The first time it happens, you can hardly believe it.
It's a thoroughly ordinary evening at your local pub. You're at your usual small table right next to the dart board, relaxing after a particularly long day. You won a few pounds off of challengers this afternoon, maintaining your title as dart champion of this one tiny corner of Edinburgh. But time is getting on, and you are just considering having one last drink before going home to your wife and daughter, when an Englishman sits down at the bar, and orders a pint of bitter.
Your blood freezes at the sound of it.
You know that voice. You detest that voice. Long ago you swore before God and man that you would eradicate that voice from the face of this good green Earth. You give a sidelong look at the bar.
And this modern world's version of Black Jack Randall is sitting there, sipping a beer, as live as breath, and as bold as you please.
The hair, the posture, the face and hands of him are all the same as his ancestor's. His posture, the half-quirk of his mouth as he takes in his surroundings. . . not to mention that glassy-smooth English accent, conveying a sense of cool, smug superiority, of monumental, arrogant indifference.
But. . .
You notice, taking another brief glance his way, that his eyes are softer, their expression not nearly so endlessly cruel.
Not cruel at all, really, you think, looking yet again. Pompous, very likely. Standoffish, almost certainly. Hardened. . . perhaps. Capable of vindictiveness? Of pettiness? Capable of inflicting pain? Yes.
But then, so are most people. And this man is not cold. Not heartless. Not the vicious, consuming, empty soul you experienced at Wentworth.
The man looks like Black Jack. He sounds like Black Jack. He even moves like him.
But he isn't Black Jack.
The surprise that fills your heart is only matched by the relief that floods your stomach.
Mentally, you kick yourself. Of course he isn't. Your wife loved him once. Your wife still loves him, though differently now. She would never have loved him in the first place, would never have married him, would never have tried desperately to have children with him, if he had been anything like the man you knew.
With the elegant, almost delicate grace she has mentioned as being one of the things she liked most about him, he rises from his barstool, and saunters over to where you're sitting.
Slowly, with great deliberation, he puts a coin on your table.
"Game?" he asks, dryly, not looking at you.
You nod, wordlessly, and get up to face the man your wife charmingly calls "her x". You haven't been exactly certain what she means by that until this moment.
You would gladly "x" him too, right here, right now. But you no longer carry a sword, this era being so much more peaceful, so much more generally civilized. . .
You pick up a fistful of darts, and force yourself to aim at the dartboard, and not his imperious, detestable face. . .
You can't quite remember all the details later, but you end up playing several games of darts with him, and talking a bit, casual-like, as though the two of you are not the bitterest of enemies in your old time, and rivals in this one, sworn opposites of manhood, regardless of what age it is, or what era either of you inhabit.
If not for God's grace, and your love for Claire – and the stones of Craigh na Dun, of course – you would long ago have been this man's death. That, or the instrument of his non-existence, which amounts to the same thing.
It's all so strange – like meeting your own ghost – that an air of unreality rules the evening. There are no personal questions asked between you – not because of any awkwardness, but because the feel of the night is very impersonal – detached. Like fairyland. Like the real world outside this pub doesn't exist.
Neither of you even think to introduce yourselves until closing time, while you are both preparing to leave.
"Well. It's been a pleasure," the Englishman extends his hand, "Frank Randall."
The handshake that crosses between you is firm, brief, and aloof – a fitting end to a thoroughly surreal evening.
"Aye, that it has," you say, quickly constructing a version of yourself you don't mind sharing with this man, "James MacKenzie."
"Jim." Frank nods and smiles, austerely, "Will I see you around?"
"Oh, I expect so."
But as you walk home, you doubt it.
The second time it happens, it almost feels normal. The foggy, drizzly day, the regulars at the pub, the music on the radio, even the dim, yellowy electric lights – all are manifestly similar to the majority of the days you've spent here. In the three years you've been living in the twentieth century, you've become used to it all.
But, you think, you will never become used to seeing him – that face – looking at you with an expression neither hateful nor disgusting.
You aren't sure what his expression is – but you are very sure what it is not.
This time you are sitting at a larger table, in the corner just across from the bar. Several of your friends from work are here, and three or four of the regulars you're friendly with have gathered around so they might share the bottle of whisky one of them has bought himself for his birthday.
