Jamie held the car door open for his son, taking pains to not dent the car parked tightly beside him, while Willie loosened and re-tied his shoelaces for the twentieth time in the past ten minutes.
From the second Willie had shoved his feet into his old football boots back at home, he’d begun complaining of a pinching on either side of his pinky toes. His Da knew exactly what that meant; Willie’s football boots were officially too small. Jamie thought he’d get another couple months wear out of them at least, but apparently not. Soon-to-be teenage boys grew at a rapid rate, and Jamie had a distinct feeling it was going to cost him more than an arm and a leg in the future – especially for new shoes, clothes, school uniforms and football kits.
While Willie tried to give his feet a bit more wiggle room (hopefully for just this game), Jamie gazed out, past the sea of cars, to the field. Already, straight white lines had been drawn in a large square to make it resemble more of a football pitch. This way, the lads could learn where exactly the sidelines and penalty box were situated.
So far, Jamie had been extremely pleased with his decision to enroll Willie into the football after school club. Quite obviously, Willie loved it. He would recount to anybody who would listen, exactly what had happened on Saturday morning and how good he was getting at keepie uppies. There hadn’t been any issues with any of the other lads or their Da’s, other than a few minor disagreements, which was to be expected at a competitive sporting event. They hadn’t exactly been friendly with Jamie, not like Peter and the other rugby Da’s, but they’d been civil and that was enough for Jamie.
Christopher, the referee, might have been young and baby-faced, but he was certainly very good with the kids and well prepared, always carting with him a green bag full of extras supplies. Jamie was almost sure he had the patience of a saint; always up for explaining the rules one more time, or offering more water, doling out ice packs to the ‘injured’, and holding tissues for snotty, runny noses.
What Jamie wasn’t so keen on, however, was the scene playing out right in his direct line of vision…
Christopher and Claire stood off to one of the sidelines, besides a circle of cross legged bairns. They stood close enough together for their hips and shoulders to skim one another, probably with each intake of breath. The lad, who could only be just barely out of his teenage years, said something. Something which Claire laughed loudly at.
Jamie pressed his tongue hard against a sharp, upper molar tooth in annoyance. He knew when Sassenach laughed like that her whole body shook, her eyes twinkled merrily, and her loud laugh would die off into small giggles. What had Christopher said to make her laugh so joyously? Did he ken Claire intimately enough to ken these particular tells of hers?
“Willie! Will ye hurry up?” Jamie didn’t mean to snap at his son, but his blood was unexpectedly roaring through his ears. Two fingers from his left hand tapped five times against his upper thigh.
“God, I’m coming!” Willie snapped back from the truck, sliding one long, lanky leg out of the door with only one shin pad attached.
With his head, Jamie nodded towards the other shin pad in Willie’s hand. “Make sure ye put that on properly mind.”
“Of course I will.” Willie rolled his eyes. “I’m not stupid, I ken the rules, Da.”
Opening his mouth, Jamie was about to give his son a tongue lashing for cheeky back talk, but Willie was running away like a shot, joining the group of seated lads. Exhaling loudly through his nose, Jamie ambled over to the group, feeling as if his body weighed both nothing, and also as heavy as a tonne of bricks. His feet had a mind of their own, carrying him towards Claire and Christopher, a lot faster than he intended them too, while his mind bounced from thought to thought.
Why did he feel so angry?
He shouldn’t feel angry.
Claire and Christopher weren’t doing anything wrong, both were legal, consenting adults… even if Christopher did look like he still didn’t ken his way around his own cock let alone kent a woman’s body.
Why did he feel so angry?
Angry enough to taste the copper tang of blood in his mouth from how hard he’d bitten down.
He shouldn’t feel angry.
Why did he feel so angry?
Just fucking because.
“Jamie!” Claire called, a smile lighting up her face. “Morning, are you and Willie all right?”
He didn’t want to say morning back, to be delighted inside at her smile. He wanted to ask what the fuck she thought she was doing?
Are ye flirting with him?
Is he flirting with ye?
