Jamie left for Ian’s stag do two days after the fight with Claire, neither of them having talked about what had happened. This was their first real fight, leaving them with no precedent on how or even if they would resolve it. Both of them felt miserable, yet were unsure what to say to make things better. Claire was able to use her schoolwork as a distraction, but Jamie had no hope of escaping his feelings. Witnessing his best friend’s happiness over marrying the love of his life only inspired bitterness in Jamie as he was unable to even talk about Claire with any of his friends or family, let alone marry her. And the thought of having to entertain Laoghaire for an entire night was now more unbearable than ever since she had been the cause of the argument with Claire in the first place.
Despite his inner turmoil, Jamie was too good a friend and brother to not at least fake having a good time, even though he was dying on the inside. Claire had a more difficult time hiding her emotions, so she just lied to Frank, fabricating a big exam she needed to study for, and locked herself in the den with a pile of medical textbooks.
But when Friday afternoon hit, and the prospect of a weekend free of the distraction of classes loomed, all of Claire’s emotional turmoil hit her like a tidal wave, and she broke down, unable to think of anything but Jamie. What would she do if she had lost him? And what could she do to get him back?
Frank knocked on the door to the den at around six o’clock to ask Claire if she wanted to get dinner together, but she claimed to have cramps, and Frank asked no further questions. Frank had always been squeamish about her “female problems,” as he called them, and preferred she keep those things to herself. She’d made the mistake early on in their relationship of asking him to pick up a box of tampons on his way home. He’d come home carrying a bag with the tips of his fingers as if there was some deadly disease inside and begged her to please never make him go through that embarrassment again. She’d laughed it off then, but realized now she should have noticed it as one of the many red flags she now realized Frank had displayed over their years together.
As Claire thought about what she was going to do for the next two days to avoid losing her mind, she realized inaction was simply not an option. She needed to see Jamie. Now. Frank had gone out to pick up dinner for himself, so she had the peace and quiet to think about her plan of action. She sent Frank a quick text with a lie about going to a classmate’s flat to have a late night study session. As expected, he asked no questions, and she was suddenly free and clear to go after Jamie.
Claire knew where the stag do was taking place. Jamie had told her several stories from the pub he and Ian had frequented as lads and how excited he was to relive those times on Ian’s last night as a single man. It was about an hour’s drive to get there, and Claire felt the weight of every minute that passed as she drove. What if she had left it go too long? Why hadn’t she just texted him yesterday before he went out of town? Would she even be in any sort of state to drive home if he rejected her? All these thoughts ran through her mind on a loop, her brain not comprehending a single word of the podcast playing in the background.
She’d been unsure of what to wear, knowing she was going to somehow have to get to Jamie in a crowded pub and wanting to at least blend in so as to not rouse suspicion from the other partygoers. Rushed as she was, she’d grabbed the first dress out of her closet that looked even mildly appropriate and thrown it on. Now, as she sat in the parking lot of the pub, she tugged on the hemline, wondering if it sent the wrong message to Jamie. What if he thought she was here to show off instead of apologize? “Too late now, Beauchamp,” she muttered to herself. She’d spotted Jamie’s beat-up, old truck in the parking lot, so she knew she was in the right place. She took a deep breath as she got out of the car, walked up to the pub, and pushed open the door.
Deafening noise and the press of bodies almost forced her back outside, but she managed to hold her ground as the door closed behind her. The small space was packed with folks enjoying the beginning of their weekend, clearly happy to be letting off some steam. Despite the crowd, her eyes were immediately drawn to Jamie, partly because he was a full head taller than almost anyone else, but she also liked to think it was just a little bit because he was her soulmate, and she would always find him. He was chatting with another lad around his age, but even from across the room she could see that his smile didn’t fully reach his eyes. He was just as torn apart as she was.
A stab of guilt lanced through her heart at the knowledge that she had hurt him so much that he couldn’t even enjoy an event he’d been looking forward to for months. She had to make this right. Jamie’s friend made his way to the loo after a few minutes, leaving Jamie alone, staring at the wall behind the bar. Claire took a deep breath and excused her way through the throng of revelers. She tapped Jamie on the shoulder, her heart pounding out of her chest, and he turned around to look at her, his face only revealing a moment of shock before becoming unreadable.
“Hi,” she said, practically yelling to be heard over the crowd.
“Ye’re here.” A mere statement of fact, but not tinged with anger like she’d expected.
“Do you…want to go outside for a minute?” she asked. He hesitated for a moment, then nodded. A protective arm came around her to guide her out of the pub, and she teared up at his touch. Even in the midst of the most tumultuous time in their relationship, he looked out for her; he was her safeguard. Frank had never been that for her, always letting her fend for herself, even when she’d needed him most.
