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39 Days

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Sunset was still far off, but the light was almost gone. Gale winds barreled through camp, the pitiful green team sign losing its battle to stay upright. As were Joe, Claire, and Thomas, leaning into the gusts as they readied some semblance of a shelter for the storm that was upon them. Gillian already sat tucked under the meager roof, soaked through, knees hugged to her chest as she shivered. 

The small fire they’d coaxed into being had already devolved to gasping embers. Given the scant hours they’d had to prepare, Claire’s vision of a shelter and protected fire pit that could withstand the coming storm likely had been overly ambitious. The fact that Thomas’s big talk — Mr. I’m-a-master-at-shelters-and-don’t-you-forget-it Christie — was apparently all crust and no pie didn’t help, though.

And Jamie was nowhere to be found. 

“Anyone know where Jamie is?” Claire asked, raising her voice to be heard over a not-so-distant roll of thunder. Everyone shook their heads, not even glancing over as they continued their frantic work. Worried, she looked to the spot in the wilderness where Jamie had disappeared half an hour before. More supports for the roof, he’d said. He’d worried it would collapse without them.

Already, raindrops the size of acorns hammered them. Looking out to the ocean, Claire saw only the silver sheet of falling water in every direction. Across the sky, the darkening purple-black of furious storm clouds prowled towards them like living creatures, monsters breathing in their scent, closing in with every blink. Waiting and eager to devour them whole.

The deluge intensified.

She ignored her tribe mates’ protests as she stomped toward the treeline, a production member hot on her trail. In the moment, getting lost in a storm-ravaged jungle hardly occurred to her. Only a vague sense of unease that twisted in her stomach to think of him out there, alone. 

Maybe he was fine. Maybe she’d bump into him steps away from camp and feel silly for having fretted. If nothing else, perhaps it would earn her some trust.

“Jamie?” 

Only rainfall answered. Droplets pelted the ground in a roar of water against leaves. She stepped carefully, picking her way through and calling out every few steps. The further she trekked from the beach, the more her heart pounded, blood whooshing behind her ears like the gusts that threatened to blow her off her feet.

 By the time a voice finally answered her, the sky was full black, barring the occasional flash of lightning.

Jamie!

“Here,” he called, and Claire cursed, moving quickly. Finally, she spotted his shadowy form in a copse of bamboo trees. 

Just…standing.

She advanced, anger overpowering the concern. “What the hell are you doing out here? You could’ve gotten yourself killed! Both of us, for that matter.”

As though their heap of cobbled-together branches and fronds would be much better than out here in the open. But at least there, civilization felt close enough to touch. She thought back to past seasons when players had been evacuated from their camps in the midst of deadly, destructive storms, and a fresh dread clanged through her. 

Without waiting for Jamie’s answer, she grabbed his hand and pulled. “Come on, if we move, we can make it back before it gets any worse.”

He didn’t budge, only ripping his hand from her grip with a growled expletive (or so she assumed, as it certainly didn’t sound like English). 

Claire turned, a flicker of fear coursing through her. “Jamie?”

“I wasna loitering about in a damned hurricane fer kicks,” he snapped. “I just…I got turned around in the dark.”

Something was hidden beneath his words, and Claire opened her mouth to badger it out of him — either her greatest gift or her fiercest weapon, Lamb would always say with a chortle. Lightning cracked then, brightening the scene for two seconds. Enough for Claire to see the jagged gash on his forehead over his left eye, the blood washed away by the rain. And to see how he cradled his arm — the one she’d tugged so carelessly, she realized with mortification — with the other, body trembling with either cold or pain. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know which. 

The jungle went dark again. “Tell me what happened.”

It was hard to hear in the clamor of the storm, but she thought he grunted in the back of his throat as she leaned in close to listen. “Was cuttin’ bamboo tae brace the shelter. What we have canna bear up in this wind.” He paused, the dark shadow of his head shifting to look up at the canopy above them. Treetops thrashed, silhouettes rocking over them like inverted pendulums. Claire’s spine tingled at the sound of clashing and breaking branches. 

