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Let Your Faith Ascend


August 2018.

 

The faint, yet distinctive scent of burning candles filled the air as Claire marched in the middle of the almost-empty Westminster Cathedral. Even as she walked with her head down, both eyes focused on every step she made to the altar, she could tell she had company by hearing the audible brushing of fabric against a kneeler, and the loud sneeze that echoed throughout the giant, Neo-byzantine edifice. It was already nearing closing time, she thought, seeing that some of the lights by the front of the hollow hall were being flicked off. The hushing of the chandeliers now becoming a subtle notice to every churchgoer to hasten their prayers and bring it to a close for the night.

Claire immediately shuffled to the nearest pew and knelt down, not wanting to waste precious time. The past hours, or days, or weeks (even she had not kept track of the time and tears) had been nothing but cruel and painful, almost too much to handle, and in times of great sorrow this cathedral has always been her haven of consolation, not much on the relics and statues that ought to make God's presence be known to every churchgoer, but more on the weight that this place has brought in her heart. All the heaviness of the incident many years ago—that one Sunday morning when her parents, already on their way to pick her up from Quentin Lambert Beauchamp's house, strolled out of Westminster's first Sunday Mass and skidded down Victoria Street, where a speeding cab took their lives in an instant.

Lambert, or Uncle Lamb as she'd call him, took her to the cathedral annually, on her parent's death anniversary. And now that he too was gone, Claire's visits in the church had transformed from being an act of honoring the dead to a rather odd attempt of speaking to them, as though they were alive. 

Let your faith ascend

"Oh, Uncle Lamb." She sniveled the first tear that would break the entire dam of pent-up grief. "If you were only here."

If you were only here, it would have been bearable.

And she broke, head down with both hands clutching onto the wooden armrests as reality sank deep. She was indeed alone in this battle now. With no family, no parent, not even a husband to come home to.

Claire was on her own.

Not wanting to make heads turn like the old man who sneezed for the entire church to hear, Claire folded her hands and pressed them against her lips. She could only do so much to quell her sobbing, and so she dwelt on recounting the piercing events of the previous month in her head: the tipping point of her marriage with Frank. Perhaps the dead could find their way in looking through her thoughts as she played moments over and over inside her head like a videotape nearing its decay. She imagined her Uncle Lamb, sitting idly beside her by the pews with his brows furrowed, eager to listen as she spoke the mess that she'd endured over the past weeks.

I thought Frank loved me. I was a fool to hold onto that thought for years.

Claire wept at the memory six years ago, when she and her then husband Frank were both huddled by the breakfast table after a visit at the urologist's clinic, still processing the heartbreaking news brought to them one cold November morning. She remember lovingly pulling her husband into her arms, comforting him, trying to put back the broken pieces of his heart after the news that shattered it.

Frank was sterile, unable to give Claire the children that they both hoped for.

 


 

November 2012

 

"You know I'd still love you anyway," She pressed her lips against his moist cheek; Frank had been crying his eyes the moment he started the car on their way home, and he was still at it. They were already married for two years, and after an endless cycle of trying and failing and trying once more to conceive a child of their own, they thought something might be amiss.

But now that the doctors had already deemed it impossible with the diagnosis...

"It's my fault that we can't—"

"Stop, Frank. It is not your fault. It's nobody's fucking fault!"

"Oh, must you bluff? You know you're disappointed Claire. You wanted kids, and now all of that's taken away! Gone!" With a swing of his arm, he sent their breakfast plates crashing on the wall. "I can see the disappointment in your eyes, the dismay in your face is so...so obvious that I loathe myself all the more when I look at you!"  

She can't help it, she has never been good at concealing things. Her face and expressions were as clear and transparent as glass that anybody who tried to gaze into her whisky eyes would know exactly what she thinks. 

"I am disappointed, yes I am. But not at you. How can I not love you, Frank?" Claire was begging—literally begging—for him to stop blaming himself for something none of them would have had the power to control. 

"Is this not enough reason? Am I not a terrible person for being like this? An invalid who can't be the man you wanted." that was all Frank had to say in his anguish. He stared at her with weary, bloodshot eyes. "I have failed you greatly."

"No, you haven't." She said with a bit of force in her voice. She can't let him falter. If he did, then she was more than prepared to pull him back up on his feet. "No. Look at me, Frank Randall. You are not giving up on us. I am your wife, and I love you for who you are, regardless of anything." 

Frank, despite Claire's tears and sweet assurances, just made a throaty sigh, standing up from his seat, retreating to their room. His head was sunken and feet dragging with every step he made out of the kitchen, not even bothering whether he stepped on the mess on the floor.

Clearly, she didn't know how else she could convince him of her commitment and unending devotion to him, because as days passed, not even the most passionate of kisses nor the amount of nights they would spend making love, re-exploring they way their bodies would react to their touch could keep Frank from slipping through her fingers—subtly, away from the happy life they had dreamed for themselves—since the day they found out.

 


 

He knew how badly I wanted a family of our own.

He knew I wanted kids. I think I had made that an obvious wish even before he married me.

He knew all of that. And just when the circumstances were on our favor, I thought he was willing to give that a try... Claire sighed from where she knelt. Another row of lights were flicked off in the big church.

...he wanted to give it a try, even if it meant they wouldn't be his.

 


 

February 2013

 

The blissful memory of Frank taking her to dinner at one of Clapham Common's neighborhood restaurants was brought into mind. A fine night it was, as far as her memory could take her, and it made her chuckle a bit at the reminiscence of the way Frank stared at her lovingly with his dark, soulful eyes flickering with the reflection of the candlelight, or how the deep, visible creases that stretched across Frank's cheeks curved back with his delighted grin the moment she agreed to undergo an artificial insemination procedure.

"For real?" Even Frank could not contain his joy. He held her hands, trembling with excitement even in his calm collectedness. "Will you do it for real, Claire?"

She nodded as she took in the sight before her; it has been a while since she saw Frank this happy. All the more did it made her think that perhaps going through this procedure was their answer, not only as their ticket into making a family of their own, but also as their one chance to bring back the deep intimacy and devotion they have lost along the way as a married couple. 

"Of course, I agree. I will do it." The enthusiasm in her voice grew all the more when Frank began to clasp his hands together, pressing them both to his lips to muffle down a deep sigh of relief. "But it is not only me doing this, Frank. We're a team, remember?" She was more than ready; adoption and foster care were always among the options that they had over the previous months, but they both knew that among all choices, conceiving, birthing and raising a child of their own from their very first breath of life was the option that would stand tall among others. Frank agreed to give her all the time that she needed to think about it, and now that she's given him her answer, Frank was satisfied. 

"Good things do come to those who patiently wait, don't they Claire? God, you have no idea how happy I am right now." 

He did look very satisfied.

"We'll start this from scratch, you and me. Consider the way we'll make a nest, the time we'll put into preparing for the arrival of our little one. We'll have each other, Claire." He beamed as he held her hand tightly on top of their table. "We'll build this family together. Oh, Claire, I'm...beyond words." He gently lifted her hand—the golden wedding band on her finger shining winsomely in the dim light—and he bent his head to kiss her knuckles fervently. "All the while I thought we could never make it happen. Well, technically we really won't with just the two of us but with a donor--"

"Silly you," She laughed, Claire was the one pulling his hand this time, placing his long and slender hands against her cheek. The tips of his calloused fingers, brought about by constant writing, grazed down from her ear and down to her jaw. For a brief moment, she dwelt in her present reality: her and Frank being at their happiest after a long time of grief. It felt too good to be true, but she thanked the heavens for bringing them back on track. "Parenting isn't just about blood, or genes, or whatever biological connection you have. It's intention. And we have a whole lot of it with us, Frank. A lot. Don't we?"

"We do, honey." Frank huffed, still overwhelmed and unquestionably merry-hearted. 

"All I need to know, Frank, is that you will be there for me, as I will be the same for you." Claire whispered tenderly against his fingers. You'll be there for me, won't you?"

"Of course." Frank answered, without a hint of posturing or ruse. To her, his words were genuine promises she knew she could always count on and. "I will."

 


 

Or at least it did sound genuine at the time.

She felt stupid for saying all those baseless words, much more believing in what he had to say. Had she known he'd discard all of it the moment he no longer wanted anything to do with her life, she would've brought her guard up at every word. But how was she to know that, when he'd vow her a lifetime?

While Claire had kept the doors of her heart open, waiting for him to come back despite the lonesome years they spent afterwards, Frank had already shut the door.

 


 

March 2013

 

"Dr. Mackenzie,"

Frank motioned Claire towards a tall, well-built, bald-headed man with a labcoat and a prominent beard. "This is my wife, Claire Randall. Claire, this is Dr. Dougal Mackenzie. He's the resident reproductive endocrinologist in this establishment." The doctor, who donned a pair of thick spectacles beneath his warm, hazel eyes, came out abruptly from his clinic to greet them.

"Ah! Reproductive endocrinologist. What an introduction. Ye can just call me a fertility doctor instead, to make things simpler." He then nudged his glasses up a little higher on the bridge of his nose while he swiveled towards Claire. "At your service, Mistress Randall. It's good to see ye, finally!" He said dotingly as he held his hand in front of her, waiting for a shake.

"Hello," She took it, shaking his hand briefly before letting go. It was a helpless situation; nervousness had begun to creep in the moment they stepped in the clinic, and heightened all the more at the sight of Doctor Mackenzie, a man who towered over them, the doctor who had the answer to her and Frank's concern.

"Mr. Randall and I have had the pleasure of making each other's acquaintance a month ago. He's told me about your shared dream of parenting, ye ken." He explained quickly, sensing that his statement had caused her to raise a brow. "Were ye no aware of his visits to the fertility clinic?"

"Oh, not to worry, I'm entirely aware why we're here. I just thought this was our first visit, you know, together," She said as she eyed the tall doctor. He appeared to be an obliging and amiable bloke despite his great stature, standing tall and brawny in his smock; for a man in his late forties, he still managed to maintain a good vigorous figure.

"I'm sorry I didn't bother bringing you here on my first visit, Claire. I went out looking for a clinic the day after you agreed," Frank placed a hand on her shoulder as she explained. "Fortunately, I was able to book an appointment with a certain Doctor Dougal Mackenzie."

"Lucky yer husband visited my clinic that day, Mrs. Randall. He was able to secure a donor to yer liking." Doctor Mackenzie smiled. Claire was grateful for the doctor, but perhaps at that moment she felt a slight tinge of regret that came from the thought of Frank never telling her about his plans to visit the clinic, or even him not bringing her along with him to discuss things with the doctor. 

Nonetheless, she just huffed and let those little regrets pass. Maybe Frank was too overjoyed he forgot. Or maybe he didn't want to make her fuss about it. There was clearly no valid reason to hold a serious grudge on.

Instead she reminded herself how fortunate they were now; they did not only secure themselves a doctor, but they also found themselves a good donor. All that was left was for the procedure to be done.

Taking a side-step, the doctor gestured the couple to the clinic's door. "We shall make our first examinations, then," She nodded in reply, her nerves getting wildly upbeat as they were greeted by the scent of that peculiar, aseptic scent of his clinic when the door opened. Doctor Mackenzie oriented her with every area, item and equipment in display as they walked in. His clinic was a bit spacious, she observed, with a sliding wooden door that divided his office and receiving area from the space where Claire was led to sit on a blue gynecology chair.

"Please make yourself comfortable here, Mrs. Randall." Doctor Mackenzie said in a low tone, although she had no idea how an intimidating examination chair with leg stirrups and the grueling thought of letting him see her lower regions could make her comfortable.

Relax, she hummed in her head. He's a doctor. A professional.

She sat stiffly with her loose black sundress that fell just beneath her knees, wanting to get on with what was necessary. Wasn't this supposed to be quick and easy? Frank may not have oriented her well about the meeting with the doctor, but she had an idea of how insemination procedures happened, as it was briefly discussed during her lectures in medical school. It simply involved the donor's sperm, and a special tube. Or did it involve more?

Or was she even listening to her professor when it was brought to discussion?

Claire breathed in, held her breath for a few seconds, and breathed out again. The sight of the leg stirrups peering from either side of the chair made her break a sweat in that airconditioned room. It's not that she was not used to spreading her legs for a man other than Frank, as she had enjoyed a liberated life dating a few men before tying the knot with him, but this was different. It felt invasive. To say the least, embarrassing.

"I ken what ye think now, Mrs. Randall. But ye can trust me," Doctor Mackenzie said calmly as he settled beside her, "And Mr. Randall could stay by your side if ye want him to."

Of course, Frank promised her he'll be by her side. She looked past the leg rest to see him standing nearby with a look of concern in his face. "You'll be alright, Claire." a whisper crept from his lips.

"I will," she whispered that much more to herself, even if she had doubts of her own. "Yeah, I will be alright."

"If ye will allow me to make one final examination to make sure that we have an ovulation to our advantage," The doctor said. "Just a wee ultrasound., is all."

Oh. Ultrasound. Claire nodded calmly, thinking it would not be that bad until the bald doctor tossed her a blanket and asked her to spread her legs. She never knew the ultrasound procedure they'd be doing would be the invasive one, but despite her qualms, she placed her faith on Doctor Mackenzie, reminding herself over and over that he knew what he was doing. "Spread yer legs, Mrs. Randall," 

And spread her legs she did.

The entire internal examination took them three agonizing minutes before Doctor Mackenzie gave a content huff as he readjusted his glasses. "Alright. That'll do."

"What do you mean?"

"Ovulation had just begun," He grinned, pointing towards the screen that had projected a fuzzy, grainy picture of something that neither Frank nor Claire couldn't even understand. "We could start the procedure as early as now, but it would be best if we wait until Thursday. The way I see it, it's when your body is at its peak of fertility."

"That means we have three days," Frank immediately clasped her hand with his own as he spoke. "Should we do something and prepare? For good measure?"

The ultrasound transducer was already put away, something that brought Claire back to her relaxed state, and all the more when the machine was switched off. "Weel, what ye can do Mr. Randall is to go easy on being intimate. No advances, no sex, whatsoever."

"Oh, alright." Frank nodded, taking that in mind. "Not even teasing?"

"No. Ye've got an eternity tae do all o' those things, ken? A few days of only seeing yer wife isna gonna hurt, will it?" the doctor jested with Frank in a remotely playful manner. "And ye, Mrs. Randall, ye ought tae enjoy plenty of rest. Try eating a bigger breakfast rich in antioxidants. Zinc, folate, and fiber would be among those ye'll need. We have to keep yerself healthy and at yer most fertile state come Thursday."

"Thursday," repeating the words helped Claire prepare herself for the big day. "Alright. We'll see you three days from now, Doctor."

"I look forward to meeting ye both again, Mr. and Mrs. Randall,"  he replied as he and her husband guided her up the chair and to her feet. As she began to reach and fasten the small, golden buckles of her sandal straps together, she heard the doctor hum a tone of wonder from behind the chair. Looking up, Claire found him perusing something on top of her head, or at least somewhere near it. "I must say, though I'm no' in the position to give compliments wi' my bald head, ye've got one of the most beautiful locks o' hair I've seen." He said as an observation, and not in a flirtatious way.

"Oh, thank you," She coyly replied, tucking in a few strands of her brown tufts behind her ear. Her thick curls were not really something worth complimenting as it was always a mess even if she'd tie it back with a scrunchie, and so kind observations, although very much welcomed by Claire, would always send her cheeks flushing a tiny hint of rose pink. "I never thought I'd hear such kind compliments from a fertility doctor,"

"Not what ye expected, no? Not from a bald man such as I!" The two of them shared a good laugh at that, and even Frank was found snickering behind her. "All these research and laboratory work had taken a toll in exposing my head. I still have a lot of work to do with pending tests on sperm preservation."

"So you're also conducting research now, Doctor Mackenzie?"  Frank asked while he helped Claire with the other buckles.

"Aye, it's something I'm verra proud of." He beamed, crossing both his arms which emphasized the tight muscles beneath his white coat. "I'm currently participating in a joint study in creating new technologies for sperm preservation, ye ken. Pushing boundaries could mean making a hundred failed attempts, and I'm fortunate to find myself to be verra close to the answer."

"And the price for it is your...hair?" Frank chaffed, and Doctor Mackenzie bellowed with a hand ghosting his shiny bald head, muttering in an incomprehendable Gaelic, as though he was reprimanding himself of something. "At least you were able to save the beard, though."

"To have a full beard is still a blessing, I reckon. Weel, I shall now see ye out o' the clinic while I get back to work." He nodded, finally signalling them both that it was time to go. "Claire, dearest, make sure ye're well-prepared and in good health on your next visit, aye?"

And so they left and followed the doctor's advice. Frank went to work, while making sure Claire stayed home eating healthy and having a good amount of rest in preparation for the Thursday meeting. Three days passed like three years for both of them as they waited in great anticipation until they both found themselves seated on their car seats, driving down the busy London streets towards Doctor Mackenzie's clinic.

The Randalls have prepared well over the past, long days; Frank had already requested a leave of absence in the university from Thursday up until Friday, and Claire had chosen a longer dress for the doctor's appointment as she would never want herself fussing uncomfortably on Doctor Mackenzie's chair of terror ever again. The nights leading to that day had been spent for late-night conversations about Frank's first visit to the fertility clinic, and the anonymous sperm donor he had selected to bring their family to fruition. It turns out, that as he conversed with Claire, Frank did not have much of a preference about the donor, for as long as it was close to their ethnicity. The spot was open for any man who was of Irish, Scottish, French or English descent, and they were fortunate to narrow one down: a donor born and raised in the UK, dark-brown hair, and currently working as a coach for a university football team. "Are you sure this isn't your friend Arthur from Oxford's football club?" She interjected while Frank had been imagining what their child would look like. 

"Arthur? That fuckup football coach?"

"He isn't a fuckup, if you'd ask me. I mean, Arthur's really good at his coaching career. And ethnicity? He's a Scot. You said you'd take anybody who's Irish, Scottish, French, or English, right? The chart also says that. He fits the description."

Frank gulped. "Arthur has a boyfriend, Claire. And they've been sexually active ever since they got together. He surely would not qualify for the sperm donorship."

"Tch." Claire's little muttering sound followed a giggle. "I know that. I just wanted to make you nervous, and it turns out I succeeded," Claire wriggled beneath the sheets, her body curling and pressing towards her husband to give him a slight tease, but Frank was not having it as he spanked her butt. "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ! What was that for?"

"I would never, ever, allow Arthur to sire our kids." Frank grumbled.

"Wait 'till Doctor Mackenzie finds out you've slapped me."

"Wait 'till I tell him my wife teased me to bed her by giving my cock a little touch. Christ." Frank sighed, pulling her closer into his arms as he whispered softly just above her ear. "Of all people, you'd vouch for that man? You think I'd let Arthur be the father of our kids? I could just vomit right here at the thought of it."

"Hah! You jealous bastard." Claire grinned and made a slight moan as Frank nuzzled warm breaths against her neck. She swore, if Frank kept up his pace in rousing her, then she might end up not following Doctor Mackenzie's instructions. "Who says anybody will be the dad here, other than you? Come here." Claire pulled Frank closer to her lips, and he closed in all too eagerly, pressing his lips against her own. "Our baby may look like another man's child, but they can never be our child's father. It's only you who could be that man, Frank."

"That's what scares me, Claire." He said before kissing her once more. "What if there's more of the other man--"

"You know, I'd like it if we quit fussing about how the donor looks like."

Frank shrugged. "I just wanted to make everything to look more like... us. Ours."

Claire cupped his cheek endearingly in an attempt to bring him into her own thoughts on the matter at hand."We will look like us because of us, the way we love and care and build up one another. Our family may be different, but I would never trade it for anything." A part of her did want Frank to be more open-minded than he is now; perhaps, she thought, he still has not fully come to terms with his saddening incapability in giving her children, but she had wished for them both to move forward and accept whatever the future promised them, most especially what awaits them on their doctor's appointment the following day.

"But what if I don't do well, knowing that..."

"Knowing what?"

Frank balked when she forced up an answer, but he gave it nonetheless. "Knowing that, well, that they won't be mine?"

"Look." She narrowed her eyes, but maintained a soft expression that captured his attention. "Our child, and all the children that would follow after, are yours to call your own. This is our family, Frank. So long as we are committed to be the best parents, nothing can go wrong," A kiss was planted on Frank's lips. "I really can't wait."

Frank made a sleepy grin, gently raking his slender fingers through the natural brown curls that rested wildly atop her head. "It's going to be a big day tomorrow, I reckon."

And a big day it was.

They now found themselves standing hand in hand in front of the doctor, eyes bright with a hint of uneasiness pooling in their stomachs. It could be due to the terror of the unknown, but the Randalls knew it was more from the excitement.

It was the longest twenty-five minutes of their life, if Claire could recall how the anticipation thickened as she saw the tall, well-built doctor skillfully prop his instruments with both hands—now covered with those elastic surgical gloves. While Doctor Mackenzie exited and entered the room, Frank never left her side; his hand was always there for her to hold onto, especially when the doctor reappeared with a tiny speculum, a catheter, and the vial of translucent liquid they both knew contained the answer. Before coming here, Claire had already done her own research on intrauterine insemination—as stock knowledge had proven her bereft of such information—and was prepared for the worst as much as she was hopeful for the best.

"Some couples come back for another cycle of IUI, but most of them get it right in one go, at least in my clinic," the doctor said with a happy and hopeful tone in his gruff voice as he proceeded to arrange the extra instruments by the table. "I pray and hope ye both dinna come back. Or if ye do, may ye come back with nothing but good news. Or if ye wish tae have another child."

"Thank you, Doctor Mackenzie," Frank said.

"Dinna thank me yet, son. Not until we find this procedure successful. But of course, I have much faith it will." It was, for Claire, endearing to know that their fertility doctor was not only concerned about doing his job and getting on with it, but he too deeply cared for them so much so he wished for them to claim the success of today's procedure. "Ready, Mr. Randall?" Doctor Mackenzie asked.

"Certainly," Frank said in a low voice.

The bald man now looked at Claire. "Ready now, Mrs. Randall?"

She made one gulp to bring down any hint of fear back in her gut. "Yes, Doctor." Claire gripped on the handlebars of her chair.

"I am ready."

 


 


Another row of lights flicked off.

Even with her lids closed, she could tell that the room got a whole lot dimmer. But this time, she decided to blink her eyes open, now even redder and swollen than how it was when she entered the doors of the humongous sanctuary. Looking around, she could only see empty pews; the churchgoers were long gone, and most of the lights were too.

Alone, she trembled as she sank on the kneeler, defeated by the darkness that began to envelope her until she was brought to stare at the tiled floor and saw that there was a reflection of what seemed to look like light.

There was only one more row of chandeliers shedding light in the dark. She slowly pulled herself back up to her former kneeling position to see that she was stationed in one of the center pews lined in between the sources of the warm luster: two candelabrums on either side, both fashioned with bulbs instead of actual flames, were faintly shining in the dark in their warm and golden hues. Claire stared silently towards the one on the left, and then proceeded to the one on the right after a few moments.

Let your faith ascend, dear niece.

It may have been a voice in her head, but it was her Uncle Lamb's words—the only memento she had of the man that still existed, and echoed in her heart. It had been the words he gave her when she lost her parents, and the last words for her before he too departed from the world. Lamb was downright frugal for his own good; most of what he owned, save his clothes and house, were artifacts he either sold or donated to the Natural History Museum. Working as an known archaeologist among others earned him great recognition, and so much more when he died on a plane crash back in 2011. Claire had no clue what to do with all of her uncle's footprints, and after weeks of mourning over the death of her beloved uncle, she decided that each item in his household had a recipient. The man's books, notes and research files were to be sent to his colleagues at Oxford. His collection of rocks, fossils and other unearthed objects of history were all gladly purchased by the museum, the money she used to sustain her education in medical school. Some of what could still be used, she kept, while all else went to the fire. To say the least, Claire was confident that Lamb was proud of what she did; he made it clear to her with the way he lived his life that possessions could only do nothing but keep human beings from moving forward to the next—one important thing he learned as a man studying human history through possessions. He probably would have done the same thing if his death was of a disease that gave him time to prepare. But unfortunately, it was not. He was taken away without warning. His passing, likened to a dropped bomb. Or one of her experiences with Frank and his annoying, sudden brakes that had sent her coffee spilling all over the carseat. 

No, she thought. This isn't anything similar to a coffee spill. She couldn't laugh it off, nor could she wipe off the liquid with a towel and go on as if it never happened.

This grief was not some accident that she could laugh off. Her grief over her parents' and Lamb's death felt similar to when she and Frank found out that they could never have children of their own, but the latter proved itself to be more painful. Now, yet another bomb has been dropped--something much more painful than the previous one; her life was completely shattered when Frank came to her doorstep with divorce papers that morning, just hours before day turned into night and she wept her way to the cathedral after making a short visit to Geillis' house.

She lost these people. None of that could be compared to a little coffee accident.

"Let my faith ascend," She uttered his words throatily as she watched the two chandeliers. "Let my faith ascend." she said again, in an attempt to give her some solace. Despite the soft light the two chandeliers brought into the darkened hall of the church, they were blazing bright enough to make Claire realize that she was not alone in the world. And she noticed them, shining their little light in the huge dark hall. 

Let my faith ascend.

Faith. Ascend.

Faith and Brianna.

A glimmer of hope. At the realization of it all through a distant memory of pain shifting into joy, Claire smiled. She wasn't alone.

She had them.

That distant memory was five years ago: the moment she first laid eyes on the two fraternal twin sisters—her two beautiful and precious daughters, flame-haired and all; upon seeing one, and then another, both of them covered in blood and fluid as they wailed with their hands kept to their chests, she knew her life shall no longer be lived for her own sake. She could remember the moment she saw their angelic faces for the first time, or the moment she held both fragile bodies for the first time, and was reminded how the immense power these first moments with Faith and Brianna was far greater than any of her sorrows. Claire would go through a heartbreak, but will always find herself coming back to the memory of finding her pregnancy test positive, how she almost lost her voice screaming with excitement at the news of life growing within her. She remembered that at that very same day, she called Frank—

No, none of him. She breathed, skipping a few memories of the man who had deliberately tore her heart today, and instead shifting the lens of her thoughts on her and the two bundle of joys she loved dearly. Being made aware that no one was there to see her sniffling by the pews, Claire decided to take in the solace of the darkened room and the two chandeliers to her advantage. She had to learn how to take Frank away from the happy memories from now on, no matter how difficult it may seem to detach him from it.

He no longer deserves to be in them.

Closing her eyes, with an attempt to quell the pain in her heart through the imagery in her mind, she takes herself back to Doctor Mackenzie's clinic, telling him of the great news. The delighted doctor pulled her to a hug that day, wishing her safety and health.

She remember calling Geillis, and how she immediately scampered to her home to share the joy.

"Does this mean ye'll no be joining our classes any longer?" Geillis asked with the most extraordinary smile on her face, it could make anybody think she actually doesn't want Claire to continue attending medical school for the sake of her pregnancy, but Claire knew better. With Geillis Duncan being her constant class companion and friend ever since she began studying Medicine, she knew that this tall, young lady with the pretty, green doe-eyes, and the peculiarly malicious grin only thought about her well-being. She had been the second person to be enlightened about her personal life; Geillis Duncan knew about Frank's sterility, Claire's IUI adventures, and all of that she kept secret, most especially the former.

She remembered the moments she would have in class where her hands would find themselves hidden beneath her desk, smoothing around the distended part of her abdomen—the sign of life growing within her—while she listened to lectures. She admired how her body changed into something foreign with each day that passed, her heart swelling with joy at the thought of bearing a sweet miracle.

Or sweet miracles, rather.

"The joy's doubled, Mrs. Randall. You're having twins," the fuzzy memory of her gynecologist beaming with so much pride was still kept in mind. Claire could not remember vividly how the clinic room was, what she was wearing, or what time of the day did she visit the clinic. All that mattered was the news that she was, all this time, nurturing two innocent tiny human beings inside her now swelling stomach. She had been warned it would be a difficult birth afterwards, that she might experience complications if things would not go smoothly, and through that great ordeal leading to the moment she began to experience the first signs of labor, one thing kept ringing in her head.

Let your faith ascend.

And she did. With her heart out, Claire braved it all, and outlived every pang of pain in her gut. She didn't need Frank. She did it herself.

Finding her newborn babies neatly swaddled and kept in tiny nursery beds after her being drained and well-fatigued from labor and childbirth brought her indescribable joy, something she had never experienced in her life until that very day.

The moment she became a mother.

Claire was filled entirely with awestruck wonder at the sight of them both, that even as her body was telling her to rest, she can never resist seeing her twins sleeping with gentle smiles, so much so that she was prepared to give the world to them if they asked for it. That love has never wavered, not even when she had to squeeze her final review before her graduation in medical school, not even when Frank had began to slip away from their marriage each passing day.

She won't let that love flicker away tonight, either.

Opening her eyes, she was transported back to her reality in the empty church. She stood up too hastily, almost stumbling at that, but as soon as she found her balance, she immediately dried the tears away from her cheek with her palms. Let your faith ascend, dear niece.

The words ruminated her thoughts again as she made one final glance at the two chandeliers before heading for the door.

"Thank you, Uncle Lamb."

 


 

After a few minutes of apologizing to one of the churchkeepers for staying too long past closing time, Claire hurried to her car and received a call. It was Geillis.

"Hello, Geillie girl, did I—"

"Mummy?" the sound that echoed from the other line of the call almost broke her heart. "Are you coming home?"

She swallowed. "O-Of course, sweetheart."

Claire knew that it was Faith speaking to her, with her tiny voice and her unique way of stretching her words too much gave the hint. Between the two four-year-olds, Faith was the curious and inquisitive one; it was only expected she would be the first one to go look for her. The little girl had a lot of questions about even the simplest of things, something which Brianna does not dwell much on.

The other twin, Brianna, was instead the loud and active girl who inhibited no such sense of danger. She could go the entire day focused in play and games, oftentimes causing trouble by breaking a vase or making her sister cry, until she drains herself to sleep.

Now realizing that Faith has made a call using her Aunt Geillis' phone, her best friend must have tucked the twins to sleep hours ago, but perhaps the curious little one had woken up in the middle of the night to see that Claire was not yet around. "We were waiting for you," Faith whined on the phone, her voice echoing as she did. Was she in the bathroom? How on earth did little Faith end up in Geillis' bathroom? Or worse, could she have strolled too far to be at the building's fire exit?

She had to leave, now. 

"Oh, baby! I'm so sorry I got you worried. I'm on my way home now, okay?" She struggled to sniffle, and her curious daughter had caught the noise.

"Are you still crying, Mummy?"

Jesus H. Christ. She reprimanded herself for being too loud to be heard, and now she was all the more worried that she might cause a spillover of sorrows to her daughter. "Well... Just a little. Very, very little tears flowing here and there. But Mummy's feeling b-better now, sweetie. I'll be home soon. Sounds good?"

"Okay..." She hummed. "Five minutes?"

"Perhaps ten,"

"Uh." She grumbled. "Five?"

"I'll try, Faith." Her daughter's innocent request made her smile. Westminster Cathedral was a twelve-minute drive to Geillis' Soho apartment, but if Faith wants it five, then she'll try to make it happen. "Mummy's going to try to get home in five minutes. I'll try. Does that sound good?" When she heard her say a little tut, she continued. "Is your Aunt Geillis there?"

"Asleep. I sneaked out. You won't tell her I called you, right?"

"What?" Claire giggled. "How did you...didn't Auntie Geillis phone have a password?"

"I uh...know it." Claire stifled a laugh of amusement.

God, my daughter is a sneaky genius for a four-year old.

"Please don't tell her, Mummy!" Faith squealed on the phone, getting Claire's attention all too quickly back to the present. Right. Go home, Claire. Go home, now. 

"Alright. It'll be between you and me."

"You promise?"

"Yes, I promise! Mummy's good with promises, isn't she? Pinky swear." Claire could hear her daughter hum in content on the line. "Oh Faithie dear, thank you for calling me!"

Truly, that call meant so much for her. All those tears have been instantly replaced with the joy of hearing one of her daughters on the phone. It could have been better if Brianna was awake, but she thought about how they could quarrel on who gets to go hold the phone and talk to Mummy, and begin to scream at each other. One of the two was enough for the night, perhaps.

"You're welcome, Mummy. I love you," Faith simply replied at that.

"Oh, I love you too! I love you too, sweetie. Now, I'll be home soon, okay?"

"Okay,"

"Put the phone back where you got it?"

Faith tittered. "Okay,"

"Good girl. I'll see you soon, baby."

"Okay. Kiss kiss?"

Claire puckered her lips to make an audible smooch before ending the call. Her heart was recharged, and she knew deep within her that she could brave this entirely new life with her beautiful daughters. She made a mental note that she was not driving all the way back to her house, and that she was going to make that twelve-minute (or five) drive to Soho, where her daughters and Geillis will be waiting for her. Frank's house may be a lot bigger and better: a townhouse near Oxford which was more than an hour away from the cathedral was surely a ride worth its miles. But it simply was not home. 

Faith and Brianna was, and turns out has always been, her home.

Frank stepped out of the ride, then I shall speed away, far enough for him to never see me nor my daughters again.

She buckled her seat and started the car. As soon as she had everything in place, she backed from the parking lot and into the street, maintaining a speed that would make her arrive at Geillis' house in five minutes. 

Chapter Text

 

In With The New


"Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!"

Claire was muttering her way up the stairs as she wriggled her covered wrist off her chiffon sleeve to check the time on her watch. 10:46 PM.

Great going, Beauchamp. She was fifteen minutes late.

Marching up with her huge leather bag dangling on the crook of her arm and her hand holding up a brown paper bag of sweets, she prayed hard that Faith would not fuss about how their five-minute agreement did not go according to plan once she sees the bag filled with four, four-finger KitKat bars, a pair bought for each twin.

KitKats have always been Claire's secret weapon when in her most desperate times. Although she saw to it that she did not spoil her girls with all the sweet treats in the world, there were times when she saw it fit to give them a little reward for being good girls, or a token for appeasement for any misgiving brought upon them, such as her breach of agreement tonight.

Moreover, after the long and tough month she and the girls were in, she needed something to keep them from any of the pain she was going through. Claire would not want them to bear in mind the mistakes of Frank—to not know the horror their mother faced when, after a shortened shift at the hospital, she arrived home only to see Frank and his lady colleague from university almost a month ago, sharing a few glasses of brandy and some intimate kisses by their house's fireplace—

None of him, hitting her temple with the base of her palm, none of him, woman. Get rid of that fucking bastard, get him off your head!

Claire scampered up the stairs until she reached the third floor of the apartment building, where her daughters (one sound asleep, the other probably thrashing on the living room because her Mummy is not home yet) were waiting with their Aunt Geillis. The apartment hallway was still well-lit even in the evening, so spotting the door with the room number 304 was not much of a challenge. When she saw the said door, it was as though her body gravitated towards it and in what seemed like a split-second, she was leaning against it, knocking on its smoothened surface with her knuckles.

The door flung open softly after a few more knocks, and she held her head out to meet Geillis eye-level, but was surprised when there wasn't a tall woman to meet her face to face by the doorway. Instead, she felt a sudden, tight clutch on her thigh.

"Faithie!" Claire gasped at the sight of wild red hair bouncing up and down beneath her, wailing and crying as she harnessed herself onto her mother's flanks, but a misstep suddenly sent the little girl stumbling on the concrete floor. "Oh, dear. Oh, no!" Claire immediately crouched down to pick up Faith from where she lay on her stomach. With a little grunt to pick up momentum, she lifted her daughter to be examined of any injury. Bruises? None. Cuts? None of that either.

Claire dusted Faith's pink sweatshirt instead. The injury wasn't anywhere extrinsic, Claire concluded, but she wailed as if she scraped both knees.

"You said five!" Faith wailed, worry filling her amber-brown eyes more than it contained disappointment. Before Claire could even reprimand her for opening the apartment door without even asking for adult assistance, she was already overcome by her own daughter's misery that instinct prodded her to pull the girl into her arms. The admonitions could wait a little bit longer, Claire supposed, but a broken heart couldn't. If a heart needed any mending, it needed that immediately.

"I know. I'm sorry, lovie." Claire crooned behind her ear, repeatedly stroking Faith's back in a slow, circular motions. "Mummy's here now. Shhh."

Maybe it was all too scary for the twins to be in an unfamiliar place all so suddenly; although the girls were very fond of their Aunt Geillis and had spent some of their days in her apartment for playdates, they never actually stayed the night in any place other than their house back in Oxfordshire. Growing up, Bree and Faith had the huge townhouse for themselves. The Randalls' Residence—or at least it was now Frank Randall's residence—was more than enough for Brianna and Faith had to run around and frolic; he would occasionally arrive from work with newly-bought toys and dolls that would match and fit inside their playhouse, and he even had an interior designer convert one of their house's spare spaces to be the girls' playroom.

School was also done within the premises of their home, as Frank thought it would be better for the two girls to have a teacher's full attention in their learning, much more be taught by one of his trusted colleagues at work who has a master's course in Child Education. He volunteered he'd cover all the fees for their homeschooling education, and Claire obliged to his offer, happy with how the private-teacher setup would save them both time from bringing the kids to and from school. However, the happy arrangement they all enjoyed for several years all fell into shards when Claire arrived home earlier than expected one July evening, and what greeted her was the sight of her husband making love on the couch with Miss Sandy Travers—Frank's lady colleague, and, as much as she hated to admit the truth, was also her daughters' private homeschool teacher for two years.

She'd always wondered how long did they keep this from her; Candy—or Sandy, rather, had been tutoring the twins since they were three, and visited home almost every weekday, even at times when Claire had night shifts at the hospital.

When she saw Frank thrusting his hips against that ugly, blonde wench that night, she couldn't escape the possibility that they might have had this illicit, amorous relationship for months, or worse, more than a year.

