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October 2018

 

"God, ye wicked mama-vixen."

"Will you cut it out?" Claire rolled her eyes towards the stout beanbag chair, where a nonexistent image of a lanky Scottish woman settled on top, batting mischievous green eyes towards the small beads that dripped down the wet curls of her hair. There could simply be no other splendid way to start a chilly October morning: to have her ears be rattled by the ever-spirited Geillis Duncan, who shrilled on the phone. "The car broke, and we needed help."

"Oh right. Car. Aye, blame everything on the inanimate turd. I'm certain ye're thankful it broke down, hmm?" The voice spat dubiously. It was teasingly said too, not that Claire actually minded much how her friend sounded on the phone, but if she meant to disconcert her, Geillis was succeeding. "I meant to go all cheesy on ye about the photos but I never expected ye to go that far! Took ye days to call, and to tell me all this...that he stayed in yer house?!"

"I said he stayed for a while." Claire corrected, not wanting to be misquoted, much more be misinterpreted.

"How long is a while?" She asked rhetorically, imitating a poor-sounding English accent. Stung by her mockery, Claire glared at the phone with a stern expression, feeling doltish that her death glare didn't do much to someone who didn't see her. "And why did ye no tell me about this on the day? I told ye to call me when you arrive home, were you that distracted?" Geillis added.

"You know I needed—you see, it was a busy day that time, and I had a lot to process, to add, the shifts were endless during the weekend—"

Claire made a half glance towards the bedside LED clock. It was already 5:50 AM, only ten minutes before scheduled time of arrival.

A pang of terror slammed through her when she examined herself in the mirror perched opposite to her bed. She was shivering, undressed and, without question, unprepared for her guest. She had just come out of the bath, with her brown tousles damp and uncombed, and her body clothed with nothing except her thick, plush bathrobe, which, unfortunately did nothing to warm her from the cold despite its length and cozy material.

Turning all attention back to the phone, she huffed. "Listen, G. I love you, and I really love to talk to you, and tell you everything but—"

"But you woke up late and now he's coming to fetch ye? Aye. Aye, I ken—have ye lost yer heid, Claire?"

The clock's display made a cautionary beep beside her. 5:51 AM.

Shit, get dressed, Beauchamp! He'll be here soon.

 


 

Christ, I'm gonnae be late.

"Perhaps I could recommend you a splendid read. It's called The Fundamentals of Decision-Making. Would you like a copy?"

"Ifrinn."

Jamie was frantic, driving past cars with a throbbing hangover headache. "I shouldna have called ye." He growled again, loud enough for his voice to reach the mobile settled on the seat beside him.

"And you, my friend," John candidly pointed out from his phone's speakers, "shouldn't be driving by your students' mother's house when you're obviously pissed drunk because of—"

"I'm not pished!" Jamie said defiantly, feeling his entire skull being hammered inside out. "I've a headache—and those are two different things. Ach, great. A red light." A giant palm slammed against the car's handwheel just when the vehicle in front began to slow down, then the other after it, and finally the one before Jamie's. Their rears blinked the same tinge of red that hung a few meters above them. He'd texted her the night before, telling her that the car was ready for pickup, and that she had to prepare a few hundred dollars, cash or credit, and that he'd pick her up and be on his way to work as soon as they got the car out of the garage. Six o' clock, he said. But with the red lights gleaming at him like fiery midges, accompanied by the whiskey-pangs in his head, six o' clock was going to be a lost cause.

Downtown traffic was relatively manageable and less-aggravating during the earlier hours of the day, with the downtown access roads decongested from the heavy surge of vehicles and commuters. Jamie loved the morning rides going out to Leoch, but a morning ride down the roads of the city was something he never fancied, primarily because of the stoplights. They stood in the way of anybody who planned to beat the morning rush, flashing green only in a matter of seconds and then red for what seemed like a lifetime.

It didn't help that there were still several more of these tri-color lamps on the way to Claire Beauchamp's little apartment, as he recalled his journey to her homestead days ago. Neither did it help that his head was sore. It was the whiskey, he thought, recalling how he spent his Sunday night by the counter at Ardsmuir when John suddenly badgered him for a drink on the house. It was in the pub owner's nature to offer free drams whenever he needed—oftentimes wanted—Jamie to let loose, if not to let him in his thoughts.

Which made him blink in realization.

"How did ye find out? I dinna recall telling ye anything yesterday."

"I was waiting for you to tell me about it last night, but God, you're good with secrets, Fraser." John commended, "But I was in the loop ever since the day."

His auburn brows furrowed. "What day?"

"Jesus, God. Fraser. Thursday! You may be good in keeping things to yourself, but you're not so good at cleaning up the mess, as I knew everything when Rupert and Angus came by the pub, Geneva following after, asking for a glass of port. Poor girl, you see, she seemed to be a tad bit green-eyed about your...special treatment towards the Randalls—"

"Beauchamps."

"Oh. Terrific." John chuckled crisply on the phone. "Now she's single to you."

Jamie let out a tut. But isn't she, now? "What did they have to say?" he said instead, in an attempt to call their conversation to order.

There was the faint, cacophonous sound of crumpling bed linen and pillows against some rolling weight as he waited for John's reply, followed by a low, guttural groan of someone who had drank too much. He chuckled, eyes beaming and his foot pushing steadily on the gas once the light shifted to a bright green. The Englishman was apparently experiencing the exact same crapulence, all thanks to his daft attempt in getting Jamie to spill his Thursday afternoon with the Beauchamp lasses.

"Hmm... Let's see." John yawned first, before proceeding. "Apart from their drunk banter on how Jamie Fraser left his afternoon hay-baling and horse-breaking duties for Angus to finish, and that he—the ginger lad—almost emptied his body spray before leaving because he feared that mum and kids would catch the horrid scent of barn and horse down his oxter—"

"Feckin bastards!" Jamie murmured as he took a cautious left turn to Berkeley Street. The sarky remark earlier made him sheepishly tilt his head to the side, and he took a hesitant whiff down the clothed juncture between the rear of his shoulders and his ribcage.

