Mhmphm,” Brian made one of those particular Scottish noises to convey his sympathy.

“Geillis and I, we did everything we could think of to find him,” she continued, her eyes pleading, willing him to believe her. “And still,” Claire broke off, sniffling, “And still I feel like I failed him.”

“Who?” Brian asked, astonishment written all over his face.

“Willie,” Claire clarified, draining her glass.

“And how in God’s name would ye come to think that, lass?”

She laughed –a drained, mirthless sound, so unlike her that something cold trickled down Brian’s spine.

“Because of me, he’s had to live without a father. Because I wasn’t able to find him, get a hold of him. Because I wasn’t smart enough to leave my number with the reception clerk before I left. It’s because of me that he doesn’t even have a father who is at least aware of his existence.”

Until now, Claire hadn’t said any of that out loud before. She wasn’t even sure she’d ever consciously thought about it, but there it was. She felt like a failure. The tears came unbidden, salty pearls clinging to her lashes and spilling down her pale face.

“He doesn’t know where he gets it from. He doesn’t know anything about his father except that he was tall and red-headed. That he had a wonderful, genuine smile that would light up his eyes, the same colour as Willie’s. Because that’s all I know, and all I’ll ever be able to tell him. He’ll always get those sad, pitiful glances from his teachers and friends when his father won’t show up for a school play, or for his graduation. And he’ll come to resent the loss of ignorance once he’ll realise that he’s an unusual kid. That he knows nothing about his father.”

Brian offered her his handkerchief and she took it gratefully, her long, nimble fingers brushing his. Lord, she was cold.

“I’m scared, Brian.”

“About what, a nighean?”

“That William will resent me for it when he begins to understand it”, she stared unblinking into the empty glass, “And he’ll be right, too.”

“Aye,” Brian responded, his warm voice sounding strangely distant now.

Claire looked at him then, whisky eyes wide with a fusion of surprise and alarm. She had hoped he might contradict her, reassure her. It hurt that he agreed.

“The lad will ha’ ev’ry right tae begrudge ye,” he went on, light blue eyes fixed on hers, unblinking.

“I know,” came the whispered response as Claire clutched the glass even tighter in her hand.

“He had tae grow up wi’ no love at all. Ne’er been put tae bed by someone wi’ a friendly face, ne’er been read a bedtime story.”

“What...?” her brows pinched together as confusion grew, her belly tightening further at every one of his words.

“Willie had been left all on his own, ne’er cared for. Ne’er been taken tae the park or given his favourite toy. Ne’er had someone love him well enough tae ken his favourite movie or breakfast. Ne’er had someone buy him the shark posters he loved sae well. Ne’er had someone who thought o’ him first, before making decisions.”

“That. Is. Not. True.”

“Is it not?” he asked coolly.

“No! Of course not!” Claire hissed through her teeth, her temper rising.

“Then tell me, Claire, why on earth Willie would e’er hate ye?”

She didn’t respond, couldn’t.

“Do ye honestly think he would resent ye fer doing yer best? That the lack o’ a father would make him suddenly love ye less? Have ye ever seen how that lad looks at ye? He thinks ye hung the moon, fer Christ’s sake!” Brian took a deep breath. “The only person yer son needs, is you, Claire.”

Claire stared at him wide-eyed and pale faced, the whisky glass gripped so tightly Brian thought it might break.

“I ken yer meaning well enough. There’ll be no’ many a day when ye dinnae worry that ye failed them. But this isnae on ye. Ye did what ye could. And from what I’ve seen these past months, Willie’s more than happy wi’ it being jus’ the two of ye.”

“I...,” Claire began, her voice breaking. She cleared her throat, attempting to reign the overwhelming emotion in.

“Och, come ye here, lass,” Brian moved closer to her and drew her into an embrace, the warmth of a fatherly touch instantly calming. Kissing the crown of her curly head, his hand moved in soothing motions on her back. For the first time in years, Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp let herself be openly vulnerable and comforted –and began to cry. All the pent-up frustration and self-doubt were pouring out of her in a cacophony of harsh sobs and laboured breathing.

“Thank you,” Claire’s eyes were still a bit blurry and red from crying, her throat sore, and her skin felt much too tight for her body. But she felt much lighter now.

“Dinnae think anything o’ it, a nighean.” Brian smiled at her, patting her shoulder affectionately as he moved to give her a bit more space again.

"What does that mean? A nighean. You called me that before, I think."

"Och, translates tae 'lass'," he explained, smiling and taking a sip of whisky.

A bit more composed, Claire continued to share her story. How she had never given up hope, even after years of unsuccessful search and failed attempts to unearth Jamie’s whereabouts,. How she still had looked for him. Every single day. Always vigilant, always watchful for that tell-tale flash of bright red. Every fair-skinned man with hair the colour of fire subject to a thorough examination in passing-by. Were the eyes the right colour? Was there a birthmark on his left cheek? Only to be dismissed the second she knew it wasn’t him. In crowds she kept on the lookout for any men that might reach the same impressive height, the same breadth of shoulder.

They sat quietly together for some time, before the silence was broken by a question.

“Sae, now that ye have that out of yer system, why don’t ye tell me more about how ye met that man of yers,” Brian suggested. “If ye think that might help. Ye dinnae ha’ tae o’ course.”

“My man?”

“Willie’s father, I meant. From what ye told me about the circumstances, ye couldnae have known what would happen, aye? And it isnae his fault either. Sometimes life just works in verra strange ways.”

“I guess you’re right,” Brian was glad to see a small smile playing around her lips.

“Go on, then, lass,” he encouraged her, refilling both glasses.

Leaning back into the couch, Brian braced himself for what was surely to be an unusual story, drink in hand.

Claire told him everything, then. And for the first time recounting that story, she had felt completely free. Free of worry how the audience would react to it. Free of crippling self-doubt because she had finally allowed herself to believe that it hadn’t been her fault. Free of obligation to feel sorry for William.

Being so immersed in her own narration, honey eyes focused on distant memory, Claire had mistaken Brian’s silence for rapt attention. The more information she disclosed, the paler he had become, but she hadn’t noticed it in the dim light. When she finished, all colour had left his face, and he was clutching his knee, knuckles straining against the skin.

No, it cannae be.

“Brian? God, are you alright? What’s going on?” the questions came out in a worried rush, but light blue eyes were fixed on the plastered wall, unspeaking. “Speak to me, goddammit!”

“Where?” he asked, his gaze returning to hers.

“What?”

“Where did ye say ye two met?”

“Madeira,” Claire answered, concern etched in her brows, “Why, Brian?”

No, it couldnae be.

True, when he had seen young William the first time, he had almost believed he’d seen a fetch, but to think that it was actually...

His gaze dropped to his lap and he ran one work-worn hand through his fair, as if the gesture would make it less real. He gasped in disbelief. Lord almighty, could it really be true? There was only one way to find out for sure. Suddenly getting up without speaking to her, he walked towards his old desk, and rummaged in one of the drawers.

Finding what he’d been looking for, he stood for a second with his broad back to her. Brian took a deep breath before returning to the couch, where Claire sat, eyes wild with worry and confusion, face framed by a halo of curls. He didn’t sit, though, just looked at her, hesitating. Give it tae her, ye old fool, he thought. Claire took it with shaking hands, neither of them able to meet the other’s eye.

“I ken him.”

Despite rationality, despite people telling her to let it go, deep down, Claire had clung to hope. Clung to the truth in her heart that she would find Jamie again.

Now, sitting on a leather couch that was not her own, in an apartment that wasn’t hers, with a whisky in hand, she found herself shell-shocked, frozen into the cushions, staring at his jubilant, good-humoured face smiling up at her from the photo album.

“Jamie,” she breathed, a finger tracing the outline of his face.

“Aye,” Brian confirmed, then swallowed heavily. “James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser. Ma son.“

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 21 – Downhill

Mustering every ounce of self-control she possessed, Claire looked up –straight into those fathomless blue depths– as she smacked the photograph on the table, got up, and walked out, trying not to let her heartbreak show.  

The door was forced shut with such momentum that it protested with a loud creaking sound. For a second, Claire allowed herself to take a deep breath, eyes closed and brows pinched tightly together. And before she’d even realised it, she had begun to run.

How was this bloody possible?

Claire wiped furiously at her eyes, unable to keep the stinging tears from falling.

Mindlessly rushing past people throwing her bewildered glances, she kept on running, brown curls flying behind her, not knowing –not caring– where she went, as long as it was away from there. Away from him.

Bloody fucking Christ!

The tears just wouldn’t cease, no matter how hard she tried, so she stopped fighting them altogether. Let the pain run free, let it show, who cared?

Claire Beauchamp would never say she’d had it worse in life than others, wouldn’t want pity for the losses she’d gone through, but there was no denying that she had taken her fair share of suffering in her fairly young years.

This, though...

This hurt so much she could feel her heart strain against its seams –a hot, white, blinding pain searing through the valves, pulsating in her veins with each and every pump of blood, ribs cracking under the effort to contain the ache. How much more was she to bear?

This was too much.

Too preoccupied with the effort to breathe, to recover from the blow she’d just been dealt, Claire had not paid any heed to where her feet had been carrying her. The urge to flee too great to care. The stream of tears blurring her vision. Now that her lungs were objecting against the unfamiliar strain, though, she stopped, her hot, laboured breath misting the cool air in front of her.  

Spying a bench down the slope looking out on the River Ness, Claire walked towards it and sank down. Whatever it was that had held her head high –pride in her son, trust in her own abilities, hope– deserted her now. Shoulders slumped, she buried her face in her hands, crying hidden behind a curtain of curls.

Of all the ways she’d expected, dreamed, hoped –this was certainly not how she’d imagined her reunion with Jamie would go down.

How the bloody fuck had it come to this?

 

It began with an unusually early morning. Not really an enthusiast of the small hours of the day, Claire was still used to waking up at somewhat ungodly hours thanks to the unforgiving schedule of a medical student and single mother having to prepare another definitely not-morning-person toddler for kindergarten. This particular instance, though, had nothing to do with either professional or maternal obligations. This time, it was purely nerves.

Tossing and turning most of the night, sleep had eluded her, thoughts running as wild and free as her nest of curls surrounding them. Around 4am she gave up. Wrapping a dressing gown round herself, Claire set some tea to brew. Surely this was nothing a good, strong blend of Earl Grey couldn’t fix. Being up so bloody early, at least she was able to catch up on a bit of reading while she waited for William to stir in his room. But she wasn’t even able to focus on her favourite pastime activity –rereading the same paragraph no less than eight times before she gave up on it. Some time later, when her nerves had already worn precariously thin and she couldn't bear the waiting much longer, the hearty smell of bacon and tomatoes frying in a pan wafting from the kitchen certainly helped enticing her son to leave the snuggly comfort of his bed.  

