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39 Days

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“Move to the right a bit. Your hair keeps blocking the dude behind you.”

Of course it did. Claire’s curls were nothing if not wild and in the way at the best of times. But here — on deck of a schooner floating a quarter mile off the coast of a remote Jamaican island, wind whipping, saltwater tang in the air — they were downright hazardous. Squinting against the harsh glare bouncing off the camera lens, she followed his instruction. 

“Another half step.” The director stood to the right of the camera and jerked his head in a gesture to keep stepping into the breeze until her bloody mane stopped hogging the shot. He bid her stop, then ducked to inspect a monitor on a tripod, cupping his hands around his eyes so he could see the screen. Leaving her to fidget. 

This was the part she was wariest about. Not the weeks stretching out ahead of her that promised to push her body to its limits. Not the scheming or the tribe dynamics or the challenges. But how to act in front of a camera. How to talk to it. How to not look at the damn thing when every brain cell and muscle in her body begged her to stare directly into its single eye. A manmade Cyclops. 

Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp: Conqueror of the wilderness but terrified of some circuits and glass. 

When the director finally moved on to the next person in the line, she released a sigh and relaxed her posture slightly, leaning against the edge of the boat. Turning into the wind, curls flying out behind her, she studied the island. If she unfocused her gaze, the view dissolved into stripes of vibrant color. Navy water. White sand. Green leaves casting black shadows. Powder blue sky. 

She’d seen postcards that looked less perfect. 

Her stomach roiled. 

You can do this, she told herself for the umpteenth time. 

Her worst fear was that she couldn’t. That she would’ve left a good job and most likely destroyed a five-year-long relationship to do this, only to fail. If she had to return to Frank’s gloating about how right he’d been, how coming here had been stupid and irresponsible and embarrassing to boot, she might actually combust from pure fury. 

You’re a grown woman, Claire. Now’s not the time to be risking your entire life for some cheap reality show. 

Now’s exactly the time to do this, she’d retorted, shouldering her carry-on bag. And the risk is worth it. 

Oh, is it?

To me, it is.

A scoff and suppressed eye roll had been his only response. Because in his mind, that was a lousy reason. The air in the flat had thickened enough that he may as well have shouted it. Wouldn’t have been the first time.

Now’s the time, she’d repeated. I’m young. I’m strong. And I’m not leaving anything behind that can’t wait.

Their eyes had locked, and his lips had tightened. Eyes she’d so often seen sparkle regarded her with nothing but emptiness, revulsion even. With a dark chuckle and shake of his head, he’d muttered, Won’t wait, more like. 

A shrug to cover the boulder dropping in her stomach. Fine. Then don’t. And with that, she’d turned and left. 

Oh, yes. That was well and truly five years up in smoke. Lamb was likely thrilled, at least. Or would be, whenever she got the chance to tell him.

A flurry of motion near the bow drew her attention, and she watched as the director stood back at a distance, posing two women and an older man wearing a deadly grimace with the same minute instructions she’d just endured. The boat rose with a large wave and rocked a bit on the way back down. 

“Feckin’ Christ.”

Claire snuck a peek at the blasphemer behind her, the one who’d been so rudely obscured (or smothered, as the case may be) by her manic hair. His was stunning red in the too-bright sun. It had some wave to it too, though less tiny-animals-have-been-nesting-hereabouts and more all-roads-of-human-evolution-lead-here. An irrational urge to slide her fingers through it had her muscles tingling with restraint. 

Then there was the straight nose and strong jaw, the ice blue eyes, the six-foot-three (or four? tall enough, anyway) frame, and the abundant muscle obvious even under his t-shirt rippling in the strong breeze.

He was beautiful, truly. Even if he was slightly green.

“Are you camera-shy?” Claire asked under her breath. The wind, now at her back, blew dark strands into her face. She swiped up a hand to clear her vision and awaited his response.

His gaze, also fixed on the island they’d soon be “abandoned” upon, flicked to hers and he gave a single breathless chuckle. “Nah. I’m boat-shy.” As if the current itself could hear him, the schooner lurched again, and the ginger Adonis clenched his jaw and snapped his eyes shut. His knuckles were white where he gripped a rope strung above him. 

Claire snorted. “You…knew what this was when you applied, right?”

The stranger huffed with indignation, but his half-smile was good-natured as he opened his eyes again. “An island doesna rock back and forth,” he retorted. “I’ll bide on the damned boats when I must.”

She shrugged, frowned, and turned back into the wind. “Fair enough. But if your stomach gets the better of you, I beg you: aim firmly to your right.”

 

#

 

Dinna be sick, dinna be sick, dinna be sick

It was bad luck following a stroke of very, very good luck. The good luck being that, having initially been passed over for a spot on the show, Jamie had received a call not even two full days ago from a frantic producer asking if he could make it to Jamaica by the day after next. He’d been half packed before the call was over, pausing only to whisper a prayer for the poor sod whose broken wrist had paved the way for his own salvation.

But that meant he’d spent fourteen hours on various last-minute connecting flights, before hopping onto a choppy seaplane to get to the show’s main staging area, before then stepping onto the none-too-stable schooner that would take them to the beach that would be home for more than a month, God willing.

Motion sickness had always been an issue for Jamie, uncomfortable but manageable. Now, though, all these various abuses to his wame had it protesting and threatening to undo him before he could even get started. 

Last thing I need, tae be labeled a pitiful whelp from the jump. 

Of course, if his godfather were to be believed, there could be an upside there. ‘Tween yer muckle size and yer way wi’ people, ye’ll be marked fer trouble right off, Murtagh had said when Jamie had told him he’d need a leave of absence from the stables. One line among many in the rapid-fire advice he’d shot off over the phone as Jamie threw half his closet into a duffel bag. Ye’ll need tae allay their worries o’ that, and fast

Still, puking before the cameras had even begun rolling would probably be a bit overkill on that front. But when a particularly vicious roll of the boat sent bile rising in his throat, he very nearly lost it, hissing, “Feckin’ Christ,” as he willed his body into submission.

The tall, fair woman with the mess of dark curls turned to him, amber eyes sizing him up. She was pretty. Breathtaking, even. But that had been part of Murtagh’s advice too: Dinna be fooled by pretty eyes or sweet lies, a bhalaich. The lassies’ll use that if they think ye’ll be thick enough tae fall fer it.

But chatting with her took his mind off the constant motion of the water, and it actually helped. The bitterness on the back of his tongue receded just a bit. 

So.” She leaned back toward him conspiratorially. “Do you think they put the Sassenach and the Scot next to each other on purpose?”

Jamie’s heart skipped a beat to hear that word spoken in a posh London accent. Before he could respond, though, a familiar face came up from below deck. Tanned skin, dark hair, and a quiet kind of command that made Jamie stand straighter. All eyes fixed on him. The man spoke quickly with the director before standing on a taped X, his back not two feet in front of Jamie and the Sassenach. 

The word clanged around his mind and sent his heart into mild palpitations.

“Ready, Jeff?” The man gave a nod, and the director counted him down. Now, Jamie’s stomach clenched for an entirely different reason. 

“Aaaand…” the director called out, making a final tweak to the camera angle, “action!”

Jeff Probst opened his mouth to speak. Jamie held his breath

For Da. And for Lallybroch. 

 

#

 

Jeff Probst: Forty-one seasons behind us, more than five hundred episodes, and the greatest social experiment of all time is still charting new paths! This season, we distilled down the two most vital qualities of gameplay into our two tribes: brains, and brawn. 

Our Brain tribe, with an average IQ of 130, uses their intellect and know-how to achieve their goals. 

 

Marsali, 24, Special education teacher: “Everyone looks at me, and they see blonde hair and a big ol’ smile, and they hear I teach little kids, and they say, ‘Oh, she’s a sweet little thing. I can trust her.’ And, well, maybe they can, maybe they can’t. So long as they tell me all their secrets, doesn’t really matter, does it?”

 

Claire, 27, Trauma nurse: “Every day, I think on my feet, or people die. Panicking isn’t an option. And neither is standing still. I am always thinking, always moving toward what needs doing. I don’t hesitate, and that’s what will bring me to Day 39.”

 

Jocasta, “Jo,” 53, CEO: “As a woman in the business world, I’ve had to be quicker and smarter than every other man to make it to where I am. No few men have tried to dethrone me, and I’m still here. You think it’ll be any easier for these fools? Puh-lease.”

 

Meanwhile, on our Brawn tribe, we have a rugby coach, a stable hand, an Olympic ice skater, a woodworker, and more — all depending on their physical strength to get the jobs done.

 

Jack, 36, Corrections officer: “Coming into the game, I know I’m the villain. I will lie, cheat, steal, and then make you believe whatever story I spin. I’m the guy the viewers at home are rooting against. But at the end of the day, it’s a million bucks. I’ll play dirty to get it.”

 

Gillian, 31, Pilates instructor: “I’ve never come up against an obstacle I couldn’t defeat. I always win. Puzzles lay down before me like lovers. They say I’m a witch, and who’s to tell them they’re wrong?”

 

It’s the ultimate showdown. Which side will come out victorious? And who among them has the lethal combination that will carry them all the way to the end?

 

Jamie, 23, Stable hand: “I’ve been tossed from horseback twelve times, been bitten and kicked. Stepped on twice. E’en survived a stampede or two. I’m hardy. Hard tae break. But e’eryone forgets that workin’ wi thousand-pound beasts means ye canna be stupid either.”

 

On the Brain tribe, we have Louise, John, Charlie, Phaedra, Marsali, Claire, Yi Tien Cho, Ulysses, Jocasta, and Kez. 

And facing off on the Brawn tribe, Doug, Thomas, Fergus, Jack, Jamie, Joan, Rupert, Gail, Gillian, and Joe.

Thirty-nine days. Twenty people. But in the end, only one can claim the million-dollar prize and the title of Sole Survivor.

Chapter Text

Well, this is bloody brilliant, isn’t it?

Every ally gained. Every secret uncovered. All a wash. Even the parchment rolled up in her shoe, the clue to an immunity idol hidden somewhere at her camp, was now useless. 

Her former camp, that is.

Back to square one. Worse, even, she thought; they already knew each other’s names, at least. And she was the newbie. The odd woman out. Chum in the water.

Jesus H. Roosevelt fucking Christ.

 

#

 

Two and a half hours / One surly beach hike earlier

Just after dawn, as the Brain tribe had roused from sleep and trudged about camp, boiling rice and mushrooms for breakfast and otherwise waking up slowly, Phaedra had been the first to break the silence. Well, here’s to two weeks out here, she’d said, staring into the fire with her arms circled around her crossed knees.

Ulysses had scoffed. Not yet, he’d said into his bowl of rationed rice. 

Fucking close enough. Marsali had been laying in the shelter with her orange buff pulled down over her eyes; Claire had thought her still asleep. Gotta take our wins where we can get them.

That about summed up their Survivor experience thus far. 

Out of seven total team challenges so far, they’d lost six. Hadn’t won a single reward (no rain tarps or egg-laying chickens or pillows and hammocks for the Brain tribe). Had voted out four members to the Brawn tribe’s one. 

The challenges and the tribal councils were only a small part of Claire’s current misery, though. She’d counted on the years spent at various digs with Lamb — summers in Egypt and Morocco and Israel, living in tent cities and excavating in the unforgiving sun for hours upon hours — to have prepared her.

She’d been woefully mistaken. 

Jamaica’s was a persistent, humid heat, sweat dewing across every inch of her skin before the sun had properly broken over the horizon. Moisture thickened the air enough that, at the height of the day, Claire felt it drowning her. She’d breathe in big gulps without ever filling her lungs to satisfaction. Even the nights here were too warm for comfort, and she’d hardly slept as a result.

The other irritants — the gnawing hunger pains in her belly, the endlessly swarming insects, the exhaustion of constant social vigilance — were hardly worth mentioning in comparison, really. Luckily, between Marsali’s aptitude with the fishing gear and Claire’s foraging skills, they’d managed to avoid starvation outright. But only just.

Tensions were high around camp. And morale, nigh on extinct. 

So filing up the beach toward Jeff that morning, something about the gleam in his eye and the nondescript covered basket at his side set off alarm bells in her mind. 

The Brains congregated on their orange team mat, the purple one to their left still empty. Jeff stepped forward. The cameras swooped around them, reminding an uneasy Claire of vultures eyeing their next meal. 

“Brain tribe, getting their first look at the new Brawn tribe, Gail voted out at last night’s tribal council.”

The other tribe approached from around the bend in a single line before grouping together in their designated spot. Claire glanced over the remaining players, assessing. She’d gathered many of their names over the last (nearly) two weeks. Rupert, the burly one with the booming laugh. Jack, who liked to bark out orders during cooperative challenges. (It had been his frustration and unclear direction that had opened the door for the Brain tribe to win the previous immunity challenge, and his having survived Tribal came as a mild surprise.)

And then there was the red-head. Boat Boy, standing at least four inches taller than everyone around him. The purple buff banded around his forehead kept those rusty curls (nearly long enough to tuck behind his ears) out of his face just like her orange one did. His easy demeanor and physical prowess had certainly intrigued her, though she still had yet to catch his name.

Not that it mattered. Of course not. Something to worry about come the merge. 

Still, she couldn’t help stealing glimpses before each challenge. Even with the slight sunburn over his nose and cheeks, and even with the sand and brine coating his hair, he was a pleasure to behold. And, honestly, Claire refused to feel shame for whatever tiny reprieves she could grant herself. 

She only realized she was staring at him when Jeff’s voice wrenched her from her musings. She snapped her attention forward, hoping it’d gone unnoticed. 

“Gillian, you’re about to launch yourself off this beach from excitement. What do you think is about to happen?”

A short, thin woman on the other team — also with red hair, but a more diluted hue — gave a girlish chuckle before stating clearly for the camera, “It’s a tribe swap, Jeff.”

Probst nodded, raising the patterned cloth behind him to reveal a basket filled with little square packages, wrapped in brown fabric and tied with twine. “Gillian is correct. Everyone, drop your buffs.”

Various orange and purple bands hit the sand amidst sounds ranging from anticipation to agitation. Claire was of the former camp, overwhelmed with relief as she discarded her grimy orange buff. Adrenaline vibrated through her, tremors starting in her arms and legs as Jeff made his rounds, holding out the large flat basket. “Everyone take one,” he said. “Hold onto it. Do not open.”

Claire reached in, breath held, hand hovering between two identical bundles. 

“Working on that x-ray vision, Claire?” Jeff joked as he waited, always the bright and patient host. 

The others around her chuckled, and she did as well. “Just pretending I have any control over what’s about to happen.” And with that, she chose the bundle on the left, grabbing and clutching it to her chest, heart pounding. 

“Hey, I don’t blame you,” he said as he moved on, speaking up for the cameras. “You’ve spent the last thirteen days getting used to the people around you. Their strengths, their weaknesses. You’ve made your alliances, plotted your gameplay. So of course, it’s time to shake things up.”

Once the final player retrieved their mystery bundle, Jeff returned to the front of the group. With what could only be called a smug grin, he nodded. “All right. Everyone, take a look at your new tribes.”

Claire tore into her bundle, hands shaking. Purple or orange, purple or orange? 

Green. 

Fuck

 

#

 

Jamie stared at the scrap of green fabric in his hand, heart dropping straight through to the soles of his feet. 

“All right, if you have a purple buff, move over to the purple mat,” Jeff called out, people already milling about, switching spots and comparing buffs. “If you have an orange buff, move to the orange mat. And everyone with a green buff, move to the center.”

Swallowing, jaw clenched, Jamie scooted around the people already taking over the purple square that had previously been his home base. He moved toward those lingering in the sand between the two preexisting groups. The tightness of his chest eased a bit to see Joe and Gillian standing there; the latter wouldn’t have been his first pick, but at least he wouldn’t be in the minority. 

Then Thomas made his way to the center, and Jamie groaned. 

So much for an easy time of it, then.

And just as he joined the group, the woman from the boat stepped carefully toward them, bag slung over her shoulder and eyes darting from face to face. 

Claire. 

He’d caught her name in the second challenge, when she’d been seconds shy of solving the puzzle before Joe secured the Brawn tribe the victory. They made eye contact as they both spied each other’s green buffs but said nothing. 

Maybe the Sassenach would be an ally. No reason to give that away just yet, though.

“All right,” Jeff was saying, his cue for the players to simmer down. “On the new purple team, we have Doug and Fergus from the Brawn tribe staying put, and Phaedra, Ulysses, and Louise moving over from the Brain tribe. 

“Our new orange team, we have a reverse: Joan, Rupert, and Jack making a Brawn majority, with Marsali and Yi Tien Cho from the Brain tribe.

“And finally,” Jeff said, taking a few steps toward Jamie’s group, “the brand new third tribe, the green tribe with a massive Brawn majority: Jamie, Gillian, Thomas, and Joe all from the Brawn tribe, and only Claire coming over from the Brain tribe.” Jeff homed in on Claire then. “Does that make you nervous, to be the only one from your tribe in this new team?”

Her nonchalant shrug wasn’t the least bit convincing. Not much of a liar, then, he noted to himself. 

“It’s never a good position to be on the wrong side of the numbers, but it’s not the end of the world.”

“So,” Jeff said, drawing out answers for the cameras, “you’re hoping that old tribal alliances will fall away to make room for new relationships, then?”

Claire nodded. “Alliances shift day to day, sometimes more often than that. And with a major shift like this, it’s the perfect time to look for fractures and see where I can fit.”

Jeff turned to Joe, then. “But, Joe, when you’re in a four-to-one majority on your tribe — which could be your insurance policy to surviving at least one more day here — is there any incentive to risk that advantage?”

Joe drew himself up to his full height; he was a quiet man, and honest, one of the reasons Jamie liked him. “Well, sure, Jeff. Us four sticking together could mean we’re safe for one tribal,” he answered in a steady, sure tone. “But if you’re only looking at the next tribal council, you’re already behind. Having the numbers on our side is definitely comforting, but I wouldn’t say I’d rely on that to take me through the next, say, five Tribals, and that’s where I’m looking ahead at.”

Jeff moved on then to Rupert on the orange team, making the rounds as he interviewed other players. Gillian sidled up toward Jamie, facing forward still but talking from the side of her mouth. “Well, well, well, my dear fox,” she murmured. “Glad to see we’re still on the same side then, hmm?”

