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Prodigal Son

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Pics-Art-12-31-06-27-28

December 15, 1778

Jamie pulled the wagon in front of the cabin and sighed with relief as Claire came bounding out the doorway with wee Allie in her arms. He handed the reins to William and jumped down from the wagon seat.

When Claire reached him, he wrapped his arms around both of his lasses, giving the wee one a kiss on the head before pressing his lips to Claire's. He'd been gone almost two weeks, the longest he'd been parted from her since she came back to him , and the longest he'd been away from his bairn . "I missed ye, mo chridhe," he whispered into her ear.

"I missed you, too. Don't make a habit of leaving me like that again," she teased.

William cleared his throat, and Jamie turned around. "Alright," he said, "help me unload my purchases and then ye can be off tae see yer own wife."

William climbed down and the two men started unloading all the items they'd purchased in Wilmington, likely the last trip they'd be taking before winter set in. Jamie had warned that the winters could be harsh in the backcountry and they needed to have enough dry goods to get them through several months.

Claire had also requested a few strange items and was eagerly looking into the back of the wagon to see if Jamie had acquired them. "Aye, dinna fash. They're in here, Sassenach." He rustled through the items and pulled out a large bundle of red fabric. "It came at a great price, so I hope this surprise is worth it."

"Oh it will be." She gave him a coy smile and reached into the wagon with her free arm and pulled out a length of white fur , another part of her request. She held it up to Allie, who reached her hands out and made an "Ooooh" sound at the feel of the soft fur.

Jamie smiled and patted her head.  "Such a smart lassie."

They finished unpacking and waved goodbye to William.  "Tell Aileen I'll be by early tomorrow," Claire called after him. "We've got lots of work to do!"

She leaned back into Jamie with a sigh, and he wrapped his arms around her.  "Let's go inside, Sassenach," he whispered in her ear. "Once that wean goes down for a nap, I’ll show ye how much I missed ye."  

Claire giggled as he gently thrust forward into her back side and she felt the evidence of his longing.  As the wagon disappeared over a small hill, they turned and went into their  cabin to reacquaint themselves with each other.

***

William arrived back at his own cabin a few minutes later. The first one out the door was Doaty , barking at him, no doubt as punishment for leaving him for two weeks. They'd had to tie the beast to a tree so that William could leave with his father two weeks ago.

William climbed down from the wagon and gave the dog a reluctant pat on the head, almost getting his hand bit off for his efforts. "I'll turn you into sausage," he grumbled.

Just then, Tadgh and Henri-Christian came bounding out the door. William squatted down and put out his arms so that both boys could clamber into his embrace. He'd missed them both terribly, a new sensation for him since he'd become a father and uncle, and he held them both close, kissing the tops of their heads as he asked them if they'd been good boys while he was gone.

Then, as if he could feel her very presence, he looked up and saw his wife, rounder than he'd left her and even more radiant. He stood and moved to her, drawn like a magnet. When she smiled at him like that, with her green eyes dancing in the late morning sun, there was nobody else in the world but the two of them.

"I missed ye," she said as he wrapped his arms around her. She squealed when he lifted her off the ground. "Put me down ye brute," she teased, laughing as he gently brought her feet back to the ground.

"You look so lovely," he whispered, burying his head in her cooper curls . "I've missed you so much I could hardly bear it." He bent his mouth down and kissed her greedily.

"Ewwww!!!" squealed both the young boys who William had forgotten were his audience. He chuckled into Aileen’s mouth as they broke apart.

Aileen peeked her head around William's body. "Boys, why dinna ye go see yer Auntie Bree? I ken for a fact she made a fresh batch of biscuits this morning. Just go in quietly and dinna knock, in case the twins are napping." She looked down and saw that Doaty had settled himself down on William's shoe. "Take this dog wi' ye."

Tadgh scurried over and picked the tiny dog off William's shoe, and the two boys scampered off.

William lowered his hands to Aileen’s bottom and squeezed heartily. "Your bottom has gotten rounder, too," he growled. "Let us get this wagon unpacked so that I can see it properly."