Belly full and a bag packed with everything Willie would need for the day at the Inverness Aquadome slung over his small shoulder, Claire sent him off with a kiss to the top of his wild, auburn curls, and a reminder to pay heed to Tammas’ mother. Thankfully, Tammas’ mother had been late to pick William up, so there wasn’t much time for Claire to engage with her in conversation –the end of their last one still painfully fresh in her mind. With her son out with friends for the whole day, she had enough time to get ready for her own engagement. Her stomach knotted with anxiety at the prospect of what the day would bring.

Jamie.

She would see Jamie today.

After 6 and a half years.

Not normally one to spend much time worrying about how she dressed as long as it was comfortable, Claire found herself staring into the depths of her opened wardrobe, unable to choose an ensemble. What did one wear when finally meeting the man who had unexpectedly –and unknowingly– fathered your child after years of fruitless search for him? There were dress codes for almost every kind of event, but she was sure that this one might be an exception. In the end, she decided on a pair of form-fitting light grey trousers and a simple white shirt. She didn’t need to impress anyone today. What she needed was to be comfortable while breaking some pretty big news to him.   

An hour or so later, Claire had made herself comfortable in one of the cosy leather-seated booths of The Caledonian. The main breakfast rush long over, and the earliest lunch-goers not yet in sight, she’d decided it would be the perfect choice to meet with Jamie. While it was open all day and served everything from potato scone and bacon sandwiches to a full Sunday roast, it had a distinct pub feel to it with all the wooden furnishings and decorations. It also happened to be Claire’s favourite for a proper Scottish breakfast on a lazy weekend, but she and Willie didn’t frequent it often enough for the staff to recognise them on sight. Perfect meeting ground then – familiar, but with enough space to hide in plain sight. The tables were spread out in the open space in a way that neighbouring patrons wouldn’t have an easy time overhearing other people’s gossip, providing enough privacy for what was surely going to be a rather intimate conversation.

As was her way, Claire had shown up a bit too early. Not knowing what else to do while she waited, she ordered a pot of tea and two cups. Stirring a spoonful of sugar absentmindedly into the scalding liquid, she gazed out of the window, scanning the world outside for a flash of fiery red. Focused on that task, she had failed to notice that someone had approached her table, until a shadow fell over half of her face, and a throat was cleared.

“Claire,” it sounded almost like a deep, raspy sigh.

Slowly, she turned towards the sound, heart pounding frantically against her chest.

After precisely six years and eight months, the moment had finally come.

She was face to face with Jamie again.

He was wearing a navy coat that complimented his eyes and a grey, woollen scarf wound around his muscular neck. Dark blue eyes looking almost slanted above high cheekbones, she noticed that his wide mouth was set in a lopsided smile, just like the last time she’d seen him.  There was quite a bit of scruff covering his face, and his auburn locks –sparked with roan and cinnabar– were a lot longer now, tied back into a sloppy man-bun at the back of his head.  

Realising that he was still waiting for her to reciprocate his greeting, she swallowed her embarrassment of having stared at him so rudely and finally said, “Hello Jamie.”

“May I?” he asked, pointing towards the leather seat opposite her.

“Of course! Please, do sit down,” Claire invited him, mentally chastising herself for being so bloody formal.

As Jamie shrugged out of his coat, she poured him a cup of tea, still steaming slightly.

“Sugar?” she asked politely, attempting to cover her own awkwardness, and thinking desperately how to start a conversation.

Blurting out that he had a son of almost 6 years might have been effective, but not quite the way she wanted to go about it. Claire didn’t want him to run off right away, after all.

“Aye, half a spoon, please.”

“Would you like to order something to eat? They make wonderful sandwiches if you’re hungry.”

“No, I’m good, thank ye. Unless ye want something?” he was about to wave a waiter over when she declined the offer with a shake of her head.

“Ah, no. Not just now, thank you.”

Looking at each other –amber whisky meeting loch-blue– a couple of awkward seconds passed by in which nobody said anything.

“Sae,” he initiated, giving her an opening.

“It’s been a while.”

“Aye,” there was a queerness to his tone that she couldn’t quite interpret.

Jamie took her in, trying to see all the ways in which she’d changed, in which she was still the same. Her curls were as riotous as they had been then, so light a brown as to be almost golden where the morning sunshine hit it through the window to an ebony so dark as to seem black. Her eyes were as bright and warm a honey as he remembered, but they were less open –a bit guarded, perhaps– and framed by one or two small lines. Lines of laughter, he hoped. Comparing her to the image he held dear in his memory, she seemed relatively unchanged, if a bit flustered.

“Ye look well, Claire,” he smiled.

“So do you,” she replied a little breathless, her cheeks pink.

It wasn’t a lie.

He looked phenomenal in his black dress shirt and casual trousers, even though the fabric strained against his muscles in some places. Must be all the training he’s doing. His face was still good-humoured and handsome, but something about it was different. And it wasn’t the scar at the spot where his jawbone connected to the skull. There was something less open about his expression –almost as if he was wearing a mask.

Except for confirming, that yes, she had indeed studied in Edinburgh and become a doctor, Claire managed to politely dodge questions about herself, steering the conversation towards him instead.

“So,” Claire cleared her throat, a trifle unsure how best to proceed. “Alpine skiing, is it?” The conversation with Brian not even a week ago still fresh on her mind.

He nodded, “Aye, Downhill mostly. But I do Super G and a bi’ o’ Giant Slalom as well.”

“I hear you’re doing really well on the circuit?”

“It’s no’ going badly,” Jamie admitted, a hint of pride in his deep voice.

They talked about his life as a professional skier –the downsides, the upsides, and everything on the spectrum between. The adrenaline rush he felt when racing down a mountainside, the endless training hours and meal plans that dictated his life, even on his time off. The stunning places he got to see, the people he met, the joy of coming home for the holidays. How much he loved it.

“I’m glad to hear that, Jamie,” the genuine happiness Claire felt about his success interlaced with a profound sadness of remembered years where any little piece of information about what he was doing would have meant the world to her –and her son.

Apparently, he had picked up the strange blend of emotion in her tone, for he looked at her, head tilted slightly to the right, considering.

“I have tae say I was surprised to hear from ye, Claire,” he stated simply, inviting her to cut all the small-talk and get to why she asked him here. Meanwhile, his fingers began to drum a silent tattoo on his thigh.

“I bet you were.”

What she would have given to be able to see his face when he’d got her message, ruddy brows rising almost to his hairline.

Jamie couldn’t help staring at her elegant fingers as they closed around her cup of tea, his gaze zeroing in on one in particular. No visible tan line. She hadn’t worn a ring in quite some time then –if ever.

“Yer message said ye needed tae talk tae me about something?”

“Yes,” she exhaled.

As Claire was seemingly struggling to get it out, Jamie decided to take action.

“I ken, Claire,” he announced in a low voice, fingers still tapping on his thigh, hidden beneath the table.

Inhaling sharply, honey eyes narrowed slightly, “Know about what?”

“Ye dinnae need tae say it. I ken what ye’re trying tae tell me.”

“You do?” An arched eyebrow challenging him to prove it.

“I ken about yer child,” he said, neither face nor voice giving any emotion away.

Nothing could have prepared her for this.

“What?” A sudden coldness hit her at the core.

“I ken, Claire. About yer child.”

Your child, he had said.

Icy tentacles wound their way through her system.

“And it doesnae matter tae me,” Jamie tried to convey the sentiment in what he hoped was a reassuring tone.

He lowered his gaze, tugging at his collar as if his shirt were suddenly too tight.

“You,” her fingers were gripping the porcelain cup like a vice as she forced the last word out, “know?”

“Aye, I do,” he confirmed, brushing the hair that was too short to be tied back off his forehead. If he had dared to look into her eyes just then, Jamie might have noticed blinding fury warring with utter disdain. “’Tis why I ne’er called, ken.” Still not looking at her, he fiddled with his spoon.

“You. Knew,” her lips were trembling, but her voice remained steady as Claire pronounced each word carefully.

“Aye, but it doesnae matter tae me that ye have a child by another man.”

“All this time, you knew,” she repeated, barely registering what he’d said just now, lost in her emotional reaction.

Jamie mistook her breathlessness for relief and tilted his head up, his blue gaze connecting with hers in cautious hope.

Claire looked at him then. Really looked, golden orbs glowing with anger and hurt, a visible pulse beating beneath the paleness of her skin.  

What had she expected him to be? The same sweet lad with a smile that made her knees go weak? That he had hungered for her touch as much as she had during those sleepless hours of darkness, where the only company she’d had was sheltered in her womb, the size of a grapefruit? That he, too, remembered their shared night in such vivid detail that it roused his body, made his hands move down in a futile attempt to catch the ghost of her caress?

They do say you should never meet your idols, that it would be a guaranteed disappointment when you did. That real people could never live up to your expectation, to the person you’ve imagined them to be. Claire guessed the same must be true for past lovers, then. She swallowed, resentful of her own naivety, of having hoped for too much.

There was not the slightest sign of remorse in the dark blue eyes, the ones her son had inherited. No regret in the way he carried himself. No guilt weighing down his broad shoulders. No shame bending his spine.

Jamie had known she had a child.

A shaky hand rubbed at her chest, trying to ease the pain.

During all that time where she had struggled, flailed, despaired, turned every stone to find him, he had known. And chosen not to reach out. ’Tis why I ne’er called’.

Claire stood up, pulling a square, thick piece of paper out of her purse, “My son,” she stressed in a scathing tone, “is also your son.”  Smacking the photograph onto the table, she turned around and rushed out without so much as a look at him.

Storming out so fast, she didn’t see his eyes widen in shock, or the colour leave his face. The absolute paralysis that had taken hold of him for a solid minute, teaspoon clenched in his big hand. It took an immense effort to pry his fingers loose –and move the picture closer.

Completely overcome, Jamie’s mouth hung slightly open as he took in the Polaroid of Willie, the absolute innocence of childhood captured brilliantly in his dimpled smile –so much like his own. A single tear rolled down his face as he grabbed the table for support, afraid that his legs might give out at any moment.

Staring at it for a second longer, Jamie knew that there was only one thing to do now. He collected his things, left a ten-pound note on the table and hurried after her.

She hadn’t been hard to follow –not with her crazy curls flying behind her like a signpost and his long, well-exercised shanks keeping up easily with her shorter stride. Approaching her was an entirely different story, though. He took another peek at the photograph she’d left behind, gathering courage from it.

Stooping, his red head bent abashedly, Jamie moved cautiously towards her on the bench, as if he were advancing on a skittish horse.

“God, I’ve been a righ’ bastard, Claire. I’m sae sorry. I didnae ken... didnae ken he was mine.” blue eyes looked up tentatively, willing her to turn towards him and see that his apology was sincere.

No reaction. Claire just sat there, staring ahead, lost in her own thoughts, completely ignoring him.

“Claire, will ye no’ let me explain?” his low voice came from behind.

“Whatever it is you have to say, James Fraser, I don’t think I want to hear it. Leave me be,” her words were sharp, but her tone glum.

Ignoring her plea for solitude, Jamie sat down on the bench next to her, careful not to encroach on her personal space, but not wanting to have too much space between them either.

