“Ye were right,” he said, interrupting the flow of half-hysterical words. “Ye did fine,” he repeated, softly but firmly, holding me close. “Ye were a wonderful mother, I know it.”
I was crying again, quite soundlessly, shaking against him. He held me gently, stroking my back and murmuring. “Ye did well,” he kept saying. “Ye did right.” And after a little while, I stopped crying.
“Ye gave me a child, mo nighean donn,” he said softly, into the cloud of my hair. “We are together for always. She is safe; and we will live forever now, you and I.” He kissed me, very lightly, and laid his head upon the pillow next to me. “Brianna,” he whispered, in that odd Highland way that made her name his own. He sighed deeply, and in an instant, was asleep. In another, I fell asleep myself, my last sight his wide, sweet mouth, relaxed in sleep, half-smiling.
From years of answering the twin calls of motherhood and medicine, I had developed the ability to wake from even the soundest sleep at once and completely. I woke so now, immediately aware of the worn linen sheets around me, the dripping of the eaves outside, and the warm scent of Jamie’s body mingling with the cold, sweet air that breathed through the crack of the shutters above me.
Jamie himself was not in bed; without reaching out or opening my eyes, I knew that the space beside me was empty. He was close by, though. There was a sound of stealthy movement, and a faint scraping noise nearby. I turned my head on the pillow and opened my eyes.
The room was filled with a gray light that washed the color from everything, but left the pale lines of his body clear in the dimness. He stood out against the darkness of the room, solid as ivory, vivid as though he were etched upon the air. He was naked, his back turned to me as he stood in front of the chamber pot he had just pulled from its resting place beneath the washstand.
I admired the squared roundness of his bu**ocks, the small muscular hollow that dented each one, and their pale vulnerability. The groove of his backbone, springing in a deep, smooth curve from hips to shoulders. As he moved slightly, the light caught the faint silver shine of the scars on his back, and the breath caught in my throat.
He turned around then, face calm and faintly abstracted. He saw me watching him, and looked slightly startled.
I smiled but stayed silent, unable to think of anything to say. I kept looking at him, though, and he at me, the same smile upon his lips. Without speaking, he moved toward me and sat on the bed, the mattress shifting under his weight. He laid his hand open on the quilt, and I put my own into it without hesitation.
“Sleep well?” I asked idiotically.
A grin broadened across his face. “No,” he said. “Did you?”
“No.” I could feel the heat of him, even at this distance, in spite of the chilly room. “Aren’t you cold?”
We fell quiet again, but could not take our eyes away from each other. I looked him over carefully in the strengthening light, comparing memory to reality. A narrow blade of early sun knifed through the shutters’ crack, lighting a lock of hair like polished bronze, gilding the curve of his shoulder, the smooth flat slope of his belly. He seemed slightly larger than I had remembered, and one hell of a lot more immediate.
“You’re bigger than I remembered,” I ventured. He tilted his head, looking down at me in amusement.
“You’re a wee bit smaller, I think.”
His hand engulfed mine, fingers delicately circling the bones of my wrist. My mouth was dry; I swallowed and licked my lips.
“A long time ago, you asked me if I knew what it was between us,” I said.
His eyes rested on mine, so dark a blue as to be nearly black in a light like this.
“I remember,” he said softly. His fingers tightened briefly on mine. “What it is—when I touch you; when ye lie wi’ me.”
“I said I didn’t know.”
“I didna ken either.” The smile had faded a bit, but was still there, lurking in the corners of his mouth.
“I still don’t,” I said. “But—” and stopped to clear my throat.
“But it’s still there,” he finished for me, and the smile moved from his lips, lighting his eyes. “Aye?”
It was. I was still as aware of him as I might have been of a lighted stick of dy***ite in my immediate vicinity, but the feeling between us had changed. We had fallen asleep as one flesh, linked by the love of the child we had made, and had waked as two people—bound by something different.
“Yes. Is it—I mean, it’s not just because of Brianna, do you think?”
The pressure on my fingers increased.
“Do I want ye because you’re the mother of my child?” He raised one ruddy eyebrow in incredulity. “Well, no. Not that I’m no grateful,” he added hastily. “But—no.” He bent his head to look down at me intently, and the sun lit the narrow bridge of his nose and sparked in his lashes.
“No,” he said. “I think I could watch ye for hours, Sassenach, to see how you have changed, or how ye’re the same. Just to see a wee thing, like the curve of your chin”—he touched my jaw gently, letting his hand slide up to cup my head, thumb stroking my earlobe—“or your ears, and the bittie holes for your earbobs. Those are all the same, just as they were. Your hair—I called ye mo nighean donn, d’ye recall? My brown one.” His voice was little more than a whisper, his fingers threading my curls between them.
“I expect that’s changed a bit,” I said. I hadn’t gone gray, but there were paler streaks where my normal light brown had faded to a softer gold, and here and there, the glint of a single silver strand.
