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Jenny, bless her ingrained motherly instincts, has made sure both the bairns are fed and bathed when he comes by to collect them long after dinner is over. Jamie tries to insist that he’ll be fine heading home with them, but she takes one look at his haggard appearance and all but drags him into the kitchen, slamming a double portion of reheated leftovers into his hands. 

 

“There’s dessert in the fridge, but only if ye finish all yer vegetables,” she tells him wryly, fluffing up his curls with one hand before leaving the room to attend to one of the bairns. 

 

He eats like a man starved, barely pausing to appreciate the savoury stew — chunks of pan-seared lamb and oven-roasted vegetables simmered together until soup turned to gravy. It takes him all of five minutes to polish off the entire bowl, mopping up the remains with a slice of dry crusty bread. He's about to go in search of a second serving when he hears the door to the kitchen open and close. At first, he doesn’t turn, thinking it’s probably just Jenny, returning to check if he’s passed out face-first in his dinner, but when there’s no accompanying voice he pauses, listening.

 

There’s the sound of light footsteps coming towards him — barely audible, fuzzy socks on tile — and he presses one hand over his heart, spinning around with an expression of shock when he feels a wee hand tug at the leg of his pants. 

 

“A leannan, ye gave me a fright, sneakin’ up quiet as a wee mouse!”

 

Faith doesn't appear to be apologetic at all, smiling with a glint in her eye, cheeks flushed, looking very warm and cosy in her yellow duckie onesie. A quick glance at the clock on the wall by the door tells him that it's most definitely time for bed, and the soft yawn she emits just moments later reaffirms the fact. 

 

“I’m not a mouse, I'm a duck,” she corrects him, yawning again and then rubbing at her eyes with the back of one hand. 

 

“Aye, a sleepy wee duckling,” he concedes, reaching down and picking her up. She curls into his hold immediately, resting her head on his shoulder with one hand over his heart. He covers her wee fist with his own hand, walking slowly around the kitchen and lulling her to sleep, knowing from experience that she’s more than happy to doze in his arms. It hinders him a little, only having use of one free arm, but it’s worth it to have these moments with her.

 

He finishes a second helping of dinner and opts to skip dessert after seeing the decadent slices of tiramisu Jenny left on a shelf in the fridge, knowing that even the slightest bit of caffeine this late at night would likely keep him up until the early hours of the morning. Faith moves around in his arms the entire time, searching for the most comfortable sleeping position while remaining entirely unconscious and drooling on his shoulder. Her face is completely obscured by her curls, shiny ringlets that so closely resemble her mother’s, and he swallows back tears. 

 

Would Faith ever feel her mother’s touch again? Be cradled in her arms and doze off to songs of the seas? Or would Faith's final memory of her mother be of that harrowing night when they were parted forever?

 

He tries to clear his head of such thoughts, but they plague him through the rest of the evening, even as he bids goodnight to all of Jenny's bairns, reading Maggie and Kitty a bedtime story and watching wee Jamie’s demonstration of the self-defence techniques he'd learnt at school. The shadow of Claire’s condition hangs over him— a darkness that cannot be illuminated— and his change in demeanour is obvious to Fergus, who sneaks several glances at him throughout the very short drive home.

 

It’s close to ten when they pull up at the house, and he lifts a sleeping Faith from her car seat while Fergus scrambles forward to help by grabbing her backpack along with his own. Only two years earlier Jamie had still been constantly picking up after his son, nagging him to take responsibility for his own possessions. Back then he’d wanted the lad to learn to be more independent, but now it brings forth a wave of nostalgia, seeing him take initiative and show so much care, not only for himself, but those around him.

 

His wee lad is growing up much too fast. 

 

As if to prove his point, Fergus not only rushes to open the door for him but also goes on ahead, switching on the lights along the way and setting down Faith’s bag inside her room before tending to his own things. 

 

It makes Jamie’s heart constrict in a way that can't be healthy. 

 

Faith stirs briefly as he sets her down in bed, rolling onto her side and burying her face against Beary’s middle. He adjusts the blankets around her body, unable to resist brushing a thumb over the curve of one chubby cheek, smiling as she leans into his touch. Even unconscious, she seems happy to have him close, as though an invisible connection has formed between them in the past month. 