He breathed out a sigh of relief. No horse, no barn whatsoever.

"—the bottomline is they all think you're fond of the twins' mum." Even if he couldn't see John's face, he could vividly imagine the sardonic grin by just listening to the slyness of his voice. "Jamie, how old are these girls again?"

"Four. Turning five this year, I think."

"And when did you say it happened? Five years ago, was it?" John was beginning to sound more and more unduly inquisitive.

Jamie instantly knew where this conversation was going.

"I thank ye for your concern, but I'm not taking my chances, if that's what this call is about."

"Oh, that truly is what this call is about, James. And so is the whisky. You think I'd trust you not to take your chances on this one?"

"Ye can."

"No, I can't. You're going for it. I can tell." He said. "Give it up, please. I've told you countless times you don't have to bother searching for them lest you put yourself in danger."

Jamie rolled his eyes, vexed at both John and at the forthcoming stoplight, taunting its red flares at him as he approached the edge of the crosswalk. I hate ye, red light, he glowered at the traffic control. I hate ye.

"I helped them, alright? Her car broke down. I dinna think it'll cause any danger."

 


 

"That's because yer heid's distracted, ye radge wee shite!"

"I am not distracted! And—what does that even mean?"

Fast-paced footsteps pattered about the apartment. With the hardwood flooring cold against her damp feet, Claire moved from the entrance and back to the bedroom as if she walked over a bed of ice. She didn't have the luxury of time to wear her fluffy slippers when she welcomed Mrs. Crook inside her apartment, but she made sure she took time to greet her daughters' babysitter properly, usher her into her home, as well as whisper a silent 'thank you' for agreeing to come by an hour earlier than usual. She was beyond grateful the old lady didn't see the need to ask why; perhaps she understood how something important came up with the way Claire floundered about the room, pacing—almost slipping on her tracks—while she yelled on her phone.

"Are we even supposed to have this conversation early in the morning?"

"Aye, we do." Geillis sounded either fuming mad or giddy with excitement, or both. "At least I can knock some sense with that heid o' yers. It's only been a month since ye left and—and ye went all intimate with yer daughters' kindergarten teacher?!"

Claire swore she heard Mrs. Crook gasp.

For an old woman, she thought, Mrs. Crook did have a good pair of ears. She reminded herself to never speak to Geillis in the presence of this woman.

She made one quick glance in the twins' room before making the beeline to her bedroom. Glad and relieved to see both daughters still asleep, Claire immediately clicked the locks on the knob and headed straight to her closet with the aim to leave the house before either one of them wakes up.

And, more importantly, before Mrs. Crook begins to ask her questions.

"I did not go intimate with him, G." She muttered a whispered tone to her phone. "Christ, we just talked!"

 


 

"Is that an excuse?"

Jamie had heard that question three times already.

"Nay, 'tis the truth, I've explained this ad naus. Was I supposed to sit on me arse when I ken they needed help?"

"But was it necessary for help to come from you—of all people?"

With his hand resting just a few inches away from the hub of his steering wheel, Jamie searched for the tiny slender arrows on his watch, tilting and twisting his wrist until he caught sight of the two tiny rods, both long and short, forming a single slashed line.

5:55 AM.

Arriving on time was going to be a daft attempt after all, especially when he had John to give him a quick phonecall lecture about 'decision-making', as how he coined it.

" You and your damned, guilty, and I must add—stubborn soul. Good Lord. What's to forgive?"

"A lot." Jamie frowning at another red light. "Quite a lot."

 


 

"What—did ye kiss?"

"Wait, what—no!"

"I saw the way he looked at ye in those photos Claire. I didnae see his eyes, but the tilt."

"The tilt of the what?"

"The tilt o' the head, Beauchamp!" The voice was an ear-piercing scream that it caused her to wince and jerk, almost causing one hand to toss the phone on the hard floor, while the other yanked hard on the stack of clothes in her dresser. She had just picked her uniform set from her scanty wardrobe: a four-pocket V-neck paired with her trusty cargo scrub pants, each piece sharing the same shade of blue.

"He was looking down Claire, no at yer breasts, mind. But a wee bit higher, just above the chin." Geillis continued her rambling while Claire fully discarded the robe off her porcelain skin to begin dressing in her underwear. The cold greeted her eventually, prickling her skin with miniscule icy kisses that caused her to shudder in gooseflesh.

"You mean, my lips?" The thought of Jamie Fraser staring on either part—any part—of her anatomy was enough to combat the cold. She was flushed, and it unsettled her that she was.

"Either that, or yer eyes. God, ye tell me. You practically spent the entire day with the man, Claire." The voice on the phone was chopped for a few seconds, and went back when she plopped her phone on her bed while she dressed. "Look, I know ye're a bonny come-hither wench, and ye've got wide hips, and perhaps the roundest arse for a slender figure, but ye canna let someone lust o'er ye after just a month of leaving London! Don't you need more time?"

"He was not lusting, Geillie. And for fuck's sake, nothing happened. He was doing it for the kids. Professionally." She said, pulling up her scrubpants in one smooth dash. "He just went out of his way to help, I told you, haven't I? Faith had a fit and ended up destroying a toy. You know how she reacts when she's aware she's caused trouble, and she did just that."

Claire motioned towards the mirror after wriggling inside her shirt. The tall lady in the looking glass was thin. Thinner, she assessed, having lost a couple more pounds during the long month of getting accustomed in Boston, running half-day shifts for days while making sure her daughters were clothed and fed and happy. The last thing she hoped was for her to faint in exhaustion, or be ill when she had a mound of bills to pay and errands to do.

"That's exactly why I'm calling ye, Claire. Ye've got a lot on yer plate, and now, a huge bloke? He won't fit in the platter of concerns now, would he?" Geillis remarked, as though she read her mind. "If he went out of his way just tae do all that, d'ye think he's doing it just because he's their teacher? Towing cars? Really? Do they even teach that in kindergarten?"