They hurried to unpack all of the goods in the wagon and then William sent Aileen into the house while he took care of the horses. He would have to bring them back to the stable at his father’s house later, but the thought of Aileen lying naked in their bed waiting for him was enough for him to delay that task. He finished tying them up and was just about to join Aileen when Doaty came bounding down the path from the direction of Brianna’s cabin. The voices of Tadgh and Henri-Christian followed closely behind.

Fending off the dog, who was standing on his hindquarters, pawing at Willam’s leg, he waited until the boys came in sight before yelling, “Oi! What are you two doing? I thought I told you to go visit your Aunt?”

“We did, Da!” Tadgh said, skipping toward William.

“And?”

“She was in bed,” Henri-Christian told him.

“In bed?” William asked, trying to hide the alarm in his voice. “Was she sick?”

“I think so,” Tadgh chimed in. “She was moaning something awful, like she had an ache in her wame, but Lizzie was taking care of her.” 

“Well did you ask Lizzie what was wrong?” William asked, exasperated. Getting information out of small children could be an arduous task.

“No, we couldn’t,” Henri-Christian said, as if that settled the matter.

William breathed deeply and tried a new tact. He crouched down and gently placed one hand on Tadgh’s shoulder. “What exactly did you see? Tell me from the beginning.”

Tadgh sighed with exasperation but went on quickly when he saw the stern look on William’s face. “We walked into the cabin quietly, just as Ma said, and Auntie Bree was lying on the bed moaning and thrashing about like this.” He demonstrated, making a low moan and moving his head from side to side. “Lizzie was on the bed with her, with her head down near Auntie’s wame.  I couldna see what she was doing, but if Auntie’s belly was aching, I guess she was doing something to help it.” He shrugged. “Can we go play now?”

William stood slowly, trying to wrap his head around the picture Tadgh had painted for him. Brianna? And Lizzie?....No, surely the boys were mistaken. “Yes,” he said shakily, “You two go off and play now. Why don’t you go see if Grandpa John is around? Or Murtagh.”

The boys took off without another word, leaving William standing at the edge of the path. Doaty was back on his leg again, and he absentmindedly reached down and gave the dog some scratches behind his ears. Then, he turned and walked slowly back to the cabin.

***

Aileen made a Scottish noise low in the back of her throat. She hadn’t been very pleased when William had called to her to get dressed and come down from the loft, but she could see that William was vexed about what the boys had reported to him. She put the tea kettle on and stood behind him, rubbing his shoulders. “Dinna fash about it, mo chridhe. ‘Tis none of our affair.”

“None of our affair?” He whipped his head around and looked at her incredulously. “My sister is...doing that....with her ladies maid, and you tell me not to fash about it?”

Aileen sighed and kissed him on the forehead. “Think about it, William. Why should it matter to us what your sister does in her own home. Or who she chooses to love ?”

William pulled away from her and stood, pacing the room. “Love? That is not...cannot be love. And you defending them? Christ, Aileen, you’re a Papist!"

Aileen stood with her hand on her hips until William came near her again. She grabbed him by the front of the shirt and pulled him close. “Ye listen tae me, William Fraser. I kent yer sister when we were first wed. And I’ve spent much more time wi’ her of late than ye have. I’ve seen the way she is wi’ Lizzie; Brianna has a light in her eyes now that wasna there before. You are an Earl who married a wet nurse, so dinna act like ye have any leg tae stand on when it comes tae judging who anyone else loves . If yer sister is happy, leave it be."

William put his hands up in surrender and Aileen loosened her grip on his shirt. He sighed and sat down again, putting his head in his hands. Aileen walked over to him and wrapped her arms around him. Leaning back into her, he said. "I suppose you're right. You usually are." She laughed and kissed the top of his head. "I don't understand it, Aileen, but if she's happy, I won't stand in her way."

"Good," Aileen replied. She slid her hands down his chest and kissed his neck. "Now will ye please come tae bed wi' me? I've missed ye."

***

The next morning, Claire arrived at Aileen and William’s cabin bright and early with the fabric and furs Jamie had procured for her in Wilmington. “Granny! Granny!” cried Tadgh and Henri-Christian as they ran to greet her at the door.

“Hello,” Claire said, handing them the bundles, “Go set those on the table for Granny.” The boys did as told and Claire followed them into the kitchen.

