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Among the Wild Ponies

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Jamie, Ian and John rolled slowly behind the cars. Boarding the ferry, they were last, their motorcycles parked side by side at the back of the vessel. It smelled of iron and petrol here at the ferry landing, and they couldn’t wait to be at sea - well, at least on the water. It was scorching hot, the July sun glaring down on them with relentless force. John’s shoulders were burned from the day before, where they’d spent time at the Wright Brothers’ Memorial, then at Jockey’s Ridge. They had no idea sand surfing was a thing, and Ian nearly broke an ankle, but they all swore to try it again as soon as they could.

Escaping summer in Scotland, their university courses over for the time being, the three young men had made their way down Highway 12, the one main road on this string of islands that hugged the North Carolina mainland. A two lane road, they were sometimes stuck behind a delivery truck, and other times they were able to roar the bikes across a bridge, feeling the wind hit their bodies as the bikes careened around the curves built into the structures. Marshland and intracoastal waterway to their right, and open ocean to their left, they all thought they’d give anything to stay longer than they were planning to.

Now, with Hatteras Island at their backs, the tall lighthouse with its black and white spiral pattern lighting the sky with its bright, flickering warning signal, they were headed for Ocracoke, a small island with not many year round inhabitants, but plenty of tourists to fill the space. In the height of summer, Jamie wasn’t sure what to expect, but when they disembarked, their bikes roaring to life, he got rather nervous: it appeared uninhabited at first, and he asked Ian if they’d caught the right ferry, but soon enough he saw lights in the distance, and he was eager for a bed and some food in his belly.

Finally, the three of them reached Howard’s Pub, the first sign of civilization since leaving Hatteras Island. They could smell the grill smoke from outside, and were relieved to find their way to a corner booth, lined with red vinyl material that squeaked when they sat down.

“It was the seat, I swear,” John said, laughing as they looked over their menus.

“God, I’m so hungry I’d eat anything right now. Oh, wonder what the fish of the day is?” Jamie wondered, and he quickly got an answer as their waitress came to the table, eying the three of them with a kind smile on her face.

“Red Snapper, freshly caught,” she said, giving Jamie a grin as she placed glasses of water on the table. “It’s good - l recommend getting it sauteed, fried foods just aren’t my thing - but it's not bad that way, either.”

Her accent jarred Jamie a bit. He’d been expecting a southern drawl, or perhaps a middle America news-caster voice devoid of any dialect. No, though - she was English. A Sassenach. Jamie wondered what in the world she was doing here on this tiny island, working as a waitress.

“What’s it come with?” Jamie heard Ian ask, though he didn’t much care. His hunger was forgotten - this curly haired lass with her amber eyes had been staring at him, and only him. And he was entranced. She answered Ian without taking her eyes off Jamie, her big grin showing all her teeth. Little wisps of hair escaped the knot at the base of her neck, and she wore a pair of shorts under an apron that accentuated her long legs.

“Baked potato or french fries… lads,” she teased, picking up on their accents.

“Sounds good to me. And perhaps a...eh, what do they drink down here?” John asked, closing his menu and handing it to her. Jamie and Ian followed suit, and she walked away after telling them she’d be right back with some Yuenglings and glasses.

Jamie took a second to regroup, glancing around at the decor of the place. Old, American license tags hung on the wall, from California to Maine, and he wondered where they’d come from. The dark wood of the floor and the walls gave the place a cozy feel, and feel-good pop music blared from the speakers, and Jamie regretted not coming on a night with live music.

The woman returned, bringing drinks and cocktail napkins, along with three glasses from the freezer. Jamie watched as the woman deftly poured their beers, the foam rising slowly to the top.

Jamie took a sip - they’d had this before - and he let the drink wet his dry throat. The cold of the glass froze his hand as he held it, and he shot the waitress a grateful smile before she walked away again. This time his eyes followed her, and he received a jab in the ribs from Ian.

“Down, boy!” He chuckled good-naturedly, and Jamie rubbed his cheek, attempting to wipe the unrelenting grin off his face.

“Where are we staying again, John?” he asked, changing the subject quickly from himself.

“Um… It’s called Blackbeard’s Lodge, if memory serves. Was the only place with a room when I booked!”

“Planning ahead as always, John?” Ian cracked, eager to get to a warm bed.

All three men were exhausted after their long, exhilarating day, and with their stomachs full, they headed to the inn, their bikes hot and ready for a well-deserved rest.

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Jamie couldn’t sleep. He’d been lying awake in the spacious, yet cozy, room the inn had offered them, but he couldn’t settle. The twin bed was too short, but he and Ian had lost the coin toss, and had folded themselves into the small beds covered in some nondescript pirate pattern comforters, feet dangling off the ends. Ian snored lightly to his right, and John scored the larger queen bed across the room.

The server at the restaurant wouldn’t get the hell out of his mind. Her lithe arms as she reached across him to set Ian’s plate down; her unabashed grin as she gazed at him; her springy, dark hair that smelled faintly of peaches. He shivered thinking about her voice, the Englishness, the taste of home - well, sort of. She felt comfortable, at ease with herself in a way he hadn’t encountered since he’d been in the U.S.