Jamie continued, “Then a gust blew through, and next thing I know, I’m wakin’ up on the ground wi’ a pain in my shoulder and no idea which way’s camp.”

“Are you nauseous? Dizzy? Disoriented?” 

Damn his timing, she couldn’t even check his pupils. 

He shook his head with a small jerk. “Nah. I dinna think I was out but fer a second. More the shock of the fall than the impact. My shoulder’s the worst part, but I’ll bide.”

Claire narrowed her eyes, even though she could barely see more than his general shape. That wound on his head had looked far worse than more shock than impact, but she’d save that argument for when she could reach medical. “How’d you get out here without a camera following you?”

“I didn’t. I had a tail from camp. Dinna ken where the wee man got off to.” He sat up straighter, scanning the scene behind Claire before he asked, “How’d you?”

Claire looked sharply around, but it was useless. Were the camera operator here, they’d have surely rushed over to assess the injured player as well. 

“Jesus H. Christ,” she hissed. 

They were truly on their own, then.

She swallowed and returned her attention to Jamie, prodding his shoulder with practiced fingers. He winced. She sighed. “It’s dislocated. I’ll have to put it back into joint.”

“Ye can do that?”

“I’m a nurse,” she reminded him, shifting into position. Another lightning strike and booming thunder muted her as she opened her mouth to insist that she was more than capable of patching him up. But in the brief flash of light, she saw his jaw set into a determined clench, and his eyes met hers. 

The light disappeared. A terse nod from the outline of his head. “On wi’ it, then,” he said, making sure she heard. 

Claire worked slowly, depending on her sense of touch to get everything lined up without being able to see clearly. The wind picked up in force and volume. 

“This is the worst part,” she shouted and sensed more than heard his acknowledgement. Holding her breath, she worked the arm, carefully maneuvering and pushing until, finally, it gave with a satisfying crunch and slid back into place. 

Jamie grunted, but then sighed. “Doesna hurt anymore.”

“It will.” Gently but firmly, she tucked the damaged arm against his chest. Grabbing the buff he’d circled around his good wrist, she stretched the fabric and slipped it over his neck for a makeshift sling but still cautioned him to hold it steady as they stood. “With luck, we can put you on knots or puzzles for the next challenge. We certainly don’t need you benched or, Christ forbid, pulled because you can’t manage to hold onto a bloody tree trunk.”

The agitation just slipped out, and she immediately regretted it. Worry roiled in her gut that, in a single breath, she’d managed to alienate her most promising potential ally. But Jamie, to her surprise and immense relief, only laughed and nodded. “How about I boost ye up and see how well ye do just now?” 

“Never mind that,” she said with an eye roll, but the knot in her stomach dissolved. “We need to get back to camp. It’ll—”

Lightning painted the jungle white, and the rest of her sentence was lost amidst the grinding, deafening crackle of too-near thunder. Not a single boom, but a series of sharp claps building up to the one that chilled her skin with goosebumps. The weight of the rain itself increased to a veritable frenzy, drops attacking them at a nearly ninety-degree angle in the howling wind.

“No time,” Jamie said, his good hand taking one of hers and giving a tug. “There’s a place I found earlier. A sort of cutout in the tree. Will at least get us out of the worst of it till it’s safe tae go back.”

Wandering through unfamiliar terrain in the dark while Zeus himself laid siege to their island seemed ill advised, and so Claire agreed, letting Jamie lead her further into the pitch dark. Two minutes later, they came to a huge tree, gnarled and twisted like something from a fairytale. And there at the base, a small opening, barely large enough for her to pass through, let alone him. 

“Jamie…”

“We can both squeeze in,” he insisted, mouth just beside her ear. “If ye dinna mind gettin’ close.”

As though she had a choice either way. 

“Well, come on, then. You first.” He made to argue, but she put up a finger. “You’re injured, and you’re larger. Get to the side so I don’t knock your arm, then I’m climbing in over you.”

She thought he may refuse, but another peal of thunder — close enough now that the sound rumbled through her body and pebbled her skin — shut him up. Something that may have been amusement danced in his lightning-lit eyes as he finally obeyed, crouching down and maneuvering inside. She hugged herself against the spasming shivers, bouncing impatiently in the knees until he beckoned to her. Being mindful of his right side, she followed. 

