It was too hot for Jamie to sleep. It had been years since Jamie slept in a proper bed in a proper room and it would take some time to get used to being close enough to a fire to keep properly warm. But he didn’t dare cross to open the window. Much as he would appreciate the relief of a bit of the January chill creeping in the room to counteract the effects of a hearth larger than the dimensions of the room required it to be, Jamie was terrified of what it might do to William sleeping nestled wrapped in blankets in the basket he’d arrived in earlier.
As his mind spiraled from William developing a cold to taking fever because of the open window, Jamie could feel the memory of Claire rolling her eyes before launching into a lecture about her germs and how it wasn’t cold temperatures that caused colds before finally conceding that yes, it would still probably be safer for him to keep the window shut.
There was another person who might object to such measures––the wet nurse Lady Dunsany had summoned, a young widow named Sabrina who had lost first her husband and then her three-month-old child to fever between Christmas and the New Year. The quiet woman had a cot of her own in an adjoining room she was sharing with one of the housemaids.
Lying awake and unmoving on the bed so as not to generate further heat, Jamie listened to the once familiar sounds of a house in the night. The logs in the hearth crackled quietly with occasional louder pops; the glass panes in the small window rattled whenever the wind picked up; the creaking floorboards in the hall and the cramped servants’ quarters beyond signaled other household staff moving about as they finally came to bed for the night or waking, made use of the chamber pot before resuming their unconscious states.
But the most prominent sound and the one that kept Jamie awake even as it calmed his nerves was the steady breathing and occasional groans of William beside him. Jamie would find some way to fashion a proper cradle for the baby before long but until then he refused to leave William’s basket on the floor while they both slept and instead had nestled the basket among the blankets on the bed. There was just enough space for the basket when Jamie lay on his back with one arm draped around the woven curve but he felt most reassured when he curled his body protectively around it; the fear of knocking the basket and its bairn out of the bed lessened significantly. But lying on his back was the easiest way to feel that it wasn’t just the bairn in the bed beside him. The sounds of the house weren’t dissimilar to those of Lallybroch and Sabrina’s snoring in the next room brought a smile to his lips and memories of Claire––and her insistence that it was he who snored and not her––to his tired mind.
There was a hitch in the baby’s breathing and Jamie snapped up to peer inside. William’s fist was in his mouth but he needed something that offered sustenance rather than succor. Jamie reached in and swept him up and cradled him to his chest before he could begin to truly fuss. The warmth of his father against his cheek lulled William long enough for Jamie to slip out of bed, ease open the door between his room and the women’s, and gently rouse Sabrina for William’s feeding.
He tended the fire while she sat in a stupor, William latched to her breast but her arms holding him stiffly and she wouldn’t look at him.
“Did you wake him to feed?” she asked as the need to switch William from one breast to the other temporarily roused her from her stupor.
Jamie glanced over, his gaze falling on the back of his son’s head as it turned in search of the rest of his meal. Grinning when the boy found it, Jamie suddenly realized he’d been essentially gawking at the poor woman’s exposed breast and looked away again, grateful that the resultant flush could be blamed on the heat of the fire before him.
“No,” he muttered, finally answering her question. “No, I didna wake him. I was restless myself and heard him rouse. I’m… I’m no used to sleepin’ in the house,” he confessed.
“Me either. Not a house this grand. Thank you, by the way, for catching him before he could cry.” Surprised, Jamie looked over to see her eyes fastened unblinking on the flames in the hearth, shining with sorrow. “If he’d cried… If I’d heard him cry like that I wouldn’t have realized it wasn’t…”
“What was yer bairn’s name? The one ye lost,” Jamie asked quietly, gently.
The reply came in a whisper. “Carina… her name was Carina.”
Jamie nodded and swallowed before telling her, “Faith. My wife and I lost a lass at birth… years ago now. She was called Faith.”
“When did you lose your wife?”
There were times Jamie could feel the shape and weight of every minute he’d spent without Claire; that he could stack them in piles reaching the ceiling and group them into the days, weeks, months, and years they’d been apart. And other times it was a distinctly unquantifiable mass that he couldn’t escape––would never escape… not until death.
“Years ago now,” he repeated knowing this young widow still enveloped in her own grief would be able to understand the struggle to find a way to carry on and live within grief’s muffling embrace.
“Thank ye,” he added a moment later. “For helpin’ wi’ my wee lad.”
