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Prodigal Son

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"How are you feeling, sister?" William asked. He was in the sitting room with Brianna on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Brianna was stretched out on the settee enjoying a quick break from having a child in her arms. William held a two week old Julia to his chest as she slept peacefully.

"Just exhausted. I feel like I'll never not be tired." As if adding emphasis to this statement, she yawned widely but smiled at her brother as he rubbed his niece's back and periodically planted kisses on her head.

"Why don’t you shut your eyes for a few minutes? I've got little Julia," he offered.

"That actually sounds wonderful," she said, already closing her eyes.

Just then, Tadgh, Aileen's two year old son, came running into the room like the winds of a hurricane. William's heart skipped a beat as he heard Aileen running behind. Expertly, he stood up with Julia in one arm and reached his other arm out to scoop up the little rascal, whose legs remained in motion for several seconds before he realized he had been thwarted.

Brianna sprang from the settee and grabbed Julia from William’s arms, giving him the ability to maneuver the boy into both arms. Tadgh giggled maniacally when he realized who had caught him. It had only been a few days since William came home, but the small boy with chestnut hair similar to his own obviously felt he had found an ally in William, who was one of the only adults in the house not constantly taking care of the babies. “Willie!” Tadgh cried out as William tickled his belly.

Just then Aileen came swiftly into the room, her skirts swooshing. When she saw William holding her son, she hastened over to him and curtly took the boy from his arms. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Ransom. He’s been such a wee heathen lately. I dinna ken what’s gotten intae him,” she said in her lilting Scots, a melody that had become synonymous with comfort and love in his mind. She gave him a slight curtsy and looked down at her feet.

William’s heart was in his stomach. How could she not see that he didn’t mind it at all? He enjoyed the little devil’s impish nature and endless shenanigans. Just the day before, he had hidden a frog in Mrs. Figg’s apron pocket, causing her to scream and drop the dishes she’d been carrying when the warty creature had jumped out onto them. He’d received a thorough thrashing for it and a stern lecture from Jamie, but William had a hard time stifling his laughter during the whole ordeal. Truth be told, he’d seen Jamie’s mouth twitch at the corner when Tadgh had exclaimed, “It was naught but a wee beastie, Mr. Jamie!”

He looked up and smiled at Aileen. “It’s truly no trouble at all, Mistress MacIntrye.”

She made a noise in her throat that William thought might be indicative of disbelief and gave him a courteous smile. “I’ll no’ be havin’ him runnin’ around the house disturbin’ everyone. He’s got tae learn tae play quietly.”

William cleared his throat. He didn’t want to seem like he thought he knew more about children than Aileen. It wasn’t even possible, but he did know a bit more than she about what it's like to be a small boy asked to sit still and mind his manners in a house full of adults when all he wanted to do was run around and play. Finally, he said, “If I may, Miss MacIntyre, I think perhaps the boy needs some fresh air and sunshine. If it would be alright with you, I’d be happy to take him to my brother’s house to play with his children sometime. They are a bit older, but I’m sure they wouldn’t mind Tadgh tagging along now and again.”

She looked up at him with her large, dreamy eyes. William would swear he saw just a hint of gratitude in them just before she plastered a stiff smile on her face. “That’s verra nice of ye tae offer, Mr. Ransom, but I wouldna dream of puttin’ ye o’ like that.”

He opened his mouth to protest, but she quickly spun around and marched out of the room, dragging Tadgh behind her. As he had so many times over the last several days, William was left with his mouth agape and his hand in the air, reaching out for something that had already disappeared.

He sat back in his chair and turned to Bree, who was laying on the settee again, Julia asleep on her chest, giving him a bemused smile. “Why do you look at me like that, sister?” he asked.

“What was that all about?” she asked, trying to stifle a giggle.

William straightened his shirt and sat up stiffly. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Brianna rolled her eyes at him. “Do not get all formal on me, William. You don’t fool me one bit,” she whispered vehemently. "You like Aileen.”

“Well of course, I like her, Brianna. She’s a kind woman.”

“You know what I me--”

“I ken what ye mean just fine, Brianna. Ye dinna need tae speak it.” Jamie stood in the doorway, seeming to loom over them.

Brianna gave him a strange look. “So he fancies her, Da; what’s the problem?”

Jamie folded his arms in front of him. “The problem is that she’s in our employ, Brianna, and your brother canna take advantage of her when she’s in such a position. It wouldna be proper, especially wi’ her living under our roof.”

“She won’t be in our employ forever, Da!” Brianna protested.

