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November 2013

Deep breaths, fucker! As hard as it may seem, Jamie tried his best to focus on his breathing, on the way his chest rose and fell, rather than on rage that rang in his head. If he let his temper consume him, he knew he'd hyperventilate and spiral out of control.

The attempt to focus was a complete failure, clearly.

He was already fuming from within for minutes since Dougal phoned him, and though he may not see it, he could literally feel every ounce of blood rushing through his veins like hellfire the moment he heard the first four words: there was a mistake.

What else could go wrong with an uncle who worked in a cryobank?

Christ, I wannae punch someone. I wannae skin the hell out of someone!

That someone was Dougal Mackenzie.

Jamie never knew he could hanker this much to wring someone's neck until this phone call, but there was no way he could pummel his own uncle for the wrong he'd done when he was bound to stay in Boston for a couple of years. He looked around instead, finding something else to take his frustrations out on.

His eyes caught a suitable target. An ash tree.

Fast like lightning, he rose from the park bench, stomping his way towards the ash. The wood was standing a few meters away from the wee park playground, where children hopped and screamed at each other, completely unaware of how their shrill voices could be a culprit for hearing loss. While most of the bairns scuttered about the playset, some of the wee rascals were idly standing by the slide's wooden ladder, patiently waiting for their turn. The wait was too long, perhaps, that they busied themselves watching the red man scream Gaelic profanities on the phone.

God. Children.

They were looking at him. Jamie could feel their wide, doe-eyes taking him accusingly from head to foot, as though they knew of the guilt that was consuming him.

"What?!" He didn't mean to scream at bairns, nor did he intend to scare them, but he had already let out a roar of sheer outrage. They stepped back, fear splayed in their faces made plump by toddlerhood. "Stop leering and mind yer own business!"

"Hey, hey! Quit it, they're just kids!" One of the women standing nearby yelled at him while protectively cupping a kid's ears with two fat hands. The kid must be her son, since she selectively displayed her concern, while the other frightened weans who stood by kept crying.

"Jamie," Dougal's voice was warped on the phone. "Enough, lad! Sit yerself down, and dinna make a scene—"

"Ye shut yer filthy gob! This is yer fault!" He sneered on the phone, back now turned away from the playset. He could hear a distant wailing sound, and a chorus of angry women telling him to flee the area.

Jamie treaded heavily on the next tree instead, with the same intention to hit. Instead of a playground, a pond was resting from about roughly four meters away, a wee house for floating water lilies.

He closed in his distance towards the elm tree; the subdued swaying of the tree's branches made it look like it trembled at the sight of Fraser's balled fists: big and ready to pummel the living hell out of its trunk.

"Jamie, are ye there?" Dougal's voice rumbled on the phone speakers, but his nephew was too busy to answer. He could only hear the strained grunting and hissing noises, along with a sound that he could only describe as fists colliding with something hard.

"Jamie. Listen to me. I ken it was a mistake, and I am terribly sorry, but ye have to listen first, aye? I need ye to—are ye even listening?"

Clearly, he wasn't.

His mobile was tucked securely in his pocket as he began throwing one heavy blow after another against the hard wood, knuckles already bleeding by the time he feebly reached back for his phone.

"Fuck you, Dougal," his hands were trembling and sore. "Fuck. You."

"Dinna be daft to injure yerself just because of this. It's no like it's yer responsibility—"

"Daft! Now, I'm the one who's daft?! And it's —it's no my responsibility, ye say? I've got nothing to do wi' it?"

"Ye have nothing to do wi' it!" A shrug echoed on the phone. "Stop it, aye? Ye have the money. That's what ye wanted. Is that no the reason why ye're in Boston, hmm? Twenty grand is a hefty amount, so will ye do yerself a favor by no overreacting and start looking at how this has benefitted your family? Ye needna think of Lallybroch anymore—"

"Ye fucking clipe!" The rage in his voice caused one of the parkgoers nearby to flee. They must've thought him mad, he thought to himself.

But indeed, he was mad.

"I never thought ye'd do this— this... ye think I can live as if it didna happen just because I have the money?! Ye think forgiveness can be bought? Is this gonnae make everything normal?! Is that what ye think, ye sick arse?!"

"I told ye, lad. I didna ken how it happened. I tell ye, I was so sure I labeled it perfectly!" Jamie wanted to listen, but he couldn't bear to listen to Dougal's reasons, regardless if he were telling the truth or not. His blood scorched with anger at the sound of his voice. "I swear to God I never tried to manipulate the vials, and ye ken I was gonnae use yours for anything except giving it to a client. I would never...I'm sorry. Alright? I wanna make it up to ye, but I dinna ken how, so I had to lie to Jenny that ye missent some of the money to me when I handed it over."

"What, does she ken about it?"

"She'll be mad if she knew about it. I would never tell her."

"I would kill ye if ye told her—"

"I didn't. Do ye think I'd tell anybody about this? This will cost me my license, ninny."

"Och. What a fine thing for ye to say! Tis no like I'm the one who mistook my nephew's seed for someone else's, and gave it to needy clients spot on!" Nephew and uncle spat continuously on the phone until Mackenzie called it quits.

"I'll include the insemination fees to yer income. Does that sound good?

"What—sound good? Nothing has sounded good ever since ye called me!"

"It's around five, six grand. Add it up with the twenty and ye needna work an extra year to pay up yer debts."

"Are we gonna keep lying to Jenny and Ian?"

"If it makes things easier, then aye, it shall be done."

"Do ye think it's that easy for me?" Jamie shook as he stood, his teeth chattering from sheer anger, and then came in a stronger surge of it that he dug his fingers through the elm's bark, picking and peeling them with his fingernails. God, he was furious. "Whether ye give me a million or no, I'm damned because of you!"

"Ye are damned one way or the other!" His uncle brought his voice up to compete with his shouting, "Listen! It's either ye save yer guilty arse or ye save what yer father's left ye. Focus on what matters, lad! Ye couldha lost Lallybroch—s'well as everything yer family cared about—without the money, ye ingrate."

Dougal was right.

He hated it that Dougal was right.

