Claire wrestled the dripping bed sheet – fresh from the hot, soapy water of the wash basin – into the wicker basket to hang dry in her small yard. Momentarily, she regretted declining Mrs. Graham’s offer to use the new machine at the manse, wearily purchased by the Reverend after a slew of hints from the persistent housekeeper.
Still, at-home handwashing was more convenient than dragging the entire load to the steamie in town. Especially today, with Jamie spending the day at his job-training (Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!) and unavailable to lug the wet things back home for her.
Claire had returned to work in the past few weeks, starting with just a few days to give Jamie a trial run of keeping the girls and house in check. While the stove’s modern controls still baffled him a bit, he could manage a few of Claire’s simple emergency recipes for lunch.
“Ye keep calling it ‘SOS,’ Sassenach,” Jamie had mused as he hesitantly flipped one more piece of toast in the pan. “What about it minds ye of saving ships?”
Claire pursed her lips in amusement, impressed that he had remembered that particular call signal from her stories about the war.
“Actually.” She smirked. “In this case, it stands for ‘shit on a shingle.’”
Jamie blanched as he stared down at the browning meat in the other pan. “Christ,” he muttered.
“The Americans taught me that expression, and later showed me the ‘speedy’ recipe.”
“Weel, I mind Mrs. Crook creaming beef a time or two, but I dinna recall hearing such crass language cross her lips.” He leaned down to kiss the offending feature and blinked at her slowly, expertly switching the burner off.
Claire startled, turning around to find Faith’s blue eyes searching for hers, bare feet shuffling across the kitchen floor. It had been weeks already with her daughter back in her arms, and yet she still wasn’t reacquainted with Faith’s light footsteps and silent approach. While Bree babbled to her pile of blocks on the quilt spread across the floor, Faith had kept herself studiously occupied at the kitchen table with one of her sister’s books, worn out after ‘helping’ – which had amounted to her splashing the bubbles around in the basin.
“Yes, Lovey?” She knelt down to her daughter’s level, pausing to admire the flush that had come back to the girl’s cheeks along with the gradual return of her figure, belly promising to become a delightful pooch.
“Could I… hold the bairn?” Faith’s eyes were wide and hopeful, anxious of a request not previously made.
Claire’s chest swelled, another abundant occurrence in the last month. She stroked downward from Faith’s shoulder, then offered her hand. “I think she’d really like that.”
Claire knelt to greet her 10-month-old with a sloppy kiss as she lifted her into the air. They walked through the house together, laundry postponed at present.
Claire directed Faith to sit up against the arm of the sofa, then lowered Bree into her waiting arms. Nerves wound tight, Claire scooted close to her eldest, ready to intervene should disaster or conflict occur.
Bree squirmed in Faith’s hold, hips twisting as if she would throw herself onto the floor.
Claire registered Faith’s heart-wrenching little intake of air as she watched with bated breath.
Brianna must have heard it too, as she pivoted her upper body once more to study Faith, who stared back with frozen features. Suddenly, Bree pitched back into Faith’s middle, damp fist seeking Faith’s closest curl.
Faith sighed in relief, meeting Claire’s eye before stroking her sister’s back tentatively.
Claire lost herself in the sight, her daughters closer than they’d ever been, something she’d only expected to see in her imagination.
“A nighean ruaidh,” Faith whispered, the words rolling off her tongue effortlessly, drawing Claire out of her own thoughts.
“What was that, Baby?”
“Just something I’ve heard Da say to her,” Faith shrugged. “Almost like he calls us.”
Claire’s lips twitched into a smile, overcome. “I suppose you’re right.”
“I dinna have enough Gaelic yet,” Faith continued, brow scrunched in contemplation. “But I think it means that he loves us.” She paused in thought, then lifted her chin to meet Claire’s eye. “Mama, will ye have more bairns verra soon?”
Claire felt her cheeks flush. From the mouths of babes, indeed. While she and Jamie hadn’t discussed the idea of more children, she knew it was a surer possibility in their hopeful future. Meanwhile, they’d plenty of practice of late. The temptation was hard to resist when every morning they woke tangled together from the previous night.