"He was being friendly."

"No, Claire. He's after something," which was apparently true, but in no way close to what Geillis implied. "He's after you, hen. Has it ever occured to ye that he is fond of ye?"

She gave a silent nod. It was obvious—especially during their recent encounter—that Jamie was fond of her. But if he ever sought for something, it was a desire for penance and forgiveness, not fleshly pleasure.

"Or are ye after him?" Before Claire could even retort with a defiant 'no', Geillis began to prattle her stand on the phone. "A young mam nursing two bairns and a broken heart sure would be in search for a hero."

"I am not," she emphasized, "in need of saving."

"Dinna ken about that," she made an unimpressed shrug. "No when he's who ye told me he was earlier. Kind. Chivalrous. Handsome? Good wi' the bairns? And speaking of fatherly—em, the fact that he's a ginger laddie, weel, isn't it the perfect chap to match wi yon pair of lasses? Ye may no be looking for somebody, Claire. Ye're too selfless to think of that now. Too hurt, too." Geillis was all the more making sense, and she didn't like being cornered by the frightening truth she can't admit to herself. "But I ken well ye wish to make things better for Faith and Bree."

Of course there was nothing more important than that. Nothing more important than them.

In fact, everything that she's done moved and flowed in the idea of keeping her girls up and above the existing, slouchy pit left unfilled by Frank; he disappeared in their life without even filling the tank to the brim, leaving an aching, gaping hole that demanded itself to be felt.

Claire will do everything to fill it up, but she knew she could only do so much.

Frank would have given them something she alone can't, but with him now cleaved from the picture, her subconscious desire to make things whole again became subtly afloat in her head.

It just so happened Jamie was there, in a place where she, as what Geillis said, was at her most vulnerable state. He had something she'd longed for from Frank, one which she deserved, one which she had all the right to ask for, yet it was ungiven.

It wasn't a forest teacher that accompanied them that afternoon, but a friend. To see Jamie Fraser collect her two little girls in a comforting embrace earned him not only her trust, but also her admiration; he didn't do much to earn it, nor was he aware and mindful of what value was to be earned, but he's unknowingly done her a great favor by performing one simple act, something her daughters had not experienced for a long time. It was just a hug, nothing more—to some, but it was everything, literally everything, for Faith, and perhaps for Claire too.

Now she'd conjured up two baffling things in mind: the regretful years with Frank, and the little spark of hope she had found during a ride home with a ruddy Scottish kindergarten teacher.

Claire shook her head in a futile attempt to brush away those thoughts. Dangerous thoughts, they were. None of them would do her any good. Not even the latter, even if it was relatively a source of comfort on her part, but the events of that afternoon ride haloed in her mind like wildfire.

Jamie insisted they stopped for a snack in the little McDonald's branch just right in front of the Commons before taking them home; he was willing, almost adamant to pay, but she insisted to take care of it this time, as he'd paid for her car's service fees earlier that Thursday afternoon.

Brianna seated beside her mother, the little girl bouncing on her seat as they opened the big box of chicken nuggets. Opposite to them was Jamie, balancing an anxious-looking Faith on his lap.

God, he certainly had no idea how he was making things easier.

"We'll name him...Donas." Jamie said reassuringly, placing a calming hand over Faith's shoulder, while the other was spread in front of her to hold. His hands were manifestly coarse, as she surveyed the thick calluses peppered along the proximal line of his palm and down to his blunt-ended fingers. For a young man, he had the hands of a strong and experienced roustabout.

"Dinna be worrit, lass." She glanced up, eventually relieved that she wasn't talking to her, but with Faith. "Donas will be fine, just needs a wee bit o' rest."

Claire remembered little Lenny flailing his hands during their dinner visit at the Abernathy's, begging her girls to wait until Jamie revealed it himself. Something told her he had to deviate from the original Malcolm script, revealing Donas prematurely because of the stuffed toy predicament. She smiled softly, finding the appeasement plan quite sweet, while her daughters beamed excitedly at the aforementioned unicorn's name, exchanging knowing glances that spoke the word 'finally' loud and clear.

"Where will you take him?" Faith asked later on as she took a McNugget from the red carton box. Her stubby fingers delicately held the round, golden piece by the tip towards the dipping sauces, only to pause. She looked confused. "Hmmm. What's the mustard one?"

"Ah, this wee yellow one? It's the honey mustard one, lass." He said, reaching for the dipping sauce on the far left. "Do ye want this?" He offered.

"Mhmm. Yellow."

"Do ye love colors, Faith?"

"Yes. I love red, orange, yellow," and on through the entire list of colors found in a rainbow.

There was a certain stillness that sat casually in between the two grown adults while Faith declaimed continuously about a few of her favorite things, and the way Jamie lifted a ruddy brow in amusement told Claire that perhaps he was assessing her behavior, the way teachers did with their pupils.

Once he peeled the yellow plastic cover for her to dip her chicken nugget in, Jamie spoke, shifting glances between the girl on his lap and the other beside Claire. "Donas will be staying in Malcolm's stables for the time."

Bree blinked. "Back in Lallybroch?"

"Aye, lass. Back in Lallybroch."

"But he needs help now! Like, now!" She added, her voice urgent and desperate. "The clouds...I saw them come out of him, and if we don't do something, then, then he'll be crippled forever!" A thought must've zapped her that she deliberately searched for Claire's hand beneath the tables. She grabbed the larger hand with two of hers in a hurried motion, taking her mother by surprise while she waved the bigger, hesitant wrist towards her teacher. "Mummy is a doctor! Mummy can patch Donas up!"

"Oh, a nighean. Thank ye, but I can patch it up myself—"

"No, she's right. I insist. I have a sewing kit at home, you can stop by, after this." It was Claire that retorted this time, and for once, she saw Fraser so stunned—so caught off-guard, with his cerulean eyes wide agape and his neck reddening in shyness.

He looked so young all of a sudden.

It was bizarre for her, to see such a diffident soul disguised in a bulk of muscle.