Aileen and William were sitting at the table drinking acorn coffee. Both looked at the fabric bundles curiously. “Good morning, Mother Claire,” William said, “What’s all this for?”

Claire smiled coyly. “It’s a surprise that Aileen is helping me with, so you and the boys have to make yourselves scarce while I’m here.”

William glanced at Aileen who raised an eyebrow at him. “Alright, I can see when I’m not wanted,” he said, pushing his chair back. He stood and went around the table to kiss Aileen goodbye.

“You can take the boys to Brianna’s,” Claire said. “Jamie is there already.”

“Is Auntie feeling better?” Tadgh asked. 

Claire’s brow furrowed in confusion, “I didn’t know she was --”

“Och,” Aileen interjected. “Twas nothing more than a wee misunderstanding. Auntie Bree is fine boys; go visit with her and yer Grandda.”

“I’m going to see Papa; I’ll drop the boys off at Brianna’s on the way.” William leaned down and kissed Aileen again. “Come on boys, let’s go.”

***

“So ye’re telling me, that ye tell the children that a fat man in a red suit climbs down the chimney and leaves presents fer them?” Aileen was laughing so hard, she had to put the sewing down and wipe away tears from her eyes.

“Those are the basics of it,” Claire replied, laughing along with Aileen.

“And this is how ye celebrate it where ye’re from?” Aileen asked, picking up the sewing again.

“Well, in Boston anyway,” Claire replied quickly.

“Ye are a strange woman, Claire.” Aileen smiled, but the look in her eyes spoke more of curiosity than amusement. “And Boston must be a strange place.”

Claire’s face flushed red. “Well, yes,” she replied. “I suppose it is.”

“Weel, it’s no’ like Scotland doesna have its stories of selkies and kelpies and monsters in the Lochs. I suppose a magical man in a red suit isna so different. I guess the real question is, do ye think Mr. Fraser will really wear this thing?”

“You know how he is,” Claire laughed, “He’ll do anything if he knows I really want him to. ”

“Aye, William’s the same way.” Then, remembering the conversation they’d had the day before, Aileen took a deep breath and asked, “Have ye talked to Brianna lately?”

“I talk to her every day. Why?” Claire asked, her face etched with concern, “Does this have anything to do with Tadgh asking if she was sick?”

“I dinna want tae interfere.” Aileen shook her head. “Ferget I said anything.”

Claire’s face turned white and she put her sewing down. “Please do not tell me she’s pregnant.”

Aileen stifled a laugh. “No. It’s no’ that. Listen, Claire, I dinna want tae spread gossip, but I think it’s best ye heard this from me before other people start talking about it.”

***

After dropping the boys off at Brianna’s house, William headed to his Papa’s house. He needed to talk to someone about what he had learned about his sister, and it certainly wasn’t something he was ready to talk to Jamie about. John was unflappable and discreet , and that is exactly what he needed.

He knocked on John’s door; though they hadn’t made much progress on the Big House or the house Jamie had planned for him and Aileen, they had managed to get up a few new cabins so that John could have his own place. William and his family tried to visit with him often, as he feared his Papa would be lonely after spending the better part of a year with the entire Fraser clan under his roof.

“Come in!” he heard John call from inside the cabin.

William opened the door and stepped into the cozy cabin. It was most likely the tiniest house John had ever lived in, absent any of the finery that he was used to, but William felt quite sure that his Papa was the most comfortable and happiest he’d ever seen him. The worry lines that had etched his face as long as William could remember were gone, replaced by a sereneness that could only be brought about by being surrounded by his family, all safe and sound.

“What brings you here?” John said, looking up from the book he’d been reading by the hearth. “Do you want something hot to drink? Tea or acorn coffee?”

“No thank you, Papa. I’ve already had some with Aileen this morning.” William sat down in the chair opposite John’s.

“It’s good to see you again, son,” John said with a warm smile. “I missed you while you were gone. I saw Jamie yesterday and he said you had a good trip into Wilmington."

William nodded. "Yes. We got all that we needed. I'm glad to be home now; I missed everybody and I don't like to be away from Aileen for long, especially now."

John nodded and carefully studied William's face. "What's troubling you?" he asked. "Is everything alright with Aileen and the baby? She didn't indicate that there were any issues when she visited."