Jamie could crush his phone and slam it against the concrete, but he was still using the little of what was left of his self-control not to. Spending for a new mobile just because of his outrage didn't seem to be reasonable, especially when he was trying to save money for Lallybroch.

But then he had money now. He just earned twenty grand in a blink of an eye.

And he would probably gain more, since Dougal was going to add more to the sum, relinquishing his profit from the procedure fees. However, if his uncle ever thought it would repair anything, he thought wrong.

Jamie sloppily angled himself against the tree sometime later, thinking of how messed up his situation was. How was he supposed to tell Jenny now, when he promised her that he wouldn't do anything other than find a decent job to help pay their dues? It took him months to convince his sister about working in Leoch, and that debate had lasted them months to the point of it being almost impossible. If she ever found out her brother earned a hefty amount of hard cash in exchange for seed, he might as well stay in Boston forever. Jamie could only think of the many ways Jenny would make his life a living hell once the news broke.

More than that, Jenny knew how his condition wouldn't qualify him as a donor. She knew that as much as he did.

Looking down at his bloodied knuckles, he blinked his eyes, letting his tears drop and gently pat against the painful red that oozed from his torn and bruised skin.

"Ye want to make it up to me, then?"

The offer sent Dougal gasping in surprise. "How?"

"Tell me everything there is to know."

"What?"

"Tell me everything." His breath hitched and rasped through the lump in his throat. Even his body wasn't at its most sensible state to know exactly what to do. Was he supposed to cry? Was it better to be mad?

Was it more sensible to do both? Certainly it wouldn't do him any good, but hot tears were falling as he roared on the phone. "Everything."

"I can't tell ye that, lad. Anything but that."

"I deserve to know."

"Jamie," He softened his voice, despite his annoyance. "Anonymity has to be kept—"

"I deserve to know, bastard!" Jamie slammed his foot on the base of the elm at impulse, but he didn't wince despite the pain. "I wouldna let ye keep anything from me again!"

He was shouted shamelessly on the phone, with his free fist punching the hard surface of the tree until there were visible stains of red trickling down the coarse bark.

Twenty grand. It was definitely a breath of fresh air.

But all that relief at the expense of his sanity could never be counted as relief at all.

"Ye...have to tell me, Uncle. Please." His teeth dug deep in his bottom lip, desperation emanating from his voice. "I've been kept out of the light. And this...all this...I...need to know. I need to. I dinna think I can function well if I have naught a single clue about it," and while he was at it, waiting for Dougal to answer, he began to count backwards for good measure.

It could have happened a month after he left. Or he might be a month late from the news. Either way, it was just enough time for a baby to be conceived.

"Ye needna tell me if it was a boy or a girl. Aye? Ye needna tell me how he or she looked like. That would be too much to ask. I ken that. I won't go any further, I just...need to ken if everything is fine."

He was shaking in desperation, and Dougal could hear, much more feel, how furious and afraid he sounded on the phone.

He knew exactly why his nephew was shaking. He had full knowledge of what he was afraid of.

Jamie could hear distant pacing on the other end of the call. It seemed as though Dougal was walking down an empty hall, and then soon later, a door slammed shut. Locks were twisted and bolted.

It was eerily quiet.

"I'll say it once, because I agree that ye deserved to know. Are ye alone right now?" Dougal spoke at last.

"I am,"

"You're sure ye have no friends wi' ye?"

The only friend he's ever made ever since he landed in Boston was John Grey, and clearly, he wouldn't be leaving his post at Ardsmuir Pub until one in the morning. "I said I'm alone."

"Where are ye, exactly? I heard mad blathering earlier."

"Och. I was in a playground. I left."

"Are ye not taping this in any way?"

Jamie shed a tear. "No. No, I'm not. Why would I?" He honestly didn't think it necessary to record their conversation. If it was to help him remember, this moment alone was enough to haunt him for a lifetime.

Dougal cleared his throat then, and Jamie felt his chest tighten in anticipation as his fingers clawed nervously against the tree, peeling pieces of bark from time to time. By the time he'd scraped a substantial amount of bark off the poor trunk, he was given an answer.

"Ye fathered twins, lad."

Twins.

The world seemed to stop and crumble beneath his feet. Twins.

Jamie shuddered at the thought of two innocent souls existing, the two souls he'd helped bring, but he'd never get the chance of meeting; he wasn't too keen on the idea of being a parent, not at his young age, not when his family relied upon him to save their home, until his mind conjured up the wails of a newborn as it made their entrance to the world. Young and sweet and innocent...

...and never a mistake, no matter the circumstances.

He felt it odd that he began to rethink his thoughts, but nothing has felt so perfectly right than accepting the truth, and the peril that came with it. I'm a father. 

Young and incapable and absent, but still, a father. 

Perhaps they weren't unwanted by him, after all.

In fact, his heart shattered and ached for the bairns he would probably live without ever getting that chance to meet them.

Two.

Twins.

"I dinna have time to find out whether it was a boy, or a girl, or if they were both boys or both girls. Didna ken how they looked like. But there were two of them brought out of the room. They were the only weans born that day."

Twins.

Dhia.

Twins.

They're twins.

Jamie's legs went numb and then soft, and then back to its numbness, and the next thing he knew, his knees slammed against the ground.

Suddenly, he forgot how to breathe. He forgot how to swallow the growing lump down his throat. He forgot everything that was there to remember for a split second.

All that lingered in his heavily-burdened heart was that he had helped two souls into the world. His flesh and blood.

His children. Legal or not, he had some tiny bit of right to at least call them his own.

And then came the heavier slam on his chest when the facts sank deep. They were his children, but they will never be his.

And neither can they claim him to be theirs.

"Are they..." he paused, unsure of his words. He was not—and probably will never be—used to ask such questions, but his heart has bled with so much concern and worry that he simply had to ask. Jamie bit his lip, but then his sobs were beyond his control he began to cry.

"Are they...h-how were they? Were t-they healthy? Christ. I'd... I might blame myself if they're not. They-they have to be."

He never thought he'd ask such questions as a nineteen-year-old.