He rubbed his face roughly with his hands, frustrated that sleep was eluding him. He was damn tired, but his mind wouldn’t quit racing. He decided instead to go wandering. It was a small island, he thought, how lost could he get?

Slipping on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, he stepped into his sandals and made his way downstairs and out the front door of the inn, the muggy night air a shock after the cool indoors. The humidity immediately clung to him, making him feel sticky and in need of a shower. The midges were out in full force, and he swatted at them as he made his way down the small lane to… to where, he wondered? As he went on, he could hear the faint sound of the ocean ahead, and he followed it.

The dunes were ahead, the ocean just beyond, and he wondered how he could reach the water. Signs were posted along the way:

Please Do Not Climb on the Dunes

Okay, okay, he thought, I won’t. He walked to the right a bit, and luckily found a small walkway - formed either by humans or water, he wasn’t sure, but he took the chance and found himself yards away from the crashing waves. The moon was out, a cloudless sky allowing it to shine uninhibited on the water, the light dancing in the waves like small silver fish.

The water was cool on his toes, but blissful, after his walk. Beads of sweat had formed on his neck and along his hairline, and he wanted to completely submerge himself. Instead, he ran his foot heavily across the sand, just at the waterline, watching the bioluminescent creatures who lived there glow a faint blue. He was admiring his handiwork when he heard someone behind him.

“Ahem.” the person cleared their throat, moving closer.

Jamie whirled around, assuming it was John or Ian, having followed him out the inn. But it wasn’t either of his mates.

It was her. The ethereal being who he couldn’t banish from his mind. Jesus. Fucking. Christ.

“Oh.. it’s you,” he said, feeling like a right idiot.

“Me?” she replied, smiling her smile, her eyes alight with amusement.

“Oh, sorry, I just figured you were one of my friends…” he trailed off, turning to face her now, his feet nearly buried by the tide. “You’re English,” he continued, biting his tongue as the words left his mouth.

Smooth, Fraser. Smooth.

“Yeah, I know.”

She laughed then. A slightly raspy laugh that nearly knocked Jamie off his feet. It melded with the crash of the waves, a faint, breathy sound, complete with her wide grin.

Jamie imitated her, grinning like the cat that ate the canary.

“Why are you out here?” he asked without thinking.

“Um… probably the same as you. Couldn’t sleep?” she inquired, her eyebrows up, her mouth in a slight frown.

“Ah. Yeah. I’m exhausted but…”

He stopped himself, not willing to divulge that he’d been thinking about her. He didn’t even know her name, for fuck’s sake.

“I’m Claire,” she said, extending her hand for a friendly shake.

Claire. Well, he’d been expecting something else, like Charlotte or Elizabeth or Mary. But Claire - it was a name he could say in a breath, a name he could set aside as special - he knew no other Claires, save this one. His Beach Claire, he dubbed her, then and there.

He wondered vaguely if it was weird, him putting her on a pedestal before they’d even had a proper conversation, but he didn’t give a damn right about now - the cold water was licking his toes and the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen was there next to him. Why wouldn’t he mark this, her, as special?

He fumbled a bit, realizing he hadn’t said anything for at least a minute. She was staring at him like he’d grown an extra head.

“Oh, um, I’m Jamie,” he spoke, his hand taking hers. He hoped she didn’t notice that he was shaking slightly. With adrenaline? With arousal? He wasn’t sure, but probably both. Her hand was soft and slight in his own large one - he wondered if she was part bird, with hollow, light bones easily broken. He kept his touch light, just in case, and he withdrew quickly so she wouldn’t feel his palm sweating.

“How- how’d you find your way over here?” he asked.

“Again, same as you - in an airplane,” she shrugged. “What did The Beatles say? ‘Turned left at Greenland?’” she mused, that raspy laugh escaping her again, causing Jamie to shiver.

“Oh, right… right,” Jamie chuckled, not having the faintest idea what she was talking about. He didn’t care, though. Neither, it seemed, did she.

“I live here in the summer… for the time being - work, as you saw, and um… muck around here and there.” She moved to stand next to him, facing the water, arms folded around her middle. Jamie stared at his feet - her feet, both buried in the sand, water causing their skin to glisten in the moonlight. “Where are you staying?” she asked, jerking him out of his reverie.

“Oh, ah… Blackbeard’s...something?”

She laughed that laugh again, and smiled.

“Right, right, I know the place. What are you doing tomorrow, Jamie?”

She wasted no time, did she?

“Um. Was going to spend the day at the beach with my mates…” Jamie replied, hoping to sound casual, noncommittal.

“Well, if you’d like, I can show you around. It’s a small place, but there’s plenty to see,” she said, eyeing him, eyebrow arched. “And do,” she finished, leaning into him slightly, her breath tickling his ear.

Jamie nearly choked, but kept his composure as he simply nodded.

“I’d… I’d love that,” he said. “I’ve never been here before - it’s a beautiful place.”

“Wait till you see it in sunlight,” she said, brushing her arm with his. “Meet me in front of the restaurant, say around 9 tomorrow morning?” she suggested.

“Oh, yeah, definitely. I’ll be there,” Jamie said, smiling, his breath leaving his lungs as she walked away, her footprints still next to him.