As a child, Jamie loathed Fridays.
It signalled the weekend, being forced to stay at home and do chores instead of messing around with his friends at school. Saturdays meant helping out on the farm from sunrise to sunset, and Sundays were spent at church and visiting his extended family. While he eventually grew to appreciate the value of hard work and caring for crops and animals, to this day he dreads seeing his grandfather Simon.
As an adult, he loves knowing that the end of the week is approaching.
He works every second weekend, but on the weeks he doesn’t, he finishes up with his paperwork early enough to pick Fergus up from school and spend time doing an activity with him, whether it be kicking around a football outside or teaching him how to play chess. It’s also the day they do their shopping for the week, though living on the outskirts of a farm, they’re fortunate enough to have most of their produce essentials sorted. The leafy greens in the salad he’s prepared as a side for tonight’s dinner had been pulled straight from the grounds of Lallybroch earlier in the morning, and they’re never left wanting for eggs or milk, with plenty of animals raised to supply both.
On other weeknights, he generally picks up something on the way home from work for dinner, or they stay and eat at Jenny’s.
Today, they’d gone on a short walk through the woods that bordered their lands. Despite it being the middle of winter, the past few days had been relatively warm, to the point where they could go outside without being bundled up in half a dozen layers. Upon returning home he’d sent Fergus off to take a shower and get changed before the two of them made a start on dinner together.
“Fergus laddie, can ye please get some potatoes from the cellar?”
While Jamie himself had still been pondering the best way to go about correcting some of the lad's misconceptions about gender stereotypes, wee Marsali MacKimmie saved him months of difficult conversations when she socked Fergus in the jaw after a schoolyard disagreement. She and her sister had been under his care at the time, and he’d been forced to separate them for two days before they apologised to one another.
He does not miss those times.
Together, they prepare an easy but hearty dinner comprised of steak, perfectly cooked with diamond grill lines on either side, creamy mashed potatoes and a salad of crisp greens and colourful vegetables.
When they've both eaten their fill, Fergus clears the table, leaving the dishes in the sink to soak, and then they move into Jamie's study. He looks through case-related notes he’d taken earlier in the day while Fergus does his homework. Every time the lad stops to ask him a question, Jamie can't help but feel a great sense of pride in being able to help. He keeps an eye on the clock and once it reaches nine, he sends Fergus upstairs to do some quiet reading before bed.
He spends another half-hour looking through his notes, debating whether or not to pour himself a dram the entire time.
For some unknown reason, he decides against it in the end, heading back to the kitchen to do the washing up instead.
He's finishing up with the last of the dishes when his phone begins ringing on the countertop. Turning helplessly between the device and his hands, still covered in soap and suds, he has an internal debate about asking Fergus to run out and answer for him, before quickly rinsing off one hand. He hastily dries it against the leg of his pants; his fingers are still damp as he reaches for his phone, clumsily swiping at the screen twice before the call is answered. Without glancing at the caller ID, he wedges it between his head and shoulders.
“James Fraser speaking.”
The voice that responds is very much familiar to him and has him inhaling and exhaling very purposefully in order to keep his heart rate steady. He begins rinsing off the last plate as he listens.
“Jamie, it’s Geillis. Sorry fer callin’ so late, but we have a special case that came in and I was wonderin’ if ye would be up fer the task.”
“When have ye e’er known me tae say no to ye?”
“I do recall inviting a certain ginger laddie back tae my room one night-”
His bark of laughter cuts her off mid-sentence, and he can hear her snickering in response as he sets the last bit of washing up into the drying rack.
“Ye also invited my uncle Dougal and half the people at the bar,” he retorts, turning off the tap and wiping his hands on the dark green towelette hanging between the sink and the oven.
“Aye, and what fun ye missed out on! But back tae the matter at hand, we have a wee lassie that needs emergency fostering. I’d gi’ ye details, but I dinna ken much more myself, and what I do know probably shouldna be said o'er the phone.”
For a few years now, Jamie had been taking in children of various ages from many different backgrounds and circumstances. Some stayed with him no more than a day or two, some for months at a time, and some like Marsali and Joan were frequent guests at Casa de Fraser. In all that time he had never received a call as strange as this one, where Geillis or whichever social services representative happened to be on the case had so little information to provide him with.
“I see. I’ll have tae drop Fergus off wi’ my sister first and then I'll head on o'er to ye. Should I bring anything fer the lass?”
“If ye could bring her a toy or a blanket, something she could hang on tae when she goes home wi’ ye, that would be grand.”