Of course, that was the last day of Sandy's homeschooling stint for the twins, as it was also the last day she saw Frank until the morning of the present day, when he stormed back inside the house with divorce papers, and a lawyer. Where he stayed during his month's disappearance, she didn't want to know. Sometimes, as Claire would recall, it felt like Frank had already given up on her a long time ago, and he simply had to look for a good enough reason to finally end things once and for all.

She didn't know what saddened her more, if it was the fact that she caught him cheating, or the thought of him deliberately doing every action to finally put their marriage to an end. Either way, it was clear that their marriage was already making a beeline towards its own downfall, as they talked through the phone, in the course of a month, exchanging spiteful words until Frank ended their eight years of marriage with the words: "Just sign the goddamn papers when I get there, I don't want this anymore."

Without a second thought, they both made their terms clear that morning: Frank insisting that they both lived separately and independently from each other, that their shared properties be transferred to the former sole proprietor, and the last one—which Claire appealed—that she would take full custody of the girls, not even requesting any form of alimony or financial support from her husband. She wished, however, while she eyed the lawyer's adept fingers tapping on the his laptop's keyboard, that Frank would object to her proposal, but he didn't.

In fact, he even had some time to spare to make a snide remark. "They aren't mine, anyway. Why would I even bother?"

Those words ultimately changed Claire's perception of him: from being the handsome and brilliant man she once loved, Frank is nothing more than a rotten son of a bitch. She was disgusted.

Facing Faith again, she pushed her thoughts away with a kiss on her daughter's forehead.

"I'm sorry, sweetie. I..." Claire sighed, her own soul craving for the same comfort her daughter asked for. "I know you want to go home, but right now, we can't. Not anymore. But soon, we'll come back to collect your toys, and your clothes, and—"

"No, no," Faith shook her head as she pulled herself away to look at her, iris to iris. Cupping her mother's cheeks with her little hands, she cooed against her cheek. "I just want Mummy. Just you."

She swallowed back the growing lump in her throat, not wanting to make Faith see her cry.

"And you have me, baby. Hush now, Mummy's here, okay? I'm here."

They remained in the middle of the apartment doorway for a few seconds, hugging and whispering soothing words, before Claire carried little Faith in her arms, the KitKat paper bag still clutched in one of her hands. Seeing that Faith's wailing state had now been pacified, Claire was relieved she didn't have to offer the sweets to her daughter this late in the evening.

"Quietly now, quietly," She whispered animatedly to the little girl's ear as she tiptoed into the room. "We don't want to wake up Aunt Geillis—"

"What on earth were ye thinkin', leaving me alone with two rowdy bairns fer hours?!" The person in question suddenly appeared from the kitchen, her strawberry-blonde hair bunched up to the top of her head in a black ponytail. "Ye've got us all worrit, Claire! I was about to call ye when my phone suddenly got spirited away by who kens who."

Claire made a sneaky glance towards the little girl in her arms and pressed a finger to her lip, making a 'shh' sound, and she mirrored her action. No telling, she touched the tip of Faith's nose.

"It turns out I've put the entire house on pins and needles, but thank you for always being the reliable one, Geillis. A place to stay is all we'll need for the next few days." She propped Faith back on the floor, thinking that she would scuttle back to the room and sleep now that she knew her Mum was around, but the little girl stayed by her side, hopping with both her hands up, quietly wishing for Claire to carry her.

"Okay, wean. Enough wi' the toting." Geillis crossed her arms towards Faith, who was not paying any attention to her. "Yer mam needs to rest, and so do ye. Off to bed wi' Bree now?"

"But—"

"I'll follow soon," Claire knelt down and clasped Faith hands with her bigger ones. Enclosing them together with her fingers, she blew a warm breath in the little space in between, sending her grinning from ear to ear. "If you need me, I'll just be here outside with Auntie G, sweetheart."

Faith made an ungraspable blubbering sound with her lips, before she hummed a nod. "Kiss kiss?"

"Okay, kiss kiss." Claire gave her little forehead a peck before she made a sprint to the spare bedroom Geillis prepared for the three of them. The door closed shut after Faith's disappearance, and the apartment was silent once again. Turning around to meet her best friend to make a proper apology for staying out late, Claire's lips parted, but then closed again, at the sight of the slender-bodied woman holding up a decanter of red wine. "What's that?"

"A beautiful bottle of cabernet sauvignon. What else does it look like?"

"I know what it is, G. But why take it out?"

Her green orbs rolled with slight exasperation after glancing over the decanter filled with a captivating shade of dark rufescent. "I ken it isna fit for the occasion. Be best if we had something stronger, but this is all that I have at the moment. I'm sure after a long day wi' Frank-enstein ye'd want to down a glass or two while I keep ye company, aye?"

"I don't think I should—"

"Ye have the day off tomorrow, don't ye?"

Claire breathed out forcefully; there seemed to be no other way but to accept her offer into drinking into the remaining hours of the night. Concerned of the emotional mess her friend was in, Geillis insisted that Claire should rest and wait by the kitchen counter while she took out two wineglasses from the cupboard, placing them haphazardly on the table. She then proceeded to pour the bloodlike liquid onto each goblet up to its distended midsection. "A toast to freedom," Geillis smiled as she raised her half-full glass of wine. The two ladies were now seated on either side of the counter, both their shoulders hunched over their elbows. "A heartbreak, but a victory nonetheless."

Claire raised it quietly, not having with her any snappy comeback to give, and downed the liquor in two big gulps. She was lonely and grieving to the core, but she can't seem to shed any more tears.

"I gather ye intend to be drunk tonight," Reaching for the decanter, Geillis frowned at Claire's empty wineglass as if she was considering heading out to the store just to buy an extra bottle.

"Could be," Claire made a lazy laugh as she tilted her glass for her friend to pour more of the wine in. "Could be not."

"Ye brazen wee hussy,"

The two of them had eventually emptied the wine decanter when Claire began to pour her heart out about what happened during the day. It didn't last long, she recounted; signing the papers together with Frank felt as if terminating years built upon vows of being together was as easy as snatching candy from a helpless baby. After meeting up with the lawyer to agree on terms and sign papers for custody, Claire packed most of her and the twins' clothes before driving her way over Geillis' apartment, although she told Frank she'd come back to check on other things and see if they would either be brought along or be burned to ashes. "It took me a while to arrive here because I went out to Westminster. I needed the time alone."

"And did it help?"

"It always does." Claire lips curved upward when she remembered the two chandeliers. "This time, I was reminded of how the people I have now are far greater than the ones I've lost. Faith. Brianna. And you, of course."

"Sycophant." Geillis' gaze shifted from her now empty glass to the four pieces of large travel suitcases lined up against the wall just beside the door leading to where Faith and Brianna were sound asleep. "Is that all of it?"

"I'm afraid not, there's still a few more left back at home." Claire mumbled, eyes groggy from both the wine and the tears. "I told Frank I'd come by sometime tomorrow to check on the few remaining items. Clothes and toys and some other things. Everything else that's left will be burned."

"Yer letting anger consume ye, Claire. I'd rather ye give them to charity. Or an orphanage." Geillis suggested matter-of-factly, "There are a lot of bairns who'd be happy to receive that beast of a playhouse. O' course that bulk canna be brought along wi' ye when ye travel to Boston, no?"

Of course, charity! Why didn't I think about that?  "Now I feel like an idiot for thinking about burning the bloody playhouse, in all honesty."

"I think it to be understandable. Ye've been in a fecking deep hellhole for the entire month, Claire, so if ye wish me to accompany ye in collecting those items in the morrow, especially that monster playhouse, I would. For the sake of your well-being."

She gave Geillis a look of disbelief, despite her kind and generous offer. "You're joking. Isn't it a full shift for you tomorrow?"

"Och!" In what seemed to be Geillis' fiftieth eye-roll, she slammed her palm against the counter. "Yer oot yer face, fer fuck's sake. Do ye even recall that we've been sharing the same 12-hour shift for two months now?" Geillis held the stem of her wineglass with a firm grip, as though she'd whack it against the table if Claire wouldn't take it away from her grasp.

Now she didn't know who was more drunk than the other. Was it her, or the ever-spirited Geillis Duncan, who was now giving her the middle finger. "Feck ye, fer leaving me Claire! Ye sexy piece o' shite."

Upon hearing this, Claire was not so sure whether she'd get mad at her, or laugh as she sputtered nonsense at her face. "Look, I understand you're disappointed, but I'd highly suggest you keep it low unless you want my daughters to begin cussing the moment they wake up." She shrugged, drinking the remaining contents of her wineglass. "I already told you about this last month, haven't I? We can't live here anymore, G. I'd barely thrive knowing that this place had been suffocating me for the past two years ever since F..." she struggled to mention the name, not wanting to recall, but she ended up forcing it out of her lips anyway. "...since Frank began to act differently."

The grief in Claire's eyes must have sent Geillis' head back in the conversation, since her brows softened, and were no longer arched as it was awhile ago.

"It's just... London reminds me of losses now, Geillie. My parents, my Uncle Lamb, my marriage, my husband, I seem to lose a lot while I'm here."

"But what does that make of me, then?" She asked. "I'm still here for ye, am I not?"

A tear fell down from the corner of Claire's eye. Her sweet, clingy bestfriend sure did not like parting with her, even if they both knew it was for the best. "I know you are, G. And I know you will be even if we're miles apart,"

Claire understood fully well that she can never blame Geillis for being a little proprietorial of her, for she had been the latter's first friend when she moved in from Scotland for medical school. They braved one class after another together, and have become each other's source of motivation and support as they pursued the dream of getting that license to heal. Claire recommended her a good place to stay during their freshmen years, somewhere just beside the university, which would eventually save Geillis from paying a hefty sum just for rent. For that simple gesture, the lady Scot was more than grateful.

During Claire's pregnancy, Geillis had been very generous to hand down her notes, and even visit her at home just to give her a recap in the day's lectures at times when her body was too weak to attend classes. Because of that great sacrifice she did just to make sure she passed the term, Claire had made Geillis not only her best friend, but also the godmother of the two little girls.

"I think I'm the perfect person to be their god-mam. Who else can better understand a Scot than a fellow Scot?"  was the first thing she whispered to Claire when she first saw the twins swaddled in her friend's arms. Oftentimes, she would even joke to her privately that people would probably believe it more if she told everybody she was the girls' father, and not Frank.

Now, Claire also thought the same; albeit single, her bestfriend did have a knack for parenting than Frank did over the past years of being married to him. Geillis was so great with the girls, constantly checking on them by crashing into the Randall Residence for a morsel and a playdate, or if the shifts at the hospital kept her from doing so, FaceTime always came in handy. Leaving London for Boston was going to be a breath of fresh air for Claire—a chance to start over with a clean slate. The only thing that might probably pierce her heart as she left was the fact that she would be living her new life without hearing the shrill voice of Geillis Duncan by the doorway, telling everybody to gather round for a good pie of pizza.

As much as Geillis didn't know what to do without Claire in the picture, she too felt that parting was necessary. "Ye really do have to go, I suppose." The blonde woman languidly crossed her arms in front of Claire. "Although I'm in no position to stop ye after yer wallaper of a husband put ye into this emotional wreck all these years, I really canna put into picture how life's gonna be wi' out ye, hen. Ye and the bairns have always been a part of the wee photo of the future I have in my heid, ye ken? If only Boston was just a block away...perhaps it would be bearable." She blinked up towards the ceiling, batting her wet eyelashes to dry.

"I'm sorry," Claire stood up from her seat and walked over to the other side of the table to pull Geillis to an embrace. By the time she had squeezed her tight enough as she cried, the other woman wept, hands flapping against Claire's fluff of hair. "I really am, Geillis."

"Will ye really manage? Not that I doubt yer spunk and moxie, but is it too soon to hop to the other side of the world on your own?"

"I know I can, hun." Claire heaved a deep sigh against the woman's blonde streaks. She surely was going to miss Geillis' hugs when she braves the new world.

Still flapping her hands on her bestfriend's brown tufts, Geillis stifled a sniffle. "Oh, I'm gonna miss doing this to yer wild mop of hair. What am I gon' do now? Canna stop ye."

"I'm sure Faith and Brianna's going to miss you bringing pizza over at home."

"Hah! Of course you all will." she pulled away from the tight embrace, holding Claire with both her shoulders, emerald meeting amber. "I guess I just have to make the last days count, huh. Treat ye to one last box of pizza before ye go. "

 


 

With both the decanter and wineglasses devoid from any liquor for nearly an hour, the two doctors were now sobering up; emotions were no longer at bay, and the matters discussed were no longer about the regrets of the present, but were pertaining to future plans.

"So ye already filed a letter of resignation last month, the moment ye decided to leave for good."

"I did," Claire replied. "Thankfully, finding a residency program in Boston wouldn't be so hard, given that we both passed the US licensing examination back in class."

"Saved ye trouble. At least Frank was useful in paying for school fees." Geillis slowly deposited the empty glassware go the sink and began to wash. "Aye, aye. So. What d'ye plan on the property ye'll be leaving behind?"

The woman behind her was twirling her curls with a finger as she recollected the plans she had initially. "The only property I own now is my car, since, well, the house is Frank's. I managed to find a buyer for the car last week, so I guess I'm no longer using it once I've finished hauling the other items from Frank's house."

"I can manage the selling for ye," Geillis volunteered.

"You don't have to—"

The soap bubbles in her hands went flying as she swiftly turned towards her. "I insist, Claire. You can go and focus on getting settled in your new city, get the lasses acquainted with the new environment and all. Ye can leave the papers wi' me here in London, and then I can meet with the buyer and just send ye the payment, unless of course if ye'd given the fellow yer bank account number." It turns out Geillis had planned much about how she could be of assistance to her, and Claire knew that when this woman insisted on something, there was nobody who could convince her otherwise. "Ye've got a lot on yer plate, so let me."

"Oh. Alright then, if you insist."

"Will tomorrow be the last day ye'll ever meet the F-word?"

Claire thought as she loved the way Geillis addressed him. F-word. I'll consider using that.

"I hope so. The divorce paper's on the works. It's going to take a few months, but it will be worth the wait. Right now, we've agreed into living according to the terms even as we wait for the court's verdict." which, Claire badly hoped would work out well. If there was one thing she didn't wish to relive, it would be to be bounded as his wife over again.

Geillis nodded at that in relief. "Ye are strong, Claire. Feisty. And with the wee lasses taking on ye, I can guarantee ye'd fair well in Boston. But, promise me one thing."

Claire arched a brow—the soft arches evoking such force of character. "What's it going to be?" She asked, and her friend's doe-like eyes narrowed towards her.

"Ye better promise me ye'll live a happy and full life, something that is much better than what ye experienced now." Geillis looked at her straight in the eye. "I canna afford to see ye in misery again, Claire. I swear, if I do find out ye're back in the same hurricane," Geillis was beginning to sound comically spine-chilling. "I will come find ye, and thump ye into my suitcase and bring ye and the bairns to the Highlands."

A loud snort. "Jesus H. Christ! And here I am thinking your words had some importance. The bloody Highlands, really?" Claire garbled a laugh as she playfully tugged on Geillis' long, blonde hair.

"Who needs a man? Ye'd never know ye'd be happier living among the coos up the glens. A sassenach wench living the authentic Highland life would be such a sight."

"Sassenach?"

"Someone who doesn't live in the Highlands, such as ye." she giggled. "An outlander, to put it simple."

"I'm that sassenach lady either way, Highlands or Boston. Doesn't make much of a difference, does it?"

"Doesna really. But I can tell ye'd fit in just fine in America."

In what became a long exchange of nods, Claire eventually sighed.

"I really am going to miss you."

They exchanged one more hug before Geillis goaded Claire up her chair and to her room. Claire whispered a quick "good night" to Geillis before the said woman disappeared into her own room. Carefully, Claire turned the doorknob, pushing it open to reveal the spacious futon mattress sprawled on the floor; its immense size was big enough to accommodate five average-sized adults, but the only occupants of the said beddings were two little girls. Both of them were huddled and covered in their blankets and pajamas in the far end of the huge square.

Claire hastily changed to her nightware of choice: a loose, grey university shirt from Oxford, and her silk PJs, to match her daughters' outfits. As soon as she was ready to hit the hay, she crawled onto the bed, and then towards the edge of the mattress, where Faith and Brianna were sound asleep.

"Five years went by too quickly. Did it not?" her hands gently pulled the blankets just enough to unveil their peaceful, sleeping faces—with tousled copper-cinnamon tresses bunched against the pillows where their heads rested.

God, they grow up so fast.

Brianna and Faith were fraternal twins, but for the untrained eye, it would seem as if they were identical because of the beautiful, slanted eyes and fringe of red they both shared. Apart from that, they had within them some unique, defining, physical features that could instantly distinguish one from the other; to name a few, Faith's eyes were like Claire's: an enchanting, smoky, golden-amber. Brianna's eyes, however, did not resemble much of her mother's, but of her unknown biological father, who seemed to have gifted her daughter with the most alluring pair of slanted, ocean-blue eyes. The way Brianna's irises shifted in color depending on the way light seeped through those azure spheres was remarkable in every angle. Funny it may seem, but there was a little part somewhere at the back of Claire's mind that would seldomly thank the man who helped her attain her dream of becoming a mother, and for bestowing upon her the most beautiful girls in the world.

As Claire remembered every bit and twinkle of memory, she also looked forward into spending the entire day with them come morning.

 


 

"KitKat!" Brianna shrieked in excitement at the sight of her favorite wafer bar, still well-kept inside its red foil wrapper. "KitKat, Mummy. Please?"

"Bree—"

"Please?" Her voice was sharp enough to break Geillis' glass flower face, that Claire had to put back the chocolate back inside the fridge, and crouch down before her. Clasping her hands with hers, and blowing soft breaths from the small openings the way she did with Faith last night was enough to calm her down.

"Mummy's going to give you the chocolate bar if you eat your breakfast first, baby." She blew onto her daughter's hand once more before meeting her eyes, blue irises glowing vehemently as the sunlight from Geillis' living room window illumined the place. "I promise you'll get your chocolate. Bree and Faithie gets their chocolate, alright?"

"Can I eat my KitKat first, before breakfast?"

Claire giggled, tapping a finger to Bree's nose. "Nope, not happening, sweetheart. Breakfast first, then dessert. Can you repeat that after Mummy?"

"Breakfast," She hummed in disappointment, but she obeyed anyway. "then dessert."

"Yes, lovie. You did good! Kiss kiss?" Without delay, Brianna gave her the smooch she asked for. "Yay, Bree! Always a good girl. Okay, let's go wake up Faithie—oh there she is!" Claire turned towards the one nearing the bustling area of the apartment, greeting her with a same gleeful, bright tone she'd use for her daughters. "Good morning, sweetheart!"

"Uhrrp." The other girl, Faith, sloppily dragged herself one foot after another while rubbing both eyes with her tiny hands. Her cropped auburn hair was just as disheveled as when Brianna first entered the kitchen, but Claire thought Faith's would be a quicker fix, compared to the other who had her long mane in the most troublesome of morning tangles and bunches.

"Oop! Here comes Baby Number Two." Geillis made a quick glance towards Faith, who clumsily bumped onto the wooden chair on her way to the breakfast table. While Claire busied herself in settling her children down on their respective chairs, explaining for the tenth time that the KitKats had to wait until they finished their meals, Geillis was occupied in cooking them a full English fry-up.

"Is it not ironic, how I'm the one cooking an English breakfast?" she glanced behind her shoulder to look at Claire, who had already been laughing at her laughable observation.

"It's for practicality's sake," The heat of the sunlight was beginning to pour itself down on the room, and so Claire decided to tie her wavy, brown hair up with a ponytail. "You know very well how I maintain a love-hate relationship with the kitchen."

"Oh aye, I ken how ye suck at cooking." It was a known fact between them both. "Ye better not rely on fastfood when ye are in Boston,"

Claire bawled at her, gaze still fixed onto Faith and Brianna. "God, no. Of course not! I'm pretty sure the place is good with lobsters and clams." She quipped, making a quick mental note to check whether her girls were even allergic to seafood.

"Mummy. KitKat?"

The banter between the two adults was put into a halt when another appeal for chocolate was made. Claire was no longer sure who among the two has asked for it, but the answer was clear:

"Breakfast," repeating things were surely exhausting, but never for these two precious babies. "and then, dessert."

 


 

The next five days went smoothly—except for that visit at the house. Other than her ruined marriage, all else worked out well. The kids were, to her surprise, were not difficult to convince. In fact, they were excited to experience the life in another world: a life that meant 'Disneyland was nearer', as she'd remember Brianna explain to her sister Faith the perks of being in America.

Claire was also not used to how her hospital shifts went by with not even the most toxic of schedules. After that little incident at the apartment door the other night, Claire had asked Mrs. Baird, the girls' daytime babysitter, to come by Soho instead of their house in Oxforshire to take care of the girls. She had been working with the Randalls ever since the girls were two years of age, as Frank and Claire were usually out for the day in work and in school, respectively. When she asked why she and the girls were no longer staying at their own townhouse, Claire was generous enough to enlighten her with what's happened between her and Frank.

She did come visit the house she and Frank had shared for the past years. With Geillis tagging along, their goal was to collect and sort out the things to be brought along with Boston, and the things to be given to the local charity. During her first visit, which was the day after she signed the papers with her husband, Frank was not there to greet them by the front door.

It was Sandy Travers.

"Oh, g-good day to you, Mrs. Randall." Growing pale by the second, the blonde homeschool teacher couldn't even look straight at Claire.

Geillis, however, was persistent in catching an eye. "Weel. If it isn't the couch-lapping, lecherous huir of a tutor. 'Tis yer house now, then?"

"I—" Sandy was appalled, and she did look like she wanted to cry.

"Listen, Candy." Claire narrowed and made sure she purposefully mispronounced her name, one hand placed on top of Geillis' shoulder to stop her. "I'm not here for any trouble. It's not my house now, but some of my belongings are inside, and I've come to take them with me."

The woman immediately nodded stepped aside, leaving them enough room to pass. "Do you need any help in getting things out?" She offered, but Claire declined, telling her to just sit on the couch by the fireplace, since that was where Sandy, at the graces of her then husband, moaned at every pounding thrust, screaming and panting while the poor, antique chaise longue creaked at every movement.

The moment she and Geillis have discarded most of the things from her former home—including that monstrous playhouse, she left, wishing that the couch cracked beneath Candy Travers.

The second visit, which was today, only involved a few items and books she'd soon instruct Geillis to ship over to Boston in the coming months. She prepared herself for when she'd meet Candy face to face again, but was taken by surprise to be standing in front of a tall man wearing a plain cotton shirt and a pair of strikingly blue trousers. His brown hair was neatly brushed up, and his dark hazel eyes hid beneath a thickly-framed eyeglasses. Frank may be a treacherous bastard, but he always had a good sense of fashion.

"You never told me about Boston," Frank glumly said as a welcome greeting when Claire appeared at the front door. Claire was unbothered by his presence, or at least she tried not to show it. Her heart had been shattered, yes, but every piece of it bore different emotions. Regret for what happened. Wishful thinking. Disgust. Desire, at times. Hate. Love. Vengefulness. Disappointment. Haunting.

She absolutely cannot put into one word what she felt seeing him, nor will she find such each time he appears before her. Brushing her hair back, she gave Frank an impassive look with her smoky topaz eyes, evoking no particular emotion that could be felt by the other. He didn't deserve to feel any that came from her.

"You don't have to know." Claire crossed her arms. "I never intended for you to know."

"Would you ask me how I found out?"

"No. Can I come in?" She attempted to cut through the door, but Frank blocked the path immediately. "Frank—"

"Mrs. Baird told me you've been looking for flights to Massachusetts. To Boston." He was forceful, wanting to draw out a word from her. Any word that could make them stop moving and just start having that conversation. "While I was gone, have you...been scheming on leaving?"

She turned towards him, utterly disgusted with the way he sounded so pained and betrayed. "You make me sound like I'm the one who cheated. What difference does it make? A booked flight can be cancelled, but what you sticking your cock in that woman? I'm not so sure."

He winced at the mention of his own demise. "We could have talked—"

"You moved out, you fucking bastard!" Claire gritted her teeth, eyes gazing from Frank and then towards the living room where the couch was supposed to be, but it was no longer there. "You left us alone for almost a month without us knowing when you'd come back! You never begged, never even asked for forgiveness."

"You wouldn't listen to me, Claire."

"Oh, for fuck's sake, why would I listen when you never even said anything?!" Claire pointed out, and upon realization of it all, Frank stood silently as he took back his words. Claire was right; he never said a thing. "When I saw you...you j-just stormed out with that Candy—"

"Sandy,"

"—and all you had to give me were your bloody phone calls for a month until you came back, with the bloody papers." Claire didn't even bother correcting her train of thought. Candy or Sandy, she was a homewrecker. "Tell me, Frank. Is that not a deliberate decision to leave me?" Claire was not having any of his attempts in feigning his sorrow, nor any of his hypocrisy. She may be pained by what has happened, by what she saw and experienced, but she spoke her heart out with no tears.

"If I didn't come back wanting divorce," Frank said in a low tone after she'd rest her case, "And I found you planning to leave for Boston. Could we have talked this through?"

That dawned on her. Maybe if Frank did come back sooner, perhaps they could have saved their marriage. Perhaps she need not move to Soho and just be living peacefully in Frank's house, as Frank's wife...

Claire instantly shook her head. "No, none of those what-ifs. What's done is done."

"So you wanted this too, then. This whole marriage falling apart."

Fall apart? Claire was so certain she never wanted any of that. Then what could have caused Frank to let go? Was it the fact that he simply grew tired of her? Or was it because the girls did not have anything of him, not even the hair, or the eyes, or the face? Did he let go of the family that they have both built simply because it reminded him of his own incapabilities?

Claire even didn't want to know what triggered his unfaithfulness. For whatever the reason was, the damage has been done by Frank, who had been found lolling on the couch with another woman.

"I never wanted us to fall apart, Frank." How on earth is he even making a pointless attempt in dragging me into this? "You almost gave up because of yourself. When you found out about your...your diagnosis, I held you. I held onto you, telling you how much more we could do even if this was our fate. I held onto you when we both stepped into that clinic of endless uncertainties, and I held onto you when we began to raise our own little family. But you..."

Claire swallowed momentarily, examining Frank's face, now filled with self-criticism. "...you were holding onto someone else."

"Claire—"

"And to remind you of something that's far worse? You disowned the girls." She persisted, boldly taking a step in front of him. "You said it yourself with your very own words, and this I now affirm: Faith and Brianna are not yours. So why bother?"

Without waiting for any of his responses, Claire paced inside, scanning the last remaining items she had wrapped in bundles upstairs. She only took the three bags labelled 'TO FOLLOW SOON', while the others left in a big air-conditioning box labeled 'JUNK', which were mostly just old toys, coloring books, stained beddings and tattered clothing, were left on one corner. Coming down from the stairs, she saw Frank watching two men from a delivery company bringing in a three-seater La-Z-Boy couch, the giant furniture wrapped in tight plastic as the two burly men lifted it to the empty living room. Frank was giving them instructions as to where the couch be positioned when Claire came behind him.

"Where's the old chaise longue?" She asked as she stood beside him while watching the other men fumble around the living room with the giant couch.

"Hm?" Frank shrugged while he adjusted his glasses. "It broke down two days ago. I had it replaced immediately, since it would be a sad-looking parlor without anything placed at the center. I guess we just have to go out with the old."

"And in with the new," finishing his own words made Frank tilt his head towards her. They glanced, and then stared intently, thinking how did they end up as strangers again after all the years they had spent living together. Claire cannot seem to touch him, or kiss him the way she normally would any time of the day, and so did Frank.

"How..." he paused, rethinking his own thoughts. Rarely did she see Frank be at a loss for words; for one, he was an intellectual who always had his mind alert. But this time, he just seemed to be all over the place. "...how can you ever forgive me, Claire?" The strain in his voice could be heard, and he indeed struggled with his words as his lean body stood still. "I understand it's the end of the road, but maybe at least we could part ways without harboring guilt or vengefulness. Perhaps it would be better for us to do so."

"All done, Sir." One of the men interrupted, clapping his hands off the dust. "I'll leave the unpacking to you, just as you asked."

Frank nodded politely as the men quietly exited the room, leaving him alone with Claire once again. He turned back, never the one who'd leave a question unanswered.

"It's too late to say sorry to gain back what was lost. But never to late to save us from the burden of carrying the dark past as we move along." He faced her entirely, his body directed towards her as he made a heavy sigh. "I'm sorry, Claire. I was wrong."

Maybe forgiveness was fair. None of her plans to move away, even if it meant being with Faith and Brianna, would work if she brought along a heavy and darkened heart.

But she had to be honest.

"I don't know if I can forgive you now, Frank. You might think me selfish, but I'm hurt. I need time. I—"

"It's totally fine, Claire. I, uh, understand that it isn't something forced upon."

It was during these moments, the calm after their fights, that they would both make things right with an embrace, and Claire wasn't used to the strange, perplexing feeling of her own body competing against her mind. A part of her wanted to pull him close, to bury her face against his chest as they comforted one another, and another part within didn't want to. Quietly, she picked up the bundles of items and headed straight right to the door.

"Good luck in Boston, Claire."

Although she didn't turn to see Frank say those words, she had the full knowledge that the small pace that sat between where they both stood would broaden and stretch all the more. Forgiveness may still be uncertain at this point. But perhaps, Claire thought to herself, if they allowed each other to live their lives, perhaps time would make her forget there's something to forgive.

"Goodbye, Frank." She finally said before heading towards her car, stretching the distance between him and her all the more as she drove past the house. She was determined to stretch that distance even more.

 


 

"This'll be yer new address, then?" Raising the phone to meet Claire's eyes, Geillis pointed to the little green message bubble. "This one, this Beacon Hill. The one ye texted?"

Claire snickered a laugh which was not even audible with the bustling movement and noise in Heathrow's Terminal 2. They have just checked in all of their luggage, and as soon as the last bag was deposited, they all went to meet Geillis before leaving. "For the nth time, G, yes. That's the address." Faith and Brianna were a few meters away, standing—hopping, to be more specific, from one tile to another, playing a little game of hopscotch. With matching mustard-yellow jackets and backpacks, the duo hopped like ginger Duracell bunnies.

"I just wanted to make sure I shipped yon package to the right place. Dinna want the boxes to end up in Hawaii or something."

"Very funny, Geillis." They spent the next few minutes idly standing, sometimes watching Faith and Bree be their usual, active selves, hopping restlessly across the tiled floor, until Claire broke the afflictive and torturing silence between her and her longtime bestfriend. "I guess...this is it."

"It probably is, aye." the two brought closed their distance, and embraced each other, knowing that they won't be able to do the same gesture of affection as regularly as they had been doing. "We're haftae gie used to phone calls, Claire. That or I'll move in to Boston, since I canna insist on ye to stay here."

"I'll take the second offer," she laughed, pulling away to call the two girls, who had been staring at the vending machine. "Bree! Faithie! Come on now, we'll give Aunt Geillis a kiss-kiss before we go." The two three-foot-five toddlers hopped their way back, giving her a kiss and a tight hug.

"Bye-bye, Auntie G." Faith spoke in a quiet voice as the older woman squeezed her tightly into her arms. Brianna, who just finished getting her hug before her sister, stood behind. With a wistful stare, she asked: "Who'll give us our pizza now?"

"Oh, lassie! Last night's pizza won't be the last ye'll ever receive from me." Geillis turned towards the blue-eyed one, gently adjusting her lopsided pigtails to make it snug and tight. "I'll still be giftin' ye with a pie from time to time. Especially when ye promise to be good lasses to yer Mam, alright?"

"I promise!"

"I promise too!" Faith beamed as well, sending both Claire and Geillis laughing.

"That just means I'm buying pizza for dinner when we get there," Claire lovingly patted the girls' backs, which indicated that it was their 'time to go' signal.

"Weel, I willna keep ye for long hen." Geillis had both her hands to her arms, embracing herself while the too little girls waved goodbye. Claire waved too. "I'll see ye soon!"

Oh, Geillis. She along with her children marched further into the building, towards the passenger gates, and shortly, towards the aircraft that would transport them to an entirely new world.

Let it be sooner.

 


 

 

Boston, Massachusetts

September 2018.

 

 

"Doctor Randall?" A man's voice approached her all so suddenly, she swore she could have spilled her coffee if the papercup didn't have its lid on. "Whoa, hey, easy. Alright, no harm done. Coffee's saved." He chuckled as he occupied the empty chair beside her.

Claire glanced to be greeted by a stocky black man, who appeared to be only a few inches taller than her. The first two weeks living and breathing in Boston's air, getting both her kids accustomed with their new cobblestone neighborhood, and getting all of her papers out and moving made it hard for her to register new people both in and outside the hospital, except for Joseph Abernathy, who did not only possess outstanding features, but also a knack for making friends. The doctors' lounge was their usual rendezvous place, and whenever their working breaks permitted them a cup of coffee, they would usually find themselves there.

"Joe!" She smiled, placing her cup of coffee on the lounge's table. "I would rather have you call me Doctor Beauchamp, if it's possible."

"Oh-ho. Who says it isn't? It's a free country, Lady Jane. I'll see to it I won't make the same mistake ever again," Joe quipped, leaning in closely beside her, "Doctor Beauchamp."

Had it not been for Joe's warm and affable character, Claire would still have been keeping to herself as she acclimatized herself in her new workplace. It would have gone that way if it weren't for their previous conversation about kids, which then led her into asking her colleague whether he could recommend a good kindergarten school around the place and Joe mentioned a few good recommendations.

"There was one private school I intentionally left unmentioned when you first asked me, Lady Jane" Joe told her while pulling something out from his white coat. "I left it out of the choices initially, since my judgmental-ass thinks that a proper Englishwoman like you might find outdoor kindergarten absurd. But here's the brochure."

The three-fold paper made a sharp thwack as it hit the table's surface. "A proper Englishwoman? I'm no such thing, excuse me! Now, let me see that." She made a stifled laugh, after catching a glimpse of the big Quiet Please sign posted on the wall behind the snackbar. Taking the folded paper into her own hands, she inspected the front page, bedecked with foliage and a few photos of children huddled together for a photo—one of these photos were smiling kids, lying flat on their bellies, in an actual mud pile.

Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ.

"Please don't tell me this is among your suggested kindergarten schools."

"I'm sorry to tell you that it is. God, you better see the look in your face, Lady Jane." Joe was dragging his chair closer to her. "Does the thought of mud and germs scare you?"

She read the top heading of the brochure, where the words LEOCH LEARNING FORESTS occupied the top-half of the page.

"Mud and germs don't scare me, but it might scare my girls! They haven't even played in the dirt, as far as I can remember." The thought of seeing Faith and Brianna's terrified faces while surveying the woods and crawling on the mud lingered in her head. Surely her girls would never end up in that cover page, because they'd be crying over a single smudge of dirt in their arm.

"Are your girls even kids? Or have they been spending their years over teatime?" Joe deadpanned, and after being given the silent treatment by Claire, he retorted. "Okay, I was kidding! I get it, LJ. It may be a big leap of faith for your homeschooled girls, but outdoor school helps a lot, if getting them well-acquainted with other kids their age is your goal. It has helped in building my Lenny's self-confidence and empathy for others."

"Your son's kindergarten years were from this school?"

"Affirmative."

"And did he like it?"

"Oh, that would be an understatement, Lady Jane. My boy loved it." Joe watched her peruse through the pages, looking through one page after another. "There was a drastic improvement in Lenny's confidence during his years outside with the other kids. It earned him good friends too, which led into improving his speech, his social skills, his great understanding for the bigger world. There's something remarkable about introducing your kids to the outdoors, you know. You're not just preparing these young ones for grade school. You're preparing them for the world."

He continued to talk, mostly about Lenny's experiences, which made it clear that he wasn't simply convincing Claire into trying something unconventional, but he was coming from experience. "But of course," he finally said after Claire gulped down what was left of her coffee cup, "That's one thing added to the list I gave you, LJ. How many did I give, five?"

Claire nodded. "This is the fifth."

"And that would be my last," Joe smiled, tapping her back. "Leoch is always, and I mean always, my trump card for every parent asking for a suggestion, you see. Try to be a little bit loose with the girls. I'm sure it'll help them warm up in their new home."

Forest kindergarten—or perhaps Joe's remarkable testimony about Lenny's experience—did intrigue her, as it was a not-so-conventional, yet a promising learning environment. After the two years the girls spent being homeschooled about the big world within the four corners of their house's quaint study, Claire wanted to conduct her own inquiry about the forest school Joe had been talking about. Holding up the brochure he left for her at the end of her twelve-hour shift, Claire made the drive past buildings until she reached the address indicated in the three-fold. When she reached the town of Wellesley, she reduced her speed along the highway until she saw the landmark: an archway slightly hidden in the red maple foliage, bearing the words Leoch Learning Forests. She maneuvered the car inside, seeing the wide, wooden barn gates pushed to either side of the road indicating that the place was still open.

The driveway had wooden picket fences on either side that led up to the establishment's receiving hall. There were no designated parking spaces, except for the wide empty spot of gravel and some patches of grass right in front the receiving area. She could see that the place was well-lit, but at the same time was certain that nobody was there to accommodate her when she'd enter.

I guess I'm just parking this here. Claire slowly stepped on the gas to park her car in front of a long, wooden trough resting sadly by the fence. Gathering her belongings, as well as the Leoch brochure, Claire stepped out of the car and began to walk towards the open entryway. "Is anybody here?" the sound she produced was faint in uncertainty. Maybe the receptionist had to take a dump? Was this place even open? Claire had only managed to squeeze in this visit because she knew her schedule in the next two days would not permit her to drive anywhere farther than Boston. She had some papers to settle, a few interviews with the hospital director, a movie date with her girls and—

"Could this be yer car, Ma'am?"

Her interior monologue was put to halt at the sound of a man's voice, and what came after that. There was a snort, a clapping of hooves, and the slightly pungent scent of horse. Then she remembered she parked her car right in front of a watering trough.