Jamie bristled, not answering. He hadn’t spent a lot of time with her over the last two weeks, not least because those green eyes — sharp as an axe and just as lethal — made his skin crawl every time they turned upon him with predatory intent. At least Joe had come over with him, one member of his previous alliance still by his side. And he had high hopes for Claire. 

The Sassenach and the Scot, teaming up. Oh, the irony.

Jeff finished his Q&A with the other tribes and returned to his station at the front of the group. “All right, orange tribe, purple tribe, head back to camp.” 

Then he approached the center team, a rolled up piece of faux-weathered parchment in hand. A bright green ribbon tied around it seemed to pulsate with neon energy. An unnatural shade, made all the more so by the varied hues of the foliage and vegetation surrounding them. “Green tribe, here is a map to your new camp as well as fire in the form of flint. Now, because it is a new camp, you will be starting from scratch.” They all gave their dramatic reactions for the camera (only, Jamie thought, very slightly exaggerated), groaning and covering their faces. “Which means no shelter, no tarp, none of the amenities that the Brawn members are surely used to by now. And by the looks of those clouds,” he added, pointing to an ominous black swirl on the horizon, “you’ll want to get building, and fast. Good luck.”

 

#

 

Jeff Probst hadn’t been kidding when he’d said they’d be starting over from scratch. They arrived at their new campsite, and Claire took in the bare stretch of beach. One pot. One machete. Some basic fishing gear and a mid-sized jar of rice. The green tribal sign marking their territory. 

And that was it. 

They’d made the trek to their new home in silence, as per show regulations; they had to wait for the cameras to be rolling and hovering before they set about the business of the game. That didn’t stop her from calculating, though.

Four former Brawns to her one measly Brain. Three men to the two women. Either way she stacked it, she was on the bottom. Powerless. Dead weight to be hacked off at the first opportunity. Claire had to infiltrate one side or the other, or her torch was as good as snuffed.

 Moments after arriving, Gillian and Thomas broke off to talk. (More accurately, Gillian chattered away at a visibly peeved Thomas.) Joe and Boat Boy — Jamie, she remembered; one of the others had called him Jamie — laughed and talked easily ahead of her. 

So that was her in. Ingratiate herself to them, and they could be a majority on the tribe. Command control until a merge. If she could trust them. 

They finally all met up where their shelter would (hopefully soon) stand. After a brief exchanging of names and backgrounds, they got to work.

“Right,” Jamie said in that Scottish brogue. The rising wind whipped his curls — dirtier and a bit more disheveled up close, she noted, but no less GQ-worthy, damn him — about his face. “Joe and I can start collectin’ the materials we need tae build a shelter. Thomas and Gillian, could ye get tae work on a fire and some rice ‘fore we lose the light?”

Her omission was glaring. Nothing she couldn’t handle, though. “Actually,” she said, straightening, “I’m fairly handy with a fire. And if you get me the materials we need, I may be able to protect it enough against the wind to at least keep the embers going through the storm.”

Yessssss,” Gillian droned with an exaggerated slouch. “I am absolutely not on board with sleeping wet and cold tonight. Though I’d take my heat…however it came.” The look she shot toward Jamie seemed indecent, her lip clamped between her teeth even more so. 

To his credit, Jamie gave very little away on the surface. Nothing in his posture or face betrayed any emotion, positive or negative. Still, Claire spied the red creeping up from his neck and chest to consume his ears. And as he turned deliberately away from Gillian to face her, she considered that dismissal enough. 

Well, at least the appearance of one. She’d keep tabs on that. 

“And what all do ye need tae make that happen?”

She rattled off the general plan to weather-proof (“a phrase I use loosely,” she clarified) their shelter. Jamie opened his mouth to speak when Thomas shoved off the tree he’d been leaning against. “Well, pardon me for butting in,” Thomas said as he rocked front and back a bit, on and off the balls of his feet, lips tight and eyes blazing. “I spearheaded the last shelter, and I think the others would all agree it stood up just fine.” 

No one gave an outright answer. Gillian lifted a shoulder in a weak show of agreement while Joe looked on with neutrality. Again, a stoic Jamie gave very little away, only the tiniest motion of rolling his shoulders up and back before clasping his hands behind him.

So…not allies, then.

“Right, so we’ll go with my plan then,” Thomas continued. “James and Joe and me can get the bamboo and palms cut to build the shelter. Why don’t you ladies get us a fire going and cook up some rice before the storm sets in? Go find the well too, while you’re at it.”

Which was worse, Claire wondered: to be outright ignored or put in her place as a woman? Back home, she’d have wrested the machete from his sweaty grip and cut down every last stalk they needed out of sheer spite, constructed the structure she knew would lend them some shadow of comfort during what promised to be a miserable night. In truth, judging by his erratic breathing and flushed, sweaty chest from just the trek to camp, she likely could have done a better job anyway.

But here, strategy almost always took precedence over social mores like misogyny and chauvinism. Sure, she could put him in his place either in word or deed. One question was always front of mind, though: How would she pay for it? Was some measure of self-satisfaction worth alienating him, particularly when she wasn’t sure how the others would react? Would they flock to her side, or sit and watch whatever show would surely commence? A move like that with no aces in her pocket was far too risky. 

In the end, Claire chose the safer — if more stomach-churching — option of keeping her mouth shut. Thomas clapped his hands together with all the formality of a gavel in court, and the group dispersed. Jamie strode over to the canteens dangling from a low-hanging branch nearby. She followed. 

They were too close to the others for any real game talk, but there was more than alliances and voting tallies to consider. His omission of her in assigning the duties, she suspected, was strategic. An unambiguous signal that, whatever low esteem in which he held his other teammates, they were knowns where she was a variable. But perhaps he simply didn’t know where she’d be best utilized. Not bloody likely, but possibly. And if that was the case, she needed to make some sort of impression other than [Subject Not Pictured], and fast.

Jamie uncapped his canteen and took a long draw. Claire followed suit. “The rain will be good,” she said conversationally as she swiped the excess moisture from her lips with the back of her wrist. “It’ll make the mushrooms spring up.”

“Oh, aye?” He looked at her from the corner of his eye as he strapped his canteen on. Something like amusement tinged his tone. “Ye’re a connoisseur, then?”

“A bit.” She shrugged. “They’re rich in fiber and protein. The friendly ones are, anyway. And when we’re short on meat, living on water and rice, you’ll be surprised what a difference that can make.”

A friendly sort of grunt answered her as he turned slowly toward where Thomas was gathering his own water and the machete. Jamie was a tall man, but his strides were lazy and short.

Lingering, she realized. That was a good sign, at least. 

“I’m none so familiar with such vegetation, I’m afraid.” The corner of his mouth twitched up as he cut a glance toward her and lowered his voice so it was just that bit gravelly. “Well…no’ the useful kind, at least.”

Claire snorted, rolled her eyes. “I’m sure I could find you something to make the trees melt into the sky, if that’s more your speed.”

God, beautiful as he was, his smile turned him into something inhuman. With everything she had, she tried to ignore it. 

Jamie turned so that he could keep facing her, walking backwards toward Thomas as he said, “I’ll hold ye to that, then. We’ll need somethin’ tae keep us sane on this beach, aye?”

After the men disappeared, as she and Gillian indeed set about igniting a fire and preparing a quick lunch, Claire dissected their short interaction, grading herself and evaluating his reaction to her. 

Easy. Genuine. Open. Friendly. 

Electric. 

Well. Maybe she wouldn’t be alone in this new tribe after all.

 

#

 

Thomas, 44, Woodworker: “Oh, great, so before I just had to deal with Gingersnap over here trying to tell me what to do, and now that little English muffin wants to boss me around too? No, sir. I don’t care who they think they are. Thomas Christie kneels before no one but God Himself, and they’re gonna know it.”

 

Joe, 29, Occupational therapist: “I meant what I told Jeff. To me, all bets are off. And right now, at the beginning, I just want to sit back and watch everyone else for a while. See how they react to this newcomer, who gravitates to who. Jamie and I have been tight for a while now, so I have that to fall back on. But I’m not depending on that alone. Especially because there’s no telling who’ll have flipped by the time we reach a merge. So yeah. Consider me a free agent, baby.”

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

“Well, lucky you, then,” Gillian crooned as they lounged in the shallow water of their beach, conspicuously out of earshot of the men. Claire suppressed the urge to glance back over her shoulder toward them. 

After laying out their soaked clothes and belongings to dry, Gillian had grabbed Claire’s arm and dragged her to the water for a bath (a term used mildly when all they could do was swirl about in the saltwater and scrub with sand, still wearing their two-week-old swimsuits). Now, she understood why Gillian had pulled her just a bit further than they normally ventured. 

The sun beamed down on them from an unbroken blue expanse. As though furious storm clouds hadn’t nearly swept them off the map the night before. Despite the midday heat, though, goosebumps prickled over Claire’s skin at the knowing smirk Gillian shot at her as she continued, “Spending all night with that solid hunk of a man. No teammates…no cameras…must’ve been nice.”

Claire rolled her eyes. “Oh, yes, extremely sexy,” she said in her most sarcastic tone. “Exhausted, shivering in the cold and the dark, him injured, and both of us fearing we may be struck by lightning at any time. My wildest daydreams come true.”

“I’m just saying,” Gillian insisted, “there are far worse ways to keep warm.”

Claire only shook her head again with a chuckle, letting the subject drop. The lady doth protest too much. She’d be wise to avoid such an accusation. 

The production manager had been peeved that she and Jamie managed to seclude themselves, albeit accidentally (Claire not having realized the camera person following her had tried to get her to turn back before they were separated, and Jamie’s having run for help after his fall only to then find him gone upon returning). Stil, she’d seemed to accept their story that between Jamie’s injury and the torrential downpour, they hadn’t done much more than hunker down and wait for the first chance to make a break for camp. 

No steamy scenes missed. No melodrama surrounding his injury. Just sitting…waiting. 

Boring, in other words.

Harder to convince were their teammates, who’d met their return at dawn with healthy skepticism. Just before mid morning, Jamie and Joe had trekked to the well, Claire surreptitiously following after them to plant the seed of partnership in Joe’s mind. He’d nodded along, listening without speaking much. Even so, Claire had had a good feeling. His was a silence not based upon dislike or distrust, but careful consideration. He had his own game to play, after all. 

When she’d turned to leave, letting the two of them discuss their options (and trusting, hoping, crossing fingers and toes that she wasn’t screwed), she’d caught Jamie’s eye. Just for a second, both of them pausing between blinks. He’d given no wink or nod, no outward sign at all. But those deep blue irises seemed to speak directly to her soul. 

Ye’re safe with us. I swear it.

“You know”—Gillian’s singsong voice pulled Claire back to the present—“we can’t be but a few tribals away from a merge.”

“True,” Claire said noncommittally.

Gillian planted her palms in the silt behind her, not answering right away. Without warning, she pinched her nose and dunked her head under the water. A beat passed before she emerged again, smoothing her shining red mane away from her face. 

“So you just have to consider if Jamie’s the type of player you want to take along that far.” Gillian gathered her hair into a column over her shoulder, squeezing it dry and spearing Claire with an unsettling look. “He’s strong, charming, good-looking. Well-poised to win immunity challenges and jury votes.” Shrugging, she arched a thin brow. “He’d be hard to beat, and I wouldn’t want to sit next to him in the final three.”

Technically speaking, everything Gillian said was true. Jamie was already a known threat in the game. And smart about it too. Less than a day at camp with him, and Claire could already see the efforts he took to downplay that fact. Including lying pretty damn convincingly about his occupation. 

Well, lying to them, now. 

But I decided tae trust ye instead. 

The memory of that rumbling voice, of the gentle squeeze he’d given her as he’d said it, stole her breath. She swallowed. 

Focus, Beauchamp. 

Jamie would be difficult to beat at the end, no two ways about it. But Gillian was slippery. Her allegiance shifted quicker than the tide. As far as Claire knew, she’d already whispered into Joe’s and Jamie’s ears about staying Brawn strong and booting Claire if they lost immunity the next day.

“The merge is coming,” Claire agreed. “But it’s not here yet. We’ll need him to win challenges. Joe is strong as well, but I don’t have the best impression of Thomas’s physical ability.”

Gillian snorted with an exaggerated eye roll. “You’re not wrong there.” They both looked to their shelter down the beach, rebuilt early this morning after having all but collapsed the night before. 

“Still,” she said, looking back to Claire, “think about it.”

 

#

 

Gillian, 31, Pilates instructor: “Do I believe their story about last night? So…do I believe that the wisp of a nurse in desperate need of allies ran off into the jungle to rescue our strongest teammate, and that they then just…sat around until morning? Saying nothing, doing nothing? 

“I’ll say this much: someone got fucked last night. Whether it was them or whether it’ll be us, time will tell.”

 

#

 

Day 15

“Come on in, guys.”

The green team filed toward their mat, the purple and orange tribes doing the same. Claire kept her eyes carefully trained ahead, exchanging looks with her own teammates rather than glancing toward the other two tribes. It wouldn’t do to make her newest alliance nervous because she seemed too attached to her old ones. She’d focus on rebuilding those bridges later.

They stood on an open, grassy field about a hundred yards from the water. Without any trees to cast shade, the sun beat down with brutal force, and sweat dripped between her shoulder blades, trailing down her spine like a featherlight fingertip. A sheen coated her face as well, salt stinging where it dripped into her eyes and over her chapped lips. 

Claire balled up her buff in her hand and patted her face dry, willing herself to ignore her exhaustion. Her hunger. Her thirst. 

Not important. The lie was thin, even in her own mind. Win today. Survive tonight. That’s important.

Once everyone was in place, Jeff smiled at them all. “Everyone ready for today’s immunity challenge?” A dozen-odd affirmative responses mingled in the air, a few whoops and claps punctuating them. Jack, still carrying the team immunity idol from before the swap, returned it to Jeff, who then turned to explain the rules. 

“So here’s how it works. One member from each team will be your caller, standing on these platforms here.” He motioned to the left end of the playing field, where three watchtower structures loomed. “Everyone else will be blindfolded. The caller will shout instructions to their teammates, guiding them across this field to collect twelve giant puzzle pieces and bring them back to their mats before the platforms.” 

Huge wooden Tetris-shaped pieces littered the plain in groups of three: one each in orange, purple, and green. The sheer size of them daunted her, taller than she and twice as thick around. 

“Once all twelve pieces are retrieved, you’ll lose the blindfolds and put together a large cube puzzle. First two teams to finish win immunity, safe from tribal council tonight.

“In addition to immunity, you’re playing for reward.” He grinned mischievously. “Wanna know what you’re playing for?” Some more eager responses. Jeff stepped over to two tables covered with cloth, approaching the larger one. “First team to finish goes back to camp with everything you need for a delicious, mouthwatering barbecue.” 

The cover came off, and Claire salivated as Jeff described the winnings, her eyes greedily devouring: sausages, chicken wings, pineapple, tomatoes, onion, peppers, mushrooms, corn on the cob, not to mention the carafes of juice and beer. The second place prize — a small meat and cheese platter, enough for a few bites per person — barely even registered to her. 

She needed that reward. 

“All right,” Jeff called out. “I’ll give you a minute to strategize, then we’ll get started.”

The green team huddled together. Claire jumped in first. “Jamie should call. Your arm—”

“No,” three simultaneous voices cut her off, Thomas the only one who’d remained silent. 

Jamie shook his head once, meeting her eye. “Ye’re too small and the pieces are too large. I’ll bide.”

Medical had checked him over when they’d returned the morning after the storm and deemed him fit to play at his own discretion. That didn’t mean it was smart, though. “You’ll hurt yourself worse if you don’t take it easy,” she insisted in the tone she reserved for combative patients.

“If we dinna win,” he said with a single cocked brow, “that’ll hurt a lot more.”

“Jesus H. Roosevelt—”

“Claire should call,” Gillian said, still low enough that only they would hear.

Before she could say a word, Jamie nodded too. “Aye. I’ve heard ye in the other challenges. Ye’re loud—” 

“Well, thank you—”

“—and ye’re easy to understand,” he continued in a deliberate way, as though forcing himself into patience. “Ye give clear direction.”

Four pairs of eyes watched her. Claire glanced among them all. “Are you sure?” Everyone nodded and murmured their agreement, even Thomas (though admittedly more begrudgingly). She cut a look to Gillian, who returned it with a touch too much innocence. 

Ah, that was the rub, then. After all, she and Claire were of a similar size; either woman acting as caller made far more logical sense than sacrificing their strongest members to the task. (Even if the great lout really should mind that shoulder, she groused to herself.) Gillian likely knew that too, even if she had ulterior motives. Either Claire proved herself useful, or she became the easy scapegoat for their failure. Especially to a group of Brawns not accustomed to losing. 

Claire narrowed her eyes at the other woman, an acknowledgement. And a silent promise that she wouldn’t go down so easily.

“Right,” Jamie said. “So me and Gillian, Joe and Thomas, then?”

A smart pairing, splitting Jamie and Joe to cover more area. Not to mention sidestepping altogether the potential disaster of Thomas butting heads with Jamie, whom he clearly resented, in the middle of the challenge. 

Thomas gave a curt nod. “Settled, then.” His grimace undercut the hollow attempt at team solidarity.

“Settled,” Gillian echoed. “We’re not leaving here without that fucking barbecue.”

Ten minutes later, Claire stood atop the platform, her four teammates blindfolded at the base. Everyone stood silent and at the ready, awaiting the signal to begin. Jeff stood off to the side. Various crew members surrounded the playing field, cameras circling. Claire ran her eyes from piece to piece across the field, mapping routes. Making contingencies. Noting obstacles. 

Shoving down the nauseous anxiety building in her center. 

“Muscle up, Beauchamp,” she breathed to herself, lips barely moving. “You got this.”

Jeff raised one arm in the air. Her heart raced. “Survivors ready,” he called out. 

One breath…two breaths…

Three.

He swung his arms, dropping his left and raising the right. “Go!”

Chaos exploded around them as teams began shouting and directing their players. Claire tuned them all out. “Green 1,” she shouted to Thomas and Joe (an attempt at placating the former), “walk straight ahead and keep going. Green 2,” she said to Jamie and Gillian, “ten steps forward then veer right.”