 

Likely soon to be broken, whispers the traitorous voice inside his mind. 

 

He forces the briefest of smiles for no one to see, and then presses a kiss to her forehead, briefly nudging one stray curl with his nose. Her scent is soft and mild — honeydew melon and rose nectar, the special shampoo he always purchases for his wee bairns with curly hair. 

 

“Goodnight, mo chridhe,” he whispers.

 

He leaves her then, softly closing the door behind him as he goes. For a minute he stands there in the hallway, eyes closed, trying to regain the strength to carry on with the evening. When he pulls himself out from his own mind, regains a steady hold on reality, he turns, catching a glimpse of someone ducking away from his gaze.

 

Fergus.

 

The poor lad has always been so perceptive, and Jamie's change in mood has clearly not been lost to him.

 

He’s sure that it had been easier to conceal his emotions before he became a father. Opening his heart and letting his guard down around the bairns had made him that much easier to read when he was with them, and now is no exception. Sighing lowly, he returns to his own room, washing away the worries of the day in the shower, feeling a little more like himself once he climbs into bed. 

 

He anticipates that his son will likely reach out, verbally, physically, before the night is done.

 

To let him know that he's not alone, as Jamie has always done for him.

 

He occupies himself with his phone in the meantime, catching up on current affairs, and sure enough, not five minutes later, there's a rather timid knock on his half-open door. Jamie looks up as a familiar head pops inside his room, eyes like the ocean, swimming in turmoil.

 

“Milord…”

 

There's a hesitance in his voice, accompanied by the fact that he hasn't quite stepped into the room, that has Jamie straightening up and turning his full attention towards the doorway. 

 

“What is it, lad?”

 

He tries to keep the concern from his voice, speak as neutrally as possible. Early on he'd learnt that even the slightest sigh could be mistaken for exasperation, not just by Fergus but many of the bairns that have stayed with him. They'd grown accustomed to being perceived as a nuisance, and it had been quite difficult for Jamie to break down the communication barrier and assure them all that if he was tired or annoyed or in a foul mood, it was never because of them.

 

When Fergus doesn't respond, still just eyeing him from the doorway, he extends an arm, and within seconds the lad is flying into his embrace, tucking his head right beneath Jamie's chin. He's done so since the very beginning, feeling sheltered and safe there, and though he's long grown out of needing or even wanting to be held all the time, the comfort of touch never really goes away. 

 

“I ken I havena been home as much as usual in the last week, and I dinna want ye tae feel as though I'm neglectin' ye.”

 

“It is alright, I know you are busy with work,” Fergus mumbles, determined yet resigned.

 

“Why don’t ye go and grab my laptop from the office, lad? We can watch a movie together if ye’d like?”

 

The lad’s demeanour completely changes as he pushes away from his hold, eyes lighting up with glee. 

 

“Oui!” he exclaims, grinning and then tearing from the room at a speed that makes Jamie wonder if he'd still be able to outrun him.

 

Fergus returns not two minutes later, laptop under one arm and a bag of crisps under the other, eyes already wide and shining with hope. Jamie knows he'll be vacuuming crumbs from the sheets tomorrow, but relents, waving him over with one arm.

 

“Just this once,” he mutters, repeating the same concession he’s given each and every time a bairn turns to him with puppy-dog eyes, knowing that when push comes to shove, he is helpless to resist.




 

Given they'd stayed up till long past his usual bedtime, Jamie is not surprised that Fergus is still out like a light when he checks on him late the next morning. The lad had made it back to his own room when the film was done, leaving behind Jamie's laptop covered in greasy fingerprints, a scattering of crisp crumbs and flecks of salt strewn across his bedspread. Despite his intention to get things cleared up before dozing off himself, Jamie had blacked out the moment his head hit the pillow, his dreams filled with nothing but shapes and shadows, all swirling together like those images used in inkblot tests.

 

Images not unlike the assortment of wee doodles that Faith has been making the entire morning. 