He begins sifting through his mental catalogue of items that he has sitting in the playroom, most of which Fergus had long grown out of playing with. There are special toys he has set aside for the kids that inevitably pay him a visit once every few months, whenever the situation at home is deemed unsafe for them. Whatever he chooses he'll let the lass keep when she moves on from his care, as a memento of their time together, no matter how short or long that may be.
“How old is she? I’ll have tae put a car seat in for her so I’ll need tae ken which one tae use.”
He heads out of the kitchen, creating a checklist of things in his mind, tasks he needs to accomplish before leaving the house.
“We dinna ken. I think she’s three or four, but I’m just makin’ a guess, and don’t head tae my office. We’re down at yer station.”
Those last five words have him freezing in place, standing in the middle of the dimly lit hallway separating the main living area and the spare rooms on the first floor. He doesn’t quite know how to react, his mind a jumbled mess of horrific scenarios that would lead a child to be in police custody. Whatever had happened to her, she needs someone now that she can depend on, and Geillis had decided he was the right fit.
“I’ll see ye soon.”
They exchange no more pleasantries after that and he hangs up, slipping his phone into his back pocket and taking a moment to mentally prepare himself for the chaos that inevitably accompanies the task of bringing another child home. The last kid under his care had been Rabbie McNab after his mother had landed in the hospital following his father’s drunken tirade one night. The lad got along well with Fergus and had been reluctant to leave when his mother returned for him after two weeks of recuperation — until he learned that his father would no longer pose a risk to them. That had only been two months ago, and Jamie realises now how much he’s missed having more bairns running around underfoot. Jenny has five of her own, and there’s never a dull moment when he and Fergus visit, but it’s not the same.
He has a routine in place whenever he’s lucky enough to be called up to foster a child, and while he usually has several days at the very least to prepare himself, tonight, he knows he needs to get things done as soon as possible. That, coupled with the fact that he knows next to nothing about his new charge, makes for a little panic, but nothing he can’t handle. He needs to prepare a room for the lass, gather some clothes and other essentials, anything to make her feel welcome in a new environment.
But before rushing in to gather supplies, he heads upstairs, passing by three empty rooms before he reaches Fergus’. The lad is lying with his head hanging off the bed, reading a book upside-down, and turns in his direction with an inquisitive expression as he enters the room.
“Fergus, can ye pack some o’ yer things. Ye’ll need tae spend the night at yer Aunt and Uncle’s place. I’ll have tae drop ye off while I go and bring home another bairn.”
Jamie watches as Fergus sits up, processing the new information, before a look of confidence flashes across his features.
“I can take care of myself, milord.”
He laughs, moving into the room and ruffling the lad’s curls, ignoring his protests at the matter.
“Aye, but I dinna ken how long I’ll be gone and ye are certainly not old enough tae be left by yerself overnight.”
In the early days, Fergus had asked to accompany him everywhere, as if afraid to allow Jamie to leave his sight. He’d learned that the lad was afraid of being left alone, scared that Jamie would abandon him. Fortunately, the past few years they’d spent as a family had convinced him otherwise, and he had regained much of the independent streak he had when the two of them had first met. Now, without any further protests, he leaves his book face down on the bed, marking whichever page he had reached before being interrupted, and goes about throwing things haphazardly into a duffel bag he always used for sleepovers.
Jamie leaves him to it, trusting that he’s old enough now to know what he needs for a night away from home, and moves to head back downstairs and ready one of the spare bedrooms down there.
Something stops him before he even reaches the other end of the hall.
Whenever he was given a little more notice, he would let the children pick which room they wanted to sleep in and ready it with their help. He knows this situation is different and while most of the kids liked being downstairs, near the playroom, he has a gut feeling that this child might require more attention, more support. The bedroom next to Fergus’ hasn’t been used in months, but it’s regularly cleaned when he takes care of the rest of the house, and there’s a wee bed with a plush white carpet and walls painted in cream. He steps inside, turns on the lights and begins changing the sheets, sticking with a neutral colour palette.
Jenny had helped him purchase many of the decorative pieces to furnish the house after construction had been completed. The woolly blankets and throws she’d knitted by hand as a housewarming gift, having snuck in with Ian’s help and decorated the entire place without his knowledge. In return, he’d carved rocking horses for each of her bairns, as soon as they were old enough to make good use of them, engraving their names onto the bridles. Fergus had already been too old to muster up any excitement over a wooden horse, gravitating straight towards the actual ponies that lived at Lallybroch’s stables. As much as Jamie loves his son, part of him still dreams of one day crafting a little rocking horse for a bairn of his own.