She shrugged as she stood to cross the room, keeping a careful eye on the pair. “I think we’ll have to see what God has in mind, my love,” she said gently.
Reaching the corner desk, Claire easily found what she had in mind. She brought the large format Rolleiflex to life, pointing it toward her girls. She captured one shot just as they were – studying each other curiously. “Smile,” she called before snapping the second photograph. Bree looked up at the sound of her voice, while Faith looked startled before baring her teeth in an awkward grimace in response to the command. While the camera had been present in many of their daily moments of late, both were still becoming accustomed to the expected behavior in front of the device.
As soon as she had clicked the shutter, their pose shifted at the scratch of a newly minted key in the front door.
Claire glanced down at her watch. Five o’clock on the dot meant that she still had a number of chores to complete, but at least one more willing helper to get them under way.
Faith leapt from the sofa as soon as Mama had lifted the baby from her lap, bounding to the door.
She’d been greeting her mother every day when she came back to the house from seeing her patients. Faith wasn’t allowed to go with Mama when she made calls to the sick tenants anymore. She still didn’t quite understand her parents’ explanation that these patients could be sicker and more gravely injured than Faith was used to seeing. What could have happened to them that was more dangerous than at Lallybroch?
Either way, she was always excited and a bit relieved when Mama got home in the afternoon. After all their time apart, it was hard when she left even for the day. Mama didn’t usually notice, but Faith always woke to the sound of the creaking door when her mother tiptoed in and kissed her cheek in farewell. She didn’t want to miss those moments together.
But this was the first day that Da had gone anywhere by himself in a while, so Faith thought he must have been nervous. She knew how hard it could be to meet new people and learn new things, especially in this strange place where they had found Mama. So she wanted to be sure to welcome him back just in case he hadn’t had a good day.
Faith jumped high as Da closed the door behind him. He noticed just in time to kneel and catch her in the air, like she knew he would. He laughed, his voice deep with joy.
“Good even’ to ye, a leannan.” Da drew her close to him, a big hand grasping her back. “Have ye been helpin’ yer mam today?” They crossed the room in only a few large steps.
Faith was glad that he seemed happy, so his day must have been better than she thought.
“Aye, we did the laundry. ‘Twas verra heavy, Da.” Faith sighed, remembering the mess she’d made as she pulled her new dresses out of the wash basin. But Mama’s thankful smile and compliments had made it worthwhile.
Mama chuckled as Da gestured for her to pass Brianna to him, as well. “And to think there’s still more of it left!” she teased.
Bree grabbed for the collar of Da’s new shirt as she settled in his arms and made wee noises to him. He nodded back to her as if she was using real words, something Faith remembered him doing with Michael and Janet, not long ago.
Da sat on the couch, making room in his lap for both Faith and Bree.
Faith remembered something from earlier. “Mama, Da, I knew all the letters in the book I read today!”
They spoke at the same time, then chuckled together. “Show us!”
As Faith ran down the hall to retrieve her book, she turned just in time to see Da place Brianna in her swing and stand up to face Mama, whispering to her. Mama chuckled deeply as they reached for each other.
She couldn’t help but notice Mama’s silly little smile as their faces came together, nor Da’s hand finding its favorite place on Mama’s bum.
Jamie exited the lavatory wearing his new pyjama bottoms, steam from the hot bath following him into the bedroom. He paused to watch Claire as she sat at her dressing table, wrapped in her dressing gown and combing through her still-damp locks. The scene was so reminiscent of their everyday life in his time – at Leoch, followed by Lallybroch and everywhere else his duty had taken them.
She startled as they made eye contact in the mirror before her face slipped into a wide smile.
His breath caught. He’d surely just witnessed her remember their reunion for the hundredth time, each ever sweeter than before.
Jamie crossed the room in only a few steps, reaching for the comb to take over her task.
Claire’s head lolled back and her eyes slipped shut as his hands worked into her curls, squeezing out a few more water droplets. “So, how was the first…” she paused her inquiry to make a breathy wee noise that nearly drove him to distraction. “… day?”