She made a brisk turn. "Oh, God. I'm so sorry, I blocked the—"

The sight that greeted her sent her to a halt. It was, as far as she could remember, her first time to see a majestic Friesian horse with her very eyes. It was rather a peculiar sight, seeing that the beautiful black stallion was sniffing the trunk of her car quizzically. Beside the monochromatic beast, however, stood a man who towered a few feet and a few inches taller than the horses' poll. By the looks of it, he had to be somewhere within six feet or more, and was no doubt a man who had a colossal, well-built physique. His right hand held onto the reins, while the other gently stroked the horse's shoulder.

But he was also, to her surprise, looking at her with a wondering gaze. Claire began to rethink if she'd seen that vivid shade of cerulean; it did remind her of her little Brianna's eyes, but then this was a tiny bit different. The way it glowed as it hit the sun's rays was unlike any other. Or perhaps it glowed differently because of the striking color of his hair—the thick, blazing curls of red—which had a slight shade of gold as the setting sun shined its rays from the red maple foliage behind him.

"Verra sorry to call ye so suddenly, Ma'am. Is this yer car right here?" He asked politely, still maintaining his position beside the horse. The way he spoke reminded her a lot of Geillis, and then she knew exactly why: he pronounced his words similarly, only with a lilt in his voice that produced a distinctive accent. And with the way he said the word 'car', the way he would naturally roll his 'r's, she knew that he was, obviously, a Scot: not just some man who had the genes, but someone who was born and raised in Scotland.

And if she were to put it in more specific terms, he was a handsome one.

What on earth was he doing here, with a horse?

"I," She breathed a whiff of the fresh forest air, but coughed when the foul odor of horse greeted her nostrils. "I, erm. I—" Another cough. "I wasn't aware the trough was being used,"

"Nae harm done," He didn't look mad about the car blocking the water trough, nor did he laugh when she hacked a terrible cough in front of him. But instead, he gave her a friendly smile, hand still patting the horse's crest. "The cars dinna come by the farm that much until classes begin, so I hadna taken out the wee parking posts for the time being. But if ye could just move yer car to the other side, ye'd do a great favor for Sleepy right here."

"Sleepy." The horse, Claire! Sleepy is the horse, idiot. "Of course," she said while her mind was in tangles at how a big horse had a soft name for himself. Sleepy didn't mind, anyway. He just kept his muzzle grazing around the lustrous surface of Claire's sedan, snorting and wanting to get rid of the metal object that kept him from his water break. "Is it safe to move with the horse? He won't bite me, wouldn't he?"

"Oh aye, wait a while." The man fumbled for a better grip on the reins before making a clicking sound, leading Sleepy to turn around and walk away from the car. The horse clearly didn't want to go anywhere further from the trough, so they simply kept a few meters' distance from Claire, safe enough for her to enter the driver's seat and maneuver the car slowly to the opposite side, free from any troughs or other items that might attract horses. Once she'd moved, the tall man had now led an excited Sleepy to his drinking trough, with the horse's black tail gently wagging in content. He turned around and looked towards her, giving her a happy thumbs-up.

The man seemed to know a lot about Leoch, with him knowing when cars flocked in and when the parking posts were needed to be brought out in the front. And although she didn't have much of a proof on whether a Scottish horse-wrangling giant wearing a loose black shirt and tight pants was the right person to ask about forest kindergarten before sundown, she simply had to push her luck.

"Sorry, I don't mean to interrupt you on a fine afternoon, but I was wondering if I could ask you a few things about this place?" Claire took out the piece of paper and handed it to him, his blue eyes squinting at the Leoch brochure. "I'm quite in a rush, and I can't find any of the staff inside. Not even the receptionist. But if you'd be so kind to tell me more about the place, then I'd be very happy."

He took the glossy folded paper from her, and looked at her momentarily with a soft expression. "That's alright. Ye wouldna have found anybody inside too. I'm the only person left to tend to the place this afternoon, ye ken. Was just giving the horse a wee ride so he doesna end up restless when he goes back into the stalls right before closing time, and then I saw a car entering the archway."

"Oh, erm. Thank you. Then this makes me all the more fortunate to find you here then."

He nodded. "Aye. So what d'ye want to know, Ma'am? Ye've got any bairns?"

"B-Bairn?" Geillis used this for the girls. "You mean, kids? Yes. Yes, I do. Twins, actually."

"Oh, that's verra bonny." He replied, gingerly rubbing the back of his head for a while, which exposed the taut muscles in his arm. He's scary huge, alright, Claire whispered in her head, thinking about how absurd it must be to be talking kindergarten matters with a man who looked as if he could pummel her car into a large pile of junk. For what it's worth, he might be a stable boy, and she was an obstacle to his last-minute duties.

But the man seemed willing to entertain her questions, flipping the three-fold open to present her a single whole page. "The program's best fit for three to six-year-olds, ken, and several bairns are assigned to one adult instructor, making it a 5:1 student-teacher ratio. Of course, if ye'd get yer twins enrolled, we'd group them together."

Claire found it amusing how he must have noticed her rolling and stretching her neck muscles, that he decided to scoot slightly beside her, just for her to keep her eyes on the brochure than to struggle tilting her neck towards his towering figure. After making a quick turn to check on Sleepy, who seemed content just standing beside the trough, he tapped on one portion of the brochure which showed the school's daily schedule.

"In a wee nutshell, Leoch simply takes learning outside the classroom, into the farm, and beyond towards the wee forests here. Instead of toying with those blocks and flashcards, the kids are exposed to the environment around them. We go in groups, collecting wee treasures, building small houses, have playtime in the yurt, and sometimes we get to interact with the farm animals."

Claire was nodding at him the entire time. "Farm animals?"

"Oh, just patting them coos, feeding goats and collecting chicken eggs. The safe ones that canna harm a soul."

"That's a relief," Claire crossed her arms as she looked behind his ruddy curls. The sun was now setting, and the place has gone one shade dimmer. He didn't seem bothered by it though, and neither did he give any hints that he and Sleepy were in a rush. "But... are there any accidents?"

"Accidents?" He made a Scottish sound that resembled a shrug. "That's inevitable in school, much more in an outdoor one. But dinna fash, the teachers here are trained paramedics. There are the occasional slips and falls, but nothing worse than that, I guarantee ye."

"Well, what about bites?"

"Bites?"

"The bites, from insects or the snakes in the forest... Is it safe?"

"Oh, them wee creepy crawlies, ye mean?"

She made an internal laugh. "Yes, those kinds of things."

"Och, nae danger, Ma'am. It's usually the forest that the parents are most afraid of, but it is just a heavily-shrubbed area within Leoch grounds." His finger now travelled from its rest on the brochure, and towards an enclosed patch of greenery on the far edge of the grounds. somewhere within the wooden picket fence behind her car. "And besides, if there's an emergency, we'd ken what to do."

"I heard you say 'we'," countless times, actually. He folded the brochure back into a smaller, rectangular piece and handed it back to her. "Are you perhaps a kindergarten teacher here?"

"Aye, one among the many." He said it with such sentiment and conviction, and Claire saw the glint in his eyes and the curve on his lips as he answered. He was proud of it. "Why? Ye were wondering how a stable hand kens about forest kindergarten all too well?"

"No, of course not." She laughed. "I just had never..."

"Never what, Ma'am?"

She made a side eye before giggling. "I never thought a sizeable man such as you would be hanging around with little children."

"Ah," He chuckled as he looked down, trying to examine his own size of a man. "There are a number of teachers who are big and braw too, Ma'am, it isna just me. Wait till ye see some of the other teachers, that is if ye do decide to bring yer bairns here when school starts."

Claire had a more questions that came after, and he was more than prepared to give her answers that it almost felt as though he had gone through the same set of queries that parents were mostly concerned about, but he didn't waver. He explained everything, bit by bit, with the flick of his hands and his low, accentuated Scottish timbre that reminded her a lot about a Highland warrior with his well-chiseled body and strong arms, and how the bulk of his thighs could be seen with the way his black riding jodhpurs were wrapped tightly on his legs. He could don a sark and a kilt, and look like somebody straight out of 18th-century Scotland.

"If ye'd oblige me with an answer, Ma'am," she had just tucked the brochure back inside her bag when he spoke. "I can tell this to be your first time wanting to enroll the bairns in an outdoor kindergarten school, and I admire your enthusiasm in exploring such. But what could possibly be your motivation?"

"What do you mean?"

He placed both hands inside his pockets. "Weel, ye just seemed verra interested about the whole idea of forest school, and much eager to get them in."

Claire wasn't sure if talking about Frank to a stranger was the best thing to do, but she did find it necessary to tell him a little of why she wanted to investigate a new way of learning. "I was...well, back with my former husband, I was convinced to get my daughters homeschooled. Not that I'm against it," She didn't even know why she had to clarify that to him. Perhaps because he was an educator? She really didn't know. "But maybe I was just unlucky with the whole setup and eventually I realized homeschooling wouldn't be the best for my daughters."

"I understand," he replied, no longer making an attempt to unearth any bit of detail from the past. "I hope Leoch shall serve the wee lasses its purpose when the time comes."

"Thank you. I really hope so too." 

She glanced up, seeing the radiant smile on his face that contrasted the dimming vicinity of the farm. It was eerily quiet around them, with nothing but the soft chirping of the birds and the occasional snorts that Sleepy would make behind them both.

He suddenly exhaled heavily. "Alright, Ma'am. It's getting rather dark, so I shall see ye to your car before I close this place down." He gestured towards Claire's sedan—the lone automobile in that area. She smiled, allowing him to guide her to her door, but before she could open it, she turned towards him, offering her hand towards him for a shake.

"I'm Claire, by the way." She cordially said. "Thank you very much for answering my questions for the day."

Albeit the place being dim, she could see his face brighten up at the mention of her name. Holding her hand with a firm, yet gentle grip, he introduced himself.

"Ah, Dhia. Where are my manners?" he muttered to himself, before giving her a proper handshake, his own hand wide enough to wrap hers entirely.

"I'm verra pleased to meet you, Claire," He rumbled with a low voice. "I'm Jamie."

Chapter Text

 

 

Courage and KitKats


"Are you going to eat that, Faithie?"

Brianna nudged Faith with her finger before pointing towards the last KitKat stick on the table. Claire had set five of the chocolate wafer fingers before her daughters as soon as they finished eating Mac N' Cheese for dinner, just to see how the they were going to deal with the last piece of evening dessert after each of them getting two pieces of it. Bree kept wary eyes on her sister, who, seemed to be trapped in a great dilemma on what to do with the favored piece.

Pouting morosely, she looked towards Brianna. "I want it." She slightly stretched her words.

"So are you going to eat it?"

"I do not know."

"Make up your mind!" the toddler with the longer hair grumbled. "Or I will eat it!"

"No! Lemme think!" Faith slammed her hands repeatedly on the table, her face growing to a nasty red each time she was feeling unsettled over something. Claire wanted to interfere so badly, wanting to ease the tension between the twins over one sad-looking wafer bar. She was dying to give them a clue that they could just cut the piece into two equal halves, but as much as she wanted to mediate, she also longed to see the girls' dynamics in situations like this. They may be stubborn and hot-headed at times, but if she were to take them to forest school, with them making new friends during the day, she had to know whether they were capable of sharing or not.

Surely Leoch wouldn't try to make ends meet just for the sake of two homeschooled girls joining the gang, so she had to prepare them for moments where generosity and humility was to be required of them.

Brianna waved her hands in an attempt to get Faith's attention. "Are you even thinking?"

"I am thinking!" replied Faith, who suddenly realized there was another person seated with them on the table. "Wait. Mummy. Mummy doesn't have a KitKat yet, Bree."

Okay, now this is interesting. Claire's eyes widened at this brand new discovery. The two little redheads exchanged silent glances, before Brianna pushed the plate towards their mother. "Mummy, for you."

Claire felt a lump on her throat, and she tried her best to stop tears of joy from trickling down her eyes, not wanting to worry any of them. "Oh, sweetheart. Thank you so much! Both of you!" Claire honored their decision by taking the offered snack with both hands, while the girls looked proud of themselves, affirming each other with their happiest of smiles at how they thought they made the right decision.

Coming home from a tiring twelve-hour shift tonight felt all the more delightful upon being a witness to her daughters' kindness. The hours spent at the hospital may have proven itself useful for Claire to get rid of any unwanted painful memory, thanks to her occasional repartee with Joe by the doctor's lounge, as well as the increasing workload given by the hospital's head director and chief physician Doctor Gascogne—who prefers herself to be called Doctor Hildegarde. 

When Claire asked why Hildegarde, the older doctor simply gave her a slight raise of a brow before saying with a deep and resonant voice: "It's just as you want yourself to be addressed as Doctor Beauchamp, even if we all know that isn't your surname."

"It will be, Doctor Hildegarde." She countered playfully. "Soon."

Being in her late fifties, Doctor Hildegarde exhibited a gaunt, overawing frame with the way that she moved and walked around the hospital, causing stolen glances from both patients and hospital staff. Her features were overwhelmingly that of a typical Hollywood witch, but behind the formidable visage was a caring woman with stalwart character. She was passionate about healthcare and medicine and it could be seen with the way she dealt with the doctors under her supervision, giving them timely updates on hospital regulations and patient concerns. She welcomed Claire to the workplace in a unmoved exterior, but in character she did feel the same warmth and sincerity that of a mother, and Claire could never be grateful enough to be led by a chief physician as hands-on as the great Doctor Hildegarde.

The increasing demand of the job kept her away from the memory of Frank too; she'd rather subject herself to physical exhaustion than go through the emotional roller-coaster all over again.

But the feeling of relief of being at the graces of kind colleagues and hands-on bosses can never compete with the joy she would feel each time she would arrive home to meet the girls, as the burdens of her heart would disappear over a shared meal, a little game of hide-and-seek in their small brownstone apartment along Beacon Hill, and a bedtime story that accompanied a few songs sung by Faith and Brianna—who, just like the recent KitKat predicament, would both battle over who gets to sing better. The girls, unfortunately, had only one standard of good singing, and that would ultimately belong to the person who sang the loudest. After their first two weeks in Boston screaming the lyrics of How Far I'll Go from Disney's Moana, Claire reminded herself to check on soundproofing windows online, and get them installed as soon as possible.

"Did you like it, Mummy?" Faith asked enthusiastically for a feedback, as if she were the one who made the crispy treat. Brianna had the same smile etched on her lips too. They both looked ridiculous, but they were altogether beautiful.

"I love it, Faithie. It's very yummy!" She imitated Faith's habit of stretching her words, before taking a big munch out of the wafer, gobbling everything down. The twins clapped, the way Claire would always do when they finished their meals. "Yay! All clear!"

"Good job, Mummy!" Bree punched in the air. "Good job, Faithie!"

"We're all good girls!" The other little one tittered, sending Claire heaving out a loud laugh. While the blissful air filled their tiny dining space, Claire affirmed herself of how things are looking up now that Frank was out of the picture.

After dinner, Claire let them share their story about how their day was with their new babysitter, Mrs. Crook. After that, much to Claire's surprise, was another round of a screamed version of the Moana song that's been on their heads for days. Claire made sure they only sung up to the first chorus before ushering them to the bathroom for a quick shower, and soon later tucked them to bed.

"It's now time for a kiss-kiss," Claire softly whispered at the final leg of their nighttime routine. The girls were now bathed and cleaned and prepared for the night, but when she leaned forward to give each of them their goodnight kisses, Brianna blocked her face from her mother's lips. "What's the matter, sweetie?" She asked as vivid blue stared back at longingly.

"Are we really going to school? Just like what you said before?"

That question drew in Claire's face a tender smile. "Yes, sweetie. It'll be fun. I told you, haven't I?"

"I know," Brianna glumly said. "I know." She repeated to herself, as though the first wasn't enough to convince her.

Right after her visit at Leoch, and that brief forest kindergarten walkthrough with Jamie, Claire came home to tell the twins about it: that Leoch was a beautiful playschool filled with all the farm animals they would encounter in their little flashcards back in London (Claire made it certain she never mentioned anything about Teacher Sandy), that there were kids their age they could make friends with, and that there were horses—one of them was a tall, black horse named Sleepy. They got excited about it instantly.

Although the concept of new friends and farm animals was gladly welcomed by both, Claire noticed them feeling quite restless and agitated about school, especially when the first day of classes approached them fast.

Tomorrow was the their first day of kindergarten classes, which explained why the twins were jittering over the matter.

"There's nothing to worry about, loves." Claire spoke of those words more to herself than to the girls, her mind going back to that photo of kids playing in the mud. God, will these girls even oblige themselves to a little dollop of dirt?

"What if they don't like us?" Bree asked. "I never had friends. Except for Faith. But she's my sister. That does not count."

"Me too," Faith seconded, looking more worried than the other twin.

Claire swore her heart melted and she could have shed a tear both of joy and of pity; joy for their innocent concern on how to make a good first impression on their first day, and pity for their innocent concern on how to make a good first impression on their first day.

The very same reason.

But if there was one emotion that stood out, it was the pride in seeing Faith and Brianna growing up right before her own eyes. They were becoming more self-conscious each passing day, experiencing the first few joys and concerns of a young child.

Maybe if Frank saw this for himself, she asked herself while beholding the two girls' presence, things may have been different, I guess?

She shook her head of any unwanted thought.

"They will like you. You're the most beautiful girls ever!" Claire said reassuringly, rolling to the empty space beside them. "And I'm sure your teachers are fun too. I met one of the kind teachers from forest school, actually," she said as she held up a finger, emphasizing the number 'one', and they lifted a finger to mirror her actions too. "The kind sir told me that it'll be fun, and there is nothing to worry about because you'll meet new friends there. He likes horses too! And the horses seem to like him very much too. You remember Sleepy, right? The horse I told you about?"

After receiving two fervent nods in reply, Claire giggled. "He petted the big horse, just like this." A hand gently grazed Faith's head, and then Bree's. "And then, he'll make a clicking noise to get the horse's attention, just like this!" She clicked with her tongue, and the girls giggled at the sound.

"Then what happened?" Bree was already taken out of her previous worriment, and so was Faith. Claire didn't really know how tonight's bedtime odds were in her favor but she thanked the heavens for that.

"What happened next? Oh, big old Sleepy followed him, as they walked together to his horsie-home."

In reality, Claire never got to see Jamie walk the horse back to the stables that day. After that firm handshake, he grinned before taking one step forward to open the car door for her. Chivalry suits him well, she said to herself.

He was a true gentleman.

He wished her safety as she entered the car that day, warning her about speeding vehicles around that time, and then waved one last goodbye before she started the engine. Claire could remember making a quick glance towards the rearview mirror and still see Jamie's big silhouette in the middle of the gravel yard, watching her car speed down into the main street, until he was already out of sight.

"I wanna see Sleepy," Faith yawned, while sluggishly tugging on both Claire's and Brianna's hair. "He's very good."

"And very smart too! Just like you both. He's curious like Faithie-girl, and rugged strong like Brianna." Claire snatched the moment of their fun colloquy in order to come up with an improvised bedtime story about Sleepy the Horse. "Sleepy was a beautiful black horse among all others, and was everybody's favorite. He loved to walk under the sun, along with his other farm companions."

"Like the moo's?"

"Yes, Faith. Like the cows that go 'moo', and the sheep that go 'baa'. They loved it in Leoch, especially when they saw the little children having fun during the day." Sleepy and the animals pranced around the barn with the cows and the goats at the sight of the kids, and by the time she felt that the girls were adrift into their dreams, Claire stopped.

And they all lived happily ever after, she smiled, planting sweet kisses atop each forehead before she soundlessly crept towards the door. Once she had secured a considerable distance from her daughters' room, Claire checked her phone, which had been buzzing forever against her back pocket of her jeans.

"Bloody hell," Claire felt her face fuming as she slumped onto the couch, seeing an endless cycle of messages coming from Frank. She scrolled through the message thread, her eyes simply glancing through one bubble after another. She didn't want to dwell in them much, because if she did...

10:00 PM. How are you?

10:25 PM. Did you have any trouble getting a place? I know of a colleague who lives down in Cambridge.

10:26 PM. The rent isn't that bad, but I know the place is wide and spacious enough for you, Faith and Bree.

10:28 PM. Claire?

10:30 PM. Have you found a school for the girls? Classes are about to start there. I know of a place where you could hitch them in.

10:31 PM. I know the principal. He's a man, just in case you wanted to ask.

10:35 PM. I'm sorry. I must be rambling a lot. I'd appreciate it if you'd give me a reply.

10:36 PM. Just wanted to know if you're doing okay.

10:40 PM. Take care.

Claire guffawed, as she tapped on the screen before placing her phone against her ear. It rang twice before a deafening shrill chimed on the other end of the call.

"CLAAAAIRE!" Geillis was screaming in a loud, threatening noise that Claire almost flung the phone across the room. "A'missed ye sae muckle!"

"Missed me? G, I've phoned you every after twelve-hour shift, how on earth could you miss me?" The two laughed and caught up with what happened during the previous day instead: Geillis mentioned that the car had already been sold, and that she had already deposited her money. Claire, in turn, gave her an update on the twins' first day in forest kindergarten, how she had already paid their fees in full, how she'd spent most of the days getting them ready for a new learning environment, and how Frank had decided to storm her with messages about lodging and prep school.

At the mention of the last update, Geillis made a quivering sound of disgust. "Little piece of advice, Claire. Save my digits, as well as your new colleagues', write them in a piece of paper or in yer computer or phone's note app. And then do yerself a favor by getting yerself a new number and whack that auld cursed card down the garbage."

"I'll consider that."

"Consider? Claire, don't tell me ye are giving this man a chance. Ye've been put to misery for God knows how long."

Claire suspired a deep breath. "I know that, G. But he's... he's asked me about the girls. I know things between me and Frank won't be the same anymore, but if he's trying his best for Faith and Bree, then who am I to keep him from being a father to them?"

"Look." Geillis spoke sternly, seemingly trying to get a point across amidst the cacophonic noise. "Ye moved miles away with the girls to keep them both away from that eejit of a man. I ken ye as a loving and forgiving woman, Claire. But if ye'd invalidate the way F-word has thrown yer family down the drain over a series of text messages, then I'm sorry, I'd have to call ye a shitehawk."

Whatever shitehawk meant, Claire was certain it wasn't pleasant. "Are you seriously going to call me that?"

"Dinna need to. I ken you'd never give him a chance." She finally said. "Good luck tomorrow, Beauchamps. It's gonna be a long day."

 


 

"Early bird again, Fraser?"

Jamie glanced to the door where a young scrawny woman greeted him with a warm smile. Her long, chestnut hair and her heavy backpack bounced with every step she made towards the office cubicle they both shared.

"Are ye no' used to me showing up early yet, Geneva?"

"I'm quite certain you'd arrive at six in the morning for the barn animals, which is why I'm so glad that this cup of coffee isn't going to waste. Had to tempt the gods for it." She grinned at him, placing one of the venti Starbucks cups on his desk. "A random good-luck present from yours truly."

"Och, ye dinna have to, but I'm grateful." He lifted the cup and slightly pulled the lid open to get a whiff of the lively, nutty aroma of espresso. "And a good-luck gift? Why so?"

She scooted towards the empty chair beside him. "Why, it's your last teaching year, of course! Don't tell me you've forgotten?" Geneva plopped her backpack on the desk, making it land with a heavy thud. "Or perhaps you've decided to stay in Boston for good?"

"I havena forgotten, lass. And Christ! What's inside yer backpack, a boulder?"

The twinkle in Geneva's eyes sent his lips curving to a smile. "A laptop, dummy. Seems like you have no problems about the gift, as I can see you enjoying the scent of oozing caffeine."

"I just, erm... Don't people normally give parting gifts when the school year's at its end?"

"I just wanted to give you something, that's all." She playfully tapped on the surface of her own paper cup, but her eyes never left him. "Is it crazy, how I'm beginning to miss my cubemate even before the school year has begun?"

"I could take Jamie's cube when he leaves for that cup of coffee, Dunsany." Another voice joined in: a deep, gruff one, and both of them instantly knew that they weren't alone inside the faculty room. Jamie swiveled his chair to wave a hand to Rupert, one of the Leoch kindergarten teachers. "Will ye gift me a cup then? A good-luck gift for the birthday boy?" He teased.

"Not a chance, Rupert." A flushed Geneva scoffed, turning away from both men. The room was silent again, except for the faint clicking sound in Rupert's keyboard, and while Geneva had been blowing softly on her coffee before taking a sip, Jamie swiveled his chair to face her momentarily.

"Thank you for the coffee. And for wishing me a good year." He expressed friendliness in the smile that he gave her, but nothing more than that. The glint in Geneva's smoky-grey eyes need not be a subject of much scrutiny, as it was no secret that his cubemate and colleague, Geneva Dunsany, had feelings for him.

"You're welcome, Fraser." Geneva too was well aware that Jamie, despite being knowledgeable of her affections, did not seem to have the same sentiments and fondness. But she was fine with it nonetheless.

As he made a generous sip from the flavorful and mellow brew, Jamie somehow felt bad he couldn't reciprocate the same affection, as much as he felt bad for the birthday boy Rupert, who looked crestfallen as he sank to his cubicle chair. In a regular day, it was the three of them who arrived to Leoch earlier than the others: getting modules and props prepared, daily reports submitted, and memo updates read way ahead than the other teachers. One e-mail memo from the school's administration, however, caught his eye.

"Marsali MacKimmie. Fergus Claudel. Roger Mackenzie." He scrolled further down. "Brianna Randall. Faith Randall." He leaned onto his chair to peek into Geneva's cubicle. "Gen, there seems to be a wee error on my class list."

"Which part?"

"Can ye check the e-mail?"

She made a few mouse clicks behind the cubicle's partition. "Oh. You mean the twins?"

Twins. Jamie scrooched forward on his chair to make another glance on the list. 

Sassenach.

Did she really decide to enroll here finally? Jamie's train of thought recalled that one day where he'd seen a slender brunette lady in the middle of the gravelyard, looking helplessly lost and confused as she held up a brochure of the forest school. She said she had twins, although she didn't look much like a mother of two rowdy bairns as her body seemed lean and fit. Had she not mentioned about children, he would have mistaken her as a lass who had gotten lost along the way.

"How did ye ken they were twins?"

"Oh, that? I was able to have a quick chat with the registrar the other day. She told me she was able to talk to an English mom on the phone yesterday, begging her to keep the two girls in one class." Geneva crossed her arms. "She was just worried they wouldn't warm up in school well if they weren't grouped together."

"I see." He replied, eyes still focused on his computer monitor. "Did ye get any more information?"

"Not much, I'm afraid. But what I do know is that the mom's a doctor. She's new in Boston, and is still struggling to juggle her shifts along with other errands. Poor lady has a lot on her plate right now."

Jamie kept those details in mind as he skimmed through his students' data. He had in his class a handful of kids from non-American parents: a pair of English twins, two Scottish bairns, and a boy of French descent under foster care.

"I'll read through this later," Jamie shut his computer down and checked the time on his watch. They only had roughly an hour before the cars would begin to flock by the gravel yard; it was the very place he last saw the woman who had travelled to Leoch in her blue scrub suit, throwing at him one question after another about outdoor learning.

With more of the teachers reporting and filling the faculty with raucous noises of 'it's been a while's and 'happy birthday, Rupert's, Jamie decided to take a quiet breather by the reception area, along with his cup of coffee.

"Last leg before going home, eh?" Just when Jamie thought he had escaped the noise, Rupert showed up, following him to the entrance. "I'm surprised ye were na' holding up a phone to yer ear. Usually yer sister would give ye a morning call before work."

"Aye. Jenny." He mumbled. "She called earlier. Canna seem to bide."

"She's just excited, man! Nae danger. She'd just be surprised at how the year's gon be through fast. One blink and she'd find ye back in yer homestead." Rupert patted him on the shoulder. "Oh, and are ye free this evening? O' course ye are free. Who owns yer time, anyway?"

Jamie furrowed his brows at him. "Why?"

"I'm treating everybody for a wee dram at Ardsmuir Pub. Whisky sounds good?"

"When has it sounded bad?" Whisky always sounded good for Jamie. "Canna think of a day,"

"Me neither." Rupert replied before nodding towards the archway where two cars made a turn to the gates. "Seems like we haftae stop talking about whisky for the time. The bairns are coming in now. I'll see ye later then?"

Jamie nodded, raising his coffee to him. "Long may yer lum reek. Happy working birthday, Rupert." After one quick smile, the plump man took off to the grounds, to prepare the yurt for the kids' playtime. Jamie remained on his seat, watching parents come by the receptionist, and would soon be led with their kids to the yurt where they could play before the gathering circle. Jamie was also quick to assist some parents into coaxing their child into the yurt, accompanying the timid and faint-hearted ones into tables filled with crayons and coloring books. One of the boys that he brought to a coloring set was actually Fergus, one of the bairns under his care. The boy did seem to be content on his own, and so Jamie proceeded outside. He had left his coffee cup unattended; who knows if a kid knocked it off by the table were he last left it?

Coming back to the reception area to finish what was left with his coffee, he finally saw the English lady—Claire, if he recalled her name right, along with two red-headed girls. Standing by the side of the entrance, Claire was on her knees, comforting the shorter-haired lass who seemed to be crying, while the other one, whose hair was longer than the wailing girl, stood by her side.

The Randall twins, as he recalled their surnames at his class list. These two were going to be a part of his five students for the year.

It was instinct that led Jamie to pace towards the troubled trio after forcing the hot liquid down his throat. It was time he switched his teacher mode on. "Miss Claire?" He called, immediately catching her attention.

Before Claire could speak, however, the wee lass wailed.

"I don't know anybody!"

"Faith, sweetie," Claire hushed soothingly at the girl. "Bree is here with you. See? She's fine, isn't she? Faith can be fine about it too, right?"

She wailed even more.

"Faith, I promise you can get your KitKat if you become a good girl in school. Both of you can get a KitKat, okay?"

"I don't want a KitKat! I wanna go home!"

"Faithie," Claire was insistent, but after a few seconds of being stuck in a tight corner, she turned to Jamie with a grimace of embarrassment before turning towards her daughter.

"Y-You remember the kind sir with the horse? The one who does the fancy clicking sounds? He's here!" She beamed towards the little one and, much to Jamie's amusement, she was successful in closing the floodgates of tears.

The little girl with the longer mop of hair eyed him then, not with suspicion, but with a look that felt as if she had high regard for him. Without neither of the three noticing, Jamie made a perturbed gulp. What on earth has this woman been telling them about me?

His gaze shifted from the awestruck one to the other who was busy brushing her tears away with a clumsy flick of her hands. This girl is named Faith, he repeated to himself before kneeling down to meet her eye to eye.

"Hullo there," he smiled, yet still careful with the way he approached her. God knows what kind of stories their mother told them about him. "I'm that, erm, kind sir with the horse," he decided to stick to the facts.

Faith's sobs were still there, but it had softened into gentle, whispering hitches. "H-Hello," she managed to say while her hands slowly slid inside her sweater pockets.

"What's yer name, lass?" He asked, even if he already knew.

"I'm Faith," she stretched her name.

"Aye, wee Faith," He nodded, turning towards the other girl. "And what about ye, what's yer name?"

"Brianna?" the lass replied as though she was not sure of her own name either, while she snuggled closer to her sister to form a joint clump of ginger-red rumples.

Jamie can't help but marvel at how adorable they were. Perhaps his last year teaching in Leoch would be a blast, after all.

"It's nice to meet ye both." Placing a hand on his chest, he introduced himself. "I'm Mr. Jamie. I'm one of your teachers here in school."

"Are you not going to ask for my Mummy's name?" Brianna interrupted, which, of course, sent him chuckling at her fine wit. The girls' mother, at that moment, flushed into a deep pink at her daughter's sudden snark.

"Brianna, that wasn't really polite, was it?" she corrected, although Jamie didn't mind. "Be kind, please?"

"But—"

"A keen lass, ye are! I'm sorry I forgot to ask yer mother." He then turned towards the older one among the three with knowing eyes. "What's your name, Ma'am?"

She smiled beneath the secondhand embarrassment. "I'm Claire. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Jamie."

"I'm verra happy to meet ye, Miss Claire," He bowed, and then turned towards the kids. "Are ye happy too, lasses?"

"Verra," Although it didn't really reflect in Faith's worried expression. Jamie offered his hand for her to hold, and she gingerly placed her little fingers atop his calloused palm. Bree followed suit, groping and fiddling on the man's fingers.

"Can ye show me happy faces then? A happy face like this?" Jamie grinned at them, and they immediately mirrored the grin. "Bonny!"

Bree gawked. "Bunnies? There are bunnies?"

"Brianna—"

"Oh, yes! There are wee bunnies back in the grounds, of many colors." Jamie interjected before Claire could even speak correctively towards the little girl. "We can visit them later during class. But first, let's go in to the yurt to meet and play wi' the other kids, aye?"

 


 

Jamie didn't have that much trouble in getting the two girls to wend their way from the reception area towards the big yurt, all thanks to the promise of getting to meet the bunnies up close, and the presence of Claire walking along with them.

The twins' first day in class may have had a rough start—with Faith suddenly panicking as she saw strangers walking past the entrance, while Brianna made one scornful remark after another. Despite all that, Jamie's rescue and amazing rapport with the girls took her by surprise. She had underestimated his skill with toddlers when they first met, but he managed to prove himself fit for the job with the way he helped the girls make a new friend as soon as they reached the playtent. Seeing them come out from the dark, enclosed shell of timidity and guardedness and finally sharing cute grins with the other kid made her heart swell with unexplainable joy, something she knew she was meant to feel all this time if she had not been deprived of it.

By Frank.

God, Claire bit her lip. What took us so long?

"The horses have already been forgotten, thanks to the bunnies. But that wasn't so bad, was it?" Jamie said thoughtfully when he turned towards Claire, but was startled when he saw her sniffling a tear. "What's wrong? Is everything alright?"

She nodded, eyes still moist and wet. "I'm fine, it's just... I..." The sniffles made her pause for a moment. "I just never thought it would be this smooth." Claire turned away, not wanting her daughters to catch her crying on their first day. "S-Sorry, I'm just quite relieved they made it through the big leap from homeschool to kindergarten."

"They made a bigger leap of faith than that, Sassenach. English lasses, ye all seem to be." Jamie remarked while she dried her eyes with a handkerchief.

It took her a moment before realizing he had called her that. "Must be that phone call with the registrar. I guess word spreads fast among the teachers here." 

"Nah. I ken because they're assigned to me."

"You're their teacher?"

"I am," Jamie crossed his arms, eyes never leaving the three kids huddled over one coloring book. "That wee laddie wi' them's another one of mine. He made a fit earlier, was beside himself the entire time until he got his hands over a coloring book. Glad they're getting along too, ye ken. It's good to get them familiar wi' faces before classes begin."

Clare noticed that most, if not all parents, stayed inside the yurt even as the teachers were already making their way inside. All of a sudden, one of the lady teachers, who introduced herself to the group as Miss Geneva, began to clap and get everybody's attention. She greeted and began to gather the kids in a circle, while the parents stayed behind, occupying the empty benches that surrounded the far corners of the tent.

"Are you not joining the kids?" Claire asked Jamie when he sat beside her. Wasn't he supposed to be up front?

"Ah, no. Not yet," He shrugged. "Gathering circles and a few bit of song-singing is usually Miss Geneva's time to shine. The teachers lead one particular program for the day, ye ken."

Claire did see that the other teachers were also seated among the parents, relating to them while the beautiful ang young Miss Geneva engaged the little ones to a time of introduction.

"What sort of activity do you get to lead the entire group of kids in?" She asked him while she noticed how the little coloring-book boy was now seated between Faith and Brianna in the circle of kids.

"I lead nature time, which includes the forest trail and the animal interactions." Jamie replied; his gaze was carrying from the kids to Claire, and then quickly back to the kids. "But we take turns with the forest trail. Me, Mr. Rupert and Mr. Angus. Just so we also have our time to focus on our class."

"I knew your assignment had something to with animals, Mr. Jamie."

He gave her a quizzical look. "Does that assumption have something tae to wi' what happened awhile ago, Miss Claire?"

"Which one?"

"Me being the kind sir wi' the horse," the way he even attempted to pull her accent sent her giggling, but she indulged him with a decent backstory anyway, telling him how his sudden appearance with a horse by the gravel yard was the cause of it all. "I guess I have traumatized ye with such a sight."

They shared a laugh, and began to talk not as parent and teacher, but as two strangers trying to get to know each other, If Claire could put it that way. He began asking her questions not pertaining to kids and kindergarten, but more about her and how she happened to end up in Boston. Claire, in return, said what her heart was ready to tell any stranger who asked: that she simply had to leave a failed marriage for the sake of the kids.

That was all her healing heart had permitted for her to say.

"Boston was the place since, well, because I first managed to secure a stint at the general hospital. I could've ended up in any other state if I didn't get the job here."

"Ye were really planning on living someplace far away, then?"

"I had to, it was for the best. My husband, he was.... well... I really don't have the right words but he wasn't pleasant."

"Ye dinna have to tell me, it's alright." He assured her. "Seems to me that there was no other way but out."

Claire let out a sigh. "You can say that. But of course the choice didn't come too easily, knowing that we didn't have any family in an entirely new city."

She was afraid with the way he would respond with that; surely teachers would raise brows on how a mother of two who'd dare to work four to five twelve-hour shifts a week. But Jamie didn't give her the judging eye. As she thought, this was no longer a conversation between a parent and a teacher.

"I see," The scattered noise inside the tent seemingly reduced around her when he spoke with his deep, resounding voice that it made her turn towards him. "That's courage, ye ken. Doin' what is right in spite of fear, or even if things are uncertain and against ye. If ye've done it for the people ye care about at the expense of your own comfort, who could go against that decision, no? Doing everything ye can for the sake of your kids is an act of courage. Canna deny ye that merit."

Despite having most parts of her heart in a mess than it is in the mending, she cannot simply resist the warmth and tenderness that he evoked, as well as the feeling of being guarded and secure with how his body faced her as they sat side by side. It was just like what she felt with Joe—being the all-genuine colleague that he was, but there was something inexplicable with Jamie's gaze. It was deep. Ravishing. Like the sea along with its ebbing and flowing. But it was not that his eyes were beautiful. It was that he looked at her. Beheld her like she was someone worthy of beholding.