“Aye, I kent that ye’d had a child, Claire, but I didnae ken it was mine... Lord, if I’d only –,” his voice broke on a desperate sound deep in his throat.

“How?” it was a simple question, devoid of all emotion, but at least she was talking to him, not staring blankly ahead, tuning him out like some irritating background noise. “How did you even know?”

“Yer friend, Laoghaire.”

“Laoghaire MacKenzie is not my friend.”

“Aye, that she isnae. Now less than ever, perhaps.”

“What the bloody hell does she have to do with it?” the annoyance clear in tone and wrinkling of her forehead.

“More than ye think. And far more than I care fer,” he spit out, when he registered her murderous expression, he went on without delay. “Ye kent I was in an accident, aye?”

She nodded, answering his question and giving him permission to continue at the same time.

“I wasnae conscious fer a long time. Some weeks, I think. Spent the better part of seven months in the hospital. But as soon as I was myself again –in mind at least– the only thing that occupied my thought was trying tae find a way tae get tae ye,” instead of pausing to let the meaning register with Claire, he hurried on, “I didnae have yer number of course.” At this, she scoffed, unable to contain the frustration of having had to deal with exactly that problem for close to 7 years. Jamie chose to ignore that. “But I kent that Rupert had gone wi’ Laoghaire, and I’d hoped that maybe the two o’ them had –“

“Exchanged phone numbers?” Claire interrupted, brusquely finishing his thought.

“Aye.”

“Well, they didn’t. So how did you,” noticing his gobsmacked expression, she stopped abruptly. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Because they did,” Jamie said through clenched teeth, a muscle in his jaw jerking.

“Did what?” eyebrows pinched together in frustration as her voice rang with confusion.

“Rupert did have her number,” he said simply.

Claire stared at him, neck tense, honey eyes widening as the meaning of his statement sunk in.

“But...”

“Ye asked her, then?”

“Yes, ... no... I mean, I didn’t but Geillis did and...” Claire trailed off, trying to wrap her head around what she’d just heard.

“And she said she didnae?” Jamie probed carefully. “Weel, I dinnae ken what it is that ye’ve done tae that lass, Claire, but it didnae stop there...,” he implied ominously.

His shoulders slumped, and his index and middle finger drummed an inaudible tattoo on his thigh before he spoke again.

“Rupert gave me her number. And I texted her sae soon as I had figured out how tae approach her. Ye might recall that I didnae like her all that much either when we met?” Claire nodded, the memory clear in her mind. “But she was the only way tae get tae ye. Sae I decided tae be verra friendly, no’ give her a reason tae be ... difficult about it.”

Claire snorted with derision.

“Difficult my English arse.”

His lips twitched with amusement.

“Aye, but I only kent yer first name and where it was ye wanted tae study, sae she really was the only way tae reach ye,” he said, Claire knowing all too well how much hope she had put into that particular avenue, and shuddered again, remembering what he had implied.

“I didnae beat around the bush, told her that I needed tae get in touch wi’ you, and asked if she could forward me yer number.  Laoghaire told me that ye werenae the best o’ friends and that she didnae have it,” Jamie looked at her, silently asking to confirm or deny that statement.

“That’s true, at least,”

“Laoghaire claimed that her best friend’s sister was close tae ye and that she’d speak tae her. She was being verra kind and helpful, truth be told,” a declaration that caused Claire to scoff, but she didn’t interrupt him. “Even apologised fer the way she’d behaved towards me at the club in Porto Santo. And wi’ her being all sweet and sympathetic, I believed that that hadnae been who she truly is.”  Another derisive sound emerged from Claire’s throat, but still she held her comments on Laoghaire back for the sake of hearing the whole story.

“We texted fer a bit, only a couple o’ days, mind, while I was waiting fer her tae get me yer number. Couldnae be impolite, I needed her after all,” Jamie explained.

“So you did,” came Claire’s curt reply.

“All that time I was excited like a bairn righ’ before Boxing Day. After months I’d finally get tae see ye... well, no’ see ye again, but at least have some way tae get in touch wi’ you,” a small smile curved his wide mouth at the recollection.

“So what happened?” Claire interjected. “Why didn’t you call or text?”

There was no accusation in her voice, only hurt.

“A couple o’ days later, when I asked her again if she got yer number yet, she ... was suddenly different. Didnae want tae talk all that much anymore, was super busy where she wasnae before. I could tell she was making excuses, and I told her sae. And then,” he broke off, looking at Claire with such open heartbreak in his dark blue eyes that she could feel it rip her own soul in two.

“Then,” he repeated, with a better grip on himself again, “she told me ye were pregnant.” A heavy pause followed. “By someone named Frank.”

Claire’s jaw dropped. If it weren’t for the dire implications of Jamie’s tale, it would’ve looked absolutely comical.

“She said WHAT?” her voice rose so high with incredulity that it sounded eerie to her own ears.

“Aye,” he confirmed what she’d heard. “She told me that she didnae want tae hurt my feelings as I was sae obviously intae ye, but that ye were back taegether wi’ yer ex –Frank. That ye’d broken up a while ago, but that ye got right back taegether after the trip. Apparently seeing ye disappear wi’ me didnae sit all too well wi’ him. That ye were happy and expecting a child.”

He looked at her then, dark blue orbs half hidden underneath oddly coloured lashes, begging her to believe him.

“I don’t know what to say,” was all Claire could think of in that moment.

“I didnae believe her at first,” Jamie said in a low voice, head bent as he grabbed for the phone in his front pocket. “Only when she sent me this,” he swiped on the screen, skimming over the assortment of photos in his gallery until he found the picture he was looking for. Once he had, he handed his phone to Claire.

Speechless, she stared at the screen. There she was, smiling brightly into the camera, undeniably and quite obviously pregnant, holding the ‘Godchild’ onesie over her round belly while Geillis posed next to her with the matching ‘Godmother’ shirt.

“That was my baby shower,” she remembered in a quiet tone. “I didn’t want one in the first place, but Geillis, Mary, and Isobel wouldn’t be talked out of it. But I agreed to it, knowing it would only be the four of us,” Claire smiled at the memory. “I was so happy that day.”

“Aye. I could see that,” Jamie affirmed, the sadness in his voice mirrored in his face, “That’s why I believed her.”

Jamie could easily recall how his heart had split clean in two when he’d seen it.

Claire looked at him, finding his gaze as blurry as her own, engaged in the same war to fight off tears.

“The only thing that could have kept me from you, Claire, was knowing –seeing– that ye were happy wi’ someone else.”

The way he said it healed her wounds as much as it ripped them further open. Something deep inside her made her want to touch him, comfort him, and to seek the same in return. Her hand reached out as if acting on its own volition, fingertips caressing his face, brushing one stray tear away.

“Why did you agree to meet me, then?” she asked, her voice soft now.

The touch of her hand on his cheek had been unexpected.  It was chilled from exposure to late winter temperatures, but it warmed him to his bones, grounding him with her in the moment.

“I thought that... I’d hoped that,” Jamie hesitated, “maybe ye werenae all that happy anymore.” A small smirk played on his lips, as he took the delicate fingers stroking his cheek and interlaced them with his, some of his earlier confidence returning. “I didnae want tae miss an opportunity tae see ye. See how ye were doing.”

“And you didn’t mind that I had a child?” Claire asked, remembering his earlier statement all too clearly – And it doesnae matter tae me. “By another man?”

“No,” the reply was instant, sure.

Jamie looked away from her then, staring down at the River Ness, the seagulls crying above them, but not seeing the beauty that lay in front of him.

“But he isnae,” he affirmed, his warm gaze returning to hers after a heartbeat of silence. “He’s mine. Ours.”

There was no way Claire would have been able to prevent the smile that blossomed on her face, even if she wanted to.

 “Ours,” she echoed, eyes alight with happiness, hand still grasped in his, heart full of hope for the first time in years.

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter 22 – Kismet

Brian Fraser was a meticulous man.

He had a mental list of which items in his store needed stocking up (potatoes, onions, some of the candy bars, paper rolls for the receipts), how much of that 16-year old Lagavulin was left in the bottle he only got out for special occasions (an ounce shy of half full), and –even if less impressive– he knew exactly how many grandchildren he had (three). Or at least, he had thought so.

Four.

He had four grandchildren.

Jenny’s bairns. Wee Jamie, Margaret, and Katherine.

And William.

Claire’s.

And Jamie’s.

Willie was such a sweet lad. Brian had already had great affection for him, but realising that they were bound by blood as well... His heart was close to bursting knowing how blessed he was with his grandchildren. And finally having one of his kin so close to home was more than he could have wished for. 

When he had looked at the pictures in his phone again, refilled whisky glass in hand, and seeing Willie’s bright, toothy smile next to the photo album with shots of Jamie, it was almost painfully obvious. The eyes were the exact same shape, the same dark blue colour, even if the lad’s eyes were speckled with golden flecks. The lashes were a bit different, though, Jamie’s were oddly coloured –almost blonde at the roots and dark at the tips. Willie’s were russet. But flipping through the pages of the album, Brian could see what he had not remembered –at this age, his son’s lashes had also been simply russet. God, the hair, too. Although there was a high number of redheads in these parts of the world, there were very few with such an intense shade of red. Not the carroty-type, nor the pale, almost blonde shade. No, theirs was the colour of true fire –not just ginger, but the same lively blend of auburn, cinnabar, roan, copper, and gold.

The cheekbone and jaw beneath the last remnants of William’s baby fat gave testimony to the promising man he would become. Tall, as well. Jamie had surpassed Brian’s own 6”2 on his 17th birthday, and the lad was likely going to stand as tall as his father if you added in his mother’s height.

His mother.

God, Claire.

He’d known, of course, that there was a story behind her situation. Everyone could have guessed that it wasn’t the fairy-tale kind of story, too, just from looking at the circumstances. A single mother that didn’t freely divulge any kind of information about her child’s father didn’t exactly scream ‘happy family’.

But this? What kind of bizarre kismet could have ever come up with something like this?

The steady thump of groceries being put on the checkout counter yanked him out of his musings, his mind returning to the mundane matters at hand. Mechanically, Brian swiped every item over the scanner, packing them into the bag for his customer with an absent-minded smile, as he tried to resist the urge to look at the clock again. But he couldn’t help himself.

It was happening right now. 

He just hoped their meeting would go well.

*****

They sat for a while, fingers still interlaced and squeezing lightly from time to time, while the seagulls performed their poor-man’s opera around them, fighting for the odd piece of edible trash. In this moment, neither of them felt the need to talk, each processing what had just been revealed in their own way.

“His name,” Jamie broke the silence first, his Adam’s apple bobbing heavily as he stared at the photograph in his right hand, “What did you name him?”

“William,” the name was spoken softly, and with pride.

“William,” he tested the name on his tongue, his lips, his heart. “A braw name, that.”

Brushing an errant curl behind her ear, Claire smiled, even though Jamie was still too focused on the photo in his right hand to see it.

He went mute again, but she could tell from the way his throat was working that he wanted to say something. There wasn’t really anything she thought she could say that would make it easier for him. But she tried to encourage him by bumping his shoulder gently with hers.

