The straight-backed chair bit into Claire's shoulder blades, and her tailbone ached from the hour so far spent there. She rolled her head back and around, satisfying pops releasing the tension in her neck. A sigh rose up through her throat, but she stifled it, homing her attention on Phaedra's words instead of the myriad internal distractions currently vying for her attention.
Team quarterly meetings were tedious business at best. As they made their way through the agenda items -- budget reporting, bylaws votes, calendar updates, fundraising goals -- her mind drifted again and again to Jamie, likely already parked outside and waiting. She chewed the inside of her cheek as she largely failed to hide the smile taking over her features, checking her watch again. The meeting should end by nine o'clock. Fifteen to twenty minutes for an executive committee session, and she'd be--
Geillis's knee nudged her own, pulling her from her daydream. With the barest raise of her red brow, she inclined her head to the left. Claire glanced from the corner of her eye at the skater in question, a weight settling in her stomach. Blonde hair pulled over one shoulder, color high in her cheeks, lips pursed, arms and legs crossed, one foot tapping against the ground. And a death glare Claire could feel on her skin like a pinprick.
Laoghaire Mackenzie was on the warpath, all missiles locked on her.
Annoyance tingled through her like an electric current as she met her friend's eye with a look of comprehension, hardly listening to the rest of the board chair's announcements. Her stomach flipped as Phaedra finally tapped her papers into order and shot a tight smile over to her, the look of a general deploying a soldier unprotected into enemy territory. "And Claire has updates regardin' our first few games of the year."
"Right," she said, looking down at her own notes. "We have three more practices left this year. After the holidays, we'll start back the second week of January. Our first bout--"
Laoghaire's hand shot into the air. She felt it in her gut like a punch. With a deep breath, she looked to her teammate. "Yes?"
"Ye have me slated to NSO the first bout. Why am I no' rostered tae play?"
As the board member in charge of recording member eligibility for play, including finalizing rosters and bout duties, she supposed she was the most direct outlet for Laoghaire's wrath. Phaedra shifted in her seat, and Geillis's lips clamped shut, both allowing Claire to man her own defense.
Affecting a calmness completely absent from her mind, she said, "We can discuss individual rostering concerns at the end--"
"Bylaws state that rosters willna be locked in until two weeks 'fore the bout in question," Laoghaire interrupted, eyes murderous.
Geillis, as vice chair, jumped in. "And they havena been."
"But ye've already posted job assignments! I've passed all my skills. How can ye assign us tae jobs if we havena yet had the chance tae roster?"
"Because the bylaws also clearly outline the participation and attendance requirements to qualify for rostering, which are locked in six weeks before the bout in question, not counting periods of hiatus such as the holiday season. Since we will not have six weeks' worth of activity before the first bout, those who currently do not meet said requirements cannot do so before the first bout. So in order to save time and plan ahead, the non-skating assignments have been confirmed."
Her tone was harsher than she'd intended, and she strove to soften it. But only a touch. "Now, if you have specific questions about your attendance record or about your bout assignment, we can discuss them after the meeting, but I have a few other items I need to get through here."
The air hummed, the rest of the members on edge awaiting Laoghaire's response. A few seconds passed. As she seemed content to sit and stew, Claire released a breath and addressed the rest of the room. "Now, our first bout will be a home game on February 4th..."
Half an hour flew by as they finished up the meeting and dismissed the team. Claire held her breath, watching to see if Laoghaire would approach her. The spreadsheet detailing her abysmal nine percent attendance record for practices and outside events was already pulled up on her phone, ready for whatever argument she could possibly have. But, as Laoghaire shoved her purse strap over her shoulder and stomped away, it released in a stream of relief. In this battle, at least, she prevailed.
All the tension fell from her shoulders as that blonde hair swished through the door and out of sight. Anticipation immediately replaced it, blood pumping as she glanced at her watch again, ready for this quick session to be finished so she could run outside and embark on the night's more enjoyable plans.
Geillis and Phaedra pulled their chairs closer to hers, Alex lagging behind in conversation with a few departing members. Putting her head close to Claire's, Geillis muttered, "Ye sure yer no' regrettin' joining the board yet?"
Slouching a bit in the chair and crossing her arms, she rolled her eyes and scoffed. "Oh, please. I'm quite adept at dealing with toddler tantrums, thank you very much. She's nothing I can't handle."