 

As much as he always wants to let the bairns develop their artistic abilities, arts and crafts tend to be very messy and result in colours and paints ending up in places that take much too long to clean. Puzzles and other developmental toys are far easier to tidy up, but Faith had made known her desire to draw when he’d asked her what she wanted to do before they headed over to spend the afternoon on the farm. And so he’d handed over a stack of printer paper and a pack of crayons, gently reminding her to keep her creations on the paper and not the table. 

 

She’d looked very much offended when she turned to him, so much so that he couldn’t help but laugh, earning him a series of giggles in return. 

 

He’s not entirely sure if she’s trying to replicate a familiar pattern or just allowing her creativity to flow into works that could only be classified as abstract, but he cannot for the life of him figure out what it is she’s creating. She has a steady hand; he knows that from the very neat signature she leaves on each piece, five letters that spell out her name, but the control seems to fly out the window when it comes to her artistic side.

 

It makes him happy that she’s able to let loose, as it were. 

 

He looks through each of the pieces she’s created, tracing his thumb over her name, marvelling at the tidy print, and the thought hits him like a speeding train.

 

“How old are ye, a leannan? I never thought tae ask." He’d been so focused on other things, splitting time between his professional and personal life and failing at both. Now is not the time for self-pity, but he feels horrible.

 

Without glancing up from the crayon masterpiece she’s working on, Faith holds up her hand as if to wave at him, fingers outstretched. 

 

Five.

 

Christ, he’d been convinced she couldn't be any more than four years old, given her small stature. Her paediatrician in London had forwarded some medical history to Geillis, but she hadn’t yet had a chance to pass on the information to him. Presumably, their misassumption about her age hadn't qualified as something important enough to inform him about immediately, and he doesn't blame her for it.

 

He only wonders why he hadn’t thought to enquire himself, how he hadn't picked up on the clues.

 

When Faith had mentioned being in school, he imagined she meant nursery school or reception at the very most. He hadn't even considered she might have already been partway through Year One, and mentally berates himself for it. Her age would have explained why she appeared to be so advanced, well ahead of the learning curve for a four-year-old. 

 

There are so many things going on in his mind, confusing thoughts and conflicting emotions, all of which fade away when Faith turns to him, resting one hand on his knee and presenting him with her completed artwork.

 

It's a drawing of two stick figures.

 

One very tall, with very orange hair.

 

One tiny, with a mass of brown curls, clutching what appears to be a teddy with a crude rendition of a tartan blanket attached.

 

They’re holding hands (thanks to the abnormally long arms on both figures), and both have wide smiles on their faces.

 

“Do you like it?” she asks shyly, looking down at the drawing and then up at him.

 

“Aye,” he manages to choke out. "It's the bonniest picture I’ve e’er seen, lass.”

 

He ends up helping her save the other drawings in a folder, but this one is slipped onto his office desk, ready to be framed.

 


 

How much can the human body endure before reaching the point of no return?  

 

Perhaps it would be easier if she felt the pain, the fractures in her bones and the rips in her skin, evidence of all that she had suffered, however long she had been imprisoned. But all her sensations are muted, dulled. It's as though a heavy mist has descended upon her mind and body, shrouding her from the hurt, but taking away her ability to feel. Her memories are still there; she can make out something through the haze, but it's so difficult to see clearly.

 

So hard to stay… awake?

 

No, that can’t be right. 

 

She can only see shapes and shadows, blurred at the edges and only in shades of grey. Nothing is truly tangible, fading away the moment she tries to reach forward and touch whatever it is that lays before her. It would be easier to succumb to the darkness, but she cannot bring herself to let go, to plunge into the abyss.

 

There’s a voice sometimes, speaking words that she can’t quite understand, but it comes and goes. It’s so familiar yet foreign, feels strangely comforting, and makes it easier for her to hold on, to cling to the light. 

 

Day and night, night and day. 

 

Time must be passing around her, and yet she knows not if she is living or if she is dead. 

 

And then there’s a warmth, and she feels a change in her own pulse — her heart is still beating, so she must be alive. She hears that same voice again, but it's louder now, closer, and she tries to follow the sound—

 

-tries to break free-

 

—and then it fades away once more.