“How?” he rasped, taking courage to ask from her simple gesture.

It was his turn to ask questions now.

“How what?”

“How did it happen?” Jamie gestured to the photograph with an expression of such earnest innocence and naiveté gracing his features, that Claire had to bite her lip to keep from bursting out laughing, despite the severity of the circumstances. How many times had she been asked that very question when she first found out about her pregnancy?

“I should think that even in the remote backcountry of Scotland kids are taught the basic mechanisms of procreation. Or do you want me to draw you how it’s done?” her lips drew into a small smirk. “If memory serves right, though, you’re quite aware how it works. Or at least one part of your anatomy does,” the latter part was murmured under her breath, but Jamie caught it and his ear tips turned bright pink –and it didn’t have anything to do with the cold.

“I didnae ken all that much at the time,” he countered, going pinker still, “I was a virgin if ye recall. And,” Jamie continued, “and we used protection, did we no’?”

She did, in fact, recall –very well.

“Yes, we did,” Claire sighed, letting go of his hand to rub her palms on her trousers. “But every form of contraception has a failure quota. We’ll never know why it failed, only that it did.”

“Mmphm,” a thoroughly Scottish sound emanated from his throat.

In her long years living in Scotland, Claire had learned that these noises were a language of their own and could encompass more facets of meaning than whole conversations.

“And even if it was a bit of an unwelcome surprise at first, I’m happy that it did,” seeing his puzzlement she clarified, “Fail.”

“Ye are?” his voice rose slightly in surprise at her admission.

“Of course. Otherwise I would have missed out on the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

Claire could see the cogs in his mind working as a line formed between his ruddy brows. Clearly, Jamie wasn’t quite up to speed yet. How could he be? He only just found out that he was a father, and hadn’t really had time to let that sink in. He had neither had the pleasure of welcoming his son into the world, nor see him make his first steps, speak his first words, making friends, laugh, cry, smile –nothing. So, for him, as much as the majority of the population, the failure of contraception didn’t automatically lead the way down to a positive thought.

“I’m speaking of William,” she decided to clear things up before things got awkward again, pointing at the thick, glossy paper still held tightly by his large fingers.

“Ah,” releasing a relieved breath, the line between Jamie’s brows vanished and was replaced with his typical lopsided smile.

Sensing a tenseness creep into their little bubble, Claire got out her phone to show him more pictures of Willie. They were recent ones –a scone party at Mrs Crook’s, his first time on a bike in their driveway, a snapshot of Willie fast asleep like a starfish tangled in a tartan blanket on their couch.

“He’s...,” Jamie’s index finger hovered over the last one, aching to touch, “he’s beautiful, Claire.”

“He is,” she agreed with a dazzling smile. She knew every mother thought their child to be beautiful –and she was no exception– but hearing it from Jamie made her heart swell double in size.  “I’m afraid I don’t have any old pictures of him on my phone, but –,” she stopped herself abruptly, causing the line of quizzical interest between his brows to reappear.

She had more pictures at home. Hundreds of them, thousands –some printed but not yet sorted, some carefully arranged in albums, and a vast quantity on an external hard-drive. And she wanted to show Jamie every single one. Tell him the stories that went with them. Show him everything he’d missed out on. Get him to know his son as well as she did.

He’s smart, and funny, and so kind. He loves chocolate better than crisps, his best friend’s name is Tammas, he isn’t fond of frogs, he loves Geillis fiercely. It’s the stuffed little puffin he needs to get a restful sleep, there’s only one Disney movie he doesn’t like, and there are two ways to get him to brush his teeth and into bed without much fuss.

After so much time spent searching, waiting, hoping, the urge to simply share everything about Willie was threatening to take over the peaceful understanding she had created with Jamie just now. She didn’t want to push too hard, too early. While Jamie certainly seemed eager about his son, she couldn’t know for sure how he would react if she asked for too much, too soon. The day had been overwhelming enough for him already –for both of them– and the last thing she wanted was to scare him off just because she couldn’t reign her own enthusiasm in. Taking a deep breath, Claire decided there was nothing to be lost –only gained– if she took the risk and grabbed the bull by the horns.

“Would you,” Claire began, nervously rubbing her palms on her trousers again, “would you like to meet your son, Jamie?”

The transformation from an expression of slight puzzlement to utter joy was a sight to behold, and Claire’s heart warmed with relief at having had the pleasure to witness it.   

“Oh God, yes!” dark blue eyes shone with hope and giddy excitement.

As Jamie took her fingers in his again, large, calloused thumb drawing a gentle circle on the back of her hand, a shiver ran down her spine.

“Och, ye’re freezing!” misreading her physical reaction, Jamie wrapped his woollen scarf around her neck and pulled her to her feet. “We’ve been sitting here fer ages, nae wonder! I’m sae sorry.”

Insisting that he needed to be sure she was safe –and warm– Jamie walked her all the way home. It was what a gentleman was supposed to do and only partly curiosity, or so he tried to convince himself, to get a glimpse of where she and her –no, their– son lived.

On their way to Claire’s cottage on Drummond Road, they talked, passing other pedestrians hurrying to reach the warmth of their homes, but it was all a bit stiffer than before. Almost as if the lack of physical connection made it harder to talk openly, without reservation. It was still pleasant, though, to be in each other’s company, to just breathe the same cold air that was –for the moment, at least– cleared of misunderstandings.

Although Jamie could hardly wait to meet William, he’d readily agreed with Claire that today would not be a good idea. Having spent the day at the pool, the lad would be exhausted, and quite possibly starved, which tended to make him cranky according to Claire –not the best circumstances to be introduced. And if there was one thing that was of importance to James Fraser right now, it was not to start off the relationship with his son on the wrong foot. That he and Claire needed some time to themselves to digest the day’s discoveries as well sealed the deal on arranging the big meet for another day.

“Well, this is my castle,” Claire indicated with a jerk of her head, curls bouncing. “You’ve brought me right up to the door, just as promised, good sir.”

“’Twas ma pleasure, m’lady,” Jamie answered as he bowed theatrically. “I shall rest easier now, knowing that ye’re safe within yer walls.”

A warm chuckle sounded from Claire’s throat.

“I am fortunate to have such a thoughtful knight to call my friend,” the banter came natural to both of them.

“’Tis my honour,” he replied, a playful smile curving his wide mouth.

Moving a step towards him, Claire took off the grey scarf he’d given her earlier, and, standing on tiptoes, wrapped it around his neck.

“A token of my eternal gratitude, sir,” she could feel her cheeks redden slightly as her fingers accidentally brushed the downy curls at his nape, and hoped that he would attribute the colour to cold rather than whatever it was that had made her blush in the first place.

“Thank ye.”

“So, I’ll see you on Tuesday then? I trust you won’t have trouble finding our place?” one eyebrow arched up in rhetorical question.

“I think it’ll be nae trouble tae find ma way back here, no. Tuesday it is,” his deep voice was reassuring and firm.

They stood a bit awkwardly, not quite knowing how best to say goodbye. A handshake was far too formal, a hug friendly, but also didn’t seem quite right. Putting a hand on his arm, Claire stood on her tiptoes again, leaned in and kissed his stubbled cheek, then stepped back and said, “Goodbye, Jamie.”

She had already walked away and opened her door when Jamie realised that he was still standing unmoving in her driveway. Turning on his booted heel, he buried his face halfway in his scarf, attempting to hide the pinkness there. When he thought himself out of range of vision, Jamie allowed himself to inhale deeply. Honeysuckle filled his nostrils, and in this moment, he could not imagine anything ever smelling better than the scent Claire had left behind in the grey, woollen fabric around his face.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 23 – Once Upon a Tuesday

As the door fell into its lock, Claire leaned her head against the solid wood and released the breath she’d been holding with a heavy sigh. What a day. That was probably the understatement of the century. Well, of the month, at least.

Casting a look around the living room of her home and finding that the world she had left behind had not changed in the slightest bit was hard to reconcile with the inner upheaval that recent revelations had caused. Claire toed off her shoes and slipped out of her coat, putting them into their proper spot next to the entrance, all the while trying to wrap her head around what she had heard and seen today.

Only a few hours before, she had been a bundle of nervous energy, too apprehensive to focus on anything but painting all different kinds of scenarios how her meeting with Jamie would go down. Boy, had she been wrong. When she had set out to face what was likely going to be a difficult conversation in any case, Claire Beauchamp would still never in a million years have expected that kind of level of betrayal. It was an intrigue worthy of a soap-opera –well, those writers probably had to get their inspiration from somewhere. But to think that anyone would really do such a thing. Out of... out of what exactly? If it had been just about Claire herself, she might have understood the pettiness of it all, even if she couldn’t condone it. She would readily admit that they had never warmed up to each other, hadn’t cared for one another a bit, to be frank. In all the years they’d moved in the same circle of friends, she had come to know Laoghaire as a spoiled and vindictive person, deeply jealous of her own accomplishments, but to deliberately rob a child of its father?

Anger. Seething, explosive anger was what Claire knew she should feel right now. And she did –hot adrenaline was pumping through her arteries, shoulders tense, and teeth were clenched, her body was ready to strike out. But she was also strangely numb and cold at the same time. Looking at her hands was like watching herself from a distance. She knew those shaking digits were her own, but everything felt strange, detached. Delayed shock, Claire noted with a professional undertone.

Putting both jittery hands firmly on the countertop of her kitchen, Claire steadied herself as she shut her eyes firmly and took deep breaths, filling her lungs with much needed oxygen. In –1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Out –1, 2, 3, 4, 5. When even the tenth repetition of the breathing exercise had not helped her regain her sense of self, Claire attempted another practice she had learned some years ago from Uncle Lamb. Taking inventory. Moving through the haze that clouded her mind, she pictured the essence that made up her muscles, organs, nervous system, her physical self. Everything still there. Everything still working. Slowly, with a determined shake of her head that sent brown curls flying freely around her face, Claire found a way out of that maze of conflicting thoughts and emotions.

The newfound clarity dictated one thing in particular –she desperately needed to get a grip on herself. A quick glance at the kitchen clock sitting idly on the microwave to her right confirmed her inner timer. Willie would be home in less than two hours. Claire had until then to sort out the worst of it, to be composed enough to face her son without seeming like a mental case. And there was only one person she could talk to about this whole steaming pile of shit who would understand.  

The calling signal had barely gone through when her best friend’s voice greeted her, not bothering with so much as ‘hello’ before firing questions faster than Claire was able to process.

“How did it go? How did he look? Is he still hot? What was he wearing? How did he react? Did he faint? Did ye kiss? Tell me everything!” demanded the clear voice at the other end of the line, excitement palpable even with a couple of hundred miles between them.

Claire sank into the couch, head tilted back to rest on the cushion.

“I hope you’re sitting down, Gee,” the tone of the statement foreboding.

“I cannae sit doon, righ’ noo, hen, tell me,” the clanking and thumping in the background made it clear that Geillis was walking around her flat, too nervous to sit still to receive the answers to her questions.

