Young Ian Murray’s long neck was craned absurdly around the kitchen door, the rest of his body still fidgeting in the passage. I wasn’t quite finished with chopping potatoes for the evening’s soup, but his odd tone—both sheepish and urgent—made me stop at once. Sure enough, his eyes were wide, and he tilted his head meaningfully in the direction of the outer door. “Ye might want to find something to tend to upstairs, just at present…”
I wiped my hands on my apron, and scooted into the corridor, patting his arm gratefully as I passed, and neatly missing the arrival of the entrant from the kailyard.
It was a welcome interruption, really, for I missed Jamie terribly. True, it had only been several hours, but after twenty years apart, a few weeks was hardly enough to cure me of the intense need to see and touch him as much as possible. Particularly given how tumultuous the last of those weeks had been, what with the fiasco with Laoghaire; Jamie getting himself shot by the damned she-devil; me running away, coming back, keeping him from dying (All Praise Be to penicillin), and so forth. But Jamie would live, thank God, and I knew now—in a way that I had had no small reason to question—that he loved me, and that he wanted me for good. He wanted me, not her; and thank the bloody powers for that, as I wouldn’t have relished the notion of having to tell Bree that her much-touted father had gone completely insane.
The bullet wound in Jamie’s arm was still sore, but healing nicely, and I had left him resting snugly in our bed this morning to pursue the twin endeavors of trying to make myself useful and avoiding Jenny as much as possible. My consequent retreat upstairs to our chamber, however, revealed that he was not to be found in it, nor anywhere else in the house. He must have been feeling extraordinarily better, though; for, as Rabbie McNabb informed me when I stopped to inquire at the stables, Jamie had been seen—conspicuously sans sling, the stubborn brute—heading up the hill toward the broch. Sure enough, as I hauled myself up the self-same hill, inhaling that bracing Lallybroch-approaching-winter scent of dried apples, soil, and moldering leaves, I glimpsed what I thought was a flash of copper hair high on the tower roof.
I’d never been in the broch before, but apparently, I hadn’t missed much. Passing through the door (it did, I was pleased to note, face north), I found that the interior smelled strongly of goat, though the creatures weren’t currently at home.
“Jamie?” I called up the stone stairs. No answer. I climbed to the second floor—a storeroom for the farm’s dry goods—then up to a third, home of the Lallybroch whisky cache. It would have been the warmest level but for the open hatchway to the roof above, accessible by a rickety wooden ladder. Just as I began to climb this, my tongue primed for a scathing lecture on the importance of following the orders of one’s physician (if not one’s wife) regarding slings and bed rest, Jamie’s voice drifted down on a draft of chilled air.
“Sweet lass…my Brianna…ye’re a bonny one, are ye no’?”
Halting at once, I emitted a small, involuntary sound, something between oh and aww. I could just imagine him up there, cradling her photographs to his chest. From that indescribable tenderness in his voice, I supposed he must be addressing one from when she was very young indeed. It was the very way kindhearted people talk to small children: smiling and ready to be fully engaged in their world. Not wishing to interrupt, but drawn to his adoration like a moth to flame, I stood stock-still on my perch four feet off the ground, listening.
“God,” he was saying, “ye must have had to come back day after day and sit there all proper in yer good clothes for weeks to get so good a likeness, poor wee thing.”
I grinned widely. Despite my best efforts to explain the concept of the camera, Jamie still had not fully grasped the realities of a device that could capture the single moment in time instantaneously. He must have been looking at the one of Brianna at four in the white pinafore, the formal one staged by the professional photographer. While it hadn’t, in fact, taken weeks, she certainly had not enjoyed that afternoon’s experience, what with the bright lights and my swooping in between shots with an aerosol can to tame her curls in the humid studio.
Jamie gave a small chuckle. “I remember when I had to sit for my first portrait. Yer Grannie Ellen was a rare, fine painter, and she made my brother and me bide for hours at a time, all dressed up in our best plaids wi’ our hair combed. I wasna much older than you are here, and I didna like at all being told to stand still and stay quiet. Ye’ll ken how that is.”
I’d seen Ellen’s painting of her young sons many times over the years, not to mention the last few days. Despite the long years and the physical scars of war, the boys’ unsmiling faces nonetheless shone out with a kind of sweetness that always made me smile, as well as make me terribly curious about Ellen MacKenzie.