But she found it undeniably cute, nonetheless.

Repairing the toy was the least she could do for his unsparing character that day. In fact, she'd had enough of his generosity; if there was one thing she badly wanted him to give her, it was the opportunity to return the favor.

 


 

"I'm just warning you, Jamie. Not against you being around women and such, but this is obviously different. You've done so well over the past month, but now, if you linger—"

"I'm no lingering." He took another right, remembering every corner and road that led to her apartment. Jamie did not really find street signs reliable, never being able to get his head around the streetsigns, so he kept in his mind every word and gesture Claire made when he took her home, remembering how her hand swerved and pointed at a common landmark, or a corner brownstone, or a store. "And if ye think I'll try to ask her anything, then I must inform ye, you are wasting precious time in this call, John."

"Are you after her, or are you after her daughters?" John interjected all of a sudden, although he wasn't expecting him to answer. "Rather, are you after yourself? Isn't this you trying to save yourself from the guilt of the past?"

"Ach, duin do ghob." Jamie shrugged, as he held the phone to his lips. "We'll talk later. Ye owe me a dram fer snitching, aye?"

"Jamie—"

Finally ending the call with a single tap, Jamie tossed his mobile on the dashboard before taking the next right. Just a few blocks left, and he would find himself at his destination.

Behind him was his prized collection of stuffed toys, with Donas the Damaged Unicorn sitting idly on the farthest end. The stitches on his neck were neat and even, as though he had not been damaged at all.

He meant to leave immediately that afternoon. He really did.

Careful and calculating as he was, Jamie meant to leave immediately the moment he dropped them off, but that was before she offered to sew back the toy. Next thing he knew, he was hunched on the living room floor, restuffing the unicorn toy with the two lasses. They proceeded wadding balls of cloud-like tufts inside the plushie's severed neck in a businesslike manner, before Claire reemerged from one of the rooms with needle and thread. She knelt down with them, quietly, with her back against the apartment's tall windows that it made her skin glow a bright shade of ivory in the afternoon light. Fingers adept and delicate, she stitched back the cleaved parts with ease in front of her red-haired audience.

For once, he was not in a hurry. For once, he allowed himself to think this was a good idea. That being in his client's house had no such bearing with his work as her daughters' teacher.

He observed her skillful hands attentively, watching every dip and pull of the thread as she made wee Donas whole again. An expert she was in sewing, most likely born out of experience as a homemaker and a doctor.

Beside him was Faith, now a whole lot relaxed in the comfort of being home; she was seated comfortably with her thighs pressed against her chest while her eyes, whiskey-gold like her mother's, widened at the sight of stuffed animal—now whole and mended.

"And...done!" Claire snipped the excess thread with her scissors before presenting her the toy with both hands. "See? He's alright now, love. Everything's fine now."

"It's like he's new!" While Faith was speechless and still in a state of surprise, Brianna beamed in her excitement. "See, Mr. Jamie! I told you Mummy can fix it! I told you!"

"I thank ye, Claire." was all his mind permitted him to say while his eyes scanned the fixed toy. "You've a good touch."

 


 

"I didn't want him to stay long, Geillis." Claire explained—for about the sixth time—as she checked on her clock once more. 6:00 AM.

He would be here soon.

"But I can assure you nothing happened. God. Why would I...him, he—Jamie was there right when we needed help, and that was just about it."

"Oh! Finally!" She shrieked, startling the spirits out of Claire once more. "Jamie! Now he has a name—after minutes of blaithering pronouns. Been tired of having to listen to ye call the ginger laddie a 'he' or a 'him' for minutes!"

There was a sharp morning chill that prickled her skin as she opened the window. God, it's cold, Claire thought, zeroing in back to her closet to pull out a knitted sweater in between neatly-folded pieces of clothing. The sudden yank caused other clothes to topple over to the floor, and she decided she'll tend to the mess later, unless Mrs. Crook found it convenient to clean up after her. "Look G. I really need to go. I'll call you once I get a break from work, I promise."

The Scottish woman tittered on the line. "Aye, go. Spend some time wi' the man. I'm no against ye meeting new people, ye ken. But if ever that Jamie laddie turns out to be like Frankenstein, I will surely grab him by his baws an' yank it oot tae be burned. And I mean it—I'll find him, and I'll—"

"I'm not meeting him, in that sense." Claire chuckled, eyes now back on the window; anytime now, a Civic would wind up by the parking lot and that would be her cue to leave. "And trust me," she added, "when I tell you he isn't anything like Frank."

Which was indeed the surest thing she ever had as an opinion towards Jamie Fraser.

He'd been delphic, oftentimes hard to comprehend with the way he moved around her for the past month since they made their acquaintance.

Not until she was left alone with him in the small space of her apartment's living room that day.

He was just about to leave with the toy she'd sewn for him when he suddenly turned back, hand against the door's jamb, deep in his thoughts. He looked at her, and then looked away towards the empty hall, and then back again. For a while, she felt nervous seeing him hesitant over something. "What is it?" the tension pushed her to ask, and his shoulders sank in relief; clearly he'd just been waiting for her to grant her permission to shoot a question.

"Is Faith..." he began with the words, only to be lost in it seconds later. Jamie fanned with his hand briskly, as if to erase the is Faith statement. "I've been verra observant in class, and I've been the same earlier, but I wasna sure if it was just me, or if...something was truly amiss, but when I touched her—the way she reacted, Claire. I mean to ask, has she been...in a, weel, I dinna think ye to be the cause of it, but it was indicative of a past experience. A traumatic one."

She felt the need to swallow the burning lump on her throat.

Just before her eyes could begin to water at a grim memory, she looked down, allowing her hair to cover her face entirely. It remained that way for a minute or so, and in the quietness of time passing by, she felt a hand rest on the curve of her shoulder, its weight firm and assuring against her.

"My daughter, Jamie, she's..." Her heart sank before she could even confess, "...she's really, just...her father never held her."

The large hand tightened a little more on her shoulder blade. "Your...husband, ye mean?"

