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Chapter Text

 

 

Prologue

 


 

The horrors of war can scar a soldier for life, and not just physically. If left untreated, psychological injuries can be just as lethal as those sustained to one's body in a beautiful desert landscape scattered with mines, or grenades tossed through the air.

Unfortunately, I had succumbed to both. A roadside device tearing through my body, wreaking havoc on my internal organs, tearing the flesh from my back, devastating my mind.

I had returned from war a broken man, a recluse, a stranger to those who knew and loved me. By the end of my first year at home, I was unrecognisable. My hair and beard are now long, matted, disgusting. My soul, tortured.

I was living with my sister and her family, in a small shed opposite the main house. They had converted it into an apartment for me on my return to Lallybroch. The hermit’s cave they called it.

It was named such after I only ventured out twice in the first few weeks. But as the days turned into months, as my skin paled and my eyes and heart turned to stone, the joke seemed not so funny. Not since I’d barely left my wee cave’s confines in twelve months.

 

But things were beginning to shift. They had to.

The tipping point came on my nephew's 6th birthday. I had ventured into the house to give wee Jamie a gift, a small toy train I had spent weeks carving from scraps of wood I’d collected.

Jenny had begged me to stay and have some cake, told me it would make my nephew’s day to have his favourite uncle stay for his party, then shuddered as she realised what she’d said.

“Favourite uncle?” I grumbled, “I’m the only one left.”

Our brother, Willy, had served in the military too. But unlike me, Willy did not come home. The same explosion that changed me forever also took my brother’s life.

I stayed in the corner, taking respite in the strong peat whisky in my glass, and wishing it was the full bottle. The noise of the children was hard to bear, but their games and laughter brought back memories of our childhood and a tiny flame of joy ignited in my belly.

Then it all went wrong...

“Happy Birthday!” cheered Jenny, as she proudly strode into the lounge, carrying the Spiderman cake she’d spent hours creating, to the applause of the kids and parents alike.

One excited child stood up, then jumped from their chair and landed with both feet on a balloon.

BANG!

The noise reverberated through every fibre and shrapnel laden muscle in my body. I jumped to my feet, screamed bloody murder, and pulled the hidden dagger I went nowhere without from my waist.

“Jamie! ‘Tis ok. Stop, stop Jamie. Ye’re home, mo chridhe, ye’re whole, ye’re safe,” begged Jenny, standing in front of me, shielding the kids from the madman before them.

Realising what I’d done, the knife fell from my hand as tears fell on my cheeks. To see their frightened faces tore me apart, and I fell to the ground, a pile of shame and grief.

Little did I know at the time, but that horrible, raw, devastating moment, would come to change everything for me.

 

At the behest of Jenny and her husband, Ian, I walked into a therapist’s office the very next day. Standing in the cold, stark white office, shaking with nerves and crucifying myself for being such a damned coward, I leant down, placed my palms on the desk and whispered to the receptionist, “I think...I ken I need help...please.”

 

For the first month, Jenny sat patiently in the waiting room knitting or reading for every one of my appointments. I was never sure if this was for my comfort, or because she didn’t trust me to stay without her watchful eyes keeping guard.

As my tale of woe unravelled before a complete stranger, I realised that even before the war, military life had worn me down. After my initial enrolment and training, my superiors recognised the inner compassion and empathy I carried in my heart, that couldn’t help but show. But rather than seeing it as a weakness as I had expected, they saw it as strength. I was one of only two graduates that year to be assigned to the British peacekeeper core within the UN. The other soldier assigned with me, Lt. John Grey, remained in my life to this day, although my hermit life existence since returning had placed a heavy strain on the friendship.

The constant travel to every far-flung, war-torn nation of the earth was thrilling at first, exhausting by the end. I loved knowing I was helping, being of service to those in need, especially the children. Working in countries like East Timor and Sudan gave me a new appreciation for my life back in Scotland and although I was fulfilled in my work, homesickness was a constant companion.

By the time I arrived in Iraq, into a place we should never have been, I was already on the edge. The conflict in Sudan, witnessing the pain and sorrow of its people and the lack of response by western countries, had taken its toll and I was struggling to see any reason to live.

 

Two things that got me through that time, John, and my brother. Willy was part of a military unit that by chance, had been posted as military support for my team. So although the conflict was traumatising and brutal, we had each other for support….until, we didn’t.

John was injured too that terrible day, the day I lost my brother. After the explosion, we were both transported to Germany for surgery and recovery, then sent home to Scotland, discharged with honours, as heroes.

Sleep often eluded me for days on my return, and that was one of the things that kept me awake the most, along with the screams of agony and cries for help. The fact that I came home and Willy didn’t, the pain that caused me was excruciating.

Six months of twice-weekly therapy had me feeling better than I had in a very long time. I was still broken, still felt like I was trapped in my cave, but there was a crack in the wall, and light had begun to seep through.

So much had things shifted, that after a long and particularly productive session, my ever-patient, ever-understanding therapist, Dr Rawlings, decided I’d graduated from super crazy nuts—as my nephew described me at their first meeting—to just a wee bit nuts. I would now only see her once a week, but with one condition. I needed to relax, breathe, and practice a thing called mindfulness. As part of this, it was recommended I practice yoga. She was so keen for me to begin, she made me promise to sign up for classes at the gym across the street before I was permitted to leave.

Jenny had just arrived to pick me up as this discussion took place and between the two of them, I knew there was no point in fighting. Like a petulant child being dragged into the dentist, I was marched across the street and signed up by the annoyingly bubbly blonde named Tiffany behind the counter. With her eyes darting between my almost dreadlocked red mop and the scars that ran the length of my fingers, she handed me a class timetable, a brochure on the yoga studio and a complimentary sweat towel.

The time it took to sign my life away to the gym was the longest amount of time I had spent anywhere other than home, or Dr Rawlings’s office, in over a year. So by the time blonde Tiffany had concluded my tour of the facilities, I was a sweaty, nervous wreck and was near begging Jenny to take me home.

“I’m proud of ye brother,” she said as she drove along the winding roads that would lead me back to safety, back home, to Lallybroch. “This is the beginning of yer new life.”

And although I would never tell her she was right, she was. Nothing in my life would ever be the same.

Chapter Text

 

Anything worth doing in my life has always taken practice.

Practice had been required to be a good student, horseman, to become a soldier, a killer. Then again to be a normal person, to live a normal civilian life after what I had seen, what I had lived through.

So when I first heard the teacher, a tiny frail man who looked well into his sixties, refer to our class as ‘practice’, I felt immediately at ease. Practice, that I can do.

French accents, like the thick flowery one Master Raymond, spoke with, had been a problem for my frayed nerves since I had returned from Iraq. A large portion of our peacekeeping team was French, as were the medics who had worked so hard to save my life, and Willie’s.

With every nasal word he spoke, my pulse increased, my thoughts spiralled and my throat tightened like it was wedged tightly between the jagged teeth of a vice. As my breathing faltered, I realised I was heading into panic attack mode, and fast.

Like most people, breathing had always been something I took for granted. It was just something that we did, it was part of being human, in our genetic blueprint. But PTSD had stolen that security from me, had brought me to my knees in a terror-stricken fight for air so many times, that I now cherished every easy breath I drew.

The work I had done with Dr Rawlings pushed its way past the fear and chaos in my rational mind and swung into action.

I chose to concentrate on Master Raymond’s words, rather than the way they sounded, or the rhythmic flow that they were delivered in. They were, after all, just words. I could interpret them, hear them, however, I wanted.

Breathing was under my control, only I had the power to slow it down, release the tormented lock-tight grip on my throat and regulate my pulse. I was in control, not my thoughts.

Repeating my mantra over and over again—I am safe, I am protected, I am whole—air again flooded my lungs. Feelings returned to my fingertips and lips, and my vision cleared.

Until that point, I hadn’t realised that I’d fallen to my knees and was hunched over in the corner of the room. Luckily, my unusual pose hadn’t raised a single eyebrow. I looked no different to any of the other class attendees sitting, limbering up, and waiting for practice to begin.

Sucking in a few more deep breaths, I sat up straight and felt proud. It was the first time I could really see the progress that I had made, and as my heart rate continued to lower, I gave myself a wee, figurative pat on the back.

Jumping slightly as Master Raymond gave two quick, loud claps of his hand to signal practice was beginning, I reminded myself out loud, as Dr Rawlings had drummed into me over the last six months ‘Focus on the words. Breathe.’.

Our master stood before us in those pants hippies wear, the kind we military men would never be seen dead in. Rolled down waist fastened with a large bow, baggy through the leg, tapered at the ankle, tie-dyed of course.

Laughing for no apparent reason, he welcomed us all to the class and noted his pleasure to see several new faces. It was then I scanned the room and realised I was probably the youngest here.

Yoga had automatically conjured images of a bevy of hot blondes in tight crop tops and leggings, not a golden girls reunion special. But who was I kidding, no one would be interested in a broken down, bearded old soldier like me. These retirees probably still had more life and energy burning inside them than I did

My chain of negativity and self-shaming was brought to a halt when with another two short claps, all eyes moved to our teacher.

“Let us begin,

Begin to bring your awareness inwards, to your breath.

Notice how your breath feels, and where it is in your body.

Relax your jaw, and allow your tongue to rest on the roof of your mouth…”

 

Yoga was not what I thought it would be. Stretching, I expected. Bending, twisting, I was waiting for it. But the strength and stamina it took to hold the poses more than a few seconds were utterly unanticipated and it wasn’t like I was unfit. I could run for miles and could bench press anyone under the table. But this was a different kind of fit and the fact that the elderly class members seemed to be able to do each pose so easily was a real blow to my almost non-existent ego.

Savasana, followed by namaste, became my two favourite words when I realised they signalled the end of practice. While I did enjoy parts of it—mainly the beginning and the end—every fibre, every muscle in my body was trembling and I was soaked with sweat by the end.

Rising to my feet with all the grace and elegance of a newborn giraffe, I was proud of myself for lasting the whole class, and not succumbing to the continuing anxiety that refused to leave me throughout. Following the lead of those around me, I bowed to the master, rolled up my mat and wobbled from the studio, unsure if I would return.

 

Roast duck was on the menu that night, and apparently, so was I. I faced a barrage of questions over my day from both Ian and Jenny, each more intense than the last. Solo outings, even when chauffeured to and from, were a relatively new thing, and it was clear from Jenny’s inquisitiveness in particular, that she was having trouble letting go of control. I understood it, but still, it was a pain in the arse.

When I first arrived home from overseas, I was so heavily medicated, that one day I fell asleep behind the wheel and was woken up by the police, my car headfirst into a ditch. I hadn’t driven since which had only served to increase my dependence on Jenny. It almost felt as though we had a parent/child relationship at times. At the depths of my depression, I’d not realised, or not cared, but now that I was beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel, the over-involvement was becoming tiresome.

“Of course ye’re going back!” She said, slamming the gravy boat down in front of me. “Ye ken Dr Rawlings wants ye there three times a week. Ye canna give up after one class.”

“Jenny, ‘tis just no’ for me. I can go tae the gym and do weights, I’ll even get a trainer if that will shut ye up, but I am not a yoga guy.”

“And ye never will be if ye quit now. Ye have tae give it more time. Could ye have run a marathon after yer first jog?”

“No, and that’s no’ the same. Yoga is fer women and short people. I’m too big, Jenny. I looked like the Hulk compared tae the other people, and they were all so old.”

Our argument continued through dinner, over the dessert and all the way back to my cave. Jenny followed me, mouthing off at me the whole time. I could take no more.

“Christ almighty, woman!” I screamed, bucking over and pulling my beanie down over my eyes. “If I go back the day after tomorrow, will ye fucking leave me alone?”

“Aye, I will leave ye be, but only if ye agree tae go three times a week fer a month. If ye still dinna like it after that, I will see Dr Rawlings myself tae ask fer another idea. Just please, Jamie, give it a month...fer me.”

Grabbing onto my arm, with surprising ease she pulled me into a cuddle and refused to let me go until I agreed.

“One month, Jenny, one month. Not a minute more.”

 

~~~

 

“Willie! No!”

Rolling to and fro on my back, I could feel the heat of the flames scorching my flesh. When I finally came to my senses, Willie was my first thought. Scanning the scene of devastation around me, I saw his lifeless body, seemingly only a fingertips distance away.

I tried to crawl towards him, screaming his name with each painful movement, but no matter how I tried, he remained out of my reach.

Then they came, Médecins Sans Frontières, dragging my body away, ignoring my screamed demands for them to leave me and instead take him.

They went back for him once I was loaded safely into the chopper, but my initial cries of relief soon turned to wails of heartbreak and grief.

The chopper took off without him, and as we left the scorched and smouldering earth behind us, I watched in horror as they lay a white sheet over my brother's body.

 

My chest colliding with the cold timber slats of my floor woke me from a dream I knew all too well. Sitting up against the bedframe, I cried like an infant, lost without its mother. The rhythmic tapping of my fingers against my thigh was the only thing keeping me sane at that moment, as I told myself over and over, "it was just a dream, it was just a dream."

“I am safe, I am protected, I am whole.” I whispered to myself, “breathe, Jamie. Ye just need tae breathe.”

Slowly I brought myself back from the brink like I had done night after night since my service ended. While I was progressing at what I thought was an acceptable pace during waking hours, the images of Willie and leaving him behind still haunted my dreams.

Seeking a reprieve from the box that was my home, I ventured into the crisp, silent night, walking in no particular direction and absurdly underdressed. Freezing my balls off after five minutes, I walked into the closest building—the stables.

My horse, ironically named sleepy, let out an extremely loud whinny as I approached, that could have been either a warm greeting or a ‘what the fuck are you doing here at this time of the night’.

Rubbing his cold wet nose was like a sensory experience, and I made a mental note to come out here more often in times of poor sleep. Chatting to Sleepy and Travis, I mucked out the stables, gave each horse a fresh salt lick, and an apple in Sleepy’s case, then laid down clean hay in each stall.

Once done, I collapsed into a hay pile in the only empty stall and was asleep almost instantly.

 

Two days later, with two partial nights of sleep under my belt, I walked back into the yoga studio at the gym with a better attitude than what I’d left with. With Jenny's interference or prodding, as she called it, I had learnt that yoga was beneficial for anyone. Even the Scottish rugby coaches introduced regular yoga practice into the team’s training. And if it was good enough for Scotland rugby, it was good enough for me.

Confident as I could be at the moment, I believed I had defeated the demon that was the French accent of Master Raymond. I reminded myself I made it through the whole class last time, no freakout, no running and hiding, and the more I tried to find some positives, the more I found myself actually looking forward to the class.

A much younger, cooler, more beautiful crowd was in attendance today. It never occurred to me that a nine a.m. weekday class would hardly be a draw for most people my age. But being a Saturday, made all the difference.

Hot bodies, expensive mats, clothes and haircuts were in abundance and this time, I felt like the oldest man in the room. I probably wasn’t, but my straggly unshaven appearance did age me significantly. It didn’t matter anyway, I wasn’t here to socialise or ogle the particularly attractive arses parked in front of me. I was here to bend like a pretzel.

Glassdoor scraping on the timber floor signalled the entrance of Master Raymond. He sauntered by, slowing to pat me on the arm, smile, and welcome me back. I was surprised he remembered me. I hadn’t introduced myself at the first class, in fact, I’d done my best to remain unseen and avoid any eye contact with anyone. But I guess being a 6’3”, red-haired caveman type, grunting and groaning with each move meant I did stick out in the crowd.

Rolling out my mat, I repeated my mantra over and over, and sat down, waiting for Master Raymond to start the day’s practice.

“Let us begin.”

 

~~~

 

You know that feeling you get when you have to admit someone was right, but don’t want to? For me, it presents as a ball of vomity tasting tension that sits firmly in my throat and rises and falls with the beat of my pulse. Two weeks into my promised yoga trial, I got that feeling... bad.

Having returned from my last class of the week, this time a late afternoon one, Jenny and I shared a quick bite of Ian’s homemade lasagne, before she went to sit with him in the lounge while I did the dishes.

As I scrubbed and cursed at the baked-on pasta sauce refusing to be separated from the plates, their laughter travelled through the thick stone walls and reverberated through my body.

Rather like my fellow Scot, Scrooge McDuck, I had come to hate laughter. The sight and sound of people laughing, looking happy, sometimes even just smiling, irked me to no end.

Lovey-dovey young couples...I hated them too. Their cuddles and kisses stung like salt on an open, festering wound. Generally, happiness of most forms reminded me of how miserable I was and magnified my irrational but ever-present fear that I may never feel anything close to happiness again.

Jenny and Ian, laughing together, probably as they nestled into each other on the couch, making the stupid, kissy faces they did, should have created a perfect storm of hatred.

But it didn't. In fact, it made me smile. And when Jenny cackled so hard she snorted like a wee piggy, I chuckled too. I feared my skin may splinter as the corners of my mouth rose, but it was fine. As was I. I was fine.

Once the dishes were put away and the benches wiped clean, I threw my tea towel in the laundry. My first impulse was to follow what had become my usual evening routine, slink back to my cave, maybe do some exercise, then lay in grim, lonely silence.

But tonight, I craved company. My frozen heart felt warmed by their playful banter, and before I realised I had made the choice, I was approaching the lounge.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Ian elbowed Jenny in the ribs as I sat. Both looked at me in shock as I sat in Da’s old leather recliner, and I’m pretty sure a tear or two was welling up in my long-suffering sister’s eyes. The kids were in bed already, so it was just the three of us, looking at each other like animals and visitors at the zoo, no one quite knowing what to do or how to act naturally.

“Do ye mind if I watch with ye fer a bit? I dinna feel like being alone tonight.” I said, breaking the awkward silence.

“Of course no’,” smiled Ian. “We’re just watching the office. Ye still like it?”

“I havenae watched it fer a while, but I figure I still would. US or UK?” I asked while laying back, pulling the lever and watching my legs flip into the air.

“US. I didna like it at first, and Jenny said watching it ‘twas as good as treason, but Dwight has won me over. He’s such an arse.”

“Aye, well, lemme watch a bit, and then I’ll decide if ye’re tae be drawn and quartered,” I chuckled. This time, Ian was on the receiving end of a sharp elbow to the gut and by the sound he made, it was much firmer than his.

As I sat and watched, an insuppressible smile broke out across my face, and when Dwight carved a CPR dummy like a pig with a hunting knife, I lost it, erupting into a loud fit of laughter I didn't think I would ever have again.

I could feel their eyes burning into me and looked to see Jenny smiling proudly. That's when it struck me. Something, maybe part of the dark, heavy fog was lifting from over me. As she had most annoyingly been about most things since my return, Jenny had been right about yoga.

“Aye, I think ye’re right, Ian, the US version is better...oh, and Jenny, thanks fer pushing me tae do yoga. I ken now ‘tis helping.”

 

That night was the first that no flashbacks danced before my eyes as I drifted off to sleep. Nightmares woke me in a sweaty panic twice, but both times I was able to bury myself deep under my blanket, breathe, talk myself down off the cliff, and slide back into slumber.

Chapter Text

 

“Ye look good today.” Jenny patronisingly smiles and rubs my hair as she would her 6-year-old, as I sit to eat breakfast with the family the next morning. “Those hammocks that were hanging under yer eyes look like regular bags now. If it wasnae fer yer beard and that bloody awful matted mess of hair on yer head, I would almost recognise ye as my brother.”

“Ye have a true gift fer insulting, as ye compliment, Jenny.” I shake my head and finish the last of the porridge from my bowl, washing it down with an extra gulp and slurp of my coffee that I know will annoy the shite out of her. “‘Tis a shame ye cannae use yer gift on anyone else other than me.”

“Dinnae get yer knickers in a twist,” she scoffs at me arrogantly as she walks towards the sink. “I was trying tae be nice. What time is yer class today?”

“‘Tis no’ till seven. I wanted tae try a late one. Some of the guys in class reckon they sleep like bairns afterwards. Thought I’d give it a go.”

With that parent/child feeling filling my brain, I watch carefully as she smiles and nods in reply, then shoos wee Jamie away from the plate of bacon on the table.

I want to ask her something. Assessing her mood, I can see she is in a better, less terrifying frame of mind today. She’s already complimented me and is humming as she begins the first of many sink loads of dishes for the day.

Both are good signs. I'm going for it.

“Aye, sae, the class is at seven, and I wanted tae go alone...drive myself. I ken I havenae driven at night, or at all fer a while, but I am feeling better, Jenny. Ye ken I am, plus my meds have been reduced, sae I’m no’ sae tired all the time and willnae fall asleep at the wheel again.”

Though standing with her back to me, the rise and fall of her shoulders and audible sigh doesn’t exactly fill me with hope. So when she sits down beside me, nods and smiles, I am moved to tears.

“‘Tis time, brother. I ken that… It worries me, I canna lie, but ye’re doing sae well, and we are sae verra proud of ye. Drive yerself tae class, maybe stop somewhere and get something tae eat afterwards too.” Her wee head comes to rest on my shoulders and I slip my arm around her, pulling her into a tight cuddle.

“I can never repay ye fer what ye have done fer me, Jenny. Fer never giving up on me, even when I didnae bring Willie home.”

“Jamie!” She pushes herself away from my embrace, grabs my chin and looks at me squarely in my pathetic tear-filled eyes. “What happened tae Willie is no’ yer fault. Ye canna continue tae blame and punish yerself fer something ye had no control over. I’ll say it again, t’was no’ yer fault.”

“But if I just got back tae him faster...” My head and hands collapse onto the table as Jenny protectively drapes herself over me.

“Uncle Jamie,” a small, muffled voice says beside me. My heavy head turns towards it, and through my blurred vision, I see wee Jamie laying face down on the table just like me. “Why are ye crying? Did mam yell at ye again?”