Frank is three places and a third of the table away from you, chatting and laughing with this work-a-day crowd, almost as though he isn't a highly learned, ivory tower professor, and they aren't all humble, common-clay workers.
It's an act, of course. But you appreciate the effort he makes.
And then, for just a moment, the mask slips. He makes a joke in Latin. And you are the only one who laughs. His eyes fly to yours, this strange, undefinable expression in them, neither curiosity nor wonder, and yet encompassing aspects of both.
An hour later, he has managed to get you away from the now raucous birthday party, and you spend the rest of the evening across from him, sipping beer, and very slowly telling him about your education, your Lairdship, and how much of yourself and your history you had to lose in order to have Claire. You don't name her, of course, but you rhapsodize over her beauty long enough that you see his expression soften in ill-concealed agreement. He knows how lovely your wife is, and how captivating.
A pang of jealousy echoes through your heart for a moment, before you remember just how much she lost too – how many things she gave up so she might have you.
The man across from you is one, after all.
You know, to the core of your soul, that it's you she wants. That is enough, and more than enough.
Frank buys the next round, and makes another joke in Latin.
And the night feels so plainly and solidly normal, so commonly, blessedly ordinary, that it takes until many hours later - while you're rocking Bree back to sleep after she has a bad dream, actually - for you to register surprise at the fact that Frank Randall, of all people, is capable of making you laugh.
By the fifth time it happens, you not only have to believe it, you also have to admit it – to yourself if to no one else - the weird, wild, impossible truth of the matter.
You are almost friends with your wife's former husband.
The former husband who looks almost exactly similar to the demon in human form who has hurt and tortured you so often, earning nothing but your hatred and your contempt.
You wanted to hate this man in his despite. You tried to do so. But you cannot.
Frank. . . is good. He was worthy of Claire's love, and is even now worthy of her enduring respect and affection.
In a wildly honest moment, you even admit to yourself that he would have been a good father to Brianna, if the stones had not seen fit to take you back with Claire.
But they had. You jealously guard all mention of your daughter from him. Wee Bree is yours. Yours and Claire's. He is the outsider. The interloper. The Sassenach.
But you can't hate him, no matter how hard you try. He makes you laugh. He makes your friends laugh. He respects them. He respects you. Of all things, you never expected that. It is astonishing, the difference it makes.
Almost – almost – you can forgive yourself for liking him just a tiny, little bit.
And besides – he's not a bad hand with darts. . .
You attempt to tell Claire, truly you do, several times, but each time it seems such an absurd, unbelievable thing. Frank here, not in Boston as you both thought, but here, in Edinburgh of all places, and living close enough to you to use the same local pub.
Frank Randall – the man she insisted you never meet during their divorce, and finally you understand why – is here, at your pub, almost every week. And he is friendly – if in a stiff, starchy, English fashion – and respectful, and gentlemanly, and kind.
And you, on some level, like him. Are certain that if every single circumstance of your meeting had been different, you two would have probably become lifelong friends.
You can't explain it, even to yourself, so how can you explain it to her?
Eventually, it settles into a routine.
Two or three days a week, Frank spends his evenings at the pub. You play darts, and drink beer, or sometimes whisky. Once in a while, you order a platter of the stodgy, greasy pub food they serve here, and you share it between you while taking bets on the current dart game, each of you challenging the other to play the winner.
Sometimes, there are sports on the radio instead of music, and you discover that Frank not only enjoys shinty, he actually follows the sport. You have never met an Englishman who does. You file that away as yet another unique thing about Frank Randall.
You talk. Generally, casually, most of the time. And sometimes more seriously, more deeply than you have with any man since Ian.
There is a catch in your breath as your heart mourns your family once more. Ian, Jenny, Maggie, Wee Jamie, Fergus. . .
Murtagh. . .
You miss them. Your heart yearns for them. Aches for them. But you have Claire, and Bree, and your own life, safe amid the shielding of Time. Missing the others hurts, but it is a good pain, a healthy ache – you know you would hardly be human if losing them all did not hurt.
"All well?" asks Frank.
