“These are terrible genes you’ve given our children,” Claire says, directing the words somewhere to the general vicinity of her lap.
“I dinna ken wha’ a jeen is,” comes the mumbled reply.
Once, whilst on a dig in Marrakesh, Claire fell ill with food poisoning. Uncle Lamb had insisted that it must have been the dates, said with the significant inflection and deep-seated sigh reserved only for the terribly apparent or woefully true.
Claire had been the only one of their party to have tried the dates, and the dates had been declared looking a little off, don’t you know, Claire.
Claire was fourteen and resoundingly stubborn in her refusal to accept her possible blunder. She had been righteous in her adventurous streak. The dates had, indeed, looked a little off; she’d eaten them anyway.
She wonders now if seasickness feels something of a similar sort to food poisoning.
“Well,” she says, “you should know it’s a new sort of discovery. Or it will be. The fellow who did work on them didn’t publish much until the year nineteen hundred. And I only heard about him because of Lamb.”
There is a slurred, “Oh, aye?”
“Mmm. He was working with plants, but then just the last year before -- before I left, you know, there’d been this little announcement in the paper about how someone thought they existed in people, too. I don’t think I really gave much thought to it then.” She hadn’t; she had been fresh on the tide of young people busy shoving down everything that had changed about themselves over the last four years and pretending that she could happily move forward with her life.
Perhaps some people did, Claire thinks, rather suddenly.
“Hmph. I shouldae kent it’d come back tae plants.”
“Don’t be rude. Anyhow, the plants pass down all sorts of things through their reproduction --”
A muffled groan --
“And then the new flowers would look like the old ones.” Another stroke of her fingers, butterfly-soft, down and over sharp-edged cheekbone and chin. “Like how Bree cannot keep a morsel of her dinner down on this blasted ship.”
“Ye ken, Sassenach,” says her husband’s voice, muffled into the stomach of her dirtied shift, “I’ll be sure tae think o’ how I’ve done my bairns wrong th’next time I see a green thing.”
Claire bites down over the top of her bottom lip, the grin threatening to spill over despite herself. She can’t quite fault Jamie for his unimpressed tone, but the flat, mumbly inflection of his voice carries so much of their daughter in it -- muzzy and petulant as she is on mornings where she does not want to wake -- that it loosens something in Claire’s tense shoulders. At any rate -- that he is capable enough of snipping at her shows a general lucidity that did not exist yesterday. Yesterday, there was a brisk starboard wind. It had not ended well for anyone involved.
And poor Bree had been so excited about the boats, too.
She’s passed out from misery and exhaustion, now, curled into a little ball -- very different from her usual starfishing -- in the opposing cot. Beside her lies William, who has by a stroke of Divine Grace stopped crying. Claire sends a quick prayer of thanks up to God on Jamie’s behalf -- surely he has been too sick for praying -- that they managed to scrape enough together to secure two cabins instead of just one. Murtagh and Fergus might actually be getting a small semblance of sleep, now. Then she slumps back against the headboard. Her back sticks to the rough wooden wall with the tacky, gummy sweat of a sickbed.
She ignores it.
“Well,” says Claire. She’s been whispering this whole time, and continues now, the soft-spoken edge of her voice making the cabin feel padded -- safe from the world. “The good news is, they’ve surely inherited all sorts of other things too. Your temper, perhaps --”
“Yours, ye mean --”
“William’s adoration of porridge --”
“Dinna speak of food now, ye cruel woman --”
“And I’m sure Bree shall grow to be quite a strapping young lady --”
She yelps; Jamie’s fingers have excavated their way through the damp, tangled bedding and found a corner of her arse to pinch.
“That was very ungentlemanly of you,” Claire informs him, “but I’ll forgive it, as you’re bloody miserable right now.”
“I ken ye liked that jus’ fine.”
She doesn’t say anything for a moment, eyesight fraying around the edges as she settles her gaze on the shadow-dark corners of their little cabin. It’s been happening on and off, creeping up on her at odd moments. The creaking around them is familiar in all the wrong ways; the last two times they were aboard a ship, Claire had thought they would break apart for all the pain they were carrying.