Pulling him to me, I kiss his strawberry-scented head and wrap him into our shared embrace. “Yer mam didnae yell at me, Jamie. She’s helping me,” I whisper. “I just miss yer uncle, a bhalaich.”

“Uncle Willie?” He asks, his cute little fingers combing through my beard as I nod. ”I cannae remember him. Da said he was a brave soldier like ye, and ye tried tae save him. Ye’re no’ in trouble Uncle, dinna cry. He is in heaven now.”

I’m not sure if he is trying to help me or kill me. Jenny sounds as though she feels the same as we both lose it and weep like newborn bairns, while wee Jamie looks utterly confused.

Just a few weeks ago, a moment such as this would have led me to barricade myself in my cave for days, my anxiety feasting on the sadness. And while I did head to my room afterwards, craving solitude and silence, after an hour or so, I heard Ian tinkering in the stables and I decided to venture back out into the light.

My day is spent mending fences, mucking out stables and beginning a new herb garden for Jenny, along with the help of wee Jamie. It is the most I have done in months and by four, I am exhausted, as is my nephew. Before I know it, it is six, and Jenny is leaning over us as we huddle together asleep in my bed.

“Ye need tae wake up fer yer class, a ghràidh,” she whispers, patting me gently on the shoulder before picking wee Jamie up and holding him in her arms.

“He’s a braw lad,” I smile sleepily, watching as he snuggles into the crook of Jenny’s neck. “He’s been a great help tae me today.”

“Well, he idolises ye. Thinks ye hung the moon. When ye first came home, and ye were sae sick and sleeping fer days, ye may not ken it, but he used tae come in here and check on ye. He was always sae worried. He feels like he’s getting his uncle back...we all do.”

After leaning down to kiss my cheeks, the usual bossy Jenny reappears and begins ordering me around to get ready for my yoga.

 

The minute my feet touch my bedroom floor, it starts.

The fear of driving. My freak out commences as gee, I hope I remember how… then snowballs into me meeting my end in a horrific fireball. I am drenched in sweat as I walk to the bathroom and take a shower and no matter how furiously, or repetitively I scrub my skin, the stain of anxiety remains.

By the time I make it into the car, I am a mess. I have twenty-five minutes to get to class and haven’t yet left the driveway. The mantra is in full swing. “I am safe, I am protected, I am whole.” My lips whisper to my brain, again and again. “Breathe, Jamie. Ye just need tae breathe. It’s just driving. Ye’ve done it a million times. Ye can do it again.”

Bordering on vomiting, I’m shaking in the car for god knows how long, trying to summon the courage to just turn the bloody key.

I will myself to start the car again and again, and somehow, eventually, I do.

“Ye can do this. Ye can drive.” I repeat, and step by step, saying each aloud, I set them into motion.

“Put the car into gear. Check the mirrors. Adjust the bloody seat sae yer legs aren’t under yer chin.”

Before I know it, I am on the road and doing okay. I continue to sweat, but manage to navigate the worst of the dirt roads surrounding Lallybroch and am approaching town on the highway. Each corner I take, each stop sign I obey, I gain confidence, and as I pull into a parking space at the gym, I am close to tears with pride, and wondering when I started to cry so much.

Over the last two weeks, I had begun to greet some of the familiar faces I would see at each practice. I hadn’t graduated to first names yet, but even saying hello to a stranger felt like a Herculean effort. Master Raymond seemed to take a liking to me almost upon our first meeting, and would usually say ‘bonjour’ as he sashayed into the room, and ‘au Revoir as he exited. But today, he lingers after the bonjour.

“Jamie, I would like you to stay on after class tonight and observe the next. I think you would find it very helpful in your recovery. It is amazing for freeing the body of toxins.”

“Och, I would love tae but I dinnae ken if I can manage it tonight. Mebbe next week.”

”Hmmm... Well, we will see,” he smirks, nods, then points to the lights. They are promptly turned off, and the practice begins.

I’m not sure if he is punishing me for refusing to stay on after class, or if I am just being paranoid, but Raymond is brutal and mean to me all night; correcting almost every move I make and roughly repositioning me time and time again. I thought I was a sweaty mess in the car, but by the end of the class, my sweat had formed a medieval moat around my feet.

Squatting on the ground, I am embarrassingly mopping the floor around me while watching the shuffling feet of those already leaving. By the time I stand, the room is empty, apart from Raymond and myself.

“Are you sure I cannot entice you to stay, Mr. Fraser?” He calls from the front of the room. “I do think you could learn a lot.”

“Aye, I’m sure. I—”

 

Time stops.

A loud thumping echoes through the room...there is a good chance it is my heart.

She glides by me, her dark chocolate mane floating behind her until it’s messily piled into a loose bun atop her head. Refusing to be contained, however, several strong-willed curls spring free instantly, falling around her angelic face and at the nape of her long, elegant neck.

So lost in admiration of the beauty before me, I fail to notice the room is filling and I am still squatting, still wiping.

Clearing his throat several times, Master Raymond plonks onto the floor beside me, rather like a wee froggy balancing on a lily pad.

“Ahem, Monsieur Fraser,” he whispers, “I wonder if you may reconsider staying for this class. That woman you are drooling over, Mademoiselle Beauchamp, she is the instructor.”

“She is!?” I yell, not quite at the top of my lungs, but loud enough to draw snickering laughter and daggers from those setting up around me.

“Yes, she is,” he says, grabbing my chin and spinning my face away from the beautiful woman to look at him. “The first time I saw you in this classroom, I watched how you moved, saw the stiffness in your joints. You carry a lot of pain and tension. I believe she could help you and that you would work very well together. I would consider it a personal favour if you were to stay. To feed my curiosity if nothing else.”

“Och, aye, well...if ‘tis a favour tae ye then, I guess I could stay a wee bit longer. Ye canna fuck about with tension and such.”

“Indeed,” he laughs.

I am unsure when he left, but he did.

The room is packed, almost twice as many people are jammed inside as would normally be, but all I saw was her.

She rises to the elevated platform before us, claps, and the room falls silent. She is right before me. I have a perfect view. Her body is fucking crazy. A logic and gravity-defying combination of long and lean, but somehow thick and curvy. She moves elegantly, sexily, confidently...she oozes confidence.

I am putty in her hands, and it isn’t just me. Not a man or woman in this room is unaffected by her presence.

“Good evening everyone. Ready to sweat?”

Ah dhia…A sassenach, lord help me.

She almost purrs as she speaks, her voice like my favourite Highland whisky; rich, smooth, smokey, deadly. I have no idea what she says next, I am too busy thinking of what I want to do to her, of what I want her to do to me.

She turns and takes several glorious, almost floating steps toward something behind her, giving me a view of the roundest, loveliest arse I have ever seen. A lucky switch is flicked, then she resumes her position.

“Let us begin.”

I feel it instantly. The heat.

I suspect I may be an innocent victim of spontaneous combustion. It has been a long, long time since I have been attracted to a woman, and even then, I had never been this affected, never been struck down by these kinds of thoughts in an instant.

But the room becomes hotter and hotter. When I look around, I can see the sweat dripping from every forehead in the room and that’s when I remember. Bubbly Tiffany... The brochure...HOT YOGA.

Holy Shite! I’m gonna die.

Chapter Text

 

Now, I don’t know what kind of sick bastard invented Hot Yoga, but if I don’t meet my demise in this sweatbox, I intend on using my hard-earned, finely-tuned military skills to track them down and seek my revenge.

Making it halfway through the class is hell on earth and I honestly feel like I am about to vomit on the floor. Chunks are rising in my throat. It is almost a certainty they will escape at some point.

In the army, I had escaped death multiple times.

At its peak, my depression was so dark, so all-consuming, I could see no path forward, felt I couldn’t go on. On several occasions, I had come close to...to not...well, being. Each time, I had fought, put one foot in front of the other until the path cleared, and I could see a way through. Each new path at least got me through the day.

Never in my life, did I expect yoga and a hot arse to be the things that finally take me out.

Some super pumped, stick-thin dickhead beside me, winks in my direction, smiles and says, “Isn’t this amazing?”

No, dick head, it is not amazing. Amazing would not be the word I would use to describe this torment.

Watching her is the only thing that’s keeping me on my feet. Raymond would not and could not have kept me here.

The way she moves makes me feel more alive than I have in months, years.

Every pose she makes is like some lost ancient artform. 

Every breath she exhales, every word that escapes her perfect lips a symphonic masterpiece.

To watch the lines of her body, the curvature of her arse as she rolls into a forward fold, down to chaturanga then pushes up into downward facing dog is damn near orgasmic. Mesmerized, I follow each and every one of her moves with the grace and nimbleness of a hypnotised ox.

Eventually, the pain and nausea stops, but only because I’ve lost all sense and feeling in my body. I also believe a sparkle of fireflies has made their way into the studio and are dancing a merry dance between me and the hot teacher, Miss Beauchamp.

“Are ye okay, man?” asks the still super perky, everything is awesome guy beside me, who’s looking confused as I attempt to swat the nonexistent bugs away from my face.

“Aye, bugs.”

That’s the last thing I remember, that and a brief glimpse of four guys carrying me out of the studio, one on each limb.

Water dripping on my face wakes me with fright. My body lurches forward only to be stopped and pushed back down by several pairs of hands.

“Ta mi gusta.”

“Welcome back,” said a stern, slightly annoyed, but familiar voice.

 

Struggling to adjust to the light, my eyes slowly blink open, and there she is. Hovering above me, her eyes shining brightly, cutting through the dark I still feel surrounded by.

“Aye, I’m alright,” I say, answering a question no one asked. “Just a bit dizzy is all.” My ability to speak coherently seems to unleash the abuse she was holding back out of concern.

“What the devil do you think you were doing? Pushing yourself like that. The minute you felt unwell, you should have stopped. Bloody men and your egos, always trying to prove something.”

Normally someone speaking to me like this would have copped a mouthful in return, but I could say or do nothing with her orbiting so close, gently wiping my face as her torrent of abuse continues. So I lay back and enjoy, noting to myself how cute her chin looks when she’s mad, and how anger seems to bring out her beauty even more.

“Can you sit up?”

“Aye, I reckon sae.”

“Lift him up then.” Her willing team of minions sitting behind her, seemingly as transfixed by her as me, snap to attention and help me sit, propping me against the wall like a puppet. “Are you the guy from Raymond’s class? The one he asked to stay?”

“That’s me. I’m verra sorry tae cause such a fuss and ruin yer class.” My humble and sincere apology seems to quell her anger somewhat. She still looks pissed off, but the inferno that is fiercely burning in her honey coloured eyes dims to a low simmering flame.

“Guess I’m no’ ready fer two classes in a row,” I add, either bravely or stupidly looking directly at her, “too stubborn fer my own good.”

“Well, I have been accused of stubbornness myself from time to time, so I can hardly fault you for that. How are you feeling? Still dizzy?”

“Nah, all good now, thank ye.”

Abruptly rising, she stands before me with her hand reaching out for me. “Alright then, on your feet, soldier.”

The same unearthly sensation I felt when she walked into the room, of time all but ceasing, happens again when my hand touches hers. With surprising strength, she pulls me to my feet and we stand face to face. Neither says anything, but our eyes are locked onto each other. When she finally looks away, there is an obvious blush to her cheeks, and a teeny tiny smile on her lips cracking her stunning but stern veneer.

“Yes, well, that’s all I can do. The rest is up to you. Drink plenty of water, go home and rest. Do you feel well enough to drive?”

“Aye, I do. Thank ye, Sassenach, truly.”

A look of curiosity flashes on her face as again, we stand in silence, eyes fixed on each other. An overwhelming need to reach out and touch her courses through me, the want almost making me shake. But thankfully or unthankfully—I can’t be sure which— someone calls her name, drawing her attention away from me and back to her class.

“Right then, I’ll leave you to it,” she says, walking back towards the glass doors. Stopping briefly before opening them, she looks back and smiles. “Next time, just do one class, and if it’s mine, I’d appreciate it if you don’t faint.” Again, her voice is stern but is laced with an undeniable playfulness that draws looks of envy from the guys still standing around me.

 

Driving home in the dark, I find it hard to think of anything but her and the fact that headlights seem to have gotten brighter since I last drove at night. Squinting almost the entire way, my head is throbbing by the time my head hits my pillow.

It isn’t the only thing throbbing.

My usual, horrific bedtime visions are gone. Instead, I picture her and me in the studio, two bodies sweating. Her beautiful face, plump, firm breasts, and luscious round arse set my brain ablaze.

Floating before me in a marle grey crop top and black yoga pants, she drops to her knees, her hair cascading down her back as she squeezes her shoulder blades together, pushes out her arse, and holds the sexiest fucking cow pose yoga has ever seen...or imagined.

Her style and grace of movement, the stretching and bending of her body kills me. Looking straight at me as she arches her back into cat pose, I wet and chew my lips. She must know the lewd, immoral thoughts spinning through my mind as I watch her, how I want those long legs wrapped around me, and that makes me even hotter.

As I dream, an almost forgotten yet somehow unforgettable feeling travels with a heavily increased blood supply south, building between my legs, tenting my sheet.

Licking my hand then gripping my painfully hard cock, I stroke slowly to begin, speeding up as my thoughts progress from what I had seen her doing, to what I could imagine her doing to me. As my fantasising continues, her clothing decreases, my pace increases, my hips bucking wildly as I bite into my lip and moan. Her arse and the way it bounces and jiggles a little when she comes out of certain poses is my undoing, and I knew I would last only seconds. The tightening in my balls confirms that theory, so I reach over to my nightstand with my free hand and grab a tissue, spilling into it in an instant.

My sexuality had been on hold when I was injured. I had barely thought of a woman since I came home and had not touched myself for months. So while I feel a twinge of guilt to think of her in this manner, I also feel the undeniable relief that comes with an orgasm, months in the making.

 

Two pudgy little faces, rubbing against my cheeks, wake me the next morning after the first sleep in months where I didn’t wake once. Wee Jamie and Maggie seem to have escaped their mam and da and are laying face-first on top of me. Trying to ignore them, I keep my eyes tightly closed. It didn’t work.

“Uncle Jamie, can ye take us riding on Sleepy? Mam said no yesterday.” Wee Jamie asked, holding my eye open with his fingers.

“Well, if yer mam says no, I have tae say no too. She’ll tan my hide if I dinnae listen tae her.”

“Aye, but ye’re much bigger than Mam. Ye dinnae have tae listen tae her.” He says and he moves from my right eye to my left, poking it till it pops open and stares him down.

“The whole of Scotland has tae listen tae yer mam. ‘Tis the law.” Knowing there is no way in hell they were going to leave me be, I sit up and laugh as their little bodies slide down me like a bumpy slide. Maggie immediately climbs back up to do it all again.

“Swing me, Uncle Jamie!” She cries as she plops on my legs. “Plleeaassseeeee.”

“Aye, get up then.”

All three of us stand on the chilly linoleum floor, hopping side to side to escape the inevitable frostbite. I bend down to grab her wee little ankles and almost cry in pain from the sudden movement.

Groaning with each manoeuver, every muscle in my body screams to stand completely still or better yet, get back into bed.

“Pick her up!” Squeals Jamie, laughing and continuing to hop up and down.

“Aye, I will. Gimme a second, ye wee bugger,” I snap, groaning from the stiffness of my arms. They feel heavy like concrete as I flip her upside down, but I can’t help but smile seeing her curly mop of curls falling over her wee face.

“Swiiing meeeeee!”

Fucking yoga…Yoga… Beauchamp

Emerging from my pain induced slow motion, I whip her around, swinging her rather recklessly through the air. My brain paying no attention to the safety of the child dangling in my arms, instead, it is thinking solely of her... Mademoiselle Beauchamp.

“Jamie! No!” Screams Jenny suddenly.

Reacting to the panicked cry, I throw Maggie onto my bed and spin on my heels to see Wee Jamie holding the dagger I slept with under my pillow.

The poor kid squeals in fright, drops the razor-sharp blade against the floor, and runs to his mother’s side, clinging to her leg.

“What the hell is going on here?” Wails Jenny. “I woke up tae find my children missing, then find them in here, one red as a beet, upside down, the other getting ready fer a knife fight! How could ye be sae irresponsible?”

“Jenny, I—”

“I dinnae want tae hear it, brother. ‘Tis naught ye can say. Maggie, out, now!”

Obeying her mother’s orders, Maggie jumps from the bed and follows her and her still crying brother out the door.

What have ye done? Ye fucking eejit.

How could ye be sae careless?

Ye wanna kill yer nephew too?

Take yer brother away from yer sister, and now her lad?

Ye cannae do a damn thing.

Ye’re a fecking disgrace.

Whisky. Where the fuck is my whisky?

I stumble around the room, tossing anything that comes into my path to the side in my desperate search for the magic elixir. Only it can take away the pain, settle the demons, numb me…for a little while at least.

Damn it tae hell!

Lying beneath the turned over side table is the bottle, lid off, spilling onto the floor. At breaking point, I scream at nothing, punch a hole in the poor, innocent wall that is probably used to my abuse by now, then slowly slide down it, crying hysterically.

 

Not a drop of sunshine, or breath of fresh air, has blessed me for three days. Returning to the dank isolation of my cave, my old friends, self-hatred and loneliness are my only guests and stubbornly refuse to leave. Actually, I lied. The guy I found online to deliver pizza and whisky at the same time has popped by twice too.

It’s now the fourth day and Jenny has tried several times to lure me outside, but I‘ve stubbornly refused. I’m a mess and a dangerous one at that. I have to get myself together before I can be trusted near anyone I care about.

Time slips away from me when I am in this state, so I have no idea what time, or what day it is until my phone rang, and rang and rang.

Who the hell calls five times in a row?

“What!?”

“Jamie, it’s me, John. Don’t hang up!”

“How did ye ken I was gonna hang up?”

“This ain’t our first rodeo, old friend. I can hear it in your voice. That, and Jenny called me. She’s worried about you, says you’ve locked yourself in your room again.”

“Aye, she did, did she? Did she also tell ye I could have killed her boy?”

“She told me about the knife, yes. And that she screamed and that Jamie is fine. She also mentioned you’ve had a couple of deliveries and is worried that you’re drinking again.”

“And what would ye have me do, John? I’m a fecking disaster. Everything I touch turns tae shite. I’m better off dead than living like this, constantly hurting everyone around me.”

The sigh John exhales tells me he is fed up, and he has every right to be. I expect him to resign himself to the pointlessness of trying to help me. But he doesn’t. He gets angry. He fights.

“You know what, Fraser? You’re a fucking coward. Do you think you’re the only one that’s hurting? The only one that lies awake at night? That grieves Willie? I know it’s hard and I know how tortured you are. But you have to try. You can’t just give up the minute something bad happens. Jenny lost Willie too. Don’t make her bury another brother.”

My first impulse is to be defensive, to argue everything he says, dispute each point. But I can’t. He is right. Every soul-shattering, heartbreaking word is true.

“Jamie, are you still there?”

“Aye, John, I... I’m still here.”

“I’m going out for lunch Saturday and I want you to come, Jamie. I’ve met someone and I want you to meet her.”

“Her?” I asked. “Ye have a girl?”

“Yes, I have a girl. You know I’ve dated women before. Not recently, I know it’s only been men, but...she’s special, Jamie.”

“I want tae, John, truly I do. But I dinnae ken if I can be ready fer tomorrow. ‘Tis too soon.”

“Well, lucky for you, it’s Wednesday,” he chuckles. Damn him for always being so happy.

“You have almost three whole days to sober up and wash that stink off. Now, do you want the details now, or will you worry too much? I can message you Saturday morning if that’s better.”

Again, damn him for knowing me so well.

“Text me Saturday. ‘Tis better I dinnae ken too much...oh and John, thank ye.” I hang up before he can say anything, walk to the sink, and tip my elixir down the drain.

Enough.

Chapter Text

 

“Hangovers are God's way of punishing our sins. That and herpes.”

“Yes, thank ye, Janet. Useful advice as always.” If she doesn’t shut up, she is going to wear the bowl of pasta I’m scoffing down.

Barely a morsel of food passed my lips over my four-day mood-fest. The only substantial food I consumed were the two pizzas I was forced to buy to get my whisky delivered.

After John called me yesterday, I showered, took a good hard look at the stranger reflected back at me in the mirror, then called Jenny and apologised for the incident with the kids... and for my selfishness.

Dr Rawlings has taught me that though I can’t help or control having PTSD, I can control how I react and address any wrongdoings I may have done or caused when I am not well. Lucidity often brings with it regret, but at least I feel something. A little guilt, shame and embarrassment are better than a complete black hole sized emptiness.

Jenny as always is amazing. Ian too. Though she is clearly still pissed that her six-year-old was brandishing a weapon in my presence, she knows I sleep with the damn thing as an act of self-preservation. Da’s dagger brings me some comfort and familiarity, having slept with a weapon on hand for years when overseas. But the whole incident has led me to see that I could let that go now too. I am more likely to have a stray coo wander into my cave than a warring clan chieftain.

Sitting hunched over the too-low table, savouring the last bites of my dinner, I can feel Jenny’s eyes boring into me. She’s worried but holding her tongue with all her might.

After venturing out of the house today, I decided to use the momentum and go to practice tonight, though not to hot-Beauchamp yoga, just regular Raymond yoga. I figure it may help my hangover and clear my head before I go to lunch with John.

No restaurants, cafes, or even food trucks, have enjoyed my patronage since I’ve come home, social anxiety has made sure of that. But I want to do this, for me as much as for John.

Alcohol does not mix well with my meds and I know Jenny is scared of me driving, but apart from the incessant pounding of my head and the slight lingering nausea that persists even after Ian’s famous cure-all fry up, and two servings of bolognese, I feel okay.

“I ken I’ve given ye plenty tae worry about this week, and again, I’m verra sorry fer that, but I am okay tae go tonight. Ye dinnae need tae drive me. I promise I will go there and come straight back. No fainting, no driving off cliffs….ow!” A sharp slap of my head stops me.