But perhaps that wasn’t so appropriate to ask, no matter how much it stung like a bitch.
“Morning, Claire.” He replied, still standing before both of them. “Morning to ye too, Christopher.”
“Morning, Mr Fraser.” The young lad pointed towards the group of school boys. “I better start the warm ups. Bye, Miss Beauchamp.”
The eejit had the audacity to wink.
Jamie wanted to throw a punch right at his tiny, minuscule balls.
“Did he just… did he just wink at me?” Claire asked, looking to Jamie for an answer.
“Aye,” Jamie nodded. “I think he did. If I didn’t ken him any better, I’d say he was flirting with ye.”
“Flirting with me?” Claire scoffed. “God no, don’t be so silly. What makes you say that?”
Both of Jamie’s brows shot up towards his hairline. “Because I kent what I saw.”
“You’re mistaken.” She argued. Around them, the wind had picked up, blowing both of their hairs all over the place. Jamie had to take a step closer to her, to be heard over the loud whooshing.
“I ken ye ken what flirting looks like, Claire. So…”
“Why are you calling me Claire and not Sassenach?” She interrupted, a sweet pout taking shape on her lips.
It was unfair for her to look so bonny, so sweet and inviting when Jamie was trying his hardest to keep a hold of his anger leash.
“Would it make ye happier if I called ye Sassenach?” Jamie asked.
She nodded, letting strands of hair whip around her face.
“Fine. He was flirting with ye, Sassenach. Is that better?”
Claire shook her head no. “Whether he was flirting or not, it doesn’t matter. I certainly wasn’t flirting back. He’s much too young for me.”
“Too young for ye?” Jamie repeated, wondering what next was going to come out of his Sassenach’s mouth.
“Yes, much.” She agreed. “I’d probably break him in half.”
Jamie blinked hard once. His mouth had gone cotton dry.
This was not turning out how he’d planned in his head…
“Break… break him?” He didn’t mean to lick his lips, but they’d gone tight and dry. Jamie didn’t miss Claire’s fixated gaze. “What… what do ye mean, break the poor lad?”
“Come on, Jamie. Use your imagination.”
He really didn’t dare.
“So if he looks like a poor lad ye’d break in half…” Jamie cocked his head to one side. “What about him makes ye think that? How do ye ken ye won’t break a man in half?”
Claire shrugged, humming in thought. “I probably wouldn’t break you in half.”
My fucking god…
“Is that so?” Jamie queried.
Christ, he couldn’t stop himself from playing along.
The front of his trainer bumped her black ballet flat. Jamie’s blood thrummed hot again, but not with anger this time. “Something to think about then, aye, Sassenach?”
“Definitely.” Her face was straight, not even an eyelid twitch. “You need to catch up, I’ve been thinking about it for a while.”
Jamie couldn’t decide which he felt more, or which was more annoying. His body had been playing tricks against him since the moment he’d gotten in the car, driving back to the Lallybroch estate with Willie in the passenger seat, a smear of mud decorating his cheek.
That had been over an hour ago.
Upon reaching home, Willie had run straight upstairs to change out of his muddy football kit and wipe the mud from his skin. Jamie busied himself about the kitchen, fixing two ham and mustard sandwiches with crisps on the side for both of them. Running about in the fresh air gave Willie an appetite like no other. It took him only a matter of minutes to scarf down his snack, tuck his chair back under the table, place his dirty dish in the sink and announce to his Da that he was going to the stables. Once again, leaving Jamie to the loud noise of his own thoughts.
Sassenach hadn’t been flirting back, she’d said so herself.
But she’d quite clearly been flirting with him.
And this time, it was more dirty than before.
Yet, after the words had left her mouth and the bairn’s game began, Claire shut her mouth sharply. He caught her once, or perhaps it was twice, looking at him out of the corner of her eye, but Jamie pretended not to notice. If this was how she wanted to play, then he would play.