Ironically, she thinks the seasickness might have stubbornly glued them back together.
It’s a fanciful thought, but enough to have her staring unseeing at the groaning cabin wall.
“Claire?” mumbles her husband. She looks down. He’s turned his face up towards her, its lines smoothing out purely for the fact that he’s laid down, back pressing against her knees. She swallows down the sudden lump that surges to the back of her throat; his thirty-second birthday was a week before they set sail from Edinburgh, and sometimes he will glance at her or breathe a certain way and she will imagine him no different at all from the sweet-faced, blue-eyed young man who vowed so earnestly to protect her.
Of its own accord, Claire’s thumb traces the corner of his bottom lip, which is dry but rough against her skin. He needs more water, she thinks. He and the children, once they wake.
Jamie’s long fingers close over her wrist, stilling her movements, and despite the glassy look in his eye, his movements are more firm than fumbly.
“Hey there,” Claire whispers, quieter than before.
He frowns -- a soft, confused thing. “What’re ye thinkin’ of?”
“Hmm. And now here is my secret, a very simple secret,” she quotes.
“About yer arse gettin’ pinched, ye mean?”
“You are an incorrigible creature, James Fraser.”
“As ye said, mo ghraidh, I’m in misery, an’ ye must indulge me.”
“We’ve been married for ten years, you know,” she says.
The ship creaks again, more cavernous than it has right to be, making that padded feeling grow a dangerous edge. As though it’s spirited them away from all of their history, and is holding them hostage in a liminal space. Jamie is quiet for a moment; she can feel the rise and fall of his chest, the liveness of it. Even here, in this rare moment his body is completely failing him, there’s an innate sort of strength to it -- each inhale and exhale.
When he speaks, she imagines that all the points where their limbs are touching relax and meld into one.
He doesn’t say a thing more; unusual, for Jamie.
“I was just thinking about that,” she says. Then, “The quote -- it -- it’s from a book. I don’t know why it came out.”
The gene conversation, perhaps, or her generally introspective mood.
“Tell me,” Jamie says, sweet as he can be like this.
“Oh …” she says. “Well. It was a children’s book. I -- I barely remember it. I found it in a demolished bookshop in France.” His body is warm and heavy and grounding over her thighs. The sour smell of the cabin keeps her focused. “You’d have read it in the original French, I’m sure -- and I did, too, because I picked it up and I just took it with me, I suppose.” She swallows. “I think I must have forgotten it somewhere, along the way. It was about a boy who lived on a planet far away in outer space, and travelled down to Earth to find a sheep,” she explains.
Jamie’s ruddy brows quirk upwards at her, but it’s a warm, affectionate sort of incredulity.
“Bree’d like that sort of tale,” is all he says.
“I’m sure I told it all wrong,” Claire tells him, chewing a bit on her bottom lip. She runs her fingers through his tangled hairline again. “Planets and sheep -- it was really very good, you know.”
He’s grinning -- for probably the first time since they left dry land, and it’s a lopsided, vague thing -- but he says, “Och, I’m sure it was. I trust ye, Sassenach.”
Again, she feels her throat close up. Foolishness -- and exhaustion.
They’ve made it ‘round the corner to springtime, she realizes, but all it carries are unknowns. She’s not sure what to do with the thought.
“Will ye tell me some more?”
He nudges her belly just a little with the sharp end of his nose, as though sure that she knows exactly what he means. She feels it -- under her shift and against the padded, softened part of her that has sheltered three of their children. Claire’s eyes snap up almost compulsively to look across the room, to where Bree’s breaths are still coming out in quiet little puffs, to where William is nestled securely in the worn, beloved scarf Jamie made, when Bree was still an invisible idea in her womb, those first few months his leg was healing. Claire had not known how to knit. She remembers watching him, the same feeling tugging at the periphery of her mind, as though if she looked away he’d disappear.
