I stared at him without speaking for a moment.
As though he felt the need of air, or perhaps only for something to do, he fumbled with the latch of the shutters and thrust them halfway open, flooding the room with the sound of rushing water, and the cold, fresh smell of rain.
“Are you trying to tell me you don’t want me to stay?” I said, finally. “Because if so … I mean, I know you’ll have a life now … maybe you have … other ties …” With unnaturally acute senses, I could hear the small sounds of activity throughout the house below, even above the rush of the storm, and the pounding of my own heart. My palms were damp, and I wiped them surreptitiously against my skirt.
He turned from the window to stare at me.
“Christ!” he said. “Not want ye?” His face was pale now, and his eyes unnaturally bright.
“I have burned for you for twenty years, Sassenach,” he said softly. “Do ye not know that? Jesus!” The breeze stirred the loose wisps of hair around his face, and he brushed them back impatiently.
“But I’m no the man ye knew, twenty years past, am I?” He turned away, with a gesture of frustration. “We know each other now less than we did when we wed.”
“Do you want me to go?” The blood was pounding thickly in my ears. “No!” He swung quickly toward me, and gripped my shoulder tightly, making me pull back involuntarily.
“No,” he said, more quietly. “I dinna want ye to go. I told ye so, and I meant it. But … I must know.” He bent his head toward me, his face alive with troubled question.
“Do ye want me?” he whispered. “Sassenach, will ye take me—and risk the man that I am, for the sake of the man ye knew?”
I felt a great wave of relief, mingled with fear. It ran from his hand on my shoulder to the tips of my toes, weakening my joints.
“It’s a lot too late to ask that,” I said, and reached to touch his cheek, where the rough beard was starting to show. It was soft under my fingers, like stiff plush. “Because I’ve already risked everything I had. But whoever you are now, Jamie Fraser—yes. Yes, I do want you.”
The light of the candle flame glowed blue in his eyes, as he held out his hands to me, and I stepped wordless into his embrace. I rested my face against his chest, marveling at the feel of him in my arms; so big, so solid and warm. Real, after the years of longing for a ghost I could not touch.
Disentangling himself after a moment, he looked down at me, and touched my cheek, very gently. He smiled slightly.
“You’ve the devil’s own courage, aye? But then, ye always did.”
I tried to smile at him, but my lips trembled.
“What about you? How do you know what I’m like? You don’t know what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years, either. I might be a horrible person, for all you know!”
The smile on his lips moved into his eyes, lighting them with humor. “I suppose ye might, at that. But, d’ye know, Sassenach—I dinna think I care?”
I stood looking at him for another minute, then heaved a deep sigh that popped a few more stitches in my gown.
“Neither do I.”
It seemed absurd to be shy with him, but shy I was. The adventures of the evening, and his words to me, had opened up the chasm of reality—those twenty unshared years that gaped between us, and the unknown future that lay beyond. Now we had come to the place where we would begin to know each other again, and discover whether we were in fact the same two who had once existed as one flesh—and whether we might be one again.