Frank could've never gazed at her this way. No one did. It was different.

And Claire found it disturbing in herself that she felt comfortable in the eyes of someone lesser than an acquaintance.

"Oh, Christ. Flattery will get you nowhere, Mr. Jamie." She jested, breaking the stare that may have lasted for more than five seconds if she had only allowed it.

"I'm no flattering ye, Sassenach. I was just stating what's true, is all. " He pointed towards the gathering circle. "It's the bairns' turn."

She didn't even have time to process how he'd just called her a sassenach again when she saw Faith and Brianna being gently guided by Miss Geneva to the center. Their eyes were restlessly looking all over the place, looking for somebody they knew until they saw their mother, standing up, waving her hand towards them.

"Oh, what pretty girls we have here!" Geneva knelt behind them, placing both her hands on each head. "It's your time to introduce yourselves to your new friends. Say your big hello now, dears."

Claire fumbled for her phone inside her red leather bag to capture the moment. Hitting 'Record', she captured the brief moment where the girls looked at each other, as if wondering who among them should go first. She thought she had guessed right, but was surprised to see Faith take one step forward.

Oh, my precious baby!

"Hello," she was swaying her hips as she maintained her gaze towards Claire. "My name is Faith Randall!"

"Oh that's wonderful! Altogether now, pals: Nice to meet you Faith." Geneva maintained her cheery disposition as she gestured for the kids to repeat after her, and they all did. God, that woman could keep the same smile for eight long hours and never falter, she thought as she panned the camera to Bree, who was now up next.

"Hello, I'm Brianna Randall." She appeared to be nonchalant and more composed than her sister, but the way her hands fidgeted behind her made Claire aware that she was braving the moment.

She could never be prouder than this.

The gathering circle went on, and thanks to Geneva's patience and dedication to her craft, she was able to get to know Fergus, the first friend her daughters ever made when they entered the yurt. Fergus was the last kid to introduce himself to the group before snacks were served, and soon later, the teachers came to gather themselves into smaller clusters, each class having one round wooden table and six chairs. Jamie had also left his seat beside Claire to bond with his little group of five toddlers.

Aside from Faith, Brianna and Fergus, two other kids—a blonde girl and a boy with thick brown hair—flocked near him as he began to talk animatedly while pulling out flashcards of farm animals, making their snacktime an interactive one. Claire had been recording every bit of the girls' first day, zooming and panning the viewfinder screen wherever Brianna and Faith sat and crawled. However, it didn't help that their teacher was a big man; with his broad shoulders blocking the view entirely, Claire had to scoot a few meters to the left just to capture a better angle of the twins.

"Alright everybody! Since today is a time for big introductions, who's excited to greet our fellow farm animals a big hello?"

The yurt suddenly turned into a rowdy cubbyhole at the mention of animals; clearly the kids were looking forward to meeting them, and even the teachers expected this kind of reaction that they all knew how to calm them down. "Okay, I know. Are you excited?"

"Yes!" The kids said in unison. Even Faith and Brianna was in it.

"Alright, pals." The poise and grace of Geneva was still just as lively as it was when she first appeared. "Before we visit our friends from the farm, we need to have a set of rules. Let's call on Mr. Jamie to give us a few instructions, okay?"

He stood as he was acknowledged, head almost hitting the roof of the tent. Jamie did mention that there were other teachers who were sizeable, but none of them came close with the broadness of his shoulders, or even his towering height. "Hullo, hullo!" he waved, putting his hand near his chest. "Now that we've made friends with everybody here in the tent, it's time for us to go out and introduce ourselves to our farm friends. Can ye give Mr. Jamie a wee thumbs-up if ye're all excited? Just a thumbs-up," he gestured, bunching his hand to fists while lifting a thumb for them to see. Everybody followed, necks cocked towards the towering figure before them.

"Okay. Verra good, everybody! Now, I've got three rules. The first one, kids," Jamie held out one finger, and then slowly placed it against his lips. "Can somebody tell me what this means?"

"Quiet!" One of the kids from Jamie's little circle gave his answer opposite to its meaning.

"Aye, ye got that, Roger Mac! We have to be whisper-silent. We dinna want to scare them with our noise, aye? So we have to be whisper-silent when we visit them. Can ye make the whisper sound wi' me?" With his voice decreasing into a soft whisper, Jamie and the kids made a hushing sound in unison. "Now onto the second rule, it's two, like the peace sign here," He held up two fingers, affirming each one that copied his gestures. "We have to be peaceful wi' them and be gentle. Lastly,"

The kids didn't even wait for him to hold three fingers up, as they already did it. "Wow! How'd ye ken three was next? How clever! Yes, it's number three. We'll be visiting three places this morning: the chicken coop, the rabbit farm, and then the cows. So, again, can ye tell Mr. Jamie what's Rule One?"

Both teachers and kids made hushing noises together.

"Wa' bout Rule Two?"

V-signs were given back as a reply.

"Aye, and number three—which I dinna think would need demonstration." He then invited everybody to stand up for a little stretching exercise before leading the group of students and teachers outside, trooping along in a single-file.

Parents were only allowed to watch their kids by the picket fence. And although some of the parents decided to just stay by the yurt, Claire was among the ones who went out to see her kids be introduced to even more of the environment around them. From afar, she could see Brianna and Faith pootling along with Fergus and the two other kids as Jamie led his group first towards the farm animals. She saw Jamie kneeling down as he placed a baby chick on top of his palm towards the group of children, gesturing for them to say hi to the feathered creature before giving the little bird a gentle finger-pat on the head. The other teachers also had scooped up a chick for their class to see, but Claire was entirely focused towards Jamie's class, seeing that Brianna already had the chick on the palms of her hands.

"I'm holding it, I'm holding it!" Bree struggled to keep her voice to a minimum even in her excitement. Beside her, the four other kids observed and waited for their turn. Claire managed to take a photo before Jamie picked up the bird from Brianna and placed it atop Fergus' palms. It was a shame that the rabbit farm couldn't be seen from the fence; Claire had wanted to capture a few moments from their first encounter with the bunnies, but she trusted enough that the days they'd spend in Leoch would reduce the rabbit farm's significance into a common sight.

The kids won't be heading back to the tent until lunchtime, as they would be spending the remaining hours of the day outside. This simply meant Claire had more than enough time to go through one photo after another.

Scrolling through her phone's camera roll, she was misty-eyed with tears of joy and pride as she reviewed photos of her daughters' happy faces in a group of new people. Some of the photos she took even had their teacher hovering beside them, making their hair's strong shade of golden-russet beam vividly in the sun.

By noon, a loud bellowing of chants began to near the tent's entrance. Jamie led the group into a chanting rhythm of the song I Love The Mountains as they all marched inside, and Claire, trying to cork a snicker, noticed how Geneva was singing raucously to hide Jamie's obvious lack of skill for singing.

"You're out of tune, Mr. Jamie!" And there it was: yet another ribbing remark from the ever-stubborn Brianna Randall as soon as the big group broke into their small classes for lunch.

Jesus H. Christ. Claire dropped her forehead into her hand as the group laughed, including Mr. Jamie, who seemed unaffronted by her daughter's straightforwardness. "I ken lass. Poor Mr. Jamie canna sing," he confessed to the group of kids as he helped each one out with their lunchboxes. "But since we'll be spending some time together, can ye and the others help me wi' my singing?"

"Yes!" The five of them nodded, carrying on with lunch. Claire kept watch on Jamie's little group of toddlers until a smiley Geneva reappeared into the center of the yurt, calling everybody into a closing gathering circle. Once the kids have cleared their lunchboxes and helped wiping the table clean, the teachers helped them drag their chairs to the center.

The little goodbye song Geneva began to teach the kids distracted Claire from even noticing that Jamie was already making his way towards her. It was only when the bench faintly creaked at the weight of someone heavy and the way that the air wafted with a familiar scent of musk, pinewood and Jamie did she realize he was sitting beside her, phone in hand.

"I took some photos." He uttered, not with the animated voice he used for the kids, but with his normal voice—which was low and deep-toned with hints of his dialectal brogue. "The rabbit farm's hidden behind the stables, and I thought ye might want to keep a souvenir from their first day. They saw Sleepy too, but only from afar."

He knew. Claire smiled, taking her phone out. "Airdrop?"

"Aye," He tapped on his phone and in a second, photos of her two girls appeared on her phone. Each of them cradling a rabbit in their arms as they smiled for the camera.

They look so... happy.

Claire felt her heart swell with so much joy that she began to shed tears again.

"These are priceless photos, Mr. Jamie. I'm really happy. I erm, never thought they'd be able to fair well in a new place, with new people—"

"It's all courage, Sassenach." Jamie made a quick remark, while watching her swipe through one photo after another. "That was courage right there. Where else could they learn that best other than by looking at their mother?"

"You're not just a flatterer, alright. You're an observant one."

He feigned an offended look. "I'm a kindergarten teacher. Being observant is a skill that is essential to my job."

The kids began to disintegrate from the gathering circle, culminating the kids' first day of school. Faith and Bree began to hop towards Claire with their bags after saying their farewell to their classmates, catapulting themselves to their mother's arms. "Oh, beautiful loves! Did you have fun?"

"I did, Mummy!" Faith hugged. "Bree did too,"

Brianna scoffed, all too proud of herself. "Faith did not hold the chick."

"But I got to hold the bunny!"

"Everybody gets to hold the bunny, Faith! Don't get too proud of it." The two continued squabbling until Claire intervened before they could even begin screaming at each other.

"Alright, girls? What did Mummy say about quarrelling? Not good, right?" Claire said with a calming tone. "What was Mr. Jamie's first rule again?"

The mention of their teacher sent their slanted eyes shifting to Jamie, who had already managed to move a few meters away from Claire as soon as the kids went to her. Claire watched him shaking his head to get their attention, making his thick, wavy hair bob with the motion. He clenched his fist, leaving one finger pointed upward, and pressed it against his lips.

"Quiet," they said in chorus, mirroring the man's actions. Claire grinned, pulling them back into her arms and planting warm kisses on each girls' cheeks.

"Alright. Before we go, a promise is a promise." Claire gently stood from the bench, still addressing the two toddlers as she searched inside her bag. Seconds later, she produced from her bag two square-shaped chocolate bars wrapped in red foil paper.

Faith instantly gasped in excitement. "KitKat! We're good girls, Bree!" They hopped wildly, hugging each other after braving their first day; it was gratifying for Claire to see that their joy of receiving the chocolates have come from the affirmation of their good character, and not just for appeasement.

After receiving their wafer, the two of them thanked their mother before speeding outside the yurt along with the other kids who also went out to play before going home. Claire followed, but before exiting the tent, she turned towards Jamie and found him still sitting by the bench with his elbows perched on his knees. He was busy tapping on his phone when she approached him. "I'm really thankful, Mr. Jamie."

He looked up to meet her with a warmhearted smile. "Ye can call me Jamie when the kids are no' around."

"O-Okay," Claire felt her ears becoming rubescent at that brazen remark. "Thank you, Jamie. I hope they weren't such bothersome children to deal with."

"Och. They weren't," He grunted as he stood up, this time making Claire the one cocking her head to meet his eyes. "But even if they were, I won't treat them any less than what's expected of their teacher. But dinna fash, I had quite a good run with the two o' them, along wi' the three others. It's a relief, ye ken, seeing two more wild ruddy bairns in Leoch other than the one I see when I check the mirror."

Claire laughed, "You actually think of yourself as a child?"

"Just for the time being," He offered his hand, palm opened wide as if he was waiting for her to plop something on it. "I believe ye and the lasses live by the proverb: 'The good, ginger-haired kids get the KitKat bars at the end of the day', yes?"

"Did you just make that up?"

"Yes, but ye canna discount the truth." Now he was playing. "I'm good. And a ginger too."

"But you aren't a kid."

"Not yours, I reckon. But a kid, nonetheless. "

As much as she wanted to keep herself from her amusement, Claire couldn't help but snicker. Then came a chortle.

Until she convulsed with the loudest of giggles in front of him. It was the first time, after a long tearful month, that Claire had broken into a fit of laughter.

"Just wanted to make ye laugh, is all." He grinned, quickly placing his hands inside his pockets as he too stifled a laugh.

"God. I could bloody never think a grown man like you to have such an uncanny sense of humor..." She crossed her arms, heaving deep sighs to ease herself from her humor. "Anyway, I should get going. I'm really grateful for all of this, the pictures, the laughs, everything."

"Ye can save the thanking at the end of the year, Sassenach. The year had just begun."

"Maybe I'm just really grateful, I had to tell you how relieved I was. I never..." she sighed in content, her expressions free and relaxed. "I have never felt this happy for a long time."

They stood transiently, taking in the way today had been both a blessing for them both. Jamie expression was all well-pleased and glad, although his fingers were nervously tapping against the fabric of his jeans. Claire noticed that slight hint of nervousness in him, even if he did seem composed before her.

"Ye can, erm," He cleared his throat, "process the bairns about how their day went by the time ye get home. It'll make them come prepared for Thursday,"

"Of course, I'll keep that in mind. Bye then, Jamie," She replied, waving at him before turning away.

She never heard him say goodbye when she began to walk towards the yurt's door. But Claire could only imagine the astonishment in his face by the time he would look down on his bench seat to see a KitKat bar resting behind him, a handwritten note coming with it. She had managed to place the chocolate on the bench while he was busy tapping on his phone earlier that he must have not noticed it there the entire time they began talking. He may not be a kid, but he'd been a good teacher—a breath of fresh air not only for both Faith and Brianna, but for Claire as well.

The good, ginger-haired kids truly get the KitKats at the end of the day, she smiled. 

Chapter Text

 

Checkmate


September 2018

Boston, Massachusetts

 

The streets down Mass Pike bled with the glow of the vehicles' bright red lights. Unfortunately for Jamie, this heavy influx of cars will not make it possible for him to arrive at Ardsmuir Pub in twenty minutes; normally, the pike would serve as a speedy slide downtown, bringing any person from Wellesley Hills to the city in a jiffy. It wasn't his first time using the pike though; being someone whose workplace was a few miles away from Boston City, he had to take the fastest journey to Leoch in the morning, but Jamie Fraser had only seldom used this route in his travels back home.

Which explains why he had not anticipated the massive amount of motorists that flocked the tollgates by sundown. At least, not on a Tuesday.

He didn't eat much during the day knowing that Rupert Mackenzie would be treating the Leoch gang with a birthday smorgasbord of Buffalo wings, lobster rolls, roast beef sandwiches and cannoli (not to mention the free drams of whisky waiting for all guests at the pub). Luckily, he knew he still had one more snack left on his rucksack to keep both mind and gut away from the bitter frustrations of being caught in heavy traffic. Taking the bottleneck of vehicles and impatient motorists to his advantage, Jamie reached for his dark-leathered backpack seated behind his own car seat. And with two tall and strong fingers, he pulled the backpack's outer zippers open to reveal a KitKat bar. Pulling it out brought his mind away from the hunger pangs of his belly, transporting him swiftly into the memory of Miss Claire's bonny face, all pale-skinned, but with a hint of blush and some freckles splayed across the apples of her cheekbones. Her eyes, as he would recall, glimmered like fine whisky in the warm light of the yurt; its creases were dusted with a faint warm shade of hazel eyeshadow.

"Mmphm." He smiled outwardly towards the wafer bar on his hand, but inwardly at how he even managed to get a reward from her. For Jamie, simply seeing her relieved after her kids' first-day mayhem had already been more than enough to count as a reward; he'd seen her wear various emotions in just the first day: that which evoked frustration, relief, excitement, wistfulness, and even the look of tearful contentment.

Above all, Jamie was already more than content to see her laugh at his wee display of his sense of humor earlier that day.

While peeling the foil wrapper open, a grin came out of nowhere when he recalled how she made a failed attempt to zip her lips from giggling, just before she bid him farewell. There was just something in the manner she breathed joy that poked his curiosity; it was either the way her voice reminded him of elegant silver and fine champagne when she giggled, or how her deep amber eyes crinkled as she curved her supple-looking lips into a warm smile. With that sultry, yet bright tone of voice, Jamie thought she had a giggle that sounded like a sweet symphony to his ears. To add, she had the most adorable pair of daughters...

Eejit. He ripped the wrapper too much the contents of it almost fell on his lap.

Keep it together, man! She's married!

In truth, it was not that she was married that kept him unsettled. Her failed marriage was no secret; in fact, she had found it necessary that anybody she encountered knew that she was in the middle of a divorce, him included.

It was those two little girls that had added up to his Tuesday-Thursday schedule.

He knew the KitKat was from her; apart from the fact that he had not sat next to anybody other than her, he also knew that Claire Randall—was Randall her maiden name or her husband's? Jamie thought—as what he had observed by the forest school's doorway, had those chocolate wafer bars as a reward for the kids' good conduct. She must have slid it next to him when he had been busy floundering his thumbs on his phone screen. When she left, he found the wafer resting beside where he sat with a wee heartfelt message.

The only thing that was unexpected was that the note was not written by her. It was easy to tell, unless Claire was not too keen with her spelling and grammar, which was unlikely.

 

 

SEPTEMBER 17, 2018

DEAR KINDER GARDEN TEACHER: TANK YOU FOR TOMORROW.

— FAITH

BREE

 

It was a note they had penned yesterday, with a seemingly illegible penmanship using a black ballpoint pen that looked like one of Bic's variants. There were a few dirty scribbles on it too, with another different colored pen, as he'd seen two lopsided smiling faces at the bottom-right corner of the sticky note, and a little swirl of red ink on top of each sloppy drawing, to make a little illustration of the ones who wrote it. Nonetheless, Jamie could read the wobbly letter, and he treasured it so much that before leaving the yurt, he immediately folded the note into half and tucked it inside his wallet's photo slot, just behind the photo of his mother.

"You're the only happy driver in this sea of hot-headed, impetuous bunch of motorists, Fraser. Does the heavy traffic pleasure you so much?" Geneva, who was seated beside him, remarked at the sight of her driver's curving cheeks. "I could see the car right beside us, if you haven't noticed. The driver's been cursing on his seat for three bloody minutes since we stopped, and I can honestly say I'm more than grateful I've got you as my companion. Can you imagine if I rode an Uber back to the city, and not hitch a ride with you?"

"I do get the wee road rages at times," he said as he broke one of the KitKat fingers with one hand, and chucked it in his mouth. "Maybe those other lads just dinna have a snack to go along wi' them. That's the thing, along wi' good music, that would at least keep ye sane in this situation. Do ye want one?" Jamie offered the chocolates to Geneva, who politely declined.

"I do recall there is a feast waiting for us at Ardsmuir, so I'd rather get my stomach empty enough to gobble loads of the food and drink." Geneva quipped, while Jamie broke another hardtack finger from the wrapper.

"You're excited about going to Rupert's party, but ye gave him a rather harsh treatment earlier today, if I recall. You're crashing the party just for the food, then?"

Geneva rolled her eyes towards the man. "Seriously? You think I'd give his coquettish schemes a pass simply because it's his birthday? Unbelievable." She huffed all the more after noticing that Jamie remained unbothered, rubbing his stubbled chin as he rested his head against the cushioned seat, waiting for the black sedan in front of them to inch forward. The muffled munching sound of biscuit and Jamie's chocolate breath filled the car instantly, not that Geneva found it unpleasant. In fact, she had both her long, slender hands gripping tenuously on his car's seatbelt when a covert thought of how his lips would taste entered so suddenly, especially with his bottom lip and his golden-red whiskers still having a few wafer crumbs resting on its surface.

She maintained her side-eye towards her seatmate until he'd stepped on the gas abruptly, making her jerk back to the seat. "What the hell!" she bleated at the sudden impact.

"What now?"

"Had you stepped on the gas slowly, I would not have bitten my tongue."

"Ah," Jamie made a thick Scottish growl that may have also counted as an amused chuckle. "Had ye no' been starin' at those two laddies blaitherin' in the other car," He cocked his head towards the pick-up truck beside them, where two college boys were tirelessly bobbing their heads and screaming their hearts out over Radiohead blaring from their loud stereo, "Ye wouldna have injured yerself."

"I wasn't looking at them," she grumbled in a voice soft enough for Jamie not to hear. Thankfully, the loud singing of the boys helped in keeping her unheard.

They moved roughly several meters away from their previous stop down the pike's entrance moments later. While she helped Jamie with a flask of water to rinse the nutty scent of sweets from his mouth, Geneva's mind had been able to grab hold of another racing thought. This time, it felt rather important to tell him. "You know what, James Fraser?"

"What?" He asked after a drink from his water container.

"I find your Tuesday club quite remarkable this year. You never seemed to get a...well, a unique set of kids until this year."

"Unique, ye say. What do you mean by that?"

The car inched forward again, leaving them with just a short five meters away from the pike's toll plaza. "I managed to check on the kids' enrollment data as soon as the parents were gone, you know, back at the faculty where I was left to finish a few deskwork the entire afternoon. I found out that among the teachers, you're the only one taking care of kids with quite a colorful background."

"I dinna quite understand what's that. Colorful?"

"I'm saying they're either adopted, or under foster care, or living with divorcee parents."

By that time, Jamie had already entered the highway and his car was on the move, driving past one vehicle after another. "Ah. Well, aye. I ken wee Fergus is under a program. Have seen him in one of the agencies a few times, but I'm glad he's found himself another set of guardians. I also have an idea about the twins' case." He didn't see the need to tell Geneva how he had learned about it through Claire herself. "What's up with wee Roger and Marsali?"

"Well, Roger's an adopted son of Reverend Wakefield, if you're even familiar with the Presbyterian minister. Roger's a cute fluffy boy, isn't he? It's a shame he lost both his parents in an accident."

"Aye. He's One of the sweetest lads in the bunch. Soft and gentle features all o'er him." Jamie stepped on the gas more, maintaining a speed of 40 kilometers an hour. "Wa' bout Marsali?"

"Her mother's just like Miss Randall."

"Mrs. MacKimmie doesna look anything like Miss Randall."

"No, silly. Of course not." Geneva laughed. "I meant that she also just got off from a terrible abusive relationship."

"Ah," Jamie nodded. "Aye, well. I guess they do have something in common."

"You do realize how special these group of five kids under your care are, don't you? Either they're strong little souls, or they're a ticking time bomb that could explode if they experience any sort of physical or emotional trauma. Or anything that resembles or triggers it."

"Aye, I ken that." He raised his brows to affirm her as he drove down a tunnel; as much as Jamie wanted to engage in the conversation, he also didn't want to crash their car in the dimmed underpass.

Apart from the friendship, Jamie was grateful to have Geneva around because of her keen attention to detail when it came to the students; if there was one person among the faculty who'd be able to gather information about their kids' background, it was either the registrar, or Miss Geneva Dunsany, who, apart from being a kindergarten teacher, was also a licensed child psychologist. Albeit being fresh out of the examinations and still in garnering yesrs of experience, Geneva had already proved herself useful in addressing the needs of each kindergartner by getting the teachers oriented.

"Ran out of muesli bars today, huh? I never knew you were a KitKat kind of guy too." Geneva shifted on her chair to face Jamie again, who, without keeping his eyes off the road, laughed inwardly at the observation. "Do you ever run out of surprises, Fraser?"

"It's life that takes pleasure in bombarding me wi' surprises, Geneva. No' me."

"And is that supposed to be a good thing or...a bad one?"

"Weel," He raised his shoulders fleetingly as he pondered on the question. "I've never loved surprises. But this time around, I dinna ken yet."

"Oooh, this time, huh. But so far, do you like it?" she prodded, "Her, rather?"

He felt his ears heat up. "Who?"

Geneva giggled, rolling her eyes to sit back and face the road. "Oh, come on, Jamie. It's not like you're going to simply forget her name after working close up with her daughters. You even managed to make yourself worthy of a snack, correct? I saw little Faith and Brianna with the same wafer bar."

"Christ. It was from the weans, Geneva." Which was true, based on the note. Not wanting the curious colleage to psyche him further with her questions, Jamie turned the car stereo on, and rode in silence for the rest of the trip, with nothing but Louis Armstrong's gruff voice and the mellow jazz tone of his saxophone wrapping the car in a warm 50s atmosphere.

 


 

They both arrived just about five minutes after Angus Mhor, which thankfully meant that they weren't that late. The boys had already begun downing the whisky by the bar counter, while the lady teachers were huddled together in one round table over a game of Uno. Geneva immediately took her leave by his side to join with the ladies, while Jamie made his way to the men who hollered for him to sit with the group lined up by the counter.

"Aye, if it isn't the whisky-thirsty laddie!" Rupert cackled as he handed a dram to him with one hand and with the other came a strong pat that hit him squarely on his back. "Come here, Jamie lad! We were hoping ye'd come earlier! Must be famished, aye?"

"I got caught up in heavy traffic by the pike," Jamie explained, patting Rupert's shoulder with the same strength that matched the impact he felt earlier, before scooting towards the empty barstool beside the celebrant. Taking a piece of the roast chicken served on a platter, Jamie greeted his seatmate as he munched. "Happy birthday, man. Only two, three drams for the night, I suspect?"

"Ye can have more if ye've got no classes tomorrow." The birthday boy swerved his chair to face him squarely, knee against knee. "Sadly, we all have bairns to teach and—"

"If only ye scheduled yer wee gatherin' on a Friday night and no' in the middle o' the week, then we wouldna be thinking about a hangover in class, ye numpty." Angus, who was seated on the opposite side of Rupert, exclaimed before raising a glass to the men. "I suppose we've got to make a grand toast before we begin tae sip on the usque!"

"And make it last til' our man, John Gray closes the pub!" Rupert led the group into an exchange of loud bellows of laughter "Make it last by sipping on it!"

"To life, and to a life well-lived for ye, my friend. May ye schedule yer next birthday party on a weekend, where we dinna need be worrit of Principal Colum in the morning. Slainté Mhath!" Angus declared, and the men raised their glasses before taking a thin sip on the crystal glass. Jamie and the others tried their best not to gulp down too much, lest they'd settle for ale for the rest of the night. Whisky was something he and the other gentlemen were fond of sharing over the summer weekends, and they would often wind up at Ardsmuir Pub for a dram or two (in some cases, they empty the bottle in one sitting). Now that it was the start of the school year, they too had to bid goodbye to their nightly sacred whisky gathering, and if they cannot keep themselves from a dram, at least they could only limit it to one. Or two. Or unless.

After dinner, the men had already foreseen the need for ale and lager, and so they began to secure their bottles as soon as their whisky game was drawing to a close.

"Say, Jamie. Are ye and Miss Dunsany... um, ye ken," Rupert swerved his chair towards him again. "I saw ye both enter the pub together, so Angus and I were thinkin' perhaps ye've finally given in wi' the lass?"

Jamie lifted a brow in surprise. "Nah, ye're mistaken. She had some work left by the office while I was busy tending to the stables. Didna want the lass to grab an Uber when we were both going to the same place."

"Ye ken she likes ye, no?" Angus suddenly peered from behind holding up a chicken drumstick, its bony end wrapped in tissue paper. He said it quite loudly with a voice that, if Geneva was paying much attention from where she sat with the other lady teachers, she would have given him a glare that would tell him she would kill Angus come morning. "It's either ye do ken that, Jamie, or ye're a shat-headed bampot no' to see that!" The man made another nervous peep behind Angus, examining whether Miss Geneva was giving him the death glare, but much to his amusement she seemed not to be paying much attention to their loud bickering and was too preoccupied with the Uno game.

The birthday celebrant cackled. "Oh, hold it! No, no, I definitely saw something different today. It isna Dunsany he's smitten with, Angus."

"Who's it then, man?"

"Jamie wasna' himself, the entire time. I could see him, his wide eyes I mean, just starin' over at..." Rupert shook his head to bring forth a memory hidden from his slightly intoxicated mind. Finally, when he remembered, he swiveled his chair to now face Angus with a tilted grin. "Ha! Something's going on wi' Jamie and that sassenach wench wi' the redheaded bairns! Christ, what is it in ye, foolish dolt? Of all women, ye'd fancy a mother?"

Jamie grunted. Seriously, was this going to be a night of interrogation? "I—"

"Ye, be keeping lasses and married women aff their heids when they see ye work yer magic in dayschool. Have ye sensed it, Angus? Our Jamie lad here's been left talkin wi' Miss Randall at the end of the class. Not just the end of the class if I recall—"

"Rupert, will ye hauld yer weesht?" Finally getting his turn to speak, Jamie quickly hovered at him with a forceful whisper, stopping him with a firm grip on the man's arm—firm enough to to make him wince. "None of that tonight, aye?"

"Oh. It's true, then? Ye have a liking to the lady?"

"She's marrit," He said it dismissively.

"So what? Do ye like her or no? You are not answering the question, man."

"I just did." Jamie growled, but Rupert gave him a look of disbelief.

"Come on, be real here, Jamie. We all ken the lass is just as good as single, though she still has his name." So Randall wasn't her maiden name, Jamie confirmed.

Rupert patted the top of his wavy mop of red. "Not that I'm goading ye into pursuing her, ken. But that truth alone seems like a good enough reason to have erm, a wee bit of hoping, maybe?" Rupert sipped on the tiny few ounces of whisky left in his glass before he resumed talking. "For what it's worth, that red-haired bastard of a husband left her without knowing what he'd just lost. A bonny lass, Miss Claire is. And still a winsome woman, for a mother of two. Canna blame ye if ye'd blush over her."

"Consider yerself lucky she wasna scairt of ye today, lad." Angus quipped, his chicken drumstick now skinned to the bone.

"Why so?"

"Because ye wouldha reminded her much of her loathsome ex-husband. I mean, I wouldna need to take a closer look at the weans to tell that their auld man was a rouge! Much like ye, but he an eejit he was!"

While the two men laughed with their stomachs, Jamie was flush to the bone, both in shame and agitation. "Alright, Angus, time to shut yer gob—"

"Or," Rupert added. "She might still be verra much potty about her man that's why she had a soft spot towards ye." He hiccuped, then leaned in to whisper teasingly towards Jamie with the foul breath of whisky clinging onto every word. "Must ye put yer looks to your advantage this time, lad? Take on the other man's shadow, then?"

Jamie whined, slamming his hand against his forehead. "Christ. Are ye no' going to shut up?"

"No," The two bickering men said in unison. It was obvious that perhaps two drams and a few bottles of ale may not give them a hangover but was potent enough not to keep their mouths shut. And so, while the two whiskered men were too lost in their thoughts, Jamie took his leave from the pub.

God, was that suffocating.

If the car ride with Geneva had been intimidating, the sitdown with a lightheaded Rupert and Angus in the middle of a crowded pub had been a pain in the ass. Jamie thought perhaps Rupert would not mind if he suddenly went missing earlier than when he'd promised to leave, and so he made a staggered beeline towards his parked car.

"That was a tiny bit tormenting back there." A man's voice echoed in the dimmed parking lot. "I could almost feel you heat up where I stood." It came from behind him, just a few steps away from the pub's entrance.

Instantly recognizing the voice, Jamie knew it was none other than the storeowner, so he didn't see the need to turn back. "Aye, John. Quite a scene, was it not?"

"They were a little drunk. The unnecessary parts, they'll forget."

"But I won't." He shrugged, moving closer towards the car. Footsteps suddenly paced behind him at a rate that would, if Jamie maintained his walk, catch up with him.

And true enough, the man did, finally reaching with a firm, yet warm grasp on his shoulder.

"Right. You won't forget. Do you want to talk about it instead?" John suggested more than he was inquiring, sincerity worn all over his deep voice. When he felt Jamie's towering body stiffen at his touch, he jerked away immediately. "Erm, you might not want to, actually. But I could sense that there is a need for you to tell someone." John paced forward to finally meet him, face to face. "I am that someone, Jamie. At least for now, I am."

Jamie, still hesitant and overcome by his colleagues' tipsy taunting earlier, knew fully well that the man before him was making sense. He needed to talk to someone.

Someone who knew his circumstance more than any other person in town.

Jamie had first encountered John Grey on his first night in Boston. A well-mannered gentleman, he was—something Jamie never expected from a chap who worked and managed the family-owned Ardsmuir Pub, a hip local bar that stood proudly just a block away from the Commons. It served heaps of guests both locals and tourists day and night, which is why it was much to Jamie's amusement that the pub's host was not only the standing calm amidst the pub's daily bustle, but was also very accommodating towards him, to the point of being quite affectionate.

Jamie considered them as fast friends, with both of them immediately bonding after a few drinks on the house, and a few chess games—most of them were Jamie's victories, something he took pride of. With the manner in which John conducted himself towards him, Jamie also liked to believe that the man felt the same way about their friendship too.

He hoped it didn't go beyond that, but apparently that was not the case for John.

"I dinna want to talk about it. Not now," Jamie finally declared, forcing his hands inside the pockets of his jeans to hide any hint of nerves. "But I can use some company. Would ye be kind enough to indulge me over a chess game?"

"Of course," The shorter man smiled benignly. "I'll get the board. And a couple of beers."

Jamie stood waiting by one the marble-cladded, low-rise staircases that led to the pub. Fearing that he'd be left in the silence with his thoughts for long, Jamie wished for John to come by sooner.

"No digging." He murmured to himself as the cool September breeze blew softly behind him. His hand was just on top of his pockets, feeling the lump his phone made against it. "Dinna dig for your phone. Dinna ever." But he found himself helplessly scrolling through his camera roll a minute later, stopping to watch a video he had managed to record earlier that day.

"KitKat!" The recorded sound blared from his phone too loudly that Jamie immediately clicked on the side buttons to keep it down.

One of the two lasses—the one with the short hair—beamed towards her mother with alacrity and sheer joy. "We're good girls, Bree!"

"Good girls, you truly are!" The twins' mother, Claire, sweetly affirmed as she stooped down to her waist to hand each girl a chocolate. "Here's one for Bree, and one for Faith!" The tone was playful and enthusiastic, he thought, as he listened to the recording; although he could not see her face from the angle of his phone camera, the way her lips curved into a delighted expression and how her eyes twinkled in the sunlight that bounced inside the playtent was still vividly etched in Jamie's head.

"Thank you, Mommy!" Said the two girls in unison before asking for a 'kiss-kiss'. What was it? He wondered. Jamie didn't quite understand what that meant until he'd seen Claire rest her lips on their foreheads, which he thought was an endearing gesture more than it was instinct. In the background noise, little Roger and Marsali called for the twins to play with them while they still had time, which also translated to when the parents were still not around.

"Alright, go along, and if you're kind enough to share your KitKat bars with your friends!"

"We will!" They hollered dismissively, their bright hair bobbing as they both skipped towards their two pals waiting for them by the yurt's exit. Jamie's camera angle was sloppy, as he'd kept it hidden, but it never missed the important parts.

Claire tucked a few tufts of her wild curls behind her ear as she walked towards the exit. "Mommy will catch up with you, oh. Wait a second,"

The video stopped just when Claire had begun to tilt her head an inch to the side. Jamie only managed to record up until that point, fearing that if he delved in too much it would get him into big trouble. He'd already taken photos of the girls by the rabbit farm, and that could have been enough, but a video? Without their consent? What would she think of him if she'd seen him pointing his phone's camera towards her?

Jamie thought himself a madman for keeping a video. But he knew he had to. He wanted to.

He needed to.

Faith, he recalled her name, wasn't this enthusiastic when he first met her by the Leoch's entrance; just like any other bairn during their first day in school, wee Faith made the traditional child's caterwaul at the sight of strangers coming in and out of an entirely new environment. The other sister seemed to feel the same kind of fear too, but having to deal with a number of recalcitrant children over the past years as a kindergarten teacher, Jamie knew a nervous child when he sees one, and Brianna, albeit being sturdy as a tree, had given him the most expressive pair of fearful blue eyes.

The moment they both locked gazes, it actually did make him feel nervous for some reason, not because he feared her, but because—

"Beers, check." John's voice trooped to his direction, along with the clanking of bottles and wooden chess pieces. Jamie quickly hid the phone back in his pocket at the sound of somebody nearing him. "Chessboard, check. Opponent?"

"Aye, check. He's here." Jamie leaned to greet the man with a forced smile as he made his way beside him, just as soon as he had settled the bottles and the board on the higher stair. "Ready to beat ye. Again."

John scoffed. "Cheeky bastard."

The two men proceeded with the match immediately, right after deciding over a flip-coin who plays white. John always had his chessboard with him at the bar; it was a family antique which had proven itself to come in handy whenever his brother Hal wanted a game by the counter. Now that his brother had been relocated to London for work, he was happy that he had found yet another worthy competitor in Jamie—and a challenging one, to boot. To add to that note, the red-haired Scotsman had won majority of the matches since their fast friendship had begun that John could keep track of his wins with only one hand.

Once the match had been decided, with John playing white with King's Pawn Opening, they both had their eyes intently locked on each other's chessmen, barely touching the beers standing by their side of the board.

"Check," Jamie wryly declared after a few minutes of quiet battle. He had positioned his black rook in the White King's unguarded line. "Canna move when my queen's also down that tile, can ye?" John had also noticed that; not only his king was guarded by the queen down the slanted path, but another rook was up and eager to devour John's chess piece three tiles away from Jamie's less-restricted queen. The opponent had indeed barred every possible tile for his most important piece to move about. Finally conceding, John made an exasperated sigh and raised his two fingers above the tall king chessman, slowly knocking it off its sturdy rest on the board.

"Mate. God, you son of a bitch. Must you beat me every single time?" John tapped on the side of the board, making Jamie's remaining pieces shudder against the surface. He slowly lifted his eyes towards the sad-looking white pieces standing by Jamie's ale bottle, which all of a sudden, disappeared as the man lifted it from the marble stair. "I suppose you're feeling better now that you've earned yourself another win."

