Jamie took a step back and eyed the tree.
“Would ye look at that?” he exclaimed, “‘tis crooked! A leannan, did ye no’ tell Da ‘twas fine afore we set the base?”
“Aye aye, cap’in” Jamie snorted as his daughter gave her current favorite reply. Bree’s palm attempted to make a salute but her finger got stuck in her barrett and Jamie reminded himself that she was three years old and painted the walls of the bathroom with toothpaste (among other horrors) if left to her own devices too long and therefore her interior decorator aesthetic left a bit to be desired. Jamie sighed and dove under the tree to straighten it as best he could. He was enjoying a rare midweek day off and decking the halls for Christmas.
“Mr. Fraser?” A tentative voice from just outside the parlor.
“Fiona, I thought we’d moved past ye ‘Mr. Frasering’ me?” Jamie rolled his eyes, but he knew Fiona wouldn’t be offended. He adored her and blessed the stars that Jenny had found an Inverness lass and sent her to them. It was his pleasure to tell her to take some extra time off when he could cover an afternoon for her. Fiona smiled at him, try as she might, she couldn’t get comfortable calling either of her bosses by just their first names.
“Dr. Claire texted to say she was just heading into an unscheduled surgery and likely to run late and ye should go ahead and get the boxes from the attic.”
For the first time Jamie noticed Fiona had taken extra pains with her hair and was wearing a little make up. “Och, Ernie’ll be coming by then?”
“Aye, we’re going ice skating,” she beamed. Fiona watched as Jamie’s expression became tender, eyes resting on Bree who was busy petting a napping Ging.
“The first time I saw Faith, she was gliding around Joe’s pond.” Jamie said. Just then a soft ring sounded out.
“It’s your ayeFiona!” Bree chortled excitedly. Fiona laughed, that one never got old.
It was Ernie letting her know he’d be in the drive in less than five. Fiona grabbed her scarf, startling a little bit upon realizing that Jamie was holding her coat open. She shrugged herself into it, smiling her thanks and turned back to him.
“Jules’ll be waking up soon, do ye want me to wait here while ye grab the boxes?”
“Nah, lass, I’ve got it. Have a grand time.” Jamie said confidently and thus began the Afternoon From Hell.
He’d started the day with a mental list of chores, some routine- the laundry, a good deep clean of the kitchen and mudroom, final swipe of the leaf-clogged gutters and a few special ones--like organizing the tree decorations and airing out the hunting gear in preparation for their upcoming trip. An ambitious list to be sure but not impossible and Claire would be pleased for his efforts.
The thing is, caring for young children is always hard, especially when you are outnumbered and they are mobile. Ian woke a half hour earlier than expected. Jamie was so distracted trying to convince Bree to get out of the washer so he could change over the laundry, he missed his son’s initial cries. Once he’d finally removed Bree from the washer, she’d hid under the counter where the detergent was secured by what was clearly a parent, and not a child. proof locking mechanism, Ian was in a right swivet.
Jamie hurried up the stairs, carrying Bree sideways like a mounted swordfish up the stairs, and she was still cackling when he deposited her in the rocking chair. Ian’s decibel level had risen exponentially with each step. Just as Jamie was turning to get to his son, Bree stood up on the seat of the rocker and began driving her momentum forward and back. Christ, the last thing they needed was a trip to the doctor and a big bruise for their holiday snaps.
“I love you, Bree, but yer bum must be on the seat, ye dinna want an ouchie.” He said, Ian’s cries were starting to crawl up his own nervous system and he felt the urgent need to see to him.
“Bum seat! Da!” Now she was jumping and he was about to physically remove her down to the floor when she suddenly stopped, eyeing him. “I love phone.” She told him, hands on hips.
“Ye wee extortionist!” Jamie had no time for a lecture on morals though and he fished his phone out of his pocket and held it up and then made a sit gesture with his hand. Bree plopped down on the chair and squeezed her fingers to her palms in a “gimme gimme” gesture.
At last Jamie was able to get Ian from his crib. Ian stopped crying mid-wail and Jamie immediately smelled the reason for the early rising. By the squishiness of the pants covering his chubby little thighs, Jamie had an inkling this was going to be a bad blowout. Jamie’s eagle eye assessed the diaper changing area: box of wet wipes, check, double sided vinyl covering, check, an entire stack of diapers already out of their packaging, check. Baby powder, cream and diaper genie all within his arm span. Ok. He was going in.
A further assessment of the situation had him briefly considering laying Julian on his tummy to provide more immediate access to the red--er brown-- zone in the hopes of avoiding the inevitable squirmy wormy of wriggling child on diaper changing cloth that happened whenever they lifted the boy’s feet up into the air but by the time he actually made it to the changing table, logistics were the least of his worries. What the hell had Claire been feeding the lad while he’d been away? It couldna have been that color going in, that’s for sure. Jamie gagged as he started to slide the pants down. He had a wet wipe at the ready, trying to clean Julian up even before the diaper removal. Jamie had to turn his head to the side for a breath of semi-clear air.
“Da!” Bree exclaimed, “Baby Jules is a stinky minky!”