She kept a close watch on her tribe mates, cupping her hands around her mouth to shout as needed. “Green 1, three steps. Keep going…yes! Stop! Right there! Joe, on your left…that one! Grab it!”

As he and Thomas carefully lifted the piece and adjusted, Jeff’s voice cut through the cacophony. “Thomas and Joe have the first piece for the green team!” 

Two steps later, a shouted curse as Thomas lost his grip and dropped a corner on his foot. She winced in sympathy, watching for a beat to ensure she didn’t need to redirect them. 

“These pieces are heavy,” Jeff commented as Thomas scrambled to lift his side again, “and intentionally cumbersome to carry. You’ll have to move carefully and work together to get them all back to the front.”

Searching the rest of the field, Claire found Jamie and Gillian four paces past their spot. 

“Green 2, stop!” Immediately they paused, turning their heads to listen. “Turn right…turn…turn…turn…stop! Move forward. More…mo—there! That’s it!” Before she’d finished, Jamie was already feeling his way around the piece, giving Gillian instructions for where to lift. As they got a feel for it, she pivoted back to Thomas and Joe, guiding them past an obstacle in the field to drop the T-shaped block at her feet. 

“Green back with their first piece!” Jeff shouted. “And purple back with their first piece, Louise and Doug heading back out for their second. Orange falling behind.” To her left, Jack was practically bent over at the middle, yelling at Rupert and Marsali through cupped hands, but they spun in different directions. 

Focus, Beauchamp.

Jamie and Gillian were closing in with their second piece, and Claire shouted to both pairs. “Green 2, veer left…Green 1, stop! Stop! Go right…yes! Green 2, stop! Drop it!”

“Green now in the lead with their second piece!”

“Keep it up, Green 2. We’ve got this! Now turn…turn…tur—okay, go forward!”

And on it went. Despite the occasional stubbed toe or collision with an opposing member or field obstacle, Claire guided her teammates seamlessly through the challenge until Thomas and Joe were dropping the final piece at her feet. 

“Green now the first team with all twelve pieces!” Jeff shouted, a hint of hoarseness in his voice. “Take off those blindfolds, green team, and start that puzzle!” 

Claire scrambled down the ladder as the others whipped their buffs off their eyes and assessed their twelve pieces. Bright green with white swirls and curves that would eventually come together in a design on four sides. Those would be their guides.

“These two will go together,” Gillian said, pointing to the two closest to the platform, “but they’re not the base.”

“Here,” Thomas shouted, grunting as he lifted one a few feet away. “This is a corner.”

Jamie bent to help him, lifting it into place as she and Joe spotted the next piece and went for it simultaneously. As they settled the two together, Jeff called out, “And now orange is back with their final piece! They can start their puzzle! Purple falling out of it, still with three pieces left on the field.”

“Okay, focus everyone,” Joe said, panting and sweating with the exertion. “Just focus on us. No one else exists.”

“Aye,” Jamie agreed, casting his eyes about the remaining pieces. Suddenly, he moved to the piece dropped at the farthest edge of their work area. “Claire, this one next.”

She ran to his side, bending over the wooden L shape. They lifted the massive block onto their shoulders, and Claire marked the wince and the twist of his face as he did so, rivulets of sweat dripping from his nose and chin and the ends of his hair. 

“You good?” she panted. 

His features twisted further as he steadied the piece on his shoulder. Pained, but determined. “I’m feckin’ hungry. Let’s get it done.” 

Ignoring her nurse’s instincts, Claire only nodded, and they moved forward. One after the other, they laid the pieces in place, working with a surprising harmony. 

“Green team making fast progress. Orange team making fast progress,” Jeff narrated. “We are neck and neck!”

Curls stuck to her forehead and temples, and sweat dripped into her eyes like rain. She reached up to swipe it away, but her forearm was just as damp, only sliding across her skin. Breathing hard, Claire stepped back to look at the image forming on their half-constructed cube. A lotus flower on a lily pad. She circled the shape, eyes tracing over the pattern. 

Her heart fell out of her chest.

“Stop,” she told the rest. “Look, this isn’t right.” She pointed to a spot where the design was chopped up, one petal of their flower cut off by a blank block. “That piece is wrong.”

Without a word, they all moved in to study the pieces, looking around and trying to find the right one. Joe and Claire, meanwhile, raced to move the necessary blocks to retrieve the wrong one.

“Now green taking things apart,” Jeff said for the cameras. “Something’s not right. Opening the door for orange to pull ahead.”

“This one,” Thomas said, pointing to another piece, but Claire grabbed his arm.

“No, that’s not the right shape.”

“I’m telling you, it’s—”

“Here!” Joe called. “Here! Here!”

Suddenly, by some near-divine intervention, Claire saw how the last few pieces fit together. Thomas must’ve as well. He cut off his argument and ran to Joe’s side to lift the piece into place, grunting with effort. And another, and another. Just three to go—

“Jeff, Jeff!” Jack’s voice to their left cut through as the orange team all started waving their hands. Marsali’s then rose above the fray, a joyous, “We have it!” 

“Orange team thinks they have it,” Jeff narrated, jogging over to check their gigantic cube. Claire’s heart lodged in her throat. 

“They…do…” 

She knew they should keep moving, keep working. Still, none of them said a word, none of them moved as they all turned to watch Jeff inspect their opponents’ puzzle. 

“…not have it!” Jeff shouted, backing away. “This challenge is still open!” The orange team frantically set to work figuring out their mistake, Jeff commentating all the while. “Orange team having to reassess their progress, find where they went wrong. That opens the door for green team with only three pieces left.”

“Move your asses!” Gillian shouted, single-handedly rolling a piece as tall as she was onto its side for Thomas and Jamie to haul to the top. Joe and Claire grabbed the next, sliding it into place as Jamie alone picked up the final one, groaning and red-faced. Claire rushed to his side, putting her weight behind it and shoving it to the top spot. It fit into place, and they all stepped back, giving the four sides a quick once-over.

This was it. They had it.

Jeff!” they shouted in tandem, jumping and waving their arms. 

“Green team thinks they have it,” he said as he again jogged over, examining their cube this time. Claire couldn’t breathe. She barely moved as Jeff circled their puzzle, checking for mistakes. She, too, ran her eyes over the puzzle again, already preparing in case they’d made an error. She’d find it first. They’d fix it. There was still time—

Jeff stepped back and threw both arms in the air. “And they do! Green team wins immunity and reward!” 

Her team contracted around her, relief and ecstatic joy overflowing as they cheered and embraced. Even Thomas — grumpy, contrary Thomas — wrapped his arms around them all as they soaked in their victory. 

They would eat tonight. Like kings, comparatively. And they’d all wake up for Day 16.

Orange team won second place moments after they won first, purple bringing up the rear. Still somewhat in shock, Claire hardly noticed. The three teams grouped together on their mats, everyone silent as the production and camera crew set up their next sequence.

An hour before, Claire would’ve expected to be impatient to claim their reward and sprint back to their beach with it. Indeed, the moment her eyes landed on the prize soon to be theirs, her body reacted with visceral demand. Anticipation and adrenaline pumped through her veins, making her hands shake and her head buzz. 

But as Jeff took his place before the players, as he reached for the wooden statue displayed behind him, time slowed. The scene blurred before her, and it had nothing to do with the promise of a full belly.

“Green tribe, come get your immunity.” 

Gillian immediately sprang into action, practically skipping across the grassy field to grab the statue from Jeff’s hand. After she returned to the mat, grinning and glowing, Jeff looked to their tribe. 

“Claire,” he said, and the cameras zoomed in on her face, “you’re getting emotional over there. Tell me what’s going through your mind right now.”

She sniffled even as she smiled. “You know, being out here for two weeks, it’s just been brutal. And to end up as the only person from my team on this new tribe, it’s been a scary few days.” She reached up and swiped her cheeks dry. Someone clapped her on the shoulder from behind, a sign of support. She didn’t look to see who. “So to be taking that statue home with us”—She pointed to the figure in Gillian’s hand—“and to know that I don’t have to fight my way through another tribal tonight…it’s everything right now.”

“Well, and you’re coming from a tribe who had only managed to win one challenge before the swap.”

“Absolutely,” Claire said. “Brain tribe had been surviving off a palmful of rice a day, maybe some fruit or mushrooms or one crab among us all if we were lucky. I don’t know what I’m most excited about…the immunity or just getting to finally eat something!” 

Jeff smiled. “Well, you’ll certainly have your fill. Come get your reward, green team, and head back to camp.”

 

#

 

Grease dripped from their barbecue grate and hissed as it hit the burning log below. Jamie relished the sound as he shoved another bite of grilled chicken into his mouth. 

Nothing in his entire life had ever tasted so good. 

The afternoon had been a dream. As the five of them had sat around the fire, grilling and feasting upon their reward, there’d been no talk of votes or alliances. No territorial nonsense from Thomas. No innuendo or advances from Gillian. (Well, besides one comment about the sausage. But then she’d been too busy scarfing food down to continue any further.)

And Claire, sitting between Joe and Gillian across the fire, was radiant. Her color seemed to return with every bite she ate. Jamie swore that her almost gaunt features softened second by second. Tried as he might, he couldn’t tear his eyes away. 

“I propose,” Gillian said, sitting up as she popped a juicy cherry tomato into her mouth, “no game talk tonight. We’ve fucking earned it.”

“Hear, hear!” Joe said, raising a mug of beer with a grin. “Except…I gotta know…” He eyed Jamie, then Claire. “…what the hell went down the night of the storm?”

Claire rolled her eyes with a good-natured smirk. “Oh, not you too?” She gestured toward Gillian with a crook of her neck, never pausing as she tore into a chicken wing. “Ms. Nosy here has been asking me the same thing for two days.”

“Well, then give us something!” Joe said it in the friendly, antsy way he might pester a close-lipped friend about a first date. 

Maybe it was the post-victory euphoria or the three mugs of beer he’d downed after fourteen days of near starvation. Likely some combination. But Jamie’s wame fizzled as he looked to Claire to answer, his mind and heart light. Et tu, Brute?, her face seemed to say. “Don’t look at me,” she said, flicking a finger toward him. “Maybe they’ll believe you.”

Jamie chuckled, taking another gulp of his drink. There were only four pieces of chicken left. He should grab another before they disappeared, he knew, but she had his full attention. “Well,” he said, drawing the syllable out. Everyone leaned in closer. “I didna want tae share it, but if ye’re gonna keep pressin’ us both…”

Gillian snorted but otherwise said nothing. Jamie met Claire’s eye. The corner of her mouth had pulled up into a little smirk. She shrugged and rolled her eyes again. Go for it, then, it said. 

He gave a dramatic sigh and snatched one of the last chicken wings. “Claire slighted my tree-climbin’ skills,” he finally revealed before biting into the meat. He eyed her over his meal, arched one brow. “Wounded me, she did,” he said, speaking from one side of his mouth.

Wounded you, my arse,” Claire retorted easily. His chest squeezed. “If it weren’t for me, you’d likely still be wandering about with your arm hanging out of socket.”

“Ye see?” Jamie held up both hands toward her in demonstration, as though she’d only proven his point. “And this after I verra nearly tore it out again winnin’ this feast fer us all.”

Thomas stiffened, but Gillian and Joe chuckled, unbothered. “Fine, fine,” Joe said as he grabbed an ear of corn. “Keep your damn secrets.”

Jamie met Claire’s gaze. Her eyes bored into his, even as she tipped her head back to drain her beer. A drop of it glistened at the corner of her mouth for just a second before she wiped it away. All without breaking eye contact. 

His stomach tightened, skin warming. 

“Ah, Claire’s just coverin’ fer me ‘cos I was a scairt wee bairn out in the storm all night,” he said with a forced joviality he hoped they’d read as sincerity. “Dinna get much o’ that out in California. Or Scotland, fer that matter.”

Joe huffed and chucked his emptied cob into the fire. “Not much in Boston either.”

“Oh, my God, you’re in Boston?” Claire said, eyes wide. “I’m in Boston!”

“Get outta here,” Joe said with a smirk. “Well, I grew up in Boston. I’ve been in Baltimore the last three years, though. My fiancée’s in school there.”

And just like that, the group moved on from the storm-night scandal, Claire and Joe bonding over Boston. Which eventually shifted to Joe telling the group about his fiancée, the wedding set for next year. Which led to Gillian telling them about her rotation of partners back home. Thomas even grumbled something about his wife. 

“What about you, then, fox?” Gillian said, the predator reemerging now that her hunger for food, at least, had been sated. “Guy like you probably has a little black book full of names, then?”

A flush creeped up from Jamie’s neck until his ears were practically aflame. In the year and a half since taking over his da’s operation of the stables, dating hadn’t been on his radar too much. After clocking sixty hours a week — managing the books, putting in face time with clients and vendors, and occasionally getting to his actual passion of training the horses — he had precious little free time. 

Still, he was no monk. There had been a few flings in the interim. Mary had been a nice enough lass, but they’d had no real chemistry. The opposite had been true of Annalise; the wildfire between them had burned itself out just as quickly as it had erupted. And Laoghaire, nightmare that she was (possessive, paranoid, and narcissistic), had only lasted two dates. 

That had been close to six months ago. He’d focused on the work ever since.

Jamie shook his head, combing his fingers through his hair, crusted with dried sweat. “No one tae speak of at the moment, I’m afraid,” he said. “Hard tae meet a lassie when ye spend yer weekends keepin’ company wi’ horses and smellin’ of manure.” 

Gillian regarded him carefully, as though trying to decide whether to press him. When Joe cut in with a question about her second husband (or the third? Jamie couldn’t remember), she let the subject drop. 

Some time later, Gillian crawled into the shelter and laid down, buff pulled over her eyes. Thomas wandered off somewhere in the jungle, limping slightly — likely taking the down time to hunt for the immunity idol, Jamie thought with satisfaction. Leaving Joe, Jamie, and Claire around the fire as the shadows steadily stretched over the ground.

Until, that is, Claire stood, mumbled something about taking a walk, and left camp. 

Something stirred in Jamie’s chest watching her leave. He stilled it, held it down and wrestled it into submission. That kind of fluttery softness had no place out here, not where duplicity and manipulation were as commonplace as the grains of sand scratching at his skin. The moment he forgot that would be his downfall. 

But those golden eyes, downcast and dim…

Ignore it, ye eejit. 

That furrowed brow…

She’s a vote. An ally. A safety net. Nothing more. 

Those shoulders, curled and hunched, growing smaller as she made her way down the beach…

…ye’re a damned fool, Jamie lad. 

 

#

 

They’d obliterated the meat; even if it might have kept another day or two, there was little chance of it being spared, starved as they were. They had, however, held back on some of the other fixings — mostly the veggies and, to Claire’s amusement, the mushrooms — to save for the following day. 

For the first time in weeks, the hunger pangs left Claire completely. The others all lazed about camp, curling up in the shelter to nap off their early supper or sitting quietly around the fire ring. Claire, though, was loath to simply sleep off that full feeling. 

And, well, her mind refused to quiet. 

So she walked the beach instead. The fading sun painted the sky a breathtaking gradient of oranges and pinks and purples. It was beautiful, striking. And for some reason she couldn’t quite put her finger on, it pierced her chest like a dagger. She bit down on the inside of her cheek, staring out at it. 

“I dinna have a penny.” She whipped around to find Jamie approaching, face open and relaxed. “So…a bite for yer thoughts?” He held out his hand, revealing half a link of sausage.

Claire smirked. “Planning to squirrel that away, were you?”

“Well, if ye dinna want it…”

She snatched it from his hand, trying and failing to smother her smirk as she stole one bite then handed the rest back, which he polished off in a single bite.

The breeze felt nice against her face, flushed from the beer. She turned into it as she plopped down onto the sand, folding her legs and leaning her elbows on her bent knees. Jamie mirrored her, every movement far more graceful than he had any right to be. 

Minutes passed, waiting for her to pay up. Eventually, he leaned back on his hands and stretched his legs out before him, crossed at the ankles. 

Claire sighed. “I was thinking that I came out here to prove something, and was just wondering if I had done it yet.”

“What’d ye hope to prove?”

“That I could do it,” she answered easily. After a moment, she added, “That I still had some…say in what I’d do with my time, my future.” She dug and burrowed through the sand, scooping it up then letting it glide between her fingers to rejoin its billions of brethren back on the ground. “My boyfriend of four months decides to move across the globe? I jump up and follow. He picked the flat. He picked our friends. And when my shifts at the hospital were too much for him, I cut those back too. To make him happy. It’s just been five years of following someone else’s lead. Never really asking myself if I wanted it because I was terrified of the answer.”

“When’d ye first ken? That ye didna want it?”

Heat rose up through her throat. That wasn’t a story she was interested in sharing just now. Not with a man who was still largely a stranger. And certainly not with the camera and crew on the edge of her vision. 

“Long enough ago that he should’ve been long gone.” Her hands rested on either side of crossed legs, their exploration stilled. “When I left to come here, he told me it was absurd and he wouldn’t wait. And I told him not to.”

Silence engulfed them. In the dying light, the waves were but faint white noise. Even the production crew seemed to be making themselves as small as possible, breaths held, trying to disappear into the scenery so that the subjects would forget they were there and divulge more and more and more. 

“Back at the fire,” Jamie said slowly, “everyone talkin’ about the people back home…are ye all right?”

Claire considered a moment, then nodded. “When I left the flat to come here, left him behind…it’s sad. But it…it felt right. It did then, and it does now.” She glanced to Jamie out of the corner of her eye, then looked away again. “But it’s still five years of my life over, you know?”

Watching the horizon as she was, Jamie was only a hazy shape in her periphery. He didn’t stir, and neither did she. But when a tentative warmth brushed against the backs of her fingers in the sand, her heart hitched. A tiny movement, hidden beneath the cover of the sand between them, that snapped her attention to him. 

His kind, understanding face.

His eyes, shining and tender. 

His lips, chapped as hers but hypnotizing and infuriatingly perfect.

“Fer what it’s worth”—A rough knuckle ran slowly up and down the back of hers—“I’m glad ye made it here. And that ye didna let anyone tell you ye shouldna come.”