It took a few minutes of scooting and squeezing, but ended with Jamie’s back against the inside wall of the tree and Claire seated between his legs, which were bent at what was likely an uncomfortable if not painful angle and pressed tight on either side of her hips. But his arm was safe from being jarred, and though water dripped down from where the trunk had split somewhere above them, they were largely spared from the wind and rain.

Somehow, thin though they were, the walls surrounding them muffled the raging sounds of the outside. Now it was little more than white noise, humming beneath her skin as they stilled and waited, panting. Though nothing could mute the earth-shattering crashes that rattled through them every few minutes. 

“Ye can lean back, ye ken,” Jamie said from behind her. Inside their makeshift haven was quiet enough that his voice was back to normal volume. “Nothing untoward, I promise.”

Claire was sitting up, curled over her knees, making herself as small as possible. Seemed the only fair thing, really, to give him a little more space in this tiny hovel. “I’m fine.”

He laughed. “Ye’re shakin’ so hard, it’s makin’ my teeth rattle,” he said, voice smoother. “We could be stuck here through the night. Likely will be. Ye’ll either freeze tae death curled up by yourself, or ye’ll strain yer back wi’ the shivering.”

She considered a moment. Finally, she loosened her grip on her knees and rolled carefully back until she rested — stiffly, but less so than before — against his chest. Soaked as he was — as they both were — she was already warmer. 

“Do ye mind if I put my good arm around ye?” he asked then. “It’s just a bit crushed against this root here.”

“That’s fine.” 

Alone as they were, isolated from anyone who could help or intervene, perhaps she should’ve been more nervous. But as Jamie slowly, almost gently laid his arm across her stomach — his elbow resting on his left thigh, hand and wrist on his other so just his forearm brushed against her middle — she sensed no danger. No threat from him. 

Minutes passed, she supposed, though she had no real clue how many. With the promise of being stuck here for who knew how long, they both slowly relaxed their tense postures. Claire sank deeper against his chest, though she kept her head from lolling back against his shoulder. That seemed just too…intimate. In turn, by degrees, his arm fell heavier against her torso. And hers, crossed over her chest, rested on top.

Only their combined shivering told her that neither had drifted off to sleep. And who could, crouched in a hole in the ground, water pooled around them, freezing and soaked, wind howling and — Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, what would happen if lightning struck this tree?

“Relax,” he said behind her, voice soft. 

“What?”

“Dinna ken what ye’re thinkin,” he said, “but ye’re breathin’ fast, and ye’re tense again.”

She huffed, unclenching the muscles she’d unconsciously tightened as worst case scenarios flitted through her mind. “It was just occurring to me what would happen if our safe haven here got struck by lightning.”

Hmph.” The considering noise behind her was gruff. “The thing’s already dead and half collapsed from the top. Likely struck once before.”

“How very comforting.”

Meaning,” he said with emphasis, “it’s far from the tallest tree in the area. Plus, it’s either take our chances here or in the middle o’ that bluster out there and get lost or worse.”

He was right, of course. For the first time since they’d arrived on the island, Claire very much felt the lack of civilization. No shop or office to duck into, no car to call, no phones to send for help if they needed it. 

Just them. At the mercy of nature’s most barbaric whims.

“Tell me about yourself,” she said suddenly, half turning to look over her shoulder despite the night shrouding his features. “Distract me.”

A pause, then a sigh as he shifted behind her. Settling in to the protruding tree roots like he would an armchair before a hearth. “I ken it’ll come as a shock, but I’m Scottish.” Claire snorted, and there was a smile in his voice as he continued. “Grew up outside Inverness. When I was thirteen, we moved tae the States.”

“What brought you there?”

She felt him swallow behind her, the air growing thick with his silence. Before she could take back the question, though, he was answering. “My mam got sick. None of the hospitals back home had the treatments she needed. So all of us — my parents, my siblings, my godfather — we all came o’er for her.” He paused for the boom of thunder to fade away into the steady thrum of the rain outside. “She died two years later. We just…never made it back.”