Jamie leaned against his car parked beneath the streetlight, phone in hand. He read through his emails, mentally verifying that he was prepared for tonight and the weekend ahead.
The icy breeze blew across his skin and tousled his hair. He sighed into the quiet night, at total peace. Most Scots weathered such frigid temperatures with an almost primal pride, as though their endurance proved the strength of their own character and the honor of their ancestors. And Frasers, certainly, were not immune to such ideations. But it was more than that for him. Something about the world shifted as November faded to December, like winter was finally unpacking her bags for a nice, long stay. It brought the same comfort as a hushed story read before the hearth. The cold was quiet and calm and, in its own way, warmth to his soul. He relished it.
A creaking door drew his attention, and he looked up to see bodies filtering from the warehouse, breaking off as people headed to their cars. Excitement built as he knew Claire would be done soon. The general meeting would end, then a quick executive session which would finish by 9:30, then--
"Hey, I know ye." He looked up to see a blonde woman walking toward him, lips turned up in delighted surprise.
He donned a polite, blank look, responding, "I'm sorry, have we met?"
The smile faltered, as did her steps. After a moment, she hitched it back and moved closer. "Ye came tae our last home game, and we chatted a bit. I told ye all about the names and rules and such?"
"Ah," he said, a gauzy memory coming to light. Chatted a bit was an oversell by his recollection, but he nodded all the same. "Right, o' course."
"Laoghaire Mackenzie," she said, reaching out her hand.
He grasped it briefly in his, pumping once with a curt, "James Fraser," before pulling away.
"Yer no' here fer a game, I hope?" she asked, twirling a long blonde strand around her finger. "Our season's over, I'm afraid, but I'll be playin' in February! Ye could come back and see, perhaps?"
If he hadn't yet remembered her, the look she gave then would've done it. Pointed chin tucked down, wide doll-like eyes looking up at him through her lashes, bottom lip dragging between her teeth with an attempt at a coy smile.
Clearing his throat, he leaned back further against the car and crossed his arms. "Nae, I'm waitin' fer someone."
"Claire. Sass N Whack, I dinna ken how ye know her."
The girl's expression popped like a bubble, eyes and lips forming three identical O's before narrowing back again. A tinny laugh stalled for a second before she tossed her hair back over her shoulder. "Sorry, I'm just a bit surprised," she said, striving for glib. "Usually we canna get her tae do much wi' us. Always runnin' home tae her child. Ye ken she has a bairn? Keeps her fair busy, I reckon."
She fluttered her eyelashes, the very picture of bubbly innocence. Jamie felt the muscles of his arms and along his shoulders draw tight. Any goodwill he may have had toward her as a mate of Claire's or even just a random human being in his path evaporated faster than dry ice at the clear attempt to scare him away.
Tempted though he was to tell her exactly where she could go, instead, he let his features harden. Sharp eyes never left her face as he hit the unlock button on his key fob. The interior light turned on, showing Quinn sleeping in her car seat in the back. "Aye, I'm aware."
"Oh," Laoghaire croaked. She forced a smile through another nervous titter. "Good fer ye, then."
"Hmph." He imbued the sound with all the distaste and disapproval he could muster, trusting her to decipher it correctly. "Well, 'tis nice tae meet ye..."
"Laoghaire," she snapped.
"Laoghaire," he repeated. "Very nice tae see ye, but I have some business to finish 'fore Claire gets out. Enjoy yer night." And, rather than watch if she decided to take the dismissal in grace or not, Jamie looked back down to his phone. A few seconds later, she slunk away with a huff, and Jamie relaxed again.
Feckin' besom, he thought to himself.
When Claire emerged another quarter hour later, 9:25 on the dot, he omitted the run-in with the jealous teammate. He wouldn't have that troublesome girl tarnishing tonight. Instead, he kissed her hard and long, fingers grazing up the side of her face and through her curls. Not specifically to send a message should Laoghaire still be nearby and spying, but not taking efforts to be particularly discreet, either.
After they finally parted moments later, both breathing heavy, he opened the door for her to climb in before hopping behind the wheel and turning the car toward Lallybroch.