“I must say it was a bit overwhelming at first, Sassenach,” he muttered. “I’m grateful once again that ye drove me in, though I almost couldna find my way inside the hospital itself.”
She hummed. “You’ll figure out the way of it by the end of the week, at least. But the job itself?”
Jamie smiled. “The director and the other lads I met were all verra kind, and if I did anything out o’ the ordinary they didna point it out.” He hummed to himself. “Felt a bit braw to recognize all the wee defense tactics they showed me, even if they were a bit tamer than one might actually find in the face of battle.”
Claire nodded, but quickly stopped when the motion pulled the comb too tight against the last knot in her hair. “Well, I am proud of you.” Their eyes met in the mirror again, connected.
He kissed the top of her head and offered his hand to let her know he was done. She stood up to face him, but then arched a brow as she took him in. She guided him down to the stool by his shoulders and took up the comb again, pulling it gently through his towel-dried waves.
Jamie was glad that his hair didn’t take as long, since his wife’s gentle motions pulled him into a pleasant drowsiness. And that was hardly what he had in mind for their night.
As soon as he heard the slap of the comb hitting the table in front of him, he turned to face Claire. As he prepared to stand, he put his hands behind her thighs to lift her.
“Wait, I wanted to show you something!” Claire shimmied out his grasp and reached for the table behind him before taking a seat next to him, hip snug against his.
She presented an envelope to him, identical to the one she’d brought home just the week before.
“More photographs?” he asked, settling his arm over her shoulders.
“I stopped to pick up the new packet on the way home today,” she told him, cheeks flushed with excitement.
She unwound the seal gently and slid the portraits into his open palm.
It still gave him a bit of a shock to see his likeness printed so neatly on the surface of the first sheet. He grinned to see the tenderness on his face as he gazed down at Bree while building a lazy tower out of her blocks. Faith could be seen climbing onto his back to look over his shoulder in the black and white shot.
Jamie flipped through, starting to notice a pattern. Nearly every picture was a combination of himself, the lasses, or all of them together. There was naught of Claire to be found. Come to think of it, the only likeness of her he recalled seeing was hanging on the wall in Bree’s nursery – the blurry shot taken moments after the bairn’s delivery.
“You’ll have to teach me to use this wee thing,” he said determinedly. “I’d like to see your bonnie face in one of these photographs.”
She blushed prettily. “It’s a deal.” She kissed his chin sweetly. “Come to think of it, I’ve hoped to get us into town for a portrait sitting one of these days when we’re both off. We’ve no pictures of us together, either.”
“If you’ll lead the way, my lady.” He stood and stretched, then bent once more to gather her into his arms.
Claire smirked. “You don’t always have to carry me, you know.” Nevertheless, she tightened her arms behind his neck as her legs twisted around him like vines.
“Perhaps no’,” he leaned in to kiss her once, leaving a smacking noise as he did so. “But you’ll find that I will as often as you’ll let me.” He hesitated as he lowered her to the end of their mattress, then knelt in front of her. He placed a hand over her belly gingerly. “Until it’s mebbe a wee bit too difficult?”
She startled, eyes leaping to his, then harrumphed. “Watch it, lad.”
Jamie grinned at her cheekily but didn’t let her stray from his implication.
Claire’s hand gripped the back of his neck, then slipped under the collar of his shirt. “Your daughter asked a strikingly similar question earlier today.”
“Mmphm,” he uttered. “And did ye have an answer for her?”
“There was only so much I could think of to say.” Her blunt fingernails scratched his shoulder.
Jamie swallowed deeply as he looked into her eyes, searching her glass face as he crossed his arms over her knees.
“Maybe after the divorce process is complete,” she whispered.
He took her hand and nodded, remembering the thick envelope on their kitchen table, still unopened amid their adjusting routine. “Aye, of course.” He kissed her smooth palm.
“Besides,” she chuckled. “Bree isn’t even a year old yet.”
“That may be so, Sassenach.” Jamie rose to his feet before her. “But we’ll have to put in some extra effort for that even dozen.”