“You could have read it to her -- to all the children. You’d do the voices, of course, because I’m rubbish at that sort of thing. Fergus would have loved it. And we’d see all my stuff and nonsense about genes in the paper, properly. And I’d take you to the pictures -- that’s what couples will do, you know, when they’re courting.”
“The pictures?” Jamie’s voice is careful, the way it always is.
“Mmmhmm. There’ll be ways of capturing people’s likeness almost exactly. But as they’re moving, and -- and sometimes it’s like a painting, with colours and songs.”
“So ye’d take me to see these wee moving paintings.”
“Perhaps not the paintings,” says Claire. “Perhaps just the real people. We’d -- we’d sit in the back and hold hands. And we’d only go see funny ones -- there was one with a little man who had a walking stick and a bowler hat and walked in a sort of waddle, and one day he found a child on the side of the road and they had adventures together.”
She can feel his shoulders shaking already at the ridiculousness of her haphazard description.
“You’d love it, I think,” she continues, fingers hovering. “You’d have -- have laughed in all the right parts.”
“There’d be wrong parts tae laugh at, then?”
There’s a small tease in the corner of his eye. For possibly the first time since finding herself here, with him, she suddenly wishes she had a camera, just to immortalize that tease.
“I blubbered my way through the whole ending,” Claire informs him solemnly.
Jamie’s thumb is rubbing over her wrist. His expression shifts from curious and gentle to something less tangible, more complicated, and Claire breathes in, carefully.
“Wouldnae be verra gallant of me tae take ye somewhere that’ll get ye weepin’.”
“I suppose not. You could have bought me flowers instead. That will be very popular.”
“But I don’t know that I’d care for it.” She bites down on her chewed lip, runs her nail over the curve of his eyebrow. “I much prefer that bundle of hemlock you brought me, the third week after we were married. Do you know how many uses that had?”
“The wee poisonous herb, aye, I remember. Ye spent a month tellin’ me all the things ye’d do with it.”
“It was very romantic. I might have swooned.” He shifts, peering up at her. Half of his face is smothered into her abdomen and its visible remainder is flushed in splotchy intervals. “More than any arse-pinching, I shall have you know.”
The corner of his mouth twitches, but the complicated expression remains.
“Yer a hard woman tae please, Claire Fraser.”
She says, impulsively, “I’m not. You know I’m not. You should never feel --”
“Claire.” It comes out gentle, but trying to be firm. He doesn’t quite manage it -- not wrung out as he is. For some reason it makes the urge to cry return. “I ken I havenae given ye everythin’ ye deserve.”
“That is not true,” Claire says. She feels it in her tendons, where his fingers grip over her wrist more firmly.
“We’ve left everythin’ behind -- we dinnae ken what we’ll find when we land, an’ the bairns --”
“Are fine. They’re here. They’re loved, by both of their parents. I don’t want moving pictures or flowers or -- or anything that --”
“But I ken ye want a home. Ye want tae -- tae know ye’ve got a place, and a people.”
It stings, that it’s true. She wonders if perhaps he’ll grieve this particular loss forever.
Gently, deliberately, she pushes the thought aside. Her palm slides over the rough curve of his cheek. She lets the small noises of Brianna’s breathing, undisturbed by her parents’ whispers, steady her own.
“We are going to find a new place,” she says, as firmly as she can, holding his gaze with an unyielding, deliberate care. “And when we do, you will build me a house. And that is all we’re going to say on the matter.”
Jamie swallows. The lines of his Adam’s apple move against her stomach. There is something intimate about it -- fragile, but concrete. Tangibly close. Again, she imagines their bodies fusing together at every point which they touch.
Finally, he says, “A house, ye say?”
“A big one.”
The silence is so extended that for a minute she wonders if he’s going to be sick again. Then, she feels a knuckle press under her leg, high enough up her thigh to be deliberate.
A grin builds slowly, blurry at the edges, smudged with exhaustion. But, “I love ye, Claire,” he says, and just then, it’s enough.