 

For a while after that it feels as though she’s drowning, falling deeper and deeper, the light fading away with every passing moment. But she holds on — to the memory of that sound, the sensation she had felt in that moment, tries to recall the steady thump of her own beating heart.

 

It grows.

 

Louder.

 

Faster.

 

There's ear-splitting shrieks, pressure on her chest, and it feels as though her limbs are weighed down by lead.

 

But then she's breaking through the surface, leaving the icy depths of the frozen lake she had been trapped within, gasping for air...

 

One breath.

 

She opens her eyes and then quickly squeezes them shut once more. The intensity of the light is painful, stinging. It's artificial, and yet somehow she knows it's day, knows that it's time to wake up.

 

Two breaths.

 

There’s a familiar smell, one she’s learned to associate with long shifts, rounding on patients and scrubbing out after surgeries. I’m a doctor, she thinks — no, she knows.

 

Three breaths.

 

And the memories come flooding back.

 

Not like waves, gently lapping at the shore, taking away grains of sand and bringing back more. The visions crash over her all at once and not in the right order; images that somehow assault each and every one of her senses, leave her struggling to breathe. She feels it, the pounding in her head, in her chest.

 

Fear.

 

Panic.

 

Terror.

 

The look on Faith's face when she’d told her to hide.

 

The machines begin to scream.

 

Oh.

 

No.

 

It’s her own voice.

 

She has no idea how much time passes before the door is being thrown open, a wide-eyed nurse charging in, clearly unable to mask the expression of shock on her face. The woman’s mouth falls open, and then she’s turning, calling out to someone else for help. 

 

“Doctor Beauchamp! Ye’re awake!” she says, and in any other circumstance, Claire may have rolled her eyes at the woman for stating the obvious, but she’s too panicked, with little control over her own body, to react in any way other than to call out for help. 

 

“Faith!” 

 

Her voice cracks as she yells, desperately and continuously, waiting hopelessly for a familiar little girl to come running into the room at her call. It only serves to terrify the nurses more, two them approaching her as though she is a caged beast.

 

Dangerous.

 

Feral.

 

“Where is she?!”

 

She cannot bring herself to recall the events that brought her here; she’s not entirely sure she remembers it all, but she does know that her little girl is nowhere to be found, and her instincts take over. The nurses are trying to help her — the logical part of her knows this to be true — but she’s blinded by the need to protect her child, and so she turns on them, furious and demanding, with no control over her own emotions. 

 

“Where is she?! Where is Faith?!”

 

They only stare blankly at her, as though they have no clue of what or whom she is speaking, and Christ, it feels as though she’s being torn apart, straight through the middle. She begins to cry, hot tears spilling down her cheeks; it stings, but then again, every breath is painful. 

 

“Claire, I’m going tae need ye to take a deep breath fer me and mind yerself. Yer injuries arena fully healed yet and we dinna want ye tae open up any o’ the wounds.”

 

She shakes her head then, trying to reach out to the nurse on her left, crying harder when the woman withdraws, stepping backwards with her gloved hands raised in front of her.

 

“Please, I need to know where she is,” she pleads — no, begs — and she’d heave herself off the bed and onto the ground, crawl on her hands and knees if that got her closer to an answer. 

 

“Please.”

 

She repeats the word, over and over, so many times that it should lose all meaning, but doesn’t. Her throat dries out and she begins to sputter and cough, vision blurred by liquid salt and energy waning with each passing second.

 

The nurse on the left — the older of the two and possibly more experienced — seems to take pity on her, shaking her head and inching forward one step.

 

“Lass, ye were alone when they brought ye in.”

 

No.

 

NO!

 

“I told her to hide, I didn't want them to find her too,” she cries out, shaking her head, trying to make sense of the situation.

 

What if she'd been wrong to make such a choice? What if Faith had met a worse fate, alone in the streets at night?

 

“Claire, do ye ken where you are?”

 

She knows, she tries to remind herself that these women are only trying to help her, but they’re not listening. 

 

“Where is she? Where is Faith? Please, you have to take me to her!”