Babies weren't supposed to be in his list of concerns, but now it was here, the truth inevitable and wanting to be noticed. And despite Dougal or anybody telling him that he had no responsibility over them, he was beginning to feel something grow within him, like a strong will to protect, tugging and thrashing the back of his mind and he didn't know how and where he could smother all this energy on. It was like forcibly pushing a square block inside a round-shaped hole. How on earth could it possibly fit in?

"They're braw, Jamie. Fought together to make it out. One of them almost didna make it, though." Jamie let out a soft gasp at his uncle's news. "The bairn was smaller than the other, I think. One was placed in an incubator, ye see, while the other was swaddled and cradled in the nurse's arms, taken to the nursery before I left. Dinna fash. The bairn will be fine, I think."

"You were there?"

"I had to be. The moment I found out there was an error, I immediately knew they were yours, and that the mother was carrying your child—children, rather." Dougal's voice faded in between Jamie's sniffles. It turns out he treats them as his blood just as much as he did.

Jamie was peeling more bark off the lower part of the trunk, going further down to its roots where it scathed his fingers more. The sun was already setting. From a distance, he could see the playset already free from frolicking children.

One of them almost didna make it. He punched one of the protruding roots. And I wasna there.

Christ.

What have I done?

"I had no idea how to break it to ye then. But they were kin, regardless, so I had to see them safe, but I didna join their parents while they waited. Just stayed from afar."

"And ye kept all this from me?"

"Because I was worrit about this, exactly."

"What?"

"This. Exactly what ye're doing. I ken how ye feel about bairns, and mothers, and childbirth. And also how Ellen's passing affected ye. Ye'd act up, and act up ye did, so I thought it better to let ye lash out now when they were out, and when ye were far away."

"So that I wouldna try finding them, is that it?"

His uncle sighed, the way he always did when he rolled his eyes at him. "Ye ken how ye are no supposed to, lad. The donorship may have been a terrible mistake, but that's that. They must not know."

He huffed a sigh. How long has he been crying?

"Jamie, ye canna be near them, and I willna let ye risk yer person to cause trouble, and put the both of us in danger if ye try doing something daft. I ken how ye value family, Jamie. Anybody ye consider kin...ye would gladly fight for them. And these two children, even if ye hadna seen them, I had the smallest idea that they were no an exception to that stubborn heart of yers.

"Do ye understand now? I had to wait until the birth was done. And for the record, James, ye are nothing but a donor. A helper. No a parent. Remember that. Those are two things you will be and you will never be to them, respectively."

It wasn't until he gazed up to his hand that he realized he broke his wrist. As to when, he couldn't remember. It might've been caused by that last punch, but it did nothing to disconcert him. He didn't care about the throbbing pain at all. Better to distract himself with a pain that was tangible than to feel his own heart be torn apart.

A helper. Not a parent.

Those are two things you will be and you will never be to them, respectively.

He brought his sleeved arm to his cheek and wiped both sweat and tears. "Where's is the wee bairn? The...the smaller one? Is the bairn safe?"

"I told ye I didna linger on to check. But I've faith the bairn will be safe."

He blinked when he was hit with a new epiphany.

Mother.

"And the mother? What about their mam? Is she alright?"

The time it took for his uncle to reply scared him stiff. "Dougal?"

"Aye?"

He didn't like the sound of his voice either. "Ye are scaring the living hell out of me. How is the mother?"

Dougal made a heavy sigh. Jamie didn't like it when he sighed like that.

"Dougal." God, he wanted to cry. "Please. She has to be alright."

"It was... She..." he kept silent, not because he didn't have the answer, but because he was calculating how things would turn out when he spoke. Jamie could feel it; he knew what was coming, feeling his heart skinned by every second that passed by.

"She ended up like Ellen, lad."

But to hear it with his own ears was potent enough to break his heart.

"No..." The mere thought of it made him feel the bile rising in his throat. "No...shite, no. Please... It's no true."

Is she dead?

She can't be dead, can she?

No. Please. She can't be gone. If she were, then who would take care of them?

"The physicians came rushing and flocking."

"Stop. Just... Dinna talk."

"Jamie. I didna see everything, but the father he... he just began to cry."

Stop, he exhaled.

Just stop talking.

It was becoming a warbled mix of voices, but he caught him say words he dreaded to hear, almost sharply scathing his wame. Oxygen, hemorrhage, flatline, defibrillator...

"Stop. Please." Jamie cried. "No."

He wanted the truth, and there it was, splayed out before him like knives.

She died. The mother died.

And it was his fault.

As much as he hated Dougal for causing all of this to happen, he was filled with rage and resentment for himself.

The mother's gone, and his unknown children were now orphaned of a mother because of him.

To make things worse, he couldn't do anything about it.

He didn't bother pressing End Call. Frustration took over and led him to slam his phone against the tree. The mobile cracked and shattered before him, and Jamie, still not satisfied, picked up the mess and kicked it far enough to crash on the nearby pond.

"Fucking twenty grand."

 


 

October 2018

"Another one? You look like you need a bottle."

Jamie turned his eyes towards his glass, now completely devoid of its contents, before giving John a dismissive frown.

"I do need a bottle," he murmured, tilting his glass so that the last few drops of whisky trickled down where gravity pulled them all together, "but if ye are willingly boozing my heid up just to draw out answers, ye needna give me more. I'd give my thoughts free-of-charge."

"Then perhaps that means I'm giving you a glass, free-of-charge. For your sudden generosity, that is."

"My generosity asks for one condition, though."

"And what would that be?" John asked, while the man before him brushed his fingers through the loosened locks of his red hair. He instantly caught a whiff of pinewood and hay, and a little bit of horses. Of course John had a certain fondness for how Jamie smelled so masculine at the end of the day, particularly Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, where he surrounded himself with horses instead of groups of sweaty and drooling youngsters.

Once Jamie settled back to rest his elbows against the table, he slightly pushed his glass towards Grey. A silent request to give him the drink.

"I need ye to listen to me. Before ye even try to shove some friendly wisdom, ye have to hear me out first." Jamie was humorless as he spoke, causing John to feel something slightly beneath what fear actually felt like. "Ye are the only one who kens about what happened, John. Will ye promise that ye'll no nag me and tell me what and what not to do?"

