Jamie observed Claire from the window. She was steadily walking towards her garden. On her left hip she balanced a basket with her tools. Normally she would slightly sway her hips but today she seemed off-balance. Her shoulders were slightly hunched and her steps were taken with great care and almost hesitantly. Despite the casualness of the situation, Jamie could feel the tension beneath it.
Claire struggled with her emotions. Her first instinct was to deny what was happening and just go about 'business as usual'. She didn't want to admit that Frank still held her captivated. In a way, she should have expected that. After all was said and done, he had been her husband for over 20 years. That didn't go by without leaving a trace.
Claire felt as if she was betraying Jamie in her mind – the same way she had felt in the 18 years of marriage with Frank following her voyage through the stones. It was irrational, but there it was.
She hadn't loved Frank after her return. In truth, she had hated him for being the honourable gentleman and staying with her, raising Jamie's child as his own – making Claire love him at times, against her will. In the moments following those times she had hated him most. And then there had been those times when he had expected nothing of her and had looked at her with an expression that said "I know you still love him and I could never hold a candle to him. I understand and accept it". She had felt so wretched then, knowing he deserved to be loved like everybody else. She simply hadn't been able to give him that love – not anymore. And she had hated him for making her feel guilty over loving Jamie.
The only times she had felt fond of Frank had been when seeing him take loving care of Brianna. But even that had been paired with sadness for Jamie would never see his daughter – how beautiful she was, inside and out.
She didn't want to begrudge him that, but she had done it – because of Jamie.
Jamie saw the shadows flitting over his wife's face, like clouds across the sky before the storm. He knew something was bothering her, something that had nothing to do with the ridge, something he knew nothing about. James Fraser flattered himself to be a man of control. But even the strongest control could break at one point. And Jamie was close to that point ...
He had thought Claire trusted him explicitly. After they had run into Lord John Grey in Jamaica, he had braved the possibility of Claire leaving and had told her about Geneva and the one night he had spent with her. Even before that he had talked about his ill-advised marriage with Loaghaire. Claire had been understanding beyond his belief, and had stayed with him for which he was constantly thanking God in his prayers. Of course she had been upset and fiery but she had calmed down and seemingly forgiven him. He had thought it had been his question, "Have you lived a nun for 20 years?", that set her thinking. Jamie sure had seen the thoughtfulness and memories enter her eyes, and it had torn his heart apart to think of his Claire in somebody else's arms. His heart had stopped short while his mind had demanded answers; as much details as he could get, but he remembered the old adage "To guess is not knowing". There was a big difference, and Jamie was very well aware of it.
As he saw Claire come down the mountain towards the Big House, his gut churned. No matter what was bothering her, it was eating her up. He could clearly see the tear stains on her cheeks and the haunted look in her eyes. His tedious resolution to stay quiet and let Claire come to him when she was ready to talk dissolved on the spot. He had never been able to stand seeing her in pain.
Carefully he stepped out into Claire's path, waiting for her to reach him. She didn't look up at first, seeming miles away from him. When she did look up at last, she took a step back in surprise and put a hand over her fluttering heart.
"May I escort the fair lady home?" Jamie offered in his best court manners.
Claire thankfully was playing along to his game. "Why thank you, kind sir," she murmured as graciously as possible under the circumstances. Her heart was still beating a mile a minute and her breath came in shallow gasps. For a moment it had seemed to her that she was seeing a ghost through the fog of her memories. That feeling had been with her for 20 years and she had instantly recognized it. She simply had to touch him, reassure herself that he was alive and beside her. With a sound like a whimper escaping her lips, she suddenly dropped her basket and propelled herself into Jamie's arms.
He gasped surprised but instinctively put his arms around her slender waist, catching her against his chest, cradling her to him.