"Yes."

"Why?" The tone of his voice was sincere. It was an inquiry made out of concern, and not merely to satisfy his own curiosity.

He didn't say a word at that, but his quiet presence spoke loud enough for her to perceive that he wished for her to elaborate on the matter. The hand on her shoulder moved to the base of her chin, lifting her head in a slow, gentle motion as his eyes surveyed her, warm and tender in every angle.

I'm here, his gaze made her seem like she was drowning in the ocean, given her tear-filled eyes stared into an eternal shade of blue. I'm here. I will listen.

They moved back to the living room, onto the couch, where they spent the next few moments on their own. He sat beside her, and while he had his torso slightly turned towards her, she maintained her fretting gaze towards the window, watching the tiny dust particles dance beneath the sun's afterglow. The sun fell and bled before her, so did her tears.

"She and Brianna, they aren't that much alike. They're unique in every way. The way they look, the way they think, or feel...it's all different. But I guess Frank, well, he... had his expectations, and Faith never met them." She paused, just to wipe the growing wetness on her cheek. "Their father was quite an intellectual, you see. Brianna proved to be just like him in the brain department."

"What about wee Faith?"

She made a breathy sigh as she shook her head. "Not to my husband's standards, no."

Claire didn't know how and why she was telling Jamie everything. Was it because she knew he was their teacher and he needed to know? For proper assessment, perhaps?

But there was a different, unidentifiable reason, something deeper; he evoked a strange, benevolent energy that made it comfortable for her to satisfy his questions. He approached her, listened to her more as a friend than he was her daughters' educator.

And that was just exactly what she needed, a friend who'd listen.

"While I thought she just needed some time to learn, he thought she was dull-minded." Peripherally, she saw his brows knit together at what she said. "He doesn't like her much because of that, especially when he took out the books to read. It meant a lot to Frank—the books, I mean. Faith, she didn't like books, or reading. More often than not, she'd be beside herself, frustrated, destroying things at times—no, most of the time."

"Mmphm. I gathered. The frustrations, I mean." He voiced suddenly.

She looked at him. "How?"

"In class," he said, casually. "I meant to give ye my evaluations in the coming week, but since we're both here, and wi' the matter in discussion, I think it'd be better if I dinna wait 'til then."

Something told her the unicorn incident wasn't the first time he saw Faith go berserk.

"Dear Lord. Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

"I thought it was a wee tantrum."

"But she does that a lot!" It took her a second to realize she raised her voice at him, then came the next wave of guilt that she might be getting too comfortable with the man—too much, so it seemed, that she had the nerve to yell. "I'm—goodness, I'm sorry I yelled at you."

"S'fine," Jamie reluctantly shrugged his shoulders together, looking away. "Aye, I should've told ye. It would've been wiser to inform ye earlier."

He must have felt the same odd sense of familiarity too. Besides the close proximity, there was no way a couch conversation such as this could resemble a parent-teacher forum.

Then she remembered.

"Is this the reason why you've been acting odd around me? Because you wanted to confront me about her?"

He appeared honestly surprised when he turned back at her. When it seemed as though he didn't understand what she meant, Claire pointed it out for him. "That distant look. Those... I don't know, I just felt as if you looked confused—em, upset, or preoccupied when I was around, or when you sat by the gravel yard after classes. You've been doing that quite a lot, like you wanted to tell me something."

She looked at him, and was surprised herself that he wasn't denying any of it. So it was true, then? He'd been acting this way because of them?

"If it's my daughter's behavior that upsets you—"

"I'm not upset. Not with her, I can assure ye. God. Dinna ever..." he huffed the words all too quickly, as if to blow off the words that were initially at the tip of his tongue. "How can a bonny lass such as Faith ever upset me, Claire?"

"Oh, now you're just being very kind."

"Kind?" The way he bounced slightly against the couch made the tiny dust particles swirl speedily beneath the sunlight. She hoped for a second he didn't notice how dusty the apartment was, or that he didn't have any case of asthma, which was quite unlikely for a man who seems to be exposed to laborious work. "I'm no being kind." He told her. "I'm giving ye an observation, a concrete one at that. She's—"

He moved slightly on the couch again, this time making more fine dust power circle in the air wildly, and the cushion sink ungracefully as he shifted beside her. It turns out her little piece of furniture wasn't entirely anticipating a sizeable guest in the person of Jamie Fraser. "She is a brilliant lass, Claire. Brilliant."

"Jamie, she has a learning disorder."

"Dinna have to tell me that for me to know. But maybe I could enlighten ye a bit on what I discovered today, when we picked the wee maple leaves by the learning grounds." He looked at her for a while, and for a while he seemed to wonder whether he was to fish for his mobile or for a handkerchief down the pockets of his jeans. He opted to take out both, handing her the cloth to dry her eyes before tapping on his phone.

After several scrolls, he beckoned her to take a look at a photo in his camera roll. It was a rather clumsy shot of ten copy-pastes of a maple leaf neatly placed on top of what seemed to be an office table. When she gave him a perplexed look, he scooted close and held his phone closer to her face.

"Faith finished last, but by far, she was the first to return to me wi' this masterpiece," he explained in a hushed voice, as though he divulged an important secret while he scrolled through photos of the same subject in different angles with a blunt finger. "Brianna and the other bairns praised her for it."

Claire was in utter disbelief.

She surveyed the picture again, just after drying her eyes with his handkerchief. The folded cloth smelled of male sweat and perfume and Jamie, and the scent of him lingered on, as she kept it pressed against her cheek.

The leaves did look the same in the photo, at least almost, with only a few miniscule differences along the groove of their blades, as well as in their venules. Nonetheless, from stem to veins, they looked like duplicates at first glance.

"Is she really like this?" He asked, wonder worn in the undertones. "Back in London, was she keen wi' the colors and detail?"