He had said something else a minute ago, something you did not hear and can't remember. This isn't the first time you've "zoned out" during your talks either. But he has never taken it personally, casually mentioning "the War" and "shell shock", as though those two things explain away every eccentricity of yours.
You don't contradict him. He's probably righter than he knows, anyway.
"Aye. Tell me more about what happened in France when we. . ."
The last time it happens, you can hardly believe it.
"Well, I'm off to the Colonies in the morning, Jim, old boy," says Frank one evening, almost casually.
You have grown used to being called Jim, to the point that other people even call you that and you do not object. But Frank is the only one who has ever called you "old boy" - and you are quite certain you would not allow the term from anyone else in the world.
"Och, aye? Where abouts, then?"
"Oh, I have to get back to my job in Boston."
"Boston is it? An' all this time I thought ye had a job here in Edinburgh."
"Did you? No, I don't."
He pauses, quite a long time.
"Well. . . I have been here on business, but personal business, not professional."
You both fall silent. There is a strange tension in the air tonight, making all of your usual easy conversation quite impossible.
"Did you really think I didn't know, Fraser?"
His tone is conversational. Quite friendly. The look in his eyes is only slightly less so.
You don't bother to deny it.
"Dinna ken what I thought, at first."
He nods. "Neither did I."
He opens his mouth to continue, but then holds back. Three or four times. You don't interrupt. When he finally does speak again, it's with a low, almost pained voice, and in a tone you've never heard from him before.
"I came here that first night. . . to. . . I don't know. Brag? Threaten? Beg? Or none of those. Or perhaps all three. I was going to intimidate you, blackmail you. . . or beat you to a pulp. . . or fall to my knees and plead with you to let me have a second chance with Claire. . . I. . . " his hands make small, hard fists, "I don't know. I only know I had to. . . see you. Meet you. On my own terms. Without. . . expectations."
He smiles wryly then, and gestures broadly, "And then, well. . ."
You nod, "Aye."
"Dammit Fraser," he whispers fiercely, "You're the very last man on earth I ever expected to actually. . ."
Your mouth twitches in a sympathetic smile, "Like?"
He chokes on a laugh, "Yeah."
He runs an exhausted hand over his face, then abruptly changes the subject, "Do you know that I got Claire's uncle Lamb's money in the divorce?"
"Aye. There was some to-do about whose name was signed to certain papers. An' Claire said 'twas easier jus' tae let ye have it than tae drag things out ovar it. She has moor than enough from her parents still, an' wi' booth of us workin'. . ."
He nods ruefully, "Yes. Well, you see, that was entirely Claire's decision. I never asked for Lamb's money – never wanted it. All I ever wanted from Claire was. . ."
He trails off, unspoken wishes and long-dead futures filling the silence between you.
"Anyway, I spent a good year in Boston furious that she'd left me. . . furious at you for stealing her. . . furious at the both of you for having. . . being everything Claire and I never were – could never be.
But then I remembered Lamb's money. And I decided I was going to do something with it. So I took a leave of absence, and came back here to Scotland – determined to earn a second chance."
You shake your head, but say nothing.
"I lost her long before you entered the picture, you know. If I had been a better husband, we could have survived her. . . journeys. We might have even survived you. But, I wasn't, and we didn't." He leans forward over the table, "I came back to Scotland hell-bent on doing whatever it took to be the man she wanted again. And I did it – or got as close as any man possibly could. And I did it with Lamb's money."
You wrinkle up your forehead, "What are ye talking about?"
He smirks, and draws a packet of those things called "photographs" out of his breast pocket. He spreads them out on the table before you.
You recognize what they are of almost instantly, long before he speaks again -
"Broch Tuarach. Working farm and micro-brewery. Lovely place. House had fallen into disrepair, but the land and brewing apparatus were in fine shape. It all just needed a bit of attention, and a not insignificant infusion of cash.
So I bought it."
You pick up a picture of the house itself, tenderly tracing a fingertip across the arch of the dooryard, "Ye. . . own Lallybroch?"
"I do. And I've invested a lot of time and money in it for nearly the past two years."
He stabs a finger down at the pile of pictures, "Don't you think whoever owns this house would have a rather significant means of entry into Claire's heart?"
Slowly, you nod, "I do. But. . ."