William shook his head. "No, no. Aileen is healthy and the baby too. I just -- I need to talk about something, and I'm unsure where to start. It's a... delicate subject."

John stood and walked over to the cupboard. “Delicate subjects require a bit of brandy, don’t you think?” William nodded and John poured two glasses. He handed one to William and sat back down. “Why don't you start at the beginning?"

William told John about what the boys had seen at Brianna’s house the day before and the conversation he'd had with Aileen after. "As you can see, this situation requires the utmost discretion, which is why I came to you, Papa."

"Well," John said, leaning back in his chair. He stared into the fire, sipping at his drink before turning to William. “I must be honest with you, William. I’ve known about this already. ” William looked at him curiously and John went on. “Brianna and I have become quite close over the last year. She often visits me for a game of chess and a dram; we share a lot with each other.”

“I had no idea,” William said slowly.

“Yes, well, you’ve been awfully busy. And sometimes it’s easier to share things with a friend, rather than with family,” John replied.

“What do you think of this then?” William asked. “I’m trying to think about it like Aileen does, but it’s not easy. I can’t imagine why a woman would want to lie with another woman. Does she not wish to marry again? Have more children?”

John looked at him thoughtfully. “I do think these are things you should talk to your sister about, but I will say that at this time, Brianna has no desire to marry again or have any more children. She feels quite happy, happier than she has in quite some time.”

William shook his head. “Why would anybody choose…”

“You can’t choose who you love, William. I shouldn’t think that anybody would choose such an... unconventional life if they had any say in the matter.” He stared into the fire. “It can be quite lonely,” his voice broke, “and even dangerous, were the wrong people to find out.” 

William stared at his Papa, his mind reeling. There was something in the tone of his voice...an understanding that William didn’t think he would ever have were he to live a hundred years. Memories of his childhood, especially after Mother Isobel died, began to click together in his head like the pieces of a puzzle. John had never remarried despite there being plenty of women available to him; in fact, he’d never seen his Papa be anything but polite to the women who showed an interest. “You, Papa?” he asked finally.

John took a sip of his drink. He continued staring into the fire, but he nodded slowly. William gulped down the rest of his drink and then stood, grabbing the decanter off the counter and pouring another. He went over to John and refilled his glass too. Sitting back down, he took another sip and considered all of the new information he’d learned in the last day.  His life had been an exercise in learning about the world around him one layer at a time, the slow peeling of an onion. Every time he’d thought he had a handle on things, he discovered another layer. It was maddening at times, but he was thankful for it, because the person he was eighteen months ago would never have been able to handle this new information.  

William leaned over and placed his hand over John’s. “I love you, Papa. My only wish is for you to be happy. And my sister.”

John’s face relaxed and a single tear fell down his cheek. “I love you, too, William. Thank you.”

***

That evening, after Germain and Allie went to bed, Claire and Jamie sat down in front of the fire with a dram of whisky. Hilde had gone off to visit with Lizzie and Brianna, as she often did in the evenings.  

She stared into the fire, her own visit with Brianna earlier that day playing over and over in her head.

“I want you to be honest with me, Brianna. Are you and Lizzie...romantically involved?”

Brianna’s face had gone pale and Claire grabbed her by the elbow, helping her sit down. “How did you -”

“Tadgh and Henri-Christian saw you when they came to visit yesterday. You really ought to lock your door, you know.” Claire settled down in a chair at the table, next to Brianna. She reached over and grabbed her hand. “You know I only want you to be happy, right?”

Brianna nodded slowly. “I didn’t mean to keep it from you, Mama. I didn’t even mean for it to happen. Sometimes I feel like it’s happening to me, and I have no control.”

“But are you happy, Bree?”

Brianna lifted her chin and straightened her shoulders. “Yes I am.” Despite her desire to remain stoic, her face broke out into a wide smile. “I’m so happy, mama. And very much in love." 

Claire smiled back. "I'm happy for you, though a bit sad as well. Things won't be easy for you. Your father has already been working on trying to find a proper husband for you."

Brianna rolled her eyes. "I know. He made a few suggestions just this morning. I wish he would stop, but I'm afraid to tell him."