Just at the thought of it: the shape of Claire’s pink lips pouting, the flare of her shapely hips hidden underneath a ruffled light blue blouse, the way she held his gaze unblinkingly – had Jamie’s blood heating up and up and up.
In an attempt to cool down, Jamie took a sip of his icy cold water out of the glass sitting on the table, and held the liquid in his mouth until his tongue and gums had gone numb and his teeth ached. It cleared his mind, setting himself back into the present moment; alone in the kitchen, the only sound from a bird singing high up in it’s nest outside, but it did nothing to stop the fizzing in his veins.
With a loud scrape against the flagstone floor, Jamie pushed his chair back and stood up abruptly. He needed to move his body, to get rid of the stagnant energy, which was building up around him. If he didn’t, Jamie knew he was liable to sit there for the rest of the day, staring at the wood grain running through the table, and playing the sight of Claire’s amused smirk popping up, over and over again.
Willie would think him insane.
Jamie needed to find something to take his mind off Miss Claire Beauchamp. Something hands on and physical usually always worked, it kept both mind and body busy at the same time. Jamie was just about to run upstairs and grab a light jacket (the wind was still making itself known, taking a nip out of any bare skin you had on show), thinking of heading outside and getting a few miscellaneous jobs sorted, when his phone pinged obnoxiously.
He moved the bread bin out of the way, reaching for where his mobile phone lay, attached to the charging cable in the plug socket.
Peter (Johnnie’s Da) [14:44pm]
Jamie lad, ken it’s a wee late notice but me and the lads are going out the night. 9 @ the dog and parrot if ye fancy. hope to c u there mate.
On a scale of one to ten, how bad would it be to give Willie to his Grandparents, Jamie thought to himself, while he went out, got happily shitfaced and forgot all of his troubles?
Surely, not at all bad was the correct answer.
Dialing quickly, Jamie held the phone between his ear and chin, while placing his and Willie’s empty plates into the dishwasher.
Ellen picked up the phone. “Hello?”
“Hiya Mam, it’s me.” Jamie replied.
“Och, hiya Jamie, lad. Ye and Willie okay? How did Willie’s football go?”
He moved to discard the two crinkly crisp packets. “Aye, it went fine, I’m sure Willie will tell ye all about it. Speaking of, do ye think ye could have Willie tonight?”
“Aye, of course,” she agreed. “There’s no need for ye to ask such a thing. Why? Where ye going?”
“Och, just going to the pub for a few, with some friends. I’ll drop him off around 7, is that alright with ye and Da?”
“Of course it is, ye go and enjoy yerself, my lad. But drop Willie off at 6 instead,” she suggested. “So he can have dinner over here.”
“Right, will do. Thanks Mam.”
“No bother, my lad. See ye both in a bit. Love ye.”
Jamie hung up the phone, feeling better for having something to focus on, other than the pounding and overlapping thoughts in his head. He was no further forward with how he felt or how Claire felt, but going out tonight was exactly what the Doctor had ordered.
Willie’s football flew into the air as he threw it up and caught it. There’d been no need for Willie to bring anything else with him to the Big House; Ellen still had a wardrobe full of Willie and Jamie’s spare day clothes and pajamas. “Of course I will, Da.”
As if she’d been waiting by the window for them, Ellen came bustling out, holding her arms open for Willie to throw himself into her grasp.
“Have ye got enough time to have bit to eat?” She asked her son as Jamie pressed a kiss to her offered cheek. Willie had already run away into the house to find his Grandda, the football he’d carried all the way over the hill was left bouncing beside the front door - he knew the house rules well; no playing football in the house.
“Aye,” Jamie returned his Mam’s hug, inhaling deeply and surrounding himself with the comforting, safe smell of home. He loved his own house, having his own space for just him and Willie, but there was nothing quite like coming back home. “What’ve ye made?”
“Ye favourite,” Ellen sent a smug smile his way as they walked up the three stone steps to the house. “Chicken pie. But ye better be quick, before ye sister serves herself the biggest slice. She’s been salivating over it all day while I made it.”