“Aye,” Jamie nodded, “And when she isna, yer brother can chase after her all he likes, assuming he hasna made his way through ten other women by then.”

William’s turned a deep scarlet red, and he sprang to his feet. He had been enduring Jamie’s nonstop castigations for days, and he’d had enough.”Stop acting like you know what my intentions are. And, I find it particularly insulting that you feel the need to attack my character in the process of protecting Mistress MacIntyre’s honor. That is not how a father treats a son.” He brushed past Jamie and slammed out of the house without another word.

Tears stung behind his eyes as he headed to the stables to clear his head. He walked into the dim, cool building and grabbed a brush. When he turned around, he was surprised to see Papa sitting on a bale of hay. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I’m afraid you’ve found my hiding spot, William,” John admitted abashedly. “Don’t get me wrong; it’s an absolute pleasure to have the Frasers here, but the occupants in the house have doubled in size over the last two weeks, and I find that I need somewhere to escape to; a man needs to hear himself think once in a while.”

William smiled at him and started brushing one of the horses. “I was just out here to do the same thing.”

John looked at him curiously and stood, grabbing another brush to help him. “That doesn’t sound like you, William. From what I can see, you’ve never been more in your element in your entire life. I do fear I did you a great disservice by never being able to give you a sibling to grow up with. The chaos does you good; puts color in your cheeks.”

William made a voice low in his throat that surprised him, and continued brushing the horse quietly. John watched him thoughtfully for a moment and then said, “There’s something that’s bothering you, isn’t there?”

William ignored him and looked away, his eyes starting to burn again as he recalled Jamie’s words. John cleared his throat. “I understand that you may feel you have more in common with your real father, but I do want you to know that you can still come to me when you need to talk.”

William closed his eyes, pained at his inability to be a good son to either of his fathers. Jamie Fraser thought him a man of low moral character and in the meantime, he’d been ignoring the man who’d been a father to him his entire life. Putting down the brush, he walked over to the bale of hay and sat down with his head in his hands. Seconds later, John was sitting next to him with an arm around his shoulder. “What is it, William? What have I said?”

“I’m sorry, Papa,” William mumbled into his hands. He sniffled and looked up, quickly wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. “I didn’t mean to make you feel like you weren’t important to me anymore. Believe me when I tell you this has nothing to do with you.”

“Then do you want to tell me what it is about?” John asked soothingly.

William relaxed and leaned into his Papa in a way he hadn’t done in years. John ran a soothing hand over his hair and listened as William told him about the flood of emotions he’d experienced over the last few weeks: his rejection of the peerage, the overwhelming joy of welcoming his niece and nephew and sister into the world, and the absolutely hopeless way he had fallen in love with Aileen. “But the worst of it all,” William admitted, “Is that Jamie is acting like he doesn’t trust me to behave with honor around her. It’s insulting.”

“And hurtful, I imagine,” John offered. William looked away but nodded.

John stood and paced in the small space. William could tell that he was considering what to say next, so he waited patiently. Finally, John stopped in front of him and said, “Jamie Fraser is a man of honor.”

“I know, Papa, but - “

John raised a hand. “Don’t interrupt, please. He is a man of honor to a fault.” William looked at him quizzically.

“What I mean to say is that Jamie leans on his honor so much that it sometimes gets in the way of him seeing anything else." He stopped pacing and sat down with Wiliam again. “One time, when Jamie was imprisoned at Ardsmuir, we got into a disagreement. He was….well, he was very angry at me because he felt like I had dishonored him.”

“What did you do, Papa?” William asked incredulously.

“It’s not important, William,” he said, dismissing the question with his hand. “What’s important is that Jamie felt I had dishonored him. And I suppose that for a man in prison, his honor is probably the only thing he feels he has left. He could not let it go; he stopped taking dinners with me and refused to speak to me except when it concerned the needs of the other prisoners. Finally, it all came to a head. Another man broke a rule, and Jamie took the blame for it, forcing me to flog him.”

WIlliam gasped, knowing the story of Jamie’s flogging at Fort William. “I know,” John said, his eyes downcast. “I shall carry the guilt and shame of that flogging with me my whole life. But that isn’t the point. The point is that Jamie was so focused on the fact that his honor had been hurt that he subjected himself to a beating for it. When honor is involved, the man will cut off his nose to spite his face every single time.”

“I’m not sure what that has to do with what he thinks about my own character, Papa.”