"It's about the kids, then?" The silence was enough response for him to know in a stroke. John poured him another glass, which was in reply a silent vow to fulfill his request. "It still amazes me how you're completely in love with the idea that you fathered kids."

"Ach. Ye think it's romantic to loll around feeling guilty and ashamed of what's happened?"

He let him off with a snort. "Alright. Speak up, and I'll listen."

Apart from amusement, John felt deep concern for Fraser's actions, which where oftentimes too brazen that he might—if he weren't careful—expose a secret he shouldn't tell, regardless if the kids truly were his issue or not.

"I have to admit I was after the truth."

"I really can't stop you, can I?" Grey asked, and Fraser raised a ruddy brow.

"I never asked ye to."

"I'm just concerned of your actions. You tend to be an intense bastard, sometimes."

Jamie made a throaty laugh. "And ye tend to be a canny bastard sometimes. Tryna milk information by offering me a dram during the weekend, so there. We're even."

Milk? John could think of other things at the word. "I said I was just concerned."

"Ye ken I wouldna lie to ye, John."

"But you tend to keep things, James. That's what concerns me. You may have plotted out a plan to find your children without me knowing." The way Jamie stretched against the counter before setting his arms against it made him slightly wet his lips. Fraser always stretches his arms like a cat when he sat by the counter.

He could, right then and there, come up with a list of the many ways he imagined how Fraser would take him by the counter.

After some time, blue eyes gazed at him, causing him to blink away nervously, throwing all wanton thoughts aside. "What if I told ye I do have a plan? What would ye do then?" The thick accent went smoother with the whisky.

"You're kidding,"

"Aye I am. Ye actually thought I came up with such a thing?"

"Perhaps. When no one's looking."

Jamie cocked his head to the side, seemingly confused at his friend's reply. It took John a moment to realize he has not completely abandoned the very realm of his unchaste imaginations.

Damn you, Fraser.

"I... hmm. I uh, I dinna ken what ye're talking about. But going back, I've no plan at all. However," he folded his hands around the glass, finger over finger, with just enough space for him to fidget with his drink. "I canna keep myself away now. Would it no be better to be present in the uncertain than to never be there at all, and be damned soon later when ye find out everything was true?"

"Good point. However, you would be wasting precious time doing all of that with a troubled mind."

"I thought so too, but that was until she told me something verra important about them."

"Oh, she did?" John was taken aback, slightly impressed at his progress. The deal was to never ask, but he was being given his answers. "Well, you're quite a lucky man. What did she have to say that made you this certain they were yours?"

Jamie bit the corner of his lip, and John knew this nonverbal cue as something indicative of him being deep in thought.

"Dyslexia. One of them has it." He said proudly after what seemed like a minute of brooding. John didn't seem fazed by the revelation. He waited a little, and when Jamie looked like he had already said what was needed to be said, he chortled a nervous laugh while the Scot leered, indicating a mild sense of puzzlement.

"That's...it, James? That's all there is?"

"Mmhmm. Are ye no convinced?"

John arched his brow quizzically. "I...well, I just don't quite understand why that small fact could add up to the truth."

"It's hereditary, that's what." the Scot drank from his glass again, now bringing the golden-amber down to the middle of the glass. If it came to whisky, Jamie was a noted guzzler. "This is why the mix-up wasn't supposed to happen, because I'm by no means qualified to donate.

"You mean...you are dyslexic?"

"Aye,"

"How come you didn't tell me?"

"Ye never asked."

"But you... well... Jesus, how do you manage to drive?"

Jamie rolled his eyes. "I can drive. 'Tis the words I'm having trouble with."

"Which is exactly my point." John crossed his arms and leaned against the opposite side of the counter, looking at him levelly. He was curious and interested. "How do you even read traffic signs when you can't even read?"

"I can read, Christ. I never said I couldna!" He appeared honestly offended. "It just takes a wee bit of time because the words fly about like wee buntings. The landmarks help, I tend to look at the buildings more than I spend time reading the wee green signs."

John held up the whisky bottle and tapped his finger on its glossy surface. "How about this. This one, right here. Can you read this?"

"Laphoraig," The absurdity of this conversation made Jamie chuckle. "It's a one-liner. Give me a paragraph and ye'll see me squint and gouge my eyes oot."

"Oh, alright. But well, I dinna think it's, well...isn't that bloody eugenics if they try to stop you from...from donating? You can't say such things, Fraser. It's as if you're invalidating your own existence."

"I'm no invalidating myself. I'm plainly telling ye the banks are strict about it. I wouldna have passed if ever came to the lab with that sole purpose. And besides...nobody stopped me, John. It...wasna a matter of donating, since it, weel, my seed wasna meant to be given away."

The conversation was put to a momentary pause when two customers—a couple—suddenly wound up the counter asking for two shots of tequila. Hands all over and a faint love-bite against the lady's neck told John of how the night was just about to begin for them.

Once John had served the guest—lime, salt and liquor served in two full glasses—he padded back to Jamie's side of the counter, asking him to continue.

"If it were only me, it wouldha been alright. But there are other parents who willna understand these kinds of disorders, and Miss Beauchamp's husband--her then husband, is one of them." He sighed, remembering Claire cried her heart out about the past. He couldn't bear seeing wee Faith and Brianna suffer this kind of treatment from their father.

And if they were indeed his—red hair, slanted eyes, all his features both the beautiful and the ugly displayed before him, as though seeing double vision of his younger years, Jamie felt that he had to do something, anything to help them.

Anything to make up for the mistake he's done.

He wanted them, he remembered her say about Frank. He was supposed to want them.

What kind of parent would choose one from the other? Moreso, what kind of father would not hold his own young?

"Is that what scares you then? Thinking that perhaps your dyslexic children gets misinterpreted by others?"

"I'm scairt of a lot of things, but aye John. That scares me the most because it had happened."

"So you're quite certain that they're yours now?"

Jamie didn't answer, which was, in itself, already an answer. He would have been a hundred-percent sure by now, if it weren't for one tiny detail.