Claire was dumbfounded. "Not that I know of... I really never knew what she was capable of doing." Shameful as it was for her, she had to admit she wasn't paying utmost attention to either of her girls' inherent talents. If they had any, it was a brand new discovery for her just as how it was now. Their emotional well-being was something Claire saw as a more urgent matter for years that it had kept her from another matter that was just as essential. It was sad. It made her feel inadequate.

Jamie noticed her own thoughts cross on her face. While he gracefully inserted his phone back in his pockets with a push of the thumb, he watched her, studying the beautiful hues of gold beneath the glassy tears and he felt like staring at a sunset.

"I'm not judging." He said a little later, which startled her.

"How did you know I was thinking about just that?"

He chuckled, deliberately brushing a tear from her eye with the back of his fingers. "I'm perceptive. Or maybe I needna make an effort to. It's all written in your eyes, Sassenach; it isna in ye to lie. I dinna wish to make ye blame yerself for whatever it is there. If anything, I'm glad I was able to share this wi' ye."

When it wasn't in her to reply, Jamie continued. "She's more than just a lassie wi' a fiery temper. She may be a bit rough on the edges, and a ton different from the others, but that's just because she sees the world differently. She's brilliant. Believing in that means believing in her. Ye hear me?" He tried to sound reassuring, and it was almost endearing to her hat he made an effort to.

She's not dull, Beauchamp. She repeated the words in her head. "She isn't dull-minded. Right, she isn't." The need to verbalize came about in between sobs of relief. Hearing such an affirmation from somebody felt too surreal, too good to be true.

"Aye, she's alright, lass. But—" he leaned back, arms crossed against his broad chest, "—ye're probably right about her having a wee bit o' difficulty in learning. Ye said she had a learning disorder, if I'm not mistaken by what I heard earlier. What's it, then?"

"I... I don't know, I never, well, I..." It was odd, for her to know and not know at the same time.

"Havena identified it yet?"

"No—er, sorry. I know what it is." She must have sounded painfully confused that he kept silent, allowing her to take her time. The words came out of her lips like a confession soon later. "She's a dyslexic. At least for now, that's all there is."

"Ye mean there's more?"

"I don't know. But I don't know why she's easily irritated. I haven't... well, I simply can't self-diagnose, can I?"

He paused, shifting his eyes as if contemplating whether his next question was even proper to ask.

"But Frank...of course, he knew about this?"

"He did, but I... I tried. He won't have it." She said with her heart pounding against her chest, her cheeks wet yet again just when it had gone faintly dry. "Oh, Jamie, I tried to tell him! But he...it's, the, well. Frank, it was more convenient to say that—that she was hopeless, than to find his way around it...and he—God, he wanted them. He was supposed to want them!"

Fuck these tears, she thought. Fuck the sobs.

A breakdown wouldn't have been that convenient when she was left with her daughters in their Oxfordshire house with an absent father, nor was it the best thing to do while she was still getting accustomed with her new life in Boston. She had to be strong for them.

But to cry her frustrations was going to be necessary at some point. If it had to happen sometime, she thought it may as well happen now, and break she did.

With her face buried in her now sweaty palms, she felt him nearing her, his weight heavy against the cushion.

"Shhh. Breathe, lass." He soothed her, with his hand reaching for her in an attempt to caress her moistened cheek, but he must've thought better. He eventually dropped his hand on the couch's duvet.

They sat quietly, unmoving, while the odd sense of intimacy filled the small room. She knew he felt it as well, given that he tried to touch her face.

She also knew that this was all improper: to find comfort in her daughters' teacher, subjecting him to events which she could have dealt with on her own. She never meant to drag him into the mess she was still in the process of repairing, but he'd been dragged, and now he was here, sharing the couch with her while she spat her frustrations with broken, convulsive gasps.

"Breathe, a nighean." Jamie was nice, lucky for her. He didn't tell her to stop crying, but he simply told her to take a breath. It was remarkable to know that he understood how pain was, at a certain point, necessary. A catharsis of some sort. He must have a deep understanding for grief too, she thought.

He inched closer, gathering her—shattered and broken—into his arms. It was warm; his warmth wrapped her like a newborn swathed in finest wool, and she was helplessly small and frail against the large frame of his body. She thought this was what Faith felt earlier that day when she hugged her. Safe in the embrace of someone big and warm and strong.

And, just as her daughter wept on her chest, she did the same against Jamie, her arms clasped together while he set her comfortably on his lap. Her legs lazily dangled against the taut muscles of his thighs. Jamie lifted them both single-handedly with his good arm, totally enveloping himself around her like shielding wings.

The longing for this kind of comfort, after months of braving the world on her own, and perhaps the long years of being deprived of such intimacy made her dissolve completely onto the frame of his body. It had been a while, being brave, wearing the tough shell that courage promised to give. Today was a good time to be weak, she supposed; it was the perfect moment not to keep herself from falling apart, and let somebody else hold her pieces together.

As he stroked the small of her back, she kept her ear pressed against the swell of his broad chest, feeling it rise and fall and rumble whenever he whispered soft Gaelic in her ear. Understanding deemed itself to be unnecessary at that point, so long as she felt good around him.

She'd seen him do this with Sleepy when they first met. The whispering, the caressing, the way he whispered hushed, incomprehensible words...

Claire didn't mind him giving her the same treatment he did with his four-legged companions back in Leoch. The point was it did work. He had calmed her down.

But he wasn't too calm, she realized, when she felt it growing embarrassingly obvious between them. Against her.

The sudden awareness of it brought her to her feet, standing too abruptly that she almost lost balance, but Jamie was quick with his hands, gripping her wrist securely before she could topple down on her weight. When he managed to get up, Claire backed away, her face as red as her puffy eyes. "J-Jamie, that was—I..."

Christ. Jesus H. Christ.

He was flushed too, a trifle bit, but he did not waver.

"I'm sorry, I—well, thank you." The sobs were either from her previous sorrow or from her current shock. "You've, em, done so much—too much, I don't know how I could... I..."

God, Jamie. I'm so sorry.

The thought of bringing him into this state only made her so ashamed of herself, she wanted nothing more than for him to leave. Save them both from the shame.