“Dinnae even joked about it, brother. I dinnae want ye tae say such things, especially around the weans.” She gives me a mighty hug and pulls me down to kiss my cheek. “Go. Do yer class, just be careful. Alright?”

“Aye, ye have my word.”

 

The minute I arrive at the gym, I send Jenny a message to let her know that I am okay and promise to let her know when I’ll be leaving; knowing full well doing this is playing into the hands of the parent/child thing I am trying so hard to break. But Jenny, and Ian, have suffered enough stress by my hands this week.

At seven sharp, the doors of the studio swing open and the tribe begin shuffling in and jostling for position. For a bunch of old yoga hippies and young yoga hipsters, they sure swing those mats around free and fast when you approach their favoured spot.

As I roll out my mat into what appears to be a safe zone, an excitable voice beside me says hello; Mr Amazing himself.

My initial, socially awkward reaction is to pretend as if I don’t hear him, but then I remember John, lunch and meeting his girl. A small interaction with the happiest guy in Scotland is definitely good practice for a busy restaurant.

As it turns out, his name is Bobby, and he's lovely. He is one of the four guys that had been forced to lug my semi-conscious arse out of the room last week, and he seems genuinely concerned for my welfare. Thanking him profusely for his help, I assure him I’m doing better and I will make it through tonight, no fainting.

My conversation with young Bobby means I miss the arrival of Master Raymond, but I’m alerted to his presence by his usual two clap salute. My eyes shift to the front of the room, but it’s not Raymond’s wrinkly, froggy smile that’s greeting me. It’s her… hot teacher Beauchamp.

My initial delirious excitement quickly morphs into a blind panic.

“Psst, Bob—”

“Bobby.”

“Right, Bobby. Is this a hot class?” I whisper to him as cold sweat rapidly sweeps through me.

“Nah, ye’re in the clear, buddy. Claire is just filling in fer Raymond while he’s on leave.”

Claire... Her name is Claire....oh, God, did I say that out loud?

“Quiet please, no more chatter.” Her eyes focus squarely on Bobster and me. Like a naughty schoolboy in lust with his teacher, I shrink back to my mat and sit as straight and tall as I can, hoping my posture will impress her. It doesn’t.

“For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Claire, and I will be teaching this class for Master Raymond while he is in France. I may practice a little differently from him, but the positions will remain the same. I always give students time at the beginning of class to simply sit quietly, do some deep breathing, and let go of the day.”

Taking a seat on the lovely round arse that’s tightly squeezed into a sinful lemon lycra combo, I watch her beautiful chest rise and fall in gobsmacked awe. She begins taking slow deep sighs while grounding her hands.

Her hair is rolled into a messy bun and loose tendrils fall enticingly around her neck.

Christ, how I long to twist my fingers through each and every single one, sweep them to the side and taste the flesh of her neck.

Class...class...Ye’re in a fucking class!

“Let us begin. Focus on deep breathing: Inhale joy and light, and exhale the day gone by. Concentrate on the breath, and use the power of the inhalation to nurture and the exhalation to release.”

This is a restorative class, which means poses move slower, but you end up holding them for longer. Unlike my first nightmare practice with her, the fact that the room is at a normal, habitable temperature, not that of the sun, means I have a decent chance of survival.

Almost as soon as we begin, I lose focus. As she speaks, calling out the name of each pose, my sick and twisted brain turns them into short sharp orders, commands even, just to me.

Instead of looking down at my mat, I am looking up or sideways between my legs, searching for her whereabouts in the room. I have to see her.

Virtually every time I gaze upon her, she is looking at me too. Our eyes lock several times and it is as sexually charged as it is disconcerting. It almost feels like a game, who can catch who first.

Reminding myself constantly—particularly my crotch area—that I am in a class, and as erotic as I find Claire’s moves to be, my thoughts are highly inappropriate. Still, I just can’t take my eyes off of her.

But who am I kidding? If she is staring at me, it is probably out of confusion, or morbid curiosity. How does that old homeless guy afford yoga classes?

Claire is a much more hands-on instructor than Raymond, weaving gracefully between students, making adjustments, correcting positions.

Irrational jealousy surges through me every time her hands touch another. But at the same time, I’m terrified of the effect her silken touch may have on my body, should I be so lucky as to feel it.

The way her body is bending and twisting around the limbs of varying shapes and sizes had me imagining her legs and arms wrapping tightly around me. And the more I watch, the more aroused I become. I want this woman.

Thread the needle, a name so innocent, one that conjures up images of Jenny teaching the weans how to click-it, almost proves to be my undoing. Bending your knees in child’s pose, you slide one arm between the opposite knee and shoulder. It’s a simple and effective pose but a difficult move for me. It targets the muscles surrounding your shoulder blade and I still carry small, painful pieces of shrapnel throughout my upper back.

My awkward, but hopefully adorable stiffness seems to catch her honey eyes because before I can say, 'holy shit she’s coming', she’s squatting before me and beginning to correct my arm positions.

Flinching to her touch is my automatic, self-protective response. She stops, her eyes widening as soon as she catches a glimpse of the scars beneath my singlet and her face softens.

“Is it painful?” She's standing so close, and almost whispering, her head tilting adorably to the side in an affectionate but not pitiful way.

“Aye, a little. No’ tae touch, no’ anymore. ‘Tis just stretching out in front, pulling down my back.”

“May I?” Her hand moves to my shoulder blade but stopping just shy of connection.

“Aye,” I nod my head, eyes darting between her eyes and hand.

Barely breathing and blinking rapidly for some reason, my eyes follow her movement as her hands move from my shoulder, slowing as they pass and slightly grip around my bicep, then down to my elbow. Ever so gently, with her tongue poking from the corner of her mouth, she pulls my arms straighter, then runs the palm of her hand backwards, from my elbow, up to my shoulder.

Her touch is so pure and raw, causing an all-consuming chemical reaction in my body.

Every muscle in my body clenches as her fingers caress the long, lean but hideously disfigured muscles of my back and come to rest dangerously close to my taut arse cheeks.

She appears to be just as affected as I am.

“Much better.” Her voice is resonating differently from her normal strict but sultry tone. There is a subtle warmth, maybe even tenderness, that has me blushing like a priest in a brothel.

“Come see me after class and we will work on some modifications.”

The way she smiles at me is making me weak and I am seconds away from landing face-first on the mat. Luckily, she stands and walks away before I can further disgrace myself.

Returning to the front of the class for the final few positions, she lays on her back and finishes the final series before rising onto her bum.

“Namaste.” She bows and smiles.

 

Besieged instantly by her adoring participants, she’s answering their questions with poise and grace and has me all kinds of shook by looking my way several times. Waiting for those around her to piss off is torture, but it does give my brain ample time to come up with a myriad of reasons why I should leave.

Who do ye think ye're kidding? She wouldnae touch ye with a ten-foot pole. Look at ye, long-haired and straggly. She could have anyone, why would she look at ye?

“Mr Fraser...Mr Fraser? Jamie.”

Snapping me from my self-hatred spiral, I jump to hear her say my name, ‘Jamie’; it has never sounded so sweet.

“Aye, sorry, lost in thought. How do ye ken my name?”

“Your little sleep last week meant a lot of paperwork for me. We have to do an incident report for any injuries occurring during practice.”

“Ah, I see. Sorry ‘bout that.”

“It’s okay, all part of the job. Now, let's have a look at you.” She instructs me to stand, arms out straight at my side while she stands behind me. “Okay, now cross your arms over your chest then bend to your right.”

Her hands move to hold my waist as I tip to the side, before straightening up and doing the same on my left. “Now fold forward.”

“Forward? Like touching my toes?”

“Yes please.”

The fact that she is standing behind me as I lean over, my ass pointing right in her face is more than slightly uncomfortable and I swallow hard to remain focused on what I am doing, and not how it feels to have her hands running down my legs.

“You actually have good flexibility in your hips and legs. It’s just from the ribs up that you run into trouble. If you’re interested, I can write you a program of stretches to do at home. Maybe your wife or girlfriend can help out with them.” Chewing her lip, she looks at me with raised eyebrows and her head cocked slightly to the side.

“Some exercises would be grand, but I dinnae have a wife or girlfriend tae help me. Could I still do them alone?”

“Alone is perfect. I mean, that would be perfectly fine. Here.” Giving me a perfect view of her jiggling arse, she runs over to the basket containing the bands and blocks we use in class. “Take one of these and start with some back stretches like these, then I will have the program ready for you next week.”

Before my eyes, she drops to the floor, diabolically performing a series of moves that could just have easily been designed to kill with desire as they are to help my flexibility.

Her tight pants leave little to the imagination and mine certainly takes care of what is left. Thank god I have my mat rolled and in my hand. My cock hardens the instant she flips onto her back and goes into a happy baby.

At this point, the mat is the only thing standing between a lifetime ban from the gym.

Still on all fours, she looks up at me over her shoulder and smiles. It is devastating. My life flashes before my eyes and I believe a new black hole is created in the universe.

“Do you think you can handle that?”

“Aye, I can handle that just fine.” Don't look at her arse, don’t look at her arse.

It has been a very long time since I have been so close to a woman. My balls are throbbing and my cock seems to have forgotten how to behave, twitching to and fro like it is having a dance party in my pants.

Thank god I’d worn skins under my shorts.

Remaining awkwardly silent as she rises and begins to roll up the remaining mats on the floor, I eventually realise she is done with me and I can leave.

“See ye next week then,” I say, bowing for some reason and walking backwards to the door.

“Goodbye, Jamie,” she smiles, her fingers twinkling in the cutest wave ever seen.

 

~~~

 

“My god man!” screams Ian in horror as I recount my interactions with Claire. “Have ye been living under a rock fer that long ye forgot how a woman flirts? She asked if ye had a girlfriend, Jamie. She’s keen.”

“Keen...on what? On me?” The shock on my face seems to be particularly humorous to Ian, not so much to me. “Whaddye mean?”

“Well, when a girl and a boy like each other, they sometimes get a tingly sick feeling in their tummies and—” He begins laughing so hard he can’t even finish his teasing and when Jenny returns and is let in on the joke, they both stand and laugh right in my face.

“Dinnae be daft. A woman like that wouldnae look twice at me. Now, do ye have any bloody clippers or no’?”

Scissors, clippers and a cape are shoved into my chest as the laughter continues.

“There's only one daft bastard in this room right now and it isnae me. She wants ye, bad. And I guess by the sudden interest in yer appearance, ye like her too.”

I know they’re joking around, that I should be able to laugh along and give a bit back, but my fragile ego isn’t up to the roasting and the subject matter hits too close to home. I like Claire very much, and I do indeed have a sick feeling in my tummy when I am around her.

With my heart racing and sweat forming on my brow, I march out of the house and back to the relatively safe isolation of my cave, scissors and clippers in hand.

 

~~~

 

Lathering my skin with the creamy thick foam, her fingers glide over my face, tickling under my nose, caressing the line of my jaw. The silk of her robe, the only thing standing between me and her heavenly nakedness. As she raises the straight blade to my neck, her breasts press against me making it impossible to resist her a moment longer... I have to have her. I grab her hand, catching it before the blade makes contact with my flesh and pull her aggressively onto my lap. She moans as the soft heat between her legs grinds against my hardness.

Jamie

Claire

Both sighing, I continue to grip her wrist until she drops the blade to the ground, then crashes her lips into mine.

 

Waking can really be a complete bastard. Always turning up when things are just getting good. But in this case, it is just as well. In an hour and a half, I have to meet John and his girl. My alarm was supposed to go off an hour ago, but I guess I’d set it wrong; it has been a year or more since I’d used it.

Rolling from bed with surprising ease and a bulging erection, I walk to the bathroom to pee and shower. Looking up as I wash my hands, I am shocked to see the stranger looking back at me in the mirror.

Running my hands through my hair, I chuckle; I’d almost forgotten what my scalp felt like, what I looked liked beneath all that damn hair.

There ye are. Been a long time.

Chapter Text

 

Crippling nerves are hitting me hard in the car park. So much so I’m close to turning around and going home, but as my clammy hand grips onto the car door handle, John calling me a coward is ringing in my ears and my need to prove him wrong wins out over my anxiousness.

Hey, that's progress. I think.

Releasing my grip on the door handle, I practice my mantra, take three deep, shaky breaths and start walking inside.

The maitre d’ greets and utterly disarms me by looking squarely into my eyes and smiling as he shows me to the outdoor area. It unnerves me to no end and my paranoia begins running rampant like a squirrel in a nut shop.

Anxiety has kindly gifted me with an overinflated sense of importance in some ways, none of which are positive. To me, everyone in the restaurant is looking my way and judging me as I slink past them, while no doubt raising suspicions over my obvious nervousness. The conversations at each table ranging from how shit I look, to how tall and disproportionate my body is and if anyone happens to be laughing, I am the joke.

Stepping through the double timber french doors back out into the fresh air and sunshine, my stinging, tired eyes squint like mad to adjust to the brightness, but not being confined to four walls helps me to breathe a little easier.

I see John waving at me as soon as my vision returns and I awkwardly return the wave. It feels awkward anyway. His girl has her back sitting to me and the first thing I notice is her bare shoulders and the way her wild yet somehow perfect curls are falling higgledy-piggledy around her neck. If her front looks half as good as her back, John’s done well for himself.

Feeling like I am wearing a straight jacket rather than one of Ian’s tees, I fiddle with it constantly, trying to stretch it as I walk. It is easily two sizes too small but I have nothing close to appropriate to wear in my three shirts and a kilt cupboard.

John, of course, looks impeccable. Wearing a dark blue shirt and cream chinos not many guys can pull off, he’s handsome, polished and it only increases the insecurity over my shabby appearance. He stands as I approach and crushes me into a massive bear hug.

“Fuck, it’s so bloody good to see you, old man. Literally, I can actually see you.”

“Aye, ‘tis the new, improved, old me. Did I say that right? ‘Tis slightly confusing.”

Our embrace continues until his girl clears her throat, making it clear cuddle time for the boys is over.

“Shit, sorry to ignore you, but you have no idea how different this guy looks, babe. It's incredible. Anyway, Seamus, this is my girlfriend.”

He spins me to face her and honestly, he may as well have put me in a headlock, kneed me in the head, then cut off my balls. All air is suddenly sucked from the atmosphere and I struggle to speak, blink or think.

Scanning me up and down, her eyes settle on mine, squinting with familiarity. She’s chewing her lip, I can hear her thinking.

She knows she knows me, but the haircut, trimmed beard, and newly visible cheeks are throwing her off. The eyes though, the eyes are what’s got her thinking.

 

“Sassenach.” I smile, attempting to cover the absolute devastation I’m feeling in my soul to see her take John's hand.

“Jamie?” It’s more of a question than a recognition of fact. Her eyes widen, nearly popping out of her pretty little head as she continues looking me up and down, unabashedly objectifying me, a slight smirk appearing on her lips.

“Aye, hallo, Claire.”

“Wait, what? Do you two know each other?” John's surprise is more than warranted. What are the chances of his old hermit friend—who has scarcely spoken a word to anyone in a year—knowing his stunning new girlfriend?

Avoiding her lingering gaze is killing me, but I cannot bring myself to look into her eyes.

“Claire’s one of my yoga teachers.”

John is completely still but his eyes shoot back and forth between Claire and me like he is putting together the pieces of a bemusing puzzle. “Wait..wait... Jamie’s the bearded fainter?”

Christ, she’s nicknamed me.

“Aye, that’s me.”

The laughter my admission incited is impressive and contagious, even I can’t help but join in, as does Claire. Her sweet but slightly evil laugh is music to my wounded soul. Her eyes squish together tightly, causing the cutest crinkles around her eyes and nose to appear. Wee dimples appear in her cheeks that I'd give anything to kiss...but then I remember, she is John’s.

 

My only hope is that her personality is the pits and completely off-putting. But the mere fact that John is watching her every move in glowing adoration means that is highly unlikely.

“Should I get us some drinks?” Asks John, wiping merry tears from his eyes. “Vodka soda, Claire? Jamie, fancy a beer?”

Both nodding our reply, Claire and I sit in quiet observation as he walks away, seemingly waiting for the other to speak first.

“I didn’t recognise you,” she blurts out eventually. “Without all the... ah...” her finger pointing back and forth between my once hidden chin and my head and she seems to be struggling to find the word she’s looking for.

“Hair?” I reply, finishing her sentence. “Aye, guess I do look a bit different. Confused the shit outta my wee niece this morning too. Poor kid had no idea who was kissing her bonnie cheeks.”

“How old is she, your niece?” She asks, smiling and twirling a stray tendril around her finger with a toxic level of sexiness.

“Three, almost four. And I have a nephew who’s six. He kent who I was straight away, no fooling him.”

Polite chuckles give way to more silence and we both breathe a sigh of relief when John returns with our drinks. He kisses her soft-looking lips as he sits and their hands link together the moment he is settled in his seat. Claire seems more at ease in his company and as for John, well, he is positively beaming.

General chit-chat commences and as the beer seeps into my system, I become more relaxed. Claire even mentions John and I serving together, and I am able to talk about our time overseas without any negative consequences exceeding my regular, ever attentive guilt and anxiety.

It feels great. Claire is great and utterly charming, and it is clear that John is thoroughly charmed by her.

The problem is, I am too.

Never, ever, have I had a reaction to a woman remotely close to this. Passion is infused into every word she speaks, whether the subject is yoga, her love of cat videos on TikTok, or something as generic as the weather.

The manner in which she goes through the menu is downrigh adorable, reading aloud each item, she seems genuinely excited, clicking her tongue as she gives it all deep consideration.

Even watching her order is captivating. She changes her mind several times and ends up ordering two dishes when she can’t decide; the girl loves her food, and I love it. She is intelligent, kind, and witty. Everything I hoped she wouldn't be.

It disturbs me how relaxed I am in her presence, the people around us, and my nerves to be surrounded by them are melting away. I feel more myself than I had in years and laugh more too. A layer of grief and guilt is burning from my skin each time she says my name and when she leans over and slaps my hand in a playful ‘oh stop it’ kind of way, something within me shifts, an energy untapped.

I trust her immediately and with every flutter of her astonishingly long eyelashes, feel the thick concrete walls I had built around myself crumbling. That's when I start to panic.

 

Ye feel too good. Something has tae go wrong.

Dinnae smile too much, she'll think you're an idiot.

If John sees that ye like her, ye’ll lose them both.

 

In thirty seconds, the asshole that lives in my brain completely shatters me, and the short-lived happiness I felt.

John watches me with concern, he can read my face, knows what is happening, what's most likely coming.

“Seamus, come to the mens with me? I want your opinion on something.” He nods in the direction of the loo and laughs when Claire starts joking about secret men's business and eating our food if it arrives. I however am not laughing.

Standing immediately and excusing myself, I let John lead the way, not out of politeness, but because I have no idea where the toilets are and need to take the direct route.

Drenching in sweat by the time we push our way through the swing doors, I practically run to the sink and begin to furiously splash cold water on my face.

“What happened? Did I say something? Did Claire? I mean, she didn’t say anything about Will—”

“Bout Willie?” I snap, immediately and without thought getting right in his face. “Ye told her about Willie?”

“Yes, I told her about Willie. He was a big part of my life for a long time. I lost him too. I know he wasn't my brother but—”

“No, he wasnae yer brother. He was my brother and ye have no right tae talk about him. I suppose ye told her I am a fuckin nutcase too? Christ, John, any wonder the lass was being sae nice tae me.”

“She was being nice because she is nice, and maybe, just maybe, she likes me, and wants to be friends with someone I care about. Bloody hell, Jamie, did it ever cross your mind that she may think that you're nice?”

“No one thinks I’m nice cause I’m no’!” Before I can stop myself, my fist clenches, and smashes it into the mirror, shattering it, and sending shards of glass flying through the air.

“Fucking clot-heid!” Blood runs down my arm, dripping all over Ian’s tee and down onto the floor.

“Jamie! Let me help you!” John grabs my arm, gripping below the cut to try and slow the bleeding. Dragging me around with him, he searches for something to wrap around my arm. Not finding anything, he drops my hand, pulls his shirt over his head and uses it as a makeshift tourniquet.

“Jesus, John. Ye dinnae have tae do that.” I try to play it cool, like it was nothing, but my arm hurts like a motherfucker and the blood is showing no sign of slowing. I know why, my antidepressants thin my blood; this is not the first time I have run into this issue.

“I don’t have to do a lot of things,” he snapped. “But you need to go to emergency. You need stitches.”

 

Hospital or not, we need to leave. Blood continues to spill on us both and the poor guy is standing shirtless in a restaurant toilet. Hearing the commotion, a hapless employee wanders in and almost faints when he spots the blood. John simply pushes past him and drags me outside.

Shocked, slack-jawed onlookers gasp as we hurry back to the table. Poor Claire has just taken a mouthful of either her Caprese salad or her triple bacon cheeseburger and proceeds to spit it across the table when she sees the state we are both in.

John throws a stack of money onto the table, Claire grabs our belongings and we are off.

I sit lightheaded in the back of John's car, with him speeding down the motorway, and his girlfriend sitting beside me. My hand, a blue, numb throbbing mess as blood pisses from my body. I don't know what is worse; my hand, or being so close to Claire as she tightly holds it in hers.

She too is now drenched in my blood and even through—or maybe because of—my grogginess, I manage to find some kind of sick poetic romanticism in it.

The pain is blinding, yet dull, numb, and I know from previous experience that that is not a good thing. As does John. He has the rearview mirror positioned in such a way to see me laying in the back and is spewing words of reassurance the whole way. Claire is uncomfortably kind, and when I mention the increasing nausea I feel, she uses her free hand to begin sweeping the hair from my forehead in a soothing, rhythmic way that reminds me so much of my mam’s that I almost burst into tears.