"And don't you think three years of not knowing what the hell happened to her is purgatory enough, even without you in the picture?"
You clench your jaw, but still nod sharply, "Aye, that it is. Moor than enough."
He sighs and leans back, "Well then."
"Sae what happened tae change yer mind?
Because, clearly, whatever his plan had been, it is not his plan now.
He chuckles, darkly, "What happened was the same thing that happened to start off this whole mess. Jack bloody Randall."
"Ye mean. . ."
"I mean that I've never given up researching him all this time. And when I came back to Scotland, I located an archive I hadn't known about before. Lallybroch was a fortnight away from being finished when I found it, and I couldn't wait. Turns out it was an archive of the Scottish documentation of English officers of the period." He takes a long pull at his glass of beer, "There were more complaints lodged against Jack Randall than any other officer on record." The hand holding his glass shows white knuckles from the strength of his grip, "And not all of them were concerning wives or daughters either. . ."
He pauses then, for a long time. You don't have the will or the words to encourage him.
"I hadn't understood until then, you see. Even accepting you. . . and when you come from. . . it didn't explain why she would. . . why I wasn't enough anymore. You see?"
You nod, your mind two hundred years ago. . .
"One never likes to admit the monstrosities of one's past."
"Yes. Well. There it was. After that. . . I had to meet you. And you were nothing like the barbaric, uncouth rogue I had imagined. You even speak Latin. . ."
He sighs again, softly, and begins gathering up the stack of photos. He wraps them all in a small paper bag, then takes a small folder of papers out of the inner pocket of his coat, and hands them to you.
"The deed of sale. For Lallybroch. I never signed it. I. . . think you should."
"Frank. . ." you say, beyond shocked, "I can't. . ."
"Is she happy, Fraser?"
You inhale sharply, "As. . . happy as I can make her. I've devoted my life tae the task."
His jaw clenches tight, but he nods back, "Well. There's that settled then. But. . . one last thing, I. . . I know it's two centuries too late, and coming from the wrong man, but. . . would you accept an apology?"
You curse the tears that start into your eyes. "Aye. It's never too late. Not while life lasts. An' I'd a hundred thousand times rather the apology was from ye than him." You hold out a hand to him. He takes it, his grip warm, and sinewy-strong, as infinitely welcome as the same gesture from Black Jack would be hated. "Ye I c'n accept it from. An' be greatful."
He nods, in solemn acknowledgment.
Then, he rises, turns, and goes, leaving your life as suddenly and as cleanly as he entered it.
This time you know, absolutely, you will never see him again.
You go home a bit earlier than usual that night. Claire hands a wailing Bree to you the minute you walk through the door, sighing in relief that at least she can get supper done now, instead of later.
You take your crying two year old daughter, and deduce from Claire's voice and manner that nothing of very great import has caused these tears. Probably wee Bree has lived up to her name, and this teapot tempest is nothing more than the remnants of a tantrum.
"Sae what are ye makin' fer supper then?"
"Lentil soup, with soda bread," she calls from the kitchen, "And there's still some lemon cake left for dessert."
"Sounds a treat," you say, while rocking your sniffling, snuffling little girl. You take up a "kleenex" - this era's absurd, and yet also absurdly useful version of a handkerchief – and coax her to blow her wee nose. After, she settles into your chest and falls asleep.
You nearly fall apart at the sweetness of it.
This. This is worth everything.
The deed to Lallybroch crinkles in your coat's inside pocket.
After supper, Bree safely installed in her wee crib, you direct Claire into the "living room", where you usually spend some time together before going to bed.
Slowly, you sit down on the couch, uncharacteristically hesitant to speak to your wife.
You can't put it off any longer – you don't want to put it off any longer – but you still have no idea where to begin.
You catch her hand as she walks past you, kissing her fingers with all of the passion and joy you are feeling at this moment.
"Sit down, my love, I've a powerful lot tae tell ye. . ."
"Oh, do you?" she smiles, and drops a kiss on your cheek, then curls herself into your side, cuddling as close as it is possible for two people to get. At least while still wearing clothes. . .
You smile at yourself. There will be time to think of that later.
But now. . .
You take a deep breath.
"Weel, the first time it happened, I couldnae hardly believe it. . ."