Claire kept her eye on the dark horizon, waiting for the shadow of Broch Tuarach to make itself known. Jamie had said it should be any minute. Their hands -- resting on the center console, fingers occasionally gliding over and along each other in tender touches -- hadn't parted since leaving Edinburgh. Occasional murmured conversation had been interspersed with periods of comfortable silence, their only music the hum of the engine. Quinn had, thankfully, slept the entire trip. Hopefully she'd be coherent enough for the main event of the evening.
Finally, Jamie straightened in his seat. "Ye see it there, the tower?"
It was no more than a sliver of jet black against the dark of near-midnight, but she nodded.
"That's where Willie and Da and I made whisky. Far from the unapprovin' eyes of Janet Fraser."
"You know, I've heard an awful lot about this 'Janet Fraser,' but I have yet to see any actual proof of her existence." She cut a suspicious eye at him. "This isn't a catfish-by-proxy situation, is it? Creating a fake family to make yourself seem normal and grounded?"
His guttural chuckle stirred up the heat in her belly, which clenched to mimick the slight pressure of his fingers squeezing hers. "I dinna have the imagination tae conjure up the likes of her. Far too fiery tae be born from my own mind."
"Mm-hmm. Then when will I have the pleasure of her acquaintance?"
"Soon, Sassenach," he assured her. "They've their hands full with three bairns and two on the way. Runnin' poor Ian ragged 'tween carin' fer all of them and still workin' full-time too. But I promise, there'll be introductions 'fore too much longer.
"Now, look there."
She squinted through the windscreen, searching. Like a ship breaking through the mist, the mansion faded into view. Chills peppered her skin as the shape solidified in the pitch dark.
"It's no' much right now, I ken," he said, voice reverent as they drove under the arch. "I'll take ye both around the grounds tomorrow before the bride and her entourage arrive."
Jamie parked in front of the massive manse and climbed out. Claire followed, the click of the closing door a sharp echo that sent a jolt through her. Lallybroch sat miles from the nearest town and further still from the light pollution of the larger cities, so the only source of light was the car's head lamps, two stark beams in otherwise perfect black. It was equally silent as it was dark.
"So what's the plan from here?" she asked, head tilted back as she tried to find the top edge of the house against the sky.
"The plan," Jamie replied as he popped open the boot, "is for ye tae wake the wean and follow me."
More specifically, the plan was to load up into a flatbed truck used to maintain the property and drive out into one of the fields for an unencumbered view of the inky sky. And, once there, to bundle up with thick woolen blankets, lay back in the bed, and look up.
Quinn lay between them, the initial grogginess at having been woken in the middle of the night forgotten when she realized Mr. Jamie was there and that she got to stay up late with the grown-ups. He'd wrapped her in a tartan fleece, ensuring her head and ears were covered against the frigid air. A gigantic blanket then descended over them all. They huddled beneath, and Claire reached across Quinn's body for his hand.
"Look'it stars, Mummy!" she said, one mittened hand escaping the blanket to point. "The stars is...they're awake now."
The innocent statement made Claire cock her head, wondering. Had Quinn, in her entire life, ever seen more than the few stars bright enough to make themselves known amidst the lights of Edinburgh? She wracked her brain and came up empty. Her heart stuttered to think that, at nearly four years old, her daughter was just now looking up at the night sky and seeing its brilliance for the first time.
Before the guilt had time to set in, Q was gasping again.
"What's that then, a nighean?" Jamie asked, a smile in his voice.
"Is..." Quinn searched for the right words. "Is running!"
All thoughts of maternal guilt scattered into nothing as affection for her girl filled her soul. Jamie's joyful chuckle melded with her own giddy one. She met his gaze, locking onto the whites of his eyes she could just make out inches from her own face.
"It's called a falling star, lovey," she whispered, thumb massaging back and forth over Jamie's.
"It's gonna fall?"
"No, not really," she answered, trying desperately to contain her giggles at Q's aghast tone. "It's just what they're called. Look, you see that one?" Two more, in fact, whizzed by, light slicing through the sky and gone in a flash.
Jamie shifted a bit, pulling both Claire and Quinn in close. "Yer supposed tae make a wish when ye see one. Do ye have a wish?"
Quinn turned to face him, nearly bonking her mother in the nose with her plaid-covered head in her excitement. "Like a bir-day?"