“You’ll be okay, Jamie.” She whispers as I look up into her sad, mesmerising eyes. Her voice, pure and calming, is the last thing I hear, her gorgeous face smiling down on me the last thing I see as I drift off to sleep.

Chapter Text

 

Honey coloured eyes, so suiting the sweetness of her face, shine and glisten before me as I wake in a strange bed.

“Claire,” I whisper, believing I'm in yet another one of my yoga pants Claire-filled dreams.

“I’m here, Jamie. John is too.”

“Hey, buddy.” John's face appears beside Claire’s, cheek by cheek. They’re looking down on me, unknowingly ending my fantasy.

Had I been more lucid, I’d have been embarrassed, but I honestly can’t give a shit. My hand is throbbing to the pace of my pulse, feels five times the weight of normal and I don’t have a clue where I am.

Through my daze and blurring vision, I scan the room, and piece by bloody piece, it’s coming back to me...fighting with John, smashing the mirror, shredding my hand. I’m in a hospital. I fucking hate hospitals.

My arm looks like an escapee from an Egyptian exhibit at a museum. It's mummified, covered with bandages and gauze, but I want to see what I’ve done to myself. John and Claire are begging me to wait, to leave it be for now, but that would be logical and I don’t do logic.

One by one the bandages are falling to the floor, the pain is next level intense but I keep going until I see my temper's creation.

My back has some competition. My hand is littered in stitches. It’s quite Frankenstein-ish, and in all honesty, kind of suits me.

What’s one, or fifty more scars? Chicks dig them apparently. Wonder if Claire does.

Equilibrium returns and I’m continuing to ignore my friends' pleas to rest by grabbing my chart from the end of the bed.

“Huh, placed under psychiatric observation. That’s bloody lovely that is. Do I get any say in this or was it decided while I was unconscious?”

John is mumbling a reply, trying to make me see reason, but reason is like logic. I don’t do that well either.

A psych hold—not my first by the way—is not how I had planned on finishing my lunch with Claire…with John, I mean.

Nor was being in crippling pain. Lord knows I can’t forget it. For most, it would be manageable with standard pain meds, but I refuse point blank to take opioids, and I can tell they have honoured the notes on all my files and given me none.

I know my brain too well; one pill from addiction is as close to it as I want to be.

When in Germany, recovering from surgery, I had existed on a diet of pills and potions that would impress Betty Ford herself. And when I returned home to Scotland, I craved the relief and amnesia they brought long after my body required it.

Many of my fellow servicewomen and men returned from one war only to find themselves battling another at home, and far too many lost the war of addiction. I was one of the lucky ones who recognised what I was slipping into and by the grace of God, was able to stop. I guess I don’t have that addiction gene that many of my fellow returned servicemen have, or maybe I just chose a different addiction.

“How’s the pain?” Sitting beside me on the bed, John seems to be reading my mind. Claire is standing beside him, looking down on me like an angel.

“No’ great, had worse.”

“Jenny called while you were sleeping, she’s on her way back from Glasgow. She should be here soon actually.”

Speak of the devil, in she walks; red-faced, flustered, Maggie squirming in her arms, flames shooting from her head. She squeals as soon as she sees me and kisses my head a ridiculous number of times.

Expecting a verbal onslaught, I lay in waiting and am almost disappointed that her attention shifts immediately to poor, innocent John.

“John, outside.” Claire’s on the receiving end of a fierce frowning before Maggie is shoved onto an empty chair and John dragged outside to the corridor. “Wait there,” she barked at me, like I had a choice.

Discretion is not a high ranking character trait of my sister, and Claire, me, and everyone else in the ward can hear her unfairly laying everything into John. It’s all his fault apparently. He should have watched me closer, shouldn’t have let me drink, shouldn’t have discussed our time in the service.

“She seems...nice.” Claire’s sarcasm is about as subtle as Jenny’s rage, but much more humorous. “She does realise you’re a grown man, right?” Not waiting for a reply, she walks to Maggie who’s waiting patiently for her mam, and points to the empty seat beside her.

“You must be Maggie? May I sit with you please?”

“Aye. Ye’re pretty, I like yer hair.” Leaning towards Claire, Maggie smiles and begins running her fingers through her loose curls.

“Thank you, Maggie, I like yours too.” Claire remains by Maggie's side, the two taking turns to play with each other's brown curls. “It’s very similar to mine, don’t you think?”

“Aye, Uncle Jamie cut his hair in his cave and Mam was angry at him fer making a mess.”

“In his cave? Well, that does sound interesting.” Pursing her lips, Claire’s wink comes damn close to blowing up the heart rate monitor I'm currently connected to but I appreciate the pain-relieving dizziness it also brings. “I didn’t know you lived in a cave. You're not Batman, are you?”

“Well, I could tell ye, but then I’d have tae—”

“Ye tell me now, John Grey. Did he or did he no’ do this on purpose? Was he trying tae harm himself again?” Jenny devastatingly shouts at the top of her lungs.

If the earth could please open up and swallow me whole, I would be eternally grateful. Shame is burning straight through me. I’m watching Claire from the corner of my eye, certain she’ll be shocked and just as embarrassed as me.

But to my surprise, she seems to be taking it in her stride and is continuing to chat with Maggie, while looking up at me with a smile.

Can this woman be any more amazing?

Apparently, yes. Yes she can. As Jenny’s tirade continues, she goes and does it. She becomes more amazing.

“Excuse me for a second, Maggie.” Patting Maggie on the hand, Claire’s face shifts from friendly to fierce and she marches herself out into the hall.

“This may be none of my business, but Jamie and your daughter can hear everything you’re saying. Could I suggest you either talk somewhere else, lower your voices, or maybe talk to Jamie directly? I’m sure you’ll find him well enough to answer all your questions.”

“Who the devil are ye, tae tell me what tae do wi’ my kin? Being John’s trollop doesnae give ye a seat at my table.”

Classic Jenny. But look out, enter classic Claire.

“And I don’t expect one, thank you. But Jamie has come out of surgery and needs to rest. Not listen to his surrogate, self-appointed parent talk about him like he’s not here.”

More mumbling conversation floats inside but I’m too in awe of my new hero to notice. Claire’s the first to re-enter and comes and sits beside me, taking the position John had been in earlier.

“My dad was in the army,” she says immediately as she shifts uncomfortably on the hard mattress. “He served in Desert Storm, came home and became a teacher, but from what I can remember of him, he always struggled. Jamie, I can’t tell you I understand what you’re going through, but I do know what Jenny is first hand. Even though I was young, it's hard to sit by and watch someone you love change and be in so much pain. She shouldn’t have said those things, not here anyway. But try not to be angry at her. She’s just scared of losing you. John is too.”

“I ken. I have put her, both of them, through a lot.”

Claire looks down at her flaking nail polish, picks at it some more, then looks directly into my eyes, “can I ask you something?”

“Aye, anything.”

“Do you want to be here? Do you want to keep fighting?”

I can’t answer her immediately. Deciding whether or not to speak my truth is slowing me down. But something within her eyes tells me that I'm safe. I don’t know why, but not lying to her feels important. Trusting her seems right.

“If ye asked me that a few months ago, I may have given ye a different answer. Sometimes I felt sae utterly soulless and empty, I didnae ken what tae do with myself. But I can see and feel things starting tae shift. I didnae think I had anything tae live fer, but I dinnae feel that sae much anymore.”

At some point during my answer, her hand disappears into mine and now we’re sitting still, looking down at our entwined fingers. It’s so soft, so tiny and warm, and sits so perfectly within my own I could swear I was designed to hold it. My thumb begins to caress over her knuckles, a cold shiver sweeps over me that is strange, foreign, sublime and I can see by the rise and fall of her chest that she feels it too.

“What’s changed?” She’s still looking at our hands, but her eyes are softly closing in rhythm with my touch.

 

“I dinnae ken exactly. Therapy helped fer sure, the kids, ye- ah...yoga I mean, yoga has helped.”

“Good. I’m glad I...yoga, could help.” She smiles and her eyes finally look into mine. “I know we just met, and this may sound creepily forward of me, but I’m here for you, Jamie. I’ll help you in any way I can.”

“Thank ye, Sassenach, truly... Fuck!” Breaking the sereneness of the moment, I’m of course now crying and drying my eyes with my shoulder cause there's no way I'm letting go of her hand. “I cannae stop fecking crying.”

“I admire a man who can cry. It's very sexy, you know.”

“What’s sexy?” asked John as he walked back into the room. “Apart from me of course.”

Our hands break apart but not before he sees. Standing quickly, Claire walks to the window and looks out, keeping her back to the room while John looks back and forth between the two of us.

“It’s nice to see my two favourite people getting along so well. She's amazing, isn’t she, Jamie?” He walks up behind Claire, wraps his arms around her waist, and kisses her cheek. It’s sickly sweet but I can’t help but notice her body tensing a little.

“Aye, she is. Ye’re a lucky man.”

John and Claire leave not long after awkward hug 101. John insists I need to sleep, but no rest will be had before Jenny has her say on my accident, and on John and Claire.

I am discharged the next day, and feck me, my cave has never looked so good. The noise, constant lights, poking and prodding of the nurses had left me craving its dark and gloomy solace. It is also an escape from Claire. The memory and feel of her hand in mine has not left me since she did, and I hope the change of scenery will help me move past it.

Jenny had been in and cleaned in my absence, but it doesn’t take me long to get it back to my preferred funky, smelly state. My mood is up at first, well, for me it is up, but as the week progresses, the continuing throbbing pain of my hand keeps me awake and I feel myself slipping backwards. Ignoring calls and texts, I resume my hermit lifestyle. I really am a creature of habit.

Light cardio and strength workouts with one hand give me that satisfying, but fleeting endorphin hit that tides me over for a short while, but some days, by the time I had finished my cool down, it would hit me again. The fear, the flashbacks, the sense of being a burden, all these will have me sitting or laying on the floor in a puddle of tears, not sure what I am even crying about.

Tough soldier types like me shouldn't cry. Should be able to hold it together. I should be a real man, tough it out, go and build shit, and I have, for months. That's how I became so good at bloody whittling.

But during my sessions with Dr Rawlings, I’ve been expertly broken down. My tears unleashed, and now I seemingly can’t stop. I cry not only for Willie, but for Mam and Da, for my colleagues who struggle as I do, for those who never came home, and for time, for all the time I have lost and for all the time I may lose in the future if this sadness, this fog never lifts.

Honestly, I think it takes more strength to feel and to cry than it does to push it all down or drink it away or numb it with a pill. At least when I cry, I don’t wake up with a hangover. Oh, and Claire thinks men who cry are sexy. I can’t forget that.

Around midday on my fifth day at home, there’s a knock at my cave door. Assuming it to be one of the kids, I stagger to the door, half-asleep and shirtless. Thinking it will be funny to try and scare them, I crouch down and scream “ARRGHHHH” as I’m opening the door.

It's not the kids.

It’s Claire, and I’m looking directly at her rather lovely breasts.

“Jesus Christ, Jamie. You scared the shit out of me!”

“Sorry, Sassenach. I thought ye were the weans. I didnae mean tae frighten ye.” Returning to the standing position of a normal person while feeling anything but normal, I look behind her for John but can’t see him anywhere. “Did ye come wi’ John?”

“Nope, just me. I was a bit worried. I’ve tried to call and text you a couple of times but you didn’t answer and I didn’t have Jenny’s number. So I thought I would pop in. I hope that’s okay. I brought cake!”

Verbal diarrhea. She’s nervous. She thinks men who cry are sexy and she brought ye cake.

“Did John give ye my number?” Needing some kind of physical support, I’m leaning against the door frame, looking directly into her slightly stunned but still stunning eyes.

“Yes... Well, sort of, I got it from his phone.”

“But ye dinnae get Jenny’s when I dinnae answer? Hmm, curious.”

“Jenny scares me, to be honest. If you didn’t notice, she wasn’t exactly a big fan of mine when we met.” Her eyes shift from mine and run up and down quickly. If I didn't know better, I'd swear she was scanning over my bare chest.

“But I dinnae scare ye?” I ask, not able to help the smirk my lips have curled into.

“No, no you don’t. Now, are you going to ask me in? For cake?”

“Of course. But only cause ye brought me cake.”

The atmosphere completely changes, as does the rate of my pulse as I move from the door and invite her in. Never had a woman done to me what she can do by simply walking past me, and now she is in my cave and I am flirting.

Fuck, I wish I didnae live like such a pig.

Chapter Text

 

As she plays with the tight ringlets escaping the strict control of her polished braid, blood rushes to my nether regions. My poor guys haven’t seen this much action since I was 14 and first discovered and mastered the ability of my own hand.

Standing just inside my door, we’ve been talking about herbs. Not the funny smoking kind but the actual herbs, the ones you put in your gravy; rosemary, thyme.

Turns out Claire is an avid gardener and has a keen interest in botany. She noticed the herb garden Wee Jamie and I started by my door and it’s been a perfect conversation starter for two people who are clearly affected by each other’s presence.

Walking further inside, she takes off her coat and her arm becomes stuck and it takes several adorable, curse-filled yanks to try and get it out. I’m pretty sure we realise at the same time that she has her fists so tightly clenched they are blocking her arms’ freedom. Once she relaxes, it slips off with ease.

“You’d think I’ve never gotten undressed before.” The shade of crimson radiating up her neck and already rosy cheeks is captivatingly sexy and I’m doing my best not to react and embarrass her further.

She’s wearing those damn yoga pants again and a fitted tee that shows the curve of her hips and breasts that my eyes can’t help but linger. As her body acclimatises to my chilly room without her coat, her nipples hardened like cherries. It is particularly cold here today and I'm eternally grateful that my shitty heater is so shitty.

“Can I get ye a drink?” I ask, trying anything to distract myself. “I have coffee and tea here, water, some sodas? Or I can get ye anything from the house?”

“Water would be good.” As she scans the dirty laundry littering the floor, I bolt to my mini kitchen. I feel her gaze switch to me as I fill her glass and take the opportunity to remind myself: She's John's girl, eyes up.

Taking the glass from my hand, her fingers brush teasingly over mine and our eyes meet in a way that’s becoming a habit. One I want to stop, and never, ever stop with equal passion.

“What brings ye here, Claire? Is John okay?”

“Yes, John's fine, good...great. I just... Like I said, you didn't answer my calls and I was worried. John’s already so worried about you and I didn’t want to worry him more by asking. It was just easier to come and check on you myself…so I didn’t worry…about John.”

“That’s a lot of worry. Even fer someone like me. I’m glad ye decided tae come though, and put yerself outta yer misery.”

I point towards the couch and we sit down, one glaringly empty cushion between us. I’m glad Jenny forced me into getting a three seater now as I don’t think I could handle sitting any closer to her.

“Do ye find yerself worrying a lot then, Sassenach?”

“I used to...a lot actually. Run of the mill general anxiety, nothing hardcore like—”

“Like me?”

“I guess...yes, like you. John told me you’ve been diagnosed with PTSD. I guess that qualifies as hardcore.”

My glum nodding doesn’t last long as she leans back on the couch, misjudges how far the cushion is and falls most of the way back. Pretending not to notice her adorable awkwardness, I sit back too.

“So teacher, teach me. How did ye beat it? How did Claire Beauchamp conquer the beast?”

Claire flinches and licks her lips as I lean in and say her name. I’m suddenly worried if I went too far; general chit chat may be all she’s comfortable with but just as I am about to apologise, she begins her answer.

”I was 17 when they died. My mum and dad I mean.”

“Shit. Christ, Claire, I didnae ken. I would never have—”

“It’s okay Jamie, it’s good to talk about this stuff. Every time you do, you heal a little more. Honestly, it’s still a work in progress, but I learnt to compartmentalise my anxiety. I had to in order to function. One part of my brain can be an absolute wreck, worried about everything from the future to the past. Then it snowballs and every problem will live on for eternity with no solution. The next part is functioning okay. It’s like the only adult in my brain, doing the working out, grocery shopping, housework. The things you don’t want to do but kind of have to function as a somewhat ‘normal’ adult. Then there's the social part; that’s the stubborn fucker that keeps me awake at night the most.”

“Ye? I would never have picked it. Ye seem sae confident.”

“Oh, god no. I was terrible, especially when my uncle and I moved here to Scotland.

I felt like a complete freak. It was my last year at school, I was taller and shyer than everyone, more English than everyone. When I finished school, I was a bit lost. I’d tried a few jobs, even trained as a hairdresser, nothing seemed right though. That's when I started yoga and meditation and met Raymond in a class. It wasn’t long after that that my uncle passed away. I was devastated, all alone and desperate for something to fill the void. Raymond was there for me, and thank god, took me under his wing. He changed my life.”

Several heartbeats pass before I can speak. I get so lost in her story, in her beauty.

“And yoga, that's still something ye love?”

“Absolutely, it's part of who I am. My dream is to own my own studio. I have it all planned.” Jumping excitedly onto her knees, her face lights up like a Christmas tree as she describes her vision. “It’ll be perfect, Jamie. Yoga, massage, reiki, maybe even hairstylists and naturopathy too. I know that may sound lame, but it's really something I think about a lot.”

“Doesnae sound lame at all. ‘Tis amazing and rather intimidating if anything. I wish I knew what I wanted tae do. All I ever wanted was tae be a soldier, and well, that didn’t turn out sae great.”

Staring while telling myself not to, my eyes focus on her neck and refuse to shift as she swallows her water down in one go, licks the drops of water from her lips then holds the empty glass in her hands.

“Lemme get ye some more water.”

Nothing is going to be easy about this visit, simply touching her hand to take the glass is a life altering experience and the way I hear her breathing change tells me I’m not alone in that thought.

Inquisitive, amber eyes follow my shirtless body, and via the mirror on my wall, I see the moment she spots the thick, ropey scars on my back. Her eyes widen, then narrow as she studies them, but she says nothing and certainly doesn’t have the visceral reaction that I would expect.

“You look so good-, ah, different, with your haircut and a short beard. Did you really do it yourself?”

“Aye, in this verra room. Ye’re sitting in hallowed ground, Sassenach.”

“Ahh, that’s right, it’s the bat cave, how could I forget.”

Chuckling as I walk, I return from the kitchen bringing with me two more glasses of water, the cake -which I now notice is decorated with a smiley face- and a bag of salted peanuts. With no small plates to serve the cake on, I grab some paper towels to use instead. As for the peanuts, I have no idea where they came from, or how old they are. But they are the only snacks I could find and I feel like a real grown-up would have something to offer to go with the cake.

Again, she watches me, but this time, it’s my head she’s looking at, not my back and there is a cheeky, playfulness in her expression.

“Would you like me to even it out a bit? I could do it now if you still have the scissors.”

 

Five minutes later, I’m sitting in a chair, Claire behind me, clicking her tongue, her hands running through my hair. This is a massive mistake.

“How short do you want to go? You can pull off anything with your bone structure, but it would be a shame to lose these curls. Girls are mad for curls after all.”

Her compliments make my heart sing and in what’s an extremely rare, unheard-of move for me, I accept her words. No arguing back, no self-deprecating humour. There's something in the way she said it, that makes it okay. Believable even.

“I leave that up tae ye, Sassenach. I trust ye completely.”

Humming to herself as she decides, she gives a little ‘yes’, and an evil laugh that makes me feel rather nervous as she begins her work. Cutting with the old fashioned scissors over comb method is slower but she claims it will allow the curls to remain. She really does like curls.

Each time her fingers tickle past my ears or lightly brush my scalp, a maddening sensation runs from my head to my toes and my eyes close even though I tell them not to.

Relaxing to her tender touch way more than I should, my body goes almost limp and she has to constantly ask me to hold up my head, down and or to the side. Eventually, she gets sick of asking and grabs a fist full of curls. Tenderness is gone and her French manicure roughly scratches my scalp as she jerks my head back sharply.

“Will you bloody listen? Or are you going to make me get rough?”

Looking up at her as the crown of my head rests on her belly, I really don't want to answer that question. My lack of response has her tugging harder and I let myself wander to dangerous places; places where it's her and me and plenty of rough.

I am desperate for her to dominate me.

Panic begins to set in and I am one slap and tickle away from a full-blown erection. Something in the way she moves tells me that she knows and is thinking about the same thing. A wicked smile flashes across her lips before she pushes my head into her desired position, causing a sigh to escape me that really shouldn't.

This haircut just turned into a sex game.

She stands even closer, unnecessarily close, and I can feel her breasts pressing against my neck when she bends. I lie back into them and am again punished with a severe hair pull that makes me wonder what I can do to get another one.

Testing the water, I drop my arm from my leg and it dangles beside me. When she next moves to the side, I casually raise it, running up the inside of her leg, coming to rest and tickling behind her knee. Even through these damn leggings, I can feel the velvety softness of her skin.

I feel her legs begin to shake and this time, it’s her turn to sigh. She is practically leaning on me, her hands are on my bare shoulder like I'm the only thing keeping her standing, even while being the cause of her trembling giddiness.

Suddenly, my hair is pulled, tugged, again, towards her this time. Her breasts press against my ear as I continue to tickle her, inching higher by the second. She gasps and steps back.

Damn, I’ve gone too far, pressed too hard. Several excruciating heartbeats pass before she walks behind me, trailing her fingers along my back, across the scarred flesh, all the way to the opposite shoulder.

The same scenario is repeated, my hand between her legs, her breasts against my cheek. The smell of her is intoxicating. I want to drink her in, spend my life wasted on her alone.

“Jamie.”

Did she?

Aye, I’m sure.

My name, so softly spoken I could barely hear it, but I did.

I’m sure, positive.

She whispered, almost sighed my name.

I don’t know how much more of this I can take.

She’s almost finished and while I need this torture to end before I explode, I’m painfully disappointed.

