The streets down Mass Pike bled with the glow of the vehicles' bright red lights. Unfortunately for Jamie, this heavy influx of cars will not make it possible for him to arrive at Ardsmuir Pub in twenty minutes; normally, the pike would serve as a speedy slide downtown, bringing any person from Wellesley Hills to the city in a jiffy. It wasn't his first time using the pike though; being someone whose workplace was a few miles away from Boston City, he had to take the fastest journey to Leoch in the morning, but Jamie Fraser had only seldom used this route in his travels back home.
Which explains why he had not anticipated the massive amount of motorists that flocked the tollgates by sundown. At least, not on a Tuesday.
He didn't eat much during the day knowing that Rupert Mackenzie would be treating the Leoch gang with a birthday smorgasbord of Buffalo wings, lobster rolls, roast beef sandwiches and cannoli (not to mention the free drams of whisky waiting for all guests at the pub). Luckily, he knew he still had one more snack left on his rucksack to keep both mind and gut away from the bitter frustrations of being caught in heavy traffic. Taking the bottleneck of vehicles and impatient motorists to his advantage, Jamie reached for his dark-leathered backpack seated behind his own car seat. And with two tall and strong fingers, he pulled the backpack's outer zippers open to reveal a KitKat bar. Pulling it out brought his mind away from the hunger pangs of his belly, transporting him swiftly into the memory of Miss Claire's bonny face, all pale-skinned, but with a hint of blush and some freckles splayed across the apples of her cheekbones. Her eyes, as he would recall, glimmered like fine whisky in the warm light of the yurt; its creases were dusted with a faint warm shade of hazel eyeshadow.
"Mmphm." He smiled outwardly towards the wafer bar on his hand, but inwardly at how he even managed to get a reward from her. For Jamie, simply seeing her relieved after her kids' first-day mayhem had already been more than enough to count as a reward; he'd seen her wear various emotions in just the first day: that which evoked frustration, relief, excitement, wistfulness, and even the look of tearful contentment.
Above all, Jamie was already more than content to see her laugh at his wee display of his sense of humor earlier that day.
While peeling the foil wrapper open, a grin came out of nowhere when he recalled how she made a failed attempt to zip her lips from giggling, just before she bid him farewell. There was just something in the manner she breathed joy that poked his curiosity; it was either the way her voice reminded him of elegant silver and fine champagne when she giggled, or how her deep amber eyes crinkled as she curved her supple-looking lips into a warm smile. With that sultry, yet bright tone of voice, Jamie thought she had a giggle that sounded like a sweet symphony to his ears. To add, she had the most adorable pair of daughters...
Eejit. He ripped the wrapper too much the contents of it almost fell on his lap.
Keep it together, man! She's married!
In truth, it was not that she was married that kept him unsettled. Her failed marriage was no secret; in fact, she had found it necessary that anybody she encountered knew that she was in the middle of a divorce, him included.
It was those two little girls that had added up to his Tuesday-Thursday schedule.
He knew the KitKat was from her; apart from the fact that he had not sat next to anybody other than her, he also knew that Claire Randall—was Randall her maiden name or her husband's? Jamie thought—as what he had observed by the forest school's doorway, had those chocolate wafer bars as a reward for the kids' good conduct. She must have slid it next to him when he had been busy floundering his thumbs on his phone screen. When she left, he found the wafer resting beside where he sat with a wee heartfelt message.
The only thing that was unexpected was that the note was not written by her. It was easy to tell, unless Claire was not too keen with her spelling and grammar, which was unlikely.
SEPTEMBER 17, 2018
DEAR KINDER GARDEN TEACHER: TANK YOU FOR TOMORROW.
It was a note they had penned yesterday, with a seemingly illegible penmanship using a black ballpoint pen that looked like one of Bic's variants. There were a few dirty scribbles on it too, with another different colored pen, as he'd seen two lopsided smiling faces at the bottom-right corner of the sticky note, and a little swirl of red ink on top of each sloppy drawing, to make a little illustration of the ones who wrote it. Nonetheless, Jamie could read the wobbly letter, and he treasured it so much that before leaving the yurt, he immediately folded the note into half and tucked it inside his wallet's photo slot, just behind the photo of his mother.
"You're the only happy driver in this sea of hot-headed, impetuous bunch of motorists, Fraser. Does the heavy traffic pleasure you so much?" Geneva, who was seated beside him, remarked at the sight of her driver's curving cheeks. "I could see the car right beside us, if you haven't noticed. The driver's been cursing on his seat for three bloody minutes since we stopped, and I can honestly say I'm more than grateful I've got you as my companion. Can you imagine if I rode an Uber back to the city, and not hitch a ride with you?"