“Oh, aye, a wee skunk is our Ian.” As if he knew they were being less than complimentary, Julian began to cry. “Dinna fash lad, we’ll set ye to rights soon.” Jamie attempted to sooth him. His legs started to windmill. “No….no my sweet bairn, dinna do that.” Jamie held his feet down to keep him as still as possible, but then found himself out of position. “Bree baby, can ye grab me the wipes?”
Bree rocked in the chair and lept off like it was a swing and climbed up the changing table. When she caught sight of Julian’s lower half coated in mustard yellow and greenish-brown, she started coughing. Jamie had less than a half a second to react but his reflexes, and hand-eye-- or, in this case, foot-eye coordination was still in prime shape; and while Denny-the-Dump-Truck had never been called upon to carry such a load, his quick action managed to spare the carpet. Bree, of course, was hysterical which only made Ian start screaming anew.
“Dinna weep, Brianna. Look, ye only had a little melon in yer tummy. It’s ok, yer fine.” Jamie had no choice but to take one hand off Julian and help get Bree down from the table, pausing to rub her back and kiss her head. “Why don’t ye run to the bathroom and brush yer teeth. Ye still have the bubble gum toothpaste, aye?” At this Bree brightened up a little bit. Jamie barely spared her a glance as she went into the hall.
Christ, what a god-awful mess. A technicolor rainbow of ick in all its glory. He was a veteran of war, he reminded himself. He’d worked countless search and rescue operations in less than hygienic surroundings. He’d recovered bodies after days in the hot sun. He grabbed several wipes and gently lifted Julian’s fat bottom up and released the diaper’s side tabs, just as he was half way done removing it, Ian’s face turned bright red. Jamie heard it before he saw it.
In his mind’s eye, he shouted, “Stand Down! It’s A Trap!” And like every pint-sized wee terrorist he’d ever dealt with this one had the art of the bait bomb down pat. For as bad as the first explosion was, wee Ian had saved the real amo for this moment, when his Da was completely helpless and at his mercy. Stunned, Jamie watched in horror as his body’s natural reflex action kicked into gear and his hand shot out to catch what was coming from Julian. What in God’s name was he going to do with a hand full of----from down the hall he heard Bree calling his name. Now he was really nauseous.
“What did ye say?” He called back, having missed most of it.
“Your phone went potty.” She shrieked.
“Brianna Ellen Fraser! Did ye drop it?”
Faith placed a mug of coffee in front of her Da, decaffeinated as she wasn’t entirely sure his body had made the adjustment with his recent travels. She patted his shoulder, and noted his hair was finally dry but he looked completely done in. She took a look at the ziplock bag of rice, shaking it around until her father’s phone came into view. Clouds of condensation still visible on the screen. She suspected it was a lost cause. Poor Da, he’d had one hell of a day.
She’d come home to find her brother and sister laughing gleefully and running naked down the hall, being chased by her towel clad father. Julian stopped dead when he saw Faith, who was his current favorite person. He had wispy blonde hair and brilliant green eyes and was sucking hard on his binky. Aside from the never ending debate over his nickname, her parents’ one other running dispute was over the pacifier. Jamie was firmly in the anti camp while her mom was more inclined to let Julian age out of the habit. Faith’s foot hovered over the top step, however, one sniff warned her she didn’t want to venture off the stairs entirely.
“Lass, can ye help yer poor auld Da and please get Ian and Bree dressed while I clean their room? I’ve clothes in the basket on the kitchen table. The diaper bag is there, too.” Faith had known a good deal when she saw one and quickly retreated to the warmth and more pleasantly smelling kitchen.
Dressed and clean, she’d gotten them a snack, and her Da joined them when he was done. Just now her brother was chasing Cheerios under the table with his accomplice Ging and Bree was playing with her blocks on the rug by the hearth.
“Thank ye, Faith for yer help and wi’ the boxes. We can start to decorate the tree now if ye like? I dinna ken when Claire’ll be home.”
“Sure, what would you like to listen to?”
“You pick.” He said ducking under his head under the table to extricate Ian.
It was a little touch and go in the beginning, Julian had no expectations and Bree no memories of her last Christmas beyond seeing Santa at the local toy store. But with Faith helping, they managed to get the lights strung. Jamie placed the Merry Wishmas basket aside and helped the kids hang their bulbs and candy canes and then brought out the tinsel and stepped back. As expected, within three minutes, sparkly threads were all over the room, some even managed to land on the tree.
Seeing the weans fully occupied, Jamie and Faith began unpacking the wishmas ornaments. Jamie’s fingers stilled on the one made from a corsage Faith had worn to their first Father-Daughter Ball. She’d been twelve and worn an ice blue tea length dress and as she came down the stairs, he thought his heart would stop. She’d been right on the cusp of leaving her childhood behind and carried the promise of the beautiful woman standing before him now.
“So, how are yer classes?” He ventured.
“Going well, I may even start if I can get my free throw percentage up.”
“Ye’ve worked hard for it.” Jamie paused. “Yer seeing a bit more of Lenny Abernathy, aye?”