Jamie gulped down the bottle's contents down his throat before answering. "Aye, for a few seconds, I thought I would dwell in that sense of victory. But now I feel all the more perturbed. I think I lost. Ye've no' helped me at all, John." He was laughing at himself as he stared towards the white king enclosed by three of his own chess pieces in black. While the black king had been securely stationed at he far end of the board, he had managed to trap the opponent with his two rooks, and his own queen.

"I suppose this isn't entirely a win for you, then." It didn't take long for John Grey to understand his friend's current predicament. Finally deciding that one game was enough for the night, John initiated in gathering the ivory and black chessmen back to the board, piece by piece. "I guess, with all the talk at the bar, and this...you mean to say you have finally found them?"

The other man looked towards John with a stolid gaze. "I," He opened his mouth, and then closed it again, as if to retract the words. Then he opened it once more. "I didna find them, mind, I'm not even sure if it's them."

"Angus mentioned they looked like you, didn't he?"

"Aye, ye heard that right. But it's no' something anybody can tell unless they knew about what had happened. Without proof, it's naught but coincidence." Jamie shrugged his shoulders in an attempt to relax as he was being probed to revisit today's haunting observations. "I would have considered it a relief that none of the teachers in Leoch kens about me, or rather where I was years ago. If any of them did know about my circumstance, they would have given me something worse than the taunting."

"And what could be far worse than the taunting and the banters? The whole crosstalk earlier already sounded as if they knew, even if they did not." John made sure his tone was calm and understanding, and not intrusive in any way. He could take even the most nonsensical Scottish grumble for an answer if his friend thought it to be the only remark he could possibly give; all that John cared about now was that for what it's worth, Jamie Fraser was standing in the middle of two parallel lines of both joy and sorrow, and he needed to get out from that warbling confusion by talking.

Jamie felt the need to look up to the starry sky—beautiful in its vastness and immensity—probably searching for some answers when he himself had nothing to give. Seeing that the heavens didn't give him the help he needed, he made a weary growl as he faced John. "I dinna ken what else could be worse than that... Unnecessary attention, maybe? I just have an idea it would be big trouble, ye ken, if I, well, went closer, erm, to the truth, but I want to..." Jamie shook his head dismissively, as though it would help in nullifying his previous statements. "I've...told you how much I've wanted to know about it, haven't I? How the wondering doesna disappear? To at least ken who they were, what they looked like, or if they were being cared for. Did they take after me? In the good ways or the bad? Those kinds o' things."

John chuckled. "They might be hot-headed like you. Something like that?"

"Aye. Something like that," and somewhere in the air that lingered, he thought of the short tantrums of a little girl named Faith, and the silent, ingoing reluctance of her sister Brianna. "Some people would say anybody could live on as though it didna happen at all but...it's no' like that for everyone. Not for me."

"Because you knew." John continued for him.

Jamie nodded. He blinked down to check whether he still had any of his beer left, and seeing none, he continued. "The thought comes in everyday. The wanting. Or was it guilt in disguise? The guilt of never having to raise them? I'm no' that sure what it is that I'd feel whenever I'd think of them."

"I had been living wi' that for five years, ever since I received a phone call about...them, being born." Jamie went on, and as John maintained his role as the man's faithful listener, he could see his friend's troubled expression turn into a wistful smile, blue eyes twinkling. Probably quiet tears? He couldn't tell, not in the dark. "When I saw those two lasses today, God, John. If you had seen them wi' your own eyes. I have a—"

No, Jamie firmly gripped on his pocket, fighting the urge to show that prized video on his phone. No. No. No.

He tiredly shrank back on where he roosted, and John took that little bit of information in before speaking.

"I'm sorry it had to happen this way, Jamie. Seems to me that fate has pulled yet another one of its vile tricks on you, just one among the many other ways it has caused you trouble." John said, resting both his elbows against his own thighs. Looking back at the sullen-looking man, he raised a hand and gave him a comforting pat on the shoulder. "But as much as you claim yourself to be close to the truth, you can never reach that pivotal information, and we have to accept that. You can never tell if those twins in your class were actually them, much more find it out yourself. None of us can make of how they look like, heck, we'll never know. Unless of course they try to reach out to you when the right time comes. When they turn eighteen."

Jamie looked past the gentle hand that had rested on his shoulder. "Thirteen more years, then?"

"You don't have to know. And you don't have to wait either. Remember? That's how it works." John assuaged, hand still on Jamie's shoulder. "You can't afford to be an Icarus now. If you try to fly too close to it, you'd end up causing trouble. The presence of those two girls in your class may have just been...a distraction. You said so yourself, anything without proof is pure coincidence. You may have just been caught off-guard by their presence, yes, but you can approach them without hoping too much on the truth, can't you?." He scooted a little bit closer. "You could live your life free from that guilt, Jamie. Do live your life this time, whether it's here or back in Scotland. You said you'd be going home in a year, haven't you?"

It took Jamie a moment to reply with a soundless nod.

"Yes, I know. I know It is natural to long and desire for that. I believe it helps too, seeing someone that matches the description of an unknown ideal helps with the imagination. It fills the void that's been long empty inside you."

"Aye,"

"But you can't simply throw away the future because of what has taken place in the past. Those kids, well, whoever and wherever they are now, whether we like it or not, they are going to live their whole lives not knowing you as their father." Jamie didn't like the sound of the truth coming out from John's lips, but he had to nod at that. "Maybe it's about time you lived your life away from that regret, my friend. If you can't live as though it never happened, perhaps you could be a little bit kind to yourself by helping other kids, which, I know fully well you're doing a good job at. Kindergarten and such," John said in a rather hopeful tone. "It's not like you've wronged them for not being there while they were growing up, since it really isn't your responsibility, is it? You had given them away. Their parents must love them so much they were willing to pay upwards of about a thousand dollars just to have them, so trust me. They're in good hands."

It was regretfully a fact, and although Jamie still have not quite reconciled with this infallible case, he was thankful to have someone shed some light on the matter.

"Or, find love, if that even helps." John suddenly snickered, tilting his head towards him. "I heard earlier you have the hots for a certain single mother back in Leoch?"

"Ah, I dinna ken." Though Jamie knew exactly. He made a chesty laugh, "Here I am, thinking I had finally managed to escape the teasing inside the bar. And now you're beginning to sound like Rupert."

"Oh dear, that's not what I intended to happen but, who knows? She's got twins too. Badly in need of a father-figure, I suspect." The two men laughed, but the other one was clearly blushing beneath his red hair. "Tell me now, Jamie. Do you like her because of the kids?"

Jamie turned towards the heavens again, and at his astonishment, he spotted a shooting star speeding across the night sky.

"I like the lass just because." He smiled. "Just because."

The conversation he shared with John was his very first thought the moment he met her again by Leoch's entryway on a Thursday morning. Today, she decided to bunch her wild brown curls up in a messy bun, while the two little lasses trailed behind her, auburn hair disheveled and unkempt obviously from a thirty-minute ride to Wellesley with the windows open. As soon as she had caught sight of him, her tired morning face brightened up in to greet him with a smile. "Look, loves! It's Mr. Jamie!" She grinned towards the girls, who, at the sight of the said man, bounced to greet him by Leoch's doorstep.

"Please take us to see the bunnies, Mr. Jamie!" Faith tugged on his khakis impatiently, while Brianna, although silent, found it more convenient to punch, or rather slam her hand repeatedly, against his thigh. Claire was scampering to the stairs in an attempt to stop them when he immediately hovered down to greet the girls with a warm hug.

"Alright, alright. Ye'll get to see the bunnies later, lass." Jamie placed a hand against his chest, just above his heart. "I promise ye will later. But och! How come ye've come so early in the morning? The wee rabbits are all asleep, have ye come to wake them up?" He looked up to their flustered mother, who was sheepishly scratching the back of her ear at the question.

"They were really looking forward to school," Claire confessed. "I can't blame them for wanting to come early."

"It's really way too early, Sassenach." Jamie maintained his attention towards her, in spite of the two energetic little girls beneath him. "Ye've got two more hours before the parents come by wi' their bairns."

"Oh," she blinked. Looking around the place, it finally dawned on her how Leoch was completely quiet, free from running kids and the chatter of adults. All that was left to hear were the occasional clucking and quacking of both chickens and ducks, and the distant neighing of horses beyond the reception area. "But then, why are you here? Do you live here?"

"Ah. No," Jamie stood up to face her. "I believe I told ye about me also being a stable hand in this farm. Remember? The time when we met by the parking lot?"

"I do, I...just didn't think you were serious. So you do quite a lot of work then, huh."

He smiled. "Well, no' much, but just enough to ken my back's still strong. I tend to the horses, the animals, an' such. That's why I'm here early most o' the time, if not always." He looked down to the two girls, who had been quietly paying attention. Jamie smiled towards them and stretched out his hands to illustrate a big creature. "I visit Sleepy every morning, was what I was trying to say." He then brought his arms closer to a smaller distance, something that would have looked as though he was carrying an invisible bunny. "And the wee rabbits too, checking on them while they're still fast asleep. They're verra quiet when they do."

Eyes were bright at the name of the animals. It made both him and Claire grin from ear to ear, only that she was smiling more at the animated gestures he did for Faith and Bree.

"Like what Mr. Jamie said, the rabbits are still fast asleep. Perhaps we could grab some snacks before we greet them a good morning?" Claire announced. "Sorry, Jamie, is there a restaurant or a fastfood chain nearby?"

He scratched his head as he looked past the Leoch archway. "Er... There's a cafe two blocks from the corner by the gate. And a pizza place too, but I doubt the pizza's open around this time. They usually are up and about by nine, so I'd vouch for the cafe."

"Perfect, then." Claire smiled, still looking at him. "Would you want anything? A snack, perhaps?"

"Dinna worry yerself for me, I can manage—"

"No, really. I'd love to get you something. For the hard work," She offered again, this time glancing towards the two other red-haired individuals whirling beneath them. "What do you think we should get our kind Mr. Jamie? A perfect snack that could suit a strong man like him?"

"A waffle. Many waffles." Brianna studied him with her brows furrowed. "And maple syrup."

"And superhero drink!" Faith beamed. "The one you always drink, Mommy."

Jamie caught Claire's amber orbs staring at him. "Superhero drink, what's that?"

"You'll know when we come back." She grinned before hurriedly gathering the two girls with her to the car, while giving the little ones a soft, motherly explanation on why they were leaving all so suddenly and that they'll be coming back after a few hours.

Perhaps this was better than having to burden himself with the past, Jamie thought.

Maybe he could really live in the moment without hoping for anything, or without thinking whether a child he would encounter could be his or not.

Maybe the phone call was enough.

Maybe it was more than enough to know that his kids, whoever and wherever they may be, were existing—that somewhere, the two souls he had helped bring into the world were living and breathing in the presence of people who loved them dearly, and he ought to be nothing but grateful for that.

Maybe it was indeed possible to live past it, and begin to break free from what has kept him out of touch with the world.

"Sorry!" He briskly glanced up to see Claire yelling towards him, hands waving to get his attention. She had already reached her car at that point. "Are you a brewed coffee kind of person or...do you want it iced?"

"Brewed!" Jamie crossed his arms, amused at her. "I now ken what superhero drink is, Sassenach."

She shot her a friendly smile before settling her two little girls in the car's back seats. It didn't take long for her to drive away beyond the picket fences and disappear at the gate, leaving Jamie back where he'd been before she came.

"Aye," he said to himself as he took in the quietness of the farm, before taking his phone out from his pockets again.

The video had been on its twenty-sixth loop today, as he had been watching it on repeat since he started lounging by the lobby, just before he saw that familiar silver car speeding towards the parking lot. Pressing the Delete button, and then deleting it all over again in the recycling folder, Jamie had decided it would be the last time he'd hope for anything concerning the two unknown souls that thrived mostly in his imagination.

It's not like you've wronged them for not being there while they were growing up, since it really isn't your responsibility, is it? You had given them away.

"That's just what complicates things, John." Jamie whispered, regret seeping in knowing that the video was now gone, forever.

"I never gave them away."

Chapter Text

 

 

First Acquaintances and Secondhand Cars


 

"Hi!" A slender, dark-skinned woman greeted her by the doorway of the Abernathy Household. "Glad you were able to make it! You must be Claire Beauchamp!" The smell of onions and baked beans wafted out from the door. "I'm Gail. I'm sure Joe's mentioned a lot about me to you."

"As he did the same with you. It's really a pleasure to meet you, finally, Gail."

"Finally, finally." She pulled her hand out of her oven mitt to offer to her guest. "Been a month since I first heard the name Claire Beauchamp, and now I can put a face to it—and a pretty face, she truly is."

"You're too kind," And that meant Joe was too, since he'd made the flattering description. Claire sheepishly reached her hand for a shake, stunned at how her thickset, good-humored friend was indeed not lying when he told her he was married to such a fine lady. Gail Abernathy was an eye-charmer, or at least that was what Claire suspected of her, for she found herself still in awe at how beauty flashed against the ebony of her skin, and how she was still looking her best even with a soiled apron on. Was she still cooking? Or did Claire arrive too early? "I guess I came around too early, I'm very sorry about that—"

"Oh, no. No, of course not, sweetheart! You came at the right time. I just had a lot to prepare--in addition to that, I've got two of the rowdiest kids here at home. Lenny, for one. The other, well, you're quite familiar of him." The tall woman peered behind Claire to find the two other guests, standing side-by-side behind her thigh. "My, are those two..."

"Twins, yes." Claire proudly stepped aside to reveal the girls. Faith—with her damp auburn hair combed back—was flailing the pleats of her peach-colored dress in the light that glowed from the house. Brianna was wearing a similar party frock, except that the fabrics swelled with a faint shade of blue and had sleeves that covered the curves of her chubby arms. Her hair—and the darkened dampness of fabric that stretched down to her waist—gave away who among the two girls was the last one in the shower before departing for dinner. "They aren't identical, though, save the hair."

"That makes them uniquely gorgeous, Claire! You know what they say about twins. It's never the same thing. You get twice the smiles and twice the love—" She paused briefly, making a half-suppressed chortle. "—and twice the diapers, but who gives a damn? If you love them, you love them."

The short, friendly exchange of sallies made her like Gail from the get go. She reminded her a little of Geillis, that is, apart from their names almost sounding alike, they also sounded the same, sharing the same light-hearted wit and charm.

"Loves—" she turned towards the two little ladies, who were busy taking in the presence of their new acquaintance. Before Faith could even latch one of her curious hands onto the woman's stocking, Claire managed to pull her daughter gently from behind. "Loves," she said once more. "This is Auntie Gail. Would you be kind enough to introduce yourselves, dears?"

They stood upright, as though the introduction had been rehearsed two or three times prior their arrival. With vibrant—yet forced—smiles, one of them stepped forward.

"Good evening, Auntie," the little girl rhythmically chirped with a bow. "How do you do? My name is Faith, it's nice to meet you!"

"Ah, a Leoch intro. Every kid from that school surely knows how to make an impression." Gail applauded. "Hi, Faith."

Faith still had her eyes on the new lady's stockings, but resisted the urge to reach for it as she stepped back just in time for her sister to stomp her red pumps forward. Brianna may be not as expressive as the other twin, but she was feisty in a lot of ways—and a tad bit sassy too—as she made a clumsy hair flip; the long clump of damp hair whipped towards Faith's cheek, heedless of what just happened.

"Good evening Auntie, how do you do? I'm Brianna, it's nice to meet you!" She said with the similar sing-song rhythm that her sister did previously, but louder. Claire remembered the girls' natural tendency to compete over who sang the loudest, and, with both her fingers crossed behind her, she wished they would spare the Abernathy household from their loud rendition of songs from Disney's Moana.

"It's a pleasure to see you two—too!" Gail happily leaned against the door to push it open behind her. "Do come in and make yourselves comfortable, sweet ones." Being granted permission, Claire gestured for the two girls to walk before her. "And you, sweetheart, you better make yourself even more comfy here. You must be tired and hungry after a long day at the OR. Joe was listless when he arrived."

"It surely was a long day, but it was nothing unmanageable, knowing I'd be visiting a house other than ours. Joe mentioned you made the best beans."

Gail smiled warmly, placing back a slender hand inside her glove. "Huh, he thinks everything I cook is fine, but we'll see. Come, make yourself at home."

"I, uh. If there's anything I can help, like plates, or—"

"Oh, don't bother, Lady Jane!" Another voice—a deeper, masculine one—joined the atmosphere of light, feminine noises. "You better not lay a finger on a cooking pot tonight."

"Lady Jane?" Gail raised a brow at her husband. "I thought her name was Claire Beauchamp?"

"Oh, it's a proper nickname, for someone who sounds like a lady Winston Churchill." Joe explained as he reconvened with the group by the parlor. It was only then that Claire realized she had not even bothered asking why he called her by that name. "You know, her terrific English accent border on...English."

"Border on English?"

"I, well. I mean to say it's powerful, as if she'd just drank tea with the Queen—"

"God, Joe. You and your peculiar observations." Mrs. Abernathy shrugged at him while making a side turn towards the kitchen, towards the source of the savory scent of pan-seared meat and baked beans that made Claire's stomach rumble. "If you're done with the kids, you better make yourself more useful and come help me in the kitchen. Or," deep, hazel-brown eyes focused towards Claire. "You could keep our guests company while I get things done."

Claire nervously offered. "I would really love to help—"

"Oh, no, no, no. You aren't going anywhere." Joe said, holding Claire's arms with his damp hands. "You can count on me, Gail. I'll be stayin' here to make sure Doctor Beauchamp isn't going to do anythin' other than making herself comfortable. By the couch. With the kids—and woah! Are you sure they aren't identical, Beauchamp?" His eyes were now gazing intently towards the two russet-tops by the couch.

Faith was gingerly detangling Brianna's long hair with her stubby fingers when they approached them. Claire gestured for them to say 'hi' to their Uncle Joe, but encouraging nothing more than a simple wave of the hand and a warm smile. She wouldn't be having any of her daughter's singing tonight.

"Hi there, Faith and Brianna. I'm genuinely pleased to meet Doctor Beauchamp's beautiful daughters after such a long time." The word beautiful made Faith turn her head bashfully towards him, who now shared the couch with them. Thankfully, the twins already had a previous idea of who this Uncle Joe was. Over the past month, Claire had spoken twice or thrice about a fellow doctor and colleague who helped them get settled in a brand new town. In addition to that, this mysterious fellow's son was a Leoch kid, just like them.

Curiosity immediately piqued the interest of her daughters, and they were not only looking forward to meet Uncle Joe, but were also eager to exchange kindergarten stories with his son. "How old are you?" He asked.

"Four," Brianna said.

"I'm four too," Faith added, smiling proudly but never neglecting her sisterly duties of detangling Bree's damp hair. "We're both four, we're turning five on the same day—"

"And the same year." her sister interjected, matter-of-factly.

Claire was impressed herself; she never expected her daughters to be open for new adult acquaintances, at least, not until the end of the year. She had been nervous about them becoming ill at ease in Joe's house, but to see them not only reply confidently to questions, but to actually engage in a conversation, was potent enough to leave her with a lump on her throat—either of pride in seeing them enjoying the company of friends, or of guilt for depriving them of the beautiful world to explore when they were still living in a spacious house in Oxfordshire.

She was careful not to meet gazes with Joe as he related with her daughters, but was able to catch a glimpse of his countenance—which was a fever pitch of enthusiasm.

Joe's dinner invitation for Claire and her daughters have been on a constant rain check ever since their acquaintanceship began inside the hospital. It was needless to say—and Joe understood it fully well—that Claire had a lot on her plate: from settling down in her new home and work, getting the kids comfortable with the new environment, and juggling immigration fees, green card applications and divorce papers. Warm and friendly as he'd always been, Joe Abernathy was eager to make things less burdensome for Claire at work, but was still persistent in giving his new colleague a proper welcome in Beantown, and was more than thrilled to have it all done tonight—ironically—after a long, harrowing day inside the operating room. He mentioned to Claire a thousand times how Gail was ecstatic in hosting a housewarming dinner, and was only waiting for a confirmation from 'the Beauchamps'—as what Gail would often address Claire and her daughters.

She was not only relieved to find herself off from work earlier than expected, but was also at ease to know that she, Faith and Brianna need not wait for the decision of her divorce with Frank to live without his name along with them, as the Abernathys smothered them with an abundant use of Beauchamp. In just fifteen minutes of lounging by the couch, watching her daughters do a little school-taught caper dance around Joe, she felt like an entirely new woman, living a different, better life. All these years, she had stayed put trying to make sense of her life within Frank's suffocating lair; the grotesquely uptight lifestyle, the distorted concept of love and freedom, and his senseless way of parenting and raising a family were the only things that his name had for her. To never be addressed as Claire Randall was, in itself, a blessing—and all the more when it shall be granted to her and her daughters in finality.

What of it now, to be a Beauchamp? She thought. What of it now, with only her name, and no man to put all three of them under his roof?

But again, what good would a man be in her life when she was enough? So long as her daughters were happily living a full life in the presence of good company, free from anything that would remind them of Frank and his misdeeds, Claire couldn't be happier.

Leonard Abernathy—otherwise known as Lenny, suddenly pattered down from the staircase to greet the guests lounging by the sofa. A remarkable kid he was: having most of Gail's tall and slender features, but was oozing with Joe's warm and affable personality. "Look who finally decided to show up, girls!" Joe was grinning towards the boy, and it was almost petrifying to see the exact same grin on Lenny's face. "What took you so long up in your room, son?"

"I was getting the paints ready!"

"Oh no, you won't need no paints just yet, Picasso. Come here, let me introduce you to these two young ladies. They're just staring off on their journey in Leoch."

"Ooh, school?" Lenny was smiling from ear to ear. "I miss that place, you guys!" Genuine excitement manifested in his tone, which helped in getting the two girls comfortable.

Faith had just finished detangling her sister's damp hair when she flashed a fascinated look towards the boy. "But I don't see you around school?"

"That's because I'm already in a different school. I'm already in first grade," The boy proudly replied.

Faith tilted her head. "What is first grade?"

"It's something after kindergarten, for older kids. Just like me." He said, the enthusiasm never leaving his voice. "Once you're done in Leoch, you'll move to another school, which is way different from the forests. And I mean way different!" He proceeded, talking about how much he missed everything about the learning forests—from the long hours out in the sun, foraging leaves and observing the little forest insects and farm animals, down to the friendships he had made along the way with his classmates, his teachers, and Mr. Jamie—

"You know him?" the three Beauchamps gawked at the divulgence, and Lenny nodded, bemused as to how something so trivial could shock them.

"Uh, yes? Why? Is he, like, your cousin?"

"What? No." Brianna crossed her arms. "He's our teacher! What's a cousin?"

"Oh? Oh... I thought, you guys were like, distant relatives. See, Dad? See?" Lenny made a quick glance towards Joe. "They kinda look like Mr. Jamie, don't they?"

"Yeah, like a big brother. Or a cousin. They've got pretty cool hair, don't they? Redheads." Joe chuckled, turning towards their guests. "Mr. Jamie Fraser was Lenny's teacher too, during his first year in Leoch. Big, tough guy, isn't he? But he had a soft spot for kids."

"He teaches five-year-olds and six-year-olds," Lenny added; it was clear in his eyes that he had a very high regard for the man. "But everybody loves hanging around with him, because he tells the greatest stories."

"He does!" Faith agreed, and so did Bree with a slight nod.

"Right? I would bet my Hot Wheels collection to guess it right he's still talking about Alexander Malcolm."

"Haha! He is!" Faith was now burning with curiosity in the conversation. Crumpling her skirts with her fists, she began to ask Lenny a few questions. "Did he tell you the story where—where... Malcolm crushed a wolf with his bare hands?"

"Yes, of course!"

All of a sudden, Bree decided to join the fun. "What about the one where he rode the beast-like unicorn?"

"Oh, you mean Donas?"

"D-Donas?"

"That's the name of Alexander Malcolm's wicked unicorn."

Brianna was completely nonplussed. "I... didn't know he had a name..."

"Oh, Uh, okay. I-It's a secret, between us. D-Don't tell Mr. Jamie where you heard about it!" Little Lenny seemed perturbed about something, but both adults were keenly aware of how Lenny had just made an untimely revelation, whoever Donas was, or whatever significance he has in Jamie's tales. "I can't recall everything in detail, but I would pay just to listen to Mr. Jamie tell me another Alexander Malcolm story—"

"Whoa. Okay, hold up, little guy. You know you ain't paying nothin' yet." Joe gently patted his son's thick, wiry hair. "You need no Mr. Jamie to talk about that Malcolm warrior when you've got Faith and Brianna to do the trick. I'm sure they're just as thrilled as you are to talk about anything Leoch. And besides, you said so yourself, they look like him."

He did a little dissatisfied hmph. "Nothing beats the original, but yeah, I'll take it. Come, we can talk about it while painting!"

Lenny was just about to engage his two younger guests into an extensive conversation about forest school in his art room when his mother marched out of the kitchen, carrying a huge platter of sirloin steak in her hands. The tangy aroma of Worcestershire sauce and cooked meat reminded Claire that she was starving.

"Alright, no painting until you've eaten dinner." Gail said succinctly. "Lenny, sweetheart, come and lead your two young guests to the table. Claire, come on girl. I could hear your stomach making those crazy sounds since you arrived." she quipped to the woman, who was up and eager to find a seat.

Dinnertime at the Abernathys' was splendid. With it came Joe and Gail's warm and hearty welcome, and Lenny's perky anecdotes from his years in forest school—and to top it all off, Gail's pan-seared sirloin steak and homemade baked beans was simply delicious. Claire had never tasted anything so exquisite for a home-cooked meal.

"We eat out a lot back in London, since me and my...well, my former husband didn't have the luxury of time to prepare the meals." Claire replied politely when she was asked, though she feared Gail would think it a disputable reason not being able to spare some time to cook food for the family.

Contrary to what she expected, Gail simply smiled at her. "Then that would simply mean this won't be the last time you'd be our guest. I'd be happy to help you out. Or give you the recipe too, if you want."

"You'd do that?"

"Of course! It's got to be one of the simplest, quickest ways of getting dinner ready. Would take you ten to twenty minutes." Gail declared proudly. "Works for doctor moms, like you and me."

"I'm grateful...I, I really am. Thank you, Gail." There was hesitance in her voice, but she tried to conceal it from her beaming hosts with a faint smile. Gratitude was indeed there; she was happy to know that a new acquaintance was more than willing to but she was afraid gratitude was all that she could offer back, unless Gail Abernathy was willing to risk her stomach into eating something that could potentially poison her. "Thank you, really." She uttered once more, before taking another mouthful of her meal.

Cooking was—and has always been—Claire's weakness, and the kitchen was her worst enemy. She could fair well with a scalpel, but never with a ladle, nor a mixing bowl or a hot stove. Frying simple eggs and bacon, or chucking anything edible in the microwave was the closest she could get into being a master of the kitchen, but even that was too much a task for her to handle; how she managed to keep both her daughters well fed was all thanks to Mrs. Baird's cooking prowess, and the abundance of restaurants either around Oxford or in London. She never had the opportunity to even learn such skill, since not only did Frank spoil her rotten with bistros and takeout meals, but she had also been busy both in motherhood and medical school. Before leaving for Boston, Claire had already made her research in restaurants around the Beacon Hill neighborhood, but the night's encounter with Gail's cooking made her think otherwise. Perhaps the kitchen would be one among the many changes she has to embrace in her new life as a single mother.

Once the kids had eaten their fill of beans, they pattered away from the dining room and to the stairs, leaving the three adults behind. Faith was, among the three kids, the only one squealing the word 'paint' repeatedly as they went, and once the girl's hollering was quelled by the thick, wooden subflooring above them, Joe heaved an amused sigh. "Kids sure are a kiss on the cheek more than they could be a potential pain in the ass."

"They sure are." Gail said before helping herself with a few slices of steak. "Hey, Joe mentioned about your girls being homeschooled. Did they, you know... I mean, I was hoping it was a smooth transition for them."

Claire nodded, "It went quite smoothly, though they were a bit frightened with the crowd during their first day. But eventually, they're looking forward to each day in the forests," which was true. In just a month, there was already an evident improvement with the way Faith and Bree dealt with the world around them. Each day in Leoch was a chance to see them learn and grow in a variety of ways: from learning how to add and subtract through foraging twigs and collecting eggs, to acquiring knowledge about the environment by observing and tending to the farm animals, and even learning how to cook campfire meals with a paper bag. In all of these learning moments, they had their Mr. Jamie to assist and watch them from behind, and a supportive, enthusiastic group of classmates to share their joys with. The car rides from school were usually spent recounting the events of the day, of a thing or two that they learned—and as each day passed, they were in another degree of confidence. Of self-awareness.

Claire, in turn, was in taken to one level of admiration to another each day.

"That's quite normal, LJ, don't you worry. Anybody gets the nerves on their first day. It would've been one hell of a bonus if they were excited to be in a forest school from the get-go." Joe replied, "We were worried sick of Lenny too, years ago when he was transitioning from preschool to kindergarten. He was afraid of yet another bully encounter, since, you know. He's had a lot of them back in his previous school. Had to pull him out of that place midyear."

"So...Leoch wasn't his first forest school?"

"Well, it was his first forest school experience, but it ain't his first learning institution. Unconventional, yes, but if it's gonna help our boy move away from a shitty experience from the past, then it's the best choice. And it was, indeed. You now know why I simply had to convince you to get your kids in that place?" He asked, though he wasn't expecting an answer. "We know fully well how it feels, LJ. I never told you this yet, but I'm as happy as a clam to see your girls shine. You're kinda like family to us now, you see."

Claire bit her lip, forcing down the growing lump on her throat; she looked as though she wanted to cry.

"So proud of the three of you," Gail seconded, black eyes motioning to set on Claire's hand, specifically towards her gold wedding band. "Your man must be missing them back in London too."

"Oh, that, erm." Claire balked in her seat, and then relented, gingerly wiping the moistness in her eyes away. "I don't think he does. Apparently, he told me he doesn't want to have anything to do with them now that we're living separately."

"But how could he? I mean, he's the girls' dad, LJ. Not that I'm picking sides or what, but he might've gotten his mind too damn clouded when you's split up."

Tonight was too perfect to be ruined by her not wanting to talk about what has been, but her hosts—her first friends in a new town—were openly warm and accommodating towards her and her children that she thought they had to know. She also felt it right for her to take the load off her shoulder after keeping things to herself. "That is just the thing, you see, the girls aren't technically his."

Joe glanced furtively towards Gail. "So there's another...another man? Before you and your husband—"

"—Frank. My husband's name was Frank." Claire interrupted, thinking it would be better to hear his bloody name than to be referred to as her husband, as if they were still together. "There was no one before him, but when we found out he was sterile, we began to think of suitable alternatives... so..." There was no need to finish her sentence, since it became apparent in the couple's widened eyes that they understood.

"I never knew people could have the guts to place twins for adoption."

"Oh, for Pete's sake. You gotta be kidding me, Joseph." Gail looked unimpressed. "I've only seen Miss Beauchamp tonight and had been wanting to ask her how the hell did she maintain such a fine figure even after birthing those pretty, rowdy reds. And you...you'd go thinking she picked those gals from a goddamn orphanage?!" It was such a sight to see: Gail making the ever-flighty Joe cower where he sat. "You don't even have to squint your eyes to see that they're hers. She's got a lot of her in them. Insemination, is it?"

"It is," Claire smiled at the lady, happy to know that with Gail's snarky remarks and her genuinely sprightly personality, she truly isn't that far from home. "You know, you do remind me of someone." she said softly, "A dear friend of mine back in London."

"Huh. All the while I thought she reminded me so much of the woman I fell in love with, LJ, but okay." Joe was waggling he eyebrows playfully towards his wife. Truly, Gail was one spunky woman, but her husband's flattery could send her back to her gentler character.

"W-Well, whoever it is... I thank God I ain't reminding you any of Frank. Would be a shame if I did." Gail leaned against the chair with her arms crossed. Just across where she sat, Joe's eyes sparkled in the warm pendant lights that hung just above the now-empty bowl that once held baked beans inside it.

"We're all relieved you don't, honey. Ain't that right, Lady Jane?"

"I couldn't agree more," The three of them shared more laughs after dinner, over a bottle of wine. Everything was just perfect, and Claire was looking forward to end this night on a high note.

 


 

Unfortunately, things weren't going as expected the moment she settled inside the car.

"Mummy. Mummy."

"Yes, lovie?" Claire replied, eyes focused on the car's ignition slot. She and the girls had already spent five minutes inside the unmoving vehicle—a time that was just enough to juggle three things inside her head:

First, it was already past midnight, and way past the girls' bedtime. Of all times her second-hand sedan would decide to act up, why now—when she badly needed to come home? Asking help from Joe would be a bother at this point, she thought, after seeing the mess the three kids made with their clothes, and something far worse than that inside Lenny's art room. He too had just as much to worry about.

Second, she hoped her silver-colored turd of an automobile wouldn't act up tomorrow when she would make that thirty-minute travel to forest school.

Third—and what seemed to be the only one left to think about as soon the car engine whirred at its ignition point—was a question from Brianna that came out of nowhere. "What's a Lallybroch?"

"A lally-what?"

"A Lallybroch," She repeated, while her frazzled mother made sure that she and her sister—now sound asleep—had their seatbelts buckled around them. It was a pain in the eye for Claire to see their dresses now tinged with assorted hues of acrylic, even if Joe assured her it would come out of the fabric when washed.

"I uh... I'm not so sure what it is, Bree." She spoke softly as she stepped on the accelerator with utmost caution. If the car was going to jerk to a stop anytime tonight, she wished it would wait until they arrived home. "But do tell me, where did you hear such word?"

"Mr. Jamie says Alexander Malcolm owned a Lallybroch. Lenny said so too, but he can't remember what it was... except that he thinks it was like a castle."

From what she'd gathered from Frank's cerebral discussions at home when he would invite other Oxford professors as guests, a broch was a Scottish drystone structure with hollow and thick walls—sometimes double-layered. "You're right, love. It's something like a castle."

"Oh. Okay." With the question satisfied with an answer, Brianna settled comfortably on her seat. "What about a Nessie, what is it Mummy?"

"Oh that... I'm not so sure. Is that from Mr. Jamie's stories too?"

"Lenny says... but Mr. Jamie did not tell me. Not yet."

"Did Lenny tell you anything about it?"

"No... He said we'll find out." Brianna made an annoyed, blubbering sound with her lips. "I don't want to wait, Mummy."

"Oh, dearie. It'll pay if you wait, wouldn't it?" The ride was silent for awhile until Claire decided she wanted to know more. "How was your time with Faithie and Lenny? I'm sure you both had a lot of fun, seeing all those...paint in your dresses." she could see her daughter grin from ear to ear by the rearview mirror. "Did you draw castles?"

"Nuh-uh." Bree's voice was soft in the muffled air, but the glee in her tone was evident nonetheless. "We painted rainbows."

"Ooh, really? Can you tell me how I could paint one?"

"It's simple, you just have to, uh, remember ROY-G-BIV. You'll think he's a man, but it's actually letters."

"Letters?"

"Yes, letters." a speed hump caused her sleeping seatmate to stir in her sleep. "W-What was that?" Bree held tightly onto the leather strap of her seatbelt. "That was just a speed hump, baby. Not to worry." Claire could hear the fretfulness in Brianna's voice. "Can you me more about Roy G. Biv?"

"Oh. He's not someone, Mummy. It's, uh. It's red, orange, and yellow, and then green, and then blue, indigo, and violet." Brianna seemed to have a knack for speaking after all, even if Faith was the more blustery twin. "Mr. Malcolm loves rainbows."

"Mr. Malcolm?"

"Alexander Malcolm. The Highland warrior in Mr. Jamie's stories." They passed by another speed hump, but it didn't bother her as much as the first one did. "He's on a journey to get something at the end of the rainbow."

"Really? That sounds fantastic!"

"But he has to face a lot of bad guys." She shrugged. "He wins. He loses, and then wins. He's fighting for a lot of things."

"What is he fighting for?"

"The Lallybroch."

"Oh, the castle?"

"Uh-huh."

"So the castle's at the end of the rainbow? That Lallybroch?"

"No, no. A different thing. Why would someone look for something he already has?"

Smart girl, Claire smiled inwardly. "What's at the rainbow's end, then?" She asked, and with a funny impression of their teacher's Scottish drawl, she gave an answer.

"Ah, I dinna ken." Bree growled, before shifting back to her voice. "That's what he said to Lenny. That's what he tells everybody."

"You did a terrific job at imitating voices, Bree!" She commended; it was important to do so. "But it's alright, dearie. Lenny may have a different version of the story, but this time, you might come to find out."

"Can Mr. Jamie just skip it to the part where he finds it?"

"If he skips, then it doesn't get interesting, does it?"

She sighed, making that hmph sound. "But I want to know if he lives happily ever after...like how princesses do. But what about warriors like him?"

"I'm quite certain Mr. Malcolm will have a happy ending of his own." Because who in his right mind would kill off the main character in a children's tale?

While Brianna had been left to think of the Scottish warrior on her own, Claire's mind had conjured up the image of her daughter's teacher. Where could he be telling the stories? She was certain he has never done it in the yurt; if he did, she would have heard him from the watchers' lounge. Miss Geneva and the kids' gathering circle routine could be heard from that place. If anybody made an attempt to orate inside the that large polyester enclosure, it would definitely be within earshot.

Perhaps it was when they were up in the hills and surrounded by trees that he would begin to weave in the Malcolm tale to his little troop of youngsters. Was it an original story? Or perhaps the other Leoch teachers were handing over the same thing? Was it like a Scottish unsung hero of some sort, or an unpopular textbook tale in the Highlands? Did Joe and the other parents also suffer the same thing she did, having to find a sensible answer to their kid's queries about what a Nessie was, much more a Lallybroch, and if it was possible if they get—or even build one?

More importantly, why the bloody hell am I thinking of this?

Claire was beginning to notice how her mind had been rambling over a child's tale she had not yet heard of. In fact, she clammed up for so long that Brianna already had her head dangling by Faith's shoulder, both of them now asleep.