"I do get the wee road rages at times," he said as he broke one of the KitKat fingers with one hand, and chucked it in his mouth. "Maybe those other lads just dinna have a snack to go along wi' them. That's the thing, along wi' good music, that would at least keep ye sane in this situation. Do ye want one?" Jamie offered the chocolates to Geneva, who politely declined.
"I do recall there is a feast waiting for us at Ardsmuir, so I'd rather get my stomach empty enough to gobble loads of the food and drink." Geneva quipped, while Jamie broke another hardtack finger from the wrapper.
"You're excited about going to Rupert's party, but ye gave him a rather harsh treatment earlier today, if I recall. You're crashing the party just for the food, then?"
Geneva rolled her eyes towards the man. "Seriously? You think I'd give his coquettish schemes a pass simply because it's his birthday? Unbelievable." She huffed all the more after noticing that Jamie remained unbothered, rubbing his stubbled chin as he rested his head against the cushioned seat, waiting for the black sedan in front of them to inch forward. The muffled munching sound of biscuit and Jamie's chocolate breath filled the car instantly, not that Geneva found it unpleasant. In fact, she had both her long, slender hands gripping tenuously on his car's seatbelt when a covert thought of how his lips would taste entered so suddenly, especially with his bottom lip and his golden-red whiskers still having a few wafer crumbs resting on its surface.
She maintained her side-eye towards her seatmate until he'd stepped on the gas abruptly, making her jerk back to the seat. "What the hell!" she bleated at the sudden impact.
"Had you stepped on the gas slowly, I would not have bitten my tongue."
"Ah," Jamie made a thick Scottish growl that may have also counted as an amused chuckle. "Had ye no' been starin' at those two laddies blaitherin' in the other car," He cocked his head towards the pick-up truck beside them, where two college boys were tirelessly bobbing their heads and screaming their hearts out over Radiohead blaring from their loud stereo, "Ye wouldna have injured yerself."
"I wasn't looking at them," she grumbled in a voice soft enough for Jamie not to hear. Thankfully, the loud singing of the boys helped in keeping her unheard.
They moved roughly several meters away from their previous stop down the pike's entrance moments later. While she helped Jamie with a flask of water to rinse the nutty scent of sweets from his mouth, Geneva's mind had been able to grab hold of another racing thought. This time, it felt rather important to tell him. "You know what, James Fraser?"
"What?" He asked after a drink from his water container.
"I find your Tuesday club quite remarkable this year. You never seemed to get a...well, a unique set of kids until this year."
"Unique, ye say. What do you mean by that?"
The car inched forward again, leaving them with just a short five meters away from the pike's toll plaza. "I managed to check on the kids' enrollment data as soon as the parents were gone, you know, back at the faculty where I was left to finish a few deskwork the entire afternoon. I found out that among the teachers, you're the only one taking care of kids with quite a colorful background."
"I dinna quite understand what's that. Colorful?"
"I'm saying they're either adopted, or under foster care, or living with divorcee parents."
By that time, Jamie had already entered the highway and his car was on the move, driving past one vehicle after another. "Ah. Well, aye. I ken wee Fergus is under a program. Have seen him in one of the agencies a few times, but I'm glad he's found himself another set of guardians. I also have an idea about the twins' case." He didn't see the need to tell Geneva how he had learned about it through Claire herself. "What's up with wee Roger and Marsali?"
"Well, Roger's an adopted son of Reverend Wakefield, if you're even familiar with the Presbyterian minister. Roger's a cute fluffy boy, isn't he? It's a shame he lost both his parents in an accident."
"Aye. He's One of the sweetest lads in the bunch. Soft and gentle features all o'er him." Jamie stepped on the gas more, maintaining a speed of 40 kilometers an hour. "Wa' bout Marsali?"
"Her mother's just like Miss Randall."
"Mrs. MacKimmie doesna look anything like Miss Randall."
"No, silly. Of course not." Geneva laughed. "I meant that she also just got off from a terrible abusive relationship."
"Ah," Jamie nodded. "Aye, well. I guess they do have something in common."
"You do realize how special these group of five kids under your care are, don't you? Either they're strong little souls, or they're a ticking time bomb that could explode if they experience any sort of physical or emotional trauma. Or anything that resembles or triggers it."
"Aye, I ken that." He raised his brows to affirm her as he drove down a tunnel; as much as Jamie wanted to engage in the conversation, he also didn't want to crash their car in the dimmed underpass.