As she bends down to trim around my ears, all I can think about is how fast and heavy she's breathing onto my neck and if she can see that I’m breathing even harder.

“Almost done,” she says in a low, heavy tone so different from her normal voice. “I’ll just brush this hair from your neck then I’ll show you.”

Beginning at the nape of my neck, she gently caresses her fingers over me and I see the wee bits of ginger curls floating through the air. When she finds a bit not so easy to shift, she bends down and blows, right between my neck and ear.

I’ve never been more aware of my physical self than I am right now.

My body is attacked by millions of goosebumps and an ungodly shiver sweeps over me.

Turns out, I needn’t have worried about dying in her yoga class. An innocent haircut is about to return me to my maker.

“All done,” she says, as she moves to stand in front of me. “You look really good, Jamie. Would you like to see?”

I can hardly speak by this point and stutter out a pathetic, “aye.”

Picking up the mirror from the table beside me, she puts it in my hand and smiles. “Oh, let me get this hair before you look.” Ducking down in front of me, her eyes in line with mine, her breasts are right in my face and I can see right down her top.

A battle of will takes place between my pupils and my brain. Resistance is useless. I can't help but look.

Oh. My. God.

She’s wearing no bra.

They are sublime.

I wish I have the ability to make my eyes move independently of the other because I want to look into her bewitching eyes, but cannot stop looking at her tits. A deafening silence follows and I swallow hard. She watches the rise and fall of my Adam's apple intently and swallows just as she brushes the hair from my face. “Perfect.”

When I look in the mirror, I am taken aback.

Throughout life, we have those moments that blow you away with their perfect simplicity. They can hit so completely and so unexpectedly that they knock you off your feet. All you can do is just sit back, try to take it all in, and be thankful. This is one of those moments.

“I dinnae ken what tae say...”

With unconscious competence, I drop the mirror and pull her to my side. My arms wrap around her waist, and my head comes to rest dangerously close to her breasts.

No one is breathing.

“Thank ye, Sassenach.”

 

“James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser! Step away from the whore.”

Chapter Text

claire's pov.

 

What the hell was that?

I hate myself for what just happened, for what I allowed to happen.

His sister hates me too. Thinks me the spawn of the devil himself. That I dwell in the depths of fiery pits of hell, and by the volume of her declarations, she wants the whole world to know it.

Jamie’s not backing down. His stoic defence and praise of me make me feel even worse.

God, I am so ashamed.

But at the same time, I am completely addicted.

Jamie is my new drug. I want that rush. I want to feel that way every minute of every day for the rest of my life.

But that's not the only issue I'm facing right now.

My car is right in front of me but it seems I have forgotten how to walk.

 

I’m barely able to feel the ground beneath my feet. I must look as graceful as a hog on ice and I don't think I can make it. It's just too hard.

God, if he’s watching me now, I will die.

For fuck’s sake, Beauchamp, don’t look back.

Thankfully, muscle memory kicks in, reminding me I know how to do this. It's easy, idiot, just one foot in front of the other.

This, walking, seems to be one of the few things I know with any degree of certainty.

That's it.

Walking. Oh, and knowing. Knowing that my path forward is going to be complicated and messy as fuck.

So why does it thrill me so much?

As my arse sinks into the worn-out velour seat of my embarrassingly old Honda, I sigh and a single tear runs down my still flushed cheek.

I close my eyes and see him, see it; the moment an obsession was born.

Eyes of pure heart fluttering, burning straight into mine as I brushed the hair from his face. Within the twinkle of blue, I wanted him, felt guilty just breathing the same air as him, never wanted to be apart from him.

I knew it was coming. 

The minute he looked up at me after fainting, I knew I was in trouble. 

And here I am. Balls deep.

Why is he everything?

How can I feel so much so quickly, and so intensely?

The touch of his hand behind my knee left me wanting. The feel of his hair between my fingers, how he let me control him, dictate his position, had me picturing me guiding him between my legs.

God, the thought of it now has me clenching my thighs together and gripping the wheel so hard I think I’ll snap it in two.

Never, ever, have I burned for someone like that.

As I drive away from him, my ache increases. I need release and it can't wait. Even with my eyes open, concentrating on the road, I see his ripped, carved by the God’s bare chest before me.

Urges to do bad, bad things are building in me again.

One nanosecond and the grace of God stopped me from straddling him and biting into his hard, chisel pecs; but I am alone now, no one can see me, I am free to let my mind explore.

My left hand grips the wheel tighter but my right disappears inside the slippery lycra of my pants and glides between my soaking wet folds. Moans slip from my mouth as I think of him watching me and I wonder what he would say if he could see me right now.

Two fingers work around my most sensitive spot and I sigh as I think of my breasts pressed into him and the noise he made when I blew the loose hair from his neck. If only he knew there was no need for me to do that. I really just wanted to tease him.

Then I remember the cheeky bastard looking straight down my top and the wry little smirk on his lips as he wondered if I noticed. I wonder if he noticed the smirk on mine when I saw his hardness straining against his sweats. I imagine what it would feel like to grip him within my hand, what noises he would make then.

Fuck! He’s so sexy it’s driving me insane.

I can barely keep in my lane, weaving all over the road, but I can’t stop. It feels so good, and I’m so damn close. I call his name, “Jamie,” again and again, just as I did when I ran my fingers across his back and shoulders, but louder and clearer. How I wanted to trail them with my tongue, discover how his smooth golden skin tasted.

The pressure is building inside and I can’t keep my eyes open. There are no other cars around so I pull to the side of the road, my left hand grips my inner thigh.

I rub, tickle, and circle there, biting my lip to stop my screams, but nothing, not even Jamie’s hand clamped over my mouth could stop the carnal wail I release.

I wonder if he's doing the same thing right now, touching his hardness as he thinks of me. I call his name until my orgasm crashes over me and I collapse back into the seat, soaking wet with sweat.

As my body descends back to earth, I think of John and become horrified by my actions. In my heart of hearts, I know I can’t touch Jamie again, maybe not even see him again until I decide what I’m going to do.

How I feel when he looks at me, when he touches me, cannot be ignored... even if I wanted to. But after what just happened, I don’t think I can trust myself around him.

My fate had been sealed as soon as I got into my crappy car and drove to his house, lying to myself the whole time that I just wanted to make sure he was okay. Even if he was, I wasn’t, and I’m starting to think that if Jamie doesn't become mine, I may never feel okay again.

An all-consuming fear takes hold of me and its cold, clammy fingers tighten around my throat and squeeze. I am terrified.

What if I never touch him, or feel like that again?

My train of thought is broken when I hear a rustle outside. Panicking that I’m not as alone as I thought I was, I slowly look to my left and see a herd of Highland cattle spying on me through the passenger side window. Their sharp, judgmental horns are pointing right in my direction, and their long tongues licking the spit from their faces make me think they are drooling over me.

How long they have been watching me and whether or not I just performed a sex show in front of livestock is a question I don't need answering.

I really have sunk to a new low.

Just go home, Claire.

 

Around five minutes from solitude, my phone rings. A shiver runs down my spine and vomit rises in my throat when I see John's name on the screen. Like the coward I am, I let it ring out. I can’t talk to him now. The sweet, soft hum of his voice would carry me off to the loony bin. I need time.

Unfortunately, I have none. As I approach my house, I see his car. He is sitting on the bonnet, phone in hand, and my phone rings again as I pull into my driveway. Beaming at me like the cat that got the cream, he points to the phone in his hand, nods, laughs, and hangs up.

“That was good timing.” He smiles as I step from the car and wave. “I was starting to think that everyone is avoiding me. First Jamie doesn’t pick up, then you.”

When his arms wrap around my waist and he kisses me on the cheek, I worry that shame has a distinct odour he is familiar with. But the kiss travels along my jaw and to my lips and he sighs and whispers, “I missed you.” I guess I’m in the clear.

Voices in my mind scream at me to tell him now. Tell him you just eye-fucked his best friend, and got off thinking of him on the side of the road. Tell him, go on, tell him!

“I brought you some dinner. I know you have a late class so I hoped we could eat together before you leave?”

“Dinner?” I look at my watch and can’t believe the time. I had been at Jamie’s for hours.

Time sure does fly when you are betraying your boyfriend.

“Sure, that sounds sweet,” I lied. Food is the last thing I want right now. I feel sick to my absolute core, but this will buy me some time in which I can try to decide what to do.

He takes my hand, swinging it as we walk inside, and sets himself up in the kitchen. Tofu and crispy noodles are on the menu. He’s so sweet it hurts. I’m pretty sure he hates tofu, he always has the cutest hangdog expression on his face when he eats it like he’s going to gag with every mouthful. But here he is, cooking it for me anyway. He may as well drive a dagger straight into my cheating heart.

“What have you been up to?” He asks as he expertly tosses the mung beans into the wok.

“Nothing, I didn’t get up to anything,” I reply, hoping my guilt isn’t seeping into my answers. “Just potted around, and then... then I went to see Jamie.”

“Oh.” The wok drops and cracks loudly against the ceramic cooktop. Both of us jump at the loud noise and it’s clear we’re both on edge. “You went to Lallybroch? What for? Was he okay?”

“Yes, he was fine. Well...not fine, but not as bad as I thought. I knew how worried you were about him and I was out that way so thought I’d pop in.”

Sprouts and hoisin sauce are added into the wok and the tossing resumes with greater vigour. If he grips that handle any tighter, it’s going to disintegrate like a clump of soil in his palm.

“Lallybroch is quite a way out of town. What took you out there?” Suspicion drips from his voice as he adds shiitake mushrooms and coriander.

“Herbs. I went to pick herbs.”

Fuck, that is truly pathetic.

How I thought that was believable is anyone’s guess but John either did believe me or was too polite to say otherwise.

“Pass me the bowls, babe.” He points to the clean ones in the dish rack and I walk behind him to get them. My arm brushes his back and in the blink of an eye, he has me in his arms, his lips on mine.

All I feel is wrong. Wrong arms, wrong lips, wrong man.

He releases me and smiles, his eyes begging me to smile back...but I can’t.

“So, Jamie. How was he? What did you do?”

He piles the noodles into the bowls and carries them over to my little dining table. It's my favourite spot in my house. This time of night, and when the Scottish clouds play along, I get the most beautiful view of the sunset, and the changing orange and pink skies decorate the whole room.

“He said he was okay, but he looked tired and pale like he hadn’t been outside for days. His hand is still quite painful so he’s not been getting much sleep. It would be so much easier if he could take the pain killers.”

“True, but trust me, in the long run, it’s for the best. Jamie wasn’t a pretty sight when he was mucking around with those bloody pills. He was a living, breathing zombie. This may sound weird, but he's a guy that needs to feel things; highs, lows, pain, love.” Looking over to me, he nods and continues, “it’s like he has to feel and do everything so intensely to be able to live with it or move past it. When he feels nothing, when he’s numb, he just can’t function, he’s not Jamie.”

Intense. It’s the perfect word to surmise Jamie Fraser.

The tension in that room was palpable. The way he looked at me, touched me, has marked me for life.

Intense.

Just the word has me back there. Back in his room. Back to his hand between my thighs, tickling behind my knees.

My body temperature is surging and I feel a blush rising from my breast that I have no way of controlling.

“I can see that,” I say, patting John on the hand to physically remind myself he is here. “He’s lucky to have someone like you in his life, who understands him so well.”

Trying to change the subject and get my mind away from Jamie's bare chest and strong hands, I turn my attention to our food and John’s day. But each time I try to ask him anything, talk about him or work, even how much I love bloody mushrooms, he brings it back to Jamie and my time with him.

How long did you stay?

Were Jenny or Ian around?

What did you talk about?

The man was clearly suspicious, and obviously for good reason.

Can he sense it? Feel it? The connection between Jamie and I.

Was our attraction so conspicuous?

Most of his questions are easily answered, brushed off, sidestepped, or straight out lied about. I’m not going to tell him about the haircut. I don’t trust my skills in deception enough to tell him it was just a haircut when it was so much more.

Time. I need more time to figure out what the hell is going on before I can be anywhere near straightforward.

I keep telling myself it’s better this way, that I’m protecting John, but even I don’t believe that.

My falsehoods are piling up and I’m going to have to start writing them down or risk getting tangled in my own web of deceit.

I‘m sweating, feel sick to my very core, and can barely swallow my food. I’m sure it's delicious; John’s a great cook after all. But with each deception, I rot from the inside and each mouthful tastes more and more bitter.

Time comes to my rescue in the end. Barely half my meal is eaten but I have to get ready for work; never have I been more grateful to run an eight p.m. class.

At my insistence, I wash and pack away the dishes. It's the least I can do I say, but I'm really just happy to be away from what felt like an interrogation. Just as I’m about to finish, he walks up behind me and wraps his arms around my shoulders.

Again, I feel my body tense and I curse it for its betrayal.

“Thanks for checking up on him for me, for caring. You really are the best.”

No, I’m the absolute worst and as Jenny so brutally declared, I'm going directly to hell.

Chapter Text

 

 

Claire's POV

 

Dialling and hanging up before it rings seven times in a row, is that obsessive? It feels kind of obsessive, but still, I do it twice more to be sure.

Fuuuuccckk! Just ring him. Just ring him and talk like a fucking grown-up!

Scaring the absolute bejesus out of me, my bloody phone suddenly rings in my hand and my immediate reaction is to throw it onto the bed, squeal and hide it. It seems to work, the incessant blaring falls silent but starts again almost immediately.

Almost rubbing my betrayal in my face is my ringtone; Gorgeous by Taylor. Clearly, it was selected when in a mood to punish and torture myself. Even though it’s one of my favourite songs, it serves as a constant reminder I have the hots for a man who is not my own.

“You’ve ruined my life, by not being mine.”

How apt.

Hesitantly, I edge closer to the bed, Jamie's number jumps out at me and my heart jumps out of my chest. The fact I know it’s his number when I can barely remember my own freaks me out but doesn’t stop me from answering.

“Yes, hello. This is Claire’s phone, Claire speaking.”

I’m a fucking idiot. Kill me now.

“Are ye okay, Sassenach? I was outside wit’ Wee Jamie and saw ye called...a lot.”

Dammit to hell. I thought I hung up before it rang.

“Oh, I must have butt dialled. Sorry.” I slap myself on the forehead so hard I’m sure he must have heard it.

“Nine times? That’s an awful lot of bottom, Claire, even for one as round as… well… How are ye?”

I ignore his comment for my sake as much as his but it’s hard to wipe the smile off of my face as I talk.

Can he hear me smiling?

“Good, I’m good. Been really busy. John’s good too, but he isn’t here.”

“Aye, he was just here though. Came over tae check up on me.”

The line is suddenly dead. For a second, I think he's gone, but I still hear his steady but shaking breathing. The grip on my phone becomes even tighter,  and I press it hard against my ear to absorb every second.

God, I could just listen to him breathe all day.

“I’m glad ye called, mo chridhe. Even if it was yer arse. I… I've been thinking about ye. A lot.”

“Me too. I think we need to talk, Jamie.”

“Aye, I ken we do. Can ye come over? Jenny and Ian are out wit’ Maggie. ‘Tis just the two Jamies.”

“Sure, I can come now. See you soon… Oh, and Jamie, can I ask you something?”

“Aye, of course. Anything.”

“What does mo chridhe mean?”

Again, the line falls silent, all except for my favourite new sound.

“It means... it means naught, ‘tis just a silly wee nickname. Dinnae fash yerself ‘bout it.”

 

So much for not seeing him. My self-imposed embargo lasted all of two days.

Killing me softly, by the Fugees has been stuck in my head since I hung up the phone and I am driving at a speed my twenty-year-old car seems uncomfortable with. But I just need to get there, I need to see him.

Half of me hopes when the door to the bat-cave is swung open, I feel nothing but happiness to see a friend and concern for his welfare. The other half of me prays to God that's not the case and knows there’s not a snowflake's chance in hell it will happen.

Either way, his nephew will be there so no handsy pansy, sexy type hair-pulling action should take place.

Jamie x two are outside when I arrive. A huge pile of gravel is between the main house and both the boys are busy shovelling it over the driveway. Well, big Jamie is shovelling, wee Jamie is climbing up and sliding down on his bottom.

Big Jamie looks good, big. Bloody massive actually, and is shirtless again. A black bandana is tied around his gorgeous forehead to catch the sweat as it drips and I physically have to restrain myself from touching him.

I wanna lick that sweat from every part of his body.

Approaching me with a casual strut that could kill a mere mortal such as myself, he dusts his hands off on his jeans and nods. “Hallo, Sassenach. Thanks, fer coming.”

Wee Jamie runs over, grips onto Jamie’s leg then looks up to him, “is this yer girlfriend, Uncle?”

“Why, no, this is Claire, she’s John’s girlfriend.” Our eyes lock and there’s a sadness, a grim recognition of fact almost in Jamie's expression that scares me.

“Nice to meet you, young man. You look like you're doing a good job helping your uncle. I heard you were here and brought you some sweets.” His little face lights up as I hand him the lollies and he runs then plonks himself down on the heavy stone steps leading inside.

“Ye dinnae have tae do that, lass. But, ’tis verra sweet of ye.”

Jamie walks back to the pile of gravel, picks up the shovel he dropped as he saw me, and drives it back into the rock. Every tight, toned, veiny muscle in his arm flexes and I watch on in silent awe, desperately trying not to drool.

“Can I get ye a drink? Something tae eat maybe? Jenny made some amazing lasagne last night.”

No, I'm fine, thanks. I have a hot class at two and don’t really eat much beforehand, feel a bit sick otherwise.”

Rather disappointingly he dons a red jumper that was sitting on the bonnet of the truck, and I discreetly mourn the loss of his bare flesh. We stand in silence, just looking at each other, smiling and nodding like the two idiots we are until Jamie asks me to sit at a little timber table next to the garden. Both of us begin to speak in unison several times before Jamie politely insists he go first.

“I wanted tae apologise fer the other day, Claire. I was way out of line. Ye’re John’s girl and I shouldnae have lay finger on ye.”

The pain in his eyes at the thought of betraying his friend is obvious, but so too is his regard for me. A bolt of guilt slices right through me for allowing myself to be carried with my feelings and potentially confusing his.

“You don’t need to apologise, Jamie. I was a willing participant and I am just as responsible for...well, for whatever that was, as you are. I may be John’s girl as you put it, but I make my own choices. I follow my own heart.”

“I ken that ye’re a strong woman, Sassenach. That's part of what I find sae... What I like about ye. But I dinnae want tae confuse our friendship with a passing flirtation. What ye have with John, ‘tis real. ‘Tis worth fighting fer. Is it no’?”

Looking down at my feet, I begin picking at the worn-out and flaking timber varnish on the table and try to decide how open I want to be here. “Yes, I like him...a lot. But it’s just…different”

Jamie leans across the table, takes my hand and moves his head to and fro until he catches my eye. “Different to what?”

“To you.”

Tears threaten to drown me and I fall silent, while in my head I’m screaming, ‘To us, the connection I feel between us.’

Beautiful blue eyes, normally so clear and true, blur with emotion, and I am convinced he can read my thoughts. He kisses the inside of my wrist, lingering for a space of a breath that leads me to hope it means what I know it can’t. This state of blissful ignorance lasts mere seconds before I’m released from his grasp. My happiness falls freely, as does my hand, crashing loudly, poetically, against the weathered timber.

“I need ye in my life, Claire. I ken I’ve only known ye fer thirty seconds, but ye’re already sae important tae me. So is John, and I cannae risk losing ye both. Do ye understand?”

I want to tell him that he won’t lose me, could never lose me, that what I feel for him is real and true and unlike anything I’ve ever known. That time and space and everyone else in this fucked up world means nothing when I am with him.

But I don’t. I nod away my feelings and plaster the phoniest smile I’ve ever worn on my face.

“Of course I understand. You’re right of course. As you said, it’s just a foolish flirtation between friends.”

Liars.

Two straight-up, bald-faced liars sit facing each other at this table and both know it.

Still....that fucking hurt.

Despite me parroting his exact words, hearing them from my lips seems to make them real and I see the paralysing emotion cross his face. He grimaces, clenches his hand into a tight fist and swallows hard. His nostrils flare in either anger or grief, it's hard to say which, but whichever it is, I can’t stand to be here and bear witness to it any longer.

Standing before he can answer, I wave to Wee Jamie and trudge to my car with my head hanging down to hide my crippling pain.

Then I remember.

“Oh, I made you a video of a practice you can do here, at home. I’ll send it to your phone later...if that's alright of course.”

“‘Tis bonnie. Thank ye, Sassenach.”

 

Leaving Lallybroch—and Jamie—behind, I cry all the way to work and shudder to see my reflection in the mirror. In vain, I try to hide from myself but even looking out the window does nothing. My puffy red face stares back at me with a judgemental air of self-loathing pity.

I look like complete shit but feel even worse.

Arriving at the studio, I walk through the entrance, foyer and gym, swiping past people like a ninja, desperate for no one to so much as look at me for fear of completely losing it. I make it to the toilets and barricade myself inside.

It must be a good thirty minutes that I’ve been hiding now. So long, in fact, one of my co-workers knocks at the door and asks if I'm well.

She probably thinks I have the shits...if only it were that easy. I would take chronic diarrhea over this any day.

My eyes refuse to quit leaking and I’m just not ready to face the world yet, so I stay sitting on the loo, take out my phone, watch and critique the video I made for Jamie.

Sleep eluded me for hours last night, so I gave up, got out of bed, and recorded a series of poses I thought may aid in his recovery. Each was simple but effective and would help him stay flexible without needing his hand to get into or hold the position.

The ridiculousness of making a yoga video at three a.m for a man I cannot stop thinking about, whose face I see on every stranger, everywhere I go but is just my ‘friend’, is not lost on me.

Friend.

Yeah, sure, Claire.

The images become a little blurry and out of focus on the last few poses, and it irks me no end. So, I decide to put on my big girl pants, venture out of the cubicle and re-record them.