Jamie can hear Fergus puttering around, racing through the hallway and up and down the stairs, throwing together bits and bobs he clearly deemed important enough to bring with him to Jenny and Ian’s. He smooths back the covers on the bed, rearranges the pillows to the best of his ability and is about to go and check on Fergus’ progress when the lad races into the room, presenting him with a stuffed bear. It’s one of those plushies attached to the corner of a baby blanket and has never been used, simply sitting in the corner of the playroom downstairs. The bear itself is quite plain, cream in colour with a dark brown nose and giant black eyes, but the blanket was woven by Jenny herself, a rough replica of their family tartan.
“For le petit enfant,” he says, holding up the bear, and Jamie’s heart melts a wee bit at the sight.
“Thank ye laddie. Why don’t ye go and put it in the car wi’ your bag while I grab the booster seat.”
With that, Fergus darts off once more, and Jamie gives the room a once over before turning off the lights and heading out himself. He sends a quick message to Ian, letting him know about the situation and that he needs them to look after Fergus for the night. The only response he receives is two thumbs up emojis and he tucks his phone back into his pocket.
One car seat installation and a five-minute drive later, they’re at the other end of the estate where the main house is located. Jenny is waiting for them on the front steps when he pulls up. He barely has the car in park before Fergus is clambering out, bag in hand, making a mad dash at wee Jamie, who had just appeared behind Jenny.
He rolls the window down and calls out to his sister as the lads hug each other before disappearing into the house.
“Ye’d think they hadna seen each other in months, no’ less than a day.”
She laughs in response, shaking her head as she walks towards him.
“Do ye need me tae drop the lad off tae ye in the morning?” she asks, leaning against the open window.
“That would be a great help, truly. Geillis sounded quite nervous o’er the phone so I dinna ken what tae expect.”
“But ye’re excited, a bhràthair. I can see it.”
She leans in, giving him a quick peck on the cheek and pat on the shoulder, before wishing him luck.
He has a feeling he’ll need it.
It’s just past eleven in the evening when he arrives at the station, pulling into his assigned parking spot and making his way inside. A couple of the guys on the night shift acknowledge him as he passes and he addresses them in the same fashion, with a nod and a quick ‘good evening tae ye’.
No one comments on the stuffed bear in his arms and he assumes they’ve all been made aware of the situation.
Geillis is waiting for him outside the main break room, greeting him with a quick hug.
“It’s good tae see ye, Jamie. I just wish it were under better circumstances.”
He nods in agreement before running a hand through his hair.
“How much can ye tell me?”
The only word to describe the look on her face as she begins speaking is harrowing.
“Yesterday morning, someone found her curled up, asleep in an alley when they went in tae open their shop. ‘Twas fortunate that it didna happen tae be verra cold last night or she might have had tae be hospitalised fer hypothermia. They could tell she wasna from one o’ the orphanages or homeless shelters from the way she was dressed, and they brought her straight to their local police station. She didna match any o’ the images of missing children in the area and willna speak tae anyone.”
Her words paint a picture in his mind of a child wandering the streets alone, seeking solace in a dark and dirty back alley, falling asleep beside a worn brick wall. He imagines that were this in a fictional scenario, they would have been able to ascertain her identity almost immediately using facial recognition technology, but alas, such wonders are not yet at their disposal.
“So ye dinna ken anything about her?”
“Nae. They had a behavioural specialist drop in tae see her and they said there could be emotional trauma involved, but dinna ken fer sure. She spent last night at the hospital getting a checkup and based on her height and weight, the doctors think she’s around four years old. We’ll have tae have her see a child psychiatrist and see if that helps, but fer now, we decided the best thing fer the wee lass was tae be somewhere she could feel safe.”
“What’s her-” he starts, but then stops himself abruptly, already knowing the answer. Of course, they had no idea what the child’s name was.
Geillis shakes her head, turning to look through the glass pane of the door beside them, before redirecting her attention to him.
“We’ve put down Jane Doe on the file, but I dinna ken if we should confuse the puir lass by givin’ her a new name.”
“I agree. She must be terrified as it is.”
“Weel, no sense delaying things. The lass has been waitin’ fer long enough. I’ll let ye go and have a chat wi’ her and then ye can sign the paperwork and take her home.”
With one last nod, Geillis opens up the door to the break room where, by his count, the lass had been waiting for the last several hours, and gestures for him to head on inside. He can hear the door close behind him as he scans the room and sees a small figure sitting on a sofa that’s been at the station as long as he’s worked there. She offers no physical response to his presence, and he makes note of that as he takes slow, even steps, crossing the room in half a dozen strides until he’s standing in front of her.