Apart from the friendship, Jamie was grateful to have Geneva around because of her keen attention to detail when it came to the students; if there was one person among the faculty who'd be able to gather information about their kids' background, it was either the registrar, or Miss Geneva Dunsany, who, apart from being a kindergarten teacher, was also a licensed child psychologist. Albeit being fresh out of the examinations and still in garnering yesrs of experience, Geneva had already proved herself useful in addressing the needs of each kindergartner by getting the teachers oriented.
"Ran out of muesli bars today, huh? I never knew you were a KitKat kind of guy too." Geneva shifted on her chair to face Jamie again, who, without keeping his eyes off the road, laughed inwardly at the observation. "Do you ever run out of surprises, Fraser?"
"It's life that takes pleasure in bombarding me wi' surprises, Geneva. No' me."
"And is that supposed to be a good thing or...a bad one?"
"Weel," He raised his shoulders fleetingly as he pondered on the question. "I've never loved surprises. But this time around, I dinna ken yet."
"Oooh, this time, huh. But so far, do you like it?" she prodded, "Her, rather?"
He felt his ears heat up. "Who?"
Geneva giggled, rolling her eyes to sit back and face the road. "Oh, come on, Jamie. It's not like you're going to simply forget her name after working close up with her daughters. You even managed to make yourself worthy of a snack, correct? I saw little Faith and Brianna with the same wafer bar."
"Christ. It was from the weans, Geneva." Which was true, based on the note. Not wanting the curious colleage to psyche him further with her questions, Jamie turned the car stereo on, and rode in silence for the rest of the trip, with nothing but Louis Armstrong's gruff voice and the mellow jazz tone of his saxophone wrapping the car in a warm 50s atmosphere.
They both arrived just about five minutes after Angus Mhor, which thankfully meant that they weren't that late. The boys had already begun downing the whisky by the bar counter, while the lady teachers were huddled together in one round table over a game of Uno. Geneva immediately took her leave by his side to join with the ladies, while Jamie made his way to the men who hollered for him to sit with the group lined up by the counter.
"Aye, if it isn't the whisky-thirsty laddie!" Rupert cackled as he handed a dram to him with one hand and with the other came a strong pat that hit him squarely on his back. "Come here, Jamie lad! We were hoping ye'd come earlier! Must be famished, aye?"
"I got caught up in heavy traffic by the pike," Jamie explained, patting Rupert's shoulder with the same strength that matched the impact he felt earlier, before scooting towards the empty barstool beside the celebrant. Taking a piece of the roast chicken served on a platter, Jamie greeted his seatmate as he munched. "Happy birthday, man. Only two, three drams for the night, I suspect?"
"Ye can have more if ye've got no classes tomorrow." The birthday boy swerved his chair to face him squarely, knee against knee. "Sadly, we all have bairns to teach and—"
"If only ye scheduled yer wee gatherin' on a Friday night and no' in the middle o' the week, then we wouldna be thinking about a hangover in class, ye numpty." Angus, who was seated on the opposite side of Rupert, exclaimed before raising a glass to the men. "I suppose we've got to make a grand toast before we begin tae sip on the usque!"
"And make it last til' our man, John Gray closes the pub!" Rupert led the group into an exchange of loud bellows of laughter "Make it last by sipping on it!"
"To life, and to a life well-lived for ye, my friend. May ye schedule yer next birthday party on a weekend, where we dinna need be worrit of Principal Colum in the morning. Slainté Mhath!" Angus declared, and the men raised their glasses before taking a thin sip on the crystal glass. Jamie and the others tried their best not to gulp down too much, lest they'd settle for ale for the rest of the night. Whisky was something he and the other gentlemen were fond of sharing over the summer weekends, and they would often wind up at Ardsmuir Pub for a dram or two (in some cases, they empty the bottle in one sitting). Now that it was the start of the school year, they too had to bid goodbye to their nightly sacred whisky gathering, and if they cannot keep themselves from a dram, at least they could only limit it to one. Or two. Or unless.
After dinner, the men had already foreseen the need for ale and lager, and so they began to secure their bottles as soon as their whisky game was drawing to a close.
"Say, Jamie. Are ye and Miss Dunsany... um, ye ken," Rupert swerved his chair towards him again. "I saw ye both enter the pub together, so Angus and I were thinkin' perhaps ye've finally given in wi' the lass?"
Jamie lifted a brow in surprise. "Nah, ye're mistaken. She had some work left by the office while I was busy tending to the stables. Didna want the lass to grab an Uber when we were both going to the same place."
"Ye ken she likes ye, no?" Angus suddenly peered from behind holding up a chicken drumstick, its bony end wrapped in tissue paper. He said it quite loudly with a voice that, if Geneva was paying much attention from where she sat with the other lady teachers, she would have given him a glare that would tell him she would kill Angus come morning. "It's either ye do ken that, Jamie, or ye're a shat-headed bampot no' to see that!" The man made another nervous peep behind Angus, examining whether Miss Geneva was giving him the death glare, but much to his amusement she seemed not to be paying much attention to their loud bickering and was too preoccupied with the Uno game.