Jamie continued, both of us settling in for the tale. “Come the third day, I was fair perishing of boredom. I distracted myself alright for a while wi’ singing. Weel…humming between my teeth, more like, for Mam would snap at me to keep my face still, Jamie, or did I want my likeness to come out wi’ my gob hanging open like a hoptoad? I considered myself a clever sort, ken, so I contrived to manage the tune wi’ out moving my lips.”
The boards above creaked as he shifted his position. “Now, mind, lass, I’d a far greater ear then for a tune than I have now, but even then, I wasna o’er-pleasant to hear, truth be told. After a bit, yer uncle Willie snarled through his teeth that if I didna stop that damned noise he would take Sawney out o’ my sporran and throw him in the fire. He sounded so dead-set about it, I started wailing in terror. Then the big dog, Nairn (he was to be painted, too), startled at the skelloch and knocked against Mam’s table. Caused her to skidder the brush over the canvas and a bottle of paint to crash onto the floor, where it splattered all over!”
I was shaking with silent mirth, and had to clap my hand over my mouth to keep from betraying my presence on the ladder.
“Weel, Mam leapt up to her feet in dismay; the dog started barking; I howled even louder than he; and to make matters worse, yer Auntie Jenny ran in and started scolding me something fierce. All in all, it was a terrible kebbie-lebbie o’ crashing about from start to finish. Then Da strode in and bellowed at us all FOR BRIDE AND ALL THE SAINTS, CEASE AT ONCE, DAMN US ALL. We all went silent, for we didna often hear Da yell, let alone swear. Jenny had me in a headlock; William was trying to keep hold of Nairn while Mam was trying to clean the blue paint off of his paws; though all of us had wet prints over us already from where he’d jumped about. We all looked at one another, and then the rest of them burst out wi’ laughing. Though, what wi’ Sawney being threatened, Jenny still fair strangling me, and Da just done cursing, I myself didna find anything to laugh about at the time.”
I really was having enormous trouble containing my own giggles, particularly at the image of wee Jamie Fraser hopelessly trapped—sobbing, no less—in Jenny’s capable hold, which I could picture all too well. The ladder groaned with my convulsions. Thankfully, Jamie didn’t seem to hear.
“Mam saw that I was still upset, so she pried me loose of Jen, picked me up, and kissed me. Told me it was alright now, a bhalaich, I’d no’ have to sit for it tomorrow. She could paint the rest of my wee toad-face by memory. And we had honeyed bannocks for tea.” He laughed, a full, round sound. “…but quite a stramash for one wee painting, no?”
He sighed, and gave a little smiling hmmm. “Ye’re verra much like her, I think, a nighean. And no’ just to look at. Verra clever and kind, so your mother says, and quite good wi’ a brush, yourself.”
He was quiet for a long time, so long that I wondered if maybe he’d drifted off. Then came a broken, “It makes me…verra sad…that I couldna be your Da.”
Belatedly realizing how wrong it was for me to be lurking here, eavesdropping on Jamie’s private moments with his daughter, I turned to slip quietly down the ladder. Unfortunately, slipping was a bit too close to what the ladder and my foot had in mind. I missed the next rung entirely, and thudded hard—resoundingly! damn it all—onto the floorboards below.
“IFRINN,” I heard him mutter as he scrabbled frantically, obviously fearing to be caught with the photographs.
“It’s only me, Jamie!” I called hastily, feeling supremely foolish in more ways than one as I hoisted myself up and rubbed my tailbone. “Forgive me, I was just goi—”
“No, dinna leave. Come up.”
He took my hand as I reached the top rungs, and rather than helping me to my feet, pulled me clean off them. Despite my protests about straining his wounded arm, he carried me to the edge of the parapet, and made to set me down upon it. The stone ledge of the leaning tower was no more than a foot deep, and I clutched him instinctively with a very undignified, giggling squeal. “Jamie! Jamie, if I fall and break my neck—”
“Do ye really think I’d let ye fall, mo ghraidh?”
I looked up sharply. My new perch on the wall had brought us nearly eye to eye, and there was no trace of laughter to be found in the blue.