“I’m sorry, Jamie.” Claire spoke as softly as she could and still be heard. 

“Me too,” he answered. His shaky exhale tickled the back of her neck. “Then two years past, my da had a stroke. A bad one. He and my godfather own stables in California, but e’en when he recovered — as much as he would, anyway”—No amount of Armageddon outside could cover the agony under the words—“he couldna work it anymore. So he signed his shares to me, and I took over.” 

“You own the place?” She twisted around fully to face him, which in their tight space was no mean feat. Nose to nose as they were, she still couldn’t make out his face. “You told us you were a stable hand!”

His amused huff sent warm breath brushing over her cheeks, eyelids, hair, lips. After two weeks in the wilderness, it should’ve been vile; hers likely was. But it had no scent. Or, rather, its scent melded with the earthy smells of rain and dirt and salt and the tree sheltering them, as though nature itself had laid some claim over Jamie and imbued him with its essence. 

Enough to make her swallow as the sound itself tore straight through her. 

“Aye, well, a lad who just deals wi’ the horses is a lot less of a threat than the one who handles the beasts and the business.”

Claire turned back around, settling back against his torso again. His arm slung across her seemed to tighten. Maybe it was just the shivering. 

“So that’s your big secret,” she mused. “Yet you told me.”

“Ye asked.”

“Well, you could’ve continued lying. Or stopped short of sharing the full truth. You didn’t have to tell me.”

“Suppose so.” Oh, that was definitely his arm tightening around her, just for a second. “But I decided tae trust ye instead.”

A laugh bubbled up through her chest and past her lips. “So, what, one night together, hiding in a tree like a couple of drowned rats, and we’re allies, are we?”

His one-armed shrug shifted her ever so slightly. “They’ll assume we are anyway, when we return. May as well follow through.”

Claire gave a slow nod, as though she were considering. As though she had more than the one choice before her. (Or, well, behind her.) 

“And Joe would be on board with that?”

“Keeps us in the majority here,” Jamie answered easily. She ignored the minor thrill that went through her each time his accent thickened and he rolled an R. “And Joe’s solid. Straight shooter and sees through the bullshit. Which Thomas and Gillian both have in spades.”

“I sensed that,” Claire said. 

“Well, then…”

“You’d really just…bring me into your alliance? You’ve known me for all of three hours.”

“Then convince me, Sassenach.” (God, how could she hear his smirk? Was that normal?) “And why don’t ye start there, actually. How a posh Englishwoman such as yerself comes tae ken such a foul word.”

She rolled her eyes but couldn’t stifle her grin. “Remember that, do you?”

“I’m no’ likely tae forget it.”

Her posture loosened further so that her head finally did rest against his collarbone on his good shoulder. “Grew up with my uncle, Uncle Lamb. He was an archaeologist and historian. He took a teaching job at Oxford until I turned ten so I could go to traditional school, then deemed me old enough to handle tutors and homeschooling, and on the road we went. One of his favorite posts was in Scotland, studying Culloden and the clans. And as conspicuously Scottish as you are, our English-ness is equally noticeable…”

“So ye learned that one fair quick, then.”

“Indeed,” she answered, though with no heat. 

“And how’d ye get tae the States?”

Whatever minute measure of body heat she had left rushed up to her face. At least the dark would hide it. She pressed her chilled fingertips to her inflamed cheeks. Waste not, want not

“Well, my last year of uni, I was in a…somewhat scandalous relationship with one of the history professors. Not one of mine,” she defended herself out of habit, “but…frowned upon nonetheless. After graduation, he was offered a posting at Boston College, and I followed him.”

The rain outside picked up volume. It drummed against the tree trunk above them, precluding any conversation for several minutes. For the best, as an expanding balloon had taken residence in Claire’s chest, crushing her lungs and making breathing and certainly conversing all but impossible.

Since leaving that flat, she hadn’t stopped to think about what had actually transpired between them. Harsh parting words, in more ways than one. 

Won’t wait, more like. 

Fine, then don’t.

“Claire?” 

Another thunderclap outside, another white flash. She’d hoped it would hide the trembling that came not from the cold or the wet now, but from the tears. The first she’d shed for Frank. 