 

Her throat is hoarse from screaming; the numbness is slowly fading. She can truly feel the pain now, all through her body and growing in intensity, but nothing that compares to the violent pangs in her heart. She’s finding it more and more difficult to breathe, struggling to draw air into her lungs. Dimly she’s aware of one of the nurses tearing out of the room, the other looking over her shoulder and calling for help.

 

"Page Doctor Abernathy to the bedside STAT. Tell him it's an emergency!"

 

Perhaps her mind is clouded, perhaps time is not moving as she’s used to, because before she knows it, more people are rushing into the room and restraining her, pinning her thrashing limbs down.

 

“No! What are you doing? Let me go!”

 

Her pleas are ignored; she can hear them talking around her, above her. Everything makes sense and yet simultaneously doesn’t. A mask is slipped over her face but she’s powerless to resist.

 

“I don’t want to be put under!”

 

She yells, she screams, she tries. 

 

But everything in her vision slowly fades to black once more. 

 


 

How long can a person survive without breathing?

 

He remembers learning of it before, challenging himself to see how long he could go before his vision became littered with dark spots and he came dangerously close to passing out. It was only sheer dumb luck that saved him from seriously injuring himself, having decided to take on such a foolish experiment while swimming in a loch. His father had saved him that day, pulling him from the murky depths, and scolded him for days on end afterwards, reminding him of the value of life.

 

Four years later, Jenny had called him from the hospital and told him that their father would never draw another breath on this earth.

 

The memory of that moment stays with him now, plagues him as he tries to remain calm, gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles have gone white. 

 

He'd been out on the farm with the bairns, supervising them as they did their chores — which mainly involved “feeding” the animals (giving them wee treats) and trying to stop wee Jamie from scaling the fence into the sheep pen. It was a pleasantly warm afternoon, winter having slowly begun to thaw away, the sun warming their skin and melting the last of the snow. The air was crisp and clear, the sound of laughter and joy surrounding him until the shrill ringing of his phone had brought it all to a halt.

 

A courtesy call from Angus, letting him know that the hospital had contacted the station.

 

Claire was, Christ Claire was awake.

 

He’d tried not to let the shock of the news show on his face as he rushed to find Ian, informing him of a work emergency and then quietly slipping away before the bairns could object to his leaving. God knows how many speed limits he’s already broken, but he manages to pull into the hospital car park only twenty-eight minutes after receiving the call, and is in the building in less than half an hour, sprinting towards the reception desk. 

 

Perhaps the stars are finally aligning for him today, because Nurse MacArthur is behind the desk and she does not look surprised to see him. In fact, the expression on her face is one of blatant concern, and in the last seven strides it takes to close the distance between them, he thinks of a dozen horrific scenarios that might have transpired to cause that look. Before he has a chance to voice any of his worries, she speaks up, offering him a guarded smile. 

 

“I can take ye back tae see her, but they had tae sedate her earlier. She panicked when she woke up.”

 

At the look of sheer horror he must be exhibiting at her words, she quickly shakes her head, reaching out to pat the back of his hand. 

 

“Dinna fash, lad. It’s nothing I havena seen before. Yer lass is good hands, I promise ye. And you arrived at a good time too. She should be wakin’ any minute now.”

 

He flushes at that, stammering but not quite finding the courage to inform the kindly nurse that Claire is most definitely not his lass. She chuckles good-naturedly at his pink-tinged cheeks and gestures for him to follow. He does so with zero hesitance. On the way there, she chats animatedly about God-knows-what; in truth, he doesn’t hear a word she says, his mind completely occupied by one thing and one thing only.

 

Claire.

 

Her name echoes in his mind as he comes to a stop outside the open doorway of her room. He can feel a gentle hand pat him on the arm, hear a soft whisper of ‘good luck’, and then he's alone. 

 

But not quite.

 

He wracks his mind for something to say, but finds himself completely at a loss for words, gaping like a fish. 

 

Claire.

 

Sitting up and looking in his direction. Her hair as wild as ever, surrounding her like a halo. Her skin still bruised and blotchy with unnatural hues, shallow cuts scabbed over and deeper ones heavily bandaged. 

 

He’d seen her only yesterday, but she looks so different.