Without a word, I pulled him close between my knees and against my shoulder, sheltering him. It wasn’t a storm of tears; not like in Edinburgh above the print shop. Simply the quiet, honest overflow of a troubled heart.
“I’m sorry,” he said after a time, straightening and wiping his eyes. “I told myself there was no more to weep over, now I ken she’s alive and safe, but…” He shrugged and bent down to retrieve a worn, woolen blanket, as much to compose himself as to fend off the cold, I thought. He wrapped it around us both, tucking the ends into his belt to form a snug tube. With a pang, I realized it should have been his plaid that enveloped us as one body; but that piece of himself was forbidden now.
I rubbed the small of his back with both hands, looking up into his face. “Of course you still grieve for her, Jamie. Her being safe doesn’t erase the pain…or the wishing.”
He nodded, giving a sniff and a weak smile as he stood warm between my skirt-bound thighs. Keeping his good arm around my back, he clumsily drew the hastily-stuffed pictures back out of his jacket and handed them over for me to hold between us. At the top was the one of Brianna, grown, lovely, laughing at the apparent hilarity of her string of fish.
He chose his words carefully. “Before…when I was alone for so long, in the cave, or in Ardsmuir…I could imagine the bairn however I pleased. Wi’ lovely golden eyes, maybe…or forever as a babe…or as a lad,” he said, with a quick flash of a grin that assured me that he was perfectly happy with his daughter’s feminine status, so dinna fash, Sassenach.
“Most often, though,” he continued, quieter, “I’d allow myself not to imagine anything at all. Only to trust and pray that you were there alongside, seeing to it that our child was cared for, always. But now…” he said, almost in a whisper, “knowing her name…Lord, seeing her face…how happy she is…” He stroked her cheek with a finger, his brows furrowed, eyes glinting.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that they would torture him: windows into a world he could never touch. “I shouldn’t have brought them.”
“Christ, no, dinna even think it! They’re a treasure, a miracle! And truly, they bring me as much comfort as sorrow.” He kissed me once, tenderly, before looking back down at the photos. “It just…makes it harder, ken, to forget the fact that I’m no’…will never be part of her life…nor of her self…”
He flipped to the one of ten-year-old Bree hugging Smokey. “She’ll have my blood, this lass, but she’ll not know me. My life, my…stories, the…the way of me, d’ye see? She’ll not know my family. This place that should have been hers,” he said, with a nod encompassing the sweeping valley beneath us. “The tales and legends I grew up hearing. The old prayers…or just daft, silly things Da would tell me. The songs my mam sang. All of the things that are so much a part of me…they’ll have no bearing on who my child is. Brianna will ken only the things and ways of her own time. And of you. And of Frank…”
He had spoken this all in an almost-dreamy manner, low and reverent, as if in recitation of one of the very legends of which he spoke. At Frank’s name, though, he stiffened, as he always did, jaw tight. I was surprised, then, when it wasn’t Frank against whom he railed.
“God, just hearing the damned words leave my lips makes me want to die of shame. Forgive me for such vain, selfish tripe, Claire. I ken those foolish things dinna matter in the end. Stories and songs.” He made a dismissive gesture and closed his eyes tight, as if fighting a headache. “She’s safe. She’s happy. She’s had a wonderful life wi’ parents that loved her well. Words of thanks to God are all I must concern myself over, now.”
The implied peace and acceptance of his words were belied by the clenched ferocity with which they were spoken. I laid a hand on his uninjured arm. “I understand, Jamie, and it’s not foolish or selfish. Or if it is, I would feel precisely the same, were the tables turned.”
My reassurance, meant to soothe, seemed only to fan the flames within him. He nodded sharply and gritted his teeth. “What pains me most, perhaps, is the knowledge that I’m no more than her—her—sire. I rutted, spilled my seed, and then had no more to do wi’ her. No better than a—a stud horse or some mindless beast on the moor.”
“Jamie!” I spluttered, completely shocked.
He gave a wild kind of shrug, pitch and volume both rising sharply in his agitation. “Is that no’ the way of it, Claire? If I’m wrong, then tell—”
“You’re completely, bloody WRONG!”
That shut him up for a moment, and I seized upon it, shaking my head. “Jesus Christ, Jamie. What a thing to say! If you’re a stud horse, what does that make her? Or me for that matter?”