Claire immediately started to shiver when they got outside, whether from the cool, evening air or from nerves she wasn’t sure. “D’ye want to go up to my room?” Jamie asked, motioning to the inn next to the pub. “It’s a wee bit nippy to be standin’ out here to talk.”
Claire chose her words carefully. “As long as you’re comfortable with that. I don’t want to impose.”
“Ye came all the way here, Sassenach.” Jamie gave her a ghost of a smile. “The least I can do is hear ye out.” Claire nodded, secretly relieved. If he’d called her Sassenach, he couldn’t be too mad at her, right?
They made their way silently up to Jamie’s room at the inn. “I’m bunking wi’ Rupert,” he explained, indicating the two double beds, “but he willna be back ’til at least two in the morning. So we have time to talk.”
Claire swallowed, wringing her hands. She suddenly felt stupid for coming here, for interrupting Jamie’s time with his friends, for wearing this stupid dress, for thinking that she even deserved Jamie’s love at all. She couldn’t even meet his eyes. How was she supposed to explain herself?
“Claire.” Jamie’s voice interrupted her thought spiral. “Claire, look at me.” She finally did, a wave of comfort washing over her at the love she found in his eyes. He took her hands in his. “We’re going to talk through this, and get through this, together. Ye came all the way here for me. I’m no’ angry wi’ ye anymore, but I do think I deserve an explanation for what set ye off so suddenly the other night.”
“You do,” Claire sighed. “You absolutely do.”
Jamie sat down on the bed and looked at Claire expectantly. “Well?” he prompted.
Claire let out a shaky breath. “As I’m sure you’ve guessed, it had nothing to do with you.”
“Frank,” Jamie muttered.
“Yes, Frank.” Claire paused, parsing her words carefully. “Jamie, I need you to understand this has no bearing on us or our relationship. You are the only man I love. But I did love Frank once, and he still has the ability to hurt me.”
“What did the bastard do this time?”
“I know it shouldn’t even matter to me because I’m literally doing the same thing to him, but…I found out Frank is cheating on me with one of his grad students.” Claire wiped the tears that had sprung to her eyes as she’d finally admitted it out loud. Even though she’d decided she was going to eventually leave Frank for Jamie, she’d still held onto some small hope that Frank actually cared about her. It was so contradictory and messy, but a part of her had hoped that maybe Frank was just incapable of being a good partner, that it wasn’t because of her. But since finding out about his infidelity, she’d figured out the passcode to his phone and read the text messages between him and his student. They sounded genuinely in love - much happier than she and Frank had ever been, even at their best. So it stood to reason that she was part of the problem in their marriage. Frank could be happy - just not with her.
“He left his phone at home the other night,” Claire continued, “and it just kept buzzing over and over with text messages. I finally got fed up with it and went to turn it off when I noticed the lock screen picture was Frank kissing another woman, one I’d seen before at his work functions. Sandy.”
Jamie’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Why would he have made that his background photo? Seems risky.”
“All I can think is that she must have done it without his knowing, and he hadn’t taken the time to change it back yet,” Claire reasoned. “Either way, he’s cheating on me. Which, like I said, shouldn’t even matter because I love you, not him. But somehow it still hurts. And I guess that’s why I was worried about Laoghaire. Because if Frank cheating on me feels like a dull ache…Jamie, if you cheated on me, it would feel like a sword stabbed right through my heart. I wouldn’t survive it.”
“Claire,” Jamie said, her name sounding like an oath coming from his lips. “I will never. Ever. Cheat on you. Frank is a scumbag who treated ye like garbage. I willna defend what we’re doing as right, but it is different. Ye’re leaving an abusive, horrible relationship. Maybe no’ in the right way, but ye had to leave him eventually. He has been nothin’ but awful to ye. Holdin’ ye back from yer dreams, leavin’ ye home by yourself and then criticizing everything ye did around the house. He was trying to break ye, mo ghraidh, and if ye hadn’t realized in time, he might have succeeded.”
Claire nodded and buried her face in Jamie’s chest as she cried some more. “How are you so good to me?” she asked after a time. “How can I tell you that I’m jealous of my husband’s mistress, and you manage to respond with exactly what I need to hear? How do you not hate me, Jamie?”
“Because I know your heart, Claire.” He placed their joined hands on her chest over her heart. “And I trust you with my own. He may think you’re his to abuse and neglect, but he doesn’t know that you’re mine. Mine to love and care for. Forever.”
“Forever,” she repeated.