 

So alive.

 

Claire.

 

Who blinks, several times, stares deeply into his eyes and shakes her head in disbelief. 

 

“Oh God, I really am well and truly dead.”

 

She holds a hand up to her face, looking very much frazzled and entirely exasperated, and he can't help but crack a smile. The sound of her voice soothes the unsteady thrum of his heart; the sight of her golden eyes bring more light into his life than the midday sun.

 

“Ye’ve always had a strange sense o’ humour, mo ghràidh,” he says, letting out a low chuckle and slowly entering the room, hands behind his back, fingers sharply digging into his own flesh. He notices the way she tenses, entire body going rigid as he speaks, but she doesn't respond, just continues to stare at him, eyes wide and unblinking.

 

“Sassenach…” he whispers when he’s at her side, unable to move any further when he sees the rage flash across her face.

 

“Don’t call me that,” she snaps, a furrow forming between her brows.

 

“It’s just the Gàidhlig fer—”

 

“I know what it means.”

 

She looks furious, and he doesn’t know how to process it. He’d expected fear, he’d anticipated fear, he’d been so prepared to handle fear. His instincts take over, and he tries to soothe her anger, to remind her that he isn’t using the word as an insult.

 

“I ken ye remember me. Ye said my name when I found ye,” he says, his tone almost pleading, worrying for a split-second that his own fears have come to pass, that he has been erased from her memory. 

 

The fury increases tenfold — a living flame in her eyes, so like the fire he’d seen when he found her in the warehouse, held her in his arms. 

 

“If you know I remember you, you’ll know exactly why I don’t want to see you,” she snaps, turning her head and averting her gaze.

 

“Mo nighean-”

 

“Please, just go.”

 

He swallows, trying not to let the hurt take over, to suppress his pride and not act without thinking.

 

“Claire…” he whispers once more, trying to convey his sincerity, his concern, his care for her. If she turns him away now he'll leave her be, at least until she's had more chance to rest, to reconsider. But he'll be damned if he doesn't at least try, just this once.

 

Slowly, he reaches forward, wondering if the words they had uttered all those years ago still hold true.

 

It’s easier when we touch.

 

It had been true then. They’d shared their truths with one another, words flowing between them with ease thanks to a single point of connection; the backs of their hands brushing as they moved beside one another, his pinky hooking over hers as they sat on the shore, staring out into the horizon, and later, her head nestled against his chest, their fingers entwined. 

 

Now...

 

His fingers barely graze her knuckles and she starts, shirking away from him.

 

“Don’t touch me!”

 

In a complete state of panic, she thrashes about, trying to push him away and tearing the IV from the back of her hand. Blood immediately begins to well up at the site, ruby red against her pearl-like skin, and he backs away, hands in the air, not wanting to provoke her any further. 

 

He turns back and forth, wondering if he should call for help, but apparently the wee stramash between them has already been heard by one of the ward's nurses. He thinks he might recognise her from earlier on in the week. The woman bursts into the room, catches sight of the blood splatter across the sheets, and follows the erratic shrill of the machines to the monitors, mouth dropping open in alarm. 

 

“Inspector Fraser, I think it’s best ye take a step outside,” she manages to stammer after a moment, and he's quick to comply, but he cannot help turning back just once, seeing Claire curled in on herself, shaking like a leaf.

 

His touch, terrifying her so.

 

It’s almost enough to break him.

 


 

After a lengthy conversation with Angus (in person at the hospital after he finally arrived, not at all surprised that Jamie had beaten him there) and Geillis (over the phone before he headed home), he’d been given the all-clear to break the news to Faith that her mother was alive (true) and well (not so much). He’d questioned whether he would be the best choice to do so, wondering if it would be better, for Faith’s sake, to have the news come from a doctor or someone who could present the information to her in a way that she could understand, without causing any additional stress or impacting her psychologically. 

 

The last thing he wanted to do was to handle the situation all wrong and hurt her.

 

Geillis had assured him that while they were all acting in Faith’s best interest, she was certain that no one cared for the wee lass as much as he did. 