His voice dropped to a near-whisper. "Aye, just like a birthday. So, do ye have a wish, lass?"
"Ummm...I think I...um, I'm wishing to be a fairy."
"A fairy, is it?" Jamie asked.
"Uh-huh," she said, giving no thought to volume. Her high-pitched voice carried through the empty air. "A...a pink fairy."
"Really?" Jamie asked. "No' a purple fairy?"
Quinn seemed to weigh that a moment before answering, "Yeah, a pink and purple fairy."
A light breeze brushed over them, and Claire shivered. The truck rocked as Jamie made to pull them both in closer, and she scooted in. Curls escaping from the edges of Q's make-shift tartan hood tickled her nose as she dropped a kiss to her head and asked, "What does a pink and purple fairy do, lovey?"
Her perfect little-girl voice filled the night, extolling the magical powers she'd possess if granted her Very Special Wish, encouraged by both Claire and Jamie at turns. As her daughter's imagination echoed out through the still air, her eyes -- now adjusted to the dark -- found his. She melted beneath his gaze despite the cold. With him, she felt whole and seen and safe. And loved. The feeling cloaked her, weighty as any of the blankets she now burrowed beneath.
She'd tell him tonight. At his family home. Her daughter beside her. Beneath the meteor shower he'd read about only that morning and that had prompted his asking them, breathless and stuttering, to turn his day-trip to Lallybroch into an extended adventure.
Ye ken the wedding I booked fer after Christmas? The bride wants tae shoot her bridal portraits tomorrow. I was gonna drive up in the mornin' tae meet them, he'd said in a rush over the phone, accent thickening. If he'd been beside her, she knew his knee would be jiggling with energy. Ye dinna have a shift tomorrow, right? We could go up tonight after yer meeting. Watch the meteors, or just look up at the sky if there aren'a any. E'en on a normal night, there are so many stars out there, Sassenach, ye feel like the Earth's just disappeared from beneath ye. Like yer floatin out there with 'em.
And she did. Gazing up at the black dome encasing them and the millions of white specks dotted across it, she felt simultaneously near and far. Like she could reach out her hand and grab them all, but that in doing so she'd tumble upwards into the dark. The expanse of it was daunting, but the twin warmth of Quinn and Jamie at her side invigorated and anchored her.
She couldn't have crafted a better, more meaningful and romantic way to say it for the first time were she a pink and purple fairy herself.
It was well past one in the morning when Quinn's adrenaline burst finally ran its course. She fell asleep with her face turned in to her mother's chest, Claire massaging slow circles over her back. Jamie's arm draped across both their bodies, his hand perched on Claire's hip.
"Ye warm enough, Sassenach?"
Nerves fluttered in her stomach as the time neared to make her declaration. "Yes. You're a bloody furnace, you know."
His throaty chortle rumbled through her. Lifting up slightly onto his elbow, he leaned so he could land a soft kiss on her forehead before settling back into his place. It nearly undid her, tears broiling behind her eyes.
They didn't speak as they lost themselves in stares, all but ignoring the light show above them. She hadn't prepared a speech. Hadn't written down or collected her thoughts, not wanting to sound dry or rehearsed. When it was time, she counted on the right words to fall into place.
She heaved a shaky breath and broke from his gaze to look up. Every few seconds, a flash of light drew her eye. Some small and quick, some slow and bold. All wonders that sent tiny thrills along her spine. Memories of another magnificent sky came to mind, and she swallowed.
"You know, my uncle took me to see a meteor shower once," she said softly. "I was seven or eight, I think, and we were at an excavation in Turkey. It was the most...magical thing I had ever seen."
His fingers flexed at her hip, and he nodded in her periphery. "Da woke us all up fer one just before my tenth birthday. Drove us out here, laid out in the field just like this, all of us under the blanket and starin' up at the sky." He was quiet for a moment, face upturned. "Never told them, but I always imagined 'twas my mam who sent them. Just fer us. Stars from heaven rainin' on Lallybroch."
Fresh tears prickled behind her eyes, but she held them back. It wasn't such an unusual fantasy, she supposed, that a lost parent would send some sign of their love to their children left without them. And yet...
"What is it, mo graidh?"