So Claire did tell her. Everything. From the relatively simple lie that Laoghaire had indeed had Rupert’s number to the devastating consequences of her telling Jamie that Claire had been pregnant with Frank’s –‘of all people!’– child.

For a second, Claire had thought she had lost connection, so unnaturally quiet was Geillis as she patiently listened to the whole tale.

“I’m goin’ tae kill that bitch,” came the matter-of-fact reaction. The menacing message of the declaration was quite at odds with the dry delivery, so much so that Claire thought Geillis might as well have been saying that it was going to rain in Scotland today.  

“You and me both, Gee,” she joined in the general sentiment.  “And from the look of Jamie’s face, I think he might want to as well.”

“I’m serious, I’m goin’ tae kill her. Such a–,” Geillis began, but was stopped by Claire.

“I know. But there’s no point, Geillis. Not that I don’t appreciate you committing a felony for my sake, but remember, we took an oath – ‘do no harm’ and all that stuff.”

Geillis let out a small huff.

“Minor obstacle if ye ask me, hen. I’m goin’ tae break that filthy wee bitch’s neck and–“

“Geillis, really, I don’t want you to do anything about this. Don’t even say anything to her, or to anyone else, for that matter.”

“Whyever no’?” the surprise was evident in her best friend’s voice. “She’s stolen almost 7 years from ye, Claire.”

“I know,” Claire replied in a small voice.

“That bitch is the reason ye had tae do this on yer own, she’s the reason Willie ne’er had a father!”

“I KNOW, Geillis,” exasperation rang in every syllable, “Trust me, I know better than anyone.“

That shut her friend up for a moment.

“Well, ye’re right...,” Geillis admitted, “it’s you that gets tae make a call on this, but,” she continued, “she doesnae deserve yer forgiveness. No’ wi’ what she did tae ye and the wee bean.”

“And what would you have me do?” Claire’s throat was tense as she fought to control the emotion that was threatening to well up.

The question was answered with another silence.

“See? It’s not that easy.  I can’t just wait until she’s pregnant, try to get hold of the father, think of some elaborate, twisted scheme to separate them from one another until her child’s 6 years old.”

“Would serve that meddling besom right, though,” murmured Geillis.

“This is not some sort of ‘an eye for an eye’ situation –we’re not in the Middle Ages. Not that revenge would help anyone. There’s nothing I can do about it,” the frustration poured out of Claire with every word.

“Does it nae bother ye, then?”

“Does it not bother me that because of one spiteful, miserable cunt like Laoghaire MacKenzie my son had to grow up without a father? No, Geillis, I’m perfectly fine with that, didn’t you know?”

The sarcasm cut through the conversation like a knife. Claire could hear Geillis take a deep breath to reign her own temper in before she spoke next.

“Claire, that’s no’ what I meant and ye ken it. What I was tryin’ tae say was if it doesnae bother ye that she can go on wi’ her life wi’out having tae face any consequences fer her actions.”

“Of course, it bothers me, Gee!” there was nothing she could do to prevent the tears from rolling down her face now. “It does bother me that there is nothing I can do about it, because she didn’t do anything that’s prohibited by law. There is nothing, nothing –you hear?! –I can do about it.“

“I’m sorry, hen. I didnae –,” Geillis attempted to apologise.

“No, don’t be. I know you didn’t mean it like that. I know you have my back.”

“Aye, I do,” her friend assured at once, “always.”

A small smile touched Claire’s lips, reminded how grateful she was to have a friend like Geillis Duncan in her life.  

“Let’s just hope that karma does exist and that it will take care of Laoghaire bloody MacKenzie the way it sees fit,” Claire concluded, sniffling and wiping the last tears away.

“That bitch has it coming,” Geillis concurred.

“Indeed,” was all that Claire had to add.

“Orite, noo that we’ve got that matter settled, let’s cut tae the chase,” Geillis opened a new line of conversation.

“What are you talking about?” she asked, bewildered what else could be left to talk about after such a big discovery.

“The man, Claire, the man!” Geillis let out an annoyed huff. “What did he look like, did ye shag him righ’ there on the table?”

“Geillis!” she hissed, being intensely grateful that her best friend wasn’t able to see the redness in her cheeks. The thought of getting into bed with Jamie had not crossed Claire’s mind –more important things had occupied her thoughts. But hearing it now put so bluntly, she would have lied if she claimed not to remember what those large hands felt like on her body.

Interpreting Claire’s silence correctly, Geillis pushed her advantage, “Sae, still hot, aye?”

“For fucks sake, Duncan!” she rolled her eyes in pretend irritation, even knowing that her friend wasn’t able to see her.

The stubble of his scruff had felt wickedly good when she had kissed his cheek in goodbye. Absent-mindedly, her index finger traced the faint tingling echo the feeling had left behind on her lips.

“I cannae help but observe that ye didnae say he isnae hot, hen,” the self-satisfied smirk was all too audible.

“Yes, he’s still hot, Geillis. Happy now?”

“Och, aye, I’m braw, what aboot you, though, Claire? Did he make ye happy or is he goin’ tae at least?”

“Shut it, Duncan,” Claire’s threat would have been that much more effective, if she hadn’t snorted.

Geillis chuckled, knowing that she had struck a nerve, “Ye need a good shag again, hen, and he obviously kens hoo tae please ye already sae –“

“Alright, I think I have to hang up now, Willie will be home soon, and I have to get dinner ready. We’ll talk some other time?” Claire decided it was best to ignore Geillis at this point.

“Sure, hen. We still have tae work oot the last details o’ Willie’s birthday party, no?”

“I almost forgot about that,” Claire chided herself.

“No, ye wouldnae have, sae dinnae beat yerself up aboot it. Have a wee dram or somethin’ tae calm yer nerves. We’ll talk taemorrow.”

“You know, alcohol is not the solution, Gee.”

“I beg tae differ, hen. According tae chemistry, it verra well is a solution,” the fair-haired woman chuckled.

Claire smirked, her spirits considerably lifted.

“Bye, Gee. Talk tomorrow.”

“Love ye, Claire,” the call ended on that earnest sentiment.

Staring at the darkened phone screen for a while, Claire found herself glued to the comfortable couch cushions, severely lacking the motivation to get up to face the real world’s responsibilities again that had the audacity to continue as if nothing life-changing had occurred today.

*****

The next few days passed by in a blur. In a way, Claire was glad that her daily obligations  at work (devising a new plan of action for Gerald Cairn’s chronic knee issues) and as a mother (making sure William wore fresh socks and underwear) didn’t allow her too much time to dwell on the recent chain of events.

And so Tuesday had come without her having lost too much sleep overthinking either, Laoghaire MacKenzie’s intrigue or the fact that her son was about to meet his father for the first time.

Claire was nervous, excited, hopeful when she heard the doorbell –its usual ancient, squeaky ding dong sounding so much more cheerful knowing what, who, waited behind the brightly painted wood.  

“Jamie,” she opened the door with a tentative smile.

“Claire,” he breathed, his own lips curling upwards as he presented her with a lovely wildflower posy.

Touching her elbow lightly, Jamie bent down to kiss her cheek in greeting, his scruff tickling the sensitive skin of her face when she could suddenly feel his muscles tense, as if a current was running through his body. Looking to see what had frozen him in motion, Claire glimpsed Willie’s glowing auburn mop over her shoulder.

She took a step back from Jamie, extricating herself from his grasp to take in the clear-cut lines of his profile, the powerful set of his broad-shouldered frame as he, for the very first time, caught sight of his son.

Standing there on his long Viking legs, devilishly handsome in jeans and plaid shirt, Jamie’s dark blue eyes were fixed on a smaller pair of the same shade, mouth slightly parted in awe. Obviously lost and unsure how to proceed himself, Claire took charge of the introductions.

“This,” Claire said, stepping aside and putting a comforting warm hand on his arm to break the surreal moment, “is William. Willie, this is Jamie.” Honey eyes made contact with dark blue, seeking affirmation that it was alright to go on. When Jamie nodded, she continued without hesitation, “Your father.”

The atmosphere was thick with anticipation, Jamie and Claire were both holding their breath, waiting for William’s reaction.

She had told Willie beforehand, of course, to prepare him for this. Had sat down with him, tea and scones within easy reach, and explained everything as best she could –leaving out the perverted orchestration of misery part. Her son had seemed mildly interested, but not overly excited. He had known he had a father, of course; had known that said father had had an accident, the reason he never got to meet him. He understood the concept of a male parent, the idea of having someone else pick him up from kindergarten than his Mama, but he had never had one.

With the two of them face-to-face all of a sudden, neither knew how the boy would react, and the small, round face gave nothing away.  

“Sae, ye’re my Da?” gold-blue eyes were round with curiosity.

“Aye, I am.”

“Ye’re huge,” Willie stated the obvious without any sense of reservation –as children were wont to do– but he didn’t seem intimidated at all by the giant in front of him. Claire released a relieved breath.

“And ye’re tiny,” Jamie reciprocated.

“How did ye get sae big?”

“Guess because I always ate my neeps ‘n tatties proper, ken?”

The young boy frowned a bit, deciding whether that was a satisfying answer or not, and then reached out a small hand towards the towering stranger, still unperturbed. “I’m William. But most people call me Willie. Mama does, too.”

“It’s verra nice tae meet ye...Willie,” Jamie said, the slight pause before his son’s name was barely noticeable, but still there. “I’m James, but most people call me Jamie.”

Willie nodded, concluding the formality of introductions with a handshake as firm as a five-year-old could possibly manage, and turned to reclaim his spot on the couch, continuing to watch a documentary.

Taking Jamie’s coat, Claire encouraged him to follow and make himself comfortable while she would prepare tea and some snacks. Out of the corner of her eye, she dimly noted how gracefully he moved for a man of his size.

Claire kept to the background, moving quietly around the kitchen, wanting to give them enough space to get to know each other without her interference, or having to rely on her as a buffer or mediator. Still, she was never far, always within earshot should the need of her assistance arise. Or so she tried to convince herself. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the immense pleasure of unobtrusively observing the first coming together of father and son. Her son. But now he wasn’t just her son anymore. Now, he was also his, theirs. A smile blossomed on her lips as she watched Jamie carefully trying to engage Willie in conversation as they watched the documentary together.

From her vantage point behind the kitchen counter, Claire could tell that Jamie wasn’t exactly comfortable in his own skin just now. His posture was stiff, and when his fingers weren’t busy tapping a nervous staccato on his thigh, he was running them through his thick hair. He seemed a bit like a fish out of water, but who could blame him?

Meeting a girl in a Madeiran bar, he probably hadn’t expected anything –or anyone– to come out of their encounter, except for some fun and maybe a long-distance whatever-ship. Now, though, he found himself thrust into a position he might have wanted some time in his future, with the right woman at his side, but had not anticipated at all –confronted with an almost six-year-old miniature version of himself.