 

“Ye’re so fiercely protective of the puir thing. I ken how ye almost went after yer own uncle because o’ it. She’s lucky tae have a champion such as yerself, and there’s no one better than you tae speak wi’ her about this.”

 

He’d agreed, but only because he couldn’t stand the thought of not being there to comfort Faith should she have an unexpected reaction or be overwhelmed by the news. He wanted to be the one to hold her if she needed the comfort of touch, to brush away her tears and reassure her that all would be well.

 

When he reaches Lallybroch to collect the bairns, Jenny and Ian offer to keep them overnight if he has work to do. So often he feels guilty for leaning on his family so much, but he knows voicing that line of thought would only earn him a wallop over the head by Jenny.

 

And she'd force him to crouch down to allow her to reach.

 

Fergus and wee Jamie are playing a video game together, and though he's loath to be separated from his son for the evening, the conversation he'll need to have with Faith will be easier if it's just the two of them. The lad is all too happy to stay at the main house; while Jamie is not strict by any means, Jenny and Ian do allow their bairns a touch more freedom, and he understands the environment is more fun for them.

 

And so dinner that night is just for two; he sets the table up for a special occasion, with deep blue napkins folded into crowns, Faith's favourite cutlery set (the ones with wee bears printed on the plastic handles), and polished silverware for him. He even lights a scented candle, though he's not quite sure what Secret Garden is supposed to smell of. 

 

He serves up a veritable feast, one that takes him almost two hours of preparation. The entire time is spent telling himself that his extensive menu for the night isn't a manifestation of him trying to procrastinate sharing the news of her mother's recovery with Faith. 

 

The fridge ends up filled with leftovers, but Faith is endlessly delighted by the entire affair, blushing profusely when he explains that it’s a special dinner for his favourite wee lass.

 

For dessert he has a serving of tiramisu from Jenny’s, of which he allows Faith only one bite, not wanting the caffeine to affect her sleep schedule. She's content with the chocolate pudding he offers up instead, polishing off the entire cup with an expression of bliss. 

 

He does the dishes and considers the exact words he wants to use, stumbling and tripping over them in his mind, unable to string them into complete and coherent sentences.

 

Perhaps it would be better to go with the flow, as it were.

 

Wanting to give her time to process the information before bed, he realises that he cannot delay the inevitable any longer. After drying his hands, he heads to the playroom and finds Faith working on another puzzle. She looks up as he walks in and beckons for him to join her, patting the empty spot on the floor beside her, but he shakes his head, staying in the doorway and watching intently as she puts each piece into place.

 

He offers her a round of applause once the puzzle is complete, and without prompting, she disassembles it and returns it to the box. When she gestures for him to help put the box back in place, he shakes his head. 

 

“Dinna fash about it, lass,” he tells her, holding out his hand. Curious but not quite suspicious, she runs towards him, placing her wee fist onto his palm. He leads them back out to the living room, sitting down on the couch and then helping her settle opposite him.

 

“There's something I need tae tell you…” he starts, only realising how ominous he sounds after the words have left his mouth. 

 

He hears the voice inside his mind, the hollow echo of a memory:

 

Might as well come straight out with it.

 

“I found yer mam, a leannan.”

 

Her reaction is not at all what he anticipated, but Jamie supposes he should have expected to be surprised. Beauchamp women have a proclivity for the unexpected, it seems. 

 

She looks up at him, head tilted to one side, lips pursed and brows furrowed, evidently deep in thought. The emotions that must be tearing through her right now are likely a storm compared to his own earlier internal conflict, but she's eerily calm, taking the time to process things at her own pace. It scares him a little, how mature and controlled she is for a lass so young, but he also knows she's not immune to tears and meltdowns like any other child, and it makes it all the more difficult for him to predict her reactions to any given scenario.

 

“Can we go and see Mama?" she finally asks, her voice small and shaky, bottom lip trembling. It makes him want to just pull her into his arms and grant her every wish, but he knows that her request is not feasible for the time being.

 

“Not yet. She’s verra sick right now and has tae stay in the hospital fer a bit so she can get better.”

