“I have had carnal knowledge of your wife,” he blurted.
He had expected to die more or less instantaneously upon this utterance, but everything continued just as usual. Birds continued chirping in the trees, and the rip and slobber of the horses champing grass was the only sound above that of the rushing water. He opened one eye to find Jamie Fraser standing there regarding him, head to one side.
“Oh?” said Jamie curiously. “Why?”
(Diana Gabaldon, An Echo in the Bone, chapter 101)
The question echoed in John Grey's head as he rode ahead of Jamie Fraser. It was wearing off now, that uncomfortable awareness of the spot between his shoulder blades where the man had gestured with his pistol. They were several miles out of town, and quite a few hours distant from the stream where Jamie had asked him the question.
It pounded in his ears in time with the hoof beats of his horse. Oh, he had stammered out some answer, discomfited by Jamie's calm acceptance of whatever scattered explanation John had tried to give, but he could not escape the sensation that he had somehow left reality behind the moment he had joined Jamie on the road.
It wasn't only his guilt at his relations with Jamie's wife - the man's use of the Alex MacKenzie name had thrown him off balance too. As the question began to seem ever more part of his very blood, pumping through his veins, John began to feel that somehow it was asking him to understand his whole relationship with Jamie. Their introduction, their chess games in the Ardsmuir prison... William's birth... Brianna, and his proposal to her... Claire, and his marriage to her... and all the rest of it, the years of correspondence.
John shook his head. What he needed to do was apologise to Jamie, and to do so with more decorum than his earlier attempt to explain. He set his eyes on the horizon, and tried to ignore the pounding in his head.
"We'll stop for the night."
Jamie's words shook John from his reverie. He nodded curtly and slid from his horse.
"If ye'll tend to the horses, I'll gather some firewood," Jamie continued. John nodded again. He watched the Scotsman disappear into the brush, and felt all the words he would have liked to say catch in his dry throat. Water, he thought, shaking his head. The horses would need some too - it had been some time since their last stop. Mentally setting aside his personal affairs for more pressing practical matters, he found a stream, filled his own flask, and then lead the horses to drink, before tethering them to a tree.
By the time the horses were settled, Jamie had returned and was building a fire. In the fading light he made an imposing shadow against the shrubs and trees surround them. The sparks from his tinder reflected back from his fiery hair and beard, and John couldn't help but feel an appreciative shiver run down his spine.
Now is most certainly not the time, he reminded himself, sternly. He had just slept with the man's wife, for God's sake!
The fire crackled to life, and Jamie glanced up. "I've some jerked beef in my pack, and some whiskey too. Ye'll drink with me?"
Jamie snorted. "Fer Christ's sake, John, ye've looked like a startled rabbit since we set out. Sit down!"
John felt his heart start to pound harder in his chest, but sat down anyway. "I..."
In the firelight, he could see Jamie's face now. The man raised an eyebrow at him, half-smiling. "Listen, ye may have laid with Claire, and I cannae say I'm verra pleased with that. But I count ye as a friend, John, and I trust Claire more than I trust myself. So I'm certain that if the pair of ye... Ahem... 'had carnal knowledge' of one another..." - Jamie grinned at the phrase - "... Well, if ye did, it must have been for a verra good reason."
John looked into the flames, his face burning. Finally, he turned, and held Jamie's amused gaze. "Still, I must apologise," he said softly. "I did what I thought best, given the situation, but it was... Hasty. And not well done of me."
Jamie let out a long breath. "Well, that may be. Still, I appreciate the apology."
For a while, they stared at the fire. John's mind, now it had finally stopped screaming at him, wandered away to other things - other times that he and Jamie Fraser had weathered crises together.
His thoughts were interrupted when the man beside him spoke again.
"I'd like to show ye something, John." Jamie reached into his shirt and pulled out a flattened leather pouch. John, confused and intrigued, leaned closer. From the pouch, Jamie pulled what appeared to be small squares of some kind of paper, which shone strangely in the firelight.
"I know Brianna once told you about herself, and about Claire," Jamie said quietly. "But I'll warrant ye did not believe her." John opened his mouth, intending to politely protest, but Jamie went on: "When Claire came back to me... back from then... She brought me these." He held up the first of the paper squares, and in the flickering firelight, John could see an image on it unlike any he had ever seen before - clearer and crisper than the drawings of any artist he had ever met. The picture showed a child, wearing a kind of clothing he had never seen before, holding the hand of a woman - of...
"Claire," John said aloud. "That's Claire. How?... What?..." Somewhere in the back of his mind, the irritating thought arose that Jamie had once again rendered him incoherent.
"Claire." Jamie confirmed. "And that's my daughter. That's Brianna."
"But...!" John began. What on earth was this?
"This isn't a drawing, or a painting," Jamie went on. "Claire tells me they're called photographs. In the time that she is from - that they are from - they make many of them."
He showed John the next one, an older Brianna this time, laughing next to a snowman, and the next one, of Claire wearing some kind of unflattering long white coat. The pictures were astounding. He was about to ask, again, how - but this time, how had Claire come to be here, in this time, in the first place? - when Jamie spoke again.
"She was married there, too, ye know," he said, gazing into the flames. "Before she ever came back through the stones. And when she went back, he didna believe her. Never did. But she was with child, and he raised Brianna as if she were his own. So I cannae be too harsh on him, for he did what an honourable man should."
Before John could ask any of the questions milling around his brain, Jamie turned his head and looked him in the eye. "As ye did for Claire."
John breathed in, sharply. His eyes held Jamie's blue ones for a moment. Then he sighed. Now was no time for questions. 'Thank you. It is a relief, to know that you do not hold any anger towards me."
Jamie smiled. "Well, I did kidnap ye," he said jokingly. "So ye didn't get away with it too lightly."
John smiled back, and felt the smile turn inescapably into a yawn. Jamie snorted again. "Time to sleep, I think. We'll be leaving at dawn. Be ready, aye?"
John nodded. Jamie wrapped himself in his cloak, and made himself comfortable beside the fire. Soon, John heard the man's breathing change, and the occasional snore. Somehow, however, he couldn't bring himself to try and sleep. The images Jamie had shown him would not leave his head. Impossibly perfect pictures, far clearer than any painting or impression could ever be - how? John recalled the question Claire had asked him, back in those strange days when the man who connected them, the man beside him, was thought dead.
“... I know Brianna told you what - what we are. Do you believe it?”
“No, but I give you my word that I will of course behave in all respects as if I did.”
Now, faced with Jamie’s unshaken belief (not to mention the pictures he carried with him), John felt he had no choice but to believe the unbelievable.
The impossible has proven to be possible, he thought. Who knows what else life might bring?
Beside him, Jamie Fraser’s red hair glinted in the firelight, and if he was aware of the extent to which he had perturbed his companion, his soft breathing did not show it.