The waves seemed to crash softer. The wind to fade away. And the pastel sunrays to melt all around them. They were in his curls, his eyelashes. The scruff of his emerging beard and his irises. The blue there…it was alive, twisting and breathing like smoke. It reached for her. It held her in place. It seeped beneath her skin and spread from her hairline to her fingers and toes. 

If he breathed, he barely showed it. But Claire certainly wasn’t. The point of contact on her hand felt like an anchor, like that was the most perfect place in the universe. 

This was dangerous. On absolutely every level.

With the last shred of sanity she possessed, Claire broke the contact. A shaky feeling settled in her limbs as the world around them made itself known again. Curling into a tight ball, arms locked around drawn-up knees, Claire asked, “How’s your arm?” 

Dear God, she could still feel that touch like a brand on her skin. Her fingers dug into the flesh of her arms. 

Jamie’s throat moved as he swallowed. He chuckled, the sound choppy and forced. “Unpleasant.”

“I told you so.”

Another, louder laugh escaped him, and his smile reached his eyes that time. “S’pose it’s lucky I’ve got my own personal nurse tae tend me, aye?”

“Not to mention a fully trained medical team at your fingertips?” She gestured to the hovering crew members with a smirk. 

A look crossed his face like he wanted to argue. But, with a flick of those swirling blue eyes to the camera facing him, he only smiled. “True,” he conceded. 

As the pastels faded to deeper reds and purples, Claire sighed and stood from the sand. “Give me a head start,” she said as she stepped behind him. “Last thing we need is another reason for them to pester us.”

Curls fell over his temple and into his eyes, the blue sparkling as he looked up at her. His raised brow drew wrinkles across his forehead, and his cheek dimpled just a touch as he smirked. “As ye say, Sassenach.”

 

#

 

Jamie, 23, Stable hand: “Oh, ‘Sassenach’? It’s an old Scots word fer an English person. More of an insult, really. The Scottish and English dinna usually get on. Long, bloody history there. 

“Och, Christ, but I didna mean it like that, though! That’s all I need is fer her tae run tae Thomas and send me home because of a clot-heided slip like that. My sister would have my hide.”

Chapter Text

For the first time in sixteen days, Claire’s growling stomach wasn’t what woke her, nor the sounds of camp around her. Not the sharp thwacks of someone striking the flint to get the fire going, or their uneven bamboo sleeping surface shifting as tribe mates stirred, or the bite of smoke in her nostrils. 

Nope. On day sixteen, mortification itself acted as her alarm clock. A churning, burning, sick feeling that she’d made a grave error that could cost everything. Before she even opened her eyes, it coated her stomach and ate away at her like acid.

What on God’s bloody green earth had she been thinking, spilling her guts to Jamie? What lunacy had possessed her to open her stupid mouth at all? Lamb didn’t even know she and Frank had split up! (Or, well, hadn’t known when she’d left; who knew what he’d managed to sniff out in her absence.) Nor had she told him the ultimate, deep-down reason why she’d decided to come play this game at all. And now he’d learn alongside millions of other viewers when the show aired. 

And Frank…she bit down on her bottom lip and squeezed her eyes shut even tighter. Necessary as the breakup had been, and as much as she’d very consciously avoided slandering his character or even using his name with Jamie, people knew they’d been together. They’d know she was speaking of him. And he didn’t deserve that, his ex for all of two weeks going on national television to air their dirty laundry. 

Jesus H. Christ, what had she been thinking?

The uncomfortable answer? She hadn’t been. Opening up to Jamie hadn’t been a decision so much as an instinct, and that was the worst part of it. Claire wished she could shrug it off as strategy. Plenty of players in the past had forged emotional bonds on the show, real or not, in order to placate or manipulate the competition. To further their own game. Maybe in her next confessional, she’d claim that was her intention too.

But tall tales couldn’t fool her own mind and heart. Lying to the cameras wouldn’t change the fact that the moment Jamie had asked, she’d wanted to tell him. Wouldn’t shield her tragic love life from the millions of viewers who’d soon be privy to it (because chances were slim to none that that footage would die on the cutting room floor). 

And it wouldn’t erase the memory of Jamie’s fingers grazing against hers in the sand, the spark they’d ignited. Or the sight of him dripping in sunrays, almost godlike…

Her eyes popped open, and the image she’d conjured vanished. No, she absolutely should not be reveling in that memory. 

Claire made a show of yawning and stretching as she sat up and surveyed the camp. The sun sat only an inch or two above the edge of the horizon, but it would loom overhead — oppressively hot — before long. Gillian still lay at the other end of the shelter, seemingly asleep. Thomas poked at the fire, thinning gray hair unkempt and his torn, stretched tee-shirt stained with ash. Out on the water, Joe and Jamie paddled about on the standard issue raft, clearly hoping to snag some protein for breakfast. 

Sighing, she scooted to the edge of the platform and stood, silently joining Thomas near the fire. Various camera personnel shifted to follow. 

“Any pineapple left?” she mumbled, voice thick with sleep, as she ran her fingers through her own outrageous hair. Or attempted to; the curls were knotted enough that she’d need to spend much more time pulling them carefully apart. 

“Nope.” He nodded toward a spare canister where they’d stored their leftovers. “Got some tomatoes and peppers, though.”

“Thanks.” She grabbed a few cherry tomatoes (leaving the last three for someone else) and sat on one of the logs around the fire, munching on them slowly. Thinking. Planning.

They’d heard nothing about an impending reward challenge, meaning another immunity challenge was a matter of days away. If they lost, they’d be at tribal council for the first time as a tribe. Battle lines had seemed so clear three days ago: Jamie and Joe as a unit against Thomas and Gillian, individuals. Numbers-wise, it was a no-brainer.

Even so, doubt festered. How much did she really know about Jamie? About his character, his gameplay? Every interaction with him thus far, he’d seemed so genuine. But that was the danger with charming people: they knew so precisely which versions of themselves to display and which to hide, and they knew how to manipulate others’ perceptions of them, all to their own benefit.

And Jamie was, if nothing else, fucking charming.

Was she being played? Was she a fool for counting on him and Joe to carry her forward in this game, neglecting any kind of backup plan with the others in doing so? Would he play off her emotions to build trust only to blindside her at the first opportunity? 

Had she made it easy for him to do so?

Through the rising smoke, she eyed Thomas. He yawned widely, groaning on the back end as he scratched at a bug bite on his leg. The man was gruff, condescending, pig-headed, and more than a little sexist. 

Even so, a voice in the back of her mind whispered that if she didn’t take measures to ensure her own survival, she’d be a bloody fool.

 

#

 

Hot as the day already was, the breeze off the water kept Jamie from breaking into a sweat outright. As did the seawater, still cool from the long night, that he wrung from his soaked buff over the top of his head. An imperceptible shiver passed through him as the droplets rained over his scalp with a surprising chill. They nearly saturated his hair before dropping down to the sun-warmed skin of his bare torso. He hummed from the back of his throat and ruffled his curls with his fingers, spreading the moisture through to the ends. Not that it did much for the grime, but it would at least keep him from overheating as the sun climbed the cloudless sky. 

He and Joe paddled through the water, keeping an eye out for promising spots to try and catch something to fill their bellies for the day. Forty minutes on the water, and their ramshackle lean-to was but a speck in the distance behind them, untouched wilderness staring back at them from shore. The trusty film crew followed on an adjacent boat, missing nothing.

Carefully so as not to rock their rudimentary canoe, Jamie lifted and rotated his injured shoulder, giving it a good stretch. Sore still, but not unbearably so. Not even so bad as the time a few years back when he’d been trampled by Donas, the largest, meanest, smartest horse Jamie had ever encountered. The beast had escaped their property through a broken fence post. For thirteen hours and nearly nine miles, Jamie had tracked him before finding him among the neat rows of a nearby vineyard, happily munching on grapes in the moonlight. Donas had seemed content enough to be found but put up a fight being wrangled. Until his dying day, Jamie would swear, hand on his mother’s Bible, that the bastard’s whinny had actually been a wicked cackle as he’d reared up and stomped on Jamie’s ribs and shoulder. 

Still, though, Jamie had managed to lasso him, mount him, ride him home, and mend the broken fence before collapsing into bed in the wee hours of morning. An x-ray the next day (at his father’s insistence) had shown three cracked ribs and a bruised spleen. 

No, he thought as his arm finished its circuit and he settled his elbow back on his knee. This is downright trivial by comparison.

Light winked at them off the water as they continued on, scouting for promising fishing locales. A grouping of boulders in the shallows caught Jamie’s eye, hidden around a curve of the island and thus out of sight of their camp. Jamie nodded toward them. “We could try there. Clams, crabs, maybe some mackerel even.” He met the other man’s eye. “Worth a shot, is it no’?”

“Aye, aye, captain.”

Water sloshed against their paddles and hissed as the stern of their boat cut through it. An inch or so had infiltrated the interior, nearly covering the tops of Jamie’s feet; they’d need to bail it out before setting back out on the water toward camp. 

They’d reached shallow enough water that his paddle hit sand on his next swipe when Joe spoke again. “You need to be careful.”

The sun seemed suddenly too hot, and a sickly feeling overcame Jamie. He ground his teeth together. “Did ye hear somethin’ from Thomas, then?”

“Not Thomas.” Joe met his eye. “You need to be careful with Claire.”

Now, his stomach turned fully inside out, and he clamped his lips together despite himself. When he didn’t speak, Joe carried on, “Alliances, voting blocks…that’s one thing. But the minute you take up with one of these chicks—”

“I dinna—”

“Don’t even deny it. Anyone who doesn’t see the tension between you two is either blind or dead.” Joe cocked an eyebrow, and his lip twitched either to smirk or grimace; Jamie couldn’t tell. “Yes, you’re very pretty, and she’s very pretty, and anywhere but here, I’d say pack condoms and have fun.”

Beannaichte Bride, caomhain mi,” Jamie hissed between his teeth, eyes cast toward heaven. 

Blessed Bride, spare me. 

Joe, undeterred, continued, “But here, you need to be careful. Showmances are cancer in this game.”

Jamie couldn’t help glancing toward the cameras, floating on their own raft nearby, microphones pointed in their direction. He gave a little shake of his head. “I dinna need tae be dressed down like a lad who got into the sweets before dinner, Joe,” he bit back. “Believe it or not, I ken what I’m doin’.”

Not entirely truthful, of course. Where Claire was involved, Jamie knew very little. All knowledge down to the most basic instincts of how to breathe seemed to take flight whenever she was near. 

“I hope so,” Joe answered as they gave a final stroke and their boat moored itself onto the beach. “Because three hours into this game, I partnered with you. Not you and whatever pretty little so-and-so wants your attention.”

Jamie swallowed, fingers clenching around his paddle. “Ye trusted me then, didn’t ye?”

A moment passed, and Joe never looked away. But slowly, he nodded. “Yeah, I did.”

“Then trust me now,” Jamie said before standing and stepping over the side of the boat into the shin-deep water. “Claire will help us both, and that’s a fact. She gives us the majority o’er Thomas, who has more reason than one to want us both gone. And o’er Gillian, who’s a damned snake, Brawn or no’.”

Conversation halted as they both heaved the boat high enough onto the sand that it wouldn’t float away as they explored the rocky shallows. When they straightened, panting, sweat dampened the curls at the back of Jamie’s neck, and not entirely from the work or the sun. 

Whatever this was between him and Claire — superficial attraction or something deeper — he simply had to do a better job keeping it under wraps. And in the meantime, he had to appease Joe. Keep him happy. Keep him loyal, guarding his weak side. 

Sighing, softening his features, Jamie clapped Joe on the shoulder. “Point well taken, but unnecessary,” he said, gentling his tone from its earlier defensiveness. “This is too important. I’m here fer a reason, and I’m no’ gonna let anything distract from that.”

“Good,” Joe answered. He paused before adding, “You know I am with you, man, right?”

If Jamie trusted nothing else, including his own traitorous heart, he trusted that. Joe was a man of his word. Clever and conniving when need be, yes, but ultimately driven by integrity. 

“Aye, I ken it.”

“Good.” Joe reached down into the boat to grab their fishing spear and nets. “My promise still holds, you know. I won’t write your name down. Ever.”

Jamie took one of the nets, nodding. “And same to ye.” 

Joe held a hand out, and Jamie took it, giving a single stiff shake before joining in for a quick one-armed embrace. When they backed up, Joe nodded toward a small pool formed by the towering boulders. “All right, Braveheart,” he said through a sigh. “I wanna eat today, so let’s get to it.”

 

#

 

When Jamie and Joe returned to camp, Gillian was the only one in sight. Her head snapped up from the crackling fire as they approached, green eyes greedy and eager. “Anything to show this morning, gentlemen?”

Joe grinned, brandishing a stingray and a net with three crabs caught in it. “Hell, yeah.”

As the two of them celebrated together, Jamie only gave a hollow chuckle as stepped around Gillian to grab his shirt hanging from the drying post they’d planted in the sun. Keeping his mind from Claire had been a losing game all morning. Would’ve been even before Joe’s little intervention. And truly, he had no desire to chase some kind of relationship in this game. None whatsoever. 

But like a moth to a flame, he still gravitated mindlessly toward her, his body blindly rebelling against his mind. 

Turning back to the others and shrugging his tee back on, he tried not to scan the area for signs of their other two tribe mates. Tried and failed. And, worse yet, failed to go unnoticed. Though apparently that was par for the course anyway. 

“They took off ten minutes ago,” Gillian reported, looking up at him through her lashes. She gestured toward the path to the well. “That way.”

“A’right,” he responded, striving for nonchalance. 

“And she asked him along.”

His stomach lurched, and he cut a look to Joe, who looked uncharacteristically solemn. Christ, the woman couldn’t have picked a worse time to slink away with their enemy.

“Did they say anything beforehand?” Jamie asked, looking back to Gillian.

“Small talk. Nothing monumental. Then again…they wouldn’t, would they?” She shrugged. “It’s easy to forget…how little we really know her, isn’t it?”

Heat seeped up from his chest to his ears, and he clenched his jaw. Joe’s words kept playing and replaying in his head. 

You need to be careful

And Murtagh’s too. 

Dinna be fooled by pretty eyes or sweet lies, a bhalaich

How did they both know, Jamie wondered? That he’d need to hear it outright? He certainly wouldn’t have, walking in. Two and a half weeks ago, he’d have scoffed at the idea of even entertaining vague daydreams about any of the fellow players. Joe was right; showmances were bad news and, if found out by the others, planted a big, fat target on both parties’ backs. He knew that.

A lot of good knowing did when just the sight of her sent a thrill straight through him and warmed him to the backbone. When her voice wrapped around him like silk and her eyes soothed him like the dram he yearned for at the end of a tiring day. And touching her…

Jamie shoved the thoughts aside with a twitch of his head. Looking between Gillian and Joe, he choked out, “I’ll go see if they need a hand, then,” and stalked toward the path. Behind him, a camera operator jogged to keep up.

A bit down the path, two voices reached him before Claire and Thomas appeared. The latter carried the large water jug, and Claire clutched the cast iron cooking pot, scrubbed clean, with both hands. She looked up as they approached, and Jamie clocked the way her eyes shuttered even as the color rose to her cheeks. 

Bleeding Christ. 

“Hey,” she said. “Catch anything?”

Mmphm,” he grunted in response, stepping close. 

Thomas imitated the sound, eyes cold. “Some fish would go a long way this morning,” he said. Condescension infused every corner of his tone. “If you couldn’t get it done, I could give it a—”

“We’ve a stingray at camp, and a handful of crabs. Plenty of meat tae divide among us.” Jamie allowed a hint of smug satisfaction to shine through his words as Thomas deflated before him. “Why don’t ye go help Joe get it ready fer cookin’?”

The older man rolled his eyes and marched off, steps uneven and ungainly with the water canister carried to one side and bouncing against his leg. The hollow sound of water sloshing inside the metal receded as Thomas disappeared. 

Only then did Jamie whirl back to Claire. “What the hell are ye up to, off on yer own with Thomas Christie?” 

She blinked a few times in rapid succession, as though taken aback. A few breaths later, though, she’d remastered control of her face. Her lips pulled together in a tight line as she stood straighter and jutted her chin up at him. “What business is it of yours?”

“What business…” He chuckled without humor. “I put my neck on the line wi’ Joe fer you. He’s nervous enough about ye as it is. If ye’re runnin’ behind our backs and double-dealin’, it sure as hell is my business.”

An incredulous sound burst from her as her eyes went wide. “We walk together to get water for the entire camp”—Her volume rose with each word, the red rising just as quickly in her cheeks—“and suddenly I’m not to be trusted?”

“Can ye be?”

Claire’s laugh rang through the wilderness, mirthless and cold. “You really think you get to police who I speak with just because we’re working together? Who I…I sit with in the shelter or who I’m friends with?”

“Speak wi’ who ye like!” Jamie retorted. “I willna stop ye. But dinna think I’ll just sit back while ye work against me either.”

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” she hissed out between gritted teeth. “Paranoia is unbecoming of you, you know.” Her shoulder bumped his as she pushed by. Rage broiled and heated his brain, and he had to bite down on the inside of his cheek and hold his breath to keep it in check. 

“By the way…” She spun back around to face him, venom in her voice. “We were talking about his sixteen-year-old daughter applying to nursing programs for uni next year. And what specialties she may be interested in. Just in case you were actually interested in reality. But hey,” she said with a raise of her eyebrows as she turned back around, “at least I got to see the real James Fraser after all.”

And with that, she disappeared into the foliage, leaving Jamie gaping in her wake. 

 

#

 

Joe, 28, Occupational therapist: “When Claire and Jamie showed back up on the beach, things were…tense. All day long. They can hardly look at each other, which is saying something because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but those two’ve been pitifully googly-eyed since the tribe swap. 

“I don’t like it. Jamie and I have been together since Day 1. And there’s trust there, for sure. But I thought he had better judgment than this. First he’s pushing me to bring his island crush into our alliance, then less than a day later they’re at odds? I know I told him to cool it on the heart eyes, but this is just excessive. 

“If Jamie pisses her off, all she has to do is scamper on over to Thomas and Gillian, and they’ll gun for us. Claire came in as the odd one out. But it looks like now she’s made herself into a swing vote, if she plays it right. 