“A bit.” She met his eye and smiled. “I think its just begun to sink in that he’ll be away at college next year. He’s just...always been there, you know?”
“And yer going to miss him.” Jamie acknowledged.
“It willna be forever, he’ll be back weekends and vacations.” Jamie told her.
“I know...but it won’t be the same. His whole world is going to change. He’ll meet all kinds of new people.” Faith said.
“Do ye love him?” Jamie asked.
“Of course I love him.” Faith laughed but then caught the implications of what her father was asking. “And he makes me laugh and lately... I just want to spend time with him.”
“Faith, I want to respect yer privacy, but I dinna want ye to think I’m no’ paying attention. You and he are no’ at an easy age to be. I’m no’ saying ye should, but I’m also no’ burying my head in the sand and pretending yer still my wee bairn. Lenny is a verra special lad. Ye ken we love him too, but your our daughter, and if this is something you think you are ready for, we should make an appointment with Dr. Hunter.”
“God Da, we haven’t--look there is no better birth control than having your parents present you with a brother and a sister when you are a teenager. If you don’t believe me, go and count the condoms, they are all there!”
“I’m no’ asking!” He lied but something was off about her response. She’d been too quick to bring up the box, too defensive. They might not have actually used any, but they’d clearly been thinking about it, perhaps come close. Christ he didn’t want to be thinking about this at all, never mind her, he wasn’t ready. “Listen, I’m…..you and Lenny….the two of you are long past the age where yer parents permission or denial makes a difference. ‘Tis between you two, your bodies, your hearts, your decisions. But ye should ken yer mam has it in her head to talk wi’ Joe.”
“And you didn’t talk her out of it? I thought we had a deal!” Faith’s hurt gaze met his. “New Hampshire is in two weeks! And Ian is coming to visit us with his friends. Its gonna be so embarassing! Ugh, I need to text Lenny and warn him.”
“Do you want me to call Dr. Hunter?” He repeated, there was no inflection in his voice, a simple question only.
She sighed. If her mother and Lenny’s father knew she’d already been to see the OBGYN, then at least they wouldn’t be subject to “the talk” at every dinner chat while on vacation. And while the box of condoms in her house did indeed remain untouched, they weren’t the only box she and Lenny had access to. She knew exactly how easy it was to forget about condoms in the heat of the moment. Her face grew red.
“Fine!” She said, giving in slightly less than graciously and, needing to get out from under her father’s gaze, signalled to Ging for a walk. As she was heading out the door her father called to her.
“Can I borrow yer phone?”
“Oh! That looks marvelous!” Claire took in the newly decorated tree, noting that all the lower branches were covered in decorations that became sparser as her gaze travelled to the top.
“I helped!” Bree announced dancing with excitement.
“I can see that. Did you have fun, Jules?” At the sound of his name, Julian tore his attention away from his mother’s cardigan button. His arm gestured to the tree, and Claire had to readjust his weight in her arms.
“Candy canes and tinsel, too.”
“Tzel.” Julian confirmed and his head flopped hard on Claire’s shoulder. He reached for the binky tethered to his shirt, he was punch-drunk tired.
“Know what?” Bree said, “I few up in a dumb fuck.”
Claire laughed softly. Jamie was teaching his evening rappelling and rigging class at the local indoor rock climbing gym and she hadn’t caught up with his day, though Faith let her know his phone was out of commission.
“Come, lovie, tell me all about it as we get you ready for sleep.” Claire reached a hand down, heart tugging a bit as Bree’s fingers slipped into hers, she was so sturdy and independent, long since past the time for carrying. Claire unconsciously pulled Jules closer against her hip, finding comfort in the rhythmic smack of his binky against her ear.
Where had the time flown? It seemed like just yesterday Jamie had given her his Wishmas gift of two baby beanies that he’d knitted himself, one of a soft pink yarn and the other blue. That was five years ago. It had taken a little time to conceive with Bree though it had been easier with Julian. The stairs weren’t quite wide enough for three across but they managed with Bree chattering about how much she wanted a phone for Christmas the whole way up.
Jamie found her asleep in the rocking chair when he got home. Bree barely fitting on Claire’s lap. He winced imagining how uncomfortable his wife would be when she stood up. As he carried Bree to her bed, she only stirred a little bit but settled immediately once he pulled her blanket over her. He ran a hand along the top rail of the crib as he tiptoed past. Julian was flat on his back, his lower half bow legged and his arms flung over his head. When he turned, Claire’s eyes were on him and she smiled when he helped her rise.
“The tree looks lovely,” she told him in a hushed tone.
“I saved most of the Wishmas ornaments for us to put on, but, to be honest, Sassenach it’s been a hell of a day.”
Claire reached her hand out and placed a finger on his lips making a shhh noise. “We’ll do it tomorrow, ok?” She started toward the door looking over her shoulder at him to follow.
He didn’t move though and instead pulled her to him. They stood there for long minutes, he inhaling the scent of her hair, she closed her eyes, rubbing her cheek against his soft tee-shirt. Taking comfort in one another. Being married.