If Claire had felt foolish going to Jamie’s flat the first time to help his nephew, she didn’t even know what word to describe her feelings now as she prepared to go over a few weeks later. The easy conversation they’d had that evening had continued through frequent texting and even the occasional phone call during Claire’s breaks at work. The other nurses in the break room gave her knowing smiles, assuming she was enthusiastically chatting with her husband.
“Old Frank finally realize what he’s missin’ out on and reignite that fire between ye?” asked Geillis, one of Claire’s closest work friends one night.
Claire had just hung up from another phone call with Jamie, a telling grin on her face. “Oh,” she sputtered as her cheeks flushed red, “yes, something like that.”
“Well, I hope ye’re gettin’ some when ye get home tonight. Ye deserve it!” Geillis winked as Claire rolled her eyes before heading back to the nurse’s station. But she couldn’t help but think of what it would be like to “get some” as Geillis had put it. Only problem was, it wasn’t Frank’s mouth she imagined kissing, nor was it his body she longed to feel pinning her to the mattress.
Thus far Claire had still be able to dismiss the physical attraction she felt toward Jamie as just a silly crush. Their conversations never veered into anything beyond friendship territory, and one day it hit her that Jamie truly had become one of her best friends in the short time she had known him.
So tonight, just as friends, she was going to his flat to play video games. When Claire had outed herself as video game illiterate by asking over text whether Jamie was looking forward to playing Mario on his new PlayStation, he’d immediately sworn to give her an introductory course to the basics of gaming. They were starting with Mario Kart, which Claire could at least admit to having heard of in passing.
She wanted to avoid looking like she’d dressed for a date at all costs, so Claire put on her favorite pair of going-out appropriate leggings and an oversized university sweatshirt, courtesy of Frank. The sweatshirt had arrived in a welcome bag of goodies when he’d started at the university which he’d gone through in disgust. As if a dignified professor such as himself would ever be caught dead wearing a university sweatshirt or baseball cap. Claire had snatched the cozy sweatshirt out of the bin before Frank had had the chance to take the trash out, and it had become one of her favorite pieces of clothing, not least because of how much it annoyed Frank to see her wearing it.
And saw it he did as she poked her head into his study to let him know she was leaving. “I’m going to a friend’s house for a little while to watch a movie,” she lied. She’d reasoned bringing up the video games would only start a conversation she didn’t really want to have about what she chose to do with her time. A movie was also a silly way to pass an evening according to Frank, but he at least understood he was in the minority with that opinion.
“Yes, darling, have a lovely time with Geillis,” he replied, looking up from his book and giving her a compulsory smile. She didn’t bother to correct him as she eased the door shut, rolling her eyes at how much he didn’t pay attention to anything she said.
Frank’s ambivalence allowed Claire to easily push aside any feelings of guilt in her mind during her walk over to Jamie’s flat. They were just friends. And they were playing video games. And if it seemed like their relationship was veering into anything inappropriate, she could just cut off communication with him.
So why was her hand shaking as she lifted her finger to ring the bell for his flat?
She shook her head to clear it and pressed the buzzer. “Come on up, Sassenach,” Jamie’s friendly voice crackled over the speaker. Claire grinned in spite of herself, excited to finally be spending some quality time with her friend.
“Welcome to Video Games 101!” he greeted her as she entered the flat. He gave her a side hug that seemed completely natural, and she felt her body warm immediately next to his furnace-like heat.
“Thanks, Professor Fraser,” she gibed, toeing off her shoes at the door. “Is that pizza I smell?”
“Aye, ye canna have a game night without sustenance, Sassenach, and the nutrition gained from the unique blend of cheese, bread, and sauce canna be beat. That’s lesson number one.” Jamie held his hand out, motioning Claire to take a seat at his small kitchen table.
“Two pizzas?” she exclaimed as she sat down. “How much sustenance do you think we need?”
“No use being dainty about it. Eat yer fill now, lass. Once the gaming starts, we stop for nothing but loo and whisky breaks.” Jamie opened the first box and grabbed a slice, devouring it in just three bites, causing Claire to break out into laughter. “In actuality,” he explained as he wiped his mouth with a napkin, “I just didna ken if ye were a fan of pepperoni or cheese, so I got one of each.”
“Thank goodness!” Claire tore off a slice of her own and sprinkled it with parmesan cheese. “I might not have made it through the evening if I’d had to eat an entire pizza myself.” She took a bite and closed her eyes at the heavenly, greasy taste. “Mmmm, delicious. And for the record, I’m a plain cheese girl.”
“Good to know,” said Jamie, secretly thrilled that she seemed to be enjoying the dinner he had chosen for them.