"I just dinna understand how she got into the picture." Jamie scratched the back of his head.

"Who?"

"Claire," he replied with a long and deep sigh. "Miss Beauchamp. She didna seem so sure about the bairns when we talked. Kept telling how she didna ken why or how they are that way, but I can tell honesty from lies. She didna seem to be giving me the latter."

John nodded in agreement. "It couldn't be her, could it? Because mum, she's...well. She's gone."

Some people claim that constant subjection to pain helps in numbing both body and soul.

But death, as well as the grief and the guilt that came along with it, may be impossible for Jamie to move on from.

John understood. He knew Jamie had to deal with countless deaths his entire life: his brothers, his parents, and even if she wasn't necessarily kin to him, he also had to deal with the death of the woman who bore his unknown children. She didn't even live long enough to see them grow.

The way his blue eyes sullenly darted down on the floor were telling that he still wasn't over it.

"She may be a second wife, for all we know. That is if you're truly on the right track. If not, it's all just plain coincidence." John tried to sound a little encouraging. "Rupert and the others think you like her. Is that true, then? Or are you curious of her?"

"I dinna ken. I thought I did. Aye—weel, maybe." He blushed at the memory of how his body reacted to the feel of the Sassenach against him. "Now I... I think I'm more suspicious of her."

The attraction he had for Claire couldn't be denied; he found her bonny the moment they first met. To add, she had something about her that made him unlock a part of his secret space, letting her into Willie's tragic end, which was one of his basis for his wee Malcolm stories. He never spoke of it to anyone in Boston, not even John, even if they'd known for each other for a substantial amount of time.

Maybe he did feel something deeper than attraction.

But as much as it was undeniable, her identity had become a crucial mystery to be solved. It hovered above like a dark heavy cloud, dimming the way just when he was close—so close—to the truth.

Who was she? And why was she here?

Perhaps John was right, he bit his lips. If it were indeed Faith and Bree, their legal father must have remarried, putting Claire in the picture. If so, then he prayed that God would bless that woman for loving those kids unconditionally.

"May I..." John took his cup and set it on the side, "...give my friendly words of wisdom now?"

"Go ahead." Jamie's head was throbbing both with the usque and the boggling facts splayed in his mind. Faith. Brianna. Whisky. Claire. Whisky. Dyslexia. Mum. Dougal. More whisky.

"It's more of a hypothesis I'll be presenting, actually." John interrupted his warped track of thought. "What if it were her?"

Thick auburn brows furrowed, confused. "What do ye mean by that?"

"I meant exactly what I said. What if she lived? What if it was indeed Miss Beauchamp who birthed them?"

"The mother died when they were born, John."

"But—"

"Were ye there when they were born? Dinna think so." Jamie wasn't having any of it. "Nah. Let's just...respect the woman's peace by giving her peace."

"But you see..." he planned to get into the details, but when the Scot distanced himself from the counter, looking away, he relented. "Alright. I'm sorry, James."

Silence was his answer, but John could see how his lips quivered in guilt, and in shame.

He wanted to tell him, assure him, that whatever happened—both birth and death—was not his fault. The dark walls he'd built for himself was too thick to get his words across. Jamie was going to live his life wondering and wallowing in grief.

The only ones who could pull him out of it were those two, whoever and wherever they may be.

May they find you, Jamie. His hand reached for his arm, but then he paused, and decided not to even though he wanted to spread a little of the comfort he could; he decided to simply stare at him in silence.

When you can't go to great lengths in finding them, Christ. I wish they find you.

But if that time does not come, will you still be able to forgive yourself?

"Thank you, John." His voice was low and sullen, but sincere in every way. "Ye listened. It's all that matters to me now." Jamie wearily stood up, fishing his wallet by the time he had better balance.

"Don't. It's on me." He waved a hand dismissively the moment he saw Abraham Lincoln's calm, deep-set eyes looking out in the open. "I'm not letting you pay when you've poured out a lot."

His lips curved into a soft smile, grateful for yet another free glass of whisky, and then he turned away, making heavy, staggered steps to the pub's exit. He passed by the two other customers lounging by the bar, not minding how the lass gave him a quick, lustful glance while her boyfriend leaned against her as he bit her earlobe.

The place was darker now than when he first arrived earlier that night, except for the well-lit parking lot where his car waited for its owner. Jamie knew he was going to spend a few minutes there before his head was clear enough to make his way home. He drove Claire Beauchamp to the shop earlier that day with his trusty secondhand Civic, just before he left for work.

Lazily, he brought his wrist close to his eyes as he sat on his seat. 11:36 PM.

In about nine hours, he was going to meet her and the lasses again. Spend half a day staring at every feature of her twins. Every golden streak that stood out of the copper-red hair. Every freckle in their cheek. That wee birthmark behind one of the lasses' ears. The way one of them slurred their syllables.

He never knew he was actually being very pensive about the twins until Claire pointed it out.

But she never told her that.

He wouldn't have told her about Willie either, but he had to tell her something—anything but that.

Just before he was about to start his car, he saw something fluttering above and towards his direction.

Plovers don't usually wind up in busy places, such as Ardsmuir. It made him rethink of the surrounding area. Maybe it came from the pond nearby. He wasn't sure.

But the little fellow seemed so sure of its target. It swooped down to the Civic's hood, almost slipping on its tracks when it landed. Dark eyes blinked towards him, before it tapped its blunt beak against his windshield.

"Hullo," he whispered breathily, and he knew straightaway he'd drank too much. "Looking for yer nest?"

It squawked all of a sudden. Had it not been for the windshield, Jamie was certain this wee mother plover would try to gouge his eyes out. His eyes stared wearily at the little fowl as it hopped around his car, and tears instantly welled up his eyes.

Is it ye, lass?

It's been so long.

The plover screeched again, before it flew away, only to come back and do the whole sequence. Screech. Tap. Flutter. Swoop. Screech.

Jamie felt bad for it. Felt bad for them.

For his mother.

For the mother who died without seeing her daughters.

For him, who will live with the looming pangs of heavy conscience. 

He watched in silence, waiting for the plover to take its time until it had decided to flee.

