"All right, we're going to stand up now. Ready?"
Claire held her hands out to Mary Hawkins, who looked back at her as though she'd proposed they find a cliff and jump off without a parachute. Still, she hesitantly reached out, and Claire grabbed her forearms below her wrist guards, ensuring she had a firm grip as she helped the new skater to stand without rolling.
"So far, so good," she encouraged, and Mary released a nervous breath of a laugh. Fully geared with borrowed helmet, knee and elbow pads, and wrist guards, Mary looked every bit like a baby deer venturing from her mother for the first time. She was a tiny thing with wide eyes that only exaggerated her timid demeanor. Her fingers dug into Claire's arms where she clung as she adjusted to the sensation of wheels beneath her feet. One day soon, Claire hoped, she'd put them on and feel invincible.
Who needs a cape when you've got skates?
As she guided Mary across the carpet (rented squares temporarily placed at the staging area as a safe place for green skaters to gain their skate-legs, as it were), she heard Geillis already admonishing her own newbie. "Sit yer arse down, Dee. Ye dinna stand on yer skates till all yer gear is on!"
Each October, the Reekie Rollers hosted a two-month derby clinic for novice skaters. Monday practices became newbie nights where those interested in joining the team could come and learn the basics before the more rigorous training and rostering qualifiers after the new year. With only two games left in the season, the team used it to hone their foundational skills and wind down the year.
Mary froze at the edge of the carpet. In her impossibly wide eyes, Claire saw the precipice she knew Mary was terrified of plummeting from. So she became a parachute.
"You've got this, Mary," Claire said with a squeeze of her forearm. Rolling to stand behind her, Claire braced her hands on Mary's tucked elbows. "Ready?"
Another deep breath later, and they rolled onto the smooth concrete. As soon as Mary's wheels touched the smooth surface, her feet whipped out from under her. With a huff, Claire caught her before she hit the ground and pulled her back up. She shifted again so she was face to face with Mary, holding both hands and gently pulling her stiff body forward. "You're all right, no harm done."
But her cheeks were already pink with embarrassment and her eyes glassy. Strands of light brown hair not trapped by the helmet floated about her face as she shook her head. "No, no, no, I can't do this."
"You can do this. Nobody skates without falling. It's an integral part of derby. In fact, that's the very first thing you'll learn is how to fall, and fall safely."
"No, you...you don't understand. I am...am just...I'm not built for this type of thing."
Maybe it was the mother in her who hoped that if Quinn ever had that look on her face, that she'd find someone who'd treat her with love. Perhaps it was Mary's English accent, similar to her own. Regardless, Claire was determined to comfort her but also to push her beyond what she believed herself capable of.
She smiled at the girl before her. "I think you'll surprise yourself what you're built for. You came here for a reason. Don't tell me why, but do you have it in mind?" Mary nodded with choppy bobs, eyes glued to the floor in front of her skates. "Then don't hold yourself back before you even get to do it. If it's not for you, that's still okay, and you'll know you didn't let fear stop you from trying. Yes?"
Swallowing, clenching her fingers even tighter on Claire's arm, she nodded again. Like a tugboat to a ship, Claire led a still-stiff Mary as they began moving again. Face to face, hand in hand, they orbited the track on an interminable lap. By the second one, Claire pulled her hands away. Mary's eyes bugged, but she moved her feet and, inch by inch, propelled herself forward. "That's right...bend your knees, and you'll balance better...I know it's scary, but you'll do better if your eyes are up...look to me...there you go...keep those knees bent. See! You're doing it!"
Glacially, but yes, she was moving. Only once did she fall, landing with an oomph on her backside. Claire helped her stand and waved her on, and Mary completed an entire lap on her own. When Claire cheered her on, she smiled through gritted teeth, arms thrown out to her sides and shoulders hunched around her ears.
A whistle rang through the air, and they made their way to the center of the track. Five newbies had shown up for the first night, each paired with a current team member as a mentor. The rest of the team surrounded them, ready to go through the paces together.