The birthday celebrant cackled. "Oh, hold it! No, no, I definitely saw something different today. It isna Dunsany he's smitten with, Angus."
"Who's it then, man?"
"Jamie wasna' himself, the entire time. I could see him, his wide eyes I mean, just starin' over at..." Rupert shook his head to bring forth a memory hidden from his slightly intoxicated mind. Finally, when he remembered, he swiveled his chair to now face Angus with a tilted grin. "Ha! Something's going on wi' Jamie and that sassenach wench wi' the redheaded bairns! Christ, what is it in ye, foolish dolt? Of all women, ye'd fancy a mother?"
Jamie grunted. Seriously, was this going to be a night of interrogation? "I—"
"Ye, be keeping lasses and married women aff their heids when they see ye work yer magic in dayschool. Have ye sensed it, Angus? Our Jamie lad here's been left talkin wi' Miss Randall at the end of the class. Not just the end of the class if I recall—"
"Rupert, will ye hauld yer weesht?" Finally getting his turn to speak, Jamie quickly hovered at him with a forceful whisper, stopping him with a firm grip on the man's arm—firm enough to to make him wince. "None of that tonight, aye?"
"Oh. It's true, then? Ye have a liking to the lady?"
"She's marrit," He said it dismissively.
"So what? Do ye like her or no? You are not answering the question, man."
"I just did." Jamie growled, but Rupert gave him a look of disbelief.
"Come on, be real here, Jamie. We all ken the lass is just as good as single, though she still has his name." So Randall wasn't her maiden name, Jamie confirmed.
Rupert patted the top of his wavy mop of red. "Not that I'm goading ye into pursuing her, ken. But that truth alone seems like a good enough reason to have erm, a wee bit of hoping, maybe?" Rupert sipped on the tiny few ounces of whisky left in his glass before he resumed talking. "For what it's worth, that red-haired bastard of a husband left her without knowing what he'd just lost. A bonny lass, Miss Claire is. And still a winsome woman, for a mother of two. Canna blame ye if ye'd blush over her."
"Consider yerself lucky she wasna scairt of ye today, lad." Angus quipped, his chicken drumstick now skinned to the bone.
"Because ye wouldha reminded her much of her loathsome ex-husband. I mean, I wouldna need to take a closer look at the weans to tell that their auld man was a rouge! Much like ye, but he an eejit he was!"
While the two men laughed with their stomachs, Jamie was flush to the bone, both in shame and agitation. "Alright, Angus, time to shut yer gob—"
"Or," Rupert added. "She might still be verra much potty about her man that's why she had a soft spot towards ye." He hiccuped, then leaned in to whisper teasingly towards Jamie with the foul breath of whisky clinging onto every word. "Must ye put yer looks to your advantage this time, lad? Take on the other man's shadow, then?"
Jamie whined, slamming his hand against his forehead. "Christ. Are ye no' going to shut up?"
"No," The two bickering men said in unison. It was obvious that perhaps two drams and a few bottles of ale may not give them a hangover but was potent enough not to keep their mouths shut. And so, while the two whiskered men were too lost in their thoughts, Jamie took his leave from the pub.
God, was that suffocating.
If the car ride with Geneva had been intimidating, the sitdown with a lightheaded Rupert and Angus in the middle of a crowded pub had been a pain in the ass. Jamie thought perhaps Rupert would not mind if he suddenly went missing earlier than when he'd promised to leave, and so he made a staggered beeline towards his parked car.
"That was a tiny bit tormenting back there." A man's voice echoed in the dimmed parking lot. "I could almost feel you heat up where I stood." It came from behind him, just a few steps away from the pub's entrance.
Instantly recognizing the voice, Jamie knew it was none other than the storeowner, so he didn't see the need to turn back. "Aye, John. Quite a scene, was it not?"
"They were a little drunk. The unnecessary parts, they'll forget."
"But I won't." He shrugged, moving closer towards the car. Footsteps suddenly paced behind him at a rate that would, if Jamie maintained his walk, catch up with him.
And true enough, the man did, finally reaching with a firm, yet warm grasp on his shoulder.
"Right. You won't forget. Do you want to talk about it instead?" John suggested more than he was inquiring, sincerity worn all over his deep voice. When he felt Jamie's towering body stiffen at his touch, he jerked away immediately. "Erm, you might not want to, actually. But I could sense that there is a need for you to tell someone." John paced forward to finally meet him, face to face. "I am that someone, Jamie. At least for now, I am."