The longer she permitted her mind to think of it, she was all the more convinced that it was not be the stories that piqued her interest—why and how could a children's tale bother her?

It may be, and she thought it to be most likely, that it was the storyteller himself that made her curious.

He liked her, clearly—or was at least quite fond of her, but noticed something else in him: an emotion much deeper than pure attraction. It was something heavy, something that almost felt like grief. As to why he directed it towards her, she had no clue. He didn't make any form of advance, nor did he find flirtatiousness convenient on his behalf, but she had been seeing the wonder and bafflement in him for a month now: the way his slanted, steel-cobalt eyes would make a hushed glance towards her, or his sudden shift of character from being the warm, composed educator to becoming a big clump of dumbfounded emotions when classes were over; she'd caught him, twice out of the six classes so far, hunched by Leoch's stairs, detached from the world around him as he pensively looked towards the gravel parking lot after class—thrice, if the man would decide to do the same thing tomorrow. That odd behavior was none of her business, she knew that for a fact, but she cannot simply brush such observations off her head when he was obviously at sixes and sevens on his own.

Was she even in a position to approach him? She'd be daft to say she was, but she could.

But was it necessary?

She wasn't so sure.

They arrived half past twelve, and thankfully without experiencing any trouble with the car engine acting up. Phoning Geillis could wait tomorrow, as it was already late. Claire assessed the intensity of the mess, and decided a shower was necessary, given that dresses, arms and legs were all smudged with paint. Once she had done the grueling work of getting the two girls into the tub for a quick bath, and then getting their teeth brushed and their bodies clothed with a fresh pair of pajamas, she escorted the two, heavy-eyed gals to their room.

"Can you stay for a bedtime story, Mummy?" Brianna reminded her of their nightly routine, but she only got a gentle stroke on the head for a reply. "But we do bedtime stories..."

"We do, but you see, it's already late in the evening, sweetheart." She crooned against her daughter's cheek. Beside Bree was Faith—who slept all too easily on her side of the bed. "We don't want to be late tomorrow for school."

She grumbled, and soon later relented. "Okay. Fine."

"Now, love." Claire leaned forward to plant a gentle kiss on her forehead. "We don't want to wake Faithie up. Go get some rest," She brought herself to her feet, and was just about to pace to the door when she heard her daughter call for her once more. "Hm?" She turned around meeting her eyes—now in a deeper shade of blue in the dimmed room.

"Last question?"

"Okay, for the night. But you can ask me as many questions as you wish, Brianna."

"I wanted to ask..." Reluctance splayed right through every expression. "...will Daddy visit us? I know, he made Mummy cry but..." 

Claire swore she could feel something fragile break beneath her chest—not because of the question thrown at her, but of the answer she was about to give her young, innocent daughter. Cupping the little girl's plump, soft cheeks, Claire joined her daughters to bed.

"He doesn't have to visit anymore, baby." She whispered quietly. "We are enough, on our own. You, me, and Faithie."

"You...think so?" She asked one more time, before sinking onto her mother's chest to rest her qualms.

"I know so."

 


 

The day's lesson involved addition, and for that matter, Jamie Fraser had asked his little group of bustling children to hunt ten orange-colored maple leaves. It probably was everybody's lesson for the day, since the rest of the class trooped either towards the resting leaf piles on the field's edges, or somewhere deep into the forest. Claire could see everything from the lounge by the entrance. From afar, the vast field was dotted with several moving pieces. Four of them were tall—the tallest had his fiery mane flickering like soft flames in the sun—in their outdoor gear of dri-fit apparel, and were wearing backpacks of considerable size, which she knew, after weeks of seeing the Leoch instructors in action, contained books, maps, coloring materials, kids' binoculars, food items, insect repellant, five juice boxes, and a first-aid kit. There were still more inside those sizeable backpacks, she suspected, as they looked far too big and bulky to be holding the items she had in mind. Each teacher also had five little kids floundering behind them; the kids donned similar-looking knapsacks on their backs, and small hampers with hinged lids for their foraging activity.

Jamie's group trudged towards the boundary that lay between field and forest; they were about a hundred meters away from the Leoch entrance, and the instructions were inaudible, but the teacher's playful arm gestures—including the way he held up a big orange cardboard cutout of the said leaf—were visible enough for Claire to decipher what today's mission was. Later on, he got down to his knees, showing no concern with little Fergus wrapping his small body against his leg, and held up ten fingers before balling his hands into fists to show his fingers in sequence. He might have encouraged the little ones to count, since all five kids were audibly counting from one to ten as he held up one finger after another.

Shortly after that, the group dispersed. Faith—fast like a bullet—frolicked towards the eastern part of the field, instantly vanishing behind the tall pile of sunset leaves resting there. Brianna, however, was knelt on the grass some few meters away from Jamie, picking leaves with the little boy she knew her daughters addressed as Roger Mac. He too was rummaging through the pile of maple leaves in search for a leaf that looked identical to Jamie's giant leaf cutout. Claire took a quick snapshot of the scene before tossing her phone back inside her bag.

"Watching too?" A young blonde inched near Claire, her face angled to the kids frisking about in the field as she spoke. Claire had seen this girl a few times, but not as often; being one who would stay the entire length of the class by the lounge, she noticed how this girl would usually appear minutes before classes would end—as she did now.

"Yes, I am. Just looking at—"

"The twins, aye." She hung back by the bench dismissively. Although her new companion sounded fairly offish, Claire nodded and gave her a soft smile.

"I'm Claire,"

A smile ghosted her freckled face. "Laoghaire." Claire replied with a smile.

"Wh-Who's your child among those little ones by the field?" She asked. "I must admit I have seen you here more than once, and yet I have not a single clue which among those kids are yours, since...who'd know—with the number of light-haired kids," with that, Laoghaire held up a willowy finger towards the little girl sitting beside Jamie with her little hamper.

"My daughter. Marsali—she is in the same class wi' yer two bairns. She's that one o'er there, first to finish." They both were near enough to see the little girl in a dinky jumpsuit, gingerly taking out fronds of maple leaves out of the basket and to the grassbed before Jamie, one by one. "The teacher loves her." Marsali's mother proudly said—and then her smile grew wide when Jamie applauded at the little girl.

"Yes. Of course, he does." Because, clearly, she didn't see any reason that he does not. Her senses were eagerly looking for an escape route until her ears caught the faint beeping of her phone beneath the thick leather coverings of her handbag. Finally! A good excuse to withdraw from her seatmate's twitchy gaze.

Geillis had left her a message, and had sent another just before Claire could open the first.

 

 

 

 

Geillis (11:25 AM) : Yoo-hoo.

Geillis (11:25 AM): Just so you know, I already donated the mickle playhouse turd. That pile of junk's been in the spare room for so long. Glad to finally have the chance to chuck it out.

Geillis (11:27 AM): How's it going? Do tell me when I can make a call cause I'm totally free right now. Sending my regards to you and my bonny lasses. xx

 

As much as she didn't want to take her eyes off the field to see Brianna's leaf-picking progress (and catch Faith's reappearance from the hilly leaf pile), she also desired to steer clear of another stifling conversation with the woman beside her.

 

 

 

Me (11:29 AM): You're heaven-sent!!! Please keep me company, I'm dying here.

Geillis (11:29 AM): Sure. Call you? Or do I make the call?

Me (11:30 AM): Girls are still in class, if you don't mind us texting first.

Me (11:30 AM): [sent a photo]

Geillis (11:32 AM): Is that Faith by the tree? She's looking a wee bit huge.

Geillis (11:32 AM): Oops. Sorry, hen. I thought it was a bairn. Now it looks like a grown man.

Geillis (11:33 AM): Can ye take a better photo of that massive bloke???

 

God, no. Not a chance. She giggled at the absurdity of the request before making a swift glance at the field. The teachers were now leading their little group of kindergartners back to the playtent for lunch. Most of them—if not all—were ambling backwards, making each sure step as they kept the kids entertained with their forest chants and songs, which, did get a positive response from the little ones, since their chirpy voices were becoming more and more audible as they drew closer to the main Leoch buildings.

Jamie's class went in last. Among the five, Fergus was the first in line; the proud gleam in his eyes made him shine like a natural leader. He stepped aside upon reaching the yurt's door, and after being given a knowing look from Jamie, he sloppily pushed the canvas away, gesturing for Marsali and the rest of the girls of the group to enter first.

Claire blinked in amusement. She never knew chivalry was a part of the teaching curriculum—unless this was all a Mr. Fraser exclusive, since the other kids that entered before them simply went in on their own. Paying close attention this time, she did realize there was some sort of order on the line. The boys secured the first and last positions of their line, keeping between them the three girls—who were now slowly making their way to the yurt. As they passed, they whispered a kind 'thank you, Fergus' to the boy by the entrance. Roger gave him a high-five before uttering the same words, and behind them trailed Mr. Jamie, heavy backpack and all. His cropped, wavy tufts were now damp and moist with sweat, and had grew an inch longer because of it. Probably lacking any obvious concern other than keeping his neck from the humid September air, Jamie decided to haphazardly tie up his thick head of hair with a rubber band.

"Well done, Fergus." He said, and then gently gave the boy a pat on the shoulder. "How was it?"

"I'm tired." He replied as he massaged his right arm, the one he'd used to push back the tent's entryway. "But I am happy seeing Marsali and Faith and Bree happy."

"That's verra braw, lad. Kindness sure is a beautiful thing. Aye, Roger. D'ye want to try what Fergus just did soon?" He asked the other boy, who nodded fervently. "Alright, ye can give it a go later, laddie. Come along," But little Roger was persistent to the kind gesture of opening doors for others that he gallantly propped his paws against the plywood door, while signing for Fergus to get inside.

Jamie was amused. "That's pure barry now, isn't it? You're doing great, Roger!"

"Did I?"

"Aye, ye did!" He patted the boy's glossy black mop of hair. "Thank you, Roger Mac. Fergus is grateful too. Are ye, lad?" He asked the other boy, who was now relieved of his door-opening duties thanks to Roger's eagerness. They all set foot in the big tent just before Miss Geneva could bawl out the word 'lunchtime' with her sweet-sounding voice.

Time passed as swift as the wind, and the kids began to singing their routinely farewell song inside the tent. She never heard them sing their goodbyes this early. When Claire checked the time, it was just five minutes before noon—a time wherein both teachers and kids would usually be clearing and wiping the tables. They ate fast today, she thought to herself; she was certain she had packed them a hearty meal—if microwave mac n' cheese, a box of apple juice, and a KitKat bar even counted as one—but it sure would take them time to finish. Perhaps the leaf-picking activity was draining to the point of making any kid feel peckish by noon.

The door flung open. Just as soon as Faith and Brianna scampered towards her with their little backpacks on, her phone rang loud enough to make her jerk in surprise.

"Jesus H. Christ!" She swore she'd seen Laoghaire flinch at her words before fumbling for the phone. It was Geillis. "Yes. Hello, I'm sorry I wasn't able to—"

"CLAIRE! I've been sendin' ye texts! Have ye seen them?"

"Er, no." She replied with her phone pressed between her ear and her shoulder before waving a hand to the two girls running towards her.

"But the photo—"

"There is no way you would convince me to take a photo of a kindergarten teacher."

"A kinder...what? That man's teaches literal bairns!?" Geillis must have shrieked way too loudly on the phone, since Faith's hazel eyes perked up to meet her mother's gaze, and was later on hopping right in front of her, bringing her stubby arms above her head in demand of the phone. Brianna was oblivious until Faith had told her that it was Aunt Geillis on the phone, and soon later both of them were hopping—begging—for Claire to hand the phone over.

Claire nodded, mouthing the word wait. "Hold on, I think there are a few people who would want to have a word with you, G." She set the phone to speaker mode, despite the outdoor noise of the Leoch grounds, before handing it over to Faith. While Faith and Bree stood listening to their godmother talking animatedly on the phone, Claire's eyes were by the yurt, waiting for a certain man to come out. He did, eventually; Jamie gave her a slight tilt of the head and a gentle smile, acknowledging her presence, before quietly pacing to the faculty room.

Today was one of those days, I suppose. She crossed her arms as she watched his big frame walk away. God, was he ridiculously difficult to read.

Turning towards her left, she saw little Marsali. Her hand was clasped onto her mother's larger ones. Claire would've wanted to study their likeness, but couldn't, for her mother's countenance was turned away from her. It faced somewhere else, somewhere further left, following Fraser's movement.

"Alright," she said, brushing off what she had just seen. "Come now, loves. To the car, while you talk with your Auntie G." They began to walk past children and parents, and towards the gravel yard, where she parked their ride home. Faith and Brianna scooted in the backseat, while still being entertained by their aunt: getting the complete rundown of questions about school, Boston, and friends they've made along the way. As the twins competed with who gets to answer the question being thrown, Claire was back at her predicament the night before.

The car won't start.

"Dang it." She muttered, soft enough to keep the words to herself as she began to think of how far they were from their house, and that taking the car to the shop had always been the least thing she ever wanted to think about. She had way too many bills to pay, from her immigration fees down to their rent, and there simply was no room for another car purchase, much less a little engine replacement.

The gravel yard was beginning to have fewer parked cars by the minute, until there was only one car left, making bad, grinding noises as she made one hopeless attempt after another to start her sedan.

That was it. She had to let it go for now. It was getting hotter and hotter, and staying inside the car for long wouldn't be much help for any of them. Luckily, Geillis' blabbering on the phone had done wonders in distracting her daughters from the mishap. "Bree? Faithie? I think we have to get off the car. Could you stay by the front porch?" She interrupted their little conversations over the phone.

"Mummy says we have to get off the car," Faith was Geillis' informant, and she complied without question. Brianna, however, was beady-eyed for her own good; she noticed something was off. The flash of worry in her face made Claire instinctively brush a thumb gingerly against her daughter's smooth cheek.

"It's just a little problem with the car, dearest. Mummy will get us home soon," She cooed. "For now, we just have to wait by the porch, and then we'll be on our way."

She was adamant, but she relaxed eventually to silently exit the car to follow her insouciant twin, who was giggling at the warbled noise of Geillis talking on the phone. She checked the front porch later, and seeing that the girls were already stationed by the entrance, Claire thought she could pop the hood open to check what could be the potential cause of her problem. Confident with her previous experiences living independently—and oftentimes primitively—with Lamb, Claire knew a thing or two about a vehicle's internal problems. She could diagnose a car's illness, but she never had the hands nor the skill to fix it herself. But if she could just check on the alternator...

"That bad, is it?"

"Oh—Bloody—fuck!" She squawked in surprise when another voice came to join her, and at a relatively close distance too. Although she had to turn to meet the newcomer squarely, she immediately knew who this person was.

And it truly was who she expected it to be. "Quite a tongue ye have, lass."

"Does it bother you that I speak profanities when I'm in turmoil?"

"No. No, o' course no', Sassenach. It's just second nature to flinch at a word when I'm in this place, ye ken. It's school," He shook his head, his cropped hair now dried and back in its natural waviness. It took her a little while to notice that he appeared to be fresher, now changed in a plain white shirt, and that he had a distinctive, perky smell of citrus. He hid one of his hands behind him, though it had done little to conceal the damp hand towel he was holding.

Something told her he wasn't supposed to be here, or if he ever intended to, he was in a hurry. "Why is it that you pop out of nowhere whenever we meet by the parking lot?"

"Beats me, but I came from that door this time around," he pointed towards the receiving area, where both her daughters, still immersed in their phone call with Geillis, were seated by the little bench. "Bree tottered inside the faculty, tellin' me her Mam needed a wee bit o' help wi' the car, so I came to check—and was all the more surprised to see ye on yer own. How can I help?"

She loved her daughter for wanting to help, but she had hoped it did not involve asking her teacher for favors beyond class hours. She could feel her hands tremble behind her as she stood, and all the more when she caught him looking quizzically at her hair.

She immediately smoothed her curls down. "It's just that...it wouldn't start."

"Why not?"

"I have no clue."

He made a Scottish sound, which sounded more like a dismissive shrug. "Weel. I've got to be honest. I may've the wits to give ye a critical exegesis on barnyard and forest school, but a damaged car? It isna my expertise, Sassenach." He paused, assessing the mess inside the car's hood before looking back at the Leoch building and then back at her. "But will ye wait for me?"

"What?" She raised a brow. "Why?"

"I can tow the car. Wait for me here, aye?" He turned away, only to face her again when she paced before him.

"We could just, uh... hail a cab, and we'd be on our way home."

"But ye canna just leave yer car here until next Tuesday. This is too far from your place, isn't it?"

"It's not that far."

"Lass, I have to remind ye, Beacon Hill is a half-hour ride from here."  

Claire gulped. "I, erm... I could er, ask a colleague to help me fetch the car tomorrow," and then she realized neither she nor Joe were going anywhere other than the hospital, starting tomorrow up until the weekend.

It was hopeless, anyway. From the moment she began to throw him her reasons, Jamie had been flashing her his I'm-not-having-any-of-your-reasons look. He swung back, kicking a few pebbles as he took a step. "I was once like ye, Sassenach. A stranger, braving a strange new world. Thinking about what happens tomorrow is a burden in itself, is it not?"

"At times, yes it is."

He chuckled. "Ah, dinna be too modest. Surely it happens all the time. Now ye've got a malfunctioning car to add to the list—that is, if we dinna get it fixed before the end o' the week."

"You really do mean to help me, then?"

"Aye. Was it not that obvious?"

"But aren't you still working? Am I not interfering in some way?" Claire asked, before shooting a watchful eye over her daughters, who were still seated by the porch, but were no longer on the phone with Geillis.

He shook his head when she met his eyes again. "I've already done the day's work, and I was just about to go home, once I've changed clothes, and such. I would have headed out even if the wean didna trot in the room, but had she no' done that, then I wouldna have seen ye here. I parked someplace else, ye see, just behind the stables." He explained with utmost nonchalance, like a man catching up with an old friend. "Ye've bought me coffee and some snacks whenever ye'd turn up here a wee bit early. Surely you wouldna mind me doing ye a wee favor too."

They stood in the middle of the pebbly yard without saying a word, giving way to the soft rustling of trees and the occasional sound of livestock to fill the silence that they shared. Jamie stood on his height, cocking his head slowly and wanting nothing more than for her to take his offer; he was eager, but was altogether patient.

"Alright, Mr. Jamie—"

"Jamie,"

"Right. Jamie, yes." She said, hiding her embarrassment by turning away to close the car's hood. "Thank you, for your kindness, but I don't think towing a car would count as a wee favor." She gently placed her hand against the hot metal, only to jerk her hand away at the slightest feel of pain. She stepped back at high speed, almost tripping when her heel slipped on one of the pebbles, but instantly had both her arms held by two strong hands.

"Come wi' me, Sassenach," he said, aiding her up to her feet. "The September heat is menacing. Look at you, all red and flush to the neck. Let's get ye out of here."

"The hood." She turned away again. Whatever redness he'd seen in her was definitely not the sun's doing. "I haven't closed it yet."

"Ah, dinna fash. I'll close that for ye." The concern in his tone was apparent. He reached for her hand, but hesitated, instead he placed a gentle arm around her shoulder. "Wait by the porch wi' the wee lasses. I'll be back shortly." He instructed as they headed away from the car, toward the well-shaded building. "And please—please. Dinna try to hail a cab and leave before I arrive, aye?"

She wasn't given much of a choice now, but that didn't mean she was not happy about it, especially when Brianna gave her a tight hug when she learned Mr. Jamie was bringing them home himself today. "That means he can continue the Malcolm story," she said happily as she and Faith swung their legs excitedly. The three of them were seated by the porch's bench, waiting for Jamie to arrive anytime soon with his car and tow bar. "Auntie G thinks he's nice."

Claire raised a brow. "Aunt Geillis?" The two girls nodded. "How did she know?"

"We told her," Faith squeezed herself beside her sister. "She said she asked you for a photo—"

"Can Mummy take her phone now?" She intended to ask for permission, although she had already took the item from Brianna's hands. There was still roughly twenty percent left of its power. How did they manage to bring the battery down this low? A few scrolls and taps, and she saw Geillis' unread messages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Geillis (12:14 PM): Kind of your daughters to send me an album. I'm definitely loving it. <3 You better tell me more when you get home (or rather, when he takes you home ;) cheers!)

 

She made a mental note to never leave her phone with either of her daughters ever again.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Story of September


September 2017

It was beyond her intentions to direct all of her attention, if not most of it, towards the door of Frank's study.

She sneaked in quietly that night, arriving after a bloody long shift at the hospital, one that had been unapologetically extended due to a sudden surplus of A&E patients down the trauma unit. The shift ended well, thankfully; none of the patients had coded, or at least nobody did during her shift. Not to play god with the lives of today's hefty batch of trauma patients, but her heart sank at the thought of one of the patients receiving immediate treatment in Department 1 due to septic shock. He was still responding to the medication when she ended her shift, but with his vitals declining, the quiet foreboding of his death lurked in her thoughts as she made her way home that night.

She braced herself against the car's steering wheel, hoping that her patient would survive this ordeal. A festered limb or two might require amputation, but at least it would preserve his life. It was a slim chance, but if that patient could endure through the next critical hours of the night, then it would grant him a bigger chance of survival, and she badly, badly  wanted him to. It wasn't that she took an immediate liking to this man, but after seeing his own family present that night—his pregnant wife and his five children—all gathered by the waiting bench as they wept for their father, she felt that she had to do everything in her power to save him.

He had people waiting for him. A pregnant wife and several kids wishing and praying for him. They can't be orphaned. They mustn't end up that way.

They mustn't end up like her

God, please. Fingers clutched tightly against the round, leather-covered handwheel. Let that man live.

The house was already dimmed out when she parked the car by the curb. All lights were switched off, devoid of any evidence of human movement, save the study's window where Frank's warm, ambient light gleamed through the curtains. His silhouette was steady behind it, with his head tilted to the side as he made a little flip of a page. No light emanated from the girls' room, and the house was eerily quiet. No screams, no giggles, and no Disney songs thrumming in the air.

Asleep, the soft image of two of her baby girls lying side by side in a deep state of slumber was like a thorn pulled out from her chest. Tonight was going to be a smooth travel to the bedroom after all, a night wherein slipping out of her working scrubs and in her nightdress would take only a matter of seconds, uninterrupted by the wails and screams of her sparky four-year-olds.

But all relief was lost when she steadily tiptoed through the parlor and up the stairs, catching a wobbly squeak from inside the study.

"Story?"

Slower, this time. Her feet met the floor soundlessly as she ambled up the stairway.

"Story, please?"

The doorjamb had a half-inch protrusion from the wooden door, which was just enough for Claire to lean onto. Eavesdropping isn't really a hobby she took pleasure in doing, not even if it involved her husband or any of her daughters, but she had to listen to this.

It was Faith.

And this—whatever concern she had to bring to Frank—it had to be something important. She was always shy towards him, so this was, quite literally, a big leap. A big leap of faith, for Faith.

Tired and exhausted from work, Claire sank down to the floor like a ball, thighs pulled close to her chest as she waited for Frank to reply. God, what's taking him so long?

The study's door was partially opened, casting a warm, golden light that travelled through a thin line down the well-polished hardwood. Claire was left for a moment to admire the dustless shine on the floor, feeling slightly proud of herself for taking Mrs. Baird as their stay-out helper. If anything, she did a great job in keeping their townhouse spick and span while she and Frank were out for work; she was just amazing, not to mention her skill and passion for cooking. Claire would daresay have shepherd's pie every single day for the rest of her life, so long as it was Mrs. Baird's cooking.

More than her devoted cooking and cleaning services for the Randalls, Mrs. Baird also apportioned much of her time babysitting Faith and Brianna while both parents were gone. Although she didn't have the skill of a well-trained nanny, the old woman did her best in keeping the girls company during the day. She, unlike Miss Sandy Travers—who approached the twins with a handful of books and flashcards, interacted with the girls by teaching them simple chores, if not getting them involved with it. They wiped tables with her, poked dry leaves by the yard with a little stick, and arranged their toys by the playroom, all done with Mrs. Baird's loving instruction and guidance. She would leave by dinnertime, planting gentle 'kiss-kisses' against their little foreheads before saying goodbye. The twins loved Mrs. Baird, and so did Claire; she was the closest person the twins could ever have for a grandmother.

Claire never met her grandmother. Nor did she spend a good plenty amount of time with any of her relatives, other than her parents and Uncle Lamb. If she ever had close Beauchamp relatives lingering around the world, Claire had no clue where and how to start searching. For the most part, she only had Frank, who, albeit having quite a big circle of kin, was not the kind who would reach out to his family. There were no dinner invitations, no family gatherings, no reunions, no anything. He, too, only had her just as much as she only had him.

And so it was no surprise for both Claire and Frank to opt for a civil wedding, as it only needed two witnesses to make everything legal between them. Frank Randall blatantly explained how much he didn't care about the witnesses; he only wanted to marry Claire once and for all that he hadn't bothered asking any of his peers from Senior Common Room to be present at the ceremony. Luckily for them, Claire had two people she could rely upon.

Geillis immediately applied for a leave that day, while her Uncle Lambert had to cancel a trip to Greece at the last minute; the latter crisply grumbled at how his niece could think of getting married at a very inconvenient time, but he agreed nonetheless.

Both of them stood as their witnesses, with each of them holding a framed portrait against their chests: one of Henry Beauchamp, and the other of Julia Beauchamp.

She swallowed against the burning lump in her throat, though her struggle to fight back the tears was futile.

It was Grumpy Lambert's idea to have his brother and his sister-in-law be present at their only daughter's wedding. At the very least, he wanted to make Claire feel their presence on this momentous day. She never knew when he got the portraits printed and framed, or if he ever owned portraits of them ever since, but what mattered was that Lamb took them out for him and her best friend to hold up on her wedding day, when she had thought it to be impossible for her parents to be present.

Lamb made it happen, for her, in the only possible way.

Her parents were there.

In their much youthful years. Not in the way she'd come to know them.

Not in the way she last saw them: wax-faced and motionless as they lay stiffly supine in the quaint spaces of their caskets...

"Let your faith ascend, Claire." There was a little whisper, almost inaudible and fuzzy in between the courthouse judge's hortatory voice, but it was clear who had said it. With a quick turn, she watched her uncle whisper the words again, a warm smile spread out on his wrinkled cheeks. He gently lifted the portrait of Julia for her to see, her mother's golden doe-eyes twinkling brightly in the frozen photograph, almost real and tangible to the senses. Palpable.

Alive.

They may not be there physically, but their portrait faces—young and beautiful and forever frozen in time—were enough for her to know that she wasn't entirely alone. They were there, in the way she remembered them both.

Daddy and Mummy.

Mummy.

"Mummy..?" ghosted a voice that crept so softly as the door opened before her. Claire blinked in the dark, realizing she had wept soft tears of sheer saudade at a distant memory. Now having her mind hauled back to the present, she knelt down in instinct, stretching her arms out towards the little girl before her.

"Faithie?"

Like two opposite poles, they gravitated towards each other, closing the little distance between them in a snap. Small arms snaked clumsily around Claire's neck, making her feel a little ticklish, but alarmed she was when she felt the growing moistness against her clothed shoulder.

"F-Faithie is sad," her sweet daughter whispered in between sniffles, forcibly keeping whatever sadness she felt inside.

Christ, for a four-year-old to feel so ashamed to shed tears.

It turns out the little girl quietly exited the room, tired and completely drained out of her energy as she waited for her father to give her an answer. Silence was all he had to give, and what a heavy, crippling answer that was for Faith's fragile heart.

A 'no' would have been acceptable. But to be given silence—indifference—more than just once in her young age...

God, Frank.

She hoped perhaps he could at least set all things aside. Put the past behind. Turn things around for Faith, to give her a little chance, even just for one night. It was a hopeless wish, but she still wished that perhaps tonight would be different between her and her father.

But silence. That was his answer, and it always has been. Not a 'no', and most certainly not a 'yes'.

Just... silence. An enfeebling, deafening silence.

Thinking about it only made her breathe in deep and let out a heavy sigh. Great going, Frank.

It didn't matter at that point what her daughter asked for, since all of them received the same response. Claire had lost count; she couldn't tally the times Faith received a pass for an answer, for it would never fit with just ten fingers.

"Mummy loves you, Faith." And just like that, her baby melted against her skin, juvenile weight heavy against a mother's yearning heart. Faith didn't bawl, though. Her sniffles were the only sound that kept the empty hallway a little less desolate.

It was instinct that made Claire sink completely to the floor with her—the aching heart of a mother that was capable of scathing itself at the sound of her weeping child. No amount of physical and emotional exhaustion could keep her from fulfilling that duty to nurture, not even the long shifts at the hospital, nor her deep despondence over Frank's indifferent way of raising his daughters.

"Oh, baby. My sweet, sweet baby—hush now. Shh." With a hushed voice, she pulled the little girl closer to her bosom, a hand smoothing against Faith's tiny back in repeated to-fro motions. Her other hand reached up to brush through a head of matted hair. God, when will she ever learn how to comb? It was a big clump of auburn and copper-red, with its tips sticking out and haloed by the residual light from the half-open study. With the faint glow across her thick mane, Faith almost looked like a miniature lion, lost and frightened and starved of home after wandering in the dark savanna.

A child's tears ebbed and flowed like the waves, pulled out and pushed in an erratic rhythm. Being a mother had made Claire an expert calmer of storms, and so while she hushed her little girl with the soothing backrubs, she knew a next wave of tears was about to come.

And then, it came. The wordless sobs. The hot, moist tears against her sleeve.

"I-I-I'm-" Her faint huffing was warm against the juncture between her mother's neck and shoulder. "M-M-M-Mumm-mm-"

"Shh. I'm here." Claire crooned the words repeatedly while her hands carried on with her duties, with one on the back and the other through the red hair. After getting the latter stuck in the disarray, she decided she would tend to the tangled mane with a brush later. "Mummy is here. I'm here."

Frank was still inside the study, unbothered by the little noise outside his room. Didn't even bother to escort Faith to bed, or even peek through the door. God knows what he was doing late in the evening. How was a that—whatever he's doing—more important than his daughter asking for a bedtime story?

Thinking she could deal that matter with Frank later, Claire focused her attention to her daughter, placing her hands on each damp cheek to inspect her countenance with a soft smile. Her slanted eyes moistened with hot tears as she blinked a little, causing tiny drops to flick against the bigger hands that held her. Claire kissed her softly, on the forehead, down to the nose, and on each plump cheek, knowing fully well that it did the trick in calming her heart down.

She thought it did, until Faith whispered a question with much anxiousness, as if she dreaded the thought herself.

"D-D-D-Does Da-d-ddy love m-me?"

Words were completely drained out from Claire.

Faith had noticed, so it seemed. Or maybe she had for so long but had only mustered the courage to ask now.

Claire's heart sank; she didn't know why she couldn't speak at that moment, nor was she able to think of a proper—an honest—response to such a sweet, innocent child.

But she understood why she would ask such thing; it would've happened at some point because clearly, Frank's actions had their own way of telling something. There was a certain point in their life as parents wherein Frank had suddenly become way detached. As to when, she didn't exactly know, but this discomfiting attitude surely had to begin somewhere. He became indifferent with the girls eventually, that she knew, but it was as clear as day to tell that among the twins, he found Faith the more intolerable one.

The lesser twin. 

The idea seemed outrageous, but one cannot simply shrug away the contrasting treatment he had for Brianna and Faith. While Bree received some praise from him in a form of a little pat on the head, or a new toy, or even just a gentle smile when the family gathered at the breakfast table, Faith had none. As a mother, Claire made sure her daughters received the same amount of love, an amount so great and immeasurable to begin with.

But without Frank to show that, it would all be in vain. Conflict, comparison, and everything that came with it would be inevitable. And if Faith would eventually see this as a competition between Brianna...

No, she cupped her daughter's cheek, I won't let that happen.

"Faithie, listen to Mummy." She directed her daughter's wanderint gaze towards her. So small, Claire wept, seeing how her cheeks fit perfectly against the palm of her hands. "Daddy is...he's just trying his best."

Trying his best.

The safest answer she could think of.

Frank was trying. 

If she told her daughter straight in the eye that it was love, then Claire would be no less than a liar. She didn't want that. She didn't want to give her daughter false hope, didn't want to give her a distorted image of what love truly is, because it was clear that Frank never came close to the ideal. All that existed was a moral obligation, a duty, to provide for her.

But it was void of a father's love.

A child would never understand why and how that could be possible, but a precise idea and demonstration of the purest kind of love would teach any child what he or she deserved. It was through a concrete example of what was right, that one would know what was wrong, or showing something greater than the present reality ; a dog will realize how worthless a bone was, only if it were offered a juicy piece of meat.

And if Faith knew what love was through her mother, she would grow in the knowledge of what is and what is not. She would, hopefully, have no room for comparison or competition with her sister, because she would know they were equally loved by her mother.

She would know, eventually, that there was so much more. That she was so much more.

And she does not deserve to be treated less.

You don't deserve that, Faith.

"Mummy loves you...I love you, sweetheart." She brushed a tear away with the pad of her thumb. "I love you."

I love you.

This is what love is, Faith. Me.

Lewis was right, about love not simply being an affectionate feeling, but is a steady wish for the beloved's ultimate good. There must be a reason why Claire herself has had such a high regard for these three words, never saying them unless she found herself capable of expressing it in her actions. Frank was too rational, too whip-smart and consumed by knowledge that he'd sought refuge in words, but was lackluster with his actions. There's so much braininess in him, almost too much, that it had kept his own heart callous and hidden.

But he wanted this. He wanted them. He couldn't possibly give up, not to them, not when the decision to have these girls was made without much consultation from her. Frank must have spared some of his affection somewhere, deeply buried within the depths of his soul. She just had to know where it was, and how to tap them back.

They had to make this work for their daughters.

"Faithie love you too, Mummy."  her baby nuzzled against her cheek, nose grazing the soft flesh of her ear.

God, she was precious and beautiful.

"I love you. Faith, I love you. Never doubt that." It was a brief, yet endearing exchange of solid commitment between them, though she felt the need to assure her again. "Mummy loves you. Very, very much."

"Kiss-kiss?"

Claire grinned and kissed her little forehead, which made her sweet Faithie giggle despite the snot and tears. It was a mother's reward to finally pull her daughter out from her sadness, from the dark place she didn't deserve to be in. Pulling her further into a cheery mood, Claire gently smoothed her prickly hair before pulling out her trump card.

"How about we tuck you in bed with a glass of milk? And then—"

Teary eyes twinkled. "Please? Please?"

Milk wasn't the reward at all, but it was the story that came along with it—the bedtime story that would eventually lull her to sleep. It had been an agreement she had come up with her daughters: they get the story, provided that they submit to the conditions of drinking their nightcap. Classic Pavlov in action.

"Okay, dearie, that's good! Alright, alright. Now, for the bedtime story, what book do you want Mummy to read for you?"

"Bree...we ask Bree," she said, already a little bit settled. Bedtime stories—especially when it involved books—was for Brianna to decide, almost always.

"Oh, okay, sweetie. We'll ask Bree. Is she still awake?"  She inquired, and was only given a little headshake for an answer. "Oh dear, does that mean we have to wake her up? We don't want to disturb her, don't we?"

"She will wake." Faith said. "She will." She said again, inwardly. "Faithie will wake Bree up, when Mummy comes. She said."

With another gentle kiss, Claire smoothed her daughter's hair one more time before she carried the little weight down the hallway and to the room.

 


 

September 2018

 

"Aye, where did we end earlier?"

"Boat!" Faith was extra jumpy, and so was Bree. "Boat!"

Claire thought Jamie's car could actually serve as a children's mini playroom, having a few fluffy toy animals and plushies strewn everywhere in his backseat. Some of them went toppling down on the well-matted floor to make room for the two little passengers. The presence of the furry inanimate objects somehow made the two kids less irritable whilst riding a new car, as they had a pile of toys to either play or hold onto. Claire could only hope they don't get overly attached with the toys, or else Jamie would be losing at least two of his plushies by the time they reached home.

Adorable as it may seem, Claire didn't quite understand how a grown man could have this many toys in his car. None of the stuffed animals appeared to be old and shabby, and most of them still had a paper tag clipped on each ear. All new and unowned.

Then it occurred to her.

He had children, perhaps?

No. No, I don't think so. The prospect of this young and vibrant Jamie Fraser being a father of—Claire counted four...five...six stuffed animals—several children didn't quite fit the bill. Gently enameled by the Boston sun, he radiated energy and brio beneath his tanned skin, and possessed no evidence of paternal stress in the lively hues of his liquid-blue eyes.

Moreover, unlike any other dad she would meet and encounter, Jamie did not sport a paunch, not even the slight swell of a belly that Joe Abernathy had, even if her colleague was lean-bodied. She furtively glanced over the driver's seat, surveying his middle for a few seconds before she made an impressed 'ah'.

She would—right then and there—wager her slot in the medical registry to challenge a fact: that beneath the cotton fabric of Fraser's white shirt was a taut, well-defined abdomen.

Bollocks, why the fuck am I thinking about—

"Boat!" Demanded Faith with a high-pitched scream.

"Ah, right. Boat." Jamie took a few seconds to let his gaze wander off the corner of his windshield, as if he were expecting an answer to pop out from that small and secluded region. "The two warriors, Malcolm and Murray, were rowin' the boat with much speed down the dreich-looking Loch Ness. It was a tiring obstacle, ye see, since they were going against the wind."

"A storm was brewing, which made the entire ride a long, grueling tug-o-war between them and the strong winds. From afar, o'er the narrow glen came billows of smoke and clouds—dark and heavy—like the ones ye see when it was about to rain verra hard. It was about to rain, actually, and the winds were vicious! Whoosh! Bad, bad, bad." His voice rolled and rumbled like a loud thunderclap. "Then came the thunder—what's the sound of the thunder?"

"Boom!" While Jamie had the roar of a lion, Faith and Bree sounded like two warbling little cubs, with both their paws outstretched as they made an attempt to imitate their teacher. Claire glance over her shoulder to check on her daughters; the car was not altogether spacious, but the backseat passengers' tiny bodies gave the perfect illusion of Jamie's Civic to have the interior of an SUV.