Claire sobbed into his plaid, heaving with the force of them. Her hands clenched and unclenched in the folds of his plaid and coat beneath, trying to grasp him and draw him even closer. Her entire body was pressed snug against his. She wanted so desperately for the feeling to disappear. Sometimes at night she would wake up and turn around, staring at Jamie and realizing anew that their reunion hadn't just been a dream.
Jamie felt his Sassenach quiver against him, could almost feel her heartache, and wanted to comfort her. He immediately knew that this time, though, would – could not be with gentle caresses. Sometimes Claire would wake up at night and when he opened his eyes in answer to her sudden wakefulness or her gentle stroke of his cheek, he would catch her staring at him. As soon as he was awake Claire would soundlessly lean over and kiss him passionately, drawing him to her. Afterwards she would sleep peacefully in his arms . . . but she would leave him worried and rattled. Jamie decided that today was when he would finally ask her, would finally confront her with her fears so she could find peace.
"Sassenach, please stop. What is it, mo duinne?" he probed gently.
Claire immediately drew back from him, away from his embrace. Her eyes were distant but filled with tears of inner pain. Jamie could have slapped himself for the stupid question. It was winter, more precisely it was the 5th December, and Brianna had told him that Frank had died on this date. Suddenly Claire's mood was understandable, was to be expected. And yet a feeling akin to smug satisfaction crept in on him. He was alive and Claire had chosen him . . . or had it only been Frank's death that had given her the liberty to search for him. His smugness disappeared as quickly as it had come – and was replaced by uncertainty and anger.
"It's him, isn't it?" he asked sharper than intended, his voice holding a cynical note.
Claire whirled back around, her mouth an angry line and her eyes flashing. "Yes" she hissed in answer, almost daring him to show more jealousy.
Jamie didn't take the bait – but it was a close call. His own eyes flashed dangerously and his stiff finger began drumming against his leg in agitation. He didn't want to be that sort of husband – a man who yelled at his wife for following his orders after he discovered the side-effects of his order – but for the first time his primal, male instinct overruled his logic.
"Did you love him then?" he demanded irrationally.
Claire was momentarily shocked into speechlessness, but then her own anger broke free. "What did you think would happen? That I pine away over you? I wasn't given a choice! Frank decided to stay with me even though I sent him away. Besides I thought you wanted that for me . . . that I lived happily ever after. But do you really think that was what happened? That I threw myself into his arms only hours after having to leave you?"
"No . . ."
"Because I bloody didn't! I hated you for making me leave you! And I hated Frank for staying with me! All I wanted was to curl up in some dark corner and bury my pain deep inside, but I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it because I had your child, and every second she reminded me of you. To look at her was both joy and incredible pain."
With that Claire whirled back around and stomped towards the house . . . or attempted to, but Jamie's hand shot forward and clasped around her forearm.
"Now wait here, Claire," he ordered. "You hide behind my decision to send you away. Yes, I did, but you went and you went back to Frank. I expected that, but I also expected never to see you again. I intended to die and I will not beg your forgiveness that I didn't . . . and then lived my life as you did. You know I didn't love Loaghaire. Will you not answer my question towards Frank?"
For a while it was quiet around them – deathly quiet. Claire was still facing away from Jamie and her shoulders were stiff.
"Sassenach," Jamie coaxed, "we promised each other honesty."
Claire closed her eyes, suppressing her tears. Her heart cried out to Jamie – it was so wonderful to hear his voice, the endearment he had given her. How could her desperate need for him have turned so quickly into anger? She had promised him honesty . . . and had given him so little of it. Automatically she had assumed that, like Frank, Jamie didn't want to know, that it would hurt him, like his revelations about Geneva and Loaghaire had hurt her.
"No," she whispered finally, "no, I didn't love him . . . not after my return." Her voice was thin and wavery, almost inaudible to Jamie. Again her heart broke, this time in renewed grief for Frank. "I was fond of him . . . he was my friend." Tears chocked her and she couldn't go on. She hadn't turned around to Jamie, but still faced towards the Big House and was now tugging on her arm to break his hold on her. She simply couldn't face him, not after this confession. Jamie, though, wouldn't let go of her.