“No. I don’t like that at all.”

Chapter Text

 

 

Claire hadn’t spoken to Jamie since the fight. 

Each time he approached with clear intent — a hollowed-out coconut with rice and crab that afternoon, an offer to fill her canteen, more than one overt request to step away and talk after sunset — she’d simply turned to whoever else was closest and said the first thing that came to her mind. Only when Jamie retreated, usually with a muttered curse in an unfamiliar tongue, would she turn to watch him walk away.

Satisfying as it was to see him so wound up (he bloody well deserved it, the self-righteous arse he’d been), a seed of unease took root in her stomach, spreading with every hostile hour that passed between them.

She tried to ignore it. To quash it. To stomp that ugly, sprouting thing back into the earth. She’d been bloody right, after all. That she didn’t really know Jamie, his game or his temperament. But by the next morning, the weed had dug itself thoroughly into her psyche, roots holding tight.

Upon waking, they’d been instructed to retrieve their Tree Mail. Likely a clue about their upcoming immunity challenge; it had to be that day or the next, Claire knew. Everyone except Thomas (who’d wandered off somewhere on his own) lounged in the shade of the shelter, desperately trying to keep cool on the already balmy day. It couldn’t be past nine in the morning, yet Claire already felt the oppressive heat bearing down. 

Won’t get any better as the sun gets higher, she thought with an internal sigh.

Jamie sat up sharply though, the motion so incongruous with the sluggish weight of her own limbs, and volunteered to fetch it. With a hopefulness that very nearly made her agree, he immediately asked her to join him, depthless blue eyes pleading. But despite his plaintive look, and despite the feeling of utter wrongness of being at odds with him, Claire wasn’t ready for the conversation he wanted to have. Not yet.

Swallowing, she responded, “Don’t quite feel up to a walk just now.”

He watched her a second or two more, that light fading from his eyes. With a terse, accepting nod, he finally turned to Joe and Gillian. “Either of ye wanna come, then?” Jamie asked, shoving his fingers through his grimy curls.

Gillian popped up, a smug smirk playing on her face as she scooted herself off the sleeping platform. “I’ll go with you, fox,” she said as he followed, noticeably less eager than he’d been just a moment before. “Let’s see what they’ve got in store for us.”

Claire felt his stare against her back as they exited camp. Only when his looming presence disappeared, the weight of that gaze along with it, did she gulp in a big breath, her eyes fluttering closed and fingers massaging at her temples as she forced her body to calm. 

Bloody hell, she needed to pull herself together. 

Minutes passed. The heat continued to drain her. It was all she could concentrate on. She felt every individual bead of sweat squeezing from her flushed skin. A droplet trailed from her sternum over her abdomen to drip off her side. Another one tickled down her throat. 

A heavy sigh beside her broke the trance. Joe sat up, making the bamboo shoots shift under her as he moved. “It’s hot as Hades, but we gotta eat,” he muttered before making his way over to the fire. 

Nerves jangled in her stomach for an entirely different reason as she watched him. This anxiety, at least, she could take action on.

One phrase from Jamie’s tirade the day before had stuck in her mind: I put my neck on the line wi’ Joe fer you. He’s nervous enough about ye as it is. If that was true, then she needed to do damage control, and quickly. Regardless of whether she and Jamie proceeded forward together, she needed solid relationships with as many different players as possible. 

Lively flames erupted in the fire ring after a minute or two of Joe poking at them. He stretched his arms up, fingers laced together, to pop a few vertebrae with an appreciative groan before settling onto a makeshift seat. Without a word, Claire vacated the shelter and set about getting rice and water ready to boil. Joe met her eye and gave a nod of acknowledgment as she lowered the pot onto the crackling logs. 

Squatting to sit next to him, Claire grimaced as her stomach gave an audible grumble of hunger, the first true pang since their reward. Before it had ended, Joe’s echoed. 

They broke into soft smiles, Claire shaking her head. “Well, just keep your eyes off the rice, then,” she said as she wiped her palms on her legs. “A watched pot never boiling and all that.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Quite the conundrum when all I wanna do is stare at it so I can jump on it the second it’s ready.”

“No one’s stopping you from going straight for the dry rice, you know.”

He barked out a laugh. “You act like the thought hasn’t occurred to me.” Joe turned and met her gaze with a sigh. “Hopefully there’ll be another food reward on our horizon. Maybe one with cookies and milk. Or cake. Or brownies.” He shrugged. “I’m not picky.”

Claire giggled, brows turning up. “Haven’t got a bit of a sweet tooth, have you?”

“Not generally,” he said, giving the pot a stir. “But, man, I’ve been just craving it since, like, the second day.” A keen gaze turned toward her. “And you?”

“Mmm,” Claire hummed, closing her eyes to think about the dozens of different foods she’d gorge herself on when she reached civilization again in twenty-two days. 

And not a day before, she determined.

“Ceviche and an entire pitcher of margaritas,” she finally chose. “While sitting beneath an air-conditioning vent at full blast.”

“Amen to that.” At the reminder, Joe unwrapped his green buff from around his wrist and mopped his forehead. Silence fell over them again, and despite her earlier admonition, Claire found herself staring directly into the milky rice water, stomach growling painfully again as the first hints of bubbles rose to the surface. 

Now was the time. The rest of the tribe could return at any moment. 

She exhaled a slow, silent breath through her lips and sat up straighter. “I don’t suppose Jamie had very nice things to say about me after yesterday.” Fighting the instinct to fidget — twist or pull at her curls or slither her toes through the sand — made her skin crawl. But she couldn’t look uncomfortable. Couldn’t appear nervous or weak. 

Joe chortled. “I’d wondered when you’d try to pitch me.”

“This isn’t a pitch,” Claire said, turning to face him fully. “This is just me telling you that you can trust me. Regardless of the tribes or Jamie or any of it.” 

“Isn’t that hard to gauge until we’re sitting at tribal council hearing the votes read?”

She shrugged. “You didn’t go to tribal with Jamie until day twelve. Did you trust him before that?”

A shadow of a smile flickered over his face. “Touché.”

“I’m not daft enough to try to convince you to choose me over Jamie,” she continued. “It’s not even a case of either/or. Not to me. This has nothing to do with him. Whatever is between Jamie and me—” Joe gave a single huff of a laugh, making Claire frown for a second before continuing, “has nothing to do with whether you and I can work together.”

“And why exactly should I believe you?”

“Because on the way to the well yesterday, Thomas couldn’t wait to try to convince me to gun for you, not for Jamie.” Joe tensed beside her. She nodded slowly. “As much as he hates Jamie, Thomas doesn’t think Gillian will swing that way yet. And it would hurt Jamie almost worse to lose his closest ally — to lose you.”

“Why didn’t you just tell Jamie that yesterday?”

“Jamie doesn’t control who I work with in this game,” she answered with a rougher bite to her tone than she’d intended. With another deep breath, she softened it. “If I’m working with both of you, he doesn’t have to be the go-between. I’m perfectly capable of relaying that information to you as much as he is.”

Joe regarded her solemnly, one brow so furrowed it was nearly an S shape. “Where’d you land?”

“Land…”

“On us or them?”

Her incredulous laugh was a single swift exhale. “Seriously?”

“Telling me what they’re planning doesn’t mean you won’t go with them,” Joe reasoned. His voice was calm, measured. “Five people on a tribe, there are very few places to hide. Not a lot of options if the odds flip against us.”

Joe likely had more options than he either realized or would admit to, in Claire’s opinion. Even if she flocked to Thomas’s side, Gillian could likely be convinced to swap just as easily to Joe’s and Jamie’s. The woman’s strategy seemed to be simply following the majority group’s lead, and she clearly believed Jamie would command that majority. No matter that she’d been in Claire’s ear days before, trying to divide Claire from Jamie. 

But still, point taken. And very, very well understood. “Same could be said for me,” Claire said with a shrug. “The four of you could play me just as easily as I could any one of you. But I’ll tell you this: I gave Jamie my word, and I gave you my word that I’m with you. That doesn’t change just because one of you is a stubborn hothead.”

“Oh, I think we have a matching set of stubborn hotheads on this beach,” he said with a smile, the friendliest he’d ever given her. At her blank look, he added, “By my count, you’ve shot down eight attempts at an apology. If I didn’t miss any of them.”

She rolled her eyes, crossing her arms and settling them atop her bent knees as she leaned forward. “I don’t take kindly to being accused of lying and cheating, all right? I really do mean what I say, and I came in wanting to play true to myself. So to be just…to have someone doubt me based on nothing at all…” She shook her head. “It struck a nerve.”

Joe hesitated, looked to his hands for a moment before saying, “Well, he is my ally. Working with me will be working with him. And vice versa, I like to think.” His dark eyes were kind, soft as he added, “So don’t wait too long to forgive the boy. Not least of all because it makes camp life awkward as hell for the rest of us if you’re both steaming from the ears.”

Claire gave him a little smile. “I’ll try.”

The glorious bubbling sound of boiling water had them both humming with elation. Joe bounced his knee as they waited for the rice to swell enough to be edible. Beside him, Claire’s shoulders sagged a bit, and the knot of tension in her stomach loosened ever so slightly. 

Eventually, Jamie and Gillian returned, the former with a look of desperate relief to be back with the group and the latter brandishing a faux-worn scroll of paper. “We’ve got Tree Mail!”

Tempted as they were to read the message immediately, they had to wait for Thomas to show back up before unrolling it. They four sat around the fire, Claire between Joe and Gillian, Jamie straight across, munching on one palmful of rice each while they waited. More than once, accidental eye contact set her heart to palpitations. At first, Claire snapped her eyes away, flushing. But by the third time, she managed to give a weak smile before looking over his shoulder into the dense foliage of the jungle.

At last, Thomas reappeared with no hint as to where he’d disappeared, and they could open their mail. Gillian did the honors, clearing her throat before reading out:

“If you were still a kid, 

You’d play this in your backyard.

And if you’re starving for something sweet, 

Tomorrow, you’ll have to play real hard.”

Claire was the only one who laughed as Joe jumped into the air with a shout of glee.

 

#

 

The green tribe spent a fairly amicable hour discussing ideas and theories about the following day’s challenge — an area where neither Claire nor Jamie was very helpful, not having played the same childhood games as their American teammates. Finally, though, voices trailed off and no one else jumped in, and the topic dropped. 

Wellll,” Gillian said with a sing-song drawl some time after they’d fallen into a thick, heat-exhausted silence, “it’s hot enough to melt. I’m going for a swim.”

“Me too,” Joe said, and Thomas made his way toward the water as well, both nearly jogging with eagerness.

A hand closed around Claire’s wrist before she could make any movement to follow. She snapped to look at Jamie, who’d shifted to the seat beside her without a sound. Chills broke out over her arms despite the heat.

“A minute?” he asked, voice low. 

The other three were already halfway to the cooling water, bright and blue and perfect enough that Claire nearly whimpered with desire to sprint straight there and dive in head-first. But she remained. If nothing else, Joe was right that making camp life difficult for everyone else wasn’t fair. This was a brutal game, sure. But they were still adults, after all, fully capable of working out disagreements through diplomacy.

With gentle pressure, she disengaged her hand from Jamie’s grip but turned to face him. She crossed her arms over her chest, and her brows arched up, an invitation to speak.

“I’m sorry,” Jamie said. His body pitched toward her. “I kent as soon as ye walked away that I overreacted. I just…I don’t…” A heavy exhale through his nostrils. “Bein’ here is important. Possibly the most important thing I’ve ever done. Thomas has been my enemy in this game since we landed on the island, and I let my fears run amok instead of listenin’ tae my brain.”

“Yes, you did.”

“And ye just…ye draw things outta me I dinna understand, Claire,” he added, brows twisting. “I…dinna ken how tae act where ye’re involved.” It was the closest they’d come to openly acknowledging what she now knew for certain was felt by them both. 

That pull. 

That spark. 

Still, annoyance flared in Claire’s chest, taking the place of the new, fragile sense of reconciliation. She rolled her eyes, scoffing as she bounded up from her seat and crossed her arms. By the time she faced him again, Jamie had stood as well. His wary gaze tracked her rigid steps back toward him. 

“Why do men,” she said through clenched teeth, “always think that’s an excuse for their behavior? I just can’t control myself around you.” Red rose in Jamie’s cheeks, and he averted his gaze as she went on. “It’s not endearing, and it’s not an apology. Do not shift responsibility for your poor judgment onto me.”

“I’m not!” 

“Yes, you are!” 

“Claire—”

“No! I’m sorry, that just won’t cut it.” Her eyes pinched shut for a moment as she regained control. “One day I’m sharing really…really personal things with you because I thought there was trust between us. And the next, I’m accused of betraying you without so much as a second to speak on my own behalf.” The tears that burned her throat and rose behind her eyes only stoked her red-hot embers of anger, but she refused to let them loose down her cheeks. “You clearly don’t trust me, and right now I’m not sure how much I trust you.”

“I’m sorry,” he said again, voice soft. 

With a deep sigh, Claire forced the emotion back down. Closed her eyes until she could breathe smoothly. “Look,” she said when she opened them again, “I told you I’d stand with you, and I’m not going back on that. I said as much to Joe, and I mean it. 

“But this…” Her hand waved between them, one to the other, and she gave a short shake of her head. His jaw twitched as he gritted his teeth together. “Let’s just…keep it professional. We’re not friends, or…anything else. I have your back, and you have mine, and that’s all. Agreed?”

He gave no answer, a seagull’s caw filling the silence between them. The air, shimmering with heat, pulsed in time with her too-loud heartbeat as she waited. 

Finally, though, he nodded. “Aye. I have yer back. And I trust ye. I’m sorry.”

The moment called for a handshake, some official gesture to seal their deal once more. But she couldn’t stomach the thought of touching him at that moment. Not so much because of her slowly fading frustration. More that she feared any physical contact with him would cloud her judgment further, make her yearn for more than pure professionalism with him in this game. 

And she couldn’t have that.

“Good.” With a cock of her head toward the others in the water, she added, “Shall we?” before turning to make her way out, not waiting or watching to see if he followed. 

“Everything…all right back there?” Gillian asked as Claire high-stepped over the water to join the rest of the tribe. A glimmer in those green eyes betrayed her glee at the prospect of more strife among camp.

Claire only smiled. “Just fine.”

“Aye,” came a rumbling voice just behind her. “All’s well.”

“Good,” Joe said. He wasn’t smiling, but a smug gleam looked back at her. “I’d been enjoying the harmonious camp life these last few days.”

Thomas frowned, and Gillian’s sharp gaze flitted between the two newcomers. Jamie said nothing. Neither did Claire as she sat, cool water rising nearly to her shoulders. She sighed with relief at the instant sensation of the perpetual flush draining from her skin as she dissolved into the ocean.

Jamie followed, choosing a spot a few feet to Claire’s left to complete their rough circle. He spoke to the group but only had eyes for her. “‘Tis my doing. I was just a bit crabbit yesterday and took it out where I shouldn’t have.” 

Damn her, and damn him, but that pesky sprig of unease finally disintegrated and blew into the wind. 

A tentative but sincere smile crept over her features. “And we’ve discussed it, and we’ve moved on. Now,” she said, facing the rest of the group, “let’s the rest of us move on too, shall we?”

 

#

 

They’d been bobbing about in the water for close to an hour, chatting and laughing easily. Only Thomas had departed from their cooling pool, muttering something about tending to the fire. 

Watching the man climb the beach and disappear amongst the trees, Jamie had chuckled. Searching fer the idol, likely, he’d said to the group with an eye roll. 

Idiot, Gillian had replied. As if we don’t all know what he’s up to

Jamie had had to fight against the grin pulling at his lips — couldn’t have any of the others suspecting that the hidden immunity idol had, in fact, already been retrieved and carefully stashed in his own belongings. Not even Joe knew he had the idol, and he planned to keep it a secret as long as he could. That lifeline was too important to risk anyone knowing, even his closest allies. 

Thought of the word alone, and Jamie’s eyes slid toward Claire across from him in the water. She dipped her head back to wet her curls again, laughing at something Gillian had said as she sat back up. The words barely registered for Jamie. His focus homed in on the rivulets of water streaming down her neck and shoulders, along the lengths of her arms, darkening the pale blue bathing suit top. 

On the freckles dotting her formerly fair skin — across her cheeks and nose and shoulders — now tanned from weeks in the sun. 

And on the shifting hues of her hair when the sun hit it, how the slightest variation in the angle of her head showed him depths of auburn and chestnut among the deep brown. One stripe, he swore as she carded her fingers through the sopping curls and shifted them from one side of her head to the other, flashed as golden as her eyes before it was buried again. 

Embarrassment reddened his neck and ears as he realized he’d been staring. Jamie dunked himself beneath the water to hide it, blowing out his lungs’ entire capacity underwater, bubbles rising to the surface. As he reemerged, he smoothed his hair back, measured his breaths, and re-centered himself.

Allies, yes. That, at least, was still true. He hadn’t managed to bungle that, thank Christ. But as he watched her smiling, arms swaying mindlessly, weightlessly in the water, a tug in his chest pained him.  Over the last hour, they’d slowly progressed back to something resembling their former easiness with each other. An offhand bit of banter here, a teasing smile and eye roll there, and eventually the dark cloud of their fight had all but dissolved. 

Still, a sliver of it hovered like a mist over him. One he couldn’t shake. His brows furrowed, lips pursing, as he swallowed. 

Joe’s next statement managed to catch his attention.

 “So, Lady Jane, are you ever going to tell us about that tattoo on your foot?” 

Claire’s head twitched to the side, eyes narrowing as she turned to Joe. “What’d you just call me?”

“It’s that accent,” he said, smiling. “So prim and proper. You needed a name to match.”

Gillian absentmindedly braided small strands of her wet hair over her shoulder as she asked, “You have a tattoo?”

“A wee one on her foot,” Jamie put in, grinning. He’d noticed it, of course, and wondered. One corner of his mouth pulled up as he leaned back in the water, which only just covered his elbows even as the others were all nearly shoulder-deep. 

All eyes swiveled back to Claire, who tried to demur. She waved them off. “No, no, it’s a boring story—”

“No one ever tries tae avoid tellin’ the boring stories,” Jamie countered. “Go on, then. Spin us a tale, lass.”