Claire’s mouth fell open, several moments lapsing before her body shook with laughter. “You’re ridiculous.”
He struggled to speak through his own snickers, his voice not quite sounding like his own. “But in the meantime?” His eyebrows rose.
“Please.” She laid back as he crawled over her, easing the robe over her shoulders.
[Several weeks later]
Claire felt like cackling in delight as she took in the details of the postcard in her hands. Their family portrait had arrived in the post just that afternoon, but she had delayed opening it until the girls were asleep. She hadn’t been sure of the results of their outing, and wanted to keep it to herself until she was. She would show them when they were older, of course, preferably once they’d gotten the hang of a portrait sitting.
So the Frasers had gone through their evening ritual together, a joint bath for the girls – quicker when it wasn’t made to be more chaotic – then she’d combed the tangles from Faith’s curls while the nebuliser ran, and cuddled her to sleep as had become customary.
Jamie had just slipped out of the sitting room with a freshly burped and rocked Bree, and would be back any second. She still wasn’t sure when she’d show him the family memorabilia, as his reaction seemed to have tipped the scale for the most priceless.
It had been a drizzling afternoon as the Frasers had filed from Claire’s auto and into a corner shop in Inverness. Campbell Portraits boasted a proud lineage, their circulars advertising their establishment in the 1880s. The family-owned business had serviced the highlands amid the changing technology of photography, evidenced by the display in the waiting room.
Claire had gone to great lengths to make everyone look presentable after lunch that day – teasing curls, straightening collars and pressing skirts until she finally resolved to leave well enough alone and herd everyone into town.
As she had signed them in for their appointment time, she had felt a tug on her skirt. She had smiled at the receptionist, taken Faith’s hand, and walked them back to sit with Jamie, whose free hand had tapped a rhythm against his thigh. He had bounced a fussy Bree, who had been teething once again, in his opposite arm.
“Yes, lovey?” Claire had asked as Faith patted her hand.
“Ye said you would go with me again, aye?” Faith had asked.
Claire had pasted on a smile and answered patiently, for the third time. “Yes, darling, we’ll all be together.”
Her eldest daughter seemed to have conflated the foreign concept of the studio with her recent experiences at the hospital, unsure of her role in this new environment.
Almost as soon as they had settled down, their name had been called. Claire had led the way into the little room, Faith’s hand tight in hers. She had noticed both Jamie and Faith eyeing the surroundings of the dark room suspiciously.
Claire had wondered at what they might be able to compare the tight quarters and dim lighting to from their own experiences. The priest hole at Lallybroch? Damn it.
An almost too-cheery man had greeted them at the door.
“Welcome, Frasers,” he had declared. “My last appointment of the day.”
The short man – Archie, as he had introduced himself – had quickly displayed his frustration as he tried to arrange the Frasers in a posed position. Jamie had begun to show his full range of stubbornness at Campbell’s brisk directions, while Faith had become drawn into herself.
At last, they had settled into an arrangement with Jamie and Claire side by side, angled diagonally. Faith had been seated on a platform just in front of them, while Bree had been propped up on Jamie’s lap.
The frustrations of the afternoon were clear in the final product. Claire’s curls were frizzed from the rain, while Jamie had adapted a complacent glare from trying to sit still for so long. Faith looked plainly startled from the bright flashbulb, her teeth bared unnaturally. And poor Bree’s fingers were in her mouth, Claire’s earlier pain-relieving methods worn off.
Chuckling over the image once more, Claire rose to tuck it away in an album at the back of her bedroom closet for now.
Christ, but it had been a long first official shift, Jamie thought as he re-entered the sitting room. He hadn’t expected for a large part of his job to involve fielding questions from incoming patients and visitors as they entered the hospital. He’d found himself running back and forth to get answers to those questions just as often as he’d stood at his post.
His supervisor, a man named Duncan, had assured him once again that this was one more aspect he’d grow accustomed to, soon memorizing the answers just as well as his other duties.