"Afraid? Whatever for?"

Bree gave her an incredulous look. "He's not exactly an enlightened man."

Claire sniffed at that. "I'm surprised you still think that after all the time you've spent with him. He's accepted nearly every modern idea we've thrown at him, he adopted a Black baby without a second thought, and his best friend is a gay man."

"Da knows?!?!"

Claire whooped with laughter at that. "Of course he does. Do you think him an imbecile? I have to say I'm a little disappointed with the way you're underestimating him. Do you think I would have fallen in love with, and returned to, a man whose mind was that small?"

"You fell in love with Daddy, and you were married to him for twenty years, " Bree pointed out.

"Alright, you've got me there," Claire conceded, both women giggling. Claire relaxed a bit then. "Trust me. Your father will accept this. He may be a bit prickly about it, while he wraps his mind around it, that's just his way. But he will always, always find a way to accept those he loves."

Still nervous, Bree had asked Claire to talk to Jamie first.

"Sassenach?" Jamie's voice invaded her thoughts.

"I'm sorry," she said, "What were you saying?"

"I was saying that Willie Corbett might be a nice match for Brianna. He's a good, honest man and his crops have been verra successful."

Claire sighed; it was now or never. "Jamie, we need to talk about Brianna. You need to stop trying to find a husband for her. She's…. already found someone.”

Jamie sat forward in his chair, the fire reflecting in his eyes. "Who? Who would court my daughter wi'out asking my permission first? It better not be that beard splitter MacGavin . That uncouth cub isn't fit to breathe the same air as my daughter."

Claire stood and perched herself on the arm of Jamie’s chair, putting her arms around him and resting her head on top of his. "Hush. It's not Gerald MacGavin. I'm quite certain his balls have permanently retreated into his body after the way you scared him off at the Harvest Festival."

Jamie chuckled smugly and took a sip of his drink. "I s'pose ye're right about that, Sassenach. Who is it then?"

“I need you to promise to keep an open mind.”

“Would ye just spit it out, woman? Ye’re makin’ me nervous.”

Claire kissed the top of his head. “She’s fallen in love with Lizzy Wemyss.”

Jamie whipped his head around faster than the little girl in The Exorcist . “Wi’ a lass?  I dinna understand. They may be be good friends, but that doesna mean they’re in love. No’ like that.”

“Yes, like that,” Claire said, taking a hold of his chin. “They are in love. I spoke to Brianna about it this afternoon. She’s very happy.”

Jamie made one of his Scottish noises. “She thinks she’s happy, but she’ll change her mind when the right lad comes along.”

“Jamie, listen to me. She is in love. She is in a relationship with Lizzie. Whatever may or may not happen down the line, this is the reality right now. You have to stop trying to find a husband for her and let her be happy.” She slid off the arm of the chair and into Jamie’s lap. “Promise me.”

“I promise ye that I willna bring up finding her a husband fer now. The rest, I have tae think about.”

“I think I can live with that. Now, why don’t you take me up to bed, Mr. Fraser?”

***

December 24, 1778

“Sassenach, I look absolutely ridiculous in this rigging.”

Standing in the middle of Murtagh’s cabin, Claire stepped back and admired her handiwork. She and Aileen had worked hard to make the best Santa costume possible, a red velvet suit with white rabbit fur for trim. “Don’t forget the hat,” she said, placing the matching cap on top of his head.

“I canna believe this is what ye had me spend all that money on,” he grumbled.  Then he saw the smile on her face, the look of absolute delight, and he softened. “Ye look bonny tonight, Claire, wi’ yer curls piled on top of yer head like that. Reminds me of our wedding night.”

Claire blushed at the thought of it. “If you play your cards right, Mr. Claus, maybe you’ll get a repeat performance.” 

“I dinna ken if this auld body can handle an entire encore, but I’m willing tae try.” He pulled Claire close and brought his lips to hers, keeping his eyes open, never wanting to miss a moment of her happiness.

She pulled away and smiled at him coyly. “Now, Mr. Claus, after you see William and Aileen pass by, wait about half an hour before you make your way over. Do you remember what to say?”

“Aye, Sassenach, I ken the words. But can I ask one question?”

“Of course?”