"And you feel guilty for not loving him?" he asked softly.
Claire went suddenly very stiff, her back ramrod-straight. Slowly, as if approaching a bomb, she turned to face Jamie. Her features showed disbelief.
"How do you know?"
"It was the same for me. I couldn't love Loaghaire . . . I couldn't even be with her without seeing you instead. Maybe she felt it, and maybe she even knew you were between us. It may be the reason why there was always that distance between us. Sassenach, I couldn't forget you and I am sure you couldn't either. But part of me hoped you had a better marriage than I had. I understand that what I did . . . made you do, destroyed your life. Please believe me when I say I'm sorry."
Jamie was truly remorseful and Claire's tears welled up again. Her heart ached for him. She had always wanted to spare him pain, to fling herself onto those splinters of his soul with sharp edges so they wouldn't rip him apart. For the first time, though, she felt as if she was the one whose soul was ripped to shreds. She was torn between her love for Jamie and the obligation to Frank – as she had been since she had stepped through the stones the first time.
"Claire," Jamie's voice was as soft as a lover's caress, "ye can't feel guilty for how ye're feeling . . . take it from me."
Then he walked slowly towards the house, sensing that he really should give her the solitude she had graved.
Claire's mind was a jumble. She was trembling from head to toe from the emotional turmoil. Jamie was right – of course, he was. She couldn't help feeling the way she did and so she shouldn't feel guilty over it. 'But since when did the heart listen to reason?' she asked herself ironically. She was a woman of science but she was also emotional, with feelings and desires which couldn't be denied.
But Frank was dead . . . buried. Claire was here and now with Jamie. They had lost too much time already, she shouldn't waste the time she had left with him. It was time for closure. Jamie was right about that too.
Slowly she twisted her gold wedding band around her finger, considering her decision. Brianna had risked her life, health, and sanity for Claire's golden wedding ring. Jamie, furious at Stephen Bonnet, had taken it in his care. At the Gathering he had returned it to her. Now she twisted it off her finger and held the gleaming metal up to her face, catching the light of the weak winter sun, blinding her to tears.
Blinking rapidly, Claire cradled the ring in her hand and thought back to happy times with Frank. They were rare since their separation during and after the war and then the estrangement of their souls after her return. Finally a memory came back.
Frank carried Brianna on his shoulders through a fair. The little girl was beaming broadly at everything, holding fast to her cotton candy with one sticky hand and the other tangled in her daddy's hair. Frank playfully shrugged his shoulders, causing Brianna to shriek in joyful abandon, and drew her attention to ferris wheel.
"Claire, you want to go too and have a ride?" he asked, beaming as broadly at her as her daughter.
"Sure," she replied with a carefree shrug and lengthened her stride to catch up to them.
As they waited in the line-up to the ride, Frank suddenly bent down and kissed her sweetly on the lips. His lips were warm against his and he drew out the kiss until faint hooting had broken them apart.
With the first smile in days curling her lips, Claire turned back around and headed to her garden. She knew the outline of it by heart and unerringly found the small rose bush Jamie had brought her from River Run two years ago. They were light pink in colour like the roses Frank had bought her every year for their anniversary. He had said they reminded him of the faint pink hue in her cheeks when she blushed at his compliments.
Carefully she knelt down and began to dig a small hole at the base of the bush. Then she kissed her wedding ring and gently placed it into the hole. After burying it she remained a moment longer and said a prayer.
"I guess I did love you after all, but I have decided not to live in the past anymore. My life is short enough as it is, I don't want to waste it with guilt and regrets. I hope you can forgive me for loving Jamie but I can't help it, or change it. Rest in peace, Frank, you will always be remembered."
With a final pat of the little grave of her past, Claire rose to her feet and walked back to the house – without turning back.