He pauses for a moment, letting it all sink in.
She has a head full of curls, several shades darker than Fergus’, and her tiny body is wrapped up in a tan coat that looks like it might have been quite expensive when purchased. He can already see that it’s badly stained on the left side and imagines that’s how she had been curled up, sleeping in the alleyway where she had been found. Why they hadn’t given her a change of clothes, he doesn’t know, though if she’s refusing to speak to anyone, he has a feeling she’s stubborn about other things too.
Taking a deep breath, he crouches down on one knee, leaving a small but significant gap between the two of them, enough so that she doesn’t feel as though he’s intruding on her personal space.
“Hello, tae ye. I ken it must be verra scary for ye right now. My name is James, but ye can call me Jamie if ye would like.”
As expected, she offers him no response. If Geillis — the child whisperer — Duncan herself hadn’t managed to coax a single word out of her, he has a feeling that it’ll be an uphill battle for him.
He tries another tactic.
“Ye probably have many teddies at home, but I thought ye might like tae meet wee Beary here. He’s e’en got a blanket o’ his own that’ll keep ye nice and warm.”
He offers the toy to her, holding it in her line of vision, smiling when she slowly reaches out both hands, taking it in her grasp and pulling it reverently into her embrace.
“I promise ye that everyone is trying verra hard tae find out where yer family is, but until then we thought ye might like tae stay somewhere nicer than a police station or hospital. And it just so happens I have a house wi’ a spare room wi’ lots of toys that I think you might like. Would ye like tae come wi’ me and see it?”
She doesn’t respond to him, only clutching the bear closer to her chest, burying her face in its fur. He casts his gaze to the ground, looking at the little boots on her feet and imagines that only two days earlier, her mother or father had probably helped her into those shoes before they left home, before whatever fate had befallen them.
The thought of her, sleeping out in the streets all alone, tears his heart to shreds. How afraid she must have been, of every noise she heard, not knowing if whoever approached would be friend or foe. He doesn’t want to force her to come with him, to drag her off to yet another strange place while the search for her identity continues, but the reality is that he’ll have little choice if she continues refusing to respond.
“I dinna ken how long ye might have tae stay wi’ me, but I promise that so long as I’m here, I’ll keep ye safe,” he tries, attempting to convey to her how much he’s already willing to do for her, to make her feel protected, through his words alone.
Still, she doesn’t speak, and he’s close to releasing a sigh of defeat when he sees her moving, slowly stretching her left hand out towards him. He’s frozen, just watching as her little fingers unfurl, and then her palm is resting against the back of his hand.
“Would ye… would ye like me tae hold yer hand, a leannan?” he asks, soft and gentle.
There’s a slight nod and he feels an indescribable sense of accomplishment, having been able to elicit a visible response.
“Tis a great honour ye’ve bestowed upon me,” he tells her very seriously, turning his hand and then taking hold of hers. After a moment, and a scream of protest from his back (though in his opinion, twenty-eight is far too early to start feeling like an auld man), he stands, keeping a gentle grip on her tiny fist.
Based on past experiences, children either found his stature terrifying, screaming that he was ‘a red giant’, or insisted on clambering up onto his shoulders to get a better view of the world. The lass doesn’t appear to fit into either of those categories, but he still holds his breath when she tilts her head up to get a good look at him.
And then he stops breathing altogether.
He hadn’t realised it when he first walked into the room, knelt at her feet and tried to make it known that she could trust him. They hadn’t made eye contact throughout the one-sided conversation, and she hadn’t so much as glanced in his direction.
She hadn’t looked up at him once the entire time.
He hadn’t looked into her eyes.
Not until now.
They were the most unique shade of whisky, a blend of colours that brought to mind a hint of mahogany, the slightest touch of treacle and notes of burnt umber.
He had only seen eyes that shade once before, but—
No. He can’t allow himself to go down that road again. His heart aches as he pulls himself from thoughts of a time gone by and focuses on the present, on the little girl that needs him.
A little girl that trusts him enough to take his hand, to let him take her away to yet another place that will be completely unfamiliar to her.
He pushes his memories away, locks them in a box once and turns his attention to her, giving her what he hopes to be a reassuring smile.
“Are ye ready tae come home wi’ me then?”
She blinks once and then offers him a watery smile. There are wee dimples in her cheeks, the slightest tremble of her bottom lip and he knows then and there that his life will never be the same.