Come to think of it, Duncan had mentioned that he still needed to add a few of Jamie’s records to his employee file. He dragged himself up again and to Claire’s desk, where he had last seen the documents before they were sorted away. He scratched his head as he wondered which drawer Claire might have slipped them into.
Jamie hadn’t heard her moving through the house while he’d put Brianna abed, but perhaps she would be back soon to help him locate the documents that the Reverend had procured for him.
Taking a cursory glance over the desk’s surface, he noticed that their collection of printed photographs had grown. There was a third envelope, that appeared not to have been opened.
He looked back toward the doorway of the sitting room. He assumed Claire was planning to show him this set when she returned, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a wee keek at them. He’d practiced taking a few shots of her in the last week or so, and was anxious to see how they’d turned out.
Jamie slid the stack out carefully, but then nearly dropped the entire set at the first image he encountered.
Taken on a bright day, the portrait proudly displayed Leoch. Or, at least he could still recognize a few features of the castle. Stones were missing from its great walls, while several windows were broken and overbearing vegetation grew up its sides.
But most startling was the man stood in front of Jamie’s ancestral home. Randall – not Black Jack, as he’d originally feared – but Frank, dressed in a proper three-piece suit and matching hat.
Jamie swallowed deeply, stunned at the juxtaposition of this part of Claire’s history and his – theirs -- unexpectedly converging.
With shaking hands, he flipped through the next photographs. The castle by itself, an auto in front of the castle, then like a shock to his system, Claire in front of the auto, Leoch in the background.
He ghosted his finger over the likeness of Claire’s apple cheeks in the photograph, careful to heed her previous warning about smudging the surface.
Examining the image, Jamie recalled the other-worldly, shivering lass that had tended him on a cold and damp night, then compared her to the fearsome woman he’d since shared two lives with.
She’d been more slender then, her present curves having filled in as she carried each of their wee miracles. But there was something he couldn’t quite put into words, as if the last vestiges of her innocence still existed in this single captured moment. All that they’d faced together had honed her into the unstoppable force that continued to surprise and challenge him every day.
“I found one more undeveloped roll, tucked away in a drawer.” Claire’s voice carried softly.
Jamie looked up to find her studying him from the doorway, a wistful smile on her face.
His cheeks burned. “I didna mean to– “
She shook her head, then offered her hand, head tilted toward the sofa. “Let’s look together?”
Jamie took a seat cautiously, perspiration slickening his palms.
Claire followed close behind him, footsteps soft on the carpet. She lifted the stack from his hands, then arranged herself in his lap, her back braced against his sturdy arm.
“What do you think?”
He drummed his fingers against her hip. “’Twas a shock, to see him there.” He paused. “But ye… Lookin’ so happy.”
She sighed. “Getting there, perhaps. I didn’t want to acknowledge it at the time, but things weren’t quite the same.” Her fingertips caressed his neck. “We both knew it.”
Jamie breathed out. “Suppose things did no’ turn out quite like ye expected?”
“No.” Claire twisted to face him, forehead pressing against his. “Better.”
They flipped through the small batch of photos from the unfinished roll, Claire giving him space for any questions or clarifications.
While shots of the clan markers and open spaces of Culloden Field robbed him of breath, what truly puzzled him was a portrait of a village square in Inverness.
“I don’t think you and I have been back that way,” Claire insisted when he asked. “That’s in front of the inn where we – Frank and I – stayed during our trip.”
But something about the location struck Jamie as familiar, sending a shiver through his very bones. “Suppose it doesna help to dwell on it. We’ll be busy making new memories, you and –"
Claire’s lips swallowed the end of his question as she twisted in his lap to straddle him, her calf-length skirt gathering between them. She guided him in a subtle rocking motion, her eyes never leaving his. One hand gripped his jaw, thumb sweeping over his bottom lip. The other lost itself in his hair.
Jamie’s hands slid from her knees to her arse and held on. “Dhia,” he panted into the gooseflesh of her neck. He quickly forgot about Frank and any other bloody Randall.
Perhaps not exact, but this is pretty close to my mother’s SOS recipe, credited to my grandfather’s time in the U.S. Army in the 1950s.