Claire rolled her eyes, but they were playfully alight. “Fine, fine. Well—”

“Hold up!” Gillian said. “I need to see it first.”

“Jesus H. — here,” she said, raising her right leg out of the water and turning so they could see the dragonfly that graced the top of her foot, rippling slightly over the delicate bones beneath the skin. Even having seen it before, having thought on the image more than a handful of times over the last few days, Jamie seized the opportunity to study it again.

In total, the image was no larger than two or three inches. Its wings stretched over the middle and outside of her foot, pointing toward her ankle in one direction and her pinkie toe in the other. The long tail ended just where the knob of her ankle bone began. 

Simple, clean lines. Distinct in its shape but not overly detailed. The scales of the wings traced over her skin more faintly than the lines of the body, almost threadlike. A faint octagon, done in white ink instead of black, penned the insect in. 

A thing of beauty. Jamie had thought so when he’d first spied it their second day at camp. After the reward, bellies full and mind pleasantly buzzing with drink, Jamie had very nearly asked about it. After he’d followed her down the beach, and after she’d shared with him about her ex and what had brought her to the game.

Of course he’d been curious about it. Almost everything about her begged his attention, called out to him to ask, learn, memorize, savor. In that moment, though, erasing the crease in her forehead that had deepened as she spoke of her ex had been his main priority. It was why he’d reached for her hand. He’d have done anything to chase that worry from her face. 

And then she’d fled, shy and red-faced. And he’d lost his temper. And he hadn’t gotten to ask. As much as he hated that Joe got to be the one to make the request, at least he’d have the story one way or the other. 

“Three…two…one…” Claire counted before dunking her foot back in the water. 

Joe smiled. “Okay. Story time.”

“When I was a teenager, my uncle took a posting in Scotland.” Her eyes flicked to Jamie, who wrestled down another mischievous smirk. He, of course, knew already of her time in his home country. A shiver tingled down his spine at this treasured secret they shared. Claire, for her part, seemed unaffected other than a lingering look before turning back to Joe, explaining, “My uncle raised me, and he was an historian and archeologist, and he was there to study artifacts from Culloden.”

“Call-a-what?” Gillian piped in. Her fingers detangled one braid only to immediately take up three more strands to re-braid again. 

“Culloden,” Jamie jumped in, stating the name with deliberate slowness. “‘Tis a battlefield from the Jacobite Rising, mid-eighteenth century. The final battle.” 

An image flashed before his eyes of the centuries-old slashes in the entryway of Lallybroch, his home forever scarred by the hardships and atrocities of that bygone era. Brian Fraser — like his father before him, on and on back — had been the caretaker of the stories, passing them down to Jamie and his siblings since they were old enough to understand. Jamie had been barely six years old when he’d stood before the marks, staring at them as his father entrusted him with their history and that which they’d always serve as a reminder of: the strength of the Scottish people, their spirits which could never be broken, and the perseverence of his own ancestors who’d carried on fighting and living so that he, James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser, could one day exist. 

Because so long as the bloodline continued, the stories continued, and those who suffered and perished would live forever in them. 

Jamie shook away the sudden wave of memory, continuing, “‘Twas a gruesome defeat, Redcoats huntin’ down any survivors tae put to death. It killed the Risin’, as well as much of the Highland culture. Weapons were banned. The language, the clan tartans…all outlawed. ‘Tis a marvel we’ve anything left from that period at all.”

Claire nodded, her expression thoughtful. Their eyes met, and again she lingered. Allowing him time to speak, he realized, on this subject that was as close to his heart as it was to her own. Jamie inclined his head once, giving her the floor again. 

“The last few decades,” she said as she turned back to the others, “there’s been a push to preserve those pieces of the heritage that they still can. Things like resurrecting the language and customs, but also physical artifacts from that time. 

“Scottish casualties were buried in mass graves. My uncle was part of a painstakingly careful excavation done of those sites, and in one of them he found this…huge chunk of amber.” She held up a closed fist to show the size. “And in the center, a dragonfly was preserved. A near perfect specimen. The running theory was that it was some kind of token from a wife to her husband before the war, and that he’d carried it with him to battle and was buried with it. 

“And it was just…the absolute most romantic thing sixteen-year-old me had ever heard.”

“Romantic?” Gillian asked, aghast.

“Yes!”

“The man died,” Gillian said. “Not much of a good luck charm, then.”

“But that wasn’t the point.”

Joe scoffed. “Seems like it would be somewhat the point.”

“But it was their link to one another,” Claire insisted. “Back when someone leaving home meant you may never see them again — especially in time of war — this was how they stayed connected. Just like…a piece of her heart she gave to him to carry until he returned.”

Gillian cackled. “But…he didn’t!”

“He was buried wi’ it, though,” Jamie cut in. Claire’s gaze snapped to his, and he added, “He didn’t get to go home, but when he was laid tae rest, he wasn’t alone either.”

Claire nodded, attention fully fixed on him, tone wistful. “He carried her with him, all the way to the end.” 

Molten eyes trapped him, held him still. The dragonfly suspended in her amber gaze. 

Scotland hadn’t just been a place she’d lived for a few years. She’d connected with it. Had visited the soil where his forebears lay and felt its full weight and devastation. Amidst it, too, she’d found some small piece of comfort and beauty and loved it so much she’d made it a part of herself. 

Christ, he couldn’t breathe. Literally could not draw a breath, lungs paralyzed. 

“And then your uncle shows up”—Joe’s words drew Claire’s attention, and she released him, breaking the spell—“willy-nilly digging up pieces of people’s souls and shit. I’m failing to see the romantic bit here.”

Discreetly as he could, Jamie took two, then three gulps of air. He glanced between Joe and Gillian. If either of them had noticed, they weren’t showing it. 

Claire rolled her eyes. “It’s been three hundred years. Plenty of time for them to have found each other in the afterlife.”

“If you buy into that sort of thing,” Gillian said with a shrug. The unbound red braid over her shoulder loosened at the motion. 

The conversation shifted then, but Jamie couldn’t follow the thread of it. His own thoughts were barely coherent, racing and rearranging faster than he could track. Especially since, all the while, he strained to keep himself from staring openly at Claire again, even as she dominated his mental space. 

More than anything else, Jamie wished his da were there. The version of his father who could clap him on the shoulder and guide him toward the right path. Not Murtagh, who Jamie knew would urge him to keep his head down, focus on the game and everything he stood to lose. Jenny, too, would call him a right eejit for confusing lust for anything more. His brother would just insist that, Ye’re the only one who kens how ye feel, Sawny. I canna tell ye what tae do. Which, while technically true, wouldn’t be extremely helpful. 

No, if any person on earth could look beyond the stark facts — that Jamie had known Claire all of five days, that he was young and afraid and likely lonely, that his entire family and the fate of his ancestral home depended on his performance in this game — and see to the truth underneath, Brian Fraser could’ve.

Beside him in the water, Claire laughed. Head tossed back, that throaty sound echoing in the still air. It was a mighty wave that towered over him before crashing down to wash away all confusion and doubt, leaving him only with a sense of clarity. 

He realized then why he yearned for his da there. Because the man who’d met and married the love of his life before turning a page on the calendar would recognize what Jamie had been battling for days now. And because the man who’d given up centuries of family history and duty when it had seemed like the only way to save her wouldn’t hesitate to tell Jamie to do the same, if that’s what it took. 

Jamie turned to Claire, now floating on the water’s surface, limbs starred out around her. Her cheeks were beginning to pink. She smiled up at the sun regardless, little lines fanning from the corners of her eyes as she squeezed her lids shut against its beaming rays. Peace radiated from her, touched him, seeped through his skin and muscle and bone down into his soul.

Saving Lallybroch was important. Keeping his family’s legacy intact was vital. 

But, he finally admitted to himself, Claire might be more important than any of it.

 

#

 

Eventually, even in the cool water, the unrelenting sun was too draining to stay out any longer. Joe righted himself and stood, Gillian just behind him, both retreating to the shade of their shelter. 

Rocking forward to stand, Claire looked to Jamie staring at the thin line of the horizon. The furrow of his brow was sharp enough that she halted, hesitated. As if in confirmation, hidden beneath the surface of the water, a hand once again gripped her forearm. His hold was gentle if secure. A few heartbeats later, it disappeared. 

A request. One she granted without another thought. Her heart pounded hard but agonizingly slow as she waited. 

Jamie didn’t speak for some time, perhaps ensuring they were out of earshot of the others. Or maybe he had to gather the breath and courage to begin. Goosebumps that had nothing to do with the water prickled over her skin, and she swallowed.

“We used tae watch the show with my mam,” he said without preamble. “When she was in hospital. And she’d watch the challenges and tell Will and Jen and me that we were strong as any of them. And that whatever we lacked in strength we more’n made up for wi’ our thick skulls.” The corner of his mouth twitched upward. “Hard-heided Frasers, the lot of ye, she’d say.” 

The thickness in his voice settled low in her stomach. “Are those your siblings?”

He gave one curt nod. “Jen stopped watchin’ after she passed, but Will and I couldna.”

As unobtrusively as possible, Claire shifted closer in the water. “Is that why you came on? For your mother?”

“Nah,” he said quickly, then tilted his head side to side, considering. “Well, that’s no’ true. Not completely. I came because we need the money.” He glanced to her for the first time in several minutes, then elaborated, “When we moved to the States, we had tae leave our family estate back in Scotland. Been in the Fraser line since decades before Culloden. My da always meant us tae return, I think. But the thought of goin’ back wi’out my mam…well, he couldna face it. 

“I didna ken till after his stroke that he hadna paid the property taxes on it in years, almost since we’d left. He used the money fer her treatment. After she passed, he couldna keep up wi’ both properties, and so he chose California.” He paused, swallowing twice before finishing. “I’ve been tryin’ tae catch up on the payments since then, but if we dinna pay it off by year’s end, we’ll lose it.”

Claire loosed a breath, the inner corners of her brows drawing together. “Jamie…”

“My mother’s the reason I thought of the show. Why I sent in an application and a prayer fer a miracle. Because I think losin’ Lallybroch”—His eyes misted at the name he said with such love it had to be the home he so treasured—“would be the end of him. Truly.”

The raw vulnerability in his voice, his face destroyed her. Infected her almost, as she had to swallow against a white-hot lump in her throat. “Why are you telling me this?”

His throat bobbed, and he looked at her, icy eyes shining and intent. She felt them pierce her like a blade straight through the chest. 

“Because we’re allies in this game. But…” He heaved a sigh, quick and shallow. “I want tae be friends. I dinna want one moment of poor judgment on my end keep us from that.

“I do trust ye, Claire, and I wanted ye to know that. Joe’s the only other one who kens why I’m here, but only that I need the money fer Lallybroch. No’ the rest of it.” The vein below his eye stood out, a testament to his mounting emotions on his otherwise smooth, impassive face.

She recognized the confession for what it was then: A payment in kind. A baring of his soul in response to her own days before. Hearing about the weight he carried on his shoulders, all she wanted to do was lift it off of him. She wanted to carry it and dump it in the deepest part of the ocean where it could never to burden him again. 

They’d known each other so little time. Yet they’d shared secrets. Struggles. Pains. Dreams. It was too quick. Too fast to be so comfortable giving and receiving such things from each other. Claire knew this. 

Still, if she had to choose one word to describe how Jamie made her feel, it would be safe. Safe to confess. Safe to rage. Safe to dismantle the armor she’d donned on day one and simply be. 

Below the water’s surface, she rested her hand on his forearm. Gave it a squeeze. Left it there. “Thank you,” she whispered. 

“I’ll make ye the same promise, here and now, as I made tae Joe our first day here.” Slowly and gently enough that the surface didn’t ripple with the movement, he wrapped his fingers around hers. Her breath caught. “I’ll no’ write yer name down. And I’ll no’ lash out at ye like that again. Ye were right earlier. And I’m sorry fer all of it.”

Claire nodded, the very ends of her curls grazing the water’s surface. “Forgiven.” Heart thundering against her chest, she formed the words that somehow, despite the uncertainty of the last twenty-four hours, were the truest she’d ever spoken. “And I promise you the same. I…I trust you, Jamie.”

They stayed like that a moment before Jamie finally released her fingers and ran both hands through his hair. Droplets glistened off the red, dripping from the pointed ends of the thick waves that just reached the slope of his broad shoulders. They were mesmerizing, and Claire let herself be awed. 

A deep rumble in the back of his throat shook her from her stupor. Caught out, she blushed but smiled, bumping his shoulder with hers. Her words, though, were soft and genuine. “I’d bet my spot here that your parents are proud of you. The both of them.”

Moisture turned his eyes to glass. When he smiled, the corners of his lips pulled down like he was holding back some greater emotion as he nodded to her with an answering, “I hope so.”

Chapter Text

“Drink up, Sassenach.”

Claire eyed Jamie with an exaggerated, indignant huff. “You know I am a fully grown, adult woman who can look after herself, don’t you?”

They lounged in the shelter, far from the emanating heat of the fire ring. Both sat up, legs crossed, knees only a hair’s breadth from touching. 

Grunting in answer — a mixture, somehow, of agreement and irritation of his own — Jamie stretched the bottle further toward her. “‘Tis a scorcher,” he insisted. “Ye need tae keep hydrated.”

Well, he wasn’t wrong. The sun hovered only inches above the horizon, yet Claire was already cooking in the sauna-like air. As she reached up to swipe yet more dripping sweat from her temple, the low ache across her shoulders — the result of sleeping on uneven bamboo stalks for nearly three weeks — protested the motion. She ignored it as best she could, drying her face with her buff and tying up her curls into a haphazard knot, a meager attempt to keep insects from buzzing directly in her ears and face.

In those respects, day eighteen wasn’t so different from all the others. 

Sassenach, though. That was different. 

Before, it had been Jamie’s private name for her, only used between the two of them. But since their talk the previous afternoon, he’d called her that almost exclusively, even near the others. It had raised eyebrows all around and elicited a chuckle and shake of the head from Joe, but otherwise her new name had gone unremarked upon. 

With a placating look, Claire took the proffered canteen and tipped it back, gulping down several swallows of warm water. As she lowered the bottle and wiped her lips with the back of her hand, she turned to bid him match her sip for sip. His eyes, though — glued to her mouth, intent as a beast on the prowl — silenced her. A blink later, they flicked up to meet her gaze, holding it. Heat sliced through her stomach and stole her breath. 

That, too, was different. Their entire dynamic had shifted, subtly but surely. Even before their fight, there had been something…careful between them. Hesitant, guarded even. 

Now, the air itself hummed on a frequency only they could hear. Because he’d acknowledged it, and she’d acknowledged it, and apparently that had been the secret ingredient that had so quickly brought the simmering air between them to a full boil. 

Claire cleared her throat and nodded to his canteen. “Well, if I’m drinking, so are you, Fraser. If I need to stay hydrated, then you definitely do.”

“Why ‘definitely’?”

Because,” Claire said, drawing out the syllables, “you’re massive. If the average man needs four liters of water a day, you need at least five and a half.”

Bemusement lit his features, and a smug, crooked smirk eased up his face. “Massive, am I?” He pitched slightly toward her with a perfect, beautiful arch of one brow, that gleam brightening in his eyes. “D’ye like that, lass?”

The rumble of his voice settled low in her center, and the look on his face heated her cheeks. She bit the inside of her cheek to contain her ridiculous, answering grin as she muttered, holding his gaze, “Massive ego, it seems.”

“Is it really ego if ye’ve got the goods tae match?” His smile widened, gleeful. 

Claire rested an elbow on her knee, her chin on her curled fist. “That remains to be seen.”

“Och, ye need only ask, Sassenach, and—”

“Excuse me, you two,” Joe cut in from his place on the other side of the shelter. Both Claire’s and Jamie’s heads snapped toward him, sitting with his own water bottle in hand. Claire, for her part, had forgotten he was there. That he existed, really, or Gillian or Thomas, who were currently off doing who knew what. 

Lines crinkled across Joe’s forehead as he said, “Listen, I’ve made my peace with being relegated to third-wheel status here, but at least save the bedroom talk for when I’m not around, okay?”

Jamie cut a quick glance to Claire before scooting himself closer to Joe. He clapped the other man on the shoulder, and Claire tried not to pout at the loss of his warmth beside her, the balmy day notwithstanding. 

“Sorry, man,” Jamie said, the mischievous joviality fading from his demeanor.

Joe looked between them, resignation clouding his dark eyes as his lips tightened. “You’ll both be the death of me, I swear.”

Her stomach gave a twist as she met Jamie’s eye again. 

Me too, she thought. 

“Not if I can help it,” Claire said out loud, straightening up and nodding to the water bottles in both their hands. “Drain those, the both of you.” The corner of Jamie’s mouth twitched up again, Joe’s mirroring it as both men wordlessly obeyed.

The rest of the morning at the green camp passed in amity. They each ate a portion of cooked rice around mid morning, and by lunchtime the production crew had them lined up for their silent trek to the location of that day’s challenge. 

Ten minutes in, Claire’s calves were already burning as they sank into the soft sand, sweat stinging her lips and the corners of her eyes. She brushed damp curls from her face, casting a look up to the beautiful but cloudless expanse of sky. It had been that way since the infamous storm nearly a week ago now, and Claire yearned for a drizzle or at least some cloud cover to spare them from the intense burn of the sun for even an hour. 

Don’t focus on the heat, Beauchamp, she chided herself, pushing forward. It’ll only make it worse.

Step by step, she followed the swing of Gillian’s red hair before her. She found her focus narrowing there. Studying its hue. Comparing it to the other redhead who trailed behind her, out of sight. 

Perhaps after the challenge, she could fall into place behind him in the return lineup. Win or lose then, at least the trip back would be a pleasant one. 

When this was all done, Claire decided, she’d meet Jamie in some bar, a hidden Jamaican gem where she could gorge herself on spicy food and tequila (and whole pitchers of ice cold water, she thought with yearning). Somewhere she could watch him laugh with sun rays dripping from his hair the way she loved and the flush of drink rising in his cheeks. Showered and fed and rested, she’d wrestle her hair into some semblance of order and wear a shimmery dress and the highest damn heels she could find in whatever little shops were nearby.