“Why does this Santa have tae be German. Ye couldna given him a Scottish name?”

Claire shook her head and opened the front door. “I love you, Santa,” she teased as she walked out and closed the door behind her.

***

Claire walked back to the cabin nervously. She’d forged ahead with her plans for a big family gathering for Christmas Eve despite the fact that everything had been a bit off since the revelations about Brianna. Jamie had found excuses not to visit her every day for the past week, and William had been acting distant with everyone. If it weren’t for the joy she knew the celebration would bring to the children, she would have called the whole thing off. As it was, she hoped that everyone would show up.

She made her way back to the cabin, pleased to see that Murtagh was already there. John had arrived as well, with Germain already glued to his side.  Hilde had dressed Alexandra in the adorable dress Claire and Aileen had sewn for her with the velvet leftover from Jamie's Santa suit. They'd made Jemmy and Julia each a matching dress and suit as well.

Claire plucked Allie from Hilde’s arms. "Don't you look lovely, my darling girl. Your Da is going to be even more smitten than usual." Allie smiled brightly and grabbed one of Claire’s curls in her tiny fist.

"She does look adorable," John said, stepping over to Claire and placing a kiss on her cheek. "And her mother looks lovely as well. Don't you think, Murtagh?"

Murtagh took a sip of his whisky and mumbled, "She'll do." 

Claire paced the floor of the small cabin with Allie in her arms, wishing she could at least put on some music to quell her nerves. She would never regret leaving the twentieth century behind, but there were times when she wished she could have brought along a few more items with her.

The door opened then, and Brianna walked in holding Jemmy, followed by Lizzie with Julia in her arms. "Come in," Claire called, relief flooding through her. She put Allie down in the large playpen she'd had Jamie build to fit all three of the babies. Then, one by one, she plucked her grandbabies from Bree and Lizzie, cooing at them and giving them kisses as she placed them in confinement with Allie.

"Jemmy's getting so big!" she said, turning back to Brianna. "He must take after his grandda."

John moved over to talk to Brianna while Lizzie mingled with Hilde. The house was suddenly abuzz with chatter as Claire handed out drinks and tried to ignore the passing of time. Where are Aileen and William?

Just when she thought she couldn't bear waiting any longer, the door opened, and William's family entered the house in their usual whirlwind. Tadgh and Henri-Christian headed straight for the cookie trays without even so much as a hello, and William was too busy trying to rid himself of Doaty to greet anybody.

Aileen smiled apologetically at Claire before putting her hands on her hips. "Boys, get yer wee thieving hands away from those cookies right now. Come over here and take my cloak." The two boys dropped the cookies immediately and ran to help Aileen. "William!" she continued as she removed her cloak, "Get that wee beast out of this house this instant. Why ye couldna just leave him at home, I dinna ken."

"Didn't you hear him crying when we were leaving?" William asked. "I couldn't leave him home alone." 

Aileen rolled her eyes and rested her hand on her large belly. "The man's gone daft over the wee beast. He tried to let him sleep in our bed . Can ye imagine such a thing?"

William reluctantly took Doaty outside as Claire ensured everyone had food and drink. When he came back in, Claire was sitting in her rocking chair with Tadgh and Henri-Christian both vying for a spot on her lap. She settled them both in while Germain stood between Lord John and his Uncle. "Where’s Grandpère?" he asked.

"Grandpère had some business to attend to," Claire answered, "but he asked me to begin with the storytelling. Now, I know I'm not a natural born storyteller like he is, but I think you'll like this story fine. Twas the night before Christmas…"

She recited the poem from memory, something she'd done every Christmas Eve while Brianna was growing up, along with A Christmas Carol. She glanced at Brianna and saw her eyes glistening with tears. All eyes were on Claire as she continued, even the adults seemed mesmerized by the magical poem. When she reached the end, "But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight, 'Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night," you could hear a pin drop in the room.

With perfect timing she heard the jingling of sleigh bells and then a deep, rich timbre saying, "Ho, ho, ho!"

Tadgh and Henri-Christian leaped out of Claire's lap and ran to the door, Germain right at their heels. They flung open the door and Jamie loomed in the doorway in his Santa costume, with only his red beard giving him away. "Ho, ho, ho!" he bellowed again.