John put his arm around William's shoulder. “Jamie isn’t even thinking at all about your character, William. Until you said something to him, I doubt he even took into consideration that he was being hurtful. All he can see right now is that he needs to protect Mistress MacIntyre. Jesus Christ himself could walk into that house and Jamie would stand between him and Mistress MacIntrye, daring the man to take a step closer to her.”

William couldn’t help but laugh at that, and as his good humor returned, he realized that Papa was right. It didn’t excuse the way Jamie was behaving toward him, but he understood it.

“As for Mistress MacIntyre,” John said, standing and grabbing his waist coat from where it hung on a nearby hook, “Your grandmother...my mother, that is, would be rolling in her grave at the thought of my son marrying a wet nurse. And don’t even get me started on your Uncle Hal." William started to speak but John cut him off. “I, on the other hand, understand that there is no way to stop your heart from loving someone, and I would never get in the way of true love. Though I suspect what you feel for Mistress MacIntyre is a bit more akin to lust right now, I don’t doubt that it could grow into something more. But Jamie is right, and you must respect her position in the household right now.” He sighed and pinched his forehead between his thumb and middle finger. “Besides, I don’t think the Frasers could last a day without her, and I don’t want anything to happen that could possibly make the screaming in there get any worse.”

William laughed, understanding that John’s depth of love for the Frasers was the only thing keeping his sanity intact. “Perhaps we can get some cotton for you to stick in your ears, Papa.”

“I’ve already tried that, William. I think I would need an entire garment to drown out that noise.” As if on cue, the sound of a wailing baby floated down from an open window. They both laughed and headed into the house.

***

"Christ, Sassenach," Jamie said as he paced around their bedroom with baby Alexandra propped up on his shoulder, "I've got two new wee grandchildren and a bairn of my own, and now I've got tae watch the twenty year old like a hawk so he keeps his hands out of the cookie jar?"

“I think you’re being a little bit melodramatic,” Claire replied. “Don’t you trust William?”

Jamie paused and glared at her. “Of course I -,” he paused, realization dawning on his face. “Dammit. That’s what the lad meant. Christ.”

Claire gave him a smug look and took Alexandra from his arms. “Exactly, you stubborn fool. For goodness sake, Jamie, we’re not talking about some urchin off the street. He’s your son. Do you really think he would behave anything but honorably?” She shook her head at her foolish husband. “Fifty- seven years old and not a day wiser than when I met you.”

“Dinna give up on me yet, Sassenach,” he said, pulling her in with the baby resting on Claire’s chest between them. “There’s still hope ye’ll get through my thick heid one of these days.” He planted a kiss on Claire’s forehead and then leaned down to do the same to his daughter. “Hopefully by the time this one is old enough to be courted by lads, I’ll have grown a little more sense.”

“By the time Alexandra is that age, you’ll be lucky if you have any teeth left, let alone your faculties,” Claire teased.

A worried look flashed across his face, but he quickly shook it away. “My hair will probably be completely gray by then, too,” he reminded her.

“I’ll still love you then, you know,” Claire said. She chuckled to herself and said, “There’s a song from my time...it was always too painful for me to listen to then. But now that I have you back, it’s been playing in my head quite a bit.”

“Really, Sassenach? How does it go? Will ye sing it to me?” He had his hands on her waist and she leaned into his chest, letting him support her and Alexandra as they swayed together, as if dancing to the song already.

“No, I won’t,” she laughed.

“Please, Sassenach? When ye sing all proper like ye’re in church, it makes me want tae do all sorts of unthinkable things to ye.”

“Jamie!” Claire hissed, jokingly covering Alexandra’s ears with her hands.

“I’ll keep it up if ye dinna sing for me, Sassenach.”

“Alright, fine,” she said, “But just one verse.” She cleared her throat and began:

I could be handy, mending a fuse

When your lights have gone.

You can knit a sweater by the fireside,

Sunday mornings go for a ride.

Doing the garden, digging the weeds

Who could ask for more?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

When I'm sixty-four?

Jamie looked at her with rapt attention as she sang the song. When she was finished he kissed her and said, “I canna wait until I can give ye a wee garden again, Claire. But what in the devil is a fuse?”

***

Jamie woke up later that night and couldn’t get back to sleep. He slipped out of bed and peeked at Alexandra in the cradle, placing his hand on her tiny back. Satisfied, he crept down the stairs and into the kitchen. He lit a candle and was surprised to see William sitting at the small work table, drinking a cup of tea. “Sorry, son. I didna see ye there.”

“It’s quite alright,” Willie answered. “You can join me if you wish. I made too much tea, anyway.”