While Claire had wondered how it would be for Willie to have a father in his life innumerable times, she’d also tried to envisage how it would affect Jamie’s life. The question how he’d react to unexpected fatherhood had produced a wide array of possible outcomes over the last few years.  As a 19-year-old up-and-coming athlete, she had expected him to be distraught, angry, worried –in denial, even. Becoming a father at such a young age, with no financial means to support his surprise offspring –or the mother for that matter– wasn’t very likely to have caused anything but a dampened, disheartened spirit.

Or maybe he would have welcomed it with open arms, against all odds. Happy to be by her side, at her side. For some time, at least. Not having known him well back then –or at all, truth be told– Jamie had still struck her as the loyal, taking on his responsibilities kind of type, and she’d had a gut feeling that he would have forgone his dreams and aspirations to do what he would’ve deemed the right thing to do. And she was sure it would have led to silent resentment and pent-up frustration that could’ve easily blown up in her face. And Willie’s. So many ‘coulda, woulda, and shoulda’s’. What was done was done. Past things couldn’t be changed, but the present –and the future – could.

Now, at 25, Jamie might have a completely different outlook on fatherhood. Leading the life of a professional skier, he was hardly settled down, but definitely more mature and self-possessed. Maybe even ready to face it head-on? But was it still too much of an inconvenience that somehow needed to be implemented into his schedule and finances? Maybe just finances? What if he didn’t like Willie? What if he just wanted to meet him once, so he could say he’d done that and not feel guilty about it? Or did he truly welcome it? There was the possibility of that, too, of course. And Jamie’s desire to meet his son seemed so earnest...

It was hard to read him, though. His face was as tell-tale as a rock -inscrutable, expressing nothing but a non-committal smile. Claire continued to watch them over a cup of tea long gone cold, noticing how Jamie gradually let his guard down, allowing himself to relax into the conversation with his son as they animatedly discussed Scottish wildlife.

“Puffins!” Willie exclaimed excitedly when Jamie asked what his favourite Scottish animal was. “Mama promised we would go see ‘em fer my birthday!”

Jamie’s head jerked in her direction at that, and she almost spilled the rest of her tea down her front when he caught her staring. He didn’t seem to have noticed, though –his eyes were widened slightly with panic, but she only understood what was going on when he silently mouthed ‘when’ at her.  

Pointing at her phone, Claire indicated that she would send him the date, rather than interrupt the flow of their conversation.

            19th of April, said her text message.

With an almost imperceptible nod, Jamie signalled her that he had seen, turning his full attention back on Willie’s tale about how they had seen Porpoises at Chanonry Point the first week they had moved to Inverness.

Later, after Claire had surrendered her post at the kitchen counter deciding to make use of the time she wouldn’t have to watch or animate Willie to get some neglected chores done, she returned to the living room and joined both redheads with a freshly brewed pot of tea as they were seated on the floor around the coffee table, in the beginning stages of building a card house with a deck of cards Jamie had brought as a gift for his son.

He had thought long and hard in the days leading up to this meeting what he could possibly give the lad –without knowing anything about him save his name– that Willie might enjoy. It had finally struck him when he was sitting in his room, overthinking first-meeting-gifts-for-almost-6-year-olds, as he was playing idly with a deck of cards that accompanied him all over the globe.

Willie chewed his lower lip industriously as he was trying to add yet another level on top of their jointly built creation. She hadn’t thought that this would be an enjoyable task for a young boy still somewhat lacking in both, dexterity and patience, but Jamie insisted that they wouldn’t need the wooden blocks or colouring books, even as the fragile construction collapsed. Instead, he proclaimed himself to be a ‘card deck wizard’ after having ‘spent sae much time wi' them between training runs and bus drives’ and confirmed it with a proud smile and a rather impressive display of his ability with the cards. It was a simple enough trick from an adult perspective, but had captured Willie’s attention successfully.

“How did ye do that?” the boy asked, eyebrows almost drawn up to his hairline.

“Magic,” Jamie answered enigmatically before demonstrating another trick. Willie, spellbound by the show kept asking Jamie how he did it. “I told ye, it’s magic!”

“I ken it’s no’ that!” retorted a pouting Willie, obviously unsatisfied with the answer. “Can ye no’ tell me how ye do it?”

“I’m afraid no, lad. There’s a code of honour involved, ken? I cannae just go ‘round divulging ancient secrets tae everyone the first time I meet them.” For a second Claire thought that he had wanted to say Willie and then changed his mind. It almost seemed as if he was scared to use the name.

“Mmphm.”

Not knowing how to ease the slight tension, Jamie looked pleadingly at Claire. Taking pity on him, she moved over and stood behind Willie, ruffling his red mane affectionately and suggested in a light tone, “Maybe next time?”

The boy narrowed his eyes at that, though Jamie wasn’t sure whether it was a reaction to the hair ruffling or because he didn’t get what he wanted.

Jamie’s initial impression had been that Willie looked like a smaller replication of himself, but seeing mother and son standing side by side he could see that the difference in their colouring was misleading. It wasn’t just the golden specks in Willie’s eyes that the boy had inherited from his maternal side. He had the same pearl-like skin, the same light dusting of freckles on the bridge of his nose and cheeks. Their most striking resemblance, though, was their smile that, if it reached the eyes, made the world around them grow pale in comparison.

“Next time, then,” Willie said and stretched out his hand in invitation for a solemn shake to seal a manly promise.

“Aye, next time,” Jamie promised, swallowing the lump in his throat. So there would be a next time.

The smile that spread across his face melted away the last bit of the carefully maintained mask behind which he hid his thoughts and emotions, the sharp features of his face softened, and for a moment Claire saw the same 19-year-old lad she’d fallen for all those years ago in a bar in Madeira.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Chapter 24 – The Story of Us

The hours had flown by, despite Claire’s worries how the meeting might go. The three of them spending the afternoon in their pleasant bubble, getting to know each other while playing games. Willie had even insisted that Jamie stay for dinner –a hastily prepared pasta dish that the two redheads had polished off at an impressive speed. While she was cautious not to be too enthusiastic, she still felt the whole affair had been a success so far.

As Claire waited for Jamie to make his next move on the board –moving his piece dangerously close to one of her own– she noticed from the corner of her eye that Willie was yawning hugely, curly head drooping on his small shoulders. Fortunately, the boy still had enough presence of mind to wipe the drool off his mouth before it pooled onto the coffee table.

“Alright, that’s it, young man, off to bed,” Claire announced with practised authority as she got to her feet, rubbing some feeling back into the leg she’d been sitting on.

Before Willie could even begin to protest, he yawned again, effectively cutting off any argument he might have come up with to extend his bedtime.

Jamie watched, entranced, the small plastic figure still between his index and thumb, as Claire, her hands firmly placed on their son’s back, steered William towards his bedroom, directing him to put on his PJs and to brush his teeth. He felt a bit like an intruder, sitting there unmoving on the rug in front of the couch, his eyes following Claire and Willie’s every move as they went about their business. If someone told him that he would ever find himself wanting to watch anyone brush their teeth, he would have thought them mental. But here he was, desperate to not miss even a single thing about his son. His son. There would have been no way to prevent the smile curving his lips upwards at the thought, even if he wanted to. What a cute little bugger he was.

Not quite knowing what else to do, Jamie got up, stretching his long limbs with a luxurious yawn, thinking that just sitting and waiting there –staring like an oversized red owl– would be the weirder of alternatives. So, he walked towards the room from which Claire’s voice rang –reminding William to leave his socks in the laundry basket and not on the bathroom floor– quietly observing her.

There was an indescribable grace to her as she moved around the room –brown curls bouncing lightly with every step as curtains were drawn shut, things tidied away in passing, and the little plush puffin put on the pillow– so sure of her own place in it. This, Jamie could tell from the confident tilt of her head, the set of her shoulders, was her purpose, her calling. And he felt himself longing for the same, for a place in this. Whatever this was.

When Claire turned around and noticed Jamie standing there, leaning with his shoulder against the doorframe, she seemed startled –for a split second, honey eyes were blown wide in surprise that there was someone else in the room.

“I’m sorry, I just forgot for a minute that we weren’t alone,” she admitted, a slight pinkness tingeing her cheeks.

“I… I didnae mean tae intrude, only –,” he coughed to cover the embarrassment at having been caught staring. “Only I was wondering, ken, if there was anything I could help ye wi’?” Jamie hastily explained, his deep Scottish burr apologetic.

An understanding smile played around her lips as she approached him.

“Thank you, but no. Willie has to get ready for bed by himself. He’s old enough for that. I only make sure that the window is closed before he does. Normally, we read a couple of pages, too, but I think he’s too knackered for that tonight.”

“Ah, sure, whate’er ye say, Claire,” Jamie willingly conceded any authority on such matters to her.

Before either could say anything else, a fiery red mop of hair brushed past them around hip-level into the small bedroom. Willie, having been thoroughly fed and entertained the whole day, had his night-time routine finished in absolute record time.

“And where do you think you’re going?” Claire raised an interrogatory eyebrow at her son.

“Tae bed?” the boy responded with a puzzled expression that reminded Jamie eerily of his sister Jenny. Was this one of his own expressions, then?

“Have you flushed your manners down the toilet, William Beauchamp, or are you not saying goodbye to –,” Claire stopped abruptly, realising that she had wanted to say ‘guest’, but caught herself in time before she continued, “your father?” He wasn’t just a guest, after all. At least she put her hopes in that.

If he noticed her awkward pause, Jamie didn’t comment on it.

“I thought he was goin’ tae read tae me wi’ you?” standing next to his bed in his brontosaurus PJs and with minty breath, Willie looked expectantly from his mother to Jamie.

Claire’s eyes locked on flustered dark blue, simultaneously conveying ‘guess I was wrong about the being too knackered part’ and inviting him with a jerk of her head to take William up on the offer to join them.  

“I’d be happy tae, if ye think I’ll do,” Jamie eagerly accepted, stepping into the room with his hands in the front pockets of his jeans.

Willie made himself comfortable on the propped-up pillow, a sleepy smile fixed firmly into the soft features of his face as Claire picked a book from the shelf. Book in hand, Claire made herself comfortable next to him on the duvet and turned on the bedside lamp, gesturing to Jamie to turn off the big light and sit in the chair next to them.

A rustling of paper was followed by an intake of air. She was preparing herself, Jamie noted curiously and found himself strangely expectant. Claire’s voice was strong, but soft –like the sound of water rushing gently over a rock– as she began to narrate the story of Goodnight, Moon. Jamie could tell she was an experienced storyteller from the way the syllables dripped off her tongue like honey, capturing his attention and wrapping his mind in peaceful serenity.

He had not noticed his eyes closing, only when the silence became too loud to ignore and jerked him out of his dreamy state of mind, did he find that they were shut. He opened them to a blinding sun –only not quite. The light of the bedside lamp had hit her right orb just so that it glowed golden, bright as the sun. A light in the dimness of the room. Sorcha, his pupils dilated widely at the vivid memory of waking up screaming from a sterile darkness some seven years ago.