Jamie, still hesitant and overcome by his colleagues' tipsy taunting earlier, knew fully well that the man before him was making sense. He needed to talk to someone.
Someone who knew his circumstance more than any other person in town.
Jamie had first encountered John Grey on his first night in Boston. A well-mannered gentleman, he was—something Jamie never expected from a chap who worked and managed the family-owned Ardsmuir Pub, a hip local bar that stood proudly just a block away from the Commons. It served heaps of guests both locals and tourists day and night, which is why it was much to Jamie's amusement that the pub's host was not only the standing calm amidst the pub's daily bustle, but was also very accommodating towards him, to the point of being quite affectionate.
Jamie considered them as fast friends, with both of them immediately bonding after a few drinks on the house, and a few chess games—most of them were Jamie's victories, something he took pride of. With the manner in which John conducted himself towards him, Jamie also liked to believe that the man felt the same way about their friendship too.
He hoped it didn't go beyond that, but apparently that was not the case for John.
"I dinna want to talk about it. Not now," Jamie finally declared, forcing his hands inside the pockets of his jeans to hide any hint of nerves. "But I can use some company. Would ye be kind enough to indulge me over a chess game?"
"Of course," The shorter man smiled benignly. "I'll get the board. And a couple of beers."
Jamie stood waiting by one the marble-cladded, low-rise staircases that led to the pub. Fearing that he'd be left in the silence with his thoughts for long, Jamie wished for John to come by sooner.
"No digging." He murmured to himself as the cool September breeze blew softly behind him. His hand was just on top of his pockets, feeling the lump his phone made against it. "Dinna dig for your phone. Dinna ever." But he found himself helplessly scrolling through his camera roll a minute later, stopping to watch a video he had managed to record earlier that day.
"KitKat!" The recorded sound blared from his phone too loudly that Jamie immediately clicked on the side buttons to keep it down.
One of the two lasses—the one with the short hair—beamed towards her mother with alacrity and sheer joy. "We're good girls, Bree!"
"Good girls, you truly are!" The twins' mother, Claire, sweetly affirmed as she stooped down to her waist to hand each girl a chocolate. "Here's one for Bree, and one for Faith!" The tone was playful and enthusiastic, he thought, as he listened to the recording; although he could not see her face from the angle of his phone camera, the way her lips curved into a delighted expression and how her eyes twinkled in the sunlight that bounced inside the playtent was still vividly etched in Jamie's head.
"Thank you, Mommy!" Said the two girls in unison before asking for a 'kiss-kiss'. What was it? He wondered. Jamie didn't quite understand what that meant until he'd seen Claire rest her lips on their foreheads, which he thought was an endearing gesture more than it was instinct. In the background noise, little Roger and Marsali called for the twins to play with them while they still had time, which also translated to when the parents were still not around.
"Alright, go along, and if you're kind enough to share your KitKat bars with your friends!"
"We will!" They hollered dismissively, their bright hair bobbing as they both skipped towards their two pals waiting for them by the yurt's exit. Jamie's camera angle was sloppy, as he'd kept it hidden, but it never missed the important parts.
Claire tucked a few tufts of her wild curls behind her ear as she walked towards the exit. "Mommy will catch up with you, oh. Wait a second,"
The video stopped just when Claire had begun to tilt her head an inch to the side. Jamie only managed to record up until that point, fearing that if he delved in too much it would get him into big trouble. He'd already taken photos of the girls by the rabbit farm, and that could have been enough, but a video? Without their consent? What would she think of him if she'd seen him pointing his phone's camera towards her?
Jamie thought himself a madman for keeping a video. But he knew he had to. He wanted to.
He needed to.
Faith, he recalled her name, wasn't this enthusiastic when he first met her by the Leoch's entrance; just like any other bairn during their first day in school, wee Faith made the traditional child's caterwaul at the sight of strangers coming in and out of an entirely new environment. The other sister seemed to feel the same kind of fear too, but having to deal with a number of recalcitrant children over the past years as a kindergarten teacher, Jamie knew a nervous child when he sees one, and Brianna, albeit being sturdy as a tree, had given him the most expressive pair of fearful blue eyes.
The moment they both locked gazes, it actually did make him feel nervous for some reason, not because he feared her, but because—
"Beers, check." John's voice trooped to his direction, along with the clanking of bottles and wooden chess pieces. Jamie quickly hid the phone back in his pocket at the sound of somebody nearing him. "Chessboard, check. Opponent?"
"Aye, check. He's here." Jamie leaned to greet the man with a forced smile as he made his way beside him, just as soon as he had settled the bottles and the board on the higher stair. "Ready to beat ye. Again."