But the fiery-haired Scot wasn't exactly who she expected him to be. Instead of leaving, he went to her, reaching for her hand—nothing more, fully aware that she was already frightened to the bone.

"Ye needn't be scairt of me, lass." He spoke softly in an apologetic tone, but never denying anything.

Unable to lift her head, she only had the touch of his hand to tell her how he meant his words. His hands, big, and powerful and strong as it may seem, held her gently. No, reverently.

He shied away soon later, letting her go before taking little Donas off the couch. Taking a few steps farther, he stopped by the window, casting a wistful look on the toy in his grasp. A mournful regret shadowed his face while he traced his knuckles along the unicorn's re-stitched neck, and he suddenly looked like an old, despondent soul.

Vulnerable.

And very much like her: broken.

Eyes could truly speak more words than lips could, and she saw everything as he stood there—emotions unveiled as the sun bled through sapphire orbs. It all made sense right then and there: the month's restrained movements and sad glances. It wasn't annoyance at all. It occurred to her that he might've known how it was. How painful it was.

And that he probably was just as broken as she was.

She didn't want to end this time in an awkward note. Jamie didn't deserve this when he tried his best to be present, and she wasn't so prepared to make him leave just because she caught him painfully roused while she sat on his lap. "I'm not scared. Not at all." She said, although clearly her the words didn't match her actions as she stood as stiff as a log, never moving an inch towards him. It was almost painful to see him make another step back, just to make her comfortable.

"I best take my leave, lass." Jamie broke the silence between them. "Ye're tired and worn out. And clearly, we... we need a bit o' rest." He made a glum-looking smile before he made for the door.

How was she going to rest without clearing the apparent tension between them?

"Wait! The car..."

"I'll take care of it, Claire. Dinna fash." He said, turned away, only to look back when she spoke once more.

"My number, you'll surely need to contact me, won't you?"

He opened his mouth, and then closed it again, rethinking. "Aye, I will. May I have it, then?"

God, why is he being so polite all of a sudden?

She nodded, this time walking towards him, struggling not to keep her puffy eyes anywhere beyond his midriff, for specific reasons.

"Thank you," He said eventually, while she tapped her digits on his phone. "It's been a long day hearing yer gratitude, but I havena had the chance to tell ye how grateful I am. For patching up the toy beastie, especially." It was rather odd to find themselves lost in touch, restacking the blocks that had been struck down by a swirling air of shame and guilt and awkward frustration.

"He'll arrive in a month, right? Your nephew?" She asked, casting a glance over Donas; thankfully he held it up to his chest and nowhere beneath it.

"Aye. Thanks to ye, this toy's going to greet him for when he arrives." He briefly said, a kind smile resting on his lips. "Rest a bit, lass. I'll go."

"No, wait."

Last try.

"You...you never told me, about the one that kept you upset."

It was her trying to save the afternoon, and he successfully perceived it to be so. Jamie leaned his tall figure in the doorframe, finally relenting to the offer. He was already standing by the hallway, and it was clear that he didn't wish to sit on the couch any more, so as to not make the same mistake again. If she wished to talk a little bit longer, they were having that conversation by the door.

"I never meant to tell ye, but I will, anyway. Since ye asked." Jamie told her he had two main reasons—the only reasons that were capable of keeping him preoccupied, but he only meant to tell her one. "I've a brother," He said eventually, after a brief time of contemplating. "William."

William Simon Murtagh Mackenzie Fraser—or Willie, as how Jamie and his family called the boy—was the eldest of the four Fraser siblings. Jamie was the third child of Brian and Ellen, between his elder sister Janet Flora Arabella and Robert Brian Gordon. There had to be more to his name then, she thought; his parents had an abundance of names to christen their young with, and it would be a shame to leave Jamie with...just Jamie, for a name to brandish.

The incessant use of 'was' and 'were' for his dear brothers told her enough that these men were already long gone, and what he had left of them were memories, such as the one he began to tell her.

William seemed to be the quintessential elder brother, having given Jamie an equal share of fights and friendliness during their rowdy years of boyhood in Scotland, usually spent chasing down Highland coos across the grazing fields, or poking each other incessantly with wooden swords along the heathery slope of the hills that led to their farm's millpond. If unlucky, they both shared a healthy beating from their father while they were bent over the fence rail. It was one experience which, despite being unpleasant, Jamie was grateful since he had his brother by his side; it made the chastisement a little less painful seeing another person writhe and crumple and scream in pain as much as he did.

"Willie and I pretty much shared a lot of experiences together, and a lot of similarities too, such as the hair. We're not twins, though, he's five years older than I am." Jamie chuckled at the distant memory while toying the unicorn's fluffy mane. "But when I'd see Faith and Bree, I'd think of him and me, sometimes. All those memories, the good, s'well as the bad, they'd come to me—mostly when I'm on my own, once the bairns are on their way out to greet their parents. You see, we all just have this, perhaps ye experience it too, when the noises of the present robs ye from dwelling too much in the weight that's in yer heid, but then it surges in the moment ye be left on yer own. I dinna wish ye to think, or maybe that is why ye were concerned, that I might be taking my frustrations out towards the bairns. I'm sorry if I made ye anxious of it."

"No," she shook her head. "I wasn't. I uh, never thought it that way."

Blue eyes blinked, puzzled. "Then why'd it bother ye so?"

"I was just concerned." She flatly said, with her hands clasped against the fine edges of her pockets. Her point and middle fingers crossed beneath the fabric, hoping and wishing that the room was dim enough for Jamie not to see the creeping redness in her neck and ears.

He smiled, only a little, just enough to show the faint traces of white along the length of his lips. The way he held Donas made it look like the lifeless toy was casting a wary eye at Claire, warning her to take a step back.

"Our boat capsized, while we were stranded in the middle of the Loch Ness, and I was too small to fit in a life jacket that when the wind came, I just slipped loose."