The other half of the car, however, was cramped, almost like a duo-racing arcade machine, thanks to its occupants—one larger than the other.

"Aye, that's right. Boom! The thunder came crashing loud enough to make one shiver both in the cold an' in fear. But och, these men, they were braw swordsmen, and they had the arms strong enough to wield a blade, much less a wooden oar to row. And so they did, but as they kept on, the winds billowed—harshly, pushing them farther off."

"But there's only two of them!" The ever-observant Brianna pointed out worriedly. "How?"

"Clever lass, which is why ye have tae help them. Now, row wi' me. Canna see ye clearly from here, but how does one row a boat? Can ye help Mr. Malcolm and Mr. Murray row the boat to shore?"

"I can check," Claire offered, quite enthusiastic to do so.

Readjusting her seatbelt, she wriggled just enough for the small frame of her body to face the two girls seated comfortably behind them. The look on their faces were priceless: frantic, excited, and ever absorbed with their favorite adventure story.

And what a joy for Claire to take part in it.

"Come, loves. How do we row a boat? Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream, do you remember that song?" She instructed, while pulling both fists together as she leaned forward and back repeatedly, humming the song with the familiar rowing motion. Seeing that they were picking up their mother's say-so, Claire beamed happily. "Yes, yes that's it! They're doing it, Mr. Jamie."

"Really?" He said, snatching a quick glance from the rear-view mirror just to see it for himself. "Aye, nighean mhath, that's it. Looks like the boat's moving a wee bit faster now."

"Faster, Faithie! Row faster!" Brianna encouraged Faith, who was now rowing her imaginary oars at an impossible speed. If only they knew how hard it was to steer an actual boat along the vast Loch Ness, with an oar crafted out of spruce...

Although she clearly did not wish to burst their bubble, Claire thought it would be better if their rowing motions would stick closer to the ideal. Propelling boats would usually help with a beat, she thought, recalling that one weekend she spent with Lamb in Northampton, watching the annual dragon boat race along Billing Aquadrome's lake. The huge, glassy waterform was not as great as the other reservoirs in London, but was wide enough to host twenty dragon boat teams. Each team came in a forty-foot boat that could carry ten pairs, all of them rowing in unison to the beat of a drum, spandex and all. She took a leisurely vacation at the aquadrome years ago, tagging alongside her Uncle Lamb, who was there for a university funfair event by the marina. He didn't seem to have a fun experience with it though, since the loud pulsing of drum beats disrupted his discussion segment, and they had to wait until the race was done.

Claire had fun watching the rhythmic paddling of the dragon boat competitors, contrary to her uncle's displeasure. It was a surreal sight to behold—watching people rowing competitively. Who would have even thought that a simple boat ride to be made into such an interesting sport? A thought passed by that day by the lake, and perhaps, when the time came, she could watch another boat competition with her family—her own family, with husband and child. Children, if God permitted, and if both she and her man were badly eager to have them.

But she was in Boston now, miles away from Billing, and certainly miles away from Frank.

The thought of never being able to get that simple dream gave her a strange, split-second feeling of regret. Short, but deep.

"How about we sing a song as we help Mr. Malcolm and Mr. Murray with their boat?" she happily suggested, shaking the glum thought away. As much as she loathed Frank for what he'd done, she still felt for him—still. She was not so certain if it was her love for him that pierced her heart, for she knew she does not have such affection left, but there was grief. The grief that yearned for what could have been.

"That'll work, the singing." Jamie was tapping his fingers nervously against the wheel, contemplating his next remark. "Aye, go, Mam. Show them what ye've got."

"Wait, what—me? But—"

"I need help. Musically speaking." he said in a muted tone. "Ye've heard me sing once or twice in class, Sassenach. I'm sure of it. Not quite good, right? If ye dinna want another car to break down, then it would be best if I keep my mouth shut."

She made a sardonic laugh, despite herself. "Jamie, I don't think your singing is that bad—"

"Faith and Brianna's Mam is a bonny singer, eh?" No longer speaking to her, Jamie directed his roaring voice for all to hear, particularly to his backseat passengers.

"Mummy can sing," Faith hummed. It was clear who's side she was on today, and it definitely was not with Claire. "Mummy can sing!"

"Aye, and Mummy shall." Jamie declared in finality, with a fond smile on his face as he turned towards the passenger beside him, who was nervously biting her lip. "Go on, Miss Claire. I ken ye are going tae do just fine."

Jesus H. Christ.

Her stomach instantly became a pool of nerves.

It would be downright unfair if she didn't concede to the simple request of singing, not when Jamie had offered her so much more than a car tow.

Singing was not at all a laborious task. The bathroom has always been Claire's concert stage; she would sing in the shower whenever she felt like it, even if Frank didn't like her singing that much (she didn't care if he didn't). She had never sung in front of a live audience, hence the sudden surge of self-consciousness and pre-act embarrassment the moment Jamie goaded her to sing.

The way the car's interior could make one's voice sound more compact and dense didn't help either, much more when it was someone else's car.

Much more when she could see Jamie grinning in anticipation, from the corner of her eye.

Thereupon, she knew, he was not going to continue the story without hearing her sing a line.

"We're going to row for Mr. Malcolm, at a steady pace. Are you ready?" Finally surrendering, she cleared her throat before clenching her fists close to her chest, and then, with a steady beat, she rowed her invisible oars as she broke into song.

Row, row, row your boat

Gently down the stream

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

Life is but a dream.

Jamie made a few, gruffy chuckles as he listened in, but she kept on, unbothered by her amused seatmate. All her attention were directed to her daughters as they mimicked her slow rowing movements. It was effective, seeing how the three of them were now moving in unison, pushing and pulling their balled fists in a well-choreographed motion.

Rooow, rooow, rooow your boooat

Gently down the streeeeam

Merrilyyy, merrilyyy, merrilyyy, merrilyyy

Life is but a dreeeam.

They went on a couple of rounds, and in no time, Claire was enjoying herself, grateful she'd been given the chance to contribute to his little carpool storytime. Singing with an exclusive audience seemed rather enjoyable, and a trifle bit gratifying, hearing an occasional 'wow' and 'yey' and a few Gaelic words she couldn't make sense of.

Jamie may be unaware of how much this moment meant for either her or her daughters, but he remained their silent observer; though he was quiet, he was present—with his full head of flames bobbing to a nonexistent rhythm as they sped down the lane. Once the three lady passengers have done enough rowing, and at a gentle pleading look from Claire, Jamie continued the story.

"Whoa, hauld it! What is that beast that they see looming near them?" The panic in his voice caused the little ones to flinch on their seats. Faith scampered down her seat to pick up a fluffy toy unicorn, cradling the lifeless stuffed animal close to her chest.

"Beast? Beast?!" The shrieks, courtesy of the frightened little girl burned his ears, but Jamie persisted.

"Aye, aye. There's one." He harrumphed, making a slight crinkle to his nose as he began to speak nasally, producing an entirely new voice for one of his characters. "'Oooh. That's a verra strange rock down there, Alexander.' said Murray, who had his own heid leanin' over the boat. Then the water began to move—wi' big whooshing waves, and it moved so quickly it churned with bubbles. Foamy bubbles!"

"Like the ones when we wash our hands?"

"Aye, just like that, wee Faith. But bigger in size. Bigger." Perceptive and observant as ever, Jamie mimicked her way of stretching out words. "Now, Malcolm and Murray were a-drenched and a-feartie 'cause o' thinking that the the wide, wide Loch Ness was beginning to boil until he caught sight of a head. A large, scaly one."

"Scaly?"

Jamie nodded, "Scaly, like, covered wi' scales. Like a dinosaur—or a snake. Snakes are a wee bit scary are they no? Alexander noticed they had those wee spikes down his head, and then down to his neck—which was long—verra long, like that of a tall tree trunk. 'It's a monster!' Murray cried out, wanting to row the boat when Alexander stopped him from doing so. And then—"

There was a momentary pause. Jamie pulled down the gear lever to shift through the car's speed, and found the quietude rather funny.

They were that absorbed.

"—And then," Stifling down an amused chuckle, he continued. "Alexander stopped Mr. Murray from making any frantic movement that could potentially frighten the creature. 'Nay, nay, lad. It is no' monster. Hush now,' he said, patting his friend's back to calm him down. How do ye remind a friend to stay calm? Can ye help Mr. Murray stay calm?"

It was as if the girls immediately knew that their teacher's inquiry required a certain action from them. They turned to their seatmate, wasting no time in tapping the other's back gently while they whispered soft, calming assurances.

Claire was beyond impressed.

No wonder kids loved Jamie's Malcolm tales; not only did these little ones find themselves listening to a tale, but they also were becoming a part of the story, as Jamie required his listeners to act on the issue presented. She had listened enough to tell that Jamie wasn't just telling them stories.

He was a storyteller, and a good one to boot.

It was plain in sight to know that this was a skill he'd learned to craft for years, as he knew the right dramatic pauses, and the appropriate rise and fall of timbre. Even if he was entirely focused in driving, he was capable of keeping his three listeners hooked with every detail, even her—a grown woman of twenty-eight.

A little more soft murmurs at the back, and Jamie was satisfied. "Aye, good. He's calm now. Wa' bout ye? Do ye think Mr. Murray is calm enough, lass?"

It took Claire a moment to realize he was talking to her.

"Yes, he's as peaceful as the moon." She smiled gently, quite appreciative of the fact that he counted her as one of his listeners.

"Verra good. Now. Malcolm had patted the feartie Murray back to his senses. 'There's no' reason to be scairt of this beastie,' said Malcolm to Murray, who ken straightaway what this large creature was. 'It's just Nessie, mate. Dinna fash,'"

Nessie.

Nessie!

So it was this creature, the one that had been brought to discussion last night with her daughter.

Hearing the name used and put into context, she now realized that it was, all along, the folklore-famous Loch Ness Monster.

Before Claire could feel like a total dolt for not even realizing that so soon, she immediately turned around to shoot knowing glances with Bree, who was, just as she expected, flashing a toothy grin as the mystery had been finally unfolded before her.

"What's a Nessie?" The little girl had both hands clenched on Jamie's car seat as she asked, taking the opportunity to seek the answer for herself. She brought her hands further up and in, tousling Jamie's red locks mindlessly.

Claire wanted to evaporate. "Brianna—"

"S'fine, Sassenach. She does that a lot in class. In the forest, most o' the time." Jamie's assurances weren't enough to keep her settled in her seat. Cheeks all flushed and burning up with secondhand embarrassment, Claire gently reached for her daughter's wandering arm before she could even clump deeper up his scalp.

"Sorry. She—actually, they love doing that when I drive the car."

"Nae danger. Got a full head o' hair, and a thick skull to come wi' it, so a wee touch and tug willna cause much harm." He said. "Touching gubbins help them learn through their tactile senses too."

Normally, people would try to scold the child away, or even raise a judging brow towards the parent. Her driver of a Scot was by all means physically capable of giving something far worse than a scolding, given that he had the body that reminded her much of that bronze Viking warrior figurine Lamb once brought home before handing it over to the V&A.

Luckily for her and her little pair of youngsters, they chanced upon a warm, gentle giant.

They sat awkwardly for a few seconds, before Jamie broke the silence by saying, "Weel Bree. Who's Nessie? That's a good question." The tiny fingers that gently twirled around his hair caused him to chuckle. Once Claire had finally managed the situation with a gentle reminder not to 'distract the driver' with her hair-clumping schemes, Bree settled with holding a stuffed animal instead; she happily chose the little alpaca toy that lay unattended by the edge of the seat.

"Niseag anns an loch." Jamie began once he felt his wee listeners settle down. "Good old Nessie is a large, long-necked beast that lives under the Loch Ness. Looks like a dinosaur, a large eel, and a dragon—combined, but nobody kens what she truly is.

"A good swimmer, Nessie was. She had wee flippers ye ken, the flippy things that helps anybody swim fast. Quite scary, she may seem, but if ye dinna harm her, then she is—and will remain—harmless to ye."

"Oooh." was all Brianna had to say. 

"So now, Alexander Malcolm and his fellow warrior Murray, thinking that the monster wouldna hurt them in any way, waved their hands towards it. They said, 'Hullo to ye, mo charaid. How do ye do?'"

The two girls waved in command, waving aimlessly as if they were Malcolm and Murray themselves. "And the creature looked towards them, eyes darting towards their wee boat—it now looked as small as a cherry with the sea creature around—and then, Mr. Murray took the chance to ask him a favor. 'If ye truly are one harmless creature, will ye care to gently push our boats to shore?'"

As he went on, driving and narrating what happened consecutively—Nessie agreeing to push their boat to shore, and eventually disappearing down the depths of the loch as the rain continued its heavy downpour—Claire listened as attentively as her daughters did, and was unafraid to admit to herself that she was, like little Lenny Abernathy, going to pay for another one of his cute, yet creative way of chronicling tales. They weren't exactly the best, as it almost sounded too period-historical than fantasy—which she thought kids preferred more, but seeing both Faith and Brianna's spirits light up with every Malcolm adventure was enough to make her a willing patron.

By the time he declared the words "To be continued," his little pair of listeners were already content, having received their daily fill of stories. They applauded, had a little recap of the lessons learned during the tale, and with a toy unicorn and alpaca locked in each of their embraces, Faith and Brianna, respectively, quieted down to nap.

After what seemed like a silent forever, he hunched his shoulders with a half-shrug, sounding remarkably satisfied.

"And now, Sassenach," he said, huskily. "We get to talk."

 


 

They were cruising without a word for the past three, four minutes.

What was there to talk about?

The car? None of them knew much about automobiles.

What was she supposed to say, then?

Claire felt her head was going to burst with the sudden influx of rattled emotions. After giving it some thought, she simply resorted with, "You, uh...have quite a collection of stuffed animals."

Shit. Just—oh, Beauchamp, you bloody fool.

Minutes of silence, and that was all I came up with?

"Oh those things." Jamie huffed a smirk; thankfully he answered just before she could desire nothing more than to melt in her own embarrassment. "Those are for my sister's bairns back home in Scotland. I intend to send them this month in time for wee Ian's arrival."

"Wee Ian?"

"Aye, yet another nephew to the list." He said it with the afternoon light shining through the gaps of his tousled curls, he reminded her of a glowing ember. "My sister, Jenny, she's expecting her seventh child, ye see. I wasna there to meet most of them when they were born, save the first two, young Jamie and Maggie. I also willna be this time around, so the rest only have the toys and other gifts to ken they've got an uncle living across the Atlantic."

"They're lucky to have such a thoughtful uncle. Hopefully they get to hear you tell them your tales in time." She turned to look at the two girls sleeping soundly behind them "You...actually did a fine job earlier, with the stories."

"Och. Thank ye, though I reckon ye did better, wi' that bonny voice o' yours. That I canna do. I'm just a storyteller."

"A beloved one, I presume." She shrugged. Did he just tell me I sounded nice?

A thought from last night's dinner flashed in her mind, wanting to be noticed. "Do you remember a little boy named Lenny, Jamie?"

"Lenny? Ye mean...wee Lenny Abernathy?" When she replied with a nod, his sapphire eyes glistened at the mention of a familiar name. "O' course I do! How'd ye come to know the lad?"

"He's a son of one of my colleagues at the hospital. I...well, we—" she side-eyed her daughters, "—had dinner over their house last night just right after our shift. He told us a lot about his favorite teacher, and how he missed his Malcolm tales badly."

Jamie smirked, a tiny tinge of pink flushing beneath the apples of his cheeks. "Ah, Dhia. That wee flatterer." He clammed up all of a sudden, curiosity and concern shown across his expression. "How...how is he?"

"Oh, erm. He's alright."

"How's P-3 for him?"

"First Grade, you mean?"

"Sorry. Aye," He shook his head, distracted. "First Grade, yes, that was what I meant."

"He's doing quite fine, actually. I heard a lot about his own past experiences, well, I wouldn't have known about him being quite shy if his parents had not told me about his bullied past. He's such a spark of joy...and a total mess when it comes to painting."

That made him chuckle. "Aye, he is."

And then it was quiet again. But it was no longer the stiffening kind of silence, nothing like the awkward one they shared earlier. It was warm and comforting this time, with both her and Jamie smiling reminiscently over a mutual friend.

"Primary Three, you said?"

"Primary--what?"

"You just said Primary Three earlier." Claire reiterated. "That means you're just as much as an outlander as I am, then? A sassenach, was it?"

"Hmm. No' entirely." The car slowed down at the orange traffic signal, eventually halting at the red light just before the crosswalk. Pedestrians of various ages began to flock and loom across the road, and as they waited for their turn to move down the road, he spoke. "For one, it's only used for the English, making ye the only person fit to be called as such. But dinna fash. I dinna intend to use it derogatorily."

"Then...why do you use it?"

"I just, weel... I never thought ye were familiar with the word, but ye can trust me I dinna mean it that way." When he felt her eyes digging for a better answer than that, he shrugged. "Do ye think I'd offer to tow yer car and take ye and the bairns home if I meant tae use it differently?"

She smiled. "Um. No. Of course I wouldn't think of it that way."

"So now ye ken," he smiled back. "But if it discomforts ye, then I'd—"

"No, it's fine—I... yes, you can call me that way, if you like." The name seemed unique, and the way it sounded beneath the drawl in his voice gave her a comforting sense of friendship between them, as though the nickname told her that she could always find an ally in him. It probably was just as good as hearing Geillis call her with the most scornful set of words and yet never feel bad about being called a shitehead.

"Aye, well." He chuckled inwardly. "Then I'll do just that."

Though she wasn't facing him, she could feel him catching a furtive glance to her side for the next few silent seconds before he stepped on the gas. With the green lights on and the road clear and free from footsloggers, they began to cruise once more.

As they swept by, the buildings of either brick or concrete began to tower above the other, a small telltale sign of them approaching the city. She watched comfortably on her seat, leaning slightly against the strap of her seatbelt. When she caught sight of her wild, scraggly hair from the side mirror, she fumbled with her strands, going on like the clappers with it as she pressed them down. Was it this messy this entire time? Had this been the face that he'd spoken to for the past...how many fucking minutes have they been in this fucking car?

Despite the rather comfortable time they both spent over a song-and-story segment for the kids, she still had a residual of her perturbation left as she sat beside Jamie. They touched—accidentally—earlier, and he'd seen her blush over it, but thankfully he simply mistook it for the day's scorching heat. In addition to that, her daughters managed to stash several snapshots of him to be sent to Geillis—damn that woman, teaching my girls the basics of WhatsApp.

She had not checked anything in her phone other than Geillis' message, about her little girls sending her an entire album...

How many photos did they take? And when?

"Jesus H. Christ."

He sneaked a look to her direction. "What?"

Shit. She was thinking out loud. "Nothing."

"Doesna sound like nothing to me."

"It's nothing, really. Was just a fleeting thought."

He quirked his lip, then relaxed, rethinking his words, before he finally spoke. "If it's about the car, Sassenach, we can figure something out. Might just take ye a few bucks for a wee bit of repairs, or a few parts to replace by the time we send it to the shop. Ye dinna need to buy a new one."

"Thank you, Jamie." She said, for the lack of a better response, before turning back towards the window.

Apart from her desperate attempt to shield any hint of discomposure from earlier, she also wished she could read his mind just as much as he could read hers. For one, there was the infrequent—yet evident—gloomy glances she often caught him doing. She'd been lounging in Leoch long enough to notice that he had a certain degree of wariness masked in his warm smile, treading around her as if he were approaching a mine field.

Perhaps she could ask him; he seemed remarkably candid towards her, maybe she could be just that with him.

But was it the right time? To ruin such a fine day filled with favors by asking him that?

With her mind rambling between two choices, she had not noticed that they arrived at their destination. Jamie hopped out of the car as soon as he'd steered the two vehicles along the canopied lay-by, circling around the hood to stand by her door.

"Ye might want to collect yer personal belongings before we get the car checked," He said with his eyelids crinkling against the afternoon sun. "It might take a day or two before ye get tae use it again."

"No, it's fine. I haven't lived here long enough to be stashing items in that thing. I actually have—" she gestured towards the two sleeping reds behind her, "—everything important right here."

"Aye, ye do." He chuckled, and then there was that look again. It ghosted smoothly and all too quickly, before it was washed away with a half-smile. "Wait here wi' the bairns, Sassenach."

God, what was with him?  It wasn't inherently bad, she observed. It just felt like something. 

The car was unlatched then, and she watched by the window as Jamie supervised the team of mechanics who guided the car to the garage. After a few minutes of watching big, burly men tinkering with her effing automobile, red hair reemerged from the shadowy garage. Jamie ran to her again, giving her a litany of malfunctioning parts she had no knowledge of.

Before he could even make a futile attempt to explain what a busted alternator meant, Claire stopped him.

"Christ. No wonder I got that car for an extremely low price." She mumbled as she rummaged through her bag for her wallet. Jamie was standing outside, his shoulders hunched and his arms against her open window. He was so near she could almost feel him breathe against her skin. "Alright. How much does it cost?"

"I'll go ask," he languidly brushed his fingers through his matted hair before making the journey towards the garage only to arrive back with an auto mechanic—a clear expert on the matter.

The portly man had grease and muck all over his polo shirt and down to his loose workwear jumpsuit, which, because of his huge upper body, could only be worn from the waist down. It was resourceful of him to think of using his jumpsuit's denim sleeves as a belt, tying it snugly on its ends just beneath his paunch. Reaching down his pockets with a dirty hand, he revealed from one of his pockets a little sheet of paper, which was a detailed price list of their shop's repair services. He handed them to Jamie, spoke to him for a minute or so, before loping back to the garage—bolts and knick knacks clinking musically from his baggy pockets with each heavy step.

Jamie took some time to stare at the pink sheet, before mumbling an incomprehensible Gaelic, but she knew it was utter profanities by just listening.

"What's wrong?" she asked, noticing that he'd been eyeing the list with deep concern.

"Hmph. 'Tis quite expensive for a repair, but relatively cheaper than buying a car." He said before handing her the list. There were check marks on the items that needed replacement—the entirety amounting to more than three hundred dollars.

"Am I supposed to pay it now? I don't have the money...not now, I mean."

"Nah, we dinna have to pay up front, save the diagnosis." He said, crossing his arms. "If we approve of the repair and parts replacement, they'll get it sorted out for us. Ye can pay them in full when they've finished, but if they have tae purchase the wee parts outside, which I dinna think they would, we pay for it too."

Claire navigated her finger through the small text on the sheet. "Well, I'm glad diagnostic fees don't cost much."

"Aye. Forty bucks is a total relief. So are ye good wi' the other charges?"

"I think so,"

"Good," he grinned before he gave the fat mechanic from earlier a thumbs-up, and then wended his way around his car and to the driver's seat. Seeing the bemused expressions drawn all over her countenance made him shake his head with some confusion. "What is it, Sassenach?"

"Are we leaving?"

"Aye,"

"But I haven't paid yet." She pointed out, "The diagnostic...what were those fees?"

"Ach. dinnae bother. It's on me."

"You—" she would have thought him to be joking, but then he began to step on the gas, driving further away from the shop. "Oh my—what—oh goodness. You didn't have to, Jamie! Stop the car!"

She must have yelled too loudly, as one of the younger passengers began to stir and hum behind them.

"Noisy." One of them mumbled; she wasn't sure whether it was Faith or Bree, since they were both huddled by the edge of the seat with their curls clumped into a single tangle of auburn. Jamie stifled a laugh at the kid's remark, but he maintained his eyes on the forthcoming traffic lights.

Again, in a hushed tone, she glared at the driver. "Okay, thank you—for everything. But you really didn't have to."

"But I already did. What of it now?" He nonchalantly replied, tapping his fingers in an inconsistent rate of motion against the rim of his steering wheel. "Forty dollars is nothing compared to what ye'll have tae pay once they fix the car."

What of it now? She meant to ask him again, but resigned to giving him the answer in silence, making a gentle click noise as she pressed her wallet's lock open.

Jamie flinched slightly. "Do ye mean to pay me back? Because I'm no gonnae take any o' that."

Claire shrugged, sinking back to her seat headfirst. "I was about to stealthily leave forty dollars by the cup holders, but I guess I wasn't stealthy enough."

"Like what one o' the bairns said, Sassenach: Noisy." he made an impressed smile after that, and she did too. "Listen. I ken how it feels to be living in a new town, having to brave life outside the wee shell ye once had. Ye dinna have to brave it all on your own, Sassenach. Sometimes, ye see... even if ye dinna ask for help, ye just find yerself completely under the graces of the people around ye, and all that is required of ye is to accept." He had one arm on the steering wheel, while the other swung about as he spoke. "Consider it life being a wee bit kind to ye. And mind, I dinna do this out of pity. Dinna intend for ye to think it that way."

"I was about to regard it as that, you know."

"Och. No," he shook his head. "No, Sassenach. No..."

She sucked in her breath only to release it with a soft sigh. There was the elusiveness in his expression again, she observed it coming and going as it pleased. "What is it that moves you, then? You seem to be very generous for your own good."

He paused before giving her an answer, eyes searching for something inexistent above him.

"Dinna think ye'll understand it, for neither do I, but..." he halted in his words, thinking of a better way to answer the question, "...I find it the only way to be grateful by paying things forward, when I canna pay it back. My, well... My own way of doing penance."

"Penance?" She raised a sketchy brow, "You're doing this for yourself?"

"Partly,"

"For what?"

"For a lot of things." and then, it was back. The look of grief. The shadows. The sorrow in his eyes. It reflected in him as he maintained his gaze on the road.

She didn't know what he truly meant, but she knew well enough not to delve in the deep. It was an uncharted territory: a dark place, perhaps some matter he needed to deal with on his own. Whatever it was, it seemed to benefit many people, including her.

And although it bothered her much that he looked at her as though she was the object of his own reparation, she decided to let it pass.

"Thank you, then. I hope you...well, find forgiveness as you go about helping others, as you did help me." She smiled, watching his own lips curve the same way. 

"Not home yet?" One of the twins was just about to begin her post-nap tantrums—one which usually demanded a snack. The way the syllables were stretched was sufficient information for Claire to know, without ever needing to look over her shoulder, that it was Faith in the early stages of her impending outburst.

Jamie was still focused on the road when a stubby paw patted his shoulder gently.

"Aye, lass?"

"I'm hungry." It was more of a command than it was a statement.

Claire sighed. "Faithie, we're almost home-"

"I'm hungry!" she shrieked, punching the cushioned seat behind her.

"Faith..." Claire's voice was controlled. If she could, she would've done something about it, but they were already downtown surrounded with South End buildings. It would only take them a few short minutes before they arrived home.

All she could do was whisper a silent prayer that either Faith would stop throwing a fit, or that Jamie would drive faster.

"Do ye think we have tae grab them a snack before we get ye home?" Jamie offered, but Claire shook her head. He's done her enough favors today, and she won't allow him to do anything more.

What followed after were seconds of high-pitched screaming, of thumping...

...and of a menacing ripping sound. 

Oh, shit.

Her head spun immediately to see clumps of white polyester fibers scattered around her daughters. They were both frozen where they sat, as stiff as the decapitated unicorn stuffed toy, its neck torn and separated from its body while stuffing protruded from the gaping hole.

Jamie, on the other hand, kept driving. But he clearly knew the mess they made in the backseat. Claire saw his eyes darken as he watched through the rearview mirror.

"Jamie..." her voice broke, glancing between the man and her daughters. Things were going well earlier, recalling how Jamie beamed about his unborn nephew and how excited he was to send all the toys to them. "I-I'm so sorry, I-" 

"It was Faith! She ruined it!" Bree screamed as she hung back, distancing herself from the white mess. "She ruined it!"

"M-Mummy..." the culprit of the crime shivered, "I.. T-The..."

Oh God, Faith. No. Claire felt her daughter shrink and shrivel in guilt, eyes pooling with tears, the way she did whenever her father gave her the stern silence for an answer. It was clearly Faith's fault, but to see her daughter cower back in the dark gutted her. She can demand for kindness from her own husband. 

But to demand such from Jamie was selfish.

"Jamie, i-it's... I-I promise I'll pay for it, I'll even buy another one, I--"

He didn't say a word. Instead, he swerved the car to the nearby curb, pulling over. 

God, she wanted to cry. Was he mad? At her? At Faith? At the three of them? "I-If you're mad, be mad at me."

"Christ, Claire. I'm no mad at ye." Jamie pulled the handbrake briskly before pulling on the door's latch. "And I'm not mad at them. It's just a wee toy, aye? Dinna fash."

"But it's your nephew's toy!"

"Aye, I ken. Doesn't matter." He said before hopping out of the car.

"Wait, where are you going?"

She received no reply. The city was loud and bustling that perhaps he didn't hear, but she eventually found him, opening the door before her. 

"Come. The bairn needs ye," Jamie said with a proffered hand. "She's scairt, Sassenach. She needs ye. She needs her Ma. If a heart needed any mending, it needed it immediately."

It wasn't only that Jamie was right, but she realized how wrong she was. How selfish of her to have thought about the damaged toy more than she thought of her own child's heart.  

"Come," He offered his hand again, asking her to take it.

"Jamie, I'm really sorry about-"

"Good lord, just--just take my hand, or I will." He didn't wait for an answer, for he immediately clasped her hand with his and guided her out of her door before opening the one behind her. Faith was there, crouched on the floor in the middle of white stuffing. She was completely shattered, traumatized at the damage she'd done. Brianna was as frozen as her sister, her back pressed against the edge of the seat.

"Oh, good heavens, what a mess..." She wept, her heart aching at the sight of her shaking daughter. Claire dashed in the car, picking her up from the white rubble and into her arms. "Faithie, it's alright, baby. Shh. It was an accident, alright love? It's going to be fine."

While she calmed Faith down with her embrace, Jamie ambled back to the front to disable the child lock on Brianna's side, granting him access to the door opposite to Claire's. He gently instructed Brianna to pick up the 'clouds' on the floor, as well as the damaged toy in Faith's grasp. "We have tae save the puir unicorn, Bree. Help me pick up the wee cotton clouds on the floor, aye? All of it." He whispered, not wanting to destroy Claire's moment with her daughter.

Once they've cleaned up the clutter, Jamie heard a shuddering whimper muffled against Claire's wild, spiraling curls.

"I-Is Mr. J-Jamie m-mad at m-m-me? Mum-my?"

Instinctively, he softly brushed his hand against her small back. Faith flinched at the foreign touch, possibly out of fear. Claire saw it too: how his big, calloused palm reached out to touch her daughter, smoothing her back gently until she relaxed on her shoulder.

"I'm no mad, a leannan." Jamie's voice was warm and gravelly. "I'm no mad. It was an accident, aye?"

Unable to face him, she continued to sob against her mother's shoulder. 

"Will it make you feel better if you get a hug from Mr. Jamie?" Claire whispered softly as she glanced over the Scot. 

"S-Scared."

"Dinna be." He gave Faith a gentle pat on the back. "Come here. You too, Bree." 

There was a trifle bit of hesitation, but then Brianna took initiative by gently tugging on her sister's hand, coaxing her towards the man. 

"Come, Mr. Murray." She cooed to her sister. "Hush now. It's not a monster."

Claire blinked, almost in the verge of tears as she gave Jamie a hopeful smile while she watched her daughter play Malcolm and Murray. The more Brianna tugged on her sister's hand, the more did she feel her dead weight disappear from her chest, and in a matter of seconds, they were both nearing the man seated beside them.

"It's no a monster, Faithie." Bree hummed reassuringly. "It's just Mr. Jamie."

He laughed inwardly. "Aye, 'tis just me."

For a moment, Faith was quiet, unmoving, but eventually, she approached him, bringing herself into his arms. Jamie hugged both girls, keeping them both in his warm embrace as he whispered Gaelic words against their ear. Claire didn't understand a single word--and she probably never will--but she felt the warmth that emanated from each word.

She was certain, without a shadow of a doubt, that those were words of comfort and protection.

Of love. 

 

Chapter Text

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 he'd 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?" She asked, casting a glance over Donas; thankfully he held it up to his chest and nowhere beneath it.

"Aye." He briefly said. "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.

 

Chapter Text


 

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 ash; 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 ash'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 a 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.

Jamie shuddered at the thought of two innocent souls existing, the two souls he'd helped bring, but will never get to meet; he didn't like the idea of being a parent, at least a biological parent, of an unwanted child at this age 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, he was 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 children.

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 asking 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 and he began to cry.

"Are they...h-ow were they? Were t-they healthy?"

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."

"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 a donor. No a parent. Remember that. Those are two things you will 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.

You are a donor. Not a parent.

Those are two things you will 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.

Mam.

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

The time it took for his uncle to reply was beginning to scare 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."

"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 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.

Chapter Text


She recalled.

Never did she utter Dougal Mackenzie's name to anybody other than Frank.

It was not that she intentionally kept Geillis from the details, nor was it a deliberate decision not to mention anything to her; she only found it a topic completely unnecessary to touch. Claire was generous and open about everything that mattered: the insemination, the pregnancy, and everything that came in between those two pivotal moments in her life, but it never occurred to her that the doctor's name was going to make much of an impact with her current reality.

However, that was until she saw the man on her phone screen, standing just a mere few inches away from her best friend. If fate ever took the form of a human being, it would most definitely look like a lanky teenage boy wearing the most self-approving grin. A prime age for pranksters.

And fate was a cunning one at that.

"What small world, Claire! And to think ye never mentioned anything about him!" Thankfully, she and her friend were on the same page. For a second she thought Geillis would sulk for leaving her out from such information, but perhaps she knew just as much that they all were in a three-way deadlock. None of them ever expected this coincidence to happen, and the best way to react to it was to laugh at this piece of good fortune.

While she and her best friend shared the same excitement at how time and distance barreled into each other in that quick video call, Dougal stood by in silence, like a tall stockpile of flabbergasted emotions. Was he even happy to see her? Claire badly wished he was just as thrilled to find her after years of being apart, even if there wasn't the slightest curve of smile on his lips. Perhaps it was the beard that made it less-visible, or the erratic signal that blurred his emotions out.

On the phone, Geillis began to holler. "Dougallovey! What the devil are ye doing just standing there? Cat got yer tongue?"

What? Dougallovey?

Claire gagged at the name.

Geillis Duncan sure had a quick tongue, giving the most laughable of nicknames to people (she even called Claire a shitehead more than once, and her ex-husband has been given the nicknames Frankenstein and F-Word, to name a few of the many names Geillis took the liberty of butchering), but for her to go for a nickname as ridiculous as—Claire hated the word, really—Dougallovey, she might get sick if the lady Scot used that rubbish nickname in her presence ever again.

Furtively, she glanced to her left, where her daughters were seated by the wooden lounge bench a few meters away. They were still engaged and all ears for Jamie, screaming their occasional 'yay's while he brought them further into the great world of the fictional hero, Alexander Malcolm. Seeing her little red heads bobbing around in sync over an off-key marching tune that Jamie hummed for them made her remember the great miracle of motherhood that had taken place in that small clinic—a dream Doctor Mackenzie helped in achieving. It has been five years since she last talked to him, and it was the time when she brought him the news of the small two-strip test she took earlier that day.

She could vividly recall that beautiful spring morning, the news well-timed with the season of bloom and of life. When she told him she was pregnant, Dougal's hazel eyes lit up with joy as she hugged her, wishing her safety and protection before she skipped away, not knowing where or when they were going to meet again. Not knowing it would take them this long to find each other on the other side of a video call.

And now that they were seeing each other face to face—at least on the screen—she could only picture out the delight in his well-bearded face when she would tell her that she had twins.

Dear Lord, he had to know!

"Doctor! Hello? Are you there?" She turned quickly to her phone, excitement now taking over her mind, and Geillis, quick and nimble as a house cat, shoved the phone onto his face way too close that his pointed nose bumped and bent against the screen. A mild stirring of noises echoed in the background, like squabbling adult noises.

"Come on, she's talking to ye!" She goaded him, still persistent in pushing the phone onto his face. Geillis sure was a complete novice in exclusive relationships, and as the new couple's Scottish banter reverberated over the call, all Claire felt for Dougal Mackenzie was gratitude and pity: gratitude for him taking the chance to be with this wild woman, and pity for deciding so. It would definitely take some nerve to date a lady as spirited as the Geillis Duncan.

Boy, did Dougal need lots of nerve now.

She could see him—feel him—almost losing it as Geillis yammered at him. "The hell are ye doing just staring when she wants to speak wi' ye, eh? Talk, fer fuck's sake!"

"Aye, aye, I got it." He replied, a trifle irritated by his date's nagging, before turning to the phone. It almost seemed like he was trying his best to keep his eyes on the screen, as though seeing her was the least thing he imagined himself doing today. "Uh... Claire Beauchamp? Lass? Tis ye then?"

"Of course it's me! Can't you tell?" Claire replied, scooting further to the end of the place lest she screams loud enough to distract her daughters' story time. Something about Dougal took her by surprise; though he clearly aged like fine wine, maintaining his physique and his alluring manliness, the sparky confidence he'd once had and the sureness of oneself seemed to have dwindled over the past years.

"I ken it's ye, lass. It's been so long. I must say, I'm verra happy ye're alright," he relaxed, his back slumping against what seemed to look like a couch. "How're ye? Where's...er, where's Mr. Randall?"

"Oh. Frank? Well, he and I are—" She paused midway, hearing Geillis's murmuring some words in the background. It was inaudible, but she knew she was filling him with the details. "Er, that. What she just said."

"Hmm. For her to ken so much, ye sure are close. I'm deeply sorry about ye and Mr. Randall, Miss Beauchamp.

"Oh, I'd rather have you not be sorry for me," she flung her hand and waved it in the camera, "I'm actually quite relieved that I'm making small and sure steps around Boston. It helped my girls a lot—which—oh God! Which brings me to tell you about them!"

His eyes went agape. "Oh, lasses? T-There's two?"