Giving one last huff, I dropped the scathing tone, trying to meet his now-lowered eyes. “Your daughter knows you as well as you now know her.”
He glanced up at that, and uttered a quiet, skeptical, “Aye?”
“What, you think I just threw your name over my shoulder at her and said ‘toodle-pip, darling, have a splendid life’?”
He waited. I rolled my eyes. “No, you bloody Scot…” I placed my palm on his chest. “Jamie…my love, hear me, now…I told her absolutely everything I could about you. From that first night when I fixed your shoulder, to the last night at Culloden. And once she believed me, she wanted to hear it all again. She wanted to hear about her father. She was the one who tracked you down in Edinburgh, she and a friend. I wish you could have seen how excited she was to find traces of you in history, and how proud.”
I shifted my perch, trying to bring him closer to my body, desperate to break through to him. “And while, granted, I don’t know all your childhood stories or your mother’s songs, I promise you, I told her all I could about your history. Her grandparents. Jenny and William. As much as I could remember. I wrote it down for her, too. It won’t ever be lost.”
He was taking all this in, working his jaw in thought, but not speaking or maintaining eye contact. His long hair fell around his cheeks as he stared at Bree, who herself was staring hauntingly back in the light of a campfire.
I tried again. “She came here, you know.”
“To Lallybroch?” He still stared fixedly, but I could hear a spark in his voice. “It still stands then…in her time?”
“Yes! She walked the grounds and saw the house. I bet she even saw the painting you were telling her about. That was before she knew about you, but think, Jamie: she has memories of this place. Of your place. And maybe, one day, she’ll see your mother’s portrait, too, and know those very pearls are hers. I…I left them for her. It felt right that she should have them.” A related and perhaps far more significant piece of information leapt to mind, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t mentioned it to him yet. “I named her Brianna Ellen…I wanted her to have something of them both.” Even this didn’t cause him to raise his head. I tucked the photographs into my pocket and took his hand. “Despite all of it: Culloden, the separation, Frank’s wishes…I left her as much yours as I could make her, James Fraser.”
I realized too late that mentioning Frank’s anything mightn’t have been the best choice, and I bit my lip, fearing an outburst. However, when Jamie looked up at last, it was with a smile of such quiet, glowing joy that I emitted a laugh overflowing directly from my own supply as I pulled him in for a kiss. He continued to beam down at me as he tucked a wayward curl behind my ear. “Ye truly are a wonderful mother, Sassenach. I only wish I could have seen ye at it.”
“And you’re a wonderful father.” He opened his mouth to protest, but I stopped him with a look. “You are. Was I any less Faith’s mother—her mam—because I didn’t have the chance to know her or have her know me?”
He quickly raised my hands to his lips and kissed them. “No…No, of course not, mo chridhe.”
My voice was a little huskier than before when I said, “But Brianna does know you, Jamie. She knows her true father. Not in the way that any of us dream of…but she’ll know you as long as she lives.”
He pulled me down off the ledge then, the blanket falling away, voice deep and warm as he cradled me against his chest. “I do love ye, mo nighean donn. And I bless the Lord for the gift of having ye back in my arms, for ye take my soul wi’ ye wherever ye go. Hers, too.” He emitted a small sound that expressed both contentment and longing. “I’d have ye close, always…so we can be together, in our way, the three of us.”
“We’re here,” I said; and having so recently been tested—and having very nearly failed—I knew for certain that it was the truth when I murmured, “I’m not going anywhere, Jamie.”
A long time later, we broke apart, shining in the light of one another, and descended to the whiskey-scented warmth below. Jamie replaced the hatch cover and carefully wrapped the photographs in their waterproof coverings, anxious to have them resume their hallowed place near his heart.
I adjusted my shawl, judging the mood sufficiently lightened to snort under my breath, “Stud, forsooth.”
He straightened, raising his eyebrows in a way that signified acknowledgement of a challenge. “Vain I may be, Sassenach, but I dinna tend toward idle comparison. “He took a step forward, the corners of his mouth twitching. “Shall I show ye, then, my wee dam?”
I raised my own brows in kind, along with the hem of my skirt. “Oh, you can show me…but I’ll be the judge, lad.”