"Gum beannaicheadh Dia thu, a nighean." He crossed himself before starting his car.

As much as Jamie wanted to alter the past and make it a pleasant one, this was reality.

Painful, but real.

 


 

"I don't like this."

"Faithie, can you just start reading it?"

"No." The little girl groaned to her twin sister. Both of them were seated side by side by one of the yurt's working desks, facing a wee picture counting book. One Duck Stuck was its title, the cover page vibrant with colors of green, orange and white. Besides having catchy font designs, the book came along with an illustration of a white duck waddling by the grass. Just beside the picture book were three of the strips Jamie had gifted her almost two weeks ago; he particularly instructed Claire to pack a few of them in Faith's schoolbag just so he and the other teachers could find a way for Faith to start reading like the other bairns.

Faith was already content with the front page, so it seemed. She had been wearily staring at it for minutes, with her arms crossed and her stubby hands tucked in her armpits. But never in the past few minutes since they were asked to sit did she flip the book open.

"She ruined that book?" Claire whispered to Jamie, who was seated beside her, his arms crossed against his chest in the same manner her daughter did. While the twins were seated on the working table, the two adults sat comfortably beside each other, observing. Jamie called for her to come inside the yurt ten minutes ago, just after classes ended and the rest of the kids were dismissed for the day. He said nothing more than for her to come and witness something special, something he'd been working on with the two girls over the past week.

"Aye, that's the book. The one I thought she ruined because of a wee tantrum," he whispered back with his wide blue eyes still fixed towards the two girls on the table who were also having their own hushed discussions. "The school has an inventory of the books, ken. When one gets damaged, the staff immediately finds a replacement. They'll buy it wi' the fees ye paid for when ye got them in here. But this one's a different copy, 'tis printed wi' letters that help lasses like her, if that even makes a difference, which I personally think doesna. But Geneva suggested we give it a try so—"

"Are you not afraid?"

"Afraid of what, Sassenach?"

"That she might ruin it again." Her whisky eyes darted towards the two small redheads, and then back at the larger one. "Look at her. She hasn't flipped a page. She could rip it apart in her dismay, for all we know."

Jamie made an amused Scottish sound. Strangely, she wanted him to make that sound again; it was amusing how he could converse with just a brief 'hmmphmm' sound.

"I'm no the one paying when she destroys it. Hell, she can tear apart an entire library and I willna have to worry because they'll charge it on ye. And ye think I'm afraid?"

Claire scoffed. Sometimes she didn't like his sense of humor, if that even counted as a joke. It was unexpectedly peeving.

It was also unexpected to feel his hand brush against her shoulder. She looked and guessed right. It was his hand.

"Sorry. I was joking. I willna let her tear apart an entire library. But lass, can ye at least put all that worry aside and believe in her? Faith's gonna need to see that from ye today." He said with his hand still gently grasping her by the shoulder.

After that couch incident, something about Jamie Fraser made her respond oddly to his touch. He was...big, if she could recall. Big man, big hands, and sizeable in all the right places.

What the actual fuck are you thinking of, Beauchamp. Snap out of it.

It was, perhaps, the long months of heartache and of being deprived of physical intimacy that made her respond to his touch. That, unless she found it more convenient to admit that she was indeed attracted to her daughter's teacher.

Jamie was attractive. This wasn't only a fact reserved for her, but it was general truth, and every piece and part of him that made him who he was magnetized any set of eyes that caught sight of this towering height of more than six feet. She could see every Leoch mother ogling at the sight of the man whenever he walked out of the yurt and past the watcher's lounge; she couldn't brush off her mind how that scrawny blonde woman named Laoghaire brightened up when he came walking close by.

Maybe she was just like any other Leoch mum. Maybe she wasn't as different as Laoghaire.

But not all Leoch mothers had been held by Jamie.

If anything, she was certain that she was, by far, the only one who sat on his lap and cried against his chest. The only one whom he whispered warbled foreign languages in her ear. She knew all of that with the way he looked so innocently young the moment they realized—the moment he realized--how the pleasures of the flesh had taken over the soundness of his mind. As if he were surprised by it himself.

The thought of feeling him hard against her dwelt beneath her thighs, like memory foam mounded of a pressure that was long gone. It bothered her at work. It bothered her at home.

Most of all, it bothered her every single time she sat on the bloody couch that she resorted to sitting on the floor when she watched TV with Faith and Bree.

"I want to play, so can you just read the line? Fergus and Roger are going home soon." Brianna grumbled, but without raising her voice. Claire noticed Jamie's hand was no longer on her shoulder. In fact, he was no longer sitting beside her. How did she not notice that?

"I wanna play just as much as you, Bree!"

"Then read the book!"

"Aye, alright. Alright now, lass." Neither did her daughters notice that Jamie was knelt behind them. "Faith, do ye think ye can do it without the strips?"

She shook her head, frustration written all over her face. "It's just hard."

Jamie nodded. Claire loved how he was so patient with them. "Aye. It's alright. We'll go pick a color now, alright? Ooh, look at this!" He held up the yellow-colored transparent plastic. "Oh, yellow! If it isna yer favorite color! Ye love reading wi' this, don't you?"

Reading? Claire tucked her hair behind her ear, unsure whether she heard that right.

Her daughter has been reading. All this time, she was reading, and she was about to witness something she had never seen Faith do.

Claire had tried her best in helping her with the strips at home, using the sets Jamie gave her, but to no avail. It always ended up with Faith crying and Claire simply giving it up. She didn't like how her heart had settled knowing that teaching her how to read was beyond her power. Perhaps if she had the skill, she could. Or if she was not too preoccupied at the hospital. Maybe if she had that, she could devote most of her time solving Faith's frustrations.

Seeing Jamie work with her daughter made her feel hopeful and incapable at the same time. If he could get Faith's commitment to read, why can't she?

"Bree, come cheer for yer sister. She can do this, right?" Jamie turned to the lass, patting her head gently. He was given a cheery nod in reply. "Aye. Faith, are ye ready? We're about to make Mam verra proud."