Sabrina nodded and finally looked down at the infant suckling her breast. “He seems to be a strong one.” Her voice was hollow but she shifted her arms and her hold of William softened.
Whether the movement unsettled him or he had simply consumed his fill, William disengaged from Sabrina and promptly began to writhe and fuss.
Jamie was there in an instant and had him away from the wet nurse.
“He ate too fast,” she suggested, readjusting her shift and rising from the chair to return to bed. “Rub his back a bit and walk him about the room. He should settle back down.” The door between the rooms closed quietly and Jamie was left to calm his son on his own.
It still amazed him just how small and light the lad was, how fragile. And yet there was growing strength and coordination as Jamie felt William’s tiny arms pushing back against his collarbone and fighting to raise his head. The efforts exhausted him, however, and had failed to alleviate his discomfort. The stiff fingers of Jamie’s right hand held William’s small torso in place while his thumb swept back and forth across the back in a steady rhythm that reduced William’s cries to a weak whimper. Jamie felt the tension leak out of William as the bubble of gas worked its way up and out of his belly. Though the smell was faintly sour, there was no dampness on his shoulder so William’s meal had successfully stayed put.
Jamie grinned and rested his cheek lightly against the small head.
An eruption from his own stomach startled him and made him laugh.
“Now yer belly’s full, mine seems to want a bite too,” he murmured. In the confusion of arranging the room and bringing his things in from the loft, Jamie had only had a few quick bites of supper in passing and hadn’t been able to take an extra bit of bread or cheese to have later as was his habit. “What say we take a short walk down to the kitchens, eh?” he told William, laying the baby on the bed long enough to pull on a pair of breeks.
William stretched, his body arching briefly and the blanket that had wrapped him slid off his legs so that his feet were exposed to the cold. The toes curled and he reflexively drew the limbs back closer to his body and the warmth of his core. Jamie pounced at the opportunity and quickly swaddled the baby as tightly as he dared, grateful to escape having to pin William’s arms and legs in place himself.
“Now, ye must be quiet as a wee mouse looking for scraps left by the kitchen maids,” Jamie whispered as he eased his way into the corridor with William tucked into the crook of one arm. William squirmed and emitted a small mouse-like squeak that made Jamie smile broadly.
The fires in the kitchen were never allowed to go out for the sake of practicality so the large room was invitingly warm even as Jamie’s bare feet slipped from the wooden steps of the servants’ back stair to the cool flat stones that lined the kitchen floor’s outer edges; as he moved closer to the main preparations table and the fire, they grew warmer to the touch.
“Is everything all right?” a voice inquired from a seat near the window.
Jamie spun to see Lord John with a fork in one hand and a plate in the other, a half-finished piece of mincemeat pie resting neatly upon it.
Jamie rolled his eyes as he closed them before looking down to check William hadn’t been disturbed by the abrupt movement. “Aye,” he said in a low even tone. “We’re fine.” The calm that had been on him as he made his way down to the kitchen––the peace of a household at rest––had fallen away. The surprise of Grey’s presence and the anticipation of a conversation he did not wish to have had sent a jolt through his system so that the pangs of his hunger were forgotten as a rush of other information flooded his senses. There were three ways out of the kitchen, the nearest being the stairs at his back, but those would only lead him deeper into the house as would the door in the far left corner; the door to the far right corner would lead to the yard and open air but Grey was still closer to both than he was and Lord John held nothing more dear than stale pie left from an elaborate dinner; it being a kitchen though, there were plenty of implements that could be used as weapons. None of which should matter because there was no real threat to either himself or the baby and yet as he stepped closer to the table––Grey having risen and carried his plate back with a gesture inviting Jamie to join him in his midnight snack––Jamie was able to do so with the steady sureness of someone prepared for anything.
Grey cut a second piece of pie from the leftovers and set the plate near the fire for a few moments to heat up. Jamie busied himself by tending to William, readjusting his blankets and settling him more firmly in the crook of his right arm.
Grey set the plate and a fork in front of Jamie. “Do you need me to hold him while you eat?”
Jamie took the fork up easily in his left hand and shook his head. “I’ll be fine.” He took care not to smile as Grey blinked with amazement at Jamie’s ability to eat left-handed.
They ate in a silence that grew increasingly tense as each waited the other out to see who would broach the subject first.