Coach skated to the center of the group, a friendly smile poking through his brindle beard. "Everyone feelin' good on yer skates, then?" Rupert's eyes scanned the new faces before stopping on Mary's visibly stressed countenance. His eyes flicked to Claire in silent question; she answered with a minute nod, and he continued. "All right, then we'll start wi' everyone's favorite part: falls."
"Told you," she whispered in Mary's ear. The shy giggle that answered her made Claire want to smother her with hugs.
Rupert went through his usual instructions, showing the proper technique for "taking a knee," emphasizing the importance of engaging the core to fall forward rather than backward.
"But if ye canna help it, then I have three words for ye." He raised a padded fist, a finger popping up for each word he spoke. "Pick. A. Cheek."
Laughter rippled through the group, and Rupert along with them. "Ha, ha, yes, very funny indeed, till ye land straight back on yer tailbone and ye canna even sit tae take a shite wi'out remembering that ye didna pick. a. cheek."
He spent a few more minutes illustrating how to fall small (to the knees, then elbows, then forearms, keeping yourself compact like a frog rather than sprawled like a starfish) before sending them to practice. Mentors helped their assigned newbies as Rupert moved from pair to pair, offering extra advice or encouragement as needed.
Mary had just fallen to both knees -- hard -- with a grimace. She stood without assistance (a small victory on its own), and Rupert glided to stand beside Claire as she spoke. "Remember not to drop both knees at the same time. If you drop one then the other -- boom, boom," she demonstrated, her right knee landing a blink before her left, before popping back up, "you won't have quite as hard an impact. Say it out loud if it helps you remember."
"Aye," Rupert chimed in. "And believe it or no', it's easier wi' a bit more speed. Ye'll get a bit more of a slide in, and it willna hurt in yer knees so bad. Watch the difference." He rolled back a few feet and, at a glacial pace, plonked to his knees. "See? All yer energy is goin' straight down. It's loud, and it feckin' hurts. But if ye take it a wee bit faster..." He reset, then rolled forward at a moderate speed before taking to his knees, plastic pads hissing as they slid across the floor. "It helps tae disperse the force of yer fall. Give it a try."
Mary's cheeks pinked again at the extra attention, but she nodded, a determination behind her eyes. After a visible gulp, she pushed off a touch harder than she had been previously. Her lips traced out a silent boom, boom as she landed on her left knee, then her right. The loud knocking of her pads still made Claire's own knees ache, but she'd at least managed to stagger her fall. She looked to them both with the question in her eyes.
"Better! Keep at it. And dinna be too afraid o' the ground, lass. That's what the pads are for, ken?" With a light tap to Mary's helmet, he moved on to the next pair.
For the next hour, Claire guided Mary through more knee-taps as well as the other lesson for the night (T-stops). By the time Rupert blew the whistle to signal the end of practice, Mary's smile could be seen from across the track.
Claire followed her to their bags, and they de-geared together. "How do you feel?"
"Well, I'm not dead. Which is more than I expected, really."
The crunch of ripping Velcro created a cacophony all around them. She cocked an eyebrow as she pulled off her elbow pads. "So who's not built for derby now?"
Mary rolled her eyes. "Falling down is still different from actually hitting people. Still plenty of time to get my arse handed to me."
"Hey, who's handlin' arses over here wi'out me?" Geillis strolled up, hand on hip and sweaty red hair pulled back in a quick braid.
"We wouldn't dare," Claire assured her as she stuffed the last of her gear into her bag. "Mary, Geillis. Geillis, Mary."
"Or Wycked Sista -- Wycked fer short. Whichever ye prefer," Geillis added. "Ye have a name yet, Mary?"
"Oh, um..." She rolled her lips between her teeth. "I hadn't...not really..."
"Now you have to share." Claire zipped her bag and stood up. "Come on, what're you thinking?"