The look in Faith's face as Jamie handed her the yellow plastic was worse than earlier. Claire didn't understand why she suddenly looked at her as if she wanted to cry.

"Don't cry. Do not. Do. Not. Cry." Brianna, like any other typical kid, whispered in a way that was audible for anybody from within five meters to hear. Claire didn't know what to do, but she knew she had to do something. However, the look Jamie gave her told her she would be doing them a great favor if she stayed on her seat.

"Lass," he said later, turning toward the small child, "what's wrong?"

"I don't want to read with the strips." She croaked, almost in tears as she set the plastic on the table. "I want to be like Bree. Like Marsali. I don't want... " Faith's voice suddenly hushed down to a whisper as she leaned by Jamie's ear. "Mr. Jamie, I don't want Mummy to know I'm...not normal."

Claire heard it. She heard every heartbreaking word, loud and clear.

"Oh, baby." Claire mouthed silently, not wanting to add up to the noise. Her hands were cupped above her lips and her eyes began to water.

She's now fully aware of it. Her little girl knew she's different, and it Claire was certainly gutted to hear her be ashamed of it.

Sweet girl, if you only knew how beautiful you are.

Trying her best to stay put, Claire observed how Jamie kept his position in between the girls, hovering behind them both. While Brianna was itching on her seat to go out and play, Faith sank on her chair, clearly disappointed with herself by the minute.

He kissed her head reassuringly. "Ye're special, a nighean, just as Brianna and Marsali are special in her own way. And yer Mam sees ye that way too." A big hand stroked her daughter's matted hair before it picked up the yellow-tinted strip. He held it in front of his eyes, and then lifted it up, like a silent game of peek-a-boo. "This is yer superpower!" Jamie blurted out, hissing the words with a thicker Scottish brogue.

"Like Malcolm has with his blue sword?"

"Aye, ye got that right. Like his sword." Seeing how excitement and determination was in her eyes, Jamie handed the reading aid back. "And here's Faithie's yellow sword. Ye'll see through yer enemies wi' this. Ready to give it a try?"

Faith nodded, with Brianna flipping the book open for her. She squinted her eyes, drained at first sight of the words, but Jamie guided her through it with the yellow plastic strip. "We'll read it together with Bree. Start here," Jamie pointed at the first word, its first letter six times bigger than the preceding text.

Down by the marsh,

by the sleepy slimy marsh,

Claire gulped. All of this was too much. Too good to be true.

Never in her life did she picture it to be this way. After years of frustrations, of being exposed to a treacherous homeschool teacher and a father who brought her into such emotional ordeal, Faith was making her first steps in reading.

Her baby girl was reading, verbalizing one word after another together with her sister.

And it had been Jamie who brought both of them the courage to do so.

Wiping a proud tear off her eye, Claire smiled, fumbling for her phone to record such a momentous milestone. More than the thought of Faith reading a book thrilled her heart with an abundance of joy, she was more in awe at how she was doing it with the help of others.

They were reading a book, together.

God must be good to make all these things take place for her. Oh, Lord. 

She blinked several times, thinking that she might be seeing things, but she wasn't. It was real, and she loved how tangible everything was to her senses. How she could hear her daughter's voice slur and stretch and stumble with the words. She couldn't get a phrase right, but she was trying her best. 

"Faithie dear... oh, sweet thing!" her voice was no more than a whisper as she watched in silence. Despite her eyes moistening with tears of joy, she could still find Faith's eyes move to and fro in her zoomed angle, squinting hard at every word as she read.

Later on, as Jamie flipped the last page, she was not aware that she was reading the lines on her own. All by herself.

She was braving it, on her own, with Bree holding her hand, and Jamie smoothing his palm against her back. But the voice that softly filled that small part of the playtent had been all Faith's.

"Thanks! Said the duck who...who got oof... ouf..."

"Out," Jamie whispered behind her.

"Out." Faith repeated, "Out... of the muck... down... by the..."

Come on Faith. Claire's hands were folded together, clasping the recording phone in between her grasp. Almost there.

"...deep... uh. Green." the four-year-older blinked twice, pulling herself closer to the page. "Werch."

"Marsh, lass." He whispered again, wearing a proud smile. Claire was just about to stop recording and place her phone down when something caught her attention.

Jamie.

The blue of his eyes became more vivid like the soft hues of the sea, twinkling in the light before he blinked and turned away.

He was...crying too?

"Marsh," Faith amended. She sank into her chair and suspired. "Hmm. I'm so pooped."

"I ken how ye feel. I do," he was definitely crying. It could have gone unnoticed, but Claire was an experienced weeper; he wasn't hiding it well with the way he blinked his eyes. "That was a wee bit tiring, no?"

"I'm never doing that again."

"I said the same thing before. But aye, a leannan. Ye'll do greater, greater things. Ye hear me? Both of ye?" Jamie brought a hand on each of their backs, giving each twin an encouraging pat. "Christ. Ye made it. You... I'm verra proud of both of ye."

He then whispered something in Gaelic as he gave them a tight embrace, the last frame in her recorded video. Once she pressed 'Stop', she placed her phone back to welcome her two little girls into her bosom. They padded from the tables and towards her seat.

"Mummy!" They cried repeatedly, throwing their lithe bodies in her open arms.

"Did you see Faith? Did you see everything?" Bree was the most supportive; she always was her sister's number one fan, recounting proudly at how Faith braved it.

"I saw it. I saw everything, sweetheart. Everything," Claire cooed, bringing her lips to kiss her daughters' forehead. "You were a good helper, Brianna dear! And Faith—oh, Faith!"

And this little girl felt afraid of me finding out she isn't like any other child, Claire's heart burst with joy and pity and pride altogether as she laid eyes on her girl. The same whisky color reflected her gaze. "You made it, baby!"

"You think...y-you think that was okay?"

"It was perfect, lovie. Just...just perfect. Oh, you two." She pulled them tightly against her, if it ever showed how much love there was inside of her that she wanted to feed them with.

From across, she could see Jamie, still kneeling on the floor as he watched her with a soft smile. She smiled back, and her heart wished it could tell him just how grateful she was for him.

Thank you, she mouthed.