Not that I’m a perfectionist or anything. They just need to be perfect.

Peaking around the door to make sure there’s no one in the bathroom, I make a break for my studio when the coast is clear and set up the proper camera and tripod.

My original plan to just re-record the end went out the window and I ended up doing the whole thing again and added a greeting at the beginning.

“Hi, Jamie. It’s me, Claire.”

“So, I’ve made you a video, just a few simple poses you can do in the bat-cave to stay limber. Don’t want your wings to get too stiff. I hope they help and we can see you and your cracking bones in practice soon. I know you can do this, and I’m here. Namaste.”

Seven attempts and that was the best I could do without crying or saying too much with too much affection. The message is laden with double entendres but I leave them in on purpose cause I think he’ll get a kick out of it.

People begin filing into the studio so I quickly check over the video before sending it to Jamie. As I am about to put my phone away, a message pops up on my screen.

<John> Miss you❤️

 

All I want to do now is crawl into my bed, watch Jane Austen adaptations and cry myself to sleep. But I can’t. A roomful of people is waiting for happy Claire to perform.

My best positive mantra is repeated ad nauseam and I take my position at the front of the room like I’ve not a care in the world.

“Good afternoon everyone…”

Chapter Text

 

Right on two, my phone squawks in my hand and I know it’s her before I even look at the screen. The grip she has on my heart means I can sense her through distance, glass, plastic and metal.

My brain screams at me to ignore it, so of course, I don’t. Instead, I dive on it immediately, turning myself inside out in the hopes it’s the video she promised.

Huddling in the darkest corner of my cave, wrapped in my plaid, the glow from the screen is my only source of light.

Suspended in time, I wait. Then, she appears before me.

“Hi, Jamie. It’s me, Claire.”

My eyes fall closed at the sound of her voice and I clutch her to my chest, holding her tight, almost trying to absorb her spirit of goodness.

Her deep and sultry voice continues, lifting higher with each word and I force my eyes open to take her in.

Christ, her beauty truly knows no bounds. She smiles, flirts and looks as stunning as always, but her eyes reveal her truth. She’s masking her sadness and has most definitely been crying.

Crying over me.

I fucking hate myself for making her sad.

But still.

Transfixed, I watch her.

The long lines of her body, the curve of her hips and arse, the soft angles of her face, her lips. God, I want them on mine, all over me.

Each time I get to the end, I begin again, quickly speaking in time with her, word for word as though I have a script in my hands.

Several rewatches are required to discover the true diamond in this treasure chest of jewels.

Perhaps in her fatigued haste and eagerness to complete and send, she’d accidentally left a few precious moments in the end, parts she attempted to record over or didn’t know how to delete; a sassenach blooper reeI of sorts.

Adoring laughter bubbles from within as I listen to the barrage of blasphemous swearing at each mistake, but seconds later, hearing my name from her lips, again and again, until she's satisfied, reduces me to tears.

My mood is up and down like a lovesick yo-yo.

I'm frighteningly close to a meltdown brought on by the sheer force of the feelings I'm feeling. Not only are they overwhelming in intensity, but also confusing, serving as both contradiction and justification of my actions earlier today.

I can't be around her. Can't be her friend. Can't be her lover.

She is everything.

Yet I sent her away.

Back to the arms of a man I can’t bear to hurt, but who she seems to already be slipping away from.

I keep telling myself that I did it for John, for our years of friendship, and for her, to protect her from the mess of a man I am. She deserves better, more than I could ever give her.

Loyalty may be an honourable trait, but it feels mighty cowardly right now.