Flushing deep scarlet, Mary averted their gazes. "Well, Jane Eyre is my favorite heroine, so I thought...Jane Slayre. But it's stupid, I know. I'm going to think on it a bit mo--"
"It's brilliant," Geillis cut her off. Her eyes trailed down Mary's slight frame, and she gave her a kind smile. "Slayre...it suits ye." Mary absolutely beamed, but Claire didn't fixate on it; already she'd learned that any excess attention, even positive, was uncomfortable for her.
Geillis spoke up again. "Anyway, we're goin' out fer a bite and a sip. Either of ye care to join?"
Mary gathered up her things and shook her head. "My boyfriend's outside waiting already. Thanks, though."
"Next week, then," Geillis turned her eyes and smirk on Claire. "And I suppose ye'll have a man waitin' on ye as well?"
Rolling her eyes, Claire made for the exit with Mary and Geillis on her heels. "I have to pick up Quinn, and then, yes, I'm calling Jamie tonight."
"Mmhmm. One o' these nights, yer comin' out wi' us, Claire. I'm determined."
"Just means you have to have a dram for me. I know you're extremely put out over it."
"Extremely." With a smirk and a kiss to the cheek, Geillis waved bye and walked toward her car. "Night, Sass. Night, Slayre."
Mary waved at a thin man sitting in the car three spots away before turning to Claire. "Thanks for everything tonight."
"Of course. I'm really glad you came, and I'm happier you stayed." She leaned in for a sweaty hug, and Mary held tight for a moment before they pulled away. "I'll see you Monday. And you have my number, so if you have any questions at all, don't hesitate to use it. Promise?"
Jamie lay in bed, phone to his ear and lips pulled into a wide grin. Claire had been regaling him about tonight's practice and the new skater she'd been partnered with. A shy, scared wee thing, apparently, but to hear Claire talk, the lass had already made great strides.
He could listen to her excited rambling all night long and never bore with it. The fire of joy in her voice settled into his chest, warm and comforting as a hearth in winter.
"I just hope she comes back next week," Claire said on the end of a sigh. "Seven days is plenty enough time to psyche herself out. I'm tempted to text her sometime this week, but I'm not sure if that would make her more anxious."
Standing, Jamie meandered toward the kitchen. "I dinna think there's anything wrong with a friendly check-in. Make her feel like she's part o' the group already."
"Maybe. Probably." She huffed into the phone again, and Jamie poured himself a glass of water. "Anyway, I've been droning on forever. How was your meeting today? What did Ned say?"
He groaned and leaned back against the edge of the counter. Ned Gowan, the family lawyer, had helped him go over his employment contract with Mack and figure out just how much Jamie owed his uncles for breaking it. "Och, it'll just depress me, Sassenach. Talk to me more about yer wee Bambi."
An empathetic hum tickled in his ear. "That bad?"
"Half my savings and a three-year non-compete." Jamie downed the rest of the water in his glass and set it in the sink. Momentary frustration surged through his veins. His fingers gripped the rim of the counter. Eyes closed, he sighed and released them, imagining the stress seeping from his bones like dye in water. "It'll be fine. And it's worth it to be gone from that place."
"Dinna be. Should've left a long time ago. Maybe I'll take ower managing Lallybroch from Jenny till after her maternity leave is through. There's still a bit of time to book some last-minute winter and summer weddings. We hadna planned on doin' much wi' her having twins, but it would at least give me somethin' to do."
Her smile was nearly audible. "That sounds wonderful. You'd get to be up there more, I imagine. You love it up there."
"Aye," Jamie answered as he padded back toward the bedroom. "It's...a different world up there. Quieter. Peaceful. Feels like a place that shouldn't exist anymore."
"Well, I hope to see it someday."
Settling against the headboard, he bit down on his bottom lip as the corners of his lips turned up again, employment woes forgotten. He thought back to that first time he'd proposed it over tea and tarte, terrified that he'd just stuck a colossal foot in his mouth.
Of course, Friday night had changed it all. Meeting Quinn had been the catalyst, walls between them crashing down like dominoes.
"I'm sure it can be arranged," he finally answered.
They sat in silence. The faint sound of her breath in his ear reminded him of the breeze there at Lallybroch. How it whistled, rustled his hair. How it always seemed to smell of earth and life.