“I’m fine,” she said, clenching every muscle in her body to try to still her body and stay the emotions that, wild and dangerous as the weather, threatened to erupt. She’d just won the bloody man over; no need to have him dismiss her as a hysterical woman not five minutes later. 

Jamie didn’t answer immediately. “Is it…about yer man?” he eventually asked, so softly she nearly missed it. “Do ye miss him?’

Nothing judgmental in his tone. No reprobation or disgust. So tender were the words, she wished she could face him. Read his features. 

“Not really mine anymore.” 

His arm squeezed around her again. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” She wiped her cheeks; the rainwater on her hands rendered the motion moot, though, and she only sniffed through a chuckle. “No, it should’ve ended a long while ago. This just…gave me the push to see it through, I suppose.”

More thunder roared around them and vibrated through the earth beneath them. Claire’s teeth chattered again as she curled up close. “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, it’s cold.”

Jamie’s arm around her was solid as a steel cage and pulled her flush against his torso again, his palm running up and down her arm as he hugged her close. It helped. Marginally.

“Do ye have any strong connections on the other tribes, then?”

Good, good. Back to talking strategy. Back to the game. That was safe ground. And a distraction to boot.

Claire spoke through her quavering lips. “Always hard to tell after a swap. I’m close with Louise. Phaedre, Ulysses, and Marsali, a bit but lesser so.”

Behind her, Jamie’s nod brushed his chin against the side of her face. “Joe, obviously. Gillian has always kept a bit aloof from me, but seems to have changed her tune on that.” He cringed behind her. “Joe was close wi’ Fergus, and me wi’ Rupert. Thomas and I dinna get on. And he’s close wi’ Jack and Doug.”

“Good that they’re all split up, then.”

“Aye.”

“So,” Claire said, “that’s a pretty decent spread between the two of us, then. If either of us were to make it to a merge.”

“Nothin’ tae frown at, for certain.”

For a while, they engaged in a careful dance. Shared stories of their days on the island thus far — the fights between different players, those suspected of having found hidden immunity idols, even how the buffoon Charlie had lost hold of his underpants on the second day and they were swept out to sea. 

To pass the time, partially. Distract them from their current miserable state. But it was also a tentative show of trust. By unspoken agreement, they each matched the other for strategic revelations; whatever useful info Jamie provided, Claire reciprocated, and vice versa.

By the time her energy was spent and they allowed the smothered storm sounds to fill the air between them instead of words, Claire didn’t feel quite so alone anymore.

 

#

 

How they’d managed it, Jamie had no earthly idea. But when he drifted awake some time later, still swathed in dark (but a quiet, still dark on the cusp of dawn, thank God), Claire was asleep. Slumped against his chest, head on his good shoulder and tucked into his neck. With the rain finally stopped, he actually felt warm. 

He knew he should wake her, crawl out of this pitiful shelter, and head toward camp. The others — not to mention the production crew — would be frantic, likely. But he only looked down at her, studying. 

The last two weeks were stamped across her face like subtitles. The frustration at her team’s abysmal challenge performance written in the deep valley between her brows. Hunger’s cruel torture in the hollows of her cheeks and between her collarbones, valleys deeper than he remembered them from that first day. 

And yet, here she lay. Breathing slow and even, hardly a twitch. As peaceful as he’d seen anyone since that first day on the boat when Jeff said, Go.

Those wind-tossed curls and the teasing glint in her golden eyes that day had been impossible to expel from his mind. Especially watching her in the challenges, not necessarily the strongest physically but fast and clever as anything. But never in the spare moments that he’d allowed his mind to drift to her (and only sometimes under the guise of gameplay) had he imagined something like this. Cut off from the entire world, even the small version of it with them on this island. They may as well have absconded to the moon. 

Claire gave a sleepy sigh and burrowed deeper into his neck. When he adjusted slightly under the shift of her weight, his injured shoulder protested. He stifled a groan, an angry throbbing beginning as the pain he’d all but forgotten about reared its head. 