"Yes, twins," she proudly replied. Oh, to be able to tell him all this! It was the joy of her heart. "They're turning five this year, Doctor Mackenzie. I...can't thank you enough." Thinking about the long journey of motherhood almost brought her into tears. It may be a distant memory, but she could still remember how she felt joy burst through the seams of her heart when she found out there was an opportunity for her to conceive a child, and how two beautiful souls finds her and chooses her to be their mother. "To have them and to be with them...God, it's the best treasure I could ever have. I know, it wasn't really how I thought my family would be, them having to grow up without Frank, but it's for the best."

Dougal watched her dry her eyes, and for a moment, she thought he looked as if he wanted to wipe her tears off too. Although it broke her heart knowing that Faith and Bree would have to live the remainder of their life without their dad, she knew that this was the best decision she could make for them. "I'm glad ye're farin' well, Claire."

"Yes, I am practically doing great. We are happy, the three of us."

"And me," Geillis blinked her emerald-green eyes as she peered on the screen, "their best god-mam!"

"You're their only godmother," Claire laughed as her eyes shifted back to the three redheads, still huddled together on the same bench. Jamie was bellowing loudly in his Scottish chronicler tone of voice.

"And so, the rainbow stretched far and wide, onto the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean. Far, and wide. Alexander Malcolm went to sail across the sea, wi' naught but his sword and a few pence to keep him alive for the weeks of travel," From afar, she saw the larger red narrating with his arms swinging about, imitating a poorly-executed motion of the waves. At least, he was trying. His hortatory chronicling was loud, but thankfully not loud enough to make much unnecessary noise to be heard by her callers.

And then, in a zap, he stopped his story when he caught her staring at him. "Lass?"

"Lass? Ye there?" Dougal chimed in with almost the same thick accent. The voices came from both the phone and from ten meters away. She stood blankly, deciding to whom she would first respond.

But then one of her daughters wailed in protest. "Wait, wait, don't stop there!" It was Bree. "What happened next?" Her voice rang sharp and loud enough to pierce through the phone's mic.

"Oh, is that them?" Dougal inquisitively said over the phone at the sound of Brianna's scowl. "They sound braw an' chipper."

"Yes, yes they do, wait, you have to see them! I'll call them, hold on a second—" now, if she could just pan her camera towards her daughters... "—Faith! Bree! Come and turn around for a while—"

She squinted a little to check her phone, and for once she hated the strong afternoon sun for having overpowered her screen's brightness. It took her seconds to navigate her vision around her iPhone, eyes searching for that small 'switch camera' icon on the upper right side of her screen when—

"Bloody arse!" The words rang around the open area, loud enough for her copper-haired bystanders to hear. She muttered quite loudly, or perhaps too loud, she realized, when Jamie glared in surprise.

"Sassenach?" He stood on his feet, unsure where to keep his eyes focused on: the twins, the phone, or at her. "We're in Leoch. Cursing is a no-no, remember?" He said as calm as he did when he conversed with his students.

She felt bad for slamming sudden profanities within that sacred space of learning, and all the more when she saw her two little girls' eyes gaping at her in utter astonishment.

"No—I'm sorry... I... ugh, my phone's battery died at such an important call." Claire clarified soon later, holding up the rectangular frame to his face for him to see the evidence, and his stupefied expressions drifted away.

"Ah."

"It still isn't a good excuse though. I'm sorry."

Jamie nodded with a side-grin, checking on the two girls before turning back at her, his soft smile still splayed across his beautifully-chiseled face. His little upturn defined his high cheekbones, the gentle crinkle at the corner of his eye, the auburn tresses that softly canopied his forehead, and every other attractive detail that was left unnoticed by her until that moment. Claire looked away.

"S'fine. No need to feel sorry bout it. Seemed like an important call too, since ye had to move a bit far. D'ye need to inform them about yer phone dying?" She would have given him a yes for an answer if it weren't for him suddenly dipping his hand inside his jean pockets, ferreting for his handphone.

"Oh—no, it's alright. There'll be no need for that."

He paused his brisk movements midway, the rectangular bulge of his phone almost up and out of his pocket. "Are ye sure?" He cocked a brow.

"Yes,"

"I really dinna mind ye phoning them a bit before ye make it back to the city."

"It's alright, Jamie." Her tone was calmer, but firmer in her stand. "I'll phone them when we arrive home."

"Aye." He said, but then he knitted his thick brows, clearly not relenting.

"It'll be alright," she assured him one more time, remembering how his deliberate, willful kindness was an effect of a contrite, guilt-stricken heart. Jamie was simply not the type who wouldn't lend a hand, nor the kind of man who would simply take 'no' for an answer.

"Right. So, em... Let me walk ye to the yard instead?" He proposed instead.

"Remedying a denied favor with another. Impressive."

"I dinna suppose ye'd turn down a wee walk to the car."

"Well," amused by his sudden offer, she blinked her eyes timidly "Alright. I think the girls would like having you around a little bit longer."

The journey to the gravel yard took them about ten minutes to begin, with Claire patiently explaining to her children—for the eighth time—how the Malcolm story can wait until their next class, apart from the fact that Jamie still had some work to do back in Leoch's stables. It would have went on for minutes if she didn't mention giving them their KitKat bars once they reached home. "They're at the mercies of a chocolate bar, Sassenach," Jamie remarked as he made the lumbering walk beside her, seemingly adjusting his normal pace to match hers. One regular step for him was two steps for Claire, but he was matching the little distance her legs could travel with each stride they made to the car.

Claire giggled, much to his evident struggle in walking beside her than on his previous remark. "I told you it was my trump card, haven't I?"

"Mmm-hmm. The good ginger-haired kids get the KitKat bars at—"

"—the end of the day," she finished for him, "Your words, not mine."

"Eh." He made a disgruntled Scottish noise, frowning. "Any stranger can offer the bairns a KitKat and they'll happily wander off wi' them, did ye ever think of that?"

The way he said it made it sound as if he was questioning her childrearing choices, and it made her glare in surprise. Did he just say that? Or was it simply her own pride that was aggravated?

"I don't think so. I know very well my daughters aren't the kind who would simply talk to strangers," she replied defensively, and a trifle offish, but deep down, she felt her stomach lurch with bile and anxiety that perhaps he was right. Anything could happen—even the most unpleasant of events. Faith and Brianna were no longer homeschooled girls, no longer the kids who lived under the protection of their house, and they were practically left with Mrs. Crook whenever Claire was out for work. Although she trusted the old lady, she was a stranger, nonetheless.

And could she even expect Mrs. Crook to defend her girls and attack any stranger who broke in their apartment? Claire doubted that.

She had been silent long enough to notice that Jamie was quiet too, looking perturbed about something.

Oh god. She gawked, finally realizing how rude she must have sounded then.

"Jamie—"

"Claire, I'm—"

They paused, both of them now fully aware of how badly they drifted apart somewhere in their discussion, and how they both wanted nothing more than to put things back in order.

"May I go first?" Jamie asked, in which she nodded in reply. "I'm sorry, lass. I...dinna intend to make it seem like I was telling ye what to do. T'was no the best thing to say." He said, looking down while he brought his foot up and back down to the ground, gently kicking a few pebbles off their place as he stood before her.

A little later, she joined in his little pebble-kicking activity. With her red leather loafers, she mildly bumped the side of his shoe before kicking on one of the stones, one of them perching on top of his shoes.

"I'm sorry too," she said in reply, smiling at him reassuringly. Searching for his eyes were a little hard with the way his red hair covered half of his face. "It took me a while to be aware of how unmannerly I sounded."

"It's alright, ye were no unmannerly. Just...ye were just defending, is all."

"As you were simply expressing your concern for them. I understand," Her lips made an upturn, happy how instantly they were able to recover from a minute of suffocating silence. Other than what she said, she also thought that perhaps she and Jamie have reached that point of friendship wherein they ought to be a little bit comfortable chaffing at each other, they just weren't exactly aware that they were both there. "Thank you, Jamie. They're very fortunate to have you as their teacher—"

"Please give them the chocolates," he beseeched, a little sheepishly, as he scratched the back of his head. "They were at their best behavior today, and I think the lasses deserved it."

The way he said it made her giggle; Jamie had gone from a frowning, protective giant to a soft one, pleading for her daughter's entitlement over the sweet treats. He was just so...cute.

Jamie's mind, however, was someplace else.

His gaze wandered, moving to her face, down to their feet, and then back up again.

Seeing how the twins were already walking ahead of them, preoccupied with a small game of invisible hopscotch along the empty lot, he became more and more aware of Claire's presence beside him, and the mystery that came along with her existence.

What if it were her?

What if she lived?

The answer was only a question away, standing a few inches away from him.

He could find out if he wanted to. He'd been dying to find out the moment Claire brought the girls in Leoch; all he had to do was ask. God, if it were that easy, he would.

But just like any other day spent with the little girls, or with Claire, he found himself in a bind, like a man contained in a well-sealed box that sank in the abyss, but with him was the key to open the lock; busting himself out of the door was far worse than being trapped in that cramped space, unless drowning was even considered a better option. Either way, he was going to suffer.

Just like that, to ask meant to eventually get his answer—his peace—at the expense of the peace all of them were enjoying. Dougal was finally out of the picture. Jenny and Ian, as well as their children, were going to live without ever thinking of bills to pay. And Lallybroch, the house and the land he toiled to protect, was and will be forever his.

He couldn't fathom how all of the things he saved could fall apart if he ever tried to ask—

"I can hear you thinking from here," the sudden remark she made brought his entire body into a split-second jolt. It made him huff out a sharp breath. "Jamie, you're doing it again."

"Huh?" He looked at her hesitantly, trying his best not to look her squarely in the eye or she might see through him, find a certain longing and yearning that was scattered in every expression. 

His clouded mind could only make him resort to say, "I'm doing what again, Sassenach?"

"The sad eyes. Right there." She said, pointing a finger to the bridge of his nose as she stood beside him. One more inch, and she would close the short distance between them.

"Hmm. I never...I hadna noticed, I guess it just became habit."

It appeared his rambling ruminations made her somewhat uncomfortable, or at least very concerned that she found it necessary to block his way and face him. Looking up to his height, she said, "You can talk to me. Is it your brother again?"

"No, not him," which was indeed a fact. It wasn't Willie he was thinking of, but the two soul strangers he believed to be Faith and Brianna. The resemblance between him and the twins were too close to be mere coincidence; it simply had to be them.

But if they were indeed his, then who was she, and how did she come into the picture? Does she even know these two were born out of a terrible mix-up?

Not only was he desperate to seek the truth, but he was also furious about her husband leaving them on their own. That Frank Randall had to be the husband of the girls mother, and yet he left them alone, and as to the case of Faith... Christ. This Frank chap never even took the chance to understand how much she needed help.

And now he also had to deal with Claire, and how much he wanted this woman despite her being such a mystery to him.

God, how am I supposed to tell her all this? I canna tell her. The swell of his Adam's apple moved up and then back down before he opened his mouth to answer.

"Nah, I was just thinking about, uh." He immediately struck both hands on his pockets, just so he wouldn't display any sign of nerviness. From beneath, he could feel his fingers twitch and shake, tapping as he struggled to find a way out of the sticky situation he was in.

Blessed Mother of God.

Whatever comes out of my mouth, let it be the truth.

"I..." blue eyes glanced towards the little girls and kept their gaze there; it seemed easier than having to look at Claire and regret not asking the questions he had previously concocted in his mind.

"I just wanted to tell ye, ken, how ye didna deserve to go through whatever ye did, or be treated the way were back in London...with Frank." He told her as he brought his hands out to hang on his sides, completely aware of the way she watched him speak. Whisky-golden eyes blinked in anticipation for an answer, and when he felt as though he could melt on the spot, he kicked another pebble just to distract himself. "Ye and the lasses deserve to be happy and more, Claire. Bree does. Faith does too. Ye all do."

In truth, he simply wanted to tell her how he could make them happy, that if she would let him, he would take good care of them, but he kept all those words at the back of his mind, never to be spoken.

A dense kind of silence pottered in between them, and something in what he said must have moved her so, since her hand gingerly reached for his own, holding only but three of his long fingers. He tensed. The touch of her tender gentleness made him look down to see it for himself, wondering if it was really her holding him, even if it was apparent that they were the only people in the yard, apart from the twins who were hopping around a few meters away.

"Is it pity?" She whispered.

"What?"

"Do you...pity me, Jamie?" She asked, pulling Jamie's arm gently as if to beckon him to look at her. He did, eventually, but his blue eyes were shifting glances from her and to some unidentifiable spot behind the trees. "Because if you do, I wish you don't—"

"No," Jamie definitively said. "It isna pity I have for ye."

She looked up, nodding. "You...feel bad for the girls, then?"

"No, no that either." He wasn't sure of what he was about to do, or what the hell was he supposed to say, but he curled his fingers, holding her hand securely. It felt like the surest thing to do at the time. He looked at her then, and realized how much of a fool he was to try to keep his gaze away from the most beautiful lass he's ever laid eyes on.

But then, who was she?

His breath hitched. Christ. Never did he feel his heart thrum this way, pounding strongly against the bones of his chest he could almost feel it crack through the sutures. His mind may think of this woman as someone suspicious, but his heart regarded her as something more than that.

Today was a good day to stick with what the heart wanted.

"Then if it's not pity, what is it?" She asked him, genuinely curious.

'Tis that I care for ye, his heart whispered in the quiet.

Ye care for the twins, man. The mind interrupted, skeptical as ever. No for her, but for them!

While the internal struggle went on for quite a long time, Jamie decided to go with a sure answer. It wasn't the entire truth to the story, but it was honest nonetheless.

"Reverence," he blurted out, and when it felt quite right, Jamie relaxed. It was the only response that stood before the line of the lie. "Aye, that's what."

She blinked, "Reverence?"

"Yes." A high regard for her, as she assumed the role as the lasses' mother, and high regard for the woman who had passed away.

Moreover, an indirect way to tell her how he felt, despite the ongoing chaos in his mind.

"Towards me? Am I a god to be revered?"

About a hundred variations of gold, copper and titian red danced about as he shook his head in disagreement. He smiled at her, a tad bit nervously, before he gave their little handholding a gentle swing. "No, no like a god. But as one I hold my highest esteem to, for the courage ye've put on, that is."

"Huh?"

"Aye," a fierce blush burned up from the collar of his shirt. "That."

Everything he said spun around her. Bonny. Highest esteem. Courage. It sounded like an antiquated confession, but perhaps she was wrong. She actually didn't have a clue. "You respect me, is that...what you're trying to say?"

"I do. I do respect ye Claire. Have I no been doing so?" His irises grew deeper in its oceanic shade, and so did his ears, now tickled with the same shade of pinkish-red that spread across his neck.

He didn't know whatever was funny about his reply, but it sent her giggling. Claire laughed that laugh, the one that released a swarm of butterflies within his wame. In no less than a second he found himself smiling. Nothing was utterly hilarious; it was just light between them.

"You've been respectful in every way possible, Jamie." The sound of her calming voice blended perfectly well with the softened chirping of the finches perched atop the maples that surrounded the yard. She had already let go of his hand, yet her smile was still drawn across her lips, which made him feel a little more comfortable than he was. "And I guess I must also thank you for never seeing me as some pitiful case. I almost thought you were, but I was mistaken. You simply were the kindest to me," she turned to the two other small figures crouched by the side of her car, picking a few pebbles off the ground, "and to them."

"I just do what I have to do, Sassenach."

"And you're doing just fine. They love you so much, don't you know that?"

His eyes, upon hearing her reply, widened with contained levity. "They do?"

Claire nodded, almost at the brink of chortling at his response. "If that compliment frees you from your sad-eyed self, then yes, they look up to you so much like a child would to...their..." The glee in her voice faded away, along with the soft wind that brushed past them. For a moment, the only joyful element that lingered was the distant sound of Faith and Brianna's tittering; all else just clammed up in a lonely kind of stillness. Jamie stood by, studying the way she changed from bloom to gloom.

Brushing off a stray leaf that knitted itself within the wild fringe of her hair, Claire dismissed her thoughts with a shy, frantic smile. "Anyways, em. We better get going. I've got a phone call waiting, and you...you, well, you have er—"

"I've fillies to break at the stables," He replied, brows raised comically in an attempt to cheer her up. "And some horses to exercise."

"And rabbits to feed,"

"Nah, the wee coneys were fed by the bairns earlier today during Nature Time," which, she remembered, was his special segment during class hours. Jamie gently nudged her shoulder with his hand, soundlessly telling her to go and make her way to the car. "About wee Faith, I hope ye find time reading picture books with her. It'll take some time, and patience, but she'll get the hang of it. I meant what I said in the wee note."

A little sacrifice and a little faith. "I will. I promise,"

"And Claire?"

"Yes?"

He seemed unsure, but he said it anyway. "Do ye ken how to play chess?"

Tilting her head, she recounted whether she have had any experience of playing the sport. There were some occasions wherein she would play with Uncle Lamb, but then again, she never had a win at the game, much less the interest of playing it. It was more of her being fascinated about the pieces, and that was all there was to it. "I don't. Why?"

"She'd find it a good hobby. Remember the leaves?" Of course, she did. It was the first mind-blowing act that Faith had ever done, before today's reading activity. "Bairns like her may no be the best wi words, but they'd do weel wi' images. Faith showed how skilled she's at with remembering patterns—like those leaves—she might be good with a game that involves just that. But aye, no fer ye to worry about." he said with a little grin, "I'll think of something for her to do. But can ye help her wi' some supplemental reading at home?"

Claire was beginning to love this kind of friendship with her daughters' teacher. Never did she expect to have found a good collaborative relationship in the first go for a new school, but it was here: the most generous forest kindergarten teacher anybody could ever ask for.

"I will," a gentle reassuring smile crept on her face before she finally turned away.

When the girls saw Claire already opening her door, Brianna immediately summoned Faith that it was time to go. Between the two, she was the one who exhibited a greater sense of responsibility towards the other. Jamie was still standing by the yard, watching the girls putter their way in the car, struggling and whining about how long it took their mother to stop talking with Mr. Jamie as they fastened their seatbelts with some difficulty. He must have heard the in-car dialogue, since Claire could see the broadness of his shoulders shudder in as he chuckled.

From her rearview mirror, she could still see his large frame standing in the middle of the parking lot, his hair blending among the golden-red leafage behind him.

"Reverence," she whispered to the distant figure of a man from her mirror, before she took a left turn towards the road that would lead them back home. On the way, she wondered how 'reverence' could cause anybody to redden up the way Jamie did.


Geillis couldn't be phoned by the time Claire's phone was sufficiently charged.

"Great." Now she was left to wonder how on earth did she end up dating her fertility doctor.

To top all that, what were they doing together in the same place in the evening? If her calculations were correct, It was around 6 PM when she made that call from the UK. What in the bloody hell was Doctor Mackenzie doing in her apartment?

Or was it otherwise? What if she was in his home?

Claire made two more attempts and dialed her phone, but ended up failing. She didn't pick up.

By the time her curiosity was eating her up and driving her mad, Claire decided to divert her attention by making herself busy with a ton of chores. There was no other way to steer clear of the throbbing idea of the way Dougallo—Christ, I can't even finish it—sounded against the thinness of Geillis' lips.

She veered her mind away from her thoughts by putting it elsewhere.

The afternoon that had passed was slow, yet remarkably productive in all the good ways; right now, Claire found herself actually trying out a bacon, egg and cheese roll-up recipe she found online—Geillis will be proud when she'd find out how her best friend had been tinkering around the kitchen—and was just crisping up the final batches when she heard the soft patter of little footsteps from the kids' bedroom. One of them was already awake, most likely expecting her promised chocolate bar.

After setting her delicious 'masterpiece' on one of the plates, she went to clear the dining table, where heaps of papers and folders were still untidily scattered. "Immigration...Decree nisi..." The papers were segregated one by one in their respective envelopes, until the table was completely paper-free. Prior to cooking, Claire used up the apartment's most silent hours—the hours when the kids were taking a nap—filing and sorting their immigration papers, bills, and other files necessary for her divorce proceedings. She would have wanted to move forward with changing her and her daughters' surnames, as well as apply for a green card, but she thought it better to wait until her marriage with Frank was dissolved with finality. Living far away from the man who had put her in emotional turmoil was a relief, but nothing could come close to the relief of being formally acknowledged as Claire Beauchamp, a woman no longer under Frank's name.

And Frank...curse that man, but a little part of her still regretted what he had done. She didn't like regretting, though, or at the very least she feared the feeling growing within her. Regret always came with a feeling of deep remorse over something that one has done, and if Frank showed her even a little ounce of contriteness, she feared that she might actually give him a chance. A chance that, she knew, he does not deserve to get.

They aren't mine, anyway. Why would I even bother?

After everything he had said and done, she knew she didn't want to give him that opportunity anymore. The space left may be a hollow pit, but its better to be left that deep than to have it drilled further down by the pain of living as Claire Randall, the pain of being his wife.

Placing the decree nisi form securely inside the manila envelope labeled DIVORCE, she exhaled a deep sigh, watching hers and Frank's printed names sink beneath the brown pulp. "Let it be soon," the whisper was faint, but she never wished for anything so strongly as this one.

"What is soon?" another faint voice chimed in, and Claire turned to see Brianna leaning against the back of the couch. On her hand's grasp was a black toy, something she never recalled buying for her girls. Purchases either came in bright and happy colors, but this particular toy was dark, almost looking like a shadowy void.

A few squints, and then the dark-colored object had taken the shape of a little unicorn.

"Oh my goodness," Claire abandoned her paper envelopes and walked towards the little girl. "Why do you have Donas with you?"

"Hmm." Her little four-year-old lifted the plush toy, head bent as she nonchalantly examined it before dropping her hand. "Mr. Jamie's present."

"A present?" Claire relaxed, thankful that it wasn't stolen. But a present? if Jamie gave the unicorn, then when did he hand it over? How did he hand it over? She never saw him take the horse out for the day. "And I never...I didn't see you bring Donas when we went home," she asked, puzzled.

"Mr. Jamie and Faith stuffed it inside my bag before she read her book. Just before he called you to come in the tent."

"Oh. O-Okay," a clear mental picture of Jamie and Faith gently shoving the toy inside the little backpack dwelt in her mind like a fond memory, even if she never saw it with her own eyes. It was good to be left with her mind's imaginations sometimes, but a little part within her wished she saw it happen.

Dear Lord, why am I even thinking about him together with them?

"Why did he give it to you? Can you tell Mummy?" She asked. This wasn't the first time she had to veer her mind away from her thoughts.

"You didn't answer my question yet!"

Claire laughed, smoothing her daughter's unkempt hair in place. "Baby, I will answer it after you tell me why you have Donas with you."

"I told you. He gave it to us."

"But why?" the question made her little girl whine about asking way too much questions. It was the cutest kind of tantrum, something she didn't mind handling the most among all others. "Come on. Come on, baby. Shh. Mummy's such a nosy nuisance, isn't she? I'm just curious."

"I..." she let out a tut, hesitating. "You'll get mad."

"No, I won't."

Her lips formed a big pout as she shook her head. "No. You will be mad."

"Mummy will not be mad, Brianna." Claire crossed her heart with her fingers.

"You promise?"

"Yes, I promise. See? I just crossed my heart!"

She stared at her hesitantly while she brought the unicorn up to her chest, holding it protectively against her. With that kind of grip, there was no way to snatch the toy away.

"We...well, it was my idea, but..." Brianna hummed, "he said he will give it if Faith reads the book for you."

Claire blinked in her disbelief. But wasn't this supposed to be a toy gift for his nephew?

The unicorn's stared at her with its black button eyes narrowing its lifeless gaze to her chest level. Something piqued her at the back of her skull; it was a feeling of embarrassment that maybe she and her daughters were receiving too many favors from Jamie. So far, he'd given her a car tow, a repair discount, reading aids for Faith, and now a toy that meant so much value. As to the intangible, yet invaluable ones, he gave her patience, generosity—and even a shoulder to cry on, and all she had to give him ever since they met were a KitKat bar and a cup of coffee.

Come on, Beauchamp. This isn't some kind of favor competition. She licked her pursed lips frantically, eyeing the inanimate Donas unicorn. Although Jamie's generosity was commendable, this was nothing close to reverence. Like a glass cleared of the fog, she knew now more than ever that Jamie either did this for two possible things. One, he favored her children for some unknown reason. Not that he liked the other kids less, it was just that he obviously liked her daughters more. Maybe because it reminded her much about him and his brother when they were much younger.

Another reason could be—and she thought this to me more likely—that he really did like her. That the couch wasn't anything close to an accident, but was simply a natural tendency of anatomy. It was possible that he was just too shy to tell it outright, not to mention he had to maintain the professional parent-teacher relationship between them, which she didn't mind that at all.

"Oooh. Bacon!" Bree skipped towards the kitchen, sniffing the savory scent of tonight's dinner. Claire promised to answer her question, but decided to leave it off, seeing how it had been completely forgotten by her little girl. She didn't need to tell her much about Frank, anyway.

A little later, just when the plates were set and dinner was ready, Faith stomped out of the room in the same way Bree did, except that she wasn't carrying a toy. She looked plainly tired still, her eyelids drooping as she hopped onto the chair. "Reading is tiring," she hummed, while she watched her mother place a piece of the roll-ups on her plate.

"But it's rewarding, isn't it? You won Donas after reading a book. My baby girl did a good job today!" Claire replied, mentally wishing this was the last time they would bribe their teacher into gifting them a toy after successfully finishing a book. "Mr. Jamie is such a kind man, isn't he? Giving you his precious little horsie?"

"He says Donas is going to protect us," Faith mumbled her words as she munched, "And we'll go ride to the rainbow, like Alexander Malcolm. He likes to go to the rainbows, you know."

"Donas loves rainbows? Well of course! He's a unicorn—"

"Yeah—no, not Donas. I meant Malcolm. He's going to sail across the sea, to the end of the rainbow, on his own, without a horse, to find some treasure," across where Faith sat, Brianna silently held Donas above her head, moving its feet in a galloping motion. "Do you know, Mummy? Mr. Jamie said that Donas was Alexander Malcolm's noble speed."

She giggled, brushing the stray bacon bit from her chin. "It's steed, baby."

"St..sp...hm...speed."

"Steed. It's a 't'," Brianna interjected, ever the encourager.

"Yes, like the one Mummy drinks in the morning." Claire smiled at Brianna, commending her for the wonderful assist, before turning back to Faith. "Again for me, please?"

There was a bit of a struggle, but eventually she was able to come up verbalize it. "St-eed," a little blurry, but the word was already there. If Jamie said she'll need patience assisting her daughter, she might need about a whacking great load of it.

"Good girl!" When complemented with a thumbs-up, words did the trick in affirming her daughter she did great; Faith was bouncing on the chair as she sat. "Okay, that was brilliant, Faith! Very brilliant! Alright, go on? What about the noble steed?"

"Umm. Okay, the—Donas was s'posed to go with Alexander, but the end of the rainbow was too far, and too scary to go to, he had to keep his spee—steed in the Lallybroch," Faith explained, stretching her words out. "So he sailed alone to the end of the rainbow."

"How sad is that!" Claire made an exaggerated gasp. "Poor him."

"Oh, no. He has his sword, he'll be fine." Faith said after munching on the last bit of her fried roll-ups. "Mr. Jamie said so he had to go on his own."

Claire was admittedly enjoying every bit of her daughters' conversation. These small, winsome vignettes rolled before her as precious mementos, each second valuable and of immeasurable worth. Seeing them more free, more peaceful and more like themselves filled her with a myriad of emotions, one euphoric idea topping over another.

God, it felt so good.

"Why was he travelling to the end of the rainbow?" she asked her two daughters, distracting them from her stealthy hands as she collected their now empty plates. Brianna and Faith exchanged glances, and then turned back.

"He was about to get into that part," Brianna shrugged. "But he stopped."

"Why?"

Her little four-year old looked displeased all of a sudden, crossing her arms above her chest and crushing the unicorn in between her. If Donas were a living creature, it would certainly be death by a kid's strangulation for him.

"You don't remember?" Bree asked. "He stopped because of you."

"Of me?"

Faith nodded for the both of them, "Mmm. And then you said blubby arse!"

Oh, that. She blinked, silently reprimanding herself for being that loud. Never will she ever talk rubbish within the school grounds again. "I...guess we'll find out what's happens next when you see each other in class again," she patted both their tiny heads, and slowly moved her palms to smooth their curls down. "For now, we'll do some plenty good time of reading together with Mrs. Crook during the day, and with me during the night. Mr. Jamie will be surprised when he finds both of you doing a good job with your reading. Right?"

"Right," the two girls exclaimed, although rather tiredly. It was going to be a long wait before Tuesday, when they would get to know the next part of the story.

After dinner, Claire enjoined her little girls to help out in cleaning up the kitchen. While she did the dishes, she gave each of them a cleaning rug, and they hopped up on the chairs, kneeling on top of it as they wiped the table in a businesslike manner. "Who were you talking on the phone, Mummy?" Bree asked the moment she handed her the soiled rug for washing.

"Hmm? Oh, it was Auntie G." Hearing her name placed a smile on Bree's plump face. "She was happy to know how you two have been doing in class,"

"Did she know about Faith's book?"

"Of course!" Claire replied, looking over the table to lock gazes with the other twin. Faith was equally happy. "The phone call wasn't that long, sadly. But she said she missed us so badly."

"Poor her. What if—" Brianna scratched her head, one of her nonverbal cues that told much about how she was trying to solve a problem. "—what if she stays here? Then she won't need to miss us because we're together, right?"

"Yes!" Faith, who was now done with her side of the table, hopped off the chair to hand her cleaning rug over to Claire. "She can stay in your room. So that Mummy won't be lonely too."

"Aww. Dearies, Mummy is fine on her own. I'm perfectly alright for as long as I have you both," a few months of living with two daughters in a different country gave her more than enough confidence to indeed say that she was perfectly alright. That she was coping. And that Geillis was apparently coping just as much. "Besides, we don't need to worry about Auntie G since she has a special friend with her."

"A special friend?"

Claire nodded, walking towards the counter as soon as she finished cleaning the remaining rugs and dishes. After drying both hands by slapping them against the fabric of her shirt, she reached for her phone and called Geillis, only to get the same result. She wasn't picking up. "A very special friend, Faithie," she said, trying again, but to no avail.

"Like a boyfriend?"

"Well, somewhat." She smiled towards her daughters, while typing down a message. If she wasn't taking any of her calls, then maybe a little text message would make it through. "And just like your Aunt Geillis, he is also just as interested to meet you both."

"Will we get to meet them again?"

"I don't know if we could in person, but perhaps through a phone call, for now." She told them frankly, setting her phone aside as she knelt to meet them eye to eye. If she were to put herself in Dougal Mackenzie's shoes, she knew that the joy of seeing them would definitely be beyond compare. "But what I'm sure of is that he'll love you just as much as your Aunt Geillis does."


BONUS:

Glasgow, Scotland

Claire (12:00 AM): Just had dinner. It's 7 here. I'm treating them pizza tonight, since you said they did a good job today. You can pay me later.

Claire (12:01 AM): My battery died earlier. I'm so sorry. Return the call if you aren't busy?

Claire (12:01 AM): Please tell Dr. Mackenzie I'm so sorry. I wish to talk to him again. He needs to see my girls. xx

She didn't phone Claire, nor did she reply to her messages. She would send her the pizza cash sometime tomorrow, but not today.

At some point the calls just stopped coming in, and although she wanted to talk to her, there were still a few reasons she considered more important: mysterious and murky matters that were already before her to think through.

The first was the video sent earlier that day, which had been on repeat for almost a hundred times since landed onto her inbox. Nothing can compare the joy she felt seeing her goddaughter Faith finish her first book, it even brought her to tears. Getting her to read has always been an unconquered mountain for her most favorite Randalls-now-Beauchamps, and realizing she had only witnessed them cross past that milestone through Claire's poorly-angled video recording was a quite a pain in the gut. A hefty bicep took almost two precious minutes of Faith's screen time, but at least she could hear her goddaughter's voice straining behind her teacher's muscles.

The joy was incomparable.

However, other than Faith faring well with her reading skills, something else caught her attention. After downloading the recording on her computer, Geillis has been paying close attention somewhere towards the end the lengthy video, at the 5:01 mark. It was on repeat it more than once for good measure, and after a few loops, she was certain she heard the words right.

Now, it wasn't exactly her first time seeing this forest school teacher named Jamie Fraser—the ginger laddie who has somehow replaced her spot as Claire's sidekick; she already saw about twenty different angles of this sizable man's body when her two goddaughters sent her photos of him. But today was the first time she heard his voice.

He said it too quickly, but for anybody who had the Gaidhlig running through their veins, the spoken words were as clear as day. They were heavy. Meaningful.

Words nobody could simply use to just anybody they met. Unless...

Now it all made sense to her. 

All this time, she had thrown every bit of concern towards Claire's actions, warning her about seeing new people in a time when she was at her most vulnerable, building herself up as she braved a new life in a new city. But now, she thought maybe it wasn't Claire she should be worried at all. Maybe it wasn't her who'd been wanting to get every opportunity to meet Jamie, but it was the other way around.

Sitting by the living room's chaise-lounge, her bright emerald eyes wandered around the spacious flat as she was still trapped in the core of her thoughts, picking them out one by one like flowers in a garden. She knew she'd seen something strangely familiar each time she visited this place—and there! She found it, just beside the couch she sat on. The item was perched by the coffee table.

There was a poorly-maintained potted plant on top of the wooden table, and a three-piece photo frame containing some few good memories of friends and family, their smiles frozen in time. It was a ceilidh, she thought, given the kilts and the vibrant tartans and the festive mood captured within it. If not, it was most likely a family Hogmanay long time ago. She'd been trying to avoid one of the pictures since she first visited this house, but after seeing Faith's victory video...and remembering every photo of the man sent to her...it can never be unseen.

"Dougal!"

The second reason—and the main cause as to why she didn't take any of Claire's calls—was because of the tall man seated by the kitchen counter. Apparently, he cannot keep up with her spunkiness; he was already done in after hour of her blathering, and now he wanted nothing more than to drink his glass of water in peace.

"Ye are no telling me everything." She tapped her foot restlessly as she stood at a close distance, with arms akimbo. "I canna believe we're beatin' round the bush for hours. Can ye grow up a bit and act yer age?"

"I've got my reasons as to why I choose no to speak, lass. I think I deserve that respect from you."

"Dougal, I'm not the type who'd use threats here. And tempted as I may be, I'm choosing not to." Geillis crossed her arms as her hands squeezed against her flesh. The amount of self-control she needed just to keep her from shaking him was going down the drain. "I promised ye I won't phone her again 'til I get to hear it from yer own big gob."

He took a sip from the glass, thinking pensively.

"Are ye really no going to talk to me?" Geillis ambled right where he sat and bent over to watch him with a dagger-like stare. Still, he wasn't shaken. "Aye. Right, then. Ye wouldna talk. Is that it?"

Dougal eyed her menacingly. "Half a month to the relationship and now we find ourselves trifling like we've been marrit fer years. I told ye, woman! I thought her to be dead, and ye said so yerself everybody tried to keep her alive on that day!"

You're leaving out something, ye damn fool.

As she took her phone out, scrolling her fingers through the screen as if searching for something, she asked, "Right, then if ye wouldna talk to me, I will. That photo by the couch. Who was that smiley kilted laddie posing wi' ye?"

He hummed, raising a brow. "One of my nephews. Dinna think ye'll ever meet—"

"Jamie, is it?" His name rang through his head like a bell as big as the one at St. John's Kirk; it drained all the color from Dougal's head and down to his face, and had he not been sitting on one of the kitchen chairs, he would have dropped on the floor in shock. The look of satisfaction was clear in Geillis' face as she cocked her inquisitive brow; feigning his response was already out of the question when he'd totally given himself away. "I'm afraid I've seen the lad, all thanks to the Internet, and my dear friend's video. Now, will ye explain to me—and mind ye, I'd claw yer shiny heid if ye leave me off important information—how on earth did the nephew of my best friend's fertility doctor say this in front of her own bairns?"

She held up her phone right in front of his face, and with a tap, the frozen shot was put into motion, two little girls gathered in the big and warm embrace of the man, now all grown and much bigger than the last time he saw him. He probably was also now bigger and taller than him. Was five years that long?

Jamie had his head resting in between their joined shoulders, making all three of them form one big clump of the same shade of red as he held them in his arms. Had he not been paying close attention, the words could be hidden by the noise of the distant rustling of the forest leaves, but the sound of his nephew's whispering was heard loud and clear.

A finger reached for the screen with the hope of watching it again, but Geillis took it away. "What he just said. Did ye hear it?"

"A chuisle mo chridhe," he said to her, dreadfully frightened with the words himself.

James, ye careless son of a bitch!

How could ye have known?

Geillis was now seated cross-legged after dragging the nearest empty chair, and more relaxed now that the cat was out of the bag. All there was to do now was to go into the details of it. "So now I begin to wonder. Claire told me the donor was football coach that was born and raised in the UK. But why's this big man out there, teaching weans and wrangling horses in Boston?"

"Geillis, sweetheart—"

"I promise I willna tell anyone, no even Claire. I promise."

"It's not a matter of keeping secrets—"

"I ken that, ye clipe. But this is about Claire. About my wee goddaughters. And about yer nephew, whom I think has figured everything out, and is dying to get an explanation from ye."

"Geillis—"

"I want the truth." The words were slowly verbalized. "And whatever truth ye say shall stay between us. I promise that."

Geillis swore fervently, albeit it sounding like a threat. They were now both seated with their knees touching and both of them holding each other's hand as if it were the only touchable element that could keep them from falling apart. Both of them were inches away from what could either put all the pieces together.

"Ye ken what I've got to say. Whatever it is ye are thinking, ye are right." In those last few moments, he took his time before gulping down the last of his water and facing her, his hand clutching harshly on her wrist before he confessed the secret he and his nephew had tried to preserve from the rest of the world.

Dougal closed his eyes, finally jumping off the cliff. There was no turning back.

"I made a mistake, five years ago..."