He couldn't wait to bring them. Soon.
Before he could speak, she gasped. "Oh! I didn't even tell you the cutest part."
"Mary, her derby name," she clarified. "Jane Slayre, like Jane Eyre. Of course that would be her inspiration. She's adorable."
Jamie chuckled and rested his head back against the headboard. "Aye, I've got a bookish vibe from her, e'en just from what ye've said."
"Oh, a hundred percent." She paused again. "You know, I've been trying to think of your derby name for a while, and I cannot come up with it."
"Yer kidding," Jamie laughed.
"Nope! So, come on, if you had to pick one, what would it be?"
He heard a rustling over the line and guessed she was sinking into the cushions of the couch. Picturing her there, memories of her soft skin and how desperately he'd clutched at her sent his blood rushing. Warmth emanated from his ears and face such that his fingers holding the phone sensed it.
Giving himself a shake, he focused on the conversation at hand. "Honestly, I wouldna even ken where to start."
"Well, you can base it on your interests like Mary, or your actual name. What could we do with James Alexander Fraser..." she murmured thoughtfully.
Russet eyebrows jumped up nearly to his hairline. "How d'ye ken that?"
She snorted. "I stole your wallet briefly, remember? You think I didn't poke around in it before giving it back? Besides," she added before a pause, probably sipping on a drink, voice dripping with mirth, "after very nearly surrendering my virtue to you, I'd hope I'd at least know your middle name."
Another bolt of heat ripped through him. Mention of their brief, heated exchange did nothing to keep his attention trained on the topic at hand. Still, he had to chuckle. "Well, thirty percent of the way there isna so bad, I suppose."
"What do you mean?"
Smirking, Jamie said, "I use 'James Alexander Fraser' as my everyday name and on documents and such. 'Tis easier than the full."
He let a dramatic silence linger before Claire finally broke it. "Are you...going to share, then?"
Leaning forward and resting his elbows on crossed knees, he listed them with intentional laziness. "James. Alexander. Malcolm. Mackenzie. Fraser."
"That is...quite a mouthful," Claire said after a minute. "I can certainly see how that wouldn't fit on a driving license."
"Indeed. Now imagine how long it took tae learn how to write all that as a bairn. Throw in the nickname 'Jamie,' and I was a goner. Ye ken, I actually argued wi' my first teacher that was my actual name, Jamie, no' James."
Giggles sang in his ears and sent a shock of giddiness right through him. "I can just imagine a tiny red-headed boy with the cutest little scowl, staring down his teacher because she got his name wrong."
He hummed in agreement. "When she refused to concede, I think I called her a walloper, actually."
"Aye, that's what I said. She wouldna listen, though. Got quite a thrashin' fer that."
She cackled some more. Barely two months ago, he'd watched her across the warehouse, imagining what it would feel like to make her laugh. It felt like the best kind of vertigo, balloons expanding in his heart and head. Some mixture of pride and disbelief. The bubbling heat of euphoria that he'd pleased her fizzing throughout his body.
"You, my dear, are a ridiculous human being."
After a few more minutes, they said goodnight and hung up the phone. Laying in the dark later, Jamie relished the total, unadulterated contentment that was his time with Claire. Every moment with her, even just these phone calls, further proved what he had known for some time. That she was his. And he, hers. Beyond labels, beyond vows, he knew it in the truest, deepest part of himself.
When he woke the next morning and checked his phone, he saw a number of texts from after he'd fallen asleep. Reading them through bleary eyes, he found himself laughing harder with each one.
11:47 Sassenach: Climbing into bed. Goodnight, Jamienotjames. Sweet dreams. ❤️
12:02 Sassenach: JHRCHRIST.
12:02 Sassenach: Jamie. I got it.
12:03 Sassenach: James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser = JAMMF
12:03 Sassenach: Power JAMMF!!
12:03 Sassenach: I'm a genius. You're welcome.
12:04 Sassenach: Okay, for real. Goodnight, JAMMF.
Christ, how he loved her.