Just at that moment, Willie emitted a soft snore –a sure sign that the bedtime story had fulfilled its purpose– causing Claire to turn her gaze away from him, the curtain of her hair shielding Jamie’s dumbfounded expression from her.

“Goodnight, Willie,” Claire said, stroking the boy’s hair out of his cherubic face, her voice soft as a whisper.

Claire’s tenderness and the sight of his flesh and blood –softly snoring as he pressed his little puffin tightly to his tiny chest– did something indescribable to Jamie. The closest approximation to the feeling he could come up with was that it was a sensation akin to a large chunk of his heart being carved out, bit by bit, to make enough room to be filled up with moments like this –moments of grace that he knew would stay with him forever.

“Goodnight, Willie,” he breathed.

Still mesmerised by the beauty of the moment, Jamie only realised that Claire had gotten up and turned off the lamp when he felt the warm weight of her hand on his shoulder. ‘Come,’ the gentle squeeze seemed to say. Reluctantly, he tore his gaze away from the sleeping form of his son –away from the little chest moving rhythmically up and down, from the red curls sprawled out over the linen of the pillow.

Moving out of the dark room back into the brightly lit hallway, Jamie threw another glance over his shoulder, catching a last glimpse of his son –smiling innocently in his sleep– before Claire closed the door behind them.

Back in the living room, Jamie stood, a little forlorn but with a dreamy smile on his face, when Claire’s voice broke through his reverie.

“Quite the day, huh?”

His head jerked towards her, dark blue eyes still lost in thought.

“Aye, quite the day,” he agreed, running his hand through his hair.

With William safely tucked into bed and out of sight for the moment, the centre of their focus was gone and they both became hyper-aware of each other’s presence. Now, there was nothing but the two of them –and a slightly awkward tension in the air. There were still so many things left unsaid, so many things to be told, but Jamie was at a loss how to address any of it.  

“Fancy a dram?” Claire blurted out unexpectedly, saving them from a continued embarrassed silence, her hands rubbing nervously against each other.

Despite the fact that Claire never really drank, there was a bottle of a fine whisky sitting untouched in her cupboard –courtesy of befriending a whisky-lover named Brian Fraser. ‘If ye want tae live in the Hielands, a nighean, ye better have a stiff one tae offer a guest. Even if it’s jus’ tae shut ‘em up.’

“Am I a Scot?” Jamie said with a husk of a laugh, releasing a bit of the tension from his shoulders.

“Have a seat, then,” she waved her arm in a loose gesture towards the couch, moving to prepare their drinks.

Jamie did as asked and sank down on the comfortable cushions, head tilted so that he could observe her unobtrusively.

Dark blue eyes watched intently as pale, graceful fingers closed firmly around the round body of the crystal glasses as she put them on the counter. Took in the way her eyebrows furrowed in frustration and the line of her mouth tightened with effort as she was wrestling with the lid of the bottle –emitting a soft grunt of victory when it finally popped free. Watched how her shoulder rolled smoothly under the fabric of her jumper as she poured a generous amount into the glasses. The way her curls swung freely when she turned towards him again, a shy smile playing on her full lips.  

Passing him a glass, Claire’s fingertips touched the back of his hand for the blink of an eye, leaving a tingling sensation in their wake. Jamie stared at the spot where he could still feel the imprint of her unintentional touch. If she had felt anything, she didn’t let it show, though –her face was quite blank, if friendly.

“Since when do ye drink?” Jamie asked, taking an appreciative sip from his glass.

“I don’t, usually,” she began, then, realising what he had said, lifted her eyebrows in genuine surprise, “You still remember that?”

“Aye, I do,” he said, matter-of-factly, and before he could stop himself, added, “there are plenty o’ things I still remember about ye.”

As soon as the words were out, he could feel the heat rising in his cheeks. In an attempt to not let her process what he had implied, he pressed on.

“Weel, what else has changed since I last saw ye?”

“A lot,” she replied, a smirk tugging at the corner of her mouth.

“Except fer the obvious, I meant,” Jamie amended, the heat of embarrassment amplifying –so much so that he opened the first two buttons of his shirt.

For a second he thought that amber eyes had dropped to the bit of skin that showed there, but then her phone pinged, and the moment was broken when she checked who had sent the message.

“Geillis,” she said, showing him the screen. “Can’t wait to know how it went.”

A slow smile spread across his wide mouth.

“Ye’ll have tae thank her fer me someday, aye?”

“For what?” the astonishment rang clear in her question.

“Fer having chosen me tae safeguard yer phone back then.”

It was a simple enough statement, and yet it brought back so many vivid memories. The nagging worry of whether or not she would be accepted into medical school, a meddling friend who had stolen her gateway to getting that answer, fruit cocktails. A walk on the beach, fingers grazing, circling, gripping. A kiss that lead to so much more.  

Jamie was right, both of them had a lot to thank Geillis for. Which reminded her…

“Wait here,” Claire instructed as she put her almost untouched whisky on the table and leapt up from the couch, brown curls flying behind her as she was heading towards what Jamie gathered must be her bedroom.

Straightening his back, he watched with interest as she returned with something clutched to her chest. Her weight sank down into the cushion next to him again, one leg tucked beneath her, the warmth of her closer than before. Now he was able to see that it was a white book she was cradling against her breast, and he leaned slightly towards her, trying to get a better glimpse of it. A book?

Claire closed her eyes and took a deep breath, steeling herself for a moment she had been imagining for years. Then, she lay the book in his lap. Only it wasn’t –a book, that is.

Jamie took a moment to appreciate the artistic calligraphy and the title, an excited energy coursing through his veins as he run his thumb over the linen cover.

He cleared his throat, “Is this what I think it is?”

“Depends on what you think,” Claire replied with a small smile, rubbing her palms on her thighs. “If you think this is a compilation of my pathetic attempts at poetry, then, no. If you think that is a photo album of William, then, you get full marks.”

Carefully, almost gingerly, Jamie opened it.

Claire was chewing her lower lip with apprehension.

First, there was a sheet of empty space. Turning another page, the title of the album was stark in black ink against the thick, creamy paper. The Story of William Beauchamp, it read. Underneath, in less bolder lines stood the boy’s date of birth, his weight, and size. The date of his baptism, place of his birth, as well as the name of his godmother. On the bottom of the page sat two more lines, on the left it said mother –Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp written in a neat hand– but the right line that indicated the father’s name sat vacant. An emptiness that inhabited the loss of 7 years and all that went with it.

Not wanting to waste any more time on dwelling on things he couldn’t change, Jamie turned the page and gasped –a sound of awed incredulity– as he came face to face with a black and white image, the lines not quite clear, but unmistakeable.

“That was the first ultrasound,” Claire’s own breath hitched a little, the memory of hearing the sound of that first heartbeat engrained into every cell of her body.

Jamie didn’t speak, though, as dark blue eyes were darting to and fro, soaking up the images in front of him –one by one.

The ultrasounds from each appointment that Claire had dutifully scheduled and attended told the narrative of how his son’s unborn life had developed steadily in the womb, sheltered beneath his mother’s heart. These were followed by a string of photos showing the external storyline to this progression –the weekly belly profile pictures Geillis had bullied her into.

Lips parted slightly in silent admiration as he took in the changes to the curves of Claire’s body. They were subtle, going from one picture to the next, but the whole extent of it became drastic when he compared the first to the last picture. Where at first there was only the slightest concavity to her otherwise flat stomach noticeable, a roundness the size of an overgrown watermelon had taken residence in the last one. Her breasts had grown even fuller early on, swollen with nourishment for their child.

“Ye look like ye were about tae pop at any time,” he pointed at the last in the series of the pictures, where the skin over her belly seemed stretched beyond its limits.

She swatted his biceps, but chortled, “And I was, that was only 2 days before he finally decided to come out. Took his bloody time about it, too.”

“Was it a difficult birth, then?” his tone was infused with sympathy.

“Not much more difficult than you can imagine pressing something the size of that,” Claire circled the bloated midsection in the shot with a gentle finger, “out of your private parts. It was a normal birth, but it took forever, and I wanted to be quite done with the whole business weeks before.”

A light chuckle sounded from his throat as he turned to the next page and then, he froze.

There, a whole page dedicated to this one shot alone, sat the picture of her baby shower. Round and puffy at almost 8 months pregnant, Jamie could see the glow in honey eyes despite the apparent bodily discomfort. Her hair was loose and wild, curling madly and framing cheeks tinged with a rosy colour. Geillis’ had thrown an arm around her, drawing her friend close while proudly wearing her Godmother shirt, her brilliant smile only outshone by Claire’s. One pearl-skinned hand gripped Geillis’ waist while the other rested on her extended belly, holding the Godchild headlined onesie in place as she laughed. True happiness.

Neither of them voiced their unease, both horribly aware how that one snapshot had caused them both so much pain. It was a beautiful photograph, candid and real –that’s what Claire had loved about it and made it one of her fondest memories. Now, the memory of it was tainted, and she couldn’t quite bear to look at it –so she flipped to the next page.

Stealing a glance at Jamie’s face, Claire had expected to see his mask back in place, shielding any emotions from the outside world. His eyes were wide, though, staring with wonder at the coloured images of their son’s round, new-born face, swaddled in a pale-yellow blanket, slanted eyes closed in the new exhaustion of existence.

Jamie made an inarticulate sound somewhere in the back of his throat, and Claire felt the centre of gravity shifting around them. Instinctively, she scooted closer, their thighs touching at the seams of their trousers.

“Tell me about him,” he requested, his deep voice gentle as one finger was hovering over the apple of Willie’s cheek. “What was he like? What was it he first said when he began tae speak?”

“His first word was ‘Mama’,” Claire recounted, eyes alight with pride, “followed closely by ‘no’.”

“Aye, they learn that one fast,” Jamie chuckled knowingly. Registering her perplexed expression, he hastened to add, “Sae my sister tells me.”

“Ah,” she sounded relieved.

Continuing to look at each page, at each captured moment, Jamie listened attentively to all the stories that went with them.

William’s first birthday, his chubby little face covered in icing and cream after a night of colic and endless screaming that had made mother and son irritable but was forgotten the moment the wean’s eyes had lit up at the sight of the sugary treat. Snaps of a toddler with Geillis at the zoo, fat little fingers sticky with ice cream pointing excitedly at the tiger in the enclosure. A red, curly head bent towards the plush puffin seated to his right –the place of honour– deeply absorbed in a private tea party conversation. Another shot, William in neon green wellies and an oversized raincoat, prepared for torrential rain that had swept over Edinburgh some years ago on the first day of kindergarten. Dimples and a bright, gap-toothed grin dominated another image, auburn curls sticking out in all directions, as Willie was wrapped in a towel after his swimming class. The day they said goodbye to their friends in Edinburgh. An image of a small, shawled boy opening the door of a cosy cottage surrounded by a blue fence.

Reaching the end, Jamie got choked up, his eyes brimming with unshed tears.

Sae much love.

“It’s the story of William. And me, in a way,” she said, her tone higher than usual, “but I’m hoping it will be the story of you, too.”