“Why in God’s name did you agree to this arrangement?” Grey finally asked, setting his own fork down forcefully. “Did you hope to buy favor with Lord Dunsany and his wife by volunteering a solution that would allow them to see their grandson? Because if you hoped this would win their support in petitioning on your behalf for being released from your parole, I’m afraid you’ll find it will actually have the opposite effect. They’ll want you here indefinitely if your leaving means you’ll take that boy with you. And if you simply wanted better treatment you need only have brought any mistreatment to my attention and I would have had a word with Lord Dunsany on the matter.”
“Are ye through?” Jamie asked when it appeared Grey was losing steam.
Grey let out a frustrated huff and picked up his fork again but only poked at the cooling piece of mince meat pie, the crust flaking off and making a mess in the pooling grease on the plate.
“I dinna expect ye to understand why I did it,” Jamie told him. “It doesna matter to me if ye do or no.”
“What do you expect you can offer this boy in your circumstances? It’s noble to offer to be a father to an orphaned child but––”
“I was a father long before this wee lad here,” Jamie interrupted firmly. “I became a father the day my wife told me she was with child. I didna stop being a father simply because the child was lost… no more than I stopped bein’ my father’s son the day he died. Ye dinna stop bein’ what ye were when circumstances change––ye can become more than what ye were before but ye dinna become less except by choice… except by how ye choose to see yerself.”
“That’s a noble philosophy but it doesn’t address the question of how you’ll provide for the boy––and I don’t just mean physically or monetarily,” Grey added. “The Dunsanys will see to both your needs as much as they can for the boy’s sake––with plenty of strings involved, I’m sure––but what do you plan to tell him? About his mother? About yourself? Christ, Jamie, I’m the only one here who even knows your true name.”
“I’ll tell him as much of the truth as I can but I’ll no lie to him,” Jamie informed Grey. “When he’s older and I’m able to take him far enough from Helwater for it to make no difference, I’ll tell him everything.”
Grey was shaking his head, still unconvinced.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Grey finally said, rising from the table and dumping the last few bites of his pie into the fire. It flared up as the flames ignited the grease.
Jamie chuckled and Grey’s head spun to watch him in confusion. “Of course I dinna ken what I’m doing––no father does. It’s something ye learn as ye go, same as most things. But this lad is mine and I’ll do what it takes to keep him safe and raise him well… even askin’ for help if and when I need it.” Grey’s eyes narrowed. “I ken that Lord and Lady Dunsany will no want to see the lad go from them and it willna matter what his age or what rumors follow him. But I also ken it wasna their influence that saw me paroled here rather than transported.”
Jamie let the weight of his observation and the as yet unasked favor underlying it to settle.
Grey’s mouth dropped slightly open for a moment before he shut it again. He nodded his understanding and reminded Jamie, “You will let me know of any concerns that arise during my quarterly visits.”
The morning they were supposed to leave, Claire emerged from the cave to wait for Frank and help Murtagh and Jamie ready the horses. Frank had been quieter the last few days and despite her meager efforts to get Jamie alone again, she hadn’t succeeded and wouldn’t have known what more to say to him if she had; she just… wasn’t ready to say goodbye––didn’t know how to say goodbye.
Murtagh was busy loading the horse that he would ride with the necessary provisions for the few days it would take them to reach Craigh na Dun. Claire’s medical kit was already strapped into place on her horse.
“It occurred to me,” Murtagh said, not turning his head from his task as she quietly approached, “I ought to have asked if yer man would be able to handle the reins wi’ his arms and hands bundled as they are.”
“Oh…” Claire frowned in thought. “You’re right… He’ll be able to hold them but not tightly––not enough to direct the horse very effectively, I’m afraid. And he’s not a very strong horseman to start,” she added in a lower tone on the off chance Frank had succeeded in readying himself for their journey. Jamie had sacrificed his coat and a spare shirt to help Frank appear less obviously out of place––though there was little that could be done about his trousers; Frank had no interest in donning a kilt even if there had been one to spare and seeing Frank in a Fraser or MacKenzie tartan had been more than either Jamie or Murtagh was willing to suggest.
“Ye’ll need to have him ride wi’ you then,” Murtagh declared with a nod. “We’ll no need the third horse then. I’ll leave him hobbled wi’ a note for Jamie to find when he comes back later.”
Claire’s head jerked up. “He’s not coming back before we go?”
“Nah. The lad needs to get his head right before he goes down to the house. Ye ken what he faces there, no?”