They both ate probably a bit more pizza than they should have, and Claire excused herself to the loo while Jamie cleaned up. When she came back, he had his Switch powered up, the Mario Kart music playing softly in the background.
“A wee dram before we get started?” Jamie offered, pouring a glass of whisky.
“Are you trying to throw me off my game, Fraser?” Claire asked, though still accepting the whisky he offered.
“Nah, I dinna think ye have a snowball’s chance in hell of beating me at Mario Kart, Sassenach, with or without whisky. I’ve been playin’ it since I was a wee lad. The whisky is just to loosen ye up. Ye have to be willing to take risks to win, especially once we get to Rainbow Road.” Claire’s brow furrowed in confusion, but Jamie just toasted her with a “Slainte!” and they each downed their shot before sitting on the sofa.
Jamie explained the finer points of picking a character - he was always Bowser - and made sure Claire - aka Cat Peach - chose a vehicle with good handling to start out with. The first few races, Jamie easily lapped Claire and was amused to watch her struggle her way through her final lap, teeth gritted in concentration. But she caught on quickly, and after about an hour, she was finishing in the top five pretty consistently. She had no hope of beating Jamie, but when she did finally finish in second place on the Toad Harbour track, they high-fived before having another shot of whisky in celebration.
“All right, Sassenach, do ye think ye’re ready to tackle the dreaded Rainbow Road?” Jamie asked in a mock serious tone.
“Ready as I’ll ever be, professor,” Claire answered gamely.
“Now Rainbow Road is the most infamous track in all of Mario Kart,” Jamie warned. “No man, woman, or child has ever made it through on the first try without fallin’ off at least once, so dinna get frustrated when it happens to you.”
“Understood,” stated Claire, tightly gripping the controller in her hands. Jamie selected the track, and the preview of the twists and turns to come flashed across the screen. Claire’s heart pounded as the countdown to the start of the race began, and then they were off.
Jamie had just finished drifting around the second turn when Claire shot off the track for the first of many times over the next five or so minutes. As she fell further and further down the ranks, Claire’s cursing grew louder and more varied. When she fell off the track for about the twentieth time, flinging her hands and the controller in the air, Jamie could barely contain his laughter and almost lost control of Bowser in the final few meters before he crossed the finish line.
When Claire finally crossed the finish in a very far back twelfth place, she fell dramatically back against the sofa, her head landing on Jamie’s shoulder. They hadn’t noticed, but somewhere in the craziness of Rainbow Road, they had both migrated toward the center of the sofa, their thighs brushing against one another as they raced. Jamie’s arm now came around Claire’s shoulders and gave an apologetic squeeze as she leaned against his solid torso.
“I did warn ye, Sassenach,” he said by way of apology. God, her hair smelled good, and she felt so soft leaning up against him. It was almost like she’d been made to fit there.
She let out a shaky laugh. “You sure did.” She’d never felt more comfortable, more safe in anyone’s arms before. How was this so easy? So fun? And how did he smell so good? Like laundry detergent and pine-scented soap. She could stay like this forever, surrounded by this sweet, caring man.
She sat up abruptly, suddenly realizing she had let her mind go exactly where she’d sworn it wouldn’t, and he snatched his arm away from her quick as lightning. “I need to get home,” she stated.
“Aye…of course ye do. ’Tis later than I thought.” Claire was already up, putting her shoes back on by the door. “Can I walk ye home? I’d feel better if-”
“No, I’ll be fine. I’ll text you when I get there,” she promised. Jamie had gotten up as well and stood by the door to see Claire out. “Thank you for the pizza. I really did have so much fun.”
“If I did anything to make ye uncomfortable, Claire, I’m sorrier than ye know,” said Jamie, looking dejected.
Claire paused, not sure how to tell him that it was all her. She was the one who had made everything awkward by having this uncontrollable crush on him. “Jamie, no. Of course you didn’t. You’ve been nothing but a wonderful friend to me. It’s just-” She couldn’t continue. Even though she knew she should break this off here and now before she truly got herself in trouble, she couldn’t make herself say the words that would break her heart.
“I’ve just got an early morning at work tomorrow,” she explained, lightening her tone. “I promise I’ll text you when I get home. Maybe we can get coffee after one of your classes next week?” Not only had she been unable to end her friendship with Jamie, now she was actively making plans with him? What the hell was wrong with her?
But her words had the desired effect as the concerned look on Jamie’s face was replaced by one of his beautiful smiles. “Aye, that sounds braw, Sassenach. Just let me know the day and time, and I’ll be there.” She smiled back at him and gave him a quick hug goodbye before leaving his flat.
It didn’t seem to matter what she did, Claire Randall was completely under Jamie Fraser’s spell - and happy to be there.