Well, she may think him an idiot for not being able to climb a tree. That was fine. So long as she thought so without realizing he’d been in that tree not to cut bamboo for the shelter but to retrieve the hidden immunity idol he’d spotted earlier in the afternoon. 

Thomas had been too busy barking orders to notice the odd little tube fastened high in the tree. It was the same material and hue of the bark, easy to miss. In all likelihood, one wasn’t meant to spot it without having first found the clue telling them where to look. Jamie supposed he should thank the old coot in the end; had Jamie not been rolling his eyes and looking toward heaven for strength, he’d not have noticed it.

Had it only been Joe with him, Jamie would’ve chanced it. Maybe even used it to further solidify their alliance, a show of trust between them. Instead, though, he’d had to carefully herd the other two away from the tree and back to camp before slipping away again himself. 

The one positive? He’d managed to snag the tube before he’d fallen. And had managed to extract the idol and hide it in his shorts — and done so one-handed, forbye — before Claire had stomped up to him and tried to drag him back to camp. And, in making his way back to retrieve it, he’d discovered and made note of the tree they now lay in, that had protected them from the elements through the night. 

He’d almost told Claire about the idol biting into his thigh a dozen different times in the hours they’d been cramped together. But each time, as he’d opened his mouth to tell her, Murtagh’s sharp voice had come to him. 

Shut yer gob, lad, and stay focused. 

Yet more good fortune that the cameras hadn’t managed to follow them here; his godfather would flay him alive if he saw Jamie turning into putty in this woman’s hands.

Claire pulled things out of him — game-wise and not — he couldn’t explain. And, he suspected, she’d shared more than she’d expected to, as well. Not just stratagems and machinations. Whatever this was between them, it was something more genuine than deserved to exist in this game. 

And that, in truth, had been enough to zip his mouth shut and keep the idol to himself. This was not the place to let his heart take the lead. Nor was it the time to betray this massive advantage in the game. His family needed this money. He couldn’t afford to risk it, not based on nothing more than the fuzzy fluttering of his wame whenever a lass looked his way or said his name.

That thought in mind, Jamie finally nudged Claire awake. “Rise’n shine, Sassenach,” he murmured. “We should make back fer camp ‘fore they send out a search party.”

She stirred and sat up, bleary and blinking. Her rain-dried curls, normally far from tame, were absolute chaos, poking and standing out in all directions. Somehow, they endeared her to him even more. 

Her eyes finally focused him, and she stared for a moment, as though equally surprised to have actually managed some sleep here. “And what do we tell the others?”

The game comes first for her. Dinna forget that, lad. 

He swallowed and shrugged. “The truth. Ye lost the cameraman in the storm. We hunkered down tae wait it out. Made our way back as soon as we were able.”

“We’re not supposed to be scheming away from the cameras though, are we?”

Another shrug as he cocked a brow at her, the mask of the silver-tongued charmer meant for the cameras. And his opponents. 

Ally or not, friend or not, Claire was still an opponent. 

“‘Twas so loud we could hardly hear ourselves think, let alone talk about the game.”

She gave him a careful look, a silhouette curving through the diluted black of pre-dawn. Finally, she nodded, the spirals of her mussed curls bobbing. “Good thing I’d been planning to catch you on your own sometime tomorrow — well, today, to plead my case, then.”

“Indeed.”

After clumsily — and, for him, somewhat painfully — crawling from their hidey-hole, they made for camp. Eastward, Jamie assured Claire as the storm-soaked wilds around them solidified in the strengthening light. 

They didn’t speak another word, their story agreed to and understood. Only a quarter hour of walking, and they encountered the crew combing the jungle for them. After a brief but intense flurry of relief on the production’s side, they all marched back to camp. Medical checked his shoulder as soon as they stepped onto the beach and, thankfully, deemed him fit to continue the game.

Later, as he lied to the camera in his individual interview shots about an awkward night with a stranger amidst a terrifying storm, Jamie remembered the solid weight of her on his chest. How soft she’d been to hold. And with Herculean effort, he suppressed the idiotic grin that desperately fought to be freed. 

Shite, lad, he thought as he stood up and returned to the group, eyes immediately and unconsciously snapping to Claire tending the fire. You’re in trouble.