It seemed to take everything he had to tear his gaze from the album, to raise his eyes to look at her, but he managed.

“Aye,” Jamie breathed, his voice thick with emotion. “The story of us.”

The corners of her lips twitched with a burgeoning smile, as Claire attempted to keep the tears at bay.

“So,” she blinked back one traitorous salty drop, flicking through the pages back to the beginning of the album, “I thought we should add your name here.”

A dark blue gaze followed the long line of her index finger to where it was pointing at. Name of the father. The line that still sat empty, begging to be filled.

Jamie splayed a large hand out over the page, trembling fingers not quite touching the surface, and then he turned and leaned toward her, slowly, with the improbable grace of a tall tree falling. He buried his face in her shoulder and went very quietly and thoroughly to pieces.

For a while, they stayed like that –his chest heaving under the ugly sobs that were wrecking his body while Claire drew soothing patterns on his broad back.

“I dinna ken how tae thank ye properly, Claire –,“ the words were muffled, choked.

“There’s no need to, Jamie. Your name belongs in here as much as mine.”

“That’s no’ what I meant,” he sniffed, straightening up and wiping snot into his shirtsleeve.

“Oh?”

“Fer having kept looking fer me. Fer inviting me intae yer home.” Fer giving me a child, was what he wanted to say, but found that he couldn’t, just now. “I canna even begin tae describe what today meant tae me. Meeting him. I... I dinna ken how tae do this. What I’m trying tae say is,” he broke off and inhaled deeply to brace himself for a new attempt, “I’m grateful tae ye. And I’ll no’ make ye regret letting me intae yer lives. I swear.”

His eyes were blue and serene –like a loch after a rainstorm– and Claire didn’t doubt a single word. Touched by his outburst of emotion, she bridged the distance between them again, cradling his head between her hands. She kissed his cheek, damp and salty. She could feel his heart beating against her ribs, and wanted nothing more than to stay there forever, not moving, not making love, just breathing the same air.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

She kissed his cheek, damp and salty. She could feel his heart beating against her ribs, and wanted nothing more than to stay there forever, not moving, not making love, just breathing the same air.

Chapter 25 – Connectivity

Neither said a word, communicating only through their bodies –brushing, squeezing, holding.  Chest to chest and cheek to cheek they fit each other like two neighbouring pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, anchored in the other’s embrace.

Jamie’s nose twitched a bit as wild curls continued to tickle his nose. He didn’t mind, though. Even if it was inconvenient, nothing as mundane as a bit of hair antagonising the sensitive skin around his nostrils could possibly disrupt this moment. A violent sneeze, though, could.

“ACHOO,” he felt his head involuntarily being drawn back, and then propelled forward with such momentum that his forehead connected painfully with Claire’s nose.

“Bloody fuck!” she cried out as tears were forming at the corner of her eyes, head tilted back.

“God, are ye orite, Claire?” his own pain was instantly forgotten when Jamie became aware of hers.

“I think I’ve broken my nose,” she pinched said appendage between thumb and index finger, face screwed up in pain.

“Nah, ye haven’t,” Jamie released a relieved breath when he got a better look at her. “If ye break yer nose it makes that nasty crunching sound and ye bleed like a pig,” he said with the authority of someone who knew exactly what they were talking about.

Hesitantly releasing her nose from a tight grip, Claire wiped a finger under her nose to test whether what he claimed was true. No blood. Not a single drop, actually. Don’t be such a baby, Beauchamp. She twitched and wrinkled her nose experimentally to see if it was really still in working order. While there was an aching, dull throb, the pain had already lessened substantially. The bone was intact –no fracture there. The cartilaginous tissue also seemed to be in mint condition. 

As Claire finished taking stock of the affected area, she had not expected to be confronted with a grimace. Jamie’s countenance appeared as if he were about to combust –lips were pressed tightly together, blue eyes watering, a muscle in his temple twitching, and his fair skin had turned a vivid shade of scarlet.

“Jamie, are you alright?” she gripped him firmly by the shoulders, switching into full doctor mode –honey eyes moving up and down, quickly assessing, categorising, and running through every possible diagnosis fitting the visible symptoms. Please don’t let him have a heart attack on my couch, she sent a hurried prayer to heaven. Don’t let him have a heart attack, period, she amended.  

Instead of answering her, though, his shoulders began to shake, and the corners of his mouth moved up before he burst into laughter.

“What the –?” Claire began, confusion taking over as eyebrows squished together and eyes blinked rapidly.

Her dumbfounded expression only spurred his laughter on, though.  

“Are you laughing at me?” golden eyes widened with surprise, then narrowed with suspicion.

Jamie had retreated slightly from her on the couch, bent over and still shaking with hilarity.

“I’m sae sorry,” he managed to wheeze out, wiping at his eyes, “ye looked sae much like Mr Bean at his finest wi’ those facial gymnastics ye jus’ performed.”

Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she stared him down as best she could while he was still failing to control his mirth –snorting and hooting like a red owl on too much sugar.

“Are you quite done with that?” Claire said in mock annoyance. Really, she was just glad that he wasn’t about to die on her.

“I cannae help masel’,” Jamie gasped in an attempt to explain himself in between bouts of laughter, “Ye should ha’ seen it. Twas jus’ sae close tae the original, Sassenach.”

And in that exact moment, time stopped.

Sassenach.

Outlander. They had both been, back then. In a bar at Porto Santo beach they had first been strangers, outlanders, and then Jamie and Claire. On the beach, with waves of togetherness lapping gently at their souls, they had become more. A shared legacy linked to that one term of endearment.

His laughter had died away, too, realising the shift in the atmosphere.

Without meaning to her body had moved instinctively closer to his –amber eyes gazing deep into blue, feeling his breath tickle her lips.

Then, her phone went off.

Claire jumped at the unexpected buzzing sound and made a quick grab for it before it could vibrate itself off the coffee table.

Jamie was jolted out the moment by her sudden movement but managed to compose himself enough to form coherent thoughts again.

Who was calling at such a late hour? Was that a male voice?

“Hi, no, I didn’t forget,” she said, her tone low and contrite as Claire hid her face behind a curtain of hair, turned away from him. “Jamie’s still here, I’m going to call you tomorrow, alright? Good, see you tomorrow, then. Bye.”

It had definitely been a male voice.

“Was that…um…,” he fumbled for words, red colour rising above his collar as Jamie raised the whisky to his lips.

She looked at him, one eyebrow arched knowingly, “Was that who?”

“Your…um…,” he could feel the tips of his ears burning with embarrassment as he gripped the crystal in his hand tighter, unable to meet her eyes.

“If that’s your very subtle way of asking whether that was my boyfriend, Jamie Fraser, I have to disappoint you. It was Brian, actually.”

“Who?” a line formed between his ruddy brows, wondering whether he should know a man named Brian that would call her. At night, no less.

“Your father,” she supplied helpfully, suppressing a smirk.

“Oh,” his response was sheepish, but his body stiffened.

“He wanted to know how it went.”

“Did he, now?” his throat tensed with repressed anger as Jamie stared into the amber liquid.

The low electric buzz of a kitchen appliance was the only sound for a solid minute.

“One of you will eventually have to tell me what’s happened between the two of you,” Claire began, taking a careful sip of the whisky and grimacing at the taste. “Not right now,” she clarified with an impatient wave of her hand when he was about to launch into a justification of himself, “but at some point in the near future, I expect to hear the full story. You can’t go on like this if you both want to be part of William’s life. And mine.”

“Mmphm.”

“How wonderfully responsive a people you Highlanders are sometimes,” she shook her head, brown curls swaying with the movement. “Bloody Scot.”

Despite the tension weighing on his shoulders, Jamie smiled at that and reached a tentative hand towards her, brushing a strand of wayward curls out of her face, his fingertips lightly touched the soft skin of her cheek.

“I will tell ye,” he promised, “but no’ taenight. It’s late, I should go, aye?”

“Probably,” she admitted in a low voice as her thoughts were racing wildly. The mere hint of a touch like that shouldn’t feel this good, right?

Jamie downed the last of his whisky, got up, stretched and popped his joints before walking towards the door to put his boots on. Wringing her hands, Claire stood behind him, his coat slung over her arm, ready to be handed over to him.

“Goodnight, then,” she said, attempting to swallow the reappearing nervousness his proximity caused.

“Goodnight, Claire,” he replied, one hand placed lightly, innocently in the curve of her waist as he bent to place a chaste kiss on her cheek, his scruff scraping pleasantly against skin as soft as a peach.

“Goodnight,” she whispered to herself as she watched him disappear down her driveway into the night. Her fingers immediately seeking to catch the lingering sense of his touch.

Then, she realised that she had forgotten to tell him something. Well done, Beauchamp. She stumbled down the cobbled driveway in her house slippers, calling after him. “Jamie!”

Out of the lantern lit darkness sounded his deep bass, “Sassenach? Are ye orite? What’s amiss?”

“Nothing,” she panted slightly, cursing at the pebble that had dug its way into her slipper. “I just forgot to tell you the details of Willie’s birthday party. If you want to c–.”

“O’ course,” he interjected, “I wouldnae miss it fer the world.”

A matching smile spread across both their faces, even if they couldn’t really see it in the sparsely lit street.

“It might be a bit crowded, I’m afraid,” she admitted, fearing he might be put off by that information. “Some of Willie’s playmates, of course, but also all our friends from Edinburgh are coming up.”

“That doesnae bother me at all,” Jamie assured her, his voice sincere.

“Sure?” Claire exhaled, relieved. “That’s good, then. We’ll be happy to see you there, too. It’s Saturday next and starts around 1pm. Does that work for you?”

“I’ll make it work either way.”

“Great, I’m sure we’ll be in touch before then?” her question was infused with more than simple inquisitiveness.

“Ye’re no‘ getting rid o‘ me anytime soon,“ he chuckled, but was dead serious. He would not miss out on any more of his son’s life. Nor Claire’s. His Sassenach.

“Talk soon, then,” she turned around, arms wrapped around herself to shield off the cold night air as she shuffled back to the cottage.

“Aye,” he breathed, the dark misting slightly in front of him.

“Sassenach, wait,” Jamie jogged the few steps to catch up with her again. “What…what should I give the lad fer his birthday? I dinnae…,” he ran a hand through his hair, “I dinnae ken him well enough tae get him something he’d like fer sure.”

The fact that Jamie seemed genuinely worried that Willie might not like whatever he was going to gift him was absolutely endearing to her.

“We should really learn how to communicate everything important while we’re not outside freezing our arses off,” she laughed, squeezing his arm affectionately. “Let’s talk tomorrow about some ideas, alright? I’m happy to help you, but I really need to get into bed, I have to work tomorrow.”

“Oh, aye, I’m sorry,”

“It’s alright, don’t worry. Good night, Jamie,” standing on tiptoes, Claire pecked his cheek and fastened his scarf tighter around his face.

“Night, Claire.”

Having said their last goodbyes for the night, red curls and brown turned away from each other and made their way home –one measured and careful not to stumble, the other in long, confident strides– both smiling.