 

~~~

 

Time slips away from me again.

Each day rolls into the next and before I know it, it’s been three weeks since I’ve seen her in person. I miss her more than what should be possible, but in one way, she’s been with me every day.

Whether she realised the significance of her video or not, it’s had an undeniable impact on my life.

The cruel irony in my—and many others—mental health battles is the need, almost craving, for routine. Predictability is everything. Yet the unpredictability of my mood, of which ‘Jamie’ I will be on any particular day, means it's damn near impossible to plan or adhere to any kind of schedule.

By recording and sharing this practice, Claire has unknowingly given me a taste of the normality and an all too important routine I had only just started to build pre-bad tempered hand smash.

Inspired by, and wanting to make her proud, I’ve set myself a daily routine. Waking around eight, I begin each day with her, practising yoga before enjoying a hearty breakfast, usually consisting of porridge, eggs, or both. Feeding the horses is next, then, the rest of the day is spent working on the farm with Ian, or helping Jenny out with the kids.

In my second week of sulking, when digging through the shed for extra chaff and grain, I came upon one of Ian’s old bikes. Rusty as hell with two split tires and a bent handlebar, it kind of reminded me of myself, so I adopted it, and made it my next project. With a little hard work, a new paint job and a fair amount of spit and polish, I had her on the road and it too became part of my daily regime

Each afternoon I would ride as long as my hand could maintain its grip on the handlebar. The fresh air and beautiful countryside did no end of good for my weary mind, blowing not only my ever-present anxiousness away, but I hoped in time, my feelings for Claire too.

Now, in the third week of my Claire-detox, I’m sitting in a waiting room, feeling pretty good and excited for my first therapy appointment since the accident.

“Ye can go in now, Jamie.”

The receptionist watches me as I pass with a distinct cheeky twinkle in her eye. “I like yer hair. Ye look verra handsome.”

Blushing profusely, I walk into Dr Rawlings’ office and she smiles proudly and chuckles, once she realises who I am.

“Well, well, well…Who is the braw young lad I see before me? Surely ‘tis not Jamie Fraser?”

“Aye, ‘tis me. ‘Tis hard tae believe there was a human in flesh beneath all of the hair, but here I am.”

I sit in the soft leather chair that sits by a large rectangular window that seems no matter what the weather, is always filled with a glowing light that warms my back as we speak.

As per usual, the first minutes are spent looking at each other and exchanging pleasantries while waiting for me to explode.

She didn’t have to wait long.

For me, therapy normally focuses on processing my ongoing trauma and grief, and that’s certainly being talked about in this session. But my relationship with Claire quickly becomes the main topic of discussion.

Spilling every dirty, sexy little thought I’ve ever had about Claire was never my intention, but that’s exactly what's happening. The moment her name crosses my lips, the juicy and heartfelt details pour out of me. Dreams, thoughts, hopes and fears, they're all laid bare for detailed analysis with the full expectation that my decision to martyr myself would be praised.

This belief is proving to be completely false.

“May I ask ye a question, Jamie?” Dr Rawlings asks while taking off her glasses and rubbing her face.

I’ve been coming here for a long time. This is never a good sign.

“Why is it yer job tae sacrifice yer happiness fer everyone else?”

“Whaddye mean? ‘Tis no’ about me.”

“That is exactly my point. Today ye have talked of the burden ye feel ye’re placing on Jenny and Ian, the disloyalty ye’ve shown tae John and guilt over the predicament ye have placed Claire in. “

“Och, aye, I ken what ye mean. I’ve talked about myself the whole time. I’m verra sorry.”

“Jamie, this is yer session, ye’re supposed tae talk about yerself and ye’ve completely misunderstood my meaning. My point is, none of this is yer fault. Ye didnae choose the traumas ye suffered at war, or tae live wit’ PTSD. Ye cannae help falling fer Claire and hurting John any more than ye’re responsible fer the death of yer brother. Ye cannae keep punishing yerself and forbidding or surrendering yer own happiness.”

I have no response. No comeback, no justification.

Our session concludes on that cliffhanger and walking out, I feel like I’ve been abandoned, left to wander the edge of said cliff alone with nothing but my extraordinarily unstable thoughts to balance me for another week.

 

Dr Rawlings’s words rattle around in the empty space that is my head the whole drive home. The throbbing of my heart surges pain to my hand and it’s all I can do not to chop the damn thing off.

Craving the solitude of my cave and my video of Claire, I pull into the drive and walk straight to my door. One foot is scarcely inside when I hear the distinct sound of Wee Jamie in a full-blown meltdown.

My nephew is on the autism spectrum and although he is living with high functioning autism, Wee Jamie could still have moments of total confusion and chaos.

A short fuse and multitudes of triggers mean everyday situations can easily become tinderboxes. Overstimulation, not enough sleep, too many treats, anything could light the match. Jenny is brilliant at handling these moments but I can hear from her and Wee Jamie's anguished wailing that this time, this fire was out of her control.

Walking into a scene of discord, I can hear Wee Jamie but he’s nowhere to be seen. Jenny sits on the couch in a puddle of tears, Maggie beside her in the same state. It’s not until a stress ball comes flying at my head that I spot the lad.

“I cannae calm him down, brother. He’s been like this near an hour. I dinnae ken what tae do.”

Nodding to Jenny, and winking at poor Maggie, who looks frightened despite having lived through all this before, I follow the direction the ball came from and find Wee Jamie crouching behind Da’s old recliner. In my calmest yet most playful tone that I reserve for such occasions, I pretend to pick something up and duck down to his level.

“Oh, ye scairt me. I didnae see ye there. What are ye doing back here, a bhalaich? Playing a game?”

Launching himself at me, his screaming reply is accompanied by wee flying fists and feet.

He’s really laying everything into me and I let him, absorbing the masked fear and frustration he has no other way to express is all I can do for now.

The lad hits and kicks till he can stand no more and falls into my arms, an exhausted mess.

This is my chance,

When heightened, Wee Jamie loves and responds to sensory pressure. He loves to be held tightly, and have his back rubbed in a figure-eight pattern, but you have to wait for the right moment to begin.

Ever so gently, I hold him in my arms, cautiously applying and building firm pressure onto his chest and arms. As he eases into it, I begin the circular motions on his little back. His whole body is shaking, particularly his legs, so I take slow steadying breaths while whispering Gaelic until I feel his body relaxing.

I release one arm, hold it up and click to Jenny who knows exactly what I want; his teddy and his weighted blanket.

“I’m gonna lay ye on the couch, buddy. Just tae have a wee rest.” Nodding as I Iay him down, I step back and let his mam tuck teddy under his arm, and wrap him in the blanket. Teddy, the faded, smelly and thread-bare saviour is immediately rubbed back and forth rhythmically on his face and within a few minutes, he’s fast asleep.

Quickly replacing her son in my arms, Jenny collapses against me, sobbing silently as to not wake her sleeping baby. Her head remains on my chest as we stand, and I support her into the kitchen and sit her down at the table.

“What happened, Jen? I’ve no’ seen him like that since I first came home.”

“Och, aye. He didnae sleep sae well last night and he had a meltdown at school today when they had a substitute teacher. It just went downhill from there. Sports day got cancelled, and then when he came home, Ian called and told me he may no’ make it home in time tae take the kids tae the football as he promised. Well, that was it. He lost it, started wailing on poor Maggie and I didnae handle it well. I yelled at him and just made things worse. Christ...I’m sae glad ye came home when ye did.”

Tea so strong it could pour itself is what Jenny needs. I know a cuppa can’t cure anything, but it can slow you down and give you time to breathe. Sitting together in silence, I see her body straighten with each sip, perhaps her spirit lightening a little. And as soon as the last drop is swallowed, she returns to Wee Jamie, needing to have him close, to find any sort of comfort.

Quietly, we sit side by side on the opposite couch watching Wee Jamie, and Maggie—who's snuggled up beside her brother—sleep together. Jenny’s head rests on my chest, my arm protectively wraps around her shoulder and it’s not long before she, too, drifts off.

As gently as I can, I slip her from my arms and head to the kitchen to fix her some food. Well, that was the plan at least. Finding naught but scraps in the fridge, I take Jenny’s car and head into town. Along with strong tea, a good greasy meal from our favourite chippy is a Fraser family cure-all.

I haven’t set foot inside this place for a while, maybe two years, but I still reel Jenny and the kids' orders off by heart.

“Two Haddock, two mini haddock, large chips, four onion—”

“I hope that’s not all for you?”

Claire.

I’d know that voice anywhere and it’s coming from behind me.

Disturbingly close behind me.

Her spiced vanilla perfume wafts through me like a summer breeze, and I’m forced to grab the counter and steady myself before I’ve even looked in her direction.

“Aye, and what if they are? I’m a growing lad after all.”

Trying to joke around seems right but I’m seriously struggling to breathe with her standing so goddamn close.

I finish my order with the unimpressed lady named Glenna FitzGibbons standing behind the counter. I’ve known her since I was six but the woman refuses to acknowledge our acquaintance, let alone my existence each time I see her.

And I know why.

She claims I did the dirty on her granddaughter in year eight. It’s true in part. I kissed the lass once and then realised she was a complete pain in the arse. Glenna and the lass have never forgiven me and I’m pretty sure she’s going to spit in my food, and now Claire’s too.

Claire places her order; One grilled fish, salad, chips, onion rings. A girl after my heart.

Being it’s Friday evening, we have a thirty-minute wait for our food so we sit outside and chat, attempting to make rings with the steam from our warm breath as it collides with the cold Scottish air.

Conversation flows freely, meaningfully, hilariously, with no hint of the awkwardness that should be present between two people so clearly holding back with every word spoken.

I hate this.

I hate that I can talk to her like this.

Like I’ve never been able to talk to anyone before.

Like I could say the stupidest thing in the world and she'd back me up, but tease the shit out of me at the same time.

I love it with equal vigour.

“Have you been able to do the exercises I sent you?” She asks as she watches me flex a cramp out of my fingers. “Are they okay with your hand?”

The image of myself watching the video on loop, one heartbeat away from having my hand down my pants as I do, flashes before my eyes and I choke and cough on nothing but air.

“Aye, it’s been bonnie,” I spluttered, trying to hide my shame. “I’ve got myself into a proper little routine. Been hard at it every morning… I mean, them, the exercises have been hard at them, not me.”

Shit, fuck!

“And biking every afternoon. It’s really helped with my mood.”

Flawless

“I’m pleased to hear I...it's been so useful,” she replies with one eyebrow raised and a sexy lip bite. She’s onto me but moves on quickly. “Do you think you’ll be back to class soon? Raymond is coming back next week. I spoke to him yesterday and he’s fully expecting to see his favourite redhead front and centre.”

The fact that she has spoken about me to Raymond thrills me to no end and I hope the increasing darkness hides my blush.

“I hope sae. Maybe another week and I think I could manage. I just have tae make sure I dinnae put any weight on my hand.”

“Raymond is all over it,” she smiles. “We’ve already talked about what modifications we can make in our classes for you.”

A large chunk of yuck settles in my belly when she says we and our. After much contemplation and open discussion with Ian about my feelings for Claire, I’d decided not to take any more of her classes. It’s just too much. The hours I've lost watching and rewatching her video and the physical effect it had on my body tells me I cannot watch her like that in person, so graceful, so strong and in control, and keep my distance. That would take more strength than I have.

“Claire,” I say, looking at her but avoiding her eyes for my own sanity, “when I do come back tae class, I—”

A sudden loud tapping on glass interrupts me. I look up to see Glenna banging on the window and yelling that our food is ready.

“Och, we better get the food. She’ll throw it at my head if I dinnae get in there soon.”

Claire's laughter tells me she doesn’t get that I’m serious. The woman has thrown food at me before and I’ve no doubt she’ll do it again.

Daring to walk closer to Claire’s side, I lean and whisper my high school follies in her ear. Her jaw drops comically as we approach the counter and she whispers her reply to me with a bonniest, serious expression.

“Do you think she’d spit in our food?”

“‘Tis more than likely.”

Parked just two cars away from each other, we stand in the middle of the two, being burnt by the parcels of hot chips in our arms, but neither of us seems too fussed, or in any hurry to leave.

Again, Claire mentions my return to class and I pluck up the courage to finish telling her I’m not coming back. I try to think of a delicate way to say it but in the end, I just blurt it out.

“I’m no’ taking yer class, Claire. I’m gonna stick with Raymond’s.”

“Jamie...why? Did I do something wrong? Is this about the haircut, because I’m so sorry if—”

It’s a stupid move, but I can’t help myself. Balancing my food, I take her hand and caress my thumb across her silky smooth skin.

Lord, why must she be so soft?

“I just think ‘tis fer the best, Sassenach. Can ye just trust me about that?”

Unable to hide her disappointment, she looks anywhere but directly at me as tears build in her beautiful eyes. “But when...when will I see you then?”

God, she’s so beautiful when she cries. This is killing me.

“Claire, I dinnae ken when, but I promise ye will... soon.”

She nods and wipes the cute little tear sitting right on the tip of her nose with her shoulder, while still balancing the bundle of food in her arms.

“I should go.” My voice is breaking with emotion. The desire to comfort her, to kiss the look of pain away is so strong I feel myself leaning in. My hands ache to cradle her face and I have to force myself to stop.

'Parting is such sweet sorrow.'

Shakespeare has grossly, grossly, underestimated this sentiment.

It fucking sucks plain and simple, and I'm kinda pissed at him right now for leading people astray for centuries.

Sharing a poignant, stolen glance, we disappear from view into our cars. My steering wheel takes several hard, rough blows as soon as the door closes behind me and I curse a blue streak as I attempt to start the car.

Attempt, being the important word. The bastard won’t start. Won’t turn over at all. I look up and realise the interior light was on the whole time I was with Claire and the battery is as dead as a dodo.

Claire seems to notice the lack of movement in my car and pulls back into her spot.

“You alright?” She asks, tapping sweetly on the window.

“Nah, I have a bloody dead battery. Dinnae suppose ye have jumper leads in that wee car of yers?”

She doesn’t. Neither does anyone else I can find nearby and Ian’s not answering the phone.

Standing on the footpath, my eyes lock on hers just as the streetlights overhead flick on and we are bathed in a warm orange glow. It’s hardly a romantic setting, standing in front of the chippy on High Street, but still, it’s perfect and she looks so angelic it hurts.

Dr. Rawlings words about surrendering my happiness barge their way to the forefront of my mind, ringing in my ears, but I tune them out and remind myself of John.

“I guess you're coming with me then,” she says with a smirk that can’t be disguised.

 

Claire's POV

 

Driving Jamie home was not a good idea, but I could hardly leave him stranded in town.

Not when he looked so cute and flustered and smelled so delicious.

Not when my heart beat so fast I was sure he must have heard it.

I tell myself it’s what a good friend would do. And that’s what he is. My friend. He’s made that clear.

His hand is sitting in the centre console, sneaking the chips through a hole he picked in the paper. By the time I realise it, my hand is next to his, he’s dropped the chips and our little fingers are side by side, inches apart.

Slowly, mil by mil, our fingers close the distance between them. They have developed a mind of their own, and are playing a very dangerous game, caressing the length of each other’s, pulling away, then drawing close again.

I don’t know what Jamie’s idea of friendship is, but I’m starting to think it’s a lot more intimate than mine.

Good lord, his finger just slipped between two of mine and is sliding back and forth.

Take me now.

Christ, I ache for him.

Why do I feel like this?

Why do I think of him constantly?

Why am I driving him home?

Our silent, finger sex game continues the whole way to Lallybroch and by the time I pull up outside his cave, I’m an exhausted, horny, fucked up mess.

“Do ye want tae come inside?... Fer some water?”

He’s undressing me with his eyes. I want him to do it for real.

“I do. But I won't. I don’t think it's a good idea, Jamie.”

“Ye’re probably right. ‘Tis probably fer the best. After all, yer chips will go soggy if ye dinnae eat them soon.”

My body screams when his finger slips away and it takes every ounce of strength within me not to pull him back and on top of me.

Dust blows from the dry, freshly laid gravel as his foot hits the ground and he steps out of the car.

“Jamie! I... I’m going to tell him. I’m going to tell John how I feel. I’m going to end things.”

Stopping, I watch his chest rise and fall as he swallows hard and begins to move back to me.

“Dinnae do that, lass. I beg of ye—”

“Step away from the Trollope, Brathair.”

“Fuck it, Jenny! Will ye piss off inside and mind yer own damn businesses. Claire just brought me home cause the car wouldna start.”

“Oh aye, she probably bewitched it just like she has ye. She’s the devil I tell ye.” A wobbly attempt is made to walk down the stairs towards Jamie but she stumbles down each one. She’s off her face drunk.

In one fell swoop, Jamie is at her side, grabbing and lifting her off her feet just before she hits the ground. I follow and walk by his side as he carries her into the house.

Hurling abuse at me the whole time, she tells Jamie she’s fine and insists he put her down. But stubborn fights stubborn, and the taller of two Frasers wins. Jenny is completely ignored until we reach her room, then, she's hastily thrown on the bed with all the love and annoyance you’d expect from a big, little brother.

Thinking it wise to do so, I lurk in the shadows, staying as still and silent as possible.

“Where’s Ian and the weans?”

“He took them tae the football. I needed some time.”

“Aye, time tae get piss drunk. What’s the matter with ye, woman?”

She slurs a reply but falls asleep or passes out before she can finish.

“I dinnae ken what’s wrong with her. I ken she had a bad day with Wee Jamie but she never drinks like this. Did John ever tell ye our wee lad’s on the spectrum? He’s high functioning, ye may no' even ken it at times. But he’s been stuck in a cycle of obsessions lately and it’s really hard on Jenny.”

“No, I had no idea.”

“No' a lot of people do. He’s a sweet lad but has terrible rages sometimes like he did today. ‘Tis verra hard on Jen. I guess it got tae her more than I kent.”

As Jamie takes off Jenny’s shoes, I scan around the room, admiring the rich blue tones of embossed wallpaper and the stunning, luxurious fabrics used on the blinds.

A red book catches my eye on the side table, and curiosity gets the best of me. I pick it up and look over its golden gilded edges that feel like they will crumble in my hands as my fingers glide over them. It looks as old as this house; the cover, so worn and smooth it almost feels like velvet. I can’t help but flick through its torn, crinkled pages.

“What’s this?” I whisper as Jamie lays a blanket over his still cursing sister. He looks over to me with a smile that makes my hands tremble and my conscience screams out ‘John! You have to tell John’.

“Lallybroch Tales. ‘Tis a book that’s been passed down through generations of Frasers. My grandparents and theirs have written in that book or one of the others. There’s three I think. They tell tales of their time, what life was like and such. Jenny details our lives too, but she’s written stories of witches, goblins and ghouls for the kids. She’s an amazing writer.”

“It’s fascinating and so beautiful.”

As I turn to and read the last written page, my initial enthusiasm is dashed. My heart breaks, and my eyes fill with tears.

This is no fairytale.

“Jamie, you need to read this. I think Jenny needs help.”

 

I sit on the edge of the bed, or is it a cliff?

So bloody tired. Marrow of the bone, soul-deep tired.

Years of appointments, specialists, analysis, tests, heartbreak and tears. Years of waiting, of wanting an answer. Of feeling guilty because you actually want them to find something wrong and then the devastating pain and grief when they finally do.

My conflict knows no bounds.

And now I feel like we are going through it all over again with Jamie.

How do I do it? Keep giving, to work, husband, kids, autism, family and friends.

How do I keep answering the same questions, over and over again, every damn day, and stay positive for them when I'm hopeless?

How do I keep giving my everything and have anything left, even a tiny minuscule molecule for me?

Is that selfish? To even think that? To ask it? To take an hour in the gym, to take an extra long shower, or just get in the car and drive?

Ian says no, take it. Take the time. But the guilt I feel burns so deep inside me that even when I do have a break, I can’t enjoy it fully.

Do I enjoy anything fully anymore?

There are some things I find respite in. Joy comes from frivolous fiction and fantasies but even then, I feel bad and foolish for seeking solace in something so shallow and meaningless.

My life lies within the gated walls of Lallybroch. I’ve isolated myself from friends. It’s too hard to explain, and explain my life, my struggles.

Sometimes I just want to run away and live on an island, a lighthouse with good internet, a cat, a garden and a limitless supply of chocolate, cookies and soda.

The guilt I feel for even thinking that is crippling.

But still. I do. Daily.

When will I be just me again? Will that ever happen? Or is she gone? Lost forever in a pit of self-abuse and pity?

Do I even know who I was?

 

Jamie drops the book and I watch as it bounces off the mattress into the air. Before it lands again, he has me in his arms.

Chapter Text

 

Serene serendipity is the only way to describe what I’m experiencing right now.

Combined, the events that led up to this moment were unfortuitous, to say the least, and yet, whether we’re speaking, laughing, or watching the flames dance in silence, just being with Claire, sharing time and space, feels like a blessing.

Jenny soundly sleeps off her cask of wine, wrapped in the blanket Mam had quilted as a gift for her birthday just a year before she died. I’m in Da’s chair by the fire, multitasking, which is very hard for a man; watching Claire, watching Jenny, and reading the other entries she’s written in Lallybroch tales.

As my ever-present, ever-alluring companion, Claire sits opposite me in Mam’s chair. The leather bag Da had so lovingly stitched for Mam still hung over the left arm, filled to the brim with her knitting needles and patterns, her glasses and the soppy romance novel she’d been reading up to the day the Lord took her from us.

Existing in this space with Claire feels right, and in my mind's eye, this is our room. I imagine a world where we had spoken to John, were free to be together, to love, to live as Laird and Lady Lallybroch.

Feeling safer, warmer, more me, than I ever have, I sit by her feet, my head resting on her lap as she peppers me with kisses. Her fingers twist through my curls, and our newborn bairn sleeps soundly in the crib beside us.

I allow myself to sit and drift in this bubble, to be consumed by the fantasy my brain is creating, that I see so clearly it's almost blinding.

Dangerous as it may be, something within it fills a hole in me, one I didn’t know existed until this very night.

Eventually, as bubbles tend to do, it bursts. John’s ten p.m. call to see what time his girlfriend will be home, pops me back to reality quicker than a giant pin in my arse.

Claire’s demeanour changes dramatically as she lies to him—and herself—about why she’s still out. In all honesty, we both know she could have left hours ago as soon as Jenny fell asleep. But she stayed for me, and for her, and maybe a little bit for Jenny.

Her angelic glass face has no ability to hide the disappointment and regret she feels over our parting, yet, a promise is made to be home in a heartbeat.

Leaving the warmth of the fire, we silently file through the house. Fingers seek out fingers; brushing twisting, teasing. Each remorseful step is coalescence between heaven and hell.

Now, I stand in the cold of the night, watching my breath float towards the stars, carrying with it the wishes subconsciously made on each of my laboured exhales.

Looking like the greatest ever love song not yet written, my happiness gazes out at me from her car window, waving, and whispering goodbye with a bonnie smile and sad eyes.

Alone again, my attention shifts to where it should be.

My sister.

Only one other of Jenny’s entries showed the same desperation as the one that so shocked Claire and me, and as she left, we agreed that a serious heart-to-heart with Ian would be needed when he arrived home.

Hoping to have some time to prepare and think of what the bloody hell I’m going to say, I slink back through the kitchen and am heading up to my room when I hear car doors open and close, then Ian’s loud and gruff grunting.

Despite slamming the doors loud enough to wake the dead, Ian shushes me as he stumbles inside, one sleeping wean in each arm. Maggie in all her floppy glory is dumped onto my chest, and together, we put the kids to bed.

“Where’s Jen? Old girl hit the pillow already, has she?”

“Aye. Something like that. Ye’re no’ going straight tae bed are ye? Fancy joining me downstairs fer a whisky or two, maybe three?”

“I believe my arm could be twisted.”

Ian’s high as a metaphorical kite after a big team win so he’s up for anything.

Proudly, he’s telling me how the kids knew every word to the team chants, and the admiration he felt in their vicious screams of bloody murder when the enemy side scored their only goal.

We're back in the kitchen. On the table sits the still edible but stone-cold chips, the book of secrets, and the waiting whisky bottle.

Ian only has eyes for the food and drink as he collapses into a chair, exhausted; the book is not mentioned at all. I swear though, it's calling my name as we eat.

Jamie. Jamie. Look at me. Tell Ian about me. Discuss me!

This book, Jenny’s pain, is killing me. But I’m waiting for the whisky effects to kick in, hoping the light buzz may make things a little easier to hear.

With three and a bit drams under Ian’s belt, his words are beginning to slur and his bullshit level is going through the roof even for him.

He ducks off to the loo. It's time.

I place the book in front of his seat, open it to the infamous page, and hold my breath.

Taking his seat again, his eyes scan over the page, his face falls, but he doesn’t look shocked or taken aback like I expect he would.

This is horrible stuff. His wife, my sister, has spilled her guts out here and he’s seemingly thinking it’s nothing at all.

“Jenny must have started drinking when ye and the kids left fer the game. She was plastered when I got back from town. Claire was here wi’ me and helped me put her tae bed. That's when she found this.” His eyebrows raise and a smirk flashes on his lips but it quickly leaves.

“Aye. ‘Tis bloody horrible, isn’t it? Near broke my damn heart when I first read it.”

I could fall off the chair.

“First read it? Ye’ve read this? Well, when? What have ye done ‘bout it?”

“Jamie, this may come as a shock tae ye, but all this,” he says, tapping the book and looking more than a little annoyed, “it didnae just magically begin when ye came home and ‘tis no’ just ye that cares and worries fer her. Jenny and I talk every day. This is our life, our son. We were dealing with Wee Jamie’s needs the whole time ye and Willie were away”

“I ken that, I’m sorry. I didnae mean tae offend ye. I ken I was away fer sae many of the hard times, but she sounds like she's drowning in pain.”

“Aye, some days she is. Me too, ye ken. Some days she’s okay and some she's fantastic. Doc Rawlings has been brilliant in helping both of us find a way through it all.”

“Dr Rawlings? My Dr Rawlings?”

“Yer doctor? How do ye think Jenny kent where tae take ye when she kent ye needed help?”

Memories from the day Jenny dropped me off in front of the therapy rooms flash before my eyes. I’ve never actually thought about why she drove me to that particular therapist, or why she knew she could be the one to help me.

I was so lost in my own pain I didn’t see my sister’s, or her husband’s.

It was all about me. My loss. My suffering.

I am so damn selfish.

Right on cue, my old friend, guilt, kicks into overdrive. My head spins, my stomach clenches and Ian can clearly read the look on my face. Showing his enormous heart, he’s quick to try and ease my mind.

”Ye cannae help that ye didnae see it at the time, Jamie. We all understand. Ye were, and are, doing the best ye can tae survive. And sae are we.”

Another handful of chips is stuffed into his mouth, and the now gluggy but still surprisingly tasty tattie is washed down with another nip.

“We’ve seen Doc Rawlings fer years and Jenny has come a long way. That journal entry ye found was when ye were at the worst time of yer depression. Not knowing what tae do or say tae help ye hit Jen hard. She felt powerless all over again. No one can struggle through all this stuff by themselves, Jamie. We all need help sometimes, even wee devils like yer sister, or Highland warriors like ye.”

Surprisingly large, calloused hands reach over and grab me around the neck, shaking my head playfully but painfully.

“Dinnae fash about Jen having a wee bit too much tae drink, she just needed tae let her hair down. Ye ken she's a lightweight with the reds.”

Sculling one more dram while pouring me another, his bony elbow pokes me in the ribs and his here comes trouble chuckle, chuckles.

“Sae, Clairrrre was here? What was that all about? I kent ye werena just friends.”

Cue kissy-face and heart-shaped hands against my chest.

“Och, aye. Gu leoir! Pog ma hon, ye wee bastard.”

Laughing hysterically at himself, he half wraps me in a rough, back-patting man hug with minimal contact.

“Ye need tae worry less about yer kin and more about keeping yer greasy mitts off yer cock when ye watch that hot yoga arse.”

One final slap to my head and back causes me to spill my drink all over myself, and he’s pleased as punch about it. Ian picks up the book, blows me a kiss and heads back upstairs to his sleeping wife, leaving me in awe of his strength and ridiculousness of character.

 

Throwing out fish and chips is a crime to mankind, but it has to be done; even if it was thirty pounds worth.

Eating cold chips is rather dubious in itself, but fish? Ye’re asking for trouble.

Tutting to myself, I wipe down the bench and look at our uneaten dinner in the bin.

What did Claire do when she got home?

Did she dare eat hers? Or is she hovering over her bin right now like me, cursing the waste and wondering if I ate mine?

With the kitchen cleaned, the Murrays in bed and my mind spiralling, I retire to my cave where I’m quickly lost in a sea of Claire.

I’m drowning in the memory of her fingers, of the velvety, soft, tender flesh between them. Of how it felt when she lightly caressed mine. I see her sitting in Mam’s chair, smiling back at me with all the joy and serenity only true happiness can inspire.

Christ, I need her.

My body now exists solely to feel her healing touch.

I need the air only she can give me.

Only she can save me.

But she’s not here, because I told her not to be.

I do have the video though. I could watch it right now. I could see her, hear her.

She could keep me afloat.

But I can’t, I shouldn't. Not again.

Doing what I do best, distracting myself with worry, I turn my thoughts back to my sister.

Although Ian explained the pain behind Jenny’s writing, I can’t help but think about it and grieve the time I missed when I was in the military. I should have been here to help them with Wee Jamie, to be that reassuring voice they needed, or just to give them a break when it all became too much.

Crushed by the burden of guilt I place squarely on my own shoulders, thoughts of Mam and Da, of Willie, and our childhood, swamp me.

Both Willie and I were away when Mam first got sick, it was Jenny alone, who nursed her so lovingly and watched her slip away. We were able to come home for Mam’s funeral, but when Da’s stroke took him so suddenly and silently just six months later, only Willie made it back in time.

I was a world away in East Timor. Helping strangers, supporting and saving innocent families from oppression when I couldn’t help my own.

Happy memories of us all laughing, learning to ride when we were weans, Mam teaching us how to click-it are there too, slowly orbiting the bad. But in my usual style, the negative things seem to be the ones recalled with greater ease.

Why that’s the case, why I do that, may never be understood.

Even before the army, I could have had the most brilliant day, glorious weather, fun company with great food and drink, laughs all round, but one joke may have been hit too close to home, or maybe I talked a wee bit more than normal, and that would be all I worried about.

Was that joke really a joke?

Did I talk too much?

Was everyone annoyed with me?

Oh, God. Did I do that tonight? With Claire?

 

Finding myself in need of a distraction from the distraction is a new low.

That’s what it’s come to. Fuck.

Netflix proves a short term cure from my spiralling thoughts but the phone is sitting right next to me.

Squished up beside my thigh.

The theme song of Parks and Rec plays again. I think that's the third time I’ve heard it, which means I’ve watched three episodes and I can't recall a minute of it. I try to concentrate as another episode starts but my eyes keep shifting straight back to my thigh, back to my phone.

It’s that damn video. That video keeps calling my name.

Sit-ups, squats and lunges come next. My heart is racing and I know it will keep me awake for hours, but I probably wasn’t going to sleep well anyway. Not until I see her.

I’ve resisted as long as I can. I literally have the shakes.

Without even looking at the screen, my fingers unlock, swipe, hit play, and I wait, hunched over on the couch like a junkie desperate for the good stuff to hit.

“Hello, Jamie. It’s me, Claire.”

 

~~

John’s POV

 

She climbs into bed beside me. I wrap my arms around her and hold her close. But she feels a world away. It’s been like this for weeks and it’s only getting worse.

Our initial attraction was strong and our flirtation was fun.

I know she likes me, but I can’t help but feel I am forcing something on her that she doesn’t want.

I wanted to talk to her about it tonight, but her quick run to get some food on her way home from class turned into hours and I have no idea where she’s been, though, when I lean in to kiss her rosy apple cheek, I smell the whisky.

A heavy, peaty one. Just like...just like Jamie likes.

Blind Freddy can see the sparks between them.

They both glow in the presence of each other. Jamie actually looks happy when he’s near her and that in itself is extraordinary given what he’s been through. It would be a thing of beauty to watch if it didn’t tear my guts out at the same time.

In time, I hope it may fade. That the attraction will fizzle out. But I know I am kidding myself. It grows ever more toward the sun.

Perhaps I should be angrier than I am, seek my revenge like a jealous lover scorn. But it’s just not me and it doesn’t feel suited to this moment.

In Iraq, when the bomb exploded, Jamie threw himself on me, taking the lion’s share of the blow and undoubtedly saving my life. He ran back for his brother after ensuring I was okay, even when he was bleeding and blinded by the smoke and heat himself. Had he not spared me, perhaps he would have made it back in time for Willie. No one can ever know for sure.

Jamie Fraser is the best man I have ever known.

I have loved him since I first met him and still do to this day. He is loyal, brave and giving. His natural predisposition to sacrifice his own happiness for the love and safety of his family and friends runs so deep and strong within him it’s almost his greatest fault.

That’s why I know.

Why I know he would never betray me.

Why even if he felt what I think he does for Claire, he would do nothing about it.

He will stifle his own love, forgo his future happiness to ensure my own.

Though this time, I don’t think I can let him.

Chapter Text

 

“Ye’re flirting with disaster, Jamie. And that shirt is fucking hideous.”

“Thank ye, as always, fer yer unsolicited advice, Ian.”

“My pleasure, as always.”

Standing behind me as I cringe at the reflection in the mirror, Ian belittles me at every opportunity, and I love him for it. His playful jibes are saving me.

I was seconds away from losing it when I walked in here; the lights, the noise, the fucking music louder than a club. Pair that with not shopping for myself in months and suddenly needing a suit to wear to a wedding and you had a meltdown waiting to happen.

It was like going from 0 to 100 in under ten seconds and smashing headfirst into a tree with no seatbelt.

My mind and body are just not equipped.

 

That’s not the disaster Ian is warning me of though. No. He is referring to a hot-yoga-teacher-shaped disaster.

And what a lovely shape it is.

Acting as best man to his brother, Hal, John had insisted I attend Hal’s wedding long before I set eyes on his Claire. Even then, I had refused, as I did when the invitation came a week later, and again when he asked me to finally RSVP two weeks ago.

But John, Hal and his bride, Esme, had hounded me into submission. They’d known me for years and would be utterly offended if I was a no-show. I felt I couldn’t say no after that.

Claire being in attendance and the thought of being able to spend the whole day with her may, or may not, have also had something to do with my agreeing, but who’s to say for sure.

After finally surrendering my freedom of choice, the first thought that conga lined through my brain was, what the hell do I wear? Well, actually...I’m lying; it was my second. Wondering what Claire would be wearing was my first.

Curiosity gets the better of me and despite myself—and the fact that I’m sure I know what he means—I dig deeper on his prediction of calamity.

“Ye think I shouldnae go then?”

“I didnae say that. I think ye should, but I think ye need tae tell Claire and little Johnny how ye feel first.”

“That’s not gonna happen,” I snap as I re-enter the cramped cubicle and change into the shirt the assistant handed me.

Plain white. Better.

 

The royal blue suit I’ve picked fits like a dream and there’s a familiar smoothness to its grey satin lining. Brushing against my fingers as I slip the jacket over my hand, I’m back in my cave, Claire pressing into me, my hand sliding up and down her thighs and caressing the tender softness I discovered behind her knee.

I ache for her all over again.

Ian’s right. This is a perfect illustration of his point. I cannae put a jacket on without thinking of her and getting horned up.

I’m playing with fire.

I know it, and I hate myself for getting off on the surge of adrenaline that it gives me; the thought of Claire being forbidden is no doubt part of her allure. But I have to get past this craziness if I want to keep both John and Claire in my life.

And I do.

I step back out of the cubicle and get a round of applause akin to Harry’s standing ovation for Lloyd’s orange suit in Dumb and Dumber.

“She’s gonna be on ye like a rash. ‘Tis gonna happen and if it doesnae, I’ll have a crack at ye myself,” he blows me his trademark kiss before walking from the cubicle and calling out that he's going to get a coffee as he disappears into the rows of suits.

I look in the mirror, play with the collar, and swing my arms to check the fit.

I’m not big-noting myself, but I look good.

My exercise has paid off and I’m looking fitter, leaner, but somehow broader than I ever have. The sleep that has graced me over the last few nights has shrunk the bags beneath my eyes and my skin has a healthy glow to it thanks to the sunshine I’ve bathed in on my afternoon rides.

Whoa, careful, Fraser. You almost sound happy.

It’s been a long time since I spent money on myself; it’s possible that this suit is of equal dollar value to all other things I have bought in the last year combined.

It feels good actually, to do something for myself that doesn’t involve a therapist or a yoga mat. This is for me, and maybe a little bit for Claire. And even though we are just friends, for some reason, I can’t help wanting to look good for her, to make her proud.

Completely within the friend zone, of course.

 

~~~

 

Ian was right.

This is a massive mistake.

This whole day will be torture, laced with bitter-tasting happiness for the bride and groom.

Things started okay.

Jenny helped me get ready, made sure the suit was pressed, gave me some of Da’s cufflinks with a tear in her eye, and played with my hair for twenty of the longest minutes of my life.

Who knew a messy look took so much work.

When I walk into the chapel—my multitudes of sun fail to have me bursting into flames as I’d feared, a major milestone in itself—I’m seated by the usher in the second-row, right behind the groom's family who greeted me warmly which I in turn congratulated.

This seems to greatly vex an old lady sitting behind me, who not only complains about her seating position but also my height and how much of an obstruction I am. As the former nanny of John and Hal, she should be sitting before me and she’s more than happy to tell me all about it.

The chapel begins to fill, my pulse begins rising, sweat trickles down my back, but I’m doing okay, nothing I can’t handle.

Although, my shirt collar does feel rather tight around my neck, the same with the cuffs on my wrist; I don’t recall them cutting off my circulation.

Almost as though he knew I’d be freaking out in the crowd, John pokes his head around through the heavy wooden doors to give me a quick salute, wave and thumbs up.

Not that I was worried, but Christ, just seeing him calms me. I can feel my pulse lower...for three seconds.

My heart suddenly lurches from my chest and does a triple backflip in pike position as he reemerges with Claire on his arm. He’s beaming with pride as he looks adoringly at her and he has every right to. She’s glowing, resplendent.

Christ... I am completely gone with this woman.

It’s not just lust, infatuation or a passing phase as I suggested to her.

It is true, pure, devastating, gut-wrenching, unforgiving… well.

Her eyes catch mine as she approaches, floating down the aisle like an angel. Her gaze follows me until she passes, then she looks over her shoulder to maintain eye contact as she glides away.

She feels it too, though I’m sure not what it is, but she feels something more than either of us can admit.

I can see it in her eyes, hiding in plain sight amidst the flecks of gold and honey. Sadness is its companion, bubbling just below the surface and it’s my fault because I told her we were just friends.

Whatever happens at this wedding, no matter how good she looks, or I suspect smells, I need to keep my distance.

It should be easy. As the partner of the best man, she will be at the head table with John. It is highly possible I could make it out of here with barely a word spoken between us.

Maybe, it won’t be so bad.

John and Claire walk to the minister and speak to her briefly before John gives her a quick kiss, and she walks back towards me. No need for alarm though, she’s gonna sit with John's family, surely.

But she’s not. She waves at them and walks past.

Shit, she’s right beside me.

“Hi Jamie, may I sit with you?”

“Ahh, ye’re no’ sitting with the family?”

“John suggested it, but it didn’t feel right. I can sit somewhere else if you like?”

“No, no, I'd love ye…I mean, I’d like it if ye sat wi’ me. Of course.”

I begin to scoot over the shiny wooden seat but Claire beats me and squishes past between the chair in front and my knees. Her lovely round arse is in my face and it takes all my strength not to take a bite as it slides by.

Wearing a black sequined dress—the back of which is criminally low—she gives me a first viewing of what lies beneath those tees and sleeveless tops.