Jamie kicked off his shoes, tucking them beside his Da’s on the shoe rack. “Since when did Jenny care about chicken pie? She hated it when we were bairns, remember? When I used to ask for it, ye’d have to make her something completely different.”
The heady scent of flaky, golden pastry mixed in with gravy permeated the air, as they got closer to the kitchen. As did the sound of soft chatter, and baby babble coming from Wee Jamie.
“Yer sister said it was something about the baby.” Ellen explained. “Ye don’t want to ken how many times I had to stop her from reaching over the table and eating the raw dough. I ken there’s cravings, I wanted pickles and peanut butter when I was pregnant with ye, but raw pastry is just weird, don’t ye think?”
“Aye,” Jamie agreed, turning to look behind at his Mam before pushing open the heavy wooden door. “But don’t ye dare let Jenny hear ye say that, she’d probably try and get ye with the spatula.”
Ellen smiled broadly, as if imagining the scene in her head. “She’d have to catch me first, my lad. I may be getting on in my old age, but I’m still as fast as a whippet, and ye both better not forget it.”
“Dog and parrot.” Jamie answered, searching around his plate for an extra bit of chicken that might be hiding under some of the pie pastry lid.
Ian smiled cockily. “Och, the dog and parrot… on the pull are we, lad?”
“Ian!” Jenny screeched. “There are bairns present!”
“Tcha,” Ian scoffed. “Like our parents didn’t say worse. The poor bairns don’t even ken what…”
Willie chose this time to pop up and ask the specific question Jamie had been dreading answering. “What’s going ‘on the pull’ mean, Da?”
Jamie just about choked on his swede mashed potato; at the way Willie delivered the question so innocently, so sweetly. Jenny’s murderous expression was back, and Ian was taking the full brunt of it, but he didn’t seem scared in the slightest.
“Nothing,” Jamie shook his head at his son. “Nothing ye need to ken about right now. I’ll tell ye when ye’re older, aye?”
“See? Look what’ve ye’ve done?” Jenny threw her hands in the air, nearly upending her whole dinner plate, and cutlery. Jamie had thought his sister to be almost finished with the severe mood swings of her first trimester… but apparently he had been mistaken.
“Shhh, Jenny.” Ellen attempted to soothe her eldest, pouring her another glass of water and resting her hand over Jenny’s.
“Da? I’m finished.” Willie’s plate was indeed completely cleared; even the broccoli stems (which he usually complained he hated when his Da cooked them) were missing. “Can I go out and play football against the wall?”
“Aye, ye can.” Jamie said, giving his lad’s hair a ruffle. “Grandma will call ye when dessert’s ready.”
Willie stood, tucking his chair in. “Promise ye won’t leave without saying goodbye to me?”
Jamie’s brow creased, it felt like the whole table had fallen silent, even Wee Jamie had stopped smacking his lips loudly.
What on God’s green earth?
“Of course I won’t, Willie.” Jamie licked his dry lips, dumbfounded. “When have I ever done that to ye? Why would I do that to ye?”
It certainly hadn’t been me to leave ye without saying goodbye, Willie. I hadn’t been that parent.
Willie shrugged his small shoulders, staring down at his feet. For all Jamie marvelled at how tall his son was shooting up to be, no real surprise with a Da who was easily 6’3”, right now Willie looked no bigger than a baby sparrow seeking comfort.
“Fergus said his Da never said goodbye to him before he left, and I… I didn’t want ye to do the same.”
“Come here, lad.” Jamie held his arms out, exhaling only when Willie tucked himself into the safe space of his Da’s body. “I promise. Willie, look at me, please?”
Willie moved his head from his Da’s shoulder, until their, almost the exact same shade of cornflower blue eyes, met each other in a trance.
“I hope I won’t ever have to leave ye, Willie. But I promise, if I do, I will always, always , say goodbye to ye first. Do ye believe me?”
“Aye,” Willie nodded, sniffing loudly. “I believe ye, Da.”