She gave a wet chuckle, wiping her cheeks. "How do you bloody do that? I can barely make out more than your shape."
"I canna see ye verra well, but I can hear just fine." His tone was gentle, as was the hand that abandoned her hip and rose to trace along her cheek. "Yer sniffling, and yer breathin' fast. Have I upset ye?"
"No, Jamie," she said too loudly. She paused, waiting to see if Quinn would wake, then continued. "No, you're...perfect."
She mirrored him, bringing one hand from under the blanket to caress his chilled cheek, the stubble scratching at her palm. Shaking her head, she whispered, "I thought the same thing of my parents, when I saw the shooting stars. And I was thinking what an...awful thing that is for us to have in common.
"It's my worst fear, you know." So low was her voice that her breath didnt even mist in the air in front of her. Misplaced panic flickered through her, and she buried her nose in Quinn's hair under the edge of the plaid to dispel it. "That something will happen to me, and she'll feel all the same...same pain I've carried with me."
A droplet traced a cold line over her nose and down her opposite cheek. If anyone could fathom the heartache she feared for her daughter, he could. He, who'd lost so much of his own family as well. Whose heart, she knew, existed in fragments he'd managed to bind together with sheer grit. Same as hers.
He didn't answer her. His only response, after a pause, was to lean forward again and press his lips to hers, an instant and effective cure for her sudden melancholia. From that singular point, warmth spread and coursed through her body.
Every broken shard of her heart loved him. The pit of her stomach ached. With each touch, kiss, graze of the fingers or hungry look, the heat he awoke in her burned fiercer. But that fire couldn't burn here. Not with Quinn laid between them. Not with the words still unsaid.
Claire pulled away panting. Her pulse raced, and she looked up at the sky as she gathered herself.
They saw it at the same time, two simultaneous inhales testament to the marvel they witnessed together. Another star streaked across the sky, but this one was different. Bright green and triple the size of even the largest one they'd seen yet tonight. They followed its progress in awed silence for nearly ten seconds, turning their heads to watch it run nearly from horizon to horizon before the light died away.
It shouldn't have been real. She wondered for a moment if it had been.
"Ye saw that?" he asked on an exhale, face still trained on the sky.
She nodded, mystified. Her adult mind knew it was just some massive piece of space junk burning up in the atmosphere. But the part of her still stupefied by the sheer force and beauty of what had passed over them could hear all three voices, eager and impatient.
Go on, Claire Bear. Do it now.
So she rose up to lock her lips over his again, kissing him long and deep. He groaned against her mouth, his hand cradling her skull. Her fingers swept the curve of his temple and glided into his curls, holding him close as her lips layered with his. When her head was spinning and heart pounding, she pulled away. She made sure she could see his eyes, and he hers, when she spoke.
"I love you, Jamie."
The changes to his features were minute, particularly in the scant light. Still, somehow, she saw them. How his brows pulled up at the center, rounding his eyes. His lips parting. The pulse point at his throat jumping. A sheen coating his eyes so the points of light reflected there sharpened and brightened.
"And...and you don't need to say it if you don't want to. But you were the last one to talk about words you didn't want to avoid any longer, and so if you're not--" His kiss silenced her. She surrendered to him.
A moment later, he pulled back. "Had tae stop ye from sayin' something truly foolish," he said on a laugh. "Not want tae say it? Christ, if I said it a hundred times a day, I dinna think I could say it enough."
Another droplet dripped over her cheek, this time rounded with an aching grin. "Well, you still haven't yet."
His forehead rested against hers. Hints of cinnamon and cedar emanated from him, his breath moist against her skin. "My heart hurts with loving you, Claire." The pressure of his hand at her neck disappeared as he brought it to rest on the small mound that was Quinn's head still nestled against her torso. "I love ye and her both, Sassenach. Together and separate. With...everythin' I have."
Even having known, hearing it in his own voice and spoken with such conviction and feeling erased the last of her control. He kissed away each tear that fell before he found her lips again. In between, as they parted for air, they'd whisper it again.
I love you.
They lay in silence, exchanging grazes and kisses in a pocket of warm, perfect bliss. Above them, the very stars continued to celebrate with dancing and sprinting and leaping joy, twinkling down like so many kindred souls recognizing two halves that were beginning the business of reuniting as one.