It began as a beautiful sunny day when Jamie, Willie and their close friend Ian decided to row across the loch and then back. It was a family trip, and well, they were the rowdiest bunch of boys; Brian could never stop any of them from exploring the place. Along with the three boys' explorations was a wooden boat, wide enough to fit four adults. It had two wooden oars, and four orange floating vests, which gave them enough bravado that they could, if they willed it, cross the loch—even if it was impossible, if they meant to go back in time for supper.

"We were able to cross to the side opposite to Alltsigh, where my sister and the rest of our family were." At some point in his story, Jamie was only looking down at Donas with regret. "But just when we made to sail back, the winds began to worsen. And just as worse came the heavy rains that made the surrounding land almost invisible. I canna see anything other than my two other companions, ken. They rowed and wailed like the banshees, but t'was a faint sound compared to the furious storm." 

He was afraid, he said, and he looked like it as he narrated, while his two older companions—not that old, though, as they were only but a decade and a year in age—began to row straight, but the winds pushed them further down towards another town. "At some point, I thought we were on our way to America," he joked, ruefully. "But really, it was beginning to feel as though we were drifting away from the family. Willie and Ian rowed hard, perhaps hard enough that one o' the oars snapped."

"Oh no," she gasped, hand cupped against her lips. At that point, he said, Willie told him to wear the floaters while they drifted along the violent winds.

"I was wearing it, mind. But again, I was but four years less than a decade and I wasna this big," he glanced down to his own size, "so I slipped straight out of the vest when the boat flipped over to its rear. Ian was left to swim on the surface, either to push the boat back up, or to climb up the wood, I dinna ken. Maybe he wanted to keep away from the water since it was freezing. While he was at it, Willie went down to look for me."

"And he found you," The moment he blinked, she felt a soft pat of wetness against the surface of her chin.

"Aye," he nodded, blinking once more. "Just in time before events took a turn for the worse."

He must have choked on water while he trodded to keep afloat. Exhausted too, maybe. When help came from Invermoriston, as their boat had drifted on that far side of the loch, he was already cold dead. Hypothermia, she assumed; the loch, as far as she knew, was bitterly cold, almost dropping down at an average of five decrees Celsius all year round.

"I'm sorry," the story did the trick in keeping her mind away from the previously awkward encounter, which did come to mind, but only to compare itself with the engulfing grief that loomed within the depths of her heart. She felt sad for him; his brother, a young boy at the age of eleven, was his hero. "He did love you, Jamie."

"Aye," he smiled to the toy, and then back at her. "Thank ye, Sassenach."

"I haven't done anything."

"You've done a lot just by listening," He patted her shoulder. "That I know ye were concerned, simply because ye were...and I'm grateful that ye asked me."

"So, if it made you so upset up until today, does that mean you blame yourself then?" She inquired, "because of what happened?"

He nodded.

"Still earning forgiveness?"

He nodded again, eyes now slightly devoid of sorrow when he focused on her. "For that, and a lot of other things. It wasna supposed to happen, ye see. Was a rather daft thing to cross the loch with naught but a rowboat, but then it did happen, because... weel." The distant look he made towards a crevice by the hallway's wall remained adrift for a moment, before he cleared his throat and looked at her. "We usually take the liberty to blame ourselves for events which we canna avoid, especially when we ken we've people we wish to save from it, do ye no agree?"

She didn't want to, but her life has been a series of dead-ends that her head mindlessly nodded in agreement.

"But this, you...it isna yer fault. All this. Dinna blame yerself for what happened, Claire. None of what's taken place in your life, whatever it was—or whoever it was—tis no yer fault. It was courage that led ye here. Not cowardice." This time he held her hand once more, and she squeezed back, telling him the exact same thing.

Only, without the words.

 


 

She found herself squeezing the same, warm hand that morning. Glancing down at her watch, the digital display blinked a bright green 6:10 AM.

"How are ye?" He asked, and she clearly knew what his answer would be if she gave him the same question. "Are ye feeling better?"

"You'd be the opposite of me, I reckon. Your eyes are almost as red as your hair." Mondays weren't his teaching days, she presumed, seeing how Jamie was dressed up ready for the dirty work at the stables. "Is it horse day today?"

"More like clean-up-the-horse-shite day, lass. Best be holding my hand while tis clean," He playfully remarked, giving her hand a little shake before letting go. Whatever it was, she and Jamie may have unknowingly shared an unspoken message when they held each other's hands. "Come, Sassenach. Dinna wish to keep ye from saving lives." Pulling out his car keys from his pocket, Jamie made a double wink, his eyes sloppily blinking together like a tired owl. Clearly he was attractive, that being an undeniable fact, but it was also fact that one can never have it all.

"And I suppose I don't want to keep you from shoveling shit." She quipped, blinking the thought away.

He laughed then, walking towards her side of the car to open the door with an amused expression. "It's a matter of life and death too, the smell. Come, then. I mean to send ye off to work as soon as possible."

Jamie didn't linger on for long as soon as they got the car out of the repair garage. Thankfully, the fees didn't cost much to get her secondhand sedan back on the road, and as soon as he took off for work, she was back on her own driver's seat again.

Before she could step on the gas, however, she found that there'd been a package left by the dashboard. It was a small brown envelope parcel, with its substantial thickness taking the form of what seemed like stacked postcards and letters. There was a note behind it, but she took the liberty to check what was inside first before going through the note.

They weren't letters nor postcards, but a substantial stack of multicolored strips of hard plastic, transparent in material. One set had pieces as wide as kinder flashcards and came in different, bright colors, while the other set came in with thinner strips with guided grey linings. After riffling through the package, she gathered ten sets of strips with varying sizes and colors. She didn't know exactly what it was, if they were bookmarks or something else, until she saw the printed note beneath the parcel.

 

Put these on top of the pages when you go over a book together, whichever color suits to Faith's liking. The lass said she liked rainbows, and maybe this will help with her reading.

It's going to be hard at first, but you just have to make a little sacrifice.

And a little faith to go with it.

Trust me, Sassenach.