“Good.” Jamie smiled as widely as he dared, without the risk of tears over spilling and falling down his cheeks. He squeezed Willie’s body to his, one more time. “Now go and get some fresh air, before Grandma makes ye help her load the dishwasher.”
Nobody said anything else for a few seconds, not while Willie donned his shoes and coat and closed the front door behind himself with a snick . To Jamie, it felt like a long span of minutes sat in silence, but in reality it was perhaps only thirty seconds or so.
“What the fuck was that about?” Jenny broke the silence, her own eyes wide as they met her brother’s stare.
Ellen attempted to lean over and cover Wee Jamie’s ears, before he heard the slip of his Mam’s profanity, but her hands didn’t get over his ears in time. Wee Jamie didn’t appear bothered; he was too busy smushing mashed potato into the thin patch of hair sitting upon his head.
Jamie was about to open his mouth, an explanation of who Fergus was and his Mam, Claire, Sassenach. But at the last minute, Jamie decided not to give any too many details. His family would be able to sniff out how he felt about Claire in only a matter of minutes, and that would do no good. Jamie didn’t even have a proper read on how Sassenach truly felt about him , other than a few moments of undisturbed flirting, one maybe date and one lewd comment.
“He’s heard it from Fergus, some lad in his class at school.” A slurp of water did nothing to help his cotton mouth. “Scared him a bit, I guess.”
“Right.” Jenny sat back in her chair, hands folded neatly over her only-just-starting-to-show bump. There wasn’t much left for anybody to say, all Jamie could do was trust Willie believed his Da whole-heartedly, and pray to God that nothing ever happened to make Jamie break his promise.
“Do ye think I’m doing the right thing?” Jamie asked his Mam, standing on the stone steps, away from Willie’s listening ears. “Do ye think I should cancel, and stay with him instead?”
Ellen shook her head, her fringe (the exact same shade as Jamie’s) getting caught in her eyelashes. “No, I don’t, I think ye should get yerself away. He’ll be fine. And if he’s not, I’ll ring ye myself.”
“Are ye sure?”
“Aye,” Ellen reached out to take her son’s hand. It was calloused from the amount of time he spent out in the field, working hard, but it was still her boy’s hand – the same one she felt she’d committed to memory ten times over. “Ye’ve gotta take care of yeself, Jamie. Ye’re not leaving Willie with a bunch of strangers, we’re family. It’ll be fine, I promise. He’ll be fine.”
“Right, okay.” Jamie let out a long, unsteady breath through his mouth. “He’ll be fine, he’ll be fine.” He repeated to himself, looking down as he twisted his foot in the sandy dirt. “What time do ye want me to pick him up?”
“Never,” Ellen joked, laughter making her eyes sparkle. “Whenever ye want, lad. Give yerself some time to… erm…” She tried to phrase it as delicately as she could, even though Jamie had never known her to be delicate before. “Enjoy yerself.”
Jamie bit down on his lower lip to stop his smirk from taking over his face, peering up at his Mam’s expression. “Enjoy myself, aye?”
“Tcha,” She rolled her eyes. “Just be safe.”
“Just be safe,” Jamie repeated, unable to hold back his amusement. “Didn’t ye tell me those exact words when I was a teenager?”
“Aye. We love Willie to the moon and stars and back again now, but ye quite clearly didn’t listen to yer Mam.” She smiled, kissing the back of her son’s hand. “I love ye. Now, get away with ye, before ye change yer mind.”
As he walked back along the beaten path, dodging a pack of flying midges, Jamie looked over his shoulder to glance back at Lallybroch. His Mam still stood where he’d left her, arms waving, but a small figure stood beside her now, too, gathered into Ellen’s side and also waving madly.
Willie would be fine; he’d had a small blip that was all. As was to be expected, not everybody had good days, not even wee bairns, no matter how happy-go-lucky they were. This would do Willie good, spending extra time with his Grandparents. And it would do Jamie good to get away for just a short amount of time, and be himself. Not son, not brother, not Da - just Jamie.
Everybody needed to be just themselves, for just a little while, at least.