 

He holds her wee hands in his own and squeezes them gently, trying to reassure her not only through his words, but his touch. Her frown deepens as she looks down at the ground and then back up at him, unshed tears in her whisky eyes.

 

“Did the bad men hurt her?”

 

It is this line of questioning that has him wishing she were more innocent, blissfully ignorant of the truth of things, unaware of the horrors of reality. He’d given her half-truths before, kept secrets for her own benefit, but he cannot bring himself to lie to her. 

 

“Aye, they did. But she’s safe now.”

 

He watches as she processes the information, looking far more troubled than someone her age should be capable of. She sniffles but does not cry. He marvels at her restraint for a moment, and then feels a pang in his heart when he realises she’s holding back once more because of him.  

 

“It’s alright, a leannan,” he mumbles, drawing her into his arms. The tears do not dampen the front of his shirt as he expects. She sits still, allowing herself to be held, but is very much deliberate in her thoughts and actions. Her wee fingers tug on the fabric of his sleeve to draw his attention, and then she's pushing herself upwards, using his shoulders for support. He keeps one hand on her back to prevent her from teetering off the edge of the couch, but allows her to stand there between his legs, almost at eye level with him.

 

“When can I see Mama?” she asks, her voice slightly louder and clearer than before. He raises his other hand and brushes back a stray curl, gently stroking her cheek with his thumb. 

 

“Soon, mo chridhe. I promise ye.”

 

“I want to see her now,” she tells him. It’s not a demand or a request, rather an expression of her innermost desires, to be reunited with the woman who brought her into this world, who had cared for her, loved her and protected her above all else.

 

“There’s nothing I want more, lass. But we must give yer mam time tae get better first.”

 

He wants to convey the severity of the situation without frightening her further, but realises he’s done a rather poor job of it when she frowns once more.

 

“What if she doesn’t get better?”

 

I don’t know, he wants to say. He has no idea what he'll do or how he'll handle things should things suddenly take a turn for the worse; he's been stubbornly hoping for a miracle, to live each day as though they're closer to being granted good news than bad. 

 

But I don’t know is not the answer she needs to hear. He feels no shame in admitting that even he, a grown adult, doesn't know how to handle a situation like this, but he recognises that responding to a child in such a way will never be enough to satisfy their curiosity.

 

“I have faith,” he says instead, gently tapping his finger to the tip of her nose, making her eyes cross for a moment, “that she’ll be fine.”

 

He sees the excitement in her eyes, the joyous expression on her face, and feels a stab of guilt right to his gut. 

 

This is… this is exactly the outcome that they had wanted, for Claire to awaken and Faith to be reunited with her mother. 

 

For a family unfairly torn apart to be put back together. 

 

Jamie himself had prayed for Claire’s recovery, wanted to see her safe and whole. Even before he’d known of her identity, there was little more he yearned for than to find out where Faith had come from, to help her return to where she belonged. He can imagine it, the twin expressions of love and adoration they'll wear when they see one another again. The tears of joy and soft cries of happiness, finding one another after so long apart.

 

He wants to be able to share in their excitement, to wish them both the best and see them on their way, but it is now that Jamie realises he's not as selfless as he wishes he were. 

 

When it comes to matters of the heart, he’s not entirely immune to selfish thoughts.

 

And as he sits, watching Faith, hearing her babble on about making a card to show her mama, he feels the barely mended cracks in his heart split wide open.

 

A gaping wound, invisible to all.

 

His days with her, with both of them, are numbered. There’s every chance in the world that Claire will refuse to see him again, that he'll eventually be forced to hand Faith over and watch them leave. They’ll go back to their lives and he'll go back to his, and in a little time, they’ll have forgotten all about him.

 

There’s every possibility that he’ll only live on in Claire's mind as a man she once knew — a man she now resents, as he deserves

 

There’s every chance that Faith will not remember their time together at all. Perhaps an image of him will appear once in a blue moon, simply a tall man with red hair who had once shown her kindness. Perhaps he'll be a blur — a memory, foggy and fuzzy around the edges. 

 

But they’ll live on in his heart, in his mind, right beside each and every loved one that he's lost too soon. 

 

His mother, his father, his brother. 

 

Parts of him that can never be erased.