John scoffed. "Cheeky bastard."
The two men proceeded with the match immediately, right after deciding over a flip-coin who plays white. John always had his chessboard with him at the bar; it was a family antique which had proven itself to come in handy whenever his brother Hal wanted a game by the counter. Now that his brother had been relocated to London for work, he was happy that he had found yet another worthy competitor in Jamie—and a challenging one, to boot. To add to that note, the red-haired Scotsman had won majority of the matches since their fast friendship had begun that John could keep track of his wins with only one hand.
Once the match had been decided, with John playing white with King's Pawn Opening, they both had their eyes intently locked on each other's chessmen, barely touching the beers standing by their side of the board.
"Check," Jamie wryly declared after a few minutes of quiet battle. He had positioned his black rook in the White King's unguarded line. "Canna move when my queen's also down that tile, can ye?" John had also noticed that; not only his king was guarded by the queen down the slanted path, but another rook was up and eager to devour John's chess piece three tiles away from Jamie's less-restricted queen. The opponent had indeed barred every possible tile for his most important piece to move about. Finally conceding, John made an exasperated sigh and raised his two fingers above the tall king chessman, slowly knocking it off its sturdy rest on the board.
"Mate. God, you son of a bitch. Must you beat me every single time?" John tapped on the side of the board, making Jamie's remaining pieces shudder against the surface. He slowly lifted his eyes towards the sad-looking white pieces standing by Jamie's ale bottle, which all of a sudden, disappeared as the man lifted it from the marble stair. "I suppose you're feeling better now that you've earned yourself another win."
Jamie gulped down the bottle's contents down his throat before answering. "Aye, for a few seconds, I thought I would dwell in that sense of victory. But now I feel all the more perturbed. I think I lost. Ye've no' helped me at all, John." He was laughing at himself as he stared towards the white king enclosed by three of his own chess pieces in black. While the black king had been securely stationed at he far end of the board, he had managed to trap the opponent with his two rooks, and his own queen.
"I suppose this isn't entirely a win for you, then." It didn't take long for John Grey to understand his friend's current predicament. Finally deciding that one game was enough for the night, John initiated in gathering the ivory and black chessmen back to the board, piece by piece. "I guess, with all the talk at the bar, and this...you mean to say you have finally found them?"
The other man looked towards John with a stolid gaze. "I," He opened his mouth, and then closed it again, as if to retract the words. Then he opened it once more. "I didna find them, mind, I'm not even sure if it's them."
"Angus mentioned they looked like you, didn't he?"
"Aye, ye heard that right. But it's no' something anybody can tell unless they knew about what had happened. Without proof, it's naught but coincidence." Jamie shrugged his shoulders in an attempt to relax as he was being probed to revisit today's haunting observations. "I would have considered it a relief that none of the teachers in Leoch kens about me, or rather where I was years ago. If any of them did know about my circumstance, they would have given me something worse than the taunting."
"And what could be far worse than the taunting and the banters? The whole crosstalk earlier already sounded as if they knew, even if they did not." John made sure his tone was calm and understanding, and not intrusive in any way. He could take even the most nonsensical Scottish grumble for an answer if his friend thought it to be the only remark he could possibly give; all that John cared about now was that for what it's worth, Jamie Fraser was standing in the middle of two parallel lines of both joy and sorrow, and he needed to get out from that warbling confusion by talking.
Jamie felt the need to look up to the starry sky—beautiful in its vastness and immensity—probably searching for some answers when he himself had nothing to give. Seeing that the heavens didn't give him the help he needed, he made a weary growl as he faced John. "I dinna ken what else could be worse than that... Unnecessary attention, maybe? I just have an idea it would be big trouble, ye ken, if I, well, went closer, erm, to the truth, but I want to..." Jamie shook his head dismissively, as though it would help in nullifying his previous statements. "I've...told you how much I've wanted to know about it, haven't I? How the wondering doesna disappear? To at least ken who they were, what they looked like, or if they were being cared for. Did they take after me? In the good ways or the bad? Those kinds o' things."
John chuckled. "They might be hot-headed like you. Something like that?"
"Aye. Something like that," and somewhere in the air that lingered, he thought of the short tantrums of a little girl named Faith, and the silent, ingoing reluctance of her sister Brianna. "Some people would say anybody could live on as though it didna happen at all but...it's no' like that for everyone. Not for me."
"Because you knew." John continued for him.
Jamie nodded. He blinked down to check whether he still had any of his beer left, and seeing none, he continued. "The thought comes in everyday. The wanting. Or was it guilt in disguise? The guilt of never having to raise them? I'm no' that sure what it is that I'd feel whenever I'd think of them."