Jamie nodded and poured himself a mug, taking a seat across from Willie. They sipped quietly for a while, nearly mirror images of each other. Finally Jamie spoke. “I couldna sleep, ye ken, because I’m ashamed of how I spoke tae ye today. I wasna judging yer character, son."

"I know," William replied. "I hope you know that my intentions for Miss Macintyre are entirely honorable. She's…..she's just incredible. I can't explain it."

Jamie put his mug down and considered his next words carefully. "Does she ken yer intentions?"

William shook his head and looked down. "I haven't spoken with her except pleasantries."

"Weel, if ye want tae court her, ye'll have tae make yer intentions known," Jamie advised. "But ye canna bed her, Willie. I mean it."

"Why do you keep telling me that? I already told you that isn't my intention."

Jamie could see William’s ire rising again, and he reached out a hand, placing it on top of his son's. "I ken ye have good intentions, son. But I also ken what it's like tae be a young man lusting after a woman. That's all I meant."

William relaxed his posture and nodded.

"Alright," Jamie said, standing up, "I'm going tae try tae get some more sleep before the bairns start their screaming. Good night."

"Good night, father," William replied and Jamie's heart swelled at the acknowledgement from his son.

***

Wiliam still wasn't tired; he stayed in the kitchen, sipping tea by candle light, wondering why life was so complicated. He jumped when he heard a noise behind him. "Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" Aileen exclaimed when she saw him there. "Ye scairt me half tae death."

William stood and bowed slightly. "Very sorry, Mistress MacIntyre. I couldn't sleep so I've just been sitting here drinking tea. I can go," he offered.

"Och, dinna fash," Aileen replied. "I couldna sleep either. I woke expecting tae have tae feed a bairn but they're all still sleepin' like angels. I figured I might as well have myself a cup of tea, since they're bound to be up soon enough."

"Have a seat, Mistress MacIntyre," William said, gesturing to the empty chair. "I'll heat the tea." He lit the stove and put the kettle on.

"Thank ye, Mr. Ransom," she said crisply. Despite her curt manner, she gave him a warm smile, her plump lips curled up in the corners sweetly.

Willie leaned against the wall as the water heated. "Please, call me William," he asked of her. "I've never gone by Mr. Ransom. It doesn't feel right."

She looked at him curiously, pulling her shaw tightly over her shoulders. Her copper hair cascaded down her back, unfettered by its usual pins. "I dinna ken what ye mean. Why do ye no' go by Ransom? And why is yer last name no' Malcolm?"

"That is best explained when the tea is made," he laughed.

They waited in silence until the water was boiling. William poured the tea and sat down across from Aileen. "First, you must know that my family's name is Fraser, not Malcolm. They are only going by that name because my father was a Colonel in the Continental Army. It isn't safe for him to go by his true name while the British are occupying Philadelphia."

"Fraser," Aileen said thoughtfully. "I kent many Frasers back home."

"The second thing you should know is that...well, I'm a bastard." William took a deep breath and went on. "My mother was married to Ludovic Ransom, eighth Earl of Ellesmere at the time of my birth, but Jamie...Mr. Fraser...was my true father. Both my parents died on the night of my birth, and I was raised first by my grandparents and Aunt Isobel.

"Lord John, who I call Papa, married my Aunt when I was six, and they both raised me as their own son. Mother Isobel died when I was ten and after that it was just Papa and me.

"I grew up as the ninth Earl of Ellesmere, and knew nothing of my true parentage until about six months ago. That's when I met Mother Claire and Brianna. Eventually we found Jamie and were all reunited.

"I've resigned from the Army and no longer wish to use my titles. I am a Fraser now in all but name." He put his mug down and looked at Aileen sheepishly.

"Well," Aileen said. "I can see why ye dinna like tae be called Mr. Ransom."

"I hope you don't think any less of me, Mistress MacIntyre," William said quietly.

"Och, if I'm tae call ye William, ye can call me Aileen. And why would I think less of ye? Ye canna help who yer parents are, and ye all are a verra nice family."

"Thank you, Aileen."

They sipped their tea in quiet. Finally, in a shaky voice, William said, "Would you like to go on a walk with me after dinner one night? If you can get a break from the babies?"

Even in the dim candlelight, William could see Aileen's white skin blush pink. "I suppose we could do that." She lifted her mug and took one last sip, looking over the top of the mug with her mesmerizing eyes. "I best get upstairs now, Mr. - ...William."

She stood and started to walk out of the room. Her hand grazed against his arm on her way past him, sending a shudder through his body. "Good night, Aileen," he whispered into the dark.