Just as I suspected, she smells like heaven surely must. She's flawless; skin like porcelain, so soft and smooth it calls my name, begs me to touch it. And as she sits beside me, I am consumed with a jealous rage toward the very wood that lies beneath her.

I remain facing forward but can see her looking at me up and down from the corner of my eye and my pulse quickly rises in time with her eyebrows.

“You look very handsome, Soldier.”

If she calls me a soldier again, I will either kiss her or explode, right here in the chapel.

It’s not stated on the invitation, but I am pretty sure human explosions are a wedding no-no. As is wanting to fuck, run away with, and marry the best man’s girlfriend.

Not that I am thinking of all three of those things.

No.

Strictly friendzone thoughts only.

Do friends sit so close?

Should her hand, so soft and elegant, sitting right next to mine cause this reaction in my body?

 

I hope she can’t feel my beating heart drum through the timber or hear the excess amount of swallowing I seem to be doing.

Luckily, music begins to play and everyone standing offers my bodily noises some form of a cover.

Hal smiles while looking as though he may vomit, and John is trying hard to calm him and not laugh in his face.

Esme walks past us and looks stunning. Her brunette hair is swept up, has wee white flowers scattered all through it, and her dress is beautiful, not big poofy like some I've seen.

Claire makes a cute wee sigh as she sees the train being carried by the two flower girls who seem to be struggling to hold its weight.

I love how much she’s into this.

Despite my better judgement, I sneak a look at her while she's distracted. A single tear slides down her cheek, her nose twitches as she sniffles and for some stupid reason, it has me swooning.

In a move even more against my judgment, I take her hand in mine, squeeze it and whisper in her ear.

“‘Tis no’ such an ugly dress. Ye dinna need tae cry for the lass.”

She breaks into a fit of giggles and we receive a fierce frowning and tutting from the former Nanny behind us as well as a woman I recognise as lady-something, John's aunt.

But stuff the old birds, she has the most amazing laugh and I want to listen to it forever. It’s everything; happiness, joy, sex appeal and a pinch of evil rolled into one.

It's perfect, just like the rest of her.

The ceremony begins; it’s long and tedious like all good catholic weddings. I really need it to end so I can stop sitting so close to the unknowing temptress beside me whose hand, for some ridiculous reason, remains in mine.

By the time the bride and groom say I do, and finally, kiss, I am still holding it. We are fused together in a slick of sweat and I don’t really know how to let it go without it being a big deal.

Luckily, Claire is so swept up in the emotion of the moment that she seems to think nothing of it, and when Hal and Esme break apart from their first kiss of married life, she’s up on her feet, ripping her hand from mine in the process and clapping and cheering with the rest of the guests. I seem to be the only one still sitting, and reluctantly stand and join in the applause with one eye on Claire and one on John.

He noticed Claire and me sitting together halfway through the ceremony, but his photo-ready smile remained fixed. Though I felt his eyes darting between us often, it was hard to read if he was pissed off or not. I think the high back of the pews saved us. Had he seen our hands, I don't think his expression would be hard to read.

The bride and groom, full of giddy kisses, smiles and laughter, make their way back down the aisle and guests begin to shuffle out behind them. Having only attended a couple of weddings as an adult, I’m not sure of the protocol, but I needn’t worry; Claire loops her arm into mine and she leads me out of the church into the waiting sunlight.

Like bees in a hive, everyone swarms around the stars of the show so Claire and I hang back and sit on a rock wall that runs along the side of the church.

Resembling a couple of gangly school kids, our legs kick up and down against the stone and quickly sync up in perfect unison.

Claire sweetly asks after Jenny and my nephews and I assure her all is well at Lallybroch.

It just misses her terribly. The house, not me.

“I don’t know about you two, but that was bloody boring.” John’s voice comes out of nowhere and has his arms around Claire before we realise he’s there. “Did I see you getting all misty-eyed, babe?” he says, kissing her on the cheek.

 

“You did indeed, I’m a sucker for a wedding. Not been to one where I didn't cry and make a fool of myself.”

John’s face suddenly changes and he kisses her again but on the lips with an ardent urgency. “You couldn’t look foolish if you tried, Claire. You’re stunning.”

It’s bloody awkward and I cannot get out of there quick enough. I’m three steps away when John is called back by the photographer.

“Shit, I have to go,” he says to Claire as he lays another passionate kiss on her lips. “I probably won’t see you till we are ready to leave for the reception, sorry… Hey, if you want to, why don’t you go with Seamus? Then you can hang out until we arrive, right, Jamie?”

There is an odd, almost sly look on John’s face that makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable… Although I do feel uncomfortable an awful lot, I also think people are pissed at me a lot too. No, it’s nothing, I‘m sure I am just being paranoid. But still...is he testing me? Us?

“Aye, yeah. ‘Twould be fine,” I say, trying my best to sound unenthused. “Better than kickin’ round on my lonesome.”

Claire seems less than impressed by my lack of enthusiasm and shoots me an evil side-eye I find incredibly sexy. Damn it, even when she is mad, she’s beautiful.

I really am fucked.

Alone together again, we walk from the chapel to the main castle where the reception and accommodation are and I make sure I keep my hands to myself.

The longer we walk, the more convinced I am. John is indeed testing the waters; he's onto me and is pushing Claire and me together as some sick way of having me prove my loyalty.

It's a ridiculously long bow to draw, not John's style at all, but my mind made up.

This is a set-up.

The arrow is cocked and ready to fly.

As such, I cruelly ignore her. Each attempt at conversation is met with a grunt, groan, or that weird sound I make in the back of my throat that all Scottish men seem born able to make.

Intentionally widening the distance between us is equally nasty, possibly childish, and with our destination in sight, Claire comes to a dramatic halt.

“Why are you being a dick all of a sudden? What changed from holding my hand sweetly in the chapel when I was upset, to ignoring me completely? What did I do? And don’t be full of shit and say ‘nothing’.”

“I dinnae k—”

“Ah, ah... I dinnae ken, I dinnae ken. I said don't be full of shit. You ken exactly what you are doing and why and you are going to tell me.”

“Christ, woman, I’m just tired, is all, and I was thinking. Can’t a man think without ye squawking at him like a magpie?”

“I do not squawk like a magpie or any other bird and you can have all the peace you want.”

Hitching her skirts up in her hand, she leaves the stony, gravel path and stomps across the manicured lawns, kicking over the ‘do not walk on the grass’ sign as she goes.

“Claire, I didnae mean tae…” My words are interrupted by my laughter. Without turning her head, her middle finger is proudly raised in my direction and remains so until she disappears behind a gazebo and out of sight.

A deliberately slow walk leads me to the ornately-styled ballroom that looks like something from a movie set. White linens, black chandeliers and glowing fairy lights decorate the interior of the historic castle. It would have taken months of planning to do all this, and it's another sobering reminder of the life I have missed while hiding in my cave, feeling lost and lonely. The world kept spinning while mine almost ceased to exist.

Suddenly blinded by the spotlight I guess is prepared for the first dance, I look through squinted eyes for any familiar faces in the crowd. John promised to sit me with someone I knew, but not one face is recognisable.

My panic must be obvious and the same usher that seated me at the ceremony comes to my rescue, guiding me to my seat with a slightly patronising smirk.

Six seats per table, only two are filled so far, one by me and one by Dougal; Dougal the dairy farmer. That's how he introduced himself. He’s a gruff but personable kind of lad. Bald as an eagle with a huge bushy beard. I’ve not met him before but he seems oddly familiar, and I’m unusually comfortable with him straight away.

A quiet unease settles over me when it’s my turn to talk about my job, my life. At no point will I ever discuss my life in the military for fear of the types of follow up questions I will face, and the lost year of my life is hardly party-worthy, so I just tell him that I, too, am a farmer.

We sat chatting about farming for a while. Dougal is taken aback that Lallybroch has not been used for dairy cattle and assures me if I ever want to give it a go, he'll be more than happy to help get us started.

It was mid feed and crop discussion that another couple and their daughter joined the table. Again, I don’t know them from a bar of soap, but like Dougal, they seem friendly enough. They too are farmers and I begin to sense a theme; we are the only farmers in the building, hence we have been grouped together, herded into one corner of the ballroom.

My theory goes out the window when I hear a posh English accent carried on a voice I could never forget. coming from behind me.

“You’ve got to be bloody kidding me.”

Chapter Text

 

How did I not notice the name place card?

Claire. Her name has been staring me in the face for 15 minutes.

As delighted as I am, the death stare I’m receiving tells me this is not the time to show it.

A straight face may be vital to my continuing existence so I try extra hard not to smile...which is fucking hard cause despite myself, I’m really fucking excited.

“What? Why are ye stuck here with all the farmers?”

Sighing heavily, Claire angrily pulls the chair out from the table and flops into it like a flustered tot. Clearly, she’s still pissed off with me; it’s so cute and adorably sexy.

“Esme hates me apparently. She thinks I’m a cow. I guess that makes me as close to a farmer as I’ll ever get.” Her reply comes in hot, short and sharp as she stubbornly stares straight ahead.

The old adage 'treat em mean, keep em keen' is proving correct. Being ignored instantly has me needing her to look at me.

Deliberately trying to provoke her, I alternate between elbowing her arm or poking her in the thigh with my finger as I ramble incessantly about the decorations, how much she thinks this would all cost and complimenting her dress, all while receiving nothing more than a humph, dunno and suppose so back.

Her eyes dart sideways with every poke and prod of my finger but she is still refusing to look at me.

To have someone act like this towards me would normally drive me crazy and have my anxiety skyrocketing, but with her, it’s a complete turn on, a game; one I want to win.

A waitress brings around a tray of drinks; wine, beer, scotch and several bottles of water. Dougal, though, is a teetotaler and asks for a fresh pot instead of alcohol and the waiter kindly obliges and scurries off to get it.

Claire and I exchange a silent, awkward glance and our hands both reach for the one and only dram of whisky on the tray. She gives me an obligatory nod when I nudge it toward her and drinks it as a shot; proudly slamming the glass down on the table and sending a jolt of lust straight to my cock.

It’s going to be a long and interesting night.

Our table mates chat with us and each other, the usual dull kind of chit chat that's forced upon us as adults and I notice that Claire and I seem to have developed an apparent and overwhelming thirst.

We’ve both downed two more drinks by the time the tea is brought to the table.

Dougal pours it immediately and as he does, I offer him the jug of milk; it's closer to me and saves him from leaning across the table to get it.

“Do ye take milk in yer tea, Dougal?”

“Nah, thank ye though. I’m lactose intolerant, ye ken.”

Laughter bubbles in my belly as milk apparently does in Dougal’s.

“Wait... Ye’re a lactose-intolerant dairy farmer?”

“Aye, that's right.”

I can’t help myself.

“Wow, that’s rather unfortunate. ‘Tis like a whisky maker being allergic tae barley. What are we talking here? Gas? Cramps?”

“The works. Terrible diarrhea, I could shit through the eye of a needle diarrhea.”

He makes an explosive sound with his mouth and poor Claire is trapped halfway between dry retching and hysterics.

 

It cuts the tension. I can feel her body shaking in an attempt to hold in her laughter. It’s now her elbow that is rubbing against mine and I kick her beneath the table in playful reprimand.

As Dougal continues to share his tummy woes, she can take it no more, looks at me and bursts into laughter, which in turn sets me off. Our squinting eyes are locked onto each other and her head crashes on my shoulder with exhausted joy.

“I’m sorry, that's terribly rude of me.” She splutters, waving her hands but continuing to laugh.

“Och, think nothin’ of it, lass. I ken ‘tis rather peculiar, and graphic.”

Now laughing so hard I begin to cough, I reach for my beer to soothe my throat and Claire's still flailing arms knock the glass from my hand. It hits the leg of my timber chair and smashes into pieces. When I reach down to pick it up, a large piece resting on the edge accidentally slices through flesh.

“A Dhia!”

Quick as a flash, Claire is in action mode; her laughter gone instantly and again, she looks furious while whipping a wee first aid kit from her bag with one hand and grabbing hold of my finger with the other.

“I dinna ken how ye fit that in yer wee bag, Sassenach.”

“Shut up and sit still.” Snapping, she grabs my finger and squeezes to slow the steady flow of blood.

“Ye seem pissed off wi’ me, Sassenach. Are ye pissed off wi’ me?”

“No, I'm not. I’m just concentrating. Sit bloody still, would you?”

I ignore her and keep fidgeting in my seat. “I gotta be honest, ye really do seem angry.”

“Bloody hell, Jamie, I am not angry at you as a person, rather at your ability to hurt yourself constantly.”

She pulls my body to face hers and her legs come to rest inside of mine. It’s an insanely intimate position and I like it very much, even with blood dripping from my hand.

“Aye, I am a bit clumsy I suppose. I do thank ye though. Ye have a verra soft touch.”

“Yeah well, don’t thank me too much.” With an evil smile that makes me think she's enjoying this, she douses my hand in antiseptic and I rip it from her, wincing at the sharp, stinging pain.

“Don’t be such a bloody baby.” Laughing again, she snatches my hand back and covers my finger with a plaster and smiles. “Would you like me to kiss it better?”

Yes

“Why, no, that won’t be necessary. But thank ye.”

As the waiter flutters around us, cleaning the glass and antiseptic from the floor, Dougal and the other farmers praise Claire’s handy work and she teasingly slaps me on the thigh, then calls me a baby one more time.

Of course, it’s at this moment that John makes his way to the table, sneaking a quick visit in with Claire before the newlyweds' big entrance.

I can't say for sure what he is thinking, seeing his girlfriend holding my hand with her legs firmly wedged inside mine, but I can imagine what I would think had the roles been reversed.

I’m damn sure I would not be quite so calm.

It bothers him though; his pace slows as he sees us and he bites his lip a little when we jump apart.

“Just a wee scratch,” I blurt out before he even speaks, holding my hand up to inspect the blood-stained plaster and shirt cuffs. “I cut my hand and Claire fixed it up.”

“Well, aren't you lucky I sat you together? Claire comes to your rescue... again.” It's said with a half-smile but I can see the displeasure in his eyes. His gaze shifts from my finger to his girlfriend and his full, genuine smile returns.

“I’m sorry again for the seating. Esme insisted on no non-married partners at the table. She thinks it’s a jinx.”

“It’s okay, John. I understand you had no choice in the matter.”

He picks up her hand, kisses it softly, then crouches to his knees before her. “Apparently there’s some problem in the kitchens so dinner will be late. They are going to do the first dance almost as soon as they come in to soothe the starving masses. Would you dance with me, Claire?”

“Of course,” she smiles sweetly, bowing her head graciously. “I’d be honoured.”

“Excellent. They will announce your name when it’s time. I’ll meet you on the dance floor, my dear.” Reaching up to kiss her lips, he wraps his arms around her waist and pulls her close. It’s bloody painful to witness. I’d rather cut my hand open a hundred times and bleed all over myself than sit here and watch this.

Needing an escape, I make my excuse and go to the bathroom to wash the remaining blood from my hands and that image from my eyes.

 

~~~

 

Like a car wreck, I can’t take my eyes away.

The torturous night I predicted is coming to fruition.

John and Claire are dancing.

The song, First Day of My Life, is debilitatingly cruel. If I didn’t know Hal’s eclectic taste in music, I’d sworn it was chosen just to mock my stupid heart. The opening line cuts me to the very depths of my existence.

 

This is the first day of my life

Swear I was born right in the doorway

I went out in the rain, suddenly everything changed

They're spreading blankets on the beach

 

Her head is resting on his shoulder as they sway to the music in perfect unison. Each time they swirl past me, I can see the happiness in his expression and it’s like a dagger through my heart. Their eyes are closed, they are holding each other tight, chest to chest. They look so perfect together and I can't stop watching despite the fact that it's killing me inside.

As they pass me again, her eyes open and meet mine and a look I can only describe as longing is lingering between us. Her focus doesn't shift as they again move away. Floating across the dancefloor, she maintains her private vigil over me.

It’s just Claire and Jamie. Jamie and Claire. Only we two know this feeling.

My heart is thumping like a bass line at a summer rave and it furiously echoes in my head. The want, the energy and the pull between us is terrifying in its enormity.

 

Yours was the first face that I saw

I think I was blind before I met you

And I don't know where I am, I don't know where I've been

But I know where I want to go

 

She wets and bites her lip as she slowly drifts by me again and it’s just all too much.

Our eyes remain locked as I practically fall from my chair.

My jacket, shirt and tie are choking me, trapping me within this pain like a straightjacket.

A royal blue gilded cage.

Air. I just need to find some air.

Like a drunken sailor, I stagger, wounded, disorientated outside.

A hidden alcove no doubt frequented by many a randy wedding guest or two, not to mention impatient brides and grooms, provides the sanctuary I need to disintegrate.

I collapse against a wall of ivy and jasmine. My body is crushing the flowers, releasing their calming fragrance, but I’m anything but calm. I still hear every note of music, still, see the subtle nuances of her face.

There is no escape.

Resentment is building inside me and threatens to turn into a rage I cannot control.

I am burning, consumed by the feelings I carry and cannot express.

The joy I feel when I am around her that she cannot know.

The touch I crave but will never feel.

How is any man, let alone a screwed up fool like me, supposed to carry all of this?

A song or two passes as I slide down to the ground. The fucking nightmarish love songs continue to torment me. I’m one Barry White song away from losing it when I feel a feather-light touch on my arm.

“On your feet, Soldier.”

Being the well-trained officer I am, I’m up in a flash, staring into her perfect face. The flecks of gold are brighter now, beaming up at me like the sun, cutting through the dark.

“You left before the dance ended. Why did you come outside?” She whispers, standing so dangerously close.

“Ye ken why I had tae. And, Claire, ye shouldnae be here. Go back in, go back tae John.”

“John’s gone.”

“Gone? What do ye mean he’s gone?”

“It’s okay, Jamie. He's fine, he'll be back after he takes his Gran home. I got a bit bored sitting by myself and Dougal was talking about his flatulence again, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to duck out for some air. Do you want to come back inside with me? They are finally going to serve the food soon.”

“Nah, I think I might go home. Not feeling the best. Allergies and such.” I say, wiping my still damp eyes.

“Oh, allergies, right...I’m sorry that I was upset before. It's been a long day.” She steps closer again and is within hands-reach now. I can hear her breathing from here and can smell her sweet scent that perfectly complements the still lingering jasmine.

She smiles at me in a manner that shifts the grief inside of me, makes me trust in her, and convinces me that somehow my life will always be okay as long as she's around.

A lightness of spirit soothes me. Just being in her presence heals me.

We stand and talk about nothing and everything and laugh when the DJ takes it up a notch. The distinct opening line of ‘Time of My Life’ belts out and Claire swoons on the spot.

“God, I know it’s corny, but I bloody love this song.”

Before I know what's come over me, I’m curling my index finger, calling her to me as Johnny does Baby in that iconic scene.

“I’m no Patrick Swayze, Sassenach. But will ye dance wi’ me.”

“You know Dirty Dancing?” Her face lights up with excitement and I think a little shock too. Blush creeps up her cheeks as she purses her lips and steps into my body.

As the beat picks up, her arms slide around my neck, her fingers tickle my flesh, and our bodies move as one. Being this close to her feels right, and I never want to leave her side again, though I know I can't stay.

No words are spoken—there’s just the music and her—as our hips slam together and grind into each other.

It’s definitely dirty, but there's a joy infused with the undeniable lust in every step and roll of hips and I honestly don’t know if I've ever felt this happy or in lo— Well, in whatever this is.

An idea is bubbling, the song is ending, I only have one chance. I have to do it now.

“Jump, Sassenach.”

“What?” She giggles.

“Jump, Claire.”

My hands grip her waist.

Christ, she’s sae tiny.

I bite my lip, nod then lift her off her feet and over my head.

“Oh my God!” She squeals and laughs that sexy laugh as she spreads out her arms and floats above me.

All I can see is her smile—and maybe her boobs—as I look up at her beaming face. My arms begin to shake, blood trickles from the cut on my hand, so I slowly lower her down.

Her body slides down mine, her softness rubs against my hardness.

I can feel every inch of her.

Every curve.

Every edge.

Breathing is impossible as her breasts caress my face, smothering me long enough to decide that this is the only way I want to die.

She continues to drop, pressing into my chest, sliding over my groin and legs. I can feel her pulse between my fingers, hear her rapid breaths as her feet finally touch the ground. We hold hands, the silence deafening.

“Does that answer yer question?”

The rise and fall of her breast is hypnotic, as is her soft, panting, breathy, “Yes.”

Face to face. Breathing. We chase each other’s lips.

Shadows dance in the filtered light from the ballroom.

My hands move up from her waist, run up her back and neck where they play with her hair, freeing her curls from their confines. 

I watch in dumbstruck awe as they tumble, falling perfectly to her almost bare shoulders.

Closer and closer we edge. Claire’s eyes close, mine remain open. I have to remember every second of this.

It’s agony, it's divine, it's everything it shouldn’t be.

I can almost taste her on my tongue.

She’s so close yet so far.

Nothing else exists... and then.

They make an announcement. Dinner is served. It rings through the speakers overhead reminding us that we aren't alone, that she is not mine.

“Ye better go back in, Sassenach. John will be back soon, and he’ll be looking fer ye.”

“I want to stay, Jamie.”

Her hand is on my chest. I want her to stay. Christ, I want her so, so much.

“Ye canna stay wi’ me, ye ken that. ‘Tis fer the best.”

She begins to speak, she's ready to fight, but I see her eyes change and she surrenders to the knowledge of what's right.

“Are you coming in?”

“Och, nah, I’m going tae head tae my room. ‘Tis also fer the best.”

“I suppose,” she whispers, sliding away. She turns back once as she leaves, looking over her bare, unforgettably beautiful shoulder.

“Good night, Jamie.”

“Good night, Claire.”