"I had been living wi' that for five years, ever since I received a phone call about...them, being born." Jamie went on, and as John maintained his role as the man's faithful listener, he could see his friend's troubled expression turn into a wistful smile, blue eyes twinkling. Probably quiet tears? He couldn't tell, not in the dark. "When I saw those two lasses today, God, John. If you had seen them wi' your own eyes. I have a—"
No, Jamie firmly gripped on his pocket, fighting the urge to show that prized video on his phone. No. No. No.
He tiredly shrank back on where he roosted, and John took that little bit of information in before speaking.
"I'm sorry it had to happen this way, Jamie. Seems to me that fate has pulled yet another one of its vile tricks on you, just one among the many other ways it has caused you trouble." John said, resting both his elbows against his own thighs. Looking back at the sullen-looking man, he raised a hand and gave him a comforting pat on the shoulder. "But as much as you claim yourself to be close to the truth, you can never reach that pivotal information, and we have to accept that. You can never tell if those twins in your class were actually them, much more find it out yourself. None of us can make of how they look like, heck, we'll never know. Unless of course they try to reach out to you when the right time comes. When they turn eighteen."
Jamie looked past the gentle hand that had rested on his shoulder. "Thirteen more years, then?"
"You don't have to know. And you don't have to wait either. Remember? That's how it works." John assuaged, hand still on Jamie's shoulder. "You can't afford to be an Icarus now. If you try to fly too close to it, you'd end up causing trouble. The presence of those two girls in your class may have just been...a distraction. You said so yourself, anything without proof is pure coincidence. You may have just been caught off-guard by their presence, yes, but you can approach them without hoping too much on the truth, can't you?." He scooted a little bit closer. "You could live your life free from that guilt, Jamie. Do live your life this time, whether it's here or back in Scotland. You said you'd be going home in a year, haven't you?"
It took Jamie a moment to reply with a soundless nod.
"Yes, I know. I know It is natural to long and desire for that. I believe it helps too, seeing someone that matches the description of an unknown ideal helps with the imagination. It fills the void that's been long empty inside you."
"But you can't simply throw away the future because of what has taken place in the past. Those kids, well, whoever and wherever they are now, whether we like it or not, they are going to live their whole lives not knowing you as their father." Jamie didn't like the sound of the truth coming out from John's lips, but he had to nod at that. "Maybe it's about time you lived your life away from that regret, my friend. If you can't live as though it never happened, perhaps you could be a little bit kind to yourself by helping other kids, which, I know fully well you're doing a good job at. Kindergarten and such," John said in a rather hopeful tone. "It's not like you've wronged them for not being there while they were growing up, since it really isn't your responsibility, is it? You had given them away. Their parents must love them so much they were willing to pay upwards of about a thousand dollars just to have them, so trust me. They're in good hands."
It was regretfully a fact, and although Jamie still have not quite reconciled with this infallible case, he was thankful to have someone shed some light on the matter.
"Or, find love, if that even helps." John suddenly snickered, tilting his head towards him. "I heard earlier you have the hots for a certain single mother back in Leoch?"
"Ah, I dinna ken." Though Jamie knew exactly. He made a chesty laugh, "Here I am, thinking I had finally managed to escape the teasing inside the bar. And now you're beginning to sound like Rupert."
"Oh dear, that's not what I intended to happen but, who knows? She's got twins too. Badly in need of a father-figure, I suspect." The two men laughed, but the other one was clearly blushing beneath his red hair. "Tell me now, Jamie. Do you like her because of the kids?"
Jamie turned towards the heavens again, and at his astonishment, he spotted a shooting star speeding across the night sky.
"I like the lass just because." He smiled. "Just because."
The conversation he shared with John was his very first thought the moment he met her again by Leoch's entryway on a Thursday morning. Today, she decided to bunch her wild brown curls up in a messy bun, while the two little lasses trailed behind her, auburn hair disheveled and unkempt obviously from a thirty-minute ride to Wellesley with the windows open. As soon as she had caught sight of him, her tired morning face brightened up in to greet him with a smile. "Look, loves! It's Mr. Jamie!" She grinned towards the girls, who, at the sight of the said man, bounced to greet him by Leoch's doorstep.
"Please take us to see the bunnies, Mr. Jamie!" Faith tugged on his khakis impatiently, while Brianna, although silent, found it more convenient to punch, or rather slam her hand repeatedly, against his thigh. Claire was scampering to the stairs in an attempt to stop them when he immediately hovered down to greet the girls with a warm hug.