How would those red waves feel, she wondered, sliding between her fingers? Would he shave, or would she get to feel the scratch of that growing beard against her skin? What would he wear? What would he drink? How would he smell? 

Was he gentle, or was he rough? 

Images of both flooded her mind. Jamie fucking her and Jamie making love. Frenzied desperation and soul-crushing tenderness. Both were easy to envision — so, so easy. Both made her skin tingle and her cheeks flame warmer than the sunburn blooming there. 

Were she a better person, she’d feel guiltier about it—that she could feel anything at all for another man mere weeks after breaking off a five-year relationship. But she’d spoken a long-known but suppressed truth to Jamie days before: she and Frank should’ve parted ways long ago. Stubbornness and a misguided idea about what was worth sacrificing for the illusion of home had kept her by his side. The love she’d once felt, the passion that had fueled her to cross the globe for him, had long since burned itself out.

Claire swallowed and shook him from her thoughts. Frank hadn’t believed in her. Frank had been content for her to conform to his ideals and whims, even though it meant losing piece after piece of herself. Frank hadn’t been able to accept her as she was, down to those most basic tenets of her being. 

Frank had no place on this island. 

 

#

 

Ulysses was missing from the purple team mat, and Claire silenced a sigh of relief that Louise and Marsali had survived another tribal council. She didn’t allow herself any more time to watch the other teams as Jeff gestured to the obstacle-laden stretch of beach and field behind them and explained the challenge. 

“Teams will start on their mats at the far end.” He pointed to the three colored squares behind them. “On my go, players will run forward and pull themselves up a length of knotted rope to climb over a ten-foot-tall wooden barrier. You’ll slide down the fireman’s pole on the other side. 

“When all players have crossed over, you’ll run forward to your designated circle in the sand and dig.” Fifteen feet past the tri-colored wooden walls sat three large circles outlined in colored rope, eight feet or so in diameter. “You’re looking for four bags, each containing two rubber balls. 

“Once you have all four bags, one at a time, you’ll cross a two-inch-wide zig-zagging balance beam, each person carrying one bag.” The beam didn’t just zig and zag, but rose and fell several inches in elevation, promising frustration to the unwieldy among them. “If you fall off or drop your bag, you go back, start the beam over.”

“When you’ve all reached the other side, you will use your balls in a large sling-shot to strike five targets in the adjacent field.” At the final station, the rubber strands of the slingshot stretched five feet in either direction, secured to wooden posts in the sand and facing grouped targets in the field several yards further down.

“First two teams to hit all five targets,” Jeff continued as Claire turned back to him, “win immunity, safe from tribal council. Third team has a date with me tonight, and one of you will be the eighth person voted out of Survivor: Jamaica.”

He then revealed the reward that accompanied immunity: an afternoon excursion to a dessert bar with every sweet imaginable — ice cream, milkshakes, brownies and shortbread and cakes and pudding — for first place, and half a dozen chocolate chip cookies and a single jug of cold milk for second place. Beside her, Joe salivated, eyes glued to the display Jeff had uncovered before them. 

“Now, green and orange teams have one extra member. Who are you sitting out?”

All eyes landed on Thomas. He only narrowed his own, though, and said, “One of the women should sit out. We need all the manpower we can get.”

Gillian scoffed. “What about balance and endurance, Tommy-boy? Still feeling like the best pick?”

“I’m not the youngest one here,” Thomas insisted in a near snarl, “but I’m stronger than either of you. And digging through the sand, I’ll be faster too.”

“Green team,” Jeff called out, “who’s it going to be?” 

“Gillian’s sitting out,” Thomas answered without pause. The others gawked at him, the named party huffing with outrage. Even so, a moment later, she turned back to Jeff and — her lowered eyelids failing to hide her monumental eye-roll — nodded. 

Their host chuckled. “You don’t look too happy about that.”

She merely shrugged, but anger sparked behind her words. “Some on the green team like to talk a big game. We’ll see how that works out for them.”

Jeff widened his eyes in interest but didn’t push any further; the cameras likely had picked up their team spat and would need no further explanation for the viewers. “All right,” he said, gesturing to the bench behind him. “Gillian, Marsali, come take a seat. The rest of you, I’ll give you a minute to strategize, then we’ll get started.” 

Five minutes later, the three teams of four stood at the ready on their mats. Claire breathed deep, forcing down the pre-challenge jitters, quickly running through the course in her head to keep the stages straight. 

Jeff raised one arm in the air. “Survivors ready,” he shouted before swinging and switching arms. “Go!

Claire, Joe, Jamie, and Thomas took off running. The powdery soft sand absorbed every step, and her muscles immediately screamed as her sinking feet worked against it. Humidity enveloped her like saltwater. She ignored the pain and exhaustion, the weight of the sun at her back. The blood whooshing behind her ears became a metronome, a rapid beat she matched with her sprinting steps. Focusing on that, she sped up.

Jamie reached the climbing obstacle first. He leapt and grabbed at a knot nearly halfway up the ten-foot rope before hoisting himself up easily as a monkey on a vine. When he reached the top, he straddled the bright green wall and waited, ready to lend a hand to his teammates. 

Joe was hot on his trail, up and over in a flash without assistance. Thomas and Claire arrived next, both panting (he more than she, Claire noted with a fleeting sense of triumph), but Thomas gripped the rope first. He clenched his fists above one knot and his bare feet above another. Red-faced and grimacing, he ascended inch by agonizing inch, precious seconds ticking by. 

In the back of her mind, Claire knew Gillian had to be gnashing her teeth watching Thomas’s snail pace. 

“Purple team with three people over,” Jeff called out. “And…orange team now has three over. Green team struggling to get their third person up the wall.”

“Thank ye, Jeff,” Jamie called out without turning, eyes fixed on Thomas, still too far down to help along. 

With a sigh of determination, Claire stooped and placed her shoulder beneath Thomas’s thigh, grunting as she straightened her knees and pressed upward. She felt his muscles quivering and straining as he rose an inch higher, then another inch. Molten pain coated her shoulders and neck and hamstrings and calves as she pressed her palms under his knees and lifted with everything she had. 

“Thomas reaches up, looking for Jamie to help him over,” Jeff narrated. Claire held her breath and pushed up on her toes, standing another half inch taller. The weight disappeared, and she nearly fell forward as, above her, Jamie’s and Thomas’s hands finally connected and Thomas scrambled over the wall. 

With no time to take a relieved breath, Claire jumped as high as she could on the rope, legs twisting around it as she scooted herself up as fast as she could.

“Green team now with three members over! Purple and orange teams  both have all four members over. Green falling behind.”

Jeff’s words clanged through her mind and propelled her forward through the growing fatigue. Forcing breaths in and out through her nose, Claire kept her feet moving, kept her fists crossing one over the other, the rope fibers biting into her palms. Above her, Jamie bent at the waist, hand held out. 

“Dinna stop, Sassenach, or ye’ll drop,” he said just loudly enough for her to hear. He was right; her tanned arms visibly shook as she hauled herself up another foot. “Nearly there now.”

Finally, with gritted teeth and breath held, she made it to the last knot and stretched for his hand. His fingers clasped hers in a secure grip, and he heaved her up to the top of the wall. She threw one leg over and released her breath, her free hand already searching for the pole to slide down on the other side.

“Ye all right?” 

She met his eye long enough to nod, still panting, before moving on. Jamie was just behind her, the two of them dropping down one after the other.

“Green team now has all four members over!” Jeff called out as they  sprinted toward their circle in the sand. “They can now dig for their bags. Orange team has one bag found; purple has none. Green is back in this!”

Claire flung herself into the sand of their circle, the three men around her doing the same. They each took a quadrant, throwing sand behind them as they frantically dug. 

And dug. 

And dug. 

And dug

Jeff circled all three teams, twelve players sweating and gasping and clawing. “It’s been twenty-five minutes here,” Jeff announced in a more subdued tone. “Orange team and green team both have two bags. Purple team only has one bag.” His voice grew louder as he approached the green circle. “That sun today is hot. And these bags are deep. Everyone is exhausted digging through this sand.”

Indeed, craters of varying depths and circumference dotted their larger green circle. Jamie’s soaked curls hung over his face, swaying with every movement. Across, Joe’s movements were choppy as he continued to fling sand to the perimeter. They each had a bag tossed safely behind them. 

Thomas was leaned forward, forearms on the ground, not digging at all as he tried to catch his breath. 

Just one more scoop, Claire told herself for what had to be the millionth time by now as she flung more bloody sand out of their circle. Each breath was a burning wheeze. Tremors ran up her arms. The morning’s vague ache in her shoulders had morphed into a biting sear up the column of her neck and down to the small of her back as she bent over, moving pounds and pounds of sand. 

One more. 

Just one more. 

One more. 

One

Her hand connected with string. Nearly sobbing with relief, she leaned forward and frantically excavated the bright green bag near her feet before finally pulling it forth and tossing it on the sand behind her. 

“Green now has three bags! And orange just found their third bag. Just like that, it’s a race to that last bag!”

The discovery reinvigorated Claire, and she grunted with each ferocious swipe through the sand, tunneling deeper and deeper into their circle. Jamie and Joe, too, found a second wind and picked up their speed. Thomas slowly sat up, movements sluggish. 

Almost there. Almost there. Almost there. 

Joe lunged forward, popping up a heartbeat later. 

“Green team has their final bag!” 

Jamie and Joe sprang up, Joe lending a hand to Thomas. Jamie crossed to Claire, hand out, but she already had her feet under her. She wobbled as she stood, back screaming, but she remained upright. They each grabbed a bag and went for the next obstacle.

Beside them, the orange team sprang into similar action. 

“And just like that, orange team has their final bag! Orange and green are neck-and-neck!”

Green team reached their balance beam and, as agreed at the outset, Thomas stepped forward first; his starting the procession had the double benefit of boosting his ego and leaving three faster players behind him to make up any lost time should he lose too much. A wise move, Claire noted faintly as Thomas lost his balance and started over once, twice, three times before finally making it all the way across. 

“Green team has their first player across with orange now sending their third. And now purple team has their final bag. They’re back in this!”

Joe went next, feet barely touching the wooden beam as he almost glided across it in the space of three blinks and stood at Thomas’s side. 

Claire mounted next, praying to any god, real or imagined, that she could make it across in decent time. White-knuckling the bag, she spread her arms out to the side and stepped onto the wood. She bit her lips between her teeth, breath held, as she measured each step as precisely and as quickly as she could. 

Halfway across, her vision tunneled, darkness creeping in at the edges. Her stomach swooped, and she lost all sense of where her body existed in space. Left was right, and up was down. 

Where did her foot go next, again? 

A heartbeat later, her awareness returned. Gravity tugged from her right. Face screwed up in concentration, Claire swung to her left, fighting against a fall. She re-centered, and her foot found its place. 

“Claire with a nice recovery there,” Jeff remarked as she continued on her way down the narrow stripe. Just three steps from the end. Two steps. 

Her balance wavered again, her heart thundering in her chest and echoing behind her ears. Just as she felt herself nearly lose it, she pushed off the beam, soaring toward the end. She landed in the sand and fell to her knees. But she’d crossed the boundary line.

“And another outstanding recovery as green team gets their third person across the beam!” Limbs weak and trembling, Claire pulled herself up and crossed to the mat where Thomas and Joe stood. As soon as she did, Jeff’s voice rang out. “Jamie can cross the beam now!”

It was the last thing she heard before the black closed in again and the sand rushed up to meet her. 

 

#

 

Jamie waited at the beginning of the balance beam, glancing between Claire crossing it ahead of him and the other teams beside him. Joe and Claire had been quick enough that they were now barely half a person behind orange. Purple was two behind. 

Then that brought them to the slingshot. Having spent much of his youth aiming pebbles at turtles’ shells in the lakes surrounding Lallybroch, Jamie knew he could make up time there as well. 

They’d be fine, he assured himself. No tribal for them tonight. No one going home.

Just as he looked back to Claire, she sprang forward, catapulting herself through the air off the beam and into the sand. He bent his knees, ready to spring forward as soon as she crossed onto the mat with the others. Once she did and Jeff called out for him to begin, Jamie was already three steps across. To his left, Jack — orange’s final member — crossed successfully. 

Jamie measured the distance left before him. He’d be but three, maybe four seconds behind. With a good rhythm, they’d—

He saw it almost before it happened. How Claire’s eyes fluttered and her head lolled to the side. 

Then she crumpled. 

Jamie stopped dead, one foot in midair above the strip of wood. Dread soured his wame. His ears rang. His grip on the bag loosened, and he let it fall to the ground. He took four heaving breaths, still paralyzed. 

And she never once stirred. 

Claire!” 

Only then did Joe and Thomas turn to look behind them, where she no longer stood. 

Jumping off midway over the beam, he ran. Vaguely, he heard Jeff exclaiming behind him. It didn’t matter. All that mattered, all that existed, was Claire, curled up on the sand. 

Claire, still not moving. 

Then Thomas and Joe were screaming for medical, and Jeff finally seemed to notice what had grabbed Jamie’s attention. 

“Everyone, stop!” he cried out, already running over. “Stop! Stop where you are! Medical, over here!” 

Jamie crashed to his knees beside her, brushing her hair out of her face. “Sassenach?” he breathed, turning her flat on her back. He leaned down, listening for breaths and thanking Christ when he felt the shallow puffs against his cheek. But her face was too flushed, too warm to the touch. 

An urgent tap landed on his shoulder. “Move aside,” a voice said. 

Jamie swallowed. “She just…collapsed, and I—”

“Move back so we can look at her,” the voice said again, authoritative now. A rough hand pulled him up and away by the bicep. Only the growing shock and terror flooding his body made him obey. 

If she was truly hurt…truly unwell…

He gulped and glanced to Joe, who gave a silent warning with his eyes before relinquishing his vice grip on Jamie’s arm. Instinct to fall back to Claire’s side overwhelmed Jamie, but he fought it, staying out of the way of the medical team. He did, however, refuse to step any further away as the medics set about their work.

Jeff was crouched near Claire’s head, speaking slowly and clearly. “Claire, open your eyes. Can you hear us? Claire?”

Jamie’s heart palpitated in time with her fluttering lids as her eyes finally opened. 

“Claire? Can you hear me? Can you speak?”

Slowly, so slowly, she nodded and rasped out a barely audible, “Yes.”

Like vultures circling a carcass, the camera operators shuffled around Claire’s supine form. Jamie loathed them. He imagined smashing them all to bits as they spied on her in such a vulnerable state. Damn near exploitative, in his view. But this was what they’d signed up for. Constant surveillance, a total waiver of privacy, for the duration of their gameplay. 

Then there was the one glued to his side, lens trained on his face. He noticed it but paid it no mind. He had eyes only for Claire slowly returning to consciousness on the ground before him. 

“We’re right here,” Jeff said in a soothing tone. “Medical’s here. They’re gonna take good care of you.” He looked up to the medic at her left. “Can you tell us what’s going on?”

The medic barely spared him a glance, her fingers pressed to Claire’s wrist, taking a pulse. “What it looks like is just a bit of heat exhaustion, coupled with the exertion of the challenge. What we’re looking to do right now is bring her body temperature and heart rate down.”

Jeff nodded. “So is Claire in any dire danger at this moment?”

“The fact that she’s semi-alert and responsive is positive,” the medic answered, rummaging through a first aid kit. “We’re going to insert an IV to hydrate her and see if we can’t get her cooled down, and go from there.”

Jamie watched, one hand fisted over his mouth and eyes stern, as the medical team set to work, binding Claire’s upper arm with a tourniquet and palpating her veins where they’d insert the IV. Crew members with dark umbrellas, meant to shield them from the sun during the long hours of filming, had rushed over to cast some shade on her. The rest of the players watched in silence or spoke softly amongst themselves at a distance. Only Jamie stood on the immediate periphery of the medical team, Joe and Thomas having fallen back with the rest.

Claire’s eyes were fully open now, a small relief. They were a touch too glassy, her cheeks too red. Her chest heaved with rapid, shallow breaths, eyes moving from strange face to strange face. When Jamie shifted his weight from one foot to the next, though, she looked to him. 

Did no one else see the way she swallowed or how her brows curved just that much upward? Jeff offered some words of comfort, seemingly sincere but always with an eye toward either the medics or the cameras. 

Jamie wanted to take her hand. Wanted to sweep the curls off her forehead. The words of calm Gaelic that he’d used to soothe skittish horses and clients alike rose to his lips, ready to pour forth. But she was fully encircled by staff and doctors, not even a sliver of space for him to slip into.

So, unable to hold her hand, he held her stare. For long, anxious minutes, neither of them looked away. Little by little, the fevered look left her eyes, and her skin lightened again. Her breaths came easier, and she sagged into the sand with seeming relief as her muscles finally relaxed. 

“So, Doc,” Jeff was saying minutes later, “where’re we at?”

The head of the medical team looked up, and Jamie held his breath. “I’d like Claire to take the afternoon easy, drink lots of water, stay out of the sun.”

“But you don’t think this is serious enough to pull her from the game?” 

“No, I’m confident she can continue safely.” Jamie couldn’t help the whoosh of breath that exploded from him, no more than Claire herself could as she exhaled sharply. “But she should sit out for the rest of this challenge.”

Jeff gave a single nod. “All right, then. Claire, let’s get you over to the bench with Gillian and Marsali.”

As the head medic removed the IV and the rest of the personnel cleared away, Jamie shot forward and bent, taking one of her hands to help her stand while Jeff grabbed the other. Their host regarded him with a strange look but said nothing, only ceded Claire’s other hand to him. “If you’re in good hands, Claire, I’ll fill in the rest of the players,” Jeff said, walking away. 

Jamie wrapped Claire’s hand around his forearm then laid his other hand overtop it, holding her steady as they took a first, shaky step. His gaze stayed in the corner of his eye, watching her for any sign of distress as they headed toward the sit-out bench, luckily positioned beneath some of the scant shade in the area. 

Claire chuckled lightly. “You keep gripping my hand like that, I’ll need to call medical over for a crush injury this time.”

He loosened his hold immediately, heat rising through his neck and cheeks. “Sorry.”

“No, I didn’t…” She trailed off, eyes darting across the sand before her. She looked up at him from the corner of her eye. “I am all right, you know.”