The home and remaining family he hadn’t seen in four years; it had been one of the things he’d talked about most in the brief time between their wedding and this mess. There had been pain when he talked about it with her and told her what Lallybroch was like. He had been proud when he told her she was officially Lady Broch Tuarach and that he would do whatever it took to clear his name so they could live there without threat or shame.
Now he would be taking that step alone… and with the threat looming over his head more darkly than ever. How long would it be before Captain Randall had his way and the English soldiers descended on Lallybroch again to search for him?
“He… he can’t stay long,” she murmured. “It won’t be safe for him here; it’s––”
“He’ll only stay till I get back to let him know ye’ve made it safe,” Murtagh assured her with an uncharacteristic gentleness. For a moment she thought he might reach out to comfort her in a more tangible fashion but instead his face reddened and he turned back to the ropes that would keep their bedding on his horse. “It’ll be a danger to go back to Leoch after that, too. Might be able to convince him to head to France again––or maybe to his grandsire at Beauly though that’s no likely.”
“I feel absurd,” Frank declared as he emerged from the cave.
The stress of the two weeks since he had inadvertently traveled through the stones had taken a heavy toll on Frank. He hadn’t been able to bathe properly and lying on a dank and dusty cave floor hadn’t done him any favors; a layer of grime helped balance out the pallor left behind by the fever that still rose and fell irregularly. It had affected his appetite so that his already thin face appeared drawn and gaunt, the natural lines about his mouth and across his forehead emphasized in a ghastly way thanks to the shadow of the uneven growth of beard on his chin and cheeks. Jamie’s coat and shirt were too big and too long even with the remnants of his own clothes beneath. His trousers––previously gray––had become the same muddy brown as the ground he’d been sleeping upon and would continue to sleep upon until he made it back through the stones.
“Ye look absurd,” Murtagh agreed with Frank, frowning as he glanced the man over. “D’ye need a hand to get up or can ye manage?”
Frank rolled his eyes as he strode over to the third horse.
“Not that one,” Claire explained. “Your hands; it could be dangerous for you to try the reins. I’ll ride in front and you’ll just need to keep your seat. Murtagh has most of the supplies so he should bear our combined weight without incident.”
Murtagh gave Claire a leg up once Frank was comfortably seated. She felt him wince as she jostled him, settling herself in and taking up the reins, but a moment later his arms had slipped around her waist to help with his balance. His thighs pressed against hers through the layers of her skirt and there was the unshakable awareness of something at her back but it made her want to lean forward and shy away, untrusting.
“We’d best go lass,” Murtagh said, leading the way down a path that was shallower than the way they’d come. “We’re taking the long way round and staying as clear of the main road as we can get wi’out losing our way.”
“You’re sure he knows where he’s going?” Frank inquired quietly in Claire’s ear.
She snapped the reins and their horse started forward after Murtagh.
“Yes. And I trust him with both our lives. Be sure to let me know if you need to rest; it won’t be easy terrain and it’s more tiring to just sit there than you realize,” she advised him.
Murtagh had consulted Jamie on the best route to take through the Lallybroch lands, where to cross back into MacKenzie territory, and how to skirt the field at Culloden Moor to get round to Craigh na Dun without exposing themselves too obviously.
Jamie saw the horses carefully picking their way up and out of the valley from his own perch on a rock outcropping similar to the one that concealed the cave and knew that whatever danger he’d been in of breaking down and begging Claire to stay had passed. But there was no relief in the knowledge, only the continued sinking in the pit of his stomach. Surely, whatever it was inside him that was falling would hit the bottom sometime soon; he would be able to begin crawling up and out of this misery at some point, wouldn’t he?
He waited until they had long disappeared before tracing his way back to the cave and the remnants of their camp. Murtagh had left plenty for him to finish clearing up for which he was thankful; it gave him something mindless to do while he waited to stumble across some semblance of meaning. It took longer to clear away the evidence of their fire limited to one hand as he was. Claire had given him instructions for caring for the injury to his hand; he was on his own as concerned his less visible wounds.
Jamie hadn’t expected the horse to still be there waiting but Murtagh had left his note prominently pinned to the horse’s mane with one of Claire’s hair pins.
Frank cannot ride alone so only need two horses. Will not be able to go fast so four days to the hill. Leaving Dòchas for you. I shall meet you at Lallybroch in one week’s time if I don’t see you sooner. M
Jamie crumpled the note in his good hand and clenched his teeth, silently cursing his godfather for tempting him like this. Dòchas was easily the fastest of the three horses and with just Jamie to carry––despite his considerable size––it would not take long to catch them up and Murtagh also had laid out exactly how long he had to change his mind.