"Alright, alright. Ye'll get to see the bunnies later, lass." Jamie placed a hand against his chest, just above his heart. "I promise ye will later. But och! How come ye've come so early in the morning? The wee rabbits are all asleep, have ye come to wake them up?" He looked up to their flustered mother, who was sheepishly scratching the back of her ear at the question.
"They were really looking forward to school," Claire confessed. "I can't blame them for wanting to come early."
"It's really way too early, Sassenach." Jamie maintained his attention towards her, in spite of the two energetic little girls beneath him. "Ye've got two more hours before the parents come by wi' their bairns."
"Oh," she blinked. Looking around the place, it finally dawned on her how Leoch was completely quiet, free from running kids and the chatter of adults. All that was left to hear were the occasional clucking and quacking of both chickens and ducks, and the distant neighing of horses beyond the reception area. "But then, why are you here? Do you live here?"
"Ah. No," Jamie stood up to face her. "I believe I told ye about me also being a stable hand in this farm. Remember? The time when we met by the parking lot?"
"I do, I...just didn't think you were serious. So you do quite a lot of work then, huh."
He smiled. "Well, no' much, but just enough to ken my back's still strong. I tend to the horses, the animals, an' such. That's why I'm here early most o' the time, if not always." He looked down to the two girls, who had been quietly paying attention. Jamie smiled towards them and stretched out his hands to illustrate a big creature. "I visit Sleepy every morning, was what I was trying to say." He then brought his arms closer to a smaller distance, something that would have looked as though he was carrying an invisible bunny. "And the wee rabbits too, checking on them while they're still fast asleep. They're verra quiet when they do."
Eyes were bright at the name of the animals. It made both him and Claire grin from ear to ear, only that she was smiling more at the animated gestures he did for Faith and Bree.
"Like what Mr. Jamie said, the rabbits are still fast asleep. Perhaps we could grab some snacks before we greet them a good morning?" Claire announced. "Sorry, Jamie, is there a restaurant or a fastfood chain nearby?"
He scratched his head as he looked past the Leoch archway. "Er... There's a cafe two blocks from the corner by the gate. And a pizza place too, but I doubt the pizza's open around this time. They usually are up and about by nine, so I'd vouch for the cafe."
"Perfect, then." Claire smiled, still looking at him. "Would you want anything? A snack, perhaps?"
"Dinna worry yerself for me, I can manage—"
"No, really. I'd love to get you something. For the hard work," She offered again, this time glancing towards the two other red-haired individuals whirling beneath them. "What do you think we should get our kind Mr. Jamie? A perfect snack that could suit a strong man like him?"
"A waffle. Many waffles." Brianna studied him with her brows furrowed. "And maple syrup."
"And superhero drink!" Faith beamed. "The one you always drink, Mommy."
Jamie caught Claire's amber orbs staring at him. "Superhero drink, what's that?"
"You'll know when we come back." She grinned before hurriedly gathering the two girls with her to the car, while giving the little ones a soft, motherly explanation on why they were leaving all so suddenly and that they'll be coming back after a few hours.
Perhaps this was better than having to burden himself with the past, Jamie thought.
Maybe he could really live in the moment without hoping for anything, or without thinking whether a child he would encounter could be his or not.
Maybe the phone call was enough.
Maybe it was more than enough to know that his kids, whoever and wherever they may be, were existing—that somewhere, the two souls he had helped bring into the world were living and breathing in the presence of people who loved them dearly, and he ought to be nothing but grateful for that.
Maybe it was indeed possible to live past it, and begin to break free from what has kept him out of touch with the world.
"Sorry!" He briskly glanced up to see Claire yelling towards him, hands waving to get his attention. She had already reached her car at that point. "Are you a brewed coffee kind of person or...do you want it iced?"
"Brewed!" Jamie crossed his arms, amused at her. "I now ken what superhero drink is, Sassenach."
She shot her a friendly smile before settling her two little girls in the car's back seats. It didn't take long for her to drive away beyond the picket fences and disappear at the gate, leaving Jamie back where he'd been before she came.
"Aye," he said to himself as he took in the quietness of the farm, before taking his phone out from his pockets again.
The video had been on its twenty-sixth loop today, as he had been watching it on repeat since he started lounging by the lobby, just before he saw that familiar silver car speeding towards the parking lot. Pressing the Delete button, and then deleting it all over again in the recycling folder, Jamie had decided it would be the last time he'd hope for anything concerning the two unknown souls that thrived mostly in his imagination.
It's not like you've wronged them for not being there while they were growing up, since it really isn't your responsibility, is it? You had given them away.
"That's just what complicates things, John." Jamie whispered, regret seeping in knowing that the video was now gone, forever.
"I never gave them away."