He nodded then, and moved his lips to form silent words.

Anything for them. For ye.

 


 

Much to the twins' dismay, the other kids disappeared one by one the moment they exited the playtent, with their parents showing up minute after minute until there was nobody left to play with. Because of that, Jamie had to make it up to them by giving them a little Malcolm follow-up, just around the watcher's lounge. They sat together, teacher sitting opposite to the two girls while he began with the words, "Aye, so. Alexander Malcolm was sent off to battle." 

Claire wanted to listen in when she received a call from someone who'd been calling her almost every day of the week.

"G?"

"I just saw the video ye sent. Was that edited?"

She cackled, too loudly perhaps, since Brianna gave her a death-glare for disrupting Jamie's storytime. She distanced herself to speak to Geillis without having to keep her daughters' attention disrupted; she knew how much Malcolm meant to the both of them.

"It's all true. It's Faith, reading a book. Did you see how she managed to read the last few lines? She was good, wasn't she?"

"Aye! It's a miracle, Claire! I love how ye are filled wi' sae much pride now. See, I never knew I'd live to see her read something during her growing years. Faith's braw. But I hope Bree doesna think of herself less because of the attention Faith's getting,"

"Oh, it's not a thing to worry. I was quite mindful about it too, but then Bree had been very encouraging towards her sister."

"Selfless wee lassie. Now I'm beginning to think—and mind ye, I hate that I consider it—but moving to Boston might be one of the best decisions ye made. Dinna mind it being the shittiest thing ever happening to me, so long as it benefits ye."

"Come on. How can it be so bad for you? We talk a lot."

"It's bad, Claire. I mean, how am I not able to see my baby goddaughters grow right before my very eyes?" The pout in her voice was emphasized that she could feel every expression she made in that phonecall. "I dinna like it one bit, but I'm so proud of ye three!"

Claire giggled, before making a quick glance over the three redheads sitting by the watcher's lounge. Jamie was still engaging them with his story. He kept his voice well-modulated and in character, while he told her daughters about the lead of his story going into some kind of war training in a castle with a name that was too complicated to pronounce. Whatever and wherever it was, Jamie was just so good at coming up with bits and parts that made his story wholesome for children.

"I'm still keeping you posted, so don't worry! Being miles apart isn't going to be as hard as it seems to be. I promise I'll update you, just like what I did now."

Geillis was laughing sardonically. "Eh. Ye never told me about Teacher Jamie until days later, so ye are no really keeping me posted as I expect ye to be. Thanks for the video, though. I wasna sure whether ye were zooming in on Faith's wee face or Mr. Jamie's thick bicep."

"Huh. I told you, there's nothing...we're just friends,"

"Och, go on and tell me about it, hen." Geillis said teasingly, "If it isna ye, then it's definitely him who's fond of ye. Honestly? Ye sound as if ye forgot ye were the hottest wench in medical school that three of our upperclassmen actually considered dating ye until they saw ye wearing a wedding band. Now, if ye can send him the right signal and tell him that ye're just as single as a wheel in a unicycle—"

"Jesus H. Christ, how the hell do you even recall that?"

"Unicycles?" 

"No, dummy. The three upperclassmen!" 

"I'm no exactly a good best friend if I dinna remember all that!" She cackled at her, and much to Claire's shock, she began to sniffle, the same way she does when she cries.

She wasn't exactly a good best friend either if she let that small detail slide. "Geillis, are you crying?"

"Yes. Aye. I am. Because I'm verra proud of my wee lasses! Can ye...please send them my regards? What time is it there? I'll send ye a pizza!"

Granted she was a proud godmother, but she was beginning to sound frantic and jumpy and unreasonably not like her. "I'm not kidding. Are you alright?" Claire walked another few meters away from where she left her daughters with their story-telling teacher. "G, I don't like the way you're sounding on the phone..."

"No, really. I'm just... ach, I miss you, Claire. I think it might be the wee separation anxiety hormones, if there's such a thing. Hold a bit, someone's at the door." Her voice faded for a few seconds in a flurry of other distant noises, like the sound of a metal chair screeching against the floor, the soft and faint dragging sounds that slippered feet made, and a door opening before her. "Anyway, Claire, 'tis no much of a big deal—weel, maybe it is. I really have been missing ye so much, and not having ye here's been giving me so much adjusting to do, and—"

"Is that why you've been calling me every single day?" She asked, "Aww, Geillie. I'm sorry. Really. I...I've been doing a lot of adjusting as well, and as much as I wanted to give you a call, I got really overwhelmed with work."

"You dinna have to say that, hen. I'm sorry too, Claire, for being too—"

"Who's that?" Another voice joined in the call, someone who, based on how it sounded, was standing near Geillis, wherever she was. It was a voice of a man.

"Oh, this on the phone?" the woman replied candidly. "Claire—oh, good grief! It's Claire Beauchamp! I havena told ye about my best-est friend in the world, Dougal! We've known each other back since we were studying."

Dougal? Claire knitted her brows, her mind fully preoccupied in recounting memories of the past while Geillis' voice rambled on the phone, giving this Dougal a brief introduction of who she was.

That name.

She had heard that somewhere. She was sure of it, and if her mind was just as clear as day, she could tell straightaway where she heard that name.

But God, where was it? 

"Who's that?" She resorted to asking Geillis the same question given by the man—who was supposedly named Dougal.

"Hmm? Oh. Aye. I...weel, I havena mentioned to ye that I've been, lately, I've been dating someone."

"You're dating? Are you trying to drill heads here? Geillis Duncan is dating?"

"I told ye a lot's changed since ye left. God, I've been trying to phone ye for days to tell ye! Wait, I'll turn on my video! Tis always a great time a introductions, no?"

The moment their faces flashed on her phone screen, Claire's eyes widened in surprise.

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.

"Doctor...Mackenzie?" She whispered excitedly, loud enough for those only on the phone to hear her. "Oh, great heavens! It's you!"

Geillis blinked, puzzled. "Ye ken each other?" 

And the man—bald-headed, full-bearded and just as charming as he was when she first met him five years ago—nodded, looking as if he'd seen the most frightening of ghosts.