“I said what I needed to say to her,” Jamie told Dòchas in an effort to convince himself. “It’s no my decision and she’s made hers and that’s that.” He brushed his hand down the horse’s neck then reached for the bridle to guide her down the slope toward Lallybroch. Seeing Jenny again and learning all that she’d suffered in his absence wouldn’t hurt nearly as much as it would have before losing Claire had left him so numb––there was that to be thankful for, at least.
With every step toward Lallybroch, he tried not to calculate how far they would have gotten, how long it would take to reach them if he left just then.
“Jamie!” He heard Jenny’s familiar voice calling and it startled him out of his reverie. He couldn’t see her but he’d distinctly heard her calling him so she must have seen him.
“Jamie, ye rascal,” she scolded––she must be on the other side of the gate putting something away. “Where have ye been and just what have ye been gettin’ into? Dinna look at me like that.” A child’s giggle stopped Jamie in his tracks. “Ye’re in for a hidin’ if ye dinna get inside to Mrs. Crook for a right washin’ ‘fore supper. Go on, now.”
She hadn’t seen him and hadn’t been talking to him at all. Confusion and a place to put his anger pushed him to finally step through the gate and into the yard, his jaw clenched as he saw a small boy with dark hair vanish into the door leaving Jenny behind wiping her hands on her apron while a basket of dirty laundry sat on the ground beside her.
She looked up and smiled, overcome for a moment, before his dour expression sank in and her own brow knitted in confusion.
“Jamie? Is… What are ye doin’ here? We had word from Murtagh that ye’d made it safe to Leoch but nothin’ about you coming home… Not that ye’re no welcome,” she added hastily, her relief at seeing him alive again overpowering her cautious edge.
“And just who might this ‘we’ be?” Jamie asked, his own edge sharp and at the ready. “Ye thought Dougal wouldna tell me about yer wee bastard there? Hmm? At least he had the decency no to tell me that ye’d named the lad for me.”
Jenny’s good humor faded fast. “Dougal MacKenzie?” She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. “And just what would he ken about it? He’s no set foot here since Father passed and good riddance. Or are ye truly prepared to take the word of our dear uncle over that of yer own sister?” she challenged. “My wee Jamie isna a bastard and that’s the last I want to hear on the matter or ye can turn yer sorry arse around and leave again, James Fraser. We’ve managed wi’out ye for four years and this is the note ye care to return on?”
“Jamie?” Ian called from across the yard.
Jamie’s face went momentarily slack as he saw his friend throw down the piece of horse tack he’d been carrying in order to hurry over faster.
“Yer brother-in-law,” Jenny informed him with smug satisfaction before Jamie met Ian halfway and wrapped his friend in a hug.
“We werena expecting to see ye anytime soon,” Ian commented. “Was it you who was stayin’ out in the woods up near that old hunting cave? I told Jenny I thought I saw smoke out that way but she… Are ye all right, Jamie?”
“Aye,” Jamie croaked and nodded, looking down in an attempt to blink the tears back. “I’m fine. And aye, it was me out at the cave. Something… something happened and I had to find a safe place for a few days––didna want to put anyone here in danger if it could be helped,” he rambled as he turned his back on both his friend and his sister to Dòchas leading her toward the stable around the other side of the house.
“So whatever danger it was it’s passed now?” Ian squinted at Jamie.
“For now. English soldiers might be by in a few weeks lookin’ for me but Murtagh will be back and we’ll be gone again by then,” he told them, for Jenny had followed the men as Ian bent and picked the dropped equipment up again.
“Why will there be English soldiers lookin’ for ye this time?” she asked none-too-gently.
“I dinna want to talk about it,” Jamie responded with enough force––and obvious pain––to put the matter to rest for a while. “I just… I need to wait for Murtagh.”
He lead Dòchas into a stall passing between Jenny and Ian on his way. Ian shook his head at Jenny and she clenched her jaw but nodded; her brother appeared to be even more altered than what Ian had told her he’d witnessed in France after the death of their father and she would get to the bottom of it sooner or later.
I made a thing because @elidoo gave me the idea and others people might find it useful too :>
Relationship chart for Vaxus. I used gradient (thanks to @chaitea09 for that) presenting how feelings changed during the game. So for example Vax quickly became friends with Dorian and then he well in love. Meanwhile hardened Leliana always gave him a bad feeling.