Germain eyed him suspiciously. "Hey, yer no--" He was cut off as John pulled him back by the collar and covered the boy's mouth with his hand.

Tadgh and Henri-Christian were struck dumb, standing speechless in the doorway. Finally, Aileen made her way over to them and gently pulled them out of the way. "Come in, Mr. Claus," she said with a curtsy, her eyes twinkling with amusement.

Jamie entered the room and closed the door behind him. Over his shoulder he'd slung a burlap sack. Claire looked at him curiously; gifts hadn't been a part of their plan. "Thank you for letting me in your home," he continued in a strange accent  that Claire decided must be his attempt at German. "May I sit?"

Claire led him to her rocking chair. "Would you like a drink, Santa?" she teased.

"Ja," he replied, "But let me hand out my gifts first!" Claire had to stifle a giggle; not once had she told Jamie that Santa spoke with a German accent.

He reached into his pack, pulling out a flat, square package. "Is there a Germain Fraser here?" he asked, scanning the room. John pushed Germain forward and the boy reluctantly stepped in front of Jamie, eyeing him suspiciously. Jamie handed him the cloth wrapped package. "A proper chess set, since I know you're getting too old for children's games." Germain took the gift slowly from Jamie's hands and walked back to John, beaming as he removed the ribbon and revealed the chess set.

Jamie continued with his gift giving. Tadgh and Henri-Christian both received wooden toys that Jamie must have made himself. For Brianna, Aileen, and Hilde there were fancy hair combs, each one obviously selected with care to complement their hair. Alexandra and Julia both received hair bows and Jemmy a small bow tie. There was even a small bottle of spirits for each of the men.

He stood then and reached a hand out to Claire, spinning her around like a dancer so her back was to him. Around her neck he placed a delicate necklace with a heart-shaped locket. The pictures inside were hand drawn sketches of Claire and Jamie when they were young,  surely sketched by Brianna. Without thinking, Claire turned around and put her arms around Jamie's neck and kissed him soundly.

"Don't do that, Granny!" Tadgh exclaimed. "Grandda will have to kill Santa if he finds out!" 

The room erupted in laughter as Jamie pulled away and winked at Tadgh. "Don't worry. Santa is always allowed to take a kiss from the lady of the house. Especially one as beautiful as your Granny."

As the laughter died down, Jamie walked over to where Lizzie was standing. "I didna forget you, lass," he whispered, pressing a small package into her hands. Then he turned around and announced, "I must be on my way now. Happy Christmas to you all."

Once Santa had left the house, Brianna turned to Lizzie, who still stood dumbfounded with the gift in her hand. "Open it, silly."

Lizzie's hands shakily undid the ribbon. When the cloth fell away, she stared at the small wooden object. "I dinna ken exactly what it is," she said nervously.

William strode over to them and gently took the gift from Lizzie's hands. "It's the Fraser crest," he told her, "Quite an apt gift, I think."  Brianna wiped a tear away from her eye and put her arm around her brother, resting her head on his shoulder.

A few minutes later, Jamie burst into the door in his normal clothes. "Sorry I'm late. Did I miss anything?"

The adults laughed, all except for Brianna who launched herself at Jamie and threw her arms around him. "I love you so much, Da."

"Dinna weep, a leannan," Jamie whispered as he squeezed her tight. "All is well."

Jamie held her tight until there was a small tugging at his sleeve. He looked down and saw Tadgh standing next to him with a concerned look on his face. "What is it lad?" he asked, his lips already twitching at the corners.

"Santa Claus was here and Granny kissed him,"  he reported.

"Is that so?" Jamie asked. "What do ye think I should do about it?"

Caught off guard by his grandfather asking him for advice, Tadgh took his time and considered his answer carefully. Finally, he said, "I think ye should go kiss Granny good so she doesn't forget that she loves ye!"

Everybody laughed again as Jamie strode across the room and put his arms around Claire. He dipped her backwards and kissed her as thoroughly as he could get away with in front of an audience. "Now dinna get any funny ideas about running away with Santa, ye wee besom," he warned her.

She stood up straight and put her arms around him. "Never," she told him, "My life is too perfect with you."