He gave one curt nod, but the ball of tension still knotted in his gut. “I ken ye are, Sassenach. I’d just prefer tae make certain of it.”

They reached Gillian and Marsali, who both jumped up and closed the distance with hugs and exclamations of how glad they were Claire was well. Jamie watched as she sat shakily between them. She gave him a final look, a final tremulous smile, before saying, “You should get back out here. I think something sweet would be the perfect remedy to this whole unfortunate affair.”

He mustered a smile, and her own widened in response. “Done,” he answered and turned, jogging back toward where Jeff was giving the rest of the competitors the rundown of how they’d proceed. 

“So,” Jeff said, clapping his hands together, “here’s how we’re going to start up again. Orange team, all your members had cleared the beam, so you’ll start on the slingshot mat. Purple team, you had two members left, and green team had one member left since Claire had already cleared it. All three will begin back at the start of the beam and make your way across again.

“Is everyone clear?” Various murmurs of assent rumbled through the crowd, and Jeff nodded once. “All right, take your positions, and we’ll get started.”

Jamie wound his way toward the front of the beam, breathing out a stream and clearing his head of worry. 

Claire is fine. Claire is safe. Her face shone in his mind’s eye, and the corner of his lips twitched up as he deepened his crouch, ready to spring up and forward. Let’s win her a treat, then, lad.

 

#

 

Claire, 27, Trauma nurse: “God, it was embarrassing more than anything. I’m not really used to being the one being tended to, and certainly not with everything at stake that we’ve got right now. 

“I swear to God, if we get back to camp and the words, ‘Told ye so,’ come out of that giant Scot’s mouth, I might just slap him.”

 

Joe, 28, Occupational therapist: “I’m glad Claire’s okay. Less glad about Jamie being a love-struck idiot, but what can you do?”

 

#

 

No one stared outright when they made it back to camp. Still, Claire could feel the sideways glances like featherlight spider’s legs over her skin. And none so much as his

Jamie, who had apparently abandoned the challenge when she’d passed out, as an eager Gillian had relayed to her while the rest of the players set up to start again. 

Awakening in the sand, surrounded by half a dozen serious-looking faces, had been overwhelming. Mind still fuzzy from the ordeal, Claire had sought any sense of familiarity, comfort. Any anchor to keep her from being swept away into hysteria. 

Then she’d found the navy blue of his eyes. A calm bay where she could float without worry, without fear. 

Jamie, who’d returned her gaze, hardly blinking so as not to disrupt those still waters that cradled her. Whose touch had been the safety of shore beneath her feet. 

As Jeff shouted Go! to begin the challenge again, Claire had found herself scrutinizing Jamie. His furrow of concentration as he flitted over the beam in a mere three leaps — so much more graceful than that behemoth body should be capable of. The sweat-slicked contours of his shoulders and back as he pulled on the humongous sling-shot, practically sitting back into the sand as he aimed then let loose. The sharp focus as he watched Joe and Thomas take their turns, the latter missing just as the orange team hit their fifth target. How he simply fell back and lay in the sand with a relieved exhale and beaming smile when he landed their final mark on the next shot.

Second place was still immunity, after all.

An hour after that, back at camp and with their reward in tow, the five of them sat beneath the shade of the shelter. Gillian took a cookie and passed the plate on as she swigged from the milk jug. Joe took a cookie and passed it to Claire, who handed the platter directly to Thomas on her other side.

“Take one, Sassenach,” Jamie said from the end. “Ye deserve a wee bite as much as any of us.”

“No, I don’t,” she said. Thomas took the plate, and Claire curled her knees up to her chest, arms folding around them. “If it weren’t for me, we could be sitting at first right now. I could’ve…if any of you had been seconds later, we’d be in tribal tonight.”

“Maybe, but we weren’t,” Joe rebutted. “And you couldn’t control what happened, LJ. Give yourself a break.”

Claire only shook her head again. “No, no. The rest of you enj—”

Jamie huffed. “Well, if ye dinna have yours, then I willna have mine.”

“What? No, Jamie—”

You helped Thomas over the wall,” Jamie rebutted hotly, not so much as glancing at the man in question, who scowled. “You found one of the bags in the sand. And made it over the beam in one go, makin’ up lost time.” His look was heavier now. “We are a team. And we made it through as a team. Ye played yer part, and ye deserve a feckin’ reward fer it.”

He spoke every word with such conviction. No sense of falsity. No comforting platitudes. But Claire still hesitated. 

Gillian laughed, reaching across the four other teammates for the plate. “Fine, if you two don’t want yours, hand it over for the rest of us.”

Before she could snatch the plate, Jamie pulled off two cookies, each nearly as large as the flat of her hand. He held them up, an exaggerated plaintive look in his eye. “And barrin’ all that, Sassenach, ye wouldna deprive me of my reward now, would ye?”

And he was serious, too. Sighing, Claire held out her hand. “Fine, I’ll eat the bloody cookie.”

Triumph embodied, Jamie handed her share over. “You take the first bite.”

“Jesus H.—here.” One small bite, and she had to stifle the groan of ecstasy at that exquisite chewy texture. The first hints of chocolate in weeks. That dash of salt that only enhanced the captivating sweetness exploding on her tongue. 

Jamie watched her as she chewed, smug satisfaction lighting his features at her obvious enjoyment. Arching one brow at him, she swallowed. “Happy?”

“Aye.” Only then did he tear into his own serving, chomping off half the dessert in a single bite. For another ten minutes, the five of them sat in relaxed, silent harmony, enjoying their cookies and passing the milk jug among them. The sixth cookie they also passed, each taking small bites until it was gone. When Thomas took the final swig of the milk, they set the dishes near their boiling pot. 

Thomas stood, stretching. “I’m just gonna go for a walk down the beach,” he said. Almost reluctantly, his eyes landed on Jamie. “You…um…you wanna join, James?”

Claire nearly laughed out loud at the stricken look on Jamie’s face. He schooled his features quickly enough though and, with a resigned, “Aye,” stood to follow Thomas down the beach. But not without casting a look of faux dread to her over his shoulder. Claire waggled her brows at him with a big grin that he returned before turning to follow the older man to the waterline. 

Gillian scooted closer to Claire’s side. “Thomas’ll be worried about his performance at the challenge, then,” she said to Claire and Joe, who remained at the shelter. 

Joe nodded. “Seems that way.”

“Well, since he’s clearly going to be throwing me under the bus,” Gillian said, voice low enough that the strong breeze wouldn’t carry it to the retreating men, “I’ll just remind you that it was Thomas — not Claire, heat stroke and all — who could’ve cost us the challenge today. And he has ties to Doug and Jack on the other tribes. You and Jamie ran with Fergus and Rupert. Once we hit a merge…”

“That still keeps us in a majority, and comfortably,” Claire said. 

Gillian shrugged. “Unless Fergus or Rupert gets the axe tonight.”

“And we don’t know what other connections the others have made,” Joe said softly, eye on Claire. “And they don’t know which connections we’ve made.”

A gleeful smile played over Gillian’s face. “Well, I’m sure they can deduce certain connections. After the challenge today.” Neither Claire nor Joe had a response to that, so Gillian moved to the edge of the platform and stood. “Just think on it,” she said, voice airy and light.

 

#

 

Hours later, night thick as wool around her, Claire lay in the shelter, wide awake even though it had to be close to midnight. On the other end, Thomas shifted with a raspy cough, and the entire structure moved with him. Beside her, Joe breathed deeply, evenly. Gillian was curled onto her side, buff pulled down over her eyes. Jamie hadn’t come to the shelter. Most nights, actually, he slept alone on the beach, only retreating to the structure when the heat of morning woke him. 

Claire begged sleep to take her, but her mind raced. 

She thought about Jamie grounding her when the world had been swirling chaos. 

About Jamie being the first and only one to notice she’d fallen and rush to her side, the challenge and the larger game be damned.

About how safe he made her feel. Safe enough that she had barely worried over how her collapse would affect her standing in the tribe, and safe enough that the notion of Frank watching it on the show weeks from now was no more than a passing consideration.

About the tingling in her muscles at the physical distance currently separating them, like her body yearned to close it. 

About the dress and the heels she’d wanted to wear for him, and the dinner and drinks she’d wanted to have with him, and the night she’d wanted to share with him. After all this.

About how she wasn’t sure she could wait that long.

 

#

 

“Mind if I join you?”

Jamie turned and looked up at her, standing just behind him. The ember haze from the fire ring just reached her, making her little more than an outline in the dark. Tall and lean, the curls and whirls of her hair an erratic silhouette. 

“No,” he answered. “Always a spot for ye here, lass.”

She settled beside him, close enough that the sides of her arm and leg pressed against his. He fought the urge to lean into that pressure.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” she said softly, voice barely audible over the crashing waves only yards past their feet, “why you sleep out here instead of in the shelter.”

The corner of his mouth twitched up. He gestured with his chin toward the sky. “I count the stars tae fall asleep.”

“What, not sheep?” she asked, a smile in her voice. “Or horses, even, since that’s more your repertoire?”

“Nah,” he answered. “When I was wee, I had trouble sleepin’ in places that werena home. My family went campin’ one spring. I couldn’t have been more’n six or so, and I was tossin’ and turnin’ enough that e’en my da threatened tae turn me outta the tent if I couldna keep still.”

“Poor thing,” Claire murmured. His breath hitched as she leaned more heavily against him.

He hummed, matching her weight with his. “But my mam, she just picked up her blankets and took me by the hand and led me out into the open. And we laid in the grass, and she told me she wanted me tae count the stars for her.” A lump burned in his throat, as it always did when his mother’s face came so clearly to mind. “I was nervous, ken, ‘cause there were so many. I didna think I’d get them all. ‘Feuch co-dhiu, mo bhalaich,’ she told me.”

“What’s that mean?”

“‘Try anyway, my son.’” He smiled at the memory. “So I did. I counted some, then I’d worried I missed one, so I went back and started over. Did that more’n a few times.”

He paused, and Claire turned toward him. “Then what?”

“Then, ‘twas mornin’.” His bittersweet smile broadened. The urge to rest his head on top of hers, settle fully against her, nearly overpowered him. “I still dinna sleep well when I’m no’ in my own bed. But if I can see the stars…well…it’s a bit easier, at least.” He cleared his throat, nodding toward her. “How d’ye fall asleep when ye canna?”

She chuckled softly. “That’s not really a problem I ever had. I moved around so often when I was young that I learned to fall asleep just about anywhere.” A strong breeze blew, cool enough to raise goosebumps over his arms. Claire huddled still closer to him, and his heart quickened.

Was she doing that…on purpose?

“What’s the strangest place ye’ve fallen asleep, then?”

She laughed more heartily, head tossed back. “In a barn in Ireland, when I was nine.”

“That doesna sound so strange.”

“Except that I fell asleep with a herd of sheep. My Uncle Lamb got carried away interviewing the old farmer couple for a research project of his, and we were there for more than ten hours, so I went exploring and fell asleep there after dark. The sheep were unshorn, and warm, but they also apparently hid me especially well.

“Lamb — my uncle, not the animal,” she clarified with a throaty giggle that fizzled through his own skin like champagne bubbles. “When he finally finished and came looking for me, he was in hysterics. It was over twenty acres of land, fields and woods alike. He called the police out to the property, and they’re the ones who finally found me after midnight. Lamb had checked the barn, but he said my hair blended in perfectly with the sheep.”

Jamie laughed, imagining the camouflage of that curlywig amidst the thick wool of a dozen fluffy sheep. “So…yer uncle went lookin’ fer ye, and then sent a whole search party out wavin’ torches about and callin’ yer name…and ye slept through all of it?’

“Indeed, I did,” she said, grinning, almost proud of the fact. 

Jamie shook his head, still chuckling. “I canna imagine ever sleepin’ so deeply.” 

The thrum of rolling waves swallowed their laughter until it faded off. They sat in silence for a moment longer before Claire broke it. “Can I ask you something?”

Shadows shrouded her face well enough that Jamie couldn’t make out her expression, but the humming between them seemed to pick up in intensity. “Always.” 

“You abandoned the challenge. When I fell.” Jamie nodded but didn’t respond. Claire continued, “You could’ve been disqualified or even expelled from the game. It could’ve been considered a forfeit for the team.”

“Is that a question?”

“Why?”

The question was so earnest, so…loaded. How much did he want to say here, in the game, night-vision cameras circling around them? How much could he hold back, even if he needed or wanted to? 

Not much, he realized as heat built behind his eyes. He closed his lids, and the image of her crumbling into the sand played again and again. His wame clenched each time, his heart stuttering like it, too, was reliving that horrific, terrifying moment. 

That residual fear seemed silly now. She was fine. She’d been checked out and cleared by medical. No big danger. No lasting effects. Yet Jamie knew it wouldn’t leave him anytime soon, if ever. 

So he gave as much of the truth as he could in that moment. Opening his eyes, voice rougher than he expected, he answered, “Because I was scared enough when I saw ye that nothin’ else mattered. No’ the game. No’ Lallybroch. No’ the others watchin’ on.” He swallowed, forcing down the burning sensation in his throat. “All that mattered was that ye were safe.”

Jamie felt her stare like a sheet of liquid mercury flung over him. Crushing, contracting around him. Squeezing the air from his lungs, compressing around the two of them so that he felt like he could simply lean over and tumble into her. Wanted it more than the breaths he couldn’t catch. 

The world narrowed to her beside him in the dark. Their camp some ways behind them, the ocean hissing before them, the production crew and cameras catching every moment—all of it faded to nothing. 

Only the whites of her eyes gleaming in the moonlight, fixed on him. 

The dark shape of her arm raising toward him. 

The brush of fingertips along his jawline, so tentative it was hardly more than the breeze of moving air over his skin. Still, it stopped his heart. 

“Claire…”

“Do you want me to go?”

Her touch retreated. Before she could lower her hand, Jamie caught it. The hitch of her breath sliced through him as he replaced it against his face, flattening her fingers against his skin now. He could’ve sworn they shook as they stroked. Unable to pull his own hand away, he swiped his thumb over the ridges of her knuckles.

“No,” he breathed with the minute air he’d managed to retain in his lungs. “No, I dinna want ye to go.”

He never saw her lean in. Didn’t see her curls shift over her shoulder to hang between them. He only felt the softness of her lips against his, the smooth slide of them as she kissed him. 

It was better than he’d dreamed. By a factor of a thousand, at least. 

The hand that hovered over hers tightened, and his other migrated to the nape of her neck as he pulled her in closer to him. She mirrored him, free hand rising to comb through his greasy locks, nails scraping against his scalp and eliciting a groan low in the back of his throat. And again even deeper as she opened her mouth, inviting his to follow. So he did, gasping at the sensation of her tongue just barely flicking out against his. A shy greeting. 

His soul damn near fled his body.

Christ, help me.

Jamie ceded fully to the heated blood now sprinting through his veins and rushing behind his ears. Every pulsation roared her name. 

Claire. 

Claire. 

Claire. 

Claire

It was all he was. The mantra echoed in his bones, filled his lungs, cocooned him in velvety sanctuary. Her tiny gasps — a surprised, delighted sound — as he devoured her sent sparks of ecstasy bursting trough every cell of his being.

Her touch, her sounds, her warmth…even as he experienced her, held her, he craved more. Needed more.

Finally, by some telepathic understanding between them, they both inhaled deeply as they finished on one last, lingering kiss. His hand that covered hers at his jawline smoothed down her arm, so he felt the goosebumps prickle on her skin as nipped her bottom lip before pulling away. 

They both breathed heavily, staring at each other in the darkness. Had the moon grown brighter? He could see her so much more clearly now. Every line of that perfect face, eyes wide and lips slack in shock, stood in sharp relief against the dark background of night. 

Claire swallowed, and her voice shook when she whispered, “Are…are we doing this, then?”

Jamie leaned forward, planting another languid kiss over her lips before pressing his forehead against hers. Her sustained sigh brushed over his face, invigorating as the salty mist off the ocean. “I sure as hell hope so.”

“It’ll be complicated.”

“Aye.”

“Risky, bordering on moronic.”

Jamie chuckled. “Probably.”

He felt the furrow of her brow against his. “And you still…?”

Lips thirsty for her again silenced the question, a desperate sound rising in his chest as she responded in kind, wrapping arms around his neck and dragging him closer.

 

#

 

Jamie didn’t remember falling asleep; they must have after that last frenzied meeting of lips when, wordless and breathless, they’d laid back in the sand and let grazing fingers explore. The planes of his face. Of her neck. Of his palms. Of her shoulders. 

The first sigh of dawn peeking over the horizon brought him out of slumber. His gaze went immediately to Claire still laying beside him, head pillowed on her bent arm and body turned toward him as he was toward her. Sand dotted her dark curls like so many stars in the sky above them, only now fading as the sun rolled slowly over the edge of the earth. 

Murtagh would skin him alive, not to mention his sister. Even so, peace infiltrated Jamie’s spirit. He lifted a hand, brushing a stray strand out of Claire’s face, studying it as the world turned from black to gray to pink. By the time he was squinting in the orange of a fully crested sun, Claire also stirred and opened her eyes—whisky-hued amber that glowed in the morning light.

A sleepy smile pulled at her lips. “Still in?”

He twined his fingers with hers in the sand between them, thumb massaging into the dip of her palm. “God, yes.”

Her smile was quickly becoming his favorite sight, and he relished it as she beamed at him. Sounds of camp awakening behind them had them sighing and reluctantly sitting up in the sand. Before she could stand, though, Jamie brought her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. 

Another smile, and a faint blush to go with it. 

Now, that was his favorite sight. 

“Ye hungry?” he asked, standing and lending her a hand to do the same. Claire cackled as she wiped the sand from her legs and shorts and shirt, and Jamie chuckled with her. “Fine, stupid question,” he added. “Why don’t I see about catchin’ someth—”

The sound of a motorboat cut him off and snapped their attention to the water. Two motorboats, actually, only specks in the distance but closing in. Joe and Gillian migrated down the beach toward them, hands shielding their eyes in the sunlight.

They watched in silence until the crafts were close enough to make out the faces of the people standing at the bows, waving.

Jamie looked to Claire then, and she back at him, eyes wary. 

Ready or not, it was merge day.