“Like beechwood in the rain,” he said, smiling and smoothing a lock with one forefinger, “and the drops coming down from the leaves across the bark.”
I reached out and stroked his thigh, touching the long scar that ran down it.
“I wish I could have been there to take care of you,” I said softly. “It was the most horrible thing I ever did—leaving you, knowing…that you meant to be killed.” I could hardly bear to speak the word.
“Well, I tried hard enough,” he said, with a wry grimace that made me laugh, in spite of my emotion. “It wasna my fault I didna succeed.” He glanced dispassionately at the long, thick scar that ran down his thigh. “Not the fault of the Sassenach wi’ the bayonet, either.”
I heaved myself up on one elbow, squinting at the scar. “A bayonet did that?”
“Aye, well. It festered, ye see,” he explained.
“I know; we found the journal of the Lord Melton who sent you home from the battlefield. He didn’t think you’d make it.” My hand tightened on his knee, as though to reassure myself that he was in fact here before me, alive.
He snorted. “Well, I damn nearly didn’t. I was all but dead when they pulled me out of the wagon at Lallybroch.” His face darkened with memory.
“God, sometimes I wake up in the night, dreaming of that wagon. It was two days’ journey, and I was fevered or chilled, or both together. I was covered wi’ hay, and the ends of it sticking in my eyes and my ears and through my shirt, and fleas hopping all through it and eating me alive, and my leg killing me at every jolt in the road. It was a verra bumpy road, too,” he added broodingly.
“It sounds horrible,” I said, feeling the word quite inadequate. He snorted briefly.
“Aye. I only stood it by imagining what I’d do to Melton if I ever met him again, to get back at him for not shooting me.”
I laughed again, and he glanced down at me, a wry smile on his lips.
“I’m not laughing because it’s funny,” I said, gulping a little. “I’m laughing because otherwise I’ll cry, and I don’t want to—not now, when it’s over.”
“Aye, I know.” He squeezed my hand.
I took a deep breath. “I—I didn’t look back. I didn’t think I could stand to find out—what happened.” I bit my lip; the admission seemed a betrayal. “It wasn’t that I tried—that I wanted—to forget,” I said, groping clumsily for words. “I couldn’t forget you; you shouldn’t think that. Not ever. But I—”
“Dinna fash yourself, Sassenach,” he interrupted. He patted my hand gently. “I ken what ye mean. I try not to look back myself, come to that.”
“But if I had,” I said, staring down at the smooth grain of the linen, “if I had—I might have found you sooner.”
The words hung in the air between us like an accusation, a reminder of the bitter years of loss and separation. Finally he sighed, deeply, and put a finger under my chin, lifting my face to his.
“And if ye had?” he said. “Would ye have left the lassie there without her mother? Or come to me in the time after Culloden, when I couldna care for ye, but only watch ye suffer wi’ the rest, and feel the guilt of bringing ye to such a fate? Maybe see ye die of the hunger and sickness, and know I’d killed ye?” He raised one eyebrow in question, then shook his head.
“No. I told ye to go, and I told ye to forget. Shall I blame ye for doing as I said, Sassenach? No.”
“But we might have had more time!” I said. “We might have—” He stopped me by the simple expedient of bending and putting his mouth on mine. It was warm and very soft, and the stubble of his face was faintly scratchy on my skin.
After a moment he released me. The light was growing, putting color in his face. His skin glowed bronze, sparked with the copper of his beard. He took a deep breath.
“Aye, we might. But to think of that—we cannot.” His eyes met mine steadily, searching. “I canna look back, Sassenach, and live,” he said simply. “If we have no more than last night, and this moment, it is enough.”
“Not for me, it isn’t!” I said, and he laughed.
“Greedy wee thing, are ye no?”
“Yes,” I said. The tension broken, I returned my attention to the scar on his leg, to keep away for the moment from the painful contemplation of lost time and opportunity.
“You were telling me how you got that.”
“So I was.” He rocked back a little, squinting down at the thin white line down the top of his thigh.
“Well, it was Jenny—my sister, ye ken?” I did indeed remember Jenny; half her brother’s size, and dark as he was blazing fair, but a match and more for him in stubbornness.
“She said she wasna going to let me die,” he said, with a rueful smile. “And she didn’t. My opinion didna seem to have anything to do wi’ the matter, so she didna bother to ask me.”
“That sounds like Jenny.” I felt a small glow of comfort at the thought of my sister-in-law. Jamie hadn’t been alone as I feared, then; Jenny Murray would have fought the Devil himself to save her brother—and evidently had.
“She dosed me for the fever, and put poultices on my leg to draw the poison, but nothing worked, and it only got worse. It swelled and stank, and then began to go black and rotten, so they thought they must take the leg off, if I was to live.”